Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Rider

THE RIDER (****)

I found THE RIDER to be genuine and sincere in ways that are for films these days. It is aided by some fantastic acting (Brady Jandreau's face says so much!) that feels so natural you'd swear you were watching a documentary (the family in the film is portrayed by a real family: Brady, Wayne, and Lilly Blackburn) and some gorgeous cinematography by Joshua James Richards that beautifully captures the wide open spaces of South Dakota. It's not too talky (which would have robbed a lot of the film of its power) and doesn't have conflicts in the traditional sense, but it's such a confident film in how it shows its protagonist Brady coming to terms with his life (as he sees it) stopping before it ever really got started.

There's a real sense of confidence and beauty and care in every aspect of the filmmaking here. It's one of those movies that provides a glimpse into a world that I know nothing about, and I was happy to visit this small reservation ranch in South Dakota and to be around these characters. It has a tremendous sense of place, and I appreciated that the director (Chloe Zhao) didn't feel the need to overstate things. Whether it's in letting a beautiful shot speak for itself, the power in a whistle in one of the film's final moments (that one got to me), or the subtle, understated way she let's us know that Brady--a rodeo pro that suffered a tremendous head injury after being bucked and is advised by doctors to never ride again--is coming to terms with his post-rodeo life (there are no melodramatic moments of exposition where characters yell and cry about dreams not achieved, etc.).

There is also a montage of Brady training a horse, trying to tame it. To describe it here in detail would not do the scene justice (it would sound boring), but it is one of the most intense (I had anxiety every time Brady was around/on a horse) and fascinating scenes of the movie. I watched in awe at Brady's process (this is where it feels like a documentary), at watching a professional do their thing and do it well.

I loved it.

The Nun

THE NUN (***)

Make no mistake, THE NUN is not a good movie. It is quite terrible in certain moments (it has the most generic scare moments and some truly awful dialogue—there is actually an exchange that goes: “The blood of Christ” “Holy shit.” “The holiest.”), but it’s a lot of fun and really quite something to look at. My interest was piqued when friends and other critics I trust had mentioned that the film had a very Italian feel to it, specifically Michele Soavi’s THE CHURCH. There is a bit of Soavi’s THE CHURCH in that there is an evil buried beneath a beautifully creepy old religious building, but that’s just plot stuff. Where THE NUN really gets it right is in the tone, and this is where I could see the Italian connections being made. THE NUN moves along quickly enough (the movie is only 96 minutes, which is a plus in my book) and its ridiculous plot is really just there to just act as a backdrop for the impressive setpieces. And this is where the comparisons to Soavi and Italian horror are apt. Director Corin Hardy (whose previous film THE HALLOW I'm unfamiliar with but am now definitely interested in checking out) has a lot of fun dumping everything on the viewer in the same nonsensical way that Italian horror eschews narrative coherence (there are a lot of scenes of characters just wandering around searching in spooky locations—I had no idea why, but it didn’t matter to me) for tone. THE NUN gets the feel of an Italian horror movie right, and if one approaches the film with the mindset just enjoying the film’s setpieces (whether they be the copious amounts of eerie shots inside the church, fog drenched woods, or the hallucinations of the characters), I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised. Hardy seems to understand that one does not come to a movie called THE NUN thinking there will be new ways in which a film of this ilk will scare you. But THE NUN did surprise me because the tone is perfect (it’s always interesting to look at) and the filmmakers seem to be having fun with this goofy premise.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

The Predator


Incredibly loud and wonderfully stupid in its first hour, Shane Black’s THE PREDATOR is a stripped down machine in its opening setpieces but gets derailed by Predator backstory that is just plain stupid. I did not come here for Predator mythology; I came for the predictable Shane Black snark and gory fights between a ragtag group of military outcasts and space hunters. The first half of THE PREDATOR delivers on this; the second half loses steam quickly (despite Black keeping his big action film under two hours, which was much appreciated, the film does drag a bit at the end). The acting and the chemistry are perfect for a movie like this, and it’s one of the reasons why despite the soggy second half, THE PREDATOR is a lot of fun. Boyd Holbrook in the lead has charisma and when Olivia Munn is actually given something to do (which is just in the early parts of the movie) she’s quite good, too. The real standouts, though, are Trevante Rhodes (who has “action star” written all over him) and Sterling K. Brown (who takes a thankless role as the evil government agent and sinks his teeth into it). The beats are all here for fans of the original PREDATOR to recognize the winks and nods to the original, but by the end I just didn’t care that much to see this thing become franchise. But it does have predator dogs! 

