It Comes at Night / **** ½

it_comes_at_night_xlgLast year, at the Chattanooga Film Festival, I caught a phenomenal film named Krisha, written and directed by a newcomer named Trey Edward Shults. Telling the story of a family’s Thanksgiving that gets crashed by a long absent relative, it was a searing piece of drama, filmed with a natural talent that blew me away and telling an emotionally powerful story in an exceptional way. In short, it was one of those debut features that leaves you knowing that you just saw the birth of a new talent, and someone worth keeping an eye on.

Now comes Shults’s second film, It Comes at Night, which offers up no end of surprises, even before you actually see the film. For one, I wouldn’t have expected Shults to make the jump to bigger budget, wide release films so quickly; even more surprising, though, is the fact that Shults has left behind domestic drama for the tougher genre of horror. That’s a tough genre, and while Krisha was undeniably tense and emotionally fraught, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a horror film from Shults.

What I got, though, was superb, marrying the “family under pressure to the breaking point” themes of Krisha with the paranoia and isolation of Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead, and using shadows and silence to phenomenal effect. It Comes at Night is the story of a family who’ve isolated themselves in a cabin in the woods; while the specifics of what’s happened to the rest of the world never become entirely clear, it’s obvious that a disease has wiped out much of the population, and left the rest fending for themselves. But when the family gets discovered, questions of trust and loyalty come into play, and the characters are forced to deal with a simple question: how far do you go to protect your loved ones?

Shults’s strengths as a writer and director are evident from the get-go here, especially as regards the performances, which are uniformly excellent, with nary a missed step in the batch. Joel Edgerton is one of the only “names” you might recognize, but he’s rarely been better, getting a role that befits his masculine practicality and gruffness. And Kelvin Harrison, Jr., the film’s de facto lead (as much as there is one), uses his youth to phenomenal effect, internalizing the horrors around him as he attempts to make his peace with the violent world he’s forced to live in, and figure out his own moral compass.

But as great as the performances are, what really floored me here was Shults’s command of mood and tone. This feels like a low- to mid-budget film; the scares are few, with more reliance on an atmosphere of dread and unease than on jump scares. More than that, Shults keeps us in the head of his characters more than we realize, leaving us questioning people’s motivations and understanding the stakes at any given moment. The result is maybe more of a psychological thriller than a true horror film, but the lines are blurred, and the film’s use of night and darkness leave no doubt as to where its genre roots lay. And it’s in keeping with Shults’s independent-film roots all the way to the film’s ending, which is destined to leave some mainstream audiences grumbling and unhappy, but which floored me pretty well.

It Comes at Night is going to be one of those cult horror films soon, one held up alongside The Witch and The Babadook and others as a reminder of how the decade was home to a rich new burst of creative, interesting horror movies. And more than that, it’s a sign that Shults is a talent to be watched; with his first two films, he’s hit two home runs. You better believe I’ll be there for attempt #3.

IMDb

Get Out / *****

get-out-new-posterThere’s a lot that I love about horror, but one of my favorite aspects of the genre is the way that it so often reflects the fears and worries of a society. From the way that Vietnam influences so many horror films of the sixties and seventies to the way that technology becomes a source of influence into itself in modern times, horror is often a response to our worries, and a way of making clear fears that we’re already suffering. That’s led to a burst of great horror novels as of late that grapple with racial fears in the guise of horror novels, from Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom to Matt Huff’s Lovecraft Country.

And now, you can add to that mix Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a superb, taut piece of horror filmmaking that’s not always as scary as the best horror, but manages to wring astonishing tension and unease out of its premise, beautifully satirizes and makes explicit its commentary and worries about race relations, and does it all while telling a fantastic story and delivering a brilliant, tight script that only floors me more and more as I pick it apart.

