Monday, March 30, 2015

A Reel Review: IT FOLLOWS

Let’s face it…all horror movies are inherently silly. From possessive demons, spooky ghosts, slashers with masks who never die, slimy monsters, and serial killers playing God. What makes any of these ideas work for the audience is the ability to make the audience buy into it early on and stay in the moment. In the case of IT FOLLOWS, an old idea with a new twist is presented early and reinforced often, making for what should be another round of silliness a very believable…and scary ride. 

Hugh (Jake Weary) passes onto to Jay (Maika Monroe) a curse in which she, and only she, sees an evil being chasing after her with the intent to kill. The only thing she can do is run, or pass the curse along to someone else. 

IT FOLLOWS takes the old and tired plot of young people being chased by killers and gives it new life; this time the killer can only be seen by one person (whoever is cursed). So right away, the film adds a lot of intrigue as director David Robert Mitchell has a blast in playing games with the characters…and most especially, the audience. The evil always appears in a different form (another person), so the characters and the audience are often left to guess who on the screen can be seen by others and who can’t. IT FOLLOWS keeps us guessing, but doesn’t get too smart for its own good and sticks to what it does best; provide scares. The ground-rules for this supernatural evil are simple, and doesn’t waste any time exploring backstories or ancient history. This is a film that has immediate business to take of first; get scared. 

And the scares are executed perfectly. Not the cheap jump-scares courtesy of loud bangs (although there are a couple effective ones), but thanks to a piss-your-pants feeling of doom that hangs over the entire film. Mitchell builds a fantastic atmosphere of tension and dread. He utilizes every inch of the screen…making the film one of the best-filmed widescreen horror movies ever seen. You can’t help but to scan every bit of the surroundings in hopes of picking up when or where the evil will appear as the camera plods away with slow 360-degree pans and some excellent tracking shots. The music, composed by pulsating techno-organ is enough for anyone to lose their bowels. IT FOLLOWS is a true chiller. 

Acting is superb considering the very young cast. Maika Monroe is terrific as a tortured late-teen, and once the curse takes its hold on her, there’s never a moment that you can’t feel her torment. The rest of the young cast; Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Lili Spe, Jake Weary, and Olivia Luccardi are all excellent. 

IT FOLLOWS settles into a quiet ending without any over-dramatic Hollywood moments or obvious apexes, and really drives home the point that the doom the characters have been going through weren’t just for cheap scares. Perhaps the real genius of the film is that despite having a subtle metaphor going on, it never once becomes preachy and stays right in the sandbox that it knows it belongs in. That, and its commitment to on-the-ground filmmaking (very little CGI, if any) and genuine terror gives it a classical and timeless feel; this movie could have felt right at home in the 1970’s or early 1980’s. It’s truly scary thanks to its simplicity…making it a pure horror film and a breath of fresh air for the genre. 


Wednesday, March 25, 2015


“…There are those who believe that we should attack the United States first…Red October was built for that purpose…”

This month marks the 25th anniversary of John McTiernan’s THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. 

Based on the novel of the same name by author Tom Clancy, in which a Russian submarine captain and his silent-running nuclear submarine vanish into the sea with unknown intentions, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER was the 4th feature film from director John McTiernan. When McTiernan signed on to helm the seafaring espionage voyage, he had already solidified himself as a solid action director with a talent for fleshing out great characters in a thrill-ride landscape; as evidenced in his films PREDATOR (1987) and DIE HARD (1988). 

The effort to get RED OCTOBER out to sea was not an easy sail in the early stages. Many Hollywood executives passed on the project, calling Clancy’s dense novel too complicated to understand and un-filmable. It was also feared that the film, which would spend a lot of time aboard U.S. submarines, aircraft, and other Navy vessels, would give away many U.S. military secrets. After screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald Steward whittled down the novel to a filmable screenplay, producer Mace Neufeld gained full cooperation from the U.S. Navy, who had hopes that RED OCTOBER would do for submariners what TOP GUN had done for fighter pilots. The cooperation from the Navy would pay off on film. Actors trained alongside active duty personnel, and commanders made suggestions to the script…adding a great deal of authenticity and realism to the Cold War-era drama. 

The cast was led off by Sean Connery who would play Red October’s captain. As a veteran of the sea, he was countered by the landlocked desk jockey CIA analyst, played by Alec Baldwin. The rest of the cast could be considered a glorious ensemble by today’s standards; Fred Thompson, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, Richard Jordan, Tim Curry, Courtney Vance, Stellan Skarsgard, Jeffrey Jones, and Larry Ferguson. 

