It Follows

It-Follows-Poster

I’ve always liked it when films can make something innocuous terrifying or thrilling. Like normal household objects. Or driving really slowly. Take the concept of It Follows for instance – the entire film is based on a solitary creature that follows its victims by walking towards them. That’s it. The victim can run away, can travel to remote locations, and can quite easily get away from the monster. But the persistence is terrifying. Despite the creature’s sluggish pace, no matter how far you run, or how far you go, it will find you. And unlike us, it doesn’t tire.

Jay (Maika Monroe) is the latest to be cursed by the terrifying creature. After having what would could be a romantic date in another movie – minus the unsavoury chloroforming of course – Jay learns that she’s caught something from her latest tryst – a sexually-transmitted demon. Thankfully, Jeff (Jake Weary), the gent who passed the demon on to her, explains the rules of the creature (and film): the creature is invisible to anyone who has not been infected with it, the creature will take different forms so you may not recognize it at first, the creature can be “passed on” to someone else through sex, and if it catches up to you, it will kill you. Oh, and if it kills the last person you infected, then it’s coming after you again. There’s no escaping it.

There’s other rules (spoken and unspoken) other than those above, but we only realize them when Jay does. For example, the creature is never seen until Jay is cursed, despite several scenes with the creature beforehand. There is something almost comic about beginning the film with a scene of a person half-jogging in circles in a panic, until you realize what that person is running from.

It Follows creates a constant sense of dread, and kudos must be given to the film’s soundtrack by Disasterpiece. It has an 80s throwback feel with lots of synthesizers, but every song is dark and ominous, and the music often invades the action happening onscreen and overwhelms it…almost like that creature when it gets too close.

The world of It Follows is never clearly defined, and neither are the characters. This works to the film’s advantage to create a dreamy – or nightmarish – unbalancing of the audience. At first, it seems like the movie is taking place in the 80s, complete with a black-and-white television, an old-school movie theatre playing Charade, and jean jackets and knee-high socks. And then a character pulls out a cell phone, and another has an e-reader shaped like a clamshell, and suddenly were not sure what time period we’re in. And then Jay, who at first seems to be the older sister of Kelly (Lili Sepe), gets closer with Kelly’s friend Paul (Keir Gilchrist), and their history together seems to suggest that they could be the same age. Maybe she’s twins with Kelly? Who knows. It doesn’t really matter, or need to be answered – it’s just the constant unease and feeling of something being – off – with this world and characters that creates a sustained tension throughout the film’s running time.

This film, and the other recently released (and equally critically-acclaimed) horror film The Babadook, do something I can’t remember experiencing before, but think should be in every horror from now on: audience paranoia. In this film, once we’ve been told the creature can look like anyone and will walk towards the victim, every extra suddenly becomes the creature that the audience sees but the characters don’t (and sometimes, it’s just an extra, but the terror is still there). With The Babadook, the creature is a black top-hat-wearing penguin-type creature, and the film litters the background of scenes with images that look slightly similar, giving off the sense the monster is in every frame. The audience’s imagination runs wild with this imagery, and it’s more terrifying than any “jump scare” could ever be.

It feels like horror films may be going through something of a renaissance. The “teen-slasher” era appears to be over, and those working in the genre are creatively unearthing what will scare us next. It’s a very exciting time for the genre, and It Follows will hopefully pave the way for more high-concept works that may seem laughable at first glance (“a sexually-transmitted demon? Really?”), to something deeply disturbing.

Grade: A

The Hunt

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Mads Mikkelsen in “The Hunt.”

Innocent until proven guilty is supposed to be the hallmark of the criminal justice system. The prosecution has to prove – beyond a reasonable doubt – that the accused actually committed the crime that he or she is accused of. At least that’s the theory.

