You’ve Got Horror for Days? THE VOID’s Got Cosmic Dread for Weeks

The Void. 2017. Directed and Written by Jeremy Gillespie & Steven Kostanski.
Starring Aaron Poole, Kenneth Welsh, Daniel Fathers, Kathleen Munroe, Ellen Won, Mik Byskov, Art Hindle, Stephanie Belding, James Millington, Evan Stern, & Grace Munro.
Cave Painting Pictures/JoBro Productions & Film Finance
Rated R. 90 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Sci-Fi

★★★★1/2
POSTEREveryone goes on and on about how this movie’s influenced by The Thing, which I’m sure is definitely true. I’d argue it’s more Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness than any of the master’s works. Others go on that it’s Lovecraftian, though I don’t agree totally; the filmmakers say it was their influence, and that’s fine. As I often preach, artistic intent doesn’t always have to equal concrete meaning to the audience.
Most of all, this is an original bit of sci-fi-ish horror on its own. Sure, it draws bits of heart from films co-writers Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski likely grew up watching. It throws back to the 1980s. To give their influences too much credit is to do a disservice to their horrific originality.
Many movies post-2010 seem to feel like throwback means an ’80s-type electronic score and a dark yet vibrant look. The Void has a wicked score, the sound is perfect. Best is the fact the team behind the film went with expert practical effects for the various creatures and abominations. Add these technical aspects to solid performances from one of my latest genre favourites Aaron Poole, as well as the great Kenneth Welsh (Windom Earle from Twin Peaks). This makes for one fine ride into the heart of darkness.
TheVoid1The Lovecraftian influence, the Carpenter roots, they’re fine. Gillespie and Kostanski are what matters. Their story, particularly how it’s told, works wonders on the suspense and tension which builds so dreadfully over the course of the first third of the film. Their directorial work is startling, with grim delight. We start out with an act of violence that’s inexplicable; at the time. From there, the writing-directing team unravel a tale of a cult offering sacrifices to an otherworldly entity called from the cosmos.
Production design on this one all around is fantastic. The location of the hospital is like they found a facility in the middle of nowhere, cultivating a mood all of its own. In addition, the costumes for the cult add to that atmosphere by sort of crashing down on top of the audience. When we first see them it’s a shocking moment, oh so excellent.
Not to mention the cinematography of Samy Inayeh (The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh; another great flick with Poole starring) makes everything feel hazy, terrifying, like a feverish nightmare even before the descent into utter madness and hell. The visual style is most definitely part of what gives it a throwback feel. The biggest part of that essence is the practical effects work, up there with some of the best in the genre.
TheVoid2Kostanski has an extensive background in makeup effects. He’s doing stuff on the new It, he worked on ClownGirlHouseHannibal, and even worked as an uncredited prosthetics shop assistant for 2005’s Capote. Point being, he knows his shit. He uses his chops here, alongside Gillespie, whose resume is as impressive having worked on It and Suicide Squad as assistant art director (both of which his co-director and writer worked on). He was a graphic designer on Hannibal, too. He served as assistant art director on Atom Egoyan’s The Captive, and the underrated found footage 388 Arletta Avenue is his first art directing credit. These two artists together did something on this film which amazes, in the best horror kind of way.
The creatures involved in the descent to hell, as the characters of The Void explore the hospital basement, are totally wild! Some of the best stuff out there, truly. I can see why The Thing is used as comparison. Particularly when it comes to the final monster we witness birthed; like a combination of pieces of living things. A vicious finale creation. That isn’t it, though. Throughout the movie we see various creatures, and you can’t forget the other practical effects like the blood, et cetera. That seemingly simple stuff can often get lost in the shuffle for other, lesser horrors. Not these guys. The attention to detail is what drives this whole effort home.
TheVoid3Above anything else, the end and what the film builds to from the start is the payoff. I won’t spoil it. Just to say that I love the vision these guys brought to the visuals. There’s something wholly original in the way they presented the other world, where Dr. Powell (Welsh) intends on going. Those last shots are perfection, impressing upon us without words the tiny speck that is humanity on the entirety of the universe. Gorgeous, if not also disturbing.
I gave this film a 4 and 1/2 star rating (out of 5) because The Void does what two other similar movies, Baskin and Last Shift, didn’t do despite their awesomeness: it shows us an end result. What I mean is that those other two films, kick ass as they are, sort of end in a place where there’s ultimately no traction. Not saying nothing happens, if you check my reviews of them both I’m actually a huge fan (I’ve seen Baskin at least a dozen times).
The Void goes a step further, not only in its inventiveness and practical effects monster work, it also opts to go full-on cosmic. In this way, I concede that they touch on Lovecraft and his rightful idea about man’s insignificance to other much greater, larger, non-human entities out there in the universe; gods, if you will.
Again, I don’t like to lean so heavily only on influence. Gillespie and Kostanski deserve what’s due – praise, for a breathtaking wave of pure terror, start to finish. They’ll live on with this film, though I cannot wait to see their next project. These guys are the real fucking deal.

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THE DARK TAPES: Fresh Indie Found Footage

The Dark Tapes. 2017. Directed by Vincent J. Guastini & Michael McQuown. Screenplay by McQuown.
Starring Emilia Ares Zoryan, David Banks, Jonathan Biver, Sara Castro, Michael Cotter, Denise Faro, Brittany Fisheli, Jo Galloway, Aral Gribble, Shane Hartline, David Hull, Clint Keepin, Casey James Knight, Shawn Lockie, Matt Magnusson, Anna Rose Moore, Tessa Munro, Jake O’Connor, Cortney Palm, David Rountree, Katherine Shaw, Wayne River Sorrell, Meredith Thomas, Brittany Underwood, Julian von Nagel, Ryan Allan Young, & Stepehn Zimpel.
Thunder Road Incorporated.
Not Rated. 98 minutes.
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★★1/2
Dark Tapes 1Director Michael McQuown sent me a screener for his and co-director Vincent J. Guastini’s independent film, The Dark Tapes. I’d heard of it awhile, hearing plenty of good things. Not overhyped; hyped just enough. I’m always ready to dig in on a found footage flick, no matter how tired the sub-genre seems to get with so many low budget efforts being pumped out simply to get a director and some actors a credit to their names.
The Dark Tapes isn’t a perfect movie. There are a few missteps that could’ve been avoided to make the whole thing more effective, certain tapes in the lot aren’t as good as others. Often anthologies suffer from this fate. The lesser tapes are still good. There’s nothing bad here. Each tape, regardless of its setbacks, has an eerie quality to it respectively.
McQuown and Guastini use a meagre budget wisely, choosing to use effects sparingly and, for the most part, they work. This is one of their best moves, because they don’t set the bar too high yet clearly focused on staying creepy. There are standouts in the series of tapes, presented through the narrative of being proof of government conspiracy-type stuff, the truth the powers that be suppress and keep from the people – a couple deserve their own full-length treatments. Certain segments stand up with some of the best of the V/H/S series (no surprise considering Guastini is not only an effects guy, he did work on the third entry, Viral).
Dark Tapes 2My only beef, and I’ll get to this first before discussing what I enjoyed so much, is that the directing is mostly excellent. Then, they choose to show us too much. For the longest time what we only get glimpses of in frame is what drives the pulse-pounding terror. As you can see in the photo above, that’s a startling shot. Love that moment; freezing the frame only compounds the fear. However, the directors lose some of that momentum later when they choose to show this demonic figure up close for too long. They try offsetting this with the use of camera glitches (et cetera). But it never makes up for the undoing of the fright from seeing the creature long enough we can start picking out some of the less stellar aspects of its creation.
The rest of the tapes are presented with brief shots and bits that are framed properly so that the low budget qualities don’t glare. And honestly, it’s only the one main demon in the “To Catch a Demon” segments that comes off as cheesy, which is late in the game. Otherwise, in the “Amanda’s Revenge” tape, the creatures (or whatever you want to call them) look legitimately gnarly, in the best horror sense. Particularly in that tape, we get some wonderfully old school film shots, the rickety frame, catching a presence in the distance, and it’s so genuinely perfect for the type of eeriness for which this segments is aiming.
Dark Tapes 3The tapes have an overall framing narrative, though I think that while there’s a connection between the tapes as a whole, it isn’t as connective as the filmmakers might hope. Mostly, I don’t feel that the connections are tight enough. The writing is interesting, at every turn. I can’t help think McQuown could’ve brainstormed something better to make them all into the cohesive unit the beginning (and mid-credits) speech we hear wishes it’d become. If this were tighter then it would’ve greatly improved the film.
But the stories, they’re fresh. Even in the moments some of them don’t exactly work as intended, they’re innovative. I found “The Hunters and the Hunted” was my favourite because it caught me so off guard once the revelation came, until then I expected a run of the mill bit of paranormal shlock; a proper twist, if there ever were! Also enjoyed “Cam Girls” except the end devolved into a ham-fisted mess. Before that it was wildly creepy, the editing made it feel very kinetic and full of horrific energy; while it falls apart later with absolutely no subtlety and a ton of unnecessary exposition that could’ve been given to us through imagery earlier (a missed opportunity), this segment  was insane.
And “Cam Girls” has an underlying metaphor in it, about our porn-obsessed culture that involves men watching women through their screens performing, some thinking they’re falling in love just by watching. If only the plot of this segment were worked out better, it’d be a devastating short.
Dark Tapes 5For a low budget, non-studio film, The Dark Tapes has an impressive production value. This is one of the things that keeps even the lesser pieces involving, it’s better than the average indie found footage attempt. With so many of these sub-genre flicks saturating the market, incredibly easy to make on a shoestring to non-existent budget, it’s nice to see what’s so obviously a labour of horror love come to the screen from these directors.
Sure, not every segment is perfect. A couple are scary as hell. And like I’ve yammered on, even in those segments which don’t measure up there’s still things to pique your interest. If anything, the effort the team on this film put in is astounding. Kudos to them all, I certainly hope that McQuown and Guastini do more, whether it’s in found footage that’s up to them. Without a doubt they’ve got horror sensibilities.
The Dark Tapes, warts and all, is one of the better found footage movies I’ve seen as of late, running the gamut of horror, thriller, and science fiction with relative ease. Like Tales of HalloweenHolidaysV/H/S, and Southbound, this is an anthology worth dipping into for a fright.

THE CRAZIES: A Different Romero Infection

The Crazies. 1973. Directed & Written by George A. Romero; based on a script by Paul McCollough.
Starring Lane Carroll, Will MacMillan, Harold Wayne Jones, Lloyd Hollar, Lynn Lowry, Richard Liberty, Richard France, Harry Spillman, & Will Disney.
Pittsburgh Films.
Rated R. 103 minutes.
Action/Horror/Sci-Fi

★★★
posterI’m a huge fan of George A. Romero and his movies, and not just the zombie flicks either. He’s always been politically and socially aware, even if he’s telling stories of terrifying epidemics. People too often overlook the genuinely poignant ideas in certain screenplays of his simply because they’re only horror movies.
But horror is like any other genre. When a writer wants to infuse their stories with sociopolitical messages, no matter how heavy or light the infusion may get, they’ll put it in there. Night of the Living Dead, the series it begat, these were aware, conscious films that used zombies to carry various little messages Romero felt were worth exploring.
The Crazies isn’t particularly one of Romero’s best works. I’d put the Dead series and Martin above this movie, without a second thought. That’s not to say this is all bad. Romero does a few really great things in The Crazies, and regardless of whether the whole matches up to its parts his writing is still solid. There are issues with pacing, too much needless dialogue. What the film gets right is its sense of panic, the frantic nature of how people would react if an unknown epidemic came down upon their quiet little town. And yes, things absolutely do get crazy. Of this there is no doubt.
pic1After an unnerving opening scene the pace lags for an inordinately long time. The screenplay plays like a procedural, except it would’ve served better to get into more action or horror. There’s a definite intensity to the plot, there’s just a lack of any real tension. Romero could easily have done better by starting with a bigger heavier bang. The first scene is creepy, but after that it’s a near half hour before anything else significantly creepy and/or violent happens. This makes The Crazies a bit tedious for the first while. Yes, that does change. Doesn’t change quick enough.
Yet once that old lady uses a knitting needle to stab the NBC-suited man and then sits back down happily, the scary, all too human horror commences bearing down on the viewer with a frantic passion. Although the pace lacks in certain sections much of the acting is appropriately intense and even frenzied when necessary. The feeling that everyone’s going crazy, all human interactions tense, comes across well in a few of the performances. One sort of funny though perfect moment happens when a field full of infected people run mad, being gunned down at the hands of the military – the whole sequence is totally unhinged and beyond depraved, however, it’s the infected woman sweeping the grass I find interesting. This shows us violence isn’t the only option to the infection’s madness; the remnants of these people still exist.
pic2This brings us to one of the best parts about the film. What’s scariest to me about the infection in this Romero story is how the people inflicted with it seem like the same, regular people they were before, just gone totally insane – unlike zombies from Romero’s other works, these crazies aren’t hideously deformed, or even dead, they’re human beings gone utterly mental. The clearest, most precise look at this horror comes when the survivors make it to a farmhouse. Plot-wise, the movie gets most brutal and grim at this point. We see here how infection can drive people to the most sickeningly nasty recesses of their own mind.
The Crazies is one of the earliest movies involving infection/epidemic to explore the military dark side, in that as survivors from the small town try desperately to escape for safety, the army flies overhead and marches on the town, trying to kill off anyone and everyone attempting to leave the quarantine zone. This becomes a norm in the sub-genre of zombies (et cetera): the military is most concerned with covering their own mistakes than saving lives. A lot of themes swirl around the writing from Romero here, which explore the nature of war, the way science and technology have affected our war (and our morals), plus how during times of crisis not all the rules get followed. Again, so much good writing despite the screenplay’s downfalls.
pic1My chief problem with this picture is that it lacks the appropriate amount of horror. What we do get is good. There’s far too much drama and dialogue that doesn’t necessarily do justice to the characters or the plot and story. If Romero went harder at the horror in more scenes, The Crazies would be a genre classic, rather than a mediocre footnote on his career as director.
The depravity and murder comes out in full force. We’re never totally lacking. I’m not sure exactly how much of the original script from Paul McCollough, a close friend of Romero, made it into this final draft. His story, The Mad People, was given over to George with McCollough’s blessing to turn into something different. So, I’d love to know what was in that original draft, as opposed to what ended up onscreen. I feel like Romero held back something, that he maybe felt his friend had a better concept than what he’d imagined. Or who knows. Maybe he just wanted to do something different from the Dead films.
I don’t care if parts of the movie are boring. There’s always gold in even some of the lesser Romero movies. This is a 3 out of 5 star horror flick. Not his best, although saying it’s his worst doesn’t do it the right justice, either. I mean, you get to see a priest self-immolate in front of his congregation and the army, lots of wild death and mayhem. There are sections you might want to fast forward; don’t. Because in between the craziness and the little boring pieces, there’s dialogue worth hearing, other things worth noticing. You might not love it all. Give it a chance, don’t expect the exact quality of Romero’s best, and you’ll likely enjoy it enough for a nice romp on Halloween.

