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There are few directors who have had as thorough an impact on 21st century genre filmmaking as James Wan. While I personally run a bit hot-and-cold with Mr. Wan’s oeuvre, there’s no denying that he has played a big role in defining genre over the past couple of decades.

Horror’s the big one, obviously – this is the dude who directed the first “Saw” movie and helped shepherd the first couple of installments of both the “Insidious” and “Conjuring” film series. That trio alone would place him as one of the creative movers and shakers in the industry.

But then you take into account that he ALSO helmed “Aquaman” for the DCEU (and is also leading the sequel) and directed the seventh “Fast & Furious” movie and you’re looking at a guy with serious influence.

Wan’s latest film is “Malignant,” currently in theaters and streaming on HBO Max. It’s a return to his roots of sorts, the kind of visceral and gnarly blood-and-guts horror that isn’t overly concerned with laying the groundwork for future films or continuing the stories of past ones. Instead, we get a gory and weird horror tale that delights in its own strangeness, the kind of movie that engages in gleefully in-the-moment deconstruction of its influences.

That strangeness is amplified exponentially with an absolutely nutso third-act reveal that pushes us fully into the realm of Cronenbergian body horror, resulting in a movie that, while perhaps not traditionally scary, manages to evoke some emotional churn in its own gross, bizarre, kind of absurd way. All in all, this movie is bonkers.

Published in Movies

Genre storytelling has long offered a flexible path for those wishing to speak to greater truths. Often, these are people whose ideas or very identities have been marginalized, making it all the more difficult for their ideologies to be taken seriously – or even addressed at all – by the mainstream.

Genre work – be it literature or film or TV – is a way in. The outsized nature of science fiction or fantasy or horror allows room for social and cultural commentary to exist in the margins – a Trojan Horsing of sorts, utilizing tropes to reflect larger concepts in a manner that demands interpretation even while working effectively.

But in recent years, as some of those marginalized figures start making inroads higher up the cultural food chain, we’re getting more of their insights on textual levels as well as subtextual.

Take “Candyman,” the new film from director Nia DaCosta, who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Win Rosenfeld and Jordan Peele (Peele also served as executive producer of the project). It’s a decades-later direct sequel to the 1992 film of the same name.

The sequel is plenty scary, of course, well-crafted and striking a balance between atmospheric scares and visceral gore. But it is also able to address the same central tenet of the original film – this idea that the focused anger and fear of a community can manifest in ways that negatively impact that community, living on long after the original players are gone – in a much more overt way. This is still social commentary wrapped in the trappings of a horror movie, but this time, there’s considerably more freedom regarding how that commentary is conveyed.

Stories, even urban legends, have power; the more they’re told, the more they’re believed … and the more they’re believed, the more power they ultimately carry.

Published in Movies

I dig M. Night Shyamalan movies.

Not all of them – he’s definitely got a couple of real stinkers in there – but for the most part, I’ve liked the films that he’s made. Frankly, there’s something refreshing about the dude and his work; he is clearly someone who makes movies that he likes and doesn’t really worry all that much about anything else. And thanks to the ongoing cultural impact of “The Sixth Sense,” he has enough creative capital to keep doing what he does.

Plus, he’s kind of on a pretty good run.

Since his sort-of-comeback with 2015’s “The Visit,” Shyamalan has reinvigorated his career, putting the previous decade or so – in which he became something of a punchline – in the rearview. That film, plus the double dip of 2016’s excellent “Split” and 2019’s I-liked-it-more-than-many “Glass” along with his work on TV shows like “Wayward Pines” and “Servant,” have him back in the conversation, albeit not quite at his turn-of-the-century heights.

His latest is “Old.” It’s a bit of an outlier for him; he directed and wrote the screenplay, as per usual, but this time, it’s an adaptation – a French graphic novel titled “Sandcastle.” But it’s the sort of supernaturally-tinged story we’ve learned to expect from him, with the same brand of ludicrous/intriguing elevator pitch description.

To wit: What if people went to a beach that made them age their entire lives in just a few hours?