The Hunt is a searing dramatic example of this basic failure. Mads Mikkelsen (Le Chiffre from Casino Royale, Hannibal from the excellent television show…Hannibal) is a quiet, friendly kindergarten teacher named Lucas. The kids love him and he has strong support from his community and wide group of friends. But despite a history of being a well-liked member of society, his life unravels because of a horrible accusation. This isn’t a courtroom movie – there is no trial, and the only scene that takes place before a judge happens offscreen. But the community determines that Lucas is guilty without any proof – and that’s that.

This is a frustrating film. In a good way. Lucas is powerless to stop public opinion. He becomes toxic and is treated as a persona non grata. He is shunned by his friends. And you can’t help but sympathize and be furious about the situation.

The film is very clear that Lucas is not guilty of what he has been accused of. The most aggravating scene in the film is when the kindergarten principal and her friend/associate – I think he’s a social worker – ask the little girl what happened with Lucas. The audience knows nothing happened; the little girl knows nothing happened; the adults suspect something happened, but don’t know what. And the “confession” is a series of suggestive questions that the little girl only answers by nodding her head because she thinks that’s what the adults want to hear while she just wants to go outside and play. And with that, Lucas’ fate is sealed.

The setting of the film is important. Lucas lives in a small town where everyone knows him. He seems like a good guy, perhaps a little quiet, but nothing out of the ordinary. The community knows that he has an ex-wife, and is going through a custody battle with her. He shops at the same stores, and goes hunting with many of the town’s men. But despite their familiarity with Lucas and his good nature, he’s instantly branded an outcast without a second thought. The townsfolk exact their retribution in cruel, violent ways, and you wouldn’t be wrong in wondering who the real the monsters of the film are.

Why is it that we can constantly criticize the government for its failings and stupidity, but when that same government accuses a citizen of a crime we blindly accept it’s correct without a second thought? It’s a good question, and one that watching The Hunt brought to my mind.

Grade: A 

Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler-2014I kept thinking about capitalism while watching Nightcrawler. Specifically those individuals that become “titans” of industries and whose lives require mandatory biographies. Alright, I was thinking about Steve Jobs. And how he was a big asshole to everybody but is still revered rather than reviled today. That’s the power of success. I think Lou Bloom is cut from the same mold, albeit a criminal and sociopathic version, so the comparison may be a bit of a stretch.

Nightcrawler is an amoral rags-to-riches tale. Although I wonder about characterizing it as “amoral.” The veneer of power, success, and wealth seems to make ethics a fluid concept. Who cares how Lou Bloom got where he is when he’ll just be envied and idolized for what he’s become?

Lou is a petty thief and scoundrel. He strips copper wire and steals scrap metal from private property. He doesn’t make a lot of money. It’s hard to be a good negotiator when you’re selling stolen goods. Even professional thieves can only get fifty cents on the dollar. Lou settles for less but dreams of more. He incessantly recites lines from self-help business books and websites, but it’s hard to tell if Lou’s encyclopedic knowledge of mantras reflects his belief that hard work really does get you ahead or if he’s just recycling phrases to get to his next score. He eventually finds his calling on the scene of a fiery highway crash: taking freelance footage of crime scenes to sell to the highest television news bidder.

The film plays out like a business textbook case study (albeit the darkest possible version imaginable). Rookie entrepreneur starts out with small contracts and small rewards. The money he earns is invested back in the business to buy better equipment and an employee to be competitive with the larger players. A merger is offered, and declined. The rookie focuses on creating the best product, and one the competition cannot replicate. The competition is eliminated and a hostile partnership with a news broadcaster is solidified, guaranteeing a steady stream of income. The rookie businessman finally has something he’s never had in negotiations before: leverage. And an empire is born.

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors working in Hollywood today. His latest projects (Enemy, Prisoners, End of Watch) are all fantastic films, and simply having his name attached to a project these days is practically a guaranteed endorsement of its quality. Nightcrawler is no exception to this rule. His portrayal of Lou Bloom in the film is a bug-eyed, electrifying performance and his emaciated appearance is a direct reflection on the emptiness of his soul. This ain’t no heartwarming Gyllenhaal. He’s on full-on creep mode in this film.