Black Mirror – Season 3, Episode 1: “Nosedive”

Netflix’s Black Mirror
Season 3, Episode 1: “Nosedive”
Directed by Joe Wright
Written by Rashida Jones & Michael Schur

* For a review of Episode 2, “Playtest” – click here
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“Nosedive” opens on an idyllic neighbourhood. Lacie Pound (Bryce Dallas Howard) goes for a run, though she can’t stop looking at her phone at all. Neither can anybody else. Lacie runs, stretches, all while peering into the screen, taking selfies, mindlessly flipping through social media. At home in the mirror, she practices faces and various laughs. In the living room, Ryan (James Norton), her brother, plays a reality game and doesn’t do much other than that.
Everybody’s rated, every interaction has a value. You meet somebody and you give them a rating. Not far off from where we are in social media, but the way this episode brings that to life is terribly sad. From how Lacie doesn’t even really enjoy her cookie or her drink, though she makes sure to post a picture. Her only real happiness is being rated approvingly by others. People only know things about each other through the social media site they’re linked to constantly. Lacie has an awkward conversation with a woman in the elevator which illustrates that so awkwardly, yet perfect.


Then Lacie starts to see a woman named Naomi Blestow (Alice Eve), whose life looks so beautiful. Her rating is high. She entrances Lacie. A strange and awful thing happens when a guy named Chester comes around her office with smoothies. He’s only rated 3.1. Everybody’s shunning him because of a recent breakup. Nobody’s on his side. Regular people have become how fandoms hang off the relationships of their celebrities; regular, everyday citizens at work are treated like celebrities, how people seem to take those sides against one or the other person during a divorce (kind of like right now with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie + many more examples). It’s an eerie though, which already happens on a tiny level already in social dynamics. Social media takes all these types of things and amplifies them horrifically. At least in Black Mirror it does.
So there are other nasty things, like when Lacie wants to move into a nice place. Her hopes and dreams are literally broadcast in front of her there via hologram. But they need her to be “around a 4.5” to get a good discount on the place. Off Lacie goes, home to eat and fawn of Naomi Blestow and her seemingly perfect existence.
I’ve only started to review this series now on the premiere of its 3rd season, but I’ve been following the creation of Charlie Brooker since its horrifying first episode. Needless to say, I feel like the writing in this episode – courtesy of Rashida Jones and Michael Schur – is following suit nicely with the rest of the body of work.
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Lacie needs a “boost” from “quality people” giving her likes, and so on. This begins her quest to try getting the right people to rate her. The whole episode is so pristine-looking, hyperreal, and underneath the sadness is crushing, to the point of being uncomfortable. That’s a strength. Black Mirror‘s always been uncomfortable, to varying degrees from one episode to another. This one is high up there. Because the closer these episodes get to the truth, the harder it is to bear. Watching Lacie desperately try and connect with others simply to get that boost is strikingly tragic. Brings me back to the ICQ days when everybody would try to post their witty status, myself included, to make people feel interested. When Naomi finally likes a picture Lacie posts, it’s the happiest moment she’s experienced in awhile.
And all of a sudden Naomi calls her. They knew each other long ago, they were very close. She remembered Mr. Rags from back in the day. Naomi’s engaged now to Paul M (Alan Ritchson) and they’re having an outlandish wedding; Laci gets an invite. Better yet, she’s the maid of honour. A huge wedding, lots of high “4.7s” and above.
Or is it all too good to be true? The way Ryan remembers things, Naomi tormented Lacie, did terrible things to her. Oh, it all seems like teetering over the edge of something deliciously precarious.
Things are on the up and up, I guess. For now. Lacie takes that new place she wanted, she gets started on her maid of honour speech and trying to practice reciting it for Ryan. “You fucking sociopath,” he scolds over the pathetically forced speech (and the rest of her sad nonsense): “Theres sugary, and then theres diabetes.” She ends up walking out after calling him “Mr. Three point Fuck” and having a rating war. Afterwards she bangs into a 4.8 woman on the street, knocking coffee on her, which gets Lacie another bad rating. Even the cab driver knocks her down a notch. A hilarious though shitty moment for her. And once she gets to the airport things only get worse. A cancelled flight, no more available. One’s available, but only to 4.2s and higher, and with the recent ratings she’s been put down under slightly. Everybody in the line rates her down. Security gets called. For 24 hours, she’s a 3.1 and any ratings are “double damage.” Good christ, she can’t catch a break. When you ranking is that low things get damn tough. Now, without all the privilege of a good ranking, Lacie’s life isn’t as squeaky clean and pretty like before. She’s also walking on eggshells, so as not to get any nasty ratings. After Naomi calls, even though she isn’t happy, Lacie gets a 5 star rating. Things are okay for the time being.

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On the drive in her rental car Lacie has to stop and charge. At the station she gets a bad rating from the douche attendant. Worse is the fact the station doesn’t have a fixture that fits her car, nobody there has an adaptor. Being in the 3s ain’t easy, girl.
She starts walking her way now. One Anonymous user even rates her down simply driving by, not even meeting her. When a 1.4 lady driving an eighteen-wheeler stops, Lacie gets a ride at least. She finds the other half are nicer than the higher numbers. Right now she’s sitting at 2.8, shockingly low. What she gains from knowing this sweet truck driver is that it’s all an addiction to a lifestyle, shackles to something idiotic and fake, and when you start living real life again it’s freedom: “Sheddinthose fuckers, it was like takinoff tight shoes.”
The inevitable happens as Lacie ends up hitching another ride with a group of sci-fi lovers – Naomi calls and doesn’t want her there anymore. She’s down in the 2s now. Despite it only being temporary Naomi doesn’t care. Still, in a sad last ditch effort Lacie says she’s going anyway.
She gets there, after being thrown from the sci-fi bus. In an absolute mess. And she gets up to make that speech, to the terror of everyone in attendance. Lacie starts dropping f-bombs galore, 1 ratings all over the place, as she tells everybody about Naomi helping her overcome and eating disorder and gets crazy real on the crowd.

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Until her arrest. They take her in, process her. A little chip is implanted in her eye, and she’s put in a cell. But funny that, how she’s imprisoned, literally boxed in, yet still she is free. In her mind. She gestures to a man in the cell opposite to her with a motion of rating. Just with no phone. Then they really engage, for the first time. No ratings. They use speech. They talk and interact and the only thing they hide behind is their force confinement. More than that, they only say negative things. They pour out all the anger from the fake positive manners screaming at one another: “Fuck you!”

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Loved this episode. A great return with some spectacular writing and an amazing Bryce Dallas Howard performance. How did you feel about it? Too close to home?

Westworld – Season 1, Episode 1: “The Original”

HBO’s Westworld
Season 1, Episode 1: “The Original”
Directed by Jonathan Nolan
Written by Jonathan & Lisa Joy Nolan

* For a review of the next episode, “Chestnut” – click here
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First of all, dig the opening sequence and title song. Very eerie in a sci-fi sense, yet also beautiful, too. Excellent tune.
Someone talks to Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood). She’s in “a dream.” He’s testing the equipment so to speak. He asks general questions about whether she’s ever questioned the truth of reality. More specifically, her reality. She lives in a gorgeous vision of the old West in America. We meet the “newcomers” such as Teddy Flood (James Marsden). He comes in on a train to where Abby lives in her town. Everybody’s there to enjoy a bit of the old life.
The place: Westworld. Outwardly, it appears as a real slice out of time. Everyone talks the talk. Teddy goes for a drink and checks out the local landscape. He meets a young lady named Clementine Pennyfeather (Angela Sarafyan) and Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton) – ladies of the night. He’s more interested in Abby after he catches a glimpse of her through the saloon window. They’ve clearly had some kind of relationship already. They continue it together, gallop through the picturesque America West. Later in the night, Flood comes across a dirty bastard named Rebus (Steven Ogg) and his partner, who he guns down; they’ve killed the Abernathy family. The Man in Black (Ed Harris) turns up cryptically taunting Dolores about not knowing him. He stands toe to toe with Flood, who shoots away and does nothing to the Man in Black.
That’s because Teddy isn’t real.

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See, Westworld isn’t real. It’s a futuristic getaway where people can experience life as it was during the frontier days when America was still gaining its proper legs. People like Dolores and Teddy, they’re park products. They’ve been engineered to provide services for those willing to pay a ton of money. And some of those people, like the Man in Black, are absolutely horrifying. Dolores, she goes on thinking about “how beautiful this world can be.” It starts all over again each damn day. She and Teddy wake up, then go on about their predetermined routes. Sad, right? They’re merely little pawns on a massive scale of operations. Outside Westworld is the real world, where a company makes and designs robots to serve as people, horses, whatever they need. What a gorgeously eerie sequence, as director Jonathan Nolan takes us through the toyshop of Westworld’s company.
Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) is checking some of the robotics, such as gestures on Clementine the prostitute. He talks about Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins) and the “tiny things” that Ford does to make the robots feel real for the customers. A genius, it seems. Called up to the operating floor, there’s talk of “critical failure.” So Lowe heads out to do some maintenance. Down in the lower levels, he goes with a team of armed men into a storage facility filled with naked “hosts.” They come across Dr. Ford with a cowboy, drinking and having a chat. The cowboy’s Bill, one of the first hosts ever built. Looks to me as if Ford is starting to get sick of what he’s done. Who knows.
But still, things go on as they always did inside Westworld. Dolores and her family wake up, they go about their business like usual. The Man in Black, he’s living it up in his sick dream every day, over and over.

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The visitors get to experience all aspects of life in the old West, from prostitutes and saloons and riding on horseback through treacherous territories. When one couple is out riding the Sheriff goes into a hard malfunction, scaring them a bit. In the real world, Lowe inspects the malfunctioning host. Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), obviously in charge of the narratives in Westworld, is livid that Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) might want to haul out a ton of hosts. What Lowe does is reassure there’s no threat of violence towards the guests. “If theres so much as an unscripted sneeze, I wanna know about it,” Cullen advises.
What I love is the focus on people going to Westworld, how they’re affected by being able to do what they want to these hosts. Some are there for the mere experience of a time in history they’ll obviously never get to experience otherwise. Some are sick fucks, like the Man in Black and others, who go there to rape, murder, do all kinds of awful things to the hosts. Things they can’t do in the real world. Then there are innocent little things, such as a visiting boy who asks Dolores to her face if she’s real. Will this cause a glitch? Or are they programmed to simply walk away, deflect if that happens?
Stranger still is when Dolores’ father finds a picture buried in his field. A photo from the future. It’s likely Times Square by the looks of things. This perplexes the man, although Dolores passes it off. Very curious how the real world might intersect with Westworld in different ways.
Theresa and the others stay, in shifts, on a huge sort of skyscraper set atop a mountain in Westworld. She and Lee debate a bit about Dr. Ford and his “demons.” Lee starts dropping suggestion that he knows the further reach of Westworld for those who manage it – the “bigger picture,” as Theresa puts it. But she is one bad ass woman. No mincing words with her.

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The player piano plays a version of “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden, as Westworld goes on and on into oblivion. Love, love, love that.
Things are getting quite serious in Westworld. The Man in Black isn’t only there to do in hosts. He kills one of the hosts he meets across a table playing cards, though there’s something more behind it.
In the meantime, there’s bad stuff happening elsewhere. One of the bandit hosts is going buckwild. So production is shut down, a couple terrified guests are assuaged, and Lowe tries to fix the situation. He determines it’s the latest update. Just needs some touching up. The “minor improvisation” here has turned into something more, and Theresa isn’t having that shit. They only need a good swerve for the narrative, to make things feel natural for any of the guests curious as to what’s happening.
Ford’s let in on the whole thing by Lowe. He doesn’t feel bothered by being alerted of his mistake. They talk about evolution, natural selection, all that fun stuff. Furthermore, Ford ruminates on how far they’ve come. “This is as good as were gonna get,” he laments. Something more is going on behind that man’s eyes. You can tell just through the way Hopkins plays him.
Out on the open plain, the Man in Black is bleeding his host friend dry. He’s got questions that need answering. I guess the perfect place to do some dirty work would be a place like Westworld. Like, say, if you wanted to scalp somebody the way the Man in Black does. But why?

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The next day, Dolores finds her father still captivated by that picture. He’s been broken. He rambles to Dolores before going into a troubled state: “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.” This sets Dolores’ world on fire. She rides to find a doctor, only to find Teddy. He goes with her to try and help. At that moment, cloaked strangers on horses head into town. Out in the real world, Lee talks about a man named Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) arriving. In the background, a rendition of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” plays while Hector begins his assault on the Westworld town. Oh, he’s a bad dude. Nasty. A massacre begins, as he and his crew lay siege to everybody in sight. In the crossfire Teddy is shot and dies in the arms of Dolores. Then one of the guests steps out to blow Hector away bloodily. Scary is how the guests rejoice at how real the murder feels, enjoying the sensation. Sick stuff.
Outside, the host recall is starting. They check everything thoroughly now to assess the damage. Lowe brings Theresa’s attention to Dolores. She’s malfunctioning a bit. We’re back at the beginning with her being questioned by maintenance man Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth), as the picture is pulled out from her father and he’s brought to be checked by Ford and Lowe. The father host rambles more, as Ford commands him to look into his configuration. He goes back to normal briefly, though continues stuttering into his rambling. He talks about “warning” her. He knows too much. And he wants to meet his maker. That’s some eerie stuff. He goes on about wanting to get revenge on them all – “terrors of the earth” and that type stuff. But eventually Ford determines it was the host being previously used in a horror gimmick, quoting Shakespeare. Case closed.

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These violent delights have violent ends,” is the whisper between Dolores and her father last she saw him (a Shakespeare quote!). She’s been put through all the questions from Stubbs, as her father gets a few readjustments and she’s cleared to go back home. We discover that Dolores is the oldest host in the park.
And she goes back to waking up every day, to the same old place, the same people, the same situations. Except now she’s got a new dad. Though she doesn’t notice. Her old one is herded into storage, along with the malfunctioning bandit. A sad end for the equipment of Westworld. Speaking of equipment, when Dolores begins her day all over again she does something the hosts aren’t meant to do: she kills a fly lingering on her face. She’s changing, even in the slightest.
Oh, and the Man in Black, he’s uncovering more secrets for himself. What’s his endgame? He has a scalp now. One with a labyrinth printed on the inside. Intriguing.

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An amazing premiere episode! Wow. Never expected such awesomeness right off the bat. Nolan is doing good stuff already. Excited for the next episode titled “Chestnut” and it’s directed by Richard J. Lewis.

