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Review: Mandy (2018)

Written by Aaron Stewart-Ahn and Panos Cosmatos, and directed by Cosmatos, “Mandy” is a revenge movie drenched in cosmic horror. Starring in the lead is well documented cinematic mad man Nicolas Cage as Red Miller, a simple logger and heavy metal admirer living deep in the forested Shadow Mountains in 1983 with his fantasy artist lover Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). Together they lead a quiet, small, life in their cabin watching late night movies or burying their noses in pulpy fantasy paperbacks. Thus it isn’t long before a chaotic evil enters their lives, perhaps sensing the coming doom Red articulates this aloud one night mumbling, “Sometimes I wonder if we should leave this place..

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Enter the Children of the new Dawn. Led by the fanatically deranged Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), the hippy zealots happen to pass Mandy on her walk to work one day and after Jeremiah eyes her, he decides that she’s his. He gives several monologues that are typical of a cult leader, because he is “special”– only Jeremiah can be the conduit between man and gods, who have told him that everything on the earthly plane belongs to him for his servitude. So, he sends out a few followers to summon demons, or inter-dimensional cenobites (or whatever you’d like to call them), riding black motorcycles, adorned in costumes with leather spikes, and leaking some disgusting fluid. After the metal bikers from another dimension arrive, Jeremiah and his zealots overpower Red and Mandy in a home invasion. Jeremiah’s followers heavily drug Mandy and bring her to Jeremiah where upon hearing his musings and master plan, she denies him with cackling laughter. A few scenes later after some intense motivation building for Red, he’s finally given the reigns of the story and we follow him on his journey of vengeance into madness.

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The rest of the film is fairly straightforward from this point on, with things getting progressively stranger the closer Red gets to exacting his revenge on Jeremiah. So this film, I have to say, probably has the most unique vision I’ve seen all year (Admittedly I haven’t seen some summer flicks like “Sorry to Bother you” and “Black Klansman” yet). This is the first film I’ve seen from Panos Cosmatos, but his directorial style reminded me most of a Heavy Metal and Fantasy spin on David Lynch’s slow moving and painterly methodology. This film is far more art-house than the marketing indicates, and thus those seeking an action filled thriller could be greatly disappointed. This is a film that demands your patience, and it isn’t necessarily going to hold your hand through the bog of heavy metal insanity. Those willing to grant the film a watch will get some of the ridiculously violent tone that the trailers and marketing hinted at, just at a much slower pace, and far less of it than may be expected. This is a slow, brooding, film that doesn’t sacrifice vision for marketability- which is admirable in today’s world of cinema.

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I think the two most salient aspects of the film are the color palette and the score, or at least those are the two most overwhelming senses. After all, what is film but light and sound? The film is awash in bellowing reds, deep shimmering blues, and flashes of brilliant greens. The score itself is a major aspect of the mood of the film. The near constant grumble of heavy chords echo Red’s boiling rage and primal instincts as his quest for vengeance evolves throughout the story. This film is as close as you could get to walking into a Heavy Metal album cover art and milling around the disparate wastelands and otherworldly landscapes. There may be hundreds of revenge flicks out there, but I assure you- there are none quite like “Mandy”.

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Final Score: There’s only 1 Cheddar Goblin!

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Old School Review: I live in Fear (1955)

Caution: There will be spoilers..

Written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, “I Live in Fear” is the legendary filmmaker’s most direct attempt at fictionalizing the very real social anxieties sweeping Japan post World War Two. The film opens on an unfolding case being discussed in family court. Kiichi Nakajima (Toshiro Mifune) is a successful, elder, Japanese industrialist that has been taken to court by his family for the unreasonable use of his funds to secure land in Brazil, the only place on earth Mr. Nakajima believes to be safe from Nuclear Annihilation. He wishes to purchase a farm in the South American country and to bring his family with him- to which the whole family objects. Granted, most of the family doesn’t want to uproot their entire lives just to assuage the fears of Kiichi, but as the film progresses we get the impression that the family would have gone on without acknowledging the man’s paranoia and mental health IF he hadn’t begun to use his wealth, their inheritance, to fund several projects that he thought would protect his loved ones from an irradiated doom.

