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It Follows (2014)
"It Follows" masters and massacres the horror genre
It's early autumn, dusk in a residential neighborhood in suburban Detroit. A teenage girl in red stilettos sprints out her front door and into the middle of the street. Her heels click-clacking across the pavement, she slows and turns back towards her house, terrified. She's being chased. But nothing's there. Moments later, she begins running again, the camera panning in a circle, following her back through her own front door as her father runs out to help. She runs out again, hops in the family car, and peels out down the street.
Jump cut to the shores of Lake St. Clair. The girl sits with her back to the water, illuminated by headlights, and phones her dad to say she's sorry, and that she loves him. She's accepted that "it" will kill her. She can see it. But we cannot. What follows is one of the more grisly and unsympathetic images you will ever see put to screen.
This is the opening scene of writer-director David Robert Mitchell's "It Follows," a contemporary horror film of simply monumental intelligence and artistry, one that celebrates and satirizes in equal measure the conventions of the sex-as-death, teen-victim horror flick, which began with such promise in John Carpenter's "Halloween" nearly four decades ago. Our heroine is seventeen-year-old Jay Height, who consummates her relationship with new boyfriend Hugh in the spacious backseat of his well-manicured, chocolate- brown Plymouth sedan. As Jay basks in the post-coital glow of unprotected boning, Jake silently approaches her from behind and subdues her with chloroform. When she wakes, Jay is roped to a wheelchair beneath an overpass. Hugh apologizes and explains that something will now follow her, wherever she goes. Someone gave "it" to him, and he gave "it" to her, by having sex with her back in the car. "It" can look like anything. Even someone she knows. But only she can see it. It moves slowly, but is always getting closer. And if it catches her, it will kill her unless she passes it on to someone else, just like Hugh did back in the car.
Mitchell takes the "sex will kill you" trope of slasher films and conservative dads literally. Have sex, and you die. "It" is always on your mind, "it" follows you everywhere, "it" is passed on to someone else like chlamydia. And "it" can't be destroyed. Mitchell's "it"—whatever "it" is—is the monstrous and literal anthropomorphization of our most basic drives: to escape death, to Netflix, and to chill. "It" is unstoppable, all-consuming, and inevitable. But even if you don't appreciate or much care about the film's insights into Freudian psychology, you'll appreciate how "It Follows" all at once masters and massacres the entirety of its genre. No trope or standard of cheap slash-horror is safe from Mitchell's brilliant and often comic satire.
In "It Follows," sex kills you; more sex kills others. The monster crawls at a snail's pace, but somehow you can't outrun it. All our heroes are beautiful, and essentially quite stupid. The heroine is helpless and blonde. Her love-interest is talldarkhandsome and, of course, irresistibly misunderstood. The string-beany, friend-zoned nerd tries in vain to save and bang the damsel in distress—not necessarily in that order. Parents are inexplicably absent. The kids never seem to go to school. They watch shitty horror films and talk about screwing. They make poor decisions, back themselves into corners, and turn their backs on danger. "It Follows" is, in every conceivable respect, a horror film ABOUT horror films.
Mitchell crafts a horror film that is in equal measure a love letter and scathing editorial of the genre itself. His direction is exacting, heavy on slow movement and zooms, 360- (even 720- degree) panning long-takes, and compositions that draw the viewer's attention deep, deep into the background, ominous and drenched in panic. The film's shrieking and concussive, synthy and discordant score from Rich Vreeland (of Disasterpeace) delivers half the film's terror by itself. Genuinely unsettling, surprisingly funny (if you know what it's really\ doing), and properly frightening, "It Follows" is smart, unconventional, intensely atmospheric and, most importantly, utterly self-aware.
"It Follows" knows exactly what it's doing. Its jump-scares are cheap (the funniest is nothing more than a dodge ball hitting a window). Its monster is slow and stupid. Its heroes are only slightly faster, and somehow even stupider. Everything about "It Follows" screams intelligence, foresight, and self-awareness. And that includes the much-maligned final act.
Many worthwhile critics, most of whom actually like the film, have criticized its climactic swimming-pool face-off for being more of a letdown than a showdown. The teens' plan is as intricate as it is moronic. Their strategy is to have Jay swim in the center of a high-school pool (during a thunderstorm, mind you), and line its edges with electrical appliances plugged into sockets surrounding the entire pool. There, they wait for "it" to approach and wade into the pool after Jay, whereupon they will toss the lamps and toasters and Forman Grills into the water and electrocute "it" to death. Sounds moronic, doesn't it? And that's the point, folks. That's the damn point. It's moronic because our heroes are morons. Like most teens, these teens don't think things through. They think they're invincible. They don't think they need help. They try to do everything on their own, and often fail disastrously. And teens in horror films are the worst of all teens in this respect. So, while I have no argument with any critic or casual viewer who isn't taken with the film for reasons of personal taste, I hold no quarter with those who critique it for reasons of internal logic. Because, I'm sorry, folks, if you think the climax is stupid because it's stupid, you've missed the point entirely. The climax of this horror film is galactically stupid because its heroes are teens in a horror film and are, as ever galactically stupid. And that, my friends, is smart.
