Signs (revised review with spoilers)

8 Oct

webANXsigns.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I would issue a “SPOILER ALERT,” but how many people who read my blog don’t know about “Signs?”

When I first reviewed M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 hit “Signs,” I was naïve enough as a young reviewer (I think I was about 17 when I wrote the review) to try not to give away any spoilers for a film that was already getting a heap of backlash. “Signs” is a film that was receiving a lot of love before it was getting a lot of hate. And I didn’t even acknowledge the backlash in my review; it was one of the worst reviews I’ve ever written that, for some reason, I decided to post in my blog years later when I started it. Rather than go in-depth about a film that everyone was picking on left and right, I was heavily inspired by Roger Ebert’s review. He gave “Signs” the same star-rating I did (four stars out of four), and he kept it spoiler-free in his review. (I wish I could explain to 17-year-old Tanner Smith the difference between taking inspiration from someone’s work and ripping it off.)

Anyway, “Signs” is a film that gets a lot of criticism that I think is unwarranted. I’m keeping the four-star verdict for this “Revised Review,” because Shyamalan’s “Signs” is one of my personal favorite movies.

I’m not kidding—I love “Signs” un-ironically and wholeheartedly. So now, I’m going to give it the Smith’s Verdict treatment that it deserves.

The film centers on a rural-Pennsylvania family (“20 miles outside Philadelphia,” a caption states)—widower father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and Graham’s two children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). One morning, they awaken to find that in their cornfield are mysterious shapes bent from several of the crops. From above, they look like crop circles. If this were a prank, it’d be one thing; but apparently, it’s happening all over the world and it all seems to be a warning sign for a global invasion from an otherworldly force. Aliens are coming, it seems, and Graham isn’t sure whether to believe it or not, but the others are more than willing to accept the possibility. Before long, the looming danger draws closer and the family has to survive the night…

OK, here goes—it turns out there really are extraterrestrials that come to Earth and mean harm towards mankind. Let’s start off with the ultimate masterstroke in telling this particular alien-invasion story: it keeps the focus on just one part of the world, with one family knowing as much as they can possibly know, from listening to the radio broadcasts, watching TV broadcast news, and even encountering some aliens themselves. Therefore, we as an audience only know what they know. Unlike in “Independence Day,” which featured a large variety of characters in different parts of the world witnessing the extraordinary events as they unfold, in “Signs,” we’re given the absolute minimum of the attack. And I think that’s great—sometimes, less is more.

Unfortunately, this is probably the source of a lot of the complaints & questions people have about “Signs” that they just won’t let be. The aliens have trouble with wooden doors. Water seems to be the only thing that can hurt them. Why would they come to a planet mostly covered with water? Why didn’t they bring any weapons? Because we know so little about the invasion itself, aside from what the group of characters only hears about, many of us are too quick to assume that these are mere plot holes that can’t be filled. But I think they can be…

For one thing, the criticism of the water being the thing that burns the aliens like acid has never been warranted, in my opinion. Think of it like this—if we were on a whole other planet in a whole other galaxy, we could come across something that could be very lethal to us; something that is a natural resource to the planet’s inhabitants. I never understood why people find it hard to believe that the aliens would have a deadly reaction to something they haven’t encountered before.

As for the question of why they would attack Earth, a planet that is mostly composed of water, I refer you to a scene in which the characters listen to a radio broadcast, in which a witness believes that they didn’t come to take over our planet but rather to harvest humans. They couldn’t care less about our planet; they just want as many of us as they could get before they left. And they seemed to have left in a big hurry, leaving only their wounded behind, most likely because of the water. Again, we don’t know for sure because we’re only limited to what we see on this family’s farm, but if some of the aliens landed somewhere where it rained, for example, that’d be enough for a slaughter, a distress call, a retreat, anything.

The final encounter in the film comes when a wounded alien has made its way to the house and nearly kills Morgan with its poisonous gas (luckily, Morgan, having suffered an asthma attack prior, didn’t inhale it because his lungs were too closed up). This is the alien that Graham encountered the previous day at a neighbor’s house, before removing its fingers with a carving knife. So, obviously, because its brethren scattered quickly and left their wounded behind, the alien, after having busted out of the house pantry where he was locked up, must have followed the closest crop circle and found its way to this house. It’s a desperate act that people have also questioned.

