Review: “The Witch”

If it wasn’t clear by now, I’m a pick-your-moments kind of guy.  If I made a 10 Commandments of Storytelling, Thou Shall Pace Thyself would be very near the top.  It’s a commandment that Robert Eggers’s “The Witch” breaks, though there’s certainly escalation.  The final 15 minutes or so are a wild and grisly ride.  And yet…I couldn’t help but feel tired and rundown by the film.

In 1630s New England, William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are banished from a Puritan Christian community.  They take up residence on the edge of some very spooky woods.  Will characters in horror movies never learn!?

The Witch family

While the farmer’s eldest daughter, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), is watching his infant son, the boy goes missing.  We see that he was taken by a witch and mashed into jelly.  (I wish I were joking — that’s an image that won’t leave my head anytime soon.)  After the boy’s disappearance, the fabric of the family comes undone.

There are some interesting storytelling choices here.  The film boats some tricky language for any actor, especially young ones.  But the cast handles it very well.  Fans of “Game of Thrones” will recognize Kate Dickie as William’s wife, Katherine.  Like on the HBO show, she plays another religious zealot.  In addition to Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin, there are three other children: Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) and a pair of rambunctious — that’s a polite word — twins played by Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson.

Actors copy

For the majority of the film, it feels like everyone is shouting and hissing through bared teeth.  Not without reason, but it all gets a little monotonous.  The film drains its emotional stores long before it’s over.

Alfred Hitchcock defined suspense as the audience having information that characters do not.  His example involved a bomb under a table.  We the audience know it’s there, but the characters having a conversation at that table do not.  I’ll come back to Hitch in a moment.  As Devin Faraci pointed out, a lot of witch stories are structured as mysteries.  Is there or isn’t there?  I’m thinking of “Rosemary’s Baby,” one of my personal favorites.  But here, Eggers shows us that there is in fact a bomb in the woods.  And all the family’s squabbling about God’s will and what it all means is distressing in the best sense, because they’ve got much bigger problems.

“The Witch” is not constructed like most horror movies.  Few and far between are the jumps scares, and they usually involve something pretty ordinary — an ax going through a block of wood.  (So much wood chopping!)  Still, the atmosphere is thick and Eggers rings unease out of the ordinary like a goat shifting its gaze.  The goat, by the way, is Black Phillip, and he’s the best.


One of my favorite sequences involves young Caleb in the woods.  He comes across a cabin…and its occupant.  There’s a great use of subjective camera — we slowly track into this mysterious woman as she stares right into the camera’s lens.  I literally shuffled back into my seat.

And then we come to that bloody climax.  What follows is a series of decisions that read like someone bolding, italicizing, underlining and then circling a phrase to make sure that we really, really get the point.  Additionally, the film travels in stock witch imagery which is never more true than the final moments.  It descends into camp for a film that has otherwise had a deficit of it.  (A deficit in camp…can a film have that?)

None of this makes “The Witch” a bad film or even mediocre.  It’s just not a great one.

Have you seen “The Witch?”  What did you think?  Comment below!


Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

After much anticipation, it’s finally here: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  Apologies for the delay in my review.  It’s a busy time of year, and I wanted to see the film for a second time to parse out my thoughts.  Plus, with the film having been out for over a week and having made enough money to fill 10 battle stations, I figure it’s safe now to talk about some spoilery plot points.

I’ve already written about what this universe means to me, so the big questions is:  Does director JJ Abrams’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” live up to its galactic hype?

Pretty much.  And that’s no easy feat.  Let’s dive in!


From the title crawl, you know you’re in good hands.  “Luke Skywalker has vanished.”  Whoa!  No taxation or trade routes here, huh?  (I can see your eyes glazing over already.)  The film opens with the remnants of the Empire, now the First Order, attempting to intercept a map to Luke.  Squash the last remaining Jedi and there will be little hope for the Resistance.

A resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the plans in his BB-8 droid before he’s captured by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a disciple of the Dark Side.  The BB unit rolls through the dunes of the desert planet Jakku until he comes across Rey (Daisy Ridley), an independent and resourceful scavenger waiting for her family to return.


Meanwhile, Kylo Ren learns what the droid is carrying.  A conscience-stricken stormtrooper (John Boyega), nicknamed Finn, helps Poe escape.  The two crash on Jakku in a TIE fighter.  Believing Poe to be dead, Finn finds his way to civilization, or the backwater planet’s version of it, where he meets Rey.  After a skirmish with the First Order, the two board the Millennium Falcon.  (I know the Force works in mysteries ways, but talk about coincidence!)


The Falcon is picked up by none other than its former captain and co-pilot, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).  We learn that Rey believed Luke Skywalker to be a myth.  Han informs her and Finn that Luke went into hiding after a Jedi in training was seduced by the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

That pupil was Kylo Ren.  In one of the film’s most stirring scenes, he prays to the helmet of Darth Vader.  “I feel it again…the call to the Light…Show me again, the power of the darkness, and I’ll let nothing stand in our way.”  Just as Luke was tempted by the Dark Side of the Force, Kylo is tempted by the Light.  And why shouldn’t he be?  He’s Han Solo and Leia Organa’s son.


