Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The 31 Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century

Happy Halloween everyone.

I always like to write something special for Halloween on my blog every year. Simply put, its one of my very favorite times of the year, as it celebrates one of my all-time favorite genres. I find much thrill in being scared. Even if I regret it the next day, even if I am up all night and its all my fault, I love the thrill of a great scary movie. So yes, every year in October, I am talking horror movies. It's a genre that is smarter than most people give it credit for, and the things it pulls off as the years go by continually astound me.

I was thinking about making a list of the best horror movies of all time, but that seemed like a whole lot of unnecessary pandering. I mean, do you honestly need me to tell you how great films like "The Exorcist," or "Rosemary's Baby" or "Poltergeist" or "The Shining" are? No, probably not. Anyone who truly loves horror movies already know why those movies are so great. What doesn't get as much love? The horror films that have been coming out since the new millenium began. Yes, I know its early in this new century, but that doesn't mean we haven't had any great new horror films yet. So to celebrate this year, I have compiled a list of the 31 Best horror films of the 21st Century. Movies that have been released between the years 2000 to 2017 were considered.

Two films you won't find on the list? "Cabin In The Woods" and "Shaun of the Dead." I love both of those movies, fanatically so. But those are more action-horror and comedy-horror. They are not straight up horror movies. I never felt like I was going to have nightmares after viewing those two films. This is a list can hurt you if you are not careful, that is why I wrote it. These movies have the ability to provoke, they have the ability to creep you out. 

Now onto the list. As Stephen King once said, be careful. Some of them have teeth.

31. The Strangers (2008)

Not a movie I would have expected to like when I first saw the initial trailers. But “The Strangers” pulls off what many slasher films don’t, they make you care about the people being stalked by killers and it manages to create a spooky atmosphere. The house the couple is in feels creepy, we feel the emptiness of the woods around their home. Plus, have I mentioned how scary skipping records are?

30. You’re Next (2011)

If “The Strangers” was different for taking the slasher film in a new direction, then “You’re Next” deserves kudos for taking the typical slasher movie clichés and completely reinventing them. This is a movie that zigs every single time you think it’s going to zag. It’s a movie that sets up the typical clichés then slyly and cleverly turns them on their head. It’s a fascinating horror movie, with real mood and even some bitter laughs.

29. The Sacrament (2013)

Director Ti West is a mad bastard for putting a fictional yet frightening spin on the Jonestown Incident of the late 1970s. The story of Jim Jones, his cult and his “paradise” in South America is a disturbing story by itself. Dramatized in the form of Ti West only makes it more frightening, making the story hit closer to home. The film’s secret weapon though, is Gene Jones, the gas station clerk from “No Country for Old Men” who only had one scene turned out to be an incredible creepshow of an actor and he’s just one of the many elements that makes this film burn.

28. Get Out (2017)

No doubt a movie that will be reflected upon and debated for many years to come. This clever horror film not only works as something full of scares, but it also works as a brilliant social satire. I never would have guessed to mash “The Stepford Wives” with something like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” But Jordan Peele made a bold statement as a first-time director with this smart and savvy horror film.

27. Saw (2004)

To some, this represents a franchise that wore out its welcome quite a long time ago. But I have to admit, the first film in this franchise felt like a bomb going off. Jigsaw was instantly ingrained in the pantheons of great movie monsters, it kickstarted a series of horror films and it made Shawnee Smith relevant again, if only for a short time. The first “Saw” leans on some hefty atmosphere and it created some situations that truly made my skin crawl, which earned it a spot on this list.

26. Train to Busan (2016)

It’s safe to say that we have a horror market that is oversaturated by zombies. So much so that there never seems to be anything new to do with the undead brain-eaters. But last years’ “Train to Busan” put an end to that thinking really quick. Containing the terror to a train only increased the intensity of the film and it definitely created a near claustrophobic situation of a storyline, something that seems increasingly difficult as the years wear on.

25. Trick’R’ Treat (2009)

This took years and years to finally get released, and it was well worth the wait.

24. “Under the Skin” (2014)

If you told me back in say, 2012, maybe even a little before that, that Scarlet Johansson of all people would be the face of terror in 2014, I would have totally laughed in your face. But sure enough, she appears in this grim alien invasion movie. Not the type where aliens blow things up nice and big, but one where an alien comes in the form of a beautiful woman to lure men to her ship in order to shed their skin and eat their bodies. This is a strange, strange film but it’s a dark and disturbing kind of strange that gets under your skin (pun totally intended) with ease.

23. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

I don’t think there are too many horror movies that could work in straight up black-and-white, it’s certainly not the 1930’s or the 1940’s anymore. However, there is something eerily hypnotic about this import from Iran. Not only does it make chilling use of its atmosphere and mood, but as a slight vampiric romance, it beats “Twilight” at its own game. But make no mistake, there are some creepy moments in this bundle of joy.

22. “The Others” (2001)

A horror film that you had to see a couple times to really absorb and find all the frightening moments that fill each frame. This film had a little of everything; effective ghouls, creepy children, no needless exposition, and some slick mood. The scene when Nicole Kidman asks about her daughter…yikes…gets me every time.

