Sunday, February 26, 2017

My Favorite Movies of 2016

HONORABLE MENTION: CHRISTINE
A couple years ago one of my students introduced me to this site called LiveLeaks. He loaded a video of a man loitering under a street sign in Brazil. Suddenly a convertible rumbled up to the curb. A gang of hooded figures sprang from the vehicle and began chopping at the man with machetes. It was bloody and it was disgusting. I have never revisited LiveLeaks.
I have had a love affair with the horror genre since before my mom allowed me to watch the movies, but I’ve never understood the fascination some people have for gruesome, true-life videos. One of the most famous recordings of real-life carnage has possibly never been seen by anyone outside of the few people present to hit record and a couple safeguarding lawyers.
In 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a television newswoman struggled with depression while competing with her co-workers for air time. With an inspired mind and keen wit she focused more on human interest fare than the sensational reporting being pushed by the higher-ups. On the morning of July 15, Christine intro’d a segment titled Suncoast Digest before reading a prepared statement: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first. Attempted Suicide.” Christine pulled a handgun from below the desk, placed it to her head and pulled the trigger.
Every review you read about Christine is going to highlight the performance of Rebecca Hall as Christine Chubbuck, and for good reason. She is amazing. She delivers the greatest performance of the year. She didn’t have to study choreography or acquire an accent, but she approaches the role with grace and empathy. Her glassy-eyed-look, the bewilderment that is permanently etched in her brow instills a compassion in viewers that lingers days after viewing.

10. THE NEON DEMON
You can’t casually look at a Nicolas Winding Refn picture. You don’t offhandedly pick one of his movies off the marque. You have to be of the proper mindset. You must be prepared for a visceral attack on the senses. He barrages you with sensational color schemes and assails you with hypnotic soundtracks, astonishes you with recurring imagery and enchants you with symbolism and mise en scene.
We meet sixteen-year-old model Jesse (Elle Fanning) lying on a vintage sofa doused in blue light, her neck coated in blood, flashbulbs playing across her face. It is a grotesquely beautiful image and one that speaks to Winding Refn’s demented world view. Modeling agencies crave Jesse, professional photographers bow down to her, other models envy her. She is a “diamond in a sea of glass.” Will she survive the cutthroat industry that has crushed so many dreams before hers or will it eat her up?
Midway through the film, Jesse is bestowed the honor of closing a major runway show. As she steps on stage, she is illuminated by a blue light reminiscent of the setting that opened the movie. It is a glaring, neon blue characteristic of graphic novels and gaudy nighttime entertainment. As Jesse’s deer-in-the-headlights gaze gives way to a look of sheer confidence, the lustrous blue is replaced by a lurid red. Jesse steps up to a diamond-shaped mirror and comes face-to-face with her double. The transformation is complete. She presses her lips to the glass and tongues her reflection in an erotic fashion. She has fallen in love with herself.
During the final act the narrative becomes muddled and Winding Refn’s penchant for violence and gore rears its head. He has never been a squeamish guy, choreographing extravagant death scenes each time he steps behind the camera. Mads Mikkelsen ripped a man’s throat out with his teach in Valhalla Rising, Ryan Gosling smashed a man’s hand with a hammer in Drive, Vithaya Pansringarm pierced a man’s eyes and ears with needles in Only God Forgives. But in The Neon Demon, Winding Refn’s affection for horror reaches new heights. Torsos are flayed, eyeballs are ingested, sanguinary fluid is flung at the screen with aesthetic delight.
Winding Refn is often guilty of putting style before substance. That’s his m.o. He utilizes spectacular set pieces and shocking imagery not to propel the story, but to astonish the audience. The Neon Demon may be unconventional, but it is a visual symphony of color and carnage that blosters Winding Refn’s thrillingly stylish oeuvre.



9. AMERICAN HONEY
Seven years ago director Andrea Arnold employed a fifteen-year-old krumper to lend audiences a glimpse at lower class life in East London with Fish Tank. Now she leans on a troubled runaway from Oklahoma to provide us a look at a decaying American Midwest in American Honey. Orphaned by a meth-addicted mother, Star (Sasha Lane) hits the road with a group of traveling salespersons she meets in a K-mart parking lot. Together they traverse brown fields, gray cities and archetypical neighborhoods in search of hope, freedom and unsuspecting ass clowns willing to purchase magazine subscriptions.
Like Larry Clark (an Oklahoma native himself) before her, Arnold uses unknown actors to capture a narcissistic youth coming of age in a callous world. It is charged, incisive and captivating. It is especially impressive because it feels so authentic, as if pieced together with behind-the-scenes footage from an Outward Bound excursion for at-risk youth.
The picture opens with Star picking a defrosted chicken from a supermarket dumpster. She locks eyes with Jake (Shia LaBeouf), a drifter who invites her on a trip to Kansas. Star feigns toughness but her dreadlock hair and tattooed body are betrayed an innocence in her eyes. She is beguiled by Jake’s promise of liberty and his enigmatic appearance, his rat-tail hairdo and suspenders as off the wall as the concept of selling magazine subscriptions. The two become sales partners, their work occasionally broken up by gritty trysts in a car or in a field.
LeBeouf is a tour de force. Jake provides him the opportunity to fully engage that crazy side of himself highlighted on TMZ and the Ellen Show. When critics write of Oscar snubs this season, his name should sit atop the list.
Arnold regular Robbie Ryan shoots the couple in a winsome style, his free-form approach and poetic compositions effectively capturing a sense of time and place. We see foreclosure signs and dismembered buildings, the dilapidated trailers of people devoid of healthcare but with plenty of drugs. There’s a scene that witnesses Star setting a turtle free in a lake. Though unable to swim, she hops in after him. She emerges refreshed and rejuvenated. Perhaps as a new person. These scenes don’t just depict powerful emotions, they make them felt by viewers.

All this plays over a powerful hip-hop soundtrack. Songs like Found Love and I Like Tuh set a tone and provide energy to the adolescent frenzy on display.

8. CERTAIN WOMEN
Kelly Reichardt is a bold talent. Her Certain Women is a dull film and one that many viewers will struggle to get through. It’s also the 2016 release most likely to appear on a college syllabus a dozen years from now.
The movie observes the lives of women residing in the beautifully mundane state of Montana. A lawyer (Laura Dern) attempts to assuage a disgruntled client (Jared Harris) upset with a workers’ compensation settlement; a young couple (Michelle Williams and James LeGros) work to ameliorate their deteriorating marriage by building a new home; a ranch hand named Jamie (Lily Gladstone) develops a crush on a young lawyer called Beth (Kristen Stewart) who teaches adult school in her home town. All three deal with the ebbs and flow of everyday life in a manner that is subdued and very real.

Certain Women is filmic realism at its absolute best. It’s the most authentic examination of the human condition since Boyhood. Reichardt understands people; she’s an expert at portraying the subtleties of life. She interprets potentiality better than anyone: what would actually happen in certain situations. She does not pander to audience sentimentality. She is not confined by any sense of film grammar. There are no great themes at play, no lessons to be learned, no cathartic moment. When Jamie learns that Beth has quit her teaching job, she immediately hops in her truck and drives the four-plus hours it takes to get to Beth’s town. After a sleepless night in her truck, she spends the morning driving from one law office to another hoping to locate her friend. Upon spotting Beth in a parking lot, Jamie confesses she couldn’t live with the idea of not seeing her again. Beth nods and enters the building. In what was the most monumental moment in cinema all year, Jamie drives slowly past Beth standing just inside the glass door of the building and Beth doesn’t even turn to acknowledge her.