Now, if a lot of this seems familiar — a droid carrying secret plans, a young person on a barren desert planet with aspirations for something greater — that’s by design.  Similar to this year’s “Creed,” this is as much a soft reboot as it is a continuation of the saga.  Would I have liked a little more daring and originality in the story department?  Absolutely!  Given JJ Abrams’s track record — I’m looking at you, “Star Trek Into Darkness” — I was pretty nervous about fan service, but the callbacks didn’t bother me much.  With one huge, planet-sized exception.  I’ll get to that later.  There certainly isn’t anything as eye-rollingly awful as Anakin Skywalker creating C-3PO.  (Sorry, I’ll try to stop referencing those.  They’re painful for me too.)

One of the things this film, the first in a new trilogy, needed to do was set up a cast of compelling characters.  And in that regard, “The Force Awakens” is aces.  Oscar Isaac’s Poe has all the charisma of a 1930s swashbuckling movie star.  Think Errol Flynn.  I loved that John Boyega’s Finn was allowed to be scared out of his mind and in over his head.  Few things are duller than a hero who’s completely and utterly confident in their abilities.  If they aren’t concerned for their own well-being, why should we be?

It’s a testament to the film that I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs while waiting for the original cast to show up.  But even they deliver…mostly.  Carrie Fisher doesn’t do much with the very little she’s given to do.  But Harrison Ford — I haven’t seen him this engaged by a part in years!  This is a far cry from “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”


The two MVPs are undoubtedly Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren.  Much has been made about Rey being too perfect, which is to say she excels at everything she does.  She’s a good pilot and mechanic.  She’s strong with the Force and can more than hold her own with a lightsaber.  While I can’t argue that she doesn’t have many defeats (if any at all), I profoundly disagree that the character, as a result, is uninteresting.  Rey is filled with longing and doubt, fear and incredulity at her own abilities.  Ridley owns the role.  There are some wonderfully evocative, dialog-free moments.  When we meet Rey, she sleds down a sand dune after acquiring some scrap.  A fighter pilot helmet strapped to her head, she wistfully looks out at the empty desert landscape.

And then there’s Kylo Ren.  All too often, studios — I don’t wanna name names so let’s just say Schmarvel — are content to prop up empty, soulless, uninteresting villains to give their heroes something to hit.  Not this guy.  Unlike Darth Vader, he’s still in flux — a villain that hasn’t quite hatched from his cocoon.  His impenetrable mask and Driver’s icy delivery hide an interior that’s filled with uncertainty.  A petulant young man, he’s prone to violent, lightsaber-swinging outbursts when he doesn’t get his way.  From the moment he stepped on screen and stopped a blaster bolt from hitting its mark, I knew I was in for a treat.

(Seriously, the sound design in this film is incredible.  The Force now has an audible presence, as though the air flexes when it’s in use.  It feels more powerful and dangerous than it ever has before.)

Though the film has its dark passages, JJ Abrams and co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt imbue it with a sense of humor.  It’s maybe the funniest entry in the series.  I get a chuckle just thinking about BB-8’s lighter thumbs-up.  Abrams is known for his acrobatic camera, but he and DP Daniel Mindel dial it back here.  We’re allowed to appreciate the scale of this universe, whether it’s a star destroyer eclipsing a moon or Rey dwarfed by the massive engines of a vessel.  Abrams also made good on his commitment to return to practical effects.  Though puzzlingly, there are a couple poorly executed CGI characters. Still, I enjoyed the assortment of puppetry, make-up and animatronics bringing the corners of many scenes to life.

Now for that troubling bit of fan service.  The First Order has a super weapon not dissimilar from the Death Star, though it’s much bigger as the film eagerly points out.  This monstrosity has been carved out of a planet and has the power to destroy entire star systems.  Complete with an easily exploited weakness, the new baddies seem incapable of learning the lessons of the Empire.  Not being revealed until the mid-point, this Starkiller Base barely has a screen presence.  Its annihilation of five planets is met with a shrug rather than a shriek.  Contrast that with the harrowing destruction of one planet in the original “Star Wars.”  Every time the film cut to this storyline, I felt the otherwise brisk pace come to a grinding halt.  While many of the tropes and archetypes feel lovingly constructed, this truly seems like filmmakers going through the motions.


“The Force Awakens” never achieves the storytelling efficiency of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, especially the first two entries.  In many respects, it feels like the most episodic of the films, even more so than “The Empire Strikes Back” and its infamous cliffhanger ending.  Many questions are left dangling, right down to the tantalizing final frames.  (Luke!)  Though it may be a little frustrating, I suppose we are in that era.  It feels like a backhanded compliment to say that this latest entry is better than the prequels, but it’s way better.  JJ Abrams and company have done a good job setting up the board for grand chess master Rian Johnson.  I am very excited to see where he takes the story in Episode VIII.

What did you think of “The Force Awakens?”  Did the fan service elements bother you?  Comment below!

Review: “Sicario”

I’ve got it. The next big trend in physical fitness. All you need to do is watch Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” once a day, every day, and the pounds will melt off in no time.  From its opening moments, depicting a raid on a drug house, the film is sweaty-palms suspenseful.

sicario poster

FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is part of that raid.  Soon after, she’s recruited into a task force, which includes Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver and Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick.  They’re to take down a major drug kingpin in Mexico.  Kate, unsure of whom to trust even on her own team, realizes she’s swimming in dark and dangerous waters.

