A Trip To The Movies – Review: “It Follows” 4.4.15

After last year’s highly acclaimed but ultimately disappointing “The Babadook” I was really looking forward to the second of this year’s first two good looking horror releases after “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” (which as you can see by my review, I wound up really liking) and then this one, which I essentially knew nothing about other than that saw a trailer for it before the aforementioned film. A trailer that looked like it showed great promise. Also, coincidentally, a movie that got great reviews, which is rare in this day and age in films of the horror genre. Let’s face it, the genre in and of itself seems to be a bit of a dying one. As there are countless retread and remakes of older classics that seem to be churned out one after another. A sure-fire sign that Hollywood, hell even independent horror films, are a bit of a dying breed. One thing I realized back in October when I did my “Top 5 Favorite Horror Films of the Past 5 Years” section, is that I really could only come up with one single horror film I liked on average per year. To augment that statement, rarely does a horror film wind up landing on my end of/best of the year lists (one of the only films to have done so was in 2011 – when Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” wound up being my favorite movie of that year). The only other horror film to have come out that landed a spot on my top 10 came out 6 years ago and that was Ti West’s “House of the Devil” (2009). It seems like it’s nearly next to impossible these days to come out with something that’s truly original and innovative enough to separate itself from the rest of the bunch coming out of the genre, and only once in a blue moon does a horror film come along that I truly feel breathes new life into the genre. So going into this one, while having heard great things via word-of-mouth, I have to admit I was slightly skeptical that it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. But even still, despite my skepticism, my level of anticipation for this one was rather high.

The movie begins with a young girl screaming, running from something, of which we can’t see. A few hours later, she winds up dead on a beach. We are then introduced to the film’s central character, a young teenager by the name of Jay, who’s romantically involved with another character, an older guy named Hugh. After a trip to the theater, things start to get slightly odd as Hugh claims to be seeing someone who Jay is convinced is not there. Jay winds up having sex with Hugh, but you see, this is much more than just sex, as without trying to give away any spoilers, Hugh winds up passing something along to Jay, something in which she is now afflicted with. It is through this pivotal sexual encounter that the story begins to unravel, as Jay and her neighborhood friends try to stop the evil curse that Jay has unfortunately found herself with. I’m going to stop there, because the less I tell you about this film (if I haven’t told you too much already) the better (similarly to how I felt about Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s “The Cabin in the Woods” (2012) ). Like that film it’s one of those rare films that come along every so once in awhile that really needs to be seen before it should be explained.

As mentioned the less I talk about the film’s content itself the better. What I will say is the film met my expectations and then some as it truly was an exercise in something that felt totally unique and original. And succeeds mostly in its execution on a lot of levels. It’s genuinely unnerving and tense throughout. While also being cerebral in that if you’re not paying close enough attention you might not have a clue as to what’s going on. It’s very much a “thinking person’s” horror film. You actually have to do quite a bit of work to formulate what it’s about (but it’s all there if you’re paying close enough attention). It does a great job penetrating the audiences psyche, and creates a certain tone and atmosphere that had both me and should have any other movie goer wide-eyed and transfixed by the images that are being shown on-screen. And while although I wouldn’t necessarily call it “violent” (not a deal breaker for me with horror as I like my horror to be more psychological) per say, it certainly is equal parts disturbing, shocking, very creepy, and startling. In fact, I was so immersed in it that my “holy fuck” meter was at about an 8 throughout the entire duration of the film from start to finish. The film itself felt influenced by “j-horror” films (Japanese horror) like “Ju-on: The Grudge” (2002) and “Ringu” (1998). Both of which most Americans saw in their English remakes “The Grudge” (2004) and “The Ring” (2002). It was also reminiscent of early horror films that came out of the mid seventies to mid eighties in terms of feel and tone. Films such as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978), “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), and what I found to be its most direct influence – 1987’s “Prince of Darkness” which all acted as reference points. I also thought it shared influences with more contemporary films like “Timecrimes” (2007), “Triangle” (2009), and “The House of the Devil” (2009). The latter of which it seemed like it took quite a few notes from as a throwback piece to older, more classic horror films. The music was also integral to the film as it contained a great menacing, pummeling, synthesizer score by the group Disasterpiece. I honestly can say I don’t know if I would have enjoyed the film half as much as I did if it weren’t for the score. It elevates the tension and pacing of the film quite nicely throughout, never giving up steam, and seemed to fit perfectly. If I were to throw in one or two minor complaints of the film it would be that it loses a tad bit of momentum in it’s final quarter. As Jay and her Scooby Doo rag tag team of neighborhood friends take the action to the 8-mile section of Detroit. The events that transpire after this, particularly towards its grand finale, come across as somewhat underwhelming compared to the nerve wracking tension the audience had been privy to prior to this shift in location. But that was just my opinion and my fellow film goer didn’t necessarily feel like that portion of the film detracted from it. With that said I also felt like it ended on a bit of an anti-climactic note. However, despite these two minor criticisms aside, this is as close to something that resembles a masterpiece in the current horror landscape from first time writer/director David Robert Mitchell. Who hits most of the right notes with this highly innovative, singular, and by all accounts terrifying piece of film-making, and has already positioned himself as one the freshest new voices in modern day, American horror.