Oh, and what about the wood? These things seem to have trouble with wooden doors. (“Scary Movie 3” even mentioned this at one point: “They mastered space flight, but they can’t get through a wooden door?”) But here’s the thing—they have no weapons to aid them. It’s possible that they didn’t find any use for them, because they were only here for us, not for our planet. And here’s the other thing—they did get through the doors! When the family is holed up in the basement, how do you think the aliens ended up outside the door? They busted through the doors upstairs (and the boarded-up windows too—you can see the broken planks near the end of the film). And more importantly, the wounded alien at the end was the same alien that was locked in a kitchen pantry before…so, he obviously broke out. (It’s going to take some effort, guys.)

Something else people love to complain about is how everything seems to come together at the end, with Graham, a former preacher, suddenly gaining his faith back after it seems his wife’s dying words were warnings for the future, leading up to this moment in which Merrill must kill the alien with his treasured baseball bat. (“Merrill…swing away.”) People complain that it’s an unneeded premonition that is forced rather than revealing. Maybe Shyamalan was going for a way for God to provide help, thus restoring Graham’s beliefs (and there’s even a scene early in the film about how there may not be coincidences in the world). But I never saw it as that big a deal. I just saw it as Graham figuring out the best way to save the day while considering the possibility that this is no coincidence. Everybody has their reasons to believe.

And while I’m on the subject, people also complain about Graham leaving the cloth because he originally lost his faith after his wife died. He’s a flawed man, as you can see as the film continues. There are moments, particularly when he talks with Merrill (and especially their conversation about hope and fear), that indicate not only is he not so sure about whether or not we’re all alone in the world with no one to look after us and protect us, but also that he was never entirely sure even when he was a priest. No one is perfect. That’s what I got out of it, anyway.

I will give the critics a little bit of credit—it is a bit odd that the concept of crop circles, something that was dismissed as a big hoax in real-life (and even mentioned in this film at one point), is something that the aliens in this film actually decided to perform (for use of navigational purposes). Kind of coincidental, isn’t it? But then again, don’t some people wonder what would happen those crop circles really were from otherworldly sources? It is the movies, after all—what’s wrong with some wish-fulfillment?

I’ve already mentioned in my previous review how effective the acting is from all four principal actors, how striking the production design is (right down to the stained cross on the wall, which I did not recognize before), how deeply unsettling it is the way Shyamalan uses silence to elevate tension, and how wonderful James Newton Howard’s music score is. But they deserve mentioning again because I think just about everything about “Signs” works. As with “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” “Signs” was a case of a filmmaker like M. Night Shyamalan putting his faith into his audience and telling a story using both big and little elements to both satisfy them and make them ponder. It’s just unfortunate that a lot of people didn’t fall for it. But I did, and I’m all the more glad that I took the time to truly think about all the things I mentioned in this review, rather than let the questions linger on in my mind before I decided I didn’t like “Signs.” I love “Signs,” and I will continue to love “Signs” to my dying day. It’s one of my favorite movies, and I will shrug off any more complaints I read about it. To those complaints, I say: it’s not a problem if it can be explained.

Advertisements

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

21 Sep

MV5BMTU4MTc1NDQxOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjcxMDc2._V1_.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Based on a true story.” The Hollywood studio system loves to use those five words in an attempt to sell their products even further outside their target demographic. Even if the films they’re promoting only sound slightly similar to events that have taken place one way or another in reality, they will find some way to include that old familiar saying. (They may even remove a word and alter the tag to “inspired by true events.”) When it comes to horror films, particularly those that delve into the supernatural, using that tag creates a very thin line between what audiences are willing to believe and what they’re choosing to ignore. Take “The Conjuring,” which was marketed as “based on a true case files of the Warrens”—are we really supposed to believe that the events portrayed in that film really happened the way the filmmakers interpreted it?

That is why something as unique as Scott Derrickson’s (“Sinister,” “Doctor Strange”) underrated courtroom-drama/supernatural-thriller “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” cannot be ignored.

