Archive for July, 2015

It Follows (2014)

Director: David Robert Mitchell

Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe

It entertains! As the closing credits rolled on “It Follows,” I concluded that I had not merely witnessed an outstanding American horror movie. With arms outstretched, my fists pumping high up in the air, I knew that I had just seen the best horror movie yet produced in the current decade. How the creative geniuses behind this instant classic managed to pull this off is quite simple. I’ve been saying for a long time now that if I were ever to make a horror movie myself, I would want to do it in the style of a late 1970’s/early 1980’s horror flick. This is the era of horror that, for me, has no equal. The greatest of these movies also knew how to creep their audiences out by choosing atmosphere over buckets of blood, and by making the killer a seldom seen but ever-present force of nature. The creators of this movie appear to have as much respect for that period in horror history as I do, as the aptly titled “It Follows” marches in lockstep with the likes of John Carpenter’s “Halloween.”

Jay Height (Maika Monroe), a Michigan college student, is on a movie date with Hugh (Jake Weary) playing an innocent game of “If you could trade places with anyone in this room…” The object of the game is to guess who the other person has selected. When it’s Hugh’s turn to guess, he points out a woman whom Jay cannot see. This has Hugh visibly disturbed, and he insists that they leave the theater together right away. Some time later, the two have sex in the back of Hugh’s car, after which Hugh renders Jay unconscious with chloroform and ties her to a wheelchair. Jay’s situation is already bad enough but, as Hugh explains, it’s about to get a whole lot worse. He swears he has no intention of harming her. That’s fine except for the fact that, through their consensual sex, he effectively already has.

Hugh’s explanation is this: The same entity that has been silently, slowly chasing after Hugh will now turn its attention towards Jay. That is, of course, unless she can find someone else to have sex with, in which case the entity will shift its focus onto them. The catch is that, if it should kill that person, it would then come back to haunt Jay. This is why Hugh is so keen on Jay getting busy, because her death would mean that he would once again be the main target. No one knows where this thing came from or who its first victim was, only that there is just the one of it. It makes up for its shortcomings by being very clever. It can appear to its victims as anyone, either as someone they know or just a random face in the crowd. Either way, it absolutely never will stop stalking you until it has killed you.

Jay has a hard time convincing her friends of what’s going on, choosing instead to have them stick close by to keep an eye on her. After she flees from the entity a couple of times, together they all track down Hugh, whose real name is Jeff Redmond. Jeff’s only new piece of information is that he believes he originally caught the curse from a one-night stand, after which he says that his and Jay’s close proximity to one another is putting his life at risk, and so he demands that they leave at once. Thinking him crazy, Jay’s friends remain skeptical until it catches up to her at Greg (Daniel Zovatto)’s lakehouse. After that, they begin to formulate a plan as to how to be rid of it once and for all. Not without casualties along the way, this plan climaxes at an abandoned indoor pool.

“It Follows” is definitely not perfect. It makes little sense for Jay and her friends to have a calm sit-down with Hugh/Jeff after his earlier behavior. The rules for how the curse is passed on aren’t quite as clear as maybe they should be, leading to a host of unanswered questions. You’d be better served to just go along with it, which I did. Also, it’s hard to believe these characters could ever think that a gun could be effective against the entity after it’s established that bullets only slow it down. Then again, so many characters from the “Halloween,” “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” films made similar lapses in judgment, and we forgave it then.

Far outweighing the movie’s mistakes are its strengths. The jump scares are kept to a minimum (I think I counted two), of which I am in total favor. The cinematography is perfecto. I’ve not been as contented by a movie’s cinematography since the first time I saw Dario Argento’s “Suspiria.” So much is going on in certain shots that it’ll take several more viewings (which I am gleefully prepared for) to soak it all in. My favorites are the shots from the point of view of the neighbors looking in on Jay’s manic behavior and, in particular, the shot looking in through the windows of various hospital rooms before finally ending up in the one where Jay is resting. No matter the chaotic situation she is facing, these shots demonstrate how life around her continues to go on blissfully unaware, a perspective that’s rarely shown in horror movies. One of the best assets of “It Follows” is its retro synthesizer score by Disasterpeace, resulting in the most memorable main theme of any horror film in the last thirty years.

The ambiguity of the film’s ending is another thing I love about “It Follows.” With the final shot, it is left up to the viewer to decide what happens next. Do our survivors continue to live on, always looking over their shoulder from here on out, or are they as doomed as anyone else who has encountered the entity? If the very 1980’s-style theme of Sex=Death carries on from this point, their chances probably aren’t very good. Personally, I’d like to see things left right where they are. I know how tempting it is to turn even the most moderately well-received horror film into a franchise, and I hope that “It Follows” can be one of the few allowed to stand alone. In this way, I think its legacy would be better served, especially if it paves the way for other retro horror titles in the near future.


Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past

Growing up during the classic era of Nintendo, I have a lot of fond memories of some really terrific video games, most of which hold up really well to this day. Nothing being released today can ever be as exciting as playing Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES, or my all-time favorite: The Legend of Zelda – A Link to the Past for the Super Nintendo (or SNES). I also have regrets over not catching on to certain popular titles when they were fresh and new, such as the Mega Man series. All these long years later, I still have never played Mega Man 2, largely considered to be one of the very best NES games.  But still another memory lingers, that of game-based movies… a lot of really bad game-based movies. Like most any kid in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, video games ate up a large part of my time, as did movies. So, it is my nostalgia for both which begs the question: Why is it so hard for the combined strengths of these two forms of entertainment to produce something beautiful?

When you’re talking about inventing a whole new subgenre of film, the natural instinct is to go right for a title which would be near and dear to the hearts of millions. It only made sense that the title which kickstarted the Nintendo Entertainment System and gave video games in general a second life would be the first choice. After all, the objective is to put as many butts into theater seats as possible, and what better way to do it than with something everyone loves? Something good, something pure… And so it was that the “Super Mario Bros.” movie was unleashed in 1993.

I was like pretty much every other kid my age at the time in that I was psyched about this movie. Then I saw some still photos in Nintendo Power magazine and my heart sank. This was beginning to look nothing like what I’d come to expect from the games. The completed film, as it stands, is even worse. There’s a reason why theaters have never shown a “Super Mario Bros. 2” movie. No one would have gone to see it, having been fooled the first time. So, the video game subgenre of film stumbled out of the gate, and has been struggling ever since. Most of the time, the movies are like “Super Mario Bros.” in that they don’t come particularly close to resembling what gamers would recognize and what is presented isn’t very entertaining to anyone else, either.

About the closest anyone’s come to succeeding in this subgenre are with “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” and “Resident Evil.” Yet even these movies are one-man… or, more accurately, one-woman shows. The two “Tomb Raider” movies are both largely carried on the back of Angelina Jolie, who herself does a great job as the title character. The “Resident Evil” series, standing currently at five movies with a sixth and (allegedly) final one in pre-production, is by far the most sustained, but that doesn’t automatically make it good. Honestly, it shouldn’t be that hard to make a series of zombie films interesting, but it’s almost like the “Resident Evil” films try TOO hard. Once again, it’s up to the series’ lead, in this case Milla Jovovich, to carry all the weight, but as a character invented by the movies, with supporting actors portraying characters who have names and some characteristics in common with their more recognizable (and more beloved) video game counterparts. A case could also be made for the 1995 “Mortal Kombat” movie, as it got a lot of the look and feel of the games down pretty well. The story and the acting may have left a little to be desired, but at least the fight scenes were well choreographed. The less said about the 1997 sequel, the better.

With this genre of film having entered into its third decade of existence, it’s incredible that some of the most popular video game franchises of all-time still have yet to be mined. Based on the popularity of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” there had been some talk about making a live-action “Legend of Zelda” TV series for Netflix, although it seems that idea has been cast aside for now. “Castlevania” could still be a thing. Dracula’s always going to be ‘in,’ no matter how many terrible movies are made with him as the villain. Same with action films with heavy gunplay, which is why “Contra,” one of the very best video games of its kind, could and probably should one day have its day in the sun as a major motion picture. Popularity of “Guardians of the Galaxy” could show that a “Star Fox” movie could be possible, and don’t tell me no one’s thought about bringing “Mega Man” to the big screen. (There have already been a few fan-made films.) He could work in almost any form, anime included. Still, the consequences for screwing up any of the aforementioned titles could well be disastrous, especially in the case of “The Legend of Zelda.” People are still talking more than twenty years later about how terrible the “Super Mario Bros.” movie was. Can you imagine if a “Legend of Zelda” movie got everything totally wrong and then bombed at the box office as a result? Hollywood would never hear the end of it!

The truth is that, until someone with the time and the creativity figures out the right way to blend the two medias together, we as an audience may never see a truly great video game-to-film adaptation. Aside from being faithful to the source material, these movies also need to be the kinds of action films that are like video games you can’t play, but are so mesmerizing that you don’t mind sitting back and watching someone else play them. That in itself could be enough to bring up those old memories of playing these games when you were a kid. If Hollywood can figure out how to do that, then and only then can they have a winning formula on their hands.

