REVIEW: “It Follows”

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Over the years horror movies have come in all shapes, sizes, and forms. They have featured terrors from an almost endless spring of sources. But I don’t think I have ever seen one where the killer was an STD (sexually transmitted demon) or whatever the heck the entity is terrorizing yet another batch of teens in “It Follows”.

To be honest I still haven’t fully grasped how “It Follows” became such a critical darling. Reviewers have universally fell for it with some even hailing it as ‘the best horror movie in years‘. To its credit it is built around a unique premise (regardless of how silly it sounds on the surface). Also there are some truly arresting visuals including some particularly striking uses of perspective. But it’s the story between the images that unfortunately doesn’t hold up.

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Photo: Radius-TWC

The film opens with a cleverly shot intro set in suburban Detroit. A teen girl runs out of the front door of her house and into the neighborhood street. She’s clearly terrified and running from something we can’t see. She makes a circle, runs back inside to grab her car keys, then back out before driving off. For the most part the camera sits still, panning around following her motions in one long take. It gives us our first glimpse of director David Robert Mitchell’s keen sense for tone-setting.

The movie then shifts to Jay (Maika Monroe), an unassuming 19-year-old with a new boyfriend named Hugh (Jake Weary). While on a date the two have a sexual encounter which ends with Hugh chloroforming her. He ties her up and then shares some pretty twisted news – he has passed to her an entity that can only be transmitted through intercourse. He had it, now she does. The shape-shifting entity will stalk her in the form of anyone and only she can see it. He continues to tack on several other weird ‘rules’ we probably didn’t need.

Hugh dumps Jay off at her house and zips out of her life. Thankfully she has her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and two close friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) who instantly believe her even after she starts noticing strange figures they can’t see. A neighbor friend Greg (Daniel Vovatto) also lends a hand. Parents are notable absent in Mitchell’s story which is surely intended to mean something, but to be honest I haven’t had the urge to give it much thought.

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Photo: Radius-TWC

The story (written by Mitchell) moves at a very casual pace. It does allow us to get into the heads of the characters as we wait for the next tense, creepy encounter. But not all of the time is well spent and Mitchell’s strength shines brighter as a director rather than writer (at least in this case). His story is overly invested in ambiguity to the point of never having any believable convictions. Sure, there are multiple ways you could read the film, but finding validity within the movie for any reading is a real challenge. And for a story anchored in sexual anxiety, some of the the character’s actions left me scratching my head.

But again, Mitchell’s sense of atmosphere and tone is a real highlight. He has a captivating command of his camera and the fantastic synthesizer-heavy score is reminiscent of classic John Carpenter. The only time he loses it is in the film’s climax – a hokey indoor swimming pool sequence that doesn’t work on any level. It’s an unfortunate way to finish but kinda fitting for a movie so full of ups and downs.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “The Invisible Man” (2020)

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My how plans can change. Need an example? Look no further than “The Invisible Man”. The film was originally set to star Johnny Depp and be part of Universal’s Dark Universe. The idea was to have an interconnected cinematic universe (ala the MCU) reviving many of the classic Universal monsters. The first film of the series was “The Mummy” which opened to bad reviews and less than stellar box office numbers. As a result The Dark Universe was canned and replaced with a stand-alone movie model.

The new vision for “The Invisible Man” saw Depp out, a new writer in, and horror producer Jason Blum putting it all together. It follows Blum’s successful formula of taking a micro-budget and putting out a movie that is guaranteed to make money. Not all of his films land and rarely do they turn out to be great. But the vast majority turn profit and always seem to find an audience.

Well surprise, “The Invisible Man” is pretty great, not because of Blum’s formula or even H.G. Wells’ fantastic source material. Instead it’s writer-director Leigh Whannell’s slow methodical pacing. It’s the stellar lead performance from Elisabeth Moss. It’s the film’s strikingly effective metaphor for domestic abuse, women not being believed, and having the courage to fight back. It all makes for a surprisingly potent concoction.

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Photo: Universal Pictures

Whannell takes elements of the horror genre and mixes it with a dash of science-fiction, all while maintaining a cutting modern-day resonance. The movie starts with quite the kick and instantly lays the groundwork for its central conceit. Cecilia (Moss) flees from her controlling, abusive husband/boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). He’s an uber-wealthy tech entrepreneur known as a genius in the field of “optics” (whatever that is). Remember that last bit, it’ll come back into play later.

