"The Kindergarten Teacher" - Review by Keith LaFountaine

written and directed by SARA COLANGELO

Rated R | 96 MIN


When you dig deep down into a person, pushing past the façade they put on, the things they brush off, and the insecurities they have come to terms with, you will find something surprising: a small nugget of fear. That fear is being unnoticed, of drifting through life without some semblance of purpose or recognition. I struggle with that fear every day; I think all artists, especially those who still adhere to the label "aspiring", struggle with that notion.

That's part of what makes The Kindergarten Teacher so compelling. While we can see Lisa's obsession with her student, Jimmy, is clearly unhealthy and dangerous, we can understand that her fears, her insecurities, and her loneliness is what is driving her actions.

The Kindergarten Teacher follows Lisa, a teacher who is a struggling poet. One day, she discovers that a student of hers, Jimmy, is child prodigy - his poems are full of depth and power. She decides to take him under her wing, convinced she is helping him even as her actions become increasingly problematic.

The depth of the writing, and Gyllenhaal’s performance, gives humanity to someone we likely wouldn't afford it to if we saw this case on the news. It brings complexity and connection to a person we would likely never associate with (after learning what they have done). Yet, that is exactly what Sara Colangelo's masterful film does.

To be clear, Lisa is never a protagonist. Not in the strict sense of the term. Her actions clearly indicate that she is, at best, an anti-hero, driven by personal insecurities and profound sadness. That is another onionskin that helps make her character more complex and more human.

I am reminded of another film (another Netflix Original, oddly enough) called Tallulah, starring Ellen Page and directed by Sian Heder. Again, someone we generally would not afford sympathy to is shown in a humanistic light. That can confuse us as an audience.

Yet, that's also the truest thing about these films. The Kindergarten Teacher is a fictional story, but the observations it makes about Lisa and her daily struggles are real. That helps elevate the story above melodrama and into something more sticky, more bold, and more complex.

None of this would be possible without Maggie Gyllenhaal's powerhouse performance. It's quiet and thoughtful, yet when we get those long takes we can see emotions brewing behind her eyes -- we can see the storm of frustration, sadness, anger, and loneliness clashing like a violent ocean in her irises.

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Films like The Kindergarten Teacher are why I still, despite all of the flops, defend the Netflix Original. Netflix is often criticized for giving too much leniency to their filmmakers (I've even accused them of that for certain projects). Giving Sara Sara Colangelo sole control over the project, in terms of writing and direction, was the smartest decision they could make. This is only her second feature, and yet she writes and directs with such a precise command of film language and character insight, it looks as if she has been doing this for decades.

The Kindergarten Teacher is like a ticking time-bomb of a film. It sits and it waits, ticking away, ramping up pressure, raising the stakes, chipping deeper into our souls as it peels the layers away from Lisa and her personality, until it finally gives us the pulse-pounding, emotional ending we have been waiting for. That is exactly what I want from this kind of character study.

 

RATING: ★★★★½ 

"The Haunting of Hill House" Is More Than Just a Ghost Story by Keith LaFountaine

One of my favorite ghost stories is Oliver Assayas’s 2016 film, Personal Shopper. In it, a woman named Maureen (played by Kristen Stewart) searches for a way to contact her deceased twin brother while working as a personal shopper for a famous actress.

Why is it one of my favorite ghost stories? Because, at its core, it’s an intensely human story. It’s the kind of film that uses its supernatural elements to further elevate the core plot and character dynamics at its core.

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The best horror movies are the ones that understand humanity. I don’t mean just on a superficial level; I mean films that genuinely understand what fear is and why we feel it. These kinds of films help grasp the abstract concept that is “fear” and helps put a face to it; more importantly, it explores these feelings in unique, complex ways.

This is part of the reason why Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House is so effective. Not only does it have some creepy moments (in fact, every episode of the show has at least one big horror set piece that is sure to make your skin crawl), its cast of characters, and the story of lingering trauma it is telling make this more than a simple ghost story. This series isn’t just about doors creaking and apparitions floating in the periphery of the camera lens; this is a difficult exploration of how trauma can affect children, even long after they have been removed from a toxic environment.

This is nothing new for Mike Flanagan’s work, either. While I have not been the biggest fan of his work, I have always respected his continuous effort to inject mature storytelling into the horror genre, which (thanks to franchises like The Conjuring) is becoming more juvenile every year. His stories are, as I put it earlier, intensely human.