In its early going, Get Out is only a horror film in terms of the discomfort and awkwardness it raises, as it follows an interracial couple home to meet the (white) girl’s family. Once they arrive, things get uncomfortable quickly, although not in the way you might expect. There’s no overt racism here; indeed, the girl’s parents are liberal, and go out of their way to make her African-American boyfriend feel comfortable. They praise Obama, they talk about Tiger Woods, they bring up NBA…in other words, they end up being every bit as racist, condescending, and uncomfortable as more overt racism might be, and the discomfort and awkwardness is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And in the able hands of Jordan Peele, who’s making his feature debut here, we’re immersed in the perspective of Daniel Kaluuya’s calm, exasperated male lead, giving even (and maybe especially) well-meaning white audiences a taste of what it’s like to put up with this sort of garbage. It’s a bravura piece of directorial work, and does a bang-up job of making its points clearly and carefully, and using its unease to maximum effect.

Because there’s more to Get Out than just this racial discomfort. There’s also the few other African-Americans Kaluuya sees in his time with the family, all of whom are unfailingly kind, and servile…and strange. There’s an awkwardness to them, an unnaturalness that’s hard to pin down. But it adds to the discomfort, as we, like Kaluuya, are forced to wonder, is this just a truly awkward, really bizarre, ultra-white family get together? Or is there something else going on here?

Peele has been vocal about the way he’s using The Stepford Wives as a tonal inspiration for the film, and it shows here, giving us a weirdly placid society that seems like it would be utopia for some people, but truly unnatural for others. And like Stepford Wives, much of the film’s unease comes from that careful balancing act, where we’re never quite sure if the film is going to become a true horror film, or if the horror is more personal and less actual, if that makes sense. That’s a tough balance to strike, but Peele does a masterful job here, foregrounding his character’s unease, answering questions satisfyingly but leaving doubt, and turning the screws carefully but unrelentingly.

Because, yes, Get Out isn’t ever quite truly scary, but it’s monstrously tense and unsettling, with some true knockout scenes that work like gangbusters (my favorite is the bizarre image of one of the servants doing his running at night, although Peele’s visualization of the therapy session with his girlfriend’s mother is a beautiful, spectacular image). More than that, Peele has a gift for pacing, letting our discomfort and unease with the racial tensions build, then pushing into more and more upsetting moments before finally giving us some elements that feel beyond what could easily be explainable.

I don’t want to get into what is or isn’t going on; suffice to say, though, that Get Out ends up being a thematically rich film, one where there’s so much metaphorical and thematic depth that you could unpack it for days. Even beyond the satire of well-meaning liberalism, there’s material here about cultural appropriation that’s pretty stunning, to say nothing of the way the film engages with historical and contemporary racial flashpoints. That the film does all that is spectacular; that it does so while never forgetting that it’s telling a story, and a thriller, is even better. The film holds its metaphor together tightly, trusting the audience to pick up on the themes it’s laying down without ever feeling the need to hold our hands. That goes doubly for some of the film’s rich, complex foreshadowing, which delivers payoff after payoff, often so subtly that you won’t realize them until afterward.

(At this point, I’d like to pause and say how much I recommend The Next Picture Show podcast’s episode about Get Out, which features not only some incredible analysis and discussion of the film, but unpacks much of the script’s cleverness, and left me sitting with my jaw agape half the time at the brilliance of it all. And as I read more and more about the film, I realized not just that every single moment is weighted with meaning, but that it’s the rare film that never hammers home its points, trusting its audience to unpack its secrets and be rewarded.)

Yes, Get Out is ultimately a little more successful as a dark satire than it is a horror film. But given how rich that satire is, how thoughtfully complex it is, and best of all, how well executed it is – from the directorial choices to the great acting, from the brilliant script to the tight pacing – it’s hard to complain too much. I loved it when I finished watching it, but as I’ve gotten further and further from it, and thought about it more, I’m all the more swept up by it, and just want to see it again to take it all in a second time. And the fact that Peele says he has several more horror films to come – as well as a TV series based off of Lovecraft Country? Even better.

