‘Prisoners’ is Not Your Average Child Abduction Thriller

Prisoners movie poster

From the trailers, “Prisoners” looked like just another average child abduction movie with a strong cast which would hopefully make it seem slightly above average. I have seen so many movies like this to where they now seem like the same one no matter who is starring or directing. Boy, was I wrong about this one! “Prisoners” is a heavy-duty character driven drama which generates an agonizing amount of tension and never loses any of it throughout its two and a half hour running time. In a time when many movies are in serious need of an editing job, this one manages to make every single minute count.

It’s a snowy day when Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) takes his family over to his friend Franklin Birch’s (Terrence Howard) house to celebrate Thanksgiving with a big feast. Both men have loving wives, two teenaged children who are unsurprisingly not all that interested in hanging out with their parents, and they have two beautiful six-year old daughters named Anna and Joy who can never seem to sit still for a single moment. But when Anna goes back to her home with Joy to fetch her safety whistle, both of them disappear without a trace and their families begin a desperate search to find them before it is too late.

The only suspect in the case is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a man with the IQ of a 10-year old, whose RV Anna and Joy were playing around earlier in the day. When the police and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) are not able to get any answers from Alex as to where the girls are, they are forced to let him go for lack of evidence. Keller, however, becomes convinced Alex does know where they are at, and he becomes infinitely, and frighteningly, determined to make Alex give him the answer he wants. Suffice to say, some moral boundaries are definitely crossed.

It should be no surprise Hugh Jackman gives a seriously intense performance here as a father obsessed with finding his child as we have gotten used to him playing the Wolverine in all those “X-Men” movies. But as furious as he got in “Logan” this past year, Jackman seems even more frightening here as he loses his moral perspective while desperately searching for answers. Just watch him as he bashes a bathroom sink with a hammer.

Jake Gyllenhaal also gives one of his best performances ever as Detective Loki, a man equally obsessed with getting the girls back even as he struggles with an uneasiness which will not let him be. What I especially like about Gyllenhaal here is how he implies certain things about this character without ever having to spell it out for the audience. Loki is a man with a troubled past who has his own demons to fight, and while we don’t always know what those demons are, this allows Gyllenhaal to add another layer to his character which only increases Loki’s complexity.

Terrence Howard, who gave a terrific performance in “Dead Man Down,” gives another one here as the other desperate father. It’s interesting to see him go from playing an intimidating crime lord to a helpless dad who finds himself in a morally dubious position when he is presented with a way of getting the answers, but he becomes increasingly unnerved at the way Keller is trying to obtain them. Howard is great at showing how helplessly conflicted his character is, and he makes you feel his inescapable pain and confusion as he is forced to go down a path he becomes convinced is the wrong one to go down.

Kudos also goes out to Maria Bello and Viola Davis who play the wives to Jackman and Howard. Bello portrays Grace Dover, and she has an especially difficult to watch scene in which she completely falls apart emotionally as she faces the worst nightmare no parent ever wants to face. As for Davis, she once again proves how powerful she can be in the smallest of roles. It should also be noted how each of these actors is a parent in real life, and I cannot even begin to think of what emotional depths they went to give such authentic portrayals.

Paul Dano continues to astonish in each film he appears in, and his performance as Alex Jones is one of his most enigmatic to date. Dano could have just fallen into the trap of making an Alex a caricature or the clichéd mentally disabled character we have seen too many times, but he is much too good an actor to do that. We can never figure out if Alex is truly helpless or cleverly manipulative, and Dano keeps us guessing as to what the answer is for the majority of the movie.

“Prisoners” was directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian writer and director who won the Genie Award (Canada’s equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Director three times for his films “Maelström,” “Polytechnique” and “Incendies,” the latter which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. In recent years, he has given us the brilliant “Sicario” and “Arrival,” and it makes sense he is at the helm of the eagerly anticipated “Blade Runner 2049.” Like I said, I have seen many movies involving child abduction, but he succeeds in making this one of the most intense and agonizing ever made. The fact he is able to main such a strong level of suspense and tension for over two hours is very impressive, and “Prisoners” would make for a great, albeit an emotionally exhausting, double feature with Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone.”

The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski seems well thought out and has characters who don’t seem like anything the least bit stereotypical. Looking back, this could have been one of those scripts where the writer would come out saying, “Look how clever I am! I kept you guessing, didn’t I?” Guzikowski, however, is not out to make us feel like an idiot and instead gives us a fairly realistic scenario of just how harrowing a kidnapping situation can get.

The filmmakers have also employed the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, who should have gotten the Oscar for “Skyfall,” and he makes the snowy climate these characters inhabit all the more vividly freezing. Even as the setting gets bleaker, Deakins still manages to find a haunting beauty in everything going on.

