It Comes at Night (**1/2): And…?

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It Comes At Night – 2017

Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Starring Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keogh, David Pendleton

It’s been a long time since I have been drawn into a film like this. The lens has a romance with the images portrayed to the extent that our eyes are drawn into every image, as though lives depend on it. Through the first hour, we are building up to something which lives beyond the confines of a beautiful boarded up house in the woods.

The dread starts with the opening image of It Comes At Night. Grandpa Bud (Pendleton), suffering from the throngs of an absolutely horrid disease is taken out into the woods and very kindly and crudely put out of his misery. By the time we get to see the first images of the haunted eyes of his teenage grandson, Travis (Harrison, Jr.), we are transfixed. So much misery at such a tender age cannot be distorted through the reflection of flames off of the gas mask he wears as a form of protection from what their world has become.

The family includes his father Paul (Edgerton), mother Sarah (Ejogo) and Grandpa’s dog Stanley. It’s quite obvious by the precautions taken that this family is significantly overcome by the events taking place around them. And although there is no real indication of what it is that brought the disease harming the world outside into Grandpa Bud, Paul is pretty sure he’s worked out a magic formula for keeping it out.

There is one entrance to the house, protected by two doors. This is much like an airlock might function in a spaceship. The outer door is locked carefully and only Paul has the key. If someone breaches that, there is another locked door painted red that might help keep whatever it is at bay until the family has a chance to do something about it.

What happened to the other sides of the house?  What is preventing someone from plucking off the boards for any room at ground level? These are questions that only come up later for the viewer. For Travis and his family, there is only this one door through which anything goes.

The story succeeds most when we experience it through Travis. He is a young man whose life and family look hopeful in pictures on the wall. We see him go routinely to an empty room upstairs from which he hears many things happening in the house. He lives there a lot, form the look of it. Travis also experiences the trepidation that any young man tall enough to look like an adult but clearly not ready for the move into that stage. He defers to his father, who is really just as lost to all of this as his son. He just goes first.

Then there are the nightmares. Travis’ fears come alive in them, and they push him along. What is causing these nightmares? Do they portend the future or something lurking in the present.

The introduction of other people into this equation doesn’t start out well. It’s clear that Paul was waiting for a cataclysm to arrive, even if it looks like he is unsure how to live in a world while raising a family when it does. Where his caution ends and the danger begins is the question. Meanwhile Travis, with his kind heart, competes with the strain of a teenage body and everything that would push one to feel and want to do.

Harrison, Jr. is an incredible actor caught in his prime by a director who is a devotee to Terrance Mallick in the best way possible. Every image of young Travis resonates in a way that brings feeling to the forefront. We want this boy to live in a world beyond what he is trapped in now, even though we are given plenty of hints that this world is not a good place.

I am leaving the other characters out of this review because if you have a chance at enjoying the movie, it will be best that you discover them for yourself. The story has a chance at greatness for much of its running time, and then it falls completely off of the cliff.

What is presented gives the feeling Shults is a writer and director who enjoyed much cinema in the post Easy Rider and pre-Star Wars era. Most of the acclaimed films of this period are low budget, pessimistic and dire. What is not evident is that he understands what it was that made the endings of those films work. If he does know it, he does not show it here. Somewhere in the third act, the film starts to fall apart. We get details that conflict or we are experiencing a mirage experienced by one or more of the characters. What happens to Stanley only makes sense if we can believe that Paul and Sarah’s typical hyper-vigilance took the night off.

The performances in this film are exceptional. Each plays their role exquisitely as the script will allow. Harrison, Jr. was completely transfixing to me for much of the film. I found it very easy to identify with Travis in the ways our paths through adolescence were different as much as the ways we were alike.

The camera work, especially early on and definitely in relation to Travis, is exceptional. This is not novice work. It’s someone who knows how powerful silence and images can be.

Shults is an incredible talent who needs to find a story editor. Several points in the discussion between the family and outsiders find it very difficult to believe either of the parties understand where it is that they live. Places are so vaguely described it is distracting. Then to have this carry over a span of 50 miles, presumably on foot? It’s a ridiculous plot hole that punches holes the feeling of being consumed by the rest of what his beautiful camera work is giving us.

