ScaryMovie Review: A Quiet Place (2018)

For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.

Title: A Quiet Place
Release Date: April 6, 2018
Director: John Krasinski
Production Company:  Platinum Dunes | Sunday Night Productions

When I saw The Last Jedi in 2017, it was preceded by a trailer for A Quiet Place that Freaked. My. Kids. Out!  While I still think that was inappropriate trailer placement, I was curious to see the film (on my own, when the kids weren’t around). The film depicts a family in rural New York trying to survive in a world where alien creatures with an acute sense of hearing hunt any animals that make loud sounds.  Director John Krasinski stars with real life wife Emily Blunt as Lee and Evelyn Abbott, the parents of three children striving to live an ordinary life while avoiding being killed by the monsters.

Their eldest daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf and knowledge of American Sign Language allows the family to communicate when speaking is deadly. The lack of dialogue and minimal use of music in the film is very effective and emphasizes the ambient sounds in this world.  At times sounds drops out entirely to show Regan’s point of view.  Noah Jupe plays the middle child Marcus, and Cade Woodward plays the youngest child with an unfortunate affinity for an electronic Space Shuttle toy.

If raising kids in a post-apocalyptic world where noises are verboten (my family would be totally dinner in the first days, I’m sure) is hard enough, Evelyn becomes pregnant. The family prepares for labor and an an infant by creating a soundproof basement and adding an anesthetic gas to the baby gear.  Of course, despite all their preparations, things go very wrong.

Horror films generally conclude in one of two ways: either the evil is defeated and normal life resumes, or the protagonists are defeated and evil prevails.  This film ends on a moment of discovery, which is both cathartic and, of course, sets up a sequel that was recently announced.  A Quiet Place is a well-acted, structured, suspenseful, and downright terrifying film!

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: Get Out (2017)

For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.

Title: Get Out
Release Date: February 24, 2017
Director: Jordan Peele
Production Company: Blumhouse Productions | QC Entertainment | Monkeypaw Productions

Get Out is a chilling thriller and social commentary on race starring Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, an African American photographer in New York City.  His white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) invites him to visit her parent’s large house in a remote suburb, promising Christ that they’re good liberals and not racist. Meeting Rose’s family and neighbors at a party leads to Chris dealing with numerous racial microaggressions.  But even more disturbing is the stilted behavior of the few other black people Chris encounters.

First time director Jordan Peele carries the suspense well for the first two thirds of the film, and it’s not a surprise that he now hosts the revival of The Twilight Zone as the movie has that kind of feel.  The final act is horrifically violent as Chris fights for his life, but it is also rather cathartic.  Symbolically, this movie works on many levels.  It depicts the ways that even “good liberal” white people are complicit in institutionalized racism.  It also relates the continuum of violence upon Black bodies through slavery to segregation to mass incarceration to police violence.  Finally, throughout American history, white people have seen Black culture as fashionable and appropriated it as their own, with characters in Get Out choosing to literally wear black bodies.

There are additional good performances from Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford as Rose’s parents, and Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ loyal best friend, Rod.  This is an excellent film and definitely worth watching to catch the stuff I missed now that I know what the big twist is.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: The Witch (2015)

For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.

Title: The VVitch: A New England Folktale
Release Date: January 27, 2015
Director: Robert Eggers
Production Company: Parts and Labor | RT Features | Rooks Nest Entertainment | Maiden Voyage Pictures | Mott Street Pictures | Code Red Productions | Scythia Films | Pulse Films | Special Projects

New England is a spooky place, and to the Puritans of 1630 it was an untamed world of nightmares.  Although director Robert Eggers had to go to a remote part of Ontario to find an undeveloped place to film, the movie captures the dark and mysterious New England forest. This also may be the most authentic depiction of Puritan settlers on film drawing on original documents for the dialogue and research into religious and folklore beliefs. The Witch is also beautiful to look at, with most scenes filmed by natural light or candlelight, adding to the sense of eeriness.

