‘Midsommar’ is the WTF Movie of 2019

Midsommar movie poster

All the horror film fans I have met in the last few months have been saying the same thing: Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” is so fucked up, and they mean this as the highest compliment. Just the name of it is enough to make those who watched it open their eyes ever so wide sound like they are still gasping even months after sitting through it. It reminds me of when I saw Lars Von Trier’s “Breaking the Waves” with my parents, and we are still trying to recover from that cinematic experience twenty years later.

Well, as I write this, I have still not seen “Hereditary,” but I have just seen Aster’s follow up, “Midsommar,” and it was his director’s cut which I got to view. Even before it ended, I found it to be the WTF movie of 2019, and I do not think there will be another released before the end of the year which will equal it in terms of sheer unease. Now I have to watch “Hereditary” as I now wonder which one will seem more messed up than the other. After hearing people attempt to describe “Hereditary” to me before losing their breath, I feel like I have perfect understanding of why they reacted the way they did.

The first fifteen minutes of “Midsommar” is a short film of sorts as we are introduced to graduate students Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). They are romantically involved, but it does not take long at all to see the cracks in their relationship. Dani confesses to a friend how she is not sure Christian is opening up enough to her, and Christian’s friends keep convincing him to break up with her as he has wanted to for some time. However, when a terrible tragedy suddenly rocks Dani’s already fragile mental state which she treats with Ativan, Christian stays by her side out of a sense of obligation and to not leave out in a wilderness of pain and misery.

Cut to several months later, and Dani is still trying to recover. Christian, although begrudgingly so, invites her to come along with him and some fellow graduate students on a trip to Sweden. Their Swedish friend, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), has invited them to his ancestral commune, the Harga, in Hälsingland, where they can attend a midsummer celebration. The big selling point of this trip is that the specific iteration of this celebration only occurs every ninety years, so it is essentially the equivalent of Haley’s Comet; you miss it now, you may never get another chance.

Aster makes no secret of how “Midsommar” was inspired by, among other films, “The Wicker Man,” and this is even if you have heard of that cult classic but have not seen it. Our main characters are introduced into a place far removed from modern living if not completely removed from technology (someone is always looking for a WIFI signal). Everyone is dressed in the same white clothes, they live off the land and make their own food and crops, and everything seems so beautiful and serene. Of course, looks are always deceiving and, in this story’s case, they are infinitely deceiving.

“Midsommar” has been described as a folk horror film, and Aster himself has called it a “break up movie.” What I admired was how he takes his time with the story to where he does not rush anything at all, and this makes the experience of viewing it all the more enthralling. Even when this loving commune later proves to be a pagan cult which is not always kind to outsiders, you, like the main characters, are not quick to find an escape even if there is a working car nearby. If this were being released by a studio other than A24, I imagine the executives would be asking Aster, “Can you get them to the commune any faster? How about by page 3?

Has this kind of film been made before? Yes, many times, but even as I thought I knew what would happen next, Aster lovingly teases us with our knowledge of the genre to where my expectations were gleefully subverted. While he doesn’t do anything new, he does make this kind of motion picture uniquely his own to where my eyes were pinned to the screen from start to finish.

Aster plays us like a piano throughout as he gives us certain moments which appear to imply what will happen to at least one or more of these characters to where we can only imagine what fate they will bring upon themselves. For instance, the girls in the commune play a game called “skin the fool.” Need I say more?

In addition, Aster has the good fortune of working with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and composer Bobby Krlic, both of whom help make his vision all the more beautiful and deeply haunting. Pogorzelski makes everything here seem so inviting, and this is even after some commune members celebrate the end of life in a most painful way which, if it does not kill them, will involve some Gaspar Noe smashing of the “Irreversible” kind. As for Krlic, he creates a deeply atmosphere music score which sucks us right into the beauty and horror of all we witness. Even if we want to tear ourselves away, there is something which keeps us tightly locked in.

I am not really familiar with Florence Pugh’s work, but she does what many English actors have done before and will do again in the future, play an American character with an American accent. But more importantly, she captures Dani’s fragile mental state perfectly to where all the panic attacks we see her experiencing feel frightening in their authenticity. Trust me, anyone who has experienced any kind of panic attack will tell you this is the real deal, and Pugh inhabits this character fully and fearlessly.

A good deal of credit also goes to Jack Reynor as he boldly makes Christian into one of the most thoughtless boyfriends ever in cinematic history. Upon witnessing a ritual suicide, Christian first reacts in horror, then he decides he wants to do his graduate thesis on the commune despite one of his fellow classmates already planning to do so. Reynor also allows himself to be completely nude during and after one of the most deranged sex scenes ever filmed (trust me, you have to see it to believe it), and he did this after watching films like Wes Craven’s “The Last House on the Left” in which the female characters were made to disrobe, run around nude and be humiliated. The way Reynor saw it, the time had long since come where a male character suffered similar indignations. Well done Mr. Reynor, well done!

“Midsommar” is not your typical horror film in which you jump out of your seat every five minutes. Aster is instead more interested in getting under your skin, and just when you think he cannot get any deeper under it, he does. There was a lot of laughter at the screening I went to, but this should be expected. In reacting to what is shown onscreen, you cannot help but laugh as it is a good way to deal with the more deranged moments this film has to offer. Furthermore, I think Aster wanted us to laugh because even he saw just how fucked up this screenplay could get even as he wrote it. I myself have come to love wonderfully unnerving films as they offer me I kind of release the average studio movie never does, and I am glad we have A24 around to release something like this which freely goes against what is considered mainstream entertainment.

I am now eager to see where Aster will go from here as “Midsommar” as the work of someone who has seen hundreds of horror movies and has since taken what he learned and created one which is all his own. And yes, I will take the time to watch “Hereditary” as well. In a time when Hollywood is still all too frightened by originality, I am eager to see more movies like this made. For crying out loud, it has a Cinemascore rating of a C+. What more evidence do you need to show this is a daring and unique motion picture experience?

I’m just glad one of the characters found their smile again before the screen went to black. Seeing that was a major relief.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Advertisements

James Franco Undergoes One Hell of a Transformation in ‘Spring Breakers’

James Franco in Spring Breakers

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2013.

It almost shouldn’t work. James Franco as a Florida-based rapper in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers?” Just the thought of it sounds utterly laughable as we are so used to him playing such clean-cut characters in the “Spider-Man” trilogy, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Oz the Great and Powerful.” But then again, he did play the ultimate stoner in “Pineapple Express,” so there is that. In the end, while Franco does have some laughable moments as the crazy rapper Alien, the role allows him to give his best performance in a movie ever since his Oscar nominated turn in “127 Hours.” There’s no doubt as to how much research Franco did, and this is one of the first great actor transformations of 2013.

After watching “Spring Breakers,” you desperately want to find out what made Franco take on this role as it is so very different from any he has played previously. Clearly, he was drawn to working with Korine who is best known for writing the screenplay to the highly controversial “Kids,” and maybe he has a thing for rap music which we did or did not know about. But in a conversation with Roger Moore of RedeyeChicago.com, Franco discussed one of the main reasons why he chose this particular project.

