Monday, October 31, 2016

Toni Erdmann

Time and time again, we get fiction revolving around the frayed bond between parent and child. A good majority of the time it's when the child is grown and distant (both physically and emotionally) from the parent. It's been examined so many times, how can it still be a functioning plot?

Now Maren Ade's Toni Erdmann is one of the latest titles to have this plot but there's something about it that makes it stand out. Maybe it has to do with its country of origin (Germany) or perhaps its genre (comedy). Either way, it gets your attention from the get-go.

Yes, "German" and "comedy" doesn't exactly sound like a combination of an ideal variety but Toni Erdmann makes it work. It doesn't rely on humor at the expense of other people but rather the playful frame of mind from Winifred (Peter Simonischek). He just wants people feel a little bit better, not to be taken down by mockery.

But where does the element of family come into Toni Erdmann? That happens when Winifred tries to re-connect with his workaholic daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). It seems at first to be a fruitless endeavor from Winifred but Ines soon starts to open up, and it isn't all peaches and cream.

Toni Erdmann is both playful and mature in showing the bond between Winifred and Ines. It may make one want to reach out to their parents afterwards if they haven't been in contact with them recently. (Worth mentioning that more often than not female directors tend to get parent-child relationships down pat.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Sand Storm

There has always been strife between varying generations. The continued feud between parent and child is a constantly ongoing one, the type that seldom reaches a conclusion. (Even more if said conclusion is a civil one.)

Elite Wexer's Sand Storm follows a plotline for this type of story: the daughter seeing someone their parents don't approve of. But Wexer doesn't focus strictly on the daughter and the boy she's head over heels for. She also focuses on the parents themselves.

Wexer doesn't shy away from the fact that daughter Layla (Lamis Anmar) nor mother Jalila (Ruba Blal) feel confined in the world they're a part of. (It is set in Israel after all.) They try to make the best of their current situations but how much longer can they endure it?

It isn't just Layla who rebels against her mother's conformities. One of her younger sisters (perhaps unknowingly) doesn't follow the usual formalities Muslim women are expected to follow. Of course to those not of that belief wouldn't grasp why such behavior would cause a sense of shame in their elders; it's not always easy to explain one's culture to another.

Sand Storm how parts of the world still perceive women. To those who live in a more (supposedly) civilized country, it seems almost like a prolonged form of abuse towards the fair sex/ But as Wexer shows with her film, there's a glimmer of hope for future generations. (A faint one, but it's there.)

My Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, October 30, 2016


Our history is full of blights. We've rectified a few such as how the LGBT+ community is treated as a whole and how the battle of the sexes may very well be coming to a sort of resolve. But such achievements aren't without their many bumps in the road.

Jeff Nichols' Loving is set within a time when discrimination was practically the norm for everyday life. Nowadays such attitudes would be met with disdain from (most) people but fifty, sixty years ago, that disdain would be aimed at those supporting the cause. (And sadly we still encounter such animosity today.)

Now Loving focuses on Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), an interracial couple whose marriage would change history. Of course that in itself doesn't begin to describe the story Nichols presents. It's one of, quite simply, love.

As Nichols showed with his previous films, Loving doesn't need big dramatic moments from its stars to make it effective. (Nor does it need passionate love scenes to show how Richard and Mildred feel for one another.) After all, less is more.

Loving is, well, lovely. It's perhaps the human film of the year, an accomplishment most strives to achieve but fails a majority of the time. Because of the work from Nichols, Edgerton and especially Negga, it's a work that becomes proof that love conquers hate.

My Rating: *****


Where does the line between fiction and reality start to blur? At what point does that become acceptable? And, more specifically, when can it be used for storytelling?

Pablo Larraín's Neruda answers the latter question with some playful twists and turns. One would assume the film would be focusing on the Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), the famed poet on the run from prosecution  for his involvement in the Communist Party. Instead, much of its focus is on Oscar Peluchoneau (Gael García Bernal), the police officer on Neruda's trail.

What Larraín shows with Neruda is a difference between how the two men live their lives. The poet (almost unsurprisingly) leads a life of alcohol-fueled soirees and prostitutes while the police officer has a more straight-laced existence. Naturally this distinction between private and personal lives is a common aspect throughout fiction but there's a notion of envy in this as well.