You can notice this in the way he constructs every moment of this show (he directed all 10 episodes); the majority of his jump-scares are well crafted and representative of the childlike lens through which we are viewing them. The ghosts are grotesque and terrifying, but their design and their purpose are directly reflective of the struggles this family is going through. Ghosts are not used simply as antagonists in this show; they are visualizations of trauma.

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It’s this kind of maturity and precise storytelling that we need in horror. We are seeing it more often (The Witch, The Babadook, It Follows, It Comes At Night, etc.). However, I am hopeful that the success of Flanagan’s series gives other filmmakers the inspiration they need to tell different kinds of stories that have more tact, depth, and meaning.

"Apostle" - Review (No Spoilers) by Keith LaFountaine

Apostle is going to divide people. Though, for Gareth Evans, I think that sort of divisive response was baked into his artistic intent. In nearly every way this is a departure from the films he has made before, and the style upon which he has made a career. This is not The Raid.

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Perhaps I just have a soft spot for grungy, gory horror with a tinge of supernatural intrigue, but I loved Apostle. Evans has such a strong grasp of atmospherics and horror film language that even when his narrative gets strange, you can't look away from it.

Apostle follows Thomas Richardson, a young drifter who travels to a remote island in order to find his missing sister. While his sister is an integral part of the story, this inciting event really serves to get us onto this island and into the eerie atmosphere it provides.

For those who are expecting high-octane action, you're going to have to wait for the small moments you get. None of the action scenes last for very long, but they are very brutal and very effective. What really holds the film together, instead of action (again, like we are used to with The Raid films), is this boiling sense of suspense and terror. Even the soundtrack represents this uneasiness, with sharp, jagged bursts of distorted violin and slow-building swells of music accompanying the tensest moments of the film.

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Evans's direction is strong. It is easy to see that the slow pacing is deliberate, not a consequence of poor writing or direction. At 130 minutes, Evans could definitely have trimmed some fat, but I didn't mind him embellishing some of the quieter scenes. There are some really great character moments through, and I particularly like one sub-plot, even if it was very conventional in terms of its execution.

The acting is great all around. Dan Stevens shows us, yet again, why he's such a great leading man -- especially when it comes to action choreography. He embodies this character well, and the final shot is truly haunting, partially because of what is happening and partially because of Steven's performance. A lot of his emotions are held in his eyes, especially his fear and anxiety. Not only does that work for his character, it also adds to the narrative tension.

The film is not perfect, and the final act will likely turn a lot of people off. I loved it, though; I was on board with the film from the get-go, so when things got turned up to 11, I was even more excited.

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The makeup effects in this are next level, too, especially the more gory scenes. This is a film that does not pull any punches. Emboldened by the creative freedom Netflix offers him, Evans was able to get away with a lot of really tough visuals that are sure to drive people away, but they work in the context of the narrative and further embolden the horror.

Overall, for those who go into this expecting The Raid meets The Wicker Man, you're going to be disappointed. However, if you go in expecting a love letter to 70s and 80s cult horror, you will be pleasantly surprised (like I was).

Also, for once, I was able to watch a horror film without being assaulted by defeaning jump scares.

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RATING: ★★★★

Entertainment In the Age of Trump by Keith LaFountaine

It’s not controversial to say that entertainment, film, and television have changed in the age of Trump – it’s a fact. It’s something we have noticed. It’s something that we have latched onto. Just like that one word we use as a flashlight to find our way through this dark tunnel – RESIST – we look to media, to films, to television, to our culture to represent our innate fears. We have always looked to these creative outlets for support.

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"Venom" - Review (No Spoilers) by Keith LaFountaine

DIRECTED BY RUBEN FLEISCHER

WRITTEN BY JEFF PINKER, SCOTT ROSENBERG, KELLY MARCEL

PG-13 | 112 MIN


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They almost got this one right.

Here's the thing: I don't go into superhero films with as critical of an eye as I probably should. The main reason is because I compartmentalize superhero films in a different quality echelon than I do regular dramas, comedies, and thrillers. The motivation behind a superhero film -- in terms of what it's trying to accomplish with its story -- is almost always radically different than what other films are pursuing.