“None of us had ever experienced spring break, really,” Franco said of himself, Korine and the rest of the cast. “Actors who start their careers early miss some key experiences in life. I didn’t go to prom. Well, I was dating a theater nerd so we went to a theater festival back in Aspen, Oregon instead. I experienced prom, for the first time, on film. Same with spring break. This is my spring break. And I was over 30 when I got around to it.”

Many have said Franco based Alien on the rapper Riff Raff (and this includes Riff Raff himself), but the actor said his main inspiration for the character was another rapper named Dangeruss. Dangeruss is a local Florida rapper who is still relatively unknown, but he lived in the same area of Florida which Alien lives in and has the same kind of lifestyle. Franco ended up writing a long essay which was featured on the MTV website, and in it he explains how big of an influence Dangeruss was on him.

“I met Dangeruss through Harmony,” Franco wrote. “Before I went down to St. Pete to play Alien in ‘Spring Breakers,’ Harmony sent me innumerable videos and photos as references for my character. He drowned me in them. Harmony is a master of online research. Once he chooses a location to shoot, it turns out he is also a master at finding the most interesting and odd local places and characters. One of the last videos Harmony sent me was of a white guy in dreads, sitting in his car, rapping about Dope Boyz. This turned out to be Dangeruss, a local rapper who Harm had met at an audition and knew immediately that he was the real deal.”

“The same day I arrived, Harmony had me visit Danger at his apartment,” Franco continued. “I was surprised when we pulled into a rather nice sprawling housing development, country-club style, with fountains and manicured grass. I think there was even a driving range. When I met Danger, he was tall, thin as a stick, covered in tats and humble as hell. He was willing to help in any way. He told me about growing up in the bad part of town and having poetry as his only recourse when things got ugly. His involvement with the street and his involvement with hip-hop developed simultaneously. ‘While Peter Piper was picking peppers, I was selling yola at the corner store.’ His lyrics are the highly autobiographical chronicle of surviving on the streets of St. Pete.”

Then there’s the question of where Franco got those cornrows done. Looking at someone with cornrows, it makes me think of how painful the process of getting them must be as it involves a lot of hair being twisted around in unusual directions. However, in an interview with GQ, Franco described to Matthew Serba what it was like having them done.

“We had a local artist down in St. Petersburg, Florida do it,” Franco told Serba. “I think it took about five hours total, only because we had to try different cornrow configurations. It doesn’t hurt that much, but it does get very itchy because you can’t get them wet.”

Korine himself has stated in an interview with Joel D. Amos of Movie Fanatic of how impressed he was with Franco’s transformation into Alien. It turns out that the two of them spent a lot of time working on the character even before the cameras began rolling, but once Franco arrived on set, Korine was stunned at what he was witnessing.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Korine told Amos. “I spent a year just sending him images and talking to him, designing the character. I never saw him do it. He didn’t want to rehearse. When he put in the cornrows and the gold teeth and I heard the accent… I was like ‘whoa.’ He was a maniac.”

James Franco’s performance as Alien in “Spring Breakers” is really just another reminder of what an amazing actor he can be when you give him the right material to work with. While he may be getting more attention for the box office blockbuster “Oz the Great and Powerful,” it’s this movie which is bringing him the critical raves he deserves. Watching here makes you excited for what he has in store for us next.

SOURCES:

Roger Moore, “James Franco finally gets his spring break,” RedeyeChicago.com, March 21, 2013.

James Franco, “James Franco: The Inside Story of My ‘Spring Breakers’ Gangster,” MTV.com, February 20, 2013.

Matthew Serba, “Last Night…Talking Cornrows with James Franco,” GQ, May 1, 2012.

Joel D. Amos, “Harmony Korine on James Franco in Spring Breakers: What a Maniac!,” Movie Fanatic, March 21, 2013.

Selena Gomez Reflects on ‘Spring Breakers’ and Ditching Her Good Girl Image

Spring Breakers Selena Gomez

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2013.

There comes a time in a young Disney star’s life when they are faced with the great challenge of transitioning from being a child actor to an adult one. Many are not able to make this switch because either their talent only goes so far, or their fans just don’t want to accept them as anything else. Anne Hathaway managed to go from playing a nerdy princess in “The Princess Diaries” to portraying a single mother forced into prostitution in “Les Miserables,” and she won an Oscar in the process. Now Selena Gomez gets to shed her good girl image in Harmony Korine’s controversial film “Spring Breakers.” After playing the outgoing Alex Russo on “Wizards of Waverly Place” for several years, she gets to join three other young actresses on a holiday of drunken debauchery.

Gomez plays Faith, an evangelical Christian who is encouraged by her three friends Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) and Cotty (Rachel Korine) to go with them to Florida for the spring break holiday. The fact her friends end up robbing a restaurant located near their college to get the money for this vacation doesn’t seem to faze Faith much as she looks forward to going wild and releasing all her inhibitions. Once there, the girls have the time of their lives as they party like there’s no tomorrow, and they never want the party to end.

It turns out it was Gomez’s mother, Amanda Dawn “Mandy” Cornett, who brought the script of “Spring Breakers” to her attention as she was already a big fan of Korine’s movies. From there, Gomez watched his movies “Gummo” and “Trash Humpers” as she traveled to Nashville to audition for him. In an interview with Justin Harp of Digital Spy, Gomez made it clear she had no reservations about working with the filmmaker who is known for shocking his audiences and pushing the envelope so to speak.

“I was excited and enticed to work with Harmony,” Gomez told Harp. “When I auditioned for Harmony, we talked about how he wanted to leave my lifestyle behind and have me go on this adventure with him. I knew it was going to be crazy, but I was comfortable with it. Harmony wanted an innocence because he thought it would be creepier. I agree with him.”

For any human being, be it an actor or otherwise, it is always scary to step outside of your comfort zone. One has to wonder what it was like for Gomez to step outside of entertainment geared towards children and to take on something far more risqué with “Spring Breakers.” But for an actress who started off her career with an episode of “Barney and Friends,” Gomez told Zorianna Kit of Yahoo! News she very much enjoyed the change of pace this role had to offer.

“It was completely liberating,” Gomez told Kit. “Up until this film, everything I’ve been a part of definitely has been a bit more processed, like how many pieces of jewelry I have on, what my hair looks like. With Harmony, I never wore makeup and he never cared about my hair.”

“I feel like I did grow up shooting this,” Gomez continued. “This was the first movie I shot by myself without my mom coming. It was the first time I got to improvise as much as I have.”

Korine ended up throwing Gomez and the other actresses into a real spring break holiday where everyone was getting obscenely drunk, going crazy and tearing up their hotel rooms without any remorse. This must have seemed incredibly terrifying for the cast and crew as they were dealing circumstances they could not easily control. But despite the majority of the participants being drunk beyond all repair, Gomez told Harp that things were actually pretty cool on set even as she wore little more than a bikini.

