It Follows


Post-coital bliss.

Post-coital bliss.

(2015) Horror (Radius) Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Lili Sepe, Olivia Luccardi, Jake Weary, Daniel Zovatto, Bailey Spry, Carolette Phillips, Loren Bass, Charles Gertner, Debbie Williams, Ruby Harris, Linda Boston, Leisa Pulido, D.J. Oliver, Ingrid Mortimer, Kourtney Bell, Alexyss Spradlin, Mike Lanier, Scott Norman, Claire Sloma. Directed by David Robert Mitchell

Horror films are kind of the bastard stepchildren of cinema. Disrespected critically, nonetheless horror films have a rabid following that have kept it the most profitable genre in movies as they tend to cost very little to make but when they connect with audiences, they can bring in hundreds of millions in revenue.

However, horror movies tend to attract a lot of hack filmmakers who assume that they can just recycle a tired concept, throw some fake blood at the camera and that millions of teenagers will automatically love them. It doesn’t work that way. Truly innovative horror movies are a sad rarity these days and ones that are skillfully made even less so. We’ve been in a drought over the past six or seven years in terms of really good horror movies, but there are indications that not only is that drought over but we may be entering a new golden age of really good horror movies much as we did back in the late ’70s.

This movie is giving me reason for that kind of hope. The premise is terrifyingly simple; Jay (Monroe), a beautiful blonde teen girl living in the suburbs of Detroit, has been dating a sweet young man named Hugh (Weary). As teenagers will do, they have sex together in a parked car. Then the wheels fall off.

It turns out that Hugh – which isn’t his real name – has a curse. Not a sexually transmitted disease, although it is sexually transmitted, and he has passed it on to Jay. She is now being stalked by a demonic presence that approaches at a slow walking pace. If it touches her, she’ll die. The only way to stop the curse is to pass it on to someone else – by having sex with them, and then telling them the rules. If the demon kills one of the cursed, it then goes after the person who gave the curse back to them and then down the line, presumably to the person who started it all. Oh, and the person infected is the only person who can see the demon, who takes human form, often of people that the victim knows.

Of course, Jay’s circle of friends – her sister Kelly (Sepe), their bookish friend Yara (Luccardi) and their quiet friend Paul (Gilchrist) who has a huge crush on Jay which he’s had since grade school, as well as neighborly stud Greg (Zovatto) – are skeptical at first. Then, they experience the demon themselves, which has a physical presence, they just can’t see it so it manifests itself by moving objects or throwing them about like rag dolls. Since they don’t have the curse, its touch isn’t deadly to them. See how that works?

Mitchell, whose previous film was the gentle comedy The Myth of the American Sleepover shows that he has the proper chops for a horror master. Few movies have ever pulled off the kind of tension that Mitchell has. Basically from the first ten minutes on most audience members will be on the edge of their seat. Think about it; any person at any time that is walking towards the main character can be the demon. It can make for some harrowing viewing.

Mitchell doesn’t give a lot of information about the rules beyond what I’ve already explained; this is a good and a bad thing. Good in that it doesn’t overburden the movie with exposition, bad in that at some points the movie could have used some.

The teen characters here act a lot like teens; they don’t always make smart decisions and they tend to operate more on hormones and emotions rather than good sense. They aren’t bad kids, mind you – they’re more like normal kids who are capable of being both real sweet and real assholes. Like I said, just like normal teens. The acting is solid though not spectacular and all of the kids here are more or less attractive.

One of the ongoing bits of business in the movie is that Yara, the bookish friend, is constantly reading from a Kindle-like device that’s shaped like a clam shell for no discernible reason although for the sake of transparency I did hear one teen in the audience at my screening exclaim “I want one” so maybe there was a reason. This leads to the point that the time period that the movie is set in is kind of indeterminate; the cars and houses look like they came from the early ’80s, the clam shell device from a few years from now and the movies the kids watch are all at least 50 years old. That makes It Follows kind of timeless.

There are a few nitpicks. The book Yara is reading is by Dostoyevsky which isn’t what I would call normal teen reading; it would have been more believable to have her reading one of the Twilight books although I would imagine getting the rights to use the name of that series might have been too dear for a micro-budgeted indie horror film like this.

