Review: “It Follows”

“It Follows” opens wide this weekend, and what follows is my review.  No real spoilers, especially if you’ve seen the trailer, but if you wanna remain completely in the dark — so creepy! — see the film first.

I’m a little reluctant to compare new films to seminal pieces of work.  “‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ is the new ‘Star Wars!’”  Who wants that kinda baggage?  These things need time.  Well how about this: “It Follows” ain’t “Jaws” or “Psycho,” but it might just do for strangers what those films did for beaches and hotels.  You may find yourself keeping a safe distance from everyone as you leave the theater.

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The second feature from writer-director David Robert Mitchell, “It Follows” is about Jay (Maika Monroe), a young woman who finds herself pursued by an evil specter.  After having sex with Hugh (Jake Weary), he takes her to an abandoned building and ties her to a wheelchair.  In one of the film’s more harrowing passages, Hugh explains that he’s passed this entity on to her.  She’ll start to see someone following her, and this thing is only visible to those who’ve been afflicted.  It can look like anyone — a complete stranger or even a friend.  (Strangely, the film doesn’t mine the latter as much as it could.)  It moves at a walking pace, but if it catches her, it will kill her.  Jay’s best bet is to pass the curse on to someone else.

Mitchell wears his influences on his sleeve, and there’s a lot to appreciate for horror aficionados.  The basic premise, a quiet neighborhood under threat, brings to mind…well, any number of slashers from the 70s and 80s.  Disasterpeace’s nerve-jangling synth score recalls John Carpenter.  Like so many horror films from generations past, this one could be read as a cautionary tale about adolescent sex.  (“Cautionary” is a strong word — I don’t think it’s the first or even twenty-first concern for Mitchell.  But it’s certainly a clever nod.)  Even the persistence of the threat reminded me of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, slowly stalking their prey and eventually catching up with them despite their best — okay, sometimes not-so-best — efforts.

Above all, Mitchell brings an understanding of how to use the frame.  What’s in it and what’s out — that’s really a bedrock of cinema and especially horror.  An oft-cited shot from this film is one where the camera turns 720 degrees.  Jay and a friend are at Hugh’s former high school trying to track him down.  The camera remains outside the office as they consult a secretary.  It turns to reveal a series of windows looking onto the lawn.  Students walk back and forth, but one off in the distance seems to be headed straight for us.  Then the camera passes over an empty hallway and back to the office — they’re still talking to the secretary — and then we’re looking out the windows again.

That student is closer.

When we get back to the office, the bell rings.  We hear doors open, and I started to worry that it would sneak up on Jay in the crowd.  The threat in this film could come from anywhere.  It’s one that the director puzzlingly undercuts a few times by depicting the entity with cheap ghoulish makeup.  More often than not, creepy makeup isn’t creepy.  And I’m sure going to avoid someone who looks half-dead.  But a student in a crowd of students?  Anyone would be a goner.

So much of what’s done with the camera involves smooth and elegant movement, but one of my favorite flourishes involves Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis strapping it to the wheelchair that Jay is tied to such that the lens is pointing back at the actress.  She struggles against her restraints, and the whole frame rattles.  It’s used to great effect when she and Hugh are being pursued by the specter in an abandoned building.  As he hurriedly pushes her toward the exit, the camera bounces around her terror stricken face and the dark figure in the background.  It’s as though the whole frame might collapse.

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Maika Monroe is really strong in the main role.  There’s a wistful quality to her performance, particularly during the first act.  Once the shit hits the fan, she plays horror with the best of them.  You’re really in her corner, which is why it’s disappointing when the film takes a turn in the second half.  By then, many of the characters have come down with stupid decision-itis, which is a disease prevalent in the horror genre wherein people on screen lose the ability to make rational decisions.  Their actions don’t come from a place of logic, they come from a need to set up more scares.  And this is never more prevalent than in the film’s climax.  I’m going to try and remain spoiler-free, but I really don’t know what the characters intended or what they thought would happen in that scene.

