Category Archives: Mystery

“Hold the Dark” Movie Review

If this and Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia prove anything, it’s that the Alaskan Wilderness is a scary environment to go hunting for killers. I don’t care how pretty the scenery may be, if someone (Or something*) up there is wanted in questioning, I want no part in any of it. This horror thriller was initially set to premiere out of competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. However, following a series of heated clashes between the distributor and festival elites, it was pulled away from its original summer release and instead premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in mid-September to somewhat polarized reactions. Following another screening at Fantastic Fest, it was released (very briefly) in art house theaters and on the streaming service Netflix on September 28th, 2018. Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the same man behind Blue Ruin and Green Room, his childhood friend and frequent star Macon Blair adapted the screenplay from the 2014 novel of the same name by William Giraldi. A24, the same production company that released Green Room, was initially supposed to distribute the film, before Netflix acquired worldwide rights in January of 2017. Set in December of 2004, the film opens with a young woman named Medora Slone, played by Riley Keough, whose young son is seemingly taken and murdered by wolves near a tiny Alaskan village named Keelut. She writes to Russell Core, played by Jeffrey Wright, a writer and retired naturalist who studies wolf behavior, begging him to help track down the wolves and kill them. She wants to make sure she at least has something to show her husband when he returns home, who’s currently deployed in Iraq. But while Core agrees and is out on the job, he accidentally gets drawn into a very dark mystery that the rest of the village seems to be in on. I’m a pretty big fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s two previous directorial efforts, Green Room and Blue Ruin. While the characters in both films were victims to making stupid choices, they both illustrated an exciting new filmmaker with a tight control on his voice. So getting the opportunity to see his next picture from the comfort of my dark living room in the evening made me anticipate Hold the Dark, not to mention the wonderful cast assembled. In particular, I wanted to see how he would be able to handle the bigger-scaled story compared with what he had previously written and directed. While it’s admittedly not really as great as those films, it’s still a solid thriller worth watching at least once. It’s clear in its metaphors that Saulnier has much he wants to say about human nature and our violent natural instincts. We witness numerous heinous acts committed by humans in either the village in Alaska or over in the Iraq warzone, ranging from murder to rape. In comparison, the wolves of Alaska, which are often viewed as savage and uncivilized, are oblivious to their own actions; everything that happens to them is seen as natural. Similar to his previous films, Hold The Dark doesn’t hold back on gruesome violence, but none of it ever happens unless it’s in service to the story. In fairness, Saulnier and Blair ultimately get carried away with their metaphors as the film doesn’t seem to lead anywhere totally concrete. It attempts to hint at something a little more supernatural, but rarely does something totally meaningful with it. I’ve enjoyed seeing Jeffrey Wright in a number of supporting roles over the years in both T.V. and film. And he proves here that he’s fully capable of carrying a feature-length picture as a lead character. As Russell Core, there’s a quiet aura and history of sadness and loneliness surrounding him, and we watch him trying to cling to reason and do what’s right. Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgård also do great work as the Slone couple, who never seem quite right when they’re separated. From the very minute that these two first appear onscreen, they exude a cold, observational outlook on the remainder of their community. Julian Black Antelope and Tantoo Cardinal do superb supporting work as indigenous locals who seem to know something isn’t right with the family in question, while James Badge Dale is wonderfully subdued and grizzled as the honest cop hopelessly looking for answers. There are also tiny but effective parts by Peter McRobbie and Macon Blair himself that leave something of an impression. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Hold the Dark reveal reasons why Saulnier is a talent worth watching out for. Magnus Nordenhof Jønck’s cinematography is quite gripping, using the bleak snowy environment to create a strong yet melancholic atmosphere. The way that it focuses on subjects and their every movements is very reminiscent of David Fincher, especially in the slow way that it reveals certain things. The editing by Julia Bloch, collaborator for the director on his previous efforts, cuts the movie in an extremely patient, slow to roll manner. Whenever violence bursts out, such as an intense shootout at a barn, it refuses to linger on gratuitous or bloody images for too long. It also focuses on certain subjects while other things are happening offscreen, as if to create a distant and observational look at the events displayed. Brooke Blair and Will Blair, Macon’s younger brothers and who have previously scored Saulnier’s last two features, have written some music for this film. It is in line with material they’ve written in the past, as it mostly consists of somber synthesizers and strings, reflecting the sad world the characters all live in. It also has a couple of tracks using the same instrumentation but instead arranged to rack up intensity. Filled with atmosphere and perhaps more metaphors than it can afford to carry, Hold the Dark is a sturdy, if unsatisfying slow-burn with a tight central mystery. Jeremy Saulnier proves that he’s able to handle a bigger budget, even if the results don’t always work. Moreover, Jeffrey Wright and Alexander Skarsgård provide some of their best work yet and show why they should be taken more seriously by studios and filmmakers. If for nothing else, this movie stands as further proof why I never want to live in Alaska.