From that title, what do you expect to see in this film? Exorcism. Demonic possession. Death. All sorts of odd, ominous, spiritual elements going bump in the night. And a girl named Emily Rose, who indeed is part of an exorcism. If the film were as simple as that, it’d be just another supernatural-horror film. But it’s not as simple as that. Why? Well, let me explain the story first.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is loosely based on a German woman named Anneliese Michel, who in the mid-1970s underwent a Catholic exorcism not long before her death. She had already been diagnosed with epilepsy and given many psychiatric treatments, neither of which proved effective. As her condition got worse and she claimed to hear voices (among other things), her family believed her to be possessed by a demon and thus called for two priests to perform the deed. When she died of dehydration and starvation, her parents and the priests were found guilty of negligent homicide. Since then, there have been posthumous notes that point to her being under the influence of a demonic being.

So then lies the question of whether or not Anneliese truly was possessed. Are the simplest answers always the true ones? Is the way I described the event sounding more credible? I believe that there are things in this world that we may never fully comprehend and that things are never as simple as all that. Maybe she was really sick, as her psychiatrists have testified. But what about the priests and the exorcism? The Roman Catholic Church doesn’t take the concept lightly, as far as I know; so, they must’ve had some idea that something was more wrong than trained professionals have thought. Then there’s the audiotape of the exorcism, which was handed in as evidence during the trial—it’s pretty unnerving and points more toward the possibility of something supernatural overtaking this girl, but it also could have been evidence of enabling the psychiatric torture she must have been going through also.

“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” knows this. How do I know it knows this? Because it chooses a brilliant method in telling the story—instead of going for a straightforward approach in telling this story, in which one side of the belief system is obviously right, it looks at it from both sides. This is a masterstroke of storytelling for this kind of film, because it allows us, the audience, to decide for ourselves what we choose to believe. The best part is the film doesn’t cheat in ways that make everything so easy for one to believe something in particular. It shows why something must have happened this way or why it also could’ve happened another way. One way is the simpler way of explaining, but is it the most true? That’s the beauty of it—we’re the judges.

The protagonist of the film is defense-attorney Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), who has been brought on as the lawyer of Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson). Father Moore is a priest on trial after the death of a teenage girl named Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) following an exorcism he attempted onto her. The church doesn’t want the public attention, and so, he’s advised to plead guilty to reckless endangerment. But Father Moore doesn’t wish to plead guilty, because he wants Emily’s story to be told, not caring in the slightest about the consequences for himself. Thus, we get an intriguing court case, in which Bruner, an agnostic, is forced to carry through the ordeal and defend her client, and the prosecutor, a churchgoer named Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), has to prove against what can’t be easily proven. Emily Rose was possessed. Emily Rose was sick. Father Moore made things worse. Father Moore did too little. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is there a “right”? Is there a “wrong”?

Taking influence from “Rashomon,” we’re told the story of Emily Rose through various perspectives, each being told from witnesses taking the stand in court. They all contradict each other, so that we see the supernatural side of things (and get our traditional modern supernatural horror movie this way) and then see what can easily be proven to non-believers. It’s a “look-at-it-this-way” scenario each time we cut back to the courtroom, and it really works.

Bruner represents the general moviegoer—someone who needs proof in order to believe in something. Father Moore assures her that “demons exist whether you believe in them or not,” and the further she dives deeper in this case, the more complicated things get. By the end of the film, she isn’t entirely a believer, but she has found herself open to more possibilities. This results in a remarkable, telling closing-statement that is so well-crafted, I found myself rewinding the film and listening to it several times. (I’m not kidding.)

Belief and proof do not always interconnect. There are differences between facts and possibilities. And what makes “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” special is that it stands by those two statements from beginning to end. That, plus the top-notch acting (especially from Linney and Carpenter), makes up for most of the film’s problems (such as the slow pacing and some standard horror tropes). The good outweighs the not-so-good here, and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is a film that I think more people should talk about. “Based on a true story”? You be the judge.

The Gotham Knights Event – Part One – All That’s Left (Short Film)

14 Sep

41650176_2119584691393507_4518168130668724224_n.png

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s been years since I reviewed a short film…here goes.