7. TONI ERDMANN
Divorced music teacher Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) decides to make an unannounced visit to Bucharest, Romania to visit his hardworking daughter. At first, Ines (Sandra Huller) appears happy in her work as a business consultant, however, further inspection reveals her to be quite discontented. Enter Toni Erdman, Winfried’s flamboyant doppelganger. Cloaked in long hair and fake teeth, Erdman canoodles with Ines’s coworkers and whoops it up with her friends. Initially irritated by her father’s attempts to assuage her pain, Ines soon finds tranquility in his crazy antics.
Toni Erdmann is brilliant. Expertly crafted and wonderfully performed it’s every bit as good as the trailers claim. It is a subtle, quietly humorous and emotionally true character study that delves expertly into familial relations and the things that truly matter in life.
There’s a scene in the film where everything becomes clear to Ines. It is her birthday and she is preparing to celebrate with coworkers. She decides last minute to change outfits, but her zipper gets stuck making it difficult to remove her dress. She rips off the garment and tosses it to the side; answers the door in the nude. Her father has been wearing costumes throughout the film but she’s the one who has been in disguise. She informs her partners that it is a naked party to build team unity. Some participate, others get turned away. Her father, not knowing the situation, shows up dressed as a mythical beast. The scene could have been a disaster: a phony mass of indefensible cheesiness that could have destroyed the film’s finely-tuned domestic spirit. But it works. Tremendously so. Its balance of humor and pathos result in a truly emotive experience.
The movie concludes with Winfried at his mother’s funeral. For the first time we see him as a real person. He has exited the fantasy. His daughter pops in his fake teeth, throws on one of his mother’s goofy hats. The transformation is complete.

It is a simple yet beautiful exploration of relationships and the correlation between success and happiness. It’s funny, it’s original and it’s one of the best movies of the year.

6. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
An inventive opening title sequence can suck a viewer into a picture before the story begins to unfold. The kaleidoscopic patterns that open Vertigo set a dizzying tone, the slow-motion zombie attacks that preface Zombieland set the stage for the chaos that follows, the glowing jack o’ lantern at the start of Halloween establishes an atmosphere of dread. Fashion designer-turned filmmaker Tom Ford knows a thing or two about attracting attention. He doesn’t use sweeping aerial shots to establish locations at the start of Nocturnal Animals, there are no motion graphics to set up the premise. Instead, Ford opens his romantic thriller with images of obese women stripped naked and dancing seductively amidst bizarre patriotic displays.
Enter Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a mod gallery owner in a decaying marriage with an unfaithful businessman (Armie Hammer). Her sullen state is compounded by the receipt of a novel written by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) and dedicated to her. In the book, a Texan man, devastated by the loss of his wife and daughter to a deranged killer looks to an old-testament sheriff (Michael Shannon) to get revenge.
Nocturnal Animals is a gloomily gripping thriller, daring in its narrative and both hypnotic and unnerving in its approach. It unfolds with a ferocity not often matched. Even when Ford gets gimmicky, positioning Morrow in front of a painting with the word Revenge written in a dripping font, the movie remains steadfast.  There is a haze over the entire picture, a sheen that evokes a nightmarish quality. Seamus McGarvey infuses the picture with dread, his use of red hues indicating something evil hiding within the celluloid. Man there is something powerful about 35mm.

All of this culminates in the most satisfying conclusion to a motion picture this year. We all have delusions of being Charles Bronson. Someone hurts us, we imagine going all Kill Bill to get them back. In reality, we would sulk in our rooms and post a couple nasty comments on social media.




5. PATERSON
Paterson is one of the most enjoyable films of the year. It’s also one of those movies that gets better with each subsequent viewing, a picture that becomes a go-to when looking for a movie to eat up a few minutes of your day. You’ve got to sit on the couch for twenty minutes while waiting to leave for that appointment? Pop in Paterson. It’s witty, it’s poignant, it’s beautifully oblique. Adam Driver’s bus-driving poet may be subdued, he may be stoic, but he is easy to endorse. He’s a more optimistic Llewyn Davis.

He is a poet who enjoys cheerios, drinking beer and reading William Carlos Williams. There is a cadence to his existence, a rhythm that speaks to the vicissitudes of life. He drives a bus, quietly observing the world in his rearview mirror, writes poetry in his secret notebook, eats uninviting food with his wife, walks the dog and goes to bed.

There are references in the film to cultural icons linked to Paterson, NJ, the most significant being William Carlos Williams, a poet who wrote an epic collage about the city. I don’t pretend to keep great company with the poet. I’m somewhat familiar with his seminal works and their themes. Director Jim Jarmusch, however, is a devoted fan. He assents to his predecessor by suggesting a reciprocal nature between artist and environment. Both Paterson and Williams drew inspiration from the world around them. Williams’s goal with his Paterson poem was to show “the resemblance between the mind of modern man and the city.” Williams wrote about Paterson’s waterfalls, Paterson writes about his wife and being a bus driver. Similarly, Williams utilized shape poetry when creating works like, The Red Wheelbarrow. Paterson writes about the message conveyed via the arrangement of the letters on a pack of his favorite matches.

The correlation between the two artists is driven home by the appearance of several sets of twins throughout the movie. Paterson’s wife dreams of having twin children, a set of twins drink at the bar, a little girl who wishes to be a poet like Paterson has a twin sister. Each man, however, has an individual voice. Paterson has a wife that he loves and can’t imagine living without. A friend at the bar likewise has devoted his life to a woman. Paterson’s relationship is reciprocal in nature, the friend’s is not. Paterson writes about Sinatra’s “Swinging on a Star.” There are lines about being a mule or a pig, but the one lyric he recalls is, “would you rather be a fish.” There are many poets in the world, each of them has a unique voice.

Paterson is a beautiful movie replete with all the Jarmusch trademarks: a minimalist approach, deadpan humor, philosophical musings, repetition. There is very little in the way of cause and effect, not much of a moral clinch. Audiences anticipate a major problem. When Paterson’s bus breaks down, they believe they’ve reached it. Characters say what viewers are thinking, “the bus could blow up into a ball of flames.” But in classic Jarmusch fashion, nothing happens.

4. THE WITCH
The best of the recent spate of witch movies, Robert Eggers’s The Witch follows croaky-voiced William (Ralph Ineson) as he tries to figure out if his children are victims of witchery or vessels for evil. You see, his infant son went missing while under the care of his eldest daughter, his oldest son has initiated a romance with a blue-haired biddy and the twins have taken to speaking to the family goat.
Each December/January, so much of my time is eaten up looking at these top 10 lists. I’m constantly disappointed by horror titles lauded as the best the genre has to offer. The Witch appeased me. The Witch appeased me quite a lot.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s bleak photography and Production designer Craig Lathrop’s austere imagery combine to create a haunting world that feels as if it could only exist in the realm of practical existence. As if they pieced together the picture from strands of found footage of an event intended to be forgotten. The attention to detail, from the dialogue, which was taken from actual 16th century journals, to the construction of the farmhouse and accompanying outbuildings, makes it difficult to believe anyone could thrive in such a setting, a witch notwithstanding.
Eggers creates an atmosphere that is relentlessly unnerving. The terror is slow to build but heavy when it hits. The witch is not a mysterious figure that appears only in shadows but a grotesque hag that bathes in the blood of children. The fact that she attacks in broad daylight is most unsettling. Even when she appears in the form of a furry bunny or a playful goat the mood remains unfazed.
There are issues of spirituality and gender roles lying just below the surface of The Witch, but Eggers goal is to scare the shit out of viewers with the regional tales of witchcraft that preoccupied his New Hampshire youth and he succeeds wholeheartedly.