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After much deliberation the family court approves the family’s petition, that Mr. Nakajima’s actions and intentions deem him mentally unfit. Naturally he appeals the notion and as the court machinations move forward Mr. Nakajima only becomes more frenzied with each passing hour. As he unravels, he fails to understand why everyone around him can be so calm when the very fact that the H bomb exists at all should concern every living soul with grave danger. One of the more powerful scenes in the film, in my opinion, happens during a visit to one of his mistresses (the film doesn’t shy away from the fact that our lead isn’t perfect) as he mistakes lightning and thunder to be another bomb dropping- he dives for his youngest son and startles him awake, at which point the mistress snatches her child up and looks at Kiichi with fearful eyes. Eventually he is so distraught by a son-in-law’s suggestion that even Brazil wouldn’t be safe from the fallout of nuclear war, that Kiichi takes drastic measures and sets the family foundry ablaze. The foundry was the source of the family’s wealth- which Kiichi eventually only saw as a deterrent to moving to safety.

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Throughout the film Kurosawa wisely placed Takashi Shimura as the moral center, and therefore soul of the film, in Dr. Harada. In the role as a dentist that’s been accepted by the local community to be on the board of the family court, Dr. Harada is often the one individual to question the group’s assumptions and point out when Mr. Nakajima makes logical points of contention. After Shimura’s spellbinding performance in Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” in 1952, it was a cinematic pleasure seeing two of Kurosawa’s most lauded performers onscreen together. Granted, I’m watching Kurosawa’s films out of order, so this may not be as momentous as it felt to me at the time. The two actors play off of each other brilliantly, with Shimura’s reserved and quiet performance set against the rigidity and barely contained anger of Mifune’s Kiichi- it’s an excellent pairing of personalities.

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Kurosawa presents an argument in the film, which party is the sane one? Mr. Nakajima, who’s trying to save lives and avoid nuclear disintegration? Or the World around him that neglects his worries as trivial and misguided. Sirens wail in the background throughout the film and most of the characters have a sort of laissez-faire attitude about the whole idea of nuclear annihilation. Several even acknowledge that while Mr. Nakajima had gone too far- they couldn’t accurately articulate why he should be deemed mentally incompetent. The film’s final scene encapsulates this dichotomy visually with Mr. Nakajima institutionalized in a psychiatric ward. Dr. Harada leaves the institution, having just witnessed a man broken by paranoia, just as Nakajima’s daughter enters and both are anchored in a mourning and uneasiness as they each enter a world that harbors curious intent.

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In reading what others have said about this film I came across the perfect summary of where the film’s head-space lives. In an article from Slate in 2008, by Fred Kaplan, he extrapolates that if someone were to make a similar film on the American psyche post 9/11 “[they] might cover and somehow dramatize: the line between obsession and obliviousness, between whimpering terror and blithe denial; the undeterminable toll on our ‘unconscious minds’ from embracing either course; and the question of whether it’s possible to lead a fully conscious, sane life on some road in between“. All of which is crafted here exquisitely by Akira Kurosawa and his crew. This tragedy is worth a watch, if only to recognize how the outcomes of war can affect a society and it’s people.

 

Final Score: Two minutes, ’til midnight

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Old School Review: Wings of Desire (1987)

Caution: This movie is over thirty years old- there will be spoilers!