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Even if David Robert Mitchell leaves some scares on the table, “It Follows” is an enviable horror film.  Enviable in the way that it constructs, for the most part, empathetic characters.  Enviable in the way it eschews gore and cheap tricks to make us shiver.  And, most of all, enviable in the way that it uses the camera to instill fear.

But don’t worry, you’ll be fine.

Just don’t go anywhere with only one exit.

What did you think of “It Follows?”  Comment below!

Remember Your First Time?

Matt Zoller Seitz recently published an excellent article about watching “Aliens” with his 11-year old son and a handful of his fifth grade friends.  He wrote, “I realized…that while unfortunately you can’t see a great movie again for the first time, the next best thing is to show it to people who’ve never seen it.”  Which is a sentiment I’ve always found to be true.  Watch a comedy you enjoy with someone who’s never seen it, and you’ll find yourself laughing harder.  Watch one of your favorite horror films with someone who’s never seen it, and you you’ll find your palms sweating.  In honor of Seitz’s writeup, I thought I’d share my experience showing “Jaws” to my college roommate.

Indeed, my freshman year roommate — and we would remain roomies throughout college — had never seen “Jaws.”  I felt determined and obligated to remedy this as quickly as possible.  He was a good sport, but he went into the experience with notions of what he thought the film would be.  Though he didn’t say anything beforehand, I could read it on him.  “Oh yeah, ‘Jaws?’  I’ve heard about the robotic shark.”  Or “I’ve seen other movies from this period, and I didn’t like them very much.”  Or “Horror movies have changed so much since the 70s.  Scary?  Yeah, we’ll see.”

One early autumn evening, we had three or four friends over to watch the film.  The viewing circumstances were less than ideal.  We were all stuffed into a small dorm room.  It was stinkin’ hot in upstate New York, and our door was open for circulation.  I still remember intoxicated voices bouncing around the hall outside as students were enjoying their weekend.  The television set was in the neighborhood of 15 inches, and it was wedged between the ceiling and the top of some large cabinets.  (They’re called “closets” in some circles.)

There was idle chit-chat among our friends over the opening credits.  I grimaced, not wanting to be a killjoy but also trying to maintain some semblance of a proper presentation.  With that first tug on poor Chrissie Watkins’s leg, things started to quiet down.  As she was ripped through the water by an unseen menace, the chatter completely turned to silence.

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Cut to 15 minutes later, Chief Brody sits on the beach with his family.  He anxiously watches bathers enter and exit the water, believing a shark was responsible for the young woman’s death.  A couple townsfolk strike up a conversation with him, but his eyes are fixed on the expanse of ocean.  The Chief explodes out of his chair at the sound of a young woman’s screams, only to discover that her boyfriend has surfaced beneath her.  He leans forward as a shape approaches a woman floating on her back.  It’s just a swimmer.  Little Alex Kitner enters the water and paddles out on his raft.  I watched with anticipation as John Williams’s menacing score started to thump and Spielberg’s roving camera — the shark’s POV — approached the boy from below.  The raft is overturned, and there’s a geyser of blood as Alex is taken under.

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My roommate screamed:  “Oh God!  OH MY GOD!”

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Movie viewings are rarely this gratifying.

As the full gravity of the community’s situation sets in, marine biologist Matt Hooper investigates a boat that was struck by the shark.  A moody night-time scene: lights from Hooper’s vessel filter through the inky water.  Eerie music indicates that danger could strike at any moment.  And then, my phone went off.  I can’t for the life of me remember why I didn’t have it on vibrate.  As it rang out, one of our friends piped up, “Well, that ruined the mood!”  Without bringing the phone to my ear, I spoke into the receiver: “Hold on.”  As Hooper approaches a hole in the hull of the boat, the craft’s former owner, dead, floats into frame to greet him.  Screams erupted all around me as I walked to the hallway to take the call.

