Doctor Sleep

Directed By Mike Flanagan

Starring – Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran

The Plot – On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless-mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance (McGregor) knows, and tween Abra Stone (Curran) learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the “steam” that children with the “shining” produce when they are slowly tortured to death. Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant “shining” power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes “Doctor Sleep.” Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul.

Rated R for disturbing and violent content, some bloody images, adult language, nudity and drug use.

POSITIVES

– The real terror. While soul stealing serves as the topical adverse scare for the movie’s themes and ensuing material, it’s the underlying issues associated with Danny’s plight that truly makes his arc gripping in more ways than one. Once again, alcoholism is a big reason for that, finding Danny in the very same parallels and shadows that his father faced during “The Shining”. Pushing this idea one step further is the inescapable terror associated with becoming our parents, which almost feels inescapable the longer our stories continue on. This seems like the one conflict that Danny can’t fight with his shine, requiring him to confront the past if he ever wants to make a future for himself. It’s interesting to see how one side of adversity transcends the other, outlining a battle of demons that Danny fights not only on the outside, but also the ones eating him alive from the inside.

– Credible cast. McGregor was definitely the right man to cast as this older version of Danny, who has worn the scars of anguish as an adult thanks to the things he has seen first-hand because of this gift. Ewan is very much the same introvert that his decades younger counterpart was in the previous installment, but it’s McGregor’s fiery registry that conjures up not only strong empathy for the character, but also inspires Danny in a way that very few other things have since that one fateful night at the Overlook Hotel. In addition to Ewan, Rebecca Ferguson hands in what is possibly the film’s best performance, having so much fun as this against-type antagonist with no shortage of menace or confidence to her personality. Ferguson commands attention each time she’s on camera, and gives proof to the argument that female antagonists in a Stephen King universe can be every bit as sinister as males, if not more for the way they use beauty and gentility to attack their prey. Curran is also reputable here, as this gifted little girl who is so much more than the two sides trophy in the middle. She gets her hands dirty multiple times throughout the film, and maintains her shine with a ferocity that never allows you to forget the peak of her powers.

– Characterization. This is especially surprising, because this film spends about 70% of its time with the antagonist characters, in order to build and understand their momentum in stealing gifts from unsuspecting youths. The screenplay values them in a way that almost no other antagonist characters receive in film, and I commended Flanagan endlessly for building an equal to the Danny and Abra combination, who we already understood to be indestructible. In showing these savages in their element, I also grew an enveloping rage from inside of me that wanted to see them suffer for their torture of these kids, capitalizing on a personal investment that very few antagonists capture with me anymore. Because this film is two-and-a-half hours in length, there’s no shortage of exposition or interaction between them, acting as a benefit to the urgency of these two sides eventually meeting for the inevitable confrontation.

– Easter Eggs. These will undoubtedly take a couple of watches to spot them all, but there were a few instances in the movie that paid homage not only to “The Shining” itself, but also to the true King of horror; Stephen King. I won’t spoil much, but keep your eyes open during an introductory scene when Danny meets with a sobriety leader. The scene practically echoes the placements in frame, color in objects, and meaning in conversation similar to the very same one where Jack Torrence meets the owner of the Overlook. In addition to this, numbers play a big running joke in the movie, like the address of Abra (1980), which serves as the very year “The Shining” was released. I could go on for miles with this one, but to summarize, I love a film that gets lost in its own folklore, and allows hardcore fans of the previous installment to study and isolate each frame in a way that gives it the kind of meaning and importance that Flanigan was hoping for.

– Brotherly brude. What a transfixing spell that The Newton Brothers lay at the doorstep of this movie, producing a musical score with such an inescapable presence in its riveting execution. In fact, presence is important when describing it, because these series of compositions maintain a pulse in frequent heartbeats added to the introduction of such, as well as the mixing of voices and chants that can be heard in the distance of this shattering of cymbals. It’s important to note that while each track begins the same, they are in fact anything but repetitious in their progressions. Deviations from familiarity constantly keeps us guessing, and adds to a suffocating atmosphere that allows us to get lost deep in the fog of psychological clarity. These are the same brothers who worked on Flanigan’s exceptional Netflix series “The Haunting of Hill House”, and that bond between them is solidified here in a way that makes the Newton’s presence inescapable to the film’s presentation.

– As an adaptation. I usually don’t support when a King adaptation deviates so drastically from the source material, but in following in the shoes of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”, “Doctor Sleep” also finds its own unique voice to prosper as its own product. Sure, around 60% of the book is evidently there, mostly in the navigation of the story and disposal of characters, that eventually found its way back to familiarity. But the deviation presents several character deviations that I greatly appreciated, a weight of current day social conscience that wasn’t present in the noval, and an ending that I liked much more in the movie than the book’s tacky closing moments. In that respect, I give the movie a slight advantage over its literary counterpart, but in reality these are two products that each have a satisfying duality to fans looking to get lost in these characters one last time.

– Flanagan’s influence. From the man who articulated so much unnerve in the toxic family narrative from “The Haunting of Hill House”, it’s a bit of a surprise that Mike shows much more restraint over stylistic choices in this film, which keeps the film’s message and story grounded where it needs to be. However, there are certainly some creative leaps throughout, particularly when characters use their shine abilities, taking audiences on a flightful mind-warp of a journey to emphasize the otherworldliness of these moments. Outside of that, the film rests easily on a fairly grounded world, utilizing c.g sparingly and as needed, instead of an abundance. This helps immerse you into the world of “Doctor Sleep” without it ever feeling too fantastical or unbelievable towards its psychological themes. His ability to adapt to the diversity of the world’s that he tackles, makes him one of the most sought-after horror directors of the current day, and “Doctor Sleep” is just one more chance to indulge in such a self-less execution.

NEGATIVES

– Sloppy transitions. This is especially evident during the first act of the film, where the juggling of multiple story arcs and character introductions are edited in a way that makes certain scenes feel pointless. This is evident during scenes that serve as nothing more than a reaction to what ensued previously. This isn’t a problem if the previous scene is maintained throughout the next one, but the new scene establishes its attention dominance over the story in a way that makes it feel like something big is coming, yet never actually does. In addition to this, transitions are usually meant as a tool for the passage of time, yet here there’s no clear consistency or indication for the movements forward, that appear more frequently and spontaneously than a major motion picture is used to. There’s simply too many transitions in such a short period of time, and this impatient level of storytelling kept the film from gaining any momentum until the settled down second act.

– Too long. I hate making this complaint, especially with a lengthy novel with so many great ideas, but the movie version of “Doctor Sleep” is filled with an abundance of scenes that could easily converge together, instead of standing as two individual scenes to pad the time further. Not only can so many of these scenes be merged together to speed up the fluidity of the story, but some more attention could be paid to the very rules of Abra’s shining, which are sometimes so ambiguous that they feel like a game of Dungeons and Dragons, where the rules are made up as we go. This is a 145 minute movie, and for my money you could tell the very same story in two hours flat, and not lose a single ounce of creativity to the benefit of the literary counterpart. This feels every bit of its run time, and that isn’t a compliment.

– Continuity. Strangely enough, the film suffers the strongest when you remember its ties to the original movie, and the seams of similarity start to come unglued. For one, the decision to cast these unknown actors in the very same roles that Shelley Duvall and Jack Nicholson adorned gives the scenes a cheap and disruptive quality to the immersive consistency that was improving until these unnecessary scenes popped into frame. To be honest, you don’t even need them. They are just cheap recreations of scenes we’ve already seen and lived through with Danny, so their inclusion only diminishes the energy of the previously more inferior product. Secondly, the hotel itself is kind of a disappointment once you get past the placement of the rooms, and the familiar orange carpet that filled the lobby. If you’re a hardcore fan of “The Shining” like I am, you start to notice that the flooring tiles of Jack’s typing lobby are different, the boilers in the boiler room were painted a completely different color, and the entertainment lobby with the legendary bar looks like it was robbed of its tasteful high-class furniture, and replaced with a college rec room. Considering movies like “Blade Runner 2049” or “Captain America: Civil War” have articulated de-aging and an eye for time-stamped set designs, there is simply no reason for “Doctor Sleep’s” method of laziness. It renders the Overlook Hotel even more lifeless than the script’s intended direction, and adds a reminder of the near 40 years that have passed since the previous film.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

Countdown

Directed By Justin Dec

Starring – Anne Winters, Elizabeth Lail, Charlie McDermott

The Plot – When a nurse (Winters) downloads an app that claims to predict the moment a person will die, it tells her she only has three days to live. With the clock ticking and a figure haunting her, she must find a way to save her life before time runs out.

Rated PG-13 for terror, violence, bloody images, suggestive material, adult language and thematic elements

POSITIVES

– Avenue exploration. While there are a fine series of questions, all containing spoilers, that this movie didn’t answer by its 84th and final minute of the film, the attention given to fighting this app through a series of clever attempts are ones that gave me a psychological connection with the movie that most modern day horror films overlook. It seems like everything that the characters did to gain an advantage over it were things that I previously screamed at the screen for, resulting in several instances where the film digs deeper in finding its conflict resolution. This is at least a movie where the characters feel like they know how to use a cellular device, and pull of its strings of chance together to save a few lives along the way, and while I have my own problems with the film’s overly predictable ending, the effort established to brainstorming is one that I commend the movie greatly for.

– Fleshed out narrative. Contrary to belief after reading this review, I actually do think the plot is an interesting enough idea, with a nice social commentary not only on the addictions of gimmick-heavy web applications, but also serving as a cautionary tale for the kind of devil in the details that many characters overlook. But the biggest benefit that the movie has with its narrative is the imagination given to the accommodating backstory that really proves that all hands were on-deck with regards to its creativity. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the genesis of this app predates technology as a whole, giving reasoning to its capabilities, which often feel supernatural in extensive pursuit. There are a lot of holes to what develops, but this seems like the most focused aspect of the screenplay, as well as an attempt to give a face to the mayhem that transpires.

NEGATIVES

– Uninspiring musical score. I hate to call out a composer by name here, but the work done by Danny Bensi completely lacks imagination or the pulse necessary to sell the story’s atmospheric elements. It begins with the film’s double intro of characters and situations, where the same song with the exact same lyrics play in each of these scenes, making it feel like a do-over that the film’s own screenplay has backed out of. In addition to this, the tones themselves are glorified stock sounds that feel like they are off of a CD that houses use during Halloween to put trick-or-treaters in the mood. The familiar beats are the ominous plunges that come about as often as disappointment does in this movie. These are joined by trope piano keys with as much of a volume presence as a conscience for the movie’s director. There’s nothing memorable about it in the slightest, and what’s even worse is it conjures up no air of tension or slight unnerving because it often feels too restrained.

– Bland performances. You could’ve drawn this collection of fresh faces from any ambitious actor or actress looking to break onto the scene in Hollywood, but the ones we got here are nothing short of impressive, for how little emotional weight they instill upon the dynamic of the scene. Lail, who is often attention-stealing in Lifetime Television’s “You” is nothing more than a conventional outline for a horror protagonist, right down to the deceased parent and lack of romantic relationship that helps keep her eye on the prize. There’s nothing compelling or even remotely interesting about her character, and it only gets worse from here for the rest of the cast. Co-protagonist Jordan Calloway tries as hard as he may to have a spunky and comedic personality, but his resonating warmth on the picture is similar to tube socks in a snow storm, without the shoes to protect them from frost bite. We are chilled in more than one way by his performance, but usually it’s in the unusual accepted final takes used for his delivery that brought unintentional laughter to me every time he tried to unleash a presence on the film. Usually, horror films can manage one interesting character to stand out above the rest, but in “Countdown”, the clock runs out on the hope that any of these actors will be remembered for anything other than the underwhelming pulse they emit in making this film feel twice its length.