The main problem is the climax, set in a gorgeous public swimming pool in Detroit which provides a spooky enough setting without adding a CGI thunderstorm (which they add anyway). The idea of lining the edges of the pool with electrical devices plugged into wall sockets with the idea of kicking them all in simultaneously once the demon gets into the water without knowing whether or not the thing is immune to electrical shock seems a bit dumb; clearly the electrical devices don’t work on Jay because the creature tosses them in the pool while she’s in it to no discernible effect. The last image in the movie is rather ambiguous but I kind of liked that; I respect any filmmaker who lets audiences draw their own conclusions.

I was strongly reminded of the feeling I got seeing the John Carpenter Halloween in theaters back in ’78. It Follows has the same Midwestern suburban vibe but as a modern twist it adds the crumbling structure of Detroit itself with ruined and abandoned buildings providing an eerie backdrop, like pretending to be normal as the world is ending. I suspect that this will be considered a horror classic the same way Halloween was and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were plenty of imitators that come out after this, but hopefully that will also spur a lot of really good directors and writers to try their hands at making a horror movie that’s smart, scary and innovative. The fact that the response at the box office was so strong that Radius was prompted to change their distribution plans from a slight release in a few select theaters with a simultaneous VOD release to a wide release while postponing the VOD release. Horror fans should make a point of seeing this as should fans of good movies. Definitely one of the year’s best thus far.

REASONS TO GO: One of the most tense horror films of the past 20 years. Imaginative concept. Propulsive score.
REASONS TO STAY: The climax is a bit of a stretch.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexuality with graphic nudity, terrifying images, and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Redford Theater depicted in the film really exists in Detroit. It has a Wurlitzer Organ and is one of the finest revival houses in the Midwest.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Halloween (1978)
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Higher Ground

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The Place Beyond the Pines


Ryan Gosling wonders why he's always cast as a great driver.

Ryan Gosling wonders why he’s always cast as a great driver.

(2012) Drama (Focus) Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn, Harris Yulin, Bruce Greenwood, Olga Merediz, Robert Clohessy, Kayla Smalls, Jennifer Sober, Luca Pierucci, Gabe Fazio, Brian Smyj, Greta Seacat, Ephraim Benton, Vanessa Thorpe, Sabrina Lott. Directed by Derek Cianfrance   

As the saying goes, the sins of the father are visited upon the sons. This is, I suppose, a way of tying together the behaviors of a son that ape those of his father, often to the detriment of the son.

The Place Beyond the Pines is a story told in three parts. The first concerns Luke Glanton (Gosling), a skilled motorcycle stunt driver who as part of a travelling carnival moves from town to town. The buff, bleach blonde Glanton doesn’t seem to have a problem finding women to sleep in much as a sailor has a girl in every port. In Schenectady, that girl is Romina (Mendes), a waitress who doesn’t appear to have much more to look forward to than sore feet and occasional liaisons with men she probably shouldn’t have them with. A baby results from this union and Luke impulsively decides to quit the wandering life to settle down and help raise the baby.

However, Romina has moved on somewhat since her fling with Luke and has found a steady boyfriend in Kofi (Ali),  who is willing to help raise baby Jason as his own. Romina though has a soft spot for her bad boy who wants to do the right thing. Unfortunately Luke has fallen in with Robin (Mendelsohn), a small-time criminal who runs an auto body shop. It is he who puts the idea in Luke’s head that the easiest way to support his kid properly is to rob banks. Luke, barely able to make ends meet on his own, slowly finds it to be a good idea. Thing like this, however, rarely remain good for long.

The second part of the story belongs to Avery Cross (Cooper), a cop whose father (Yulin) – a judge and a local power broker – doesn’t approve of his son’s career choice and is perfectly willing to express his opinions. Avery and his wife Jennifer (Byrne) are busy raising a one-year-old son on their own when Avery is shot on the job. He is at home rehabilitating but is anxious to get back to work. Jennifer is torn – she wants space at home to raise her kid, but is terrified Avery’s next encounter with violence won’t end so fortunately.

Avery gets wind of some corrupt cops, led by Detective Deluca (Liotta), Avery’s partner and friend Scott (Fazio) and Doc (Pierucci). At first Avery kind of lets things go but when he realizes that with every act of compromise he’s getting in deeper with these guys, he decides to blow the whistle. This won’t be easy particularly since he doesn’t know how high the corruption goes. Is Chief Wierzbowsky (Clohessy) clean? Can he trust District Attorney Killcullen (Greenwood)?