The main cast — Blunt, del Toro and Brolin — are really strong.  Brolin, with his wry smile and reluctance to give up information, generates a lot of nervous laughs.  But del Toro is the MVP.  In one of my favorite moments, shortly after we (and Kate) have met him, he’s sleeping on an airplane and his hand starts to twitch and then he wakes with a start.  The smallest suggestion that under the enigmatic and menacing exterior, there’s a lot of pain and sadness.


Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay doesn’t provide Blunt’s Kate with a whole lot of background or even agency, but that’s why you cast one of the best actresses of her generation.  In an early exchange, we learn that she’s divorced and doesn’t have kids.  No family attachments.  (How’s that for foreboding?)  Throughout the film, she often finds herself on the losing end of conflicts, which is a little unusual for mainstream audiences.  I didn’t mind it so much, as it felt emblematic of the drug war itself.  It’s a losing battle.


The action setpieces have a real sense of presence.  Explosions aren’t accompanied with the standard fireball.  They’re concussive forces, throwing our heroes to the ground.  Kevlar vests don’t keep characters free from harm.  Bullets still knock the wind out of them, leaving them gasping for air.  Interrogations aren’t performed with a lot of flapping and yelling but cold and quiet intimidation.  I’ve never witnessed a real explosion, been shot at or interrogated — knock on wood — but these moments felt refreshingly absent any trumped up Hollywood conventions.

Indeed, the film achieves all this without resorting to cinema verite techniques (handheld camera, extensive film grain, etc.).  I’ve talked about Cinematographer Roger Deakins on the blog before, and I can’t overstate his skill and artistry behind the camera.  In what’s sure to be one of the shots of the year, a group of gunmen are preparing for a dangerous trek underground at sunset.  As they move across the barren desert landscape, their silhouettes appear against the nearly-night sky and slowly sink into the dark horizon.


Deakins and Villeneuve employ a lot of helicopter shots, particularly as the task force is driving across the border into Mexico for a mission.  Being a fan of “The Shining,” I couldn’t help but think of the opening moments of Stanley Kubrick’s film as Jack Torrance drives to the film’s haunted hotel.  The effect here is similar, as we watch from on high as our characters navigate into trouble.

Due to its blistering intensity and pessimistic worldview, “Sicario” isn’t going to be a film for everyone.  But if you’re willing to take the ride, I think the craftsmanship and strong performances are definitely worth your time.

Have you seen “Sicario?”  What did you think?  Comment below and thanks for reading!

Review: “Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation”

No school like the old school.

Much has been written about Tom Cruise’s stunt work in “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.”  Hell, if you’ve caught the trailer or poster — or any piece of marketing, really — you’ve seen him hanging off an airplane during takeoff.  And that’s how the film opens!

Rogue poster

Director and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie’s packs the fifth entry in the “Mission: Impossible” series with old school touches.  Beginning with the plane stunt and continuing to Joe Kraemer’s delicious big band score.  It sounds as though he took a page from John Barry’s Bond music from the 60s.  And maybe the “Mission: Impossible” TV series.  (Though aside from the main theme, I’m not especially familiar with the music for the show.)  

The movie’s standout setpiece, in a Vienna Opera House, is a loving nod to Alfred Hitchcock and “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”  I love how our understanding of the players, their motivations and allegiances develop throughout the sequence.  The power dynamics — who’s on top, who knows what —  are constantly in flux.  And it only benefits from the ongoing performance, the operatic music underscoring the action while our heroes and villains struggle to remain quiet.  It’s a marvel of suspense filmmaking.

Now you might be saying, “Okay, the action’s great, but how’s the plot?”

Well, you’ll notice I haven’t given a plot summary, and that’s because it follows a pretty well-trodden path — Ethan is looking to put a stop to an elusive criminal organization known as the Syndicate.  There are enough twists and turns (and yes, convolutions) to keep things interesting.

“And the characters?  Are they enough to sustain a full feature?”

They are.  Just enough.

Ethan is as doggedly determined as ever, which is not to say the character is without fear.  This is a critical element that gets us invested in his success.  Just because he can navigate these life threatening situations, doesn’t mean he wants to.  Simon Pegg’s Benji, an analyst, has a bit more zeal this time, as he wants to contribute beyond sitting at a desk and punching some buttons.  

simon pegg

But the MVP is newcomer Rebecca Ferguson.  She plays Ilsa Faust, an agent who might be working with the Syndicate.  Or maybe not.  Her motivations and whose side she’s on generate a lot of the movie’s non-setpiece pleasures.  And she handles the action and fights scenes with aplomb, doing a lot of her own stunts.

Seriously, if this woman isn’t the break out star of the year, I’ll strap myself to the outside of an airplane.

rebecca ferguson

A few have criticized the last act of “Rogue Nation,” calling it out for being not quite up to snuff.  When you open as spectacularly as this movie does, where do you go from there?  It’s a complaint I’m certainly sensitive to, I just don’t think it applies here.  Yes, the spectacle in the third act is dramatically reduced, but the emotional stakes are amplified. The character threads, specifically concerning Benji and Ilsa, come into play in spectacular fashion.

