Archive | July, 2015

It Follows (2015)

26 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

How do I begin writing this review? There are three different ways I can think of in writing an introductory paragraph, so I think I’ll go with all of them. Here goes:

Intro Paragraph #1 (The Description of the “It”): It is a curse that can passed along from person to person through sexual intercourse. It is an entity visible only to those who possess the curse. It moves slowly. It will follow you. It can look like other people, even people you know. It will kill you and it will never stop until it does. If it does kill you, it moves back toward the previous holder of the curse. To be rid of it is to have sex with somebody else and pass it on.

Intro Paragraph #2 (The Daydream): Carefree college student Jay Height has just had sex in the car of her date. She can’t help but express herself by stating a daydream she used to have when she was younger and wishing she was old enough to go out on dates and have the perfect guy by her side. She feels like she’s finally an adult and still feels like her whole life is ahead of her. But her date interrupts her by chloroforming her, tying her to a wheelchair, and scaring her by telling the truth about a horrific curse that will follow her until she sleeps with someone else.

(Each of these two Intro Paragraphs would have continued with explanations of allegorical statement. For example, the “It” could obviously symbolize a sexually-transmitted disease, death, sexual anxieties, or all of the above. And Jay could be learning the hard way that with being an adult comes accepting responsibility, no matter how scary it might be.)

Intro Paragraph #3 (The Negatives): I like this film so much that I’ll get the negatives out of the way first (or in this case, third). There are times early into the film that fake us out too much—the music will build up in one shot and then cut off in the next shot, showing that everything is fine. The film risks losing the suspense by doing that. While the symbolism is mostly well-handled and fascinating, some of it can be a little too obvious. For example, one of the main character’s friends does nothing except quote “The Idiot” from her…compact Kindle case (what was that thing anyway?). I get it already—it’s about the imminence of death. And midway through the film, when the heroine and her friends find the guy responsible for the deadly curse that’s stalking her, they calmly sit down and talk. I should be glad that there are no shouting matches and he lets them know rationally what’s going on and what can be done, but wouldn’t acting accordingly be justified here? And the young characters make about three trips to the hospital—where the hell are their parents?!

OK, now that that’s all out of the way, let’s talk about “It Follows.”

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell (whose previous film was the wonderful, underrated indie gem, “The Myth of the American Sleepover”), “It Follows” is the best horror film I’ve seen in a long time, recalling what truly makes an effective scary movie scary—slow buildup with suspense; a creepy, unknown monster; moody cinematography; likable characters you want to see live; and an eerie (dare I say, memorable) soundtrack. The film it reminds me of most, in terms of tone rather than narrative, is John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” There are echoes of Carpenter all through “It Follows,” and in this day and age with first-person/found-footage gimmicks and jump-scares and such, that’s welcome in my theater.

Mitchell slowly but surely eases us into something truly scary, as his lead character, carefree college student Jay Height (Maika Monroe), has sex with a seemingly nice guy and then is suddenly in possession of “It.” He lets her know how relentless (and invisible) it is while also explaining the rules of how to avoid it and get rid of it. Surely enough, there is a supernatural stalker following her, and though her friends, including a nice boy named Paul (Keir Gilchrist) who has a crush on her, don’t necessarily believe her at first, they can tell she’s freaked out about something and oblige her by helping fight off whatever’s coming her way.

Mitchell clearly remembers that sex in horror films doesn’t end well for anyone unless they’re fully aware of the danger outside. The film doesn’t dwell too much on that notion of sex equaling death, because it’s not that kind of movie. It’s a movie that wants to scare us and relies on scary imagery and building tension to take us on a rollercoaster ride, and thankfully, he remembers that he can allow to relax at times instead of trying to jump-scare us every couple minutes or less. Mitchell also remembers how unnerving it can be for an oncoming, relentless entity to move slowly. It can be very chilling when someone or something isn’t very fast but surely isn’t giving up. The sense of approaching terror is apparent all throughout this film.

Another smart move is not to explain the origins of “It.” The film establishes rules and takes it from there so that the most important thing for our characters is to survive it. That’s much more effective than knowing where this thing comes from or even what can kill it. And while we’re on the subject, readers who have seen this movie will wonder what I think of the climax involving a naïve plan to destroy “It.” People complain about how the characters should have known better, seeing as how they shoot it in the head at one point and it only mildly affects it. But I say this: at least they tried something, okay? Besides, the climax is fun.

