it follows: the new kind of horror

*The following essay includes spoilers for It Follows (2014)*

Despite failing to connect with mainstream audiences before the ’60s, the horror genre has always functioned as a mirror which filmmakers hold up to society. Social values are inherent to the stories we tell, and when it comes to film the way we tell these stories depends largely on the era in which we make them. From the fear of otherness in post-WW2 America to the sexual revolution and upheaval of traditional values, the influence of society and its fears can be seen throughout the history of horror. Such generational fears manifest as possessed little girls, chainsaw-wielding psychos, and a killer stalking babysitters from the bushes.

Scientific advancement, technophobia, and the fear of losing control have become major thematic components of horror movies in today’s digital age. Recent years have seen a shift in approach to how filmmakers get their scares. Nearly gone are the days of creature features and summer camp slashers; in their place are a rolodex of “real life” terrors ranging from home invasions to claustrophobia to the simple human inclination towards violence. Making people jump is easy, but in the last few years horror filmmakers seem preoccupied with stories that resonate on a deeper level.

David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 release, It Follows, perfectly represents this kind of generational impact on horror. The film is both a connection to and departure from classic horror, defining the genre by what it was then and what it is now. It Follows artfully balances a unique premise with age-old scare tactics; the result is a stylistically brilliant, unnerving reflection of youth in the modern age. Kicking off with a stunning 360-degree pan, the film opens on a young woman stumbling through her suburban neighborhood. Immediately we are introduced to a number of ideas as the girl’s father, barely shown, calls to her across the yard. She assures him everything is fine (though it’s clearly not). Then, in a series of quick cuts: the girl’s car charging towards the beach; the girl leaving her father a panicked but heartfelt voicemail; the girl’s mangled body after a brutal but unseen death.

Albeit a simple introduction, it packs a symbolically heavy punch. An over-analysis of the scene would expose an underlying mark of the millennial generation. For starters, we have a young woman among suburban, middle class life. She is running from something unseen, thus reflecting fears of an uncertain or undecided future. This ties into several components of millennial culture: the turn away from traditional education/careers (i.e, influencers), plummeting marriage rates, and the stigma of “adulting,” to name a few. 

We could also consider that millennials are widely regarded as the generation of laziness and immaturity, supposedly struggling to grasp concepts of adulthood. This idea can be found in the girl’s attire, which includes a casual outfit contrasted with a tall pair of red heels. While the shoes suggest womanhood and a kind of sensuality, as the girl fumbles her way through the neighborhood there’s a sense of a child playing dress up with Mom’s clothes. We could also consider how the girl’s relationship with her father is depicted: Kept offscreen and distanced from his daughter as she lies about the direness of her situation, he becomes a symbol of parental ignorance which suggests the fear of not truly knowing one’s children. 

This latter concept is the through line of the film; the things teenagers get up to in their journey through the opportunities and limitations of young adulthood. Namely, sex, as evidenced once we are introduced to the film’s protagonist, Jay (Maika Monroe). Jay is a young adult going through the motions of summer with her younger sister and their friends. After a seemingly successful date, her and Hugh (Jake Weary) have sex in the back of his car. This leads to Jay being drugged, tied to a chair, and brought to an abandoned (or, at least, super creepy) parking garage. And here we’re introduced to the film’s ultimate evil: sex- or, more accurately, that which follows it.

This idea comes to fruition as Jay and Hugh’s post-coital scene reveals the film’s “monster”- a shapeshifting curse which is passed on through sex. To simplify: once someone has slept with a carrier of the curse, it gets passed on to them until their next sexual encounter. In this time, the curse manifests as a person (whether a friend, family member, or a complete stranger) which slowly yet unrelentingly follows the last person infected. This continues until said person has slept with the next victim. However, passing the curse on doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. If the curse manages to “get” someone, it backtracks until it has killed everyone once inflicted by it.

The obvious implications are there; a personification of STDs, unplanned pregnancy, and other sexual horror stories. Thematically, the film is about the fear of something inescapable- even to pass it on means a possibility of the curse coming back to get you. What makes the threat so terrifying is its form, both in context of the movie and its underlying message. The monster, for lack of a better term, can look like anyone. It will not chase you, but its pursuit is unrelenting. There’s no way- at least, one provided in the film- to truly neutralize or prevent the threat. This gives the overall sense of entrapment, while still proving to be allegorically sound; just as the curse is inescapable, so too is the protagonists’ impending adulthood.

