Posts Tagged ‘horror’

I’m still a few weeks out from completing the due diligence for this year’s list. Living in Salt Lake City doesn’t help things, as several of the big December titles won’t make it to Wasatch Front theaters until January (sigh).

But the end (of the year) is near, and inevitably there are more films warranting recognition than fit onto a Top 10 list. Sure, I could write a longer list, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

Here’s a few favorites from the year that you should check out if you haven’t already.

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Best January Surprise: “Split”

Welcome back M. Night Shyamalan. The pop culture world had rightfully written off the erstwhile-wunderkind behind The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable after a lengthy string of mediocre to downright awful films.

Wisely, Shyamalan gave up on trying to be blockbuster director (remember After Earth? Ugh) and went back to his smaller-scale roots, crafting a low-frills, eerie thriller about a man with multiple personalities, some of whom like to kidnap young girls as offerings to “The Beast.” James McAvoy anchors the film with his playful and committed performance, and the signature twist at the end is a whopper for fans of Shymalan’s filmography, setting up ever more exciting things to come.

Stream it on: HBO Now/Go

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Best Box-Office Flop: “Free Fire”

“Free Fire” to put it mildly, was not a successful film. It had a limited, art house run and while not an expensive film to produce (online reports say roughly $7 million) it made decidedly less than that in ticket sales.

And that’s a shame. It takes a fairly traditional set up — a gathering of criminals erupts in violence after a deal goes bad — and churns out a funny, exciting and entertaining-as-hell bottle episode of a movie as the various characters (played by Cillian Murphy, Armie Hammer, Brie Larson and Sharlto Copley  try to gun their way out of a bad spot, shifting alliances and betraying hidden motivations as they go.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime Video

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Best Binge: “Okja”

Netflix is inching closer and closer to having it first bonafide film smash. It’s original television shows have already broken through, but it’s original films have yet to cross that Rubicon. In 2015, Beast of No Nation was a critical success, but wasn’t exactly a water cooler conversation, and the streaming giant is putting a lot of weight behind next week’s “Bright,” starring Will Smith in a more traditional (and likely underwhelming) fantasy-adventure role.

But all of that makes Netflix’s acquisition of “Okja” all the more interesting, and commendable. In no world was a surreal drama about a South Korean girl trying to save her pet giant pig from the slaughterhouse, and directed by the guy behind “Snowpiercer,” going to achieve mass appeal.

Okja is like nothing else you’ll watch this year. It’s got both Jake Jake Gyllenhaal and Tilda Swinton in roles that almost seem to be competing to out-crazy the other and a legitimately hard-to-watch scene of forced animal reproduction, all in service of a larger allegory on the meat processing industry. It’s out there, like *way* out there, and it’s great.

Stream it on: Netflix

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Best Foreign: “Raw”

Written and directed by Julia Ducournau, “Raw” is a French film about a vegetarian woman at veterinary school who develops a compulsion for raw meat after a new-student hazing ritual. That compulsion becomes intense, to put it mildly, eventually leading to fatal results.

It’s a dressed-down approach to what could have been a campy, neo-Zombie/Vampire retread. If there is anything supernatural at play, Ducournau only hints at it, instead preferring to tell a human story of addiction, which just happens to involve the consumption of human flesh. The movie is also deft in its use of gore and practical effects, making quiet scenes hang in the air with apprehension — a particular sequence involving the main character’s sister, a botched bikini wax and a pair of scissors stands out.

Best to watch it on an empty stomach.

Stream it on: Netflix

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Best Superhero: “Logan”

As far as superhero films go, 2017 was an embarrassment of riches. Warner Brothers, which has little to show for its DC efforts so far, scored a major victory with Wonder Woman, the long-overdue superheroine movie we’ve all been waiting for. Marvel had two successes by embracing the weird in Guardians 2 and Thor: Ragnarok. And even Sony got into the game with it’s Spider-man: Homecoming, which put Peter Parker back in high school where he belongs.

(The less said about 2017 *other* big superhero movie, the better).

But the biggest risk, and subsequently greatest reward, was Fox letting writer-director James Mangold go out on a limb with the studio’s marquee character, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. In “Logan,” Wolverine is nearing the end of his long life, his healing powers of near-immortality waning, and is living off the grid as a limousine driver in a post-mutant world while caring for an ailing Professor Charles Xavier.

For long stretches of the movie, you might forget you’re watching a superhero film. It has little of the computer-generated phantasmagoria that have come to define the genre, instead putting its characters in actual dirt, covered in blood and sweat. It also does what most of these mega-franchises are too afraid to do: it ends.

Stream it on: HBO Now/Go

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Best Documentary: “Chasing Coral”

Climate change is no longer something that can be safely ignored (in fact, it never was) and yet the nonsensically controversial and unnecessarily partisan “debate” drags on. Meanwhile, the Earth’s oceans get hotter and hotter, literally cooking the plant and animal life that make up a largely-unseen but crucially important ecosystem beneath the waves.