Child abduction movies can be very difficult to pull off because it is easy to fall into the realm of exploitation. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and actors that “Prisoners” never falls into this trap as it instead focuses on how frayed and unraveled emotions can get when parents have no idea where their children are. This is definitely not a film for new parents or those with small children to watch as I’m sure it will make them seriously uncomfortable. But for those who like their movie going experiences to be infinitely intense, “Prisoners” is definitely worth checking out. It was not at all what I expected it to be, and that’s a good thing.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Sicario’ is a Seriously Intense Motion Picture

Sicario

I think we have all long since come to the conclusion that the war on drugs is, to put it mildly, an utter failure. Instead of ridding the world of illegal substances, this war has allowed the drug trade to exist in a way it never intended to. Furthermore, many fighting this war have become just as bad as the drug czars they are pursuing, and this should not be seen as anything new. And when you cross a drug cartel, they punish you in the most painful way possible and let the rest of the world know it in a horrifyingly unforgettable manner. In short, we will never get rid of illegal drugs if we keep going on the route we have been on for far too long.

There are many movies which have chronicled the pointlessness and shocking brutality of the war on drugs and the unscrupulous politics behind it like Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” “Kill the Messenger” and David Ayer’s “Sabotage” which I liked more than most people did. “Sicario” is the latest film you can add to the list, and it proves to be one of the most riveting and nerve wracking of its kind as we follow an idealistic FBI agent as she descends into the hellish center of this war and learns a number of harsh truths never taught at Quantico.

“Sicario” hits the ground running with a very intense scene which sets up the chief perspective you will see things from. We meet FBI special agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she rides along with her fellow agents to a drug bust in which they raid a house where a kidnap victim may be at. Things get even more heightened when the agents discover dozens of dead and decaying bodies hidden in the walls, and this is only the beginning of what’s in store for the audience.

This bust leads Kate to be enlisted, voluntarily of course, by an undefined government task force led by Matt (Josh Brolin) which is put together to aid in the drug war escalating at the U.S./Mexican border. But once there, Kate will find her idealistic nature put to the test as she discovers this war has become more personal to some than she was led to believe.

It should be no surprise “Sicario” is a seriously intense piece of filmmaking considering it was directed by Denis Villeneuve who gave us the equally intense “Prisoners” a few years back. He succeeds in putting us right into Kate’s shoes as we follow her every step of the way as she enters a town as foreign to her as it is to us. We discover things at the same time she does like a couple of naked dead bodies hung from a nearby bridge, a chilling warning of what happens to those who interfere with the drug trade. We also share her sense of panic and terror when a character next to her says, “Keep an eye out for the state police. They’re not always the good guys.”

The movie also makes us share in Kate’s utter frustration as Matt and his troops keep the nature of their overall mission a secret to her and her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya). But once she is sucked into this increasingly insane mission, she finds it impossible to tear herself away from it even as she questions its legality.

Villeneuve is a master at creating a slow burn intensity which keeps escalating for what seems like an eternity before the situation finally explodes. The picture he paints of the drug war is an a very bleak one, and I imagine this movie won’t do much for the Mexican tourist trade. He is also aided tremendously by master cinematographer Roger Deakins who captures the bleakness of a town long since ravaged by the drug war in a way both horrifying and strangely beautiful, and by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson whose film score lights the fuse to “Sicario’s” intense flame and keeps it burning to where, once you think it has hit its peak, it burns even brighter.

Emily Blunt proved to the world just how badass she can be in “Edge of Tomorrow,” and she is clearly in her element here as an FBI agent who has yet to learn how the drug war is really fought. Seriously, this was one of the best performances by an actress in a 2015 movie. Blunt fully inhabits her character to where you can never spot a faked emotion on her face. It’s a fearless performance which must have emotionally draining for her to pull off, and I love how she never strives for an Oscar moment. Blunt just is Kate Mercer, and you want to follow her into the depths of hell even if you know you won’t like what’s about to be unveiled.

Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as Matt Graver, a government agent who clearly knows more than he lets on. We can see this is a character who has seen a lot of bad stuff go down and has long since become numbed to the effects of an endless drug war which shows no signs of stopping. Brolin doesn’t necessarily have one of those clean-scrubbed faces as his is rough around the edges, and Hollywood doesn’t seem to value this kind of face enough. Some actors benefit from having history written all over them, and Brolin is one of those actors as he makes you believe he has long since been to hell and back.

But make no mistake; the best performance in “Sicario” belongs to Benicio Del Toro who portrays Alejandro, a mysterious figure whose motives and intentions are eventually revealed towards the movie’s conclusion. Del Toro is great at hinting at the horrors his character has faced as Alejandro looks to be suffering a serious case of PTSD, and he makes this character into a dangerously unpredictable one whose next move is always hard to guess. His role in this movie reminds us of what a brilliant actor he can be, not that we ever forgot, and he succeeds in increasing the already high-tension level this movie already has.

