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A Quiet Place (2018)

28 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Horror films can generate effective scares with ominous music & dialogue…but a horror film like John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” is one that reminds me how easy that can be. What’s tricky is building suspense and creating thrills through visual storytelling. “A Quiet Place” manages to pull it off, and it’s one of the best horror films in recent memory. (And even though we’ve had many terrific horror films in the past couple years, one of which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, I don’t think I’ll call that “hyperbole.”)

“A Quiet Place” is centered on one family: the Abbotts (Krasinski as dad, Emily Blunt as mom, Millicent Simmons as daughter, Noah Jupe as son). They’re one of the few families that are still surviving the aftermath of some sort of alien invasion, even as many of the otherworldly creatures still stalk the earth. Life as they know it has ceased to exist for a long, long time, and they rely on two things in order to survive—one is each other, but the most important is complete silence. You see, these things attack at the slightest loud noise, and being that they’re still in their area (and even killed off another family member in a creepy prologue), living in silence is the best way to maintain survival.

We don’t see the attack—the film begins on “Day 89,” after it. We’re not even entirely sure as to how it happened. (Though, we do get some imagery such as newspaper headlines to give us a few clues here or there.) We just know it’s not as important as what survivors have to do next. These unfriendly beings took over our world, and our main characters just have to deal with it. That’s a neat hook, and it’s interesting to see how people in this new world get through their daily routines with almost total quietness. (They also communicate through sign language, as the daughter is already deaf—that detail itself raises suspense as she wouldn’t be able to hear a noise she herself may cause.) Things start to get even more dangerous when the expecting mother is about to have a new child, and everything has to be set in order to protect the family during the delivery. But no matter what they do, danger still comes for them…

The tone and atmosphere play an enormous role in the film’s success. The quiet in this film is practically deafening; it made me realize how claustrophobic it can make someone feel. When a loud noise finally comes up, you’re instantly on-edge because you can’t shake the feeling that something terrible is about to happen… Krasinski proves to be a masterful director in how he can rely on visual storytelling to keep the audience engaged and on the edges of their seats, and he uses the simplest methods to keep us invested. (One particular setup involves a nail…you know what that’s going to lead to, even if you don’t know when it will pay off.)

An obvious comparison is M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs,” which also featured an alien attack from the perspective of one rural family in a farm setting. But with this particular family trying to find ways to keep quiet while trying to stay together, you can’t deny they have more complications to encounter in this particular case.

The gripes I have with “A Quiet Place” are mere nitpicks. While the sound design is carefully controlled for the most part, it’s when Marco Beltrami’s musical score kicks into gear during certain scenes that the effect those scenes could’ve gotten are somewhat lost in translation. And while I give credit to Krasinski for not dwelling on early long shots of the creatures, which are CG spider-like beasts, I wish he could’ve continued that “less-is-more” technique in the climax. And for a film that does so well in relying on silence to scare us, it still couldn’t resist a few jump-scare moments here or there, unfortunately.

But I can’t let little things like that get in the way of how I ultimately feel about “A Quiet Place.” It’s a gripping, compelling, scary, well-acted, wonderfully-shot chiller. It’s a terrific exercise in quieting down and using understated terror methods to get a reaction from us. And…yikes, that nail…

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Juliet, Naked (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Juliet, Naked”—awkward title; doesn’t really demand to be projected on a marquee of your local cinema, does it? (There are other jokes I could’ve made about the title, but let’s just move on to the review.)

“Juliet, Naked” is based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name, directed by Jesse Peretz (“Girls”), and features three brilliant comic performances from Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, and Chris O’Dowd as three of the most offbeat, neurotically insane movie characters of 2018. (That last part is truly what makes me recommend this film—I admittedly haven’t read Hornby’s novel nor have I seen Peretz’s previous accomplishments, though if they’re as witty and sharp as what’s presented in “Juliet, Naked” (or other film adaptations of Hornby’s work, like “High Fidelity” or “About a Boy”), that counts for something.) It’s a winning, charming romantic comedy with three characters heading in different directions in life—one wants something more than what she has, one tries again and again to connect with other people, and the other is content with where he is.