21. “Grave Encounters” (2001)

Not many found footage films have created something so disturbing and so disorienting to watch since, well “Blair Witch Project.” There are not that many found footage films that are scary…or really even good. But this one taps into some primal evil, some scenes that will make your skin crawl and your hair raise up on its end.

20. “Signs” (2002)

Okay, I may have lost some credibility with some of you. But I have to admit, this was the last film before M. Night Shyamalan went downhill for over a decade. There are scenes in this movie that still work to this day. The video footage at the birthday party. The alien on the roof of the farm. Boy, those scenes give me the willies. And the score by James Newton Howard could give nightmares by themselves.

19. “Starry Eyes” (2015)

Some of the best horror films ever made were movies that took dark sides of life and made stretched them to the point of insanity. This movie takes a look at the dark side of making it big in Hollywood. It’s a little “Black Swan,” a little “Mulholland Drive” mixed with some crazy cult horror. It works on a psychological level, which are my favorite kind of horror film and it is completely terrifying throughout its entire running time.

18. “Dawn of the Dead” (2004)

There are have been countless remakes of classic horror films ever since the new millennium hit. Out of all of them, I think Zak Snyder’s remake of “Dawn of the Dead” is by and large the best of them all. Snyder really taps into the mayhem and macabre of what might actually have happened if, God forbid, a zombie outbreak occurred. Romero’s old political commentary still works here, and it’s freakier than ever before.

17. “V/H/S” (2012)
16. “V/H/S 2” (2013)

Found footage films hardly ever work. Worse yet, anthology films hardly ever work. So, color me surprised when a group of seasoned horror directors came together for TWO installments of both of those things and made two films that were horrifying and good. I wish this became a mainstream success, because I would have loved to sit through one of every Halloween.

15. “Lords of Salem” (2013)

When you think of Rob Zombie, you think of movies with extreme gore, profanity on a level that makes it sound like it comes from an adolescent who just discovered bad words and characters with crazy names spouting one-liners. For some reason, Zombie abandoned his bag of tricks and made this, a delirious psychological nightmare that did a number on me the first time I saw it. I never knew Zombie was such a psychological artist, and I really wish he’d make more movies like this. This is the wheelhouse he should adopt.

14. “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001)

Guillermo Del Toro seems to excel in two things: visually lush blockbusters and visually lush horror films. When he jumps into his horror roots, he can create some unflinching, uncompromising content. This is a haunting experience from start to finish.

13. “The Witch” (2016)

Yep, you missed the boat on this one, folks. Lots of people did. But when this one gets rediscovered twenty or so years from now, and it will, it will be put on the same list as “The Exorcist,” and “The Shining” and “Rosemary’s Baby” as the classics of the genre.

12. “Sinister” (2012)

Creepy videos, scary!

11. “The Bay” (2012)

This one sticks to me. I have seen it three times and I am serious as hell when I say I can’t watch it again. What’s clever about “The Bay” is that it takes the real and exaggerates it. The monsters of this movie are real creatures, and the situation taking place in the Chesapeake Bay is a real situation, just stretched like a tall tale. A powerful blend of eco-horror and body horror, “The Bay” is fucking terrifying.

10. “The Babadook” (2014)

A stunning look at how anxiety can affect every aspect of your life, and how it can open up some rather dark wounds.

9. “Paranormal Activity” (2009)

Love that this was the franchise that finally put all of those bad “Saw” sequels to death. This is fine example that a movie can scare the hell out of you, by only using sound effects, and even the mere opening of a door. There are not too many movies like that, and this one has always been special because of it.

8. “The Conjuring” (2013)

From its eerie opening music and dialogue that immediately sets you on edge, to the last boo scare right before the credits, there was not one moment of this film that didn’t make me want to crawl out of my own skin.

7. “Insidious” (2010)

Astral projection used to sound cool to me, now I am not so sure!

6. “Let The Right One In” (2008)

Another great vampire romance that still has the ability to scare its audience and it still beats “Twilight” at its own game.

5. “Inside” (2007)

A woman coming to the home of pregnant widow, wanting the unborn baby and willing to do whatever she can to get it. It’s a pretty darn primal set up for a horror movie and it’s kind of crazy how it also works as a 9/11 allegory and still has the ability to provoke some big reactions.

4. “The Mist” (2007)

Got this one goes down strong, and it’s an ending so jet-black that it feels like a punch in the heart. The cryptic monsters are only just one half the equation, what also works is how humanity and morality literally breaks down when a group of people are together in a small space together. Honestly, it’s the humans that are scarier here than the monsters. It’s a movie that punishes its characters for losing hope, even in the darkest of situations.

3. “The Ring” (2002)

I am still flabbergasted that a major motion picture company released this. This feels like an independent film made by a fresh new face in the world of horror. The film is all mood and all atmosphere, it’s completely stark from beginning to end. It barely gives you a moment to breathe, it barely gives you a moment to relax.

2. “Anti Christ” (2009)

Lars Von Trier has always been a monster, this is his scariest nightmare. Get ready to cringe if you come across this one.

1.     1. 28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle made a horrific masterpiece. Combining the realistic, grounded feel of the DV camera, to making “zombies” run fast in real time, “28 Days Later” is another look at how wrong the world can get by our devices and how startlingly terrible the end of the world would be. Creepy energy all throughout and great performances abound, “28 Days Later” is a horror fever dream, and the greatest effort of the century so far. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Review: "1922" proves that 2017 is a golden year for Stephen King adaptations.