3. EVERYBODY WANTS SOME

Richard Linklater is a guy who has successfully oscillated between arthouse cinema and high-profile productions throughout his career. Still basking in the afterglow of the groundbreaking Boyhood, he seesaws back to more accessible fare with Everybody Wants Some, a sports comedy about a college baseball team coming to grips with the realities of adulthood in 1980s Texas. And he hits a homerun.



There is not a filmmaker more flawless in transcribing the trials of life than Linklater. His slice-of-life stories are often funny, sometimes frightening and always immersive. Viewers long for the romance depicted in Before Sunrise, desire the freedoms on display in Dazed and Confused and yearn for the curiosity of youth brought to life in Boyhood. His ability to recreate a time is uncanny. His ear for period talk and music, his eye for clothing and fashion is astonishing. As a former college athlete, I was transported to the University soccer field while watching Everybody Wants Some. I admit I wasn’t nearly as cool as the characters on screen, but I wish I was. The coach checks in at one point in the movie to relay two rules: no alcohol and no women in the house. That night the boys go drinking and cruising for chicks. The movie is perfectly nostalgic. It’s wistful, it’s subtle, it’s real.

I had the chance to sit down with Austin Amelio at a convention this past summer. He was there to promote The Walking Dead (he’s Dwight – burned face, greasy hair, sissy-pus personality). We spent our time talking about Richard Linklater and the experience of working on Everybody Wants Some. Despite being a rather novice actor (he had only one feature credit prior to Everybody Wants Some), Amelio joked that he had already reached the pinnacle of his career. The celebrated director invited Amelio and the rest of the cast out to his Texas ranch days prior to filmming to “hang out.” They took part in team-building events that got them comfortable with one another and fully invested in the picture. I imagine the time at the ranch for the cast was similar to the training camp experienced by the characters in the movie. Either way, the result is another grand slam for Linklater and one more authentic experience for viewers.

2. HELL OR HIGH WATER
My buddy moved to Texas a few years ago. Within weeks he was writing me with stories of beach bonfires, target shooting from moving vehicles and napalm parties. Hell or High Water takes place in modern day America, but it’s a part of modern day American that is as alien as the setting of The Martian.
Hell or High Water is an affectionate ode to the westerners of yesteryear. It’s also an accomplished depiction of loyalty and familial love. Bolstered by strong performances from Chris Pine and Ben Foster as Toby and Tanner Howard, brothers who resort to robbery to save the family farm; and Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton, the veteran lawman hot on their tail, the film is exhilarating from start to finish.
Written by actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy’s Chief David Hale), the script sat atop the Black List in 2012 (list of the best unproduced scripts floating around Hollywood). Finally produced by Sidney Kimmel Entertainment following the success of Sheridan’s debut (the high-octane crime thriller, Sicario), Hell or High Water sees a change in pace for the promising writer. Trading epic storytelling and sensational set-pieces for a concise sense of plot and a verbal and visual lyricism, Hell or High Water is much smaller in scope than his previous effort. The level-headed Toby and his explosive brother rob banks then bury the getaway car on their ranch while the gray-haired detective searches for clues. This procedure occurs over and over, cameraman Giles Nuttgens capturing every action in-depth and in deep focus. The dusty plains and barren plateaus, foreclosed buildings and abandoned homes come to life. You can feel the heat, breath the dry air. The violent behavior of the men that inhabit this alien realm is irresistibly appealing.
Sheridan was born in Texas. I imagine he spent time investigating the rural scenery. He witnessed first-hand the effects of debt on that part of the world. He creates from a place of knowledge. His writing is powerful. Perhaps his greatest asset is his command of character and dialogue. This is best represented in a scene late in the film. Toby hands his son a beer. He says, “You may be hearing a lot of things about me and your uncle. Don’t be like us.” His son responds, “Whatever I hear, I won’t believe.” Toby retorts, “No, you believe it. I did all of it. Now you, you do it different. Ain’t you gonna drink [your beer]?” His son answers, “You tell me not to be like you and then you offer me a beer. Which is it?” Toby, “Good boy.”

1. ELLE
A woman is raped in Elle. She then orders sushi: Hamachi and a holiday roll. She informs her friends at a dinner party just before the waiter returns with a Piper-Heidsieck. “Wait a few minutes before popping it.”

To call the characters in Elle immoral would suggest they act with a sense of malice. They do not. There is no moral defiance in their behavior. They are not immoral. I’d hardly call them amoral. They are post-moral: completely numb to standard principles. They just don’t give a shit. As we navigate through a world that sees sexual harassment brushed off as locker room talk and teenagers committing hate crimes live on Facebook, this is particularly consequential.

Director Paul Verhoeven, who’s most famous for his wildly subversive sci-fi flicks (RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers), has fashioned a twisted thriller reminiscent of the sexually-tinged giallos of the 1970s. Consider this: an alluring woman sees her glamorous lifestyle interrupted by a masked assailant who is propelled by a personal neurosis. Fashioned with revolting violence, avant-garde production design and post-modern ideals, Elle offers a grimy, sophisticated whodunit scenario.

Isabelle Huppert is frighteningly fantastic in the roll of Elle, the wealthy CEO of a video game company that develops material evocative of the works of Frank Henenlotter. “The orgasmic seizures must be more exaggerated.” She is an unusual character: entitled but not cavalier, seductive but not flamboyant. We shouldn’t like her but we do. We sympathize with her behavior. She doesn't sleep with her best friend's husband out of hatred or disgust. She does it because she feels like having sex and he's there. It's a curious way of looking at the world. It's also oddly appealing.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Some Horror Flicks I Liked in 2016


10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
Long before John Goodman opened Lanford Custom Cycles (Roseanne), horror filmmakers had been setting their macabre tales in underground locations. They’re dark, they’re cramped, they’re isolated: perfect for eliciting fear from viewers.

In 10 Cloverfield Lane, that chick who tried to ruin The Thing’s legacy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a doomsday shelter next to a wackadoo who claims the outside world has been turned to shit following an apocalyptic catastrophe.

More conventional in approach than its predecessor, 10 Cloverfield Lane is engaging in its simplicity, delivering a fable that proves sometimes less is more. It’s one of those ideas you kick yourself for not thinking of.

Blending dark humor with immense tension, the movie is at its absolute best when John Goodman is on screen. Is he a crazy person who has imprisoned Michelle for his own corrupt gain, or is he a lifesaver who rescued her from certain death? Maybe he’s a bit of both. Goodman is perfect at portraying those creepily-kind weirdo roles that are usually reserved for gas jockeys and bathroom attendants.

It’s suspenseful and it’s fun and it has me wondering what they’ll do with the franchise next. 