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER would be one of the top grossing films of 1990, both in North America and worldwide. It would be nominated for four Oscars, winning one for Best Sound Editing. Sean Connery’s iconic performance would earn him a nomination for Best Actor at the British Film Industry Awards, and composer Basil Poledouris, also famous for his work in CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), would win a BMI Film Music Award. 


In the Spring of 1990, this Blogger and his brother were taken by Dad to see THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. The opening moments of the film, in which a computer screen tells us that “nothing of what you are about to see, ever happened”, right away set the tone…which was full of mystery and seriousness. It was the first time Dad had taken us to see a grown-up movie, and the impact was ever-lasting. RED OCTOBER was an eye-opener; the stakes were high, the storytelling was very adult, and the battle of wits across the depths of the ocean made for a very smart, thinking-man’s thriller. This was not a film which relied heavily on special effects or the fury of sights and sound to get a point across, but instead weaved a thick and glorious web of espionage. It was a cat-and-mouse game at sea; what was the Russian sea captain up to, who knew about it, and did he know who knew about it? It was, and still is a great spy story that would feel right at home in a James Bond flick, and to this day has its place on this Blogger’s Wall of Fame: 

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER never won Best Picture, and it is sadly often overlooked when in discussions concerning great spy movies. But its legacy in time is secure; it was the first of many Jack Ryan films, and one of the last great films prior to the CGI era. It is a true adventure at sea and just as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. 

“Today comrades, we sail into history!” 

Friday, March 20, 2015

A Reel 120: The Motion Picture

This month marks what is widely regarded as the 120th anniversary of the filming of the first motion picture in history. 

In late March of 1895, two brothers in France; Auguste Marie Louis Nicolas and Louis Jean filmed 17 meters, or 50 seconds of moving pictures in what would be entitled WORKERS LEAVING THE LUMIERE FACTORY. The film, which had a single scene of workers leaving a factory, didn’t have much of a script, storyline, or cast…but that one shot would prove to be a shot heard around the world. That very humble beginning would change the art of storytelling forever. 

Ever since the dawn of man, when images were scratched onto the walls of caves, the world had been telling stories and searching for better ways to tell them. Even though being told a story enabled us to use our imaginations to provide the visuals, the motion picture was still equally effective; conveying ideas, characters, and stories in a new way that would inspire generation upon generation. Those 50 short seconds would go on to create a zillion-dollar industry while permeating the dreams and sub-conscious of every willing person in the world. 120 years after those workers walked out of a factory in France, everyone now has a favorite movie, character, story, filmmaker, and actor. 

The art of filmmaking has been used to teach, inspire, thrill, educate, and illuminate. It is has been a reflection of life that we can relate to and learn from. This anniversary offers us a chance to celebrate those films and the people who make them that we love so much. The filmmakers; from Georges to Alfred to Stanley to Steven to George to Marty. The actors; from Jimmy to Katharine to Marlon to Cate to Daniel. And all those great stories that light up the famed silver screen; from the Moon to Rosebud to Lawrence to Godfathers to Jedi, and all the bonuses…from Williams to Oscar to Film 101-classes and endless debates. Motion pictures are a genuine art of self-expression which has endured 120 years of change…and will endure many more. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Reel Opinion: Concerning Remakes

Hollywood seems to be in a weird era right now, where remaking familiar movies is the primary way to do business. Original movies are shoved aside in favor of a title that people will recognize in the hopes of making an easy profit. ­­Movie-making is an art, but it is also a business…and to stay in business you have to do business.

In recent weeks a lot of attention has been drawn to some high-profile remakes in the pipeline, beginning with one of the most successful movie studios in history…Disney.

Last week, Disney announced that director Tim Burton (BEETLEJUICE, ED WOOD) has signed on to helm a live-action remake of their classic 1941 animated film DUMBO. The film, which tells the story of a baby circus elephant with oversized ears, will combine CG animation and live-action.  This is will be the sixth live-action remake of classic Disney films; Burton’s own ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010), last year’s MALEFICENT, this year’s CINDERELLA…and future films THE JUNGLE BOOK and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Disney, has always prided itself on originality and has built its empire on just that. However, most of their classic films are adaptations of fairy tales anyway, and the stories and characters are rich and interesting enough to explore in different arenas. The bigger story here is Tim Burton. Burton seemed to break out of his creative rut in the past few years with his animated hit FRANKENWEENIE (2012) and last year’s critically acclaimed true-story drama BIG EYES. His adaptation of WONDERLAND made great money for Disney but was critically slammed and is regarded as one of his weakest efforts, so it’s frustrating to see him step away from what has worked very well for him recently to go back to apparent laziness; just a remake where half of the work is already done for you. Hopefully Burton can add something new to DUMBO, and avoid his comfort zone of (a) having Johnny Depp dress up weird, or (b) have composer Danny Elfman and his children’s choir re-hash another “lalalalalalala” score.