1922 Review

Did I jinx myself?

I must have jinxed myself.

You see, when the year began, and a huge host of Stephen King adaptations were being pushed through the pipeline, I discussed how Stephen King was hard to adapt. I discussed how very few of his adaptations actually worked onscreen, and how his horror stories were especially difficult to adapt. Some say that nothing is impossible to adapt, it just needs the right cast and crew. But I truly do believe that some things can’t be translated to other media outlets. For the longest time, I didn’t think anyone could honestly adapt any of Stephen King’s stories.

Well, 2017 is starting to prove that point moot. Yes, “The Dark Tower” may been completely unsuccessful. But “IT” was pretty spot-on for the most part, and I still stand by my review. I also really enjoyed Netflix’s “Gerald’s Game” and now the streaming service recently released “1922,” adapted from Stephen King’s novella. I am starting to think that perhaps Netflix should be in charge of all Stephen King adaptations from this point forward. I think “1922” is another winner. It’s not overt horror like a lot of King’s work, but there is some striking and spooky atmosphere that builds in the film, and there are plenty of content that will surely give you the willies. I am willing to bet big money that if you don’t have a problem with rats right now, you will after this movie. I suppose King himself is sacred of rats.

The movie is about Wilfred, played to perfection by Thomas Jane. Wilfred is a rancher who is proud of the land he works on. His wife Arlette (Molly Parker) inherits some different land near the beginning of the film. The couple argues over what to do with the new land. Wilfred wants to add it to their farm, while Arlette wants to sell to their rivals and eventually move to the city. The couple can’t come to an agreement, and Wilfred sees only one way out. Wilfred will conspire with his 14-year-old son Henry (Dylan Schmid) to kill Arlette. Why not, Wilfred thinks. If Wilfred stays on his farm, then Arlette has threatened to sell her new land and move to the city with him anyway. She is really playing hardball with Wilfred, but he doesn’t want to part from his farm or his son. So together, they kill her.

This is a very different kind of Stephen King horror-show. If you are expecting the typical gore fest, you are not going to get one. Besides a couple of small scenes, there is virtually no blood in the movie. If you are expecting crazy supernatural creatures and crazy visuals, you are not going to get that either. This is a very human horror film, human because it examines just how extreme guilt eats at us from the inside out. Henry feels it, and eventually Wilfred feels it too. It’s a movie that looks at how someone can live a lie for so long, and how it kills them to not admit it to anyone. It’s also amazing how the film avoids the usual conventions of this familiar device with ease.

There is something very special about Thomas Jane, something that I have appreciated about the actor for as long as I’ve been paying attention to his career. Lots of actors get into a typical type-cast routine, even if they try not to. But Jane has always managed to stay original in each film. Who he plays in “Boogie Nights” doesn’t seem like the guy he plays in “Face/Off.” Neither of those guys seems like the characters he plays in “Stander” or “I Melt with You” or “Deep Blue Sea.” And none of those guys has anything in common with how Jane brought The Punisher alive for Marvel over a decade ago. He does something completely original every time he plays a new role, and I wish more people picked up on that, because he should be a bigger star than he is. Jane once again disappears into the role of Wilfred. At first, I had to keep reminding myself that it was Thomas Jane playing him, because he literally disappears. His Southern draw, his haircut, the way he position’s his face, we’ve never seen an actor come alive like this in a long time. I wish I could say he had Oscar chances, I wish he did, because this feels like a once-in-a-lifetime performance.

The rest of the cast is pretty spectacular too. With performances by Parker, Neal McDonough, Kaitlin Bernard and Brian d’Arcy James all being memorable. Young Dylan Schmid emerges as a major talent here, and he could possibly end up as a young character actor who knocks it out of the park more often than not.

There is some great energy and life to the movie. Even though I think the movie kind of “shoots its wad” a little early, it still doesn’t boringly slug to the finish line. It keeps things interesting even when it feels like the movie should be over. The performances guide the film, and the creepy atmosphere that builds is quite memorable. More than anything, 2017 is proving to be a year where we finally figured out King’s panache and that’s just good news all around. I could watch good Stephen King adaptations for days and days.


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Chifilmfest Review: "Chasing The Blues" leaves audiences not chasing much.

Chicago International Film Festival Review

Chasing The Blues

I get a huge kick out of Jon Lovitz. I think he’s turned out outstanding performances in just about everything he’s been in, no matter how big or small those performances may be, he has always delivered. When I read that he was starring in a small comedy called “Chasing the Blues,” I got excited. Turned out that his role in the movie wasn’t as big as I had hoped, but that was ok. He does well even when he keeps his time short.

Lovitz walks into a prison, wearing a baby blue leisure suit. He visits a man named Alan Thomas, played by Grant Rosenmeyer. Thomas has been in prison now for an undisclosed amount of time, and it sounds like he got there because of murder. Lovitz’ character doesn’t know him personally, but he has something Thomas really wants. He is willing to bail Thomas out of jail in order to give him this thing he wants. But he travel on a cross-country bus from Illinois to Louisiana in order to get it. While Lovitz chokes on a horrible Southern accent, and I do want to stress the horrible Southern accent. Lovitz is still pretty convincing in this opening scene and it sets up the movie with a sweet little mystery.

