Sunday, January 26

The Turning Review


The Turning
Dir: Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Mackenzie Davis, Brooklyn Prince, Finn Wolfhard, Barbara Marten, and Joely Richardson

Author Henry James fashioned one of the greatest horror novella’s way back in 1898 with “The Turn of the Screw”. This story, a haunting tale surrounded by dubious situations involving young children and questionable mental states, has been a key foundation of influence for many ghost stories but perhaps the best appreciation for the source material is the brilliant 1961 adaptation from Jack Clayton, “The Innocents”. 

“The Turning”, from director Floria Sigismondi who has generated some impressive television and music video work throughout her career, takes aim at a modern update of Henry James’ haunting tale. With actress Mackenzie Davis taking the lead, with young actors Brooklyn Prince and Finn Wolfhard supplying ample amounts of creepy-kid-vibes, “The Turning” has good technical style but it, unfortunately, lacks the narrative substance to make the thrills and chills more impactful.

The story, which takes place in the 1990s, follows a young governess named Kate (Mackenzie Davis) who is hired to care for a young girl named Flora (Brooklyn Prince) who lives on an isolated estate with her housekeeper (Barbara Marten). Kate and Flora immediately build a sweet connection, but their relationship is disrupted by the arrival of Flora’s teenaged brother Miles (Finn Wolfhard) who quickly changes the dynamic in the house. Things quickly turn more sinister when Kate begins to suspect evil forces at work with the children.

There is a great amount of skill coordinated into the style and design of the film. The cinematography nicely accommodates the precarious emotions Kate is having, especially when she slowly transitions from hopeful to somewhat unhinged, adding a color scheme that changes from vivid and bold to murky and desaturated. It’s the best element that this film incorporates.

It’s unfortunate that the style cannot assist the unremarkable narrative which takes the general story shifts and character motivations from Henry James’ novel and dilutes them, sometimes completely pollutes them, with unnecessary information that creates a story without much to figure out. In particular, Kate’s character is provided a very fleshed out backstory which takes much of the ambiguity out of her journey. To explain more about this aspect would be to spoil what the filmmakers are trying desperately to hide throughout the film. 

The performances from the young actors are fun to watch, particularly Finn Wolfhard who plays the moody teenager with frustrating, very much intended, results. Mackenzie Davis does her best to keep the character interesting, but the narrative doesn’t provide the subtlety to do the part more justice. Still, her emotional transition is interesting and displays the talent that Ms. Davis could have provided to better character design. 

“The Turning” has a decent understanding of the style needed to make a horror story look and feel alive, unfortunately, it’s missing the substance necessary to keep its horror heart beating beyond the familiar elements taking shape here.

Monte’s Rating
1.75 out of 5.00

Saturday, January 11

Underwater Review


Underwater
Dir: William Eubank
Starring: Kristen Stewart, T.J. Miller, Vincent Cassel, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie

The tagline for the 1979 horror-science fiction classic “Alien” was “In space no one can hear you scream”. The vastness of outer space, it’s deep dark nowhere, provided a film with a concept of a single alien lifeform threatening the lives of a crew on a commercial space vessel with an atmosphere and tone that is completely a horror film.

The influence of “Alien” on William Eubank’s new film “Underwater” is easily identifiable, except this film takes places in the immense depth of the ocean seabed, it’s sunken murky nowhere, that provides this film with a terrifying, claustrophobic environment where a crew on a deep-water aquatics research facility discover a new species of ancient water humanoids. The tagline, slightly modified, aptly applies here too, “On the ocean floor no one can hear you scream”. 

Seven miles beneath the water an engineer named Norah (Kristen Stewart) is quietly making her way around a bathroom. She spots a spider stuck in the sink and helps it to freedom, sparing its life if only for a moment. Norah hears something strange, a creaking noise and then shaking that turns into a catastrophic event for the vessel. Norah barely escapes, saving the life of a coworker and then proceeds to search for escape and other survivors. But something strange is happening outside the vessel, in the darkness of the ocean floor, something has awakened.