Terminator Salvation (2009)

Director: McG

Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Moon Bloodgood, Bryce Dallas Howard, Common, Jane Alexander, Michael Ironside, Helena Bonham Carter

These aren’t the droids we’re looking for. One of many series which has had multiple opportunities to hang it up and still leave everyone with a positive feeling, the Terminator franchise had built itself a creative wall not once but twice. First, with “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the nuclear fire that would claim billions of human lives had seemingly been prevented. Series ended, right? Wrong. “Terminator 3” showed that SkyNet can find a way to make Judgment Day happen, no matter what. With the final images of that movie, one couldn’t help thinking that there weren’t an awful lot of options left. About the only story that could still be told would be how John Connor became the leader he has always been told he would be. Naturally, when 2009’s “Terminator Salvation” rolled into theaters, it was expected that we would be shown exactly this. What we got only marginally resembles a “Terminator” movie.

It’s the year 2018, fourteen years after the events of “Terminator 3.” Fourteen years after the end of the world as we had come to know it. At this time, John Connor (Christian Bale) is a polarizing figure. There are those who buy into the predestination paradox of his soon-to-be ascension to the title of Savior of the Human Race. Others who don’t believe in all of that fate crap and who have more years of military experience see him as an unnecessary distraction which they have no choice but to endure. We’re all in this together, after all. So, while not technically a leader, Connor is effectively still the voice of the Resistance, with his words of inspiration being transmitted to any radio signal that is being monitored by surviving humans.

Perhaps this movie’s biggest swerve is that Connor is not THE main character of the story. His time as the central focus of the film is shared with new character Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a convicted murderer who, after being executed for his past crimes in 2003, has awakened to a post-apocalyptic Hell. Along the way, Marcus makes a new friend, a young man by the name of Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin). When Kyle is later taken as a live prisoner by the Terminators, Marcus makes it a personal mission to rescue him. But, if Marcus thought that his surroundings were like something out of a bad dream, the nightmare for him was only just beginning. A Resistance fighter brings Marcus to John Connor after he accidentally trips a land mine. What should have killed or, at the very least, mutilated Marcus instead reveals him for what he really is: a human/machine hybrid Terminator! This comes as a surprise to everyone (except those who saw the film’s trailer), Marcus most of all.

It seems that SkyNet will never give up trying to kill John Connor. While Marcus is not programmed for assassination missions, SkyNet still uses him as a pawn to further its goal of eliminating its enemy. Having failed to kill John’s mother in 1984 before his birth and again both while he was a child and as a young adult, SkyNet has instead captured Kyle Reese so that Marcus would bring John directly to it. This way, SkyNet has two new opportunities to rid itself of its enemy. It could kill Connor before he is able to direct the final assault in 2029. Failing that, SkyNet could at least kill Kyle Reese as its backup plan. In effect, this would work as the same type of retroactive abortion it had tried in the first “Terminator,” as Kyle’s death would come before fulfilling his destiny of traveling to 1984, protecting and falling in love with Sarah Connor, and fathering John.

This all sounds a lot more exciting than what is actually presented. “Terminator Salvation” unfortunately fails in the execution department. Part of that is because it was written with the intention of making this the first part of a trilogy. As such, the ending is not as fulfilling as others in the series had been. Another excuse could be the rewrites that came after the original script was leaked. The intention of giving John Connor only a limited supporting role to that of Marcus’s main character, perhaps by killing him off at the midway point, did not go over well… hence the changes. Still that doesn’t excuse giving the rest of the cast so very little to do. Poor Kate Brewster (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose character as played by Claire Danes was so integral to the plot of “Terminator 3,” is barely even here… although she is noticeably pregnant, which at least suggests that she and John have been getting busy as of late.

One thing I am grateful for is the toning down of the humor which had gone into overdrive by the time of “Terminator 3.” To give you an example of humor done well in “Terminator Salvation,” the first thing I think of is the running theme of how loud noises, especially music, will instantly alert the Terminators to the presence of humans. This culminates with John Connor using “You Could Be Mine” by Guns N’ Roses, an in-joke reference to “Terminator 2,” to lure a motorcycle drone into a tripwire. Unfortunately even this, at the same time as it brings a smile to my face, only serves to make me wish I were watching either one of the first two films instead.

“Terminator Salvation,” intended to revitalize the series and take it in a new direction, ultimately did not live up to its name. Instead, for the third time, a “Terminator” film would become the product of a film company gone bankrupt and the ideas for the remaining two films in the “Salvation” trilogy would have to be scrapped. With the arrival earlier this month of “Terminator Genisys,” a franchise reboot and a second attempt at a new trilogy of “Terminator” films, this leaves “Terminator Salvation” feeling like more of an odd duck than it already did. Time travel being a part of the series’ legacy, this entry will always have its place in the sense that it exists, but for practical purposes has no bearing on the events of the new film. I’ve seen “Terminator Salvation” only twice, and I don’t know when I’ll be seeing it again. It has none of the replay value of James Cameron’s two classics, which I will continue to watch until the end of time.