So, with that said, I didn't hate Venom. It has a lot of problems, don't get me wrong, but they were really close to nailing this one.

Venom follows Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative reporter who is infected by a parasite, Venom, while pursuing a story. As he and his ex-girlfriend, Anne (Michelle Williams), cope with his new powers and Venom’s bloodthirsty personality, Eddie finds himself embroiled in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with Dr. Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) and his evil corporation.

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The issue is the script. With three screenwriter credits, this script has clearly been overwritten and dumbed down. Not only that, the screenwriters don't have the same exact vision for the film (at least, from what I could surmise) -- Venom feels split into three different tonal visions which all clash with each other, akin to the bombastic action on display.

The clearest example of this is how certain plot devices are used. They almost never make sense in the context of the story; rather, they have been placed there to move the story along, indicating that scenes had been assembled together, but without the necessary bridges to make the film feel "whole", so to speak. Characters appear in locations without explanation as to how they got there, character motivations change drastically and without warning, and the tone of the film goes from dark comedy to serious drama.

With a better script, though, this really could have been a cool film. Tom Hardy is great in this role, and Ruben Fleischer is a perfect directorial choice. His brand of dark humor, which made Zombieland so refreshing and fun, is exactly what a Venom film needs. Unfortunately, neither he nor Hardy are given much to work with. The supporting cast is also severely underutilized (especially the incredible Michelle Williams), as their characters feel nothing more than cardboard cutout clichés with vague glimmers of depth.

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The highlights of the film are the scenes between Brock and Venom. It takes the "buddy comedy" aesthetic and utilizes the absurdity of Venom to further enhance the comedy. It's clear that those are the scenes Tom Hardy misses, and I can see why. It’s in those moments that the film is the most fun.

Overall, Venom is pretty much what you are expecting. I don't think it's as bad as some critics are making it out to be, but it is a mess, especially in terms of its writing. The pieces are there, but they need a better foundation. I think if Fleischer had a better script to work with it wouldn't have felt as tonally jarring and narratively inconsistent.

 

RATING: ★★☆☆☆


Why Is Hollywood Not Making Original Films? by Keith LaFountaine

I. Franchises, Remakes, and Sequels: Oh My!

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If we look at the box office as of today, the top three films are: Ocean's 8, Solo: A Star Wars Story, & Deadpool 2. All of them are tied to a franchise (one being a prequel, two being a sequel, though Ocean's 8 is more tangentially related to the original franchise than anything else). This weekend Incredibles 2 is expected to dominate the box office.

This speaks to a common complaint many have about the state of Hollywood: there is very little original filmmaking out there. It's all superhero movies, sequels, remakes, and reboots. I've heard filmmakers, cinephiles, and regular moviegoers voice this complaint time and time again. There is some substance to it, too.

Marvel has released eighteen superhero films in the past ten years (roughly two films per year). We have seen multiple attempts at franchises and reboots, from The Mummy to King Arthur, and there have been a ton of sequels. John Wick 2, Fifty Shades Darker, The Lego Batman Movie, T2 Trainspotting, The Fate of the Furious, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Alien: Covenant, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Cars 3, Transformers: The Last Knight, Amityville: The Awakening, Despicable Me 3, Bad Dads, War for the Planet of the Apes, Annabelle 2, The Nut Job 2, Blade Runner 2049, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Insidious: The Last Key, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Jigsaw, A Bad Mom's Christmas, Thor: Ragnarok, Justice League, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Pitch Perfect 3.

Those are just the sequels that were released in 2017. In one year there were 28 sequels released. Let that sink in. That's not even counting the remakes and reboots there were.

So what is going on? Why is the market so saturated with these types of films? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?


II. Same Hollywood, Different Franchises


If there is one thing we know about Hollywood, it's that it's very predictable. 

While it may seem like Hollywood has only become interested in the mass production of franchises and sequels and remakes in the past ten years, the truth is that big-time producers have always funded these kinds of films. Just look at the Transformers franchise.

I was thirteen years old when the first trailer for Transfomers came out. My first thought was "this looks really dumb." In fact, a lot of my friends thought the same thing. After all, how could they make an animated TV show about transforming robots?

My instinct for box office success had not developed at that point, quite obviously, because Transformers went on to be one of the most successful films of the years, spawning five sequels with Michael Bay in the director's chair. Even now, with him leaving the franchise, Bumblebee is scheduled to come out this year. Every single one of these films has made a profit at the box office, too, and Bumblebee likely will as well.

