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-

The Nightingale

Directed By Jennifer Kent

Starring – Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, Baykali Ganambarr

The Plot – Set at the turn of the 19th century, the film follows Clare (Franciosi), a 21-year-old native Irish wife and mother held captive beyond her 7-year sentence, desperate to be free of her obsessed master, British lieutenant Hawkins (Claflin). Clare’s husband Aidan (Michael Sheasby) intervenes with devastating consequences for all. When British authorities fail to deliver justice, Clare pursues Hawkins, who leaves his post suddenly to secure a captaincy up north. Unfamiliar with the Tasmanian wilderness she enlists the help of an orphaned Aboriginal tracker Billy (Ganambarr). Marked by their traumas, the two fight to overcome their distrust and prejudices against the backdrop of Australia’s infamous ‘Black War’.

Rated R for strong violent and disturbing content including rape, adult language throughout, and brief sexuality

POSITIVES

– Kent’s vantage point. As a director, Jennifer is quickly earning herself the reputation as a hypnotist, not just for the mesmerizing spell that she commands over the audience, but also for the psychosis that she delves into in getting understand the very pulse of these characters. In this regard, the decision to once again write and direct this film is one that pays off immensely for the way she uses the camera to comprehend human emotion in a way that very few films articulate. With the mostly claustrophobic shot composition, Kent’s unflinching documentation of the face, and all of the weight that is carried through the eyes of the soul, further fleshes out the gut-wrenching nature of the mature content, offering us no chance to turn away from anything other than the registry of emotions that washes over our characters like a current from the sea.

– Transgressive subject matter. This film is not for the faint of heart, as there are multiple examples of female rape, slavery, and the overall handing down of violence, which test audiences who consider themselves brave enough to endure it. Even for a cinephile like me, there are scenes in the film that tested my commitment to it, saved only by the artistry used that makes these conflicts as tasteful as can be. It helps that Kent doesn’t show anything too extreme with the camera, leaving much to be interpreted from audience minds that no horror film can ever touch in terms of scarring material. But the issues enclosed all work for how they’re distributed throughout the film, and even more so, they ring true in a current era where the cycles of these sick matters still resonate now more than ever, giving the film a ringing social endorsement that will appeal more to females and minorities more than any other moviegoer.

– An inside look. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the film is the immersion into the human psyche that comes at the hands of grief, torturous abuse, and taking a life. This is where Kent stands out above the rest in terms of her power with the pen, as there are many fantastical sequences that depict the weight given to these matters, outlining what little chance there is for mental escape for the remainder of this prisonous life. “The Nightingale” more than any other film I’ve seen in recent memory channels this isolation in a way that makes the decision that comes with it one of great responsibility, and this in turn gives extreme value to the many lives that are taken throughout the film, proving them to be something so much more than a convenient body count. They haunt our protagonist like an endearing spirit, and it’s one that haunts her time of rest with nightmarish visuals as a constant reminder that comes with irresponsibly taking a life.

– Minimal music. Kent makes the decision for very little musical incorporation throughout the film, choosing instead to remain within the heat of the environment, which the only constant is unpredictability. What music that is supplanted is sung by Franciosi, an actress with no big mainstream experience with music, yet one who triggers the heartbeat of the audience with every emotional current that she flushes over them with. Her lyrics are those of Irish folk tales, and her presence over the performance reflects everything she is currently dealing with at that particular time. It’s wise to keep music quite limited throughout the film, not only for our suspense, which feels like it is constantly gripped tight in the palm of Kent, but also to leave this time period piece feeling as dated as possible, with as few current day production interjections as possible.

– Aboriginal awareness. Taking time from its revenge narrative, the film has a surprisingly educated look inside the lives of Tasmanian Aboriginals, who were subject to animalistic manners of living due to the rich and powerful. What’s cool about this inclusion is that the members themselves are speaking Palawa Kani, a near extinct language by today’s standards, that has never been spoken in a mainstream motion picture to date. Kent has certainly done her studying for the culture thoroughly, and given them ample time within the screenplay to authenticate the look, sound, and feel accordingly, preserving these dangerously gifted warriors valuably, that still exist in small numbers to this day.

– Strong production values. Post production is reserved in the cases that further enhances authentication within the environment of the picture. This comes in the form of flawless costume design, a domination of natural lighting for the film’s cinematography, and articulate sound mixing that surrounds our characters like a soundtrack for nature isolation. There isn’t a single aspect with the work behind the scenes that breaks investment within the particular time frame, and this attention to consistency grants the movie a transcending value that Kent attains without another big budget studio investment ($2 million). For the love of God, Hollywood, give this woman a budget that she deserves. It would be cool to see what she could do with an unlimited resource, even though parts of me loves that she remains faithful to her independent cinematic values.

– Three award-worthy performances. The entire casting is completely perfect, with not a single complaint for the actors young or old, but for my money, the work of Franciosi, Ganambarr, and Claflin are works of emotional and physical wonder. Claflin easily gives his best performance to date as the film’s antagonist, a man as reckless and uncaring as anyone you have seen on-screen this year. He’s a real son-of-a-bitch, and Sam’s ability to experiment in a character so unlike anything he has done yet is something that makes you completely detest him. First time big screen actor Baykali Ganambarr offers complexity in a character with a difficulty to trust that is understandably so, but his unraveling throughout the picture is one that gives way to a free spirit that is almost animalistic transformative. His developing friendship with Franciosi drove the movie for me, and preserved a natural bond that is earned with every environment that the two endure. Speaking of Franciosi, WOW!!!! For what Kent did inspiring Essie Davis in “The Babadook”, she should be given equal respect for the psychological sting that is Aisling Franciosi. The best actors say so much in their facial registries, and even before she speaks the vengeful and grieving pulse of her voice, Franciosi’s Clare transfers that anxiety and traumatic dealings perfectly in her heart-breaking facial registries. Franciosi is a storm that levels everyone and everything in her way, and even an hour after seeing the film, the wrenching level of time dedicated to her crumbling psyche brings forth a protagonist who is, above all else, human.

– Speaking of human characters, I love that measures taken in attacks from the characters in the movie feel as spontaneously natural as could be expected from these very grounded people. Above all else, they make mistakes. They do things that we the audience in our comfy chairs would consider stupid, but I found it quite refreshing for how matters beyond their control couldn’t be calculated. This not only gives the film an air of unpredictability to it, but also made the characters and bonds that I previously mentioned feel more earned than a conventional screenplay ever could. Give me a movie where the protagonists go through hell, and I will further invest and respect in the complications associated with establishing something as miniscule as food for the uphill climb that went into finally attaining it.

– The ending. I’ve heard many people complaining that the climax of this film was anti-climatic and feels unresolved, and to them I ask, what movie were you watching? Not only did this film satisfy me cathartically for the mental and physical struggles of the characters, but the final shot combines beauty and spirituality in a way that fully realizes the struggle of the long and enduring journey of the characters who are caught in the heat of the moment. The resolution is sudden, sure, but so is revenge. People need to realize that real life doesn’t involve this big magnified production with orchestral rumblings to sell itself. The magnitude of the situation isn’t realized until it is nearly an afterthought, and the manner associated within the values of friendship presented the only feel-good aspect that I had throughout a movie that rattles you with constant intensity.