And it's the two lead performances of Neruda that make the film work. Between Gnecco's flamboyance and Bernal's stoicism, Larraín shows how both men handle life and its many changing elements. But at the same time, Larraín finds a similarity within these men.

Neruda has an unconventional way of storytelling, yes, but that's one of its charms. As he also did with Jackie, Larraín takes the expectations of an oft-attempted genre and turns it on its head. Here's hoping Larraín's career will be a successful one.

My Rating: ****1/2


Life in itself may not offer anything of significance to some people. Sure, there are the many ups and downs but sometimes that's fine to those people. They're content with their day-to-day lives.

And the titular character (Adam Driver) of Jim Jarmusch's Paterson is no exception. He's a man of routine, every detail of his day barely changing. (His wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is the polar opposite of him.) But it's how he carries on with his day that makes him both him and the film so interesting to watch.

There's also something interesting in how Paterson and Laura's mindsets work. Paterson is much more of a realist (though he writes poetry in his spare time). Laura, meanwhile, has a figurative and literal black-and-white way of thinking. It's this detail that shows why Jarmusch's one of the best directors working today.

Speaking of which, Driver has taken great lengths as of late to establish himself as an actor. (He has worked with the likes of Noah Baumbach and the Coen brothers in recent years.) Under Jarmusch's direction, he shows he's someone whose career you should keep an eye on.

Paterson makes for a good companion piece with Inside Llewyn Davis. (Coincidentally both films feature Driver.) It's a quiet glimpse into one's life, regardless of how remarkable it may appear to the outside world. But what matters is if they feel satisfied with how they spent their days.

My Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, October 29, 2016


Any film that opens with a violent (but mercifully offscreen) rape is bound to be something of an unsettling nature. Throw in the fact its director is Paul Verhoeven (and its star is Isabelle Huppert), and the insanity goes through the roof. (And even that's an understatement.)

Yes, we've been treated to the likes of Basic Instinct and Showgirls from Verhoeven (and The Piano Teacher from Huppert), but there's something different about Elle that makes those earlier works pale in comparison. No doubt it has mostly to do with Michèle's (Huppert) general frame of mind but also from what happened in her past. (To say what it was would spoil the twisted nature of it all.)

Much like The Piano Teacher, Elle has Huppert exploring the darker elements within human nature. Often sporting a glare that makes Bette Davis' look flimsy, she won't let society's gender norms control her every movement. And like Michael Haneke's film, the results aren't pretty.

Of course it's what happens in the opening scene of Elle that sets the unhinged precedent of the film. The theme of rape culture comes up every now and again but Verhoeven turns those attitudes on their heads repeatedly. (It may be too much for some but it can be gleefully deranged.)

Elle is so phenomenally screwed up, it has to be seen to be believed. Usually Verhoeven's films that their shock value to the nth degree but this one takes the cake. (Honestly, how is he going to top this?)

My Rating: *****

Things to Come

What does one do when their marriage suddenly ends? Some might mourn over their spouse leaving them for someone else, others embrace their newfound freedom. But everyone reacts differently to certain things.

In Mia Hansen-Løve's Things to Come, Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert) takes the news of her husband leaving for another woman quite well. (Granted, she's trying to balance out her mother's erratic behavior and her philosophy class at once.) But once the separation starts to sink in, she begins to embrace her new independence.

It's possible that Hansen-Løve borrowed some cues from An Unmarried Woman for Things to Come. Both involve women of a certain age now free from their marriage and at first not sure what to do. But once time starts to pass, they begin to open up.

There's something about Huppert's performance in Things to Come that proves why she's one of the best actresses working today. She doesn't need that big scene to show what she's capable of, she just needs to be. (Also, it always seems to be female directors to utilize such performances from their actors.)

Things to Come may appear as an unassuming piece of fiction but it unfolds into something deeply reminiscent of the likes of Abbas Kiarostami. (Coincidentally, there's a scene where Nathalie is watching Certified Copy.) It's a depiction of life in its later stages and what one could expect from it all. (No one ever said it would be without its bumps in the road.)