[B+]

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A Trip To The Movies – Review: “’71” 3.14.15

Okay I’ll just come flat-out and say it – “Jack O’Connell is the best twenty-something actor, stateside or international, that is currently working in the film industry today”. The last time I felt like I discovered an actor of his caliber was when I was first introduced to Tom Hardy (who coincidentally enough I draw a lot of comparisons between the two) in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Bronson” (2008), who as I predicted, like I do with O’Connell, would be a household name in just a few years from then once American audiences started to take notice of these highly gifted young actors. Also, like Hardy, I first caught wind of O’Connell in 2013’s “Starred Up” (another prison drama like “Bronson” which I considered the best post-2000 film of the genre outside of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009) ). O’Connell puts in a breakthrough performance that rivaled that of his co-star, the immensely talented Ben Mendelsohn (who’s pretty much been the best part of everything I’ve seen him in). O’Connell was so good in that, that I vowed to myself that I would follow this very promising and undeniably gifted young actor in every project he does from this point forward. And at the young age of 24, he shows the potential to be just as good, if not better, than someone like a Tom Hardy or a Matthais Schoenaerts, but should achieve their same level of fame about a decade younger than they did, those actors being well into their thirties. O’Connell is basically still just a kid, which makes the anticipation of what he’s going to next all that more exciting. And so far, in just the past 2 years, he’s played the lead role in the aforementioned “Starred Up” (2013), last year’s Angelina Jolie directed “Unbroken” (which I still haven’t seen but that has recently moved to the very top of my queue simply because it stars O’Connell), and now this film. Which without giving away what I thought about it too prematurely, let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed by it.

‘”71″ is the new feature film by first time director Yann Demange (I could have sworn when I first read that name I thought it was a pseudonym for the “Muscles From Brussels”) starring Jack O’Connell in the lead (and in fact the only lead, as the rest of the roles I would barely even consider “supporting”). The film is set in (you guessed it) 1971 Northern Ireland and jumps right into the story without little to no setup other than that he’s a British solider who happens to be fighting for the Irish Army. After a quick orientation depicting his squad going through some rigorous training, it jumps right into his specific unit being briefed that they’re being deployed to a dangerous area of Belfast, where an ongoing war is taking place between 2 rival religious factions – the Protestants and Catholics. In one of the more well shot and gripping segments of the film, O’Connell’s unit lands in a war-torn area of Catholic territory, and since the Army is more aligned with the Protestants, to say the townspeople don’t take to their presence well would be a grave understatement. In fact, a full on riot ensues, which is expertly shot using a guerilla-style filmmaking style that makes you feel like you’re right there in on the action. O’Connell’s character, amidst the chaos, gets separated from the rest of his unit, and since his squad is being overpowered by the Catholics, they leave in a hurried rush without him with members of the Catholic militia on his trail (and a chase scene as good as anything I can remember on film since the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze bank robbery foot chase from “Point Break” (1991) ). The rest of the film plays out like a game of cat and mouse where O’Connell’s character, who starts off as the hunter, now becomes the hunted, as just about every character within the film seems to want him dead. The rest of the film takes several twists and turns, which takes a hold of you in its firm grip and doesn’t let go until the film’s closing shot

This was a mightily impressive debut from director Yann Damange and yet another brilliant performance by O’Connell, who seems to be in just about every frame of the film and who is clearly the meat and bones of the picture. The film itself is gripping, taut, and engaging from start to finish, and has an incredible sense of pacing. One thing that stood out to me was that while I went into it thinking I was going to be watching a War film. It rather deftly combined other elements into it that made it an equal parts thriller, political espionage cat and mouse game evoking the works of writer John le Carre, historical drama (1969’s “Z” and 2005’s “Munich” acting as reference points throughout the film), as well as a crime film (my fellow movie companion said it felt a bit like David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” (2010). Which I didn’t get at first but when he started to explain the levels of corruption by all members of society, I could see why he drew the comparison and understood how he could tie it in. The camerawork was also stunning, and shot in a style reminiscent of the recent films of Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”) which made it feel authentically real. The only few very minor criticisms I had of the piece was that they didn’t really provide much back story into O’Connell’s character. That and I found many of the interlocking characters from the different facets of society a bit difficult to follow. Kind of how I feel about Asian films depicting the Yakuza – certain characters are difficult to tell apart as many of them appear similarly. Lastly, I think the film could have been expanded on and went further into its story which seemed to go across by quickly at a rather brisk 99 minutes. Those few minor criticisms aside though, this was a well acted, thoroughly engaging, and gripping meta-film about a time and place in history that prior going into the film, I knew little to next to nothing about. And in summation, it was only the second film I’ve seen this year outside of “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” that I was so engaged in that I didn’t take a bathroom break because I couldn’t bear the thought of missing even a second of this well constructed and incredibly tense film. That had me on the edge of my seat from its start to its nicely poetic and emotional finish.