NEGATIVES

– A bit too long. For my money, I would shave twenty minutes off of this movie during the late scenes of the second act, which would require you to lose nothing from this picture. Some scenes with the antagonists repeat around this time, as well as some scenes with our protagonists not feeling especially important to what transpires, and it all results in pacing that will create more obstacles than necessary with the audience, if you’re not fully invested into the dynamics of these characters. Make this film just under two hours, and the inevitability of confrontation will feel that much more urgent with this path growing smaller.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Ready Or Not

Directed By Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett

Starring – Samara Weaving, Adam Brody, Mark O’Brien

The Plot – The film follows a young bride (Weaving) as she joins her new husband’s (O’Brien) rich, eccentric family (Brody, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell) in a time-honored tradition that turns into a lethal game with the bride fighting for her survival till dawn.

Rated R for violence, bloody images, adult language throughout, and some drug use

POSITIVES

– Ideal setting. The entirety of this movie takes place in and around this immense mansion, full of stretching secret hallways and unlimited isolation, which make it the perfect board for all of the pieces to intersect one another. The interiors have a gothic style to their decor, speaking volumes in preservation to just how long this family tradition has been taking place, and the surrounding woods that surround this place in the woods allows freedom free from the clutches of the law, which in turn feeds into the mentality that the rich are above it. The dark contrast of cinematography inside of the mansion to that of the wedding sequence in the beginning of the film lends itself to the idea of this secretive world that Weaving’s character has become a part of, and further fleshed out the air of freedom that she said goodbye to once the ceremony ended. Major respect to the set designer for making not only the mysticism of this family come to life, but also the articulation in believability that helps our protagonist against the overwhelming odds.

– Strange backstory device. In a normal movie, we would come to understand the grit of our heroine with each brush with death that she comes across, but something with “Ready Or Not” truly surprised me, and that’s where the movie chooses to invest its backstory on. Not only do we learn so little about our protagonist, but in turn we learn almost everything about our antagonists, fleshing them out in a vibrant way that puts weight on the cause and effects that the game has had on all of them. This takes a rich family, and forces us to make as many connections with them as possible, giving meaning to their mayhem, that while not entirely justifiable, is at least captured in a way where all of the pieces of intention line up smoothly. I’ve always said that the best antagonists in films are the ones we can dissect and give meaning to, and this family is given so much time, that we the audience in turn feel like a distant cousin who is in on their secrets and personality quirks.

– Superbly paced. As far as entertainment factor goes, “Ready Or Not” might be one of my favorite films of 2019 thus far. Its barely 90 minute run time never stilts its growth with each passing development, nor does it breeze through the details in a way that makes them easy to miss. Instead, this is a film that values exposition and violence seamlessly, and constantly keeps the fun in anxiety prominent throughout a film that is always moving forward. This is never more solidified than in the opening twenty minutes, which take us through the wedding, the celebration, and the beginning of the game with ease, making it the perfect recommendation for someone who finds difficulty in movies that require two hours for everything to materialize. I never once checked my watch during any point in this film, and even through the hour-and-a-half that I was given, I felt that twenty more minutes in this environment could’ve only added to the positivity encased in its well-crafted production.

– Expositional dialogue. Nothing feels heavy or out of place here, instead allowing conversation pieces to flow naturally, giving us knowledge in the details of what’s explained between character dynamics. For example, we the audience already know the rules of the game because of the trailers we sat through, but it’s really the meaning behind the why that catapults our intrigue, and forces us to hang on to every dialogue exchange bit-by-bit instead of one long-winded diatribe that we’ve come to expect in cinema. When the bigger picture is seen in completion, we have a brief history of the game that gives certain in-laws around the table still living believability and understanding for how they could’ve possibly survived these rituals, considering they aren’t the brightest crayons in the box.

– Perfect casting. Everyone here is off the chain in complimenting the film where it requires it, but the work of Weaving, Brody, and a rambunctious aunt by the name of Nicky Guadagni easily stole my attention in every scene they are given to chew up the scenery. For Weaving, what’s remarkable is there isn’t much a transformation to her character considering we learn very little about her along the way, but rather her instinct and brawn, which pay off immensely for the dependence of her survival. Weaving’s dry wit is also on display here, depositing several one liners in a defeated way that easily makes her the protagonist we can get behind, if only for how her reactions replicate ours the audience from just beyond the screen. Brody is the M.V.P for me, balancing sarcasm and alcoholism in a way that colorfully outlines the past for this tortured soul, and preserves him as this dark horse of sorts for a family so opposite of him in motivations.

– Tonal hybrid. One of the most difficult combos in genre offerings to balance is comedy and horror, yet “Ready Or Not” masters both sides of the coin without ones volume ever compromising the other. Much of the humor works for me because it’s so off-the-wall because of this plot that you can’t help but laugh out of nervousness and awkwardness that never leave the heart of the environment. As for horror, there is not only solid violence depicted in the form of top-notch prosthetic and make-up work, but also a strong amplification of suspense that is highlighted by Brian Tyler’s encompassing musical score. The third act definitely depends more on the humorous aspects, but it’s a transition that I will love more than other people will, if only for the way it gives weight to the things we believe in that eventually catch up to us, leading to a final five minutes that has to be seen to be believed.

– Upper class satire. Without question, the most rewarding scenes for me were the ones where this wealthy family struggle with certain aspects because none of them have ever been forced to get their hands dirty in the many ways the film requires them to. There’s a struggle with weaponry as seen in the trailers, but really it’s more towards the privilege that each of them inherits that presents an entirely different circumstance of challenges than those of a disappearing bride. This is a film that isn’t afraid to embarrass its antagonists, and some of that shame comes with the reward of satisfaction from those of us who love to watch them squirm, eventually giving way to a barrage of Youtube self-help and butler accommodation that speaks volumes to the kind of social commentary that goes well beyond stereotypical.

– Leaves room for future installments. I don’t say this often in the horror world, but I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing more childhood games brought to life with a devilish rendering in following chapters. From the very beginning, it’s clear that “Ready Or Not” has touched on something positive here for the horror community, balancing endless brutality with a self-aware tone that welcomes the fun into the environment, so I would be a liar if I said that I wouldn’t want to embrace this feeling again, albeit with an entirely new set of characters and game that could follow the satisfying formula cemented by this initial chapter. While this plot is wrapped up in a way that is fulfilling to the conflict of the plot given to us, the script leaves enough meat on the bone of optimism to make us wonder what devious roads they could take us down next. I’m talking to you, Red Rover.

NEGATIVES

– Erroneous tidbits. There were a couple of things in the film that I feel could’ve and should’ve been written out of the finished final draft. One comes in the form of dialogue from the auntie character, who says she hopes the bride can hide better than that, long before the game has ever been picked for her. I was hoping it would lead to a revelation that the game was rigged for the bride to receive this punishment because certain family members don’t like her, but it never happens, and leaves this line feeling entirely out of place with the sequencing of events within the film. My other problems stem from two second half character switches, which would’ve worked fine without the twists given to them. To say this without spoiling things, their twists never mean anything consequential to where they end up, so essentially they aren’t needed in the first place, and only feel like unnecessary padding for the sake of the movie to reach its 90 minute plateau.

– Special effects. This is only in the case of that batshit finale that I earlier referenced. There are some violent ends that require special effects to sell their impacts, but the editing and pasting of these blows are done so sloppily that you can easily see the cuts in between their riveting nature. It creates an emptiness of artistic merit that was almost entirely consistent up to that point, and makes me wish the film’s editing would’ve been as crisp as it was in earlier scenes with a character getting an arrow in the throat. That particular scene rattled with an intensity and speed that made it impossible to see the strings in the trick, supplanting believability before you even have a second to question its artificiality.