The final part of the story takes place 15 years afterwards as Avery’s troubled son AJ (Cohen) moves from a more urban school to Schenectady where his father grew up. Avery, whose ambitions as a cop have blossomed into a run for State Attorney General , doesn’t really have time for his rap-spewing drug-addled boy. At the new school he meets Jason (DeHaan), a kind of quiet smart kid who hits it off with AJ based on both boys love of getting high.

AJ is definitely trouble but Jason isn’t exactly turning down time with the boisterous and braggadocios boy. However, he will discover that AJ’s dad and his own have a connection, one which binds the two boys together in a dark and serious way. As Jason investigates that connection, the lives of the two boys and everyone around them will undergo a profound change.

Cianfrance, who helmed the critically acclaimed Blue Valentine which in many ways has some of the same attributes as this – great intensity, top notch acting, a storyline which doesn’t shrink from real life issues and ultimately not always easy to watch. Cianfrance is highly skilled at his craft and is most certainly a talent to keep an eye out for; this is a movie that shows a great deal of confidence from the opening extended tracking shot that follows Luke through the carnival to the final shot of Jason riding away from Schenectady, seemingly on the same road as his father with the same inevitable consequences. Yes, it is a shot of a young man embracing his freedom but there are troubled undertones – to my mind it’s brilliant.

Gosling and Cooper shine here. Both Oscar-nominated actors, I truly believe that over the next 20 years these are both going to be regular honorees at awards shows (including the Oscars) and Cooper in particular is likely to be a force to be reckoned with at the box office. Gosling seems less interested in that sort of thing, preferring to take roles that challenge him but who knows; maybe somewhere down the line he gets a plum franchise to make his own.

The two actors share but one scene and that for only moments, which further cements Cianfrance as a director unafraid to take chances. In the third act, Cooper is relegated to essentially a supporting role while Cohen and DeHaan take center stage. DeHaan has enormous potential with some big roles in his immediate future (he’ll be Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 next summer)  and here he shows that he has the kind of searing presence that can mesmerize audiences.

What doesn’t work here are a couple of things. First, the damn shaky cam. I get that directors like to create a kind of kinetic cinematography that brings the audience into the film, creating additional dramatic tension but let me send a note to every director out there – it doesn’t work. What it really does is quite the opposite – I’ve watched people get motion sickness at films with the kind of hand held shenanigans you find here and when an audience is looking  away from the screen because the images are making their stomachs do flip flops, there’s a director who has a problem.

The character of AJ was a bit too trying for me as well. I have no doubt that there are a lot of kids out there who fit this bill – spoiled, hedonistic, lost souls whose only goal is to escape the lives that they have, which when they come from middle class or even upper class families can strain one’s sympathies. However the character was all wrong for this situation; when Jason has his confrontation with AJ the audience begins to root for some serious damage to be done to AJ and that doesn’t serve the film well. The story deserves better than that; if AJ had at least a few redeeming characteristics it would add a great deal more power to the story. As it is, the audience’s rooting interest becomes all too easy. While the story really is about the changes that come to Jason, it adds a little more something to the film if AJ also transforms and you don’t get the sense that he does, despite the twinkle in his eye near the end of the film.

This is a movie I respected more than liked. The story felt very real, and the economic pressures on both Luke and Avery that drive some of their moral decisions are those felt by millions of families each and every day. While I would be a little surprised if either Gosling, Cooper or DeHaan received awards season recognition – not that they don’t deserve it but more because of when the movie came out and how little publicity it’s received – I have to say that this is a movie that will push you into looking around you more than entertaining you. The late Gene Siskel made it plain that slice of life movies were among his favorites and mine too as well. However, some slices are more bitter than others.

REASONS TO GO: Really tremendous acting, particularly from Gosling and Cooper. An interesting story.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much shaky cam. You just want to punch AJ in the face.

FAMILY VALUES:  Swearing throughout, a bit of violence, some teen drug use and drinking and a couple of sexual references..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the movie was filmed in and around Schenectady, NY whose name translates from the Mohawk for “beyond the pine plains.” Also, the banks seen being robbed here are all real working banks in the Schenectady area.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; all in all the reviews are pretty good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Conviction

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Broken

Win Win


Win Win

This could be a poster for the generational gap

(2011) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Melanie Lynskey, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Alex Shaffer, Burt Young, Margo Martindale, David Thompson, Mike Diliello, Nina Arianda, Marcia Haufrecht, Sharon Wilkins. Directed by Thomas McCarthy

 

We sometimes find ourselves at an ethical crossroads and find ourselves pushing the line out a little bit in order to make things work. Those kinds of boundary pushing have consequences, albeit sometimes unintended ones.