IMDb

The Lego Batman Movie / ****

cym_yo1w8aqqn_zMuch as was the case with the original Lego Movie, there was really no reason to expect The Lego Batman Movie to be any good. While Will Arnett’s gloriously absurd take on Batman was undeniably a highlight of the original film, the idea of creating a movie that revolved around him…well, let’s just say that such spin-offs don’t have the best track record. But more to the point, don’t we already have enough Batman movies? Did we really need another one?

But really, I should have remembered that I had similar doubts before seeing The Lego Movie, and was pleasantly overjoyed by that experience. And luckily, the same happened here. No, The Lego Batman Movie isn’t quite as wonderful as its predecessor – it lacks some of that film’s surprising depth and heart – but it more than makes itself worthwhile simply by being so ridiculously, wonderfully fun – an underrated virtue in modern superhero movies.

Mind you, it doesn’t hurt that The Lego Batman Movie delivers a pretty great superhero story. Playing off of the Joker/Batman dynamic in incredibly silly ways, the movie follows Joker as he finds a new way to threaten Gotham City; meanwhile, Batman finds himself questioning his life of solitude and isolation as he’s forced into working with others. Yes, in broad terms, it’s all stories you’ve seen done before…but in the hands of The Lego Batman Movie, it all feels winning and charming – and, moreover, it handles Batman in interesting ways, feeling like a bit of a tonic after years of grimdark brutality that reached its nadir with Batman v. Superman.

But, really, what’s most wonderful about The Lego Batman Movie is the sheer silliness of it all. From Batman commenting on studio logos in the opening moments, the film’s joyous, anarchic sense of humor is infectious, with a playfulness that extends to non-stop, rapid fire jokes that come both visually, audibly, and through the dialogue. Yes, a lot of them are even better if you’re a comic book fan (seriously, they go deep into the back catalog here, to some justly forgotten villains), but so often, the movie is just poking fun at itself, at its characters, at Batman continuity, at self-important superhero movies, and really, at anything. And while the movie doesn’t go quite as far meta as its predecessor does, there are still some wonderful carryover jokes – I never stopped laughing at the sound effects for guns, or the “worst villains of all time” that the film introduced. And by the time you start layering in all of the parody posters, the Hollywood in-jokes (which range from obvious to incredibly subtle – even some of the casting is based around jokes), the Airplane!-level pace to the jokes, and more, the result is genuinely hilarious. (Really, it’s hard to know who laughed more, me or my kids.)

The Lego Batman Movie isn’t groundbreaking or spectacular, the way the original Lego Movie was; it “suffers,” I guess, from a refusal to go back to the same well twice, which is admirable, but makes the movie feel a little less substantial than the original. And yet, for all of that, I wouldn’t change a bit of it; it’s an absolute blast, from beginning to end – it’s wonderfully silly, it’s inventive visually, cleverly constructed, and really, just a genuinely great family movie that’s actually fun, without ever being condescending, snarky, or aiming over the heads of kids. What else could you ask for?

IMDb

John Wick: Chapter 2 / ****

john-wick-chapter-2-posterI wasn’t really prepare for how much I enjoyed the original John Wick, which took what could be an absurd premise – a retired hitman who comes back to avenge the death of his dog – and turned it into something wonderfully original and fun, filling its running time with stylistic battles, wonderful character actors, and a rich and interesting world of criminal interactions and societies. (And that doesn’t even factor in my deep love of Ian McShane, whose presence in anything automatically makes it worth watching.) So there was no way I was going to pass up the chance to see more adventures with Keanu Reeves’ killing machine, and the rapturous reviews that John Wick: Chapter 2 was greeted with only made me more excited.

Now, here’s the thing: I really enjoyed John Wick: Chapter 2, which delivers exactly what you would want from a sequel. You get more of Wick’s brutal headshot delivery service, more exploration of this complex, labyrinthine underground economy of coins and markers, more wonderful character actors making an appearance and taking stock characters and investing them with life and personality. (The standout this time, apart from McShane, is Laurence Fishburne, having a blast as the head of a criminal group made up of the homeless.) And, of course, there’s insane, stylish action, with some brutal use of a pencil, a knockout streetfight, an even match for Wick, and a jawdropping finale in a hall of mirrors that’s just a joy to watch unfold.