We’ve seen many incarnations of Batman the Dark Knight of DC Comics, from silly & campy to dark & complex. Then we get a chance to see fans (who are also micro-budget filmmakers) do their own take on it, creating a nonprofit fan-made web series called “Gotham Knights.”

Available on YouTube*, “Gotham Knights,” created by CK Helms and Timothy Drennan, is a slickly made, enjoyable series of short films centered around characters based on the DC Comics characters—Bruce Wayne (Batman), Dick Grayson (Robin), the Joker, the Red Hood, and more. Picking up where the series’ 4 previous shorts left off, we have Part One of a new story, titled “The Gotham Knights Event.” Batman has been missing for a couple of years, Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson are trying to live normal lives while struggling with grief, and the Joker has returned to Gotham. Those are the basic essentials for the story so far. Part One, titled “All That’s Left,” is merely a setup for something bigger to come. There isn’t much I can say about it, except to say whether or not it had me interested enough to want to see the rest of the oncoming series. And did it?

Thankfully, the answer is “Yes.” I enjoyed “All That’s Left,” though the element I enjoyed in particular was the actor playing the Joker: the film’s director himself, Timothy Drennan. When he’s first introduced here, there’s a quick moment in which he murders a henchman midway through playing friendly towards him—in that moment alone, Drennan captured the spirit of the Joker and carried it through the rest of the film. (I replayed that part repeatedly, I thought it was so funny.) Wherever the story goes from this point, I’m willing to follow.

Much of the film involves Dick (Ryan Mullins) and Barbara (Sarah Ring) as they discuss where they are in their own lives and how they can work together for the future. It’s not particularly interesting, but it’s only Part One; maybe it’ll get better. (Though, further considering the ending “All That’s Left” goes with, I can almost guarantee it will be more interesting, whether I know what happens or not.)

“Gotham Knights” is basically “Batman” with a small budget. There’s definitely passion put into each episode, and that passion continues with “The Gotham Knights Event.” It’s what makes the series interesting and fun to watch, and I’ll be interested to see what comes next, in Part Two…

*The Gotham Knights YouTube channel can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFiLCqpUd-3GlCb4cl4KhtQ

A Ghost Story (2017)

24 Aug

p04qh89p.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What was it I said in my 2017 Review post about David Lowery’s experimental supernatural-based film “A Ghost Story”?*

“I just didn’t get it. I know many critics are praising this film as one of the best of the year, and I admire what director David Lowery attempted to do with this untraditional “ghost story.” But it just didn’t do anything for me, except cause me to wonder, “I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie.” But I dunno, maybe I need to see it again…”

Oh, and see it again, I did…about five or six times. No joke—I checked out the DVD from my local library about five or six times, simply because…I wanted to see it again. Maybe “see it again” isn’t the right expression; “experience it again” is more appropriate for this film.

Here’s how it goes. Casey Affleck (“C”) and Rooney Mara (“M”) play a young couple living a comfortable life in rural Texas. Their relationship is rocky, as he’s an aspiring musician who is so wrapped up in his craft that he puts most things aside, including her. Before we even have much of a chance to get to know them, he dies in a car accident. After she identifies the body at the hospital, he rises in the very sheet he’s covered with. (Thus, the ghost spends the rest of the film looking like a child’s Halloween costume, complete with two oval-shaped holes for his eyes to see through.) From that point forward, the silent and unseen C goes on an existential journey, going back to the house where he watches as M grieves and tries to go on with her life and ultimately becomes witness to events that occur in the present, the future, and even the past. (We also get somewhat of an answer as to why ghosts tend to make a mess of things in haunted houses in horror movies.)

The first time I saw “A Ghost Story,” it threw me off. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, and I wasn’t sure writer-director Lowery was even sure of what he wanted his film to be. It’s a nontraditional ghost story that I think had something to say about existence and time, as it simply shows (with as little verbatim as possible) what a deceased person experiences in the afterlife. Even when I was watching it for the first time, I knew there were parts of it that were simply beautiful in effectively disturbing ways…then there were other parts that I thought could have been summed up a lot quicker than the film thinks we could understand. I mentioned in the aforementioned quote that “I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie”—that’s in reference to a scene in which Rooney Mara, playing a widow in mourning, sits alone on her kitchen floor and, in one unbroken take, eats a pie in real time. We get it—she’s grieving, expressed through stress-eating. But we’re stuck watching this scene go on and on to the point where instead of feeling the appropriate emotions for the character, all I’m thinking is…”I hope Rooney Mara truly enjoyed that pie.”

