Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

Tag: movie (page 1 of 6)

Into the Dark: All That We Destroy

Geneticist Victoria hits on a novel, if ethically problematic, way to help her son Spencer work through his violent impulses. The experiment doesn’t go as planned.

This was a solid offering in the Blumhouse “Into the Dark” series: not as good as “Pooka” or “New Year, New You,” but better than “Down” and “Treehouse.” It drags a bit in the middle–it feels like it could have been about an hour long with a tighter script–but delivers some interesting ideas and a tense final act.

Monsters

A photographer is tasked with escorting his employer’s daughter to safety through the “Infected Zone” of northern Mexico, where giant extraterrestrial monsters roam.

This has some similarities to “Cloverfield,” in that it focuses on the smallness of humans fleeing giant and largely unseen monsters, though it’s much less frenetic, with more character development. It also feels a bit like “Annihilation,” with its characters making their way through a dangerous jungle landscape, but without the bio-chaos weirdness of Jeff VanderMeer’s story. There are some quietly moving moments, especially in the surprising final minutes with an unexpected echo between the monsters and the humans, and its vision of a massive American wall on the Mexican border that ultimately fails to provide protection against a misunderstood danger feels eerily timely a decade early.

Cloverfield

When a giant monster attacks Manhattan during his going-away party, Rob defies the evacuation to go back into the city rescue his girlfriend Beth, with his camera-toting friend Hudson right behind him.

I grew up watching badly-dubbed Japanese monster movies that ran on Saturday afternoons after cartoons, and I recall the cinematography being comprised of long static shots of lumbering beasts smashing cardboard cities, with very few close-ups of the human victims of the mayhem. “Cloverfield” undercuts the conventions by focusing almost exclusively on the human carnage, with shots so close-up to be dizzying to the point of nausea, and no context provided for the chaos and destruction. The characters are in no position to know what’s going on, and so we as the audience are left in the dark as well. We are trapped in the “fog of war,” directionless and dizzy, just trying to make our way through the rubble.

I liked the conceit of the video tape palimpsest, with little glimpses of a very different day not so long ago when Rob and Beth had a much less terrifying adventure on Coney Island. The juxtapositions made the characters more interesting, and their present condition more harrowing.

Rökkur

When he receives a strange phone call from his ex-boyfriend Einar, Gunnar goes to Einar’s secluded family cabin, where together they face their loneliness, isolation, regret, and something dark on the uncaring lava fields of Iceland.

Four the first three quarters of the movie, this is a story about loneliness and regret, quite lyrical if stark (perfectly capturing the feeling of Iceland’s empty spaces). It takes a strange turn toward the end, where some night-vision camera footage, an abandoned apartment building, and a strange old man who lives alone on the lava fields give the movie a brief horror vibe. While it’s certainly creepy and haunted throughout, it’s not really a scary movie, unless what scares you is coming to terms with your regrets. It’s a beautiful movie, though, and strongly recommended.

Monster Party

Three young burglars plan to rob a house where there’s a dinner party going on for serial killers in a sort of rehab program. Several of the serial killers fall off the wagon, with gruesome results.

This was a fun twist on the “home invasion” sub-genre, with some delightfully gory kills and a surprising amount of tension. Though it’s played pretty straight, there’s a satirical edge, and a lot of fun to be had with sending up standard horror tropes, like the disfigured monster in the closet and a final girl who has a murderous streak of her own. It’s certainly not deep, nor does it mean to be; it revels in its implausible gore (including various limbs being lopped off, a skull split with a katana, and a pile of apparent sausage links expelled during a disembowelment), its characters are thin to the point of being cardboard props, and there is no motivation for the violence except the violence itself. “Monster Party” succeeds on its own terms.

Thelma

A college student suffers unexplained seizures, and discovers a dark history of repression and power.