For all of that, though, John Wick: Chapter 2 doesn’t quite hit the peaks of the original film. That’s not to say that it’s bad, by any means; indeed, at some of those above-mentioned points, it exceeds the original and then some. But it’s a far more uneven film, and it suffers greatly from “middle film” syndrome – because, make no mistake, this feels like a setup for John Wick: Chapter 3 at times, and the lack of a true climax is a bit frustrating. More than that, at times, this feels like a bit of a retread; while it’s still fun to watch Wick lay waste to people, there’s a bit of a feeling of “Okay, sure, but what else do you have?”

Now, there comes a point about halfway through the film when everything changes – when this goes from John Wick being on a mission to being the prey, and it’s at that point that John Wick: Chapter 2 really finds its groove, and becomes a joy to watch. That’s the point where the film separates itself from the original, and becomes something new and exciting, and from that point on, the film is a blast to watch. But that doesn’t really excuse the first half from being…not bad, and certainly not boring, and not even unexciting. But not nearly as engaging as you’d hope.

All of this may sound like I didn’t like it, and I don’t mean that to be the case, because I had a blast with this movie. I could watch Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Lance Reddick, and others just live in their parts for hours; I love the small details of this strange world, and the complicated rules and bureaucracy we keep catching glimpses of. And I love Reeves’ Wick, a lethal man who just wants to be left alone – he makes for a fun reluctant hero, a man caught back in a life he doesn’t want to be in. And, more than anything else, I love the film’s sheer style, and refusal to do anything in half measures – from laser-drenched concerts to shattered mirror halls, from insane car crashes to fist fights in the middle of subways and fountains, the film goes out of its way to make every scene memorable and unique.

Is it the first one? Nah, not quite. But did I have fun? Oh, yes. And will I see the third one? As soon as I possibly can.

IMDb

A Cure for Wellness / **** ½

cureforwellnessposterAs a movie fan, there can be little more dispiriting than feeling like you’re in a film era that’s so filled with franchises, remakes, sequels, and comic book films that there’s little room for originality. Watching great movies like The Nice Guys fade out without anyone noticing can be depressing. And as a horror fan, the problem can be even worse, with more and more horror fans turning to independent and fringe films in the hopes of finding something original, weird, and unsettling.

And yet, the astonishingly weird, atypical, surreal A Cure for Wellness proves that the studio system can still surprise you sometimes, even if it’s entirely possible that this is a fluke that won’t be repeated often. (That it happened twice in the past few years – with the last being the great, underrated Gothic romance Crimson Peak – is a sign of hope, though.) Maybe it takes the clout of so-called “visionary” director Gore Verbinski to get something like this made, though the poor box office performance doesn’t bode well for it happening often.

(A side note: I’ve always kind of laughed at that “visionary” tag with Verbinski, whose filmography is nothing if not erratic and uneven; while he’s made some great movies, he’s never been someone whose style would earn the title “visionary.” And yet, I’d give it to him for this one, as will become clear in a bit.)

And that’s a shame, because A Cure for Wellness is a blast. It’s undeniably strange – one of the most nutzoid, balls-to-the-wall studio horror films, just in terms of how far it’s willing to go in its surreal nightmare of a story. And more than that, its visual style is absolutely astonishing, turning the film into a true Gothic horror story with a bit of a steampunk vibe to it, as we lose our way in a medical institution set up in an old castle, and find our connections to the past from there.

As with many Gothic stories, the plot is almost beside the point – it’s all about the style – but Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe give us a great hook, following a driven, ambitious Wall Street type (Dane DeHaan) as he’s sent to retrieve the company’s CEO from a retreat in the Swiss Alps. But once he arrives, he starts realizing that this isn’t the kind of place that people want to leave, for whatever reason – and he starts finding his own departure to be similarly difficult.