“Underwater” recognizes the kind of the film it is trying to be, quite simply a good ol’ fashioned monster movie that happens underwater. And, it makes use of its simple premise by creating opportunities to craft tension with its unique environment and offering a nice blend of thrills and jump scares that are accommodated by some really great creature designs that are slowly revealed. There are few scenes in the muddy and cloudy water when some of the action is hard to distinguish but this embellishment within the scene also allows the creatures to be gradually discovered, which is a nice touch in building expectations and surprises throughout. 

The film starts in the quiet, but this only lasts for a few moments as everything soon ramps into high gear action. And when the quicker pacing arrives it doesn’t let up, instead, it builds with different set pieces that each offer a new challenge for the characters to survive. Whether an underwater walk in near darkness or the quick escape from a falling vessel, it works in keeping the attention off the barebones narrative.

The narrative is filled with unnecessary science components that only create distracting questions and the characters are more plot devices than emotional beings. However, Kristen Stewart, through her interesting performance, does a nice job of adding some emotional depth to her leading character. T.J. Miller, who usually does of nice job of being comic relief, feels out of place amongst the other characters in this film. The jokes he makes fall flat in many scenes and his character doesn’t seem to fit in amongst supporting characters. Vincent Cassel is also stuck in a strange place in this film, playing a character that has an emotional back story that is only hinted at. For most of the film Mr. Cassel’s character, which could be the most interesting, is pushed into the background or forced to spout information to keep the narrative moving. 

“Underwater” doesn’t spend much time developing a complicated narrative, instead, it focuses on being a fun, mostly thrilling, sometimes scary, monster movie that has some interesting designs to watch development and consume the screen. Kristen Stewart holds this film together with her interesting performance, even with the limited character development available. “Underwater” is an entertaining addition to the aquatic horror genre. 

Monte’s Rating
3.50 out of 5.00

Monday, January 6

Emery's Favorite From 2019


Emery’s List – The Best of 2019

 

By Emery Snyder @leeroy711

We find ourselves, yet again, at the end of another year. And here I am, attempting to make some sort of general concise statement about how effecting, provocative, interesting, relevant or otherwise I found this year’s visual arts. Was it a particularly good year? Did I find anything to be specifically transcendent or illuminating? The answer to both questions is invariably, yes. But if I’m honest, this is not a unique phenomenon. This is the art-form that speaks to me and as such, I always seem to find passion in its output. If this ever stops, I’ll just bow out and keep my mouth shut.

This being stated, I did find something quite unique about 2019. The year started like most others. I visit the cineplex for anything that looks interesting and try to weed out some gems among the Spring/Summer releases. I’m always sure to find good stuff there. Raunchy teen comedies and off-putting horror flicks to hold me over until the end-of-the-year prestigious titles fill my mind as well as my list. I saw Tarantino’s previous three films during the winter holiday. This year, his ONCE UPON A TIME… had me in the theatre in July, fighting for my time with films like STUBER and CRAWL. (I liked all three previously mentioned) Competition with original content from streaming platforms as well as the saturation of our yearly dose of superhero films has changed the way that studios think about release dates.

But as usual, the year came to its final months and our theatres filled again with the more respected and “important” procedural and historical dramas and biopics that we’re sure to hear much more about as The Academy and various other critic’s circles announce their nominations. I’m not trying to sound too dismissive here. I’ve loved a lot of these films over the years and I’m sure I’ll find value in the future. But this year was different. Maybe the fact that three of the most exciting names in horror directed their sophomore efforts. Maybe it’s because certain big names have been more absent from the cineplex in the new “golden age of television”. The Coen Brothers haven’t had a theatrical release since ’16, David Fincher’s last film was 2014 and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s last feature was THE REVENANT, his second of back-to-back “Best Director” Oscars.

But still, I think there is something else at play here. One of the lesser known truths seems to be more explored in cinema’s most recent history. This truth is simple yet long ignored and is as follows: There is nothing you can say in prestigious art films that you can’t say in genre films. That’s it… It seems simple because it is. Whether we’re talking about this country’s race relations in a Jordan Peele horror or exploring positive female relationships in Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut, progressive insight and poetic metaphores anchor these stories, once reserved for more exploitive themes. The line between arthouse and gorefest have blurred out of existence. And it’s now far more likely to find something provocative and perceptive in genre than in previous times. To be clear, these lines were always fake and had more to do with perception and funding than anything else, but I feel as though popular opinion maybe turning a new page in the future to come. And what better way to start a new decade? I’m ready.