This is an odd and sometimes dream-like film; I’m not sure what parts of it to take literally, and what parts to take metaphorically or even allegorically, and I think that confusion is entirely intentional. At its core, it’s a story of a repressed young woman embracing herself and her own future, even if it’s at odds with her parents’ wishes; it’s also a story about parents who seek to repress their childrens’ paths, and what comes of such interference. As a parent preparing to send a couple of young people off to college in a few months, I take this movie’s lessons quite seriously …

Butter on the Latch

Two women leave the city behind for a camp in the woods where there are classes in Balkan folk music and dance. A budding romance creates tensions and some apparent fugue states.

This movie left me with more questions than answers, but not especially good questions. For one, why a Balkan folk culture camp? Neither woman expresses a particular interest in Balkan culture nor seems to be participating much in the classes; one of them seems to be able to pronounce the words in a Slavic song, but it’s never explained if she has any sort of relationship to the culture. And why “Balkan”? It’s a weird sort of pan-Balkan camp, spanning Greek to Serbian to Romanian; maybe “Balkan” is meant metaphorically, in that these women, who seem to share so much, are driven apart and isolated by the very things they share? Or could this have been set in any old camp to the same effect?

And why is the camera work so disorienting and occasionally evokes motion sickness? I understand that it was shot with a DSLR, so it was necessary for everything to be framed between an extreme closeup and about five feet away, and that the auto-focus gets gimpy when things move too fast (or move at all), but surely it was a choice not to use a tripod, or not to rent the appropriate gear?

From the synopsis I expected something like “The Wicker Man,” or what I expect the upcoming “Midsommar” to be: city people stumble into a pagan ritual where Dark Things Happen. And there were some moments of creeping dread and unsettling oddness, and the lighting, so bright and green, was characteristic of classic folk horror. But except for a conversation (to which Sarah is only half paying attention) about evil spirits that can inhabit animals or the landscape, there’s nothing to tie the events of the movie back to the milieu of the camp or the setting in the woods. Perhaps there is something magical going on here, but the main characters are too dense and self-absorbed to see it, and because we’re trapped in close-up with their perceptions we can’t see it either, and if the damned camera had pulled back just a few feet and been bolted onto a tripod and FOCUSED FOR ONE DAMNED SECOND, everything might have been made clear.

Ugh.

Lake Mungo

After 16-year-old Alice drowns on a family outing, her parents and brother experience unexplained sounds and discover secrets that Alice had buried.

Shot as a very believable documentary, “Lake Mungo” is a subtle exploration of grief, belief, secrets, time, and memory. It spools out its revelations slowly, with twists that force you to reconsider how you’ve been interpreting the story. Right through the credits there are misdirections and revelations that make this a quietly creepy and disturbing film.

The Silence

Cave explorers unleash a hidden species of blind, ravenous, and accutely-hearing bat-like creatures, which wreak havoc on humankind. A family in New Jersey seeks to escape the noise of civilization, which attracts the flying monsters, and discover that sometimes humans can be just as dangerous.

This is “A Quiet Place” meets “The Birds” meets “Children of the Corn,” with a couple scenes of “The Strangers” and “Hunger Games” tossed in. The script telegraphs its intentions well in advance–not only Chekhov’s gun, but Chekhov’s drain pipe, rattle snake, inhaler, cigarette lighter, iPhone, and fire alarm; surprise is not the plan, I suppose. The cinematography is lovely, though, and the performances, particularly by Tucci and Shipka, are solid. Had it narrowed down its focus and not tried to toss in everything all at once, this could have been a good movie.

Ghost Stories

A professional psychic debunker is invited by his hero, a skeptic who disappeared years ago, to investigate three cases of the supernatural that appear to be inexplicable. He finds that it is the connection between the cases, rather than the facts themselves, that is the most disturbing.

This started off strong; I liked the windswept beach scene of the meeting between Goodman and Cameron, it looked very much like the setting of “I’ll Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” the classic tale of a skeptic’s comeuppance; and the first story, in a haunted abandoned asylum, had some jump scares that made me jump. The next two stories, though, didn’t grab me in the same way, and as the framing story took center stage and began to look like a setup to an allegorical lesson I was disappointed. But in the last five or ten minutes, all the strands are pulled together in an interesting, if not surprising, way, and I came away liking it a bit more than I thought I would at the 45 minute mark, though still a bit less than I thought I would 30 minutes in.

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