Friday, March 18, 2016

My Favorite Horror Pics of 2015


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 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. 


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 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.


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.


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.



Monday, February 22, 2016


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


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.

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.

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.


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.

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. 

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.

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).


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.

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.


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.


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

Friday, January 15, 2016


When I heard Tarantino had plans to release The Hateful Eight roadshow style, I spammed social media with things like, “OMG, tickled pink.” Excitement poured out of me like sunshine through a veil of fog as I picked up my collectible program nearly 90-minutes prior to showtime. My eyes were bent into trapezoids as the overture soared in magical flight from the theater speakers. I sat entranced in a sea of stale popcorn and indistinct chatter as the first half of the picture drew to a close and the intermission commenced. As the crimson spectacle that formed the denouement faded and the credits rolled, I knew I had just participated in one of the greatest theater experiences of my life.  
Still, as enamored as I was with the roadshow experience, I was amenable to the complaints of friends who were prepared for a few more gorgeous landscapes and who felt the social themes at work were recycled from other pictures in Tarantino’s oeuvre. That is until I saw the film for a second time, this time in digital format at my local multiplex.
In the 1950s, the motion picture industry was threatened by the growing popularity of television. Producers clamored to develop an idea that would put butts back in seats. Ultimately, they exploited the chief advantage they had over their small-screen brethren: the scope and size of their presentation. They developed extreme lens systems and shot the type of large scale pictures audiences would be compelled to see in the theater: pictures like Lawrence of Arabia. Remarkably, The Hateful Eight was filmed with restored lenses used to shoot sequences of Ben-Hur. Over time, filmmakers gained greater command over the medium. They began using the big-scope formats not just to shoot sweeping landscapes but to create more intimate experiences for viewers. In the case of The Hateful Eight, the close up shots deliver that. The stagecoach stopover where the murderous characters spend the night becomes almost majestic, with different rotten souls occupying different corners of the humble haberdashery. The opening scenes of the picture offer a laudable amount of expansive imagery, but it’s in the lodge where Tarantino’s mastery of the format shines brightest.

Genre films have always adjusted fittingly to reflect the attitudes of the movie-viewing audience. The creature features of the 1950s represented the ultimate fear of nuclear war, the nihilistic westerns of the 1970s reflected our mistrust of the government. I struggled upon first viewing to decipher the moral destination of The Hateful Eight. And then I saw a YouTube clip of Tarantino speaking at a Black Lives Matter rally in New York from October. The piece garnered attention when Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch called for a boycott by law enforcement groups of the director’s new movie. Tarantino has always shown concern for the troubled relationship with race in our society. He used the N word 38 times (according to Spike Lee) to tell the story of a white bail bondsman who falls in love with a black inmate in Jackie Brown. His previous two pictures, Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained, were historical fantasies that saw evil white men getting their just deserts at the hands of the oppressed. A casual examination of The Hateful Eight might beget more of the same. An African-American ex-Union soldier turned bounty-hunter (Samuel L. Jackson) squares off against a savagely racist ex-Confederate sheriff (Walton Goggins). However, while Tarantino played romantic editor in his previous two films, presenting a Holocaust that ended with a Jewish soldier playing Punch Bunch with Hitler’s face and a post-civil war plantation owner blown to smithereens at the hands of a “freed” slave, his The Hateful Eight depicts a real, if over the top period in history to reflect the current institutional racial problem in America.
President Abraham Lincoln said, “the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom [of freed slaves], and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” Lincoln was a pragmatic individual, however, he was also very idealistic in his philosophy. His Emancipation Proclamation was delivered on January 1, 1963, yet footage from a white police officer’s body cam taken on July 19, 2015, showed him fatally shooting an unarmed black man during a routine traffic stop.

Jackson’s Major Warren carries on him a personalized letter from Abraham Lincoln. The letter allows him to assimilate into the white majority who have an overwhelming feeling of reverence at its presence. But the letter is fake. It’s a tool used by Warren to avoid discrimination. His white colleague John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is brought to tears by its language. When he discovers the truth, he regresses. “I guess it’s true what they say about you people. You can’t believe a fuckin’ word that comes outta’ your mouths.” The Lincoln letter is to the characters in The Hateful Eight what Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained were to Tarantino. Lincoln’s vision of an equal America was noble, it was also romantic. Tarantino’s previous two period pieces departed from established history to create an idealistic America. The Hateful Eight is the real deal.
That’s not to say the movie is without issue. The Psycho-esque departure of the Ruth character so early in the film comes at a big surprise. There’s a bit of narration in the second act that feels a bit lazy and the Agathy Christie-style narrative is spoiled when you learn it can’t be Colonel Mustard in the lounge with a candlestick because it’s the ninth hateful guy who we haven’t met who’s been hiding in the crawl space for two-thirds of the movie. Still, there’s so much power and artistry in Tarantino’s homage-tinged, blood-splattered western that it’s difficult to care. The typical Tarantino dialogue, the atypical Tarantino story structure and the brilliant mixture of art-house style with B-movie violence adds up to the dude being eight for eight.
Tom Hanks referenced the dignified list of great actors that are known by a single name when presenting Denzel Washington the Cecil B. DeMille award at this year’s Golden Globes. A similar list could be made of actors that use middle initials. Samuel L. delivers the type of enthralling performance we’ve come to expect from him. The Hateful Eight provides him a monologue to rival his Ezekiel speech. But Kurt Russell is soul chilling. His John Ruth recalls the type of genre character he played in his younger years that caused me to call him my favorite actor.
Their cues are blessed by the haunting notes of Ennio Morricone’s score. The coyote-call that satiates his The Good, The Bad and The Ugly soundtrack has become the staple by which all other western melodies are compared. I’ve been listening to The Hateful Eight Soundtrack as I write this review, and I have goose pimples.