The theater crowd I was with to a person described feelings of incredible disappointment at the film as the credits began to roll. I don’t recall ever being in a theater that had such a collective exhale of disappointment. So much did patrons match my sentiments about the ending particularly, I was so surprised by the notion that each of us experienced the story the same way that it overrode any feelings that presented itself in the last 30 minutes. The most succinct of these notions was expressed by a young man 3 rows in front of me as he got up, stretched and looked at his equally hapless girlfriend.

“I thought this was supposed to be scary.”

(**1/2 out of *****)

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Alien: Covenant (**) – IQ’s just dropped sharply

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Alien Covenant – 2017

“If you really want a franchise, I can keep cranking it for another six. I’m not going to close it down again. No way.” – Ridley Scott, March 2017

Director Ridley Scott
Screenplay John Logan, Dante Harper
Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby

I think it’s well past time to stop throwing the word “genius” around when talking about Ridley Scott’s cinematic output. At the very least we should add the phrase “hampered by corporate requirements” to the end of the word. When diminishing sales compromised the vision that he put forth in Prometheus a few years ago, his talk of a prequel trilogy started shrinking to maybe just one more film. Then, as development to the followup of that flawed but brilliant film started ramping up, it was decided that the film’s title would include the word “Alien.” The cry from the large portion of the casual fan base had been to include more than just a courtesy “Deacon” Alien shot at the end of the film.

Those complaints were vetted and recognized as valid criticism to those who believe movies are in the business primarily to make money.

That there might be a long-term goal seems not to have been considered strongly. The fact that there is what looks to be an Alien Queen mural in Prometheus was more than enough for me to know that something good was coming down the line. Ridley said he wanted to know more about the Space Jockey. So did a lot of others. Prometheus is the bone tossed in our general direction that made us wonder, like Elizabeth Shaw, what else is there?

There is less a sense of wonder and more a sense of duty in Alien: Covenant. And it is not the same sense of duty that Walter (Fassbender, playing a second, more advanced and constricted android) feels for his crew mate Daniels (Waterston). It’s kind of obvious that Walter feels a kindness for humans that the creators of the Alien prequels don’t feel for their audience. The new direction has been abandoned, and in its place the same old checkpoints that Scott has hit in his previous films, with no sense of story flow past the first act.

That first act is, actually, pretty good. It’s 2104, ten years after Prometheus is reported missing. An accident on the colony ship Covenant creates the makings for a situation for their crew to investigate the source of a signal on an unknown planet, instead of their original destination. Preliminary research shows that the planet should actually be more habitable than their original destination, so despite the objections of 2nd in command Daniels, captain Oram (Crudup) decides to send most of his crew down to search for the source and scope the planet out. That they just decide to land is risky, but when they all depart the ship without any protective gear, it’s obvious that most of these folks are not mean to last the trip.

What they discover while there is a contaminant that starts to affect each of the crew one way or another. In addition, David (Fassbender) arrives in the midst of chaos breaking down. He knows everything there is to know about the planet that they are on. Let’s just say it’s not good news.

There is actually some good character build up as things are unfolding in the early part of the story. Primarily in the form of McBride, Waterston, Ejogo, Bichir, Seimetz and Hernandez, we get a sense of camaraderie and togetherness that was missing from the disparate crew of Prometheus, who somehow hadn’t met one another until they woke up from hyper-sleep. The situations they face are at least interesting until they set down on the planet, and even when the plot goes south, the characters still shine as genuine. This could be more because the loss of a spouse resonates more than would that of someone you just met prior to taking off, but it’s plain the actors have a better idea of who they are here.

It’s once they land on the planet that everything in the story lets the characters down. Crudup’s Captain Oram is most crippled by the mechanics of the point to point plotting. He goes from trying to prevent his crew from mourning the loss of a loved one to making decisions on a whim that endanger the lives of everyone. Why?  Because the plot requires it. Later he has some incredible red flags that he at first acts on, but then succumbs to stupidly.  Again we ask why? Well if you’ve seen the trailer, you know someone has to lean over an egg at some point.