Mike Flaherty (Giamatti) is a genuinely good man who is enduring an especially rough patch. His elder law practice is crashing and burning and the financial fall-out from that is severe, leading to anxiety attacks while out jogging with his best friend Terry Delfino (Cannavale). Mike is the coach of the local high school wrestling team and a more woeful bunch of athletes you are unlikely to meet; their season is going down in flames and although Mike is a decent coach, the writing is most definitely on the wall. Of course, his assistants are Delfino and Stephen Vigman (Tambor) who is a CPA who shares the dilapidated office building with Mike which should tell you something about his good-guy-making-bad-decisions persona.

Mike is representing Leo Poplar (Young), who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. The state wants to put him in a care facility but Leo wants to stay home. Mike discovers that Leo’s living will allows for a guardian in the event that Leo becomes unable to make decisions on his own and that the guardianship will pay $1500 a month to cover expenses. Mike petitions the judge (Wilkins) to allow him to be Leo’s guardian since they’ve been unable to locate Leo’s daughter. The judge allows this and Mike then turns Leo over to the facility anyway so he can pocket the expense money which will keep him somewhat solvent.

Then Kyle (Shaffer) shows up. Kyle is Leo’s grandson and came to town hoping Leo could put him up. Mike, feeling a little guilty, takes Kyle in which Mike’s wife Jackie (Ryan) whole-heartedly supports. It turns out that Kyle’s mom, Leo’s daughter Cindy (Lynskey) is in rehab, a drug addict who has been an unreliable caregiver. This sets Jackie’s dander up, but what floats Mike’s boat is that Kyle is also an Ohio wrestling state champion. Mike arranges for Kyle to be enrolled in his high school and adds Kyle to his team, instantly turning the program around. Seems to be a win-win situation for everyone, right?

Wrong. Cindy shows up and she wants to take Kyle back to Ohio. Worse still, she wants guardianship of her father, not so much the responsibility (which she would be unlikely to be able to handle anyway) but the money that goes with it. Of course this turns everything upside-down; Kyle is happy being part of a stable family and he mistrusts and despises his mother but he also wants Leo out of the facility and back in his home where he belongs. Mike’s web is quickly unraveling.

McCarthy has previously directed The Station Agent and The Visitor which are both very fine films, and you can add this to his filmography of movies that will stay with you long after the final credits roll. The characters aren’t indie film archetypes who appear in movie after movie; they are people with their own unique set of characteristics and who behave realistically in realistic situations. Most of us will relate to Mike’s financial predicament because most of us have been there or are there now.

Giamatti is one of those actors who almost always gives a terrific performance and along with his work in Barney’s Version of late seems to be at the top of his game, impressive at every turn. He’s become one of my favorite actors, one who can get my butt into a theater seat just because he’s in the movie. He makes Mike not just an everyman, but a believable one; a basically decent man pushed to the wall to make decisions that aren’t necessarily good ones but expedient ones. I think we all have done that at least once in our lives.

Ryan is also wonderful, playing Jackie as equally good-hearted and supportive but strong – she takes no crap but at the same time her heart goes out to a boy who has had a rough go. She’s like a she-bear whose cubs are threatened when her family – which includes Kyle – is threatened and why Mike leaves her in the dark about what’s really going on is understandable in that he wants to spare her the anxiety he is feeling, but also not in that his wife would be a solid rock. Ryan makes you wish you had a wife like her if you don’t have one, and if you do have one, count your blessings.

Shaffer has been receiving a lot of attention with his performance and for good reason. He is a natural and has great screen presence. You’d never know this was his first feature film, so natural is he before the camera. Like any first-timer there are some rough patches but this kid has some amazing potential and if he chooses to go this road, he certainly is going to be someone to keep an eye on.

The ending was a bit sitcom-ish for my tastes but that’s really one of the few bumps in the road that this movie takes us on. There are some wonderful supporting performances, particularly from Tambor, Young and Cannavale as well as Lynskey who has a pretty thankless role but does it well.