“When we did the spring break scenes, we were surrounded by hundreds of spring breakers in bikinis who wore even less, so that was okay,” Gomez said. “I was more uncomfortable in the scenes where I was getting arrested, in jail and in the pool hall with strangers. It added vulnerability and helped me feel grossed out, which was what my character is supposed to feel.”

But despite how crazy things got while filming “Spring Breakers,” Gomez still formed a very close-knit bond with her fellow co-stars. Now sometimes on a film like this, you would expect there to be a lot of catfights between actresses, but that was not the case on this one. Perhaps many just wish it was the case as it makes for press which generates a lot of page views, but Gomez made clear to Marlow Stern of The Daily Beast just how devoted she is to her fellow cast members.

“These girls have my back till death,” Gomez told Stern. “They’re so amazing, sweet, and protective. We did a lot of partying in the movie, so after we partied for 18 hours straight on set, we would like to go home, have great food, and watch movies. We’re not nearly as crazy as they are in the movie.”

Whether or not her role as Faith in “Spring Breakers” comes even close to gaining her any Oscar consideration, Selena Gomez has certainly picked the right project to make it known to the world she is in show business to stay. While she intends to spend more time in 2013 focusing on her music career, she is co-starring with Ethan Hawke in the upcoming action film “The Getaway.” The transition from child actor to adult actor may remain a very difficult one to make, but Gomez sounds intent on making it happen for her.

“The transition is a little weird, but I’m honored to be a part of things that allow me to grow,” she says. “I want to continue doing that, and if it works out and people like it, that’s awesome, and if not, I’m trying to do all I can. I’m just hoping for the best!”

SOURCES:

Justin Harp, “Selena Gomez on ‘Spring Breakers’: ‘I left my lifestyle behind,'” Digital Spy, March 25, 2013.

Zorianna Kit, “A Minute With: Selena Gomez about growing up with ‘Spring Breakers,'” Yahoo! News, March 20, 2013.

Marlow Stern, “Selena Gomez on Playing a Bikini-Clad Vigilante in ‘Spring Breakers,'” The Daily Beast, March 20, 2013.

Gaspar Noe’s ‘Climax’ is a Hypnotic Descent Into Hell

Climax movie poster

I will never forget when I first watched Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” Seeing the main characters played by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro descend into a drug-fueled inferno proved to be one of the most insane and chaotic cinematic experiences I’ve ever had to where I felt like a hammer was constantly bashing at my head. I was in college at the time, and I described it to my friends as being one long acid-trip nightmare. One friend, her name Wendy, looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, like you would know!” This led to another person, Matthew, across the table laughing and responding, “Hey Wendy, he’s right.”

Seriously, you don’t need to have any experience with drugs of any kind to call “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” an acid-trip nightmare, and the same goes for “Climax,” the latest cinematic opus from Gaspar Noe. Like the majority of his films, it proves to be exhilarating, hypnotic and gloriously out of control as we watch a group of dancers try to get a hold of their sanity after they discover the sangria they have been drinking has been spiked with LSD. Whether or not you have had any experience with this drug, you will agree the trip these characters go on is not the least bit pleasant.

“Climax” takes us back to the winter of 1996 and opens with a series of audition tapes featuring dancers who are being considered for a French dance troupe being created by Selva (Sofia Boutella) and DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile). Each dancer makes clear how intense their passion is for this particular artform and what they will do to make a career out of it. What’s interesting about this opening we are watching them on an old-style tube television which is surrounded by VHS tapes and books, all of which have influenced Noe’s filmmaking and personal beliefs. This includes such cinematic escapades like “Suspiria,” “Salo,” “Hara-Kiri” and “Possession,” and among the books are one by Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, famous for his ultra-negative views on life and humanity, “Junkie” by William S. Burroughs, “LSD Psychotherapy” by Stanislav Grof, and “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (“We Children of Bahnhof Zoo”) by Christiane F. Seeing these materials around the TV set should make it clear that Noe is not about to play it safe for anybody.

Following this comes one of the most exhilarating dance sequences I have in a movie in a long time as we watch a five-minute-long scene in which characters perform with utter abandon as they contort their bodies in ways which amazed me to no end. As the camera swoops over the performers, we are sucked into their dance space to where I wanted to feel the passion they felt. Seeing this reminded me of when I first watched the music video to Madonna’s “Lucky Star” on MTV, back when they actually showed music videos, and of how I wanted to experience the same level of joy she was having.

Noe is up to his old tricks again as he starts “Climax” with the end credits first and then give us the opening credits about 45 minutes later. As for the title, it appears exactly where it should. It does take a while for things to get crazy as Noe takes his time introducing us to these dancers as they discuss the sexual conquests and/or the future they hope to have sooner rather than later. As this goes on, the techno music plays non-stop, and once you notice it slowing down all of a sudden, you know this shit is about to get real.

Once the characters begin to realize they are under the influence of a psychedelic substance they were not planning on ingesting before their performance, the movie becomes a slow descent into chaos, and I could not take my eyes off the screen for one second. Even as the events became more and more horrifically chaotic, I was sucked into the madness everyone was trapped in, and I had no idea of where the story was going. This kind of unpredictability is very rare in movies today.

It’s especially impressive to learn that “Climax” was shot in just 15 days and with a script only five pages long. Learning of this made me believe this film could have been an enormous mess were it in the hands of another filmmaker, but Noe gives this sheer chaos a structure even as the performers let themselves run wild with the material. Some will complain this movie has no real story or plot, but I am certain anyone who has taken LSD can assure us how most psychedelic trips do not come with a three-act structure.

Once again, Noe employs his and Harmony Korine’s favorite cinematographer, Benoît Debie, who gives us such striking and absorbing colors throughout. Whether the lighting is dark green or blindingly red, Debie captures the insane madness in all its visual beauty, and when the white of the snow appears it feels like such a relief. This makes me look forward to Korine’s upcoming movie “The Beach Bum” all the more as Debie is the cinematographer on it too.

Noe has gone on record in saying the production of “Climax” was the most peaceful he ever had as a director, and this is regardless of the movie’s content. Apparently, there were no arguments on set, and no drugs or alcohol were used by anyone during filming. The latter is worth pointing out as the cast does an excellent job of looking like they are being ravaged by a narcotic they didn’t plan on taking. They could have easily looked ridiculous to where the movie could have been laughable, but everyone looks to be on their game here.

The cast is made of both professional and non-professional actors, and the one who stands out the most is Sofia Boutella. The French-Algerian actress has long since made a name for herself with such memorable performances in “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “Atomic Blonde,” and watching her here is mesmerizing as she takes her character of Selva from a place of sanity to the polar opposite of it. She could have easily fallen into the trap of emoting here, but she never does as she makes Selva’s helpless predicament all the more frightening as this trip she is forced to take offers no easy escape for her or anyone else.