Written by Peter Handke and Wim Wenders and directed by Wenders, “Wings of Desire” is a German arthouse fantasy film about two angels stationed in Berlin that observe the inner thoughts and outer actions of the many citizens they choose to monitor at any given moment. The film can be understood in two parts in my opinion. The first half of the film consists of an introduction to how the angels go about their unending time, who they choose to listen to, and who to comfort in small and almost unnoticeable ways. This half illuminates the musings of the soul that these angelic figures eavesdrop on as they witness, observe, and record the thoughts and feelings of thousands in Berlin. The second half comes when Damiel (Bruno Ganz) wanders upon a circus and begins to fall in love with the female trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin). Afterwards Damiel,  whose been observing humanity for thousands of years now, becomes enraptured by the idea of leaving immortality behind for the bittersweet, romantic, and melancholic nature of life. He discusses this idea at length with his angelic counterpart Cassiel (Otto Sander), who seems to dismiss his friend’s fascination with the possibility of living a life with risk in it.

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What I love most about this film is it’s balance between the solemn deadpan nature of the Angels’ existence (shown exclusively in black and white) set against the multifaceted and blended world of the living- which is shot in waves of color. This is one of those films that you admittedly have to be in the right mood to digest. It’s more about absorbing the moving imagery and pondering the larger than life questions and ambiguities of life rather than a focused narrative, though there is a through-line of thought taking place. Poetic in nature and more interested in what people aren’t saying, “Wings of desire” shows an angel that is more concerned with what makes a life worth living rather than his own heavenly duties. Or to put it more bluntly, he’s gotten bored and uninterested in the angelic listening gig after a few thousand years. Marion triggers something in him, something that ultimately drives him to give it all up to be with her, to aide her in navigating her own sadness and to be a more present guardian.

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In some light prep for this review, another reviewer referenced this film as being a “modern fairy tale about the nature of being alive” and I couldn’t agree more. This comes mostly from what we hear, alongside the angels, from the minds of everyday people. One particularly fascinating character was that of Homer (Curt Bois), an elderly author or historian of some fashion. His comparisons with the Berlin of old, with the empty spaces or new buildings that have replaced the locations of memory are enlightening. Back in the library, with Cassiel peering over his shoulder listening and watching, Homer wonders about the nature of war and peace and the obsession that is paired with War- but not peace, “My heroes are no longer the warriors and kings.. but the things of peace, one equal to the other. The drying onions equal to the tree trunk crossing the marsh. But no one has so far succeeded in singing an epic of peace. What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn’t endure.. and that its story is hardly told?” Homer considers himself mankind’s storyteller, though this idea as expressed by the actor suggests that the self appointed title goes hand in hand with his humility- not pride. As this old man reflects on life and it’s mysteries in the library, his monologue is juxtaposed against footage from the chaos and death that besieged Berlin after/during the third Reich’s fall. This kind of storytelling seems to be a product of societies that have gone through incredible pain and loss on grand scales. There are similar, at least it seems to me, creative machinations at play in artists trying to sort out their country’s faults or miscalculations amid a general sense of nihilism, or existential crisis. This can be found in filmmakers in comparable situations, like Akira Kurosawa and his string of post-war films in Japan for example.

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Peter Falk (best known for his TV detective character Columbo) has a playful role here as a convincing version of himself. He too gets to muse in some hypnotic inner dialogue, preoccupied with his upcoming role in Berlin on the flight from America. It’s not until he reveals to both Damiel and us the audience, that he can feel the presence of Damiel the angel, and he knows that Damiel can hear him. This being due to the fact that Falk too was once an angel that gave it all up thirty years prior in New York City. This could have broken the immersion and illusion of the story but it’s wisely played down and not focused on too heavily. In the end if you’re looking for a somber stroll through late 1980’s Berlin while heavy with thoughts spiraling from anti-war nihilism to the nature of love and the awe in simply living- then I would certainly recommend it.