What I like about Nightcrawler is its subversion of the American Dream and unapologetic cynicism. Instead of working hard and being rewarded for your hard work, the message is boundless ambition, moral elasticity, and bending the rules as far as possible.

Grade: A

Interstellar

An interdimensional disappointment.

An interdimensional disappointment.

There are just some directors who shouldn’t attempt to do the mushy stuff. Play to your strengths, rather than make a half-baked story about parental responsibility, loss, and the enduring power of love. Christopher Nolan makes cold films, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, considering his filmography contains multiple movies that rightfully deserved to be called masterpieces. But his films are not good at being sentimental, or expressing emotions beyond jealousy, ambition, or dogged perseverance. Any time Nolan’s films have attempted a romantic subplot, they’re always the most criticized and forgettable parts of his films (looking at you Scarlett Johansson in The Prestige, and Katie Holmes/Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight trilogy). Sure, the guy can create movies about pining for a lost love (Inception, Memento), but if that love is still alive – fuhgeddaboutit. Interstellar handles the complex themes of family, love, and the “fifth dimension” through clunky, awkward dialogue that’s on par with some of the crap George Lucas wrote for Star Wars Episode Two: Attack of the Clones. This movie is hugely disappointing.

Earth is going through a transition period – humans can only grow corn. At least, I think that’s what was going on. It’s all very confusing, because characters still drink beer, the water system still seems to be functioning, and kids still have to take science classes in school. It really doesn’t seem all that bad. Meanwhile dust storms are commonplace, and archival footage of the folks who lived through these terrible times reminiscing are interspersed throughout the first quarter of the film, and then that faux documentary trope is all but forgotten to move into the outer reaches of space.

But anyhow, Matthew McConaughey ekes out his existence as a farmer (of corn) with two kids – the dull son and the precocious daughter – whilst living with his grizzled father-in-law who moonlights as the kids’ grizzled babysitter. The daughter thinks a ghost lives in her room, and some spoookky occurrences gets Dad to start believing in the supernatural force too. Yada yada yada, ghost leads McConaughey to hidden scientific outpost and off on a rollicking space adventure, minus the rollicking part and heavy on the scenes talking about wormholes, relativity, and the quantum mechanics of love (not joking). There’s also supposed to be some poignancy about leaving your family behind to do something IMPORTANT and how you sacrifice making memories with your kids because you’re doing IMPORTANT things. Yes, the film is romanticizing a world where “work-life balance” is severely tilted to the work side of things.

The biggest problem I have with the film is the motivations of every single character don’t make sense.

1. McConaughey

McConaughey’s character is the dad who has to leave his kids behind to “save the world” but is tortured by the anguish that he won’t get to see them grow up. But he doesn’t have to leave. This is the future, where robots exist, and despite McConaughey being the “best damn pilot NASA has ever seen and the only one who can captain this ship” in the film’s climatic piloting scene McConaughey asks the robot to fly the ship for him to make a difficult manoeuvre. Half of the adventure is spent on auto-pilot while the human passengers slumber peacefully in cryo-sleep. Yet McConaughey is such an integral part of the mission because he can fly so good. Ugh.

Also, he’s supposed to love his children so much, but about half-way through the movie he forgets he has a son. Just watch. There’s a point where he’s crying because both of his children are growing up in front of his eyes, and then later, he’s just concerned about his daughter. I don’t know, I just find it a little difficult to empathize with a character when he doesn’t even really care about his kids.

2. Unnamed Celebrity Cameo

Yep, a Hollywood star pops up later in the film. He has a plan that makes absolutely no sense when you take the three seconds to think about it. Let’s just say he tells a fib, and then when he could own up to that fib, he decides to make it 1000x worse, and I still can’t understand what his endgame was. Please explain if you know.

3. Everyone else

This is getting long-winded, so every character has an issue. The first “Red Shirt” character stands beside a door that leads to safety. Instead of walking through the door himself, he watches for several minutes as another character is carried through the door after travelling a mile away. The stupidity of the character overshadows any of the pathos of his death.