(Side-note: She apparently did not. Who could blame her? It was made of vegan chocolate, according to IMDb Trivia.)

But yes, critics did praise “A Ghost Story” as one of the best films of 2017. Having it given it a few more chances, I can definitely say I see why. The film is a unique experience. It’s perhaps a little too full of itself, but I can’t deny it’s still unforgettable. Maybe I was a little too fidgety when I first saw it and wasn’t ready for this small film to enthrall me with its intriguing vision of the mysteries of life and death (and after that). But now, I admit, albeit ambivalently perhaps, that “A Ghost Story” is one of a kind and worth recommending. (I can’t even work up the nerve to give a three-star rating, so three-and-a-half it is.)

Lowery apparently loves to take us on a neat ride, with many twists and turns as he takes us through time, whether it’s forward or backward. It’s to his credit as a filmmaker that breaking traditions in a film’s usual timeline is one of the important things that makes “A Ghost Story” all the more intriguing. More importantly, he’s also not afraid to challenge viewers to think about their own existence as well as existence in general. We don’t get any easy answers, but the questions are worth discussing about. (Though, I could’ve done without the scene in which a would-be philosopher practically spells out the basic theme of the film—that’s the one scene that seemed forced to me.)

Better late than never. I may have misunderstood “A Ghost Story” the first time around. Maybe I didn’t even want to understand it. Either way it goes, here’s my apology for my first viewing…and also my apology to you for never taking Smith’s Verdict seriously again.

*2017 Review: https://smithsverdict.com/2018/01/09/2017-review/

Black Panther (2018)

18 Aug

black-panther-alamo-drafthouse-advance-ticket-record-1079726-1280x0.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s no secret that “Black Panther” was going to be a big box-office hit. Ever since Chadwick Boseman’s African badass T’Challa clawed his way through “Captain America: Civil War,” fans were wondering when they would see him again in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Would they have to wait for “Avengers: Infinity War”? Nope. Along came director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (who made the excellent “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed”) to give them a stand-alone dramatic action-thriller, simply titled “Black Panther.” But what was it that kept movie theater audiences coming back to it?

The answer, I’m afraid, doesn’t warrant much of an analysis. Everyone knows it—it’s because “Black Panther” is REALLY freaking good.

What’s especially impressive is that the previous MCU entry was “Thor: Ragnarok,” which was overall a fun, silly comedy (standing out among the other MCU movies which are mostly serious with comedic elements) and mostly poked fun at itself. “Black Panther,” on the other hand, is played almost 100% straight. It has a goofy moment here or there (mostly having to do with one of the key villains, played by Andy Serkis), but even then, it’s not forced in an attempt to wake the audience up if they were getting too bored. (The humor mostly comes from the human-interest-like interactions among the characters.) “Black Panther” didn’t need forced comic relief to be “good”—it just had to be GOOD in order to be “good.”

But maybe “good” isn’t enough to completely get across how I feel about “Black Panther.” Let me put it this way—I’m a big fan of “Iron Man” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” my two favorite MCU movies, and I think “Black Panther” is every bit as good as those two (if not better).

“Black Panther” is more or less self-contained (though there are a couple slick callbacks to one or two MCU elements—don’t forget the usual after-credits scene). There’s no origin story to show us how this superhero, T’Challa/Black Panther (again played by Boseman), became who he is, but it is the story of an important time that allowed the character to understand the highs and lows of becoming who he is. It’s more or less a “real” story, with many twists and turns among conflicting issues and a few extra details delivered along the way. Oh, and there are some bombastic CGI blockbuster-appropriate battles too. The film has it all, it makes for a great time at the movies and one of my (and several moviegoers’) favorite films of the year so far.