Final Score: Two Angels and a Circus

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Review: Jurassic World (2) Fallen Kingdom

*** WARNING! SPOILERS! ***

Written by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow and directed by J.A. Bayona, “Jurassic World; Fallen Kingdom” is the sequel to the 2015 smash hit reboot of the “Jurassic Park” franchise that Steven Spielberg began back in 1993. I saw this film over it’s opening weekend but I’ve been letting the movie brew in my headspace for the last week because it was such a mixed bag. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more Frankenstein-like film before to be honest. The direction, visuals, special effects, and suspense of the film were all impressive- but the writing, character choices, and plot of the film were completely off the rails! It felt as if there were two or three very separated and distinct flavors of attitude controlling this bucking beast of a sequel and no one knew how to handle it- with no cooperation across the disparate groups whatsoever. The film didn’t know what kind of story it wanted to tell.

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First of all, I feel that you should be warned going into this film- there is nowhere near as much Jeff Goldblum as this movie needs, or to the extent that the marketing implied there might be. If you’ve seen the trailers, that’s essentially his whole performance. However, as welcoming as a Goldblum addition is to any film- this use of the character of Ian Malcolm directly collides with the ideology (and thus the main driving force of the plot) of the main characters Owen (Chris Pratt) and Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard). It’s this exact fulcrum that the film has issues with. Are the dinosaurs of Isla Nublar myth made reality, conjured from wonder and awe? Or are they vicious monsters that mindlessly consume and terrorize? Should the humans save the ill-fated creatures from Isla Nublar’s awakened volcano? Or should we let Nature take it’s course and re-extinct these de-extinct animals? Goldblum’s Malcolm restates his thesis from the first film and of it’s sequel “The Lost World” in which he argues against saving the dinosaurs. After which we cut directly to Claire’s new job running an indie-sized organization to “save the dinosaurs!” A drastic evolution from the first film where the character viewed the lab grown creatures as assets, something from which to gain profit. Here she’s a fully fledged animal rights activist. Quite the leap. We’re then informed of John Hammond’s original financial partner (Who we’ve never heard of until now, the fifth movie) for the first park in Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), who’s in need of a well informed crew to make a last ditch effort to salvage his old friend’s creations.

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Beyond the philosophical and moral whiplash, the characters make stupid, convenient, and foolish choices throughout the film. Granted, the franchise has been built on the ill-fated decisions of humanity before- but they were never this outlandishly dumb about it. From the military minded Wheatley (Ted Levine AKA Buffalo Bill from “Silence of the lambs”) unclasping the Indo-Raptor cage purely to add another dino tooth to his collection, to the enormously lazy writing choice that the young Maisie (Isabella Sermon) commits to in the final scene- the writing is clunky and unfocused. The script tries to obtain specific outcomes for further franchise building- but in doing so it wastes the opportunities that the current story could have created. There are ways to get the outcome that the ending of “Fallen Kingdom” sets up- but the way they got there was painfully stupid. I won’t spoil the exact ending, but trust me, it’s bad. It’s also a weak excuse to pin the fallout of this film on a young girl when there are so many other ways they could have played it. An immediate easy fix would be to let Mills (Rafe Spall), Lockwood’s assistant with ulterior motives, make that major dooming choice as he’s dying to spite the main characters instead of just using his death as a visual callback to a death in “The Lost World”.

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That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have some value to it. The imagery and direction, along with the mood, sense of suspense, and entertaining set-pieces all combine to smooth out the film and lessen the extent of mistakes that engulfed the rest of the story. The way Bayona uses scale, lighting, and framing all collectively raise the content above the level of quality expected with these movies by now (excluding the original- obviously). In fact the second half of the film taking place inside a giant mansion was a fun diversion and there were some good ideas that they could have expanded on. An illegal dinosaur auction has its merits in theory, but the film took a cartoonish mind of villainy at this point. One shot even has Mills face being lit up by a computer screen as counters and bars load while numbers skyrocket- a necessary shot to remember that the villains are greedy and evil. There was a few good half baked ideas in this script, and it might have turned out great eventually, but there just wasn’t enough to get a score better than “Passable” from me honestly. I was entertained with this film, but the more I think about it, the less I appreciate it retroactively.