This film has something for all action fans.  Setpieces with enormous scale, intimate fights and riveting chases.  It’s absolutely a film to be appreciated on the big screen.  McQuarrie’s quick cutting communicates maximum velocity without ever sacrificing geography.  The stunt work, largely performed by our main cast, injects the film with authenticity and makes us root all the more for our characters. 

“Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation” is in theaters now.  Have you seen it?  What did you think?  Comment below.

Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Marvel fans will assemble — heh, heh — at theaters this weekend for the hotly anticipated sequel to 2012’s “The Avengers.”  So the big question on everyone’s lips, metallic or otherwise: Can “Age of Ultron” live up to its predecessor?

Well…not quite.

But that’s okay.

avengers banner

The film opens with the Avengers — Steve Rogers’s Captain America, Tony Stark’s Iron Man, Natasha Romanoff’s Black Widow, Bruce Banner’s Hulk, Clint Barton’s Hawkeye and Thor’s…uh…Thor — attempting to recover Loki’s scepter from a Hydra base in Europe.  There we’re introduced to the brother-sister pairing of super-fast Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and telekinetic Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), their powers the result of Hydra’s experiments.


After recovering the scepter, Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce (Mark Ruffalo) use it to secretly develop an A.I. that will bolster a robotic defense system to supplant the Avengers.  Tony envisions a suit of armor around the world.  He calls it the Ultron program.  Once activated, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) decides to push his maker’s agenda to the nth degree:  the only way to save the planet is to eliminate the human race.

The first act of “Ultron” left me worried.  Despite the use of some CG-enhanced long takes, there’s very little sense of geography in the opening sequence.  The storytelling is more convoluted this time out.  (Seriously, my eyes went crossed writing those last couple paragraphs.)  We suffer through some pretty knotty exposition.  More than once, I found myself going Wait, who’s that?  Am I supposed to know this character?  Where’s so-and-so now?  Still, writer-director Joss Whedon weaves in some wonderful setup.  My favorite instance involves a pissing contest over Thor’s hammer.  Tony, Steve and Bruce try to lift it in an effort to prove themselves worthy.  The payoff to this is hugely satisfying and a great development at a critical juncture for our heroes.

The new additions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe are mostly strong.  This is the best Elizabeth Olsen has been since her acclaimed performance in “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”  Aaron Taylor-Johnson is sleepy as ever, but his screen time is short and lines of dialog even shorter.  Ultron is one of studio’s best villains, though the competition is admittedly light.  I enjoyed Spader’s dulcet tones as Ultron cracks wise – “I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan” – though he does tend to prattle on.


And yes, he’s involved in another destroy-the-world plot.  Think about successful sequels like “Skyfall” and “The Empire Strikes Back.”  No fights for world domination, no planet-destroying battle stations.  Just personal struggles that make the stakes that much higher.

But “Ultron” isn’t without those intimate dramas.  There’s an attraction between Natasha and Bruce.  Though it’s pretty standard path – unfortunately, as Black Widow is the series’ most prominent female — the forbidden love angle works.  With the monster that rages inside him, Bruce is reluctant to let anyone get too close.  We also learn about Pietro and Wanda’s troubled past, which complicates their relationship to the Avengers.

Like many second chapters – I’m looking at you again, “Empire” – this one’s darker than the first.  Literally.  Ben Davis’s cinematography brings shadows into the frame, which are a nice change of pace from the brightly lit and generally flat “Avengers.”  Even the action feels heavier this time what with the percussive editing…though it can get tedious.  Crash!  Bang!  Repeat.  One sequence that benefits from the strategy is the fight between Hulk and a souped-up Iron Man.  To borrow from another comic book movie, this is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object.

The film isn’t all doom and gloom.  Whedon’s wit is as sharp as ever.  In one of the more comical scenes, Hawkeye embraces the absurdity that super hero movies traffic in: “We’re fighting a robot army, and I’ve got a bow and arrow.  None of this makes sense!”  Renner has a lot more to work with than he has in other Marvel outings.  Fans of Whedon’s “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” might see parallels to Xander.  I certainly did. Hawkeye is a normal person amidst Gods (and some with God-like egos).  It affords him an opportunity to see things the others can’t.

Despite not being as strong as “The Avengers,” “Age of Ultron” is a very successful sequel.  It expands on the universe, introduces new characters, develops old ones and, per usual with Marvel, sets up things to come.

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.


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.


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.


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!

Review: “Interstellar”

The biggest question I had after “Interstellar” was “What happened to the sound mix?”  Hans Zimmer’s score was used to near-deafening effect, which is a shame, because it’s some of his best work in years.  Critical conversations were drowned out by overbearing sound.  And it wasn’t just my theater, other outlets have addressed the issue.  I don’t mean to be glib, but for a film with high-minded ambitions and so much promise in its first two acts, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” left me with nothing but a ringing in my ears.

Warning: this review contains loud noises, black holes and spoilers.