What else does it have? In my opinion, it also has the best MCU villain by far. Let’s face it, Loki is fun, but he’s more of a clown that wants what he wants. And Michael Keaton’s Vulture (of “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) is sympathetic only to a point. But for “Black Panther,” we have Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, who’s becoming director Coogler’s trademark actor, having starred in “Fruitvale” and “Creed”). He has revenge on his mind and he’s a red-blooded killing machine, but when you learn more about him, you understand why he acts the way he does throughout the film. You see, Wakanda, where most of the key characters reside and T’Challa is ascending to the throne, is a hidden, independent African nation with many secrets that could benefit the rest of the world, including the most highly advanced technology that assists Black Panther and his companions, such as scientist sister Shuri (the scene-stealing Letitia Wright), superspy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira), on their missions. Killmonger is appalled that Wakanda’s leaders keep the nation’s magnificence to itself when its resources could help thousands of millions of people in need or maybe even the entire population of the world.

The guy isn’t someone you want to mess with and at times, he needs to be taken down. But there’s also more to him than what I’ve already said about him, and by the end, he’s the best villain because he wants different things for complex reasons and will take drastic measures in order to do so.

And that’s what makes the best MCU movies so great (I’m moving away from the word “good” this time). In “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” a hero who wants to do good is conflicted because the answers aren’t so easy. In “Black Panther,” T’Challa learns that same lesson, but there’s also more for him to learn, because he’s become King. He learns the hard way that the most difficult task in ruling a nation is to also be a good person. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Everything leads up to a huge battle between T’Challa’s loyal subjects and Killmonger’s growing army. It’s a lot of fun and visually pleasing, but…come on, we already knew that was going to be the case. But I won’t fault it for being done well either.

What have I left out? Two things. One is, the rest of the supporting cast is spectacular, including Forest Whitaker as T’Challa’s wise uncle Zuri, Angela Bassett as T’Challa’s mother Queen Ramonda, Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi, Martin Freeman as a trustworthy CIA agent who gets in on the action eventually, and Andy Serkis hamming it up as unethical mercenary Ulysses Klaue. The whole ensemble cast is especially incredible. The other is, Wakanda itself. Just when I think there’s no other visually-pleasing cinematic world to take me to, I marvel (forgive the pun) at the attention to detail given to this otherworldly place. Wakanda may join Hogwarts and Middle Earth as the great movie locales of the 21st century.

We all knew “Black Panther” was going to be good, but I’m not entirely sure we knew it was going to be THIS good. And yet, here we are. And we keep coming back to it after it graced us with its presence on DVD/Blu-Ray, and the year isn’t over yet! I’m certain people will still talk about it at the end of the year and maybe even after that. I know I will.

Gerald’s Game (2017)

14 Aug

geralds-game-2017.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

2017 was undoubtedly a banner year for Stephen King in terms of media adaptations based on some of his works. Within just a couple of months (August 2017 to October 2017), there was a solid TV series based on his novel “Mr. Mercedes” (part of a trilogy, with a second season based on the second novel “Finders Keepers” getting a release), the cinematic version of his “It” became one of the highest grossing horror films of all time, and there were two other gripping King adaptations released exclusively to Netflix: “1922” (based on a King short story) and “Gerald’s Game.” One has to wonder what King did with his residual checks, but it’s good to know he has little reason to be ashamed (for the most part).**

“Gerald’s Game,” the subject of this review, is based on King’s 1992 novel with an interesting hook: a survival-thriller/character-study about a woman who is handcuffed to a bed in an isolated cabin…and is still bound when her husband suddenly dies of a heart attack. The admittedly-thin premise becomes a great conduit for terror and survival, but the novel is more about character than about horror. Who can come in to bring more humanity and depth to what would otherwise be a passable (but not particularly special) thriller? Mike Flanagan, the director of a tragic disintegrating family drama disguised as a supernatural thriller (“Oculus”), the prequel nobody wanted but became a well-crafted horror film with believable characters (“Ouija: Origin of Evil”), and a brilliant home-invasion thriller with unexpected twists (“Hush”).

Mike Flanagan is the best director working in the horror film genre recently, because he knows how to draw in an audience and keep them on-edge while treating them with respect. His films are chilling for all the right reasons. And that includes “Gerald’s Game,” which is faithful to its source material, and more.