“Climax” may not reach the nightmarish heights of “Requiem for a Dream,” but it stands out as one of Noe’s strongest efforts. It doesn’t reach of what I feel is his masterpiece, “Enter the Void,” but it is stronger than his last movie, “Love 3D” which many were quick to dismiss as just another porno flick (I disagree). I for one am glad such daring filmmakers are still working in a time where superhero movies continue to dominate everything in the cinematic landscape. We need at least one filmmaker to break the rules, and Noe is no doubt one of them.

Again, I don’t think you need any experience with psychedelic substances to realize “Climax” is one long acid-trip nightmare. While the late Steve Jobs found an amazing level of creativity after experimenting with LSD, I don’t think the characters here will be anywhere as lucky, assuming they survive.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Eighth Grade’ Never Shies From the Terrors of Being a Teenager

Eighth Grade movie poster

I remember eighth grade very well. It started with me running cross country and being elected Treasurer to the student council. I stole a line from Chevy Chase as I told my fellow students, “Hi, I am Ben, and you’re not.” They laughed hysterically and cheered me loudly, and I lived for this kind of reaction back then. I felt like I was on top of the world, but then things changed to where I felt completely out of place and unsure of how to talk or act around people my age. I became socially awkward and felt very isolated from everyone around me, and the year ended on what seemed like a disastrous note as I became the center of attention in a negative way, something I hoped and prayed would never happen.

Those memories were brought right back to the surface as I watched “Eighth Grade” which stars Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, a teenage girl on the verge of graduating from junior high school. When we first meet her, she is making her latest YouTube video in which she is telling her audience about the importance of being yourself, and she comes off looking very confident. But then we see her in the real world and discover she is a deeply introverted young woman who is socially awkward and introverted. Her class ends up voting her “Most Quiet,” and the look on her face when she is told this says so much as even she cannot deny this being true.

Granted, Kayla is growing in a time where social media is everywhere, and she is addicted to her cell phone as much as the next person. But while I did not grow up in a time of cell phone addiction, social media oversaturation, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter among other things, the feelings she experiences as she navigates the cruel realm of middle school feel very real, and I relate to them more than I ever could have expected to after all these years.

Eighth Grade” has many moments which speaks volumes. The scene where the mother of Kennedy, the most popular girl at school, invites Kayla to her daughter’s birthday party is one of the most emotionally piercing. As the mother speaks, the camera has her face out of focus and instead offers a closeup on Kennedy who refuses to even look at Kayla, her face full of disgust to where she looks like she wants to say to her mom “do we have to invite her?” Being on the receiving end of a face like this when you were a teenager always felt really brutal, as our emotions at that age always felt epic to where dejection felt more common than happiness.

This is followed up by the movie’s most horrifying scene: a pool party. Just seeing Kayla stare out a window at the kids laughing and having fun in the pool as if she were a prisoner behind bars proves to be as unsettling as watching Dawn Weiner look for place to sit in the school cafeteria in “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Kayla suffers a panic attack as she puts on her swimsuit, and when she does go into the pool, I kept waiting for her to have a Dustin Hoffman “Graduate” moment when she finds solace underwater. Kayla, however, can only stay underwater for so long as the noise in her head proves to be louder than everything going on outside of her.

Kayla does get a reprieve when she attends a high school shadow program and meets a really nice young woman named Olivia (Emily Robinson) who is very eager to introduce Kayla to the new school she will soon attend. Watching Kayla interact with Olivia reminded me of how I got along better with kids older than me than I did with those my own age. Her newfound friendship, however, hits a major snag when one of Olivia’s friends invites Kayla to play a game of truth or dare. I kept praying Kayla would not say the word “dare,” and when she does…

While watching “Eighth Grade,” I was reminded of the following exchange of dialogue from Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides:”

“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.”

“Obviously, Doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.”

Writer and director Bo Burnham, one of the first performers to become a star on YouTube, has brilliantly captured all the angst, horror and awkwardness of these crazy years we would rather put behind us. Clearly, he was never a teenage girl himself, but this quickly becomes irrelevant as anyone who has ever felt left out or at the bottom of the social ladder can easily relate to what Kayla experiences from start to finish. His screenplay feels very true to life, and not once does this movie feel like an average episode of “Saved by the Bell” or “Beverly Hills 90210.”

As Kayla, Elsie Fisher has such a winning presence to where you root for her right from the start. Her face, which has evidence of pimples, is not the kind we see in Clearasil commercials, and I applaud her for not trying to cover this up. In moments where she has no dialogue, Fisher shows us exactly what is going through Kayla’s mind as she is unable to hide the confusion and uncertainty of how to act around others. It’s a wonderful performance which feels true to life, and Fisher makes her final moments in “Eighth Grade” count for so much as she prepares to start the next stage of her life with newfound confidence.

The other performance I loved was from Josh Hamilton who plays Kayla’s father, Mark Day. At first, it looked like he is portraying a hapless dad who is simply here for comedic effect, but Hamilton gives this character dimensions which truly surprised me. Mark could have been like any other father we often in see in movies, but Hamilton digs deep to find the bruised heart of one who is just trying to do the best he can. It all leads to a wonderfully acted scene where Mark tells Kayla how she can never make him sad, and it is one of the more original moments I have seen between a parent and their child in recent years, and I am certain I will never forget it.

It gives me great pleasure to add “Eighth Grade” to my list of the best and most realistic motion pictures ever made about teenagers. Movies like “Pump Up the Volume” proved to be a godsend for me as they dealt with real teenagers going through problems I could actually relate to, and kids today need these movies as a healthy alternative to the more flaccid and shallow portrayals of their age set which do not reflect their reality. While much of what I saw was unnerving to where I was instantly reminded of far too many embarrassing moments from my junior high school days, it is always refreshing to get a movie from a filmmaker who takes the time to listen to teenagers instead of talking down to them. John Hughes may be gone, but there are other filmmakers more than willing to carry his torch for another generation.

Regardless of its R rating, I hope those who are in the eighth grade or have just graduated from junior high school get to check this movie out as I believe they will benefit greatly from watching it. I also have to say if adults are intent on saying the word “lit” in videos aimed at teenagers, they need to understand how kids use this word. Trust me, kids see through your façade, and your attempts to look cool to them will make you appear far too desperate for their approval.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘First Reformed’ Could Very Well Be Paul Schrader’s Filmmaking Masterpiece

First Reformed movie poster

I remember taking a film class on the works of Alfred Hitchcock, and the instructor talked about how filmmakers often make the same movie over and over again. This is certainly the case with Paul Schrader as “First Reformed” marks his return to the “God’s lonely man” story or, as he would describe it, the “man in a room” stories. Whether it is Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Julian Kaye in “American Gigolo,” John LeTour in “Light Sleeper,” Wade Whitehouse in “Affliction” or Carter Page III in “The Walker,” Schrader has always been attracted to the lives of men trapped in their own bubble of solitude as they desperately try to find some meaning in life which will rescue them from the crippling isolation and despair which threatens to envelop them.

