Tag Archives: suspense

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 & 1978) – Review

17 Dec

Science fiction is one of my absolute favorite genres because of how it can take problems of today and morph it into something that seems very unbelievable but also shockingly familiar. This is something that is explored to the fullest in the classic 1956 sci fi shocker, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Released as a double bill with The Atomic ManInvasion of the Body Snatchers turned into something so much more than a well received B-movie. It’s become a classic film that’s regarded as one of the best of the genre. Not only that, but it’s remake from 1978 comes close to matching its greatness while also being considered one of the best remakes ever to be produced. You can’t go wrong with that, so I’m thrilled to finally get to talk about these classic films.

Let’s start with the 1956 original.

After being called back to town from a health conference, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is surprised to see a mental health problem affecting many people in the neighborhood. Multiple people seem to believe that their loved ones aren’t really who they say they are and, while they look exactly as they should, are actually imposters. While investigating this strange phenomena, Miles gets back together with an old girlfriend, Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter), whose own cousin is suffering from one of these “delusions.” When Miles’ friends Jack (King Donovan) and Theodora (Carolyn Jones) Belicec find a body in their house that looks just like Jack, it occurs to everyone that these accusations about imposters may not be so far fetched after all. With more and more people becoming closed off in the town, and with the FBI being completely unreachable, Jack and Dana have to pull together to get out of the town safely and warn the rest of the world about the “pod people.” But with imposters surrounding them, who can they really trust?

I first watched this movie back in college when I took a whole class on the Horror genre. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been lauded as a masterpiece of science fiction, but also horror. I personally lean towards the side of horror because there’s something very unsettling about this film, and that has to be at least partially why this movie has stood the test of time. Sure, it is tame compared to sci fi horrors that come out today, but the black and white cinematography make the darkness feel extra dark and the soulless way the pod people move in complete unison at times is creepier than some of the more graphic scares of modern genre examples. This original movie also has one of the most exciting climaxes in this sci fi/horror genre which involves Miles running down a highway, desperate for people to heed his warning. Don Siegel’s exciting direction and Jack McCarthy’s terrified expressions make this whole segment a classic.

When this movie first came out, tensions were high and the Cold War was raging. People who worked on the movie have said that it was never their intention to write a movie that had any sort of political or societal message to it. That’s absolutely ridiculous to say. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a brilliant look at not only tensions between the Soviet Union and America, but also the plague of McCarthyism that was tearing America apart and also the soul crushing drabness of suburbia. This is an intelligent examination of the whole state of affairs in mid-1950s America, so I can’t believe anyone would say that this is just an alien invasion movie and that’s that. If that’s what you believe, I feel like you’re missing out on a lot of what makes Invasion of the Body Snatchers such a classic.

What more can I say about this movie? Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a masterpiece of science fiction and horror. It’s a slow burn of a movie that doesn’t have any over the top scares, but there’s a looming sense of dread, despair, and hopelessness that clouds the entire movie and makes the suspense feel all the more urgent. This is a really fun example of a B-movie that was released on a double bill that was destined to be so much more. I absolutely love this movie.

Final Grade: A

Normally remakes are a touchy subject and I’ll be the first to admit that. In this case, however, the remake is well worth the time and can be considered a timely classic all its own. How often can you really say that?

After discovering a rare form of plant species, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), who works for the San Francisco Health Department decides to investigate further. While her research leads her to a dead end, her suspicions are still aroused after her husband begins behaving like a mindless drone that barely even recognizes her. She voices her fears to her coworker Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), who is at first unsure, but begins believing her when strange things begin happening all over the city that sound directly related to her predicament. Bennell brings Elizabeth to his friend and pop psychiatrist, Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), who assuredly tells her that everything is ok. Things quickly go south when their other friends, Jack (Jeff Goldblum) and Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) Bellicic find a body in their massage parlor that looks exactly like Jack. As their investigation continues, it turns out no one can be trusted and extra terrestrial forces are closing in to take over their lives and eradicate the entire human race.

Take everything that’s super cool about the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and expand on it to make it even cooler. That pretty much sums up the 1978 remake. More thought is put into explaining where the seeds that create the pods come from and the transformation of the regular humans into pod people is graphically shown. Philip Kaufman and his team clearly took the time and effort to create special effects that worked great for the time, without ever really overdoing it, and also using the camera and location to help tell the story better. One scene in particular has the camera dizzyingly following Donal Sutherland’s character threw the crowded streets of San Francisco. This clearly illustrates how alone, scared, and paranoid the character is without ever putting it into words. Not to mention, this movie has one of the most startling, bone chilling endings ever put to celluloid. That all being said, there are some flaws with this movie that don’t quite appear in the original.

In the original film, the relationship between Bennell and Driscoll is very natural and is a very believable and entertaining part of the story. It brings romance into the story, but it feels like a proper fit. In the remake, however, this romance is shoehorned into the plot and feels like a total afterthought. It’s one of those things where it really isn’t a huge problem, but it seemed so out of place that it took me out of the movie, and that’s the last thing you really want to have happen when you’re so sucked into it. This movie is also a lot longer than the original, which also isn’t a terrible thing. It just didn’t feel quite as tight, but the fact that the plot took its time also helps build the characters, lore, and suspense. The strongest part of this movie, and something that makes these tiny flaws feel super insignificant, is how the dread and suspicion and paranoia is turned up to 11. The late 1970s was a very different time than the mid 1950s, but that doesn’t mean people still weren’t afraid. The time of peace and love was coming to an end and the era of Watergate was upon them. It doesn’t quite have the same punch as the 1956 version, but the societal jabs are still there.

If you were to ask me if I’d rather watch the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the remake, I’d really have to think about it. The 1978 version ramps up the horror and special effects while also making the invading spores something much more physical and explained. There are a few storytelling hinderances that I can’t ignore, but this truly is one of the greatest remakes ever to be made. It’s smart, well acted, impeccably shot, and still provides all the scares that a fan of the genre can hope for. I’d say it’s just as good as the original, and if not that it’s pretty darn close.