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

47 Meters Down: Uncaged

Directed By Johannes Roberts

Starring – Sophie Nelisse, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju

The Plot – The film follows the diving adventure of four teenage girls (NĂ©lisse, Foxx, Tju and Sistine Stallone) exploring a submerged Mayan City. Once inside, their rush of excitement turns into a jolt of terror as they discover the sunken ruins are a hunting ground for deadly Great White Sharks. With their air supply steadily dwindling, the friends must navigate the underwater labyrinth of claustrophobic caves and eerie tunnels in search of a way out of their watery hell.

Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense peril, bloody images, and brief strong language

POSITIVES

– Storytelling attempt. In comparing the two films from this franchise, I give this one the slight edge because of the attempt at world building from below, which gives the setting a bit more depth than the spontaneity of the first film. Throughout the first half of the movie, we are given tidbits of information about this Mayan city that came undone once the surrounding waters submerged their once peaceful homes, leaving thousands to drown in suffering. Not only is this a creepily documented setting, but it’s also one that sets an already established level of suffering within the history that plagues the area, setting the stage accordingly for the perfect showdown with our predators. As to where the first movie was entirely in a cage, this film’s volume in space to constantly elevate scenario’s is one that pays off immensely for where the visual storytelling needs to pace itself through in 84 minutes of screen time.

– Proper lighting. Another cured aspect from the clumsy production of the first movie was the addition to arm these girls with flashlights to better explain why there’s so much lighting in an area so dark and deep beneath the sea, and while this still doesn’t explain the green glow that follows the girls everywhere, it is at least attempting to explain its own careless flaws. Likewise, the blood effect on the flashlights, while nothing new to underwater cinema, crafts a reddish tint that gives candid reminder of our protagonists being in the environment of the blood-hungry. Aside from this, it also maximizes the tension during chase sequences, that make it slightly more difficult for the ladies to see, which in turn leads to some pretty intense jump scares in the form of some well-chosen P.O.V angle lenses.

– Continuity in direction. Roberts returns once again to helm the sequel, and in addition to all of the gifts that I previously mentioned, it’s his amplification for traumatic events that proves he’s grown in such a short time. “Uncaged” isn’t just paced better than the original film, but it’s also one that knows exactly what kind of a movie it should be, instilling a sense of light cheese to the character’s and dialogue, that emit the fun from summertime cinema. Beyond this, it’s his collaboration again with musical composers TomandAndy that brings forth this air of anxiety-riddled panic that echoes so vibrantly in their ominous tones. Beyond just a vibrating musical score however, the film also uses some of its budget to sample popular songs like Roxette’s “She’s Got the Look”, as well as “We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters, to give the scenes a cool factor of humanity that better grounds it in reality.

– Fresh-faced cast. The performances aren’t anything special in the scream queen capacity, but it’s still interesting that two of these women are the daughters of Jamie Foxx and Sylvester Stallone, respectively. What these four ladies lack in audible blessings, they more than make up for in dramatic depth, properly channeling the intensity and vulnerability associated with such a traumatic experience. I certainly liked them more than Mandy Moore’s incessant rambling in repetition during the first film, and I only wish the exposition would do them a favor in rendering them a little smoother backstories, particularly that of Nelisse and Foxx, who play step-sisters. Even still, for mostly first time starring roles, these ladies have a presence in personalities that make them easier to accept the longer the movie progresses.

NEGATIVES

– Rating limitations. Aside from the already jumbled camera work in such a crowded space, the PG-13 material clearly limits death sequences and depicting thrills in such that makes them virtually bloodless. With the exception of the final five minutes of the movie, which is easily the climax for the whole movie, the blood is used as more of a lighting trick that I previously mentioned, instead of wounds on an open spicet of human flesh. You don’t really see anything of detail except for a quick swim-by grab that happens far too often. For my money, the death scenes are what makes a shark movie great, and “Uncaged” has nothing of originality or artistic value to sell its violence to hardcore audiences.

– Things that don’t add up. As is the case with the first movie, this one as well has no shortage of head scratching moments that made it difficult to swallow. The first is the oxygen tank, which loses 70% of its stock in a ten minute swim down to the Mayan city, yet only loses 25% for the last 65 minutes of the movie. There’s also a scene near the beginning where the girls drop their purces on the edge of a cliff to jump down, yet their phones and things are with them in the next scene. If they jumped down into the water, where did they hide it that allowed the objects not to get wet? There’s also the convenience of them finding scuba gear from a company that is just sitting on a raft where anyone could steal it, and thank God the four chests just so happened to feature wetsuits that were precicely the sizes of the ladies in tow. There’s also a scene where a huge stone pillar underwater gets knocked over by a human character being shoved into it, and the law of gravity underwater starts to weigh heavily when already heavy objects are placed underwater to give them more weight, are so easy to move. There are many more, but I think I’ve made my point.

– Horrendous A.D.R. The post production in audio is arguably the single worst aspect of this movie, offering a slew of unintentionally comic situations of which there are no shortage of. Character’s being heard audibly without their mouths moving, mouth movements not matching what is being heard aloud, and such clumsy stitching in audio deposits that you can practically hear the edit button being clicked before the pasting fixed a horrible line read. This is where Hollywood Studios really shows its inferior product the most obviously, as the noticeable flaws start to add up in ways that took me out of nearly every scene, and constantly reminded me of post production, which always overstepped its boundaries on the integrity of the picture.

– Predictable. Once you understand the outlines of the characters in the opening ten minutes of the movie, it’s easy to understand who will survive this chapter of the franchise. For me, I made a prediction five minutes into the film, stuck with it for the entirety, and was a hundred percent accurate by the end of the film. I commend the production for giving us more character’s in this movie to obviously throw at the shark, but 90% of them are nothing more than body count padding, making what little screen time they have a temporary borrowing before the air of inevitability catches up to them. I was also bothered by how late the movie waits to start getting rid of them, making the last half hour feel like a catching up period for how common it repeats as opposed to the previous hour that came before it.

– Uninspired C.G. If you thought the sharks looked lifeless in the first movie, the second ones noticeable drop-off comes in the form of computer generation that made the sharks look like something out of an Asylum or Syfy channel movie of the week. The movements of them aren’t so bad, really just the design and texture that doesn’t replicate vibration movements or gills believably enough so that their incorporation adds weight to the dimensions of the scene. These sharks look so weakly manufactured that I started calling them zombie sharks, for the way they look like someone already harpooned them, stuffed them, hung them on their wall, and brought them back to life Jason Voorhees style. Truly unappealing in every definition of the word.

– One dimensional characters. I mentioned this earlier, so I should elaborate on it. Beyond the two sisters who are polar opposites in the high school popularity factory, there is absolutely no complexion given to any character in this film, which in turn makes it more difficult to buy into their conflicts and conversations. Because this is a movie that features a high school for a scene, we have to have a group of mean girl bullies, whose soul intention towards the film is to be completely rude for no reason what so ever. The protagonists are nothing different, as the two additional girls who join our sisters on the expedition are nothing more than stereotypes. I seriously couldn’t make a list of three things between them that I learned about them, despite spending so much time on-screen with them, and it’s a testament that this is a movie that doesn’t value character importance in the slightest.

My Grade: 4/10 or D+

Them That Follow

Directed By Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage

Starring – Alice Englert, Walton Goggins, Olivia Colman

The Plot – Set deep in the wilds of Appalachia, where believers handle death-dealing snakes to prove themselves before God, Them That Follow tells the story of a pastor’s daughter (Englert) who holds a secret that threatens to tear her community apart.