Daybreakers: Flawed Yet Fun Social Commentary via Vampirism

Daybreakers. 2009. Directed & Written by Michael and Peter Spierig.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Jay Laga’aia, Damien Garvey, Ben Siemer, Tiffany Lamb, Michael Dorman, Carl Rush, Paul Sonkkila, Vince Colosimo, Todd Levi, & Claudia Karvan.
Lionsgate/Australian Film Finance Corporation/Pictures in Paradise.
Rated R. 98 minutes.
Action/Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★★★
posterWith so many vampire movies out there, especially after the fame of the awful Twilight series, new innovations in the plots, or even the storytelling itself, are necessary. Daybreakers is fresh and exciting. Not everything is 100% original, but the film uses vampire love and what we’ve learned from vampire flicks in a non-conventional way. It could’ve been a serious film, all the way. Halfway through the plot things dive into a bit of silly action and other developments rather than stick with its sobering look at a vampire economy falling apart; a vision of how people today in society burn through their resources, augmented into an action-horror-science fiction picture. Although it ultimately becomes a mess of bloody action, there’s a lot of great stuff to enjoy. Not often do we get an Ethan Hawke genre flick, such as his other turn in Sinister a few years after this movie. So with him, Willem Dafoe, and the glorious Sam Neill upfront and centre, there are nice performances to help swallow the ridiculousness of the film’s last third. Directing-writing partners Michael and Peter Spierig give Daybreakers a steely, clinical look to take us inside a world dominated by vampires. Even when it falters, this is a better than most vampire film because its story takes a unique path. Daybreakers offers interesting themes and an action packed finale, despite being better than what it gives us.
pic1The vampire economy running on blood has left some vampires homeless, starving. Quickly there’s a sense of a class division even amongst the vamps. Rich and well-to-do vampires have better stuff, some people have more access. Then there are the remaining humans who’ve become second class citizens, to the point of being used for a blood source. Here, the rich now literally sucking the blood of the poor. Just like nowadays, as big businessmen and politicians bleed us, figuratively, dry.
We can look at it like blood for the vampires is oil for us in today’s society. We are consistently draining natural resources, the rich get greedy and refuse to invest in new, alternative sources for energy, and in Daybreakers the vampires doesn’t understand their vampirism is destroying nature, as well as decimating humanity. Instead of looking for a less negatively affecting alternative or searching for an answer or solution to the problem, the ruling class(/vampires) opt to just keep using and using. Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) represents the rogue insider wanting to act on change, like a man on the inside of the cigarette or oil industry, afraid to fully come out and act until he’s driven to it.
The vampire world is rife with “blood related crime” and the shortage of resources makes you wonder: will humans cling to oil in the same way the vampires do to blood? We keep killing the Earth, oblivious to its true consequences, because we’d rather not charge too much, instead enjoying the lifestyles we indulge at the expense of nature.
pic2As I mentioned, the style is something to behold. A very cold, blue-tinted colour palette makes everything feel much how what you’d imagine the vampire would look like. There’s also tons of wonderful makeup and lighting to give the vampires a frightening appearance; ghastly, almost genuinely tough to look at sometimes. Dig the eyes, they look cat-like, animal. Daybreakers relies a bit too heavily on CGI at times, although the CGI they do use is pretty damn solid. Such as a couple of the action scenes later in the film, which are well executed, and they’re limited so as not to get overbearing. The best one is when a military Humvee slides into a beam that impales the driver, followed by a large explosion. Perfect use of CGI.
But the moments of practical special effects are much more impressive. An early one, so simple and yet so effective, is when Edward sits with Charles Bromley (Sam Neill) and stirs his coffee – the blood swirls around, mixing together with the coffee into something reddish. Weirdly creepy. My favourite is the makeup and design fo the first feral, hungry vampire we come across in Edward’s apartment – it’s hideous, intimidatingly powerful when starting to throw Edward and his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman), and the detail of the makeup is unreal. SPOILER ALERT: the two best moments that involve at least SOME practical effects are when Bromley dies (vamps tear him apart before decapitating the head in bloody ecstasy) and during the scene where Frankie redeems himself for his earlier callousness (the military vamps do a number on him and litres of blood pour out into the frame).
pic2Elvis (Willem Dafoe) adds a great element to the story with his cured vampirism. Very interesting and part of why I love his role. The vampire logic in his idea for a cure is fun, adds something exciting to the vampire sub-genre. After the point where Elvis shows up, and Edward undergoes the experiment, the plot kind of goes to shit. There’s definitely a couple moments worth seeing, the action isn’t totally unwatchable. But you simply can’t help wonder what could’ve been. There’s an unbeatable sequence in the finale that is perfect – when cured people are bitten again, their blood turns other vampires into humans, so this causes a frenzy of biting, killing, gore splashing everywhere.
If the Spierig Brothers were able to keep a focus on the social commentary that’s found earlier in the screenplay, Daybreakers might be close to a 5-star affair. It’s still awesome, though again, you can’t help imagining where the plot could’ve been taken if action and bloodletting didn’t take precedence over story. You can find a lot worse, and it’s one of my favourite new vampire movies over the past decade or more. So many fall into formulaic nonsense. Despite dropping off near the end, this is a winner with a nice serving of blood, an innovative little story, and good actors to hold the story up as much as they can.

Suicide Squad: DC’s Hot Mess

Suicide Squad. 2016. Directed & Written by David Ayer.
Staring Viola Davis, Will Smith, Margot Robbie, David Harbour, Jared Leto, Jim Parrack, Common, Jai Courtney, Ezra Miller, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne, Joel Kinnaman, Adam Beach, Karen Fukuhara, & Ben Affleck. Atlas Entertainment/DC Comics/DC Entertainment.
Rated PG-13. 123 minutes.
Action/Adventure/Comedy/Sci-Fi

★★1/2
POSTER
I’ve loved comics and superheroes since I was a boy. Batman was the character I enjoyed most because of his humanity; he’s just a guy, a rich one at that, whose sadness and despair created a crime fighter. As of late, I’m getting sick of the superhero movies. I still read the comics and graphic novels. One shelf in my home library is dedicated to a bunch of them, from Batman: The Long Halloween to a ton of Alan Moore to much more. I’ve still got love for the basic stories and the characters throughout these worlds.
That being said, I’m sick of these movies. I give them a fair shake then they only wind up proving me wrong. I went into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice really wanting to enjoy what was going on, then it bored me, perplexed me, and left me wondering how a movie with both their names in it could have such a minor, badly ended confrontation as the climax.
Same goes for Suicide Squad, too. When I walked into the theatre, I was hoping DC and David Ayer (of whom I’m a huge fan) were about to throw me for a loop. A few times, I did enjoy myself. But on the whole, this is one huge misstep of a movie. There’s a number of problems. The music is like suffering the tortures of the damned. Some of the performances are far weaker than they ought to be compared to others. And with all the major hype around Jared Leto playing the Joker, his ridiculous makeup and character design (those tattoos… are you kidding me?), there’s not near enough pay off to make him worth it, nor enough to make him as interesting as Leto and Ayer so desperately want him to seem. So, in the end, I can’t do anything but chalk this flick up to another mistake on DC’s part. They had the chance to do something interesting, different. I’m not a fan of Guardians of the Galaxy, but that had its heart in the right place, as well as the fact its use of music had a purpose, a reason, whereas Ayer’s film is loaded down with songs trying to make up for the fact there’s little palpable suspense or tension without them. Suicide Squad wanted to replicate the success of a weird, unexpected crew of characters, this time opting for villains. It misses the mark by a wildly long shot.
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The first 20 minutes is one of the more insufferable sequences I’ve sat through in recent memory. Each villain is introduced using different music, as if each separate introduction is a music video unto its entirely. But it doesn’t stop there. When the Belle Reve men start shipping Harley Quinn and everyone else off, there’s only more and more of the musical offence. It’s tacky. Makes the whole thing feel silly, and not even in the appropriate comic sense. Just feels tacky and lazy. There’s a whole lot of this throughout the entire film. Once the Belle Reve criminals are brought out in front of the military at their location, it’s another god damn song. Never stops. Honestly, I’m not able to remember a poorer use of music overall than Suicide Squad. That recent WB open letter from a supposed former employee isn’t hard to believe. I’m not exactly sure why DC decided to play it this way instead of stepping in, perhaps making suggestions on how to make it all feel less foolish. Because the music really takes away from the excitement. For me, anyway. I rolled my eyes every time “Spirit in the Sky” or an Eminem song started playing, at the most inappropriate of moments. One of the worst offences is when we see the supposed origins of Harley; all the emotional, visceral momentum of that scene is totally washed away by the terrible song accompanying those moments.
Leto is a good actor, I’m not denying that. His role in Requiem for a Dream is one that I’ll never, ever forget, both he and Jennifer Connelly. He turned in a fantastic, appropriately method performance alongside Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. But with the crown price of crime in Gotham, he’s fallen short. There are moments where he’s creepy, unsettling, most of what the Joker is supposed to be in his rawest form. However, there’s something tired and overworked about the performance. As the scenes wore on, I found myself almost embarrassed watching some of his scenes. He tries to give it a dose of heaviness, of comedy and creeps mixed together. But his effort falls by the wayside. Not only that, apparently there’s a ton of his stuff cut, so there may have been a better performance lying in those missing scenes somewhere. Maybe.
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They didn’t do the best they could with the Joker, nor with Harley Quinn. Although, I have to say that at least Margot Robbie captured some of Harley’s essence. There were lots of lacklustre lines out of her, which is too bad. The script needed better writing for Harley, as well as she and the Joker together. She did her best and gave a fairly manic performance to give the role something special. Along with her, Viola Davis as Amanda Waller was fantastic. She is the perfect addition. She’s strong, no nonsense, she plays the character pretty damn spot on.
A big part of why I hated certain developments and character arcs is because the screenplay follows aspects of DC’s New 52, of which I’m not really a fan. Especially the whole Harley-Joker situation. I hate that. I dig her story in Mad Love written by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, as it provides a normal (though crazy) explanation of how Harley ended up infatuated with Joker. A simple, twisted story of a doctor and her patient, getting much, much too close. With the New 52, you’ve got a Harley origin story where she’s dumped into a vat of acid by Joker, just like what happened to him so famously. To me, it does nothing except provide an elaborate set piece. If we were to see them Arkham Asylum, that would’ve been a lot more fun, as we’d actually see the seduction, the craziness, the weird love between them. Instead, Ayer only provides us the tiresome backstory, which offers nothing more than spoon fed character development, or a lack of really. Harley and Joker could’ve been done much better. The actors are there, they try, but the writing is what ultimately hampers anything more interesting from coming forward.
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I’ll give it a 2 and a half star rating. That’s as much as I can offer Suicide Squad. The movie they gave us is not at all what they wanted us to believe it would be, or could be. Ayer is a fantastic director and a competent writer, usually. This is a rare misstep for him, filled with mistakes and missed opportunities. I wanted to like it, I did. I’m not a man child like so many critics out there on the internet. Never have I prejudged a bit of cinema without seeing it; sure I’ve speculated, but I always leave my opinion open until my eyes have personally seen a film. Suicide Squad has the star power, the artistry, the technical magic behind it. Somewhere along the way, flash and music and bad one-liners weren’t enough to lift this above mediocrity. DC is certainly in trouble. If they can’t start figuring out how to hit the sweet spot, Marvel will only continue to dominate them. And this is coming from a guy who’s neither a big fan of Marvel, nor excited about superhero movies in general. They’re played out. I only hope someone can come along and make something strange, like this should have been, into something accessible and thoroughly enjoyable.
For all the love Suicide Squad is getting from hardcore fanboys and fangirls, the honesty about the final product is not there. People blame critics for standing against this movie. A stupid thing to do. Many critics just realise this is not what it had potential to be. It’s been overhyped and sold beyond its means, from Leto’s “method” performance (AhembullshitAhem) and his idiotic gifts to his co-stars, to the apparent darkness and then pivot-step to more comedy the studio wanted. Right down to the script – tons of shit dialogue and poorly written exchanges between characters – this is a dud. There’s a few shining points, enough for it not to be an absolute bust. Yet those shiny little moments are far and far between.

Minority Report’s Speculative Fiction is All Kinds of Awesome

Minority Report. 2002. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Jon Cohen & Scott Frank; based on the short story of the same name by Philip K. Dick.
Starring Tom Cruise, Max von Sydow, Steve Harris, Neal McDonough, Patrick Kilpatrick, Jessica Capshaw, Anna Maria Horsford, Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Tim Blake Nelson, Lois Smith, Mike Binder, Jessica Harper, & Peter Stormare. Amblin Entertainment-Cruise/Wagner Productions-Blue Tulip Productions.
Rated PG-13. 145 minutes.
Action/Mystery/Sci-Fi