HUSH
Saying Ouija: Origin of Evil is pretty good for a Ouija movie is like saying Jared Fogle is pretty good for a rapist. He’s not. He sucks. And so do the submarine sandwiches he spent years peddling.

Mike Flanagan, however (he’s the guy who directed the new Ouija movie by the way), is quite good and so to is his straight-to-Netflix home invasion thriller, Hush. Starring Flanagan’s real life honey Kate Siegel as a deaf writer terrorized by a masked killer in her secluded home, Hush is a familiar yet engaging piece of horror cinema.

It is suspenseful and tense from title to credits earning it a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Flanagan, who first popped on the horror radar with his little scene urban mystery, Absentia, creates a highly effective gem that spins a few narrative twists into an otherwise conventional story.

I once submitted a script to a production house. The response was that the script was too “different.” That the studio was looking for stories that were “creatively mundane.” Hush would fit their criteria to a tee. It takes a simple yet believable story and enhances it with astute sound and imagery. Consider a scene that witnesses our heroine hiding in a bathroom. The soundtrack is stripped of all sound. We are able to substitutionally endure Maddie’s fear. Suddenly, light dances across the back wall in soft focus and we realize the killer has broken through the window.

It’s shocking, it’s creepy, it’s terrifying as hell.



I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER
A couple days after Christmas my daughter spent an afternoon lying in a cardboard box. When I asked what she was up to she responded, “I’m dead. I’m pretending this is one of those boxes they put dead people in.” I wasn’t overly concerned. At least until I saw I Am Not a Serial Killer.

Max Records stars as John Wayne Cleaver, a kid whose therapist warns has all the signs of a potential serial killer. Apparently fantasizing about the dead and nearly deceased can lead to some pretty serious ailments. Of course John hasn’t killed anybody. At least not yet. No, instead, he appeases the dark passenger within him with a regulated course of actions which includes lavishing his adversaries with compliments and hanging out in his mother’s funeral home. Once a serial slayer starts picking off his neighbors in gruesome fashion, however, those once repelled by John and his inner darkness will look to him for protection.

I  Am Not a Serial Killer was made for a fraction of the cost of most Hollywood genre films. It’s also about a gazillion times more creative than its big budget brethren. It’s a crazy inventive and legitimately eerie genre-bender that approaches death from the perspective of a coming-of-age tale while delivering all the grotesqueries of a horror pic.

Originality is a rarefied thing these days. The other mortuary-based movie of 2016, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, provided a morsel of inventiveness in its first hour before succumbing to convention in its final act. I Am Not a Serial Killer is artful and eccentric throughout. Its wry humor, creepy imagery and B-movie stylings practically ensure cult status.


THE EYES OF MY MOTHER
The Eyes of My Mother is fucked up. Not fucked up like Linda Blair clubbin' the clam with a crucifix, fucked up like Limburger cheese: it looks appetizing as hell but tastes completely foul.
The picture opens with a mother (Diana Adostini) and daughter (Francisca: Olivia Bond) strolling peacefully among a group of cows in a field. The mother, a former surgeon, rambles about the commonalities between cow eyes and those of human beings. Cut to the daughter examining a severed cow head at the kitchen table. Yuck.
Shortly after, a mysterious man with shaggy hair and soulless eyes forces his way into the home and murders the mother in violent fashion. Francisca reacts as all young children would, she chains the man in her barn and gouges out his eye balls. As Francisca ages (and the man withers away) a loneliness takes hold of her. She seeks victims, ahem friends, to keep her company.
A real polarizing movie, The Eyes of My Mother is graphic, it’s gnarly, it’s beautifully grotesque. It is surrealism at its absolute best. The darkness of the story permeates every aspect of the picture. Gray skies loom over monochrome landscapes, faces half concealed by shadow move hauntingly about as nightmarish chords blare away in the background. Yet despite its black tone, there is a poetic quality to its delivery. There is a rhythm and a beauty to the madness that makes it hard to look away.

Squeamish audiences may want to steer clear, but those willing to give this unrelenting video nasty a chance will be rewarded with an inscrutable and highly satisfying masterpiece of horror cinema.

GREEN ROOM
True story: at seventeen, my buddies and I attended a punk show in the basement of a church in Hammonton. Hopped up on Fruit Gushers and Pepsi Blue, one of my classmates continued to jump on stage. His Less Than Jake T-shirt and Tim Armstrong hairdo failed to charm the loathsome artists who invited him backstage and took to beating the shit out of him for the remainder of the night. After seeing Green Room, I think he got off easy.

The late Anton Yelchin stars as Dee Dee Ramone wannabe, Pat. Desperate for a gig, his band books a show at a neo-Nazi bar outside Portland. Following their set, they return to the green room where they witness a horrible act of violence. Now they must fight to escape the bar and its fiendish owner (Patrick Stewart).

The highest touted genre flicks of recent years have offered insight into human behavior. The Babadook reflected on grief and maternal failure, It Follows examined the fears of growing up. Green Room is not that Daedalean. It’s a reminder that a well-told story is enough to satisfy audiences. A good cast and skillful direction don’t hurt either. While some horror aficionados will squabble over whether or not Green Room satisfies the conventions of the genre, it is without a doubt the most pulse-pounding movie of the year. Replete with unflagging tension and ruthless brutality it has a magnetism inherent in the best horror has to offer.

Jeremy Saulnier’s previous effort Blue Ruin about a guy that seeks vengeance against the man that killed his parents years earlier was a solid but unwieldy effort. It was also a bit too glum to win the eye of main stream audiences. The malevolent nature of Green Room likewise proved unmarketable. Thankfully, well after its festival run in 2015, Green Room saw a limited theatrical release mid-year. It is a riveting, full-blooded thriller worthy of your attention.




THE WITCH
It isn’t bad enough that William (Ralph Ineson) and his family are banished to a barren land in 1600s New England, but now a fucking witch is haunting their cattle and eating their children.
Gorgeously shot in smoky greys and muddied browns, The Witch is a singular experience that will haunt you well after viewing. Rich in mood and atmosphere, the picture offers a spine-tingling diversion aided by an unnerving script and impressive production design. The movie feels as cold as the mud William treks through on his way to the outhouse, as dark as the thick paste that clings to his boots.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s wide-set eyes, stained with the color of chocolate, capture the weight of her character’s tale. She can now be seen starring opposite James McAvoy in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. In both films she exudes vulnerability, her face looking like it would smile if only it could. Ralph Ineson towers over her. His baritone voice is scary intimidating.

This is a slow-moving movie, but the horror gets going early. The witch uses blood-filled cauldrons and the limbs of dead babies to brew evil. It is dreadful, it is eerie, it is the best horror movie of the year. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

My Favorite Horror Pics of 2015


IT FOLLOWS

My kid recently told me he wanted to stay five-years-old forever. When I asked him why he replied, "because I like the number five." Getting old sucks. Growing up sucks even worse.

For the kids in It Follows, adolescence is coming to an end. They cling to their youth by reminiscing about their more dull-witted days. But adulthood, like the mysterious force that has been haunting them, is inevitable. It is contracted via sex, the ultimate metaphor for innocence lost. It can be avoided for a time by having sex with another. Likewise, I have postponed the aging process by having children. I live vicariously through them.