My Rating: *****

By Sidney Lumet

There's no denying that Sidney Lumet was one of the all-time great directors. With a career spanning half a century, he made films that stood the test of time. But how did his mind work when he was making a film?

Nancy Buirski's By Sidney Lumet may have a few answers to some of those questions. Using an interview of Lumet's conducted a few years before his death in 2011, the documentary focuses on the auteur's lengthy career as well as some of his upbringing.

Also featuring clips of his various projects, the documentary uses them to coincide with what Lumet is talking about. (There's one point where he's discussing Lloyd Bridges' outburst while filming an episode for The Alcoa Hour.) There's no denying that storytelling can affect people; sometimes it can be the person telling the story themselves.

At one point in By Sidney Lumet, the director talks about the recurring theme of morality in his works, admitting it's not an entirely conscious decision to have it be there. Regardless of that, it's that element that makes his films so engaging. (Why else do you think people still talk about his work?)

By Sidney Lumet chronicles how he worked as an artist and how he conveyed his beliefs (both personal and religious) into his films. Buirski shows how Lumet was in fact as human as many of the works bearing his name. After all, what's a better way to endure a legacy than by admitting one's flaws?

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, October 27, 2016


What would it be like to be removed from the comfortable world you're familiar with to one both figuratively and literally foreign to you? Naturally it'd be a jarring experience for anyone. But what if it happened at an impressionable age?

Garth Davis' Lion is a real-life account of such an instance. Based on Saroo Brierley's own experiences, it chronicles how he went from a small Indian village to be adopted by an Australian couple. And unlike other similar titles of this nature, it's not told from the perspective of a white supporting character.

Instead, it focuses on Brierley from beginning to end, first as an child (Sunny Pawar) then as a young adult (Dev Patel). Through both of these perspectives we see the sense of amazement and faint confusion as he discovers new things. (Grieg Fraser's cinematography adds to that sense of discovery.)

Of course with a film with a premise like this, Lion could've easily fallen flat on its face early on. But Davis ensures that doesn't happen, and the work from Pawar and Patel do the same. (There's also a more subdued moment from Nicole Kidman.) It's very affecting work from them all.

Lion is a quiet film about re-discovery and how one finds themself. Admittedly it does feel manipulative in some scenes but overall it's a film that works. Patel, who's been considerably underused since his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire, will hopefully get more parts of notable quality because of his work here.

My Rating: ****1/2

The Salesman

At what cost does one's actions have on both them and those around them? Sometimes there are no repercussions for said actions, other times there are. Regardless of the outcome, very rarely does one emerge unscathed in the aftermath.

Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman focuses on a such a scenario. Focusing on a young couple as they move into a new apartment, things start to shift once they begin to settle in. And after an intruder breaks in, everything starts going downhill.

So where does the film's title originate? Farhadi has Arthur Miller to thank for that (the couple is in a production of Death of a Salesman). And there are shared elements between the two works. (To say what precisely would give both works away.)

Like what he did with A Separation, Farhadi provides a slow burn for the actions of The Salesman. He allows the audience to get to know its leads before the plot really kicks in. It's a delicate process that very few creators do well, and thankfully Farhadi is one such person.

The Salesman is a bewitching film. We crave to know what's going on in their quiet lives, it never dawns on us that we're intruding their privacy. And like A Separation, we're left wanting more as the credits start to roll. That's always a promising sign for any creator's work. Here's to a fruitful career for Farhadi.

My Rating: *****

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

I, Daniel Blake

About fifty years ago, a common theme throughout British cinema was kitchen sink realism. With many of these titles based on works by "angry young men" like John Osbourne, they showed a bitter resentment towards society's treatment of the lower middle class. (Well, it was after World War II...)

Fast forward to today, and Ken Loach (himself a name from that era) uses elements from the British New Wave for his latest film I, Daniel Blake. (Think of it as though the protagonists from the New Wave's key films lived long enough to be even more bitter senior citizens.) And in light of recent events, it takes on a more resentful tone.

Now in the months following Brexit, the whole premise of I, Daniel Blake becomes angrier in nature. Loach doesn't shy away from exposing the flaws within his country's government. He depicts a catch-22 within the UK's welfare system. (Will things change in the coming months? Only time will tell.)

