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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Philomena


Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan's delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

Judi Dench tries to break Steve Coogan’s delusion gently that he would have made a great James Bond.

(2013) True Life Drama (Weinstein) Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Mare WInningham, Barbara Jefford, Ruth McCabe, Sean Mahon, Peter Hermann, Anna Maxwell Martin, Michelle Fairley, Wummi Mosaku, Amy McAllister, Charlie Murphy, Cathy Belton, Kate Fleetwood, Charissa Shearer, Nika McGuigan. Directed by Stephen Frears

A mother’s love cannot be broken. Not even separation can diminish it – tear a mother and a child away from each other and she’ll move heaven and earth to find her baby. While any woman can have a baby, not every woman is cut out to be a mother. Some however are not given the choice.

Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) is at a crossroads, trying to re-assess and reinvent his life. Sacked as the communications director for the Labour Government’s Minister of Transport, Local Governments and Regions, he is unsure whether he is going to write a book about Russian history or take up running.

At a party he meets a waitress named Jane (Martin) who overhears a conversation between Martin and editor Sally Mitchell (Fairley) about human interest stories. She figures she has a whopper but Martin politely declines. He doesn’t do human interest stories. However, as he comes to realize that he really has no other prospects and Mitchell is willing to publish, he decides to take it on.

Jane’s mother, Philomena Lee (Dench) as a young woman (Clark) had a baby out of wedlock. In 1950s Ireland, this was a major no-no. Her shamed family sent her to a convent where she had the baby (which was born in the breech position) without painkillers of any kind as penance for her sin. But did her penance end there? No. At three years old her son Anthony along with Mary, the daughter of her friend Kathleen (Murphy) are taken away and given up for adoption by the church to a wealthy American family. Anthony and Mary are driven away, Philomena screaming and sobbing behind them.

Over the course of the rest of her life she kept quiet about the incident. A devout Catholic, she was sure that this was nothing less than she deserved for breaking the laws of God. It wasn’t until nearly 50 years had passed that she confessed to her daughter Jane, who didn’t know before that moment that she had a brother.

Martin and Philomena go to the convent where she had given up her Anthony years before and found it a different place entirely. Sister Claire (Belton) is understanding but can offer no help – apparently the records of adoptions had been destroyed in a fire years before. It appears that Philomena’s quest has ended before it has begun, but while having a beer in the local pub Martin discovers that the records may have been burned intentionally and that most of the babies that had been given up for adoption by the convent had gone to America.

As it turns out, Martin had been a BBC correspondent once upon a time in the United States. With his contacts, there’s a good chance they might be able to find records on that side of the Atlantic. Philomena accompanies Martin across the pond and finds the whole experience delightful; business class, a posh hotel, breakfast buffets – all are new and wonderful to her. However, what they discover in America will turn things on their ear and change the very nature of Philomena’s quest.

Frears is one of the best directors working out there and he’s delivered another gem. Dench is a treasure in the title role. Philomena isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but what she lacks in book smarts she makes up for in wisdom and compassion. When Philomena describes the plot of a romance novel to Martin while in an airport, it is absolutely delightful, punctuated by “I didn’t see that one coming!” She also praises at least a dozen hotel workers as “one in a million.” Dench gives Philomena a certain amount of gravitas but not so much that the character becomes caricature. Instead, Philomena is chatty and a bit batty but at every moment we’re aware she’s on serious business and that her heart is just aching. Dench has a good shot at an Oscar nomination although Sandra Bullock may have a lock on the statue this February.

Coogan, best known for his comic turns, has been trying to take on some serious roles of late and this one is tailor made for his talents. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also the co-writer and producer of the film but certainly he also makes Martin a study in contradictions – he has a sense of humor that he uses sometimes inappropriately and his people skills are a bit raw, particularly in that Martin can be condescending in places. However, he is also doggedly determined to see this thing through and is fiercely protective of Philomena by the movie’s end. He and Dench make a formidable pair.