Rated R for some disturbing violence

POSITIVES

– A different breed of scares. “Them That Follow” doesn’t have a freak monster coming after its kind, nor does it have paranormal frights for the things that go bump in the night. Instead, this is a grounded film about the drastic measures taken in the form of religion when people practice it with dangerous uncertainty. Besides the cleansing of the wicked being done by these poisonous snakes, the movie is a haunting depiction of people dedicating themselves and their lives to a cause without any concrete evidence of its gospel being truth. In this regard, the film gave me an ominously haunting feeling throughout, which establishes a kind of breed in horror movies that are rarely seen; religious zealots. In this regard, it makes the story feel more surreal because these are everyday people positioning themselves in this way, and feeling so far off the beaten path of healthy mental capacity that they themselves almost look like the beasts that I mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph.

– Alluring shot compositions. Coulton and Savage’s style requires a lot of intimacy when it comes to their character’s and unraveling predicaments, and thanks to a visual seduction in the form of these slow, methodical panning angles that replicate the pulse of the movie’s serpents full circle. The sequences with the snakes cleansing the wicked are easily my favorites, revolving around our protagonists like real magic is being displayed to rid them of the trouble that’s eating them from the inside, but I would be a failure not to mention the unabashed focus on facial resonation during each dynamic of storytelling exposition. Coulton and Savage make sure to document the fear that resides in every one of its congregation, so as to hint that these people know that they are literally dying for this expensive cause. It tells us more about them than any backstory ever could, and hints that the bond between them could be wider than the movie would like you to believe.

– Strong cast. While there’s nothing flashy or long-winded in dialogue about the performances of the talented cast here, there are still some dream scenario interactions, which really bring forth the committed work of three performances in particular. The first is my boy, Walton Goggins, who brings along the Boyd Crowder we know and love from television’s “Justified”, and turns it up to eleven as a preacher who feels menacing and dangerous without speaking loudly. Olivia Colman, fresh off of her Oscar win, is also noteworthy here, as a conflicted mother torn between the sides of right and wrong for the health and protection of her son. When things go crazy, that’s when Olivia is in her comfort zone, and through watery eyes and a tired facial resonation, we understand a woman who has faced many uphill climbs in her life. The lead, Alice Englert is also eye-opening, living for something she knows in her heart is wrong, but standing firm with enough love for her father to stay put. I really found her emoting of this character intriguing, and considering we see a majority of the film through her eyes, she is the film’s moral compass.

– Isolated setting. This duo of directors and screenwriters are wise enough to set this story far off in the woods of Ohio (Strangely enough), free from the help or watchful eye of the outside world. What this does is dessert this film with an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia and dread from within these trusty walls, and leaves our central protagonist in particular feeling alienated from the religion she once adored so fondly. This not only further enhances the shot composition that I mentioned earlier, but also feeds into the sentiment that anything can and most likely will happen far from wandering eyes. It’s meaningful in the sense that visually communicates how alone these people are, and how far from reality this religion has left them stranded.

– Real, live-action props. This might not impress people as much as it did me, but in a day and age of filmmaking where every non-human creature is computer generated, along comes a movie that invests in the real thing, and further reminds us of its grave importance to the integrity of the scene. Not only did the actors in the film require ample training time in learning to handle these dangerous devils, but their fear and uncertainty as such adds a complexion to their performances and the scene that wouldn’t have been half as effective with a hollow property in tow. Even if they are de-venomized, snakes are every bit as predictable as anything on Earth, so to interact them with these very credible actors is something that pays respect to a lost age of filmmaking, where all of the magic was left on-screen.

NEGATIVES

– Tell not show. The biggest obstacle that audiences face in growing interested with this film is the best things seem to always be explained as happening off screen. This is fine for a movie once or twice, but when meaningful spins of the plots are engagements that we aren’t being privy to, it disjoints the audience into feeling like two films are being played out simultaneously, and the better one is somewhere off in the distance, beyond what we’re being offered. It becomes essentially frustrating midway through the second act, when we’re forced to piece things together based on character’s facial reactions to things being mentioned in passing. If you’re not fully tuned into this film, you will be lost immediately, and never recover because of my next problem.

– Weak pacing. I treat the opening scene of a movie as the welcome mat for everything you are about to engage in through the next 92 minutes, and in this regard “Them That Follow” never gets off the ground or lays enough scintillating bait at our feet to keep us anxious for the next scene. It doesn’t improve either, as the remainder of the film is every bit as sluggish as it is grounded in its storytelling. The film is simplistic to a fault, and never explores themes within a deeper meaning to open the eyes of audiences who saw this film come and by without ever elevating itself to something more suspenseful. Considering this did well at Cannes Film Festival, it explains everything that I despise about that particular festival, valuing anything different as long as it is different. The problem is that a film still needs to be entertaining, and this one simply wasn’t to me.

– Predictable. There’s nothing even remotely shocking or stirring about the events that played out, and the reason being because this film shows its hand far too often on things that could’ve been used to appal the audience or elevate its complete lack of tension. One example deals with a character who eventually loses a limb, with the parents explaining three scenes prior that, “He will be alright, but his arm won’t”. So for the next couple of scenes we are just kind of waiting around for the inevitable, and when the movie finally catches up, it’s less effective with its shocking visuals because we saw it coming for minutes prior.

– Lack of exposition within the religion. It’s strange that the film doesn’t dive too deep into the rules and lifestyles of this group in the woods, because I find it the single most intriguing aspect of this script. They are really depicted at face value, and we the audience are treated like a member of their congregation, that already knows everything from their pasts that have shaped who they are now front and center. It’s during important storytelling scenes like these when you get a true sense of the tragedy of lives wasted within this belief, but because the script leaves them as ambiguous as retail store mannequin’s, we never latch on to the urgency of their tribulations.

– The secret. So much of this film’s three act structure relies on this secret, that isn’t revealed until the final half hour of the movie, leaving very little meat on the bone beyond the idea itself. If I’m being honest, the secret itself isn’t that compelling or shocking compared to the things happening in the real world. I understand the point is that something from the outside world is being introduced to this sheltered community, but we the audience are from said outside world, so once we find out what is being hidden, the shock factor is totally lacking anything worthy of drawing it out for so long. It’s also inconsequential to the film’s closing moments, and left me wondering why or how this film got the huge positive reaction that it did coming out of Sundance Film Festival. This movie is an idea, nothing more.

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark

Directed By Andre Ovredal

Starring – Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush

The Plot – It’s 1968 in America. Change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah (Colletti), a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time-stories that have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover Sarah’s terrifying tome.

Rated PG-13 for terror/violence, disturbing images, thematic elements, adult language including racial epithets, and brief sexual references.

POSITIVES

– Immersive set designs. Sometimes the balance between dim lighting and background decoration establishes a level of atmosphere that perfectly sets the mood for what’s to come, and in this regard, Mill Valley is the seventh circle of hell for all of its nightmares being played out in real time. Beyond this feeling like just hollow backgrounds used for tension amplification, the gothic style sets and props interact with each of the characters wonderfully, and create an air of weight within the shots that document their subtle influence to the dynamic of each conflict. A fine example of this is the dreaded Red Room scene, where a character is running from a slow, methodical stalker, and uses each hospital hallway as a manner to buy time. All the while, Ovredal as a director is diminishing the distance between them with each scene’s edit, creating a juxtaposition between he and his characters that use these locations as a gimmick that is every bit as terrifying as the monster that chases our protagonists.