“Sicario” is a hard-edged and remarkably intense thriller which grabs you right from the start and holds you in its grasp all the way to the end. Like any great movie, it will shake you up and stay with you long after you have left the theater. Some movies are made to be watched, but “Sicario” was made to be experienced. It’s not the kind of experience audiences are always pinning for, but those willing to travel down its dark path will find much to admire.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘mother!’ Provides Audiences with a Vicious Roller Coaster Ride into Madness

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After watching Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, a special behind the scenes featurette was shown where the filmmaker explained how he wanted to make a movie which would generate different reactions from its audience to where various interpretations could be formed over what they witnessed. Aronofsky has succeeded in doing exactly that as “mother!” does not have him spelling anything out for anyone, perhaps not even for the cast either. Maybe he does have an explanation for all the craziness which ensues in this, one of the freakiest psychological thrillers in some time, but he’s not about to let on what it is, and I am perfectly fine with that as to explain anything about the plot would dilute its power instantly.

The experience of seeing “mother!” was a lot like watching Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist” as both movies feature a married couple who are nameless and staying in a secluded country home in the woods. Like “Antichrist,” “mother!” has polarized critics and audiences as many are desperate to discover what its director was attempting to accomplish here. The best advice I can give you is to approach Aronofsky’s film by leaving any and expectations you have for it at the door. It has been advertised as an homage to “Rosemary’s Baby,” but the only thing it has in common with Polanski’s classic is it’s also not a movie for new or expectant parents.

We meet Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) on a beautiful and sunny morning as she wakes up in the home she shares with Him (Javier Bardem), a well-regarded poet who is currently suffering from a frustrating bout of writer’s block. The two of them lead a peaceful existence in a home which has been lovingly restored after suffering much damage, but this existence is soon interrupted by an unexpected visitor (played by Ed Harris), an orthopedic surgeon who Him welcomes into their home even though Mother is perturbed that he would welcome a complete stranger in ever so easily.

Things become even more complicated when the unexpected visitor’s wife (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) comes by and becomes infatuated with knowing more about Mother and why she and her husband have no children of their own. Granted, this makes Lawrence’s character’s name of Mother hypocritical as she is not a mother at the movie’s start, but many surprises are in store for the characters and the audience as “mother!” takes a number of twists and turns you cannot see coming.

Revealing more about what happens would be detrimental as “mother!” is best viewed with little knowledge about it. Indeed, promoting this movie must have been a nightmare for Paramount Pictures as you can only say so much about it before you spoil everything. Then again, can you spoil this movie for others? Aronofsky has made something here which cannot be easily explained, but while this will baffle and infuriate many who sit through, it should enthrall those who are in the mood for something cinematically adventurous and a movie which forces you to think about what you just saw.

What I can tell you is things reach a frenzied fever pitch as “mother!” barrels towards a climax which comes close to equaling the frenzy of Ellen Burstyn being terrorized by her refrigerator in “Requiem for a Dream.” Aronofsky has said he applied “dream-logic” to “mother!,” and it certainly helps to know this going in as events keeping going by at a rapid pace to where you can’t help but feel like you are in a nightmare or a dream you are desperate to control, but can’t. It’s like being a car when the brakes have failed you, and the emergency brake ultimately doesn’t work either. You just keep getting thrust into a hellish realm as Lawrence and Bardem become trapped in their once peaceful home as the woods it is located in offers no escape. In fact, it all reminded me of what Charlotte Gainsbourg said in “Antichrist” at one point, “Nature is Satan’s church.” Well, Satan looks to be having even more fun here.

There are said to be a lot of biblical allegories to be discovered here, but the only one I could see was the reference to Cain and Abel as two brothers fight one another bitterly over an inheritance which benefits one more than the other. I am already very eager to see “mother!” as seeing it once is not enough to uncover all which Aronofsky wants us to discover. Now that I have experience this motion picture on an emotionally visceral level, I want to experience in a different way even though Aronofsky has warned us not to analyze “mother!” too deeply.

Jennifer Lawrence remains as luminous an actress as ever, and she looks to be put through the emotional wringer here as her character descends into a realm of inescapable madness. It turns out she even got so into character on set to where she was constantly hyperventilating and even cracked a rib, so there’s no doubt about dedication to playing a role. At this point, I am convinced Lawrence can play any role given to her, and she has this ageless quality to her appearance which matches her up perfectly with actors who are several years older.

Lawrence also shares a number of almost gleefully unsettling scenes opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, an actress we don’t see near enough of these days. As these two circle each other like cats ready to hiss at one another while guarding their precious territory, we are reminded of how brilliant Pfeiffer can be when given material which piques her interest.

