Month: February 2017

XX

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XX is a unique horror anthology in that not only stars women, but all of the shorts are also written and directed by women. Since women writing and directing in the horror genre tend to be few and far between, it is refreshing that these talented females collaborated to create this film. The anthology starts with what could be called an overarching story, but really it is simply a bizarre string of stop motion images to set the eerie tone for what’s to come. While there didn’t seem to be much of a purpose to the stop motion animation other than to act as a visual intermission between segments, it was still quite beautiful in a disturbing way. In order to properly review the rest of the film I will divide by each segment in order of how they were shown.

The Box: This segment was written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic. Her work has primarily been in short films up to this point, and you can see from this segment that it is something she does very well. The Box is about a boy who looks into a gift box belonging to a man on the subway. From that moment on he completely loses any desire to eat for no apparent reason. The rest of the film focuses on the mother, played by Natalie Brown (The Strain, Channel Zero), as she watches her family wither away into nothingness. The makeup and practical effects used to make the son look like he’s starving to death are disturbingly realistic. This short is a slow burn into darkness that is atmospheric and somewhat melancholy. It is a beautifully done short that is also well acted, but I found myself wanting just a little more from the ending.

The Birthday Party: A woman finds her husband dead the morning of her daughter’s big birthday party. Trying not to ruin the celebration, the woman does what she can to keep the body out of sight. This short is written and directed by Annie Clark (also known as St. Vincent). While Clark is known for her music, this is her first attempt at writing and directing a short film. One of my favorite things about this short is the twisted sense of humor about it. Additionally, it had a strange, brightly-colored mid-century modern look to it that reminded me a bit of Edward Scissorhands. I also thought Melanie Lynskey (Togetherness, Up in the Air) was hilarious and relatable as the mother, Mary. This is probably the most visually stunning of the shorts in this anthology, and the most fun.

Don’t Fall: Of all the shorts in XX, Don’t Fall feels the most like a classic horror film. Written and directed by Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound), this short follows a group of friends going on a hiking and camping trip in the desert. After the four friends find ancient cave paintings, one of the friends becomes possessed by a creature that was depicted in those paintings. This is by far the most frightening of the shorts, as well as the most action-packed. There are some excellent shots set up in such a way that the possessed girl appears to be doing things that should be impossible. It is easy to see how the filmmakers achieved these scenes, but it doesn’t take away from the visual impact.

Her Only Living Son: This short is written and directed by Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Jennifer’s Body) who is probably the most well known of these four women due to her previous work in horror. The story follows a mother preparing for her only son’s eighteenth birthday. In the days leading up to this we learn that her son has some sociopathic tendencies that get worse as his birthday approaches. The main aspect of this short that I really enjoyed was the sense of impending doom. Also, one could easily look at the story as an unofficial sequel to Rosemary’s Baby (and perhaps that was the intent). I thought Christina Kirk (Love is Strange, Taking Woodstock) performed the role of Cora, the mother, quite well. Despite this I still didn’t love the character. She is a bit too meek throughout most of the film and can’t muster the strength to control her son’s dangerous actions.

The aptly named XX (so named because the XX chromosomes determine female sex) is a celebration of women creating bewitching works of horror. These shorts result in a highly entertaining anthology focusing on different areas of horror. While each of them are marvelous in their own way, I would have to say my favorite segment of XX is The Birthday Party. It is quite fitting this anthology would be released during the eighth annual Women in Horror month. By watching this film you are lending your support to women who want to make a name for themselves in the horror industry by working behind the camera rather than in front of it. This is a trend I hope to see more of in the future.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

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Get Out

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A talented young black photographer goes on a trip with his white girlfriend to meet her family. Once they arrive at the luxurious and secluded estate, he notices that the only other black people in the area serve the rich white families. Even more strange is their behavior. After one of the few black residents snaps and screams for the young photographer to get out, it becomes clear that there is something much more sinister going on in this quiet little town.

In recent years there has been a rise in traditionally comedic writers breaking their way into the horror genre. We saw Diablo Cody do it with Jennifer’s Body, Kevin Smith did it with Red State and Tusk, and soon we will see Danny McBride do it for a new Halloween film. Get Out is not only Jordan Peele’s first dive into writing a horror film, but it is also his directorial debut. Along with those who preceded him, Peele does an amazing job of creating a dark and twisted film that is still heavily laced with humor.

Like many horror films that are also humorous, Peele focuses on a social issue and then exaggerates to the point of being satirical. Get Out focuses on a young black man meeting his white girlfriend’s apparently racist family and all of their racist friends. That isn’t a new idea that audiences haven’t seen, but Peele takes it a step further creating something exciting, unique, and darkly funny. I won’t go into too much detail, but Peele does a great job of giving the audience clues throughout the film leading up to the climax and a few great surprises. Another interesting thing to note is that, while this film focuses on white people being racist against black people, it manifests differently than you would expect. Again, I will spare further details because it may spoil a few surprises, but you will understand what I mean once you see the film. The only negative I can really say is that Peele attempts to include a few classic horror movie jump scares. They are clearly meant to startle the audience, but they fall short of actually scaring anyone.