I know, I know – it sounds goofy. And I suppose it is. But it is also precisely the sort of premise with which a filmmaker like Shyamalan can have some fun. It’s not perfect – things get clunky here and there and there’s one particular plot development that is actively icky – but the things that Shyamalan does well, he does REALLY well … and they’re on display here.

Published in Movies

Every once in a while, a book will come along that makes you stop and say to yourself: “Now THAT is a GREAT f—ing idea.”

That was my immediate reaction to a brief synopsis I read for “The Final Girl Support Group” (Berkley, $26), the latest novel by the delightful genre-bending horror author Grady Hendrix. From those few sentences that laid out the concept for me, I knew that this was going to be a book that I not only liked, not only loved, but made me the tiniest bit jealous that I hadn’t come up with the idea myself.

It is a smart, self-aware narrative, one that does one of the cleanest jobs you’ll ever see in combining subversion of and affinity for the tropes of a genre. It embraces some of the basest impulses of the horror world and turns them on their head by endowing them with verisimilitude. It looks beyond the stories we’ve always seen, and by doing so uncovers a much deeper – and in some ways scarier – tale to be told.

To wit: When the credits roll in a horror movie, what happens to the one who lives?

Published in Buzz

Baby horror has long been a vital subgenre beneath the horror umbrella. The possibilities that come with the fundamental mysteries of pregnancy and giving birth are myriad. You can do demonic possession or supernatural rituals or weird science, all with a body horror underpinning that comes part and parcel with the whole situation.

Of course, these movies aren’t always good.

Take “False Positive,” newly streaming on Hulu. I had high hopes for this one, honestly. Ilana Glazer stars and co-wrote the script with director John Lee. Both of them have some legitimately weird credits to their name. Throw in Justin Theroux and Pierce Brosnan as co-stars and you’ve got my attention.

Unfortunately, while the film starts with some real promise, it never quite gets to where we want it to be. Instead, it devolves into a muddled mishmash of dream sequences and “What is real?” psychodrama that never finds its footing after the strong start. Too many decisions make little or no sense; there’s never any sense behind why people are behaving the way that they are. We’re left with a confusing and ultimately unsatisfying film that never quite decides what it wants to be. Again, there are moments of strength, but not nearly enough of them.

Published in Movies

When a film trots out the phrase “based on a true story,” that can mean a lot of things, from a meticulous recreation of well-documented events (albeit with some dramatic license) to a largely constructed fiction that borrows a couple of ostensibly true elements from a preexisting story. But if the “true story” in question already has a complicated relationship with veracity?

Well … then you get “The Conjuring” films.

The latest installment in the increasingly sprawling horror franchise is “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It.” It’s the third “Conjuring” film proper, though there have been a number of spin-off/tangentially connected movies as well. Directed by Michael Chaves from a screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, it’s a continuation of the supernatural adventures of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren.

As with any franchise, the law of diminishing returns is in play; this one is no exception. While it does feature some solid performances and a couple of decent jump scares, the truth is that this new offering doesn’t reach the level of the previous two films in the series.

Published in Movies

The cinematic landscape is littered with unnecessary sequels.

The reality is that in this time of IP franchise building, any original film that achieves box office success is almost certainly going to receive the sequel treatment, regardless of whether the story actually lends itself to continuation.

Often, that leads to sequels that bear only tangential connection to their predecessors, both in terms of commercial and critical success. To wit – they’re worse and fewer people see them.

However, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes, a filmmaker is able to craft an addition to their initial story that contributes something more to the story being told while also maintaining the spirit of the original, even if that original seemingly concluded satisfactorily.

“A Quiet Place Part II” – writer-director John Krasinski’s follow-up to his excellent 2018 “A Quiet Place” – falls into that latter category. While that first film didn’t necessarily seem to cry out for a sequel, its success ensured that it would get one nevertheless. And while I think one can argue that this new film is in fact largely unnecessary, that doesn’t mean that it’s bad.

Quite the opposite, really.

Now, it doesn’t clear the high bar set by the first movie, whose surprising and innovative craftsmanship made it one of the best horror movies of recent years. But it does have plenty to offer, and with Emily Blunt to lead the cast and Krasinski steering the ship, it proves to be quite a successful film.