Cecilia hides out at the home of her police officer friend James (Aldis Hodge) and his college-bound daughter Sydney (Storm Reid). But she still lives in terror, fearing that the narcissistic sociopath Adrian will find her. That is until her sister Emily (Harriet Dyer) informs her that Adrian has committed suicide. Cecilia also learns that Adrian left her $5 million which his estate will pay in hefty monthly installments. She’s finally free…right?

Well, remember the movie’s title? Cecilia begins noticing strange happenings, small things at first that soon turn more terrifying and violent. She’s convinced Adrian has found a way to make himself invisible and has come back to torture her physically and emotionally. But even those closest to her aren’t buying it and they begin questioning Cecilia’s state of mind. It’s a sinister twist on gaslighting and stalking, but this time the victim fights back.

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Photo: Universal Pictures

The pacing is vital to the overall effect. Whannell doesn’t stuff his film with “boo” moments. Instead he clearly enjoys creating atmosphere and building tension. Much of it comes through his camera, whether its settled into a static shot or oscillating around a room. Whannell’s clever use of negative space has us eyeing every corner of the frame looking for any visual evidence that someone is there. It adds to the simmering but steadily growing sense of dread which runs side-by-side with Cecilia’s unraveling psyche until the lid finally blows off in the final act. That’s not to say there aren’t a handful of bigger scares along the way. They’re mostly shocking jolts that legitimately catch you off-guard but are actually meaningful and revealing.

It’s well shot, well paced and features an ominous, dread-soaked score by Benjamin Wallfisch. But it all sinks without Elisabeth Moss who is an absolute force. She is intensely committed both physically and psychologically, nimbly bouncing back-and-forth between defeated and determined, vulnerable and vehement depending on what the scene needs. Interestingly, the movie never details the abuse Cecilia has endured in the past. It’s not necessary. Moss deftly conveys all the information we need to believe and understand her character. She’s terrific.

Whether it’s being an edge-of-your-seat horror thriller or a stinging allegory of domestic violence and the quest of women to be heard, “The Invisible Man” hits all of its targets. It’s a remake that actually brings something new to the table and has something rather timely to say. And much like Lupita N’yongo in last year’s “Us”, Moss shouldn’t be overlooked simply because of genre. She gives a top-notch performance full of conviction and (along with Whannell) propels what could have been an easy to overlook film. Instead “The Invisible Man” is the best of the young movie year so far.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “I Lost My Body” (2019)

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The French animated fantasy drama “I Lost My Body” is one of the quirkiest features to come out of 2019. It’s consists of two fascinating halves that make up an interesting but not quite cohesive whole. It’s a movie that not only marches to its own beat but demands that viewers embrace it on its own terms. While I found that to be easier said than done, I can’t help but commend it for sticking to its visions and convictions.

“I Lost My Body” received a strong reception after screening at the Cannes Film Festival and was picked up by Netflix. It’s an adaptation of Guillaume Laurant’s novel “Happy Hand” that sees director Jérémy Clapin (who co-write the screenplay with Laurant) taking two narratives which seem unrelated on the surface but are clearly working their way together. It makes for one oddly braided story.

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© Netflix All Rights Reserved

On one hand (dopey pun intended) this is a macabre adventure tale where a …ahem…severed hand ventures across a treacherous Parisian district in an attempt to reconnect (please forgive me) with its body. The movie begins with the hand breaking out of a medical lab refrigerator. It takes a second to shake off the wackiness of the idea, but soon we’re caught up in this peculiar ‘journey home‘ storyline. Along the way the hands faces numerous challenges and perils: a protective mother pigeon, subway rats, a busy freeway among other things.

On the other hand we get the story of Naoufel (voiced by Hakim Faris), a teenager who has had a rough go. Through thoughtfully crafted flashbacks we learn that Naoufel lost his parents at a young age. He was sent to live with his apathetic uncle and bully of a cousin in Paris. Lost and clinging to his painful past, Naoufel has an encounter that gives him hope. While delivering pizza to an apartment complex he strikes up a conversation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois) over an intercom. It gives Naoufel a spark of life and he sets out to learn more about her.