Let’s next consider the stylistic elements of It Follows, which only serve to enhance the aforementioned themes. There is a consistency and simplicity among the editing, shot composure, and score which give a fresh take on the horror genre. The cinematography, while beautiful, unsettles. If the characters are in a room, we are given the time and space to take in their surroundings. This puts the viewer in their shoes, making sure we are constantly checking for an exit route. And if we are to see the monster, it is through dynamic, handheld shots. Again, we are one with the protagonists, feeling unnerved and unsaved. Combined with the soundtrack’s relentless beat, the visualities of the film fill you with a perpetual sense of dread. We cannot feel relaxed, and we cannot feel distanced.

In a genre of jumpscares and overdone tropes, It Follows is the beacon that shows us a new way. A gentler, yet equally (if not moreso) effective approach to horror. The movie builds tension in every way, from what we see and hear to what is simply left to the imagination. The result is a thematically, stylistically, and critically sound take on a new kind of horror. It Follows acts as a doorway; showing us the genre not as it is, but as it could be.

beauty in the ordinary: lady bird movie review

I have long been a purveyor of films that do ordinary life really, really well. So when I saw the trailer for Lady Bird, needless to say I was excited. Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut captures an emotionally raw (at once sweet and brutal) chronicle of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s tumultuous relationship with her mother during her senior year of high school.

The name Lady Bird and its origin (“I gave it to myself. It’s given to me by me.”) remains a focal point of the movie as we follow Christine through her exploration of identity. Along for the ride are her parents, her friends, and her romantic interests, each of whom plays a key role in the larger narrative. Despite the obvious focus on Christine’s perspective and experiences, each of the characters have a persona which Gerwig develops expertly, if unspectacularly. And I mean that in the best way- the true impact of Lady Bird can be found in its very understanding and execution of the unspectacular.

I can admit I understand some of the audience claims that “nothing happens.” All things considered, Lady Bird is a simplistic movie. If you were to ask what the story’s about, at surface level the answer would be, well, not all that much. At first glance, the movie is your typical coming of age story riddled with tropes we’ve seen plenty of times. But if we choose to look a bit closer, it’s easy to see Lady Bird as a journey of both the title character and those surrounding her. Many movies tend to revolve around the protagonist in a way which makes it easy for the rest of the characters to get caught in an kind of orbit that strips them of any real purpose. But this isn’t the case with Lady Bird. Gerwig and her phenomenal cast find a key balance between main and supporting roles which only adds to the overall product. While we are undeniably following Christine, the rest of the cast is not so much along for the ride as they are driving their own cars down the same road. Each character has a distinctiveness and capacity that keeps them feeling dynamic and, for the most part, gets you caring about them. The combination of Gerwig’s direction and the cast’s abilities really bring the characters and their small corner of Sacramento to life.

Also brought to life are the relationships amongst these characters. We laugh with our friends the way Lady Bird and Julie do; we fight with our parents in the bitter, familial way perfectly captured in the opening scene; we cry over romantic toils like those of Danny and Kyle. No action or reaction in this movie is without consequence- every interaction comes with some kind of stakes, whether physical or emotional. Gerwig succeeds in showing us the magnified lens by which teenagers tend to view things, and doesn’t shy away from the reality of small-town, Catholic school life. There is budding sexuality, recreational drug use, nuns and sacramental bread. While the film is beautiful in its visual and emotional right, it is far from romanticized. Which isn’t to say it’s all rough around the edges- Lady Bird is undoubtedly marked by touching, genuinely funny moments which speak to real life. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that every person who sees this movie could find something that they connect with.

(I say this having seen it with four of my guy friends, all of whom ended up in tears)

Lady Bird was a real, beautifully ordinary take on how it feels to stand on the cusp of adulthood. It’s emotionally brave, truthful, and full of heart. The dialogue is wonderfully funny and genuine. Gerwig concocts a story with equal parts cynicism and hope; one that feels both like leaving and coming home.

mother! and pseudo-complexity (spoiler review)

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! has gotten a lot of buzz since its September 15th release, and not all of it has been positive. In response to the backlash the film received, Paramount distribution and marketing president Megan Colligan was quoted saying, “We’re really proud of this film, and we’re going to stick with it. It’s big, bold and audacious. We always knew it wouldn’t be for everybody.”