Final Grade: A-

So there’s the first two films of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Both are excellent movies with their own strengths and weaknesses, but sci fi/horror really doesn’t get too much better than this. I’ll also be reviewing a few other remakes, Abel Ferrara’s 1993 film Body Snatchers and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2007 film, The Invasion.

Tears of the Sun – Review

18 Sep

It’s always an exciting feeling to finally get around to watching a movie you’ve been trying to watch for years. I remember seeing the trailer for Tears of the Sun years ago when I was younger and first getting into war movies. I thought it looked excellent and I really wanted to see it, but never actually got a chance to. Now, 14 years after the movie was first released, I’ve gotten around to seeing it. I had high expectations going into it since it’s been a recurring thought to me for years and also the fact that it’s helmed by Antoine Fuqua. Unfortunately, these expectations were nowhere near met. Tears of the Sun does have its surprises and some truly gripping scenes, but it too often falls into the clichés of the genre which really just leaves it as a middle of the road war drama.

After a coup leads to a rebel uprising that results in the murder of the Nigerian president and his family, violence inevitably erupts throughout the entire region. U.S. armed forces are deployed off the coast, including a team led by Lt. A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis). After completing a mission, the lieutenant and his team are sent back into the hot zone Captain Bill Rhodes (Tom Skerritt) to extract Dr. Lean Kendricks (Monica Bellucci), an American citizen running a mission and hospital in the middle of the conflict. Nothing in Waters’ orders does it say for him to also extract the able bodied Nigerians staying at the mission, and at first he isn’t planning on it. After seeing a particularly brutal massacre, however, Waters decides to go against orders and lead both Kendricks and the civilians from the mission to the Cameroon border. With rebels hot on their tails, Waters and his team have to keep everyone moving as fast as they can, but a conflict with the rebels chasing them eventually becomes inevitable.

Tears of the the Sun is an extremely muddy movie and that’s what really holds it down. It starts off interesting enough, but once Waters, Kendricks, and everyone else start their journey through the jungle, it just turns into a mess. There’s scene after scene after scene after scene of just everyone hiking through various locations with an attempt to progress the drama. Unfortunately, the characters are so dull that this drama isn’t anything special and just gets lost in the uninspired performances and gray cinematography. There’s also plenty of lines of dialogue that I said before the character even had a chance to say them because this movie is loaded with your standard war clichés. A change of location might have changed things up after a while, but every scene looks almost exactly the same it felt like everyone was just walking in circles. This could’ve been an interesting element in the movie, how the immense jungle can cause confusion, but no.

Like I said before, the characters in Tears of the Sun are just dull. There’s very little to say about them because most of them lacked individual personalities. The men in Waters’ team were all pretty much the same person. They were all the hardened soldier that still had the wit to crack a joke from time to time. None of them stood out and anyone of them could delivered any line. When things get hectic during the climax and their lives are in danger, I didn’t really care because none of them really made me care about them. The same can be said about Willis’ character. His performance is so one note that it was hard to connect with him in the least. This role could have been played by anyone and he was just a boring protagonist. The only person that really stands out is Monica Bellucci who gives a very heartfelt and honest performance as Dr. Kendricks. She’s one of the only people who actually seems to be trying.

There are a few moments that do stick out in the otherwise muddled plot. The beginning was interesting and did pull me in to the setting easily enough. There’s a gut wrenching scene in the middle of the movie that shows just how truly horrible the situation is during this conflict and the prices that people trying to live their lives are paying because of it. The scene actually got me back with the movie and created a whole new layer of drama and suspense, but once the same old hiking through the woods started up again I began to drift once more. The climax is less than spectacular, but the very end of the movie features a scene of Willis actually acting like he wants to be in this movie. It’s a satisfying ending that wraps everything up well, but it certainly doesn’t make up for the rest of the movie.

Tears of the Sun is a watchable movie, but that’s all I’m really going to say about it. Besides Bellucci, the performances are one note, the cinematography is boring, and the constant walking through the jungle with characters I didn’t care about just became boring after a while. There are a few scenes that stick out, but they really are few and far between. Tears of the Sun is reminiscent of other movies that are just done better, while this one if meant to live in the realm of mediocrity. This isn’t a necessary movie nor is it one that will be remembered. It isn’t exactly bad, but there just isn’t too much to say about it.

Final Grade: C

Detroit – Review

9 Aug

In 1967, Detroit was shaken by the 12th Street Riots which lasted from July 23 to July 27. In just 4 days time 23 civilians were killed and 16 police and military members were also killed. The number of wounded on both sides go way into the hundreds. It was a very dark time in America’s past that was caused by racism, classism, and poverty and the tensions among the three being pushed to their very limits. In the middle of all this, an incident occurred at the Algiers Motel in which 3 people were killed under unknown circumstances. This is the focus of Kathryn Bigelow’s new film, Detroit, a shocking look at what has remained unseen for 50 years. While it’s true no one really knows what happened, it’s clear that Bigelow did a lot of research and investigating of her own, and Detroit will remain as one of the high points of film for 2017.

Amidst the 12th Street Riots in Detroit, multiple lives are affected while some are changed forever. Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega) is a private security guard and factory worker who is called to defend a small convenience store overnight, which is situated right beside a National Guard outpost. Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the lead singer of The Dramatics, and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) become separated from the rest of the group and end up at the Algiers Motel. It’s here that they meet Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever) and try to hit it off. A prank involving a starter pistol attracts the attention of the National Guard where Melvin is and they all head over to the Algiers. It also attracts the attention Officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), a racist cop who believes he has complete authority over the streets of Detroit. At this convergence at the Algiers Motel, violence and hatred erupts which ends in the death of 3 people and a subsequent investigation that held the eyes of all in Detroit.