– Lack of scares. I know, big surprise right? Who would’ve thought that a movie about a killer phone app wouldn’t be bone-chilling cinema? And what’s even worse is that it’s stuffed full of my favorite trope; predictably timely jump scares that are as obvious as this movie’s final grade. Beyond there being a suffocating amount of these, which lose their flavor of originality by the twenty minute mark of this movie, the screenplay’s lack of care when repeating the very same ones, some even in the same scene, are mind-blowing to say the least, and prove just how little attention or emphasis was given in making this a good time even for the light-weight horror fans. There’s no atmosphere to make time feel claustrophobic, no unique design for the monster that stalks the prey, and no haunting imagery to really bring forth the dire desperation of the situation. It all falls flat, and makes me even question if I can label this horror in my website categorizing.

– Prolonged conflict. Let’s be honest, this movie should only be around ten minutes long. Why it isn’t is because of some numb-skull characters, who even after seeing a death of a friend or significant other still download the app regardless. Maybe if there was an attempt to solve the riddle of its rendering then I could justify why you would follow in the footsteps of the deceased, but these mouth-breathers sit and wait for death in a way that offers nothing of circumstance to the bluff that they were calling towards something that has clearly already proven itself. In turn, their lack of meaningful screen time has no weight of consequence for the movie, ushering them in and out like the very death toll padding that they so obviously are. It brings back memories of my father asking if I would jump off of the very same bridge my friends did. “Countdown” slaps my father with a very resounding YES!!!

– Tension-starved. This is especially on the shoulders of the gimmick of time itself, which is bent and meandered throughout the film in a way that removes any shred of urgency from the movie. In my opinion, the film should’ve played through in real time, that way the tension materializes in a race against the clock that the audience can feel building with anticipation because of how they are able to follow along with it. Here, some clocks barely extend beyond the scene they are introduced, and some stretch for far too long, giving us nothing of vulnerability to sell the terror of the curse. This problem rests with Dec more than anyone, because he, like the characters, never keeps his eyes on the clock, choosing to supplant a series of scenes in between checking, that make it feel like a lifetime has passed rather than the numbers that are being displayed on-screen. It’s a fumble of expectations from the very opening step, and prove that this movie was doomed to fail from its inception.

– Tonally unjust. If this film got rid of the seriousness, and just had fun with the lunacy of the gimmick, in the same way something like “Happy Death Day” does, only then would it have a chance at solidifying its audience. As it stands, this film boggles down interest with an abundance of wordy exposition and a tonal direction that it simply never earns with its PG-13 limitations. When you look at the best scene from the movie, a phone store scene with comedian Tom Segura, only then can you start to understand why its everything else surrounding this scene that fails the movie. Segura is easily my favorite character in the movie, mainly for the way he uses humor to shield him from the doom and gloom that the film constantly promotes. The scene itself is full of personality and understanding, for why a job like this would outline the grouch you see before you. It’s the only time when “Countdown” doesn’t overthink itself, nor leave you bored by the way it approaches its gimmick, making us wonder what might have been.

– Unoriginal. If the plot doesn’t remind you of films like predecessors like “The Ring” or “Final Destination”, the inclusion of some obvious homages to classic films of the genre left me upset that this film even had the guts to parody. One deals with “The Shining”, in that a familiar number comes into play during a hospital scene in the world of “Countdown”. The other and more obscure reference is a popular line from “Freaks” that in inserted in way that will unfortunately link the two movies together, in a way where you can’t hear the line without thinking of the other. I can understand these films having an impact on the director, but their inclusion is so random and lacking context that its obviousness is only overshadowed by its desire to be reminded of far greater films that you should be watching.

– Predictability. There’s about thirty minutes left in this film where an obvious out materializes, and the final act of the movie becomes clearly illustrated ahead of time. To say I was right about every aspect of this film’s closing moments is the understatement of the year. It writes itself into such a corner that there honestly was no other way the film could rightfully conclude with, but telegraphing is far from the biggest problem in this regard. My biggest problem is how the movie takes what is undoubtedly a gutsy ending, and then squirms its way out of it with an escape route that is every bit unbelievable as it is conventionally safe. When you ignore that this angle by itself is impossible with the rules and contexts set-up within the movie, you allow yourself to be even more disappointed by the last few closing moments that cement this as one of the worst films of 2019.

My Grade: 2/10 or F-

Parasite

Directed By Bong Joon Ho

Starring – Kang-ho Song, Yeo-Jeong Jo, So-dam Park

The Plot – Jobless, penniless, and, above all, hopeless, the unmotivated patriarch, Ki-taek (Song), and his equally unambitious family; his supportive wife, Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang); his cynical twentysomething daughter, Ki-jung (Park), and his college-age son, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi), occupy themselves by working for peanuts in their squalid basement-level apartment. Then, by sheer luck, a lucrative business proposition will pave the way for an insidiously subtle scheme, as Ki-woo summons up the courage to pose as an English tutor for the teenage daughter of the affluent Park family. Now, the stage seems set for an unceasing winner-take-all class war. How does one get rid of a parasite?

Rated R for adult language, some violence and sexual content

POSITIVES

– Social class commentary. It should come as no surprise that a movie this enveloped in economical dividing structure supplants some pretty meaty themes and observations in regards to the contrast between the respective lifestyles. This comes in the form of scenes that document the selfishness of the upper class, for how they use and humiliate those that they deem lower than them for their own amusement. Such a scene involves a child’s birthday party, and without asking and forcefully assuming, they demand they fill the roles needed for their own entertainment. Beyond this, there’s a scene in the film involving a flood to the setting, that signifies the vulnerability of the lower class compared to the ignorance of the upper. As to where the former loses everything they have, and feel like their worlds have come crumbling down, it’s nothing but an afterthought to the latter, who have moved on planning their next day. It also helps to fruitfully observe that the upper class in this instance live in the mountains, high above everyone else, while the lower class family reside in a basement apartment, outlining the class wars as vividly as anything I’ve seen in film.

– Tonal shifts. When I saw the trailer for this film, it felt like a horror movie, for the shrieking sounds and slick editing that adorned it, but the movie is an entirely different spectrum when you actually endure it. The first act for me is as strong of a comedy as anything that I’ve seen this year, balancing the lunacy in schemes that this family constructs as well as the way they adapt to unforeseen circumstances that they didn’t expect. In the second act, it goes into a bit of a psychological thriller, when some plot twists start to materialize, and further illustrate the endless boundaries of envy. The third and final act shift this into a full-fledged horror film, complete with blood, brutality, and a birthday party scene that will make you glad nothing like this ever happened at your birthday parties. It’s important to note that each of these shifts age and materialize naturally due to the response of the ever-changing environment. It indulges the audience on its unpredictable directions, and asks us to spontaneously adapt in the same way its characters do, and it’s too much fun not to take the bait each time.

– Genius storytelling. It’s important to pay attention in this film, as the brief, glossed-over pieces that we initially interpret as nothing more than throwaway exposition are in fact key components in a bigger picture that eventually materializes. Once you know more about the characters and their capabilities, you start to understand how they are able to pull off the kinds of feats that they are mastering, leaving no big gaps of logic or believability in keeping this film grounded in its approach. Beyond this, it values its characters as equals without labeling one as the dominant protagonist that movies become saddled with. Here, each character plays a pivotal role in the progression of the narrative, fleshing them out in ways that gives them their own directions separately, eventually meeting up on a crash course where everything comes to a head. No scene in the over two hour run time feels wasted, and the finished painting at the end cements Joon Ho as one of the masterful storytellers of the modern age in any cinematic language.

– Alluring dialogue. The most difficult obstacle that I face in a foreign film is frequently losing the pulse of the story in the subtitles that I have to endure, for this being a film of foreign rendering, and while training your eyes to stay sharp for two hours did require multiple pauses in between, my intrigue never sprang, thanks to some absorbing dialogue that went a long way in testing the waters. The evolution of the tone is certainly one benefit, but the film competently balances the outside and internal stratospheres of its characters, capturing a complete picture that better helps understand their sometimes questionable logic. For my money, the interaction between the two fathers captures so much about each ones loves, fears, and priorities that better help articulate the dynamic between the two sides, and keep the wide margin of distance between them to better illustrate the inevitable confrontation. It gives the subtitles a sense of a great novel, where you can’t wait to turn more pages in order to understand more about the depth inside of this world, and stands as the one case where subtitles didn’t omit the air of anticipation that the movie was preserving so especially.

– Eye-opening performances. It’s safe to say that I don’t know a single one of these actors and actresses from anything I typically review, but that ambiguous sense positively left me unprepared for what I was getting myself into, and gave me some fresh faces that I will constantly be keeping an eye on for the permanent future. Kang-Ho Song carries enough despair and depression even through the uplifting times of his family’s newfound fortunes to cast strong empathy for the character, even if he is captaining these very seedy intentions. Song takes over the film in the closing moments with one of the more emotionally residing climaxes that I’ve seen in quite some time, and masters the tragedy of distance with a traumatic longing that stirs at our conscience due to his unshakeable presence on the film. Likewise, the work of So-Dam Park was entrancing for the overall lack of guilt and selfishness she maintained while indulging in a life that was never hers to begin with. Her character is definitely the black sheep of this family, but that doesn’t limit the character’s potential in the slightest. Instead, it gives her plenty of scenery to chew on, all the while relishing in some attitude and diva dynamic for the character that make her the most original piece of this talented ensemble.

– Profound title. I don’t often get to bask in the importance of a film’s title, but “Parasite” is so fitting to so many different circumstances that reside within the film, that I couldn’t just pass up the opportunity to define its purpose. The obvious context is this family of four who leach on to the wealth and lavish lifestyle of a family they just met, scattering like roaches when the trouble eventually catches up to them. Beyond that, however, the title also alludes to the way the upper class view their opposition. This comes in the form of multiple lines of dialogue between them about a nasty smell that they all carry, or their lack of material blessings that they are judged on constantly. It’s rare that one word can define so much about a film’s many chapters, but perfection sometimes comes in the simplicity of a single solitary noun, and in this case takes something small in scale, and fleshes it out in a way with immense stature because of its path of progression.

– Bong Joon Ho. Who else but the very same man who has given us some of the more poignant social commentary pieces of the 21st century? I’ve already commended him for the film’s narrative, which is practically perfect, but it’s his influence on the presentation that might just exceed it. Using a 2.35 aspect ratio to widen his stance on the scope of the film, Joon Ho does so to capture the imagery of the large family in a single frame. This not only speaks volumes to the collectiveness of them as a cohesive unit, but also keeps the attention on the immensity of the situation they have taken on, hanging over their heads like an ominous cloud. Aside from this, Bong’s direction amplifies tension in a series of long take trailing shots that persist with the actor in frame, like karma catching up to them. He’s a director who matches intensity with a variety of shot compositions that challenge the scene from many angles, and give us one of his more visually entrancing productions of his young career.

– Universal themes. When seeking worldwide appeal for a film on a grand stage, it’s important in establishing a conscience within the themes that appeal to a human spectrum, instead of a designated country one, and even though this is very much a Korean placed story, its themes stretch far beyond that. It addresses them, but not in an obvious way that weighs heavily on the integrity of the poignancy. Issues revolving around class, about how we treat others every single day, and how that treatment will eventually find its way back to us, and about dreams and what they can be. This is all wrapped up in a very interesting character piece that reveals more about the two sides the longer it persists. While society doesn’t value them as equals, the screen time granted certainly does, and we the audience benefit from the messages that Joon Ho spins so precociously.