Final Score: 11 Jurassic species and a few half-baked ideas

 

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Review: The Witch

Written and directed by Robert Eggers, “The Witch” is A New England Folktale set roughly in the 1630’s that follows the story of a family cast out from society in the new American colonies for being accused of “prideful conceit”. While we never get the exact details about what William (Ralph Ineson) and his family engaged in to receive a sentence as damning as banishment, that isn’t what the story is truly about anyways. We can surmise that William probably took his own interpretation of the bible to be more accurate than those of the colony. As he claims in the opening scene that he practiced only “the pure and faithful dispensation of the Gospels”. Thus the film begins as the family of seven treks out into the wilderness, firm in their decisions, unknowing of their doom to come.

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The family consists of Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) the eldest son- though he’s only about twelve, Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) the young twins that earn the title of creepiest kids in the film, and Thomasin the eldest daughter, a few years older than Caleb and easily the standout performance of the film- though all are great. Katherine (Kate Dickie) the Mother, who unravels psychologically and spiritually as the film progresses, is at a complete loss once the youngest child, Samuel the baby, is mysteriously abducted near the beginning of the film. It’s always a gamble with child actors, but this may be the best use of little performers since “Jurassic Park” (I’m not dying on that hill- I just rewatched the classic recently and it’s been rambling about in my headspace since). They’re all poise perfect in their period-accurate performances. Thomasin in particular is a fascinating role, as the family crumbles from within Witch accusations are aimed at her, and there is a bit of sly wit hidden subtly in her performance that makes you ask, Wait… is she actually the Witch? The paranoia of the family is infectious to say the least. Though Caleb makes an argument for the best, and most chilling, scene in the whole film- it certainly got to me in the moment.

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See, the beautiful trick of the film is that while the title may indicate that the film is about “The Witch”, and there is indeed some supernatural underpinnings trifling about, it’s more about the effect that the Witch has on this family. They are torn apart as much by their superstitions and fears of damnation as they are of the titular creature’s actions. In fact it is this weaving of the supernatural with the sense of hard realism that makes the film stand out from it’s genre limitations to become something more than the sum of its parts. On a technical level, the film pays homage in cinematography and framing to old religious renaissance paintings, particularly of Goya’s work on the subject of Witches (Even though he lived a century later in Spain). The score is also worth mentioning as it fuels the sense of a tense and bellowing doom. Booming orchestral vocals against a moonlit forest paint the mood for the film, danger lies at the edge of the woods, damnation is afoot, and trust is cast aside.

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Old religious imagery sprinkled in throughout the film with the age appropriate attitudes of the family combine to heighten the dread that would be nearly impossible within a modern setting. We don’t take everything in life as a seriously as those before us had. After giving this film a watch I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, so I read up on what countless others had to say on the matter. There was something particularly unnerving about the film that I just couldn’t articulate efficiently, Was it the acting? The setting? Or simply the unabashed originality behind it? Then I gave the New Yorker’s review of the film a read and Anthony Lane perfectly exemplified what I was missing, “This is, to put it mildly, an uncommon state of affairs for anyone who frequents the cinema, the theatre, or the opera house. How many people, these days, heading out of ‘Don Giovanni,’ are honestly shaken by the mortal terror of the hero, in his final conflagration? Which of us treats ‘The Crucible,’ set sixty years or so after the events of ‘The Witch,’ as anything but a reflection on the political hysteria of the time in which it was written? The problem is simple: we can’t be damned. One gradual effect of the Enlightenment was to tamp down the fires of Hell and sweep away the ashes, allowing us to bask in the rational coolness that ensued. But the loss—to the dramatic imagination, at any rate—has been immense. If your characters are convinced that a single action, a word out of place, or even a stray thought brings not bodily risk but an eternity of pain, your story will be charged with illimitable dread. No thriller, however tense, can promise half as much.” The historical context and how accurately the characters were represented in their actions and fears gave the film an unshakable authenticity- we believe that the characters believe with a steadfast resoluteness. There are no jokes or irony in their performance, no release once the film has you in it’s grasp.

