Monday, November 2

Come Play Review


Come Play

Dir: Jacob Chase

Starring: Azhy Robertson, Gillian Jacobs, John Gallagher Jr., and Winslow Fegley

 

A light flickers, flashes, and then blows out. A young boy, panicked, looks intently around his bedroom, holding the glow of a cell phone screen out to illuminate the darkness in the corners. A low grumbling voice grows into a shrieking scream, footsteps pound with booming tremors, the young boy sits covered with a sheet draped over his head. 

 

This scenario could come from any realm of a horror film but it plays the introduction to writer/director Jacob Chase’s debut feature film “Come Play”. The scene of a terrified child placed in a frightful situation, sometimes known as the “child in peril” device, has populated film in many different forms. Sometimes it’s fun, like in “The Goonies”, playful, like in “The Monster Squad”, and other times downright scary and disturbing, like in “The Babadook” or “It”. “Come Play” falls into the scary category, a film that depends less on its jump scare tactics and more on the unease it conjures by placing a defenseless child within arm’s reach of a monster from another realm. 

 

Oliver (Azhy Robertson) is a lonely boy who feels different from everyone around him, most of the kids at his school mock his silence and some take advantage of his kindness with cruel jokes. Looking for a friend, Oliver seeks refuge within the screen of his tablet or cell phone, watching episodes of “SpongeBob SquarePants” and playing with screen applications to take pictures of himself. One day Oliver discovers a story that mysteriously appears on his device, a creepy tale about a lonely monster named Larry who is looking for a friend. As Oliver engages with the story, Larry becomes more threatening, inching closer to a real-life connection with Oliver.

 

Director Jacob Chase adapts “Come Play” from his 2017 short film “Larry”. While there are moments throughout the feature that feel stretched unnecessarily, a common concern when a short film idea is built into a feature-length film, “Come Play” still displays some interesting family character dynamics and a lead performance from Azhy Robertson that is exceptionally composed. 

 

It’s these moments, with a family struggling on the brink of separation and their son desperately retreating further into his protective shell, that adds the emotional component to make the scary and threatening monster have a gravity of consequences. Specifically, the story between the mother and son is so tenderly composed that when Larry begins to stalk the entire family, the peril for the characters is peaked with tension. It’s ultimately what makes “Come Play” so effective.

 

Larry, the ominous 10-foot tall entity lingering in the dark corners, is mostly a practical effect monster…yes, you read that correctly. In the current days where monsters are computer-generated designs, hearing that the Jim Henson Creature Shop designed this monster, where 4 puppeteers operated the movement, is a complete blessing for movie monsters. While CGI is still used for certain movements and expressions, these moments are hardly scary, Mr. Chase uses the monster in effective frightening ways late in the film, showing the creepy nature of Larry as it stalks Oliver and his mother. 

 

“Come Play” struggles with maintaining its pressing and menacing tone throughout the film but it makes up for these lapses with an effective cast that is provided time to add the emotional components to make the final act scarier than it probably would have been. Jacob Chase proves an understanding of how to set up a scare but, most impressively, the ability to craft characters that mean something to the story. While film will never stop relying on putting children in perilous situations, or placing scary monsters in closets, “Come Play” proves that there is still life and scares to be mined from these movies. 

 

Monte’s Rating

3.50 out of 5.00

Friday, September 18

Antebellum Review


Antebellum

Dir: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

Starring: Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Arabella Landrum

 

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”. – William Faulkner

 

Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz begin their hybrid horror film “Antebellum” with this quote from William Faulkner’s story “Requiem for a Nun”. The line, specific about the history of the American South, describes how the past still haunts the present. When Barack Obama used a variation of that line during a speech in 2008, it framed William Faulkner’s environment of the South and how the legacy of racial atrocities found in history still linger so prevalent today. 

 

It doesn’t take much to find horror in the world these days. Amid a global pandemic, the makings of a horror film already, the injustices happening across the world continue to pile on one right after the other. And cinema, consistently one of the best mirrors of present times in the world, has taken to genre film to discuss and dissect the issues. Films like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” show how genre movies can offer an important lens of insight, understanding the balance between social commentary and exploitation. 

 

“Antebellum” is a film about slavery and the continuing prejudice and racism towards Black people. The film utilizes a horror narrative frame to enclose and examine these elements. The result is an unbalanced endeavor.

 

The film begins on a plantation, a long tracking shot pulls the viewer into a moment of utter terror where an enslaved couple is being punished. The camera movements and framing of faces make the moment all the more devasting as the viewer is stuck, forced to watch the devastating viciousness. 

 

We are introduced to Eden (Janelle Monáe), an enslaved woman who is not allowed to talk and is brutalized in every way possible by a man only known as Him (Eric Lange).  The abuse she endures, rape and torture with a hot iron brand, is appalling. There are more terrible people at this plantation; a woman (Jena Malone) with a Southern accent hides her evil intentions behind an innocent grin and a Confederate captain named Jasper (Jack Huston) who rides his horse while threatening death to anyone who dares try to talk. 

 

It’s never clear how long Eden has been suffering, though she is well-respected by others and often asked when another escape will be attempted. But something is off about this past world. History, often hinted at by the soldiers on the plantation, seems rewritten to fit a new narrative, while the people enslaved seem to be hiding information about their identities. However, right before the mystery becomes unraveled, a phone rings and the viewer is brought from the past into the present, where Dr. Veronica Henley (also Janelle Monáe) is living a dream life with her husband and child. Veronica is a sociologist, author, and National advocate for the disenfranchised lives of Black Americans. But something is strange about this present world. How are Eden and Veronica connected becomes the mystery that will ultimately be revealed. 