– Detailed set pieces. Considering 95% of this movie takes place between the two families’ houses, it’s important that the film illustrate the contrast not only in quality of life, but also in surrounding environment. When we are first introduced to this lower class family, the very first frame peaks us out of four windows that are at eye level with the sidewalk outside. This gives their home a claustrophobic sense in space and piling objects, with limited freedoms for personal time of reflection. On the other side of town, we get an immensely-sized house with so much room that you could play a football game inside of it. Once you comprehend the comparison, only then can you get a sense of the desperation that motivates the actions of every character, rich and poor. The former is so tight and constrained with the family being seen in the same frame together, all the while the latter is expansive and luxurious, giving us a sense of the increasing wedge between them to be together.

NEGATIVES

– Rigid beginning. What slight critique I had for the film resided in the first act, which takes a little longer than I would’ve liked in getting the ball of storytelling rolling. As I mentioned before, there’s not a single scene that I would’ve removed from this film all together, but the pacing of the introductory period slugs along in a way that served as the only time this film actually felt every bit of its ambitious run time. If you are going to see it, know that your lengthy wait and investment time will eventually pay-off, but in a movie with arguably the best second act that I’ve ever seen in a film, as well as a third act that ties up the emotional climax seamlessly, the first act is evidently the film’s biggest weakness.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

The Lighthouse

Directed By Robert Eggers

Starring – Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman

The Plot – The hypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers (Dafoe, Pattinson) on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.

Rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some adult language

POSITIVES

– Unique visual presentation. Since the film is based in 1890, Eggers treats us to a 35mm black and white presentation for the film that visually articulates the kind of cinematography associated with the silent picture era. He caps this off with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which gives the film a boxed gimmick to its framing, used not only to feed into what I previously mentioned, but also to further signify the isolation associated with these characters feeling very alone in their personal stances. To cap off style with an immense level of substance, the transition edits realized from some exceptionally vertical long take pans better help capture the passage of time, allowing the next continuation to paste together seamlessly. This better explains the notion of time rubbing together, which in turn plays wonderfully into the psychosis of two strangers who are asked to co-exist with each other for an inordinate amount of time.

– Committed duo of performances. Right down to consistently maintaining their Irish (Dafoe) and Maine (Pattinson) accents respectively, these two critically acclaimed actors establish why they are masters of their craft while establishing conscience to their characters. Not only did the two actually study journals from past lighthouse keepers in order to fully embrace the structure of their vocabulary, but also to fully immerse themselves in the very psychological pulse associated with such a thankless career. For Pattinson, that comes at the hands of an emotional evolution that slowly comes off of the hinges with each passing moment, implanting weight of pressure to the character’s inexperience that has him often on the consequential side of such traditions and procedures that he questions frequently. Pattinson’s vulnerability with the character allow him to give in to believing that everything he sees is real, and keeps him mentally running from the point of stability that the character originated from. However, this is definitely Dafoe’s show, and everyone else gravitates to his aura like moths to a flam. Willem’s Thomas wears the physical and psychological scars of a tortured past associated with isolation, which has presented the raging alcoholic traditionalist we see before us. Dafoe’s strongest qualities are his burning eyes of adrenaline that burn persistently, as well as his long-winded diatribes of Irish rhetoric that constantly astounded my perception of who I knew as an already top notch actor. Both of these men transform before us, giving their minds, bodies, and souls in an almost hypnotic trance that the film’s environmental elements weigh heavily from.

– Immersive experience. Sounds are perhaps one of the most important aspects of the film, with them influencing the film’s musical score so prominently, as well as placing weight within the location’s influence to what is transpiring. There are musical instruments used throughout the picture, but the unnerving buzz of ship horns and storm warning sirens are virtually inescapable, and build the tension in a way that reaches suffocating levels of pressure by about the midway point of the film. In addition to this, the constant influence of waves splashing, or rain and thunder rumbling on the frail lightkeeper station is one the conjures up immense vulnerability for our protagonists, serving as a constant reminder to the environment evolving persistently outside of their vantage points. The sound mixing for the film is done so superbly that you could close your eyes and still visually picture with your imagination what is transpiring in visual capacity. It’s audible storytelling at its finest, and follows us and our characters faithfully throughout so that we, like them, are never to escape the weight of its painful clutches.

– Theme enhancement. This is a film that centers around the consequences persisting from long-term isolation and loneliness, and because of such, the film has a difficult task that it competently masters in relaying this undesirable situation to those of us beyond the screen, who are dealing with anything but. Eggers captures this disposition with a combination of aspects like minimal dialogue and characters, repetition in character sounds used to drive each other mad, the constant influence of environmental elements, which I previously mentioned, and an uncomfortable exchange of interaction that transfers naturally between two men who have never met. It places us the audience at the heat of the environment, making everything from the fantastical imagery to the illogical character movements that much more understanding once you’ve seen what they seen. As I mentioned before, this is especially a difficult thing, purely for the fact that audiences constantly understand that cinema isn’t reality, but Eggers and staff’s amplification of environment, which constantly stirs the pot, does so with all of the elements playing together as cohesive ingredients, giving us one slow boil of taste that we constantly associate with this toxic environment.

– Realism in context. For a film that features so much fantastical illusions, the grounded approach to the film’s production is one that pays off immensely for the integrity of the gimmick. Pattinson and Dafoe barely spoke off-screen, choosing instead to save their moments of ground-breaking awkwardness and embrace for the times when it would solidify the authenticity of the scene that is depicting the very same thing. In addition to this, the undesirable weather conditions themselves are done naturally, as three different category four storms plagued the film’s production, but rather than shut down the show, Eggers instead chose to use its elements for sequences in the film that put the two male leads through hell. One of my favorite films of the decade, “The Revenant” was similar in its production choices, and I think the satisfaction gained between both films preserves a level of realism that is often decreased by meandering interaction post-production. It leaves the best moments on-screen, and better emits the intensity of the performances because of such.

– Methods of manhood. I commend this film immensely for including the moments between male interaction that otherwise wouldn’t be present in a mainstream Hollywood release. Aspects like frequent flatulence, masturbation, in-depth detailing of sexual conquests, and especially physical conflict are things that are easily expected when two men are asked to spend so much time together, free from the escapism of society or other people. These quirks also contribute to the nagging annoyance that each of these men play on one another, taking something as miniscule as breathing heavily, and blowing it out to the point that a World War of its own constructs underneath this roof. Toxic masculinity plays such a dominating direction in the film, but not the kind you would expect. The themes and deconstruction is very much the kind that was prominent in the late 19th century, choosing once again to immerse us in the very kind of personal conflicts present with the primary breadwinner of such a generation.

– Characterization. This is probably my favorite aspect of the film, and not just because Pattinson and Dafoe give such gravitating performances. These feel like living, breathing people who have come to life, thanks in part to the brothers Eggers, who have fleshed these people out with a collection of backstories, secrets, fears, and of course a straining amount of time deposited to them interacting and doing the exercises of the job. This takes what we view as an actor, and forces them to do the necessary heavy lifting with valuing them as characters above that pre-conceived notion. It feels like I understand what makes these characters tick more than any other film that has come out this year, and even with this film being a brief 105 minutes, it fleshes out a world and characters with so much depth that it signals how close the connection to it was to its exceptional director, and it serves as one of those rare cases where you wish it was three hours long, just so you could learn even more about them.

– The real leading man. Speaking of flawless direction, Eggers has really established his presence in a world of horror still trying to find itself in 2019. For “The Lighthouse”, he maintains what feels like a paranormal presence to everything transpiring, and grounds it to human levels of execution while bringing out the personal demons that haunt us everywhere we go. He does this while making his films essentially tone-less, blending the sides of horrific imagery and awkward humor, and creating something truly innovative and fresh, that never soils the integrity of either side. In addition to this, he marries the worlds of style and substance seamlessly, conjuring up a side of horror not often attacked in mainstream releases, due to its lack of mental strength. As was the case in his first film “The Witch”, this film is also a thinking-but-rewarding piece of horror cinema that doesn’t settle for cheap jump scares or artificial sound design to add influence to the picture. Instead, he preserves everything front-and-center on the camera, and generates some of the most unnerving and chilling performances from his duo of prestigious actors, which I believe is each of their best work to date.

– Arduous pacing. I know what you’re thinking; shouldn’t that be a positive? Not in this specific example. Because so much of the film relies on time and the lack of presence that it commands over the dynamic of the isolation, the slow progression of storyboards is actually a benefit to the film, in once more feeling what the characters are enduring. By itself, it’s not that this is even what I would describe as a slow-burn film, but the second half is definitely far greater than the first, where those initial first few meetings with the characters and the environment that Eggers has manufactured will tell you everything you need to know if this is in fact the film for you. For my money, it’s one of the more rewarding experiences that I have had in quite some time, and even if I wasn’t a figure inside of the film’s universe, I feel like I lived and endured every chilling experience that the film takes its time in getting through.

– Unpredictable. This is especially the case during the final act of the film, where even if you’ve guessed what the conflict will come down to, you will never be able to predict the kind of terrifying heights it takes us through. There was imagery in this film that I compared to an episode of “Twin Peaks”, for the way light and shadows play in preserving human characters with an almost paranormal rendering, giving me several jaw-dropping moments that stuck with me even hours after I watched it. The final shot is one that is every bit satisfyingly justified as it is echoing to the rules of the Lightkeeper coming back into play once more. It left me energized from its inescapable horror, it left me terrified for the aftershock of taking everything in, and it left me satisfied with a level of closure that doesn’t allow even the tiniest bit of air to seep in.

My Grade: 10/10 or A+

Monos

Directed By Alejandro Landes

Starring – Sofia Buenaventura, Moises Arias, Julianne Nicholson

The Plot – Teenage commandos perform military training exercises by day and indulge in youthful hedonism by night, an unconventional family bound together under a shadowy force know only as The Organization. After an ambush drives the squadron into the jungle, both the mission and the intricate bonds between the group begin to disintegrate.

Rated R for violence, adult language, some sexual content and drug use.

POSITIVES

– Entrancing photography. For a film involving such savage brutality, as well as an overall animalistic means of survival for these characters, “Monos” captures some of the most beautiful shot compositions and movements of any film that I have seen this year. Its reputation is built in a style of direction that isn’t afraid to get its lens dirty, tracking our characters through a barrage of bushes and free-flowing rapids that easily immerse us into the heat of the scene, thanks to the camera’s physical interactions with each of these properties. In addition to this, the bold capture of mountainous clouds dominating the focus of the screen that are being portrayed at eye level for the setting offers a subtle allusion to the idea that these kids are a pawn in the bigger game of life that is passing them by. It values them as nothing more than a spoke in the wheel to someone’s devious plan, and gives us plenty of social commentary in its imagery long before it mumbles even a single word of dialogue.