“The Witch” is a fascinating and unconventional horror film that preys upon our past to craft a finely tuned and chilling film. I definitely recommend it if you’re into unique offerings in this genre- though it is slow at times and will definitely not be for everyone (It wholeheartedly earns its ‘R’ rating). I wouldn’t recommend it to new parents- unless they enjoy fresh nightmare scenarios they hadn’t yet considered to keep them awake at night. It’s out on streaming services and physical media at this point, give it a watch if you can- it’s definitely a standout of the genre in my opinion.

Final Score: 1 Black Phillip & 1 damned family

 

Sources:

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/29/the-witch-review

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Review: Hereditary

Written and Directed by Ari Aster, “Hereditary” is the latest horror movie from studio A24. This most recent offering continues A24’s tradition of releasing films that refuse to be average, which results in a storytelling boon for their audiences. “Hereditary” follows the lives of the Graham family as they navigate the loss of their Matriarch, Ellen. The film opens with her funeral as her daughter Annie (Toni Colette) gives a muted eulogy which perfectly preps us (but does not prepare us) with a foundation of paranoia. Ellen, it seems, was a very private person with private friends. So much so that her closest relatives know almost nothing about her life and its many secrets. The family dysfunction that stems outward from Ellen has produced a multitude of psychological and emotional issues in her offspring. Most notably affected by this is Annie, a miniature model creator, wife, and mother, who seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown- or at least close to one- right from the beginning of the film. Her husband Steve Graham (Gabriel Byrne) just tries to keep everything and everyone around him afloat amidst the cavalcade of creeps that’s about to descend into his family’s life. They have two children Peter (Alex Wolff), the older teenager, and Charlie (Milly Shapiro), the very unsettling young girl who makes those creepy clicking sounds that you’ve heard in the advertising of the film.

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I will do my best to avoid spoilers in this review, or at least keep them to a minimum. There are essentially two sides to this film. There’s the story you think you’re watching for the first half of the film, and then there’s the second story that you won’t likely fully grasp the details of until the film very deliberately tells you what’s happening in the final shot of the film. In retrospect, there’s a very well thought out string of breadcrumbs sprinkled throughout the film that do hint at the supernatural underpinnings that are taking place just out of frame. There’s a lot going on in the film, there’s throwbacks to classic horror cinema from the mood and tension building of “The Shining” to the wild shock and awe of certain scenes from “The Exorcist”. Granted, I wouldn’t recommend going into any movie with your expectations rampant and out of control- the film simply cleverly pulls from those icons while greatly remaining as its own unique experimentation.

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The greatest thing the film accomplishes is its’ execution of tension and unsettling mystery. There’s one, maybe two, jump-scares in the entire film and that is a huge benefit. There is no release here, once the film has entrapped you, it has your undivided attention. There are words scrawled on the walls of the Grahams’ house, only ever seen by Annie who seems to become more and more untrustworthy and unraveled as the film progresses- which makes us question if she’s actually even seeing them. Not to mention Charlie, who is unquestionably disturbing in nearly every scene she’s in- and even in a few she’s not. Charlie has visions of her dead grandmother, cuts off a dead bird’s head for unknown reasons (a prelude to all the beheadings later in the film- there’s more than you would expect from this film’s pretenses), and she exponentially keeps making that freaky clicking sound that I keep thinking I hear when it’s too quiet around the house. Curiously Peter isn’t all that focused on in the first half of the story, until about the mid point when THAT SCENE happens and it affects Peter so much that he begins to slowly lose his mind. Then there’s these visual clues, symbols, and red herrings all over the film- everything that happens or is shown seems to have a reason and action behind it, but it does help to keep the audience out of the conversation and thereby cleverly distracting us to keep the intrigue high. It keeps building this ever creepy crescendo of madness until it reaches the boiling point.