That effect, happening in real time, is what “Chasing Coral” captures, by sending a team of divers with underwater cameras to document the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. The footage is striking, showing the decimation of once-vibrant areas over a matter of weeks, and making it abundantly and undeniably clear that our oceans are burning we all fiddle with the politics.

Stream it on: Netflix

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Best Horror: “It”

The horror genre took a decidedly indie-dominated turn a few years back, with films like “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” and “It Follows” generating buzz while mainstream fare puttered along with diminishing returns.

But there’s no denying the particular alchemy of “It,” which managed to take one of the biggest titles in horror history and update it. With all deference to the great work by Tim Curry, the old “It” doesn’t hold up very well, and it was high time somebody take another stab at adapting Stephen King’s signature work for the big screen.

Enter director Andy Muschiett, working off great writing by multiple screenwriters and equipped with a cast of capable child actors (including Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard). The script moves the action up a couple decades to capitalize on peak-80s nostalgia and wisely trims some of King’s more problematic impulses. And deserved credit to Bill Skarsgård, who is faced with the task of filling Curry’s shoes while making the character of Pennywise his own. He succeeds.

Stream it on: N/A

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Best Indie: “It Comes At Night”

Few films stuck with me after I left the theater the way “It Comes at Night” did. Set in a thinly-defined post apocalyptic world, ICAN is focused on a family who live in solitary isolation in a boarded-up cabin, barricaded to keep out the unspoken menaces of a communicable ailment and the people who might bring it with them. After a man invades their home, ostensibly in search of supplies, the family is forced to weigh their safety over the risk of exposing themselves to other people.

It’s a quiet, dark and moody film with an omnipresent air of menace. So much is left abstract, with blurred lines between nocturnal dream sequences and diurnal reality, and only whispers on the wind and the fear on the characters faces communicating the stakes. The conclusion is haunting and begging for interpretation and it left me shook like few films can.

Stream it on: Amazon Prime Video

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The 2017 Wood’s Stock Balls-To-The-Wall Award: “Mother!”

The saying is “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” and by God, did “Mother!” venture. A challenging and provocative film by Darren Aronofsky, operating as an allegory on religion and the creation story (I guess?) “Mother!” would likely have been best served as a limited art house release, but distributor Paramount decided instead to go all-in on a nationwide roll-out.

That meant a lot of surprised and frustrated audiences, earning a rare “F” grade from CinemaScore (akin to exit polling, but for theaters) and a lot of “What were they thinking?” from the entertainment press.

But all of that noise distracts from the actual movie, which is bonkers and beautiful and dangerous and confusing and incredible. A synopsis would be pointless, suffice it to say that an artist and his wife find their country home increasingly invaded by strangers who adore the man’s work, culminating in a hypnotically gonzo sequence that follows Jennifer Lawrence through an escalating hellscape of violence and destruction. It’s a boldly executed, jarring film, the sheer ambition of which left my jaw on the floor.

Stream it on: N/A

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I Don’t Feel At Home in This World Anymore

We typically have to wait almost a year — or more — for the public at large to see the big winner from the Sundance Film Festival. But not only is “I Don’t Feel At Home in this World Anymore” out less than two months after snagging the Grand Jury prize in Park City, its also viewable from the comfort of your home due to Netflix scoring the distribution rights.

Starring Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood, IDFAHITWA sees a woman shaken out of a rut after a break-in at her home triggers a compulsion to pursue justice. It’s also the directorial debut of Macon Blair, best known for his acting collaborations with director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room). Blair borrows from Saulnier’s style of minimalist, organic and unflinching violence, but also injects his feature with a heavy doze of sardonic humor. The result is something like a marriage of hipster comedy and Coenesque drama and shows a lot of promise for an emerging multi-hyphenate storyteller.

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Mascots

If you’re a fan of Christopher Guest…well, you’ve probably seen Mascots already. But otherwise you should know that the team behind the mockumentaries Best in Show, A Mighty Win and Waiting For Guffman have a Netflix Original film about the cutthroat world of competitive Mascot-ery.

To  be sure, Mascots is a lesser-Guest. But it is still hilarious in its survey of bizarre, pseudo-surrealist characters, like Chris O’Dowd’s Tommy ‘Zook’ Zucarello, who performs as “The Fist” for a hockey team, and whose every action in the musculatured foam hand suit is a master class is sight gags.

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Burn After Reading

Speaking of Coenesque, and lesser-entries, “Burn After Reading” may not be the strongest entry in the Joel and Ethan Coen canon, but don’t let that stop you from its unique pleasures, number one on that list being that fully-committed and unbelievably ludicrous performance of Brad Pitt as a pompadoured buffoon of a personal trainer.

Combining gym rats, DIY sex toys and international espionage in a way that only the Coens can, “Burn after Reading” wrings gallons of humor out of a few ounces of its characters poor decision-making.

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It Follows

The horror genre is experiencing something like a creative renaissance, and just in the nick of time. After 2004’s “Saw,” there was a decade in which horror producers were arms-racing each other to up the ante on torture porn. Thankfully, the trends are showing sign of shifting back toward risk-taking and storytelling, and there’s perhaps no better example of that New-School thank the incredible “It Follows” (which, as you may recall, was among my picks for the 10 best films of 2014).