On-Air Television


Chernobyl – Limited – HBO
This is a miniseries that combined the toxic combination of misinformation, propaganda and the quest for power. It’s kind of like a science nerd’s procedural detective thriller but set in a very real time a place. I usually have issues with pacing in miniseries but this one had me fully engrossed throughout. Every tangent was critical and tense. Even the epilogue was gripping. This is one that you can watch in its entirety in one sitting.

Euphoria – Season 1 – HBO
I was skeptical about this one at first and it is certainly not flawless. But I’m struck by how great Disney alumni Zendaya was. Her performance is both elegant and vulgar. Her “Rue” weighs the show down when some of its more outlandish plot twists threaten to go off the deep end.

Barry – Season 2 – HBO
This is exactly the type of dark comedy that I love. “Coen-esque” matter-of-fact violence committed by unassuming forces with layers of complexities. Bill Hader is one of my favorite people to watch in anything he does, and he still manages to surprise me here. Anthony Carrigan’s “NoHo Hank” is one of the funniest characters on TV right now.


Performances


Adam Sandler – UNCUT GEMS
Adam Sandler is a great actor with a very unfortunate filmography. Yet he manages to strike gold a few times every decade or so. I don’t know if this should make me upset about what he typically chooses to spend his time doing. I’m just happy that this was a year that he showed off his talent.

Lupita Nyong’o – US
It was right around this time last year that the US trailers started to come out. I remember considering Nyong’o in a horror to feel like somewhat of a novelty. A lot has changed in a year. I’m counting this as two performances and I loved both. The film is hinged on a plot twist that repeated viewing reveal the subtleties of her performance that informed and fleshed out the complex relationship between her doppelganger characters. Adding this role to her “Miss Caroline” from this year’s LITTLE MONSTERS and now I can’t remember a time that she wasn’t a horror icon.

Robert Pattinson & Willam Dafoe – THE LIGHTHOUSE
I couldn’t pick which role to highlight from this strange dark hypnotic nightmare of a film. Neither would work without each other. A slow descent into madness never looked so fun.

Florence Pugh – MIDSOMMAR
I can’t really say enough about Pugh’s personification of anxiety in this film. Everything about this flick is simultaneously horrifying and beautiful. Her performance is no exception.

Shia Lebeouf – THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON & HONEY BOY
After Andrea Arnold’s AMERICAN HONEY (’16), I thought that we may have found the perfect typecasting for Lebeouf. It turns out I was right. Poor white-trash looks great on him. I’d love to see him pick up a role in the next season of Netflix’s OZARK.


Original Series by Streaming Network


PEN15 – Season 1 – Hulu
It took me a solid three episodes before I realized that these two seventh-graders were played by grown women… This is probably the most I’ve laughed at any show this year. It’s uncanny in its nostalgia but still leaves plenty of room for a real plot and great character development. The show has “real problem” conflicts as well. But to its credit, it gives these issues the same weight as whatever drama two tween BFF’s deal with on a weekly basis.

Unbelievable – Limited – Netflix
The country took a backslide after the Kavanaugh hearings implied that we are still not ready to take victims of sexual assault seriously. This show serves as a great companion piece to the many hours I spent watching those hearings on CNN. You know, in case you weren’t angry enough… It’s a powerful story that deserves to not only be heard but believed.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – Season 3 – Amazon Prime
Episode five of this latest season is why this show made my list. The show pauses to reenact and recreate a scene from Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soviet propaganda masterpiece SOY CUBA (’64). Contextually, this excursion makes a ton of sense, given the rhetoric of the show’s setting and the tribulations of the Maisel family. It is also a gorgeous film that I have championed for a long time so any reference to it scores easy points with me.


Underseen & Underrated


BOOKSMART – Directed by Olivia Wilde
I’m still maintaining that Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut will be entered into the canon of high-school comedies like EASY A and MEAN GIRLS in due time. But I am surprised at how little the film is in the year-end lexicon by bloggers and critics. It will happen. It just needs more people to see it. Of all its brilliance, I was most impressed by how kind the film was to all of its characters. There are no expendables or villains here, just fleshed out, organic people, doing funny stuff.

WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE – Directed by Richard Linklater
I’m not much of a Linklater fan. Maybe that’s why I ended up a defender of one of his least championed films. It meanders and lulls through the life and mind of an eccentric genius dealing with anxiety, uncertainty and restlessness. But somehow, it still sticks to its relatively lighthearted tone. Like most Linklater, this is a character study. But I’m far more interested in Bernadette than I am in the “bro” characters in his more loved films.

THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON – Directed by Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz
This is thoughtful, tender and endlessly smile-inducing. Which is saying a lot considering that this film’s description seems frighteningly close to something cheap and exploitive. The cast list sounds like what would happen if a Sundance after party were held at a WWE Smackdown event. But it all works. The heart of the characters shine through the plot. It’s good writing, highlighted by good performances all around.

LITTLE WOODS – Directed by Nia DaCosta
The plot reads like a smorgasbord of today’s social issues. The opium epidemic, the economic impact of fracking on small Midwest communities as well as America’s lacking healthcare system and women’s reproductive rights all pour out of the screenplay. The “one-last-caper” trope gives the film its tension but Tessa Thompson and Lily James’ performances stand out as rising stars in their best work yet. Director Nia DaCosta is currently in post on the CANDYMAN remake and I’m looking forward to it.


Home Video Release


An American Werewolf In London – Arrow Video
This release is chalked full of stuff to sink your teeth into. It came out a couple of days before Halloween and I’m still not finished watching everything. There are about fifteen separate featurettes, a full-size poster, six lobby cards and a sixty-page booklet that I have no idea when I’ll find time to get into. I would specifically suggest the I Think He's a Jew: The Werewolf's Secret short video essay.  Aside from all the extra swag, the new 4K as quite magnificent. This really is the most fang you’ll get for your buck this year. (Sorry, not sorry…)


Original Films by Streaming Network*


*full disclosure: I have yet to see Netflix’s MARRIAGE STORY or THE IRISHMAN. I don’t tend to like many Baumbach films and I just haven’t seemed to find the time for Scorsese’s latest. I’ll see them eventually. Their probably both great…

HORROR NOIRE: – Directed by Xavier Burgin – Shudder
More on this one later…

LITTLE MONSTERS – Directed by Abe Forsythe – Hulu
I mentioned earlier about how impressed I’ve been with Lupita Nyong’o. She’s great in this one as well. Her presence is pitch perfect as the epitome of innocence in a violent and chaotic setting. And I really dug Josh Gad’s Teddy McGiggle.

FYRE FRAUD – Directed by Jenner Furst & Julia Willoughby Nason – Hulu
In a world of FOMO, fake news and Instagram celebrity, this film does well to marry today’s culture with a disastrous attempt to exploit it by a world class swindler. The Fyre Festival was essentially a Ponzi scheme, built on hype. The fact that it was so easily funded and endorsed is as much of a story as the calamity that followed.


Films

11. US – Directed by Jordan Peele


A few small aspects of the plot and the predictability of the twist kept this one just barely out of my top ten. But the technical aspects of Jordan Peele’s second film were amazingly accomplished. I talked about Nyong’o earlier but the whole cast was great. And Peele just seems to intimately understand how horror works. We are truly witnessing the infancy of what will be a storied career.

10. UNCUT GEMS – Directed by Josh & Benny Safdie


I spent the first half of this film wondering why it had already made so many end-of-the-year lists. But this proved to be the groundwork that the second half of this story needed for empathy and tension. The final act is a taut and beautifully staged heist. I was particularly impressed with how the screenplay interlaced the actual events of the 2012 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals with the Safdies’ fictional account of Kevin Garnett’s off-the-court antics.

9. JOJO RABBIT – Directed by Taika Waititi


This is Waititi’s most Wes Anderson film to date. Its lighthearted romp is periodically interrupted by moments of sheer devastation. It sneaks in its heavier subject matter in between gloriously ridiculous bits of comedy. I heard a lot of people complain about Johansson’s weird accent but the fact that these characters were all speaking English kind makes that point moot for me. I found her performance to be beautiful and her moments to be earned. The same goes for Sam Rockwell.  