And it certainly wasn’t. While early reviews of the film were generally positive, Mother! went on to obtain an F rating from Cinemascore, cementing the division audiences felt over the movie.

As for me? I went to see Mother! with a group of friends, all of whom gushed about how amazed they were by the film’s complexity and structure. However, I was less than impressed. My jaw was certainly dropped for most of the two hour runtime, but once the credits rolled, I didn’t have that sense of wonder everyone else seemed to. Instead, I was disturbed. I was riled up. And more than anything, I felt cheated. Between the marketing for Mother! and the early praise I had read, I’ll admit that I went in with high hopes. As the film began, Aronofsky had me gripped. I was engrossed in that sweet spot between nervousness and excitement you have during a well-done thriller.

Yet as the movie went on, it became apparent that I was not watching a thriller, but an aesthetically pleasing mess of metaphors. By the time it was over, I was angry. I had been promised a great home invasion horror, only to be left with a pseudo-deep adaptation of Every Bible Story Ever.

Now, my issue is not with Mother!‘s biblical references. My issue isn’t even with the chaotic nature that makes the film feel like a two hour long panic attack. My issue is with the forced, hollow approach to these elements. It isn’t about “not getting it” or “missing the point”, it’s about not seeing the “point” as all that profound to begin with. Mother! doesn’t appear to have much meaning beyond its attempts at depth and complexity. Is the film really thought provoking beyond “spot the biblical reference”?Because Aronofsky doesn’t do much to support the broad claims and comparisons he makes. Creating a film based on bible stories is really just creating a metaphor of a metaphor, and when a film relies solely on its metaphorical significance, it’s left without a leg to stand on.

If the goal of cinema is (as it should be) to connect with an audience, there needs to be something more than dazzle and disturbance. The characters need to serve a purpose beyond unsettling the audience and reinforcing an already apparent message. While art is meant to evoke something from its audience, to only have the goal of doing so is not the mark of a well-done film. Mother! seeks to be complex, but this approach only works when executed with subtlety. Instead, Aronofsky chooses to put the movie’s “depth” at the forefront of every scene, leaving viewers with little to guess at, wonder about, or be surprised by.

It is in the nuances, in the moments that make you go “ohhh,” when there is a reveal and you can go back and see the hints laid out in earlier scenes. This is why It Comes at Night succeeds for me where Mother! failed to. The former leaves you with questions which can be answered by looking into the film’s details. While the latter definitely left me with questions, none of them can be explained within the realm of the film. We know that Jennifer Lawrence is the house, but how? Where does the crystal come from? What exactly is Javier Bardem’s character, other than a poorly concealed metaphor for God and creation? A movie is not complex simply because it leaves you wondering, especially not when there is no origin to go off of. The subtext of Mother! isn’t subtext at all, but blatant allusions to artistry, mother nature, and the Bible.

Which brings me to my other problem with the movie. It is so focused on being about something that I’m not convinced even Aronofsky knew what he was going for. The scope of Mother! deals with everything from creation to being a mother to celebrity culture to (right there at the end) Nazism. The film looks to include so much in its deadly bubble of metaphors that its through-line is unclear. There’s nothing inherently wrong with an ambitious film, but in the case of Mother!, it is so reliant on chaos and alienating its audience that any true meaning falls by the wayside.

When it comes down to it, I find Mother! to be a far better film when taken at face value. As a home invasion story, it works. As a depiction of a failing marriage, it works. It is beautifully shot and crafted. Jennifer Lawrence gives a surprisingly impressive performance as “Mother”. Things only begin to fall apart when looked at too closely, for you’ll find there’s very little at the movie’s core.

So by all means, go see Mother! and enjoy following Jennifer Lawrence down the rabbit hole. Just don’t ask Aronofsky for more than he’s willing to give.

 

 

 

 

give ’em something to talk about: it comes at night movie review

For all the faults of its marketing campaign, Trey Edward Shults’s sophomore film It Comes at Night is as strong as the trailer would lead you to think (though not at all in the way you’re expecting).