Thomas then hops on the next bus to Louisiana, and he quickly befriends Vanessa, played by Chelsea Tavares. She is an aspiring singer and they both bond over music, particularly the blues. That is what Thomas is after. He collects blues records, he had hundreds and hundreds of them in his personal collection, but there was a rare one that he almost got, but didn’t. It’s a recording of a song that was cursed, only four were records of this song were made because the song killed people. Some people heard the screaming woman of the singer’s girlfriend dying on the track, and the screaming drove them mad. So it never became a hit, but it became a legend in the world of blues music. Thomas nearly got his hands on one of these forbidden records. When a neighbor named Mrs. Walker (Anna Maria Horsford) was giving her son’s records away, once he confirms she can. Thomas though, has to compete for the record with a music store owner named Paul Bettis, played by Ronald L. Connor.

The whole movie is Thomas reflecting on how he went from camping out in Mrs. Walker’s apartment for this forbidden record to going to prison. It is kind of an odd story, but it sets up the movie for some big laughs. Connor and Rosmeyer do some good work, as these two desperate souls determined to find out if this lauded record will kill them if they listen to it or if they can resist the curse and enjoy the music. Does the curse really exist? They don’t know, both of them know they want it. It would be another sweet addition to Thomas’ collection and it would look good in Paul’s shop. So, they sit for over three days, waiting to hear back from Mrs. Walker’s son. Is Mrs. Walker playing the two men? No answer is ever given.

There is a weird structure to the film, but the film is a small film that packs a decent punch here and there. There is some remarkable music throughout the film that will make you tap your foot. Lovitz is really good in his two big scenes, but that Southern accent is really bad. Everyone else does really good work here. The good acting kind of saves this film from its quasi-messy script. It’s a movie that you can teleplay in your head from the beginning. While there is a shocking moment in the closing scenes, everything that happens isn’t surprising. In mysteries, no matter how small, I like a little surprise. I could see everything coming by the end of this film.

But just because I could see how this road was going to end, doesn’t mean that I hated the ride. There was lots of fun energy in this movie that made this trip worthwhile. I liked moments in this movie. I liked certain scenes in this movie, I don’t know if they add up together quite well. But they sure do try. If you like a goofy plot that pushes a few laughs, then you might actually like this one.


Chifilmfest Review: France delivers the delightful "Chateau"

Chicago International Film Festival Review


Charles is his name, and street hustling is his game.

But Charles walks the downtown Paris streets, dressed to the nines is suave attire, not hustling prostitution or drugs or other contraband. No, he gets people excited for a salon that has recruited him and a handful of other street hustlers. The salon hires street hustlers to get people to go to the salon. Charles, played by Jacky Ido, is one of the very best in the business, and he makes several of the other hustlers envious, some admire him, others will do anything to weaken his street cred. All Charles wants to do is make enough money to buy the barbershop of a friend who wants to retire.
This is the story of “Chateau,” a dramatic comedy from France. This is a colorful, stylish film that packs an unexpected punch. There are many laughs throughout the movie, but it’s got a heart that never feels sappy, nor does it ever force you to roll your eyes. No easy task that is, and this film makes it all look effortless.

Jacky Ido is great as Charles. Now, you probably know who Jacky Ido is, whether you realize it or not. Did you ever see Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds?” Do you remember Marcel? He was Shoshanna’s boyfriend, who lit the celluloid on fire with his cigarette that set Shoshanna’s movie theater on fire and killed hundreds of Nazis? That’s Jacky Ido. He dishes a revelatory performance, commanding the screen with ease. He’s joined by a great ensemble cast, full of French actors I will be putting on my radar. Jean-Baptiste Anoumon is laugh-out-loud funny as Moussa, Tatiana Rojo is charming as Fatou, Ahmed Zirek is delightfully evil as Mourat. The film is rich in performance, and it only elevates the material.

The film doesn’t revolutionize a genre. It doesn’t transcend movies as we know it. This is a small little movie. It’s one of those slice-of-life films that focuses on a group of people on a random few days in their lives. There are moments that will make you laugh and moments that will make you think. Sure, the movie kind of comes together nicely and puts a happy bow on top of it, but that’s the movies for you. “Chateau” is a little on the formulaic side, but there is plenty here for everyone to enjoy.


Monday, October 23, 2017

Phantom Thread Trailer and Poster

I can't believe that Daniel Day-Lewis is honestly planning to retire from acting. But as I try to process this revelation, I can rest easy knowing that his last film will be with Paul Thomas Anderson directing the charge. The last time  P.T. Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis worked together, we got "There Will Be Blood," one of the absolute best films of the 2000's. P.T. Anderson is one of my favorite working filmmakers. Always in a flux of constant motion, always pushing himself as an artist.

"Phantom Thread" is about Reynolds Woodcock, who will be played by Day- Lewis. He was a high society clothing designer who lived in London during the 1950's. Telling from the trailer, it looks like it will be somewhat of a romance between Woodcock and Johanna, which inspired parts of his career. The way P.T. Anderson makes his movies though, you can bet that this won't be your typical romanti film.

I'll be looking forward to this!

Chifilmfest Review: Thursday was my favorite day!