This is the problem with much of the last 2/3 of the film. People are not anywhere for any meaningful reason, they just split up when the plot requires thinning of the herd. Then we get a series of clever lines followed by dumb reactions. It’s all just spacing for the next attack.

Much has been made of Fassbender playing the dual roles of David and Walter. Of this I say he is only as good as the script allows. Where we win is when they counter one another in the meaning of existence. There is a good back and forth, some of the best writing of the film. In the midst of which, the subjects of the previous entry in the story are glossed over as a minor loose thread. Just like that, several of the questions from the previous film vanish. Is this forever?  Likely, though I  hope not.

This brings us to Waterston. It’s hard to have much enthusiasm for a character filling the heroine slot when the last one is missing in action. Waterston is good in the role but her character feels less like a person than a spot holder. She’s supposed to be the one who stays calm in the face of pending disaster, and she’s the one who needs to disagree with the captain. Her relationship with Walter is a nice diversion, but she’s got to do all of the muscle bearing while everyone else succumbs to the order of appearance on the credits.

This is less of a problem with Prometheus, because Shaw (Rapace) has an actual goal beyond survival of the moment. She is curious and wonders about things that many of those watching could be interested in, were it posed in a smart enough way. Instead of refining that difficult path into a synthesized theme, we go back to having people as glorified cows lined up for slaughter by the ever refined Alien compositions.

What is going on with the Aliens? We have a few different styles than we’ve seen before, but nothing resonates until we get back to one that looks close, but not exactly like the one seen in the original. We are given some strong hints that there is some Buffalo Bill style experimenting going on, but given the fact that there are no non-botanical organisms present at all makes one wonder how perfect this contagion really is in its altered state.

The beastly antagonists are rarely scary in any fashion. There is absolutely no tension based on the fact that it’s all been done before. It doesn’t matter where something is going to break out, if you know it’s going to happen before the victims set foot in the area of playthings. Those being hunted provide no clever or meaningful resistance, therefore being even closer to cows than humans.

While much has been made of the realism of Scott’s creature effects, every shot in the film rings closer to Transformers than it does the original creepy source. The details onscreen are crisp and he definitely knows how to hold attention in the action scenes. It’s just hard to imagine he’s putting as much thought into the likelihood of some of the scenes (like watching an Alien jump directly and willingly into a trap) as he is what kind of filter to put on the lens.

Is this film a complete loss?  No. The series has a future and one can hope that the film makes enough money to provide a buffer that might allow Scott more freedom to explore the seemingly obliterated Engineers. Right now it just seems like Scott spent the film checking boxes of requirements from the people in the business attire. This is the one designed to please the “fans” to be sure. Let’s hope that this becomes less an investigation of Weyland’s creation and more of an investigation of the question that Scott has twice now said he wants to investigate:

Where do we come from?

We already know that David has found his purpose and we definitely know what happens when people in these films die. Let’s try a little harder to engage everyone.

(** out of *****)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them opens the Potter world (****1/2)

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – 2016

Director David Yates
Screenplay by J.K. Rowling based on the book of the same name
Starring  Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell

Before we go any further, I have to say this: I love this movie. It does much of what Harry Potter took 8 movies to do within the space of its two hours. More than anything, it breaks the feeling of claustrophobia we had in heading back to Hogwarts every single year and exploring the cracks and crevices within its bounds.

We begin in New York back in the prohibition era. Not only is alcohol restricted, there are severe limitations for American Wizards and Witches too. Newt Scamander (Redmayne) arrives, but he’s not planning on staying. He wants to head to Arizona, where he plans to give some of his magical beasts room to thrive. Soon after he arrives, he comes across an earnest and well-meaning muggle (Fogler). They are soon tied together, for better or worse. Mostly better, really.