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© Netflix All Rights Reserved

As we watch the two storylines which are inevitably bound to intersect, one question in constantly in your mind. How did Naoufel lose his hand. One narrative heads towards it while the other represents present day. It’s undeniably original and engaging. The problem is one is more interesting than the other. In many of Naoufel’s scenes I often found myself wondering about the hand? How far had it come? Was it in danger? This is due to Clapin filling the hand’s journey with a surprising amount of tension while some scenes with Naoufel are a bit more uneven.

Reoccurring motifs and images tease deeper meanings that (I assume) are meant to be better understood as the film reaches its end. But the ambiguous finish makes it a challenge mainly because the story never got its hooks deep enough in me to encourage much afterthought. Yet despite the difficulty in uncovering answers, “I Lost My Body” still manages to be an endearing meditation on physical and emotional displacement, childhood loss, and loneliness wrapped up in a beautiful animated style.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

 

REVIEW: “The Irishman” (2019)

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No filmmaker has explored the complex worlds of mob bosses, wise guys, and the streetwise better than Martin Scorsese. Over his 50-plus year career he has frequently returned to these crime stories many of which have a strong moral point to make about the consequences that come with such a life. It’s too early to say whether his latest gangland epic “The Irishman” is his best, but the fact that it must be considered speaks volumes.

Taking from the vein of “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, Scorsese unwraps “The Irishman” through the narration of its central character. Our first glimpse of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) sees him alone in a Pennsylvania nursing home. He begins telling his story which screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapts from the biography “I Heard You Paint Houses” by Charles Brandt. It spans three decades of mob jobs, labor corruption, and of course underworld violence.

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Frank begins his story in the 1950’s as a World War II vet driving a truck for a meat distributor. He crosses paths with Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), the boss of a Pennsylvania crime family. Russell takes a liking to Frank and their chance meeting leads to a handful of odd jobs around town. Soon Frank is entrusted with bigger responsibilities which earns him even more respect among the local wise guys.

Russell introduces Frank to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) who runs the Teamsters labor union out of Detroit. Turns out Jimmy is feeling heat from the federal government because of his ties with organized crime (among other things). Jimmy’s also dealing with an ambitious Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham) who is working his way up the Teamsters rank. Jimmy becomes a mentor to Frank and makes him his #1 guy.

But as Hoffa’s relationship with the mob sours, Frank, who has close bonds with both, finds himself caught in the middle. While all of this is building up and playing out, a literal Who’s Who from the era’s real-life Mafia scene are represented in some fashion: Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, “Crazy” Joe Gallo, and even Albert Anastasia among others. As someone who has done a fair amount of reading on the history of La Cosa Nostra it’s impressive to see how Scorsese and Zaillian weave so many in and out of their story.

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© Netflix All Rights Reserved

Equally impressive is watching big moments in American history unfold in the background – Bay of Pigs, JFK’s assassination and so on. It’s one of several things that gives this film its sense of time and place. And it’s one of many ways the film feels yanked right out of a time capsule. With a striking authenticity Scorsese paints a vivid portrait of America while highlighting the mob’s extensive influence.

There’s been a lot of talk about Scorsese bypassing the hiring of younger actors to help cover his sprawling timeline. Instead he uses some age-altering digital trickery that allows De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino to play their characters from their thirties to the seventies. Sometimes you can’t help but notice it, but not because it looks bad. It’s more of a subconscious thing. We know these actors are in their seventies so when we see them suddenly thirty years younger we can’t help but notice. Still it’s pretty incredible to see.

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© Netflix All Rights Reserved

“The Irishman” features so many classic Scorsese trademarks. It features abrasive, complex, and well-developed characters. There is its heavy focus on crime, violence and corruption. We get Scorsese’s pitch-perfect use of period music. And there is always someone wrestling with guilt, penance, and consequences. In fact, we are steadily reminded of the consequences. Countless times Scorsese freezes the frame on a character with text stating the date and details of their murder. It’s as if Scorsese is drilling home the point that the lifestyle may appear glamorous, but it all too often ends in brutal, violent death.

So you could say “The Irishman” is above all things a tragedy. Underneath its veneer of wise guy tradition and violence lies the story of a man facing the music for his embrace of mob life and neglect of his family. It’s a masterwork of storytelling and moves at such a crisp pace despite being three and a half hours long. Moreover it truly feels like a movie only Martin Scorsese could have made.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

 

Denzel Day #12 : “Inside Man” (2006)

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Over the last several weeks each Wednesday has been dedicated to Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony has offered me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington. It finishes up today.