As for Javier Bardem and Ed Harris, these are two actors you can never ever go wrong with, and they infuse “mother!” with a passion for acting they have never lost sight of since the start of their careers. Bardem, in particular, gives his character a loving presence as well as an ominous one. The latter is especially the case in a scene where he stares down Lawrence, and it’s a stare which lasts for what feels like an eternity and brings back memories of his Oscar-winning role as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” I kept waiting for him to explode as Bardem sits like a wild animal waiting to strike, and I was desperate for Lawrence not to let her guard down while in front of him.

Aronofsky continues to employ many of his regular colleagues to great effect like cinematographer Matthew Libatique, but what’s surprising is this movie’s lack of a music score. Instead of employing his longtime composer Clint Mansell, Aronofsky instead hired Johann Johannsson to come up with ominous musical themes. However, upon viewing an edit of “mother!,” they both agreed this movie didn’t need a score. It says a lot about “mother!” that it needs no music score to aid in the movie’s mission to generate almost unbearable tension. Few other filmmakers could get away with such a feat, but the intense sound design which, when viewed in the right theater, surrounds you to where you feel every bit as trapped as Lawrence is. As her predicament becomes more and more of a sonic assault, we feel her character’s agitation all too much.

In retrospect, I was tickled to death at the reactions the audience I saw “mother!” had. Several people laughed either out of derision or just plain nervousness as things went from a state of peacefulness to complete Armageddon, and others complained how this scene or another contained the only elements which made the least amount of sense to them. As I walked out of the theater, others said they couldn’t understand why people were laughing at certain moments. Many of my movie friends have said this movie is likely to end up on the lists of both the best and the worst films of 2017, and I couldn’t agree more. You will either love this motion picture, or you will hate it with a passion.

As for myself, I loved the visceral roller coaster ride “mother!” took me on. I never caught myself laughing much at what went on as I was completely gripped in Aronofsky’s vise as he continued to tighten the grip he had on me, and I was thrilled at the levels of “Requiem for a Dream” intensity he was able to generate with this one. Many will say he is simply out to torture his audience, but why can’t we have a torturous cinematic experience every once in a while, or at least one which is torturous in a good way? I show no hesitation in calling “mother!” one of the best movies I have seen so far in 2017 as it provided me with something incredibly unique in a time where the cinematic landscape is overfilled with superheroes.

Yes, the market research firm CinemaScore has given “mother!” an average grade of an F, a rare grade for movie to get from them. Then again, Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris,” William Friedkin’s “Bug” and Richard Kelly’s “The Box” also received the same grade, and those movies are much better than their reputations suggest. And keep in mind, this is the same firm which gave an A+ to Dinesh D’Souza’s infinitely patriotic but poorly made, not to mention boring, documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her,” so there’s no accounting for taste.

Seriously, I haven’t had this much fun taking in an audience’s reaction to a motion picture since “The Human Centipede 2.” Of course, “mother!” is much, much better than that one. When the exclamation mark appears a couple of seconds after the title does and then sticks around once the title disappears, you should know you are in for something completely different.

* * * * out of * * * *

Oliver Robins Looks Back on ‘Poltergeist’ at New Beverly Cinema

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On Thursday, August 16, 2012, Oliver Robins dropped by New Beverly Cinema to talk about the making of “Poltergeist.” Robins played Robbie Freeling, the boy who was terrified of that weird looking tree looming outside his bedroom window. These days Robins works as a filmmaker, but he explained how his time on the set of “Poltergeist” truly inspired him to make movies, and he helped debunk certain myths which continue to surround it years after its release.

Robins came up to the front of the audience after “Poltergeist” finished showing, and he talked about how he grew up at the New Beverly and discovered many movies which he might not have seen otherwise. He also remarked at how Steven Spielberg, who wrote and produced “Poltergeist,” gave him an 8mm camera as a present, and how the camera and the movie inspired him to become a filmmaker.

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In talking about how he got cast, Robins said he had no real acting experience beforehand and that his only previous acting job was in a fertilizer commercial. The audition for “Poltergeist” was actually an open call which had hundreds of people coming down to be considered. Robins recalled having to wait for hours before he got inside to talk with the casting directors. When he did, they looked at him as being the true incarnation of Robbie as he talked about how he had lived in a haunted house while in New York.

Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper, however, were concerned because Robins couldn’t really scream, and they ended up getting a coach to help him learn how to. It got to where Robins was practicing his screams in his closet, and the neighbors began to wonder if there was any child abuse going on in his home. When he proved to the filmmakers he could indeed scream, Robins was informed he got the part.