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
'Phantom' should have stayed on the stage
Broadway genius Andrew Lloyd Webber's majestic and lavish musical enigma, The Phantom of the Opera comes to the silver screen in one of 2004's most highly-anticipated film experiences. With the film's $60 million budget (all from the pockets of Webber himself), veteran director Joel Schumacher and a capable cast, 'Phantom' looked as promising as Emmy Rossum is gorgeous. It is, however evident that behind the "mask" of the overtly copious set design, costumes, and cinematography, is cast a shadow as shallow as the Phantom's scars are deep and an entertainment value not nearly on par with the royalty and musical awe that is the Broadway musical.
Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum, Mystic River) is an aspiring opera singer in the chorus line of the Paris Opera House's latest production starring the prima donna Carlotta (Minnie Driver, Good Will Hunting). When Carlotta, unhappy with seemingly everything about the production storms off stage with an entourage of suitors and yes-people following in suit, Christine is cast in the lead, replacing her. After her fortunate turn of events, Christine is spotted by her childhood sweetheart, now part owner of the opera house, Raoul (Patrick Wilson). Swept off her feet by her reunion with Raoul, Christine falls in love and agrees to become his wife. When the mysterious "opera ghost" (Gerard Butler) gets wind that the love of his life, Christine has fallen for the pretentious young pretty-boy Raoul, he (attempts to) take sweet, bloodlusty revenge on the odious Raoul in the only way he knows how singing really loudly at him *cough*. The climax, in the Phantom's damp and dank dungeon of despair, is an intense fury of discovery and imminent misfortune for the Phantom, Christine, and Raoul.
Love triangles, engagement, lusty embraces, soulful stares of sultry sexual depravity 'Phantom' should have the romance. Where the stage production, with the wondrous Sarah Brighton and licentiously lustful Michael Crawford hit the musical and dramatic mark with timeless precision, Schumacher's film adaptation fails to hit the proverbial broad side of the barn. Hopelessly irritating, "puppy-eyed," foe-amorous stares from the vastly disappointing Emmy Rossum are frequent and have the viewer longing to smack her back into dramatic consciousness. Where the stage play's forbidden embraces between the Phantom and Christine had invaluable romantic appeal, the film adaptation's have less romantic value than a J-Lo wedding announcement. The Phantom (without too much facetious exaggeration) seems more like a sexually-frustrated middle-aged Minnesotan than a steamy, enigmatic ghost of passion. Christine more closely resembles a beady-eyed Labrador getting a rectal examination than an innocent young beauty on the brink of becoming a woman. The wholly passionate forbidden love that poured from each scene of the stage production are completely lost in the transition to the screen and are to be found somewhere in whatever talent Rossum and/or director Schumacher may possess.
While we're on the topic of missed marks and disappointment, Emmy Rossum's portrayal of Christine, without question, is one of the most disappointing performances in recent memory. The opera-trained eighteen year-old began her musical/acting career at the age of seven in her native New York. Making her (quite brief) screen debut in last year's Clint Eastwood drama Mystic River, Rossum has since made a name for herself as both a talented fresh face in Hollywood and a domineering, egotistical prima donna on the set and in interviews. Only seventeen during the filming of 'Phantom,' Rossum's critically acclaimed portrayal was more than lined-up for a Benigma and more importantly Academy Award nomination. Though I can only speculate as to why her performance bordered on Keanu Reeves-esquire woodenness and Orlando Bloom-esquire over dramatization, I am quite sure Rossum's immaturity both as an actress and a person were deciding factors in her overtly overplayed, overdone, over-everything leading debut. There is, however no mistake in the quality of Rossum's voice. Piercing, resonating, and exceedingly beautiful, her vocal performance is simply faultless and helps to offset the cardboard theatrical performance.
Butler as the Phantom is a lone bright spot in the shadowy chasm that is 'Phantom's' ensemble. A complete unknown, the Scottish Butler entered the role of the Phantom with almost no vocal experience. With a voice not nearly matching that of Crawford's, but more than worthy of some gentle golf-clapping and respectful nods, Butler's performance both vocally and in respect to the misery of the Phantom's character is quite redeeming to the general mediocrity of the film as a whole. Patrick Wilson as Raoul is just hideously agitating. The viewer is more likely to throw their large Sprite at the screen than they are to find anything noteworthy about his performance. (insert what would have been an analysis of the Benigma Award-winning Minnie Driver's performance as Carlotta had she not had a voice double). (for a visual on the antithesis of directorial creativity and inventive license, give a three year-old a video camera and have him/her tape the stage production you get Schumacher).