Verbinski and Haythe start off with some meaty ideas about whether ambition and greed are our modern plagues, and there’s no denying the film’s interest in separating the modern world from the old. But ultimately, that’s window dressing for the psychological thumbscrews he’s got waiting, and really, the film benefits as it starts leaving behind its pretenses of theme and diving into its nightmarish visuals. From tubs of swirling eels to a torchlit dance sequence, from a perfectly reflecting pool to an ominously twitching handle, Verbinski leans hard into his style and cinematography, and the result is an absolute knockout. It’s one of those films where separating the style from the substance is missing the point; the style is the substance here, with the terror, unease, and discomfort all arising from Verbinski’s shadowy halls and surreal images.

Does it all makes sense, by the end? More or less, in that Gothic sort of way, with a few niggling questions. But really, by the end, I was too swept up in this strange world to care – I was disturbed by the images I was seeing, in awe of the lush world Verbinski had created, and thrilled by just how far – and how bonkers – Verbinski had gotten away with making this film. The result isn’t a perfect film by any means – DeHaan is adequate, at best; there’s a CGI animal scene that’s fairly bad; the ending is overlong, even if it contains one of my favorite moments – but it’s lush, it’s original, it’s beautifully filmed, and more than anything else, it feels like little else out there, all while still succeeding at being a nasty little piece of horror driven by its technique. And that is more than enough for me.

IMDb

Toni Erdmann / **** ½

toni-erdmann-posterBy the time Toni Erdmann made its way to Nashville, its reputation was already far ahead of it. Almost universally acclaimed and beloved, it was hailed by many as one of the best films of the year, if not the best film of the year. That can make for an intimidating experience to approach a film, and when you factor in that Erdmann is a nearly three-hour German film, you’d be forgiven for making certain assumptions about the film.

But one look at the trailer for Toni Erdmann makes you realize that this film isn’t what you might think it is. Not unless you assumed that it’s a comedy about a prank-playing father who loves wearing false teeth and creating elaborate stories/lies for his own entertainment, and often at the cost of embarrassing those around him. And when he realizes that his work-obsessed daughter is at risk of letting her life pass her by, he decides to inject some madness into her world.

That’s right. This great film, this powerful experience? It’s a broad, silly comedy that mines some of the “slobs and snobs” archetypes. And that definitely isn’t quite what I expected.

To be fair, that’s not exactly what Toni Erdmann is, but it’s a good starting point. Because, yes, this film is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, with a knack for absurdism and broad comedy that you don’t often see in films like this, and a willingness to be silly that serves it well. But to call Toni Erdmann a comedy isn’t quite right, either; it’s a melancholy film in many ways, one that uses its comedic touches to lighten the material it’s grappling with: a father who worries that he’s failed his daughter; a woman struggling to make her name in the male-dominated (and often misogynistic) business world; a daughter who doesn’t understand her father at all, a feeling he reciprocates; a disconnect between corporate-speak and the real consequences that affect people’s lives; and plenty more. In short, this is heavy material, made palatable and enjoyable by the film’s comedy.

The result is a fascinating, odd film, one that really feels like little else that I’ve seen. It’s undeniably long, and yet, it lives in that length, using every minute of its time to let its characters breathe and develop, even in scenes that don’t add much to any traditional “narrative”. It’s a film that follows its characters through no end of trails – conversations with friends, awkward encounters with lovers, power struggles, moments of despair – and watches them all with equal compassion and understanding. And while the film’s synopsis above might make you think you know whose side the film is on – after all, in any film with a career-minded woman and an anarchic man, has any film ever taken the side of the woman? – writer-director Maren Ade doesn’t want to do anything so simple. She loves and admires both of these characters, and simultaneously finds both of them lacking and wanting in so many ways.