Jessica Chastain’s character is supposed to be brilliant, but can’t see through the weakest of twists. Casey Affleck’s character inexplicably wants his suffering wife and child to die on his farm, even when offered the chance of medical care and safety.

Interstellar uses wafer-thin characters, cheap storytelling twists (way too much deus ex machina for one movie), and dresses it up using first-rate special effects and long-winded technobabble to make us believe that we’re watching something important and goads us to care more about the character’s plights than they do themselves. I didn’t buy it.

Grade: C

 

 

 

The Voices

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Jerry Hickfang (Ryan Reynolds) lives in a Technicolor dreamworld. He has a menial warehouse job where he wears full pink coveralls and spends the day lifting boxes of undisclosed items. He’s the socially awkward but sweet outsider. The type of person who couldn’t hurt a fly. But that’s looking at Jerry with rose-coloured glasses and ignoring the dark signs lurking beneath his simple exterior. Just ask his two pets for the truth – the cat Mr. Whiskers and the dog Bosco. They know Jerry well. So well, in fact, that they speak to him.

You see, Jerry has an undisclosed mental illness that he hides from his co-workers and leads him to well…some unwholesome activities. Think about Norman Bates, and imagine a film from his perspective. That’s the pitch for The Voices.

Despite the dark subject matter, The Voices plays out like a comedy. Mr. Whiskers is a foulmouthed cat with a Scottish accent that constantly berates and belittles Jerry. There’s something innately funny about a little cat dropping F-bombs, even if the joke wore a little thin after the fifth or sixth expletive-laden tirade. Bosco, on the other hand, is a sweet and slow Southerner. He praises Jerry’s efforts at being a “good boy” and tries to steer him away from the darker paths Mr. Whiskers attempts to lead him down. Both Mr. Whiskers and Bosco are voiced by an unrecognizable Ryan Reynolds (to stick with the theme that these voices are just in Jerry’s head) proving that he’s got some voice work chops in case the whole A-lister path doesn’t work out.

The Voices is a solid movie, albeit a slightly forgettable one. It’s nice to see Ryan Reynolds playing against type and intriguing to see a film from the psychotic killer’s perspective, but the film never goes beyond the concept. It’s summed up in one line: cat and dog talk to guy, guy kills someone, rinse and repeat. The film flirts a bit with unreliable narration, which I enjoyed, but I wish they went further with the idea rather than making it literally window dressing. Jerry’s arc is a straight line, when there should have a been a shift from seemingly nice guy to deranged nutcase. The film tries something different, but it doesn’t quite get there.

Grade: B 

Side note: You won’t believe the absurdity of the last scene before the credits. It’s great.

 

TIFF 2014: St. Vincent Review

St-Vincent-Movie

Bill Murray in “St. Vincent”

I really hate unnecessary accents. A couple of years ago at TIFF 2012, I saw an indie movie called Arthur Newman starring Colin Firth and Emily Blunt. It was about Colin Firth’s character reinventing himself to become a – wait for it – “new man.” For some reason, the director required Firth and Blunt (both English actors, with great English accents) to speak with American accents. With other actors, this might not have been an issue, but Firth’s entire acting career and screen persona revolves around his English accent. Take that away to add an unnecessary American accent (why couldn’t he just be a ex-pat Londoner living in America?) and the result is a distracting and self-conscious performance as Firth struggled with pronunciation and enunciation. St. Vincent forces different accents on Bill Murray and Naomi Watts with similarly unsatisfying results.

Vincent (Murray) is a hard-drinking, misanthropic gambler who may have been the stand-in for Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino. He’s gruff, speaks with a thick Brooklyn accent (completely stuttering Murray’s delivery), hates his neighbours, and disparages the Mexican movers who accidentally caused a tree branch to fall on his car. Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) have just moved in next door. Maggie works long hours, and one day after school, Oliver is locked outside of his house. It may be time to mention that Oliver doesn’t currently have a male role model in his life, while his mother and father are going through an acrimonious divorce. Enter Vincent as the reluctant baby-sitter of Oliver in About A Boy: Elder Edition.    