In fact, it is their differences that make this movie so compelling. Martin is an atheist, Philomena a devout believer. Martin is angry, Philomena forgiving. There is a scene near the end of the film when Martin confronts Sister Hildegarde (Jefford), a nun who was in the convent at the time Anthony was given away. Martin’s anger boils over; Sister Hildegarde is unrepentant and essentially says that Philomena and the other girls like her deserved what they got for the premarital sexuality. It is Philomena who turns out to be the most Christ-like, forgiving Sister Hildegarde and the convent for their misdeeds. When Martin turns to her in amazement and says it’s easy to forgive, Philomena snaps that it isn’t easy at all. It’s bloody hard. But she does it because it is what Christ would want her to do. In her mind, she is remaining true to her faith – even if the church itself has not. It’s a powerful moment.

This is one that might get by even film buffs. With all the big Holiday blockbusters and Oscar contenders coming out, this might slip below your radar. Don’t let it. This is an amazing film that hits all the right notes. Even though occasionally it does twist the knife a little bit, it still manages to cover a difficult and painful subject compassionately, perhaps more so than I, a Catholic, would have in the same situation.

REASONS TO GO: Marvelous performances by Coogan and especially Dench. Gripping story.

REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally manipulative.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some fairly strong language at times, mature thematic material and some sexual situations and dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Home movies are used as a flashback device throughout the film. While some of these were created specifically for the movie, some are actual home movies of the real Philomena Lee’s son.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Magdalene Sisters

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: In Darkness

The Cabin in the Woods


The Cabin in the Woods

That's putting the "arm" in armoire.

(2012) Horror (Lionsgate) Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, Sigourney Weaver, Brian White, Amy Acker, Tim De Zarn, Tom Lenk, Dan Payne, Jodelle Ferland, Dan Shea, Maya Massar, Matt Drake. Directed by Drew Goddard

 

Five friends take off for a weekend at a rustic cabin in a remote, wooded area. Sounds familiar, no? Well, I’ll admit this kind of scenario has been done before, but never quite like this.

Dana (Connolly), her roommate Jules (Hutchison) and Jules’ hunky boyfriend Curt (Hemsworth) are getting ready for a weekend away from school. Dana is suffering from the break-up of a romantic relationship she had with her college professor and Curt’s cousin has just bought a new vacation getaway in the woods a ways out of town. Along for the ride is Holden (Williams), a bookish friend of Curt’s whom Jules is eager to set Dana up with, and Marty (Kranz) the stoner childhood friend of Dana.

Stopping at a gas station on the way there, they meet the obligatory creepy old man (De Zarn) who rather than warn them not to go to the cabin drops some dark hints about the place. Not enough to dissuade them from going but just enough to be intriguing. There must be a central casting agency for creepy old men somewhere in Hollywood.

The cabin, set on a bucolic lake in the mountains, at first seems to be a perfect vacation spot. However, upon further investigation there are some troubling features. Why is there a one-way mirror between bedrooms? And why is there such a collection of arcane things in the basement?

That’s probably because the cabin isn’t what it seems. The five friends are being observed and have been since before they left the city. Two technicians, Sitterson (Jenkins) and Hadley (Whitford) are manipulating events, forcing the five friends into decisions. What is their motivation? What plans do they have for the young people. And who is the mysterious Director (Weaver) and what is her agenda?

Forget everything you know about this sub-genre. Yes, there are elements of the supernatural but also of J-horror, science fiction and spoof as well. Goddard, who helmed the magnificent Cloverfield teams up with Joss Whedon (who co-wrote and produced this and did a little second unit directing as well) to produce what is easily one of the best horror movies ever and certainly the best so far of the 21st century. Not only that, it is one of the best movies of the year period.

It has the right mix of action, viscera, sex and comedy and timed at the right places. It’s hip and old school at the same time. For example, when the creepy old man (a.k.a. Mordecai a.k.a. the Harbinger) calls Hadley to voice his doom and gloom gospel about cleansing the sins of the young people, he breaks off to say “Hey, am I on speaker phone?” which he is. The touches are light when necessary and even goofy in places before they hit you with a big whammy.