With “First Reformed,” you could say Schrader is offering his audience variations on a theme here as not everything is as predictable like us movie buffs might expect. But more importantly, he gives us one of the very best movies he has made in years as his exploration of a man in spiritual crisis remain as powerful as ever, and it features excellent performances from its very talented cast as well as a deeply thoughtful screenplay which succeeds in taking us to hell and back. While Schrader has not always had the technical brilliance which Martin Scorsese continues to possess, “First Reformed” shows us the cinematic leaps and bound he has made over the years, and he does it with a story which highlights the eternal conflict between our belief in God and the inescapable realities we can no longer lie to ourselves about.

Ethan Hawke plays Toller, a former military chaplain who works as a priest and provides sermons to a small congregation at the First Reformed Church in upstate New York. We learn he had a son whom he encouraged to enlist in the military, and that he was killed six months after arriving in Iraq. The tragedy of his son’s death destroyed his marriage, and he bemoans how he sent his only child into a war which had no moral justification. With his role at First Reformed Church, he looks to redeem himself in the eyes of not just everyone around him, but in God’s as well.

One of Toller’s regular attendees is Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who is expecting a baby with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Mary is eager to welcome this baby into the world, but Michael, however, does not share her enthusiasm and thinks it would be better to terminate the pregnancy. Mary asks Toller to counsel Michael to see if he can relieve her husband of his ongoing depression, and it is during their talks that Toller discovers Michael is a radical environmentalist who has long since been convinced of how global warming is destroying the earth, and that time has already past for humanity to effectively reverse the damage. Things become even more tense when Mary invites Toller over to her house to show him something Michael had hidden from her, a suicide vest.

Revealing more of the story from here would be criminal as it would spoil an already immersive cinematic experience which holds you in its grasp from the get go. What you should know more than anything else is this: global warming is real and is an even bigger threat to this planet than ever before. None of this is lost on Toller as he finds himself sympathizing with Michael to where he doesn’t realize how Michael’s despair is infecting him to an increasing degree. As much as he wants to help Michael, Toller finds himself questioning if God can ever forgive humans for what they have done to the planet. As “First Reformed” shows, this will either not be the case, or that forgiveness may come in another and unexpected form.

The brilliant conceit of “First Reformed” is how it deals with the crisis of faith in regards to an environmental issue which continues to get worse and worse with each passing year. Even Toller has to admit how Michael’s fears are becoming a quicker reality than many would want, or even care, to admit, and this leaves him in a state of conflict which pulls him into a dark place which offers no easy exit. Toller feels compelled to do something about this continuing environmental disaster, but he finds himself caught up in a personal struggle which has him drinking an endless amount of alcohol to drown his troubles away. Many see the suffering of an alcoholic as being someone who is too afraid to live and too scared to die, and Toller clearly fits this description as he cannot lie to himself about the apocalyptic path humanity is on.

When it comes to Schrader, his work as a writer typically outshines what he pulls off as a filmmaker. While his sometimes collaborator Martin Scorsese continues to show a filmmaking mastery few others can come close to equaling, Schrader has to make do with whatever is available to him, and this sometimes shows in embarrassing ways (for example, check out the terrible special effects in “Dominion: A Prequel to The Exorcist”). His films have long since been relegated to the independent film realm which thrived in the 1990’s but came to suffer inescapable blows to where you were more likely to see his films on your iPhone instead of the silver screen.

With “First Reformed,” however, Schrader gives us one of his best films ever as everything about it feels perfect. The acting is superb, the cinematography by Alexander Dynan is both beautiful and appropriately haunting, and the music of Lustmord helps to accentuate the conflict between hope and despair shown here. Considering how this film was shot in just 20 days on a budget of $3.5 million dollars, this makes what he accomplished here all the more commendable.

Ethan Hawke has long since proven to be one of the best actors of his generation, and his performance as Toller ranks among his finest. Seeing Hawke trying to hold his sanity together as his faith continually gives way to despair is fascinating to watch as his actions come to speak much louder than words can. Amanda Seyfried beautifully underplays her role as an expectant mother who is trying to come to grips with an increasingly dangerous world she wants to welcome her baby into, and she is such a luminous presence here. Even Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer, shows up here as Reverend Joel Jeffers, a man who has to balance out his duty to God with the pressing issues from corporate entities that do not want anything to get in the way of profit. Church is a way of life for many people, but make no mistake, it is also a business for others.

“First Reformed” is far and away one of the best films I have seen in 2018, and it may very well be Paul Schrader’s filmmaking masterpiece. It ends on a rather ambiguous note as not everything is wrapped up in a neat and tidy fashion, but with a film like this we are left with more questions than answers and for a very good reason. Schrader seeks to test the faith and beliefs of his audience in an effort to wake them up about climate change and global warming as we have long since become complacent with our elected officials doing little to nothing about reduce the damage it has wrought.

I also have to say that if Hawke had performed a certain action in the film’s last few minutes, I would have been waiting for him to say “corn nuts.” If you have ever seen the cult classic “Heathers” starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, you will know what I mean.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

 

Jenny Slate Makes a Lasting Impression on us in ‘Obvious Child’

Obvious Child Jenny Slate

We all know Jenny Slate from her brief tenure on “Saturday Night Live,” and she has since left an impression on us with “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” and on episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” But in Gillian Robespierre’sObvious Child,” Slate gives one of the best breakout performances of 2014 which will stay with you long after the movie has ended. As comedian Donna Stern, we watch as her life hits rock bottom after she gets dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job in rapid succession. Then after a one-night stand with a really nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy), she finds herself dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. She decides to get an abortion, and it all leads up to the best/worst Valentine’s Day she’s ever had.

Obvious Child movie poster

I was very excited to meet Slate when she arrived for a roundtable interview at the “Obvious Child” press day held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. I told her I came out of the movie wanting to hug her character, and she replied that was great and exactly the way we were supposed to feel (I couldn’t agree more). The movie is advertised as being the first “abortion comedy” ever, but that’s far too simplistic a description. To me, it was about how Donna learns how to empower herself and trust people again after having her heart broken, and Slate felt the same way.

Jenny Slate: It’s not representative of what the film actually does or how it unfolds. I guess, trying to look on the positive side, if people think that’s all that it is when they go and see the film, they will be delighted to see how complex and thoughtful it is and funny. If you think about it as just the story of one woman trying to understand the process of going from passive to active and trying to understand how to make choices you’d think, well why would I try to shy away from that? That’s a human story and I should just tell it.

“Obvious Child” derives its title from the song of the same name by Paul Simon. The discussion about the song led Slate to talk about when she used to ride the subway while she was a college student living in New York. She reminisced about how, when the train went through a tunnel, the window across from her would become a mirror, and this usually happened when she had headphones on.

JS: I remember sophomore year of college I would listen to, on repeat, the “Amelie” soundtrack and just imagine myself as a woman in a movie that was about a woman. It’s pretty interesting that I got to do it. I think a lot of people connected music that way. It makes them feel like they’re in a movie.