When asked if a bond had formed between him and his fellow cast members, Robins told the audience “Poltergeist” was rushed into production and that there was no time for rehearsal. He did say, however, that JoBeth Williams, who played his mother Diane, really was a mother to him throughout the production.

One scene which really stands out is when Robbie’s father, Steven (played by Craig T. Nelson), teaches him how to count after lightning strikes to determine the distance between it and the sound of thunder. Robins remarked how Nelson was a comedy writer before he became an actor and that he made the set of “Poltergeist” very light-hearted as a result. Robins even remarked how working on the movie allowed him to stay up all night which he loved, and Nelson ended up telling him after one crazy night of filmmaking, “This is just another night in Simi Valley!”

Another famous scene from “Poltergeist” is when the tree comes through the window. Robins explained what ended up being 30 seconds of screen time where he got attacked by the tree ended up taking two weeks to film. Now this was back when digital effects were far from being a reality, so all the effects we see in the movie are real. Robins also pointed out there were several different trees being used for this sequence; one with roots, one where the branches reached out at him, and another which tried to eat him.

Robins described the tree sequence as being the most tedious and complex to film, and that he ended up spending much of the time being covered in molasses. He said being covered in that substance makes your body temperature drop precipitously and that he had to emote in his scenes in order create believability.

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Now there is an infamous story on IMDB of how when Robins gets attacked by the toy clown, he got choked for real and yet Hooper and Spielberg thought he was really acting. It was later said that when Robins face began turning purple, the filmmakers rushed over to remove the clown’s hands from around his neck. To this, Robins response was, “Maybe that did happen, but I can’t remember. Maybe I blocked it out of my conscious mind.”

When asked what it was like working with his sisters who were played by Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne, Robins said it was great and that they both felt like real sisters to him. He also remarked at how Hooper and Spielberg were cool to him and other actors about wanting to change their dialogue. As a result, there proved to be a lot of ad-libbing on the set of “Poltergeist.”

There is also this ongoing story of how there were two directors on the set of “Poltergeist.” While Hooper’s name is listed as the film’s director, many believe Spielberg had the most influence. Robins, however, cleared up these rumors once and for all:

“There was only one director on set, and that was Tobe Hooper. Spielberg did write the story, but Hooper was the only one who directed me. It does feel like a Spielberg movie and he did work closely with Hooper on this project. In many ways it was a team effort, but Hooper was the true director of ‘Poltergeist.’”

Robins was also asked what it was like filming the scene between him and Beatrice Straight who plays Dr. Lesh where she tells him what she felt the true nature of ghosts were. He said Straight made him feel like he was really talking with someone who knows about ghosts, and this kept their performances from ever feeling forced.

It was great to hear Oliver Robins talk about the making of “Poltergeist” and to hear him dispel several myths about the 1982 movie. Since making that classic movie, Robins has retired from acting and went on to graduate from USC’s film school to where he has since become a very gifted filmmaker in his own right. His work in the Tobe Hooper-directed movie will continue to stand the test of time.

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It Follows

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To me, “It Follows” was to 2015 as “Honeymoon” was to 2014; an infinitely creepy horror movie deserving of the attention many low-budget movies don’t always get. It’s a mesmerizing and terrifying piece of work which invites comparison to some of John Carpenter’s best films, and it’s smart enough not to reveal every single detail of its story. Like the best Hitchcock classics, it strings you along to where you keep guessing as to what’s behind the cinematic madness all the way to the very last frame.

“It Follows” opens up on a teenage girl fleeing her home in terror, and we’re not sure why. The next day she is found murdered and her body is contorted in ways which make it look like a yoga exercise gone horribly wrong. From there we meet Jay Height (Maika Monroe) who swims alluringly in the family swimming pool, and it’s hard not to be sucked into her realm as a result. After making out with her boyfriend Hugh (Jake Weary), he renders Jay unconscious and takes her to an abandoned building where he says he has passed on a curse to her. As a result, an entity which can only be seen by those who have been cursed will follow them, and once they are dead it will go after the person who gave it to them.

It’s an ingenious concept for any horror movie as this is the kind of curse which doesn’t invite an easy explanation. We can’t be sure of what the curse is, and as a result our imagination runs wild with endless possibilities as to how it can appear to us. Now I know a lot of moviegoers are desperate to have everything explained to them, and they will probably have serious issues with “It Follows” as a result, but I loved how this is a film which keeps its secrets close to the vest as revealing any of them could make the whole endeavor fall apart irrevocably.

This is only the second film from writer/director David Robert Mitchell whose previous credit was “The Myth of the American Sleepover.” I liked how he just immerses us into the lives of these young characters to where he has the viewer in a trance. It’s certainly one of the most atmospheric horror films I have seen in a while, and even the cheap scares thrown in have a stronger impact here than they do in the average scary flick.