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Afterward, my roommate would admit that he thought the film would be a victim of its times.  The next day, he posted a picture of the “Jaws” DVD online and simply stated: Best.  Movie.  Ever.

Do you have a memory of sharing a favorite film with a friend?  Comment below!

Lists: Top 10 Films of 2014 (Part 2 of 2)

Welcome back, everyone!  If you didn’t see the first half of my top 10 films of 2014, be sure to click here.  Just a reminder: I don’t distinguish between best and favorite.  This list represents a mixture of the two.  Now, let’s get on with it!

5.) “Birdman”

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With films like “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” and “Babel,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is something of a master of misery.  I never thought I would describe one of his films as breezy and entertaining, but…”Birdman” is breezy and entertaining.  He and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — everything this guy touches is visually golden — devise a series of long takes that are expertly stitched together to give the impression of one continuous shot for the duration of the film.  Their camera weaves in and out of darkly comic fantasies, as Michael Keaton’s Riggan, a has-been movie star, attempts to revitalize his career by doing a play in New York.  Keaton is joined by Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts in the best ensemble of the year.  Norton is particularly strong, playing a talented yet egotistical performer.  He flexes some comedic muscles in one of my favorite acting moments of the year.  He suggests an alteration to one of Riggan’s scenes, and after the two enact the change, Norton gives a shrug as if to say, “Pretty good, huh?”  Yeah, pretty damn good.

4.) “Snowpiercer”

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Director Bong Joon-ho’s films are marked by dynamic tonal shifts.  “Snowpiercer” is about the remnants of the world’s population on a train that circles the globe.  The planet has become inhospitable after an attempt to curb global warming goes wrong.  The train is broken up into the haves (at the front) and the have-nots (at the back).  Tilda Swinton embodies the film’s more outrageous fixtures in a whacko performance as Mason, the spokesperson for the creator of the engine.   “Keep your place.  Be a shoe,” she tells Chris Evans’s Curtis as he and his fellow passengers attempt a revolution.  Balancing such comedic elements are some of the most visceral action sequences of the year.  One of the principle tenants of directing action is to use the setting, making the sequence possible only in its particular location.  Here, we get a tense battle that’s complicated by the train speeding through a tunnel.  The haves are equipped with night vision goggles while the have-nots are not.  In another great sequence, two characters, cars apart, fire at each across an open expanse as the train rounds a wide turn in the track.  Some might find Joon-ho’s work mood swing-y, but I think his mixture of tones is exhilarating.

3.) “The Grand Budapest Hotel”

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Wes Anderson’s films have been described as pocket watches, and the comparison is apt. Every piece of art direction, every camera move, every performance flourish plays an integral role in the experience.  Well, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is a pocket watch wrapped up in a series of Russian dolls.  Beginning with a girl at the gravesite of an author, transitioning to the author relaying a story about going to the titular hotel, jumping back to the same author talking to Zero, the hotel’s owner, and finally arriving in 1932 where we meet young Zero and the concierge, Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes).  Fiennes is an actor I usually associate with drama…heavy drama.  “Schindler’s List” anyone?  But here he shows his comedic chops.  Gustave H. is a fun contradiction, refined and crass in equal measure.  With this and “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson is on a hot streak.  “Grand Budapest” plastered a huge smile on my face, it’s so inventive and fully realized.  The film isn’t all fun and games; as with any of Anderson’s work, there’s a twinge of melancholy.  It can be sad to look back…and then look back…and look back some more.