The movie begins with a man, William (Ralph Ineson), getting exiled from a Puritan community.  He leads his family into the wilderness, building a small farmstead in a clearing by a foreboding forest.  His wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) feels the loss of her home in England, and grows increasingly overcome with grief as her children go missing.  The eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the main protagonist of the film, a teenager learning to take on adult responsibilities.  The next in line, Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), is an adolescent boy feeling the need to prove himself as a provider for his family.  Then there are the twin children Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) who are kids who basically do what kids do: play.  But that behavior is not acceptable in a family of religious zealots maintaining a farm in the wilderness, and Thomasin gets blamed for their “misbehavior” leading her to torment them by saying she’s a witch (big mistake!).

The family also has a newborn baby, Samuel (Axtun Henry Dube and Athan Conrad Dube), and while Thomasin is playing peek-a-boo with him he is snatched away.  The movie makes it clear early on that there’s an actual witch living in the wood.  But a lot of suspense in this film is drawn from the sense that what we’re seeing is not reality.  Was the baby really just taken by a wolf? Is a family member possessed or merely delirious from an illness?  Do the animals act up because they’re agents of Satan or because they’re hungry and sick? Is the family torn apart because of the Devil or because their confined lives and religious zealotry make them susceptible to fear and mistrust? Are there really demons or are they hallucinating due to ergot from their spoiled crops.

The film wisely never answers these questions leaving everything unsettled and lingering.  This is not your typical horror film.  Jump scares are few and while the climax of the film is disturbingly violent, the camera does not linger on gore or its hidden in shadows.  The acting is good, particularly Taylor-Joy, whose unnaturally oversize eyes express a lot, and Ineson, who balances his outward devotion to God with the inward knowledge that he is failing to provide for his family.  Watch this one on a dark, rainy and windy night in New England for the extra effect.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: Black Swan (2010)

For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.

Title: Black Swan
Release Date: December 3, 2010
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Production Company: Cross Creek Pictures | Protozoa Pictures | Phoenix Pictures | Dune Entertainment

This isn’t a conventional choice for a horror film but it deals with the protagonist having a mental breakdown, hallucinations, sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders, and extremely unhealthy relationships, all things that are horrifying in their own ways.  Natalie Portman stars as Nina Sayers, a dancer selected for lead role in a New York City ballet company’s performance of Swan Lake.

Nina faces numerous conflicts, including internal, as she attempts to achieve “perfection” in her dance.  The company’s artistic director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) drives her to let go of her inhibitions and makes unwanted sexual advances.  Nina’s mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), was a dancer in her younger days and is a protective stage mother eager to command Nina’s career.  Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder) is the former prima ballerina forced into retirement by Thomas, who takes out her resentment on Nina.  And then there is a new dancer to the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), who lacks Nina’s technical skills, but embodies the sensuality Thomas is looking for in his dancers, and she is appointed as Nina’s alternate.

Since the movie is presented from Nina’s point of view, we often see Lily as a rival, as Nina fears Lily will take her part.  I think in reality that Lily is actually friendly and only wants to reach out to Nina but suffers her projection.  As the narrative moves toward the opening night of Swan Lake, Nina’s hallucinations become more vivid and violent.  There’s a significant amount of body horror in this film, even when simply focusing on the dancer’s ordinary performance where the camera focuses on the sights and sounds of the stress on their bodies.

The movie is no doubt a bit cheezy and cliched.  There are some plot points that seemed staged to increase the drama without being realistic (like, would a prima ballerina really be responsible for putting on her own makeup alone in a dressing room?). Nevertheless, Portman’s strong acting helps make the film better.  I’m also impressed by the camera work that follows Portman around when she’s on stage which really draws one into the performance.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: The Shining (1980)

For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.

TitleThe Shining
Release Date: May 23, 1980
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: The Producer Circle Company | Peregrine Productions |  Hawk Films

More than Night of the Living Dead, The Shining is a movie harmed by my waiting too long to watch it for the first time after basically absorbing all the movie’s basic plot points and iconic moments over the years from the cultural milieu.  Friends, I have to confess that I found the movie incredibly slow, with long waits for those iconic moments – or anything – to actually happen.  As a story about an ordinary family coming to pieces due to cabin fever and/or malevolent spirits I have to question the casting of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall who seem eccentric and unsettled from the start.  Danny Lloyd is a terrific child actor though, and carries much of the film, despite playing a character as weird as his parents.

This being a Kubrick film, the cinematography is excellent as well as the set design, and I can understand why film study classes would want to dissect this movie.  The long tracking shots with the steadycam are particularly impressive.  And with so many mirrors on the set, I tip my cap to the camera operators who had to work so hard to not appear in the reflection.