★★★★1/2
POSTER
Steven Spileberg is one of those directors whose work usually calls me back to a specific time in life. The memorable cinematic experiences of my early days were informed by Jaws which is the reason for my fear of deep water, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and its long lasting effect on my strange interests (aliens, paranormal, so on; even though I’m a major sceptic), as well as the adventure and thrill I found in Raiders of the Lost Ark and of course the emotional ride that is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. So many times, Spielberg wowed my young mind, as he did to so many, many others long before me. And yet even while I grew up the classics kept on coming. Jurassic Park changed my life in terms of how I saw movies, that they could be action-oriented and full of science fiction, that the adult and childhood interests in dinosaurs could find a way to fuse in one exciting bit of fiction. On top of everything, Spielberg has dipped his talent into producing a vast number of projects, many of which are classics in their own right without him having taken the reins as director. So usually if his name is attached, I’ll watch a movie simply for that sake, no matter how it turns out.
Minority Report didn’t get ravaged by critics, in fact it generally received a positive turn out. Furthermore, the movie did well domestically and overseas; the profit was more than triple its budget of just over $100-million. At the same time, I feel it’s not as well remembered as it ought to be when considering how great a movie it is, from acting to the direction to the overall look and atmosphere. Reason being that 2002 was a massive year in film, including releases such as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Spider-Man, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Men in Black II, Die Another Day, Signs, The Count of Monte Cristo, and those are just the big ones. Getting lost in the cracks, Minority Report is one of Spielberg’s best post-2000, and one of the last legitimate dives into sci-fi that he took (until taking on duties for Ready Player One). There’s enough excitement and intrigue in this movie to fill a few of them. Cruise gives a solid performance, and Spielberg keeps us on the edge of our seats while we roam the futuristic landscapes of an America that feels not too far off. Ultimately, Spielberg and the writers explore Dick’s story while asking if the technological advancements our society is capable of can manage to outwit the corruption and moral weakness at the hands of the people tasked with using that very technology. The bottom line of Minority Report concerns morality, humanity among the advancements of science, and the will of man to do evil, despite all odds.
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The entire process of the Precrime system is a ton of fun. Spielberg really went to town on coming up with the whole thing. I’d like to know more about how the design was decided. Just that room where Cruise’s character does his thing with the screens, those tailor-made wooden, varnished balls, every last detail is incredibly fun. Of course part of this most likely comes from the original short story by Philip K. Dick, though as I understand it the story’s been changed a good deal. I don’t doubt Dick’s story definitely has plenty of the detail Spielberg then used to come up with the look of his Washington, D.C. law enforcement facility of the future. However, part of it is definitely the master filmmaker himself putting his mark upon the adapted material.
One thing I’ve always loved is the design of the roadways, even the cars themselves. The chase scenes are incredible. Funny how certain reviews out there, by professional critics, have claimed these scenes are silly. Really? Are we watching the same movie? Because these chase scenes are perfectly science fiction and every bit the epitome of action. Totally exciting. That first sequence where Cruise is jumping down across the various vehicles is heart pounding. As far as the visual effects go, there are only one or two slight missteps. When you’re not dealing in practical effects, CGI and the like can sometimes let you down. Luckily, these moments are seldom, only one or twice throughout the over two hour runtime. The large majority of the effects look great, keep the pulse thumping, and add another nice element to the dark, gritty nature of the story and its feel.
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A huge part of what interests me is the idea of the surveillance state. We’ve almost got this amplified version of the CCTV-laced streets in the U.K. in this future vision of Washington, D.C. and other areas. For instance, as Anderton first tries to get away he moves through the malls and the subway stations, and every screen nearby is flashing his name, speaking to him through personalised advertisements, the newspapers in other passengers’ hands read pop-up headlines about John and his Wanted status. Overall there’s a really great riff on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in that Dick, as well as the screenwriters here, further explore the concept of the ‘thoughtcrime’, the idea that basically forms the foundation of the Precrime Division and their precognitive awareness/action on crime.
This entire angle makes for incredibly interesting plot developments. The fact Anderton is tagged in every way to be recognised by all the various computer systems makes for a tough predicament. There’s an optical recognition system around the entire city, which heightens the police search, as it’s not as simple to just hide away when every street corner, every sidewalk is seemingly rigged to scan your eyeballs and go straight to the source for your identity. Eventually, John finds a doctor whose talents lie in the black market – eye surgeries, to be exact. That’s actually one of my favourite sequences, including a cameo for one of the best character actors Peter Stormare; the whole thing is dark, gritty, weird, it’s an awesome bit that adds to the atmosphere, and turns into a nice addition to the chase elements of the screenplay. What I love most about this whole part of the film is that it speaks to the loss of privacy, the great lengths to which some will go in the future to avoid all the intrusion on their personal lives by way of technology, and so on. Before the film released, Spielberg talked about the technology he envisioned for the movie, and it’s also interesting to note he usually consults a lot of technical experts when making science fiction in order to try and bring some degree of realism to the subject matter. So go check out the TED talk with John Underkoffler, a scientific adviser who worked with Spielberg on the film. Then try and tell me we won’t see more of that in the future. In turn, we’ll watch our privacy disappear, more and more. Online ads are already tailoring themselves to our Facebook and Twitter accounts, our personalised information that’s floating around inside the internet. Soon enough, we’ll walk down the street, just like Anderton, and find the screens looking out at us, scanning, tailoring their ads to who we are as people. Most of all, Minority Report isn’t merely thrilling action: it’s a scary vision of a future world towards which we are headed, if we’re not too careful.
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The performances are good, from Cruise in the lead to Farrell and Max von Sydow in their respective supporting roles. Above anything, the atmosphere is what makes this one for me. I love Spielberg’s movies and every one of them feels different, though each of them also has that same magic. Despite moving from genre to genre, as well as through many types of characters and stories, Spielberg always retains that classic style. No matter if the subject material and themes are dark, friendly and youthful, or if they explore a world completely foreign to our own, his films are all capable of transporting us into a sacred space, one beloved by many cinephiles around the globe. Minority Report is one of his best in recent years. There’s a constant excitement, even in the more low key moments. The pacing is exceptional and keeps the whole thing going, allowing Spielberg to stop between his big chase scenes to flesh out a deeply personal, emotional story involving a father and the loss of his son, the crumbling of the relationship with his wife, all of which is folded up in a wonderfully compelling sci-fi tale. Don’t sleep on this one. If you’ve yet to see it, get out and do yourself a favour. Especially if Spielberg gives you the nostalgia feeling in your stomach the way he does for me.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave a.k.a The Matrix

The Matrix. 1999. Directed & Written by Lana and Lilly Wachowski.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, Gloria Foster, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Julian Arahanga, Matt Doran, Belinda McClory, Anthony Ray Parker, Paul Goddard, Robert Taylor, David Aston, & Marc Aden Gray. Warner Bros./Village Roadshow Pictures/Groucho II Film Partnership.
Rated 14A. 136 minutes.
Action/Sci-Fi

★★★★★
POSTER An interest of mine, as well as the minor in my Honours degree, has always been Philosophy. Even the times when I can’t grasp a concept the entire school as a whole is intriguing. There are so many different philosophies, ranging the gamut of Eastern and Western Philosophy, many great thinkers since time immemorial. So what happens when you take the ideas of many philosophies, create an interesting, modern story, then wrap the whole innovative package inside an action film?
Then, you have The Matrix.
Lana and Lilly Wachowski (formerly known as Larry and Andy) wrote one of the most unique, original science fiction-action adventures in cinematic history, let alone of the 1990s. Their ideas concerning various philosophies translated into something which captivated the minds of those willing to think outside the box. No more did a science fiction-actioner flick need to be about a renegade ass kicker taking on bad guys, villainous henchman, terrorists, and so forth. Nor did it have to involve space, as was often the case before this came along. After The Matrix, this changed. Writers became more willing to take chances, at least until remake and sequel fever got too serious. For a while, though, we coasted on the high of the Wachowski genius. No matter how you feel about the sequels, this first film broke new ground, daring to go where no one had ventured, at least not in any significant capacity. The story, the action, every last bit is equal to the portion before it. And not many movies can make their stories so amazing while also doing amazing stunts and action sequences overall. That’s where this movie gains its traction.
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The Oracle is one of the best parts. Her dialogue does so much. She questions cause and effect. Above her kitchen door is KNOW THYSELF in Latin (Temet Nosce), which was supposedly inscribed in The Temple of Apollo at Delphi; this connects to the Delphic Oracle, the Pythia. In relation to Delphi, this iteration of the Oracle follows suit with the fact the Pythia, the one through whom Apollo spoke, needed to be an older woman “of blameless life” it is said.
One of the most obvious allusions in the screenplay as whole is the concept of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, narrated as usual by that bad motherfucker named Socrates, or as he was known in his break dance circles Socra-deez-nuts.
If you’ve never actually heard of this allegorical story, jump over here, then come back.
So Neo (Keanu Reeves) is essentially one of those people down in the cave. Chained to his life, this imposed reality, he’s left staring at the blank wall. Only here the blank wall is a falsified reality, one that looks and feels alive, real, genuine. But underneath, outside of the cave, is an actual life. One where things have deteriorated. Now, in Plato’s allegory there’s none of the post-apocalyptic storytelling. Only that the truth is beyond the cave, it is out in the light, beyond darkness. So Neo sits watching the fire in the cave, his supposed life and reality and believing the shadows it casts upon the wall are his only truth. Then in comes Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). He brings the truth. All of a sudden, Neo is in the light. At first, it isn’t easy. Like Plato’s narrating Socrates relays, the people exit the cave, they see the light, and initially the light burns their eyes. Likewise, Neo is served the truth so quickly, so cold, his body reacts physically. This is a great adaptation of Plato into a recognizable, yet smart package.
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Who better to play the blank slate, the tabula rasa that is Neo than Keanu? Honestly, though. I personally love the guy as an actor, he can be compelling at times. But really, his sort of disaffected attitude works in the beginning. He’s able to feel like this almost teenage-like character, one whose adult life hasn’t fully kicked in. Then as the hits keep coming he begins to feel more real, an emotional man that opens up to the truth of the world. Added to that, Reeves can do the action bit. He’s attuned to this kind of role. Best of all in terms of his casting is that he doesn’t even need to do a whole lot of intense dialogue. Not that he can’t, he certainly can. Rather, the Wachowskis needed someone able to convey the innocent qualities of the character then carry the action star part as the plot progressed. They got what they needed.
Then there’s Laurence fucking Fishburne. A treasure, unheralded. Yes, he gets lot of roles. I just don’t think people appreciate his range. He’s done everything from play in a Coppola classic to portray a wild gangster to give us the best performance as Thomas Harris’ Jack Crawford character on screen. Here, he gives us the perfect Morpheus. Nobody else could have done it this way. He has an iconic voice anyway, though it’s all in his presence, the delivery of his lines. It’s in the fact Fishburne makes Morpheus truly feel like this all-knowing, ever knowledgeable, almost ancient-type figure. This is a star role as is, but Fishburne gives it the extra boost needed to lift his dialogue off the page and make it live.
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There’s an equal balance of philosophical musing and action in this film. The innovative bits aren’t solely in the enjoyable screenplay. One massive portion of that is due to the unique action sequences. The Wachowskis single-handedly coined the term Bullet Time, which of course comes out in the iconic sequence where Neo finally discovers what Morpheus meant earlier when implying he wouldn’t have to dodge any bullets, someday, at some point. A solid moment. Before that we’re given a wonderfully bullet laden sequence as Neo and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) enter the building on their way to locate and free a confined Morpheus. This entire series of scenes is amazing, as they go right up to the top of the building. That’s where Neo first dodges bullets, almost all succesfully. It’s not until later in a hallway facing the agents that Neo realizes he can literally stop bullets with just his hands. Both of those moments are well executed and intense, particularly the latter as its effectively the climax of the movie, after The One discovers his full potential. But any action fan in their right mind will love this movie for its wild fun. Hundreds of bullets literally drop from the sky when Neo and Trinity go for Morpheus, the agents are tough to beat, and this makes for exciting scenes. Love when Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) comes up against Neo, they’re riveting to watch, and the fight choreography is stellar (as were the scenes where Neo trains alongside Morpheus fighting). Instead of watching the typical sort of action, the Wachowskis give us gorgeous stunts, a bit of the odd elements that come along with the agents and The Matrix’s physics, even Neo himself. You can’t be bored watching any of this stuff, bottom line.
For me, The Matrix is an outright masterpiece of modern cinema. Again, it taught people that action, specifically that with a science fiction angle, needn’t always be the same tired formula. Philosophy and action can mix. Brain and brawn find middle ground, a territory where each co-exist in the minds of bold filmmakers. There are a couple solid performances, a plethora of action sequences to boggle your brains, and a satisfying finale that’s ripe to lead into other stories, yet can easily be taken as one standalone film if you want to see it that way. No matter how you cut it The Matrix blew things wide open. A movie right before the turn of the 21st century that I’ll never, ever find far from my mind. It comes along with exciting memories of being 14, hanging with best friends, eating chips and drinking Pepsi, watching movies late into the night and having fun. And that’s part of what movies are all about, good or bad. Fortunately, this is better than good. It is perfect.

Come Get It in the Yarbles: Criminality in A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange. 1971. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screenplay by Anthony Burgess & Kubrick.
Starring Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, Warren Clarke, Adrienne Corri, Carl Duering, Paul Farrell, Clive Francis, Michael Gover, James Marcus, Aubrey Morris, Godfrey Quigley, & Sheila Raynor. Warner Bros./Hawk Films.
Rated R. 136 minutes.
Crime/Drama/Sci-Fi

★★★★★
POSTER
There’s no doubt certain films stick in one’s mind after first seeing them. Stanley Kubrick is a director to whom I was introduced by my best friend. Before ever seeing The Shining, he showed me A Clockwork Orange. We were about 11. Afterwards, I was never the same. Not that it warped my mind. Not at all. It opened my mind to creativity, to the splendour of artistry in film. No longer was my 11-year-old mind filled with kids movies like Angels in the Outfield or any of the movies that were big while I was a young boy. I’d discovered the grown up world of movies. Kubrick was my way in, and this was the first of his work I’d ever experienced.
A Clockwork Orange is all too often dismissed by those who don’t like it as too violent and cruel, a real dastardly slice of cinema. And no doubt about it, this is one mad work of crime in a dystopian near vision of Britain. However, everything serves its purpose. There is nothing here, even the most infamous of its scenes where Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) prepares to commit an atrocious act of assault on a woman while belting out “Singin’ In the Rain”, that does not feel rightfully in its place. Above all else remember that though there may be “ultraviolence” and all kinds of other terrifying insanity, this is at its core satire concerning the way we see criminal rehabilitation, how government use of psychological conditioning is merely a Band-Aid rather than a permanent solution. Of most importance is that Kubrick attacks all types of government, no side is safe, as his film alongside the writing of Anthony Burgess points their satirical darkness at all of society, asking the questions through Alex, his droogs, and all the terror of their adventures.
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I love the way things look and feel very dystopian without anything overly elaborate in terms of set pieces. Most of the sets look proper, but there’s also a pervasive feeling of trash everywhere, run down buildings and parking lots, general chaos in the streets and throughout the buildings amongst the city in which Alex lives. The small sci-fi bits come in with the modern look of the furniture, the shops, the various 1970s-looking stuff that almost does have a futuristic feel on its own.
An interesting sequence happens when Alex is first listening to Ludwig Van Beethoven. He hears the music and Kubrick catches the Christ statuette, nails in its wrists and blood seeping out, almost in gunshot pattern. Bang, bang, bang, edited at various speeds. To me, the way Jesus is out in the open and prominent in the shot as well is due to the personality of Alex, how he is a criminal and sins yet keeps a statue like that; he is delusional enough to believe having a Chris statue and listening to classical music makes him cultured. Similar to the titular clockwork orange, he is a human on the outside, organic and real, while on the inside he’s a mechanised bit of equipment. Even before the conditioning he receives Alex is essentially a machine: appearing human, underneath he is monstrous. Afterwards, his monstrosity is still there it’s only covered with another layer. Same sin, different packaging.
More interesting is when Alex talks with the priest in prison. The priest tells him about morality and goodness, that they are not implanted or created in a person. They are chosen. This directly foreshadows exactly the trajectory of Alex’s path to come. He’s never truly rehabilitated, and this is one of the largest comments Burgess and Kubrick try to make. That certain criminals, such as the sociopathic Alex and others like him, are beyond rehabilitation, and that sometimes rehabilitation is not even that. In the end, Alex becomes assimilated into another form of criminality. He’s calmed down just enough to make him suitable for a possible life of politics down the road, something bigger. So the concept of criminality in A Clockwork Orange extends beyond Alex and the droogs. We are to understand that criminals are everywhere, not only on the street. It’s all a matter of appearance, how things look on the outside. Again, the title of the film and the original novel comes into play, as what’s on the outside must feel genuine, and beneath it all lies the mechanical, robotic heart.
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Kubrick makes this into a genuine post-modern creation. There’s an amazingly threaded mixture of high and low culture. Alex himself is the post-modern male, at once he listens to Beethoven and other classical music (though Ludwig Van is his top man), sings songs from musicals, all the while he’s out raping and committing extreme acts of violence. Meanwhile, the scenes themselves have this exact same atmosphere of post-modernity. As the violence, the sex between Alex and two young women, all the low brow hideousness happens, Kubrick opts to go for his usually well placed inclusion of classical pieces. In this way moments that might normally appear completely dark and sinister come off as darkly humorous. This whole concept of high and low culture in one whole is again an element playing into the overall theme of appearances, the hidden face of the criminal, and so on.
Something that helps is the fact everything is shot so well. Cinematographer John Alcott helps Kubrick capture each end of the spectrum. To start, most of the first half is filled with brash, garish looking sets from the Moloko to Alex’s room to the shops where he met the two women. Everything is so vibrant you can almost reach out and touch it with your bare hands. Then there’s the more clinical portions of the film where Alex is being rehabilitated, everything is quite stark in comparison to the earlier brightness. The film’s palette of colours changes in the various sections. In this part as Alex goes from the prison to the scientific facility where they plan on rehabilitating him, the palette becomes more muted, along with a hospital-like feeling with lots of white and vivid colours though shot in darker, often blue filters. Once Alex regresses to his old criminal behaviour there’s a switch back to the garishness of the film’s first half. We return to the modern, gaudy furniture in one of those 1970s-near future British homes. In that sense as well, Kubrick brings everything full circle: the story, Alex, criminality, and the whole visual aesthetic.
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This impressively effective, darkly comic satire is one of the best of the ’70s. One of Kubrick’s best and in my top three favourites of his filmography. A Clockwork Orange has lots of disturbing subject matter and thematic material on the surface. If you dig in you’ll find depth in all of it. There are many comments within about the nature of criminality, how the government deals with it and if they may in fact make it worse, as well as a whole host of other things. Anthony Burgess’ novel is a groundbreaking work of writing, just as Kubrick makes the film adaptation into an equally groundbreaking work of cinema. There are plenty points to be made. You suss out the ones which make the most sense to you. For me, it’s all about that scene where Alex is being shown off, supposedly rehabilitated in full, and the priest steps in: he lays everything out for us, plain as day. Although, in the film as in life nobody listens, or nobody hears.
One thing I know for sure? This is one of the greatest films of all-time. It’s fine if you don’t think so, but I could mine this for days and find tons more to talk about. Judge for yourself. Personally, I believe Kubrick makes profound points about law, order, and so much more swirling around the two concepts. And Alex, he is a warning, a result, an effect to which we all should be paying attention.