In the movie, Slate’s character is a comedian who does a stand-up act at a club in Brooklyn. The way Slate performs Donna’s act, you can’t help but think all her material was improvised, but Slate made it clear those scenes were the result of her collaboration with Robespierre.

JS: Gillian wrote this stand up based off of the style that I perform in; sort of loose storytelling, very instant with the audience, a conversation that’s evolving and not clubby or anything like that. She wrote it, we cut it down, we did some workshopping where I improvised a set based off of what she had written, and she recorded that, rewrote it, and then on the day of the shoot the shooting draft of the film had that stand-up set that we turned into bullet points so that I was not memorized and that it could be natural. You would have the feel of Donna feeling it out, and we talked about it and then I went up and went through these subjects that Gillian had set out and some of them are exact lines of her writing and some of them are lines that came up during it, and she would also call out to me during the shooting and be like, you know, circle back to talking about dirty underwear or whatever. And then I would go back and, during that time of walking backwards, new material would come in. I think if somebody says to me that it’s okay to work and it’s okay to be loose then I go with that. It’s in my nature to be playful and it’s my nature to feel a little bit claustrophobic with the rules, and that’s something I often just have to deal with and work through. You can’t improvise on every job, and you should be good enough at acting that you can say your lines. But for Gillian to say you can be a little looser and for her to be comfortable enough in what she had written to be flexible was an amazing testament to her. We are just a good pair.

One actress who was brought up with much excitement during this interview was Gaby Hoffman who plays Donna’s roommate, Nellie. Hoffman is best known for playing Kevin Costner’s daughter in “Field of Dreams” and for playing Maizy Russell in “Uncle Buck.” The interesting thing is that Slate and Hoffman actually look a lot alike to where you want to see them play sisters in a movie together. As it turns out, Hoffman’s career proved to have a major effect on Slate’s.

JS: I have always wanted to be an actress since I was young and can’t remember anything else. It was my ultimate desire, and she was my age and acting when I was growing up. I used to think I looked like her and was just like, oh I want to be like that girl. And when I got to meet her in my adulthood, I was like totally blown away in general just because I was such a huge fan. After getting past that, the real ultimate moment of just like being totally floored was discovering her personality. She’s very wise, really open and just like really no nonsense. She’s very fearless and I think she sets the bar really high for performance, and I felt that in a good way. I wanted to impress her, and I just think she’s the closest you can get to like a goddess. She’s got that real mythical vibe.

Now many people may say Slate is just playing herself in this movie, but this is the kind of unfair assumption we tend to make about actors in general. We may think we know an actor from reading about them in magazines or seeing them on the countless talk shows on television, but while Slate is a stand-up comedian like Donna, she was quick to point out the differences between herself and her character. Most importantly, she does not expound endlessly on her personal life like Donna does.

JS: I don’t do it. It just never seems right to me, but I’m not Donna. I know my boundaries and I think, although my standup is about like being horny and diarrhea and things like that, I still feel like it’s paired with really nice manners. I think the cornerstone of having nice manners is to have an equal exchange. Someone says how are you, and I say fine how are you, and Donna does not understand boundaries and limits at the beginning of the film. For me, I get it. My relationships are precious and I don’t talk about my husband on stage unless it’s something flattering. But even if it was something flattering that was going to embarrass him, I wouldn’t do it because there’s just too much to talk about.

Seriously, Jenny Slate’s performance in “Obvious Child” is one of the best and most moving I saw in 2014, and it’s a must see even for those who, like me, are not fans of romantic comedies. Regardless of how you feel about the Valentine’s Day Donna ends up having, it’s a lot better than the one Slate told us about from her past.

JS: I had a really bad Valentine’s Day one year because I had a really shitty boyfriend who forgot that it was Valentine’s Day, and he gave me his digital camera in a sock. Wow, thanks! Such a bummer, the worst present ever. That’s like a present that a baby would give to somebody. I never wanted a digital camera in general. I don’t care, I don’t like technology. I just wanted some fucking chocolate. Look around you! There’s hearts everywhere! Fucking get it right! Dammit! My husband is so good at Valentine’s Day. He rules at it. No socks.

Gillian Robespierre Sets the Record Straight about ‘Obvious Child’

Obvious Child Gillian on set

Obvious Child” marks the feature film directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre, and it is one of the most assured directorial debuts I have seen in some time. It tells the story of aspiring stand-up comedian Donna Stern (Jenny Slate in a star making performance) whose life has just hit rock bottom. As the movie starts, she gets dumped by her boyfriend, fired from her job, and then finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand. Suffice to say, this is not the best of times for her. But at the same time, what happens from there results in one of the best romantic comedies you could ever hope to see.

Obvious Child movie poster

Now since Donna decides to get an abortion, “Obvious Child” has been labeled by many as the first ever “abortion comedy.” But while Robespierre is glad this has given her movie far more attention than she ever expected, she does not share this point of view. During an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, she made this very clear.

Gillian Robespierre: That’s not why we made this movie, to be called an abortion comedy, because we don’t think it is. I don’t think abortions are funny or hilarious, and I think that shorthand leads to believe we’ve been flippant or glib with the topic. We wanted to accomplish a couple of things with making this movie, and one was making a romantic comedy that was very entertaining, had a lot of romance, had a really funny leading lady, and had somebody who was recognizable onscreen who felt like she could be you or your sister or your best friend. And her parents were recognizable and her best friends were recognizable in a genre that sometimes doesn’t seem relatable. That’s what we wanted to do and really wanted to show. And we wanted to take some stigma away from abortion at the same time and show a procedure that was not full of regret and shame. Donna doesn’t put it on herself and her friends and the characters around her don’t put it on her either. That’s simply all we wanted to accomplish.

Indeed, the movie is really about how Donna picks herself up from her depressed state, comes to empower herself, and eventually learns to trust other people again after getting her heart shattered. This allows Robespierre to find humor in the more serious moments, and at the same time she succeeds in keeping things both human and intimate. These days it seems incredibly difficult to make a movie with such down to earth characters, but she pulls this off with what seems like relative ease.

GR: I think when we talk sometimes even in one sentence, offstage or on stage in a movie or in real life, sometimes we write comedy and tragedy in one beat. I think we’re just trying to take that sort of natural tone that we have and put it on the screen and cut out all the fat that movies and romantic comedies have and have the tone just be very realistic. Donna is a naturally funny character so in one beat she’ll be saying something very self-deprecating, and in the next second she’ll be saying something very sweet and heartfelt. I think that’s just how we interact with each other. To me, it’s just a realistic portrayal of how modern people speak to each other.

When it came to the movie’s title, Robespierre admitted it came from the song of the same name by Paul Simon. She explained why she chose it.