To start, there’s no monster in the sense that the trailer leads you to believe. The real beast is entirely subtextual, which is fitting in a film that gives many clues but few hard answers. Is the monster fear, or is it humanity, or is it simply the sickness taking hold? Is it something else entirely? Just what is “it’, and how does the night factor in? For me, therein lies the beauty of this film; not in the answers, but the questions themselves. There is an ambiguity to It Comes at Night that has nothing to do with sloppiness or loose ends. The final scene didn’t come about at random or out of an inability to think of something better. Like the rest of the film, the ending is crafted with purpose; Shults does not spoon feed the audience, instead giving us everything we need to make our own meal.

This is where I imagine the division among viewers comes from. We have been spoiled by mainstream films doing the thinking for us. Because we’re not used to a movie that leaves us wondering, we’re in danger of mistaking this ambiguity for bad writing. This is not to say that an enigmatic movie is inherently good, either. It is a tightrope walk, to be sure, and I think Shults balances it perfectly. While the audience is indeed left wondering, we’re not left completely in the dark. Rather, the clues are laid out for us, but Shults makes the decision to let us piece them together ourselves. This is how to pull off a film of this style- you nudge the viewers in the right direction, then you let them choose where to go with it. By doing so, you give the film endless possibility: what happened to Stanley? Was any part of Will’s story true? What exactly is waiting beyond those woods? We can’t say for sure, but we can speculate, and if a film’s quality is judged by how long it sticks with you after it’s over, Shults succeeds in this way. While it may not be a movie with mass appeal, It Comes at Night undoubtedly gets you thinking. Whether you loved it, hated it, or fall somewhere in between, you simply can’t put it out of mind once the credits have rolled.

Setting aside all the questions we might have, there’s no denying that Shults is a talented writer/director. With virtually zero exposition he immerses us in the world of Travis and his family in all its apocalyptic glory. As with the rest of the film, there’s no hand holding. The story merely plays out, and we get it even without having all the details. Everything from the location to the character interaction tells us what we need to know (nothing more, nothing less) to keep things moving. Equally talented and immersive is the small but strong cast, namely Joel Edgerton, who play the role of humans in their purest form. They are scared, battered, loving, and curious. Despite any confusion with the story, there wasn’t a moment when I didn’t buy what the actors were selling me. Their actions and motivations had logical (if ambiguous) through-lines, and it kept me drawn into their world. Together, Shults and the cast give It Comes at Night the capacity to make viewers feel exactly how it wants them to. As for me, my heart was constantly pounding, and even suspecting what would happen next did nothing to ease my nerves. It is a movie about humanity, and if given the chance, it will make you feel absolutely human.

between action and emotion: baby driver movie review

I had the opportunity to see Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver during its limited release in April. At the time, I had only one real complaint about the movie. One which most of my friends and fellow viewers seemed to echo: “it just didn’t feel very realistic”.

As I sit here now digesting my second watch, I still hold this opinion, but I’ve changed my tune on whether or not this is a bad thing. Upon revisiting Baby’s world of soundtracked, fast-paced crime, I was able to distance myself from my expectations and enjoy the ride (so to speak). Baby Driver is an escapist movie in the purest form; for that hour and fifty-three minutes, nothing concerns you except whatever it is that’s concerning Baby. And in the same vein, the quality of Wright’s work isn’t affected by the reality of the plot or character motivations. The film holds up regardless, because there is “real” sentiment and “real” stakes. Wright handles everything with his usual care, expertly creating a movie with genuine heart. Every major decision is motivated by emotion, and this grounds the film in a reality of its own. It doesn’t matter if the choices feel real to us, because we know that they are real to the characters.