In conclusion, the sumptuous costume design, set design, and cinematography is not nearly enough to swing the cinematic balance in the direction of a film that lives up to its expectations. Disappointment all around, highlighted by the lobotomized Joel Schumacher and the narcissistic Rossum makes The Phantom of the Opera as tedious as it is. Though the film is not essentially as dull and shallow as I have portrayed it, it leaves the audience with a sense of emptiness. It's like awaiting the opening of a beautifully-wrapped Christmas present with a marvelous golden bow and silver ribbon; then you open it up and find olive green tube socks. The Phantom of the Opera shallow, gold-leafed mediocrity the Phantom should have stayed in his dungeon.
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
'Million Dollar Baby'... Priceless
Take a film, strip it of special effects, a drop-dead-gorgeous female lead, and a box office-friendly, money-making plot line. Replace with a soul-shaking story, timeless performances, and a bone-shattering punch that comes not in the form of explosions, sex, or gratuitous violence, but in the genius of its direction, writing, and soulful thematic delivery; you get Million Dollar Baby. The film with 'million dollar' integrity and bargain $30 million price tag lands a killer, cinematic punch square in the dignity of films with the $150 million price tag and Dollar Store insignificance.
Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), determined, full of heart and empty of pocket enters the boxing gym of the hard-shelled and well-respected trainer Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood). Between her low-paying and hopelessly mundane waitressing job at a local diner, Maggie lands punches at Frankie's gym. Taking little notice to and simply no concern for the "girl" who has been so doggedly training in his gym; Frankie is approached by his old friend Eddie 'Scrap-Iron' Dupris (Morgan Freeman), who has seen something in Maggie, not in the force of her blows, but the strength of her heart. Several times Maggie pleads with Frankie to train her and several times he turns her down. That is until, one night, when another shoebox full of un-opened letters returned from his daughter is filled and Frankie must decide to regain the daughter he lost. Finally accepting her offers, Frankie begins to train the scrappy and determined 31 year-old amateur. Having not in her unfortunate life seen a fraction of the love and care given to her by her new trainer, Maggie is bestowed a father figure in the most unlikely of places. Having not had anything to love and care for the longest of times, Frankie is given the daughter he lost so long ago. Fighting and sweating and bleeding, Maggie works her way to the Las Vegas title fight Frankie never participated in. All the way she is loved and grows closer with her trainer and all the way Frankie regains the fire to care for the person behind the gloves, and not just the gloves themselves.
Known for his classical and quiet approach to direction, allowing the actors and storyline to carry his films into the annuls of film hierarchy, Clint Eastwood reaches far beyond the industry's wildest expectations and lands a cinematic punch of unparalleled magnitude in this riveting modern classic. Pacing is done to perfection with well-built character development across the ensemble and general calculated patience in the maturity of the story. The viewer is allowed to ease into their seats early in the film so that they may be as comfortable as is possible before the film's enthralling climax. Simple camera movements and framing (a moniker of Eastwood) are utilized without the pretentious and dizzying camera spasms of Stone, Rodriguez and other ostentatious directors. The unadulterated ability, grit, and strength of character Eastwood exudes through the film give it its poignant, numbing effects. Simple, yet ruggedly-elegant cinematography bodes well for the overall might of the picture. Praised by his casts for allowing their ability as actors to speak through their performances and not through their costumes, make-up, or "punch-lines" and for his meticulous attention to emotions and not explosions, Eastwood's pioneering directorial integrity are ingrained in every frame of Million Dollar Baby.
Morgan Freeman delivers another Oscar-caliber performance as the warm-hearted, one-eyed ex-boxer, Eddie. Emotional presence is exuded into every line in a performance mimicking the timelessness of the role of Red in The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Eastwood's unmistakable grit and emotional veracity in his Oscar-nominated performance is simply unforgettable and brings the driest of eyes to tears. But, out-doing even the thematic valor of Freeman and Eastwood is the simply breathtaking, inspiring, and mind-numbing performance of one, Hilary Swank. In the title role of Maggie Fitzgerald, Swank is immaculate. In a portrayal that can only be characterized as miraculous, Swank brings the audience's eyes to the screen as they watch her struggle to survive, taking half-eaten food from the plates of the customers she waits-on. She brings us to the edge of its seats when she enters the ring. She brings us to cheers and revelry with each bloody, pulse-pounding, jaw-shattering first-round knockout. She brings us all to our knees in her despair after being denied the slightest scrap of gratitude after buying her odious, gold-digging, ingrate of a mother a home with what little money she has earned in her early bouts. She moves our souls, touches our hearts, and reaches to wipe-off our tears in scenes of such moving poignancy, they are simply impossible to describe in words. A flawless, awe-inspiring performance at the apex of thematic capacity.