– Buzzworthy performances. Considering Nicholson is the only actress of familiarity to me in the film, the gripping nature and emotional resonance of this mostly youthful cast was one that opened my eyes, and gave coherence to the idea that even kid actors should be valued as equals to their adult counterparts. Because the camera work gives us several long takes to focus on their facial likenesses, these kids are asked to convey their internal registries with nothing more than what they can do with their faces, and it outlines some general dissention in the ranks for what initially feels like a paradise for all of them. On the subject of Nicholson, it’s the anguish and exhaust that she wears continuously for her character that dominates our time with her, giving her a performance that asks her to be every bit as physical as it is psychological. This woman goes through no shortage of grueling punishment, and even considering films are based on acting, I can imagine the emotional scars of resistance that Nicholson invested throughout this film will have a presence within her career regardless of how many movies she dominates like she does this one.

– Vital character study. When you start to attack Landes’ film beneath its surface level of war, torture, and longing, you start to piece together a social narrative that feeds into the ages old debate of nature versus nurture, and it’s one that leads to some truly gut-wrenching results. Because these are youths left on their own to survive and defend, we start to not only see the immaturity of their decisions weighing heavily on the rest of them, but also the consequences that emerge when rules and reform are nowhere to be found in the scope of stability. As the film progresses, these kids and their surroundings evolve to a more animalistic distinguishing, outlining them as a product of their environment because of the conventional things that their lives lack that starts to weigh heavily on the dynamic of their characters. Landes casts grave importance on the irresponsible decisions made for kids that eventually define them for better or worse, and in the same vein as 1995’s “Kids”, fleshes out a cohesive narrative that serves as a cautionary tale to anyone who doesn’t comprehend how important healthy influences are in the absorbing mental capacity of someone so inexperienced with the ferocity of life.

– Enthralling sound mixing. You can take beautiful and exotic scenery and use them to visually tell a story, but without articulate sound that invests weight into the heat of the environment, these places don’t allow us to immerse ourselves in it, but thankfully “Monos” doesn’t have this problem in the slightest. Using typical noises like birds, crickets, and weatherly influences to the echoing of the character in frame, the film’s on-location approach to its production value grants us an inescapable aspect of weight within the narrative that increases in volume the closer the kids get to society. It grants the audibility a level of believability that lesser films skim over without valuing the importance of their influence. The lesser the influence that post-production has on a film, the better the integrity for consistency that a film maintains, and for 97 minutes of film, Landes constant reminder of the world surrounding this madness is one that proves vital in establishing this nightmarish fever dream that he surrenders us to.

– Why kids? Using a younger presence when playing adult games is certainly nothing new to cinema, but why it works exceptionally in this particular story is the way a group so young gives everything to fight for something that isn’t clearly evident to them. This gives the film a tragic aspect of its storytelling that is present long before the hail of gunfire reigns down around them, granting an uncomfortable attention to the audience that wouldn’t feel as important with older characters. When it’s kids, there’s always a sense of moral ambiguity just beneath the surface of this invisible safe zone that we create in our heads, and this gives this film in particular an unpredictable sense of evolution that keeps the audience constantly on its toes to see if it explores the depth that an adult narrative does. The good and bad news? It totally does.

– Mica Levi. If you don’t already know this amazing composer from her mesmerizing work in films like “Under the Skin” or “Jackie”, you won’t be able to escape her from this point forward. Levi’s rhythmic trance over the film and its accompanying scenes serves as the conscience for a film so riddled with increasing tension and inescapable sorrow, to the point where it develops this suffocating layer of fog that constantly hangs over the heads of our respective characters. What’s important is that Mica’s work rarely feels repetitious or grounded. Instead, her numbers use unconventional sounds like echoing whistles or fuzzy synth to conjure up an evocative experience that echoes for miles inside of the story. The whistle itself foretells an inevitable confrontation that is constantly heading our way, and expands and diverts the longer the track carries out before resolution is met. Because of such, Levi might be the film’s most valuable player, manufacturing atmosphere with instruments in the exact same way a painter adds artistic dimensions to life. It leads to a must-buy composition, as well as an unseen character in the film itself that is constant for far longer than the actors themselves are as a presence.

– Bold cinematography. In addition to the breathtaking capture of the lens that I previously mentioned, the film’s sharp sting of color saturation to a landscape and particular atmospheric item is something that plays heavily into the imbalance constructed from such a moral disposition within the story. For my money, it’s the seafoam green’s that overlooks the unsettling heights of the mountainside, or even the metallic reds that emit themselves from the smoke of enemy fire in the air, that are easily my favorite. Colors by themselves are fine, but the rendering itself is something of three-dimensional outlining that makes them pop with the rested eye without wearing heavy 3D glasses that often take away from the presentation of a movie. Cinematographer Jasper Wolf, an artist responsible for some of the most distinguishing arthouse films of the last five years, accomplishes this entrancing feat, marrying the worlds of reality and fantasy in a way where unorthodox color pallets reflect to the uncertainty that plagues the story and its rambunctious characters.

– Not exploitative. It would be easy for a film like this to get lost in the clutches of its own brutality or adult stakes, but surprisingly everything testing with the material is commanded with enough tasteful class and imagination to fill in the gaps colorfully of expectations. Despite the ratings header above, there is very little profanity in the film, saving the instances when they feel the most naturally flowing with the patterns of human dialogue. For sex, there are two scenes in particular that deal with it in regards to these kids, but with no offensive nudity to shock you out of your enjoyment of the film. In fact, the love sequences themselves are shot similar to the lone drug sequence of the film, in that they are both focused on the reaction, and not necessarily the act itself. It very much transforms these kids, and forces them to grow up a lot quicker than they rightfully should, cementing the importance of this film’s rating in a way that is anything but a tool for extremism.

NEGATIVES

– No protagonist. Easily the biggest problem that “Monos” faces is its lack of characterization that leaves us searching for a familiar face to invest in. Usually it would be Nicholson’s character, for the way she’s held captive, but the film’s lack of personal attention given to scenes of her in isolation feel like a missed opportunity to further flesh out a level of empathy that the screenplay never reaches. In addition to this, none of the kids themselves are attacked from anything other than a surface level, with no backstory or distinguishable traits for us to grip on to. I can understand the desire to place everyone on equal ground to the integrity of the story and camera attention, but without an established home base, these characters don’t gain enough interest to make any of their arcs truly tragic.

– Small problems. There are two things in this regard; one dealing with continuity, and one dealing with lack of resolution from a certain subplot. On the former, Nicholson’s character is beaten down badly in one scene, resulting in a barrage of cuts, bruises, and even a swollen left eye. However, in the following scene directly after it, that swollen eye is gone. In fact, there’s not even a remote sign that the swelling has reduced. It’s completely gone, and there’s no excuse why this would happen in the exact same day. On the latter, without spoiling anything, a group of characters are held at gunpoint in the final three minutes of the film, and we get no resolution or information as to what happened to these characters or their captor. These kinds of things bother me, especially in this case because it’s the climax of the film. It ends the film on a good, but not fully satisfying note, that remains some of the air of momentum because of the lack of attention given to the many plots set-up by these final scenes.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Zombieland: Double Tap

Directed By Ruben Fleischer

Starring – Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone

The Plot – Columbus (Eisenberg), Tallahassee (Harrelson), Wichita (Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) move to the American heartland as they face off against evolved zombies, fellow survivors, and the growing pains of their snarky makeshift family.

Rated R for bloody violence, adult language throughout, some drug and sexual content

POSITIVES

– Production enhancements. With this being a sequel to a movie that made some serious bank, you knew that the bar had to be raised drastically higher for the sequel’s visual presentation, and satisfies it does. The camera movements are slicker, full of pulse-setting shaky-camera effects that don’t diminish or demean what’s depicted in frame, and the enticement of some long take sequences that move around our family of zombie slayers vividly paints the fun and urgency of slaying from every respective angle of character. In addition to this, the set design and make-up are a much needed upgrade, fleshing out an evident decomposition for our flesh-eaters that subtly gives depth to the distance between the two films without audibly elaborating this point. The variety of ambitious locations gives the film an inescapably higher stakes quality than the first film, all the while granting us more candid observations in globe-trotting storytelling that conveys this sickness on a grand scale.

– World building. Similar to where the first film introduced us to the rules of the hunt, “Double Tap” takes this one step further, extending the list in a way that plays into the experience of the group, all the while educating the audience on the changes inside of this world that has grown ten years before our very eyes. It’s also important for a post-apocalyptic film to convey this decaying sense within society that supplants realism within the effects of its environment, and paints this world as anything but the violent fantasy that two films have produced. Automobile deterioration and zombie classification are two such examples, which prove that Fleischer has very much provided stock and insight into this particular world, giving it a sense of progression even after the virus has taken over. It gives “Double Tap” a rich sense of realism that grounds the fantastical aspects of the film entirely, making it easier to understand the rules and logic of the process because of the way it draws comparisons to our world so seamlessly.

– Comic muscle. While not as consistent as the laughing power of the first “Zombieland”, the barrage of laughs at the hands of some cleverly inserted Easter eggs, as well as Tallahasse being Tallahasse is something that provided the fun that I seeked for this sequel that I was never expecting in the first place. There’s rarely a desire to play off of the nostalgia or familiarity of the first film, proving the intention that Fleischer makes for this film to stand on its own feet respectably, all the while providing the next series of clever quips for fans to quote for the next ten years. It competently maintains the comedy aspects of the film wonderfully, and gave me plenty of laughs to get through scenes that were otherwise running a bit too long for my taste with regards to the movie’s pacing.

– Creative kills. To satisfy the carnage candy nut in all of us, this film comes through in granting us no shortage of gore or innovative torture to put it at the forefront of zombie killing cinema. This is also where the production once again impresses us, as the computer generation for the bigger scale kills comes through in an effective believability that leaves the hollow dimensions of the first film sequences in the past where they rightfully belong. Without spoiling anything, my personal favorite comes at the hands of a spinning hay bailer tractor that results in one of the funniest aftershock results that I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. Considering the characters are always fighting for Zombie Kill of the Year, you can bet that the bar constantly gets raised in a way that tops the previous kill, leading to an action packed finale that is visually unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a zombie movie.

– Delightful cast. The only exceptional work here is from newcomer Zoey Deutsch, who plays a bubbly blonde who has miraculously survived the apocalypse to this point. Her character did get on my nerves, but that was the intention of a professional like Deutsch, who pushes all of the right buttons to leave you sinisterly eager for her demise, all the while supporting Stone’s character further for the divide this woman has caused between her and Eisenberg. Beyond Zoey, the main cast all transform into their personalities seamlessly once more, and give us another 95 minute opportunity to soak up as much about their dysfunctional family dynamics as you can possibly yearn for. Harrelson’s seedy hillbilly Tallahassee is easily my favorite character once more, providing a combination of gut-busting one-liners and eye-rolling masogyny that we’ve come to expect from his legendary presence.

– Post credit stingers. Definitely make sure that you stay for the entire credits, as there are two sequences that not only provide a bit of clarity towards a familiar victim, but also paints a general outline for how this virus started in the first place. Is it the most satisfying answer in terms of logic? Absolutely not, but the fulfilment of an earlier Easter egg coming into play during what is arguably the best scene of the entire movie is something that crafts much needed borders for the outline of this general conflict. Unfortunately like Marvel, there is one good stinger and one pointless one, but for my money it was just great to see this familiar face, all the while poking fun at a fictional movie that thankfully never was.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of character growth. This film had a decade between the previous film, and yet none of the characters feel like they’ve grown or expanded in the slightest. I say this in regards to Eisenberg and Stone’s arcs in particular, because without this love triangle playing out on-screen, the movie doesn’t spend a single second alone with either of them, to capture a moment of wall-breaking psychology. In addition to this, Breslin’s character is basically nothing more than a teenage girl who wants a boy. That’s it. If you’re going to make a sequel picking up with the same collection of characters, at least make an attempt to provide us the audience with something important to draw to their respective characters. Without it, the characterization or lack thereof feels very much in-tuned with the very walking dead who chase them all around the globe. Disappointing to say the least.