Responsible for bringing these choices to life is the exemplary cast. The lesser-known actors prove their abilities, while the well-versed actors thrive without stealing the show. Ansel Elgort (whom I’d previously never considered much) hits his stride as Baby. He walks the line of reluctant and bold, knowing there’s no way out but looking for one anyway. Lily James plays his sweet and simple love interest, at once in over her head and ready to embrace it all with Baby by her side. The two have a chemistry that caters to the heart of the film. They possess the same devotion to each other as the dangerous Buddy and Darling, partners in crime portrayed by Jon Hamm and Eliza Gonzalez. The couples are two sides of the same coin, representing the key elements of Baby Driver; the action and the emotion. Buddy and Darling are invested in the same crime world that Baby and Deborah are trying to escape; while the former couple revolves around the physical (crime sprees, shootouts, and sex), the ladder is all about the emotional (dead mothers, music, and a love for the open road). These are the two sides that Wright precisely balances in Baby Driver. The entire film is a cocktail of enterprise and sentimentality, culminating in the soundtrack and its execution. Each song was carefully chosen to frame the movie, one second tugging at heart strings and the next hitting cues for a car chase. The music is the film’s backbone, artfully structured to hold up Baby Driver‘s thematic, character, and storytelling elements.

While Wright handles his newest film with the same amount of care, Baby Driver’s style is a clear divergence from his usual work. The effort isn’t lacking, but simply focused elsewhere. Everything comes together as it should, even if not in the way that longtime Wright fans would expect. The key to enjoying this movie is to allow yourself to go in without expectations. Treat Baby Driver like a song you’ve never heard before: sit back, relax, and let it play.

wonder woman movie review (or: the problem with origin stories)

With all I had heard or otherwise read about Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman (92% on Rotten Tomatoes with a promising 91% audience score), I was looking forward to seeing a film that could supersede my general disappointment in the superhero genre.

As the movie began, I was reasonably captivated by the Amazons and their island. The beginning of Wonder Woman proved to be an exciting and wonderfully shot watch. With the strength of this opening, I could have watched two hours of activity on Themyscira alone. Jenkins succeeded at pumping me up for both the action already playing out and that which would follow. The stage had been completely set for an epic, but at the end of the 140 minute runtime, I had been completely lost to Wonder Woman’s initial draw. I was left bobbing around in a sea of exposition, with little to cling to but some well-done cinematography and a few emotional beats.

I think that my real issue with Wonder Woman boils down to my issue with origin stories in general. The majority of Marvel and DC’s catalogues have created a certain formula for these types of films, one which ultimately equates to a boatload of exposition. The problem is not that there is a necessary backstory to give, but that it tends to be given in an entirely unnecessary (see: boring) way. When it comes to action-packed films, I think it’s easy for the director to focus all their energy on the battles and drop the ball on the rest of the story. The bulk of this genre can involve too much tell and not enough show, and this approach simply can’t hold up in the context of an origin story.

I found that Wonder Woman often falls into this same trap of favoring spectacle over story. The film hits as it should in the action sequences, the sweeping shots of Themyscira, and the incredible “No Man’s Land” scene, but these become overshadowed when Jenkins opts to give us the information outright rather than allowing her vision to play out. For example, the mention that Diana was not born of Hippolyta but handcrafted from clay and granted life by Zeus. We are explicitly told this through dialogue between Diana and her mother. But imagine for a moment that rather than being spoon fed this fact, the film opens with a scene of Hippolyta sculpting her daughter and Zeus subsequently “birthing” her. Minimal (if any) dialogue needed, and we are still given the key information necessary to move the story forward. There is always more than one way to present something to the audience, but some ways are undeniably better than others. Jenkins’s approach took me out of the world she worked so hard to craft, and undermined the truly satisfying parts of Wonder Woman. While Gal Gadot gives an excellent performance (finding the sweet spot between naivety and strength), and Chris Pine once again brings his talent, their characters did little for me. While cinematographer Matthew Jensen does his job expertly, his prowess can’t save a sinking ship.

Don’t misunderstand: I’m not begrudging the storyline itself, nor the input of exposition. I understand that there are specific steps to be taken when crafting an origin story, and while Jenkins hits all the beats with Wonder Woman, that’s all she accomplishes. Her biggest mistake was in following the same tried and (debatably) true methods of similar movies. The film has some real strengths; I just would have liked to see something fresher than getting the entire past, present, and future through conversation between characters. When it comes to film, there should always be room for innovation. In the case of Wonder Woman, there isn’t anything new or interesting at play, and that can stop the story from being rewarding to the audience. It’s an entertaining movie, and it’s nice to look at, but it isn’t good storytelling. For a film to be great, it must seek to do more. So it’s a superhero movie, does that mean it must sacrifice everything outside of this? Can an origin story not go beyond surface level, getting to the gritty show over tell?

that theater feeling

For all the faults of my college, there’s one thing they have to offer that almost makes the $65,000 tuition worth it. I can deal with the over-processed food, the questionably sturdy elevators, and the at-times underwhelming professors so long as the school continues to deal out the one thing that feeds my film major soul.