Dave Johns and Hayley Squires, the leads of I, Daniel Blake, are the beating heart of the film. It's their performances that bring the story to life, showing the misconduct of the government that's supposed to protect them. They will easily resonate with anyone in a similar situation.

I, Daniel Blake has a slow-burning fuse with its anger, waiting until the very end for it to explode. Loach shows restraint in his disgust towards his government and its failings, and in light of recent events, it becomes more deep-rooted. This is one film that will be a testament to our present political state.

My Rating: *****

Elevator to the Gallows

There's no such thing as "the perfect murder". Many people have tried to commit it but they always get caught in the end. (And said murder is frequently committed for petty reasons.)

If only Florence (Jeanne Moreau) and Julien (Maurice Ronet) got that memo in Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows. They plot to murder her husband and make it look like a suicide. That part goes without a hitch; it's the aftermath when everything starts falling to pieces.

Being an early entry in the French New Wave, Elevator to the Gallows has a few distinct elements associated with the movement. It's much more intimate with those walking the Parisian streets than with the story itself. (It might work with some films but not all of them.)

In comparison with Malle's later films like The Fire Within and Au revoir les enfants, there's a strong arrogance throughout Elevator to the Gallows. (Most of it is just from Florence.) The characters we're introduced to are more concerned about their own well-being over everything else (including better judgment). It's hard to feel any sympathy for them. (Okay, maybe Julien.)

Elevator to the Gallows may be deemed as one of the great films to hail from France but in reality, its pride overshadows said greatness more often than not. Still, Malle managed to redeem himself with some of his follow-up works. (Hey, not every career of prominence started on the right foot.)

My Rating: ****

Monday, October 24, 2016


The opening notes of Mica Levi's score in Pablo Larraín's Jackie promise to be of a haunting nature. The same can be applied to what Larraín brings to his film. His first film from a female perspective, he chronicles how copes in face of both tragedy and the public eye.

Following Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in the aftermath of her husband's assassination, the film chronicles her as she puts on a brave face for the world to see. But while the nation mourns, we see how Jackie stays strong amid looming threats and society's expectations of her.

What makes Jackie so fascinating to watch is how the titular character works. She's stoic yet feeling, calm yet fierce. (There;s one moment that's deeply reminiscent of the opera scene from Birth.) Some may assume women aren't interesting subjects; clearly those people don't allow themselves to know such women.

And while Jackie is easily Portman's show from beginning to end, it's also an ensemble piece through and through. All of the actors, regardless of the size of their role, make sure to give their all for the film. And with a number of recognizable names and faces lining up the supporting roster, it's hard to go wrong.

Jackie is both intense and quiet in its execution, a rare feat for any film to achieve. As she showed with Black Swan, Portman has that feat on display as well. (Finally, her abilities are utilized for the time since she won an Oscar.) This is one that needs to be seen.

My Rating: *****


Many people are willing to claim that that 1980s churned out the best horror movies, Indeed, the likes of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Evil Dead emerged but after less than successful sequels and remakes, they might become trite as time wears on. (There's a reason why there's a constant debate between original works and their remakes.)

With Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist, it spawned two sequels and more recently a remake. But none of them even remotely compare to the original. Even after numerous parodies, it still packs one hell of a punch (emphasis on "hell").

Mind you, there's still an ongoing debate as to whom was the one running the show: Hooper or produced Steven Spielberg. Yes, there are aspects throughout Poltergeist that are also found in various Spielberg titles but bear in mind he had a hand in the script so that could possibly explain away some things.

That doesn't make Poltergeist any less scarier, not in the least. This is one of several horror films to have a lasting legacy, the kind that endures homages and parodies in the years to come. Usually such an impact weakens the original work because of said homages and parodies. But that's not the case here.

Poltergeist most definitely has had an impact on both Hollywood and those who have seen it. (There's a reason for why the PG-13 rating came about a few years after its release.) And be honest, show of hands: how many of you saw this at a young age and were basically scarred for life afterwards?

My Rating: ****1/2

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Queen of Katwe

There's an annoying lack of diversity in films. (Television is at least making an effort.) Honestly, we've seen enough stories with white men as the lead. Is it too much to ask for a change of pace?