The themes at work in the picture are timeless, but its design will appeal to those who grew up on the neon slickness and gritty atmosphere of the parachute pants and Garbage Pail Kids era. Its gliding camera and synth-driven score do not diminish the forcefulness of its ideas nor its nail-biting ambiance. It is an intelligent, original and most importantly, frightening experience.

  • (look at past posts for a longer review of the picture)


SPRING

Spring is a rough and gritty horror fantasy wrapped around a tale of romance and aimed at a sophisticated genre audience. Horror fans should take note of filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.

One of the reasons the picture is so successful is that it takes its time developing its characters before delving into more gruesome territory. The first third of the picture plays like a painterly humanist pic, more interested in talk than action. California tough guy Evan is spiraling out of control following the death of his mother. He escapes to Italy where he embarks on a romance with Euro-hottie Louise, a woman harboring a deep secret, not to mention a pair of tentacles.

Once the movie moves into blood-curdling territory things get a whole more interesting. Scenes of transformational body horror exceed the picture’s minimal budget and add to the creative combining of genres.

Character, theme and slimy effects: you’re lucky now a days to get one or the other. Spring delivers all three. 



WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS

The Flight of the Conchords guys celebrate the pre-Twilight days of vampires in their hilarious new mockumentary, What We Do In The Shadows. Vladislav, Viago, Deacon and Petyr are members of the legendary undead that share a flat in New Zealand. They sleep in closets and crawlspaces during the day and prowl the streets for victims at night. When Nick, the assclown boyfriend of their human servant Jackie, is turned into a bloodsucker, their routine is thrown into turmoil.

A charmingly entertaining romp, What We Do In The Shadows manages to squeeze laugh after laugh from its slight premise. The most ridiculous lines are the ones you’ll find yourself quoting days later. One particularly funny moment sees Vlad comparing a sandwich to the blood of a virgin. If you are going to eat a sandwich, you would just enjoy it more if you knew no one had fucked it.

What makes What We Do In The Shadows so good is the sanguinary delight it takes in depicting scenes of gore. We’re not talking casual droplets of blood, we’re talking gallons of life fluid spraying in violent jets of garish red across the screen.

The film plays best in an enthusiastic group setting, but no one can deny the exceedingly good time provided via its refreshing humor and gross-out visuals.



THE FINAL GIRLS

The 80s was an awesome time to be a kid. The Michael Jackson era of slap bracelets, boom boxes and trapper keepers also provided some of the finest slasher films not directed by John Carpenter. Friday the 13th, The Prowler, The Burning all told cautionary tales of girls showin’ their nudiddies before being punished at the hands of a knife-toting maniac.

The Final Girls is aimed at those with a soft spot for the dead teenager decade. Not only does it exploit the conservative message of its forebearers though, it also has something to say about love and loss.

When a fire breaks out at a screening of the slasher film Camp Bloodbath starring Max’s (Taissa Farmiga) late mother (Malin Akerman), she and her friends attempt to escape through a hole in the screen. What awaits them on the other side is not the backdoor but Camp Bloodbath. They must fight alongside Max’s mother and the other counselors to survive a masked killer.

A stylish and amusing send-up of slasher conventions (vice precedes slice and dice, character archetypes, flashbacks, voice over, end credits, sequels), The Final Girls is a must see for those who like their gore intertwined with humor.



THE GREEN INFERNO

It was recently reported that McDonalds has a secret menu. Among the items available is the McGangBang: a hearty, golden-brown bun stuffed with savory beef and chicken and a special sauce.

Speaking of off-the-menu food items, maven of grue and all-around kinky dude Eli Roth had a new movie this year. The spectacularly gory The Green Inferno follows a dim-witted group of student activists who go to the Amazon in an effort to save the rainforest only to run into a tribe of mondo bizarro cannibals. Ch(sh)ock-full of blood, guts and penises, Inferno is a loving homage to the (mostly Italian) man-eat-man films of the 70s and 80s.

I have a measured respect for Roth. Not only does he cultivate mainstream horror, he’s oiled the works for extreme horror to exist in multiplex theaters. But I’m not a huge fan of his oeuvre. He’s clearly in love with the genre, however, while his previous efforts mime the booze-on-blood stylings of horror’s perennial best, they often overlook the sociopolitical undertones that made them so successful. This time out he’s paid tribute to a genre not particularly known for its social commentary. Okay, so maybe Cannibal Holocaust has something to say about the fundamental nature of man, but give me a break. Roth may have wanted to make a point regarding the millennials’ reliance on social media, but that crashes and burns when his cinematic activists take a nose dive in the jungle. He's a formula guy and here he's nailed the formula. It’s a wildly entertaining feast for gore-hounds. Limbs are separated from bodies, torsos are disemboweled, brain-matter is heaved at the screen with aesthetic delight. Oh, and the cannibals get “the munchies” after accidentally ingesting some top-drawer marijuana. It's all really quite fun.



WHEN ANIMALS DREAM

A few months ago a number of researchers reported to The Economist the discovery of some wolf/coyote/dog hybrid thingy that has begun to pop up in a few of our nation’s largest cities. Apparently, the fluffy cousins started boning about 200 years ago as colonists forced them off their land.

Speaking of curious species, Marie receives the unwelcomed news on the eve of her 16th birthday that she and her mother are part human, part carnivorous werebeast. As if becoming a woman didn’t bring about enough problems, now Marie has to deal with a hairy chest and a town full of unhappy residents.


Subverting horror lore as metaphor for teen angst is nothing new. (Ginger Snaps was a refreshing treat in 2001.) But When Animals Dream molds the formula of its predecessors into an intimate and often creepy coming-of-age thriller. While not quite transcendent, its combination of intelligent writing with alluring photography make for a welcomed addition to the werewolf genre.



I also kind of liked: THE VISIT, GOODNIGHT MOMMY, POD, CRIMSON PEAK, THE HALLOW, MAGGIE, THE GIFT, CREEP, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, THE HARVEST

Films that got some buzz that I did not like: WE ARE STILL HERE, DEATHGASM, KNOCK KNOCK, THE GALLOWS, HELLIONS, STUNG, VISIONS, THE NIGHTMARE, LAST SHIFT, BOUND TO VENGEANCE, DIGGING UP THE MARROW

Monday, February 22, 2016

THE WITCH


The Texas Chainsaw Massacre employs deranged cannibals to probe the threat of economic collapse; Dawn of the Dead utilizes zombies to exploit conspicuous consumption; John Carpenter's The Thing depicts shape-shifting aliens as a metaphor for AIDS; and all three of them continue to scare the shit out of audiences years after their initial release. That's the true test of any great horror pic, its ability to invoke fear or get under the skin of viewers while engaging them in a cathartic experience. Robert Eggers's The Witch doesn't speak to the dark issues concerning human kind with the same intensity as its vintage brethren, but it succeeds wholeheartedly in providing viewers with the heebie-jeebies. Okay, so the film poses a few questions about spirituality and gender roles, but let's be honest, this is a bid by New Hampshire-born Eggers to introduce horror fans to the regional tales of witchcraft that haunted him as a kid.
1630, New England. A religious zealot (Ralph Ineson) and his family are banished from their colonial plantation and forced to make camp on the edge of a foreboding forest. It isn't long before their crops die off, their livestock begin to articulate words and their children start to vanish into the night. Paranoia runs rampant among the family who accuse one another of consorting with the devil.
I attended church regularly as a kid. I remember being freaked out by the more fanatical devotees, the dudes that would convulse in their pew while extending their palms toward the ceiling and shouting "amen" to the rafters. Were they better Christians than me? Did God somehow notice them more than me? Was it simply a cry for attention?
William (Ineson) conforms to a theology too rigid for even his fellow Puritans. He becomes convinced that living in peril is part of the lord's design to prepare him for salvation. His baritone voice is one you get lost in as it wraps around you. It booms from the theater speakers with a chilling authority. It's ironic then that his character surrenders all sense of power before the lord as his family is torn apart before him. The worse things get, the more William believes it is God's plan.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and production designer Craig Lathrop deliver sumptuous imagery more realistic than anything offered via the found footage genre. The shadowy farmhouse, its bleak browns the color of the land that surrounds it, and monochromatic fields provide the movie a ghastly quality. They're aided by an unnerving script that elicits panic and dread at every turn. The old English dialogue (taken from 16th century journals) only adds to the chilling realism of the picture.

