Climax

Directed By Gaspar Noe

Starring – Sofia Boutella, Romain Guillermic, Souhelia Yacoub

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

My Grade: 9/10 or A

Greta

Directed By Neil Jordan

Starring – Isabelle Huppert, Chloe Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe

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

Rated R for some violence and disturbing images

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Happy Death Day 2U

Directed By Christopher Landon

Starring – Jessica Rothe, Ruby Modine, Israel Broussard

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B

The Prodigy

Directed By Nicholas McCarthy

Starring – Taylor Schilling, Brittany Allen, Colm Feore

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Escape Room

Directed By Adam Robitel

Starring – Deborah Ann Woll, Taylor Russell, Logan Miller

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

My Grade – 6/10 or C+

Anna and the Apocalypse

Directed By John McPhail

Starring – Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

My Grade: 7/10 or B-

The Possession of Hannah Grace

Directed By Diederik Van Rooijen

Starring – Shay Mitchell, Grey Damon, Kirby Johnson

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

Rated R for gruesome images and terror throughout

POSITIVES

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 3/10 or F-

The House That Jack Built

Directed By Lars Von Trier

Starring – Matt Dillon, Bruno Ganz, Uma Thurman

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

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

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

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

My Grade: 5/10 or D+

Overlord

Directed By Julius Avery

Starring – Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My Grade: 8/10 or A-

Suspiria

Directed By Luca Guadagnino

Starring – Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth

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

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

POSITIVES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEGATIVES

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

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

My grade: 8/10 or B+

Halloween

Directed By David Gordon Green

Starring – Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak

The Plot – Laurie Strode (Curtis) comes to her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.

Rated R for horror violence and bloody images, adult language, brief drug use and nudity

POSITIVES

– John Carpenter’s lucid nightmarish return to form. This isn’t just a return to the silver screen for Curtis and Michael, it’s also one for the legendary composer, whose work on the first film still resonates with audiences forty years later. For his return, Carpenter stays true to form with the classic numbers, giving them a much needed upgrade as far as sound mixing and refurbishing are considered. But it’s in his collaboration with Daniel A. Davies that carves out what little atmosphere that the film has going for it, entrancing us with a serene sense of ominously terrifying inserts that amplify the tension in every scene of chase.

– Green is certainly a student of the game. While the film occasionally has problems toeing the line between respectful homage and downright theft, one thing is certain: David Gordon Green was definitely the man for the job. Green’s directing conjures up a sense of female empowerment rarely seen in classic horror films, but it’s definitely his eye for detail in replicating the look and presentation of Halloween that moved me miles artistically. An opening credits sequence, complete with identical text coloring and italics, remind us of the fear associated with the infamous day that Michael thrives on, and for a few minutes it feels right to indulge on nostalgia, if only for these simple-but-effective credits that competently set the precedent moving forward. Keep your eyes open for some familiar Easter eggs to past films, particularly my favorite trio of masks for the Halloween franchise that aren’t Michael’s.

– There has never been a character in this series that is remotely as interesting or developed as Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode, and in picking up the role for the fifth time in the series we have what might be her most complex portrayal yet. This is a Laurie that feels unavoidably scarred from that one night of terror that has defined her for better or worse over the past four decades, and given the once personable Strode an enveloping of strength and persistence that compares her to Michael in terms of her life’s mission. Curtis’s dry delivery and believable progression make her one of a kind in this modern day setting, and etches a general outline of what female heroines could and should be when in the hands of an actress who has grown with the character. Jamie nails the vulnerability AND the strength of the character equally, and this film would be garbage without her.

– Plenty of gore and creative kills alike. Many people might have a problem with the amplifying of the gore in this sequel that is anything but replicated from the 78 original, but Michael’s increased anger makes sense to me because this is very much a psychopath with a thirst to kill, who has been locked up for forty years. Think about what that building thirst feels like once you are out in the free world, and you understand why this is arguably the most dominant Michael that we have seen to date. Throw in some old school practicality with effects work and wincing props, and you have enough thrills in its grasp to make this a devilishly delicious treat in an era when creativity is often cut away from.

