REVIEW: “Night of the Living Dead”

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In a 2017 discussion of George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” film critic Josh Larsen offered some food for thought: can a modern film fan watch this horror classic for the first time and have the same reaction as moviegoers did during its original 1968 release? This has been such an intriguing question to me.

As contemporary viewers we have had the zombie sub-genre clearly defined for us. We know what they are, how to kill them, and we certainly know not to get bitten. The very concept of a zombie no longer carries any shock value. But imagine in 1968. Sure, the idea of the reanimated dead had been around, but the concept of a zombie as explored by horror legend George Romero in “The Night of the Living Dead” was both shocking and terrifying.

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I’m certainly not old enough to have seen it during its original release but my first experience with “The Night of the Living Dead” was similar. It was in the early 80’s during the first wave of VCR rentals. I’m guessing I was around 13 years-old. At that time there was no zombie sub-genre. Zombies had not become the staple of pop culture that they are now. For me they were a new experience – an utterly frightening one that I still remember to this day. Perhaps that is why this is still my favorite horror movie ever made.

Romero’s chilling vision is made even more spectacular when considering his miniscule budget of around $114,000. The budget restraints not only shaped the production but also the story itself. Romero and company knew they couldn’t spread their shoot to multiple locations. Instead his story brought the horror to one place – a remote Pennsylvania farmhouse. This serves as the central hub for the conflicts to come from both inside and outside the walls.

The group of people barricaded inside the farmhouse have no idea what is happening. Much like his characters, Romero leaves the audience in the dark, only feeding us tiny morsels of information as the story progresses. Imagine it through the eyes of a 1968 moviegoer who has no preconceived notions of zombies or their mythology. They can only guess along with the characters who testify to what they have seen with their own eyes and take guesses as to the cause.

One of the most effective means of information (for both us and the characters) comes from a television found upstairs. The group of six watch attentively as emergency newscasts sift through reports and interview ‘experts’ in an attempt at relaying information to the audience. There is also an eerie effectiveness to it as the television plays in the background.

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While the zombie threat gathers outside of the house the dynamic inside grows equally tense. Romero’s assortment of compelling characters add an extra layer of drama to the story. It starts with the star Duane Jones who plays Ben. He serves as the backbone, the brains, and in many ways the moral compass of the film. But what is most significant is Romero’s casting of Jones, an African-American, for such a heroic and assertive role.

Film historians and critics have found all sorts of ways to interpret “Night of the Living Dead”. They’ve seen it as representing the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, even a critique of capitalism. For me it works best as ground-breaking horror movie that laid a foundation for a sub-genre that is still being built upon today. And each glorious 35mm black-and-white frame represented a bold new step for independent filmmaking and for horror movies in general. It is an undeniable classic.

VERDICT – 5 STARS

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5star

REVIEW: “The Nun”

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“The Nun” marks the fifth film in the Conjuring ‘universe’ and the third backstory spin-off. “The Conjuring” and its direct sequel remain two of my favorite horror films of the last several years. The first spin-off was the dull mess-of-a-movie “Annabelle”. The prequel to “Annabelle” was a good step in the right direction.

That brings us back to “The Nun”, an installment with clear connections to the franchise that are actually cooler and more clever than the movie itself. What do I mean by that? The film’s links to “The Conjuring 2” are surprising and clever. But as a movie, “The Nun” fails to make the most of those connections. And despite putting some interesting pieces into place, it ends up suffering due to unremarkable storytelling that consistently milks the same handful of horror tricks.

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Things start out promising. In 1952 at a remote mountain abbey in Romania a nun hangs herself. The Vatican gets word of the tragedy and sends a tortured priest (Demián Bichir) who specializes in ‘miracle hunting’ to investigate. He is accompanied by a young novitiate (Taissa Farmiga in a nifty bit of casting). The two are guided to the abbey by the French farmer (Jonas Bloquet) who discovered the nun’s body. As you can probably guess they discover a devilish presence in the black heart of the abbey. It’s Valak, the demon nun introduced in “The Conjuring 2”.

The film is directed by relative newcomer Corin Hardy and written by Gary Dauberman, writer of the previous two “Annabelle” pictures. They have no problem developing their haunting setting and creating a ton of atmosphere. The gothic abbey with its long stone hallways, deep shadowy corners, and overactive fog machine offers up a spooky old-fashioned horror environment.

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But then you get to the storytelling which slowly sucks out the film’s potential. There is an unnerving story here but it is never allowed to play out. Instead we get most of it through clumsy dumps of exposition. Also, the film doesn’t lean on the Valak character as much as it should. She/It isn’t really let loose until the final 15 minutes which is a little too late. Instead the bulk of the scares are tried-and-not-so-true horror gadgetry that we’ve seen many times before. And how many times can you show a shadowy silhouette of a nun doing creepy things in the background before it loses its effect?

So “The Nun” qualifies as a dissapointment for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a fan of James Wan’s unorthodox horror universe but this film doesn’t offer a particularly good new installment. Second, because the pieces are here for a fun classic-styled horror picture but the filmmakers never put those pieces together in a satisfying way. The story ideas, the cool connections to the main Conjuring films, and a genuinely frightening antagonist should have been enough for a good franchise entry.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “1922”

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“I believe there’s another man inside every man – a stranger, a conniving man”. This early line of dialogue in Zak Hilditch’s “1922” sets the table for this simmering psychological horror-thriller. It taps into the mentality of the film’s fascinating lead character and lays the parameters for the mental chaos that follows.

You could call 2017 the year of the Stephen King adaptations. “It” stands as one of the top grossing movies of the year. “The Dark Tower” not so much. Then came the Netflix originals – “Gerald’s Game” and now “1922” which is based on 117 page short story published by King in 2010.

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The story begins with a grizzled man writing what he calls his confession. The man’s name is Wilfred James (played by Thomas Jane in an eye-opening performance). He is a farmer from Hemingford Home, Nebraska and as he writes it becomes clear he is mentally frail and devoured by guilt. The bulk of the story is framed by his confession which takes us back via flashback to the events which led to his current state.

 

Wilfred’s farm consists of 80 acres passed down to him by his family. (In one very telling line he writes “In 1922 a man’s pride was his land”). His wife Arlette (Molly Parker) owns 100 acres of adjacent land willed to her by her father. She’s grown dissatisfied with farm life and wants Wilfred to sell their land and move to Omaha where she can pursue her dream of opening a big city dress shop. The tension between their perspectives becomes obvious and their teenaged son Henry (Dylan Schmid) finds himself caught in the middle.

“The conniving man” within Wilfred devises a plan to kill Arlette and manipulates Henry into helping by exploiting his son’s affections for a neighbor’s young daughter. In Wilfred’s mind he can cover every angle to keep his crime hidden. In another revealing line he writes “In those days a man’s wife was a man’s business”. But Wilfred can’t perceive every consequence of his actions much less how they will effect both him and Henry. And he certainly doesn’t anticipate the weight of guilt that pushes him closer to his breaking point.

Hilditch’s direction is a wonderful compliment to King’s biggest storytelling strengths – developing slow-burning tension and eerie, uneasy moods. “1922” leans heavily on atmosphere which is captured through Ben Richardson’s crafty camera and Mike Patton’s haunting score. Hilditch shrewdly utilizes both to suck us into this twisted nightmare of Wilfred’s own making.

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But the biggest strength of the film lies in Thomas Jane’s standout performance. His stunning portrayal seems yanked right out of early 20th century middle America. Jane’s weathered, tanned face reveals a man who works the earth. But several other touches help give this character life. It could be something as simply as a squint of his eye or a draw of his mouth. It’s seen in his handling of small town period vernacular and his distinctive enunciations. It’s mesmerizing work that shouldn’t go unseen.

“1922” is a movie that gets under your skin. It maintains a menacing vibe from start to finish without ever relying on overused gimmicks or formulas. It may be a tad too slow for some, but its steady sense of discomfort and dread had me hooked. And then you have Jane who loses himself in the lead role and delivers a transformative authenticity that results in a character who is both disturbing and spellbinding. He’s very good as is this movie which nicely blends classic King with a nice touch of Hitchcock. That’s a really good recipe.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Now You See Me 2”

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I suppose somewhere out there was an audience anxiously awaiting a follow-up to 2013’s wildly uneven “Now You See Me”. Still, you can call it the sequel I never expected. But modern day trends seem to indicate that when you bring in over $350 million at the box office against a $75 million budget chances are good the studio will push out another one.

So now we get the shrewdly titled “Now You See Me 2” with a slightly higher budget and slightly less money made at the box office. Still, $335 million is nothing to laugh at and apparently the series has its fans. Well they should be happy. “NYSM2” is more of the same – silly, a bit kooky actually, and all over the map.

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Roughly eighteen months after slipping through the fingers of the Feds, The Four Horseman (the pop stars of the magic world) await their next assignment from The Eye, the goofy secret cabal of magicians revealed in the first film. They get their next job but are thwarted and exposed by a mystery man who also outs their FBI insider Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo).

The Horseman (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and new member Lizzy Kaplan) are abducted by a weaselly, off-the-grid tech wiz named Walter (Daniel Radcliffe). He brings the crew to Macau and blackmails them into swiping a computer device called “the stick”. Director John Chu (perhaps best known for the “Step Up” movies) goes the full “Ocean’s 11” route. In other words the film is not just trying to be a heist movie. It’s trying to be a really cool one.

But there is also Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine returning from the first film. Both have their own angles, both of which intersects with Ruffalo. Add in a few new characters – Radcliffe who is pretty good and Caplan who is fine. But there is also Woody Harrelson in the second of his dual roles playing Merritt’s identical twin. It’s a wacky performance, a stunningly bad character and an even worse wig.

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And then there is the magic – rarely ever genuine illusion. Instead the majority is glaringly computer-generated making any impressive “Presto” moments all but nonexistent. And when they do try to offer up some form of explanation it’s too absurd to be taken seriously or with humor. There is the key heist scene which is actually pretty fun. It’s preposterous beyond measure and requires some of the worst security guards on the globe. But it’s an entertaining bit if you’re able to turn off your brain.

There is some occasional good chemistry between the Horseman and there are moments when you think the movie is going to fully embrace its corniness. I wish it had. Instead the smoke-and-mirrors story flies all over the place and never firmly lands anywhere. It’s a messy movie but not quite fun enough to call a glorious mess. Perhaps it is marginally better than the first film but I could never say that with any hint of confidence.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars

REVIEW: “Nights of Cabiria”

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Nestled within Federico Fellini’s impressive filmography is “Nights of Cabiria”, a scintillating Italian drama that is rarely mentioned among the director’s greats (“8 1/2”, “La Dolce Vita”, etc.). It’s a shame considering the film earned Fellini one of his four Academy Awards and is regarded by some as his finest work. I find it hard to argue against the movie’s brilliance and greatness.

“Nights of Cabiria” sits firmly between Fellini’s shift from classical Italian Neorealism to the extravagant sensory experiences we would get later on. The neorealist’s spotlight on working class society and  economic hardships is represented from title screen to the film’s final frame. But we also see Fellini experimenting with a more crafty and stylish form of storytelling. It’s the early stages of what would literally burst into form three years later in “La Dolce Vita”.

Getting the film made wasn’t easy. Fellini peddled his story to a number of producers each of whom turned him down. It wasn’t until Dino De Laurentiis approached him with a five-film contract offer that Fellini was able to make his movie. With funding set Fellini then cast his wife Giulietta Masina in the lead role. This was a critical step since the lead character is in practically every scene and since the story hinges on her emotion and personality. Masina would go on to win the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

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Masina plays a ‘lady of the night’ but not in the usual vein. Her name is Cabiria and there is more to her than her occupation. She is different – unique is several regards. She is significantly smaller than all the other ladies who work with her. She isn’t the most alluring or attractive. She wears her emotions on her sleeve. Simply put, Cabiria isn’t a woman who would naturally grab your attention, but that doesn’t sway her. Regardless of her obstacles, Cabiria pushes forward clinging to any semblance of happiness and holding onto an internal hope that somewhere true love awaits.

Despite her deeper innocence and naiveté, Fellini doesn’t portray Cabiria as a weak woman. She’s a tough cookie. She truly is a victim of circumstance who has survived due to her determination and wiles. For the audience her tiny shack of a home on the city outskirts is a sign of her tough life, but to Cabiria it’s a symbol of accomplishment. She proudly tells several people that she is a homeowner. And she isn’t afraid to be whisked away by a good dance tune – an effect of her sprightly optimism.

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But deep down there is a disappointment that she is deeply in tune with. The very first scene reveals it with uncomfortable clarity. She and her boyfriend are walking by the river in what resembles a romantic stroll. That is until he pushes her in and runs off with her purse full of money. We never see him again. The film is a series of encounters most with cruel outcomes. And Cabiria always seems to expect the disappointment and she accepts the hand she is dealt and moves on. Instead of concentrating on plot Fellini focuses on several tragic themes that grow more vivid with each of Cabiria’s encounters.

When developing the Cabiria character, both Fellini and Masina were said to be highly influenced by Chaplin’s Little Tramp. You can see it in her expressions, her mannerisms, and of course in many of her circumstances. There are moments when the resemblances feel a tad foreign to the tone of a specific scene, but for the most part it fits surprisingly well and it has such a unique contrast with several of the characters Cabiria meets.

“Nights of Cabiria” is filled with fine supporting performances, interesting visual touches, and poignant emotional moments. Fellini’s true-to-life themes simmer throughout the picture and many of them would resurface in “La Dolce Vita”. And at the core is Masina and her magnetic performance. She makes it impossible for us to lack sympathy for Cabiria despite some of the character’s poor decisions. We want her to rise above her circumstances and find the love she longs for. But as things progress Fellini leaves us cynical and skeptical. Like her we want to cling to the hope for happiness but ultimately fear the cloud of disappointment will be to much for her to overcome.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Nerve”

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In the age of Twitter, Periscope, Facebook, and Instagram I suppose it’s only natural that we get a cautionary tale on the dangers of social media and the World Wide Web. At first glance it’s pretty easy to question the need, but if there are kids in the world as dim-witted as some we meet in “Nerve” perhaps we do need a cinematic intervention.

“Nerve” is directed by the duo of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. The two are probably best known for their clever 2010 maybe-documentary “Catfish”. The two movies are obviously different, but they do have something in common – both play with the connection between young people and social media. For “Catfish” it was limited to Facebook. For “Nerve” the playground is significantly bigger.

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Emma Roberts plays Venus Delmonico, but everyone knows her as simply Vee. She’s a smart and somewhat reserved senior in high school with an art school scholarship waiting if she chooses to take it. Contrast her with her best friend Sydney (Emily Meade), a rambunctious popularity hound who has become an internet “somebody” by playing a cyber reality game called Nerve. It’s basically live-streaming Truth or Dare where you gain money and (more importantly) followers by doing dumb stuff in public. The followers then dare you to do something even dumber and they watch as you stream it. Yippee.

Fed up with Sydney constantly pointing out her lack of moxie, Vee begins playing Nerve. Her first dare crosses paths with another player Ian (Dave Franco). Their followers team them up for an assortment of dares across New York City, each a little riskier than the previous one. The dares move from embarrassing to life-threatening and the game (much like the film) eventually gets completely out of hand.

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At times “Nerve” is presented like a music video – high energy, bright lights, pounding modern music. It all fits in with the film’s hyper pacing. The story never stays planted in one place very long which is probably a good thing. It keeps our attention away from the shallowness of the characters and the stupidity of their actions. And by the time we get to the final act no amount of fast pacing can cover how preposterous things become.

There is a lively, spirited heartbeat in “Nerve” that pretty much runs from the opening title screen to the ending credits.  Joost and Schulman deserve credit for sustaining that energy as they explore some intriguing internet-based themes. But the film is undercut by its story’s inability to finish and its flimsy handling of its characters. For example, you get the sense that the movie wants us to believe these characters are deeper than the surface impressions we are left with. It never convinced me. And by the time the story reaches its climax practically all logic is out the window. So for all of its hip style and colorful vivacity “Nerve” still has issues it can’t quite overcome. But then again maybe I’m just getting old

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2.5 stars