My week at the Chicago International Film Festival has ended. I will attend closing night this Thursday, then the festival will conclude for the year. As a first timer at any sort of film festival, I got to say, that was a blast! If you couldn't tell how much I loved being there from my blog already, pretty much everything I have written for over a week now has had to do with the festival. I averaged roughly four movies a day, holy crap what fun!

I am trying hard to touch on everything I saw. I know it may be frustrating and tedious to read about movies that you may not have access to until a year from now, two years from now, hell perhaps even a full decade from now. Some of these movies may not hit our shores at all, and that's a shame. I have, especially this past year. been very critical about American mainstream film output. There is a reason for that, and you know what it is. Even if this is your first time reading my dinky opinion here on my blog, you know the what it is. Hollywood has become increasingly lazy. That need to feed the lowest common denominator is not going anywhere, anytime soon. Everything I saw last week would never come close to getting greenlit at a major motion picture company. That's a shame. There is no risk in the business anymore. Everyone is chasing the easy money. Everyone is looking for the next big tentpole, something they can plug into their schedule for the next ten years, turn it on, and watch the money pile up. It's a good idea as a business standpoint, I'm sure. But from a creative standpoint, it's, well, risky. This summer's box office take has been the lowest it's been since 2006. I think that comes close to proving I am not some raving lunatic. People are getting sick of seeing the same stuff each weekend at the movie theater. We are starving for the new.

That is why going to this film festival and seeing what the rest of the world has up its sleeve felt more than just a fun time at a festival, but it felt like a vacation from the norm. It was amazing to just sit back and watch something that didn't involve a relentless amount of special effects, or A-list movie stars spouting one-liners. It was a amazing watching movies that featured a beginning, a middle and an end, not something that had a pile of exposition for ten other films coming in the future. On top of all of that, it was just amazing to see a wide variety of countries handle their art, how they construct it, how they are influenced by it, how they are strengthen by it. It was pure bliss, pure magic, even though nothing extremely technical happening onscreen. Its amazing what can happen when you rely solely on story, character and theme.

No doubt my favorite night of the festival was Thursday. It seemed like everything I saw that day struck me in some way. I won't say that each film worked completely, but almost every film that day did. But they each showed me something memorable, created something that struck me as genuine. For that reason, I wanted to talk a little bit about that day as a whole. Instead of spending lots of time writing up reviews. You should see each of these movies, whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Life Guidance
Can you imagine a world where the world is divided into the the powerful, innovative middle class and everyone else below them. You could definitely look our current state and how this storyline is slowly but surely beginning to assert itself, but that's a different discussion for a different time. Capitalism has come to define every aspect of life in the future. This film focuses on a man who seemingly has it all, but is under constant pressure to achieve transparency from his society and culture. Because of this pressure, he is assigned an agent from a company called Life Guidance. Soon, the company begins to observe every facet of his life, and as this man begins to look into the company, he discovers many other sinister findings.

I definitely feel I need a second viewing of this film, just to completely get my head around it. But just from what I saw, I enjoyed the film's energy, the haunting score, and just the creepy atmosphere that was created in the film. While I can't promise I understand exactly what happened by the end of the film, I can definitely tell you this is a movie with something on its mind.

No Date, No Signature
It seems so simple. An asshole is tailgating you and when you go to let him pass, you accidentally hit a motorcycle next to you. Such was an incident for a doctor in this thrilling film from Iran. The doctor does what he can to help the family. The son of the family seemed to hurt his neck in the incident and the doctor advises the father to take him to a hospital. He gets into his car and doesn't think anything of it. Even when he sees the family pass the hospital, he doesn't think anything of it. A few days later, the kid's body ends up in the morgue of the hospital, he has died. 

Is the doctor responsible? Is the father? The father bought chickens from a petty peddler and he didn't realize that the chickens had been dead for days. Still, the negligence could make the father the perp. But the doctor never recorded the encounter from the other night, is he responsible in any way? The doctor becomes obsessed with trying to figure out what happened to the boy, and if he's connected in any way. The film studies guilt, blame, regret, responsibility and deception is such a mature, powerful way that's hard to look away at the end of the film. Between this and 2011's "A Separation," Iran has proven that their film stockput is something to pay attention to.

My favorite film of 2002 remains to be "Minority Report." I still get wrapped up in the visionary look into this dark future, where we can determine a criminal committing a murder before it actually takes place. Not many movies can blend cutting-edge special effects with a moving, engaging story, but leave it to Steven Spielberg to make it all look effortless. The documentary "Pre-Crime" asks what if "Minority Report" was real? Well, okay, creepy psychics who can see murder don't really exist. But police departments all over the country are pouring more and more tax-payers-dollars into criminal justice. Police agencies now have the technology to spy on literally anybody who walks the streets of a given city. By a simple scan, the police can see your social media accounts, the circles you hang out with, your accounts, anything. If you, no matter how little, affiliate yourself with someone with an arrest on their record, you are put on a special list and are watched closely by police.

Does this make you feel safe? Are we really helping the people by spying on their every move? Is this our police organizations doing something about high crime rates or is this just another example of racial profiling? The documentary is very provocative in how it examines every inch of this breakthrough, and studies how millions and millions of us just give up data and information through social media and living on our phones. Anybody could use this information for whatever reason, and it's easy to access. Will someone use it against you? Who knows. This is definitely something that will give you something to think about, which I think was the point of it all.