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Everything about “Hereditary” was crafted with horror loving hands. The score is effectively distressing and alarming when it needs to be, the way the film is edited is pure unease, and the progression of the characters is downright unnerving. There’s so much more I could discuss, but by doing so I would ruin the fun of the mystery. I highly suggest seeing this film if you enjoy good horror films. I don’t even really care all that much for the genre, but this film got to me. It still wanders into my mind days later and turns lovely afternoons into insidious hours of peeking around corners and occasionally getting scared by the cat.

Final Score: a Dozen creepy cult members

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Review: Solo, a Star Wars Story

*Spoiler Warning*

Written by Lawrence Kasdan and Jon Kasdan and directed by Ron Howard, “Solo: a Star Wars Story” is the prequel origin story of a young Han Solo that wants you to know everything there is to know about the character, and I do mean ..Everything. I’ve been engaging in an internal debate as to whether or not I should even concern myself with writing this review. I felt as if it were, ironically, as unnecessary as the film in question… but here I am, pondering the film, so I might as well put ink to paper (you know what I mean). So much of “Solo” simply felt “fine“, but nothing about it felt as grand or had events as sweeping as the Star Wars films we’ve come to love (and despise). Granted, I know that wasn’t the intent of this film. It was pitched as a smaller story designed to reveal more of the grimy crime riddled underbelly of the Star Wars universe. However, the true nature of this film could be felt throughout the runtime, and it was to make money. That’s what I felt coming out of the theater more than anything else. This spinoff didn’t feel like I was getting tasty new morsels of story from the wider galaxy as a whole, it just felt like a filler episode, a distraction from the larger events at hand. It wasn’t particularly offensive or incredibly awful by most measures- we just didn’t need it. Sometimes the mystery of imagination is better than explaining the backstory of every item, catch-phrase, offhand comment, or star-ship. For example, when Han mentioned the Kessel run in “Star Wars” and in “The Force Awakens”, the way he talks about the event- it seemed like a race, not a race against time as depicted in Solo (with time-sensitive explosives being the driving factor of tension instead).

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To be fair, all the noise surrounding the dismissal of the original directors of “Solo”, and the horde of production troubles that plagued the film, didn’t result in a disjointed final product. It was a more cohesive film than “Justice League”, the most recent similarly troubled tent-pole studio production. I guess what disappointed me most about this film is the feeling that came after leaving the theater, that “Star Wars” was now a product being spoon-fed to me by teams of writers rooms designed to give me what the masses claimed to have wanted most. Which I have to point out that a couple friends have said as much to me about the previous Star Wars films made by Disney, though the veil hadn’t yet been pierced for me. I still enjoy “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” to varying degrees, more good than bad I would say. “Rogue One” still feels like the standout of the bunch at this point, the one that most channels the magic of the original trilogy, at least for me.

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I almost feel bad for this movie, it wasn’t outright terrible, as I’ve already mentioned. The Han and Chewie (Joonas Suotamo) interplay was entertaining and actually was the most authentic thing about the film in my mind. So at least that came across well enough- if that didn’t work then the whole thing could have been written off from the beginning. Alden Ehrenreich did a decent enough job translating as a younger and not as grumpy version of Han Solo, but there was admittedly something about the performance that was missing. Maybe that was just something that only Harrison Ford could bring to the portrayal, but I can’t say that the woes of this film lay at Ehrenreich’s feet, he did probably as good a job as was possible without Ford headlining. Donald Glover was the other standout of the film. His version of a younger Lando Calrissian was pitch perfect. Capes, attitude, and swagger- all included and exuded without flaw.