Detroit is a very intense movie that depict real life events, so it’s important that Kathryn Bigelow and the rest of her crew depict things in a very specific way. Luckily, Bigelow has shown herself to be just the person to portray very dramatic real world events with her other films The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. With Detroit, a sense of environment is very strong and it succeeds at putting the viewer right in the middle of things, regardless of how chaotic and disturbing something may be. There are times where this film is a marvel to look at and listen to. It feels so genuine and authentic at times that I actually felt like I was transported back to a certain time and place. Part of this has to do with the excellent cinematography. Handheld camera work is something that can be completely overdone nowadays, and it’s often used in movies where it’s unnecessary and is just something to be seen as “artsy.” It’s used perfectly in this film and it never feels out of place. There’s also a very heavy usage of close ups where character’s faces are held in full frame for a good amount of time. It’s a risky move for Bigelow and it requires her to also have found just the right actors for the parts.

The performances in this movie are so good it’s almost scary. In fact, in a couple cases it is scary. John Boyega isn’t in the movie as much as I thought he was going to be but he gives such a natural performance that feels completely unlike his role in Star Wars, which is a good thing since it’s practically impossible to compare these two movies in any way shape or form. Will Poulter, who plays Krauss, is a force to be reckoned with in this movie and it’s by far one of the best and most complex performances of the year. His character is a complete psycho, and the frightening thing is that he doesn’t see that he’s doing anything wrong. Poulter gives a performance that is as horrific as it gets. Finally, the breakout star of this movie is Algee Smith, who I’d say is more of the focal point of the ensemble cast. His IMDb only has in credited in some random things and a part in Earth to Echo, which I think MAYBE three people saw. He is outstanding in this movie and has a bright career ahead of him. Seriously, Hollywood, keep your eyes out for this guy.

Detroit also had pacing that I wasn’t expecting, but it’s really the best way the movie could have been done. When I saw that the run time was about two and a half hours, I was a little concerned that it would be overstuffed with useless plot elements that could have easily been removed to turn it into a two hour movie. I really had nothing to worry about, however. The first part of the movie sets the stage for the riots and the characters for a while. Once we get to the Algiers, however, we remain there for a very long time. The whole incident is shot in real time and during this whole event we hardly leave the premises of the motel. This goes on for a really long time, but it never feels boring or overlong. Finally, the third part is the aftermath which keeps the stress from the time at the Algiers raised high. I hate using this word, but the storytelling really was riveting and I couldn’t peel my eye away from the screen for more than a second.

This has been a pretty wild summer for movies. There has been so much great stuff that it’s hard to keep track of it all. Amidst all of the cinematic joy, Detroit stands tall as one of the best 2017 has to offer, and yes I realize how often I’ve been saying that. This is a powerful movie about a really dark and tense time in American history and Kathryn Bigelow has the hard task of dramatizing it. The performances and film making are all top notch in this movie and it has to be remembered come Oscar season.

Final Grade: A+

Atomic Blonde – Review

2 Aug

In 2012, a graphic novel was released called The Coldest City, which tells the story of a spy operating in Germany during the events that lead up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I have to be honest, up until recently, I’ve never heard of it, but it’s now been brought to my attention with its new big screen adaptation titled Atomic Blonde. I’ve been looking forward to this movie for quite a while, but I knew that it could really go either way, so I’d like to say I had my expectations in check. After seeing it, I have to say that I’m pretty surprised at a few things. First off, it’s a better movie than I thought it was going to be, which is pretty cool. Secondly, the marketing for this movie is completely off and it’s really not at all what the trailers make it out to be.

The year is 1989 and the Berlin Wall is close to falling which will bring together people on either side for the first time in years. Meanwhile, amidst the government turmoil, MI6 agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) is killed by a KGB agent and the microfilm containing the names and actions of every agent in operation is stolen from him. This concerns a lot of people and only the best of the best can be trusted to go in and retrieve this information before it is sold to the highest bidder. Enter Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron), a top level MI6 agent with a very special connection to the deceased. Her mission is to not only retrieve the microfilm, but also hunt down and assassinate a traitor known only as Satchel, who’s been selling information to different sources including a KGB associate and arms dealer named Bremovych (Roland Møller). Upon arriving in Berlin, Broughton meets with another agent, David Percival (James McAvoy) who’s been operating in Berlin for a long time, but as she spends more time with Percival and his associates, it becomes clear that no one can be trusted and people can be bought and sold no matter their previous allegiances.

The trailers for this movie made it seem like Atomic Blonde was going to be a non stop, kinetic thrill ride of a movie that relentlessly jumps off the screen and attacks the senses of the viewer. That’s not really what the movie was and after I adjusted to this realization I started to really enjoy the movie for what it was. Sure, there’s action in it, but this is more of a spy movie than anything else, that just so happens to be infused with the style and sensibilities of a graphic novel. It does feel over the top in terms of its characters and certain plot elements but it also feels down to earth at other moments. This is a really layered story, and covering anything in a paragraph long summary is just impossible. What really is done right with this movie is a sense of blurred motivations and it’s appropriate that this line of work is constantly referred to as “the game” because the film makers have turned this area of Berlin into something resembling a game board. The characters move about in certain areas as clandestine as possible while trying to weed out the actions of the other characters. It’s a web of deceit and lies that holds up until the very last frame of the movie and this tale of suspense and turncoats works just as well as the action sequences.

Over the past few years, Charlize Theron has proven that she can perform just as well as the other modern day action movie titans. She was great in Mad Max: Fury Road, but her performance in Atomic Blonde takes her skills to the next level. When the movie does shift gears into pure action mode, it gets nuts. There’s a few major action sequences throughout the film, and the wait building up to each of them is worth it with the payoff. Theron owns the screen in these sequences and the choreography of each of these scenes are unique and memorable. It’s also all shot very well so the action can be seen in full. A while into the movie, one of these sequences starts and appears to not break action for at least 10 or 15 minutes. This is one of the greatest action sequences I have ever seen, and despite the fact that it is edited together, the illusion is strong and I didn’t have a hard time believing it was one continuous shot. Major kudos goes to director David Leitch. This being his first full feature film, I am really surprised by his skill behind the camera and I can’t wait to see what else he has in store for us.