Wind Traces
Definitely my least favorite film of the day was "Wind Traces." It's a Mexican fantasy film about a family who lost its father recently. The mom feels overwhelmed and two children don't know what to make of this now fractured household. On top of that, the young boy is visited routinely by an old native spirit, who seemingly is trying to help the boy. Maybe. I am honestly not sure. The movie makes a couple whispers about Native Americans and spirits, but it doesn't really explain how the boy able to see the spirit. There is no connection from the fantasy world to the real world. That's what frustrated me the most. I can't just buy into fantasy elements, and if the film refuses to establish those elements, then why should I care? The "Narnia" movies makes it clear that there is a parallel line between Earth and Narnia, and if you find those secret gateways, you will get to and from. The "Harry Potter" movies establish how the magical world hides itself from the "muggle" world, but if you are willing to do the legwork, you can find the portal to both. The spirit in "Wind Traces" appears simply to appear, and that's where it lost me.

Still, the portrait of a struggling family finding hope in who is left is strong. The performances are great all around, and there is some good mood. I just don't hold this film in as high a regard as the other films.

The last film I saw Thursday night was "Mutafukaz." A movie I had to write about in detail last night. It was my favorite film last week. You can read my review here! I really loved it!

I only have a few more Chicago reviews to write. I hope you guys have been enjoying the coverage and I hope I have put some movies on your radar!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Chifilmfest Review: "Charleston" is a different kind of black comedy.

Chicago International Film Festival Review


If I asked how one would feel if they lost their significant other, I don’t think anyone in their right mind could answer that question. I don’t think there could be any type of words to be found by such a forbidden question. To add to such a morbid topic, what would you do if you lost your significant other, then one day your doorbell rings and the lover of their dead significant other is at your door? “Charleston” is a black comedy and drama film, telling the story of how a widower comes face-to-face with his dead wife’s lover. We meet Alexandru (Serban Pavlu), who recently lost his wife. When a man named Sebastian (Radu Iacoban) shows up at his home, saying that he was his dead wife’s lover, Alexandru’s first reaction is to punch Sebastian in the face. Why would this guy come over? What is Sebastian’s game plan, his motive, his goal?

Sebastian only wants to talk to Alexandru, to get to know each other. But Alexandru in his misery, wants nothing to do with him. This guy had sex with his wife, for crying out loud. Some more punches are thrown. Then eventually, Alexandru lets his guard down. The two men sit down together, they share cigarettes, they share drinks, they go to a bar, and they begin to sit back and listen to each other. Sebastian wants Alexandru to help him overcome his grief over the loss of his wife. A tall order to ask a husband who had no clue his wife was running around on him. The thing is, it was Alexandru’s wife who initiated the affair. Sebastian is a shy, introverted young man, and it was Alexandru’s wife who got him interested. They had an affair for five months, and the whole time, Sebastian did not know she was married.

The movie at its core is about a special kind of loneliness. Eventually the two men grow to enjoy each other’s company. On the night Sebastian comes to visit Alexandru, Alexandru is drunk and alone on his forty-second birthday. As he gets to know Sebastian, we learn that Sebastian lives with his uncle, his parents are dead, he doesn’t have many friends, and Alexandru’s wife offered a bond of togetherness that Sebastian desperately needed at the night. Had he known he had the potential to be a homewrecker, he would have never gone for it. Alexandru is stern and hard on Sebastian, and that may be more because of his grief than anything else. But he pretends like everything is okay and that he doesn’t need anyone. But we are human beings, we need human connection of some kind just to function. We are social animals, whether its family or friends or significant others are a little bit of all three, we need people in our lives. If Alexandru just decides to stay isolated, he will drink himself to death.

While the film is very funny, it leans carefully but heavily on the idea of loneliness and how it works as a sickness in the moments of our greatest despair. But despite that, there are several funny moments in the film. Whether it’s Alexandru taking Sebastian to a lunch with his dead wife’s parents. Whether it’s a scene involving Alexandru and Sebastian dancing to one of the dead wife’s favorite songs. Whether a scene where the two men go and try to buy more food and wine, only to end up stealing it because they are out of money. There are several moments of hilarity in the film, moments that will grant you an honest chuckle. There is a good balance between the funny and the dramatic, and the film features one of the most apocalyptic stand-offs between two characters, as these two broken men begin to discuss why Sebastain came to Alexandru in the first place. It’s surprisingly profound how much these characters tackle over the course of this movie.

The film is rich in performance. There lots of fun music moments. The script is tight and full of fun in nearly every corner. But it has something very honest and heartfelt at its center. I was shocked by just how much the film affected me.


Chifilmfest Review: Could "Mudbound" be Netflix's first Oscar machine?

Chicago International Film Festival Review


Race is quite a hot topic right now. Hell, just typing that feels like a tremendous understatement. Since 2014, it seems like racism has begun to rear its ugly head again in our country. Sometimes, I truly feel its reactionary claims, like with the whole #OscarsSoWhite albatross, which I totally feel is an albatross. But there have been many things that have happened over these past few years that show that racism and prejudice are still alive and well in our nation. We have, sadly, not put the past behind us. Still, there seems to be a small group of people who always complain when movies having to do with race are released. All I can say is, once we have come together, admitted what has transpired and work together to create a solution, then nothing will ever change.