GR: I don’t think Donna is a child or an obvious child. I think Donna is somebody who’s not ready for what the late 20’s is giving her, and she thought she would be someplace else,” Robespierre said. “She didn’t know that the late 20’s is just as hard as her early 20’s, and she’s just trying to figure out how to be confident in where her voice is on and offstage. She’s just trying to figure out how to take over this passivity that seems to be a running narrative in her life, and I think she’s mature and thoughtful, and I think she’s doing something that needs to be done.

The fact Robespierre chose the title of a Paul Simon song for her movie made me wonder if the lyrics played a big part in her decision.

GR: I’m a rhythm girl. I do know the lyrics to the song, I’ve read the liner notes, and I think that determines the feel of the song. It’s not just like drum and bass, it’s obviously Paul Simon’s beautiful poetry that he’s written. But I just liked it for nostalgic reasons and I’m a sucker for nostalgia. I listened to that song a lot when I was little in my car looking out the window, making up my little movie ideas; ‘Oh look at that tree, I feel like I’m in a movie.’

Of course, with this movie being a comedy, you come out of it wondering how many of its scenes were improvised instead of scripted. When you have a strong comedic talent heading your cast, we are quick to believe the director had no choice but to let their main star rewrite the screenplay themselves. But to hear Robespierre say it, the job of a director is to work with people instead of for them.

GR: I think filmmaking makes me really excited about being a filmmaker, and wanting to do this in the first place is that you get the chance to collaborate with a lot of smart, creative, intelligent actors, cinematographers, and editors. Every step of the way is collaboration, and what Jenny and I found in each other was a tone of how we like to speak with one another, and a comfortability of where our parameters are. I was very comfortable with letting Jenny go because she knows Donna just as well as I do, and we were really on the same page. So if a word didn’t feel true and if a sentence would have been funnier this way, I was very malleable. I have an ego, but it’s a different kind of ego.

“Obvious Child” started off as a short film Robespierre made, and it made me wonder about the differences between making a short as opposed to a feature length movie. Her immediate response was time and money as she never had enough of either, but she did go into more detail about what she had to deal with this time around.

GR: We had a crew of 30 people which was very new for me. The short was just four or five people all from film school. This was a real movie set where my producer Elizabeth (Holm) and I worked really hard to hire a crew. We were a boss and paid thirty people, and there’s something really exciting about that and really scary about that. To be somebody’s employer comes with, I think, a lot of heaviness and respect for the people who work for you and who were coming in every day and bringing in so much of themselves to their roles whether it’s Jenny coming in every day focused, but also the crafty person and the DP and the gaffer. Everybody was full-fucking focused.

Still, with “Obvious Child” dealing with the divisive issue of abortion, people can’t help but think pro-life supporters have been giving the filmmakers and actors a lot of grief. Robespierre responded she hasn’t personally received any feedback from any pro-life groups, and she again reiterated her movie is not an abortion comedy. In my opinion, I liked how it dealt with abortion in an intelligent and refreshing manner. Movies like “Juno” and “Knocked Up,” both which I loved, sidestep abortion in favor of dealing with unplanned pregnancies in another way. But in this post Roe vs. Wade world, it’s surprising we haven’t had more movies like “Obvious Child.” But while it may seem like a revolutionary movie, Robespierre made it clear she wasn’t out to reinvent the wheel.

GR: There’s room for other storytellers out there. I think just because one movie is tackling unplanned pregnancy that ends in childbirth, that’s a real narrative and that’s a story that happens. We’re tackling it in a different way but also making it a comedy using a genre that we love which is the romantic comedy. I was just watching “Knocked Up” last night, it was on TBS, and I laughed my head off.

“Obvious Child” was, in my opinion, one of the ten best movies of 2014. While Jenny Slate is getting the praise she deserves for her performance, the movie’s success is really thanks to Gillian Robespierre whose work here bodes well for the great future she has ahead of her. In a sea of independent films which constantly get lost in the shuffle of all the superhero blockbusters being unleashed on us, it’s great to see a movie like this get the attention it deserves.

Image, poster and featurette courtesy of A24.

 

‘Obvious Child’ Ranks Among My Favorite Rom Coms of All Time

Obvious Child movie poster

Uh-oh, I think I’m becoming a fan of romantic comedies. For the longest time, I have been avoiding them like the plague as they feature characters whose problems don’t even compare to what I go through, dialogue which makes me cringe in such an incredibly painful way, and acting that is embarrassing and flat. But just as the genre looks to be finally dying out, 2014 brought us movies like “What If” and “The One I Love” which succeed in reinvigorating it to where I got surprised in a way I didn’t expect. But moreover, these movies have provided us with down to earth characters we can actually relate to instead of sneer at in bitterness.

Of all the romantic comedies released in 2014, I doubt I will see one better than “Obvious Child.” It marks the feature film directorial debut of Gillian Robespierre, and it’s a very confident and assured debut as she follows the trials and tribulations of a twenty-something woman whose life hits a low point which leaves her in a depressed funk. It also deals with a very touchy subject in a way both intelligent and very refreshing, and that makes this rom com a brilliantly subversive one.

Former “Saturday Night Live” star Jenny Slate stars as Donna Stern, a comedian and bookstore employee who is about to go through one of the worst periods of her life. “Obvious Child” starts with Donna’s boyfriend dumping her which leaves her utterly devastated, and then she is informed the bookstore she works at will be closing which will leave her out of a job. This leads her sinking into a depressed state which results in one of her worst stand up gigs ever, but on that same night she meets a really nice guy named Max (Jake Lacy) with whom she strikes up an easy-going conversation. From there, the two of them have a night of fun where Max accidentally farts in Donna’s face, and they end up having sex after an exuberant dancing session to Paul Simon’s “The Obvious Child,” a song from which this movie gets its name.

Not long afterwards, Donna discovers this one-night stand has gotten her pregnant, something she is not the least bit prepared for. As a result, she decides to get an abortion but finds she has to wait a few days before the doctors can perform the procedure. During this time, she wonders about whether or not to tell Max about her decision, and the movie chronicles her journey towards the best/worst Valentine’s Day she has ever had.

Many have been describing “Obvious Child” as the first ever abortion comedy, but that description doesn’t do it justice. Yes, abortion is a theme here, but it’s not what this movie is about. The main focus is on how Donna’s unplanned pregnancy forces her to confront the realities of independent womanhood for the first time in her life, and it proves to be a journey both rough and, at times, truly hilarious.

Many of us remember Slate from her brief stint on “SNL” where she accidentally let the F-word slip out of her mouth. She left after only season, but she has since made a name for herself on “Parks & Recreations” and “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.” Slate’s performance in “Obvious Child” proves to be a huge breakthrough for her, and you just want to hug her after watching this movie. She infuses Donna with a lot of heart and makes you relate to her struggles as life constantly throws an endless number of curveballs in her direction, and we get so emotionally absorbed in Donna’s journey as she faces up to her responsibilities and rises above her misery which threatens to consume her completely. Slate is both warm and funny at the same time, and that’s not always an easy combination to pull off. It’s one of the best performances from an actress I have seen this year.