While Atomic Blonde does very well in most areas, I do have to touch on some problems that I had with the movie. The pacing of this movie does have a hard time at some points. There will be a hard hitting action sequence, but then it will feel like the plot hits a brick wall. This kind of stop and go narrative is jarring and there’s a whole plot line with a certain character that could have been left out all together. The movie is a good length but it would have worked better if the screen time with this particular character was spent building on something else. There’s also a bit of a weird clash of style and story. This is a very stylistic movie, but it also tells a very down to earth and real story. It often felt like the style and the substance were contradicting each other, which shows that Leitch does have some growing to do in how he presents his stories.

Atomic Blonde is not a perfect movie but it is a more than competent action/spy thriller that has a whole lot of style and some really great film making. As a debut feature film, it’s really impressive and I want to see David Leitch grow as a film maker. While he shoots action very well, he needs to work on elements of his story telling and his style before he can create a movie as hard hitting as I think he wanted Atomic Blonde to be. Still, this is a very entertaining movie with a great sense of location and plenty of suspense and action to keep audiences on the edges of their seats.

Final Grade: B

Alien: Covenant – Review

28 May

Since 1979, the Alien series has been consistently revisited. The original film is a classic, and the same can be said about James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, Aliens, which is my personal favorite in the series. David Fincher’s Alien 3 is a major disappointment, and an all around ugly film, while Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection is an off kilter, almost comic book adaptation. It’s an odd one but I like it. Ridley Scott returned to the series with his 2012 prequel Prometheus, which opened up a lot of new doors for the series and left many people scratching their heads and asking questions. Well, it’s time for those questions to be answered because we have a new movie in the series, and I was really hyped up for it. Alien: Covenant is a rollicking, violent, and disturbing summer blockbuster that filled me with plenty of emotions and made my gag reflexes work some overtime. This is a welcome addition to the series.

In 2104, the colonization ship Covenant is en route to the planet Origae-6, which will become a new home to humanity. After a disaster hits the ship, Walter (Michael Fassbender), the android watching the ship, wakes the rest of the crew from stasis. With the ship’s captain dead, the next in command is the faith based Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup). After receiving a signal from a nearby planet that looks habitable, the crew decides to check it out, much to the protests of Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the terraforming expert onboard the Covenant. On the planet, members of the crew are soon infected by spores which then produce creatures that erupt out of the bodies of the crew. They soon meet David (Fassbender again), who survived the Prometheus mission and is hiding out in a temple that holds more secrets than the Covenant team was expecting. Soon it’s the aliens against the humans, and David’s true motivations make survival all the more difficult.

When watching an Alien movie, I expect a certain kind of standard, and some of the movies in the series do not meet the criteria. This one certainly does despite some obvious flaws in character and storytelling. Let’s get some of the negatives out of the way first. For one thing, there’s a certain character that is completely wasted, and it isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this happen in this series. Sure, there’s a moment of shock when this character’s fate is revealed, but it kind of left me wishing I could have seen more of them. There’s also a lot of exposition that crowds the middle of the movie, but a lot of this exposition is dishonest, which leads to more exposition, which then leads to confusion. Any fan of Prometheus may have well guessed that this prequel trilogy is not going to be a straightforward one, and the confusion and questions that Covenant raises just adds to that theory. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when this all happens in a murky and dark and muddled part of the movie, that’s when there’s a little bit of a problem.

Much like the other films in this franchise, Alien: Covenant has a slow start, but that’s a wise way to tell this story in the grand scheme of things. Tension is built up for a long time, and when that tension is finally released, the screen explodes with terror and gore and just outrageous violence that sometimes made my stomach turn. This is easily the most violent Alien movie, and it shocked me in more ways than one. When an alien first explodes out of a crew members body, my mouth was side open at the shamelessness of it all. Ridley Scott clearly wanted this reaction and he sure got it. It’s so fun to be in a movie theater and hear gasps coming from all around the auditorium. The intensity in this movie is amped up to 11 and a lot of this comes from the incredible production design. The claustrophobia of the ships and the wide open spaces on the planet’s surface makes it very clear that no one is safe in this movie. There is one computerized effect that looked kind of weird, but the rest of the movie looked excellent.

Alien: Covenant takes what happens in Prometheus and builds off of it, so it would be hard to like this movie without liking its predecessor. The world building in Covenant is awesome and motivations for the characters feel very strong and often times tragic. A lot of the success has to do with Fassbender’s performance as both Walter and David. He is the crux of this whole prequel trilogy and he brings more menace to the screen than I was expecting. He is the perfect villain that this series needs and his calmness plays off the chaos of the xenomorphs perfectly. This is one of those movies that made me excited to see what more the series has to offer, and I really can’t wait to see what happens next, but that’s a review for another time.

Alien: Covenant isn’t the best film in the series, but it is the best film since Aliens and it’s just the sequel that Prometheus needed. This film is also not for the squeamish, but long time fans of the Alien series probably expect nothing less. Still, this movie managed to shock and horrify while also building the science fiction universe of androids, aliens, heroes, and the evil Weyland Corporation quite well. Fans of the series will have to check out this one out. If I  had to rank this movie, I’d say it’s my third favorite Alien film.