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“Widows” Movie Review

Who ever said that auteur filmmakers could never make more commercial fare for big Hollywood studios? Apparently, nobody said this to Steve McQueen and I’m so glad they didn’t. This heist thriller premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, earning numerous raves from many who attended. It was then released in theaters worldwide by 20th Century Fox, and has thus far only grossed about $53 million against a budget of $42 million. This started a debate among industry experts whether the fault was the scattershot marketing campaign or the perceived lack of broad appeal towards film audiences. Directed by Steve McQueen, the same man behind 12 Years a Slave, the film is based off of the 1983 ITV miniseries of the same name by Lynda La Plante. Following the frustrating cancellation of his proposed HBO series Codes of Conduct, he instead teamed up with Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn to co-write the screenplay for what he professes is his passion project. There were also a number of apparent risks during the filmmaking process, such as the devastatingly regular amount of shootings in the city it was set and shot in. Set in modern-day Chicago, Viola Davis stars as Veronica Rawlins, a former unionizer and the stay-at-home wife of renowned career bank robber Harry Rawlins. When he and three other criminals are killed in a heist gone wrong, she is confronted by the man they stole from, Jamal Manning, played by Brian Tyree Henry. He says they stole over $2 million from his planned alderman campaign and gives her a few weeks to get it back for him, or else. Desperate and low on options, she contacts the widows of the other three men, Linda, Alice, and Belle, to pull off another heist to pay off the debt. This is a movie I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while, way before any trailer or official image dropped. 12 Years a Slave was an absolutely soul-crushing film that was completely stripped down in its approach to a topic as horrifying and disgusting as slavery. Hearing that that same director was going to be dipping his toes into the action genre, with help from the woman behind Gone Girl, was extremely exciting. Not to mention the impressive ensemble that he had assembled. I know there’s a stigma against more singular filmmakers trying to make more big-budget studio fare, with some of them being declared “sellouts” by fans. I’m happy to report, however that McQueen’s modern rendition of Widows is not only highly entertaining but also marks an important step forward in his career. As I’m sure many other reviewers are bound to talk about, what truly makes this film work is its unique mixture of timely themes and popcorn thrills. In any other director or writer’s hands, this would most likely come off as either way too preachy or bland beyond belief. But under Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn, we get to look at subjects that speak to America’s current moment and social angst. Ranging from everything including capitalism, interracial marriage, political corruption, class differences, and fidelity, the screenplay is very ambitious and often grasps what it reaches for. Think Michael Mann’s Heat by way of HBO’s The Wire. Occasionally, it does feel as though there are too many plot threads running at once, as one thing seemingly sets up another nearly every scene. But the transition between these threads is beautifully smooth and slick, offering up a portrait of Chicago that truly feels both realistic and alive. Leading the charge is Academy Award-winning actress Viola Davis, and this movie stands as proof that she needs more lead roles. As Veronica, she is incredibly empathetic but has no interest in remaining a meek victim, despite all of the luxury her husband’s life has bought her. Speaking of husband, Liam Neeson is excellent in a small but vital role as Harry, a criminal with an extreme amount of detail and professionalism. Their chemistry is undeniable, and as we get glimpses of their tragic past through flashbacks, or a sequence where his ghost comforts her over the skyline, we see the complications their relationship brings in modern America. The three other widows are played by Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, and Michelle Rodriguez. They each go beyond what roles they may usually by typecast as, showcasing their stryuggle for survival in a world dominated and largely defined by men. The filmmakers also assembled an impressive ensemble cast, including Robert Duvall and Collin Farrell as the racist and powerful alderman incumbent and his reluctant son, Garret Dillahunt as Veronica’s trusted driver, Lukas Haas as a handsome man intimately involved with Debicki’s character, and Carrie Coon as another reluctant widow. My favorites are Brian Tyree Henry as Jamal Manning and Daniel Kaluuya as his brother Jatemme. A far cry from their respective roles in Atlanta and Get Out, they both portray intelligent, downright scary antagonists who are still genuinely trying to do right by their home. Kaluuya’s screen presence particularly made me tense each time because of his cold, removed demeanor. Meanwhile, on the filmmaking side of things, Widows is still a Steve McQueen movie through and through, with his regular collaborators popping up in various departments. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is sleek and controlled, capturing the city of Chicago in a dingy yet diverse palette. Movements are extremely precise, a la David Fincher, and it often focuses on a subject’s facial expressions for an extended period of time, revealing their true state of mind. There’s an incredible tracking shot mounted from the hood of a politician’s car that goes all the way from the projects to his luxurious estate, all while we can hear him fighting with his assistant. It’s a truly remarkable set piece that shows the disparity of privilege in Chicago and serves as an amazing dichotomy to what the people in the car are discussing. As for the editing, Joe Walker knows exactly when to keep a shot going and when to cut it down. In fact, the way that a shot lingers on someone or something can have extremely important subtext for what’s going on. When there is action happening, such as the tense opening sequence or the heist itself, it refuses to cut too much, allowing us to understand what’s going on and keep us on the edge of our seats. Meanwhile, Hans Zimmer, previously working on 12 Years a Slave, composes and conducts the instrumental film score. As we’ve come to expect from the prolific composer, it’s very unusual from typical Hollywood flare, as much of the soundtrack is initially very lowkey. But when things start going down, it ramps up the intensity to new heights, thanks to heavy low strings and unique percussion. Like much of his work, it often feels like a never-ending crescendo. There’s also an original song called “The Big Unknown” by Sade that plays over the end credits, her second one for a film this year. It’s a soft, melancholy R&B ballad that perfectly sums up the unfortunate predicament that the women in the story have been put into. With her sweet voice playing against a soft piano melody and bass guitar hits, it’s a song I definitely intend to pick up soon. With a director and cast working at the tope of their game, a tense story that twists and turns, and far more on its mind than just gunplay and car chases, Widows is an immensely enjoyable ride of heist thrills packed with thematic punch. I can’t wait to see what else Steve McQueen may be able to come up with for Hollywood, and now there’s no excuse to not give Viola Davis top billing in more movies of the future. It’s genuinely the best heist movie in years.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” Movie Review

For those who are not in the mood for something as bleak as Godless but still more entertaining and valuable than The Ridiculous 6. This anthology-style Western dark comedy premiered in competition at the 75th Venice Film Festival. Despite a relatively cool response, it won the award for Best Screenplay and grew in favor with critics and industry insiders at further screenings at the New York Film Festival and A.F.I. Fest. In a truly unusual move for Netflix, it was released in limited theaters throughout the country a week before hitting the streaming service on November 16th, 2018. Of course, they never release their rating numbers, so it’s unlikely if we’ll ever know it’s true success at the box office. Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the project is based on a series of short stories the duo wrote over the course of 20 to 25 years. Although it was initially reported to be a six-part television series, it has been insisted by the brothers and production company Annapurna Pictures that it was always intended to be a feature film. Told in a storybook format, we’re given 6 individual stories, all set in the Wild West. The first one finds the titular misanthrope as he sings and gallops through the desert. Then, “Near Algones” follows an outlaw who constantly finds himself in danger, while “Meal Ticket” sees a tragic traveling act as they work their monologue-heavy show through the winter in various towns. “All Gold Canyon” (An actual short story by Jack London) sees a grizzled prospector mining gold out of an untouched part of land, whereas “The Gal Who Got Rattled” is about a young woman begins a lustrous relationship with someone aboard a wagon train. And finally, “The Mortal Remains” sees a handful of travelers riding in a wagon together, arguing about life, death, morality, and other fundamentals of the world. As mentioned in my review for Fargo, I’m generally a big fan of the Coen Brothers’ work. While some of their work has been more impressive than others, Fargo and No Country For Old Men are two of my favorite movies of all time, while most of their filmography is still great at blending various genres and tones. While yes, their 2010 remake of True Grit was a straight-up Western, hearing their plans for an anthology like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs sounded like a great advancement of their careers. It being released on Netflix is both a blessing, because I get easy accessibility to their newest work, and a curse, since it’s not released in theatrical form like its counterparts. But still, it’s a great segue into their filmography with all of the excellent traits to expect from each film of theirs. Like many of their works, this one is far darker and more melancholy than it may seem at first glance. Yes, there is a healthy dose of genuinely funny dark comedy, often through the ironic situations characters in each story get themselves into. (“Near Algones” features the epitome of “gallows humor”) But they also come with a certain kind of sadness, some cases more obvious than others, and even a nihilistic view of the world they live in. The Wild West may be vast, beautiful, and open, but it’s also lawless, harshly violent, and wholly indifferent to the problems of its occupants, especially women and minorities. It’s very similar territory that the Coen Brothers have explored a few times before, but now it’s in anthology format. This is the thread that connects all of the tales together, instead of some crossover character of narrative crutch; for which I’m very thankful. Tim Blake Nelson stars as the titular outlaw in the first short, and I can’t think of an actor better fit for the part. Dipped in a heavy Texas drawl, he constantly breaks the fourth wall to humorously explain his state of mind during otherwise serious scenarios. It fits in good contrast with his violent nature, although he claims not to have any animosity towards his fellow man. The only other two actors that can match him is Tom Waits as the prospector in “All Gold Canyon” and Zoe Kazan in “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” Both show