He also encounters Mary Lou (Morton) a muggle who thinks Magic is dangerous and is soldiering the fight to tear it out by the root. She has adopted children conscripted into her army of fear. One of these, Creedence (Miller),  is conspiring with a high-ranking Auror wizard (Farrell) to find a very powerful child. What is an Auror? Essentially a Fed.

Another low ranking Auror (Waterston) takes it upon herself to investigate the doings for Scamander. Just about the time she figures out the depth of his and his muggle friend Jacob’s doings, they all get steeped into some big trouble.

The best parts about Fantastic Beasts… is the casual nature of the story. We know there will be fireworks, but for most of the movie, there is a concentrated effort on enjoying the wonder. The vehicle for this enjoyment is Fogler, who is essentially a stand in for the viewer. We want to be amazed and don’t want to be shooed away. The muggles in the Hogwarts films are necessarily bumpkins. They have no real chance for commentary, except for the negative kind. Smartly, they make Jacob a good guy, but an average guy. People can love him because of his character, not because he knows spells. Every discovery he makes in the film is a discovery for us. We get to breathe it in, with no feeling that we should disappear.

In allowing us the chance to gaze, the filmmakers use their time wisely in developing the rest of the story. Rowling has learned how to condense over the years and it pays off with a riveting last act. By the time we get to the chase, it’s almost easy to forget that they are destroying much of the city like happens in most movies these days. It’s a fair bet you can guess if the city stays destroyed or if anyone remembers it.

Colin Farrell is absolutely stunning in his role as Auror. Playing someone with questionable motives really suits him. He’s better here than anything I have seen him in outside of his work with Brendan Gleeson.

Waterston is a major find. She is so humbly engaging, she is impossible not to love. She is able to exhibit intelligence, compassion and the emergence of strength. Let’s hope she’s given more reins than Hermoine. Even better, her younger sister Queenie (Sudol) fits the times and makes magic fun as heck. She is an exceptional supporting character.

Fogler is incredible. If they find a way to incorporate him into the future movies and somehow connect him to Hogwarts, it will make everything so much better. The possibility is there to be a very exciting union with a wonderful Witch.

Redmayne is a natural Wizard. His quirks feel at home and much less annoying than in stuff like Jupiter Ascending. He is groomed into a believable awkward hero and definitely someone upon whom is worth investing 5 films.

The very biggest drawback is in the cameo. It was enough to almost cripple my enjoyment of the series going forward. If things go heavy in the direction of that star and the character, it’s hard to get excited.

Let’s see what happens, though. They made a lot of good moves in this film. I was tired of Harry Potter’s world. Let’s be glad we’re in an entirely different part of it now.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Selma (*****): There can be no better time for this

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Selma – 2014

Director Ava DuVernay
Starring David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, Common, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Carmen Ejogo, Lorraine Toussaint, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Niecy Nash, Colman Domingo, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Alessandro Nivola, Keith Stanfield, André Holland, Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Henry G. Sanders
Screenplay by Paul Webb

There are many strong feelings evoked for the viewer of Selma. In a country that is still struggling with the callouses of racial wounds, there have been strikingly few movies dealing directly with the person who acted as its greatest salve. There are many legends and half-truths. There are some great and painful efforts to express the truth about what many of our American children suffered, as well as the strategies employed by those who sought to overcome that suffering.  Even with a major holiday bearing his name, it’s hard to picture what it was like to be Martin Luther King, Jr. at the time of our nation’s great crossroads.

The first image we see in the story is a somewhat normal conversation between a husband and wife. The husband, King (Oyelowo) does not like the tie he is trying to put on. That is because, his wife, Coretta (Ejogo) informs him, it is an Ascot. This could be a conversation between any husband and wife. By the overwhelming tension, though, we know more than the words are being expressed. It’s the weight of the world being shouldered by both.

It would be something if this was all one had to consider: a journey of two. DuVernay and Webb have more on their minds, however. We are given an expansive view of the team behind the March to Selma, Alabama in 1965. We get to see heroes like Cager Lee (Sanders), Amelia Boynton Robinson (Toussaint), James Bevel (Common), Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah), Fred Gray, (Gooding, Jr.), Diane Nash (Thompson), Jimmie Lee Jackson (Stanfield), Andrew Young (Holland) and Hosea Williams (Pierce) to name just a few. Some names we know, many we never would, were it not for works like this.