Matthew McCounaughey stars as Cooper, a former NASA pilot raising his son and daughter on a farm.  It’s the future, and Earth is losing the ability to produce food.  The human race is living on borrowed time.  McCounaughey brings an appealing “everyman” quality to the Nolan-universe.   His relationship with his willful daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy), consumes the first 35+ minutes of the film, but their development isn’t enough to support a runtime that’s nearly three hours.


Murph is convinced their house is haunted.  A “ghost” knocks books from a shelf in her room and leaves coordinates in the dust.  Those coordinates take Cooper to a secret NASA facility, where he discovers that Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter, Amelia (Anne Hathaway), have been working on a plan…or two…to save mankind.  Plan A: travel through a wormhole, investigate three potentially hospitable planets, and use a space station to transport Earth’s population.  Should resources run out before the mission can be completed, Plan B: populate one of three said planets with test tube babies.  Cooper accepts Brand’s offer to pilot the mission, which causes a rift between he and his daughter. “Don’t make me leave like this,” he pleads.

In space, we’re treated to some gorgeous cosmic vistas.  Cooper and his team visit a water planet where time passes more slowly.  Discovering it isn’t suitable, they return to their ship to find that 20 years has passed.  In the film’s most stirring moment, Cooper watches his son grow up over a series of transmissions.  The string of videos ends with his estranged daughter, now as old as he is (played by Jessica Chastain, very strong in the role).  In a great match cut, we watch Cooper’s monitor as Murph turns off her display and then we’re back on Earth with her.  She’s been working with Professor Brand on a way to get the human race off the planet, but on his deathbed, the professor reveals that he’s known for some time that their efforts are wasted.  He sent her father on his mission knowing Earth was doomed.

cosmic vista

The movie hits turbulence with the introduction of Matt Damon.  He plays Mann, an astronaut who was sent to survey one of the potential planets.  I was pleasantly surprised to see Damon at first — the marketing campaign kept him a secret and he’s a great actor — but his role is sorely lacking.  It’s the stock character that’s gone crazy, undone by the enormity of events.  (Reminded me of Tim Robbins in “The War of the Worlds,” a movie that also goes off the rails with his late introduction.) Though the filmmakers get some mileage out of subverting Damon’s upstanding persona, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why this actor for this nothing role?

Learning of the crew’s intentions to follow through with Plan A, Mann sabotages their mission.  He flees to the main craft that’s circling the planet.  In an unsuccessful docking attempt, Mann dies in an explosion that sends the larger vessel spiraling out of control.  Then Cooper successfully manages a docking maneuver in a moment that should be a nail-biter.  Zimmer’s score is insistent on it.  It’s like watching a sporting event and someone’s sitting next to you banging pots and pans together shouting, “Isn’t this exciting?!”  No, not anymore. The whole sequence is cross-cut with Murph trying to get back to her childhood home.  There was something about that ghost.  She runs up against her brother (a misused Casey Affleck), who’s inexplicably turned into a raging asshole.  He’s unconcerned with his family’s deteriorating health, and he’s determined to keep his sister out of the house.  Rather than create tension, we’re wondering why the brother behaves this way at all.  The answer: the plot needs him to.  You can practically hear the film groan — there’s that sound mix again — as it strains to up the ante.

Cooper and Amelia are the only remaining crew members.  While sling-shoting around a blackhole, he ejects into it, which enables Amelia to reach the final planet.  Cooper finds himself in a fifth dimension — no, not the Twilight Zone — where he’s able to view his daughter’s bedroom seemingly at any point in time.  During this sequence, we come to realize that he was her ghost.  This is clearly intended to be a big reveal, but Nolan doesn’t lay the necessary groundwork.  Murph first mentions the ghost early in the film when we’re not yet attached to these characters or invested in this world. The odd story development stands out like a sore thumb – Ghost? Isn’t this a space travel film? It’s like Nolan is a magician, and he forgets to draw our eye away from his trick.  Within minutes of young Murph declaring their house was haunted, I saw where the film was going.

Beyond that, Nolan and his co-writer/brother, Jonathan, have a serious problem with exposition.  Some of their writing passes about as well as a kidney stone.  They’ll make a point…clarify it…and then reiterate it again.  Think about the engineer at the end of “Batman Begins,” practically narrating what will happen if the microwave emitter reaches the center of Gotham.  Or the ferry passengers in “The Dark Knight.”  In both cases, the situations scarcely need explaining, and yet we suffer through these repetitions that sap the scenes of tension.  “Interstellar” is no different.  Lazarus, a Biblical story of a man brought back to life, is a recurring motif.  Waking from hibernation, Mann tells our characters:  “You have literally raised me from the dead.”  With just enough time to say to myself, “Wow, subtle,” Cooper responds, “Lazarus.”


Nolan’s propensity for over-explanation rears its head in the final climactic sequence.  Cooper tells us that the beings who made the fifth dimension are future humans, and it was created so that he could give his daughter the missing component to Brand’s work.  The wall-to-wall exposition is such an odd, demystifying choice.  So much of the best science fiction eschews explanation for its central conceit.  Why can’t women get pregnant in “Children of Men?”  Who knows.  How exactly are they erasing Jim Carrey’s memories in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?”  Who cares!  When you confine this type of film to a box, you risk — even promise — disillusionment and disappointment.  Nolan is clearly an ambitious filmmaker, but audacity is a big part of ambition.  No matter how noble your intentions or grand your vision, when you package your film in easily digestible bites, you undercut boldness and daring.