Final Grade: B+

Anthropoid – Review

5 May

In 1942, an assassination attempt on one of the Third Reich’s most despicable leaders, Reinhard Heydrich, was undertaken by a group of Czech agents working alongside operative in England. This mission was appropriately called Operation Anthropoid. The implications of this mission helped redefine the Allies’ actions in these stages of Word War II, but even with all that, this isn’t a story that I’ve seen told in a mainstream motion picture. There have been films that have told this story before, so please pardon my ignorance. Sean Ellis’ 2016 film, Anthropoid, is one of these films to tell the story of these often times forgotten Czech heroes. While this is a really solid film, there are some storytelling choices and pacing issues that hold it back from being a real war classic, but it’s certainly one that I’m really glad to have seen.

In 1941, Jozef Gabčik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan), two Czechoslovakian agents, are dropped into Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. Their mission is to meet up with the underground resistance in Prague to ultimately assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe). They soon meet up with the head of the resistance, Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones), and begin planning their mission. As time goes on, the two agents begin to immerse themselves in their homeland once again, but their time is soon cut short when it is revealed that Heydrich is being reassigned to another post in France. This forces Jozef and Jan to push their plans forward, but to great risk to themselves and the people of Czechoslovakia.

Movies about World War II are everywhere, so it’s important for film makers to work hard and make their film unique from all the rest. Is Anthropoid a gleaming example of a unique WWII drama? In a sense, yes, and in another sense, no. The major pitfalls of this film happen early on, which is a good thing, but I was really worried for a good portion of the story that nothing special would really come from what I was watching. The first half of Anthropoid has the job of setting up the true to life history of the story while also creating some dramatic fiction to get the viewer more invested in the characters. The problem with that is that the true story is interesting enough, and the embellishments that the film makers added in were distracting and ultimately added to nothing. This is where the core of my worries came because these useless plot points stretched on for way too long. What I’m really trying to say is that the set up wasn’t necessarily overlong, but it was clunky and unfocused. Not every movie needs a romantic relationship… Seriously.

Where Anthropoid really hits is in its second half. With their mission moved forward, the team are forced to make some really tough decisions, which leads to some really harrowing and suspenseful scenes with explosive payoffs that left me feeling exhausted. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s one of those kinds of movies. I felt like I needed to sleep until the next day once these credits started to roll. The tension in this movie is wound so tight that Hitchcock, himself, would have been proud. What helps with this is the authenticity that is clearly present throughout the entirety of this movie. Sean Ellis and his team worked really hard to recreate Prague in the 1940s, which I will get more into later. A lot of the actual locations were used in the shoots, and everything that couldn’t be filmed was meticulously recreated. This is what movies are all about, and this alone saves the movie from the rough start that plagues it.

Now, while the story has a rough start and picks up later one, the design of Anthropoid is on point for the its entirety. This is a great looking movie and that’s one of its main saviors. Like I said, there are sets that are meticulously recreated to be exact replicas of real life locations. The most impressive is a cathedral set where the climax of the film happens. It’s an enormous and very well crafted replica that looks exactly like the real thing. This film is also shot using mostly handheld cameras, but it never gets too out of control. There are movies that exist that use this style to make it seem more real, but they go overboard and move the camera so much you can’t even tell what’s going on. Ellis shows great restraint with the camera and knows exactly when to make it kinetic and when to slow the movements down.

Anthropoid is a solid World War II thriller that tells a story that I knew nothing about. It’s a very well acted and well shot film that’s full of tension, excitement, and visceral drama. The only thing holding it down is the first 35 minutes or so. It’s not that this part of the movie is terrible, but it felt like nothing was really amounting to anything. For anyone interested in the more clandestine side of World War II, I can easily recommend Anthropoid.

Final Grade: B+

Get Out – Review

13 Mar

When Key & Peele first aired on Comedy Central, I didn’t think the show was going to go anywhere, but then I watched it and realized that the two stars had an incredible talent when it came to comedy and satire. I loved their movie, Keanu, and when I saw Jordan Peele was writing and directing a horror film based on racism I was immediately on board. I knew that it would be a blend of horror and sharp satire, and at times probably even be funny, and that’s exactly what I got. Get Out is a really smart, eerie, and subversive film that has many different ideas and perspectives while also telling a creepy, and sometimes even gleefully campy, horror story.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and his girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) are at the point in their relationship where it’s time for Chris to finally meet her parents. Normally, this would be a passably awkward experience, but Rose’s parents have no idea that Chris is black. Despite Rose telling Chris that her parents, while being typically eccentric, are nothing to really worry about. Upon their arrival to their suburban home, Chris is whole heartedly greeted by Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) Armitage. Over time, Chris starts to notice strange remarks concerning both him and the Armitage’s black housekeepers. Things only get stranger when Missy hypnotizes Chris during a late night conversation, a session which ignites a furious paranoia in Chris that causes him to investigate what is really going on in that house and the real horrors that lie beneath the surface.

There’s so much to say about Get Out that I don’t really know where to begin. When this movie was first previewed, there was a lot of backlash for it showing this overt racism directed at one particular race to another. The thing is that this movie is not as clean cut as that. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface that trailers can’t convey, and I’d be pretty upset if they did because the way this movie unfolds is riveting. While Peele does explore the overt racism towards African Americans, it doesn’t really stop there. The story also delves into the realm of paranoia and preconceived notions of both races that arise because of these problems. It also goes in a pretty cool direction where certain actions from people, while they claim they may be trying to help, are only making certain situations worse or changing nothing at all and coming off as condescending. While not giving anything away, the last third of the movie goes absolutely haywire and only makes things more complicated with certain unexpected twists that come out of nowhere… Twists that just so happen to be awesome.

While this is definitely a horror movie through and through, there’s a couple really cool things that kind of help Get Out step outside of the box and escape genre conventions. For one thing, this film can be super funny. Like gut busting funny, and a lot of that comes from the hilarious performance by Lil Rey Howery, who plays Chris’ best friend. We all knew that Jordan Peele was a really funny guy, but it’s impressive that he can so seamlessly weave his off the wall sense of humor into a genuinely unnerving horror tale. I mentioned that the third act just introduces a whole new layer in terms of thematic material, but it also really shakes things up when it comes to style and genre conventions. I’m not going to say anything about what happens, but any B-movie fan will appreciate the story taking a sudden turn into that kind of territory.