As I mentioned, the central character, a woman named Jessie (Carla Gugino), spends most of the story handcuffed to a bed. This was part of a kinky sex game her husband Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) wanted to play with her at their remote vacation house, and it’s quite disturbing when the game consists of imagining rape with a captive. Jessie isn’t too eager to play, but she’s already tied to the bedposts when she calls out her husband on how sick his fantasy is. The married couple has already had problems before, and this role-playing game doesn’t make matters any better. Jessie demands Gerald unlock the cuffs, Gerald refuses…and then Gerald has a heart attack and dies. (Whoops.)

With no way of calling out for help and no one in the area plus a rabid stray dog that comes in the house to take bites out of Gerald’s corpse, Jessie is stuck on the bed, alone with her own thoughts as she tries to figure out how she’s going to get out of this predicament (if she ever does). Much of the novel is told through inner monologue and memory—how does Flanagan handle the delivery of exposition? By having Jessie partake in hallucinatory conversations with imaginary versions of Gerald and herself—these two sort of play as Jessie’s devil (Gerald) and angel (a stronger version of herself) on her shoulders, if you will. It’s an interesting move that’s played very effectively, and it also helps give more insight into Jessie’s thought process.

We get some good chilling moments of t&t (tension & terror) from the idea of the hungry meat-eating dog coming and going as he pleases to the possibility that there may actually be somebody coming into the house at night and not just another hallucination Jessie is imagining. And we also get compelling moments of survival that rival moments from “127 Hours” and “Buried” (two other movies in which a character is stuck in one place for a long period of time), such as how she manages to get drinks from a cup of water left on a shelf above the bed. But more importantly, “Gerald’s Game” works brilliantly as a character study. We get a well-rounded portrait of Jessie, not just with fantasy conversations with manifestations of her fear and her strength but also with flashbacks that reveal the origins of her guilt and her mental bindings. These scenes involve Jessie’s father (played by a surprisingly chilling Henry Thomas), who does something more chilling and disturbing than anything the flesh-eating dog does in this film. With his other films, Flanagan has always shown how important his characters are while also remembering he’s still making horror films, and with “Gerald’s Game,” he knows how important King’s characters are as well.

The acting is top-notch. Carla Gugino is excellent as Jessie. She captures the weight of the situation her character feels throughout the film, and she’s able to play with different emotions she goes through, from fear to sadness to relief, among others. We like Jessie, sympathize with her, and root for her when she attempts the inevitable escape. But I can’t leave out Bruce Greenwood, who has an arguably trickier role—he not only has to play Gerald but he also has to play Jessie’s exaggerated version of Gerald.

There’s a 10-minute epilogue that ties up all loose ends in the film. In the novel, this took about 50 pages to wrap up and is considered to be some of King’s least successful writings. Seeing the film for the first time on Netflix, I thought the final 10 minutes was unnecessary. But seeing it again, I realized it was absolutely necessary. It gave Jessie the redemption she (and to an extent, we) needed after going through her own personal hell, and it made the film overall less of a standard horror film and more of an appreciated character drama.

Mike Flanagan knows what he’s doing. With “Oculus,” “Hush,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “Before I Wake,” and “Gerald’s Game,” he’s already made five effectively solid horror films. Let’s hope for five more, because he knows what it takes to make us fear and, more importantly, he also knows what it takes to make us care. “Gerald’s Game” is probably his most accomplished work; Stephen King should be proud.

**Yes, there was also the badly publicized “Dark Tower” movie released in cinemas before any of those other projects. Why bring up the negatives when there were many positives

Don Jon (2013)

12 Aug

donjon.jpg

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

A man is addicted to porn. A woman is addicted to romance films. They go out together. But it doesn’t last. Not because one addiction gets in the way. But because both addictions don’t serve them well. The message of the film “Don Jon,” written and directed by (and starring) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is that one-sided relationships lead to unhappiness.

And that’s the big surprise about the film that continued to impress me with repeated viewings: its ability to portray addiction in a way that affects romantic relationships. Addiction to anything can overwhelm someone’s life, but it can also impede on a promising relationship. “Don Jon” is a comedy, and it is a funny movie, to be sure. But its heavier aspects, while subdued, are more relevant to keep filmgoers coming back to it.