All the ambition in the world doesn’t mean much when the experience is this empty.  Loud, but empty.

What did you think of “Interstellar?”  Comment below! 

Conversations: “Gone Girl”

If you hadn’t gathered from last week’s “Fight Club” review, I’m a pretty big fan of David Fincher.  With “Gone Girl,” his latest, tearing up the box office, I wanted to get into a conversation about the film.  To help me with that, I’ve enlisted Ben Raymond.  Ben and I have been best friends for twelve years.  As two teenagers who loved classic films, we took a fast liking to one another in high school.  Ben is a graduate of Brown University, and he teaches high school English in Massachusetts.  Unlike myself, he’s read Gillian Flynn’s novel.

Before we get started, a brief plot synopsis.  We’ll definitely be getting into spoilers, starting…right…now:  “Gone Girl” is about the media circus that surrounds the disappearance of a married woman.  On his five-year wedding anniversary, Nick (Ben Affleck) comes home to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), missing and likely murdered.  The inspiration for a series of children’s books, her disappearance makes national headlines.  It isn’t long before Nick, a bit aloof, becomes the focus of the investigation.  In an effort to clear his name, he finds out that Amy isn’t dead, and she’s in fact trying to frame him.


GAR:  Hi Ben!  Thanks so much for joining me.  What did you think of “Gone Girl?”

BEN:  I’ll be brief, as we have plenty of things to get to.  “Gone Girl” grabbed my nuts and pulled.  It pulled for 143 minutes.  It hurt.  It hurt so good.  Fincher is his typical meticulous self.  Affleck didn’t suck.  Tyler Perry didn’t make me want to gouge my eyeballs out with a spark.  Flynn’s screenplay snapped, crackled, and popped.  And Pike.  Rosamund.  Fucking.  Pike.

GAR:  I saw a lot of comparisons to Hitchcock’s female leads, and I agree.  Very icy.

BEN:  Hitchcock would have been proud to have made this movie.  Not only in its precision, its themes, its obsession with dirty little secrets, but in the very nature of its unfolding, in every facet of the film’s character.  We could go on ad nauseum about the subtle tension, the muted hate, the suburban realism, the boiling anxiety, the moments of quick, scalding violence.  That’s all Hitch.

Pike is Tippy Hedron.  She’s Janet Leigh.  More than anything, she’s Kim Novak.

GAR:  Yep!

rosamund pike-brighter

BEN:  And she’s brilliant in her own right, but she belongs with them.  Blondes that kill.  Blondes you thank for having killed you.  She’s Fincher’s Überfrau, which means “Superwoman” in German, from Nietzsche’s philosophy of the Übermensch.  In a nutshell, the Übermensch is a Superman who is so vastly more intelligent, more capable, more equipped than the masses, that he cannot help but dominate, manipulate, deceive, and obliterate.

That is Amy Dunne.  And Pike gets it.  She nails it.  Every time she returned to the screen, I shuddered.  I mean I got goosebumps.  She’s a monster.  A real-life, flesh-and-blood monster.  The best kind.  She doesn’t live beneath your bed, or creep around your basement.  And she doesn’t live in your closet, because she’s got too many of your skeletons in there.  She just eats you from the marrow-out.  And you want her while she does it.

GAR:  Amy is a great actress, in large part because she understands her audience.  One of the most devastatingly funny scenes is when she’s being interrogated by the police after she’s come home.  She’s spinning this story about kidnapping and abuse, and Kim Dickens’s detective, who’s been investigating the case, isn’t having any of it.  Of course, everyone else in the room (perhaps not-so-coincidentally all men) is eating out of her hand.  She just keeps spinning them and spinning them.

That aspect of it, I suppose, is pretty noir.  There’s a Barbara Stanwyck-“Double Indemnity” quality to Pike’s Amy.  The femme fatale.

BEN:  Most certainly.

GAR:  One of my favorite shots in the movie is when Amy and Nick are in the shower, after she’s returned home.  (She wants to make sure he isn’t wearing a wire.)  She’s covered in the blood of Neil Patrick Harris’s Desi whose throat she slit after framing him for her kidnap and rape.  We cut to a close-up of his blood washing down the drain — there’s another Hitch reference — and it’s as though she’s washing herself off to put on her costume.

BEN:  We may want to touch on its echoes of “Rear Window.”  There’s some meta-cinema in “Gone Girl” that critics are missing.

GAR:  The voyeurism?

BEN:  The cameras everywhere, the way we put on all these faces, masks, personalities, lies, acts.  Everything.  EVERYTHING in this movie is an act.  And when we see moments of honesty, few there may be, we see the backstage of life itself.  In that sense, I think it’s more than peeling away our selves and putting on costumes (which is very true of this film).  I think the entire film comments on film.

GAR:  One of the moments that struck me, and I think it speaks to this, is when she returns home (again, covered in blood) and she faints in Nick’s arms on their front lawn.  All the cameras flash, of course, and I wondered if we were gonna end right there.  It was all such theater, the loving wife returning to her husband in front of their picturesque house.