Danny Boyle’s Sunshine Takes Its Sci-Fi Seriously

Sunshine. 2007. Directed by Danny Boyle. Screenplay by Alex Garland.
Starring Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, & Michelle Yeoh. 20th Century Fox/DNA Films/Ingenious Film Partners/MPC.
Rated 14A. 107 minutes.
Adventure/Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★★★1/2
POSTER
Ever since first laying my eyes upon Trainspotting, I’ve more or less knelt at the altar of Danny Boyle. His films are incredible, often very emotionally compelling and with lots of interesting things happening, no matter the subject. I’m a fan of most of his films, barring a couple that weren’t my cup of tea. On the whole, he’s fantastic. Particularly I find he has two talents: working with science fiction elements (even if he’s only really done that previously with 28 Days Later…) and working with human drama. Luckily, sometimes both of these crossover into one another.
Sunshine is such a film. There’s part of this story focused on the sci-fi plot, the idea of the sun beginning to burn out and mankind trying to find some way to reignite it, lest they be relegated to a world that will perish without its heat and power. The other part is about men and women, human beings, how we see the world and how we imagine what’s outside our own. Furthermore, Boyle and writer Alex Garland look at the human relationships which ultimately the fate of mankind will rely on should we need a crew like those abord the Icarus II to go on a similar mission. In addition to the great drama and the solid science fiction, Sunshine is a visual and auditory journey which many films of its kind aren’t often able to achieve. Garland gives us the interesting writing, as Boyle works his magic with the help of cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler to craft a gorgeous piece of cinema that stands up to some of the better efforts out of the genre in these past few decades.
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I’m sure a good deal of right-wing leaning moviegoers will dismiss this as leftist propaganda. However, forget those types. This is a solid science fiction story. It has echoes of other films we’ve seen before, from Event Horizon to Alien. But Sunshine is very much its own tale. Alex Garland is a solid screenwriter, having already worked with Boyle on The Beach and 28 Days Later…, so that’s at least given them chemistry. And they use it to their advantage. Garland is great at getting to the raw emotion of characters, which is evident in the other aforementioned films, as well. When Capa (Cillian Murphy) must be the only one to go through the airlock, the interim captain isn’t happy, and this brings out a load of tension for a while that plays into the idea that humans aren’t all built equipped with the capacity to handle such tension. These are the situations of human drama that make science fiction better than just a ton of wild elements. Without this basic suspense and tension brought out through the humanity of characters (they don’t even need to be human just have to have heart), sci-fi can easily fall flat. This movie is served well by the writing of Garland’s characters, their development, and the situations in which they find themselves forced along their arduous journey.
Moreover, Garland has a good writer’s mind for action. Not every writer is as good with one as the other. Although, Garland breaks that open being capable of good dialogue, interesting characters, as well as making the story feel exciting by pacing things well, and adding in the appropriate action like he does here.
A few of the sequences are spectacularly adrenaline-filled. One of my favourites is the whole airlock scene, as the interim captain ends up floating off in space and freezing, his face cracking into bits. Sad, even if he’s an asshole. Then just the entire suspense of Mace (Chris Evans) nearly freezing to death too is thick enough to cut with a knife. The first time watching, I wasn’t sure he’d make it. Nice when action scenes aren’t simply big set pieces or explosions or anything like that, but rather built on suspense and tense developments.
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Not only are the characters and the plot well written, Garland’s writing is given breath by the excellent performances. Cliff Curtis, ever a solid character actor, does such a good job as the resident psychologist, whose own obsession with the sun mirrors the villain Pinbacker (Mark Strong). Love Curtis and to see him here giving his all is one reason the supporting cast is as good as the leads. Rose Byrne and Michelle Yeoh are each excellent, as well. They add a great element to counter all the testosterone brought particularly by Evans. Speaking of him, he does well with his character, meant to be a hot-headed sort that wants to kind of push his way forward rather than sit around and talk. In that sense, Evans and Murphy’s characters are juxtaposed nicely. Murphy, as always, is a powerhouse, and he gives a quiet, thoughtful performance as the lead Robert Capa. On his back and through his perspective we encounter each twist and turn throughout Icarus II’s mission. There’s always an intriguing aspect to Murphy, both physically in his looks and in the way he acts. He can become many types, most recently wowing me in BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders. Here, he plays this young doctor, but one with a head on his shoulders, a conscience, so that Capa eventually goes through this trial where he’s put to the physical test, not just having to use his brain but also his body. Lots of great performances make this one entertaining bit of science fiction adventure.
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There’s a bittersweet devastation about the finale. Sunshine takes you to a place of serious science fiction and drama, then twists it all up into something amazing, dark, exciting. Once we come to discover Pinbacker, the fifth crew member left on the Icarus II in its waning moments, the whole eerie angle of the story comes to light (pun not intended; pun hilarious, though). The final half hour has plenty of sweaty tension once more. This carries you right to a beautiful yet slightly sad conclusion. Either way, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland created one hell of a sci-fi picture. From the 1990s onward there aren’t a huge amount of sci-fi movies that I consider amazing. Some, yes. Not a lot. In my humble opinion, Sunshine is an amazing film. It is beautiful, strange, dark at times. Never will you find the pace too slow, nor will you feel as if excitement is lacking. With so many good performances and the writing tightly woven into an emotion-filled, tense, and wild story, it’s hard not to enjoy. Throw this on next time you need a science fiction injection. I hope Boyle will go back to the genre someday, as he has great chops for it.

The Butterfly Effect’s Personal Revisionist History

The Butterfly Effect. 2004. Directed & Written by Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber.
Starring Ashton Kutcher, Melora Walters, Amy Smart, Elden Henson, William Lee Scott, Jesse James, Logan Lerman, John B. Lowe, Callum Keith Rennie, Ethan Suplee, Jesse Hutch, Tara Wilson, Kevin Durand, & Eric Stoltz. BenderSpink/FilmEnging/Katalyst Films.
Rated R. 120 minutes (Director’s Cut).
Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★★1/2
POSTER
I remember first seeing The Butterfly Effect when it came out. At the time I was in film school and one of our essays required us to go see a movie currently in theatre, do an analysis and write about 1,500 words. Going in, honestly there weren’t any huge expectations. It surprised me, though, and coming out I felt heavily affected by what I’d just seen. Along with Donnie Darko that I recently reviewed, this is a film I truly dig, but one I haven’t watched in years despite having viewed it a bunch after it first released. Coming back to it now there’s still a lot to enjoy.
While I may not see it as near perfect how I did a little over ten years ago, directors Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber does some great stuff. The Butterfly Effect looks at the power of memory, the repercussions of events from our past that bleed into the present. Above everything else, it makes us wonder whether revisiting the past is worth it. Of course it does so in the sense of exploring its thematic material through a science fiction lens. At the same time, the core story is rooted in a deeply intense and personal drama about a young man whose life, as well as the life of anyone around him, has been altered by significant, damaging events. Not everything works and there are points in the screenplay that could’ve been tighter, but on the whole this is an exciting, at times disturbing, always interesting bit of science fiction wrapped in a thriller concerning the power of memory to affect a person, as well as the enduring effect on a person’s loved ones and relationships if memory cannot be conquered.
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There’s some disturbing content at the heart of this film. Not too long in and we discover Evan (Ashton Kutcher) was molested as a boy by his friend’s father Mr. Miller (Eric Stoltz), and this is one of the bigger actions that causes repercussions. Because even before Evan goes about changing his memories and the past there’s that knowledge that events reverberate into the future, they shape a person’s character. So later when Evan does change things, bouncing between various decisions and making mistakes, there’s a further sense of these reverberations. Bigger now. Gradually, the lives of those involved with Evan over the course of a lifetime get worse and worse. From the upper class university life to a dilapidated crack house where Kayleigh (Amy Smart) winds up, the situations only get worse.
Beyond the disturbing elements, The Butterfly Effect is emotional. The foundation is built upon the relationship between Evan and Kayleigh, which shapes the thriller portions of this film. Evan’s love for Kayleigh, his desire to change her life for the better turns the story into a heartbreaking tale of failed redemption and a story about loss. Essentially, the plot concerns his desire to be the hero; of his own life and his others. The most devastating point in the plot is where Evan tries too hard to be the hero, for everybody, and effectively puts himself in a wheelchair, his arms blown off. All to try saving both Kayleigh and Lenny (Elden Henson), stretching himself too thin. Seeing him relegated to that chair and Evan having to watch his best friend be with the girl he loves so deeply is beyond tough. Despite flaws, this story is a tough ride, but in such an excellent sense. This is what makes the movie both memorable, as well as a so remarkable.
In the end, Evan realizes there’s no escaping the past. No matter his abilities in travelling back through his memories and the past in general, something worse or undesirable always happens. Nothing can alter what has already happened, only what comes afterwards. And the more Evan tries playing hero, the worse his eventual future becomes until he’s finally backed into a corner with no more options.
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For me, one of the largest downfalls to this movie is Kutcher himself. Not only him, though. Some of the acting is just weak. At times, I do like Kutcher. When Evan goes to jail I found his portrayal of the character genuine, his fear and the apprehension, not knowing how to act in that terrifying social space. Likewise, a young Logan Lerman plays Evan as a boy and he does a fantastic job; in certain scenes he retains that innocent childlike essence necessary, in others he feels old beyond his years when Evan is travelling back through memories to try changing the past. But too many times I felt the cheesy qualities of Kutcher’s acting. A few times you can forgive. Yet there are times I couldn’t take him seriously when the plot demands it. Such as when Kayleigh gives Evan a granola bar, in the future where he has no arms, and he crushes it with his prosthetic hand – normally, this wouldn’t make me laugh at all. Kutcher makes me chuckle at this, simply because there are times he’s just not believable. So with a mixed performance like this one it’s tough to love the movie more. Aside from him, Smart gives the same type of performance. Later when Kayleigh is a prostitute, down one particular avenue to the future which Evan mangles, Smart does well with portraying this tragic side of the character. The rest of her performance is slightly bland. One moment in particular kills me: in the future where Evan has no arms he falls from his wheelchair purposefully, while on the ground people laugh at him and Kayleigh tries defending him by yelling at everyone, but Smart’s acting feels much too forced and this brief scene comes off terribly. There are some instances of good acting throughout, don’t get me wrong. Considered as a whole, the cast is all right. Enough to convey the basics and to make things emotional at the right times.
What the movie lacks in solid performances it makes up for with an interesting plot with equally interesting execution on the part of the directors. The visual style is dark, which mirrors the plot and the film’s story. Moreover, the actual atmosphere itself gets darker or lighter depending on how Evan and his actions affect the future’s outcome. So when things feel rosy and wonderful in the college lifestyle, Evan exists in a bright, colourful space. The more sinister everything becomes, the grittier each scene gets and the more shadows hang over every frame.
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No qualms giving this a 3&1/2-star rating. There are plot holes, some cheesy moments of acting, and at times there are good scenes which fall flat for various reasons. However, The Butterfly Effect is engaging because of its emotional hook, and despite missteps in acting along the way Kutcher is still able to make us care about Evan, investing ourselves in his emotional journey across the past through his shattered memories. More importantly, this is an innovative feature, as it dives hard and deep into territory we’ve seen before, but with its own interesting premise.
Also, if you can, see the Director’s Cut. I much prefer the ending to this one. The original Theatrical Cut is good enough. Although the ending doesn’t fit well enough with the vibe of the film. The Director’s Cut ends things off properly grim, yet by the same token there’s this glimmer of hope which stays in-line with the character of Evan and his desire to try and rewrite the past to positive ends. Either way, check out all four of the endings and judge for yourself. This is a nice little flick that I can always go back to now and then for an edgy thrill with heavy hints of science fiction in its bones.