It’s bigger and louder than the first film – sometimes to its detriment – but it still manages to expand upon that film’s world, both in terms of the apocalyptic present day and, through flashback, the horrifying swiftness of society’s collapse beneath the weight of an attack by a seemingly invincible enemy.

Published in Movies
Monday, 17 May 2021 11:28

‘Spiral’ spins its wheels

Sure, I’ll ask the question: did we really need another “Saw” movie?

It shouldn’t be a surprise, really – we live in a world of sequels and reboots and franchises, and with the horror genre being one of the few generally reliable box office draws, it makes sense that we’d see a horror film or three kicking off what appears to be a wider reopening of movie theaters.

But the truth is that while these movies have been undeniable commercial successes – even the “Jigsaw” reboot from a couple of years ago did nine figures at the box office – the transgressive nature of the earlier installments has definitely been backlined in favor of more and gorier action. So it was interesting to see the latest incarnation at least make the effort to try and say something beyond “Look how gross this is!”

“Spiral: From the Book of Saw” is effectively the first spinoff from the series. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (his fourth go at the series) from a script by Josh Stoolberg and Peter Goldfinger, the film adds some unanticipated star power with star Chris Rock (who also executive produced) and tries to use its still-effective gory torture devices to say something about the wider world – in this case, police corruption and by extension systemic racism.

No, you’re not going to get a lot of nuanced commentary from a “Saw” movie – no one is showing up to one of these to get a lecture on world affairs; they’re here to see people die in horrible ways – but at least it allows the film to feel like it’s about something, rather than just an excuse for inventive torture devices.

But the truth is that while the filmmakers seem well-intentioned, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. While there are some solid performances here – Rock in particular is quite good – the story is scattered and haphazard, with questionable decisions regarding the pacing. The result is a horror movie with plenty of gore that is never fully able to articulate what it wants to convey.

Published in Movies
Monday, 22 March 2021 15:24

‘Happily’ never after

Most of the time, the media we consume – movies, books, TV, music – fits comfortably within the confines of description. That is, we can pretty easily define what kind of film or book or show or song we’re experiencing; even the stuff built on genre cross-pollination can be described reasonably succinctly.

Occasionally, though, we get something that doesn’t quite fit into one or two categories. Something that is many different things at once while also being essentially its own thing.

“Happily,” written and directed by BenDavid Grabinski, checks a LOT of different genre boxes, but does so in a way that is appealingly messy. There’s a fundamental shagginess to the film, born of the filmmaker’s clear desire to take a kitchen sink approach to tone and type. And the film really does have it all – romance and dark comedy and speculative undertones and relationship drama – but in the course of doing so, it sometimes loses its way.

That said, we’ve got a dynamite cast, some killer aesthetic choices and visual styling and an obvious willingness to let things get weird. It’s a film where you might THINK you know what you’re getting into, but you don’t. Not really. And that’s (mostly) a good thing.

Published in Movies

Those of us of a certain age will remember Friday night strolls through the horror aisle at our local video store. There were the known quantities, of course, but mixed in among the higher-end Hollywood scares was a vast and seemingly unending universe of straight-to-video schlock, sporting lurid, garish box artwork that often had little or no connection to the film that made up its contents.

If you loved those movies then and miss them now, then I might have something for you.

“Hawk & Rev: Vampire Slayers,” written and directed by Ryan Barton-Grimley (he also stars), is an attempt to recapture the energy of those late-night late-80s jaunts through Blockbuster. It is low-budget lunacy, a ludicrous and lively homage to the horror filler of the home video explosion, a story of mismatched buddies devoted to doing whatever it takes to protect their town from the evil lurking all about.

This is a movie that revels in its limitations, celebrating the obstacles to be overcome. This movie winks and nods its way through its brisk 85 minutes; it’s the kind of viewing experience rendered all the more entertaining by the sheer delight being felt by all involved. We’re talking the finest kind of dorky DIY horror filmmaking here, all informed by a love of STV trash masterpieces of the past.

Published in Movies
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