I wanna touch on the pace, because it moves at a pretty blistering speed.  There’s so much movie in the first hour and fifteen minutes that I was anticipating the mid-point — the reveal that the wife was still alive — was actually the beginning of the third act.

The one thing that’s been nagging at me, though, is the ending.  I wonder if it couldn’t have ended 10-15 minutes earlier.  Maybe not just then on the lawn, but at that moment, I saw where the movie was going.  The final scenes were a bit deflating.  Another scene…another one…and another…  What did you think?

BEN:  In the book, Nick and Amy precariously try to make the best of their screwed-up marriage.  It’s a brutally tragicomic ending that I personally thought appropriate, but only if you understand Flynn’s searing wit and humor.

To the film, I hadn’t thought of it like that.  If Amy fainting and Nick holding her had been the last shot, like the end of some Wagner opera, that would have been clever!  Maybe you add the bookend from the beginning, with Amy’s head on Nick’s stomach as he wants to “unspool her brains.”  That would be fine.  But yes, I agree that the ending was repetitive.

GAR:  Alyssa [Garrett’s wife] and I even talked about having it end with Nick entering that room, locking the door, and holding his cat.  He’s a [willing] prisoner in his own home.  It’s such an absurdist film that all the narrative and motivational gymnastics they do — dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s to demonstrate why this guy is sticking around — seemed out of place.

BEN:  Call me crazy, but how fucking great would it have been if the last shot was the cat slowly walking into a bag of groceries?  Think about it!  That is exactly what Amy accomplishes.  She puts the cat back in the bag.

GAR:  I love it!  One of the things that marks this as a Fincher film is its lacerating sense of humor.  With movies like “Se7en” and “Zodiac,” it’s easy to forget how funny he is.  See also:  “Fight Club” and “Social Network.”  It sounds like the novel brought a lot of black comedy to the table as well.

937950-Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The gf

BEN:  Oh yes.  You almost forget that it’s knee-slappingly funny at times.  And never cheaply.  Stick with me here…I think Fincher reaches a Pixar-esque achievement in “Gone Girl.”  That is to say two completely different moviegoers can watch, understand, and appreciate the film in two completely different ways.  A 2-year-old can enjoy “Finding Nemo.”  (Don’t take her to see “Gone Girl,” though).  But a 92-year-old can enjoy it, too.  And for different reasons entirely.  Fincher and Flynn’s humor operates exactly like that.  Causal filmgoers laughed, serious filmgoers laughed.  You can appreciate the joke as just viscerally funny, like tossing gummie bears into Nick’s mouth, or you can appreciate the overall humor of the absurdist plot.  It’s amazing!

GAR:  I never thought I would see Fincher and Pixar in the same sentence, but you make a strong case.  So much of the laughs, again, came from the theater of it.  Another painfully funny scene is the press conference after Amy’s disappearance.  Nick speaks very briefly, and he isn’t particularly heartfelt.  Later, he rightly points out that that doesn’t make him a murderer…though it might as well in the court of public opinion.  Then we get Amy’s parents and their prepared statements.  I loved the detail of her mother holding note cards.  There’s a great ballet of looks from Nick to his sister, Nick to the police officers on the case, and the officers to each other.  All saying, in different ways, “This guy is screwed.”  And as soon as he flashes that smile, you just know it’s going to come back to bite him.

BEN:  Agreed entirely. And I think that goes back to Fincher’s precision.  People talk about Michael Haneke or Roman Polanski being the exactos of filmmakers.  And they are, but where they make precise cuts, Fincher makes precise gashes.  Long, careful, arterial gashes in the audience, in his stories, in his characters.

GAR:  Well said!  Anything else you want to talk about?  I thought the score was magnificent.  I saw a quote from Fincher where he told composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to think about the music you would hear in a massage parlor.  That absolutely comes across, though it’s turned a degree toward the nauseating.

BEN:  My favorite flourish, coupled with Kirk Baxter’s editing, is Desi’s murder.  The throbbing, arterial push.  The baseline.  The music bleeds out. Jesus.

GAR:  Ben, I had a lot of fun.  Thank you so much for doing this!

BEN:  Anytime, amigo.  Don’t walk with Alyssa through a cloud of sugar.  She might frame you for murder and kill Neil Patrick Harris!

GAR:  Noted.  Thanks a lot, buddy!

What did you think of “Gone Girl?”  Comment below!

Review: “Godzilla” (2014)

In honor of the disc release of this summer’s “Godzilla,” I wanted to offer my thoughts on the film. You might remember that I’m a huge fan – gargantuan, even – of the character. The following is pretty spoiler free, with one exception, but I’ll give you a heads up.

“History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man…”

Those words were sung by Blue Öyster Cult in their hit song, “Godzilla.”  It’s a philosophy director Gareth Edwards took to heart in this summer’s dazzling reboot.  A nifty title sequence sets the stage.  We learn that the presumed nuclear tests in the South Pacific of the 1950s were in fact attempts to kill the creature.  Alexandre Desplat delivers a rousing score, as we get a brief glimpse of the titular monster, his dorsal spines cresting the surface of the ocean, like the world’s largest super shark.