8. HORROR NOIRE: A HISTORY OF BLACK HORROR – Directed by Xavier Burgin


The idea that representation doesn’t matter is far too easily believed by those of us that have never seen a time in popular culture in which we were not heavily over-represented. This film makes the case that it not only matters, it matters significantly. And it does so in a Film Studies 101 nature that is far more informative than I would have expected. This somehow manages much more than 83 minutes of material into its running time.

7. ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD – Directed by Quinten Tarantino


I feel as though Tarantino’s ninth film requires a bit of prerequisites. Specifically, Karina Longworth’s eight-part “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” series of her You Must Remember This podcast should be required listening prior to this film. I’m sure Tarantino listened to it before he wrote the script. Other than that, I’m not sure what to really say about it. It’s his longest and slowest film yet. Also, his most meditative and least tangible. And it has one of his most rewarding third acts. I’m still a bigger fan of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS but I’m glad he got this one out of his system.

6. KNIVES OUT – Directed by Rian Johnson


Those of us that were Rian Johnson fans prior to the Star Wars films expected a tight, well written mystery script. This is his third behind BRICK and THE BROTHERS BLOOM. I can only hope that this leads to more in his future. It’s one of the most fun times I’ve had in the cinema all year. It’s probably my favorite ensemble cast of the year as well.

5. MIDNIGHT TRAVELER – Directed by Hassan Fazili


This is the story of a filmmaker, forced to flee his home in Afghanistan, after the Taliban issues his death warrant. About four years in the making, he documents his travels throughout the world, seeking only the safety of his family. This was a phenomenal film. Shot of three mobile phones, he sheds light on the modern-day immigrant experience. Facing the exploitation of smugglers, the bureaucracy of asylum and the spurn of Europe's latest surge of nationalism. When the late Roger Ebert said: "Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts..." This is what he meant.

4. ONE CUT OF THE DEAD – Directed by Shinchiro Ueda


I emphatically loved this movie, so I have so much to say about it. But if the zombie angle doesn't sound appealing to you, go for the fact that it is a uproarious comedic romp of a dark humor. If a meta 'inside film-making' flick doesn't float your boat, see it for its heartwarming father/daughter story. And if the gimmick and technical mastery of a 40-minute-long uncut shot doesn't get you to sit for this, well there's just no pleasing you...

3. THE LIGHTHOUSE – Directed by Robert Eggers


I loved the dialogue, even the parts that I couldn’t understand. Now I get to look forward to the subtitles on the Blu-ray release to see all the great stuff that I missed the first time around. The film was shot in gorgeous black & white 35 mm on a 1.19:1 aspect ratio. This was a unique theatrical experience. I specifically enjoyed quietly listening to others espouse their opinions as we walked out of the cineplex. There was a wide range. Most of them negative…. There are usually my favorite films.

2. PARASITE – Directed by Bong Joon-ho


This is the spiritual sequel to Akira Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW (’63) set on the more complicated socioeconomic stage of modern-day South Korea. A place, like post-war Japan, is experiencing a severe and rapid decrease in the middle-class. The line between the “haves” and “have-nots” however, is only stark by measuring their successes. Both sides are arrogant, condescending, opportunistic schemers. Both seek to exploit each other. The screenplay is so tight and resourceful with its metaphors, it will reward its audience for many repeated viewings. This film only unclassifiable by its tone. And that tone could only be called “Bong Joon-ho-esque”. To attempt to fit it into any specific genre would be to sell it far short.

1. MIDSOMMAR – Directed by Ari Aster


This was the most affected I’ve found myself in the theatre this year. I was impressed by Aster’s first effort, HERIDITARY but not nearly as much as most of my peers. This follow up looked like an interesting entry into the WICKER MAN/KILL LIST subgenre of horror. I was not, even a little bit, prepared for Florence Pugh’s literal embodiment of anxiety and depression. There is a moment in the beginning, when we see her holding back her fears and sadness while playing it cool on a phone call with her boyfriend. The specificity of her expression tells you her whole story. While her words and voice hide everything from the other end of the call, desperately afraid of letting him know just how much she needs him. But we the audience, are instantly informed that this is routine for her. She’s seasoned and quite good at it. My heart broke for her in that moment, and it was only ten minutes into the film. Daytime horror is a rarity already. It’s easier to exploit the audience’s imagination in the dark. This film, in contrast to its characters, hides nothing.