Slate is also backed up by a terrific supporting cast which features characters who come to reveal things about themselves we wouldn’t otherwise have known. Gaby Hoffmann is wonderful as Donna’s friend and roommate Nellie, Richard Kind is drolly amusing as Donna’s father Jacob, Polly Draper has some very moving moments as Donna’s mother Nancy, Gabe Liedman is a hoot as everyone’s gay best friend Joey, and David Cross has some hilarious scenes as Sam, a comedian and a guy who just doesn’t get what’s going on around him.

I also have to give Jake Lacy a lot of credit as he makes Max a truly nice guy we never find ourselves snickering at. Roles like these are often very bland and don’t give actors a lot to work with, but Lacy makes you believe Max is the real deal and the kind of significant other we all hope to find in our own lives. Max could have been the most boring and thankless character in “Obvious Child,” but Lacy keeps him from becoming this with a lot of humor and charm.

When it comes to the abortion issue, which has already split people on “Obvious Child” (particularly those who haven’t even bothered to see it), Robespierre handles it in a manner which is actually very refreshing. She’s not out to demonize abortion, but she also doesn’t make light of it either. In this Roe vs. Wade world we have been living in for the past few decades, I’m surprised we haven’t had more movies like this one.

Robespierre has created a truly wonderful film I am very eager to see again soon, and it’s one of the most intelligent rom-coms to come out in some time. “Obvious Child” really left a smile on my face as I walked out of the theater. Regardless of whether or not you have gone through what Donna has, or whether you’re a man or a woman for that matter, you can sympathize with what she goes through as we have all hit a rocky point in our lives. What’s great is how she rises above her problems and becomes a stronger person as a result. Robespierre and company confront the painful moments in these characters lives with a lot of intelligence and warmth, and it’s also really funny. It’s deep, but it also had me laughing a lot.

* * * * out of * * * *

FYI: This review was written shortly before this movie went into wide release.

‘It Comes at Night’ is Not Your Average Psychological Horror Movie

It Comes at Night movie poster

It Comes at Night” cannot and should not be mistaken for your average psychological horror movie. Whereas the average genre film aims to delineate who the good guys and the bad guys are, no such distinction is made here as writer and director Trey Edward Shults has rendered the characters to be all too human. We understand their wants, needs and motivations very well, and this makes the movie even more unsettling than it already is.

We are introduced to Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as they lay Sarah’s father, Bud (David Pendleton), to rest in a most uncomfortable way. We soon learn the family has secluded themselves in their country home as some highly contagious disease has since laid waste to the world. Along with their dog, Stanley, the family keeps themselves out of danger by staying locked up at night when the danger which threatens humanity is at its most powerful point.

But their bubble is suddenly threatened when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their home, believing it to be unoccupied and in desperate need of supplies for himself and his family. After tying Will to a tree overnight to confirm he is not infected by the disease, Paul decides he is worth helping and succeeds in bringing Will’s wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner), to safety to where they are all leaving under the same roof. But even as they come to settle down comfortably with one another, the inevitable conflicts arise which will force them into a game of survival no one can back away from peacefully.

Shults made an unforgettable directorial debut with “Krisha” which was one of my favorite movies of 2016. While “Krisha” was an emotionally pulverizing motion picture, “It Comes at Night” is one which mercilessly plays with your head as it taps into your fears of the things you can’t see or understand. Paul, Sarah and Travis rarely stray far from their country home as just about everything outside of seems all too threatening to confront. Whether or not you think Shults gives the “it” of the movie’s title a clear definition, it won’t matter. The it could be anything. It could be a supernatural force, an incurable disease, or perhaps it is the realization of the violent deeds we are capable of committing when pushed to our breaking point.

“In order to appease the gods, the Druid priests held fire rituals. Prisoners of war, criminals, the insane, animals… were… burned alive in baskets. By observing the way they died, the Druids believed they could see omens of the future. Two thousand years later, we’ve come no further. Samhain isn’t evil spirits. It isn’t goblins, ghosts or witches. It’s the unconscious mind. We’re all afraid of the dark inside ourselves.”

                                                                                                                           -Donald Pleasance

                                                                                                                            “Halloween II

I put the above quote from “Halloween II” up above because those words were playing in my head while watching “It Comes at Night.” Looking at these characters, you can tell they were once decent people who wanted nothing more than to raise their families and live in peace, but the state of the world has forced them to defend what is theirs in a way they never thought they would resort to. This is especially the case with Paul who has long since become handy with a shotgun and disposing of corpses. But Edgerton, who is excellent as Paul, eventually shows the character at his most vulnerable state as he comes to see not just the person he has become, but the person he always was.

Shults shows the fears of all these characters reaching their peak at nighttime when fear and paranoia combine to create a more hostile environment than the one outside their front door. Speaking of the front door, it is painted a dark red as horror movies always feature a red door or two, and Paul makes it clear to everyone how the door must always stay locked at night, always. As Roger Corman once said, one of the scariest images in any movie is the closed door. So, when the door moves suddenly is ajar, Shults has us right in his grasp to where we are sitting straight up in our chairs.

In addition to Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr. provide strong support as Paul’s wife, Sarah, and their son Travis. Together, they portray a family much like any other, struggling to survive in an increasingly insane world. Christopher Abbott, so good in “James White,” inhabits the character of Will with both a tense desperation and an easy-going attitude as he settles in with Paul and his family. This is an actor incapable of faking an emotion, and his performance in “It Comes at Night” is the latest example. Riley Keough is also excellent as Will’s wife, Kim, as she makes her an enigmatic presence to where you don’t know whether to hug her or keep your distance from her.

In making everything seem so down to earth, “It Comes at Night” does suffer as things become more underplayed than they should have been. There were times where I wished Shults had injected more energy into the story as things begin to feel way too subtle. Still, when the movie works, it really works as the tension builds to a fierce climax where I could not find myself rooting for one person over the other. Shults is also assisted by his “Krisha” collaborators Drew Daniels whose cinematography makes the darkness these characters live in all the more threatening and claustrophobic, and by composer Brian McOmber who provides another unsettling score which builds up an already intense motion picture into something feverishly intense.

The ending of “It Comes at Night” proves to be both infuriating and utterly haunting as we are left to wonder what will become of whoever is left. It feels like the movie ended sooner than it should have, but perhaps it would have been unfair to ask Shults to give us something more definitive. Still, it’s nice to see something like this occupying the local movie houses alongside the summer blockbusters as it gives us a lot to ponder once the lights come up.

As for myself, the post-apocalyptic setting of this movie is almost secondary to the one thing which should matter the most to these characters – trust. Whether we are living in the best of times or the worst of times, trust is the one thing we need more than anything else to survive one hard working day after another. Without trust, how can we survive in a crazy world? “It Comes at Night” confronts the issue of trust head-on, and it is devastating to see it break down amongst characters who might otherwise have no problem living under the same roof.

* * * ½ out of * * * *