Kubrick is ambiguous about whether this film depicts a mental breakdown or if supernatural forces are involved.  Most of the film would indicate the former, but at the end when Duvall’s Wendy is trying to escape she’s sees a number of ghostly visions as well.  I think the movie works well as a metaphor for toxic masculinity, as Jack and his ghostly advisers repeatedly see a wife and child as something to be controlled and corrected.

I understand that Stephen King dislikes this adaptation and now I really want to read the novel in order to compare and contrast.  In the meantime, enjoy this reenactment by bunnies that passes over all the slow parts.

Or, enjoy Shining, where the movie is reimagined as a heartwarming family comedy.

Rating: ***

Scary Movie Review: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

For Halloween week, I’m watching and reviewing highly-regarded horror films that I’ve never seen before.

Title: Night of the Living Dead
Release Date: October 1, 1968
Director: George Romero
Production Company: Night of the Living Dead

Watching this move for the first time means trying to forget all you know about it from the cultural soup that marinates us.  George Romero pretty much invents the rules for a zombie apocalypse story as well as kicking off the trend of graphically gory horror films of the 1970s and 1980s.  It’s also remarkable for having an African American actor Duane Jones in the lead role of Ben at a time when Black men were not appearing in movies as competent leaders.

Actually this movie has two lead characters with Judith O’Dea as Barbra being the point of view character for the first act of the movie.  Unfortunately, Barbra fades from significance in the narrative.  As disappointing as it that the female lead is stereotypically portrayed as helpless, O’Dea does put in compellingly authentic depiction of someone in a shock.  The other characters aren’t particularly well-acted or significant.  Karl Hardman plays Harry Cooper, the primary human antagonist who consistently challenges Duane (which also plays out as a racial divide regardless of whether it was scripted as one), but he’s a rather one-note character.

With a low budget, Night of the Living Dead shows some technical flaws (why are the live tv broadcasts from Washington in the daytime when it’s late at night in Pennsylvania?).  But Romero makes the best of these limitations with tight editing and dramatic lighting to heighten the suspense.  And even though I knew it was coming, that ending is a real kick in the gut.

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 26

Best of the Left :: Why Prison Abolition is not Nearly as Scary as it Sounds

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Virtual Choir

Radiolab :: Birdie in the Cage

WBUR :: Anthony Martignetti And That Famous Prince Spaghetti Ad, 50 Years Later

Dolly Parton’s America :: I Will Always Leave You

You Must Remember This :: Disney’s Most Controversial Film

The Memory Palace :: Late One Night

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Album Reviews: Quick Thoughts

What if I didn’t review any albums for some time and then did a bunch at once?  Again?

AlbumThe Competition
Artist: Lower Dens
Release Date: September 6, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “Two Faced Love” and “Young Republicans”
Thoughts: These songs have a lush sound reminiscent of the 1980s New Romantics.  Which is fine, if you’ve listened to all of that 35+ year old music and yearn for more. The big twist is that lyrically it is much more political than romantic.
Rating: **1/2

Album: Close It Quietly
Artist: Frankie Cosmos
Release Date: September 6, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “41st,” “So Blue,”
Thoughts: Greta Kline follows up on 2018’s Vessel with another collection of lo-fi folk rock tunes.  Her sweet voice clearly sings ruminative lyrics about growing into adulthood.
Rating: ***

Album: Crush
Artist: Floating Points
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Thoughts: This collection of minimalist electronic music from UK musician Sam Shepherd was just what I needed to hear right now.
Rating: ****


Album: There Existed an Addiction to Blood
Artist: clipping.
Release Date: October 18, 2019
Favorite Tracks: “Nothing is Safe,” “The Show, and “Blood of the Fang”
Thoughts: This the third album from this experimental hip-hop act from Los Angeles, and first since 2016’s Splendor & Money.  There are two great things about this album: 1. the rapid rhymes of Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton fame) and 2. the deep-textured synth sounds he raps over.  The lyrics are grim and gory, making it an appropriate addition to your Halloween party playlist.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Fault Lines by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer

Author: Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer
Title: Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974
Publication Info: New York : W.W. Norton & Company, [2019]

I was born near the end of 1973, so this book is essentially the history of America during my lifetime.  The authors are professors at Princeton University who built the book out of course on recent American history.  I’m not familiar with Zelizer, but Kruse has established himself as a leading public historian by sharing facts and debunking myths on Twitter. The central thesis is that the polarized politics of the United States began in 1974 in the wake of the Watergate scandal (which disillusioned Americans faith in government, something that is ironically exploited by Nixon’s own party) as well as the revolutions of civil rights, gender, and sexuality and their conservative counter-revolutions.