2.) “The Lego Movie”

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Dear Michael Bay,

Have you seen “The Lego Movie?”  Well you should, because it’s great!  I know, I’m as surprised as you are.  It’s based on tiny plastic bricks for goodness sake!  But it proves that a good film can come from anywhere.  This one’s from Phil Lord and Chris Miller.  (Do you know them? And do you think you could get me a job on their next film?)  Let me tell you what the movie’s about.  A construction worker named Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) learns that he might be The Special, a hero prophesized to defeat the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell).  There wasn’t a funnier movie in 2014, but a lot of the comedy comes from names you might not expect, like Liam Neeson as Good Cop/Bad Cop and Morgan Freeman as Vitruvius.  (He’s kind of the Obi-Wan to Emmet’s Luke Skywalker.)  It’s great to see a children’s film — did I mention it’s based on a toy? – that’s fun and engaging and even has something to say about consumer culture and individuality.

Your pal,

Gar

P.S. “The Lego Movie” ALSO has lots of explosions! I know how much you like those.

1.) “Boyhood”

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I know, I know, it’s a boring choice for #1.  But what can I say?  Sometimes there’s a good reason a particular film is mentioned over and over again at the end of the year.  Everyone knows the story behind the production of “Boyhood” — Richard Linklater filmed the movie off and on for 12 years with the same core group of performers.  We follow six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) bounce between parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette), fall into and out of love, and ultimately leave home.  Some have criticized “Boyhood” for being nothing more than a gimmick.  “No one would be talking about this movie if they cast actors of different ages!”  To that, I say the method of filming is inseparable from the film itself.  “Boyhood” is about the fleetingness of time.  Different scenes are going to resonate differently with different people.  For me, the moment that hit hardest was actually a two-part sequence.  It begins with Mason and his girlfriend, Sheena, sharing some late night food at a diner.  They talk about their hopes and fears, and it’s a wonderfully harmonious scene.  They seem right for each other.  Cut to a year later — no title cards in this film, which creates some striking transitions — and Mason and Sheena have had a bitter break up.  No screaming, no shouting.  We don’t even see the break-up on screen.  The film largely eschews those standard coming-of-age scenes that involve a lot of fireworks.  Instead, the emotional impact comes from the gradual culmination of smaller moments, like the sun imperceptibly creeping across the sky…before it sets.

Thanks for reading!  Here’s the complete list:

  1. “Boyhood”
  2. “The Lego Movie”
  3. “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
  4. “Snowpiercer”
  5. “Birdman”
  6. “Ida”
  7. “Gone Girl”
  8. “Godzilla”
  9. “Selma”
  10. “Nightcrawler”

And some honorable mentions: “The Babadook,” “Blue Ruin,” “Calvary,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Two Days, One Night”

So, do you agree or disagree with my list?  What were some of your favorite films of 2014?  Comment below.

Lists: Top 10 Films of 2014 (Part 1 of 2)

Okay, I’ve held off long enough (read: finally caught up with some films I needed to see).  Before I get to my top 10 of 2014, a few thoughts…I saw more than 40 movies, and it was a pretty solid year overall.  Not extraordinary, though the big summer releases resonated in a way that they haven’t for a while.  For the purposes of year-end lists, I generally don’t distinguish between best and favorite.  This top 10 really represents a mixture of the two.  Okay, here’s my #6-10…

10.) “Nightcrawler”

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One of the keys to unlocking “Nightcrawler” is James Newton Howard’s music.  The film is about an amateur videographer, Louis Bloom, prowling city streets to find footage — home invasions, auto accidents — that he can sell to the local news.  While it has the trappings of a character study and a thriller, Dan Gilroy’s film is a rag-to-riches story.  Rather than offer a traditional moody score, Howard’s music has a hopeful quality.  It pines for our character’s success, as though it’s the music he might hear inside his head.  That his actions are morally murky at best and downright psychotic at worst is, well, beside the point.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the wannabe newsman, and it’s easily the best performance of his career.  He talks with reporters and supervisors as though human interaction was something he learned from a book or website.  With each encounter, I grew more and more anxious, waiting for Louis’s psychosis to finally boil over.  Surely someone is going to get this guy help…or have him arrested.  Right!?  In an insidious bit of commentary on our media, help never comes.  “If it bleeds, it leads.”