Thankfully Mira Nair heard that cry and responded with Queen of Katwe. (Honestly, an Africa-set film from an Indian director with a predominantly black cast? Yes, please.) After all, when was the last time a studio production boasted such a feat?

But it isn't just Nair's handiwork that makes Queen of Katwe soar. It's also the work from its actors, both newcomers and experienced. The performances from Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o are excellent, not a false note at any point from them. Hopefully their performances won't be forgotten by year's end.

As she showed with Monsoon Wedding years earlier, Nair captures a culture that's unfamiliar to most English-speaking countries. She doesn't depict these customs to a level of cultural appropriation. Instead, what she shows is cultural appreciation.

Queen of Katwe is a film that'll bring a sense of joy to its viewers. (Then again, this is practically to be expected from a Disney film.) Nair offers her audience a story as far from the norm of usual Hollywood fare. Honestly, it's 2016; diversity still shouldn't be an issue media faces.

My Rating: *****

American Honey

As she showed with earlier films Red Road and Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold has a particular knack for having its settings be as crucial of a role as their leading ladies. With her latest film American Honey, she follows that formula as well. But there's something different about it here.

Perhaps it has to do with its setting. Rather than Glasgow or East London, American Honey (as the title clearly implies) is set within the American Midwest. But similar to Arnold's earlier films, it shows how the lower middle class lives. It's not an ideal situation for them but they're happy they have a roof over their heads.

American Honey doesn't shy away from the flaws within Star (a very promising Sasha Lane). She runs away from the humdrum domestic life she's been enduring for a new one on the road. She may come off as impulsive initially but both Arnold and Lane show that Star has a good head on her shoulders overall.

Similar to Hell or High Water a few months earlier, American Honey provides an outsider's glimpse on the decaying American economy. (Like David Mackenzie, Arnold hails from the United Kingdom.) It also has a more sympathetic depiction of poverty, something fiction tends to glamorize a good majority of the time.

It may be polarizing to some and overlong to others but American Honey overall shows how the struggling middle class lives. As Arnold showed with her previous films, she shows how the average woman lives in far from ordinary situations.

My Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Never Fear

Ida Lupino's Never Fear opens with dancer Carol Williams (Sally Forrest) fretting over opening night at a small club. Aside from that, she has a promising career. (She's also recently engaged.) But the next day she falls ill from polio and everything starts tumbling downhill for Carol...or so she thinks.

Never Fear borrows a few elements from Lupino's encounter with the disease. (She had contracted polio in the previous decade.) Like Carol, she feared that she never be able to walk again, that her whole life was over. But Lupino makes sure to keep an optimistic tone, particularly shown in the closing title card: "This is not THE END. It is just the beginning for all those of faith and courage."

Being set primarily at a clinic, a number of the extras in Never Fear are actual polio patients. It adds a sense of realism to the film, making the environment Carol's in during her recovery not feel so staged. (Fiction within medical settings is often a tricky one to tackle for those unfamiliar with such material.)

That said, Never Fear feels more melodramatic than it should be. (Forrest does oversell it in several scenes.) This being a few years before Douglas Sirk became synonymous with the subgenre, what Lupino has on display can be flimsy a good deal of the time.

However, Never Fear nowadays is more of a documentation of the medical world. We've come a long way from a medical standpoint since the film's release, yes, but that's what stands out the most overall. (Granted, this was Lupino's first credited film as a director so maybe she was still trying to get the gist of it.)

My Rating: ***1/2

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Supposedly we're now living in a time of ease thanks to the aid of technology. We can communicate with other more easily and all the information we want to know can be right at our fingertips. But is everything as ideal as it seems?

Logan Kibens' Operator follows Joe (Martin Starr) as he tries to fine tune an operating system. Using his wife Emily's (Mae Whitman) voice for the system, it becomes successful. But as their professional lives improve afterwards, their marriage starts to crumble.

In a way, Operator is like a different variation of Her. Both involve their male leads becoming consumed by these systems, finding their artificial intelligence more lifelike than the people around them. (Maybe there is some truth in the claims that technology is taking over our lives...)

Kibens in a way gives us a metaphor for society and how technology has changed us. We've become so attached to our smartphones and laptops, they've almost become as crucial as the air we breathe. While it's nice for introverted people to stay in touch with others, perhaps time limits on such devices wouldn't hurt.