Godzilla spines_smaller

Cut to 1999, a strange incident causes a Japanese nuclear power plant to go into meltdown.  Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody, a supervisor at the plant, provides our emotional hook into the film, as he spends the next 15 years trying to figure out what happened.  His son, Ford (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) returns home after a tour of duty.  Having spent only a few hours with his family, he’s reluctantly called to Japan to bail his father out of prison.  Joe was trespassing in the quarantine zone in an effort to discover the cause of the disaster.

Turns out it wasn’t an earthquake, as reported.


There’s a passing of the baton, and Ford becomes the main focus.  This brings us to the film’s biggest liability: its characters.  Especially Ford Brody. The supporting roles are thin, but they’re played by talented performers, so the mediocre writing is tolerable.  In addition to Cranston, the cast includes Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, David Strathairn, Juliette Binoche, and Sally Hawkins. Sadly, Aaron Taylor-Johnson isn’t equipped to imbue his character with any gravitas or charisma, and questionable character beats and developments land with a thud.

One such moment occurs near the end of the film.  In the interest of remaining spoiler free, I’ll just say Ford gives up at a critical juncture when he should be fighting tooth and nail.  Some have criticized the movie for the characters’ insignificance and lack of impact next to the monsters, but that isn’t an inherently bad thing.  What do the protagonists accomplish in “Seven?”  Nothing.  In fact, drama is derived from their inability to change their fate.  That’s what this “Godzilla” needed, but make no mistake, Godzilla should confound mankind at every turn.  After all, the character was born out of Japan’s anxiety over nuclear attacks.

Much has been made about Godzilla’s lack of screen time – a complaint that frankly boggles my mind.  Gareth Edwards understands, like Spielberg and Ridley Scott before him, that the quickest way to take the majesty and menace out of a main attraction is to overexpose it.  Each and every time Godzilla is on screen, Edwards makes it count.

Godzilla silhouette_smaller

Indeed, he and screenwriter Max Borenstein allow their film to build toward a distinct and succinct climax, shrewdly dolling out spectacle in small doses until the thunderous ending.  I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see filmmakers respect their audience in this regard, particularly when so many blockbusters are structured for itchy teens.  Climax upon climax upon climax – after a while, it stops meaning anything.

Edwards and Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey rigorously adopt P.O.V. camerawork, with much of the action being framed from the ground level.  This creates scale, placing us in the action, and combined with the well-timed set pieces, gives the film a genuine sense of awe that’s been missing from multiplexes.  So many blockbuster directors are seduced by their budgets, and they use shots that showcase their resources but fail to involve the audience.

explosion meme

godzilla foot meme

Despite the bleak subject matter, and contrary to a criticism that the film takes itself too seriously, Edwards knows how to have a good time.  Just as things start to heat up, he wryly cuts away from a bit of action at the Honolulu International Airport.  (Gotta leave enough fuel in the tank for the big finish.) Elvis Presley’s “Devil in Disguise” scores the destruction of Las Vegas.  And there are so many playful uses of the camera.  As Ford waits on a tram to get to his flight, the power goes out.  When the lights come back on, we follow their progress from inside the tram.  Suddenly, they illuminate this hulking titan as it lumbers into the airport.  It’s a motivated camera movement, an organic reveal, and it provides a nice little scare to boot.

And Edwards isn’t just adept at money shots.  He’s got a true filmmaker’s eye, hanging entire sequences on simple images that are so lo-fi, they could have come from his low-budget debut, “Monsters.”  The camera lingers on an empty hallway in a power plant in crisis, as we wait to see what will round the corner.  A group of marines storm a nuclear waste site searching for something.  Nothing out of the ordinary in the first two containment facilities, but when a marine pulls back a sliding door on the third one, he’s greeted with a blinding shaft of light.  What’s that about?

Okay, it’s gonna be difficult for me to avoid spoilers here.  If you haven’t seen the film, go ahead and skip to the next bit of bolded text.

At the end of the film, Godzilla slides into San Francisco Bay, having defeated an ancient menace that threatened the city.  Onlookers cheer as a news broadcast proclaims, “King of the Monsters — Savior of our city?”  I love the nod to the Americanization of the original film and the clever commentary on our media’s propensity to slap labels on things.


The celebratory nature of the ending has been ribbed in some corners, but I thought it was a wonderful continuation of the film’s main theme: man’s hubris.  What could be more arrogant than to assume that a force of nature acted on our behalf?  “He did this for us!” Think I’m overreaching? Check out how Edwards’ camera descends as Godzilla submerges.  We’re left at the surface, as though we were treading water, a precarious place to be when there’s a massive beast swimming beneath your toes.  The shot holds after Desplat’s triumphant score has faded, creating an eerie calm, as though waiting for the creature to re-surface for one last attack.

Okay “Godzilla” virgins, it’s safe to come back now.

“The arrogance of man is assuming nature is in our control, and not the other way around,” Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa intones.  It’s there in the way tsunami waters wipe away a coastal street.  It’s there in the way a dog surveys bodies at a train wreck.  And it’s there in the way nature has retaken the quarantined city in Japan, plants and animals clinging to every surface.  Rest assured, nature will retake more major cities before the movie’s over.

What did you think of “Godzilla?” Comment below!