Anya Taylor-Joy in the role of William's daughter Thomasin delivers a performance that resonates with complicated anxiety and vulnerability. Harvey Scrimshaw plays her younger brother Caleb. Their sibling rivalry is transcendent. It smacks of the Crucible. All kids pick on one another, but the repercussions of their antagonism is harrowing. Caleb becomes aware that his sister is maturing into a woman. The pain of misunderstanding that runs across his brow the first time he catches a glimpse of her cleavage is not limited to 17th-century protestant children, but rather is perpetual.

Eggers exhibits a great deal of courage in his approach to the material. The horror creeps up slowly yet early. The witch is not a shadowy figure appearing at the periphery of the family's world, but rather a grotesque crone who uses cauldrons and the blood of babies to concoct evil spells. The fact that she could appear while sunlight fights to dance between the trees or against a backdrop of night results in an experience that bristles with menace. Babies are slaughtered, goats speak to people, the witch appears in the form of a fluffy bunny, yet the mood remains so brittle it could snap.

This is not only the best horror film of this young year, it is a movie that will surely appear on many critics' top ten lists come December. It is a truly creepy exercise and one that demonstrates great promise for all those involved.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

MY FAVORITE MOVIES OF 2015

10. THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY / SPRING
Ties are for young boys at their first communion. They have no business being on a top 10 films list. But alas, I cannot settle on a movie to fill the #10 spot on my countdown. I’ve narrowed it to two pictures, both rich in style and atmosphere, both mysterious and deeply satisfying, both erotically charged, yet both individually peculiar.

The Duke of Burgundy tells the story of Evelyn and Cynthia, a pair of Lepidopterists (that’d be persons specializing in the study of moths and butterflies) who like to dabble in S&M. Actually, Evelyn likes to dabble, Cynthia acquiesces because she loves her partner. But one can deal with whips and chains only so much and Cynthia is soon appealing for a more conventional relationship.

Director Peter Strickland, whose last offering was the delightfully ghoulish tribute to Italian Giallo, Berberian Sound Studio, has fashioned a provocative testimonial to the gore-and-gazingas filled thrillers of the 1970s. Yet, despite its all female cast and sensual subject matter, the movie never becomes gratuitous.

There’s both a supreme bliss and a deep sadness to the relationship on display. Strickland arranges the girls’ games of pleasure and pain around eerie images of butterflies pinned in glass cases. Like the relationship they symbolize, the butterflies are brittle. The diurnal insects, however, can be relaxed and shaped into a desired position. No matter what role-playing scenarios the girls think up, regardless of the scripts and instructions they give one another, their emotions cannot be orchestrated.

The film is gorgeously shot in burnished browns. The seasoned actors lend a sense of authenticity to the story. They are aided by impressive set pieces. They dusty manor and handsome costumes bring the movie to life. It is an absorbing commentary on love and relationship roles – much more effective than that other lesbian love story released this year.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

Spring defined:       1.   to leap suddenly
                                2.      to be released from a constrained position
                                3.      to come into being

Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) is an attractive, fun-loving guy who’s recently lost his mother. One day he snaps. In a fit of grief, he breaks a man’s teeth and quits his job. He flees his California home for Italy to clear his mind. There, he meets Louise (Nadia Hilker).

In the second book of Samuel, King David of Israel expressed feelings for Bathsheba when he saw her bathing. But it wasn’t love. It was the feeling guys get when they see a girl nekkid. Most guys would fall in lust with Louise upon first sight. Those deep set eyes, those lush, dark lips, those amber locks of hair…I’m sorry, I got distracted. But it takes Evan only a moment to realize Louise is his soulmate. Louise is not as quickly enamored. You see, Louise is an immortal. Allowing herself to fall in love would mean losing her perpetual life.

Most of the remainder of the film is spent with our couple as they roam the city discussing their pasts and their plans for the future. With every stolen glance and every hopeful kiss, their romance blooms. The mystery surrounding Louise’s condition combined with the warm and fuzzy feeling of budding love is spectacularly entertaining.

Pucci and Hilker have a wonderful chemistry. They are guided by the moody direction of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. On an aside, is there something special happening with horror and directing duos? I mean Starry Eyes, Goodnight Mommy and now Spring. Something to consider. And the creature effects actually made me gasp. Creature effects? Yes, creature effects. This movie offers one crazy cool surprise after another.

9. CREED
Rocky was one of those rare movies that could be enjoyed by my father after a long day swinging the hammer as well as provide a source of debate among my film theory buddies regarding the social realism of the medium. There was a rawness to the presentation and a tangibility to the goal-driven central character that spoke to a blue collar America smitten with dreams of success. It was the perfect blending of the anti-establishment principles of the New Hollywood period with the blockbuster mentality of the 1970s.

The sequels lacked that aesthetic edge. They were designed with mass appeal and mass profit in mind.

Creed is a return to form. It is a well-cooked kernel of popcorn cinema, sentimental, predictable and a ton of fun. Yet, for all its brain candy, the movie takes a formal approach to storytelling, motivated by the authorial vision of its director.

The picture opens with a young Adonis Johnson provoking a fight at a juvenile detention center. He later learns that his contentious nature is hereditary. You see, he is the son of former world heavy weight boxing champion Apollo Creed. He takes off for Philadelphia, home of Apollo’s famed nemesis, Rocky Balboa. Rocky is at first reluctant to train the young lad, however, Johnson’s determination is firm.

Creed is a welcomed revival for the floundering series, as well as an exciting and stylish stand-alone movie.


8. SICARIO
After winning the prestigious, “Best Actress in an Action Movie” award at last year’s Critic’s Choice awards, Emily Blunt returns to her ass-kicking ways as Kate Macer, the idealistic FBI agent enlisted by the government to put a stop to Mexico’s narco war.

Director Denis Villeneuve gained critical acclaim with his Canadian efforts, Maelstrom and Incendies respectively, but it was the popular Prisoners that garnered the attention of audiences. What could have been a paint by numbers approach to eliciting emotion, 1 is aqua, 2 is lavender, 3 is a box of Kleenex, Prisoners was instead a hypnotically crafted, wrenchingly haunting portrayal of grief.

His follow-up effort, the sinfully under-watched Enemy about a middle-class Jake Gyllenhaal who sees his doppelganger in a Red Box rental was equally rewarding if dissimilar in approach.