That first person is Annie (Rose Byrne delivering some of her best work). She’s quiet, sweet, and tolerates her boyfriend Duncan with whom she has lived for 15 years…even though his true love is actually (and not so secretly) the life and music of the mysterious musician Tucker Crowe. She becomes more resentful of her time with Duncan because she feels like there are more chances out there that she could take.

The second person is Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke). He’s a singer-songwriter who was moderately popular in the early 1990s before he mysteriously (and suddenly) vanished. He’s become a legend for all obsessed fans of his music, most of whom come together to visit a fanmade website that is devoted to all things related to Tucker Crowe (complete with absurd theories about where he is now).

And the third…is the blogger who created the site: Duncan (Chris O’Dowd), a college professor. As stated before with Annie, he cares about very little apart from Tucker Crowe. Either Annie has the patience of a saint or Duncan’s never going to stop to smell the roses and count his blessings—either way, Duncan’s pretty obnoxious about his obsession with either Tucker Crowe’s music or the sound of Tucker Crowe’s voice. (Side-note: Tucker Crowe’s music is hardly an important factor here…though, what little we hear of the music sounds like hardly anything other than easygoing alt-pop sounds.) Duncan is the least realized character of the three in this film, but at least O’Dowd is solid and funny in the role. (Additional side-note: stay through the credits for a hilarious payoff.)

In “Juliet, Naked,” someone sends Duncan a CD titled “Juliet, Naked,” which turns out to be an undiscovered demo filled with unfinished versions of the songs that would end up in Tucker Crowe’s most infamous album, “Juliet.” (There—now you have an explanation for the title.) Annie finds it first and listens to it, much to the dismay of Duncan. She posts a very negative review of the CD on Duncan’s site, which results in a surprising email response from Tucker Crowe himself, saying she “got it right.” So, unbeknownst to Duncan, Annie and Tucker Crowe correspond through email and get to know each other’s awkward secrets before they decide to meet in person. Among the secrets of the life of Tucker Crowe: he lives in his ex-wife’s garage, he has more than one ex, and he has several children scattered throughout the world, thus indicating that he’s trying to rearrange many aspects of his life that don’t involve music.

I won’t dare reveal what happens when Duncan ultimately (and inevitably) meets his long-time idol for the first time…what you might be thinking in your head may be funnier than what actually occurs, but it’s still just as awkward and funny, I assure you.

What makes “Juliet, Naked” work are the flawed characters (played wonderfully by all three actors—and there’s also Lily Brazier in a funny side-role as Annie’s lesbian sister) and the writing behind them (originated from Nick Hornby and adapted by Evgenia Peretz, Jim Taylor, and Tamara Jenkins). Where it truly shines is the low-key romance that slowly develops between Annie and Tucker, who are two flawed people trying to get their lives sorted out.

Another thing I want to comment upon is the use of improvisation. This is an Apatow-produced romantic comedy—many films produced by Judd Apatow tend to stall during numerous scenes of heavy improvisation from actors who aren’t given much control and are almost desperate for laughs. But with “Juliet, Naked,” the laughs come from a witty script and the improvs feel (gasp!) NATURAL. (I turn back to the scene in which Tucker and Duncan meet for example.) It doesn’t feel forced in the slightest, and I admire the film (and the actors’ abilities) for that.

“Juliet, Naked” is a carefully observed romantic comedy about people who are getting older, don’t know where they’re going in the future, and need help, whether they know it or not. Sometimes, it’s sweet (without being sugary). Sometimes, it’s funny (without being mean). And overall, it’s a little film with more heart than a title like “Juliet, Naked” would make anyone think.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

5 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I remember seeing John Landis’ “An American Werewolf in London” on VHS when I was 16. I remember being so mad at the way it ended that I told myself I didn’t like the movie…and then, shortly after that, I bought the DVD and a T-shirt with “BEWARE THE MOON” (a line from the movie) sewn onto it. Yet, I was still convinced I didn’t like the movie…which is why I watched it countless times since then?

It took longer than I’m proud to admit for me to realize I did like the movie…I just didn’t like the ending.