I’m still, to be honest, not entirely sure what I thought of Toni Erdmann, a film whose greatness seems to be less in filmmaking or being groundbreaking, and more in its humanity, its heart, and its kindness. (In some ways, it reminds me of my reaction to Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, a film whose greatness arrived in a way I never expected.) It’s an endearingly odd, unique film, filled with memorable scenes, odd moments, and rich characterization, and marked by a refusal to give us any simple moral, any one lesson we can learn. Instead, it takes on the world, its characters, sexism, parenting, guilt, love, business, and more, and throws it all together into one unique mixture. It’s funny, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s overlong at times, and just right at others, and in all really like little else out there. And at times, it’s genuinely profound, touching on the human experience in a way that a more “conventional” movie never could. But more than anything else, it’s wonderfully human, and wonderfully humane, and I kind of loved that about it. Is it great? Maybe, maybe not. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a pretty wonderful (and wonderfully odd) movie.

IMDb

The Love Witch (2016) / **** ½

the-love-witch-poster-2I had never heard of writer-director Anna Biller before The Love Witch came out, but it turns out there’s a reason for that. See, it can be hard to be a prolific, one-a-year director when you’re as invested in your production process as Biller is. Because, in addition to writing and directing (and producing) her films, Biller handles her own set and costume design work, often making parts of the sets and costumes herself. It’s a true labor of love, a film in which even the tiniest aspect bears Biller’s mark. And that comes through in the film, which feels fussed over and created in a way that few films do.

And yet, all of that, to steal a word from critic Scott Tobias, is “extratextual”. Yes, it’s part of what made me want to check out The Love Witch, and there’s no denying that it gives the film a rich texture. But the more important question: is The Love Witch any good? Luckily, the answer is a wildly enthusiastic “yes” – for all of the film’s minor flaws, it’s wonderfully odd, engaging, and unlike just about anything else you’ve ever seen. Even better, it makes use of Biller’s rich sets and costumes to fill in its world and themes in satisfying, engaging ways.

Mind you, The Love Witch is more a movie about its style and themes than it is a plot. The film is about a witch (in the pagan, Wiccan sense of the word) named Elaine (played by the arresting, captivating Samantha Robinson), who’s moving to a new town after her last relationship went very south. Elaine is gorgeous, flirty, and wants love in her life, and starts making a potion to help herself out. Only thing is, that potion maybe works a little too well…

the-love-witchReally, that’s about all the story there is. The Love Witch could almost be three episodes of a forgotten, strange 1970’s television show; the film follows Elaine through three separate relationships, each building off of the mistakes and successes of the past. But what engages you so much about the film isn’t that story; it’s Biller’s incredible evocation of 1970’s horror, bringing in the vivid, excessive colors of someone like Argento, the soft lighting that was so ubiquitous at the time, and the slightly campy style that never insists upon itself. It’s an unbelievable love letter to those sort of films, and the result is absolutely stunning to watch, simply from a visual perspective – it’s saturated, moody, funny, and just a joy.

But more than that, there’s the wonderfully odd, idiosyncratic themes of the film, which offer musings on feminism, gender roles, relationship goals, and more. Biller’s film is undeniably feminist, but in surprising ways, exploring the way women’s emotions cause them to approach relationships differently than men, to say nothing of how they deal with breakups and the like. More than that, there’s musings on religion (specifically pagan and Wiccan beliefs), fidelity, and more, all mixed into this strange black comedy film with wonderful touches of psychological lovewitchhorror throughout. And every bit of loving craft on costumes, makeup, and the memorable sets only underlines all of Biller’s thoughtful, off-kilter world.

The result is a wonderfully odd, unique film, and one that’s intentionally and lovingly crafted for a niche appeal. It’s meandering, campy, feminist, silly, and moody; it’s got fun performances that fit its retro mood and atmosphere to a T; it’s got an iconoclastic sensibility that never compromises but never turns into absurd navel-gazing art house fare. And more than anything else, it feels like little else I’ve ever seen – it’s undeniably an homage to an era, but manages the task of creating that homage while never being anything less than its own film. I thoroughly enjoyed it; it’s not perfect, a little too long, and occasionally self-indulgent, but almost always entertaining and engaging. And even when it’s not, what a joy it is just to watch and lose yourself in that color-drenched, saturated technicolor world. Biller’s films may take years, but if they’re this engaging and fun, I’m totally on board with that.

IMDb