– Respects the source. Reading these books as a kid, the nightmare imagery had a lasting effect on me that very few other books have had since, and because of this, I am happy to report that this is a film that, despite its designated rating, gets almost everything correct. Beyond the imagery, the stories themselves are stitched together in a way that maintains the pressure inside of this terror, allowing very few moments of book-end breath that the movie doesn’t allow audiences. It has such an immense task to retread those legendary tales, and does so while maintaining the tinsel of big screen magic and acceptable horror cliches that really lifts these events from the pages vibrantly, and does so to a degree of even character movement shifts in the scene being documented in the very same way it’s told from its literary origins. The imagery itself is very tense and unsettling, and this feeling of overwhelming dread envelopes our characters whole, and leaves them feeling miles far from the world they once knew.

– Tonal maturity. During the first act of the film, the screenplay’s goofy and immature tone had me fearing that this would be another “Goosebumps” movie, but in the vein of “Trick R Treat”, this too is a film that progresses smoothly, and earns its big cost consequences with a second act that transforms this world and characters accordingly. In this respect, to label this as a kids-acceptable horror film might be a bit of a stretch. Despite the overall lack of blood or deaths being free from audience eyes, Ovredal’s manner of exceeding tension and drawing out the slow-burn of what is chasing these kids in the distance is something that proves right away that this is no “Stranger Things”, where everybody in the group is safe as long as they have a starring role. There are real consequences in this film, and a sense of enveloping dread that is being consistently stirred by the man in charge, and all of his devastating tracking spots.

– Combination of special effects. I loved the balance between live action and computer generated effects, both of which worked together so smoothly without ever stepping on the toes of the other. The make-up and prosthetics work here delivers on some truly creepy monster designs, and the computer generation instilled upon their movements give them a surreal reminder that these are anything but human reincarnations. There wasn’t a single example where the effects seemed hollow or lacking of inspiration, and considering most of the film is done during nighttime scenes, the lack of light preserved an ominous level of mystery, free from the lines of dimensions that usually take me out of generated properties.

– As a period piece. One surprising aspect for me was the underlying tension developed from a 1968 setting, during the inauguration of Richard Nixon, which perfectly articulated the paranoia of the Vietnam era. Aside from the noticeable comparisons that Nixon’s campaign has to our current day Trumpian age, the screenplay hints at a home world falling apart because of never-ending war playing such a heavy slug on our conscience, including a character who is later revealed to have a bigger role than we initially thought in said engagement. What’s even more important is the production and aesthetic value is serene in giving us a glimpse into seamless fashion trends, and a groovy soundtrack that perfectly articulates the birth of the flower power generation, sampling tracks that play hand-in-hand with the very beats of character introductions and hangout hijinks.

– Scare factor. I’ve always said that once you hit adulthood, being scared in films is kind of a thing of the past, but with that said, “Scary Stories” is probably the closest that we will get to this rare circumstance in 2019. There is creepy imagery gallore in this film, not just with the monsters, who are bone-chilling in design and movements, but also with the gross-out humor, which will certainly never allow me to eat beef stew ever again. I do wish the film didn’t rely as heavily on unnatural jump scares to sell its execution, because Ovredal certainly has the tools of the trade for maximizing tension, and if he had more faith in his terrifying visuals, I feel like the film would prosper in captivating audiences in the same vein that the novels did. With that aside, the film is still an unsettling sit, and will definitely give you 103 minutes of horror hysteria as a treat to get us through to Halloween.

– Stirring sentimentality. Exploring depths of storytelling in a way very few other films do, “Scary Stories” is a film that commends authors everywhere as both a healing and harming force in the vein of grieving. The film explains throughout that words are used by us to sometimes put a face on something as cryptic or uncertain as death, giving the pen holders the power on settling the longing of our pasts. This gave the film a glowing radiance to its tragedy that I wasn’t expecting, and proved that it values people as the trail-blazers to their own pasts, present, and future. People often ask me why typed reviews are still the way to go, and for me personally it’s in the therapeutic permanence that they preserve in shelling out the thoughts and words that I will live by for a lifetime. “Scary Stories” better helped capture that ideal, and gave me poignancy long after I left the film.

NEGATIVES

– Lack of characterization. With the exception of the main girl, I didn’t feel a thing for any of these characters. Blame it on their immature personalities, or the overall lack of screen time dedicated to accentuate their colorful backstories, but I wasn’t sold by them, and couldn’t care less each time one of them was shuffled off-screen. The screenplay feels this too, as the characters with the least amount of exposition die in order, from least to most, making each of their results as predictable as a mixed weather pattern in Ohio. If you don’t believe me, make a list of the five main characters, and write down what you learned about each one of them. You’ll find yourself describing their appearances more than anything, mainly because the film doesn’t care about what makes them tick.

– Plot convenience. I find it interesting that the group always has to be separated for these stories to work. In addition to this, the characters never try to outrun or dodge their opposition, leaving them as easy meals for their predators. In addition to this, the kids never go to the authorities or anyone who could help to give a witness to the terror that Is transpiring, leaving them vulnerable to exploit. Even if it’s impossible for this object to be vanquished, show us that they are continuously trying for the sake of vulnerability or desperation. To me, this antagonist is only as strong as she is because this group couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag, and during an era when horror movie characters are trying to think of anything to lessen the impact of their opposition, “Scary Stories” prefers to pretend these options don’t exist from real HUMAN characters.

– Anti-climatic ending. This film ended at just the right time for me, as the final ten minutes of the movie tie itself in an inconsequential bow that left so much of the momentum unfulfilled. At the beginning of the girl’s dream, I really enjoyed what the script was setting up for itself, in how it compared her situation to that of Sarah’s, but the sharp detour that wraps the conflict up is something that feels like a copout to this movie for how it replicates other films that not only used this ending, but did a whole lot better. The closing moments also have the guts to set itself up for a sequel, which despite my enjoyment of this film, I would prefer not to have because this ending tried to prove to us the things that we already knew, and then tried to sell it as the epiphany needed to make matters right.

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

Crawl

Directed by Alexandre Aja

Starring – Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson

The Plot – A young woman (Scodelario), while attempting to save her father (Pepper) during a Category 5 hurricane, finds herself trapped in a flooding house and must fight for her life against meat hungry alligators.

Rated R for bloody creature violence, and brief adult language

POSITIVES

– Thrill ride. This is easily one of the more intriguing sits that you will endure in 2019, and while most of that has to do with a consistency in thrills and stimulating sight gags, the smooth and rapid pacing developed from an 83 minute run time more than feeds into this circumstance. Whatever you say about this film, boredom certainly won’t be one of the nominated verbs, as this film’s constant fluidity leaves very little slow spots of exposition in between these moments of surreal horror that harvest a hybrid of entertainment between the screenplay’s hip personality that conjures from these very tense and horrific moments of horror curriculum. A film that doesn’t lag is difficult to come by, but “Crawl’s” biggest strength is in a story that flows as fast as the deposited water that leaves our characters stranded.

– Grave urgency. Speaking of that condemning rain, the gradual rising of this element not only feeds into the claustrophobia of this diminishing setting, but also outlines a visual reminder of the limited time-frame that these people face, perhaps illustrating a bigger adversary than even that of the alligators that surround them. Considering the screenplay does a great job in remaining focused on the characters and their predators, the blink-and-you-miss-it rising of this virtual hourglass of sorts increases before our very eyes, adding a completely different element of danger that isn’t as easily escapable as something that can be hurt or killed. This for me was the biggest and most rewarding antagonist of the film in terms of weight to the adjacent story, and brings forth a level of creativity of escape for the protagonists that was previously unforeseen.