Mitchell has given us a horror film with real down-to-earth characters which is very commendable as this genre usually benefits from having the opposite kind. Horror movies these days are typically reduced to having one-dimensional characters to where you find yourself rooting endlessly for the masked villain to decapitate them in the worst way possible, but this is not the case here. As a result, the horror feels a lot more real as these characters fight to escape from a deadly force only they can see.

Mitchell also has a very strong cast to work with as well. Chief among them is Maika Monroe who plays the movie’s main protagonist, Jay Height. Monroe was terrific in the criminally underrated thriller “The Guest,” and she succeeds in giving us a strong female heroine who is vulnerable but not too vulnerable to let this evil spirit take her down. Strong performances also come from Keir Gilchrist as Paul, Jay’s friend who has a not-so-secret crush on her, Lili Sepe as Jay’s sister Kelly, Daniel Zovatto as Greg Hannigan, and Olivia Luccardi as Yara.

In addition, “It Follows” features a very cool and utterly visceral electronic score courtesy of Disasterpiece. I grew up on the electronic scores of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, and I think it’s great this kind of film music is making a comeback in movies like this, “The Guest” and “Ex Machina.” Disasterpiece has created a memorable score which is at times lovely and thoughtful, and at other times highly unnerving as it goes out of its way to sound like it will overload your stereo speakers with no mercy.

Mitchell only had a budget of $2 million to make “It Follows” with, and he certainly made the most of it because the movie looks like it cost so much more. Also, he got to film it in Detroit, Michigan, a city which, despite its problems, has proven to have a very unique look other American cities do not possess. This is a wonderfully creepy, suspenseful and terrifying movie which stands out among many others in its genre, and it leaves the viewer with a lasting impression as the ending makes clear the terror is far from over. And I don’t just say this because RADiUS-TWC, the company that distributed it, is already thinking about a sequel.

It says a lot about a movie which manages to maintain a strong level of suspense and tension from start to finish, and “It Follows” is just the latest example of that kind of cinematic experience which, these days, no longer feels all that rare to us.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Harry Treadaway Discusses Keeping the Suspense Strong in ‘Honeymoon’

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Directed by Leigh Janiak, “Honeymoon” is a taut horror movie which stars Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie as a newly married couple who spend their honeymoon in a secluded cabin by the lake where things soon become very chaotic. One night he wakes up to find that his wife is not in bed, and he eventually finds her sleepwalking in the woods. She doesn’t remember how she got there, but then strange things begin to happen as she suddenly forgets how to make coffee, burns the food while cooking it, and ends up swimming in the lake despite it being incredibly cold. The husband begins to wonder if this is the same person he just married, and the movie keeps you wondering the same exact thing all the way to the very end.

For me, “Honeymoon” was fascinating because a lot of horror and thriller movies these days have a hard time maintaining such a strong level of tension and suspense. The way I see it, pulling this feat off could not have been the least bit easy for either the director or the actors. I came out of it desperately wanting to know how they succeeded in keeping things tense throughout, and I got my chance at the press day for “Honeymoon” which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California.

Treadaway has appeared in movies like “City of Ember,” “Fish Tank” and “The Lone Ranger,” and people these days probably know him best as Victor Frankenstein on the Showtime series “Penny Dreadful.” I asked him what it was like maintaining the suspense of “Honeymoon” as an actor, and his response showed how much thought he put into his role.

“I think it came from the great script. It came from the fact that it was set up with this foundation of reality and the horror came through,” Treadaway said. “The trickiest parts were the sort of middle ground almost because you kind of have to look at how you can tell that this is a happy relationship, and you kind of see where it’s got to be when it’s at its most horrific. But it’s won or lost probably in the way we see his first reaction to her going sleepwalking. If you buy that or not and if you buy the way that he’s reacting to her certain motor neuron skills slightly going weird or her forgetting certain elements of making coffee, you don’t just flip out straight away and go ‘you’ve lost your mind’ and you don’t ignore it. So, it’s how you work your way through that, and I think that was in the script and that was the fun part, playing with the elements.”

“Honeymoon” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. For horror fans, it’s a real treat.

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Leigh Janiak on Her Directorial Debut, ‘Honeymoon’

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With the horror film “Honeymoon,” Leigh Janiak gives us one of the strongest directorial debuts I have seen in a while. It stars Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie as Paul and Bea, a newlywed couple who spend their honeymoon at a beautiful cabin overlooking the river only to see their new beginning descend into chaos as sinister forces begin to tear them apart. For a first-time filmmaker, Janiak never takes a wrong step as she generates strong levels of suspense and horror and succeeds in maintaining them all the way to the movie’s infinitely creepy conclusion.