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The major issues I have with the film are A) the overall production of the film as it appears in it’s current final cut, B) how overly produced and manufactured it feels as a whole, and C) how predictable it was with one notable exception. A) Production. The lighting of the film was so dim and murky that even in the theater it felt like you could hardly see what was taking place as most scenes were drenched in earthy browns and blacks or ocean depths’ blue, I wouldn’t point out lighting unless it was noticeably poor or lacking. (Not saying I could do a better job lighting though, that’s a confounding aspect of production for me). None of the locations felt particularly alien either, which maybe that’s just me, or maybe it’s that none of the locations were particularly memorable. Everyone can recall planets or locations from every other Star Wars film to date, but I’d be hard pressed to name any of the planets seen here. The cinematography was also very bland. It felt workman-like and practical in nature only. I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but it felt like it lacked artistry.

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B) References. There are several points of contention here. How Han “got his name”, his blaster, the dice, and the cameo near the end of the film. Han getting his name from an Imperial drone when signing up for the Empire as a pilot was the most hamfisted and unneeded scene in the whole film. Why can’t Han have just had that name? Are we going to learn how the Skywalker name came to be in another spinoff in some other bland and useless way of storytelling too? It was just unneeded and way too obvious, robbing Han of the sprinkling of mystery surrounding him in the original trilogy. When Han was tossed a blaster from Woody Harrelson’s Beckett, the scene in itself wasn’t poorly constructed it just felt like an intentional wink and nod from Disney- stop it please, we don’t need to have an intimate knowledge of every item a classic character was known for using over thirty years ago. Speaking of which, the dice in this new era seem to have taken on far more meaning than they ever had in the original trilogy, at least in “The Last Jedi” it was used as a stand-in for Han’s memory when Luke returned to Leia for the first time in the new era of films. Here it feels like another intentional pulling of emotional strings, but it didn’t land here for me. It felt forced. The most forced scene in the entire film was that of Darth Maul’s cameo though. It’s nice to know that a fun character from the prequels actually isn’t dead, but it was how he was used that felt contrived. He doesn’t do anything in his moment onscreen, he is used for a reveal of “That character you know from the other movies”, and that is it. He even turns on his lightsaber threateningly in a Hologram, for no reason at all.

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C) Predictability. This is the linchpin of the problem of this film. If you’re at all familiar with the first Star Wars movie then you’ll likely be able to predict a lot of the plot points of this film, the rest of the film’s predictability lies in age old movie tropes any well viewed audience member should be able to spot a mile away. Though admittedly reprocessing tropes from classic era Hollywood is an old Star Wars trait at this point. However, when approached with with a paint-by-numbers strategy Star Wars feels overly formulaic to the point of absurdism. Corellia (Han’s homeworld), The Kessel run, Han shooting first, Chewie ripping off an unlucky henchmen’s arms- every possible connective tissue from “A New Hope” is mined here with excruciating familiarity. What I loved about “Rogue One” was that the film very much lived in the world of the original trilogy and while it too had familiar aspects and characters littering it’s pages there was also a new exploratory sensation about it. The film added more mystery than it explained away. What happened to Jedha ages ago? There are only decayed Jedi monoliths carved into massive rock formations to hint at its past. Was Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) force sensitive? Or just an extremely skilled fighter that believed deeply in the old Jedi religion? What was his connection to Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and how did they end up together on Jedha? I’m okay with not knowing the answers to those questions- in fact I’d prefer to not know those answers. The only part of “Solo” that was a legitimate surprise was that the earlier threats of the film, “Enfys nest” the marauders of the train heist from the second act, were actually a band of rebel children. This reveal only served to deliver another cringy wink and nod to the audience as Han decides to help them out in the end. They offer a place among their ranks in thanks but he declines, to which the tiny space pirate suggests “Maybe someday you’ll join a… rebellion” Okay it wasn’t exactly that, but the line was essentially that.

“Solo: a Star Wars Story” is the first major bump in the road of the new Disney era of Star Wars films. It has a few redeemable factors for sure, and the crew involved seems to have given it their all, but this film is more of a product than a story that needed to be told in a galaxy far far away…

Final Score: 2 smugglers, 1 falcon, and dozens of references…