a tremendous amount of wonder for the untouched land that they explore and get to witness firsthand the violence that can erupt at any time. The rest of the ensemble is stacked with amazing talent from cover to cover. Liam Neeson, Clancy Brown, Bill Heck, Stephen Root, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Tyne Daly, Ralph Ineson, and Grainger Hines all do outstanding work across their respective shorts. Each of them is able to speak the absolutely brilliant dialogue to be expected from the filmmakers in their own distinct ways, creating unique characters aplenty. As far as technical aspects go, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs shows the Coen Brothers can still retain their unique voice no matter what platform its released on. Without regular collaborator Roger Deakins, Bruno Delbonnel had to step in for cinematography, marking the directors’ first foray into digital filmmaking. It’s a seamless transition, though, as there are many stunning shots throughout the film that capture the beautiful Western landscape, in stark contrast to the violence common in this area. Colors are vibrant and pretty, especially green for the pastors, and really make it look like a painting of the Romantic Era. The editing by Roderick Jaynes, meanwhile, shows the very precise way in which the brothers like to cut their films together. It breaks between cuts very artfully, such as Scruggs moving between different cameras to talk to about his perspective on the West and those who inhabit it. Continuing their fruitful collaboration, Carter Burwell composes and conducts the musical score for the 15th time with the filmmaking duo, with yet another round of impressive. Both sweeping and immediate, the score as a whole often feels like it was made for a Western picture back during the Golden Age of Hollywood. There are a lot of tracks involving strings, including strummed guitars and jagged staccatos, that establish the mood of each short. The use of brass also makes it sound classical, especially with the trumpet solemnly carrying the melody in several parts. It also has an original song called “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings,” written by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. Performed by Tim Blake Nelson and singer Willie Watson at the end of the eponymous first short, it’s a bittersweet duet ballad that laments about what it’d take for a gunslinger to give it up. It utilizes both singers magnificent voices, as well as harmonica and choral background; you’d swear it was written in that time period. In many ways, it’s perfect for the film as a whole for how it captures the gloomy tone. As with most anthology films, not all of the shorts are of equal quality to each other. I could have honestly spent an entire feature-length adventure with the titular character alone and been satisfied. Length is also an enemy, as I’m not entirely convinced that “The Gal Who Got Rattled” or “Meal Ticket” needed to be as long as they were. Overall though, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is an expertly woven storybook that’s as hilarious as it is tragic. The fact that the Coen Brothers were able to wring a compelling film out of Netflix is a testament both to their versatility and the distributor’s draw for auteurs. Featuring great music and intriguing themes in each of its stories, like many of their films, it really marinates on you after the first viewing. You may even be compelled to watch it again.

“22 July” Movie Review

Generally speaking, I attempt to avoid talking about current politics on my blog. But after watching this movie, the temptation is way too strong. I’ll try to stay off of my soapbox as much as possible, though. This political drama premiered at the 75th International Venice Film Festival to great acclaim. However, it received a much cooler response from its screening during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, before releasing on Netflix on October 10th of that year. However, while it did receive a limited run in theaters day-and-date, it saw an unusually wide release in over 100 specialty theaters around the globe. Box office estimates are believed to be are $166,000 against a $20 million budget. Written and directed by Paul Greengrass, the man behind The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93, and Captain Phillips, he had originally developed the film under the title Norway and had also set it for a later release date. It was one of numerous films that the distributor pulled from screening at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in protest of new policies. It is unique among modern productions because it was made using a local cast and crew that were bilingual. The film is based off of a sad true story. On July 22nd, 2011, a far-right terrorist named Anders Behring Breivik committed a shocking sequence of violent acts in Norway. These include a bombing of the government headquarters in the capital city Oslo and a teen-led Worker’s Youth League on the small island of Utøya; 77 were killed, making it the worst terror attack in the country’s history. It then shifts into the aftermath, focusing on Breivik’s tumultuous legal process with a reluctant lawyer, the attempts of his victims to recover from the tragedy, and the Labour Party-controlled government wrestling with how to move forward- especially since there may be more attacks to come. I hadn’t even heard about this movie, let alone the events that it was based on, before a couple months ago. And in all seriousness, at first, I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to watch it. Don’t get me wrong, I love Paul Greengrass and his unique cinematic approach to realism, but stories about domestic terrorism are usually ones that I steer clear from. After some thought, though, especially considering the recent rise of hate violence and nationalism in America, I decided that it was important to at least give 22 July a shot and see this issue from a European perspective. And while it doesn’t necessarily work in all aspects, this is undoubtedly a film with honest intentions and speaks to our current moment. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is how the attacks themselves are dealt away with in the first 40 minutes. Whereas other films like this such as United 93 spend the majority of the film centering around and building up to the big tragedy, 22 July is far more concerned with the aftermath and how a country should be able to deal with something like this. Moreover, Greengrass has no interest in diving into what ticks or drives in someone like Anders Behring Breivik because he knows that he’s wrong. And others like him, too. Dylann Roof, Timothy McVeigh, David Duke, Robert Bowers; people who use violence to promote a far-right agenda are wrong. It was also something genius for Greengrass to use a local Norwegian cast as they feel infinitely more believable, even as they speak English. Arguably the main actor is Jonas Strand Gravli as Vilijar, one of the survivors from the attack on Utøya. Disabled and traumatized, he is heartbreakingly convincing and sympathetic as a young teen who’s lost so much due to one violent attack. Equally good is Jon Øigarden as Geir Lippestead, the reluctant lawyer of Breivik during the trial. Selected for having defended a Neo-Nazi a decade prior, you can tell all the struggle he faces trying to defend a monster, especially as he receives threats from Norwegians citizens to step down. Meanwhile, Anders Danielsen Lie is both cold and terrifying as Anders Behring Breivik. He executes the teens with utter impunity and later he espouses his reasons so straightforward and confidently, with no regret for his heinous actions. “I demand to be acquitted because I acted in defense of my country,” he says before the prosecution and families in court, as if he were a misunderstood knight guarding the borders. Sadly, a lot of the things he says in the movie have become mainstream in the Western world as of late, with even some powerful, influential people taking on similar philosophies. Meanwhile, despite working with an unknown cast and crew, Paul Greengrass is still able to project his unique voice through 22 July in the technical aspects. Pål Ulvik Rokseth’s cinematography is very much in line with the director’s previous style of documentary-style, cinéma vérité looks into the lives of these victims. A lot of the film is handheld, but never unintelligible in its delivery, often using zoom-ins and over-the-shoulder shots on subjects. This proves to be a fairly effective as it allows us to peer into these devastating events like we’re either a fly on the wall or watching a highly televised version of what’s happening. Michael Mann’s longtime collaborator William Goldenberg edits the film in a mostly subtle way, bringing each scene together pretty well. When the attack on Utøya is happening, he wisely decides to not linger on the horrifying violence that Breivik commits. Instead, he cuts back and forth between the survivors and him, making it all the more visceral, a similar strategy used when he’s giving his statement in court. There is a musical score written by Sune Martin, in their first English-language feature. It is appropriately sparse and minimalist, as an overt soundtrack could’ve made it come off as manipulative and cheap. What tracks there are throughout are extremely lowkey, mostly utilizing synthesized strings and piano. This creates an ambient atmosphere of sadness and uncertainty, just like the mindset of the country. But there are many other instances without any music, allowing the actors to convey the emotions without any sentimentality. While the music that does exist isn’t necessarily bad, one has to wonder if the film would’ve been better without one at all. Obviously, due to the subject matter, there are a lot of people who will have a hard time sitting through this film, let alone click the “Play” button. At a number of points, it is quite difficult to watch, especially the scenes involving Vilijar’s recovery. And it can also be infuriating watching Anders Behring Breivik sit so smug while the government and courts scramble to figure out what to do with him. Nevertheless, 22 July a clunky but harrowing examination of hope and unity in the face of terror. While the resolution and overall message may come off as naïve and childish to some, in these scary times, it may be just what we need to witness. Not only that, but it demands that our government and the people in charge of it take responsibility for the citizens so that something like the Norway attacks can never be allowed to happen again. And I’m hoping that it doesn’t.

“Suspiria” Movie Review

Watching this film in the middle of the night during Thursday previews was definitely not a smart move on my part. This supernatural horror drama initially premiered as part of the official competition at the 75th Venice Film Festival. Following a series of divided reactions at other festivals like Fantastic Fest and early Halloween screenings, it was released in theaters worldwide by Amazon Studios on November 2nd, 2018. Thus far it has only grossed about $1.2 million on a budget of $20 million, although it seems to have mostly attracted a younger demographic and currently has the highest screen-per-average box office launch of the year. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, best know for Call Me By Your Name, he had been trying, as a producer, to get a remake of the original 1977 film by Dario Argento off the ground since at least 2008. After numerous actors and potential directors dropped from the project, Guadagnino opted to helm it himself, aided by A Bigger Splash screenwriter David Kajganich. It also helped create one of the most high-profile fake actors in history with the alleged casting of “Lutz Ebersdorf” in a key role. Although it shares a similar setting and even features original star Jessica Harper in a cameo, all parties have insisted that this is not a straight remake of the original film. Set during the German Autumn of 1977, Dakota Johnson plays Suzie Bannion, an American dancer from a small Mennonite family in Ohio. She is accepted and moves into the prestigious Markos Dance Academy in Berlin headed by lead choreographer Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton. A number of strange events occur, such as the disappearance of a radicalized American student named Patricia Hughes. Bannion soon realizes that the academy is being run by a history of sinister witchcraft, and is also investigated by psychoanalyst/Holocaust survivor Dr. Josef Klemperer. Although I haven’t yet watched the original film by Dario Argento, I can totally recognize why it’s considered a classic in the horror genre. From its gorgeous aesthetic and creepy imagery, there’s a lot of influence it’s had over the last 4 decades. I also watched Call Me By Your Name a few months ago on an international plane, and while I thought it was really good, there was a part of the story that felt incomplete. When I heard that that same director was next tackling a reimagining of Suspiria, I was skeptical if he would be able to pull it off. I was excited even more by the divided reaction it has received from critics and audiences thus far. And after watching it, I was almost completely gobsmacked; this is a genuine, flawed masterpiece. First of all, I fully know that not everyone is going to appreciate this movie as much as I or others may. Aside from last year’s Mother!, it’s hard for me to think of a more controversial film in recent memory released by a big-name distributor. Like that picture, it’s very easy for me to recognize where the film will falter for many viewers, as some may see its themes and ideas as either too ambiguous or too blatant. There’s an almost Kubrickian approach to the style and format of storytelling, practically encouraging discussion among audiences. I have a fair grasp on what it was talking about, such as how fascism and national guilt for atrocities is far from a thing of the past. (The historical setting certainly helps with that) It may require a rewatch to fully understand what Guadagnino and Kajganich were going for. Dakota Johnson completely wipes her Fifty Shades fame away here with her most substantial and physically challenging role to date as Suzie Bannion. Her shyness and somewhat quiet attitude reflects an innocence in grave danger at this academy, as she slowly unravels the horrors behind the curtains. Meanwhile, Tilda Swinton continues her fruitful collaboration with the director in no less than three(!) different roles. The first is obviously Madame Blanc, the stern and brilliant director of the institute who tries to instill a maternal grace and mentorship in her young wards. The second is Josef Klemperer, who was officially credited and marketed as a real-life psychoanalyst named “Lutz Ebersdorf.” Her transformation under heavy makeup (Prosthetic penis included) is convincing as a Holocaust survivor who may be too curious for “his” own good. The third role is a secret, but let’s just say that it seemed unnecessary for her to adopt another role. Other significant players include Mia Goth, Chloë Grace Moretz, and Elena Fokina as terrified fellow dance students at the academy while Angela Winkler, Małgosia Bela, and original Suspiria star Jessica Harper in small but vital roles. Everyone has something to add that makes the journey even more spooky and spell-binding. Meanwhile, in a year loaded with brilliant horror films, Suspiria might just be the technical masterpiece of them all. Guadagnino reunites with his Call Me By Your Name cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom for the camerawork, and it’s a dynamic show. Shot on 35 mm film stock, this remake forgoes the original’s use of bright primary colors in favor of something deliberate more dull and cold, as if it were a fevered nightmare in winter. The use of special techniques, such as whip pans and sudden zooms, makes it feel like a subtle homage to horror films of past decades. Walter Fasano edits the film in a beautiful way that matches everything. Using parallel scenes as cutaways makes some otherwise mundane moments rather frightening and real. This especially comes during the central dance sequence, which lasts nearly 6 minutes but thanks to appropriate cuts and movement kept me on the edge of my seat. The lush and sensual choreography by Damien Jalet certainly helped, but it would not have been as compelling had it not been for the intense editing work. Following in the footsteps of his former band member, Radiohead lead singer and front man Thom Yorke composes and conducts his first score for a feature film. With the soundtrack he’s created, one has to wonder why he’s never written music for a film before. (“Exit Music For a Film” not withstanding) The film opens and closes in its credits with a haunting ballad called “Suspirium,” which helps establish the melancholic, ominous atmosphere to be found throughout the 2-hour and 30 minute-long journey. Other tracks consist of Yorke’s soothing yet strained voice and dynamic chord progressions from piano and synthesized brass. The aforementioned dance sequence is accompanied by a gorgeously tense opera of different instrumentations, written as though Igor Stravinsky himself rose from the dead and composed a score for a horror epic. With gruesome imagery matched with heavy thematic weight and some of the most extravagant dance sequences in film this side of Black Swan, Suspiria is an audacious coven of pure cinematic evil. It’s perfectly easy for me to see why this won’t work for everyone out there, but I couldn’t help but be awestruck by what Luca Guadagnino and David Kajganich set out to accomplish. I can’t say whether or not it’s superior to the original, but I can say that what transpired on-screen will stick with me for quite a long time- for better and for worse.