Without giving away Million Dollar Baby's gut-wrenching climax, I must touch-on its jarring inspiration.
How valuable is something that is two-of-a-kind? How priceless is something that has happened only once before in over 550 different experiences? It is timeless. It is priceless. Until Million Dollar Baby, I had wept only once before during a film. That prestigious honor went to one of the greatest achievements in the history of the arts, Schindler's List (1993). Accompanying me to the film were two of my closest friends, one of which would cry in Finding Nemo, the other has teared-up in only a small handful of films. One, as to be expected ran out of tissues and had tears cascading down her face long after the film's credits rolled across the screen. The other, doing his very best to fight off the torrent of water building deep in his eyes, could not help but choke on his emotions. I, myself truly wept. With each tear the film was elevated to a higher level. With each falling drop, Million Dollar Baby instilled more in me, the movie-goer and me, the human being. Astounding direction, astonishing integrity, miraculous performances why we go to the movies. An inspiration.
Want a reason to rip your toenails out with rusty pliers? Kill two birds with one "Stone" and see Alexander.
Directed By: Oliver Stone
Starring: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Anthony Hopkins, Jared Leto, and Rosario Dawson
From guts and gore director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Natural Born Killers) comes the epic tale of the little conqueror that could and big-budget screw-up of a film that didn't come close. In his film's fruitless attempt to encapsulate the aura and mystique of Alexander the Great, Stone sinks to a pitiful cinematic low.
An aging Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) in capitol annoyance tells the glorious tale of Alexander the Great (Minority Report's Colin Farrell), the Macedonian king who conquered the known world at the age of 32. Under the seductively manipulating control of his mother, Olympias (Girl, Interrupted's Angelina Jolie) and the sporadically violent rule of his father, King Philip (Val Kilmer), Alexander is what I would jokingly characterize as an 'at-risk teen.' After the death of his father, Alexander vows to do what all the great rulers before him had aspired for, but had never achieved, world domination. During his endeavor east, Alexander takes a Persian wife (Rosario Dawson), much to the discontent of his all-Macedonian comrades whom want Alexander's heir to be of pure Macedonian blood. Alexander's true love-interest (as demonstrated blatantly throughout the film), is however a man yes, children I said a man. Hephaistion (Jared Leto) is Alexander's childhood friend turned forbidden love. Through the lands of Persia, to the far east of India, Alexander's quest comes to a much welcome end and the audience puts the sporks they had been planning to poke their eyeballs out with back into their pockets.
One would expect this epic story of world domination and personal triumph would involve scenes of jarring, realistic battles, lustful, steamy romances, piercing agony, and joyous victory. Ah, but that would be far too entertaining for this film. No, far better for the film to make the audience yearn to hurl-up their popcorn and eat it once more in exchange for a refund. Far better for this near three-hour slice of thematic feces to make bashing your head in with a rotten banana seem enticing. In place of the jarring battle sequences are confusing, mindless, disorganized fly-bys where the viewer cannot differentiate between an elephant and a spear! In place of the steamy sex scenes are pointless breast-flashings and downward pan-shots that get dangerously close to Farrell's naughty bits. Instead of meaningful scenes of both Alexander's agony and victory there are supremely irritating, random shots of Farrell and others at supremely irritating, random times. The viewer cannot possibly root for Alexander. Portrayed in one scene as a unifying hero, and in the next as a dividing tyrant, Stone has managed to baffle the audience in their support or hatred for the 'protagonist.' With the lone exception of Kilmer's performance as Philip, the acting in this film is deplorable. Jolie utilizes a hybrid accent concocted mainly of Arabian, Alabaman, and Russian (Arabamussian) that can be characterized only as laughable. Hopkins' Ptolemy, the narrator of the film, speaks nothing but inane drivel and I just plain wanted to shoot him. Leto, as Alexander's sexy wannabe man-lover delivers what would be a half-decent performance. Why not decent, you ask? Well, my theory is thus: due to Leto and Farrell's constant 'manly bonding,' words of endearment, exposed man-tits, and most especially their deep, black eye-liner reminds the audience too much of a gay porno and thus scares them crapless.
I've got three letters and one word for Mr. Stone. WTF mate? This was, without question one of the most poorly written, directed, and acted movies of the past half-century. The battle scenes almost gave me a migraine, style was completely absent, there was more pansy action than real fighting, and for the love of God Jolie's accent was repulsive. I love ripping into a juicy piece of cinematic crap now and again, but I wasted five bucks doing it. The best parts of Alexander were, 1.the end, and 2. The Phantom of the Opera trailer preceding it. If you're just sitting at home and feel like a nice vomit session would do you some good or if you're sitting at home wishing you had a good reason to pull out your toe nails one by one with some rusty pliers, kill two birds with one "Stone" (hahahaha get it?) and go see Alexander.