The film’s protagonist is Jon (Gordon-Levitt), a regular working-class New Jersey “guy’s guy”—works out, hangs out with his bros (Rob Brown & Jeremy Luc), and is all about the one-night stands, hooking up with random chicks he meets at the bar. But, as he explains in voiceover narration, even though he gets plenty of action from picking up random women nearly every night, nothing excites him more than climaxing while watching online pornographic videos. He loses himself in Internet porn because he can’t lose himself in real-life hookups, and so he can’t bring himself to any sort of commitment with any woman.

Jon has a pattern he repeats throughout his young-adult life that’s changed when he finds himself in an actual relationship, with a gorgeous blonde named Barbara (played by Scarlett Johansson). (Every other girl he picks up is either an “8” or a “9,” whereas Barbara is a “10,” or a “dime.”) She’s a Jersey goddess who could make any man’s dream come true, once said-man has cracked her tough shell. She teases Jon and promises a lot but keeps things on hold, thus giving Jon more of a challenge—one that makes him more active in attempts to please her. But as the relationship continues, Jon realizes more and more how unhealthy it is. Sex with her is disappointing, because there’s still something missing. It’s also abundantly clear that just as Don is addicted to a fantasy world given to him by porn, Barbara is addicted to a fantasy world given to her by theatrical romances. Both addictions give them different visions for ideal partners, which is what Jon ultimately realizes, thanks to encounters with Esther (Julianne Moore), an older classmate at a local community college. She’s more experienced in life and in romantic relationships and is able to let Jon know a thing or two.

“Don Jon” is a dark comedy with important matters to address when it isn’t making us laugh. It has quite a few things to say about the shallow ways men attempt (or even don’t bother to attempt) ways to relate to women, and vice versa, and there are things that are said about how different forms of entertainment can mold someone’s way of thinking toward the opposite sex. Therein lies the problem with Jon and Barbara’s relationship—they don’t know a thing about how to really relate to someone romantically; they’re both getting their imaginations from something that does not come from a real place (for Jon, it’s porn; for Barbara, it’s Hollywood writing). That’s what makes Jon’s friendship with Esther, which develops into something more as the film continues, all the more special, because Jon is learning more about what it really means to connect with somebody personally, which a lot of people will say is the ultimate key to any working relationship. (Esther even warns Jon at one point, after spying him watching porn on his phone in class, that the activity he watches isn’t real.)

(By the way, if you’re wondering, yes, there are bits and pieces of Internet porn videos scattered throughout the film, which do contain nudity. The film is rated R, so there isn’t much pornographic activity that would supply an NC-17. Even this plays an interesting role—in order to further the point that porn is nothing like the way things are in real life, the physical activity between the actors is more subdued, meaning not much revealed skin.)

Oh, and there’s also a subplot including Jon’s family, such as his overbearing father (Tony Danza) and shrill mother (Glenne Headly)—these two are funny but not very necessary, in my opinion. (I don’t think we need to be shown that Jon gets his chauvinism from the way his parents relate to one another.) But out of those scenes comes an effective mike-drop of a resolution for Jon’s sister (Brie Larson), who spends most of her screen time playing with her cellphone silently. She’s the Quiet Observer, not unlike Silent Bob in Kevin Smith’s films, who speaks only when the protagonist needs to hear something very important. When her time comes, it’s wonderful.

Gordon-Levitt, already proven to be a fully capable actor, proves with “Don Jon” to also be a fully capable writer/director. The way he shapes the story is effective, even in the ways he shows how repetitive his character’s life is in early-to-mid stages of the film (the concept of “routine” isn’t always successful in other movies). He also has an ear for the way people talk and communicate with one another, whether personal or casual, making for some really good dialogue for his actors (and himself) to deliver. And of course, he delivers a great performance in a role that could’ve easily been detestable.

In the end, Jon learns how to lose himself in someone he actually wants to share a deep connection with (and who actually wants to do the same with him). And it’s taught in a way that a lot of people could learn from as well, particularly those who are merely obsessed with “image.” Best of all, it doesn’t feel artificial or forced—despite the film’s quick pace, there are still ways for Gordon-Levitt to find ways for story aspects to occur more or less naturally. Small flaws be damned (I already mentioned how Jon’s parents’ scenes didn’t really work for me), “Don Jon” is a terrific film.