[B+]

A Trip To The Movies – “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” 2.28.15

I’ll just flat-out start by saying this was probably the most highly original, inventive, and exciting film I’ve seen to have come along in a while. In fact, had it of come out last year, it wouldn’t most likely have, it would have, landed a coveted spot on my “best films of the year-end” list. What’s so interesting about this film is that it kind of came out of nowhere. In fact, I don’t even remember how I heard about it. Since I really don’t read any film news/review anymore that’s not where I took notice of it. I do however somewhat regularly look at cumulative scores and saw that this one was graded rather highly. Then I saw the name of the title and it piqued my interest. And merely based on that and that alone, plus seeing a tagline that it was “the first Iranian Vampire Western”, I thought to myself well at the very least this sounds interesting. What I “didn’t” know while watching it is that it’s an American film. Even though all of the characters in the film are Iranian actors who speak in the Persian language and it’s written and directed by an Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour who has lived in America for practically her whole life. Which is ironic because the film feels totally foreign, and different from just about any other American film I’ve seen, bringing us into a poor desolate land known as “Bad City” which feels like a world far, far, away when in actuality it was shot right here in the States in Bakersfield, California.

The film opens with an old man, Hossein, a heroin addict who seems to be at the end of his rope in terms of his addiction. The only saving grace in his life is the assistance of his son, Arash, who is at his father’s beckoning call because like most sons (at least that I know) does just about anything to save his father. Anyways, Hossein owes quite a bit of money to the local town drug dealer, Saeed (whose look seems to be taken straight from Ninja of the rave/rap African group Die Antwoord). Saeed takes one of Hossein’s prize possessions much to the chagrin of Arash. Saeed seems to be the focus of the story, at least for about the first quarter of the film, along with his hooker, junkie, drug partner Atti. But one night Saeed happens to stumble across a young woman, called simply “The Girl”, that follows him to his apartment, which in that point in the story it shifts gears completely and this “girl” or young woman of whom I speak of becomes the central focus of the story. What’s even more notable is that said woman is a vampire, who goes around town wreaking havoc but does so with a conscience. She seems to only prey on the weak, sick, and degenerate members of society. It is by this chance encounter between the town drug dealer Saeed and the girl whom Arash crosses paths with, which involves the major subplot of the story, one that mirrors the one from “Let The Right One In” (2008) and the American version “Let Me In” (2010). But don’t be fooled, besides the reference, it’s undeniably unique enough (not to mention they’re adults and not children) to separate itself from those films. It is through their relationship that the rest of the story unfolds, and all of the characters previously mentioned are reintroduced back into (or out of, depending on how you want to look at it) the story.

As you can probably already tell by my comments at the beginning of my review I absolutely loved just about every aspect of this film. There is just so much I want to talk about that I feel like I would be doing it a great injustice to leave any of them out. But for the sake of not writing a novel, I will try to keep it to just the key elements of the film in which I really liked. First off was its stunning black-and-white cinematography. I’ve always thought a film is better when shot in black-and-white. As it takes the viewer away from the color palette and allows the images to speak for themselves. In this film this approach works brilliantly as it’s maybe the best looking black-and-white film since as far back as I can remember. This format also gives this chilling, noirish tale a look of authenticity that works perfectly given the content of the story. It’s also about as stylishly shot from a design angle and has a look and sometimes feel of an old Jim Jarmusch film (especially in the hipster department). The cool, sleek, and cold feel and tone matches the images on-screen magnificently. Another thing I think is important to point out, is that for a movie with this much style (Quentin Tarantino came to mind for me at times) it’s also loaded with substance. The central story and the many shifts in character arcs make it completely and utterly compelling from start to finish. There’s also a great “meta-ness” to the whole affair. While it certainly is a horror film at heart it also combines elements of film noir, westerns, comedy, drama, and romance. All genres that are balanced quite well considering how dense of a film it winds up being. The last thing I think that’s important to point out is that there is scene after scene of sheer beauty that seem like they have the potential to be iconic movie history (an example would be the dancing scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction” (1995) – but imagine not just one but several scenes like that). Which had me looking up the screen with a shit eating grin for practically the entire film, so engaged by the style, story, and characters that I had to pass up a bathroom break in fear that I was going to miss whatever was next. This is hands down the most unique, stylish, and fresh take that breathes new life into what is otherwise a tired genre, that being the vampire film. It’s only two months into the year and this one has already secured a spot on my top 10 list of 2015.

[A-]