– As for Michael, the design of the mask finally feels right again, not feeling too white in coloring, nor too clean in terms of the weathering process. It replicates Michael’s becoming of the mask that the movie touches upon, making it easier to comprehend this as Michael’s actual face. What else is delightful is the passing of the torch generations with Nick Castle portraying Michael in the scenes he doesn’t wear a mask, and James Jude Courtney when he does. What I love about this decision is that it reminds us of Michael’s human side that the other films blurred for all of the wrong reasons. This is very much an aging man who still breathes that air of fire because of his life’s mission that has kept him going, and the combination of Castle’s still-frame complete with Courtney’s stalking movements, makes this the Michael from 78, whose cerebral psychology make him every bit as dangerous as his imposing stature.

– For my money, I would be fine with a one hour film that featured only the first and third acts of this film. I say that because the whole movie is built around this inevitable confrontation with Laurie and Michael that does fortunately pay off in more ways that one. For one, there’s this incredible setting inside of Laurie’s house that has, for better or worse, become a panic room of sorts, and gives Michael a lot more to fight against rather than the typical house that he can manipulate the shadows with. This final battle not only lives up to expectations, but lives up for all of the reasons you’re not expecting. I won’t spoil what happens, but if this is the final Halloween, count me pleased.

NEGATIVES

– The dreaded second act. There’s about thirty minutes in this film that is every bit as unpleasant as it is unnecessary, and a lot of this has to do with this overabundance of filler that adds nothing to character or consistency with the rest of the film. Laurie goes missing for a few scenes, and is replaced with this awfully forced humor and dialogue that repeatedly tested my patience. If this wasn’t enough, a late act decision that violently changes an unimportant and borderline disrespectful character came and went like it had no lasting effect on me what so ever, and only highlighted how faulty this screenplay was when it tried to present something different.

– Speaking of different, there’s not a lot of it in this film. I mentioned earlier about paying homage to the Halloween franchise with these brief and weightless Easter eggs, but what doesn’t work is when you are literally duplicating scenes from other Halloween films, some of which aren’t supposed to exist in this canon, and playing them off in a way that feels desperate. This makes this movie possibly the most forgettable of the Halloween series, mainly because it doesn’t carve out a unique voice of its own, relying far too much on the success of past scenes and screenplays that were left in the past for obvious reasons.

– It’s amazing that after forty years of the knife-wielding psychopath, writers are still interested in the why without understanding that the mystery of Michael is what makes him intriguing as an antagonist. The scariest killers are the ones that happen just because (Think The Strangers), and traditionally the more you find out about Michael, the least fascinating it is. This film, while not as drastic as Rob Zombie’s for reveals, continues this annoying tradition, wasting valuable minutes along the way to paint a picture that I don’t ever require to make me enjoy one of my favorite on-screen killers more.

– Unanswered question. To anyone who has seen the ending of the 1978 “Halloween”, you’ll know that Michael gets away before the camera fades to black. So my question is what happened after to get Michael captured in this film. The movie never elaborates on this aspect, and we’re left to fill in the gaps where the screenwriters won’t. In my opinion, I would’ve liked to have included the events of “Halloween 2”, and explain that Myers burning body was rescued in the nick of time. Two attacks would also add to the believability of Laurie’s now fragile state, and keeping the brother and sister angle would explain Michael’s obsession a little more clearly with Laurie.

My Grade: 6/10 or a C

Hell Fest

Directed by Gregory Plotkin

Starring – Bex Taylor-Klaus, Reign Edwards, Tony Todd

The Plot – A masked serial killer turns a horror themed amusement park into his own personal playground, terrorizing a group of friends while the rest of the patrons believe that it is all part of the show.

Rated R for horror violence, and adult language including some sexual references

POSITIVES

– Captivating set designs. In capturing the imagination and detail associated with the haunted house attraction, Michael Perry dazzles us with limitless space opportunity and expressive decoration props to perfectly articulate the hostile surroundings. On top of this, the lighting features everything from a strobing effect to distract, to a variety of coloring to give each scene artistic merit. It’s a reminder that B-grade horror doesn’t always have to settle for limited accentuation within its world building.

– Purposeful jump scares? Anyone who knows me, knows I despise jump scares in horror films, but the ones in this film work because (after all) that is the gimmick associated with the setting. What I love is that the psychology behind the jump scares are more for the characters inside of the movie, and less as a tease for us watching at home. Because of such, the scares never feel timely or predictable to us because they are catering to just the world depicted inside of the screen, and not worrying about constantly breaking the fourth wall. It’s something I commend this film for greatly.