As both an homage and a satire of classic scarers, It Follows takes the trope that in horror, sex = death, and stretches it to its logical extreme. Its antagonist is a loosly-defined specter that relentlessly pursues its victims as they pass its curse from one to another through sexual intercourse. You can survive by passing “it” on to someone else, but if “it” gets them, then you’re back at the top of the list, being followed again.

The device is incredibly effective as “it” shapeshifts through various forms, visible only to the infected. It causes the viewer to dart their eyes around the screen, looking for anyone who seems out of place, or a little *too* determined in their gait. Layer on top a gorgeous, pulpy style full of neon lighting and synth-pop atmosphere and you have a cinematic experience that leaps above the rest.

 

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The horror genre so often relies on quick scares over storytelling that its films are typically disposable: a bundle of jumpy reveals with immediately diminished returns.

That’s why, when a horror movie comes along that both frightens and entertains it can feel like a singular emotional event, playing ping-pong with the senses as the audience trades shrieks of terror with nervous, relieving laughter.

After what felt like an eternity of the genre being dominated by shallow torture-porn, it’s heartening to see horror in the midst of a quality renaissance. Your mileage may vary, but look no further than indies The Babadook and It Follows, as well as the more mainstream Conjuring franchise for evidence of what an innovative and thoughtful horror director can do.

The latest in the latter series is The Conjuring 2, a continuation of the haunted house investigations of true life ghostbusters Ed and Lorraine Warren. The film picks up with the couple at the tail end of their most famous case, the Amityville massacre and subsequent haunting of the Lutz family, before skipping across the pond for a dramatization of the Enfield Poltergeist, which saw a family of Londoners tormented by bumps in the night.

Part of what makes the Conjuring films work is the savvy use of the Warrens as protagonists, played by Patrick Wilson and Bates Motel’s Vera Farmiga. Like its predecessor, the film splits its time between a ghost-weary family and their spiritual exterminators, who themselves are increasingly weary of the toil their work takes on them.

Farmiga, in particular, shines in Conjuring 2. Her Lorraine Warren is equal parts exhausted by and leery of her visions, which have turned increasingly dire of late as she sees repeated manifestations of a demon that appears to have her husband in its crosshairs. She’s prodded to assist in the London case by an insistent Ed and her own nagging sense of responsibility, but her uncertainty underscores the fear that this time, maybe things don’t work out so well.

Better still is the clever, almost sleight-of-hand directing of James Wan, who ironically birthed the Saw franchise that came to represent both the highs and gratuitous lows of the genre. In Conjuring 2 he is considerably more subdued, and the film is better for it, as the camera slowly and fluidly tip-toes down hallways and around corners, forcing the eye to dance along the edge of the screen anticipating the slightest manifestation of otherworldly menace. He’s also unafraid to stage one of his most effective sequences in daylight, the calling card of a confident and disciplined horror director.

The case itself packs less of a punch than the Salem-adjacent goings on of the original film. And Conjuring 2 breaks its winning streak of practical effects for a few instances of unconvincing and ineffective CGI. But for fans of the genre, and casual moviegoers looking for a fun scare, you’d be hard pressed to find a better offering in theaters this year.

Grade: B+

*The Conjuring 2 opens nationwide on Friday, June 10.

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*Note: This review was first published during coverage of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

[Update:] After further reflection, I’m awarding a Wood’s Stock Honorable Mention to The Babadook as Best Horror Film of 2014.

This Aussie horror, which was part of the traditionally edgy and offbeat Sundance At Midnight category in 2014, sees Essie Davis as Emelia, a single mother struggling with the behavioral quirks of her son Samuel while also grieving the loss of her husband. Samuel’s dad died in a car crash the day Sam was born and it is implied that every year on the anniversary of both her son’s birth and her husband’s death Amelia slips into a period of morose depression, which is further exacerbated by her son’s childhood fears of monsters under the bed.

But then a monster appears, or does it? After a troubling children’s book called “Mr. Babadook” mysteriously manifests on her child’s shelf, the typical menu of strange occurrences begin tormenting the family (passing shadows, strange sounds, whispered voices). Samuel insists that The Babadook has arrived but Emelia is skeptical, even while she grows increasingly unhinged.

While The Babadook treads ground laid before it by other genre films, director Jennifer Kent relies on old-school practical effects and a full plot beyond the creaks in the night to form a delightful scare. The Babadook itself, barely glimpsed in shadow and mostly depicted by the hauntingly simple sketches of a children’s book, is a strong display of restraint, with the movie relying more on a sense of escalating psychological unease than crashing cymbals to get under the audience’s skin. The final confrontation is overlong and chips away at some of the goodwill earned earlier in the film, but Kent ends the film on an perfectly eerie note of ambiguity that stops short of definitively answering whether the monster is actual entity or metaphor for something more sinister.

Grade: B+

*The Babadook opens in Utah on Friday, Dec. 19.

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