– Social commentary. I don’t have a problem with incorporating a political stance to something as typically conventional as a zombie movie, but the film’s consistency at dropping the ball towards deeper themes and self-reflection for us the audience made it pointless to include in the first place. Throughout the film, there is an anything-but-subtle wink towards our current president, as well as the current war on firearms that seems everywhere in the news in current day Americana. However, the film lacks never takes the bait to pick a side in the issue, nor does it flesh it out as anything further than a one-off joke deposit. This was a real opportunity for the filmmakers to capitalize on an issue that plagues our own world, and use it for coherence in a world where everything has quite literally gone to hell, but unfortunately it’s nothing more than one of those clever fourth wall breaks used to sell a trailer, and nothing more.

– Repetitive structure. It’s very disappointing that a film with ten years to come up with something compelling settles for the same beats that its predecessor guided us through during the first film. Without spoiling anything, I will say that the similarities are as follows; group is together, members leave group, one member seeks something especially vital from their previous life, and ends up trapped because of it. Other members are left to save said person. These are just a few of the examples, and listing any other ones would be impossible without spoilers, so I will leave it at that. My point is separation is everything in a sequel, especially one as memorable as “Zombieland”, but this sequel plays it safe in giving fans of the franchise what they want, and as a result takes a familiarly predictable direction that is most certainly double-tapped.

– One question. MINOR SPOILERS. Early on in the second half, there’s a killing scene involving a character being gunned down. It makes it even more difficult to believe when this shot character then shows up a couple of scenes later, with no bullet or no explanation or alluding to what transpired between them in the woods. Not only does this make their confrontation essentially pointless from the previous scene, it also emits such an enormous screenplay hole moving forward that the story itself knows it can’t explain, and would rather use it to craft another laugh. It’s the constant unexplained question that I have yet to see explained by anyone who has seen the movie.

My Grade: 6/10 or C-

In the Tall Grass

Directed By Vincenzo Natali

Starring – Laysla De Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Patrick Wilson

The Plot – When siblings Becky (Oliveira) and Cal (Whitted) hear the cries of a young boy (Will Buie Jr) lost within a field of tall grass, they venture in to rescue him, only to become ensnared themselves by a sinister force that quickly disorients and separates them. Cut off from the world and unable to escape the field’s tightening grip, they soon discover that the only thing worse than getting lost is being found.

Rated TV-MA

POSITIVES

– Sharp cinematography. Craig Wrobleski does an outstanding job here not only illustrating the thick and overpowering nature of the grass, but also conjuring up a variety of deep and meaningful shots that really puts the audience in the confines of this environment. Wrobleski offers a combination of overhead and on-the-ground shots that attacks the immensity of this location so thoroughly, all the while maintaining an air of claustrophobia that plays into the urgency and unpredictability of the situation. He does so while emitting a haunted isolation from someone standing outside of the madness that persists inside, turning a bland unintimidating field into an endearing mass of swallowing uncertainty. Thanks to Craig’s standstill execution and a patience in editing consistency, the film is able to construct the setting in a way that makes it believably infinite because of its clever tricks behind the lens, and it solidifies Craig as the single most consistent aspect of the production.

– Surprisingly scary imagery. “In the Tall Grass” isn’t going to be atop anyone’s scariest films of all time list, but for a few short instances there is enough unnerving imagery and riveting tension to make these spare instances memorable through the eyes of the audience. One scene involves the pregnancy of Becky coming to fruition. A scene so hypnotically dark and entrancing that it brought back childhood flashbacks of my psychological trauma associated with seeing “Rosemary’s Baby” for the first time. For a Netflix release, this film certainly ups the bar for mainstream horror releases in a way that forces you to take them seriously, all the while establishing to the audience why true horror doesn’t require cheap and untimely jump scares to sell the ferocity of its product.

– Cleverness. While the set-up for this conflict stretches believability a bit, the attempts at silencing the audience and their skeptibility is something that I commend the film greatly for, in spending valuable time towards debating it. Throughout the film, there are no shortages of protagonist attempts at making the time inside of the grass that much easier, seen through an array of possibilities like grass-bending to create a familiar track, shoulder sitting to see a familiar building to march towards, and sun and moon tracking for directional guidance. All of this is pursued and defeated by the film’s adversity, leaving very few opportunities of escape to be realized by our characters or the audience alike.

– Material’s message. A Stephen King story might be the last thing you’d expect to have such a deep and spiritually connecting message, but that reason is why “In the Tall Grass” has always preserved itself as one of the more reflective stories within King’s library that people can connect with. Through a series of repetition based on choices, the story is trying to convey that humans have many choices to do things different based on their experiences, challenging them to see and spot things differently when the next chance arises. Because of such, there’s plenty of heart-wrenchingly endearing moments in the film, when the roads of triumph and tragedy cross paths briefly, and grants our protagonists several second chances that most people don’t ever get. It is a bit meandering towards the pacing and urgency of the film, but I would rather the material giving me some semblance of connective tissue for me to invest in, and “In the Tall Grass” does this by the dozen, in its own Stephen King-ish way.

NEGATIVES

– Stilted performances. Outside of Patrick Wilson getting to play a dirtier character than we typically associate him with, the rest of the unknown cast was every bit as unconvincing emotionally as they were unlikeable personally. Some characters are stupid and illogical with their movements, some are fleshed out to be completely horrible people, and some completely lack the emotional resonance instilled with such a serious situation. The moments that are supposed to be splashed with fear and paranoia are reduced to the kind of emotional conflict associated with a mosquito landing on their skin, and it left me generally uninterested for how underwhelming their registry left me unsatisfied.

– Stretched material. The book that this movie is based on is a mere 60 pages in length, so to stretch this out to a 90 minute feature length film, many problems would arise. For one, the film, even at 90 minutes, is far too long. 80 minutes would be enough to satisfy me while reaching the bare minimum of what’s defied as a feature length runtime. The second problem is the pacing within the film, which runs through roughly the first two-thirds of the book within the first 25 minutes of the film. If it slows down and harvests more of that first night positivity that persists within the desire to get out, then the film can better document the change in atmosphere and attitude, further fleshing out the performances in a way that also cures my first problem with the film. The pacing for this film is completely arduous, and never finds its rhythm within the proper progress of the story, limiting its appeal both to fans and non-fans of the book, for their own respectively different reasons.

– Book changes. Speaking of the short story that I fell in love with, the movie takes the safe route with the material up until about the halfway point, when a series of demeaning decisions leaves it feeling so unfamiliar from the story it’s based on. For this film, there are too many characters. Why this is a problem is because it limits the helplessness of the protagonists, all the while omitting isolation completely from the conflict of the story. The next problem comes with the abandonment of certain important characters for the progression of others. This not only feels like a betrayal of the people who we were brought into the story with, but also rewrites the ending in a way that didn’t measure up to the one I enjoyed in the book. I completely understand adding to a story this minimal, but the decisions made gave this story an unnecessary facelift that took more displeasing liberties than I would’ve preferred.

– Underwhelming sound mixing. This isn’t normally a problem that I would call out unless it was painfully obvious to the integrity of the film, but considering the gimmick in this book is sounds being distorted and heard from changing directions, the lack of such in the film feels like a missed opportunity in immersing the audience in the experience of the characters. Far too often, characters have to describe to us the audience the direction where the voice is coming from, and I feel like the movie’s gimmick would’ve hit even more effectively if that problem never existed in the first place. I even watched this film while wearing headphones, and the lack of emphasis given to sporadic audio was probably the most disappointing aspect of the adaptation for me personally, and dropped the ball in creating something original to stand among King’s other adaptations.

– Unanswered questions. There is no shortage of these within the confines of this movie. The film’s closing moments alone stand as a reminder of a total underdeveloped lack of exposition left unfulfilled throughout, as so much changes within such a short amount of time, and there’s no explanation for it. Particularly with the rock itself, its powers are mostly cryptic, leaving no explanation even remotely for how any of this is even remotely possible. Then there’s the church being placed across the road from the field. Is the church meant to be a metaphor for hope, or empty promises of salvation? Is the field itself a symbol for the saddest corners of our subconscious? These are the questions I found myself asking during some of the more uneventful stretches of the film, but there were no answers or directions to be found anywhere. I guess the excuse that is going to reside in everyone who watches this is “Well…..magic??”. Too much time wasted on the characters, and too little on the world-building of the environment, leaving us as blinded by what transpires as the characters embattled in the heat of the situation.

– Staggering direction. Natali as a director is someone who I credited immensely for his psychology instilled in the cult favorite “Cube”, but his total lack of imagination or illustration here for the total lack of emphasis on the rules is something that dooms him almost immediately. The shallowness of the plotting is unnervingly frustrating from the start, as Natali directs each scene with all the clarity of a broken compass. He’s a master of atmosphere, and has no trouble insinuating all sorts of hidden dangers to the fear of the audience, but there’s nothing enjoyable about watching people try to solve a puzzle that doesn’t have any firm rules set in stone (See what I did there?). In fact, its repetition is twice the problem, as in this instance it’s the same wash, rinse, repeat formula that its characters, nor its audience can ever overcome in moments of utter boredom. If King and Natali can’t save this film, what in imagination rightfully could?

My Grade: 4/10 or D-

Haunt

Directed By Scott Beck and Bryan Woods

Starring – Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Lauryn Alisa McClain

The Plot – On Halloween, a group of friends encounter an “extreme” haunted house that promises to feed on their darkest fears. The night turns deadly as they come to the horrifying realization that some nightmares are real.

Rated R for horror violence/gore, and adult language throughout

POSITIVES

– Most bang for the buck. Even for a production budget as minimally obvious as “Haunt” has, the film still manages to conjure up this exceptional side of production value that films worth twice as much can manage. The set pieces are devilishly delightful, spinning on the side of the “Saw” movies in set-up without any of the overbearing exploitation that soiled through a series of eight films. Their cheap rendering is justified in the idea that this is a man-made haunted house with very little monetary investment put into it. In addition, the variety of masks worn by the antagonists are not only contrasting in color schemes and design, but also reminiscent of the characters who wear them. For instance, the pre-dominant clown mask seen on the poster and throughout the film is worn by a guy with more of a humorous personality than the other accomplices, giving their opposition and the audience a taste of what’s hidden deep beneath the surface.

– Simplistic setting. 80% of this movie takes place at the haunted attraction itself, and that direction never limits the intensity of the material, nor does constrain the movements of our jaded protagonists. As far as size in scale goes, the building itself twists and turns in a way that we fully telegraph, allowing us to keep awareness in our minds as to where they are at during all times. Likewise, the diversity of style and decoration in each room never allows the setting to grow stale, keeping the cryptic ambiance constantly flourishing in the atmosphere, and progressing the flow of creativity endlessly. This very much feels like a lived-in realistic attraction that exists deep in the woods of isolation, enriching the film in a grounded approach of expectations that will have us fearing gimmick haunted houses in the same way “Psycho” kept us out of the showers.

– Gripping depth. I love a horror film that isn’t afraid to raise the bar of expectations with its characters and their dark backstories, and “Haunt” is certainly no lightweight in this regard. Our central protagonist is someone who has endured a lot physically and mentally in being someone incapable of escaping a vicious cycle that up until now has defined her life in a way that has mentally paralyzed her. It not only helps enhance the depth of the exposition in the screenplay, but it also contrasts the horror in the film on a level that renders it as only a physical obstacle, and one that our protagonist is certainly capable of handling thanks to everything that she has had to endure throughout her life. It’s proof that something as simple as a few extra minutes in the script can better flesh out characters, all the while outlining the various degrees of horror and their effect on the human psyche.

