December 22, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

Kenneth Lonergan, 2016
Any New Englander is going to feel a sense of familiarity to Manchester by the Sea. It's a movie filled with characters constantly battling the cold temperatures, something we are all used to dealing with in the Northeast. But these characters, while possibly making the mistake of dressing a little too lightly, are tough people. They have endured. There is a sense of resilience. These are working class people who are dealing with the difficulties of ordinary life. Loss of a loved one, past mistakes, struggling to make that next dollar.

Casey Affleck is a proper casting choice for the Lee Chandler character because he's not a very external actor. Lee is not a very external character. Lee bottles things up. He carries the weight of his past on his back. The only release for him is the occasional bar-fight that can be provoked by something as simple as accidentally bumping into him. So it's safe to say he's a man on edge. He becomes a profoundly sympathetic character when more of his past is revealed during the films constant flashbacks. There's just so much nuance to his character, along with the other characters in this film. Kyle Chandler, who plays Lee's brother Joe, brings the same level of consistency that he always brings. Chandler is really one of those actors that is always just dependable. Michelle Williams continues to prove how unbelievably good she is. She has this ability to pull a reaction out of you with little dialogue. She's all in with her supporting performance as Randi Chandler. The standout scene with her being an alleyway confrontation with Lee that dares you to not tear up.

This is a movie where you can't point fingers. Everyone is struggling in some way or another, just like normal folk do. There is a defining turning point in the tone of this film that you never fully recover from, even after the end credits. That's why it takes such an emotional toll on you. Because this is a real movie, maybe too real. You aren't spoon-fed a Hollywood ending here. This film ends just like life goes on. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't, sometimes it's neither. Sometimes things just keep on keeping on. You just continue to exist in the world, with no choice but to carry the entirety of your history with you.

Train to Busan

Sang-ho Yeon, 2016
When we saw how fast the zombies were moving in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, we realized that one specific tweak changed the genre drastically. This was a different universe than Romero's where you could quite easily dodge the walking dead. These were frenetic terrors hellbent on attacking you. They jumped through glass. The crowds moved swiftly. So some future films followed suit and these were now placed in the category of fast zombies. Zombies that could run. REC, the remake of Dawn of the Dead, Zombieland. There are zombie purists who discount this change to the genre. They believe that zombies should inherently be slow moving. I am not one of these people.

Jump to 2013's World War Z and we not only have fast zombies but there is another level of intensity to them. Perhaps it's the massive numbers that are moving quickly. Rapid virus transfer. Inhuman biting actions. These things pile on top of each other, go airborne, take down helicopters. Terrifying.

Korean film Train to Busan captures a similar ferocity that World War Z had. The only difference is much of the movie is set inside a train. So the movie itself becomes this hybrid offspring of World War Z meets Snowpiercer. Like Snakes on a Plane, but Zombies on a Train. Complete terror that is unleashed in a tight space.

There are so many memorable moments in this film. The image of when they reanimate and you can hear the bones breaking and they get into these contorted positions, damn its freaky. I don't think i will ever get the image out of my head of the zombie running down the train platform with the broken arm that is sticking straight up the air. Busan is without a doubt one of the best zombie films to come out in the past 10 years. Maybe even the best. Yeon manages to get you invested in the characters with their vastly different personalities. You are really rooting for the couple or so to make it out in one piece. Then there are others that you are begging to receive some comeuppance. One guy in particular, Yeon creates this one character (corporate POS Yong-Suk) that is just so completely selfish that you are eagerly waiting for some karmic balance. The film itself is an interesting concept, the world around you completely falling apart while you are stuck on a high speed train that is also falling apart but on a more micro scale. The special effects are remarkable. These are really rabid-like zombies. There's no 10 minute break from death to reawakening. This virus spreads very rapidly. It's a matter of seconds. Train to Busan is a solid offering to the zombie genre that I believe history will be very kind to. Hopefully now that it's receiving international distribution (currently through streaming services) it will get many more eyes on it.

December 13, 2016


Nic Mathieu, 2016
At first glance Spectral looks as if it's another one of the many 2016 Netflix original offerings that may just slip between the cracks, because of the dozens of films queued up that you feel you will never get through. But actually it was originally produced by Universal Pictures and was pulled from schedule presumably due to fears that it wouldn't perform well at the box office. Netflix stepped in and purchased the distribution rights, giving them the ability to release it in their system. Which is a nice save, because it could have been just another film that sat and collected dust and never saw the light of day. It's more than that, and worth a look if you are a fan of the sci-fi genre. If you are a fan of the sci-fi genre, it means that you are also willing to go into a movie like this with a grain of salt. Because Spectral, while pretty entertaining, definitely fits into a formulaic molding. You need to go into this knowing that you aren't getting a Blade Runner. Hell, you aren't even getting a Starship Troopers which is a better version of a Sci-Fi action movie where soldiers attempt to overcome a seemingly undefeatable enemy force. I read somewhere that it was to be marketed as a "supernatural Black Hawk Down". Which is actually a pretty accurate quick description to throw on it. Black Hawk Down had a group of soldiers attempting to rescue two lieutenants in a completely explosive landscape. The landscape is similar here, as well-trained soldiers attempt to reveal what is behind this mysterious enemy that is taking down scores of their men in the battlefield. Early speculation has them believing it's some kind of enemy cloaking device.