9.) “Selma”

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I’m always a little resistant to award season biopics.  They’re often more “history lesson” than “film.”  Not the case with Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” which is about the voting right marches of 1965.  I love the opening, when Martin Luther King Jr. (played wonderfully by David Oyelowo) is rehearsing a speech.  “It’s not right,” he sighs.  We assume he’s talking about the language, but it’s nothing so lofty.  He just doesn’t like his tie.  There’s flesh and blood in this monument.  A horrific and racially motivated act follows.  The film plays like a thriller, keeping the pressure on and never letting us forget what’s at stake.  And it moves like gangbusters, swiftly covering a lot of characters and events.  I loved the backdoor dealings.  As much as this movie’s about a man, it’s also about politicking and enacting change.  Some have criticized “Selma” for its depiction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who wasn’t a roadblock to the civil rights movement as dramatized in the film.  While I can appreciate those complaints, it frankly doesn’t bother me.  This isn’t a documentary, it’s not bound to factual constraints.  Rather, it’s a stirring account of fighting systematic oppression.

8.) “Godzilla”

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A couple of questionable plot turns and a wooden performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson aren’t enough to kill this gargantuan summer blockbuster.  Not by a long shot.  Director Gareth Edwards delivers spectacle of the highest order.  Sure, a number of mega-budget productions attempt the same thing, but few remember that there’s nothing less spectacular than non-stop spectacle.  Edwards is judicious in dolling out his setpieces, offering a wink and a nudge (see: a wry cutaway from a brawl in Hawaii) while making us wait for the hugely satisfying final showdown.  Another word for spectacle, at least as far as “Godzilla” is concerned, is scale.  Duh, it’s a movie about the grandaddy of giant monsters!  Everything about this film is intended to give us that sense of awe — from the structure to the evocative sound design to the camerawork that keeps us on the ground level.  Despite our best (and not-so-best) efforts, all we can do is stare up and appreciate the titans overhead.  “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man.”

For more of my thoughts on “Godzilla,” click here.

7.) “Gone Girl”

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Gloomy serial killer movies like “Seven” and “Zodiac” make it easy to forget what a lacerating sense of humor director David Fincher has.  But “Gone Girl” puts it on full bloody display.  The film, written by Gillian Flynn and based on her novel, is about a man, Nick (Ben Affleck) under investigation when his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing.  Much of the humor is derived from the media circus that surrounds her disappearance.  During a painfully funny press conference, Nick makes a brief statement that doesn’t sound particularly heartfelt.  He’ll later point out that that doesn’t make him a murderer, though it might as well in the court of public opinion.  A great ballet of looks between Nick and his sister (Carrie Coon) ensues as Amy’s parents make long, prepared statements.  Top to bottom, the performances here are excellent.  So many of the casting decisions seemed odd on paper — Tyler Perry as a New York lawyer, Neil Patrick Harris as, well, a creeper — but they pay off big time!  And of course there’s Rosamund Pike, bringing so many shades to Amy.

For more of my thoughts on “Gone Girl,” click here.

6.) “Ida”

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In Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” a young nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) visits her worldly aunt (Agata Kulesza) before taking her vows.  The aunt reveals that the nun’s parents were Jewish, and both were killed during World War II.  After finding their resting place, the aunt urges her niece to experience more of life before committing to the church.  In one of my favorite images of the year, the nun, slightly intoxicated, twirls within a curtain.  Sunlight streams through the window and illuminates the fabric producing a warm cocoon.  It’s such a wonderfully evocative depiction of a young woman coming of age.  This film is filled with striking compositions.  Łukasz Żal and Ryszard Lenczewski’s black and white cinematography emphasizes institutions, often placing characters in the lower part of the frame so that these structures — the church, for example — tower over them.  Trzebuchowska and Kulesza are terrific, the latter saying anything that pops into her head and the former speaking hardly at all.

Stay tuned next week for my #1-5 picks!  What were some of your favorites of 2014?  Comment below.