First Reformed


Paul Schrader wears his Bresson and Bergman influences on his sleeve with this one, and the result is a tone appropriately austere. Filmed in the Academy ratio, every shot is beautiful and compact—from the great opening tracking shot, to scenes of characters just sitting inside and talking, to the harsh, cold Northeastern exteriors that match the harsh, cold interiors of the church. Ethan Hawke’s amazing performance as Reverend Toller might just be the performance of the year (and one of the of his career). The juxtaposition of Toller (a Thomas Merton type who wonders why the church isn’t frontline stewards on issues like climate change) and his boss (a wonderful Cedric the Entertainer, who plays an aspiring Televangelist that wrestlers with the role of the church in an ever-changing, more extreme 21 st century) so were some of my favorite moments because Schrader doesn’t resort to cheap tactics that make Toller seem out of touch or make his boss seem inconsiderate of his conflict. There’s more to FIRST REFORMED than that dynamic, though, as a certain event acts as the catalyst for Toller thinking this way, and Schrader uses the framework of a thriller (there have been many comparisons to Schrader’s own TAXI DRIVER) to tell its story. And it’s a great conceit by Schrader to frame his film this way because from the film’s opening moments, I couldn’t look away. There’s nothing “fun” about this movie in the way that a lot of thrillers are “fun” but FIRST REFORMED—despite its minimalist approach—really moves through its story with a tremendous amount of momentum that filled me with a lot of anxiety as we watch Toller deal with his numerous conflicts (internal and external). I couldn’t take my eyes off of what was happening, and I know I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time. I can’t go full four stars, though, because of that ending (even though I really like the abrupt cut).

Monday, December 10, 2018



I don't mind arty horror. In fact, most of the Euro-horror I love so much eschews narrative for showy aesthetics; it’s one the aspects I find most appealing about that particular subgenre. I like David Cronenberg movies because they get under your skin and scare in a way that isn’t obvious. There are ways to do arty horror and still have your movie be, you know, scary. However, in the last decade or so there has been a handful of horror films whose filmmakers are hyper-focused on differentiating their it’s-not-horror-but-it’s-horror films via narrative. The aspirations of these films show a crop of filmmakers that would rather have their horror film seen as Important and Significant than scary/unnerving, as if their only take away from film school viewings of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD/DAWN OF THE DEAD was that George Romero was inserting social commentary into his horror films.

THE WITCH, THE BABADOOK, even aspects of IT FOLLOWS are just a few modern examples of the Significant horror film that I didn’t hate (THE WITCH, in fact, I liked quite a bit); however, Ari Aster’s very unscary and incredibly banal HEREDITARY with its awful soundtrack that is there to constantly remind you that everything you’re watching is Significant and Creepy is not one of those examples (for an example of the pervasive ambient soundtrack designed to unsettle the viewer that really works, see Rob Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM, which also executes this whole type of Satanic Horror film narrative much better and is much more interesting to look at). I couldn't help but feel worn down by the film's glacial pacing and laughable attempts at overt horror. Scene by languid scene (man there are a lot of slow tracking shots that lead to nothing in this movie) the film trips over itself as it progresses into its more gonzo elements (there are insects on faces and coming out of mouths in this movie, but Fulci it is not). These moments should have elicited a fun, “What the fuck is happening!?”* response but instead each of these moments becomes a slog as over and over we get characters looking at something offscreen (or wandering towards something offscreen), a slow push in from the camera, a THUD THUD from the soundtrack, and lots of tracking shots that are supposed to signal ominous situations but end up being nothing more than tedious foreshadowing.

HEREDITARY works hard at being arty horror, but it also overplays its hand at the worst possible moments when it wants to try and convince the audience that it’s visceral horror. The film’s “shock” moments don’t land because the momentum of those scenes is always being cut short. There’s just way too much focus on plot and not enough attention paid to what makes a horror film fun and scary. For example, there is a cutaway to a severed head covered in ants that is a fine cutaway for a horror film—appropriately gruesome and shocking in concept—but is inserted at the worst possible moment for what the filmmakers I think are striving for that it made me laugh out loud when they cut to it. However, the moment that cutaway interrupts is a piece of overacting by Toni Collette that is so laughable that I didn't mind the awkward editing decision to interrupt that moment, but it seemed out of place for what the film is trying to be. It’s a moment that strains to say, "SEE THIS IS A HORROR MOVIE" because this feels like it was made by people that don't necessarily love horror movies.

I was trying with this one. I really was. A lot of critics I respect love this movie. There are elements of it that I really like (the set design, the sound mixing near the end where despite how ridiculous the clucking noise is as a device, that noise and the sound of the pencil hitting the paper actually startled me as it was isolated on my good-not-great rear speakers), but the overbearing soundtrack and the over-the-top acting and the lack of understanding what makes a horror film scary got on my nerves.

* As I watched the film, I thought, “huh, I think this is a film trying to say something about trauma and moving on and the (literal) ghosts that haunt us, etc.”, but unless I totally misread the film's final 20 minutes, I think the film’s final 20 minutes undercuts that interpretation. Which is too bad because had HEREDITARY been more along the lines of something like Mario Bava’s underappreciated SHOCK with its equally over-the-top performance from Daria Nicolodi (and the equally gonzo things that happen to her in that movie), I could have been on board with it. SHOCK does the kind of “protagonist trying to keep their shit together” ghost story better than most, and I thought that's where HEREDITARY was heading before the banal Satanism angle took over. Anyway, this is all to say people really should see SHOCK