There have been several movies released that highlight the power of racism, but equally capture the hope that comes out of something terrible when white and black people come together. Some of the popular examples are films like “To Kill A Mockingbird” or even “Remember The Titans.” I think it’s safe to say that you could easily add “Mudbound” to that list of movies. “Mudbound” takes an unflinching look at rural life in the mid-1940’s. We see racism of all types, all shades. But we also see a hopeful world, some light at the end of a very dark tunnel. It’s told through an incredibly grounded, authentic lens. It is brought to life by a very powerful ensemble of actors. This isn’t a case of just putting together a bunch of nasty images just for the sake of it, in fact, lots of the darker moments don’t happen until the end of the film. This is a film that will make you think on a variety of levels.

The film opens with two brothers trying to bury their dead father in the middle of a rain storm. The brothers Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Henry (Jason Clarke) are digging a big hole, and when they discover other dead bodies with shackles on them, Henry wants to move the body. “Pappi would kill us if he knew we buried him in a slave burial ground” he says. One will also observe that Jamie has a black eye and a bruised lip. When the Jackson family comes by on their wagon, led by the father Hap (Rob Morgan), Henry comes over and asks for help. The Jackson family looks very uncomfortable. Whatever has happened over the last few hours, it incredibly sad, and maybe not all our main characters are quite aware of what has happened.

Then we trace back several years prior to the burial of Jamie and Henry’s father. We find out how Henry met Laura (Carey Mulligan) and how they would eventually marry. We see how their family begins to blossom. We see how Henry makes a deal to move his family into a house and begin a farming business, only to find out he got swindled. Now, they live down the road from the Jackson’s, who Henry hires as his hands for his farm. There is a tense relationship between the families due to Henry’s father Pappy’s (Jonathon Banks) racism. Jamie goes to serve in World War II, as does Hap’s oldest son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell). Jamie and Ronsel come back from the war, and become friends. Much to Pappy’s unhappiness. The families go through many other trials and tribulations.

The film features several other themes instead of just race relations during this moment in American history. These characters are all incredibly complex. Laura loves her husband Henry, but he’s not the swoony, romantic type. That type of guy is Jamie, and it’s the type of personality that Laura secretly craves. There is a slight spark between Jamie and Laura, and will anything come of it? Pappy is so stuck in his old ways, he can’t see how well that Ronsel defended his country. “Mudbound” is also one of the few films to tackle black PSTD. Both Ronsel and Jamie suffer badly from it, and it’s their main link of becoming friends. Ronsel falls in love with a German woman, his experience in Germany contrasts much differently when he comes home. In Europe he was a liberator, in America he’s seen as just another untrustworthy black man. You could watch “Mudbound” several times and pick up a new storyline or a new theme, and I spent much of the film trying to soak it all up.

With a group of actors like Hedlund, Mulligan, Clarke, Banks, and Mitchell putting your cast together, building characters and making them come to life, how can you worry that much? This is a beyond powerful ensemble of actors, and you better believe that they all bring their A-game to this story. Mitchell, so good in “Straight Outta Compton” two years ago, delivers a very different but just as eloquent performance. Mulligan proves once again that she is one of the best and most reliable actresses in the business right now. Hedlund and Clarke are both terrific. Banks takes a deep dive from his usual tough guy roles to bring together one of the scariest racists in all of movies, yikes.

Then there is Rob Morgan. Now, if you are an avid Netflix watcher, then you know who Rob Morgan is whether you realize it or not. If you’ve been watching the Netflix Marvel shows, then you’ve seen Rob Morgan. He plays Turk Bennett, who shows up in just about every Netflix Marvel show, from “Daredevil” to “Luke Cage.” In a weird way, he’s been the villainous version of Phil Coulson, connecting those shows together. Here, he’s playing something very different. He’s the type of guy who is just trying to keep his family out of any immediate racial danger, even though he knows deep down that he may not be able to make that promise. Not being able to do so freaks him out a little. He’s also the type of guy who wants his family to fulfill their dreams, even if he’s a little scared of the world they will grow up in and eventually live in. It’s beyond a captivating performance, Morgan radiates about a thousand different emotions using one face, scene by scene.

I think Netflix has been building towards this for a while now. This year, I think they have the opportunity to do what they have not done yet. I think this will be their first award circuit film. You can pretty much take your pick with any of the actors I listed above and they could possibly get nominated. You can look at set design, you can look at cinematography, and possibly even direction. (Big possibly, let’s see what other directors bring to the fold this winter) This could be a defining moment for the web streaming service, and man, what a movie to do it with. “Mudbound” may take you places you aren’t going to want to go, but it does so with confidence that is hard to beat, and it will constantly plug away at your brain.

"Mudbound" will be released on Netflix on November 17th.