– Story above storm. The problem with disaster films are often the necessity to substitute valuable characters for riveting storm sequences, and while “Crawl” does have an inescapable presence to its methods of mother nature, it’s the character building and backstories that I appreciated more than anything. As especially is the case with this father and daughter dynamic, the screenplay initially hints at a level of distance between them that evolves terrifically into a fully fleshed out narrative, giving us the audience extreme indulgence in the form of characters who we can grasp and understand the intentions behind their dangerous decisions. While I did have problems with Scodelario’s character and her overall performance, which I will get to later, the established backstory that is slowly revealed between them in candid flashback sequences more than solidifies an interest in their well-being that makes films like these all the more rewarding for my investment into them.

– Consistent theme. Further feeding into the film’s depth, the script has an obvious intention of feeding into ones past, and the negatives that come with constantly reveling in it. I won’t spoil anything important here, but this whole conflict starts because of the father’s road trip to his family’s former residence, which represents the happier times between them, when all was copacetic. Beyond this, every character, big and small, is dealing with the regrets of the past. Some in the form of immense mental blocks that leave their success in sports hindered because of the mental luggage that pins itself to them, as well as the way other supporting characters bring up their former significant others in moments that don’t necessarily require it. This burden that our characters face constantly feeds into every one of their motivations, bringing forth a couple of epiphanies along the way that are earned because of the dire pressure of their current conflict.

– Special effects. This element surprised me more than any, as the believability and weight established between storm influence and computer generated reptiles wasn’t as equally present in the illustrations within the trailer. Clearly another production rendering took place here, as the seamless dimensions and designs on display more times than not impressed me, and was made more apparent because of articulate measures along the way that prospered their consistency. For one, the cinematography by Maxime Alexandre, as well as the movie’s overall lighting scheme points to a weathered, grainy visual capacity that crafts opportunity within its darker frames, making it all the more difficult to zero in on an obvious weakness within the generation. Most of the storm is human-created elements, but the sky itself is computer generated, and left intimidating by its thickness in clouds and darkness in color, that never needed a skull to channel its intensity (See “The Hurricane Heist”).

– Aja’s devilish direction. You cast a man like Alexandre Aja to helm your film if you want a barrage of blood with a non-relenting atmosphere that persists like a rapid heartbeat, and while this film doesn’t reach the levels of blood or gore on something like previous Aja offering “The Hills Have Eyes”, it does manage a level of intensity that barely ever has time to breathe within the environment that he created. In addition to this Aja’s claustrophobic lens offers a combination water level, underwater, and alligator trailing sequences that conjure up the variety in shot compositions that shoots the action from many unnerving levels. But fear not horror hounds, as there is a solid offering of snapped limbs, bloody bites, and jump scare thrills that frequently remind us of the deacon of direction, who elevates a film like this if only for the hell that he puts his characters through.

– Clever joke. Beyond Aja’s stylish execution, his ability to instill a sense of dark humor is also a trait that he wears with pride, and his insertion into the film’s intro is one that made me laugh and roll my eyes equally, with unabashed glee. Upon our initial introduction with Scoloderio’s character, we learn that not only is she a college athlete swimmer, but she goes to the University of Florida, a school known for its prestigious mascot that plays quite an intended irony on the film’s future. The mascot is of course the gator, and this obvious level of foreshadowing is certainly the perfect litmus test for any audience curious to gauge the kind of atmosphere and attitude that they will soon be neck-deep in.

NEGATIVES

– Inconsistent sound mixing. Not only does the shallow sound mixing attain a level of manipulation within its audience, it also drops the ball frequently on the engaging nature of a storm that otherwise should swallow us whole. One example of my problem stems from the alligator’s abilities to move in and out of frame with such a lack of weight that makes them feel like a feather when they sneak up on these humans. Likewise, the spotty splashes of rain come and go in a way that makes it feel like the storm has subdued, despite the fact that the water from within this house continues to rise in elevation. If the sound mixing is shoddy, the disaster film that contains it won’t feel as imposing on the heat of the storm, and while visually we are shown no shortage of urgently impactful imagery, the lack of balance in the audio capacity proves that its production isn’t equally up to the task, leaving too much weight of presence on the field of imagination for us the audience to vividly fill in.

– Unlikeable protagonist. While the storytelling outline for this family was rewarding in keeping me invested to their well-being, my disdain for Scoloderio’s performance and overall direction was something that constantly kept me annoyed in her demeanor. For one, this woman’s closed personality all stems from divorce. That’s right, something most of us go through, and we’re supposed to justify her rude behavior because of it. She’s condescending towards her family, un-invested with her friends, and arrogant in moments where it feels like a lesson should easily be learned. In addition to this, Kaya’s dialogue does her no favors in articulating the proper emotional tug to give us goosebumps from her situation. As an actress, she’s alright, but all of her character’s that she has played in movies rub together, leaving no semblance of depth or distinguishing to showcase her skill.

– Leaps in logic. So much here to unload, but everything from laws of physics to human lung capacity is tested here, giving me several moments of unintended laughter that didn’t line-up so well to the film’s mostly serious tone. Humans can apparently outswim alligators, alligators can disappear and re-appear without hearing them, Scoloderio’s character can apparently hold her breath under water for over two minutes in real time, and so much more. There are also measures that could easily be taken to end this threat within ten minutes, but because of the sake of the already brief 83 minute run time, the necessity to pan out the sequence of events and overlook easily taken measures that any idiot could fathom, giving us frustrating scenes in logic that could easily be omitted if the screenwriters did the necessary studying in preventing what people like myself already know.

My Grade: 7/10 or C+

Midsommar

Directed By Ari Aster

Starring – Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper

The Plot – A young American couple (Pugh and Reynor), fly to a rural town in Sweden for a once-in-a-lifetime midsummer festival after experiencing a death in the family. Not long after the couple’s arrival, their trip unfolds into a hallucinatory nightmare when the visitors are invited to drink some sort of concoction that seemingly screws with their perception of time, and are targeted by the sinister leaders of a pagan cult.

Rated R for nudity, violence and gore, scenes involving drug use, and some adult language

POSITIVES

– Shot composition variety. Like Aster’s previous film, “Hereditary”, this one is a visual masterpiece full of unnerving and unorthodox angles that sizzle with experimentation. While there’s so much to break down here visually, the sequences involving mirrors to display a character out of frame, but still in the context of the conversation are only the tip of the iceberg for this man’s supreme intellect behind the lens. In addition, we are treated to many overhead shots that cover things from above, room transitions that follow a character into another area of the stage, long take sequences that trade off character focus every few seconds, and an adoring admiration for the boldly vibrant set pieces that hold such weight with any particular scene that they persist through an elevated ambush of mood-setting lighting. If you take nothing else from Ari’s films, understand that he’s a director whose visual captivation always reaches the heights of ambition set by his screenplays, and because of such we are treated to a presentation that mentally and visually stimulates us with each frame.

– Authentication in sound mixing. The sound production team is on top of their game here, echoing the vibes of realism and authenticity in dialogue audibility that allows it to flow with believability. One thing that drives me nuts in movies is when other products of the environment are obstructed out of what we’re hearing front and center, but in “Midsommar” we get multiple conversations existing at the same time, with the ones closest to our camera being dominant in volume level. If it weren’t for this, the scene would sound like a convoluted mess, but the articulation to detail gives the scene this transcending quality against film that makes its world feel very established and lived-in, establishing that life persists around what we’re seeing at all times. This will no doubt give great replay value to the film, if even only to intrude deeper into what I couldn’t fully dedicate myself to in my viewing, for fear of missing something in the foreground.