Janiak dropped by the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Honeymoon” press day just before the movie was released. She studied creative writing and comparative religion at New York University, and then she later enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Chicago which dealt with modern Jewish studies with an emphasis on violence and identity in post–World War II Hebrew literature. It was there her interest in movies skyrocketed after she met a group of student filmmakers known as Far Escape Films. As a result, she dropped out of her doctoral studies and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career making movies.

Many wondered what horror movies inspired “Honeymoon” as well as which ones are her favorites. In regards to inspirations, her answer was a bit of a surprise.

“Well certainly ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ is the most kind of thematically influential on it,” Janiak said. “‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Shining,’ those are kind of my favorite horror films generally. I like grounded horror where you really spend time with the characters and you get to this place of uncomfortableness.”

For myself, I was very interested in finding out how she maintained the suspense throughout “Honeymoon.” I kept waiting for the movie to make a wrong turn which would ruin everything which came before it, but that never happened. For a first time director, she really kept us on the edge of our seats throughout in a way I didn’t expect. I asked her how she managed to accomplish this feat.

“I think that the reason that works is because Harry and Rose’s characters are each transforming in different ways,” Janiak said. “So it was only challenging in so far as knowing that Rose would be on one page for her character internally and Harry is on a completely different one. We have to make them still interacting and keeping these things from one another so we recognize that as an audience we sense the unease. We sense things are going wrong with each of them even though we don’t know what and just making it feel like ‘okay enough. We know something secret is happening.’ It was just about balancing their transformations.”

After the interview ended, I asked Janiak which version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” she likes the best. There have been four different cinematic adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers,” the most recent being the 2007 movie “The Invasion,” and she said she enjoyed the first two versions the most but the one with Kevin McCarthy, the 1956 version directed by Don Siegel, is her favorite

Here’s hoping that we get to see many more movies from Leigh Janiak in the near future. “Honeymoon” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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Honeymoon

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Honeymoon” starts off with us viewing the pre-wedding video of Paul (Harry Treadaway) and Bea (Rose Leslie), and it’s the kind of video couples end up watching on their 10th anniversary. It also helps set up Paul and Bea as the perfect couple, and the chemistry between the actors is very strong to where we are eager to spend a lot of time with them.

For their honeymoon, these two lovebirds elect to spend it in a cabin on the lake. As is the case with horror movies, the weekend they pick to vacation at this cabin also happens to be when everybody else is out of town.

To be honest, the cabin they end up staying at is really beautiful. It’s not like those ratty old cabins we’ve seen in the “Evil Dead” movies, but instead the kind my parents always liked to take me and my bother to on family vacations. It has a docking station for a boat and all the amenities like a stove which any cabin requires. And, of course, it is located in an area of the United States which doesn’t get very good cell phone reception, if any.

Paul and Bea are having the time of their lives, but things take a strange turn when Bea suddenly goes missing and Paul finds her out in the woods naked and disoriented. She has no idea of how she got there, and Paul takes her back to the cabin. From there, Bea begins to act very strangely and Paul begins to wonder if she is the same person he just married. As her bizarre behavior escalates, strange things start happening like shafts of light invading the seemingly peaceful cabin, and scissors being used in ways almost as painful as what we witnessed in Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.”

I kept waiting for “Honeymoon” to fall apart. The suspense keeps building and building throughout, and I feared the movie would eventually mess things up by revealing too much. The fact it doesn’t is a testament to director Leigh Janiak who keeps ratcheting up the tension just when you think it’s on the verge of disintegrating. According to her IMDB page, Janiak has worked mostly as an assistant to various movie producers, and “Honeymoon” marks her directorial debut. I honestly find this to be a very impressive debut as she avoids a lot of rookie mistakes many filmmakers tend to make their first time out. She also doesn’t rely on a lot of blood and gore (although there is a bit of them here and there), and she instead lets the characters drive the movie while creating an atmosphere which makes you feel increasingly isolated from everything and everybody else.

I’m not familiar with Rose Leslie’s work as an actress, partly because I haven’t watched “Game of Thrones” which she has appeared on. On top of giving us a perfect American accent, she makes her character of Bea very down to earth to where we shudder as she endures things no human being should ever have to. She also has a very natural and appealing quality which makes us care even more about her horrific predicament. It’s a surprise to learn this is one of her very first movies as she shows a confidence in front of the camera which takes a long time to build up, and I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.

Treadaway, whom you might remember from the Showtime series “Penny Dreadful,” also turns in an equally strong performance as Paul. While a lot of actors in horror movies tend to emote more than act, you can tell Treadaway isn’t faking a single emotion we see him experiencing onscreen. He drags us almost forcefully into Paul’s mindset as he desperately tries to help the love of his life, and he makes you feel his desperation as it becomes increasingly evident time is running out for him to do so.