Chifilmfest Review: Friday night gets some spooky laughs with "Creep 2"

Chicago International Film Festival Review

Creep 2

I saw the original "Creep" on Netflix back in 2015. You can read my original review here. For anyone whose never heard of it, a guy named Josef (Mark Duplass) puts an ad in the paper for a videographer, an ad that is answered by Aaron (Patrick Brice, who also wrote the script with Duplass and directed the film). Josef tells Aaron that his girlfriend is pregnant with his child, but that he is quickly dying of cancer, so he wants Aaron to make a series of videos for his child to remember him by. As Aaron further hangs out with Josef over the course of the day, it becomes clear that Josef isn't who he says he is, and perhaps Aaron is danger. It's a movie that walks the thin line between comedy and scary. Mark Duplass is pretty well known for his comedic career, you know from FX's "The League" and starring in films like "Tammy," "Your Sister's Sister," "Safety Not Guaranteed" and "Greenberg." But there is a slight dark side to some of his work. You can see it in "The One I Love,"
 and his recent HBO anthology show "Room 104."

Three years later, Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass are back for “Creep 2.” With all sequels, there is always a scare that it will just be more of the same. Especially when it comes to found footage movies, there is always a strive to just do what came before. The thing is, I think Brice and Duplass figured we’d expect the same thing again too. The film opens with a guy named Dave (Karan Soni) getting a box in the mail. It’s the signature box Aaron from the first film got from Josef. A disc that says “play me” with a stuffed wolf. When Dave puts the disc in, sure enough its full of weird images. He calls his friend over, and sure it enough the friend he calls is Mark Duplass. He pretends to be put-off and scared by the video and the box, and while Dave goes off to get them beers, Mark is already motioning and smiling at the camera. Soon after, he admits his true intentions and cuts Dave’s throat open. It’s a hilarious and striking scene, and it set the stage for the film to come. I was ready for anything.

Then we meet Sara (Desiree Akhavan), a host for a YouTube series that focuses on people putting strange ads on Craigslist, then hunting them down and meeting them. She has made nine episodes of the show, and has only received nine views of the show overall. She doesn’t know what to do, how to make the show better. Her only option seems to be find better ads, then she stumbles upon an interestingly vague ad which promises $1000 for one day of video making. Apparently, somebody needs help with a video and that’s basically all she gets. She accepts and goes to the guy’s house. It’s the exact same house from the first “Creep” movie, but this time Josef is going by Aaron.

Things start to get strange right away. Aaron right away begins to try to scare Sara. But Sara isn’t going to be the typical damsel in distress. Sara is a thick-skinned, tough-as-nails chick, not the typical girl that we meet in horror movies. Honestly, I loved that about the character. She’s a tough videographer, even if she’s internally freaking out by some of the things Aaron is doing. Aaron is also not just doing the same thing he did in the first film. This time, he makes it crystal clear that he is a serial killer. We get another glimpse of the final minutes of the first film as proof. He lets Sara know that he has been killing people for a long time, and that he wants to make one final death video, his own. That’s right, Aaron is ready to die himself and he wants Sara to catch it. How can she resist? She’ll get $1000 for it and its perfect fodder for the show, he’s not really going to kill himself, right? She’s not putting herself in any danger, right? Well, just in case, she has a knife hiding in her boot.

So, “Creep 2” doesn’t exactly tread water, and I certainly appreciate that they took this sequel down a different route. Sure, there are some callbacks from the first film, but most sequels feature those. There is a small line between repeating yourself and using those callbacks to illuminate the new ideas in your sequel. I would say without a doubt that “Creep 2” does the later. Consider a scene when Aaron tries twice to jump out and scare Sara, and neither attempt work to scare her. Aaron also pulls out the infamous Peach-Fuzz mask out and wears to drive to their recording destination. She never feels scared, Aaron sees Sara as a challenge and it’s amazing how their relationship molds by her actions, and how they bounce off of each other. Sara isn’t the same type of victim as Older Aaron was, she is something different entirely.

What was slightly disappointing about this sequel is how it’s more laughs than scares. What was so amazing about the first film is how it gleefully navigated between laugh moments and scary moments. The movie did a good job creating both and never felt like bad transitions. In “Creep 2,” there are very few scare moments. This is more comedy than anything else, and the scares that are set up are punctuated with a comedic punchline. I’d barely call this movie a horror film, wouldn’t go anywhere near classifying this as one, which is too bad, because the first film was good at both. Fans of the first film should be warned that there are very few scares in this sequel, if any at all.

I can tell you that Mark Duplass does an amazing job slipping back into this role. He is, no pun intended, super creepy in this role and he brings a certain level of complexity to the role. I think Desiree Akhavan is a welcome addition to the film, and she does a good job re-creating the type of character we see in movies like this. Any time you try to call what is going to happen in this movie, there is a surprise for you right around the corner. I love that Sara is almost a perfect foil to Aaron, in nearly every way. She does outstanding work here.

Overall, I will say “Creep 2” is a cool movie, I will tell you that it’s a fun movie. I don’t think it completely approves upon the first film, but I suppose technically very few sequels do. I will continue to warn that if you are expecting that walks the line between funny and scary, “Creep 2” does not do that in any way, shape or form. This is a comedy, plain and simple. It doesn’t tread water, like so many sequels do. There is a juicy ending that I think has the potential to set up a magnificently crazy third part, if Brice and Duplass have a third film in them. But this really isn’t scary, it doesn’t come close to creating the creepy atmosphere the first film did. This is merely a funny movie.

"Creep 2" will be available on Video-On-Demand on October 24th. It should hit Netflix sometime soon too.