Anyway, Operator certainly has its charms but of course it has its flaws as well. Admittedly its treatment of some of the female characters is questionable at times. But as stated earlier, it could make for a companion piece with Her. (Though which of the two is better is easy to say.)

My Rating: ****

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Paint It Black

Amber Tamblyn's Paint It Black shows much ambition in the first-time director. This having been a work in progress for the last few years, she wanted every detail to be precise. But does it pay off in the long run?

Based on the book by Janet Fitch, Paint It Black follows Josie (Alia Shawkat) in the aftermath of her boyfriend's suicide. Amid the nights of heavy drinking, she tries to make peace with his mother Meredith (Janet McTeer). But it's a task easier said than done.

With Tamblyn being a product of Hollywood, Paint It Black has its fair share of influences. The relationship between Josie and Meredith bears resemblance to Persona. The decaying mansion Meredith lives in hearkens back to the likes of Sunset Boulevard and The Haunting (which co-starred Tamblyn's father Russ). And the soundtrack borrows cues from synthesizer-scored films like Legend and Labyrinth.

Despite their initial differences (and their stormy first encounter shown in the film), there's a strange sort of connection between Josie and Meredith. Both lead self-destructive lifestyles behind closed doors. And when both trying to make sense of their loss, they try to peace together the past, trying to find if there was any warning of what would happen. (Again, grief is a complicated thing.)

Paint It Black shows immense potential with Tamblyn as a director. Gone is one of the stars of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies, now we have a very promising filmmaker. Hopefully her debut won't be Tamblyn's lone foray as a director.

My Rating: ****1/2

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night quickly establishes itself as something different. It has a sleek sheen to it, something not often seen in films from overseas. And would you believe that this is Amirpour's first foray as a director?

But what is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night about? Set in a desolate Iranian city, it follows the daily lives of those struggling to get by. Some try to make an honest living, others go down a more dubious path. Oh, and one of them is a vampire.

Okay, that last part may sound a bit out of place but Amirpour makes sure it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb. After all, anything where a vampire is concerned is bound to get into cliche territory. (And with other recent titles of the genre, it's proven not to be an easy task.)

That said, Amirpour does this with ease. She doesn't adhere to expected character types for her film, just lets the characters do their own thing. And Amirpour has the rare ability of effortlessly blending style and substance.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is transfixing from start to finish. Amirpour shows immense promise with her career, and hopefully her next film will be of the similar caliber. (Fingers crossed!)

My Rating: *****

The Babadook

Jennifer Kent's The Babadook shares similarities with a number of prolific horror films. But with two titles in particular, both which released in the same year. Those films in question are The Exorcist and Don't Look Now.

In comparison to Don't Look Now, The Babadook shares its depiction of grief. But what Amelia (Essie Davis) goes through is more complicated than what John and Laura endured. In fact, Kent presents less of a horror film and more of a depiction of living with mental illness. (And boy, it ain't pretty.)

With The Exorcist, The Babadook also follows the horror movie no-no of interacting with something creepy. (When will they ever learn not to do that?) And like Linda Blair's work in the former film. Davis gives a performance that's just as creepy -- no, creepier than -- what the young actress gave in 1973.

What Kent shows with The Babadook is something often lacking in horror films nowadays: a proper sense of paranoia. Usually copious amounts of bloodshed and gore are what's on full display. Kent eschews that detail to focus instead on how that unease affects those in the film. (More like this, please.)

The Babadook is one of those rare films where going into it blind makes it even better. Don't read anything about its plot, don't watch any trailers, just watch it before doing anything else pertaining to it. (Yes, that remark makes this whole review irrelevant but what can you do?)

My Rating: *****

Jennifer's Body

"Hell is a teenage girl." So opens Karyn Kusama's Jennifer's Body. Similar to what Adam Wingard did with The Guest a few years later, it's a throwback to horror movies from the 1980s. (It's just on the more bloody side of things.)

It has all the elements regularly found in 80s-era horror flicks: high school students who'd rather live life than fuss over their studies, the less-than-helpful adults, and the violent climax. It's familiar territory, yes, but it's enough to make it accessible.