What would have been a major problem for this movie was if it was too obvious. If Peele whacked you over the head with the messages and points he was really driving at, the movie would feel too preachy. While there are a few moments that do feel a tad bit heavy handed, they are completely out shined by the subversive nature of the rest of the film. This is mostly due to Jordan Peele’s fantastic screenplay and direction, but credit also has to go to the actors. I had no idea who Daniel Kaluuya was before seeing this movie, but he was outstanding. He gives a very natural and level headed performance that can be both shocking and funny. The other stand outs are Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener as the older Armitages, who just seem to radiate the kind of eerieness this movie needs. I already mentioned Lil Rey Howery, but I just have to reiterate how funny this guy is and how essential he is to the entire movie.

I’ve been saying recently that we are living in a renaissance of horror, and Get Out only proves that point even more. This is a brilliant and wonderfully subversive film that gets under your skin while also succeeding at making you laugh. It has some really great thematic depth to it that will make any audience member with half a brain think about the characters and motivations, which is a great first step to making a great film. Add on some memorable scenes and a lead character that you can’t help but love and you have a winner on your hands. Get Out is a superb film that will challenge your mind as much as entertain you.

Final Grade: A-

Kill List – Review

23 Feb

I’m always up to the task of watching a movie that challenges the idea of genre and narrative form. It’s an excellent mode of expression to take preconceived notions of storytelling and flipping them on their head to create something new. For this to be a success, however, it has to be done right. Movies are archetypically based, so changing the formula can be a tough thing to do. This is exactly what Ben Wheatley attempted to do with his 2011 film Kill List. This was a very strange movie to watch, and I’m still kind of processing it, but it’s really a very interesting film to say the least, even if some of it doesn’t really work.

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Jay (Neil Maskell) is a hitman who has been out of work for months after a particularly traumatizing assignment in Kiev. Shel (MyAnna Buring), Jay’s wife, talks their friend, Gal (Michael Smiley), and convinces him to recruit Jay to help in an assignment with a large payout. After some arguing, Jay agrees and the two hitmen meet their employer (Struan Rodger), who gives them a list of three people and all the information they need to execute the hits. As the two hitmen start their mission and begin working their way down the list, things seem a little bit out of the ordinary, and a dark secret connects the three targets on the list; secrets that contain brutality and sadism on such a level that it horrifies the contract killers and sends them spiraling into a mystery that they may not come out of alive.

I think it’s kind of a compliment to say that a movie keeps rattling in your brain and forcing you to think about it, even when you don’t particularly want to. That’s the relationship I’m having with Kill List. This film blends two genres together to create a mash of oddness. I can’t think of another movie that takes a crime thriller and puts it together with sadistic horror to create something that is as chilling and unforgettable as Kill List. I don’t think this movie is a masterpiece or anything like that, but I do have this feeling that Kill List will forever be somewhere on the back burner. I also have to give Wheatley credit in how he handles a lot of the subject matter. There are scenes that will make the squeamish leave the room post haste, but never does it go over the top into an exploitive affair. This movie effectively crawls under your skin without it being too much or overdone. It’s very well thought out film making and storytelling.

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At the core of this movie, though, is a really intriguing mystery. This is where I got really hooked. The film starts off easy enough with a story of a hit man forced back into the business, but it was enough to keep me watching. When things started getting strange for no reason is when I really started to pay attention. It was great trying to figure out just what in the hell was going on, and for the most part, there really aren’t any clues. You’re left to sit and watch and wonder. I was really dying to know what happened, but this is very ambiguous movie that is left for you to interpret. This might be where the movie falters for me just a little bit. I really wanted to know everything and have concrete answers, but Kill List has none of these to offer. That being said, this is an incredibly frustrating film that succeeds in leaving the audience baffled and freaked out.

When I say freaked out, I really mean freaked out. I’m a real sucker for well made and effective horror movies, so I do expect horror movies to go the extra mile. Technically speaking, I don’t know if I’d call Kill List a horror film. I really don’t know how I’d define it. Still, the last third of this movie is frightening, and I’m not ashamed to say it royally messed with me. I would love to get deeper into what happens, but the most fun you’ll have with this movie is the tension and suspense of it building to what is actually going on. Saying anything more would spoil some of that, so just know that I thought it was one of the creepier displays I’ve seen in a while.

To me, Kill List is a lot of things. It’s frustrating, stunning, difficult, but also extremely memorable. Despite all of the confusion I felt watching it and all of the questions left unanswered, I’m really thrilled that this movie didn’t remain under my radar forever. It’s one that I’m going to want to show to people just so I can see their reaction to it because there really isn’t another movie quite like this one.

Final Grade: B

Split – Review

1 Feb

Recent years have not been very kind to M. Night Shyamalan, a film maker that was once a titan in the world of suspense thrillers. Since his 2008 bomb, The Happening, things just seemed to be getting worse as time went on. Last year, Shyamalan made a film called The Visit, which I have yet to see but I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard some positive things about it. Now, I can really say without a doubt that Shyamalan is back on course with his newest film, Split. I was hesitant when I first saw the trailer. It looked cool, but trailers can be deceiving. When I left the theater, I was overjoyed that Split was everything I wanted it to be, but it also exceeded those expectations.

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After a small birthday celebration, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends are kidnapped by a seemingly random man named Dennis (James McAvoy). They wake up in a room in an undisclosed location and soon learn that Dennis is not what he first appeared to be. Dennis is also a woman named Patricia who is also a kid named Hedwig who is also over 20 other people. Having suffered with such an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder for so long, he’s gotten quite close with his doctor, Karen (Betty Buckley), who also has theories that these many personalities can give people with this disorder an evolutionary leg up over other people. Back at the girl’s make shift prison, Casey starts to work at better understanding all of this guy’s personalities, but when Hedwig mentions that the Beast is coming for all of them, she begins to formulate new ideas to escape before this terror makes itself known.