“Bad Times at the El Royale” Movie Review

A good reminder of why to never check in at a mysterious establishment in the middle of virtually nowhere. This crime thriller drama premiered as the closing night film at the 2018 Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas. After subsequently screening at the San Sebastián Film Festival, 20th Century Fox released it in theaters on October 12th, 2018. Despite a number of positive critical reviews, it has struggled at the worldwide box office, only raking in about $29 million on a $32 million budget. This perhaps has something to do with the stacked competition it was opening to, as it sadly dropped 52% in its second weekend. Written and directed by Drew Goddard, the film marks his second directorial project, following his satirical horror debut The Cabin in the Woods in 2012. Heavily inspired by crime novels and movies from the 70’s to the 90’s, the director had a setlist of old songs to be used in the film. As he shopped the spec script around Hollywood, he made clear that anyone who couldn’t obtain the license to those songs wasn’t gonna be distributing it. Set in 1969, the story takes place at the titular El Royale, a hotel near Lake Tahoe that straddles the California-Nevada border. One night, seven strangers- a priest, an African-American female singer, a vacuum cleaner salesman, a hippie on the run and her sister, the young concierge, and a charismatic cult leader -come to the shady establishment. However, it soon becomes clear that none of the guests, or the hotel itself, are what they seem and have a dark secret to bury deep. Over the course of this eventful night, we witness each individual’s past come to a head as they all try and seek redemption before it’s too late. Saying anything more about the plot would ruin the various twists and surprises that are in store for viewers. I have been looking forward to this for some time, ever since the first, incredibly enticing trailer dropped. I was a fan of The Cabin in the Woods, and while I enjoyed Goddard’s writing work in between- including The Martian and the first season of Daredevil -it had been way too long of a wait to see him at the helm again. Just hearing the synopsis for this film reminded me in many ways of 2015’s The Hateful Eight. After seeing it, I can confidently say that Bad Times at the El Royale is even better and more original than that film. I’m now convinced that Drew Goddard wants to make his career out of crafting modern answers to worn out staples. Whereas The Cabin in the Woods was a scathing deconstruction of the horror genre, Bad Times takes a specific look at Quentin Tarantino’s late-90’s neo-noirs and the enormous wash of imitators. It essentially takes an omniscient view of the story and makes us ask, “Why do we root for these low-lives? Are they truly deserving of our forgiveness after the things they’ve done?” Even its title feels like a shamelessly pulpy crime thriller from a bygone era, along with the richly written dialogue. Each of the guests serve up excellent performances that help dig more into the characters. Chief among them is Jeff Bridges as Father Daniel Flynn, a Catholic priest, and Lewis Pullman as the mysterious concierge Miles. Neither of the two are what they initially appear to be and are able to strike the right balance of sympathy and mystery for their characters. Similarly, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, and Caillee Spaeny all do superb work with their roles, imbuing a history of regret behind each one. The most surprising player, for me, is Chris Hemsworth as Billy Lee, a Charles Manson-like cult leader who rarely wears a shirt. This is the first time I’ve seen him play a straight-up villain, and he absolutely delights with all of the convincing charisma and creepiness of Maonson, Jones, Koresh, and their ilk. My favorite, though, is newcomer Cynthia Erivo as Darlene Sweet, a down-on-her-luck African American singer. This may be her first film role, but she plays the part beautifully, bringing up a sense of lost innocence she’s trying to reclaim. Her voice is also stunning with all the songs performed, making me all the more excited to see her in Widows and whatever else she signs on for in the future. Meanwhile, Drew Goddard uses Bad Times at the El Royale to further hone his craft as a filmmaker. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s use of 35 mm film and anamorphic Panavision lenses lends well to the era it’s set in. The slight texture added allows certain colors to pop out of the screen more, such as bright red, orange, and yellow. There’s one particularly great one-take shot that follows Jon Hamm’s character for at least 5 minutes, without a single cut. The way it lingers on certain things, such as Flynn’s priest outfit, is genius in its foreshadowing. The editing by Lisa Lassek, who has frequently worked with Goddard on many projects, cuts each and every scene with care and patience. It is able to mostly sustain the deliberate pacing as we gradually learn more about these strangers, even cutting into different chapters for them. Michael Giacchino, one of the most versatile and prolific composers working in Hollywood today, brings us the instrumental film score. It’s as dynamic as you would expect from him, mixing everything from urban percussion to synthesized piano melodies and harsh brass. The main suite features waning strings throughout indicating a mysterious yet somber atmosphere that the film perpetuates. As mentioned before, Goddard wrote the script with several classic songs in mind, and they are a joy to listen to. “This Old Heart of Mine” by the Isley Brothers, in particular, is played frequently throughout the film and is even sung with passion by Darlene Sweet. I can definitely see why the filmmaker wanted to use them for the plot. And while Goddard is very much able to keep the story relatively lightfooted, at 2 hours and 21 minutes, it does feel a bit bloated. There were a handful of scenes relating to certain characters that felt either too long or just unnecessary. It’s a little hard for me to place my finger on what exactly should have been cut without delving into spoiler territory. That being said, Bad Times at the El Royale is a fun, clever puzzle with fascinating characters. I haven’t had this much fun watching a mystery movie in quite a while, let alone trying to figure out everyone’s secrets. I’m legitimately looking forward to anything that Drew Goddard makes as a director in the future, especially since he seems to be placing a greater emphasis on characters. A fantastic ensemble, including a promising start from Cynthia Erivo, give so much heart to this story. All roads from here lead to success.