Relentlessly Fun Video Game Action with HARDCORE HENRY

Hardcore Henry. 2016. Directed & Written by Ilya Naishuller.
Starring Sharlto Copley, Danila Kozlovsky, Haley Bennett, Tim Roth, Andrei Dementiev, Svetlana Ustinova, Darya Charusha, Oleg Poddubnyy, Will Stewart, & Ilya Naishuller.
Bazelevs Production/Versus Pictures.
Rated 18A. 96 minutes.
Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi

★★★★1/2
POSTER We’ve certainly seen point-of-view films, mostly the horror genre tackling them, though they are out there in several genres. Right back to 1947’s big screen Raymond Chandler adaptation, Lady in the Lake. So the film world is not completely foreign to this idea. However, Hardcore Henry takes it further than any other film really has before. Upping the stakes, director-writer Ilya Naishuller takes that first-person perspective and uses very similar to how it’s done in video games. Instead of trying to keep it simple, innovate at a basic level, Naishuller, a handful of cinematographers, and a massively talented team craft this into a spectacularly creative effort of science fiction-action madness. If anything, you’ve got to admire the work put in. So many of the action sequences are mind boggling. The camera work is something to behold, as the whole team behind the film’s look makes us feel like we’re constantly inside one of those video games it hopes to emulate.
There are some flaws. No movie is perfect, even those I happen to give a full 5 stars. No matter how great a film, there’s never been a perfect piece of cinema down to the bone. Each one has its missteps. Some bigger than others, but they’ve all got a blemish here or there. Nevertheless, Hardcore Henry helps us start to redefine what action movies are in the 21st century. During the latter bits of the 20th century, we had TerminatorDie HardLethal Weapon, before that there was Star WarsAliens, and later at the tail end there’s The Matrix. All those films have incredible elements to them, which made their appeal so large, lasting still to this day. Nowadays people are always looking for more. They want bigger, badder, wilder action. This may not be a masterpiece. Although, it is an excitingly fun ride through a science fiction story on the wings of awesomely executed action.
Pic1 There’s never much rest for the wicked here. Constantly, Henry takes you on his fascinating run of survival. In the opening ten minutes you get a solid ahead of what’s going on in terms of character, plot. Then after that it’s headlong into action. Love the head-mounted camera they work with here; most of the work is done on GoPro Hero3 Black Edition cameras. Lots of films have used these types of rigs, but this film pushes its efficiency to the limit. It holds up well, too. Absolutely some shaky moments. I’ve got to say: on the whole, it keeps things looking nice for the majority of the action. Plus, it allows us that first-person shooter look. As if you’re literally playing a video game.
The stunts are beyond impressive. Henry is played by almost a dozen different stuntmen, including the director himself at times. And these guys really do fascinating work. At times, it’s hard to believe a few of the stunts they pull off. Apparently, there were only a few minor injuries, as opposed to some action movies where you hear about a broke bones and filming setbacks due to stunt accidents, so on. Goes to show you how well these stunts are performed. In many scenes, it’s like you’re running parkour along with Henry. Things can get disorienting once in awhile, no doubt. I feel that overall the movie’s exciting enough that the chaos doesn’t take away from any of that.
Some of my favourite scenes:
The escalator sequence is great, not to mention an extra actually got in the way and was knocked down like we see in the finished film; works so well with that moment. Just the effort in terms of stunts behind that is gnarly.
An excellently performed moment of humour when Henry tries to mount a horse. I believe it’s some Magnificent Seven music which plays, right before he gets bucked off and the horse runs away. Makes me laugh so hard and I thought that was perfect. Does so much wild shit throughout yet can’t even manage to ride a horse more than a couple feet.
The climactic scene with its opening moments set to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” makes me so happy. Partly because I’m one of the biggest Queen fans this side of the pond. Partly because the song itself just fits so oddly well with the action in this sequence.
Pic2 This brings me to another point. Certain critics out there seemed to find their excitement waning after awhile because they say there’s not enough character or emotion to keep the film’s interest. I totally disagree. There’s an enormous amount of mystery. We get little slices of the characters, the situation, what’s happening at the base of it all. But ultimately so much of Hardcore Henry remains mysterious. I mean, you really don’t find it at all interesting to ponder the origins of Akan? There’s even a prequel comic called “Hardcore Akan” to flesh it out. Then with the entire story of Henry himself, we get a few answers yet most of it stays shrouded in darkness. Plus, as much as I love Die Hard, for instance, it isn’t John McClane and his personal journey that makes the movie so exciting (though his character’s story itself makes things better), it’s the action. It never hurts to have an expanded character background and all that. But when I come for action and adventure, I come to see the wild gunfights, the stunts, the exaggerated yet accomplished sequences of utter destruction. Again, Henry is a good character, as well. He’s just not loaded with exposition at every turn. This whole criticism I don’t get. If you stick with the movie, you get lots of character, plenty of emotion, right next to the action. Maybe some supposed critics aren’t watching close enough, perhaps too concerned with eating popcorn and candy. I don’t know.
Either way, I love the characters here, not just Henry. Sharlto Copley plays Jimmy so well and his character all around is just one of those intriguing types, an ever shifting identity in the action-adventure landscape. Copley’s a solid talent in any film, even the lesser ones he may happen to act in. Here, he gets to do some action, do some comic relief, as well as play an all around fun guy whose disguises are better than half the masks Tom Cruise wears in the Mission Impossible franchise (not knocking those; aside from the second one, I dig those flicks!). Adding Copley to the cast of any movie is bound to get my attention. He does a great job here and every time you see him reappear it’s a signal things are about go get out of hand.
Pic4Pic3 Personally, to give this any less than 4&1/2 stars is doing an injustice. Once more I say, yes, this has its faults. There are a couple bits that either could’ve been changed, or maybe even improved. But mostly, Hardcore Henry is exciting as it should be, its chaos is wonderfully controlled, so that it doesn’t come off as never ending shaky cam uselessness. The frenetic style keeps us in the world of a video game from start to finish. Ilya Naishuller does a fantastic job with the direction and overall as a writer he keeps things interesting. The mix of adventure, action, and science fiction together here is a whole bag of breathtaking film making. Not sure why so many put this movie down. Of course, it isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. No movie will please all the viewers. Hardcore Henry is so much fun. I had a blast watching it. Make sure to see it on the big screen if you can, if not just sit back in front of a nice big television when you can rent it on VOD and have at some action anarchy. Don’t let people turn you away from this because they say there isn’t enough character, emotion, or whatever – there is, underneath so much of Henry’s adventurous journey and its barbarous action. See it, be the judge.
For me, one of the most amazing action movies of the 21st century.

THE BAY’s Nightmarish Ecological Horror

The Bay. 2012. Directed by Barry Levinson. Screenplay by Michael Wallach.
Starring Nansi Aluka, Christopher Denham, Stephen Kunken, Frank Deal, Kether Donohue, Kristen Connolly, Will Rogers, Kimberly Campbell, Beckett Clayton-Luce, Dave Hager, & Justin Welborn.
Hydraulx/Haunted Movies/Automatik Entertainment.
Rated R. 84 minutes.
Horror/Mystery/Sci-Fi

★★★★
POSTER Perhaps why The Bay works and feels better than so much of the other found footage fodder spewed out over the past four or five years is due to the fact director Barry Levinson is neither someone who we’d expect to tackle horror, nor is he the type of director you’d imagine would veer into this particular sub-genre. Nevertheless, what results is an interesting piece of work. It isn’t always flat out horror. What Levinson does best with this story is provide a raw and honest look at a community that ends up descending into terror because of ecological issues. Of course it dives headlong into science fiction. It’s real feeling sci-fi. Even after the movie nearly turns into a creature feature, though one that smartly avoids an actual creature per se, Levinson is able to retain that truthful sense of atmosphere. In part, that’s due to the found footage style emulating scientific recordings, news reports, and much more. Also, it has to do with the writing, the believability of the story and its plots, as well as the fact there’s such an excellent sense of mystery which weaves itself around the film until all its shocking events unfold. Critics like Ebert and some others accused this movie of not actually having any horror. Is that a joke? Sure, fear is subjective and we’re not all afraid of the same things. However, I find it tough to say Levinson doesn’t draw out all the terror inherent in this story. In a day and age where people are questioning the practices of Monsanto and other big companies, and the governments both federal and municipal which make deals with them (often without consideration of the effects it actually has on citizens in lieu of big pay days and incentives), The Bay is a remarkably poignant bit of horror cinema that capitalises on the found footage sub-genre to make its story real and visceral, no matter if it’s technically a work of science fiction.
Pic1 What’s so eerie to me is that gradually once you figure out something’s wrong with the water, everything after that (and before it if you go back to watch through again like I’ve done several times) is painted in such a sinister light. You don’t even need to go back through honestly, as before the first ten minutes are through we’ve figured out that something is not quite right.
Levinson’s directorial choices work well because he takes us forward through several different angles. You’ve got everything from a radio show to the main framing of rookie news reporter Donna (Kether Donohue) on the scene in the midst of all the madness. Then there’s the doctor via phone call with the CDC agents discussing the massive outbreak at his hospital. Plus, there’s a bunch of the found footage cellphone and camera videos from people experiencing unsettling events around the Chesapeake Bay on the 4th of July. Even some dash-cam footage from police officer squad cars, which is possibly some of the more unsettling stuff; one sequence where the cops find infected people inside a house, all via audio from the cops, is possibly the most unnerving moment out of the entire film.
I enjoy the news reports with Donna because she gives us an idea about how the media doesn’t only spin things into a story, sometimes rather the media is simply kept on the outside, whether because of their own inability to get to the bottom of things or that they’re purposefully being kept at arm’s length. At the same time, once things get kicking that whole omnipotent perspective over all the various plots which Levinson allows us an eye on reveals all the various treachery in Chesapeake Bay, and how the little seaside town got to where it is in the violent breakdown.
Pic2-1Pic2 There’s genuinely unsettling body horror happening, which is another reason why I dig the film. Levinson and his crew make the horror so viscerally nasty that it’s something you could see coming from a guy like David Cronenberg. Instead of focusing solely on the nastiness, there’s a good deal of psychological horror on display. Intensity cranks up near the end with streets literally lined by corpses, people getting eaten alive from the inside out. But more importantly the government failures on many levels become perfectly clear, if they weren’t already before. The fact the divers were discovered a couple weeks beforehand, as well as the government worrying about panic spreading after the fact, we’re able to scarily understand how these types of things could happen then find themselves being covered up. Couple that with the fact all the footage we’re seeing was supposedly confiscated and the government gives a lackadaisical response and explanation for the outbreak, then Levinson and writer Michael Wallach make sure to retain the raw elements of what makes The Bay so interesting. Because it’s partly the horror, all those nasty bits and pieces of gross out practical effects and the wildly chaotic moments that make your pulse pound. Yet the most interesting aspect to me is the fact this plays so well as a mockumentary, elevated to a sci-fi/horror hybrid. As opposed to most found footage films out there, aside from a pack of well made titles, this one’s got genuine characters which are furthermore paralleled with genuine performances from the actors to make the reality of The Bay that much more believable. Ultimately, you can’t ask for any better from a horror/sci-fi film than for it to feel realistic. And above anything else I certainly can’t fault Levinson for lacking an honest touch.
Pic3Pic4 This is most definitely a 4-star found footage horror. It has the perfect bits of sci-fi and a mysterious, engaging script. Barry Levinson is sometimes hit or miss for me, but always interesting. The Bay is one of his most recent efforts I dig most. He hits hard at the ecological horror here and perhaps, using his studies of the Chesapeake Bay for the basis of this creepy little flick, says something viable about our dependence on local politicians to make big deals which affect the safety of their citizens. Who knows. Maybe it’s just a fun bit of popcorn horror. Either way, this is one effective bit of cinema and I hope we’ll get some more of these types of found footage movies in the future. Would be nice if Levinson did another creepy movie because he’s absolutely got the chops.

Suburban Parasitic Anxieties: David Cronenberg’s Shivers

Shivers. 1975. Directed & Written by David Cronenberg.
Starring Paul Hampton, Joe Silver, Lynn Lowry, Allan Kolman, Susan Petrie, Barbara Steele, Ronald Mlodzik, Barry Baldaro, Camil Ducharme, Hanna Poznanska, Wally Martin, Vlasta Vrana, Silvie Debois, Charles Perley, & Al Rochman. Cinépix/DAL Productions/Canadian Film Development Corporation.
Rated R. 87 minutes.
Horror/Sci-Fi

★★★★
POSTER
Even if I love Alien to death and think it’s a masterpiece of cinema, the fact remains that Dan O’Bannon definitely saw David Cronenberg’s Shivers a.k.a They Came From Within. And not just that, he loved it. This was the original piece of dreadful science-fiction-horror that preyed upon an isolated environment, high up above everything else, a nearly self-contained atmosphere where a predator on the inside starts to take out the residents, one by one. Just like Weyland-Yutani were terraforming and the government or whoever were planning to use the Xenomorphs for sinister purpose, the creatures of Shivers were created for a purpose but then that purpose went terribly awry. Is it a coincidence then that the residential apartment complex where this film is set happens to be named Starliner? I’m not accusing O’Bannon of anything. He’s already been accused, anyways. I enjoy the little similarities because it shows the legacy and intrigue of Cronenberg. He is an important artist who dares to ask questions about human nature, the social effects of technology and medicine and more, as well as so many other things. Only his third feature, Shivers asks of us what the price of advancement is in terms of our social lives, as a whole in society. The more we isolate ourselves, jamming our life into smaller spaces so that we can cram more people in around us, the further at risk we put ourselves of becoming something entirely other. In that case, there is no progress, no evolution. We only evolve into something mindless, swallowed whole by a concern for economic and social status, consumed by our consumption. Through his trademark body horror Cronenberg explores the terrifying downfall of a society within society inside the Starliner apartment building, and much like J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, as well as the recent Ben Wheatley adaptation, this film depicts how a self-contained environment can eat itself alive
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The big horror here is Cronenberg’s use of phallic, slug-like creatures to represent an invasion of otherness. Again, it is man-made. But it is other, a parasite. What we know know as typical Cronenberg comes here through those slugs squirming their way into the human body. Of course it happens many ways. However, the most eerie and prominent in this screenplay is sexual intercourse. These parasites drive the hosts sex crazy. One of the first women we see infected attacks a man and yells, terrifyingly enough: “Im hungry. Hungry for love!” Later, the most disturbing moment for me is when a family of three that were earlier stuck in an elevator are now infected, and they tackle a man; the little girl kisses him on the lips with her bloody mouth. This one scene really gets to me, as it is creepy anyways, but then with the girl kissing the man, the blood on her, the family all gone raving mad. It’s a sight to behold. Otherwise, Cronenberg does give us a few graphically pukeworthy practical effects, as the slugs slip out of mouths, flop out onto clear umbrellas leaving yucky streaks, one even slips its way up from a bathtub drain and between the legs of an unsuspecting woman (precursor to Craven’s famous bathtub scene in A Nightmare on Elm Street). So many effective, bloody little moments.
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Amongst everything else, the symbolism of Cronenberg’s Shivers is what makes it a worthy and enduring piece of Canadian cinema. While there’s the invasion of otherness and becoming something else, there are more elements at play. The whole sexual angle of people just trying to ravish everyone, gone mental from lust, this comes to represent how the close proximity to the others in these buildings, jamming everybody together no matter if it’s high class suites or what is a recipe for social disaster. Essentially, it is the idea of assimilation, the conformity to a group norm and a way of life that’s accepted as singular. Because they’re not attacking each other like madmen and madwomen, they collectively seek out more people to pass the parasite onto. So it’s like this roaming group of social power, these parasitic citizens of the Starliner apartment complex gradually spreading their diseased love around until finally everybody has conformed, they all fit perfectly in their little boxed apartments(/compartments).
Also, if you want to go deeper, the idea of all these people living in a deluxe apartment complex sort of quarantined off from the rest of society can serve as a statement about how the upper class is sort of an incestuous group of people that perpetuate a system of disease amongst themselves by remaining sectioned away in their own little world. Not everybody here is big time rich or anything. But it’s a suburban residential building, so we’re certainly not talking about a rough neighbourhood. So the way these people descend into a madness of orgy and violence is a comment on how these people mingle only with their own kind, and anyone from outside – such as the man who worked with Dr. Hobbes, the original one guilt of scientific hubris by inventing the sex slugs – ends up killed. The new people, they’re simply indoctrinated and likewise infected with the parasitic, aphrodisiac slugs. So these types of cut-off suburban environments within societies only begets more isolation, in turn more madness.
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That climactic scene where the Starliner’s own doctor, Roger St. Luc, who’d been fighting against the parasitic invasion this whole time finds himself being crowded and mauled in the pool with all the residents is a doozy. It is the epitome of the anxieties of the suburban social life, closed and boxed in, stuck into the cookie cutter frame with all the other mindless, sex-crazed, consumerist zombies. Honestly, there are few scenes in a film which get to me as deeply and have resonated as long-lasting as this one did. From the first time I saw this film about 12 years ago or so, it stuck. And watching it again now, especially where the kiss lands on St. Luc, similar to how the frame slows down on it like with the little girl earlier, the impact is just as weighty.
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There are obviously flaws, as this is a low budget picture and also it was one of David Cronenberg’s first trio of feature films ever. With Shivers, he began to explore the physiological body horror that went on to become his trademark, and here his interest in the social life of humans started to really take off. In a disturbing, poignant fashion. Initially dismissed as completely useless, particularly after the CFDC and others were not happy about its content, Shivers has gone on to be better understood, also more appreciated by certain people. By no means perfect it has a unique charm. Moreover, it is effective body horror with plenty to please even some seasoned veterans of the genre.
Cronenberg is certainly king in the realm of body horror. Always. Forever.