I really had such high hopes for this movie. I wanted Shyamalan to show that he still has it in him to make a really kick ass thriller movie, and that’s exactly what I got with Split. I knew I was in for a treat when the credit sequence started. The black background and twisted lettering were great, but what really hooked me was the ominous music that sent a chill down my spine the same way the Signs theme did the first time I saw that movie. The music by West Dylan Thordson is in no way overbearing and it seems to relish in its subtlety. It creeps in whenever the occasion really calls for it which is the mark of a great score. This combined with the cinematography by Mike Gioulakis makes for a great combination. Gioulakis previously worked as cinematographer on It Follows, which was a fantastic looking film, and that same kind of wispy camera movement and confident head on framing makes the same kind of impact in Split.

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The real star of the show here, though, is James McAvoy. McAvoy gives the best performance of his entire career and possibly one of the best performances I’ve seen in a very long time. You know you’re watching a great performance when you no longer see the actor playing the role, but become so convinced that the actor is no longer there and just the character. McAvoy succeeds in doing that in this movie, but what makes it even more impressive is that he makes me believe that a whole lot of characters are real and not being played for a camera. He completely transforms himself into these roles, and each personality has a different stance or walk or way of speaking that makes them feel completely separate from the others. One scene in particular has McAvoy switching between people, and that to me is one of the most impressive parts of the movie. I also have to give credit to Anya Taylor-Joy, who showed that her performance in The Witch wasn’t a fluke and that she is able to maintain a sincere performance despite insanity happening all around her.

While this is truly an incredible movie, there is something I have to get out of the way in terms of negativity. Shyamalan is no stranger to drawn out scenes of exposition, and Split is a major offender. Betty Buckley does a good job playing Dr. Karen, but a lot of her scenes do just exist to explain to the audience what’s going on with one of the personalities or her strange theory that links the whole movie together. To be fair, this is a strange story and exposition is necessary, but there’s so much of it in this movie that it can get kind of distracting. I can definitely forgive this however, because most of the movie is spot on. On the opposite side of the long exposition scenes, there are scenes of visual dread and fear that will be seared into my mind for a long time. There’s one particular moment during a chase towards the end of the movie that is one of the freakiest things I’ve seen in a long time.

Split is a really strong outing by M. Night Shyamalan, and I’m hoping this marks a grand return for someone who has always succeeded in freaking me out and guessing all the way to the end of his movies. This is a really strange film filled with ideas and clues to dig away at to find meaning. It’s also a film that showcases the talents of its actors and behind the camera artists, with James McAvoy really stealing the show with his one of a kind performance. This is a truly suspenseful thrill ride with an ending that will knock your socks off. I highly recommend it.

Final Grade: A

Phantasm Series – Review: Part 1

25 Jan

Horror movies have a fair share of memorable boogeymen. In the 1970s and 1980s there was Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees to name a few, but there are also some that have gained more of a cult reputation. One of these boogeymen is the Tall Man from the Phantasm series. I didn’t know much about these movies, but he was a character who always piqued my interest, and I also find it odd that I haven’t given these movies a chance yet, especially considering their cult status and following. I’m always ready to see some new horror movies, so I’m going to watch all 5 in the series and have a two part review on all of them. Let’s see how they are.

In 1979, writer and director Don Coscarelli released the first film in the series.

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Jody (Bill Thornbury) and Michael Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin) are two brothers whose parents died a few years prior in a car accident. Michael is practically attached to Jody’s hip at times, which isn’t always convenient when Jody has things he needs to do. After the death of one of Jody’s friends, Michael becomes suspicious of the town’s mortician (Angus Scrimm) and the activities he’s engaging in in the mortuary. Michael begins his investigation and stumbles across very strange things in the mortuary like hooded dwarves that attack him and a flying silver sphere that will attach to your head and drill through your skull. Soon Jody and his friend, Reggie (Reggie Bannister), join in on the investigation and are quickly sucked into a web of undead minions, hidden planets, and the wrath of the mortician known as the Tall Man.

Say what you will about Phantasm, because either way this is one hell of an original movie. This film came out in 1979, which was an era of slasher films. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween were both released and a year later in 1980 we’d be introduced to Friday the 13th. What Phantasm did was focus more on the supernatural and not so much a high body count. The whole thing feels like it could be a tale told around a campfire with the Tall Man being the boogeyman that would keep everyone up that night. Angus Scrimm plays the Tall Man to perfection, and there’s no reason not to see how he became a cult icon in the horror world. There’s also plenty of imagination in terms of the story and the design. This film was made on a super low budget, so the fact that writer/director Don Coscarelli pulled it off is amazing. One scene in particular where the silver sphere is attacking Michael in the mortuary is especially memorable and very well made.

So while Phantasm is a horror film that’s held up very well over the years in terms of its ambition and originality, there is a lot holding this movie back. My first complaint is something you’ll see in a lot of low budget horror movies, and that’s the acting. Reggie Bannister and Angus Scrimm both do great work, but A. Michael Baldwin and Bill Thornbury kind of do that weird overemphasizing thing you see in movies like this. It’s awkward to watch and must have been awkward to perform. Another big issue is the way the film is paced and structured. For a good portion of the movie, it seems like nothing is happening. There is admittedly some good suspense in this build up, but it just takes way too long, and this is a pretty short movie so there really isn’t any time to spare. Finally, there are scenes that are simply uninteresting even though it seems like Coscarelli was definitely trying to make something of them. The one I can think of is a small car chase on a deserted road. It’s a car chase that was boring and I couldn’t get into. That’s a rare thing for me.