This is a film where every actor, no matter the size of their part, does a tremendous job in their roles. Daniel Kaluuya (Sicario, Kick-Ass 2) is delightful as the lead, Chris. He is charming, funny, and fierce when he needs to be. For those who have read my reviews so far in 2017, you may have noticed two films I reviewed where I complained about British actors playing Americans and how I could hear British their accents break through. It is a major pet peeve of mine. Kaluuya is British, yet not once can you tell by listening to him speak. That alone gives him points for me. One surprise performance comes from Allison Williams (Girls, Peter Pan) as the girlfriend, Rose. In the past I have not been a fan of her acting, but Williams won me over in Get Out, especially in the second half of the film when things take a turn for the worst. There is one smaller role that really grabs my attention over and over again during the film. Betty Gabriel (The Purge: Election Year, Good Girls Revolt) blew me away as the housekeeper, Georgina. Gabriel’s performance is somehow unsettling and hilarious all at once. While these three stand out to me, there is truly not one actor in the film that I can think of who isn’t fantastic.

While the content of this film is not so subtle, the effects are. Virtually all of the practical effects are utilized during the climax of the film. The filmmakers make a wise decision in these scenes by not fully showing any kind of gore. There are clearly well done practical effects, but to keep the focus off the more unsightly things, the filmmakers never show them in full focus. Much of the events that necessitate practical effects occur just off camera or at an angle where you can clearly see what is going on without getting the full visual. While I enjoy a healthy amount of gore as much as the next horror fan, this method works for Get Out because it forces you to pay more attention to the events taking place rather than the amount of blood and guts. The only other special effects in the film create what is known as the “sunken space.” It gives the audience a compelling visual of what hypnotism looks like from within the mind of one who is being hypnotized.

The horror of Get Out is not only the events that take place, but also the racism that fuels these events. Jordan Peele skillfully takes on a serious social issue in a unique light that results in a thrilling film dripping with dark humor. I’m sure it’s no accident that Get Out is being released during Black History Month, especially in the current political climate. This film is dark, twisted, hilarious, exciting, mysterious, and incredibly well acted. People from a vast array of backgrounds and ages can enjoy Get Out because it has a little something for everyone. I have a feeling that Get Out will make my top ten of 2017 list at the end of the year.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

A Cure for Wellness

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A young financial executive is given a unique task. He must travel to Europe in order to retrieve the CEO of the company he works for. The CEO has been staying at a wellness center at the base of the Swiss Alps and doesn’t seem to have any intention of leaving. Upon the young executive’s arrival it is immediately apparent there is something strange about this place. After an accident, the man becomes a patient at the center, giving him time to discover its dark secrets.

A Cure for Wellness creates an atmospheric gothic tale set in modern times. It is one of the most visually stunning films I have seen in a while. In the beginning the setting is in the modern high rises of New York, but once the audience is taken to the wellness center it is almost like going back in time. There is no technology at this place aside from things that would have been available more than fifty years ago. Even the way the staff dresses has an old fashioned feel. It makes the setting almost feel whimsical while being ominous at the same time. The cinematography used throughout the film only enhances this look and feel, giving viewers a visual feast.

The plot in this film at times comes across as convoluted, but overall I enjoyed it. There is a clear sense throughout the film of insanity. It comes across through the lead character. As he digs deeper into the past of the wellness center and their treatments there is a sense that he may actually be losing his mind. Are his discoveries real or a figment of his imagination? This is enhanced by showcasing a series of bizarre images that are not necessarily relevant to the plot. In all honesty, these scenes are unnecessary. The film is already lengthy. By adding random images it stretches the film out too much and only succeeds in confusing the audience instead of helping them further understand the story. There is a level of hypersexualization in many of these scenes that feels forced and irrelevant to what is going on. There are also many references to eels throughout the film. While there is one small explanation for their importance, there are also scenes which include the eels that are not explained enough. If you push aside the more random and unexplainable aspects of the film you will find a very interesting and unique plot hidden within. The filmmakers did an excellent job of slowly divulging details one by one until the climax of the film where the horrific truth is revealed.