– My personal interpretation. Aster as a writer is as abstract as a Van Gogh painting, but I feel that “Midsommar” attains a greater accessibility level with its audience because its themes are slightly more grounded in obviousness than that of “Hereditary”. For my money, I picked up on a lot of the dangers once again of manipulation associated with a cult lifestyle, but even more than that the film triggered my senses for the vulnerability associated with grief and longing that makes that particular person wide open for meandering, especially someone with mental illness (See Hereditary). This is made even more apparent by the drug stranglehold that this Pagan group holds over their newfound visitors, leaving it possible for them to experience anything when mind-altering consumption begins to take over. It’s clear that Aster has a desire to exploit the grip that the manipulative have over the weak-minded, and it leads to a ride through material that not only makes you emphasize with the victims, but also proves that the greatest movie villains sometimes come in human form.

– Does it scare? What’s so intoxicating about the material’s frights isn’t so much that it attains a level of chills so consistent that it makes them feel like the films from our childhood that terrorized us, but that the material itself is limited in color for what it exposes. There are very few scenes of actual gore throughout the film, saving those moments of red for the time when they impact most with a splash of artistic integrity, but the real story is on the group’s poisonous atmosphere that visually hints that everything is alright, even when we feel something more sinister taking shape from beneath us. The drug paranoia scenes conjured up feelings of helplessness that do so much more than simply scare me, they mentally wound me with regards to how easy to believe that all of this transpiring really is. Even more appealing, Aster saves his greatest climax for the film’s final shot, and it drilled such a combination of fear and sadness within me that prevailed at its most anxiety-riddled, blowing everything off in a way that will preserve nightmare fuel for anyone who puts themselves in the shoes of the protagonist like I often do.

– Admirable performances. This is where the film could’ve easily fallen apart, as its cast of mostly dramatic unknowns really took presence of the stage given before them, and captivated me in such a way that seemed silly of my doubt for them in the first place. Jack Reynor, especially during the drugged sequences really moved me to impressive levels of depth for how his helplessness is communicated in just a few simple looks. His reactions to the drugs felt every bit as earned as they did revealing of someone who goes through the many stages of drug combating, and it brought forth easily his single greatest performance to date. Will Poulter was also a ball of fun as the film’s steady comedic humor. Poulter is a Stiffler of sorts, in that all he wants to do is get high, get laid, and spend a week of vacation far from his college campus, and Will’s constant presence endeared me through a series of laughs and blunt dialogue depositions that made him one of the more tolerable douchebags in modern day cinema. Even with all of this however, it’s definitely Florence Pugh’s show, as she steals the command once more in a transformation that is only rivaled by her turn in 2016’s “Lady Macbeth”. Pugh endures the single worst event of her life in the film’s opening ten minutes, and from there is a roller-coaster of fiery emotional registry and dangerous curiosity that makes it easy to see why one causes the other. But especially during the third act, it’s Pugh’s facial resonation that says as much in a look as a lesser talent requires in a two hour film, and while “Lady Macbeth” made her a buzzworthy name, it’s her work here as Dani that makes her an ever-lasting presence of the silver screen.

– Stunning cinematography. Aster has found himself a dependable friend in cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, as just like his work in “Hereditary”, Pawel takes us through a drug-riddled lucid nightmare that dazzles on a completely different spectrum. As to where “Hereditary” worked wonders in its domination of darkness, and the tricks played on us in the shadows, “Midsommar” impresses in its sunny, hazy circumference that takes the horror in visual directions where it’s rarely ever gone. In sparsely being able to escape daytime in this film, Pawel associates the airy sparkling majority with a sense of unnerving table dressing that all but communicates to us that something is wrong for how different this is not only for sunlight rules, but also for the horror genre in general. In such, Pawel adds layers to entrancing visuals, that really force you to admire the sadistic in ways that are otherwise treated as shock humor in weaker horror cinema.

– Complete production design. Everything works here. From the white choreographed fashions of this Pagan community, to the use of flowers everywhere to cleverly mock life in death situations, to the buildings that depict scripture of its believers, everything here is given proper time and detail to nourish credibility for a religion that has taken place long before we as an audience stumbled upon it. Likewise the film’s make-up and prosthetics are as timely as the film’s paced-out blood dispersion, stealing our attention during scenes where its extreme and gratifying nature allow it to stand out when used in moments where we truly weren’t expecting it. I had a slight problem with some dummy models lacking familiarity during certain scenes, but I can forgive it when everything else here is alluring in seamlessly playing into the color scheme established with the gorgeous cinematography that I previously mentioned.

– Ambitious run time. Some people will have a problem with the 140 minute run time that “Midsommar” exudes, but there is literally nothing that I would remove or condense in this film to serve a more fluently paced final product. This is definitely a slow-burn film, and if that bothers you, you’d be best to stay away from it. For me, the film’s ample requirement of rules and world-building from within this community really allowed me to interpret what I was seeing without loaded exposition dumps that would feel unnatural for the progression of human interaction. Visually, the film takes us through the scriptures in a way that puts audiences paying attention one step ahead at all times, rewarding them in a convenience that our character’s unfortunately didn’t receive for their ignorance towards it. There has also been complaints about the film’s first twenty minutes, and what it means to the rest of the film, and to those people I ask if they were watching the same film that I did. Without those scenes, we never understand what makes Dani so vulnerable. Why her ball of nerves feel like they are going to crash at any particular moment. How can you say these scenes hold no weight with the rest of the film? Overall, the pacing was sluggish periodically, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t fully invested at all times. The sight, sound, characters, and development of a group of kids so far from their homely abodes outlines a cloud of ambiguity that would require you to be without a pulse if you weren’t at least curious by how far this group was going to take it.

– Rhythmic beats. When searching the credits for who musically scored this film, I came across the name The Haxan Cloak, and my curiosity got the better of me. Upon digging deeper, I found out that not only is this the team behind two of my favorite shows in “Stranger Things” and “Castle Rock”, but also the very same people who nearly saved 2017’s “Triple 9”. In general, the music here is constant and intrusive, sometimes being worked into the scene in a way where the characters themselves take over with their rhythmic hymns that add a whole different level of creepy to an already riveting sequence. The Haxan Cloak assorts a collection of organ and fiddle numbers that garner a level of fear for all of the reasons that don’t feel as obvious when you listen to them, and evolve into a current of magnetic macabre that audibly conveys the conscience not of our protagonists, but rather of the Pagan cult that make up an overwhelming majority of the characters we see on-screen.

NEGATIVES

– Unnecessary horror tropes. This is nit-picking, but if I pointed to something that bothered me in the film it would easily be the formulaic expulsion midway through the film, that felt slightly jam-packed to exist without escaping slasher vibes that it totally didn’t require. In my opinion, I could’ve used more pacing in subtle disappearances. This would allow the film to better sell the ambiguity and mystery of uncertainty surrounding the victim, establishing a greater weight for the bodies that start to stack up with very little nuance to their removal. In addition to this, there are scenes that were unintentionally funny that I wish Aster would’ve instilled a retake for. There’s one scene in particular that was truly compromising to the emotional impact of that reveal, and I feel it would’ve been better spent on a man who enjoyed 99% of the movie to not be laughing during the scene that is so obviously meant to be treated in terror.

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Annabelle Comes Home

Directed By Gary Dauberman

Starring – Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Mckenna Grace

The Plot – Determined to keep Annabelle from wreaking more havoc, demonologists Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine (Farmiga) Warren bring the possessed doll to the locked artifacts room in their home, placing her “safely” behind sacred glass and enlisting a priest’s holy blessing. But an unholy night of horror awaits as Annabelle awakens the evil spirits in the room, who all set their sights on a new target–the Warrens’ ten-year-old daughter, Judy (Grace), and her friends.