Maika Monroe is wonderful as Jay. She creates a horror-movie heroine worthy of “following,” if you will. You can feel her fear and misery. Her friends are mostly unknowns, though I recognize Keir Gilchrist from “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” and that also works in the film’s favor. They portray likable characters we hope to see get through one situation after another. Even the character of Greg, played by Daniel Zovatto, would seem like an unlikable jackass in another horror movie, but even he feels likable and real. I won’t go as far as to say they’re all complex characters, but compared to the one-dimensional detestable pawns we see in most modern horror movies, they’re delightful to watch.

“It Follows” is not what I would call a standard horror film. There are far too many symbolic elements, hidden meanings, and even scenes that are quiet (remember those?) for it to be labeled as “standard.” I saw it as a fun, visceral thrill ride the first time I saw it. The second time, I started to notice something deeper within the subtext, whether that was what Mitchell was intentionally going for or not; of that I’m not sure, but his restrained tone would leave me to believe anything.

In fact, just as I’m writing this review and I’m thinking about my question about the kids’ parents, I have to wonder if Mitchell’s intention was to show how the world of youth is dangerous and facing it makes you more of an adult. I wonder…

The main thing to take from this movie is that death is around us and won’t stop. It can be slowed down for a while, but eventually, it will grab hold of us and won’t let go. That’s what I get from the film’s ambiguous ending, which is so low-key and downbeat that it managed to get under my skin and stay there, leading me to believe “It Follows” was something more than just a horror film. It scared me, delighted me in doing so, and even got me thinking, which is more than I can say for most modern horror films.

The Guest (2014)

21 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As “The Guest” begins, David arrives unexpectedly on the doorstep of the Peterson family. He announces himself as a friend of the parents’ eldest son. They served together in combat. The son had been killed in combat. This stranger is polite, possesses good manners, speaks softly, and tells the grieving family that he’s here to look out for them. They let him in. He earns their trust. They welcome him into their home to stay for a while.

All of this happens within 24 hours, and it may sound hurried and a little too trusting. But if you encountered this guy, played brilliantly by Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” fame, you’d immediately trust him too or at least want to get to know him. He’s so confident, calm, and quietly funny; he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind sharing a drink with at a bar. It’s to Stevens’ credit that he’s able to deliver that balance of “trusting” and “dangerous.” (And I also give him props for not leaving a trace of his British accent, as he sports a Kentucky accent in this movie.) I say this because once you have gotten to spend more time with him, you can tell there’s something a little off about him. Nowhere is that clearer than when you first see him alone in a room, as his assuring grin turns into a terrifying glare.

There has to be someone in the movie who notices this too, right? Well, the parents (Sheila Kelley and Leland Orser) are so grief-stricken, they’ll easily accept a friend of their late son as friendly. The teenage son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), idolizes him after he protects him from some bullies. That leaves the teenage daughter, Anna (Maika Monroe), to become suspicious. (Though, at first, she fights her own suspicions, as one would before things are all too noticeable.) She gets a clue that he’s not who he says he is and follows that lead to figure out his true story.

“The Guest” can be seen as a predictable thriller-horror flick, as you know David’s nature is secretly violent and his true colors will show by the end of the middle act, and you also know which characters are most likely going to die. But surprisingly, there are a lot of things about it that make it entertaining, thrilling, and memorable, so that it’s not your typical slasher flick. One is Dan Stevens, who’s just great here as a strong blend of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider and the Terminator; he has the compelling screen presence that goes beyond playing the perfect British gentleman on “Downton Abbey.” He’s charming in some scenes, badass in others, and sometimes even both. Another is the direction of Adam Wingard and the screenplay by Simon Barrett (both Wingard and Barrett previously collaborated on the horror send-up, “You’re Next,” a couple years ago). The whole film serves as somewhat of a genre tribute, having fun with callbacks to action flicks, horror films, and political thrillers, and also because it has a sense of humor. But at the same time, it’s not self-indulging or even referencing other films blatantly—it has its own identity; some scenes, I could see as moving the film toward cult-movie status. The filmmakers are clearly having fun with this film, especially in the final half. After building up the tension and introducing the characters with a steady pace, all hell breaks loose as they’re thrust into a fun lengthy climax of violent mayhem. Military police are involved, bullets fly, the body count rises, there’s a bloody encounter at a restaurant, and best of all, there’s a climactic chase in a Halloween funhouse maze.

It also helps that the characters are developed in a convincing way. When Anna and Luke are in danger, I fear for their lives because I got to know them and care for them. Both Maika Monroe and Brendan Meyer deliver great work here.

Overall, “The Guest” is a lot of fun. Even when I can find things to dislike about the film, I find they strangely work in its favor. Sometimes it’s silly, sometimes it’s scary, and mostly it’s flat-out entertaining.