The book is a thorough history of the past 45 years, and I had a lot of “oh yeah, I remember that!” moments.  I have two criticisms of the book in general. One, is that it reads like a laundry list of events with very little analysis.  Two, it is a top-down approach focusing on the actions of Presidents and Congresses as opposed to the greater societal actions.  I understand it would be a much thicker book if these things were included, but the instances in the book that offer analysis and history of the people are much richer than the book overall.

That being said, this is an excellent summary of how we got to where we are in the United States.  Every living American has lived at least partly in the period of time covered here and would benefit from reading about our recent history.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Comics Review: Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Omnibus

Volume 1
Author: Tony Lee, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Matthew Dow Smith, Dan McDaid
Artists: Andrew Currie, Richard Piers Rayner, Horacio Domingues, Tim Hamilton, Mark Buckingham, Matthew Dow Smith, Blair Shedd, Mitch Gerads, Dan McDaid, Josh Adams, Paul Grist
Colorist: Charlie Kirchoff, Phil Elliott, Rachelle Rosenberg
Title: Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Omnibus – Volume 1
Publication Info: Titan Comics, September 30, 2015

These comics were created earlier than the other Eleventh Doctor comics I’ve read and feature Amy and Rory as companions.  The comics were obviously made after Series 5 (or perhaps even based on scripts of Series 5) so the characterizations seem frozen in a weird place of Amy and Rory as were first saw them, not the characters they would grow to be.  There are some adventures here including visiting Wemba’s Lea (the medieval location that would become Wembley Stadium) for a humorous soccer-themed story, a multiworld where multiple versions of all the characters must work together to stop a Sontaran plot, a wordless story where the Doctor helps Santa Claus, and several stories with a new companion named Kevin who is a robotic T-Rex.  The comics are silly and fun, but nothing groundbreaking or worth making into a television story.

Rating: ***

Volume 2
Author: Joshua Hale Fialkov, Andy Diggle, Brandon Seifert, Len Wein, Tony Lee
Artists:  Matthew Dow Smith, Mark Buckingham, Philip Bond, Matthew Dow Smith,
Mitch Gerads, Josh Adams, Marc Deening, Andres Ponce, Horacio Domingues, Rubén González
Colorist:  Charlie Kirchoff, Adrian Salmon
Letterer: Shawn Lee, Tom B. Long
Title: Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Omnibus – Volume 2
Publication Info:  Titan Comics, October 28, 2015

The second volume of this series of Eleventh Doctor stories continues with Amy and Rory with stories that take place after Series 6 and incorporate the character growth missing from the previous volume.  In this collection they recreate Casablanca with Silurians, the Doctor and Rory have a “boys night out” where they can’t return to Amy without first making their way through several adventures, Christina de Souza returns, and the Doctor helps rescue a cosmonaut from the Vashta Nerada.  Again, the stories are fun and breezy but slight compared to what Doctor Who can offer.

Rating: ***

Volume 3
Author: Andy Diggle, Eddie Robson, Tony Lee, Matthew Dow Smith,
Paul Cornell
Artists: Andy Kuhn, Mike Collins, Horacio Domingues, Jimmy Broxton
Colorist: Charlie Kirchoff, Phil Elliott
Letterer: Shawn Lee
Title: Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Archives Omnibus – Volume 3
Publication Info:  Titan Comics, November 24, 2015

The comic book version of Clara Oswald joins the Eleventh Doctor for this final set of adventures.  The wackiest story of all is set in Deadwood and involves Oscar Wilde, Thomas Edison, Calamity Jane, and a zombie Wild Bill Hicock. The volume also includes special issues for conventions and the 50th anniversary, with the most compelling being The Girl Who Loved Doctor Who where the Doctor enters our real world and finds that there’s a tv show about his adventures starring Matt Smith.

Rating: **1/2