“Apostle” Movie Review

If ever one needed a reminder of why never to start a separate “commune” or new belief system, here’s a great example. At the end of the day, it can only end badly for people on all sides. This period folk horror drama from The Raid writer-director Gareth Evans initially premiered at the 2018 Fantastic Fest to a wealth of positive reviews. It was then released on the streaming service Netflix and a handful of specialty theaters on October 12th. Following the huge international success of his Indonesian action films Merantu, The Raid, and The Raid 2, Evans next set his sights on a film set in the English-speaking world. Rather than capitalize on his success in the action genre, he decided to try his hand at an idea that had apparently been burning in his mind for a while. Set in 1905 England, Dan Stevens stars as Thomas Richardson, a drifting young man who has become disillusioned from faith and his privileged family. He returns when he learns how his young innocent sister Jennifer has been kidnapped and being held for ransom by a dangerous religious cult on a remote Welsh island. Led by the Prophet Malcolm Howe, they believe in a great goddess of the island who gives them everything, including crops and water. Thomas travels to this island in an attempt to rescue his sister, learning of the cult’s truly dark rituals on the way. Confession time: I have still yet to watch either installments of The Raid, which seems to be heresy in the realm of action movie fans. Don’t ask why, it’s just been a very complicated, and thus far unsuccessful, endeavor to seek it out. Regardless, I’d been very interested in watching such a curious project, especially one I can watch alone in the dark at night from the comfort of my living room. It had also been marketed by some as The Raid meets The Wicker Man. (Original one, NOT the Nic Cage remake) I was surprised to learn, however, that Gareth Evans decided to take the route he did with Apostle, and it was a pleasant surprise. This is one of the better Netflix Originals to come out and just a great horror movie in general. In all of cinema, there is perhaps nothing that terrifies or disturbs me more than the occult or those who follow it. Previously, a sci-fi film released this year called The Endless by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead also dealt with that tough niche to really thought-provoking results. Apostle seeks to address that once more with its own original take on the occult, and it’s no less disturbing. Watching the citizens of this island blindly participate or comply with some truly horrific actions, for no other reason than “It was as She commanded” is unsettling to say the least. In fact, the film as a whole is an indictment of faith and how people have used it to justify acts of violence dealt out to those who don’t believe like them. Worse still, the cult’s beliefs are shown to be quite sane, but they still exploit it for personal gain. It begs the question of whether humans are naturally violent creatures and whether virtue is impossible in our world- at least without vice. Dan Stevens has impressed me with his FX show Legion, and I dare say his performance here is on par with it. As Thomas, he’s cynical and dark after losing his faith in God, telling one person, “Beware false profits, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly, they are ravening wolves.” There’s quite a bit of physicality to the role, and it soon becomes clear that he’ll do anything to rescue his beloved sister. Opposite him, Michael Sheen does tremendous work as Prophet Malcolm Howe, one of the most intriguing villains in a film this year. With a charismatic presence and a sharp tongue, you can clearly see how he was able to persuade an entire chunk of the British population of his Goddess’ existence and importance. His daughter is played by Lucy Boynton, and she helps to create a fascinating dynamic with him. As with the children of the other two founders, there is a clear disconnect between what he preaches and what she wants in life; she sees Thomas as her first insight into the real world off the island. Mark Lewis Jones is convincingly creepy and gross as Quinn, Prophet Malcolm’s right-hand man and enforcer. We can tell there is a lot of pent-up anger and jealousy within him, even as he silently carries out his duties. As for the technical aspects, Apostle is pretty distinguished in a year filled with great horror movies. Matt Flannery’s cinematography, also responsible for both installments of The Raid, is as stunning and visually appealing as the island on which it is set. When there are action scenes in the film, they show in their full, brutal glory without lingering too long to become gratuitous. Evans also shows off his talents as an editor with a kinetic yet patient form of cutting the scenes. With each cut, you can practically feel every crunched bone and cut flesh in the fights, adding to the brutality. What’s more is that the houses and sets for the village itself are brilliant and period accurate. It feels as though there’s a whole history to it, as the houses all look handcrafted and incredibly lived-in. Meanwhile, Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal both compose the musical score for Apostle, in addition to being the primary sound designers. While there are a handful of tracks that ultimately go to the horror cliché of sudden strings for jumpscares, for the most part it’s pretty respectable. It has a rather uneasy and atmospheric tone throughout, signifying that something is seriously wrong with both this place and its inhabitants. Like a lot of great folk horror stories, it doesn’t try to be obvious a lot of the time, but it does build in intensity when needed to. While overall it was a highly entertaining and gripping thriller with some interesting things to say, the film felt maybe 15 minutes too long. With the mythology that Evans has built here, there is inevitably some fat to be found that could have been trimmed down. The first hour or so is very slow rolling, with some dialogue or scenes that seem a tad out of place. However, it’s mostly redeemed in the satisfying and brutal conclusion, which is likely going to keep me thinking for a little while. Apostle is a brilliant genre melting pot in a great backdrop. This certainly ranks among the more unique horror films to be released this year, in large part thanks to the conviction of both Gareth Evans and Dan Stevens. Stay as far away from cults as you can, but watch this movie from the comfort of your home.