McCarthy is developing an impressive library of movies with his name on them and is a director that is rapidly becoming one who I’ll go out of my way to see sight unseen. He certainly has made another film here that is one of those quiet gems that you don’t hear much about but turns out to be well worth checking out. This is one worth finding at your local video or streaming emporium.

WHY RENT THIS: Giamatti and Ryan are terrific with some good support performances. A sweet film that doesn’t sugarcoat the hard choices. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit formulaic in the ending.

FAMILY VALUES: The language gets pretty rough in places and there are some allusions to drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Shaffer’s feature film debut; he was a New Jersey State wrestling champion in 2010 as a sophomore in high school but his wrestling career came to a close when he broke an L-5 vertebra.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD edition has a music video from The National for their closing credits song “Think You Can Wait.” The Blu-Ray edition adds a Sundance tour by actor David Thompson and a brief interview of McCarthy and Giamatti, also from Sundance.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $10.8M on an unreported production budget; it is likely that the movie made a good chunk of change relatively speaking.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer

Good


Good

Viggo Mortensen has to keep telling himself he's not in Mordor anymore...it's worse!

(2008) Drama (THINKfilm) Viggo Mortensen, Jason Isaacs, Jodie Whittaker, Mark Strong, Steven Mackintosh, Gemma Jones, Anastasia Hille, Ruth Gemmell, Ralph Riach, Steven Elder, Kevin Doyle, David de Keyser, Guy Henry, Adrian Schiller, Tallulah Boote Bond. Directed by Vicente Amorim

 

We like to think we know the difference between right and wrong and given the choice between the two, will choose the former. That is the definition of a good person, isn’t it? Someone who always chooses the right thing over the wrong thing? Sometimes, the definitions aren’t so clear-cut.

John Halder (Mortensen) is a literature professor in Berlin in the late 1930s as the Nazi party is rising to power. He has written a book in which euthanasia was a theme and the higher-ups in the Party have taken it as a means of excusing the Final Solution, not that John knows any of this. What he dos know is that joining the Party – whose politics he objects to and disagrees with – can mean comfort and safety for his family. So he joins.

His best friend, Maurice Gluckstein (Isaacs) who happens to be Jewish, sees the inherent evil in Nazism that his friend John (shouldn’t it be Johann if this is in Germany?) obviously has turned a blind eye to. And John isn’t a bad man, he’s just doing right by his family?

But when you take one step down the rotten path, sometimes it becomes easier to take other steps. He leaves his neurotic brunette wife (Hille) for a blonde, Aryan student (Whittaker) who the party approves of. She is much more in tune with Party politics than his wife, who like her parents and his, see the transformation Germany is undergoing with horror. It isn’t until it is much too late that John realizes the evil he has bought into and for that kind of mistake the price is very high indeed.

This is based on a 1982 play by John Wrathall which I understand was staged in a very stream-of-consciousness, minimalist way. The storytelling is a little more conventional here (with a subplot about John’s abominable treatment of his mother (Jones) thrown in for good measure) but there are still holes in it. Part of what should make this an excellent subject for a movie is that there really isn’t much exploration as to why John turned such a blind eye to what his country was becoming. It seemed to be out of almost convenience – it was simply easier to go with the flow. It seems to be an over-simplified explanation from what I know of Germany from that era.

Also, the characters (other than Gluckstein, who is portrayed with marvelous zest by Isaacs) are mostly bland and somewhat  without much personality. John is supposed to be a brilliant man who is motivated out of expedience to care for his family, but what we get is a man who doesn’t much care about what is going on around him – neither do we, then.

To be honest, I’m probably a little bit harsher on the film than I might ordinarily be. If I am, it’s because the potential here is so wasted – this is a wonderful and important idea for a movie. It’s just not executed very well. There are parallels to what went on in Nazi Germany to how America responded after 9-11, so this is certainly something worth exploring, especially now. I just wish they’d explored it a little more thoroughly.

WHY RENT THIS: A very interesting discussion about good and evil and how sometimes the line between the two can be very thin.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Underdeveloped characterization and some shoddy plot development.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and some adult themes which smaller children might not yet be prepared for.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Romola Garai was originally cast as Anne but withdrew in order to concentrate on her university studies. Jodie Whittaker took the part instead.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Rather than having a commentary track, there is an interview segment that is nearly an hour long and includes many of the film’s cast and crew.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on an unreported production budget; at best I think the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: For the Love of the Game