Now he’s back with his best movie yet. America’s fruitless response to the high-stakes world of drug trafficking isn’t exactly uncharted territory, but Villeneuve attacks the material with intelligence and a feminist sentimentality.

Kate heads a kidnap response squad. At the start of the picture, her team discovers dozens of dead bodies hidden in the walls of a drug house. During the raid, a homemade bomb is detonated, killing two officers. Infuriated, all Kate can do is “clean up” the mess. She’s later invited by CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to join a Delta Force team tasked with finding the men responsible for the explosion. Frustrated with her limited position, she volunteers to join the “big boys.” Kate is kept in the dark throughout most of the operation, her every attempt to exert influence thwarted.  After fighting for information, she is forced to sign a waiver stating she was in agreement with every detail of the mission, thus forfeiting her integrity. She’s fighting two unwinnable wars, the one on drugs and the one against sexism.

The picture benefits from the somber photography of Roger Deakins. It is a beautifully haunting, powerful movie and one of the best of the year.


7. THE END OF THE TOUR

Everyone is a bit of an egotist, right? I mean, how many times have you said to yourself, “I could do that better than that person” or “I should have been hired over that person” or “I could have made a better Maniac remake than the guy they got”? Okay, maybe that last one is just me, but you know what I’m talking about.

David Lipsky, an American author whose first novel saw a modicum of success has a hard time accepting the praise being lavished upon David Foster Wallace for his book, Infinite Jest. The laudatory proclamations, the ten-city book tour; it all leaves Lipsky with an acrid taste in his mouth. That is, until he reads the book. Then he’s awestruck. He convinces his editor at Rolling Stone Magazine to allow him to join Wallace on the final leg of his tour to pick his brain. They spend the next five days (that’d be about 90 minutes in film time) staring at each other across grimy diner tables and discussing the neurological impact of masturbation in seedy motel rooms. Sounds like we’ve entered some pretty dreadful territory, huh? Actually, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The characters slide effortlessly from topic to topic, and despite the intrinsic competition between them, their dialogue is warm and alluring. They are at ease in each other’s company and the audience hangs on their every word.

Lipsky first meets Wallace at his architecturally undistinguishable home. It’s not the bohemian sanctum that he imagined, nor the decaying drug den rumors have implied. Rather, it’s unremarkable. Wallace has a few eccentricities, namely an unusual relationship with his dogs, but on first inspection, he more or less fails to please. As the day goes on however, Lipsky begins to see past Walace’s nerdy glasses, his embroidered head wrap and overall slovenly appearance to the intellectually gifted man he is. He begins to reappraise the relationships he has developed in his own life, his personal accomplishments and his intentions for the future. We the audience likewise begin to question what we hold most dear.

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel would not have been my ideal choices as Lipsky and Wallace, but they are charmingly inspiring. They create a fitting tribute to a true talent who viewed the world a little clearer than the rest of us.


6. BONE TOMAHAWK
Don’t call it a comeback! No, seriously, don’t call it a comeback. Modern audiences aren’t down with lone-wolf families butting heads with Aboriginal peoples for rights to the frontier. They like their cowboys and Indians movies a bit more PC.

Novice director S. Craig Zahler has found a way to circumvent audience sentimentality in his new movie Bone Tomahawk via a new brand of bad guy called Troglodytes, primitive cave dwellers with blanched skin and weird external voice boxes.

When Sid Haig and David Arquette desecrate a Troglodyte burial ground, the savage warriors seek revenge. I know what you’re thinking…sounds like fodder for MST3K (Dances with B-Movie Actors). Stick with me. The Troglodyte’s track Arquette into town where they make off with a few of the town folk. Town sheriff Kurt Russell playing classic Kurt Russell (see, told you it would get better) assembles a posse and heads off to rescue them.

The bulk of the film’s running time is devoted to the hunt, with Kurt Russell, aka Sheriff Hunt, and his team, dim-witted deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the crippled husband of one of the abductees, Arthur (Patrick Wilson) and posh gunslinger John Brooder (Matthew Fox), taking to the trail in a relentless search for their comrades. Cinematographer Benji Bakshi is a nostalgic poet, capturing landscapes with a compositional beauty that recalls the days when westerns were at their greatest vigor.

Arid borderlands provide a backdrop for our protagonists to explore themes of masculinity, duty and discrimination. Viewers settle into the buddy-pic design which plays likes a chatty Howard Hawks ballad, replete with humorous yet quietly poignant dialogue and subtly heroic characters.

I’m a huge Kurt Russell fan, but I’d be remiss not to discuss the work of Richard Jenkins. He is an accomplished, though underappreciated talent. His role in Bone Tomahawk stands out among those of his lauded costars, providing the bulk of the movie’s laughs, as well as contributing to its sense of pathos.

The picture saunters at a horse trot toward its climatic final act where it transforms into an exuberant and relentless cannibal horror show. It’s a fitting if sudden punch to the stomach that will be invigorating for some, off-putting for others while providing a bit of social commentary for all.

Plus, it's got the coolest title of the year. 


5. ROOM
Having children has altered the way I respond to certain films. Like, when watching Room, I found myself constantly asking, “Why am I not exploiting my son’s cuteness to earn a buck” and “Just how much money could I make by selling my kids to the Hollywood system?” Okay, that’s a joke. Sort of. But, prior to having kids, the concept of parental attachment was an abstract idea. Suddenly movies about children in peril carry a gravity I couldn’t identify with before. When witnessing scenes of abuse, I inject my own children into the story, I substitutionally endure the hardship of the characters on screen.

Based on the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, Room tells the tale of Jack Newsome (Jacob Tremblay) and his mother, Joy (Brie Larson). Joy was kidnapped by a man called Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) as a teenager and imprisoned in a soundproof shed behind his house. Now, seven years later, her son Jack, the product of countless acts of sexual abuse by her captor, is turning five.

Jack is a happy-go-lucky kid unaware of life outside his cramped little world. He welcomes each morning by greeting the objects that occupy his space. “Hello, Sink. Hello, Rug.” Cinematographer Danny Cohen adopts Jack’s point-of-view, capturing room in a panoramic style that makes it appear larger than it is.

Joy labors each day to subdue the anguish of her life and to maintain the illusion for her son. When Old Nick turns off the heat and cuts back on the vitamins, Joy decides it’s time to bust out.

Room serves as another showcase for Brie Larson’s talent. She gained attention with her role as a short term care attendant in Short Term 12 (2013). That character required her to run the gamut of emotions from purifying joy to excruciating sadness. Room, likewise, is a cinematic rollercoaster that will leave you happy as a hippo in mud one moment and sad as a bird without wings the next. The audience literally hooted when Jack and Joy escaped their captor. Stifled sobs of grief were heard during the picture’s more somber moments.

The term revelation is overused in film criticism, but Jacob Tremblay is just that. He has a buoyant charisma and effortlessly takes over the picture once it moves outside of room. He creates a character that you care about long after the movie has ended. Perhaps he should boycott the Oscars due to the lack of child nominees.


4. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Movies can act as conduits to some of our best memories. John Candy mudwrestling a group of bikini-clad babes in Stripes kindles flashbacks to my first drive-in movie and the first time I had to urinate in a cup. Lethal Weapon 2 awakens in me memories of my first “French” kiss.