Inside Out (2015)

8 Jul


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

The new collaboration between Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, Inside Out, is an endearing, intelligently-written comedy-drama with candy-colored imagination. While Disney-Pixar has been stuck in a bit of a rut in the past few years with mediocre films such as Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University, Inside Out reminds us of the collaborative strengths that made their earlier films, such as the Toy Story movies and Up, special. These are films children love because of their fun, memorable characters, colors, and engaging stories with themes complex enough to keep adults interested. Inside Out belongs in that same category.

Brilliant. Bright. Funny. Imaginative. Profound. Moving. Sometimes sad. All of these adjectives can be used to describe the power of Inside Out, which is easily one of the best films of 2015.

Despite the bright colors, artistic settings, and delightfully varied characters, Inside Out may be somewhat of a hard sell for the smallest of children. This is arguably a more meaningful film than any of Disney-Pixar’s previous works, heading deep into psychological regions. The adventure takes place in the human mind and the central characters are emotions—by making it this way, the film explores complex themes of personality.

Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) is an ordinary 11-year-old girl who is forced to move with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) from Minnesota to California because of a new job opportunity. She wants to make the best out of this situation, but it only gets worse as the moving truck is lost, the house is a dirty mess, the nearby pizzeria has only one topping (broccoli), and she has trouble fitting in at her new school. It’s difficult for her to be cheerful and upbeat as she misses her friends, her old house, and her hockey team. We see Riley’s world through the emotions in her head, which is where much of the film’s story is told. We meet Joy (Amy Poehler), our green-colored (each emotion has a different color) narrator and Riley’s chief emotion who keeps the other emotions in check so that Riley is consistently happy. The other primary emotions are blue Sadness (Phyllis Smith), purple Fear (Bill Hader), red Anger (Lewis Black), and green Disgust (Mindy Kaling). They run the Control Room inside Riley’s mind, which allows them to see what she sees and for her to feel what they feel. Memories are created and stored in collections of glass spheres, whether they’re short-term, long-term, or forgotten entirely. And there are also theme parks connected with one another, with the themes being dreams, nightmares, her favorite sport (hockey), imagination, and so on. It’s amazing to see how this “world” inside a person’s head works. There’s a dark abyss where forgotten memories are stored and eventually fade away, a dream-land that resembles a Hollywood studio where actors act out Riley’s dreams and nightmares, and all sorts of inventive components.

Something goes wrong, as Joy and Sadness are accidentally ejected from the Control Room. With Fear, Anger, and Disgust in charge, Riley, on the outside, snaps at her parents, fears attempts at making new friends, and even considers running away, while Joy and Sadness go on a quest through the craziness of Riley’s subconscious in order for Joy to regain control. They encounter many strange things along the way, including abstractness, fears, daydreams, and even a forgotten imaginary friend, named Bing Bong (Richard Kind).

The film shows complication and difficulty in adjusting and other psychological issues in a way that’s basic but also important and relatable. Some little kids may wonder why some of Riley’s worlds such as Hockey Land or Friendship Land are deteriorating, but adults will understand what Riley is going through and what everything on this journey means. With Joy and Sadness gone, Riley’s personality is shutting down, causing her to lose sense of the bright side of life and what it means to express herself. Even her associated memories are fading, adding more depth to the situation. But even if it all goes over kids’ heads, and they’ll understand it more as they get older, they’ll at least get a kick out of the film’s overall visuals.

There’s a fascinating dynamic between Joy and Sadness. Joy wants nothing more than for Riley to be happy. Sadness knows nothing but sadness and also has a Midas-like touch, so that every one of Riley’s memories she touches turns blue and sad. But in order to get back to the Control Room, they have to work together. I wouldn’t dare give away how, but something occurs to Joy later in the film about how much Sadness is needed. This leads to a wonderful conclusion that delivers a message about how we can’t always have our happy ending and we just have to deal with what we have rather than what we don’t and it’s important to express yourself. That’s a message you rarely find in especially family films. I applaud this movie for not taking the easy way out.

But the film isn’t so dark that its target audience won’t be turned off (after all, films don’t always have to be dark to be deep). There are some laughs to be had as well, such as long-term memories being trashed (such as piano lessons, with the exception of “Chopsticks” and “Heart and Soul,” of course) and brief visits inside the minds of others, including Riley’s parents. (By the way, the biggest laugh I got from this movie is when Riley encounters a boy near the end, and we see what goes on inside his head.)

With the perfect balance of comedy and drama, wonderful computer animation, amazing visuals, and a script that knows more about the subconscious than one might expect from seeing the film’s trailer, Inside Out is an instant classic, the best animated film to come around in a long time, and one of Disney-Pixar’s absolute finest.