I’m being deliberately vague about some of the plot points – I found knowing very little about the movie enhanced my enjoyment of it. Hemsworth filmed this before he became a big star in Thor and shows the kind of easy-going charm that is going to net him more earthly roles in the future. Connolly, a soap opera veteran is pleasing as the plucky virginal heroine and Hutchison is very hot as the bimbo – she has a make-out scene with a wolf’s head…well, let’s just leave it at that.

Most people are going to come off remembering Kranz as the stoner. He is comic relief initially but his role evolves unexpectedly and not only does he get most of the best lines in the movie, he doesn’t flub them either. Fans might recognize him from his previous work with Whedon in the short-lived but much-loved TV series “Doll House.”

Whitford and Jenkins are both seasoned pros who get to let loose a little bit from their normal serious personas. The two have good chemistry together and can switch from light comedy to serious in a heartbeat. For Whitford, this is his best work since “The West Wing.” Weaver gets pretty much a cameo appearance but she makes the most of it.

There are plenty of digital effects, some of which are simply amazing. I’m really glad that the film was released in 2D only because although the break-neck pace of the film lends itself to 3D, the dark nighttime settings really don’t and you would have lost a lot of the subtlety of the action sequences.

I can’t say enough about this film. It is rare to have this much fun at a movie and to not want it to end while it is playing. Those who are timid about horror movies be advised – while there are some nightmarish images, for the most part it is less scary than you might think and much more fun. While young children and those who are more susceptible to having nightmares should probably think twice about seeing it, anyone else will have a great time. This is pure and simple a masterpiece of genre filmmaking and most everyone who sees it, like me, will leave the theater grinning ear-to-ear.

REASONS TO GO: Hands down, the best horror movie of the 21st Century so far. An amazingly inventive roller-coaster ride you never want to end.

REASONS TO STAY: The gore can be excessive and some of the images are disturbing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of gore and violence, bad language and drug use. There’s also some sexuality and a little bit of nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was originally filmed in 2009 and was due to be released by MGM. The studio had wanted to post-convert this into 3D despite the objections of Goddard and Whedon, but those plans were never realized, partially due to the bankruptcy of MGM that year. Lionsgate eventually picked up the property.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are mainly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evil Dead

HORROR FILM LOVERS: There are homages all over the place to a variety of horror movies, from The Hills Have Eyes to Hellraiser  to Creature from the Black Lagoon and on and on and on.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Our Florida Film Festival coverage kicks off with a review of the opening night film Renee

Valentine’s Day


Valentine's Day

Jennifer Garner finds out what Demi Moore already knows - Ashton Kutcher delivers.

(New Line) Julia Roberts, Ashton Kutcher, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Shirley MacLaine, Jessica Alba, Queen Latifah, Emma Roberts, Jessica Biel, Hector Elizondo, Topher Grace, George Lopez, Eric Dane, Taylor Lautner, Patrick Dempsey, Anne Hathaway, Taylor Swift, Bradley Cooper, Kathy Bates, Bryce Robinson, Larry Miller. Directed by Garry Marshall

There are many who consider Valentine’s Day to be a “Hallmark holiday,” an artificial occasion that prompts the sale of chocolate, jewelry and flowers, as well as dinner reservations. It is a day for those who are single and not seeing anyone to be reminded painfully of that fact, and for the unromantic to give their best shot at actual wooing.

It is a sunny day in Los Angeles on February 14, which means that the florists of the Southland are going to be hella busy. For Reed Bennett (Kutcher) who inherited his flower shop from his grandparents, it’s going to be a little different; this morning he has proposed to his girlfriend Morley (Alba) and she’s said yes. His best friend Alphonso (Lopez) is happy but seems surprised she accepted his proposal.