And with a script by Diablo Cody, there's a fine line throughout Jennifer's Body between self-parody and taking itself seriously. Between the vapid nature of Jennifer (Megan Fox) and the general frame of mind of -- note the name -- Needy (Amanda Seyfried), Cody might have borrowed a cue or two from Scream. (Which of the two is better is obvious once you've seen both.)

And with Jennifer's Body being both written and directed by women, there's a definitive feminist air to it. Not just because Jennifer and Needy are are viewed as more than just objects but rather there's some actual dimension to them. (Unless they're the "final girl", well-written female characters in horror films tend to be a rarity.)

Jennifer's Body may have been one draft away from being great but it's easily the spiritual successor of Heathers without a doubt. (As anyone who survived high school can attest to, what's shown in both films is unfortunately not too far from reality.) The horror on display may be Jennifer but in reality, it's getting through those four years of hell.

My Rating: ****

Friday, October 7, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings

Travis Knight's Kubo and the Two Strings is a work of art, no question about it. Very rarely has a keen focus on the small details been on full display from beginning to end. Whether it's a strand of hair or a whole vast landscape, it's a feast for the eyes.

For some reason, Kubo and the Two Strings (as well as other productions from Laika) got taken for granted. Was it because of its format that caused audiences to think less of it? Perhaps there's a certain stigma towards animated films not made by Pixar or Hayao Miyazaki. Who knows?

Anyway, Kubo and the Two Strings is proof that animated films can be more than something to distract the kids for two hours. It can offer a dazzling display of imagination usually not found in live-action works. Similarly, it's frequently animated films that are more accepting towards a sense of creativity.

Back to Kubo and the Two Strings. There's something about the score by Dario Marianelli that elevates it to a transcendent level. Music itself plays a key role throughout the film so what Marianelli brings to it makes the film more luminescent. (Similarly, be sure to stay through the entire closing credits.)

Kubo and the Two Strings is simply gorgeous in all its elements. It's not the usual animated fare the bigger name studios churn out on a yearly basis; it's simply proof that audiences should embrace what Laika has to offer. (Honestly, had word of mouth been larger, so would the ticket sales.)

My Rating: *****

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Berberian Sound Studio

Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio is far from your conventional film. It doesn't rely on proper scares to get its point across but rather unusual effects to make it so. Many of its elements are of the low-key variety but it morphs into something different from what we're introduced to.

Set primarily within an Italian sound stage, Berberian Sound Studio focuses mostly on the post-production details of making a film. But don't expect it to be anything like Day for Night. If anything, it's more along the lines of a nightmarish equivalent of it.

Berberian Sound Studio follows a sound engineer (Toby Jones) as he begins working on -- initially unknowingly -- a giallo film called The Equestrian Vortex. As time wears on, it becomes clear that the film's graphic nature is beginning to affect him. But to what extent will it begin to change him?

A clever trick Strickland enforces is that he doesn't show the horrors unfolding in The Equestrian Vortex, only descriptions of what's happening and its sounds. Just from those we learn how gruesome of a film it is. Only those completely numb from such content would be unfazed.

Berberian Sound Studio takes its time to unleash its scares but it's not an immediate punch. Strickland instead builds it up slowly then has it slowly seep out in all its unnerving glory. And Jones, a fine character actor in his own right, adds to the film's uneasy nature.

My Rating: ****

A Nightmare on Elm Street

We all know the horror movie formula: something otherworldly happens to the main character, no one believe them, and they're stuck fighting off said otherworldly happening. It's been done time and time again to the point where one could foresee what'll happen.

Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the more famous titles to follow such a storyline and one of the very few to make it work (though it does get grating towards the end). Being released at a time where teenager-led films were the norm, it could've easy for it to get lost in the mix. But this is Craven we're talking about.

As he would do with Scream years later, Craven shows a knowledge of the various tropes found in the horror genre. Though not the same level of self-parody as shown in the future franchise, what's depicted in A Nightmare on Elm Street shows a sense of awareness to what's unfolding.