– No jump scares. How can this be true in a modern day horror film? A movie so confident in its imagery and character phobias that it removes cheap, timely scares from the picture entirely? This element more than any pleased me with this film, and established Beck and Woods as a voice of the minority, who know their audience better than most. Considering I am a 34 year-old grown man, there was nothing in “Haunt” that terrified me or even made me jump in the least, but the unnerving tension and ambiguity of the antagonist group establishes what is best and most defining about horror movies; fear of the unknown. In that element, the film’s gags offer a strong compromise of exceptionally directed anxiety and progressive unpredictability that keeps it fun and above all else committed to what mainstream horror should be about.

– Carnage candy. Despite the fact that a name like Eli Roth is attached as a producer of this movie, the subdued nature of the film’s splatter gore is something that I greatly appreciated, and allowed for those few scenes of incorporation to feel even more effective because of its restrain. What’s vitally important is that everything is done with practical effects, and not computer generated blood, serving as another in a field of positives for its minimal production quality that really allowed the film to prosper on the constrictions of its own merits. Pay-off’s in physical confrontations are squeamishly satisfying, made even more articulate by faithful shot compositions that never stray or look away from the intensity of the action. It casts enough emphasis on the horror elements of the story, giving us enough of the red without it ever going overboard in its exploitative nature, and it makes “Haunt” one of the ideal horror selections during a year when horror has been anything but exceptional.

– Delightful cast. It’s surprising to me how invested I was into each character, despite knowing very little about them other than their respective phobias that play into particular rooms in the haunted house. Aside from Katie Stevens central protagonist, who the film spends an abundance of time documenting the psychological trauma of her past, the rest of the ensemble is equally as intriguing, each balancing the typical haunted house crowd that anyone who has endured one has become accustomed to. There’s the quiet guy, the two girls who are there only to scream at the excitement of the situation, and of course the one talking tough guy who serves as the brave muscle for the group. All of them are believable in the requirements of their respective roles, and none of their personalities grated on me to the degree that I was happy when they were quite literally cut-free from the movie.

– Tight direction. It would be rude not to commend the two men who made last year’s “A Quiet Place” the rousing success that it was, who have now done the haunted house setting better than “Hell Fest” ever could. Most of what I enjoy about the duo of Beck and Woods is their harvesting of the atmospheric elements, which better illustrate the environment they are trying to convey. Like “A Quiet Place” last year, sound becomes a pivotal documentation in this film as well, and soon the blowing of the leaves, the chirping of the bugs surrounding our setting, and the echoing quality to the haunted house itself brings forth an attention to detail rarely seen in horror or any other kind of genre cinema. Throw this in with exceptional pacing that continues to build throughout many rooms and scenes, as well as several misdirection’s on what would otherwise be predictable sight gags, and you have cinematic gold in the form of two men who understand that subtleties matter in horror movies.

NEGATIVES

– Horror cliches. Yes, unfortunately even a movie of this caliber can’t escape predictability in tropes that hardcore fans can distinguish from a mile away. It’s not a major deal during the first half of the movie, but the third act in particular settles for decisions with its characters, as well as logical inconsistencies that leave it stumbling towards the finish line. Aside from this, the characters themselves each fit their conventional modes without even a slight attempt to escape these constrictions. On a performance level, each of them are great, but on a character outline level, you can easily piece together who will survive, and who is there to fill the body quota.

– Frustrations with clues. I don’t get them. If this is in fact a killing house in the woods meant to satisfy these deviants, why is there even an inkling to help them escape? This is easily the most frustrating aspect with the third act of the movie, as text on walls more than alludes to what these helpless victims need to escape their pursuers, and considering this is a setting where the antagonists should have all of the home field advantage, I didn’t understand why they would then be in favor of throwing them a security blanket. Call it poor writing or logical inconsistencies, but I felt and still feel that it rewards the protagonists more if they can outsmart their captors, and reach freedom based on their intelligence. It acts as the biggest hole in what was otherwise a tense powder-keg to that point, and reverts our masked antagonists back to feeling like the gimmick side of their intimidation during the most convenient moment.

– Faulty editing. Probably my lone critique in the visual presentation deals with a protruding editing style that unapologetically takes us out of the heat of the moment during the worst time possible. For a majority of the film, the characters are split up into two groups to fight the adversity of the house’s operators, creating a good amount of parallel action to balance simultaneously. This can usually be effective if the two sides are mimicking each other beat for beat, but the manner of abrasive cuts drifts away from a scene, leaving the audience to fill in the blanks while we cut to the other group. When it cuts back to the original group, they are then in a completely different situation or room than when we last left off, and while it’s not entirely difficult to fill in what has since transpired, the frequency in over-zealous cutaways gives the film a very disjointed feeling because of the repetition that diminishes its quality.

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

3 From Hell

Directed By Rob Zombie

Starring – Sheri Moon Zombie, Sid Haig, Bill Moseley

The Plot – A sequel to the 2006 hit “The Devil’s Rejects” pairs our favorite maniacal trio once more, this time being imprisoned for their crimes. The film picks up after the events of the previous film, and is the third in Zombie’s trilogy.

Rated R for strong sadistic violence, adult language throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use.

POSITIVES

– Throwback production quality. If you commend Zombie for anything in the director’s chair, it’s his ability to transport us to a time and place that he knows and admires fondly, giving his presentations a stand-out quality for very little buck in budget. As is the case with the first two films in this series, this one also takes place in the 70’s, and we’re treated to immersive values repeatedly in the form of grainy cinematography, complete with side-sliding transitions, classic cinema and TV shows that fill constantly pop-up from time to time, and a collection of Golden Oldies rock favorites that help to perfectly articulate the atmosphere within the scene. Everything lines up synthetically with the desired time frame, especially the variety in camera qualities, which articulate a documentary feel during the first act of the movie, and a full-fledged Western for the second. It cements once more the influence that this period had over Zombie’s filmography, and treats us to a confidence in style that he uses to differentiate from other horror films set in that era.

– Bill Moseley. The performances are mostly hit or miss for me, mainly in the form of Sheri Moon Zombie who once again substitutes dramatic depth for mumbling and inane bullshit, but Moseley’s growth as Otis is a pleasure to endure. His character is forced to take more of a leadership role in this film, and under the pressure of opposition in many forms, we are treated to a man who is every bit as confident as he is unforgiving in the clutch. Bill has always been one of my favorite horror actors of all time, but as this Charles Manson twin with a vendetta to constantly burn, his captivates and captures the attention of the audience with enough charm in personality, as well as aggression in brutality, which really defines what this family of psychopaths is all about. I could watch a one man show of this man, and really I wish I did. The movie is better every time he’s on screen, and worse when he isn’t.

– A new direction. The first half of this movie bored me, mainly because it doesn’t set itself up for any long term conflicts or character exposition besides our killer trio. The second half however, takes a couple of cues from “The Devil’s Rejects”, which while doesn’t land as effectively as the consistency of that prior film, does at least give us something to peak our interest in the form of conflict. It really goes from being a buddy road trip comedy to a western shoot-em-up, and the stakes of revenge come in the form of a man who has been wronged by this group during the early stages of this movie. For my money, I wish the first half of the film would’ve been cut shorter, and more time spent on this engaging evolution. It would’ve better fleshed out this rival of the Fireflies, as well as teased the urgency of the arrival in ways that doesn’t feel fully earned from the direction of Rob.

NEGATIVES

– Tasteless dialogue. I understand that asking for substance in a Rob Zombie movie is the equivalent of asking for purpose for a Tyler Perry one, but the lines and material uttered throughout this film felt like a child learned to curse for the first time. You’ve heard it before, it’s when Rob uses the F’ word every other word, usually mumbled so quickly and rhythmic that it lacks clarity in the ears of the audience. If this wasn’t enough, scenes drag on for an eternity because of this drifting in subject matter that changes at the drop of a hot. Improvisation is the biggest victim of the Fireflies madness, stretching scenes of purpose on for an eternity, in a way that will have you checking your watch if you can’t afford a Dave Chappelle “Wrap It Up” box.

– Hideous camera work. I commended the cinematography earlier, but the handheld styles used by Zombie here are among the very worst that I have seen in an action or any other respective genre in 2019. Besides the depictions feeling far too close to accurately convey the intended purpose of what is playing out in the scene, the editing instilled is choppy and full of abrupt machine-gun cuts that could certainly cause motion sickness to the wrong person. The physical conflict scenes are shot so poorly that more times than not you will have to mentally fill in the blanks to what you’re seeing, and while it’s so obvious that this purpose is to cover up a lack of believability from an aging cast, what we’re left with is something so visually disruptive that I had to look away each time any scene with physicality popped up.

– The kills. There’s nothing of style or substance to brag about here, and the lack of creativity given to scenes of permanence for characters made these instances feel like deleted scenes from “House of 1000 Corpses”. I say that because the brutality is certainly more in the tasteful direction of the first movie rather than its western genre dominated sequel, but nothing encased ever pierced my perceptibility, or made me feel squirmish from the finished result. Is there buckets of blood? Certainly, but the abundance of dependability upon them makes the red lose its appeal midway through the film, and had me in particular seeking some level of ingenuity to accentuate their existence. With a little bit of restrain, Zombie could earn more impact out of these instances, but the repetition in their demand makes them feel like a cliche by film’s end, and soon the main reason horror hounds are there in the first place turns into the biggest thing they are trying to escape.

– Rob Zombie. I know this man is capable of directing as proved in “The Devil’s Rejects”, but the decisions made by him in this film remind us why he hasn’t had a successful film since that 2005 occasion. For one, no character is anything but one-dimensional. Sure, there are times when it looks like the killers will question their dwindling existence, but nothing every materializes from it. Beyond that, it’s the lack of pacing used in these tense and anxious sequences that doesn’t master amplification when it comes to teasing audiences on the edge of their seats. For my money, this feels very much like a fan service film for Zombie, refusing to add anything of variance or originality to the series, and instead reaching for the same low hanging fruit that he has been riding on for two decades of filmmaking.

– Sluggish pacing. I wonder if I should even describe the details or just tell you that a man behind me in the audience fell asleep almost midway through this movie, and started to snore loudly to the delight of the audience. I can’t say what did it for this poor soul, but my guess is the dragging length of scenes that could easily be cut, but are left running to beat a laughing gag into the ground. In addition to this, the film itself is a story of two halves, feeling like two different films and directors are fighting for screen dominance in majority, and in this regard the worst half wins. Getting over this initial conflict during the first two acts of the movie takes far too long, and could easily be shortened if even a shred of logic was used by the script or these antagonists to save them and us some time. For a movie that is just under two hours, it feels like twice that, and thankfully Fathom didn’t include behind the scenes footage, or this run time would’ve inflated even more.

– The reason. How the Fireflies survived the events of “The Devil’s Rejects” was my biggest concern for this movie’s existence, and while the film did go the conventional horror route in those regards, the result is one that hurts two films for the price of one. It hurts that previous film because it takes away from the finality and impact of the film’s final shoot-out, which I felt was the most perfect way for revenge to finally catch up to this family. It also hurts this film because it removes any level of vulnerability or human quality for our trio, considering they’ve already been through much worse than anything this film could ever throw at it. This explanation lasts for about two scenes, and beyond that they never show even a tear of effect for what they went through, making Jason Voorhees scratch his head with the lack of logic.