I was brought up on the macho representations of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson and John Wayne. To me, my dad was Steve McQueen. He hunted, he roofed, he drove a beat up GMC. The first time I saw George Miller’s manic masterpiece, The Road Warrior, was with him. We sat engrossed, barely remembering the grass outside that was in desperate need of a mowing. When the screen fell to black, it took a moment to digest what my father had just shared with me, an exhilarating experience, a kinetic thrill ride of adrenaline and release and the greatest action movie I had ever seen. So, when it was announced that George Miller would be returning to his virtuoso franchise at age 70, my response was an elated, “Hell yes!”

Tyrannical ruler Immortan Joe has been doing the box spring boogie with the most gorgeous women in the post-apocalyptic land, and they’ve had enough. They deebo an armored truck and take off for a bucolic land called Green Place. Along the way, they pick up Max (now played by the prodigious Tom Hardy) who’s recently had his own run-in with Joe, and together they endeavor to evade their pursuers and win their freedom.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a visual tour-de-force and a laudable additional to the series. The stunt work is amazing and the heartrending action sequences are staged with such ferocious energy that they make The Fast and the Furious look like my grandpa playing with his slot car set. From the opening sequence, which sees Max’s lizard dinner interrupted by Joe’s War Boys, the movie’s gas pedal is glued to the floor as it serves up one giddily aggressive spectacle after another. It’s the kind of movie my dad would love.

However, the movie is also extremely feminist. Max only assists Joe’s wives after all other options have been exhausted. The true hero of the story is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). The women in her protection are not feeble pantywaists. They kick ass, and they do it while looking as if they’ve just jumped off the pages of an E.L. James novel (on steroids).

3. THE HATEFUL EIGHT

If you’re gonna compare a Tarantino movie, you compare it to every other movie ever made…that wasn’t made by Quentin Tarantino. That’s a lie, I just like the idea of stealing the quote. I compared it against the other films in his oeuvre the moment the credits rolled. Currently, I’ve got it sitting somewhere behind his three masterpieces (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Django Unchained) and right around his highly underrated Jackie Brown.

His bio is common knowledge among evangelicals of film geekery. A middle-school dropout, he earned his film chops from watching violent spaghetti westerns and chop sockey action films at his local video store. His filmic zeal is on full display in The Hateful Eight. From the casting of cult star Kurt Russell, to the inclusion of an Ennio Moricone score, to the use of an antiquated film stock, The Hateful Eight acts as a ceremonial acknowledgement by a VHS-devouring, grindhouse-frequenting vassal of allegiance. It combines unrestrained violence, epic spectacle and perplexing insight to acknowledge its ancestral legacy while still creating a world that is totally Tarantino.

Like his previous two efforts, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight is a historical saga that forces persons from different ethnic groups together. However, unlike those cock-and-bull stories, which revised history so that the oppressed parties gained favor over tyrannical influences, The Hateful Eight paints an authentic picture of post-civil war America to highlight the institutional race problem of today. “The only time black folks are safe, is when white folks is disarmed,” says ex-Union soldier Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Major Warren claims to possess a personalized letter from Abraham Lincoln that “has the desired effect of disarming white folks.” When the truth about the letter is revealed, it has dire consequences.

Tarantino’s pictures always have an impeccable sense of rhythm and exhilarating visual style. He utilizes his 70mm frame in the first part of The Hateful Eight to capture breathtaking mountainscapes, but it’s only after the characters arrive at their overnight stopover that his mastery of the format fully shines. The big scope format creates a sense of intimacy for viewers who feel as if they’re sharing space with the characters on screen. While the foreground action dominates the screen, the panoramic image allows Tarantino to establish subtle background activity as well. It is a terrific effort and commendable addition to Tarantino’s body of work.

2. EX MACHINA
Picture this: two police officers performing a routine inspection of a hospital parking lot discover a newborn baby left in the back of a blue Vauxhall Corsa, its tiny toes and crazy mass of hair peeking from beneath its owl-patterned bib and blanket. They break out the widow only to discover the child is not breathing, the child has no pulse, the child is plastic. This isn’t the plot to the newest Netflix thriller-drama, this actually happened at The Russells Hall Hospital in West Midlands, Dudley this past fall. The baby was one in a series of “Reborn Babies,” eerily lifelike dolls that were initially created to appease the ardent demand of collectors who wanted more realistic babies and are now often designed for consumers to resemble a child they have lost.

Ex Machina, the first directorial effort from Alex Garland, writer of 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is an enthralling take on the man dabbling in God’s domain trope. The arrogant genius at its center has taken the Reborn Baby idea one step further. Actually, he’s taken it about 165 steps further. He creates a beautiful humanoid robot capable of human thought and emotion. His (mis)treatment of her is amplified by the fact that she looks as if she’s been cut from the pages of a men’s magazine.

It is an enigmatic, cyberpunk flick whose visual luster hijacks your eyeballs as it probes into mans’ obsession with technology and beauty. Oscar Isaac delivers a compelling, yet deeply disturbing performance on a par with any award-nominated role this year, the unseemly motivations of his character evident in every facial expression and every subtle action. 

Plus, it features the coolest dance sequence in a movie since Pulp Fiction.

1. IT FOLLOWS

There’s a chick being followed in the movie It Follows, not by a person per say but by an inescapable force, except it’s not totally inescapable, it can be passed off to another by engaging in what your middle school health teacher would call intercourse. Pretty soon she’s swimming out to sailboats to seduce unsuspecting fishermen.

A casual reading of the movie could yield an STD analogy, but there’s a whole lot more going on beneath the surface of It Follows. Jay Height is at a crossroads in her life. She’s no longer a three-foot girl, but a young woman nearly twice that. As a child, she dreamed of kissing cute guys and hitting the open road. Now, she’s faced with questions about work and relationships; and she’s scared, like really scared. In a scene that owes a lot to John Carpenter, Jay is seen sitting in class while her teacher lectures about the meaning of T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock,” the tale of a man who has seen “the moment of [his] greatness flicker” (lines 72,84). The J of that story tries desperately to convince himself and us, the reader, that he’s a cool customer with all the time in the world. His foolish attempts are ridiculously translucent. The Jay of It Follows attempts to avoid her fate by reminiscing about her youth and going on a weekend getaway with friends. But the force, like adulthood, is inevitable, and it’s only after facing her fears head-on that she (possibly?) overcomes them.

We often describe our dreams as being as vivid as the world around us. Jay’s world has the surreal qualities of a nightmare, one where parents are nowhere to be found, everything is bathed in dreary shades of blue and red and time is a cryptic thing. One scene witnesses teens watching a black and white movie on a tube TV while playing with fancy e-readers.

Horror fans have been spoiled the past couple years with movies that have given them more to ponder than paint-the-walls-red grue and noisy jump scares. The Babadook painted a nasty little picture of repressed grief. Starry Eyes demonstrated the filthy lengths people will go to to achieve their dreams. It Follows bests them all. It’s a smart, terrifying little movie that will follow you long after you’ve hit stop.



I ALSO REALLY LIKED:

Anomalisa, Brooklyn, Diary of a Teenage Girl, The Green Inferno, The Kingsmen, The Martian, The Revenant, Spotlight, Steve Jobs, What We Do In the Shadows, When Animals Dream