“Honeymoon” ends on an ambiguous note which may drive some audience members who want everything spelled out for them crazy, but it shows just how effective Janiak’s work as a director is. She keeps stringing us along and keeps us intrigued all the way through, and the movie’s final moment taps into our own dark and primal fears. There are no easy answers, only an inevitability the characters try to resist.

Everyone involved in “Honeymoon’s” production clearly had more on their mind than just giving you the same old thing. It deserves a much bigger audience than it has received so far. My hope is horror fans will check it out sooner rather than later.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Universal Pictures Unveils First Trailer for ‘Fifty Shades Darker’

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the movie theater on Valentine’s Day, another E.L. James novel is about to make its way to the silver screen. The cinematic adaptation of “Fifty Shades of Grey” was not well-received critically and was a big winner at the 36th Golden Raspberry Awards, but it still made over $500 million dollars worldwide, so a sequel was destined. Now Universal Pictures has unveiled the first trailer for “Fifty Shades Darker,” and it promises to be more of a thriller as well as something sexier and more obsessive than its predecessor.

Despite Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) leaving Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) at the end of the first movie, this trailer shows neither have yet to call it quits on their relationship. Anastasia, a picture of youthful innocence previously, looks much more mature this time around while Christian, as usual, remains engulfed by demons. We see them go to a masquerade party which makes one wonder if the filmmakers are looking to outdo a similar sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” as that movie almost earned an NC-17 rating.

The passion between Anastasia and Christian appears a little healthier this time around as she makes clear there are to be no more rules or secrets between them. As the trailer reaches its midpoint, they certainly look to be having more fun than ever before. But soon Anastasia starts seeing other women looking back at her menacingly even while she sleeps in bed, and it becomes clear there are still many things Christian has to talk to her about.

The “Fifty Shades Darker” trailer is dominated by Miguel’s version of the song “Crazy in Love,” but while Beyoncé sang it to where her uncontainable joy was more than infectious, Miguel makes his interpretation of the song dark and very obsessive as if this love affair is heading to a very dangerous place. Indeed, Miguel’s song may be the most memorable thing about this trailer as he succeeds in making this song his own, and the result is haunting. As we watch Anastasia and Christian come together and fall apart in rapid succession, the song illustrates just how crazy their love affair is and how much crazier it is going to get.

Stepping into the director’s chair for this “Grey” movie is James Foley, the same man who directed one of greatest acting ensembles ever in the cinematic adaptation of David Mamet’s play “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Writing the screenplay is Niall Leonard, husband of E.L. James. Is Leonard a better writer than his wife? Well, here’s hoping. Among Johnson’s and Dornan’s co-stars here is Kim Basinger who plays Elena Lincoln, Grey’s business partner and former lover, and while we don’t see much of Basinger in the trailer, she has its last line which hangs over everything we have seen like the ominous of shadows. Keep in mind, Basinger’s character is also referred to as Mrs. Robinson (hint, hint).

Well, for better or for worse, “Fifty Shades Darker” will be arriving in theaters on February 14, 2017. Check out the trailer above.

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Exclusive Interview with Olga Szymanska on Marcin Wrona’s ‘Demon’

It was very sad to learn of Polish director Marcin Wrona’s passing on September 18, 2015. He committed suicide before a screening of his latest film, “Demon,” the last in a trilogy which began with “My Flesh, My Blood” and “The Christening.” Like those two films, “Demon” deals with the nature of evil and a fate the protagonist is forced to deal with. Itay Tiran stars as Piotr (a.k.a. Python) who is on the verge of getting married to the beautiful Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) and moving into a family home which has survived from one generation to the next. But on the day of his wedding, Piotr suddenly becomes possessed by a spirit which will no longer remain silent, and what should be a joyous day soon turns into the wedding from hell as the past will no longer remain buried.

While Wrona is no longer with us, his “Demon” is a tremendously well-made horror film which allowed him to leave his mark on the world of cinema, and it provides us with an interesting take on the Jewish legend of the dybbuk. It is a beautifully filmed movie with incredible vistas and an all-encompassing darkness as a bad situation gets even worse, and that’s not just because the wedding guests have drunk far too much vodka. Watching “Demon” also reminds us of the power of ambiguity as not all questions are answered here, and this forces the viewer to think more deeply about what they have just witnessed.

I got to speak with Olga Szymanska, the producer of “Demon” and Wrona’s widow, while she was in Los Angeles to promote the film. I applaud her for supporting her late husband’s work while dealing with a loss which is still hard for many to accept. She talked about what went into the making of “Demon,” how it relates to Wrona’s previous two films, if she was ever worried about people not understanding the legend of the dybbuk, and of how Wrona and his cinematographer Pawell Flis gave the film such a striking look.

Please check out the interview above, and be sure to check out “Demon” which is playing at the Nuart Theatre through September 15.

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