Hijinks ensue as the older man takes the young boy under his wing. There’s the required bullying scene (where Oliver gets bullied by a group of thugs and Vincent steps in), the inappropriate self-defence training (where Vincent teaches Oliver how to break a bully’s nose), and the hi-larious visits to inappropriate locations (strip club,  gambling at the race track) where the audience cannot believe that juxtaposition between that crazy Vincent and innocent Oliver. Hyuk Hyuk. I think I’ve seen this movie before, it might have been called Bad Santa then. The movie also slips in a subplot reminiscent  of The Notebook, a quickly dropped subplot about gambling debts with a bookie played by Terrence Howard (! – also with a completely unnecessary accent), and an end-of-year school assembly where Oliver looks into the crowd hoping to see Vincent, in what is perhaps the most overused cliche in cinema history.    

Basically, St. Vincent is a hodge-podge mixture of better films, taking their ideas and mashing them together in some sort of dramatically underwhelming and bland stew. It’s the comfort food of cinema – some will like it because it’s similar enough to movies they’ve liked before and hits all the familiar dramatic beats we’ve come to expect (characters initially hate each other, come to a begrudging respect for one another, lose that respect when PLOT POINT occurs, and eventually reunite with a relationship stronger than before) but it’s ultimately mediocre and forgettable. This cast deserves better. 

Grade: C

Sidenote: Why do indie movies have to prove their “indie-ness” by developing eccentric supporting characters? This one has a character that’s a prostitute, but it’s not enough that she’s a prostitute – she has to be a Russian prostitute. And because the stereotypical Russian accent just isn’t bizzare enough, she has to be a pregnant Russian prostitute. Stop this, please. Write a character defined by their thoughts and feelings, not their adjectives. 

Hercules (2014)

Hercules-2014-Brett-Ratner

Hercules has always been my least favourite of the Greek heroes. He’s just too…plain. He has inhuman strength, is practically indestructible, and his stories all involve him killing various creatures with his inhuman strength…while being practically indestructible. There’s no real nuance to the character. To use a stock phrase – he’s all brawn and no brain.

The latest film about Hercules (titled, what else, Hercules), directed by Brett Ratner (infamous for directing X-Men: The Last Stand and tarnishing a franchise) takes the legend of Hercules in a different direction: he’s a sham.

It’s a nice twist and a fresh take on a well-worn legend, but Ratner and company do absolutely nothing with it. Instead, we see the same movie we’ve seen a hundred times before: a motley crew of mercenaries gathers together to pull “one last job” but are then “double crossed” and have to battle for “redemption.” Yawn.

Not only does the film take an interesting concept and transform it into a typical action movie, but also the film doesn’t even stay true to the basic conceit that Hercules is a sham. As played by Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock), this “sham” Hercules is a man of almost infinite strength and bulging neck veins (they really pop in 3D). He’s also practically indestructible – despite being mauled by vicious dogs, shot by arrows, and slashed by soldiers. Once Hercules pushes over Thrace’s answer to the Statue of Liberty – with his bare hands – the film’s credibility crumbles. The stories about his inhuman strength and indestructibility aren’t true…even though he actually is inhumanly strong and indestructible.

Hercules is a movie, much like its lead character, without much direction. Hercules and his equally superhuman companions drift from place to place, exterminating pirates and practically single-handedly taking down entire armies. The “quieter” scenes between the battles sequences (however brief they are) are punctuated by glimpses into Hercules’ tortured past…of his murdered wife and kids, with blood appropriately everywhere. It’s a bit heavy for a film where the main character wears a lion on his head and wisecracks while walloping skulls. Let’s just say the film veers from action to drama to limp comedy before circling back to a CGI-heavy climax with the questionable message that if you believe you are a hero, then you are a hero (ignoring the fact that the evil dictator may believe that he is the hero). 

It’s too bloody and gory for kids, but too simplistic and childish for adults – making Hercules a guaranteed film to satisfy no one. Don’t see it.

Grade: F

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