Fear of the Outside World in Tremors

Tremors. 1990. Directed by Ron Underwood. Screenplay by Brent Maddock & S.S. Wilson.
Starring Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire, Robert Jayne, Charlotte Stewart, Tony Genaro, Ariana Richards, Richard Marcus, Victor Wong, Sunshine Parker, Michael Dan Wagner, Conrad Bachmann, Bibi Besch, John Goodwin, & John Pappas. Universal Pictures/No Frills Film Production.
Rated 14A. 96 minutes.
Comedy/Horror/Sci-Fi

★★★1/2
POSTER I’ve got a fondness for the monster/creature feature sub-genre of horror and science fiction. There are so many classic, old school Hollywood flicks that have iconic monsters. Everything from James Whale’s Frankenstein to Karl Freund’s The Mummy. You can consider Stephen Spielberg’s birth-of-the-summer-blockbuster Jaws a creature feature. There are even lots of solid indie movies to have produced iconic, horrific creatures, such as the recent Mickey Keating alien film Pod, 90s fare like The Relic and Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic (though studio interference butchered the latter).
And for all its faults, 1990’s underground creature flick Tremors is an entertaining addition to the pack. With a memorable VHS cover I remember wanting to see this movie as a kid. I eventually caught it, still too young for horror, on television late at night. While there’s a great deal of humour and campy movie making, there’s still a super creepy aspect to this one. Despite some almost slapstick style acting and cheese Tremors still manages to attain a level of ’90s horror glory, as it ekes out a few laughs, also giving us a nice dose of creature action with a few fun special effects along the way. By no means is it classic, but it is an enjoyable bit of horror wrapped up a science fiction comedy.
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In the tiny town Perfection at the edge of the desert, two handymen, Earl Bass (Fred Ward) and Valentine McKee (Kevin Bacon), are at their wits’ end. They’ve decided to up and get out of there, to try and make lives for themselves somewhere else. Except that when they’re headed out Earl and Valentine find a man named Edgar up stuck in a tower. In fact, Edgar’s dead. He stayed up there for days and dehydrated. Really?
Well turns out, a woman named Rhonda LeBeck (Finn Carter) is in town studying seismology. There have been some serious, strange readings in the ground around Perfection lately.
Big, hungry, and terrifying worms seem to be living underneath Perfection. And now they’re coming up to grab anything they can get their slimy mouths on.
But when the ground isn’t safe, where do you go?
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That’s the biggest appeal of Tremors in terms of its horror. We feel a fear of anything that can come from the air or underneath us, whether in water or under the ground. Because it’s something inescapable. It’s bad enough if you’re in water, as anything can get you, there’s really nowhere to hide you’d have to just keep on swimming. Until you make it to land. But it’s scarier on land. You either have to climb, die, or fight. So that’s what Earl, Valentine and the rest of the crew find themselves up against. And in a small desert town like Perfection there are even a more limited number of options of where to go than might normally be found. A lot of the tension the screenplay builds up is simply through that isolation. The few residents are forced to do anything they can possibly think of to try and fight these creatures.
If you really want to get deep, the tremors represent the influence and pressure of the outside world. Valentine and Earl are on their way out of Perfection, off to the big city. However, they don’t even make it past the town limits before something pulls them back in. The tremors are an outside influence trying to infiltrate the town. Earl and Valentine realize this, their small town way of life threatened, and they’re pulled back in to defend themselves. Underneath the horror and all the comedy, Tremors is about those who realize they’re more at home, safer with those they’ve known in their little tight knit groups than branching out into a bigger place where they don’t know anyone, where anybody, or anything, can be lurking right below the surface. Ultimately, it’s an agoraphobic film, and if you see it in that light then the film can really take on a different light, making the horror more fun.
On top of all that, the Graboid creatures were created by Amalgamated Dynamics (they’ve done a bunch of other stuff from the recent Harbinger Down which they did independently to other bigger films like Death Becomes Her and David Fincher’s Panic Room). Even if you simply take Tremors for what it is, at a base level, the horror and the effects are still a lot of fun. There are some genuinely nasty bits of effects, especially once some of the Graboids start to get shot/blown up.

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Cheesy as the movie can get, both Bacon and Ward are endearing, as well as the fact they’ve got great chemistry together. It’s a perfect old guy-young guy buddy combination, to the point you can almost consider this a buddy comedy horror. Again, there’s some definite stinky cheese here. But it’s the way these two sell it, how they use their charm to make the screenplay work even at its most campy. Bacon, as always, is energetic. Ward, too. They play the small town attitude well and you can really buy that these two have been working together for a while in Perfection – part of me wonders how they ended up as partners, Val probably meeting Earl when he was just a teenager and the two became this almost pair of grifters, roaming around doing anything they could to make a buck, work for this person, that person. So for a movie that has ’90s cheese factor of significant proportions, the screenplay actually drums up a good bit of intrigue for all its simplicity. Carter does a fine job with her role as Rhonda, providing a semi love interest that doesn’t actually come out until right before the final credits (something I dig because love stories are tiring sometimes and clutter up certain plots). She gets the chance to be smart, bad ass, and aids in the overall protection of Perfection. In that way, she’s a productive outside influence as opposed to the monstrous Graboids. The rest of the cast is peppered with nice casting choices, such as Michael Gross and Reba McEntire as an awesomely nutty gun-loving couple that come in handy, even the classic Victor Wong is in there for good measure. For an ensemble cast, this film could’ve done much, much worse.
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As I said, Tremors is by no means a classic. Or is it? No masterpiece, that’s for sure. But it is one of those ’90s movies I’ll never forget. I saw it constantly on the shelf at my local Allan’s Video, it finally came on television late at night. Then I probably saw it another dozen times over the next 26 years, including today while reviewing it. It’s got light hearted comedy, a couple solid little performances for the movie they’re in, as well as the fact those Graboids are creepy, nasty looking things. In a decade that fell off a little compared to the ’80s, re: horror movies, Tremors is a welcomed bit of fluff that hits the spot when you’re looking for a bit of lightweight cinema that crosses comedy, horror, and science fiction in the span of a quick 96 minutes.

Midnight Special is Emotional Sci-Fi with Action Bones

Midnight Special. 2016. Directed & Written by Jeff Nichols.
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver, Bill Camp, Scott Haze, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, David Jensen, Sharon Landry, Dana Gourrier, Sharon Garrison, Allison King, & Sean Bridgers. Faliro House Productions/Tri-State Pictures/Warner Bros.
Rated PG. 112 minutes.
Adventure/Drama/Sci-Fi

★★★★★
POSTER
When it comes to independent films, Jeff Nichols is a writer-director I’ve admired now for a few years. Shotgun Stories in 2007 was a great little movie that tackled the flawed masculinity inherent in Southern blood feuds as it examined two sets of half brothers in the aftermath of their father’s death. It also starred the wonderful character actor Michael Shannon, whom many have grown to love as of late particularly. Later, in Take Shelter again starring Shannon, Nichols took us into a highly psychological world that bent the limits of reality, begging us to wonder whether or not the events onscreen were real, or if they were just manifestations of the lead character’s troubled mind. Mud was an interesting, subtle look at people on the fringe, how they come together, and how they survive.
But now, teaming once more with Shannon alongside a slew of other wonderful talents from newer (Adam Driver) to classic (Sam Shepard), Nichols breaks out with an emotionally charged, intelligent, slick thriller that runs the gamut of family drama and adventure to science fiction. Midnight Special is a lot of things. Above all, it is engaging. In a day and age of remakes – some good, a lot terrible – big budget blockbusters without any soul, Nichols’ films are continually a ray of light. This is no different. There are many things to enjoy. And if I can suggest anything, go in without knowing anything. Even the plot. It won’t ruin things if you do, but the beginning is even more tense and filled with excitement if you’re relatively clueless.
And for that reason let’s just dig right in.
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The plot is a lot of fun. Despite knowing from trailers that the film is heavily science fiction, there’s a very raw human drama to the opening few scenes. It doesn’t stop there either. As Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) rush Alton Meyer (Jaeden Lieberher) around from one place to the next, under cover of night, all we know of the situation for sure is that there’s a massive hunt for the boy, an amber alert, everything. So if you had no better idea it’d seem like a truly distressing situation. But slowly, Nichols lets the information trickle down. What starts and continues as a human drama also takes on elements of a larger, more complicated, complex universe that Nichols has created.
We’re introduced to people from The Ranch, the men dressed in suit and ties, the women dressed like Jehovah’s Witnesses. They all seem to have a strange fascination, or rather obsession, with little Alton. And the gravity of everything is so evident. Not only are Roy and Lucas transporting Alton extremely secretively, to the point of gunning down a cop early on, it seems the father is dead set on protecting the boy. There are a ton of things happening, too. In a movie that’s just a little shy of two hours in length, Nichols packs a good punch. All the different aspects of the screenplay are pretty well fleshed out without having to be too full of exposition. Plus, things get real action oriented past the half hour mark, which then takes the pacing to another level. The first thirty minutes are a nice, effective slow burn that picks up steam quickly heading forward.
When we finally start to see more of Alton and his powers, the whole movie gets infinitely more interesting. More and more, scene after scene, Nichols reveals further bits of the boy’s abilities. Yet there’s a cryptic nature to them until late in the game. We’re never cheated, but Nichols definitely draws it out. Expertly. The suspension and tension as the plot moves on at a steady pace really will get your heart rate up, in the best kind of sense.Film Review Midnight Special
Alton: “Whats Kryptonite?”
Lucas: “Its the only thing thatll kill Superman
Roy: “Its made up
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There is never enough Michael Shannon. He’s a talented actor whose work is consistent. Even in movies that aren’t so great (i.e Man of SteelThe IcemanPremium Rush), his talent makes things more interesting, more credible. He can really disappear into a lot of different roles, which is why he’s best deemed a character actor. His strength is that he’s got the handsome look, though there’s something odd about him, too. He has an affable quality, then there is a dangerous, strange side to him that can come out just as easily. Here, he plays a devoted, loving father pushed to the limit. He is a father under special circumstances. So there’s all this conflict in his character, but above all he is a father who wants to protect his son, no matter what the cost. And he’s forced into a blind faith, all out of love for his boy. A great performance, well written role.
The rest of the cast are equally as excellent. Edgerton is a fantastic talent (also a good writer) and he plays well off Shannon. They’re very believable together, which is honestly something I never predicted beforehand. What I like is that Edgerton has the same kind of qualities as Shannon, except in a different way. He is at once that manly, tough-looking kind of guy when he wants to be, at others he has a sensitive quality. In addition, Kirsten Dunst is good here as the mother of Alton, estranged from Roy. I’ve long said she is a solid actor, having recently given a complex performance in Season 2 of Fargo. She adds an extra, intriguing aspect to Alton and Roy, as a family. That brings us more of the family drama that makes Midnight Special a more interesting science fiction themed film than many others out there.
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When the action gets pounding the film never lets up. There are moments where it’s a chase movie, others the guns start to fly. Sometimes we get wild expressions of Alton’s powers. All the while, the cinematography by Adam Stone captures everything so naturally, and in turn beautifully, even in the moments of pure speculative fiction that happen throughout. Add to that some really great synthesizer score from composer David Wingo, and those moments of tension where things are tight, the pulse is pumping, they become more intense. Sometimes it’s a semi-homage to the 1980s, but most of all it is simply an effective bit of electronic music that serves to augment a film; like any good score should.
This is all around an excellent film in terms of its visual components and its sound, not just the score but also the design. There are too many moments to list really. But Nichols, as director, crafts Midnight Special into a beautiful piece of work aided by these two artists.
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Absolutely a 5-star film. There are so many derivative science fiction works out there, in movies and literature. It’s nice to see Jeff Nichols take the initiative and make something different. He lets everything flow out organically, never pushing the plot too much or too far, but rather just allowing it to unfold. The science fiction, though utterly central to the story, is not always the most interesting element. The family, the cult at The Ranch, the relationship between father and son, the relationship between best friends Lucas and Roy; so many things take precedence over the presence of a little boy with sort-of-super powers. Everything comes together here and Midnight Special takes its rightful place near the top of the best list of modern science fiction over the past couple decades. Nichols turns this into something completely unexpected. By the time it’s over, you won’t know what hit you.