“An American Werewolf in London” is a horror film with a sharp satirical sense of humor that makes for some uncomfortably funny moments. It begins with two American college students—David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne)—being dropped off in English country with a truckload of sheep…considering everything that happens to these two, I won’t even call this “subtle” foreshadowing.

David and Jack reach a local pub (called The Slaughtered Lamb) in a small village, a place that already seems disconcerting without the angry glares from the patrons and the barmaid. Before they leave, they’re warned to keep walking on the roads, stay off the moors, and “beware the moon.” Well, it’s a full moon out that night, and they ignore the warning and walk away from the road…and that’s when they are attacked by a ferocious creature in the dark.

Jack is killed, while David is hospitalized in London after being mauled by the creature. But the problem is no one, not even the police, believes his story that it was a large wolf that attacked them, since it was the corpse of a man that was uncovered at the scene of the crime, not a monster. While David is recovering from his injuries, he suffers a series of strange, harrowing nightmares, all of which involve him attacking animals and eating them (among other horrific details). But things get even stranger when Jack, now a decomposing corpse walking in limbo as one of the undead, visits David and warns him that he is becoming a werewolf. It was a werewolf that killed Jack and merely mauled David, and now, the curse has been passed on to David. If David doesn’t kill himself before the next full moon, he will become a monster and kill people.

It turns out Jack was right (of course), and on the next night of the full moon, David transforms into a werewolf and goes on a rampage. What everyone remembers from “An American Werewolf in London” is the transformation sequence, which shows the painful process of becoming the wolf-like creature. Makeup-artist/creature-creator Rick Baker supervised the effects, working with the makeup and prosthetics, and the result is not only effective but also one of the most amazing, memorable, lasting moments of its kind I’ve ever seen in any movie of its sort. (Baker won the Oscar for Best Makeup for this film, becoming the first winner for the category that was new at the time.) Carefully chosen cinematography and effective acting from Naughton make you feel the pain and suffering David is going through as his body goes through slow, numerous changes before ultimately becoming the American Werewolf in London.

“An American Werewolf in London” works well as a horror film, not only because of its effectively done scary set pieces (such as the boys’ first werewolf attack or a later attack in a Subway station) but also because we care for the character of David and feel sorry for him while he’s in this uncontrollable situation. But it also works as a black comedy, thanks to director Landis (who’s known for outrageous comedies like “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers”) who inserts many nice elements that are fun to laugh at. The most memorable and relevant of such elements comes with the character of Jack, who after his death visits David three times. Even though he looks worse and worse with each visit, as his body is slowly wasting away, Jack maintains the persona of a perky college student that makes for great comic relief.

Something else that keeps the rooting interest of the film going is a nice little romance between David and his nurse, Alex (Jenny Agutter), who takes him in after David leaves the hospital. It’s sweet without being sugary, and you feel the attraction between the two. Much of the reason we want David to find some way to get through the curse is because we know Alex feels deeply for him. And then there’s David’s doctor, Dr. Hirsch (well-played by John Woodvine), who discovers there may be more to David’s story than he initially thought and does his own investigating. This subplot would be uninteresting if the part wasn’t played by an interesting actor who helps keep the film grounded in reality.

OK…let’s talk a little about the ending. Without giving away what happens, I still don’t like it. I feel like the film does so well, right up until this final minute or so. It feels so anticlimactic that it made me wonder why I spent so much time leading up to it. It let me down with how abrupt it was. But the more I thought about it (and I’ve watched this film several times), I might give the film a little bit of credit that there might not have been any other way it could’ve resolved itself…but I don’t know if I can forgive the film for immediately cutting straight to the credits with an upbeat pop song that tried to make me forget the utterly dire resolution I was just subjected to!

However, I can’t let something like that get in the way of the delightful horror-comedy I enjoyed for years (even if many of those years were spent in much denial). “An American Werewolf in London” is very well-made, contains Landis’ trademark blend of lightheartedness and weightiness, and may just be the best “werewolf movie” I’ve had the pleasure of seeing.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

21 Sep

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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.

A Ghost Story (2017)

24 Aug

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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/

Gerald’s Game (2017)

14 Aug

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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

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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.