We are also given a picture of the effort from the point of view of those in power, from ranging from the evil defiance of George Wallace (Roth) to the annoyed, distracted  and ultimately vital support of LBJ (Wilkinson). There is some debate of the veracity of LBJ’s portrayal in the film, and that is alright. Wilkinson gives a respectful portrayal that fits well within what is known of LBJ, while showing that there was a partnership, albeit a tense one, between the President and MLK.

Views that many white people could identify with are here too, and not in a passing or obligatory way. The first march, met with such a violent response, is viewed by many on their televisions due to reporters on the scene. This incurs an overwhelming outpouring of support from many throughout the U.S., helping to change the face of the movement to what it really was: citizens united for justice and equality.

Selma succeeds by shortening the time span to the events up to and around the march. In narrowing that scope, we are allowed glimpses into the hearts, minds and actions of many more stake holders. If these glimpses are not 100% accurate (Cooper lost her job as a nurse and had to work as a motel clerk in real life), the spirit of essential truth remains. We need more of this.

The performances are excellent throughout. Taking on the daunting role of the giant, Oyelowo stands tall by allowing us to see his doubts. There are two particularly strong scenes in which we see him take phone calls late at night, searching for some inspiration. He hears this, absorbs it whole into his body and soul, exhales the bad and coming out renewed for another day.

DuVernay’s work is confident, clear minded and observant. Her efforts give us a vision of the past that is mournful, peaceful, joyful and filled with hope. It helps to remind us that there is a chance to make change that does not involve the fleecing charlatanism of the Jackson and Sharpton orthe agitated slurs of inconvenienced white citizens waiting to get into a baseball game. Nor does it require looting and violence. Selma is now and forever the arms of all God’s children, interlocked and walking together down the road. In this way, it moves me to learn more and love more.

(***** out of *****)

The Purge: Anarchy (**) needs to improve if it wants to be the new Saw, Paranormal Activity

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The Purge: Anarchy – 2014


Writer and Director James DeMonaco
Starring Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Michael K. Williams

In the second take of the dystopian series, we go outside the confines of the home to the streets of L.A., where, presumably, no one is safe. This is especially true for the lower and working class people. It occurred to me that this makes it seem as if the high-class (aka Republicans) are the villains in these stories. The other day I heard the theory that Obama was granting amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants to produce a permanent lower class, so I suppose he’s just filling up targets for future purges.

It’s difficult to treat The Purge: Anarchy as much in the way of a horror film, though, because there are no real elements of tension. There are shootouts and people cutting other people, but everyone’s paths intersect right when they need to, so there is no sense of desperation at all. We have 3 stories intersecting. There is a young couple on the verge of divorce driving across town. There is the honorable single working class mother who looks like she came right out of a politician’s anecdote. Then there is a guy out looking for revenge, armed to the hilt. When a roving band of purgers run into the low rent apartment buildings grabbing targets, and the fleeing young couple’s come across the path of the guy who is looking for revenge you can only guess what happens. That’s right: buddy comedy. Only without the friendship and the laughs.

This movie just goes from place to place, putting the targets in poorly imagined constraints and allowing them to get out. One guess what happens to one of the fighting couple when they decide to reconcile. There are heavy-duty semi-trucks that roll around the town mowing people down with high-tech Terminator 2 weapons. It turns out the rich folks don’t think we’re getting rid of enough riff-raff. The riff-raff has a voice, though, in the form of Michael K. Williams and his group. They show up on interrupted feeds and break up arena killing shows. The next movie is supposed to be a prequel revolving around this group. Too bad they weren’t made interesting enough to carry a film.

That hasn’t stopped them through two films so far. In comparing the minimal budget to the vast gross to each of the movies, it’s easy to see this routine going on for a while.

(** out of *****)