– Hard-R. Many mainstream films don’t receive the coveted R-rating anymore, mainly because they are seeking a wider age range in audience to fill their seats, but ‘Hell Fest’ whets our appetites repeatedly with an overabundance of gore that stems from some exceptionally creative kills. I challenged this film repeatedly to shy away from depicting where each devastating blow was headed, and never once did it succumb to the pressure of the standards of a flawed ratings system. There’s also great teasing and struggle leading up to them that increases the tension and urgency tenfold, and never allows the moment to evaporate with one quick blow. It chews up the scenery with repeated confidence, and this element gave this horror hound lots of satisfaction repeatedly.

– Consistency in pacing. ‘Hell Fest’ certainly isn’t a difficult watch by any stretch of the imagination. It’s an 84 minute movie that constantly keeps breezing through a barrage of ever-changing landscapes and pulse-racing atmosphere to keep the attention firmly planted on the screen. Never during the film was I ever bored or distant from what was transpiring, nor did I feel like the allowed time did a disservice to the story itself. It’s a great way to burn an hour-and-a-half off of your day.

– Bear McCreery’s almost operatic score. McCreery is someone who is quickly becoming one of my favorite composers in film, and his work in this film is more proof for the pudding. Bear’s amplified compositions ignore subtle nuance and instead instill a ranging vibrancy for the variety in environments. Yes, this is all happening under the roof of one location, but the many themes inside the park are given enough respect from Bear to keep their music marginally different, and without them ‘Hell Fest’ wouldn’t earn even a fraction of the elevated tension that it frequently earns.

NEGATIVES

– Convenient plot devices. One aspect that disappointed me and took away from my growing enjoyment of the film was in the many conveniences that Plotkin forces us to endure, which even for a horror film are a bit of a stretch. This is as popular of a park as you can imagine, yet there’s only our ensemble cast who we ever see interacting in these attractions. Yes, we are given exposition in the form of V.I.P passes, but never on any park on this planet would this angle work for a single day. There’s also an angle with the killer’s shoes that makes it conveniently easy throughout to pick him out whenever he is trying to hide or blend in. As well, the killer isn’t exactly as wise as the film paints him out to be. Several times he does himself a disservice by allowing a character an easy escape, or just plain out walks away from them after he strikes.

– Lack of characters/bad acting. The work from this cast is offensive even for a campy, B-grade horror film. Their over-the-top personalities and selfish instincts repeatedly rubbed me the wrong way, and made it easier for me to embrace the film’s antagonist to kill them off one-by-one. Much of this can be blamed on the total ignorance of backstory or exposition from the film, but the fresh-faced cast often make it unpleasant to spend even one moment with them. These are people who I myself would never spend one evening with in my personal life, so being forced to endure them without distraction is a test I often failed.

– As for the killer himself, there’s nothing remotely satisfying about his big reveal that makes the juice worth the squeeze. His arsenal in weaponry is quite bland, his costume is something that could be put together at Costco, and any wave of clarity or logic for his hatred of haunted houses is never further elaborated on. Without spoiling anything, there is a scene near the end of the movie that I think implies to paint that this guy is a regular human being like you or me, but that still doesn’t even attempt to piece together the motivation for such a sporadic hobby, and just kind of sends us home on an emptying wave of air that slowly omits itself from the momentum of this film.

– One and done. Cameos from legendary figures in horror films are certainly nothing new, but the way Tony Todd, A.K.A The Candyman, is shuffled on and off screen during this film is downright insulting. Todd is given relatively high billing for the film, and is reduced to nothing more than a one-off scene that leaves no lasting impact. When you have a name like Todd’s, you go all out, and for my money I could’ve used more background for his role as the host of this terrifying attraction.

– The film’s premise, while nothing original by the genre’s standards, really goes disappointingly unexplored. One could argue that this leaves room for future installments, but much of the creativity associated with dissecting what is real and what isn’t in the park is never further elaborated on, removing many opportunities for fake-out scares and mysticism for the setting that I felt this movie desperately needed. For my money, establishing a one-man killer early on only limits the potential of paranoia within its walls, and leaves a general underwhelming feeling going forward that kept the scares very rudimentary.

5/10