Rated R for horror violence and terror

POSITIVES

– Enjoyable cast. This is remarkable considering the lack of valuable exposition and laughably bad dialogue did them no favors in getting their characters over for audiences who have seen many important characters throughout the two series that are converging together. Despite a lack of meaningful screen time, Farmiga and Wilson are once again a delight to witness on-screen. The chemistry that exudes between them, as well as the grasp in confidence that each of them has over terrifying circumstances outlines the perfect protagonists for a horror film, whose greatest strength is the bond that only grows stronger with each terrifying case. The valued new addition is Mckenna Grace, who seems perfectly fit to be cast as the Warren’s daughter, thanks to her intelligence in paranoia, as well as her overall introverted demeanor that buries her in isolation at school. Grace is the constant lead on-screen, and provides frightened delivery that is decades ahead of her age, giving the film urgency where the inexperienced directing constantly lets it down.

– Seamless production design. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the Ed and Lorraine Warren films is their targeted setting of the 1970’s, which gives the production many chances at establishing something unique to the backdrops and imagery. In this film, the combination of throwback wardrobe, muscle car sedan’s, and attention to detail on the shelves is something that constantly impressed me, and established a level of accuracy for the film crew that gave us substance in the form of constant reminder. There’s a supermarket scene in the film that features an abundance of sugars, cereals, and candy to name a few, and the proper labels being used for the time fill an entire aisle of goods, further continuing the level of visual mastery that “The Conjuring 2” set the bar for. Beyond this, the soundtrack is full of decorated 70’s favorites, like “Dancing In the Moonlight” by King Harvest, and “Baby Blue” by Badfinger, to name a couple, cementing an inescapable presence of decade enhancement solidified by the lucid production value that continuously rings true.

– Cameo by comedy. There is finally some humor introduced to such a terribly bland franchise, and the results are mostly positive. The film’s script takes us through awkward teenage interaction in the form of two youths who have feelings for each other, and the way it is incorporated into this sadistic world that is happening around them brought to mind feelings of 90’s horror films, where the character’s love for each other almost feels unflinching despite everything transpiring around them. There’s a scene that pays homage to John Cusack’s performance in “Say Anything”, and the way that the young man who performs it plays it off speaks heavy reminders to the weak knees and embarrassment associated with puppy love. The humor incorporates itself without ever taking the tone hostage, and along the way I was treated to a few solid laughs that got me through some otherwise dry scenes of character interaction that often feel like they drown on for a few minutes too long.

NEGATIVES

– Counterfeit dialogue. People who watch horror movies usually associate this aspect with bad acting, but the work by the collective cast here is exceptionally positive. What hurts is these lines that are ever so evidently written by old men, and meant to authenticate that rich teenage dynamic that instead comes across as trying a bit too hard. The groaning that came with listening to these exchanges left me cringing in my seat, and created that feeling of unity between eight people in an auditorium, when you’re all feeling the same way at a particular time. One repeated line that was beaten into the ground more times than Disney remakes was a character’s nickname, who every single character shed light on in their own different way, and it got to a jaded point of overkill that practically made me scream “I GET IT!!” by the sixth or seventh time it’s mentioned.

– Pointless R-rating. This one is a mystery to me, because there is so little violence, peril, or even adult language in the film, therefore no reason why this film couldn’t have been marketed as PG-13 to open its scope up to a larger audience. The material certainly isn’t elevated because of this deeming, and I can’t point to a single scene or scare during the film that cemented this movie worthy of receiving the cherished R-rating to horror audiences. Perhaps the MPAA is getting soft as the decades fly by, but “Annabelle Comes Home” is one of the strangest uses of R-ratings that I’ve ever seen, and offers nothing of substance or reminder to plead its case. There are other 2019 horror films that did more risque visually, and they were given PG-13, so what gives?

– Manipulative advertising. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Ed and Lorraine Warren are in this film all of about ten total minutes, and considering the trailers marketed them as prominent figures in the film, it’s a shameless manipulation to say the least. Every horror franchise has one of these; a chapter in the franchise where the established stars are only used as a cameo, but are further elaborated on constantly throughout the film, reminding us of a better film that is biding its time somewhere off in the distance. This film reeks of a paycheck film for Farmiga and Wilson, who the film doesn’t even cut back-and-forth to while so much mayhem is taking place inside of this house with their daughter. It gives the usual loving couple a feeling of uncaring nature to their lack of incorporation in the film, making me constantly question why parents wouldn’t call and check in on their daughter at least once during the course of a sleepover, right after you took in this devilish doll.

– Where’s Annabelle? Speaking of manipulative advertising, we get it again in a doll character who, like her two human protagonists, couldn’t be bothered to show up to do anything except sit on a chair for the majority of the film. While this is certainly nothing different for the Annabelle antagonist, what forms because of it feels like a shameless plug for future franchise installments that puts “Justice League” to shame. We get scares and attacks in the form of other cursed materials in the Warren’s basement, taking valued time of film exposition to give each of these killers a backstory on their way to sequel solitary. If we do in fact get a bride sequel, or a sequel involving this strange fucking warewolf thing that feels like a holdover from the Dark Monsters Universe, then we will know the true intentions behind “Annbelle Comes Home”, a homecoming so lacking focus that it never feels like the most interesting antagonist in her own movie.

– Wrong road taken. In the fork in the road creatively between The Conjuring and Annabelle, this film rides with the latter for its scares department, harnessing a combination of cheap jump scares and hokey production involving no shortage of fog, that lets a franchise on the rebound down. Not only are the jump scares completely predictable and formulaic, but the Macguffins used to temporarily throw-off audiences aren’t even clever in the slightest. “Annabelle Comes Home” feels like a movie that I’ve already watched four previous times, except here the timely scares have reached Netflix level qualities of telegraphed depiction, frequently straining the pacing of the scene, as well as the attention of the audience before it lands on its scheduled destination. As a result, it’s the least scariest installment of a franchise that included a film where we didn’t actually see Annabelle move or do anything throughout the film.

– Boring. This film is barely 100 minutes, and constantly feels like it’s around 20 minutes too long, thanks to unnecessary footage left in that only prolongs scenes involving zero tension. For the first act of the film, there is one intended scare, then over thirty minutes of repetitious exchanges between characters. When the day turns to night, and we actually expect these scares, the film takes forever getting to the heart of the moment, testing our patience with false alarms and Macguffins that took a five hour road trip getting to the gas station of enthusiasm to excite its audience. Surely some of these scenes could’ve been trimmed for time, but the fact that the script doesn’t have an additional subplot like Ed and Lorraine to bounce off of and check in on from time-to-time, leaves it stranded in this one bland, lifeless setting for the duration of the film, creating an arduous task of getting to the finish line of no actual reaped rewards.

– Speaking of which, the overall lack of weight and consequences to the film is highlighted during its closing moments, in a scene where you could practically hear your cash being flushed down the toilet. SPOILERS………..You’ve been warned. Here we go. All of the film’s survivors (Essentially every character in the movie) meet at this birthday party, where it’s hinted at that they never tell Ed or Lorraine about what transpired on that one terrifying night. When a horror film ends with a secret, it means nothing of consequence or permanence emitted from it, meaning that this film could easily be wiped away from the continuity of the franchise, and not a single goddamn thing would be lost because of it.

My Grade: 3/10 or D-