All in all, Phantasm should be required viewing for anyone interested in horror films, but it’s not something that is necessary for everyone. There’s plenty of originality and I admire Don Coscarelli and his crew for making the movie they wanted no matter what the cost. There’s some great scenes that will stick with me for quite a long time and Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man is one of the great cinematic boogeymen. There’s just some serious pacing issues that drag this movie down from being one of the titans of the genre. It’s still a really cool movie, but can’t be compared to something like the original Nightmare on Elm Street.

Final Grade: B-

Almost a decade later, in 1988, Coscarelli followed up his original movie with the higher budgeted Phantasm II.

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After spending years in a psychiatric hospital, Mike (James LeGros) begins having visions of this girl named Liz (Paula Irvine) who is being tormented by the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm reprises his role). He talks his way out of the hospital and meets up with his old friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister also returns), who at first doesn’t believe his story of the Tall Man, but quickly comes to realize Mike isn’t so crazy. The two get geared up and hit the road, following a trail of desolate towns wiped out by the Tall Man. Soon, the two meet up with Liz and it becomes clear that the Tall Man needs Mike and Liz together because of their strong telepathic bond that becomes apparent in their dreams. Now the trio must once again face the Tall Man, his army of dwarf minions, and his arsenal of deadly flying spheres.

I didn’t have too high of expectations going into Phantasm II since I just felt like the first film was pretty good. Still, I went in with a fresh mind and wanted to see that maybe a bigger budget would give Coscarelli some more room to go bigger and build on the lore. This just goes to show that a bigger budget does not make a better movie. For a horror sequel, this isn’t a bad film, but it still falls into the same pits that the first film does. The beginning of the movie starts out really strong by picking up right where the first film ended, but as time goes on everything starts to lose its luster. The characters all, once again, fail to really grab me or make me care. The only two that succeed in being interesting characters are the Tall Man, of course, and Reggie. Mike and Liz are both bland and altogether uninteresting, which makes some of the more intense scenes feel like they’re missing something. There’s also some weird pacing issues, yet again, where the movie slows down to a grinding halt at times and we are left with characters engaging in dialogue that often feels hollow.

I’m still having a little bit of a dilemma. I have a hard time not hyping this movie up because there is still a lot of really cool stuff. The special effects in this movie are a huge step up, and some of the scenes involving them are genuinely shocking. There are a couple of new spheres that offer some of the most memorable scenes in the movie and one particular puppet that was really creepy. There’s also a new sense of action in this movie that reminds me a little bit of Evil Dead II. This film has those moments of characters gearing up and customizing their weapons, which serve really well to get the audience hyped up. There are also some attempts at funny tough talk which usually just fails completely. Still, I will say the bigger budget does allow for some great show downs with the Tall Man that was sort of missing from the first film.

Phantasm II is a mixed bag for me. It’s missing the wonder, mystery, and suspense of the first film, but it does amp up the action, intensity, and special effects. For me, a horror movie is more about the mystery and suspense while the special effects and intensity come second. This is still a really imaginative movie that builds on the lore of the original, but it doesn’t have enough characterization going for it to bolster the content still. Phantasm II isn’t bad, but I can’t help but feel it’s missing something.

Final Grade: C+

In 1994, something unfortunate happened to this series. Universal stated that if Don Coscarelli and his crew were attached to the next Phantasm film, they wouldn’t distribute it. Coscarelli said that was fine and went on to make Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead, which was released direct to video.

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Picking up right where Phantasm II left off, The Tall Man and his minions are in pursuit of Reggie and Mike (once again played by A. Michael Baldwin). After being seriously injured, Mike is left in a coma and taken by the Tall Man soon after he awakes. Now, Reggie is forced to go head to head with the Tall Man, yet again, but this time he has more help than he’s ever had. His first new partner is a young boy named Tim (Kevin Connors), who has survived in a town desolated by the Tall Man. Reggie and Tim also meet Rocky (Gloria Lynn Henry), a tough as nails biker who lost her best friend to the Tall Man. Finally, Mike’s brother Jody has returned as one of the Tall Man’s spheres that has the ability to take human form for a short period of time. This newly formed gang of heroes each have their reasons to stop the Tall Man once and for all, but will they be strong enough defeat him and his ever growing army of undead minions?

With this being the first direct to video entry in this series, I had very little hope that it was going to do anything for me. Surprisingly, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead is the one that has entertained me the most so far. Some of the pitfalls that the other two movies fall in are avoided in this third entry. For one thing, Mike isn’t in the movie too much, which is a good thing because I wasn’t a fan of A. Michael Baldwin’s acting in the first film, and it’s pretty much the same in this movie. Another huge plus is that the characters of Tim and Rocky both work great with Reggie and provide a lot of cool scenes and comedic relief that works a lot better than it did in Phantasm II. Angus Scrimm and Reggie Bannister also do good work here, as they have continued to do throughout the series leading up to this point.

Much like Phantasm II, this movie is heavy on action. Reggies quad-barreled shotgun makes a return while Tim and Rocky bring a lot of over the top action as well. For a movie that was made for direct to video releasing, this is a pretty good looking movie with some impressive stunts and action sequences. Not only do we get cool action, but there’s also a good amount of world building in that we learn more of who the Tall Man is and what he’s doing with the bodies he steals and the towns he destroys. To point out one negative, I will say that the last third of the movie falls into an area that can only be described as redundant. It’s the big showdown inside a mortuary with a twist at the very end. This is Phantasm 101 and it wouldn’t hurt to deviate a little from what’s been done in every movie so far.

In the end, Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead doesn’t shake up the formula too much but it does offer a lot of good entertainment and fun additions to the cast of these movies. The characters are memorable and the action is fun. It just would be nice to see these movies go in a different direction in some ways.

Final Grade: B

The first three movies in the Phantasm series can be described as fine. The first and the third have stand out moments that make them memorable, but the second movie just dragged on a bit too much for me. There’s still two more movies to go so keep an eye out for part 2.