Free movie screenings at the theater across the street. The building itself is a majesty; an extension of the AMC theater chain, it’s a perfect storm of old school and modern cinema. Gold, classical detailing, dozens of movie posters lining the walls, and stories upon stories of films being played. Just thinking of it now has me holding back tears.

Equally beautiful as the theater itself is the feeling of plopping yourself in one of the cushy seats, watching the trailers play, and knowing that the only expense for it all is the popcorn nestled on your lap. What’s even better is the occasional early screening. The knowledge that you’re seeing a film before the rest of the world is a kind of power usually reserved for (I imagine) drug cartels and pimps. It’s a high you can’t pay for (literally).

It was one of these early screenings that gave me one of the best viewing experiences of my life. My school had the opportunity to see Jordan Peele’s Get Out a couple of weeks before its February 24th release date. Its rotten tomatoes score (then 100%) set my expectations pretty high, and I was eager to see what a funny man like Peele could do with a horror flick. As the theater flooded with my classmates, there was a energy only college kids just given free stuff can bring. I was swept up in it immediately, and before the first scene was even over I had fallen in love with Get Out. 

As the movie played on, I was hyperaware of being part of an audience. Every funny moment was a riot. Every scare earned a scream, gasp, or heckle. While this would typically take a person out of the movie, it only served to draw me in deeper. I think that this is the power of horror, as well as comedy, and the reason that Peele’s directorial debut was so successful. Horror films (good ones, anyway) are scary because something about them connects with us; whether it be imagining ourselves in the character’s shoes, having a fear played out on screen, or feeling the pain of the FX gore. It’s precisely the reason why we yell at the protagonist to not open the closet, cringe at a character’s wounds, or fall victim to jump scares. When horror is done right, it’s going to get a reaction, and it’s going to be a strong one.

The same is true of a comedy. What makes a movie funny is its ability to get a rise out of its audience. These elements are all present in Get Out. Peele created a film that is at once terrifying and uproarious, and in doing so he expertly pulls reactions from the viewer(s). As we watched the story unfold, everyone in the audience was undeniably there, both as an individual spectator and as a part of the whole. We couldn’t help but yell warnings at Chris, heckle the oblivious white folks, and hyena laugh anytime Rod was on screen. And again, this should have alienated us from the world of the movie- but Get Out is a film so aware of itself that the audience interjection only served to make it better. It has undeniable prowess as a movie, but what really made me enjoy Get Out were the circumstances around seeing it. The theater was full of energy, shifting from excitement to unease to amusement with the drop of a hat. There are few things equal to the feeling of being among others and knowing you’re all equally riled up about the same thing. And as someone who wants to work in film, it was nothing short of heartwarming to have this applied in a theater setting. What’s better was the fact that the majority of the audience was comprised of VMA majors. It was the most honest form of moviegoing; each of us unapologetically freaking out, sporting our passion for film in a place we knew it would be understood (and, in fact, celebrated).

Film is such a personal medium that it’s easy to forget that every movie we love is not tailor made for us. The beauty of film is that it is simultaneously intimate and universal, and such is never truer than when you’re seated in a packed theater. While each member of the audience has their own experiences which allow them to form an individual opinion, at the same time film is a group activity.  I have often fallen victim to that possessiveness one can feel over a movie, but here’s what that first viewing of Get Out taught me: You can’t own a movie. Even if you do own a physical copy, who the film ultimately belongs to is each and every person that has ever seen and loved it. And when you can embrace this idea, there’s a real sense of camaraderie that comes with going to see a movie in theaters.

Yes, it’s easy to get annoyed at the guy who yells at the screen or the girl who laughs too loud at any remotely funny moment. But it’s all an inherent part of going to the cinema. Some movies are just meant to be watched on a big screen, and to completely ignore your fellow moviegoers is to miss out on half the experience.

(Except for the guy who just has to keep his phone on. Fuck that guy.)