The fourth collaboration between Denzel Washington and director Spike Lee was 2006’s “Inside Man” and it had a dramatically different flavor than their previous three films. “Inside Man” was a straight-up heist thriller featuring an all-star cast and a character heavy story that plays out over a 24-hour period.

Washington is in top form playing Detective Keith Frazier, an ambitious NYPD hostage negotiator looking to land a meaningful case to push him up the department’s ladder. Despite being in the doghouse, his Captain throws him a bone after four masked robbers barricade themselves and a slew of hostages inside Manhattan Trust Bank. Frazier and his partner (Chiwetel Ejiofor) head downtown to begin negotiations.

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The mastermind is Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) who opens the film with a monologue about what he confidently calls his “perfect robbery”. His exquisitely detailed heist takes everything into account even anticipating the law enforcement’s every move. This (and perhaps a touch of arrogance) makes it tough for Frazier to get a leg up.

Now toss in a couple of outside pieces who add some unexpected layers to the story. First you have Christopher Plummer who plays Arthur Case. He’s the Chairman of the bank’s Board of Directors who has an intensely personal interest in the heist that goes beyond the millions of dollars in the vaults or even the hostages being held inside.

Case hires Madeleine White (Jodie Foster), a high dollar fixer with a direct line to the mayor, to use her vast and powerful resources to retrieve an immensely valuable safe deposit box from the bank before the robbers or the police can discover its contents. Case will do anything to get it and Madeleine will do anything for the right price. This just adds more complexity to Frazier’s already difficult assignment.

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Lee does a good job keeping all of these moving parts in line while also playing around with the timeline a bit. We see this mostly through a series of interviews with hostages who survived the robbery. These are interlaced with the main story and often pop up at strategic times. They are also a clever method of feeding the audience information about Russell and his master plan.

Lee gets a big assist from first-time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz and his razor-sharp script. Interestingly Gewirtz has only one other screenplay credit since “Inside Man” (2008’s “Righteous Kill”). That’s a surprise considering how well he constructs this story. He puts together a straight-forward but enthralling caper that does right by its characters while offering Lee the wiggle room to poke at a few social issues along the way. He doesn’t get to shout as loud as he usually does, but I enjoyed the break from his norm.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Isle of the Dead”

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From the first moment the unmistakable Boris Karloff appears on-screen in “The Isle of the Dead” you immediately feel a sense of unease. The English horror movie icon was known for his distinct voice and menacing, expressive face. In fact it was 1931’s “Frankenstein” and 1932’s “The Mummy” that made Karloff a star. “Isle of the Dead” certainly isn’t considered among those classics, but it’s an underrated and overlooked part of his fun and impressive filmography.

This 1945 horror thriller was actually inspired by an Arnold Böcklin painting. It takes place in 1912 during the Balkan Wars. Karloff plays General Pherides who takes an American war correspondent Oliver Davis (Marc Cramer) to visit the Isle of the Dead, a remote island cemetery where Pherides’ wife is entombed. Once there they find the wife’s grave vandalized while hearing the haunting voice of a woman. As they search out the voice they come across a home place housing a Swiss archeologist, a British dignitary and his sickly wife, a tinsmith, a housekeeper, and a beautiful young Greek woman.

As night falls the archeologist (played by Jason Robards, Sr.) convinces Pherides and Davis to stay. The next morning one of them is found dead and a doctor is summoned. He determines that the death is the result of a rare plague and quarantines the island forbidding anyone from leaving. The rest of the film follows the group as the plague or possibly something much more sinister claims one victim after another.

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The bulk of the story focuses on the cause of the mounting death toll. Concern takes over with some searching for answers in modern medicine and others in superstition. Some attribute the death to a supernatural force known as Vorvolaka. But once paranoia sets in different theories arise and suspicions lead to accusations. The movie builds on the fear and confusion of its characters which inevitably leads to division. It could be said the film is more interested in exploring these interactions than actual delivering horror. But that’s not to say it doesn’t give us some eerie moments particularly in the second half.

I can see some people having lukewarm reactions to “Isle of the Dead”. It doesn’t go all-out horror and its focus on suspense sometimes misses the mark. But ultimately it succeeds in being a compelling horror thriller with a fun Boris Karloff performance at its center. It has its share of creepy scenes and while some of its elements are absurd, the story plays out neatly and in a way I found to be quite fun.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars