JAWS (1975)

   Director: Steven Spielberg With: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb, Jeffrey Kramer, Susan Backlinie, & Jonathan Filley. Release: June 20, 1975 PG. 2 hr. 4 min. 

Director: Steven Spielberg
With: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb, Jeffrey Kramer, Susan Backlinie, & Jonathan Filley.
Release: June 20, 1975
PG. 2 hr. 4 min. 

 

Some people like to narrify Steven Spielberg’s “JAWS” as a horror movie, centering around a man’s fear of swimming and him confronting that fear by force. Thinking that since it involves a monster, but not an unrealistically sized, great white shark, that the film is meant to scare you. In some ways they're right, “JAWS” does display a great deal of Spielberg’s love for Alfred Hitchcock, as someone who was a master in manifesting suspense, Spielberg learned from him and made the movie’s monstrous antagonist remain hidden for nearly half of the runtime. 

In 1975, this was a risky maneuver, one that could have sent audiences into a frenzy. Today, there would be twitter rants and youtube videos titled “Everything Wrong with Jaws” or “Why Jaws is a Bad Movie.” Those people would confuse expectation for fear with quality, assuming “JAWS” to be a film meant to terrify you, and on the one hand, that is what Spielberg is doing here, on another, he’s providing a fantastical journey led by three amazing characters. 

The story centers around the July Fourth holiday on Amity Island, a tourist spot for those who wish to celebrate the summer with beach water fun and a sunshine spirit. More than a week before this famous day swoops into town, Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), a former New York cop who got tired of fighting an unwinnable war, discovers whatever's left of a girl who encountered this monster. There’s an arm, a severed torso, and a few other things left of this poor girl. The cause of death? Shark attack, at least that’s what we see typed into Brody’s (Roy Scheider) report. It’s not until his doofus of a deputy, Deputy Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer), starts blabbing about the beach being shut down that we begin to see our Chief faces the consequences of his decisions.
 
With the town’s number one source of income under attack, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) steps up to Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), thinking he’s doing the right thing and this former hot shot detective has just gone into panic mode. The medical examiner redacts his cause of death, and the local newspaper owner agrees to make no fuss about the incident, sweeping all of this under the rug, so that out of town visitors have nothing to worry about. Even Brody (Roy Scheider) attempts to calm himself down, but he can’t help that instinctive gut feeling, as he and his family go out to the beach. His wife, Ellen Brody (Lorraine Grey), spends her time attempting to calm down her husband whose staring at the water, peeking over whoever decides to sit in front of him. Making sure to never look away for too long, maintaining a constant vision of this sea of people.

We hear his wife talk about how he’s afraid of the water, a drowning incident as a child. All the while, Spielberg keeps our camera pointed at Brody (Roy Scheider), cutting back to the people in the ocean every other shot, building this tension, producing this amount of expectation that our police chief is about to witness a tragedy up-close. We hear the bombastic rhythmic tones of Williams’ score droop into the frame, our camera’s perspective switches to the eyes of something lurking beneath the blue painted shadows. It’s swimming right under these kids’ feet, choosing and deciding which one will be easiest to pick off. 

One of these boys is relaxing on a yellow floaty, at least he was until this great white beast wrestled him out of it, spewing blood into the ocean, manifesting a horrific scene. Spielberg then uses the infamous forward tracking, zoom out shot as he captures Chief Brody’s (Roy Scheider) panicked reaction, realizing that he was both right for dubbing it as a shark attack, and wrong for not closing the beaches. He frenzies out of his seat, screaming for everyone to get out of the water, sprinting down the shoreline with fear and dismay in his voice. It’s a horrific scene, the scariest one in the film for me because it's us watching a tragedy take place, and a man’s failure to act to be the root cause of it, a terrifying picture to have painted by a genius like Spielberg, and John Williams of course. 

I say of course because Spielberg gets most of the credit for this gem of a film, and he’s deserving, being the director and all. He was quite essential in crafting this film’s scenery and tone, but he’s gone on to say that “without Williams's score, the movie would only have been half as successful and according to Williams, it jump-started his career.” It’s hard to disagree when you’ve seen this score become just as infamous as the movie, not to mention the countless other pieces of greatness that Williams has crafted in his career since, ranging from “Jurassic Park” to “Harry Potter,” Williams has become a certifiable legend in the realm of film composers. He’s one of the best, one that got his talents noticed with a young Jewish kid looking to show the world what he could do with a little money and a mechanical shark. 

The story begins to divulge from horror into a thriller, building the tension in the town. People are begging for justice, but wanting to keep the beaches open because they know that their lives depend on the business they get from those waters. It’s a fuss of an argument with hooting and hollering all over until a long screeching noise stems from the back of the room. Nails screeching down this chalkboard, a chalkboard with a childlike drawing of a shark on it. A narrow-eyed, rugged, and rough-edged man sits in the back of the room, offering his services as a bounty hunter stating: “You all know me. Know how I make a living.” He goes on to talk about how this ain’t no normal fish, how this is not a common occurrence, and how he guarantees to catch this “bird.” The mom of the boy killed offered $3000 to anyone who would kill this monster, but he wants $10,000 for his services, promising he’ll deliver “the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.”

It’s a remarkable character introduction of this sea captain known as Quint (Robert Shaw), one followed up by Oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) later on when he arrives at a frenzy of fisherman attempting to be heroes, but looking more like a bunch of pirates searching for gold. Trying to fit too many men into the same boat, using dynamite as a weapon of choice, and enough chum to bring in a shark from Mexico. In the meanwhile, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) sees the first victim, almost vomiting up his lunch. He exclaims how this was no boating accident and how these men have a big problem on their hands.

A shark is caught and killed though, one that doesn’t match the bite radius of the original killer and one whose stomach is absent of human remains. Nonetheless, Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is convinced that the shark found is the right one, at least it's good enough for him so that he can reopen the beaches for the Fourth of July madness, madness that Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) sees as a man offering up free-lunch to a hungry shark, one that is territorial and ramping up his victim count. Things get even worse, and the Mayor is left with no choice but to feed into the bounty hunter’s demands, providing an endless bank of supplies for a town desperately looking for a savior, they get three of them though. All of whom share a great deal of interaction and motivation. 

The screenplay written by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, with contributions by Howard Sackler and Spielberg himself, exhumes every detail it can in that way, providing small moments of naturalistic dialogue that allows us to feel resonance with these characters. Building the film’s tension around the characters, instead of the shark, this screenwriter becomes one worth studying and one worth quoting. With famous lines like “Your gonna need a bigger boat” or Shaw’s improvisational speech about his time on the U.S.S Indianapolis and the sea-songs about fair Spanish ladies, it all feels so naturalistic, almost driven by fate when you see the shooting stars streaking across in the night sky, a lucky break for Spielberg. 

It feels as if it was supposed to happen as if the film gods smiled upon Spielberg, but putting aside the luck he found, Spielberg found himself responsible for manifesting something rare. Something that invented blockbusters, becoming the first film to break past $100 million at the box office. A movie that exemplified the importance of a third act, building his tension towards a crescendo of events that were both terrifying and exciting to watch, not to mention the film’s best scene in how we view these differing men bond over scars and the saddening past of Quint (Robert Shaw), it all feels so historic. It’s almost disconcerting to think about this being Spielberg’s first, while he did make a TV movie before this, “JAWS” was his original debut. One that took place in 1975, and one that shocked the world. 

Oscar-nominated, phenomenally acted (despite some of the cast members being intoxicated onset), and masterfully fabricated by both Spielberg, his writers, and John Williams. It was the launching pad for both Spielberg and Williams, both who went on to become two of the most notable names of modern film. Becoming kings of their respective field of art, and “JAWS” went on to become something of historic magnitude, changing everything about movie making. The summer season may seem normal today, but in 1975 it wasn’t, that was until “JAWS” hit the silver screen. 

Few films change the industry like that; fewer maintain that popularity over time and the special ones get better over time, “JAWS” is one of those unique movies. Seemingly becoming better each time you watch it, aging like whiskey. It has all of the Spielberg tropes of family dynamics, patience with a character, perfected tone, and spellbinding entertainment; it’s a Spielbergian classic, one that is sure to stand the tests of time, in fact, it already has. 
 

The First Purge (2018)

   Director: Gerard McMurray  With: Lex Scott Davis, Y’lan Noel, Joivan Wade, Marisa Tomei, Rotimi Paul, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Luna Lauren Velez, & Mo McRae.  Release: Jul 4, 2018 R. 1 hr. 37 min. 

Director: Gerard McMurray
With: Lex Scott Davis, Y’lan Noel, Joivan Wade, Marisa Tomei, Rotimi Paul, Mugga, Patch Darragh, Luna Lauren Velez, & Mo McRae. 
Release: Jul 4, 2018
R. 1 hr. 37 min. 

1.5_4 stars.png
 

The Purge franchise has always had an inherent political vibe to it, but Gerard McMurray and James DeMonaco’s “The First Purge” is a movie that feels like a child misunderstanding political ideologies, choosing to follow the most extreme side on crucial issues such as gun control, the wealth gap, and racial tensions.

I guess we were forewarned with the hat in the poster that resembled something along the lines of "make America great again," but these filmmakers flip-flop between each side of the aisle, attempting to look as if they reside in the middle, only choosing an option that they believe is right. But the choices made are too far extreme for me to think that these filmmakers are middle of the aisle electorates that made a movie to speak out on some vital socio-political issues.

Taking place before all of the other nonsensical movies began, “The First Purge” starts with a psychological interview of sorts with a man named Skeletor (Rotimi Paul), who is an outright junkie. He has cuts on his face, bloody gums, and is being used as the prime example for why this murder night needs to occur. So that he can find a way to outpour his withdrawal frustrations, which then would encourage drug use, drug sales, and somehow lower crime rates?

Nonetheless, news clips of protests circulating the one percent, crime-rates, and low-income communities become evidence for a night of purging the hatred they’ve manifested for the system in which they reside. It begins discussions that were surprising to hear from a franchise that has attempted to be an original philosophically based horror movie, a straight up action movie, and a supposed commentary on the presidential election. The conversations encircling the ideas of low-income, minority-populated communities being the guinea pigs for the rest of America feels somewhat authentic with the amount of racial tensions and believed stereotypes in our current cultural climate, but it all feels like a fear-mongering technique attempting to show us the course of our nation's future.

For those of us who like to maintain a level-head and listen to our oppositions to manifest solutions instead of continuing this cycle of division, these moments will feel painfully obvious, like a hole in the wall is attempting to be hidden with duck tape. The inherent racial targeting of it all sounds believable, acting like an alt-right conservatives wet dream. With an intoxicated political system and the poisoned electorate, power has been given to those ideologies we once deemed as lunacy.  

The film does offer some more buyable socio-political commentary by painting its local neighborhood gang boss as someone who stands for the community but has done it in a way that fabricates far more trouble than he intended. Our main character, Nya (Lex Scott Davis), confronts this man, Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), in a scene that discusses how he hurts this community 364 days a year while this purge only affects one day a year. It’s a touching scene speaking on the dangers of choosing a gang lifestyle while displaying the hardships that can influence someone to make that decision.

It goes from that clever screenwriting to a dumb Purge movie on the flip of a coin when we learn that people are actively participating in this sociological and psychological study for a mere five thousand dollars. How bad is our country at this point? Are we in a great depression of sorts or recession? How far down have we gone where five grand is enough of an incentive to kill people?

From there, our movie goes from that rationally leveled mindset to a radical alt-right conservative mindset (not congressional republican, there is a difference between the two) that formulates the importance of the second amendment. It's as if the screenwriter, James DeMonaco, is screaming at you “this is why we need the amendment, to keep the government from killing black people.” It’s so unashamedly alt-right and NRA supportive that it's almost worth a tip of the cap for being so honest.

What’s confusing is how it goes from a level-headed, I’ll be it, left-leaning mindset, to something so ridiculous. The film does the same thing with that of its tone, and it's genre, something that is as indecisive as the screenplay is, going from straight up drama to thriller to horror to an action film. This movie seems to have no idea what it wants to be, flip-flopping with its political philosophies and with its genre, but when the film does allow it's action to take the spotlight, it becomes far more entertaining.v

Our John Wick 2.0 character is the gang leader Dmitri (Y’lan Noel), which is cool and a somewhat good character arc, but how did he become such a mercenary? Was he ever apart of the military? Was he self-trained? It was the one thing that continuously bothered me in this last twenty minutes of action; it was that annoying bit that stuck in my teeth.

However, the film before that was displaying haunting imagery of white extremist groups murdering off large groups of minority-populated neighborhoods. It’s quite disturbing to see something as extreme as this, and know that they are alt-right militia groups preparing for such a thing. Gerard McMurray directs these scenes with such vigor, something he maintains in the action sequences at the end of the film which are handled with intensity and unconventional camera techniques. Holding the camera close to the action, but never obscuring it from the viewer.

All of the performances are equal and satisfactory across the board, with no one standing out more than the other. Although, Mugga provided some laughs and gags that were far more entertaining than the horror intended scenery of these overnight sociopaths.

“The First Purge” corrects that past mistake of the franchise though, showing how people wouldn’t become monsters when giving the green light to become one, but it all remains so ridiculous with it's narrative surrounding something as preposterous as providing legal action to murder, primarily when it's used to satisfy a close-minded argument.

It’s a politically charged film, receiving a politically charged review from both me and most likely many others. It’s has a lot more going for it than the past three films, but it maintains that same clickbait mentality. Trying to make something controversial, so that you have to see it and give it some money. Never delivering something worth a feature-length runtime, feeling better suited for an overfunded Youtube video on someone’s political channel feed.

Hereditary (2018)

   Director: Ari Aster  With: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, & Milly Shapiro. Release: Jun 8, 2018 R. 2 hr. 7 min. 

Director: Ari Aster
With: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, & Milly Shapiro.
Release: Jun 8, 2018
R. 2 hr. 7 min. 

 

Curled up in my seat, grasping my arms, breathing heavily, and struggling to not look around me at all times. These are the traits of an experience that a great horror film can manifest from its viewer, traits that I exhibited tonight at my screening for Ari Aster’s feature film debut, “Hereditary.” It’s a horror film designed to produce something different from the guessable and unimpactful mainstream horror that audiences are accustomed too, in fact, it's hard not to say that this film isn’t original. From it’s story to its use of the camera, “Hereditary” maintains this sense of unique and nuanced storytelling. 

A brilliantly written story that builds from something slow and dramatic that lingers with an atmosphere that chills you to the bone, to something off the rails with unexpected twists and shadowed silhouettes that are sure to haunt my dreams when I lay my head down later tonight. However, it’s also a story that is easy to spoil and ruin for someone unaware of the brilliance that they're about to witness. Ari Aster structures this story in a way that makes it that way, continually blending expected reality with that of horrific fiction making sure that if you give away the surprise, the party's ruined. 

You're never sure if the events your witnessing are occurring or just another figment of a nightmare though, like that of Annie’s (Toni Collette) sleepwalking, a habit of hers that once led her to drown her children and herself in paint thinner one night. Waking herself out of the numbified trance with the sound of a match being lit. It’s a story that explains this disruption in the family, well one of them that is. It all takes place after the death of Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother, a woman whose dominating personality estranged them away from each other. We learn her family has a lineage littered with tragedy, a father whose depression drove him to death from starvation, and a brother whose schizophrenia drove him to suicide by hanging. Leaving behind a suicide note that blamed his mother for letting them inside him. 

Annie (Toni Collette) doesn’t become stricken with grief, but somewhat guilt. Fearing her mother’s behavior would somehow become her own, tearing apart the family she loves. To deal with this fear, she articulates small figurines. Building a little three-dimensional portrait of her life, from the birth of her children to the recent loss of her mother. She crafts a small glance into the shell of her life, one that begins to haunt her when her family begins to struggle with inexplicable things. 

Her youngest daughter, Charlie (Milly Shapiro), ticks with creepiness and behavioral perplexions, like her deadly allergy to nuts. Yet it seems she’s chosen to eat them before, as we see her eating a chocolate bar during the funeral of Annie’s (Toni Collette) mother. Her father asks if it has nuts in it as if she willingly ate them before, well aware of her allergic liability. 

Her son, Peter (Alex Wolff), is someone attempting to understand his mother. Unable to forget her sleepwalking occurrence, he’s hard on her and always butting heads. They exchange a passive-aggressive tone of dialogue in a scene in which Peter (Alex Wolff) is asking to borrow the car to attend a friend’s party, a conversation that haunts our story later on. 

The husband, Steve (Gabriel Byrne), is a man of rationality and one that seems to be the backbone of the family, constantly reeling his wife back in. 

All of this is as much of the story that I am willing to give you in, why the fear starts or how it starts is something you’ll have to discover on your own. These are merely foregrounds for the characters, to allow you to understand the inherent emotion found in the horror that develops a sense of naturalistic realism. Realism that is maintained even when the story jumps from lingering articulative atmospheric fear to in your face and strangely believable events that are handled with a level of mastery from Aster. 

Aster in his first feature film has earned that definitive description of mastery because he continuously berates the story with nuance and sense of organized erratic behavior. Unable to predict what’s coming next, and feeling uneasy while you try to be two steps ahead of both Aster's visuals and his screenwriting. They work hand in hand, barely placing pressure on the strain of the audience until they suddenly reveal an image in which you see something lurking in the shadows. Something is remaining entirely still, staring back at you. The camera lingers, staying wide, steady, and calmly placed. Your eyes darting across the screen, and your hands gripping the theater chair, expecting to see something sporadically move, but Aster is not that simple. 

Aster keeps you on your toes in that way, always peeking around every corner of the story with this unsure sense of confidence, unable to predict the outcome. It’s unlike horror to do such a thing; we’re supposed to go in a be able to say “wait for it, here it comes,” as a loud screeching noise jolts through the surround sound, convulsing your friend out of their seat. Aster doesn’t do that though; he begins the film with slow, lingering, and depthful camera movements. They methodically meander throughout the frame, never in a rush to get to a scare or the next scene. He manifests an atmosphere; one the exemplifies something worth experiencing in a theatre. 

It’s worth that ten dollar ticket, if not to see the magnificent fright that awaits you, then to see Toni Collette throw her name out in front of the pack for the best female performance of 2018. Her facial expressions, her movement, her subtle smiles and twitches, and her constant evocation of emotional outrage is something worth a lot more than ten dollars. She grasps every drop of attention from the audience, pouring out her emotions on to the screen. Never shying away from going all-in, and knowing when to hold back. 

Milly Shapiro isn’t far behind though, in her first performance she inhabits a character that dispatches shivers. Manifesting a sound that is sure to be mimicked and replicated for years to come, one that merely involves you clicking your tongue. It becomes a dreaded noise in the film, one that when it occurs, it automatically riddles your body with goosebumps in anticipation for what could be lurking in the shadows. 

Alex Wolff and Gabriel Byrne are the backboned performances that could make or break this film. They remain tethered to reality, being the two representatives of those afraid of the events they witness. Not curious, not inspired by, just merely scared. Their performances hold the film together when it needs it most, being those utility tools that every filmmaker needs to craft something of this magnitude because they are essential to “Hereditary” becoming what it has been dubbed as, a masterpiece. 

It’s not this generation's “Exorcist,” nor is it the twenty-first century’s “Psycho.” “Hereditary” is something of its own, and it's insulting to call it something otherwise. It’s original; it’s the most prolific attribute that is worthy of the most praise. Ari Aster is a genius and one that has a bright future ahead of him. His direction of the actors, of the cinematographer, of the production team, and his pure manipulation of the audience is something exceptional from any director, let alone a first timer. Pawel Pogorzelski's cinematography, Colin Stetson's music, and the array of impeccable performances can’t go unmentioned, and now, neither can “Hereditary” when discussing the best of the horror genre. 

Zombieland (2009)

   Director: Ruben Fleischer With: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Amber Heard, & Bill Murray.  Release: Oct 2, 2009 R. 1 hr. 28 min.     

Director: Ruben Fleischer
With: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Amber Heard, & Bill Murray. 
Release: Oct 2, 2009
R. 1 hr. 28 min. 

 

 

Zombies are apart of a subgenre of horror that can be entirely predictable. The human focus, the virus spreading, the massive amounts of weaponry, and the overabundance of gore are all common expectations within any film that becomes apart of this flesh-eating genre. Ruben Fleischer’s “Zombieland” is no different, but like Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead,” “Zombieland” doesn’t exactly fit into the niche of the genre like you would expect. Instead, the film grasps the core essence of the genre and adds a humorous amount of normality with a young man being our narrator, as if this zombie-filled world is now something of comfort and expectation. With zombie kill of the week awards, rule lists, and makeup covered celebrities, everyone seems to have embraced this world that has been overtaken by the undead. 

Its an unusual perspective on the narrative of zombies right? Add in the facet of a narrator like Colombus (Jesse Eisenberg), a germaphobe, anxiety polluted, and little spit f*$k of a man. He’s the one who fills us in on how the world has gone to shit; the mad cow turned mad person disease that causes you to have a high fever, induced vomiting, and an extreme case of the munchies. He gives us advice on how to survive as well with a long list of rules, but four core guidelines give you the best chance of survival. 

Cardio, because the fat people were the first people to go when the world became a run for survival. Always double tap your attacker, because you don’t want to be that person who assumes you re-killed the undead flesh eater, only to learn that they’re now feasting on your corpse. Beware of bathrooms; zombies are not completely stupid; they know when your most vulnerable like in a bathroom with your pants down. And finally, always wear a seatbelt. You have enough things trying to kill you, so don’t be dumb and die because you got flung out of a car when attempting to escape from a group of cannibals. 

These are the four rules that Colombus (Jesse Eisenberg)  tells us to live by, but the list doesn’t stop there. It also includes guidelines such as limbering up, traveling light, and most importantly, don’t be a hero. These rules are challenged when Colombus (Jesse Eisenberg) runs into the ass-kicker known as Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). (By the way, none of these names are real but are actually their destinations, because you can’t trust anyone anymore, so their names remain hidden) He’s a man that lost the only thing that kept him sane and now spends his life enjoying the little things and finding happiness by killing as much of these flesh-eating assholes as he can. He’s a gun loving, banjo playing, and hedge clipping killing machine that not only inspires Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) but teaches him along the way. 

Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has some lessons to teach Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) as well though, meeting Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). Two girls who even before “Zombieland,” have spent their time bamboozling guys with their looks and with emotions. Tricking both Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), the man desperate for companionship, and Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), the man desperate for a family, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) play these guys with ease, and take all of their weapons as well as Tallahassee’s (Woody Harrelson) Cadillac. From there, our story gets jolted into this exciting, slick, and fun-filled ride. 

That’s not to say that genius screenwriters Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick don’t include the expected emotional struggles that would arrive with a world filled with zombies. Each character has their struggles, like Wichita (Emma Stone) just trying to allow her little sister to feel like a kid again, or Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) just wanting to be that nice guy turned hero for one lucky girl. There is plenty of emotion included in the screenplay, but never enough that it overshadows our witty comedy, which is the genius of Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick’s work in “Zombieland.” 

Ruben Fleischer provides a lense to the story, which is not his shining point as the director of “Zombieland.” The way he directs these actors is where Fleischer stands out, his ability to give these stars a sense of correlating direction. Driving Jesse Eisenberg to use that quirkiness he's known for to formulate a character that only he could depict, and giving Woody Harrelson this self-proclaimed badass who's actually a man trying to run away from his past. Add in the brilliance of a kid stuck in “Zombieland” in that of Abigail Breslin, and a big sister like Emma Stone trying to let her little sister feel like a kid once more, and you'll find a cast deserving of a sequel. This is where comedy directors shine, rarely is it the visual language that evokes the brilliance of a comedic filmmaker, but the way he’s able to direct his actors is where the best of em’ stand out. 

Ruben Fleischer displays that ability with “Zombieland,” a film that reminds us of our own ability to adapt. When things go wrong, even as wrong as zombies eating their way to our extinction, we continue to find a way to live with it all. Whether it's traveling to theme parks, invading celebrities million dollar homes, finding ways to make killing fun, or even making up a bunch of rules to keep us feeling safe. We can find a new home, a new family, and a new way of life. It’s one of our best qualities as human beings and one that “Zombieland” weaponizes into this comedic awesomeness of a zombie movie. 

Cloverfield (2008)

   Director: Matt Reeves With: Marlena Diamond, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, & Odette Yustman.  Release: January 18, 2008. PG-13. 1 hr. 25 min. 

Director: Matt Reeves
With: Marlena Diamond, Jessica Lucas, T.J. Miller, Michael Stahl-David, Mike Vogel, & Odette Yustman. 
Release: January 18, 2008.
PG-13. 1 hr. 25 min. 

 

J.J Abrams has become a king of marketing. Exploiting the use of surprises, mystery, and trailers in a far superior format than almost anyone else. One of his most significant feats of marketing was Matt Reeves 2008 film, “Cloverfield.” The “Godzilla” and “Blair Witch” crossover that took the film community by storm in its inaugural trailer drop that occurred during the opening night pre-show for Michael Bay’s “Transformers.” The trailer was mysterious and sent all of us film fans into a frenzy of research and obsession on the IMDB pages of the internet, but we would soon be even more surprised that the found-footage subgenre of Hollywood had manifested a surprisingly frightening thriller that answers the question: What would it be like to witness a monster attacking your city? 

Providing a lensed perspective for our journey, literally, Director Matt Reeves (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” & “War for the Planet of the Apes”) joins Screenwriter Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods” & “The Martian”) as they team with J.J Abrams’ Bad Robot Studios to provide an answer to that question. 

The film opens with a seemingly normal state of living as we are introduced to our first camera operator, Rob (Michael Stahl-David). He’s just awoken from a beautiful night out with the girl he loves, Beth (Odette Annable). She is his college crush and one that he finally got to spend a night with, and it leads to a setting that the camera continuously flashes back to when it becomes faulty, as if to say to the audience and whoever is watching this footage: “Remember when things were normal?” The footage fast-forwards by a month as we meet Lily (Jessica Lucas) and Rob’s (Michael Stahl-David) brother Jason (Mike Vogel) as they are shopping for supplies for Rob’s (Michael Stahl-David) going away party, as he’s been awarded a vice-president position at a company in Japan. While this party is being put together, Jason (Mike Vogel) hands off the camera to our chief camera operator, Hudson (T.J. Miller). 

He’s the best friend of the party’s star, but he’s that guy whose best friend with the most important guy, not necessarily friends with everyone else. He’s awkward, and constantly interrupting private conversations with the excuse that he’s “documenting.” Luckily, he continues documenting when the city comes under attack from something, as in the midst of some party drama, Manhattan shakes and quivers. As off the shores of the New York Harbor, an Oil Rig was surprised to unlock a crevasse that unleashed an organism of some sorts that is believed to have suffered from the scientific theory of deep-sea gigantism. Unlike a giant squid though, that may grow to be as big 13m in length, this monster is the size of buildings. It's lurking, carries multiple appendages, and has small arachnid/arthropod-like creatures descending from its outer shell. It's a reptilian-like arthropod creature that seems to be incredibly hard to kill. 

With missiles, machine gun fire, and massive caliber weaponry from tanks and fighter jets being unable to put a dent in its rampage. Our camera holder catches its fearsome arrival, but it's rarely shown in full view. No wide shots or steady frames are to be found, which can be quite frustrating as a filmgoer, but in that same frame of mind, it's the logicality behind the filming that bothers me. 

I can get past the shaky camera movements because this inexperienced photographer isn’t going to set-up a tripod to film, he going to carry it and point it to see what’s happening, he's not going to give the viewer a visual language to follow. But the idea of the camera surviving nuclear fallout, multiple drops to the concrete floor, or that its battery lasts this long is something hard to believe. This is a cheap 2008 camera being used in the midst of firefights; I doubt it would make it as far as it does. 

Nonetheless, the film does maintain a sense of realism that overcomes that one aspect of implausibility. Its perspective lensing provides for some incredible sequences that would never be shot by some random dude, but a talented cinematographer like Michael Bonvillain (“Zombieland” & “American Ultra”) could definitely fabricate them. His mastermind direction from Matt Reeves leads to a multitude of scenes that are exceptionally thrilling, one that continues to send shivers down my spine takes place in the subways tracks of New York City. 

Our group of everyday joes head back into the city, after losing a few friends, to help Rob (Michael Stahl-David) save the girl that he loves. On their way back into midtown, they are bombarded by a fleet of U.S soldiers launching another attack on the gargantuan beast, the sounds of war drown out our characters' dialogue, a realistic use of the sound design that warrants some applause. Stuck down in the subways, they wait for the war zone to move on, but after a few hours pass they attempt to take the trails of the subway to her apartment. While in the midst of awkward conversation made by our doofus camera operator, rats begin to flee between their feet. 

Lily (Jessica Lucas) states “They’re all running in the same direction,” Rob (Michael Stahl-David) calmly suggests “Yeah, like they’re running away from something.” Moments later an eerie growl echoes through the tunnels, as Rob (Michael Stahl-David) shows Hudson (T.J. Miller) how to use the night vision. Once it comes on, we see those same small creatures walking on the ceiling, staring into the lens of the camera. Their growls and rumbles begin to overwhelm the audio as they attack our group, even biting one of them as she risked herself by saving our camera holder. 

It all feels too cinematic to be believable as someone’s lost footage from the event known as “Cloverfield,” but it lends to some frightening sequences nonetheless because it's doesn’t carry too much of Hollywood’s fingerprints to seem implausible. It sucks you into the story as if your there alongside them, watching all of this as it occurs. The use of shielding the identity of the monster, the performances from relatively unknown actors, and the constant barrage of shaky cam assist in the film feeling naturalistic or like the legitimate dose of realism that found-footage is designed to be. “Cloverfield” is one of those films that alongside its brilliant marketing, uses it's filmmaking techniques to assist it's storytelling past the hurdles that if filmed otherwise, would be seen as mundane. 

The camera operator, Hudson, depicted by T.J. Miller in his first acting gig, is someone that assists in that believability. Many see him as kind of douche who is continually sticking the camera in his friends face instead of consoling them or making conversation about flaming homeless men in the midst of an already stressful situation. If a monster attacked your city though, wouldn’t you find some way for your brain to comprehend everything? What if talking out of your ass was your defensive mechanism? Things become weird when were placed in those sort of life or death situations, it just so happens that this is how Hud (T.J. Miller) dealt with it all. I can’t blame him for that, which is just the icing on the cake for a film that uses all the tools available to become something far more legitimate than you’d expect. 
 

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

   Director: Dan Trachtenberg With: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr., Douglas M. Griffin, & Suzanne Cryer. Release: Mar 11, 2016 PG-13. 1 hr. 43 min. 

Director: Dan Trachtenberg
With: John Goodman, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr., Douglas M. Griffin, & Suzanne Cryer.
Release: Mar 11, 2016
PG-13. 1 hr. 43 min. 

 

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is a film that is best experienced rather than explained, so if you care about having a surprising and fulfilling experience then stop reading this review, go watch it, and come back. I will do my best to tippy-toe around the corners of the narrative, but be prepared to learn some plot details that were cloaked by a remarkably secretive marketing campaign, something Bad Robots Studios excels at. 

J.J Abrams “Godzilla” meets “Twilight Zone” universe has finally revealed it's identity on a large scale, speaking out to the notion of a cinematic universe or any correlation between the films. “10 Cloverfield Lane” is not blood-related kin to “Cloverfield,” the handheld monster feature that shocked the film world, it’s more of a distant cousin or relative that shares the same genetic makeup but stands on its own two feet.

This is a taut, lean, mean, frightening, and relentlessly paced thriller that is carried by both phenomenal performances and an astounding directorial debut from Dan Trachtenberg.  Fabricating a story centering around Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young fashion designer who leaves in a rush from her apartment, seemingly backing out of a marriage we suspect, as the camera lingers on a lonely wedding ring. After a phone call with her fiance, she’s suddenly rammed off the road in a grippingly enthralling car crash. 

Later, she wakes up in a basement. There is no windows, no sign of outer life. She has an IV providing her with fluids, she has a knee brace that is handcuffed to a bed rail, and a large stranger of a man greets her. The warmth and cheerful John Goodman strolls onto the scene, but he’s depicting a quirky and creepily charming doomsday prepper named Howard this time around. 

He seems like a germaphobe, a rule follower as well, refusing to allow curse words to fly at the dinner table. He runs a tight ship as he’s prepared a doomsday box, telling Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and us that there has been an attack, one that has left the air chemically intoxicated. Capable of burning the flesh right off our bones. Along with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), there is a young man named Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) who helped Howard (John Goodman) construct this apocalyptic shelter. 

From there, we question what is fact and what is fiction. “Cloverfield” fans will spend their time ciphering through snippets of dialogue and background easter eggs, hoping to find some direct correlation with the previous film. I, on the other hand, have a theory about alternating universes which seems to hold more water at this point, because “10 Cloverfield Lane” is not as much a sequel as much as it is a spin-off from “Cloverfield.” 

Never admitting to a monster attacking New York and any of the events of the last film, maintaining a constant distinction from the beast from under the sea. Allowing Trachtenberg to create a close-knit, intimately designed thriller that is aesthetically proficient. Working alongside cinematographer Jeff Cutter (“Orphan” & “Yellow”), Trachtenberg moves the camera continuously, giving us an understanding of the layout of this little entrapment of living space. We know where everything is as if we could redesign it ourselves, giving us an idea of how small and enclosed the area around our characters must feel, a signifier of brilliance from Trachtenberg. 

He builds a tension-riddled atmosphere that matches the same tone as the previous film. Matching the likes of an Alfred Hitchcock film, “10 Cloverfield Lane” constructs itself like a cat and mouse game that keeps us guessing as to what we should believe. The colors maintain a dull vividness of colors almost, ranging from turquoise green to baby sky blue to a light shade of pink. Painting a film that not only supports investment through intricate screenwriting but attentive color design as well. 

Someone that assists in that constant second-guessing is John Goodman. He makes your skin crawl, never becoming an outright lunatic. He’s on that tipping point between insanity and plain weirdness, blurring the lines between a man that believes in conspiracy theories and a man that is crazy enough to think they’re real enough to prepare for them. He comes off as charming at times, as a man believing that he’s doing the right thing, even becoming someone that we begin to resonate with, eventually those fluffy feelings that Goodman provides wear off when secrets come to light. 

Winstead cannot go unnoticed either; she matches the brilliance of Goodman. Remaining in character at all times, never allowing a dose of implausibility or negligence to enter into her character’s dynamic. She’s empowering and smart, the three-man team of writers assists in that, but Winstead brings this character to life. She’s our conduit, our eyes to the story being unveiled, continuously responding to each hindrance and obstacle in ways that are witty, believable, and reliably convincing. 

John Gallagher Jr. is excellent as well in his first appearance since his stay on Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom," but the writing positions him as a building block for the narrative to continue, almost wasting his character like a utility tool. This, along with an abruptly interluded third act, makes “10 Cloverfield Lane” stagger to the finish line. Stumbling and tripping over implicit promises made to the audience, almost forcing itself to become something unnecessary. 

Though appreciable, the third act finale of “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a bit over the top and cuts like a knife through the tension manifested in the first two halves of the film. The strong performances, outstanding directorial efforts, and the intricate screenwriting assist in making this film be able to overcome the batty sci-fi turn that Damien Chazelle, Josh Campbell, and Matthew Stuecken produce. 

They also produce a claustrophobic, tense, and tightly crafted thriller beforehand, one that excels because of the revelations that were hidden by masterful marketing. The future of the universe of alternating timelines, or dimension, or universes, or whatever the answer is to the questions that are sure to be posed by the fandom of “Cloverfield,” seems to hold well. With Abrams on-board, I’m not sure there is a limit to the potential of this universe. A superb alternative to the blockbuster world of superheroes for film fans to dive into. Who doesn't love counter-programming, right?

Editor's Note: This review was originally published on Mar 13, 2016 to critiquingcinema.com and has been re-written for qualitative purposes. 

The Witch (2016)

   Director: Robert Eggers With: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings, & Wahab Chaudhry. Release: Feb 19, 2016 R. 1 hr. 32 min. 

Director: Robert Eggers
With: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Sarah Stephens, Julian Richings, & Wahab Chaudhry.
Release: Feb 19, 2016
R. 1 hr. 32 min. 

 

At it’s best, Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” is an outstanding stage play. It attempts to be something in the vein of “The Shining” in which it relies on its atmospheric tension to spread throughout its story. Something that I noticed, enjoyed, and waited to be matched by a story that is a self-professed as “a New England Folktale,” or a fairy tale, which are meant to be parables for moral values, which raises the question of what moral values are being paralleled through this fictitious tale? 

It’s a feminized horror movie, placing Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), the eldest daughter, as our conduit of sorts. We follow her from the very beginning of the film, which is meanderingly slow, too slow in fact. Nevertheless, it takes place in a late 16th-century pilgrimage where our colonial family is forced to leave for being too puritan for a Puritan community. Forced to leave their home, they move to a remote location near the edge of the woods. On a cloudy mid-day, while playing a game of peekaboo with the newborn son, Samuel, Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) removes her hands from her eyes to see a blanket without a baby. 

We watch this person in a red cloak hurdle through the woods, moving briskly and heavily. We soon discover that this is a witch attempting to remain young, how she does that is disturbingly authentic, seeing as Eggers relied upon satanic cultural traditions to write his screenplay. This event creates a diffusion in the family in which they struggle to cope with the loss of a child, but also begin to become tormented by both each other and the possibility of Thomasin (Anna Taylor-Joy) being a witch in hiding. Blaming the power of female independence for the treachery and wretchedness that has begun to curse the family. 

It’s a feminist revenge movie in hiding, attempting to be far more clever than it actually is. Not to mention the lack of terror to be found in an atmosphere seeping with tension, something that Eggers builds remarkably. Alongside the eerie composition provided by Mark Korven, Eggers and his cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke (“Fray” & “Shimmer Lake”), give us this colloquially haunting scenery. The woods and autumn look of the environment can become quite chilly to watch, but the story doesn’t seem to match this horrifying beauty constructed by these three talented technicians. 

Eggers’ screenplay is missing that essence of horror for me. It has scary concepts within it, such as the blindness of faith that can separate families or the discrimination of female independence within those sermons of religion, but they don’t ever feel focused upon. It’s as if Eggers’ is playing every side of the fence without deciding on what this story is about, which is meant to create ambiguity, but it also manifests confusion.  

It can be hard to diffuse between what is scarier, a witch cursing a family or the inherent conflict between autonomy and trust in something that has been inflicted upon you. Eggers never chooses between the two or introduces anything that enforces either message, a trait that feels as if it's causing this story to feel empty for myself. 

The film is very artsy-smartsy though, so it’s hard to say there should be one clean-cut way to how this narrative should be viewed or dissected, but that seems to be an inherent flaw in storytelling. Making the screenwriter sound so much smarter than he is, as if he’s afraid to choose a purpose to his tale because he’s scared of being unable to carry a metaphor to it's meaning. 

That’s not to say the film isn’t scary though, Eggers’ does provide some incredible moments of atmospheric tension as I described above, but also some visuals that are simply disturbing. Specifically our introduction to the witch in this murky and firelit cabin in the woods, we see her stew around the remains of a newborn's body, in a sequence that is as terrifying as it sounds. The authenticity of that scene is also what’s horrifying, as there we’re satanic cults that we’re attempting to label this film as a propaganda piece for their belief system, another unsettling thing to be found in a film brought down by its lack of focus. 

Anya Taylor-Joy is unashamedly confident in this performance. Carrying this aura of expertise to her role, despite this being her first leading role. She carries this film in those duller moments with this level of believability and charisma that is hard to ignore, giving the film far more than it gives to her. Ralph Ineson, who depicts the father, has such a raspy and deepened voice that fits the time in which his character resides. He like Kate Dickie and Harvey Scrimshaw do fall into the category of stage performers in which they’re unable to make their dialogue sound natural or organic. 

That barrier between investment and the self-awareness of watching a movie becomes noticeable, diffusing all tension that was fabricated before that point. Harvey struggles with this in particular while depicting the oldest son; he becomes a target for the witch for his aspiring lustful nature as a young man. When he becomes the reliable aspect of our horror, he walks a tightrope between overacting and not acting enough. It’s a performance that brings the whole movie to a holt at times, but that old-English dialect is at fault as well, feeling unnatural to both the actors reading these lines and the audience listening to them. 

Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” is a surprising and better than most horror feature that plays with its artsy-fartsy style far more than it should. It’s old-English dialogue, and sheer lack of purpose brings those moments of atmospheric strain back down to earth in a way that isn’t near as terrifying as it could’ve been. The film, near its end, has a decision to make between that parable moral tale or a literal witch tale, I think Eggers made the wrong decision. Sometimes, reality is far more terrifying than fiction. 
 

Editor's Note: This review was originally published on Feb 26, 2016 to critiquingcinema.com and has been re-written for qualitative purposes.