The Metaphysical Rage of Broken Marriages in Cronenberg’s The Brood

The Brood. 1979. Directed & Written by David Cronenberg.
Starring Oliver Reed, Samantha Eggar, Art Hindle, Henry Beckman, Nuala Fitzgerald, Cindy Hinds, Susan Hogan, Gary McKeehan, Michael Magee, Robert A. Silverman, Joseph Shaw, Larry Solway, Reiner Schwarz, Felix Sillas, & John Ferguson. Canadian Film Development Corporation/Elgin International Films Ltd./Mutual Productions Ltd./Victor Solnicki Productions.
Rated R. 92 minutes.
Horror/Sci-Fi

★★★★★
POSTER As one of the crowned jewels of the Canadian film industry, David Cronenberg continually fascinates me as a filmmaker and storyteller. So much of his work deals in body horror, particularly his early films up until the post-2000s. The Brood may be one of his most impressive works of body horror. It tackles several aspects of psychology, as well as the idea that psychological symptoms manifest themselves physically, which they do. However, Cronenberg turns this idea into something gruesome, personal, something macabre and beyond reality. Yet all the while this film treats everything so clinically. Even with the wild sci-fi elements, Cronenberg’s 1979 classic is so painfully honest about its real life aims. Everything he has ever done with body horror is a metaphor; to how we live in this world, how we relate to it, to others, and everything in between. Although taking swipes at the field of psychology in certain respects, The Brood is also about the rift between people that not only causes damage in their relationship but to everyone surrounding them, too. Above all, the rage of this movie stands in for that which two people sometimes experience when their relationship is at odds – an all-encompassing rage that gives birth to nasty things we’d rather believe never existed in us.
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At the Somafree Institute, psychotherapist Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) uses a modern, edgy technique as therapy for his patients: psychoplasmics. He acts out scenarios with his patients, as well as encourages them to let their suppressed emotions express themselves physically. Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar) is an emotionally troubled woman whose divorce battle with husband Frank (Art Hindle) over the custody of their five-year-old Candice (Cindy Hinds) has become incredibly ugly. Under care of Dr. Raglan, Nola undergoes psychoplasmics treatment. Meanwhile, strange and dangerous things start to happen around the Carveth family. First, Nola’s mother dies. Then her father.
And slowly, Dr. Raglan finally realizes his treatments are the danger giving spark to the fire of Nola’s disturbed mind. As Frank struggles to keep his daughter safe, Nola’s physically embodied rage and repression gives birth to pure terror, which puts everyone close to her in peril.
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I know Cronenberg admittedly wrote this during a fiery divorce. That’s evident. All the same, like literature to truly experience and interpret a work it is not necessary to worry about the author’s own personal life. No matter close and parallel to the work it may seem. While on the surface this is simply a personal drama blown up into the larger, nastier proportions of a horror film, The Brood is a great analogy for the dangers of repression, as well as the danger of improper psychiatry all at once. First of all, considering the Nola Carveth character, she is a damaged woman. Through the plot she is revealed to have suffered physical and mental abuse from her mother, effectively ignored by her father. So part of this whole story is the repression of her womanhood, the silencing of her voice as a woman by her mother, her father denying her of identity through his silence. All this turns to rage and she expresses is to devastating effect via psychoplasmics with Raglan, turning it into an unstoppable force. On one hand, a warning about how repressed feelings and buried emotion can unearth itself in horrific, devastating ways. On the other, there’s Raglan and his cowboy psychotherapy. He plays with peoples lives. Not all psychologists/psychiatrists are like that, obviously. But there are some, like in any profession, whose concern is only for themselves. Raglan pushes and pushes until Nola becomes this completely monstrous thing oozing hate. Similar to how some psychotherapists play fast and loose with the mental health of their patients prescribing too much medication, not the right stuff, using therapy which doesn’t work, and so on. Using the concept of the literal birthing of rage, Cronenberg expresses this dangerous psychotherapy quite well. And from this springs all the terrific horror he imagines onscreen.
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In addition, the rage and the creatures represent the bad blood between a married couple going through an ugly divorce. A situation like that creates a poisonous cloud that can infect many others, not just the two directly concerned parties – it moves to the children, the family, the close friends, the next lovers. So look at it how you will, the premise of this movie works in many different lights. The rage of Nola is symbolic of a host of issues, disturbingly perfect in later shots of the film.
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The performances are solid, particularly from Samantha Eggar and Art Hindle. Oliver Reed is pretty good, too. Hindle plays the concerned, confused husband and father well. He also doesn’t play it over-the-top, which many actors might have done. Instead he’s a calculated and thoughtful character, whose actions come as very natural. I always love him, anyways. But his Frank is solid here. Then there’s Eggar. She plays Nola perfectly. There’s a manic look in her eyes sometimes that’s downright shocking. It still creeps me out now when I think of it. And her delivery is so wonderful. Her performance is a treat all around. She plays well off both Hindle, and especially Reed. Not sure if anybody else could’ve played this role. Something I’ve said before, but here that sentiment is beyond true. Her presence is full of disturbing power, a real classic.
A totally bonkers 5-star film that uses all its force to drive home a metaphorical point about repression, rage, the density of emotion, the dangers of psychology. So many things. Perhaps Cronenberg’s best film, as it works on that level of metaphor, as well as simply on an excellently gruesome level as just a solid horror.

Fear of Invasion in Predator

Predator. 1987. Directed by John McTiernan. Screenplay by Jim Thomas & John Thomas.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Kevin Peter Hall, Elpidia Carrillo, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves, R.G. Armstrong, & Shane Black. Amercent Films/American Entertainment Partners L.P./Davis Entertainment.
Rated R. 107 minutes.
Action/Horror/Sci-Fi

★★★★
POSTER
There are 1980s films. Then there are quintessential ’80s films. Such is the case with Predator. It boasts one of those awesome casts that makes things work incredibly well, mostly due to the fact Arnold Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, and Jesse Ventura are each enjoyable to see on camera; but they’re just the icing on the cake. The writing has got plenty of that ’80s charm with cheesy one-liners that would never survive outside the decade (“I aint got time to bleed“). There’s a ton of kick ass action that spreads from science fiction to horror in the one breath. And it’s the sci-fi aspect that’s so damn fun.
Director John McTiernan has given audiences a good helping of action in the course of his career. He’s made Die Hard and Die Hard: With a Vengeance, as well as The Hunt for Red October, and also the criminally underrated adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The 13th Warrior. But above it all reigns this 1987 science fiction action-horror masterpiece. Playing on a collective fear of the unknown re: intelligent life out in space, McTiernan’s Predator puts a bunch of military men in the way of the titular intergalactic hunters, pitting the toughest of the tough against an entity far scarier, far more nasty than any of them.
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Our first glimpse of the Predator’s thermal vision scanner is actually chilling. It has this starkly contrasted feeling, and the sounds, the thumping of the heartbeats, makes things even more unsettling. Best of all, the men don’t know they’re being watched. So the voyeurism of this Predator as he susses out the group and their possible weaknesses is a scary element. He watches, waits, stalks. They are his prey. Quickly, we’re introduced to the abilities of this space hunter and the advantages his technology give him.
And that leads into part of why I love Predator. If you’re the kind that likes reading deep into a film, even if it’s action, then let’s get going! See, to my mind, the idea of these Predators out there, coming from another planet and meeting head-on with these military men, the mercenary-types, it speaks to the uniquely American fear of being conquered. Being dominated. Being bent to the will of a power stronger than oneself. The idea that these super hunters could go up against our best, the military-trained men with every skill for battle imaginable, this shatters any notion of superiority.
Then again, it’s just a movie about an alien killing a bunch of dudes, right?
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Setting this in the jungle was a stroke of genius. The locations look absolutely incredible. Much of the cinematography in general is pretty good, too. Donald McAlpine does a solid job capturing different aspects of the film – from the horror to the action to the more sci-fi elements. He takes us from the action oriented battles to the close-up, fearful conversations of the men as they hide in the bush from the Predator. The suspense is always present. The horror always just around the corner. Together with McAlpine is the talented composed Alan Silvestri, whose music can be heard in everything from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Forrest Gump to The Avengers. His score really amps up the energy,  the suspense, and breaks the tension in all the right places. The orchestral score flares up in wild moments of action. Its strings lay just beneath the conversations of the men as they try and figure out how to proceed against their unseen threat. Adding McAlpine’s cinematography with the downright fucking amazing score out of Silvestri, all the genre elements are aided with a thick atmosphere of dread and uncertainty.
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On one hand, Arnold is not a good actor; at all. On the other, he is a great action star. Contradiction? Nah. He’s got the looks, the big hulking frame and muscles, there is a quiet intensity about him almost all the time. He’s got charisma, his charm is undeniable. Plus, he can do the action, he can perform some stunts and give authenticity to the term ‘action star’. So who better to lead Predator? In addition to Ahh-nold, we’re also given some Carl Weathers, whose performance is fairly enjoyable. Then Jesse The Body – he pops off a truly hilarious and unfortunately homophobic line early on, but makes up for it with typical ’80s nonsense dialogue that’s so perfect to keep things fun. The cast was never going to win any Oscars. Although, they work well as an ensemble, they’re all pretty ripped which lends itself to their being military men and hardcore mercenaries, so that’s the best McTiernan needed for the action and the thrills provided.
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Excitement. Suspense. Greasy biceps. Blood. Brutal alien killers. Arnold covered in mud, kicking a little alien ass. Predator is a big 4-star action extravaganza. It has the right amount of everything to make this one of the best of the 1980s. The science fiction and horror aspects of the screenplay really helped this become a favourite amongst fans. Because action movies are meant to be Rated R. So why not give fans of the sci-fi and horror genres a dose of action they can enjoy? Turns out, everyone enjoyed it.
For all its flaws and missteps, Predator‘s appeal is undeniable, it is long lasting, and as long as there are action-science fiction hybrids, this will remain a proven classic.

Man Vs: Survivorman Meets Predator

Man Vs. 2015. Directed by Adam Massey. Screenplay by Thomas Michael.
Starring Chris Diamantopoulos, Chloe Bradt, Michael Cram, Kelly Fanson, Sam Kalilieh, Alex Karzis, Constantine Meglis, Drew Nelson, & Kate Ziegler.
Darius Films.
Unrated. 87 minutes.
Horror/Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★
POSTERWhen it comes to found footage, a film can often help itself by using a gimmick. Now, that does not always help. Although, sometimes the sub-genre is at its best when a film not only has a good story but also an interesting gimmick. The Poughkeepsie Tapes used found footage to explore the decades long trail of a demented serial killer. Afflicted tackles the vampire sub-genre within found footage framed by the world globetrotting trip of two lifelong buddies after one is diagnosed with a likely terminal illness. And the good ole Blair Witch Project had pretty much the first big, successful internet campaign mixed with a richly fleshed out fake mythology to propel it forward big time.
Man Vs. uses a premise I’ve long said would make for an interesting ride. With a main character whose job is very Les Stroud-like, and whose television series is quite the direct parallel to Survivorman, Adam Massey’s film is a creepy little flick. Some of the effects, specifically later in the film when we see what is in the woods with the main character, leave a lot to be desired. In fact, part of it is terrible CGI, the other parts equally terrible riff on Predator. But the suspense, the emotional journey of the protagonist, all the tension which builds up towards the conclusion, is every bit worth it. The pay off doesn’t fully cash the cheque this screenplay wrote for us. Still, Man Vs. does an interesting job with its premise, Chris Diamantopoulos carries the dramatic portion of the movie on his shoulders, as well as the fact there is a quiet atmosphere which will certainly give you a creep or two. Don’t expect the conclusion to offer much for what it stacks up going in, but enjoy what there is to find because it’s not all a waste. Though it borders on it.
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Doug Woods (Chris Diamantopoulos) hosts a big television series called ‘Man Vs.’ that takes him to remote locations in the forest, where he’s left alone with only a few bare provisions, forced to encounter the wilderness and whatever it brings on his own. He is a TV celebrity, so part of him is bit of a show already. Though, it’s clear he knows his way around. After his brother Terry (Drew Nelson), Bill (Michael Cram), and Angie (Kelly Fanson) leave him at the latest location for the start of their newest season, Doug digs in. He finds food, a couple rabbits running around. He sleeps under the stars, he builds himself a little shelter. Everything is nearly idyllic. At least until something or someone starts messing with Doug.
When he finds his camp in disarray, a strange substance under his makeshift traps, even discovers his one and only Amp energy drink drained, the fact Doug’s not alone really hits home. Even worse when dead animals turn up all over his camp area and a big man-sized trap is left for him.
Can Doug survive this, too? Or is this one episode that’s likely never to air?
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What’s interesting start off is how, usually, Doug has a bit of control. Because there’s the satellite phone lifeline. Introducing an eerie science fiction angle effectively puts him out there completely alone. So part of the plot really puts this guy, this survivalist, to an actual test. Also, like Les Stroud and his thoughts on the possibility of a sasquatch existing, Doug is a rational guy who spends a lot of time out in the wilderness, he sees a lot, hears so much, and that brings a degree of common sense-style knowledge – when he begins to question what exactly’s happening in those woods, there is an element of pure fear and doubt that works its way into the viewer, similar to how it does Doug himself. When people who are normally so grounded and rational minded find themselves questioning the presence of something ‘other’, it is much more of a shock than someone whose beliefs are fluid.
Actor Chris Diamantopoulos has a massive job to do with shouldering the weight of this film’s drama. If he weren’t as charismatic, the whole thing would’ve suffered much more. Instead, he gives us a very likeable Stroud-type guy. He is real, he’s got a family at home, his friends and the relationships with those who do the show, and so on. The writing helps, obviously, but it’s Diamantopoulos whose got to face the camera head on and be the only one onscreen for the better part of its entire 87-minute runtime. I’ve seen him in a number of things, most notably his delightfully unsettling turn on Hannibal, though, he is at his best here. Watching his Doug switch from pissed off and upset to putting a face on for the camera and his TV show, it is impressive at times. He gives us a view into what the life of a famous survivalist might be like, of course alongside a sci-fi situation that no survivalist would ever want to be in. His likeability and natural, relaxed attitude as the only person on camera really does well to help the screenplay feel organic.
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I really feel the last 15 minutes or so does the entire film a terrible injustice. If they’d decided on another way out, Man Vs. could easily have come out on top as a great little found footage effort. Instead we’re given half baked nonsense, too many additions to know what to do with, and more of the brutally CGI’d creature in the woods. I’m convinced had they went without including direct looks at their creature, or maybe completely went with it unseen, the whole story would’ve came off better. Without ruining anything, Doug ends up at a camp and sees something there on a television set which shocks him to the core. It should come off as a moment of impact. Rather, it’s more of an eye roll scene that made me want to fast forward completely through the remaining few minutes.
This is a 2-star film. A lot of wasted potential. Diamantopoulos is the best part about this found footage sci-fi-like thriller. If not for him, there’d be very little to enjoy. The suspenseful scenes and all the tense plot development is interesting. To a point. With nothing to justify all its slow meandering towards a lackluster conclusion, Man Vs. is barely mediocre, and ultimately mostly a huge disappointment.