Also on the way is another shot at SCARFACE, which would be the third version of the gangster film. The first being the 1932 Howard Hawks classic which starred Paul Muni, George Raft, and Boris Karloff…and the second being the Brian De Palma pop-culture-magnet version in 1983 which starred Al Pacino. This new version is still in the early stages with no set release date or cast, but it has been reported to be a modern-day take on the gangster story. A lot of people hold De Palma’s version in very high regard, often forgetting that version was a remake in itself. This Blogger always found that film to be way over the top with very little restraint, finesse, along with cartoonish acting and a bloated plot and running time. Any type of gangster film is ripe for a fresh take, so another shot at SCARFACE isn’t all that offensive.

Of course, no one is asking for these movies to be made, but in an age where original films struggle with the critics and fans (INTERSTELLAR), or struggle to make profit (CHAPPIE), this is the corner Hollywood is backed into. It’s not all doom and gloom as many remakes have proven to be better than the original; the Oscar-winning THE DEPARTED (2006), along with TRUE GRIT (2010), THE THING (1982), 3:10 TO YUMA (2007), THE FLY (1986), and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978). And a lot of people forget (or just don’t know) that THE WIZARD OF OZ was a remake, as was THE TEN COMMANDMENTS.

A fresh look at old material is what keeps storytelling alive, which means a good movie can always be found another time around. 

Monday, March 16, 2015


Disney’s latest version of the fairy tale CINDERELLA is very much in the spirit of the classic era of the famed movie studio’s live-action films; it is fueled by inspired performances, constructed out of lavish sets and costumes, and injected with a morality which is intended to act as a guide for younger minds. That is the setup for this CINDERELLA; but is it enough? 

After the death of her parents, Ella (Lily James), is adapted by her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and is forced to live a life of slavery. Now nicknamed Cinderella by her mean stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera), she is whisked away to a ball with the help of her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter), where she romances the young prince (Richard Madden). 

This version of CINDERELLA knows exactly what it has to do to succeed. It doesn’t bother to use an over-abundance of CGI or try too hard to impress with visuals, and it doesn’t try to add depth by spending too much time on origin stories. This CINDERELLA knows that it is a fairy tale, and all fairy tales are about character, story, and a lesson. Director Kenneth Branagh embraces these elements fully, and lets this tale unspool all on its own. The beats and settings are familiar, but what makes it feel fresh is that Branagh makes this a very human story. With both Cinderella and the unexpected backstory of the stepmother both suffering from losses in their lives, the film becomes a very human story about love and loss and how we react to it. It is a very human, relatable story in a familiar and fantastical setting. This gives CINDERELLA the heartbeat that it needs to survive. 

Branagh also embraces the classic nature of old-time filmmaking. The sets and costumes are stunning, and the pacing, visual-effects, music, and style of acting gives the film a magical whimsy that is a joy to behold. Branagh, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest Shakespeare interpreters of our time, toys with family dynamics and drama while clinging to the old fashioned virtues that make classic cinema work so well. Aside from the CGI, this is a film that easily could have been shot right next door to THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Acting is superb. Young Lily James is perfect as Cinderella; putting out all the emotion needed to create a very real character that we can easily care for. Cate Blanchett is wickedly awesome as the stepmother and elevates her performance to a point where she would have to be considered one of the most despicable movie-villains ever filmed. The stepsisters, played by Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera, are there mostly for comic relief but still manage to become very loathsome characters. Helena Bonham Carter is effective, although seems to put in just enough for another fantasy character, and Richard Madden is a very convincing prince. The rest of the cast, including Hayley Atwell, Derek Jacobi, Ben Chaplin, and Stellan Skarsgard are all excellent. 

With a lot of emphasis on dresses and shoes and dances and love and a morality lesson which is up-front nearly all of the time, CINDERELLA is definitely a film pointed at young ladies, but the emotional weight that the characters are given make it palpable for adults as well…who should also appreciate the exquisite craftsmanship and earnest effort Branagh has put into it. This film is a shoe that fits all.