That's not to say A Nightmare on Elm Street doesn't show its age all these years later. To a contemporary viewer, they may grow irritated from the lack of resources the teens have. (Texting and e-mails weren't around back in 1984.) Still, they do make the most of what little they have.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is far from perfect but Craven knows how to properly use those scares. Watching it in a time where explicit gore and brutal violence is practically the norm for horror films nowadays, it's almost refreshing to see one that's more restrained in such matters. (There's a reason for why many bad imitators shortly followed suit.)

My Rating: ****

Monday, October 3, 2016

The Brood

Sometimes a work comes to fruition because of what happened in the creator's life. The output of most James Ellroy's career was provoked by his mother's unsolved murder. Charlotte Brontë's novels Shirley and Vilette were written as her siblings fell ill and died. Basically if something bleak happens, it'll be integrated in what they're making.

David Cronenberg's The Brood came about following a messy divorce and custody dispute. He would claim it was his most personal film: "The Brood is my version of Kramer vs. Kramer, but more realistic." (Coincidentally, both films were released the same year.) In comparison with Robert Benton's Best Picture winner, Cronenberg doesn't shy away from the ugliness of divorce. (Hey, write what you know.)

Back in 1979, The Brood was viewed as nothing more than exploitation-filled schlock. But all these years later (and with more films under Cronenberg's belt), it's far more than that. It began to set the mold for the Canadian director's later work and how he awakened a morbid sense of creativity within himself and Hollywood.

Similarly, The Brood shows a contrast between the two stages of Cronenberg's career. His more recent films maintain a sense of realism while his earlier work prefers surrealism. But there's one connecting factor between those two stages: the terrors of what should be keeping us safe.

The Brood depicts the horrors often found (and sometimes ignored) within everyday life. Those we're supposed to trust no matter what are those who inflict the most harm. After all, sometimes the real monsters are those who look completely harmless.

My Rating: ****1/2

Don't Look Now

Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now doesn't appear to be your standard horror picture at first glance. If anything, it starts off as a story of two parents mourning the death of their daughter. But as is frequently the case with matter of this genre, things aren't always as they first appear.

Like some of Roeg's later films such as The Man Who Fell to Earth and Insignificance, Don't Look Now is more of an examination on how people behave behind closed doors. We follow John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) as they move around Venice. It's once they stray away from the many prying eyes that they break down, Laura more so.

And it comes to a head (pun not intended) to that infamous sex scene. (There are allegations that Sutherland and Christie were actually doing it.) But that scene wasn't there solely for shock value. Like later films Ordinary People (which also starred Sutherland) and In the Bedroom, the loss of a child can deeply affect a marriage. Roeg simply shows John and Laura caring for one another, regardless of what happened.

Roeg also shows a liberal use of color throughout Don't Look Now. The bright splashes of red against the gray Venetian winter provides a sharp contrast between mood and milieu. As shown with other films from around this time like Red Desert, color provides life to an otherwise cold world.

Don't Look Now has been referenced time and time again in the years to come but thankfully not to the point where it gets spoiled. (Looking at you, Psycho.) As Roeg proved throughout his career, he effortlessly blends story and spectacle.

My Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Carnival of Souls

Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls opens with a drag race gone very wrong. Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) miraculously survives the accident, much to the surprise of everyone and Mary herself. She moves on with her life but things take a turn for the strange for Mary...

Carnival of Souls was released the same year as Lawrence of Arabia and To Kill a Mockingbird so obviously a B-grade low-budget horror didn't have the same sense of prestige. But all these years later, Harvey's film has persevered in its methods and to no surprise, it influenced its fair share of other films.

Many aspects of Carnival of Souls certainly provided some inspiration for David Lynch when he made Eraserhead (the creepy as hell organ music in particular). George A. Romero credits this with inspiring the zombie makeup in Night of the Living Dead. Who would've thought a horror picture with unknown names attached would have such an impact?

Speaking of unknown names, there's something about Hilligoss that adds to the creepiness of Carnival of Souls. Perhaps it's the close-ups on her face as she realizes something's not right. With a streak of light across her widened eyes and arched eyebrow, she says everything with her face when most others would say it with a scream.

Carnival of Souls has a slow build-up to its ultimate finale but boy, does it pay off. What could've easily been lost amid the many high-profile films of 1962 instead becomes an influential work for future generations. And boy, that ending's a doozy.

My Rating: ****1/2