Schoolteacher Julia Fitzpatrick (Garner) is awakened by her boyfriend, handsome cardiologist Dr. Harrison Copeland (Dempsey) who is unfortunately flying up to San Francisco to perform surgery there and will have to miss his Valentine’s Day rendezvous with his deliriously happy girlfriend. Still, he leaves her with a cute little memento.

Liz (Hathaway) and Alex (Grace) have had a night of incredible sex; they’ve only been going together for a couple of weeks but things look very promising. He is a bit of a nebbish from Indiana and she is a sophisticated L.A. woman who has kept from him that in order to help pay off her student loans, she is also working as a phone sex operator while she works as an assistant to bitchy high-powered sports agent Paula Thomas (Latifah) whose star client, quarterback Sean Jackson (Dane) has just been let go by his ballclub. Sean’s publicist Kara Monahan (Biel) is working on spin control at the same time she is planning her annual “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party. Terminally single, she commiserates with buddy Kelvin Moore (Foxx), the second sportscaster at a local television station whose station manager (Bates) is relaying instructions from on high that more fluff pieces are wanted and Moore, who doesn’t believe in romance, finds himself doing a piece on romance in L.A.

For romance, he could have looked no farther than one of Julia’s students, Edison (Robinson) who has a big crush on someone at his school and hires Reed to send some flowers there. He is staying with his grandparents (MacLaine, Elizondo) because his mother is away. The grandmother has just revealed something to the grandfather that is a game-changer in their relationship. Edison’s babysitter (Emma Roberts) is contemplating having sex with her boyfriend and her best friend (Swift) is head over heels over track star Willy (Lautner). In the meantime, a businessman (Cooper) and an army captain (Roberts) are sitting next to each other on a flight home.

Just another day in L.A., no? No. It’s a day on which romance will bloom for some, wither for others and make unexpected turns for all of them. Some of these relationships will not survive the stress and pressure of Valentine’s Day.

Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate have crafted a sort of American version of Love, Actually and quite frankly, it doesn’t measure up. For one thing, there are far too many threads going on here and quite frankly about half of them are unnecessary. That forces many of these relationships to be given short shrift in terms of screen time so we don’t get the opportunity to become invested in them. We didn’t really need two high school romances, nor did we need multiple anti-Valentines Day cynics in the mix. One gets the feeling that there were stars who called Marshall and said “I want in” and Marshall had his writer add another vignette to accommodate them.

Surprisingly, Kutcher proves to be the most winning actor on this fairly distinguished list. He is at heart a really nice guy, and he is the real glue that holds this entire handmade Valentine together. His relationships with Garner, Lopez, Robinson and Alba are all well-thought through and work nicely. Lopez is also impressive as the somewhat clumsy but lovable sidekick. Julia Roberts, one of the biggest stars in the world, shows why as the captain coming home to the love of her life. She is alternately warm and sweet as well as cold and sandpapery. Not Oscar-winning material mind you but compelling nonetheless.

I’m a sucker for a good romantic movie, as Da Queen can attest – Love, Actually and About a Boy are two of my favorites, and I watch them regularly on DVD. Although this movie has it’s share of sweetness, it won’t bear the same repeated viewings on home video for me. There’s just too much going on and despite the talented actors who do their best in roles that are just not that well-developed, not a lot here to love.

REASONS TO GO: A star-studded cast and a lot of awww moments. Kutcher does a nice job of being the glue that holds this movie together.

REASONS TO STAY: While some of the pairings work from a chemistry standpoint, not all of them do. It seemed to me there are too many vignettes going on for the movie’s own good.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of sexuality, as well as some partial nudity but nothing very naughty. Indeed, this movie is suitable for most audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Julia Roberts’ last name in the movie, Hazeltine, is a combination of her daughter’s names; Hazel and Valentine. Also, on Alex’s phone the date “Monday, February 14” is plainly seen. Since Valentine’s Day fell on a Sunday this year, we have to assume that the movie takes place in 2011, the next year that Valentine’s Day falls on a Monday.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie to be seen cuddling on the couch with someone you love.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Starting Out in the Evening