– Nothing to say. There’s an attempt at some deep-seeded social commentary that Zombie is never smart enough to capitalize on. It happens during a couple of scenes, but mainly the scene in the intro, where a group of protesters are chanting to “Free the Three”. This speaks volumes at our nation’s love and obsession with serial killers, and could’ve worked wonders for the jaded line that these three toe in fighting for their freedom. Zombie, for whatever reason, never pulls the camera back from the trio of focus, adding another problem to the movie’s lack of protagonist that would’ve better established it as something more than just another reheated slasher special. It certainly beats treading on the familiarity of the first two films, leaving very little justification for its existence, and proving that the third time is indeed the harm.

My Grade: 3/10 or F

The Haunting of Sharon Tate

Directed By Daniel Farrands

Starring – Hilary Duff, Jonathan Bennett, Lydia Hearst

The Plot – Pregnant with director Roman Polanski’s child and awaiting his return from Europe, 26-year-old Hollywood actress Sharon Tate (Duff) becomes plagued by visions of her imminent death.

Rated R for strong bloody violence, terror, and some adult language

POSITIVES

– Unique ending. While it is certainly predictable once you know the flow of the formula, in that this story is alternating the events of history, the climax of the film’s big reveal was one that was exceptionally satisfying for me, and further fleshed out the tragedy from Tate that the rest of the film around it abandoned. It’s strange because I’ve never seen a movie where I hate 90% of it, yet find the ending compelling, but the steps of this twist were put into motion earlier on in the film, when a supporting character mentions people living out various versions of their lives. It’s a risky direction in terms of satisfying the masses of people who know very little about the real Sharon Tate, but one that I feel pays off in at least sending us away with an air of sentimentality for the lives lost in a devastating tragedy.

NEGATIVES

– Flat performances. I hate demeaning the skills of a cast that have made acting their careers, but the ensemble work here is every bit undermined as it is emotionally vapid of a single empathetic gain. Duff in particular is relegated to a series of annoying screams and ditzy dialogue deposits that outlines Sharon as a bumbling dependent, who can’t figure out that she has the ability to leave her house at any second. Beyond Duff, the supporting cast is as bland and inconsequential as a blank sheet of paper. None of them receive even the slightest attention in characterization, leaving them to impress by the weight of their performances, which are so underwhelming that they often rubbed together when I tried to remember who was who.

– Horrendous computer generation. Why would a movie revolving around Sharon Tate in the 60’s require special effects? The inclusion of generated blood and flies were about as obvious as a truck hitting a nitroglycerine plant, thanks to texture and color coordination that made them dominate the attention of the scene. The blood is really unnecessary when you consider the movie actually does use practical blood on the bodies of its victims, but director’s decision required splatters to register in the framing of the scene, and gives it a cheap quality that immediately took me out of the heat of the moment each time it pops like a super soaker.

– As a period piece. As to where Quentin Tarantino reveled in the nostalgia of the flower generation, “The Haunting of Sharon Tate” can’t entice us with a visual seduction to grant weight in the respective time period. Instead of losing itself audibly and visually in the allure of the setting, the film grounds its believability with a dominantly indoor setting and flavorless costume design that keeps us from endearing the vibe of the world outside of their door. I would depend on music to save us from this overstep of artistic direction, but there’s only one song repeated five times throughout the film, and even that song selection was a generous B-side at best, offering no familiarity to at least get our toes tapping in classic glee. Without hype in a visual presentation, “Haunting” bores us to tears with a series of mundane visuals and conventional cinematography that misses a chance to provide proper reflection to a forgotten age of unique expressionalism.

– Documentary feeling. If it isn’t enough that Farrands comes from a mostly documentary genre background of filmmaking, the decision to instill real life archival footage of Tate’s story is one that has a surprisingly negative reaction to what it does to the film surrounding it. Think about it, if the real, accurate footage gives us all of the information that we need in factual accuracy, what is the point of the film? The point of a film adaptation in gimmick terms is to suspend disbelief, and treat the film in front of us as the event being played out in real time. How can I do that if the footage counterfeits everything that the movie itself is treating as gospel? It’s tough enough when you know that the better story is being played out in a documentary somewhere on this planet, but the encroachment of the grainy footage giving away what little surprise there is for uneducated audience members seeking curiosity for the first time. Strangely enough, it even fumbles the charm of this positive, as it doesn’t keep up the consistency of its inclusion every fifteen minutes during the first half of the picture. The second half is completely void of any archive footage, leaving us alone with 84 minutes of a movie that can’t contend with forty total seconds of factual footage.

– Overstuffed dialogue. The line deposits from the cast in this movie are simply trying to stuff ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag, and the desperation of trying to touch on so many themes from so many different angles leaves us with a series of conversations that don’t feel honest even once. If 84 minutes isn’t enough to give a well illustrated backstory, then we must include as much off-screen exposition as possible, giving us a full-fledged review of the who, what, why, and where each time we’re just trying to throwaway interaction between two characters. In addition to this, there are out of place deposits, where Tate will suddenly become philosophical, with all of her theorizing and justification, which completely comes out of left field when compared to the rest of the dialogue. This means that it will obviously serve a purpose later on, which it does, making what follows as predictable as a fart after Taco Bell.

– Disjointed editing. One of my least favorite cliches in psychological horror movies is when a scene will try to authenticate the deteriorating mental health of a character by stitching together an array of scenes that bounce off one another, and make the depiction of the scene as visually disgusting as possible. For this movie, that inclusion mars and distorts the context of the scene so viscerally that you can’t tell what is taking place. It overcomplicates the intended purpose so terribly and so repeatedly that it sort of crafts its own demise so frequently, and it’s in that perspective where this movie really does itself zero favors in appealing to a new generation looking for answers from its compelling story.

– Abundance of jump scares. The only thing that this movie has that is even remotely in the direction of thrills for the audience is a series of untimely jump scares that try so desperately to make this something that it rightfully isn’t. None of the jumps are remotely justified, mostly coming in the form of shriek noises from the musical compositions to reflect a stranger appearing somewhere in this distance. To double this problem, the framing and lighting for the scenes are so amateurly manufactured that often I only heard the noise, and didn’t understand what they were alluding to. Nothing in this movie is even remotely intimidating. From the lackluster imagery, to the watered down violence, nothing warrants the coveted R-rating that this movie generates, and as far as horror goes, it’s as harmless as a pussycat.

– Completely disrespectful. Where do I start with this one? There is very little factual truth to what is portrayed in the film, and even worse than that, Sharon Tate is rendered in a way that has led to some real life off-screen drama from her relatives not being happy for the way she was portrayed. For my money, I can understand their pain. The revelation that Tate was mentally unstable, complete with visual hallucinations and a streak of stupidity a mile long, is enough to give a bad taste in the mouths of anyone who watches it, for how they trash the deceased. Beyond that, the small aspects that should be correct even in an alternate timeline of history are completely destroyed. Character’s in the wrong positions at the house, characters who didn’t have as big of a role on the night in question are given a bigger role in the events of the movie, and the lack of attention given to key aspects within character appearances, gives this a no care or concern finished product with what we’re given. If you’re watching this film to learn anything new or honest about the night in question, keep traveling along, because Charles Manson is only the second worst thing to ever happen to Sharon Tate.

– Endlessly boring. Without question, the thing that separates this film from other horrible movies of the year, is its ruthless blank canvas that never even remotely signifies its existence. There are scenes with two characters in frame, where they don’t talk for long periods of silence, cliche dream sequences being run into the ground to the point where they are predictable with each new one, a screenplay that takes ages to get off the ground, further complicating the pacing consistency of the entire film, and of course laughably bad A.D.R that distorts the believability of every scene they maul. Other bad films of the year are typically so bad that they’re good. Even if I gave them a low grade, I wouldn’t be against going back and watching them again. That isn’t the case with this movie, as its pretentiousness is only outweighed by its paralyzing boredom, giving us 84 minutes of art replicating life if the life was full of complete inane bullshit.

My Grade: 1/10 or F-

IT: Chapter Two

Directed By Andy Muschietti

Starring – Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader

The Plot – Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard), the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.

Rated R for disturbing violent content and bloody images throughout, pervasive adult language, and some crude sexual material.

POSITIVES

– Evolution in material. These are certainly two films that converge well together as one cohesive unit of continuity, but perhaps the strongest trait inside of that bond is the maturity of the material, which reflects the growth of the characters it portrays. “IT: Chapter Two” is twice as bloody, twice as gruesome, and twice as expansive as its predecessor. Muschietti ups the stakes in a way that heightens the tension and anxiety within each conflict, giving weight to natural aging in a way that makes our characters all the more vulnerable because of such. From a tonal perspective, the two films seem very similar, but this is only on a surface level of comparison. This sequel has the difficult task of its audience already knowing what to expect, therefore it must think outside of the box for new ways to stimulate and surprise the horror hound in all of us.

– Perfect casting. If casting agents won Oscars, then Rich Delia would be in a class of his own. Visually and personably, these adult actors mimic the feel of their youthful counterparts seamlessly, making the transition between films feel all the more believable because of the attention to detail, down to the tiniest instance. You see actors like James Ransone or Andy Bean, and you think their facial likenesses must be computer generated, but the similarities between these respective ages feel naturally convincing, giving the film a generational approach to its story that actually feels earned for once. On an acting front, Hader and Ransone are easily the favorites for this critic, etching out a friendly rivalry between them that pokes and prods at the neurosis of each character brilliantly. These two certainly steal the attention of the audience each time they’re on screen, and round out a complete cast who all bring their A-games to pay respects to the kids who came before them. Bill Skarsgard once again makes the role of Pennywise his own, balancing creepiness and personality in a way that makes him such an unshakeable presence not only to the town, but our attention on him. Skarsgard’s dead stare in leaps and bounds more unnerving than anything else in the movie, and I wish the film capitalized more on his influence to the picture, but I understand why it did not.

– Elaborate sets. Without question my favorite aspect of the movie comes in the form of backdrops and set pieces that beautifully immerse us into the imagination of reading a Stephen King novel. The props feel three-dimensional, and not just in frames for the sake of establishing meaning to what we’re seeing, and the color schemes vibrantly paint an air of tension to the fear of the inevitable that feels only seconds from materializing. There are many I loved, but my single favorite is easily the carnival funhouse, which sees McAvoy’s character having to save a local child from a room of mirrors. What’s surprising is that this scene was done almost entirely without computer generation, and the mirrors were each constructed and designed in such a way that keeps them from spotting the camera. It’s the kind of attention that a production freak like me gazes at for days, and masters the film itself with extreme re-watchability that horror films of the day mostly don’t attain.

– Run time. I expected this to be the first major problem for the film, but never in the 164 minute run time did I feel bored or tedious, and that’s in part thanks to my investment in the characters. If you’ve never read the book, this will pay off wonderfully for you, as the film takes an episodic approach to filling in the blanks of mystery within each character, that has them each confronting their deepest fears. This establishes each character as important, an aspect the 1990 film didn’t master as easily, pushing the idea that they are equally appreciated to the complexion of the story. Further fleshing out the backstory of Derry, we are also blessed with the story of CHUD, a tribal ritual that takes us back to the infancy of Pennywise, giving the story itself a world-building quality that I honestly wasn’t ever expecting in a translation to film. The ambitious run time has justification from me, and doesn’t contribute to the major problems that I do have towards the film, particularly in the third act.

