REVIEW: It Comes at Night

11 06 2017

In his stunning debut feature, “Krisha,” writer/director Trey Edward Shults wowed right out of the gate by showcasing an impressive mastery of emotional ranges in the service of depicting the turbulent mental state of the eponymous character. His follow-up, “It Comes at Night,” takes a more restrained approach. Shults sticks mostly to the tense dread of the taut thriller with the occasional hallucinatory jolt of horror.

It’s hard to deny the impressive grasp of film technique Shults wields. Yet it’s also easy to wish he had a greater narrative, world or characters in which to invest the techniques.

“It Comes at Night” operates from a more contemporary update of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous maxim: the apocalypse is other people. In an abandoned wooden shack, well-armed patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton) defends his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teen son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from a never identified force that seems to turn humans into zombies. All that separates them from the outside world is a single, padlocked blood red door. That’s not the point, nor does that seem to be the “it” to which the title refers.

More than anything, “it” seems to be the fear of others – specifically, the young couple Will and Kim (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) with a small child who stumble upon their house by chance. They seek food and shelter, which Paul reluctantly and provisionally agrees to provide. Suspicion under these circumstances is natural, of course, but the host family – Paul especially – treats their every move with skepticism.

Perhaps these attitudes would make more sense if the characters were better defined –  not necessarily with flashbacks, but at least with hints of the past traumas that formed them – or the world were more fully fleshed out. What, for example, would lead Paul to shoot a man by the side of the road at will without stopping to gather any information from him? Shults opts for omnipresent ambiguity, which leaves us no foothold but the film’s ideology.

That worldview is a brutally nihilistic one, a reduction of all conflict in life to us vs. them. It’s total warfare in “It Comes at Night,” where personal survival means the enemy must face annihilation. I am open to considering viewpoints different from my own, yet the degree to which Shults condones these choices – and, dare I even say, exonerates them in the chilling final shot – left me feeling quite uneasy. Shults’ vague sketches of everything within the film make his cynicism feel unearned. This might be the best Steve Bannon production he didn’t finance. C+

Advertisements




REVIEW: Alien: Covenant

13 05 2017

Comparisons are inevitable when it comes to long-standing movie franchises, particularly when they tell standalone stories. More than, less than, greater than, better than … “Alien: Covenant” is all over the map as it relates to the other films in the series, particularly the 1979 original and Ridley Scott’s last outing with the xenomorphs, 2012’s “Prometheus.”

The film boasts two obvious strengths. The first and most obvious is its fidelity to the body horror of “Alien,” moving away from the more restrained suspense and action-style trappings of its predecessor. “Alien: Covenant” is unabashedly trying to scare us, and it works – especially given the airborne alien pathogen that quickly infects the Covenant crew. You know, in case the tactile terror of the usual entry wasn’t frightening enough.

Screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper also endow the film with a keen sense of cosmological curiosity. “Prometheus” dabbled in issues of faith through the character of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, a devout Christian forced to confront her notions of God in the wake of both scientific discoveries and the cruelty of nature. Though there’s one overtly religious character in “Alien: Covenant,” Billy Crudup’s Captain Oram, the existential questions are more deeply rooted in the story than just one character’s experience. The film locates something more terrifying than chest-bursting extraterrestrial life: artificial intelligence with a God complex and an intent to create (and thus destroy).

*mild spoilers after the break – continue at your own risk*

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Born To Be Blue

29 04 2016

Born to Be BlueAny tweak on the “great man” biopic is welcome, though the pendulum need not swing as far in the other direction as Robert Budreau’s “Born To Be Blue,” a portrait of Chet Baker so mundane that one could mistake him for being an entirely fictional invention. His story of career struggles, addiction battles and relationship strife feel rather commonplace and pedestrian. I entered the film knowing nothing about Chet Baker’s renowned skills and left with scarcely more knowledge about his fame or his work.

Ethan Hawke, who plays Chet Baker, inhabits the body of the talented musician and heroin junkie with aplomb. He’s ever so slightly more on edge than his usual laid-back persona, and he makes his motions a little lankier and oversized. The performance consists of a soulful component, too, not just a grab bag of mannerisms. But with precious little to service, Hawke’s work goes largely to waste.

Writer/director Budreau never settles on what “Born To Be Blue” should be. Films can resist categorization, yet without purposeful maneuvering, ambiguity reads as indecision. The most powerful component of the film might be Baker’s heroin habit; Budreau, however, resists the tropes of drugs being either a fatal flaw or the talent enabler.

Thus, he leaves somewhat of a redemption storyline as Baker relearns the trumpet after losing his front teeth after getting beat up by – shocker! – his dealers. There’s also a good deal of attention paid to Baker’s relationship with Carmen Ejogo’s Jane Azuka, his life partner whose career as an actress frequently takes a backseat to his. He also needs her to be his everything, while she gets precious little in return. Sure, it might be unfair to impose modern social norms on a story set fifty years ago … but Jane literally objectifies herself during sex to make him feel more comfortable. “Play me like a trumpet,” she says. If only “Born To Be Blue” gave more information about its subject, that line would ring as something more than a demeaning, diminutive remark. B-3stars





REVIEW: Selma

7 01 2015

Selma” is not a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic.

Or, I should say, “Selma” is not just a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic.  It is so much more than just the story of one man.

Director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb create their “Lincoln,” a film concerning the premier orator of his era set in the twentieth century’s ’65.  This man, standing with little more than ideology and conscience, must work against a political establishment stacked against them.  What is right, in the minds of these officials, must take a backseat to what the voting public is ready to accept.

But DuVernay, thankfully, disposes of Spielberg’s hagiography of Honest Abe that reeked of cinematic mothballs.  She opts for a portrayal of Dr. King that focuses on who he was and what that allowed him to accomplish.  In a way, not receiving the rights to use King’s actual speeches makes “Selma” a stronger movie.  Whether organically or out of necessity, he becomes so much more than a collection of recognizable catchphrases that trigger memories of a high school civics class.

“Selma” certainly does not shy away from some character details that the history books often elide, such as his vehement opposition to the Vietnam War and his marital infidelities.  Dr. King, as portrayed by David Oyelowo, does not always don his shining armor, either.  The film’s most powerful display of racially motivated violence takes place when hundreds of protesters attempt to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, only to be brutally attacked by a cabal of police and townsmen alike.  King is not there with them.  He is at home, trying to smooth over a marital rough patch with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).

Read the rest of this entry »