 

“Antebellum” is aiming for something insightful amidst some pretty unsettling imagery involving slavery and set within a cotton plantation somewhere in the South. The connections between social and historical commentary are often blurred by strong and cruel cinematic qualities. Instead of finding a balance between the two characteristics, the film often wanders in and out of these elements. When the mystery finally gets revealed the revelation feels shallow instead of profound, the wrong emotion considering the use of violence displayed at the beginning of the film.

 

At the core of “Antebellum” is a wonderful performance from Janelle Monáe, enveloped within photography that is equally beautiful and brutal, sometimes confusingly at the same time. Still, Ms. Monáe is so emotionally raw at times, while also composing a strong and confident female character in both the past and present realms within the story. It’s her portrayal of Eden/Veronica that keeps the mystery interesting.

 

While the film searches for meaning, at times connecting elements of how the world perceives and analyzes people simply by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character, it also struggles to focus its concepts within a muddled, unbalanced script. While the film does work as a true-to-life horror film, bringing the atrocities of the past into full detail on screen, the balance of tone and imagery is consistently at odds with one another. This keeps “Antebellum” stuck in a place where the past it examines and explores never connects a meaning for the future it hopes to change.

 

Monte’s Rating

2.25 out of 5.00

 

Thursday, September 3

I'm Thinking of Ending Things Review


I’m Thinking of Ending Things

Dir: Charlie Kaufman

Starring: Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, David Thewlis, and Toni Collette

 

The backdrop of director Charlie Kaufman’s new film, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, is an oncoming storm, one that signals its foreboding nature with dark gray skies only to transition into a beautiful disaster of howling wind with pure white snow concealing every object in its path. It’s cold, lonely, and scary.  Mr. Kaufman continuously tackles the human condition with profound insights into the delicate nature of relationships, connecting emotions that are both overtly fantastical yet overwhelmingly authentic.

 

Based on the novel by Iain Reid, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” follows the budding relationship between Lucy (Jessie Buckley) and Jake (Jesse Plemons). They are on a road trip to meet Jake’s parents (Toni Collette and David Thewlis), who live in a country farmhouse. In the car, Lucy and Jake discuss, debate, and dissect philosophy, art, history, and even their own understanding of how their relationship came to fruition. Lucy, who narrates throughout as if we are sitting in her brain while she wanders from thought to thought, displays a keen intuition of numerous subject areas even though her thoughts are often obscured by random distractions. She examines Jake and his quirks while musing “I’m thinking of ending things” when it comes to their ongoing relationship. She will explain to Jake that she doesn’t care for poetry and then recite a beautiful verse she claims to have written herself. She consistently contradicts herself. 

 

Kaufman has never studied relationships, especially romantic ones, through an ordinary lens. He has a way of making the analysis of humans and their connection to romance and love so brutally simplistic while at the same time making it feel so uniquely intricate. It’s almost otherworldly as if we have been sent to an alternate universe where everything we know and understand, that is predictable and reliable, is somehow jeopardized by an off-kilter object, word, or characteristic.

 

You can see Mr. Kaufman’s particularly unorthodox methods for constructing the cynical and fanciful flights of naïve and unbridled passion for life, love, and self in the emotionally complicated stop-motion-animated story “Anomolisa” and the reality-challenging nature of a theater directors’ self-indulgent quest for control in “Synecdoche, New York”. The emotional elements explored in these films are further searched in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”: the struggle for control in a relationship, specifically from an insecure man who challenges and becomes moody in the face of uncontrol; the obsessive nature of romance, challenged by a woman who is unsure about the man she has chosen and whether the feelings she is experiencing are real or part of another construct she hasn’t figured out yet; and the thin line that exists between the identity of reality and fiction, displayed by Jake’s parents who age older and younger every time they leave the room.

 

Kaufman spends his time with Lucy and Jake, allowing the viewer to find connections with their personalities and emotions before adding strange events into the mix, like the family dog who endlessly shakes or a picture on the wall that is all too familiar to Lucy. Still, dinner with the parents is just half the story. There is an adjoining story woven through Lucy and Jake’s experiences, a story of a lonely janitor at a high school who wanders the halls cleaning and encountering young people throughout the school. The character arrives into the story during interesting spells of conversation at the contentious family dinner. It’s never completely identified but the janitor’s role seems connected to Jake and his family. The couple eventually leave the house and venture back into the wilderness of white snow in an effort to get home before things get worst. 

 

Kaufman layers the film with references, including callouts to David Foster Wallace, Mussolini, Tolstoy, and John Cassavetes. The dialog is dense, deliberate, and distracting; Kaufman roams Lucy’s spiraling thoughts, switching from conversations with Jake to internal monologues with herself. Lucy is a character composed of doubts about everything around her. Are her insights trustworthy? Is she faking something to pretend to be something else? There is no simple answer, and that’s part of the intriguing nature of the film, making everything feel uneasy, lonely, and desperate. 

 

Some have called this film Charlie Kaufman’s horror film. While it does not meet the standards that typically define the genre, this film still finds a realm to explore that has all the feelings associated with the genre of horror, but in an unconventional way. The unease of the unknown, the creepiness of coincidences too familiar, the fear of discovering hidden intentions within others and, specifically within this film, yourself. It’s all there, shaped and molded in a way that is distinctly Charlie Kaufman.  

 

“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is confusing yet fascinating. At times I figured it out, other times I was completely lost. The subtle, superb performances from Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons completely consume the viewer to indulge the 2-hour-plus story. All the feelings produced throughout the film challenge one another: it’s interesting and infuriating, sometimes at the same time. But altogether it is simply pure cinema, another highlight in the career of Charlie Kaufman.

 

Monte’s Rating

4.25 out of 5.00