– Deviations from the source material. Any time a film is remade, I want reasoning for its existence, and this film certainly gave me that in spades. While the general outline of familiarity towards the big events of the story are still present, the tweaking in character revelations, pacing of the reunion itself, and removal of aspects from the 1990 film that didn’t translate well to this particular telling. Even the daydreaming transitions feel all the more warranted because of their natural progression. Part of my problem with these during the original movie is that they sometimes felt forced or jammed to the progression of a scene, but here they seem to transcend the current day narrative superbly for when they transpire. What’s valuable is that nothing offended me to the point of negativity, and the differences for this film allow it to stand out especially from the book and 1990 film that each blazed their own trail as well.

– Tonal balance. One thing that I wasn’t expecting from the movie was its reliance on comedy that consistently meets its mark on its varied age of audience age that will see the picture. Nothing feels too juvenile or meandering to the integrity of the scene, and even more importantly, it coexists with the dramatic elements of the story so wonderfully. Never at any point in the film does the tragic fog of Derry or its lost children alienate itself on any particular scene, keeping our eyes focused on the mission at hand even during much-needed scenes of humor to offer us a release from the building tension. It’s a difficult thing to master these polar opposite directions in a horror movie, but Muschietti proves his confidence in his audience by staying true to course, and giving us more of the personality from the first film that had us craving more time with this group of friends.

NEGATIVES

– C.G hungry. This is particularly prominent during physical conflict scenes, where Pennywise or a respective monster will be done almost entirely with computer generation, framing the scene in a way that makes it unintentionally funny with its intentional scares. In fact, the computer generation is so over-the-top and hokey that I couldn’t ever take them seriously, removing any chance of feeling even remotely moved by the film’s testing imagery. This compromises Pennywise in a way that makes his revenge feel side-tracked, when they deserved to be more focused and less ridiculous to properly translate the menace of his anger towards those who defeated him.

– Scene transitioning. I can’t tell if the editing is a problem or the sequencing, but the way these scenes are laid out stretches geography and believability in a way that made it confusing to depict who was where at any particular time. A character will be shown in a location in one scene, then in the next scene during what feels like the exact same time frame, that previous character will then pop into that second scene to save the others. Attention to detail is greatly important during this, because even a fading cut can establish boundaries between passing time. But the cuts here are too abrupt and confusing for two neighboring scenes that are supposed to happen simultaneously. Even if the film didn’t want to use these methods of editing, at least throw in a scene of different between them to make it feel like more time has passed.

– Meaningless character. If you were to cut anything from this film, a supporting antagonist character is certainly the way to go. Why do I say this? Because he’s in the movie for a couple of scenes, adds nothing of permanence to the scenes and characters he influences, and isn’t even given a proper conclusion to his ark, proving just how meaningless he was even to the filmmakers of the story. It’s one of those examples where if you take him out of the picture all together, the film loses absolutely nothing, and for my money I would’ve rather they left this character buried in the past, where he at least had importance to the dynamic of the story.

– The ending. It’s ironic that the movie often pokes fun at Bill, the author, or Stephen King as he’s so obviously been compared to over time, for the way he can’t end his stories satisfyingly. I say this because Muschietti follows in the footsteps of King, as well as 1990 “IT” director Tommy Lee Wallace in crafting an ending that is every bit anti-climatic as it is downright silly. In fact, we can no longer insult the 1990 film ending, because at least that one felt satisfying for the way the remaining members of the Losers Club band together to take one last deposition of emotion for their fallen friends, and destroy Pennywise with their bare hands. In this version, I find it hard to believe that someone never came up with this idea, and closes things up in a way that can’t be described even as neat and tidy, because the lack of emphasis never made anything messy to begin with. To say I hate this ending would be an understatement. It’s an insult to everything positive that I mentioned above, and deserves to be ridiculed every bit as much as the 1990 film that at least had the handicap of a TV showcase to use as a valid excuse.

My Grade: 6/10 or C

Jacob’s Ladder (2019)

Directed By David M. Rosenthal

Starring – Michael Ealy, Jesse Williams, Joseph Sikora

The Plot – After his brother (Williams) returned home from war, Jacob Singer (Ealy) struggles to maintain his sanity. Plagued by hallucinations and flashbacks, Singer rapidly falls apart as the world and people around him morph and twist into disturbing images.

Rated R for adult language, some violence, sexuality and drug content

POSITIVES

– Deviation from the original. If you have to give this movie credit for anything, know that it isn’t a plagiaristic rip-off of the original film that did every single aspect better by comparison. Aside from the names of the character’s being the same, the film does surprisingly take a refreshing direction in the form of the modern war on medicine, which allows it to stand on its own two feet of originality from an otherwise borrowed title. There were some measures taken in the film that I did enjoy, and with a little more time could’ve been properly fleshed out to convey its intentional message to the eyes and ears of the audience. In addition to this, the film is much better paced than the original “Jacob’s Ladder”, moving frequently throughout its 84 minute run time towards the twist that we’ve all been expecting. This quickness is rough on other aspects that I will get to later, but brings forth an easy one-sit watch that never stalls on the message it is conveying to its audience.

– Gifted duo. Ealy and Williams are sound in what they offer to the picture, despite a lack of characterization from Rosenthal that does no favors in fleshing out the hooks to their personalities. These two men are basically playing two sides of the character coin for the price of one performance, and their believability from post-war traumatic stress is only surpassed by the way their impeccable chemistry and near identical looks bring weight to the believability of the brotherly subplot. Ealy has always been an actor who I consider a secret weapon in Hollywood, despite appearing in some quite popular titles, but as the central protagonist, his grip on the constantly changing scenarios around him enhance the paranoia in trying to decipher what’s real, all the while bringing Michael’s soulful eyes to the surface to convey the fear.

NEGATIVES

– If there’s one constant theme throughout this screenplay, it’s the over-the-top nature in which every element of exposition is delivered. The dialogue flows about as naturally as an 80’s porno, the fantastical imagery feels forced even for monstrous visual transitions, and there’s certainly nothing subtle about the war subplot, which I easily predicted within a few minutes because a better movie did it already. At least in the original, we the audience could decipher the thin line between fantasy and reality, but here even the scenes that take place in the real world feel so convoluted to duplicate authenticity, and soon the entire film turns bored because too much is being repeated along the way.

– Cheap production values. Oh boy, where to start here? First of all, the handheld camera gimmick should only be used in action films to accentuate thunderous impact. Here, it depicts a sloppy mess that brings forth the idea of motion sickness with every movement in and out of frame. Secondly, the special effects in 2019 don’t even come close to matching the subtlety of the ones from 1990. Why is this? Well, this movie relies on them far too often, allowing them to lose their charm by the end of the first act, and they use the same facial filters that made “The Dark Tower” one of the biggest unintentional laughs of its respective year. Finally, the lighting in the film is intusively ugly to the point of scenes feeling like they took place on a green-screen. There is so much puke green tint throughout this film that I thought it was the Green Lantern sequel that Ryan Reynolds never wanted, and what’s even worse is that its consistency never allows it to shake itself free of the television style of production that ruins this film before it even gets its feet off of the ground.

– Changed setting. In the original film, the doom and gloom of the New York city landscape perfectly articulated the darkness from within Jacob’s double life, but the geographic change here to Atlanta does so little to establish its identity or importance within the story. The backdrops in the film reek of stage production, and offer nothing to distinguish itself as a one of a kind setting, instead of a film that easily could’ve been set anywhere if the film didn’t tell me in the opening that this is Atlanta. In addition to this, the war change from Vietnam to Iraq took away arguably the biggest benefactor to Jacob’s subconscious in Agent Orange, and now has to settle for a drug that this movie made up, that doesn’t even happen until soldiers return home. What Vietnam did was make everything believable. You could’ve told me that a character grew a third ear there, and I would’ve believed you because of so much uncertainty in the jungles of their countryside. With Iraq in this instance, far too much has to be explained, leaving an abundance of filling in the gaps that raises more questions than answered.

– Lack of scares. It’s not that there aren’t any attempts, but the ones that are reflect this “Goosebumps” flavor of chills that shouldn’t be even remotely scary to anyone who is able to pee anywhere but their pants. Thankfully, there are no jump scares, but this might be the case where some would’ve been appreciated, because this film in tone and lack of frights often forgets that it is a psychological HORROR movie. For my money, this is as close to an action movie as you can get, even resulting in a third act climax that results in two characters duking it out for survival. The original movie was filled with terrifying imagery in a subtly devilish way that inspired gaming franchises like “Silent Hill”, and rather than even attempt to master this creativity with the effects skills of today, this remake settles instead for the cliches that doom so many horror films in modern day.

– The mystery. Being that this is a “Jacob’s Ladder” movie, there is of course a twist in the third act that supposedly brings everything together, and while this twist is one that capably fills all of the holes in logic, it doesn’t escape the element of predictability, which was given to us long ago. I mentioned earlier that I figured everything out in this movie within the opening ten minutes, and what doesn’t help that fact is a series of clues and coincidences that all but write out on paper what will happen with every character and subplot. My biggest problem is the lack of punch that comes from the revelation as opposed to a first movie that was beautifully synchronized. There’s nothing even remotely compelling or cathartic about what this Jacob endures, and soon we come to understand that his only resolution is one that doesn’t benefit us the audience who have hung on this long in the hopes of closure. It’s an easy way out, and it feels like no one truly wins, a betrayal of the first film’s ending that made me tear up on first watch.

– Fumbling characterization. If we got to know our protagonists for a few minutes, then maybe we would invest in the heaviness of their respective conflicts, but nothing compels me to ever care slightly for one of them, and that has to do with them feeling like strangers even throughout 84 minutes of film. Jacob is our central protagonist, and one we spend the entirety of the movie with, but outside of the things that take place in the movie, I found out nothing about him for the things that happen off-screen. The one aspect we do learn deals with a romantic triangle that honestly doesn’t cast him in the greatest light when it comes to a man with strong family ideals. What did I find out about his girlfriend? Nothing. What did I find out about his brother besides he’s a war veteran? Nothing. These are the people you’re supposed to support and feel worried for when something bad happens to them.

– Disjointed storytelling. It’s important to distinguish what is intentional, and what is a result of sloppy editing. The entirety of this film is told on two respective timelines, so the disjointed nature of scenes feeling scrambled is one that will remain jumbled until the twist comes that fits them all into place. This is done to make us the audience feel the disorientation that Jacob Singer is feeling in the film, and I’m totally fine with that. What I’m not fine with are transitioning scenes the stunt the growth of the dialogue that is deposited, offering no time for audiences to ingest it as anything important by the necessary emphasis required to sell its purpose. Likewise, there were a couple of transitions in the movie where the next scene begins its dialogue while the previous one is still talking. It’s more of the amateur level of production that I mentioned earlier, but this one deserves its own column for how it limits the growth and potential of every scene, offering no bit of momentum to tease us for what is to follow.

– Faulty title. I have to be careful not to spoil this section. The title of this movie should only be there because this is a remake of a film that it is modernizing. My problem with the meaning within the title is that once you know the twist of this particular film, it doesn’t add up to the religious inspiration that Jacob’s Ladder refers to in the bible. Imagine if “The Breakfast Club” was remade, and in the new version the detention is actually done in the afternoon or evening, yet the title remains the same. Occasionally I complain about a title, but I try to save it for occasions when it really creates a problem when summarizing the film, and that is exactly the case here.

My Grade: 2/10 or F-