This film has an outstanding cast from the leads to the smaller outlying characters. The three leads are particular standouts. Dane DeHaan (Chronicle, The Amazing Spider-Man) portrayed the young executive, Lockhart. His performance stands out because he manages to portray a character who is determined to find the truth and complete his task while also making it appear that his sanity is unraveling. Jason Isaacs (The Patriot, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) plays Volmer, the head of the wellness center. As always Isaacs does an amazing job of creating a menacing character that is also quite charming. We also get to watch relative newcomer Mia Goth (Everest, The Survivalist) as the only young patient at the wellness center, Hannah. Goth exudes such innocence and naivety in this film, creating a stark contrast to the darkness that surrounds her.

The effects in A Cure for Wellness are minimal, but very well done. One of the more common effects seen throughout the film is the CGI eels. The eels are often shown in the film and the effects are very well done. I never look at them thinking they are not real eels. The only other definitively CGI effects are seen at the climax of the film. I won’t go into too much detail since it would be a spoiler, but the CGI in this particular scene does not appear quite as realistic as the eels, yet it still leaves quite an impression. On multiple occasions the audience is shown patients at the wellness center who appear greatly emaciated. This effect is so well done that I honestly can’t tell you if it is done with practical effects or CGI. Whichever method is used, the filmmakers manage to make people look gaunt and skeletal in a very realistic way.

A Cure for Wellness gives audiences a unique story dripping with fantastical imagery and gothic styling. At the same time the film is also riddled with scenes that could be considered fluff and some aspects that are left unexplained. Some people will leave the theater feeling unimpressed and bored. Others will be able to look past some of the flaws to see the beautiful film that lies within. While this film will likely end up polarizing audiences one way or the other, I would say that it is at least worth a watch. If you don’t enjoy the plot the way I do, you can at least enjoy the artistry in the way the story was filmed.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Rings

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Julia’s boyfriend, Holt, disappears after beginning a special assignment for one of his professors. She goes to his college to try to find out where he has gone. She discovers that the professor and Holt are involved in an investigation surrounding a mysterious tape that kills people seven days after watching it. Julia watches the tape, but something is different about the images this time. Julia and Holt race to find the meaning behind these images before Julia’s seven days have run out.

Rings is the kind of film one goes into with very low expectations. It is the third installment of the American franchise of The Ring, there was a large drop in quality between the first and second installments, the film is rated PG-13, and the two leads are played by relatively unknown young actors. This film has many flaws, but considering how low my expectations were I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. This installment of the franchise built a lot on some of the mythology that was slightly hinted at in the previous films. I really enjoyed how the filmmakers added different images to the tape we already knew in order to create a new and interesting investigation into Samara’s past.

While the expansion of the mythology was fascinating, the plot focused so much on this aspect that there was virtually no tension. Not only did the film lack any truly tense moments, but there weren’t even any good jump scares. Jump scares are a pivotal part of PG-13 horror films. There were scenes where the filmmakers were clearly trying to elicit fear from the audience, but they did not succeed. The film felt more like a drama or mystery that just happened to have a cursed tape and a ghost girl. Rings also had incredibly weak opening and closing scenes. The opening scene was just ludicrous. It attempts to set up what we already know about how the cursed tape works, but on such a ridiculously grand scale to the point where it is almost laughable. It is also unnecessary since shortly after there is another scene that acts in the same function with much more striking imagery. The end scene ruined the plot a bit for me because it felt all too familiar and didn’t really work with some of the implications from earlier events in the film.

There seems to be a recent trend with PG-13 horror films where the leading roles are filled by unknown actors that aren’t necessarily great at their job, and then lesser roles are filled by recognizable faces. In Rings there are two actors that not only do a good job in their supporting roles, but they are also people audiences will likely be familiar with. Johnny Galecki (The Big Bang Theory, In Time) played the egocentric college professor while Vincent D’Onofrio (Daredevil, Jurassic World) played a blind man who managed the graveyard where Samara was buried. Both actors gave great performances and added hidden depth to their characters. In the leading role of Julia we had Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz (Summertime, L’Universale). There were two main issues with her performance; 1. There were many times where I could hear her Italian accent come through while she was portraying an American. 2. She seemed almost aloof through most of the events that took place, which was part of the reason why the film didn’t feel as tense. The role of Julia’s boyfriend, Holt, was played by Alex Roe ( The 5th Wave, The Cut). He also gave off a bit of a nonchalant vibe throughout the film. It’s difficult to say if that was a conscious choice by the director or if these two were simply inexperienced and unable to show true emotion. Together the two leads were completely lacking in on screen chemistry as a couple, and I did not find them even remotely believable as eighteen year old kids.

Rings provides an interesting expansion on the mythology of Samara, but offers little else. The intrigue was enough to keep my interest. The complete lack of scares, bad acting, and horrendous opening and closing scenes turned a story with potential into a mediocre film. I think the film was better than what the trailer led people to believe, but in the end it will likely be forgotten by the end of the month. If you are a fan of The Ring franchise then you will likely enjoy learning more about the curse. For the more casual movie goers, you may want to pass on this particular film.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10