While the production design doesn't feel cheap, there are elements of the story that certainly do. Spectral falls victim to some of the typical action-genre tropes. One glaring annoyance is when engineer Clyne (James Badge Dale) determines that the creatures must be made from Bose-Einstein concentrate because of their chemical properties. Well, they need to fight them with plasma cannons and it just so happens that they have everything they need to equip themselves with these weapons right in the bunker that they have hunkered down in. There are a lot of convienent things that are done with the various forms of technology they have. Because of this, at first the enemy force seems undefeatable but that quickly changes in the second half of the film when it seems like Clyne just needs to sit down and stare into space for about 30 seconds and then he can figure everything out.

The Wailing

Hong-jin Na, 2016
Some people will probably say the Wailing is like a Korean Exorcist but they shouldn't. That marginalizes what is one of the better horror films to come out in the past ten years. What is true is that there are elements of possession in this film that center around a young girl. But it's a bigger story. A story that involves an entire community. A demonic force that has taken hold of a Korean village. The desperation of the affected family is totally compelling and completely gripping.

Asian cinema has an ability to really focus on the dynamics of a family. This is probably because of the cultural differences between the Eastern world and the Western world. The Eastern world tends to hold their family more dearly, less of a focus on oneself. Grandparents tend to be around much more than they are in Western culture, as also shown in this film where the grandmother plays a very active role in Hyo-Jin's life.

This is a film where the mystery and uncertainty builds all the way to the end. The Wailing doesn't rely on cheap jump scares. It relies on character development and pursuit. Pursuit of a bunch of things. Justice, answers, remedy. By the end you certainly get what you need as a viewer. Hopefully this film gets some of the attention it deserves in foreign cinema this year.

December 5, 2016

Don't Breathe

Fede Alvarez, 2016
Don't Breathe has the problems that so many of the horror thrillers have that are churned out these days. Starting off with an unrealistic grouping of people. You have beautiful girl Rocky (Jane Levy) who is supposed to be trailer trash but doesn't look like the product of any trailer park anyone's ever seen before. You have straight clean cut Alex (Dylan Minnette) who it just so happens that his father works at the alarm company so he has the master key to every customers house they rob. Then you have dirtbag kid Money (Daniel Zovatto) with the vulgar mouth who is the romantic interest of the trailer girl. The chemistry on screen matches the believability of the couple. Zovatto was really great in last year's It Follows, but is awfully miscast here. Certainly not his fault. The Money character is just downright annoying and one dimensional.

For a while they are burglarizing homes and staying under a $10K theshold - so that if they get caught they can't be charged with grand larceny. Then they hear about a house owned by a blind man that is rumored to have $300,000 in cash. This money was obtained through a settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident. They look at this job as their big opportunity, the one that they have been waiting for. The last job. With this money Rocky and Money can go to California together. it's their ticket out of Detroit.

So they descend upon the house. But I had forgotten to mention that the blind man is a decorated army vet. But of course the trio doesn't care. It's not like being in the Army prepares you for any type of combat situation; oh WAIT that's exactly what it does. Oh yeah, and when you are blind all of your other senses are heightened. To the films credit, some of the moments inside the house are tense. Reminiscent of Hitchcock's work. The concept of burglarizing a blind man's home and him putting up a fight is actually quite original and intriguing. Alvarez should get some credit for good direction but some criticism for such a weak script. First off, you are supposed to believe that the only reason Alex is really helping them is because he has a crush on Rocky. Otherwise, there is no single reason he would get involved. He's a normal middle class kid who would have no reason to get mixed up with the other two. This makes Alex less greedy than them, and when things start to turn south he bails on the blind man's house. But he hears gunshots and comes back. How many times are we going to let the hero return to the house in horror movies? It's not much different than running up the stairs. Oh yeah, that happens here too. If you were in a blind man's house and you were trying to disorient him to escape, instead of running couldn't you just throw things all around and confuse him? What also needs to be mentioned is this house is located in a completely abandoned section of Detroit which conveniently creates a situation where there is no police presence. So this takes care of that constant gun shots being fired problem that might draw attention.

Don't Breathe is a disappointment. Last year's It Follows taught us that some creative horror films can come out of nowhere where new things can be done. After seeing all of the positive reviews related to this film I thought this could have been this years It Follows. Boy was I mistaken.

There is a reveal about 3/4 of the way through the film that I have to acknowledge. But this is borderline spoiler material so read on at your own risk.

A Scout's Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Christopher Landon, 2015
The zombie comedy / zomedy genre is a growing one and thats a good thing. If it weren't for these variations on the genre we would just have a stale template with slightly different tones in six new cinematic installments every year. Edgar Wright's 2004 Shaun of the Dead could easily be regarded as the harbinger of this new generation of zomedy films and is the reigning jewel. Romero's decades of contributions certainly had comedic elements in it, but they were all still rooted in serious tone where people feared what was going on around them. One of the distinctive attributes with the Zomedy genre is the oblivious nature to it. The people aren't distracted by the collapse of civilization. There's more of a silly video game fun-ness involved.

Scouts Guide is more like Zombieland than some of the other Zomedies in it's sandbox model and conspicuous stylism. But it's much sloppier than Zombieland. In fact, it's quite the mess. But there is one thing that saves Scout's Guide from pure spoil. It's the unique scenarios that it creates. These scenarios excuse the movie to a certain degree. Cat zombies, Zombies on trampolines, stripper zombies, zombie Britney Spears fan. Absolutely ridiculous, yes. But absolutely entertaining and undeniably funny. If someone can sit there and watch a zombie mumbling Britney Spears lyrics and not at least chuckle, I'm not sure what will make them laugh. These scenarios make you laugh and make you laugh a little again the next day just thinking about them. You will want your friends to see them too so you can laugh together. Scout's Guide isn't breaking any ground by any means but it's a junk-food Zomedy delight.