In 2003 a small Disney film called Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl came out. When I first saw this trailer I was nine or ten (for some reason I thought this was The Count of Monte Cristo, though I have no idea why). Again, it seemed like this film was bound to fail, even with a talented cast (including Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, who had just finished up Peter Jackson's highly acclaimed film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings). After all, this was a film based on a ride at Disneyland -- what could they do with that?

Well, again, I (and everyone else) was wrong. The first Pirates film was highly acclaimed, spawned four sequels, and made a ton of money domestically and overseas.

This goes back even further. Just think about the Star Wars films, or the Rocky series, or the Alien franchise. 

My point is that these trends should not be surprising. Hollywood has always put money on projects they know are "safe" -- where they know they are going to get a decent ROI. The real issue nowadays has to do with the amount of sequels, remakes, and reboots.

In fact, if you look at the statistics, you will find that there has been a rather large increase in the release of sequels from 2005 to 2015.

Sequels Released From 2005 to 2015

Statistics from movieinsider.com

So what's causing this influx of sequels in the film market? Why are these films saturating our theaters?


III. Marvel Takes Over

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There is one clear catalyst for our current age of sequels and franchises. There is one clear reason why producers and companies are trying their hardest to create franchises right and left: Marvel.

Before Marvel, the closest thing we had to a cinematic universe was Star Wars. With seven films, multiple characters, and one overarching story it gave audiences a sense of scope that few other franchises could offer. Marvel changed everything, though.

Over the past ten years (including 2018) Marvel has released 19 films to create the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With Ant Man and the Wasp coming out this year, that count will tick up to 20. Next year they are planning on releasing Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel. This doesn't even include the Marvel films produced by Fox.

Marvel is, therefore, one of the most successful brands in the world at the moment. Their films regularly dominate the box office in the top spot. Their fanbase is huge and devoted. They are so powerful they can get distinguished actors like Robert Redford in their films.

Because of their power, other producers and companies have tried to jump on the bandwagon. The DCEU (starting with Man of Steel) tried to pursue the same basic world-building structure. The Mummy was an attempt to kickstart the Dark Universe. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword tried to start a seven-film King Arthur franchise. Kong: Skull Island started a monster franchise with Godzilla.

Now these franchises have had varying degrees of success. The point is that investors, now more than ever, have a clear idea of what will make them money: superheroes and cinematic universes. Therefore, we have seen more investment in these kinds of films.


IV. The Foreign Market


Another big factor that should be mentioned here is the foreign market. Nowadays, when a film is released, the majority of its revenue comes from cinemas abroad, not cinemas in the US. This is especially true of giant franchises like TransformersStar Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, and -- you guessed it -- Marvel films.

Just look at the top ten highest grossing films of 2017 below and see the difference between their domestic gross and their foreign gross.

Highest Grossing Films of 2017, Foreign and Domestic Revenue (Millions)

So why does it matter that the foreign market is often the most profitable for investors and producers? Well, mainly because when a franchise does poorly in the US but very well abroad, that franchise will continue.

Just take the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise: fans have been over the franchise for years. Dead Man's Chest and At World's End received mixed reviews from critics and audiences. On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales have suffered at the domestic box office and have been hated by fans and critics. Yet, abroad, these films are still making hundreds of millions of dollars.

If there's one thing you take away from this exploration of modern filmmaking, let it be this: Hollywood will always follow the money, no matter where that money is. If critics hate a film, but it makes a ton of money they will continue to fund that franchise, or films like it. If critics and audiences love a film but it doesn't at least break even, that filmmaker will have a tough time selling future projects.


V. Our Nostalgia Is Our Worst Enemy


It's not just producers that are spurning these kinds of films, though. As moviegoers, we tell investors and producers what we want with our wallets. If we spend a lot of money on a certain film, and buy DVDs, Blu-Rays, and digital copies of it producers take notice of this. They notice an incentive to further invest in these kinds of projects. Often times what could have been a one-off film (like Kingsman: The Secret Service) turns into a franchise and spawns a sequel.

When Hollywood releases these kinds of films, we immediately turn out.

You don't have to look too far to see this in action. Tonight Incredibles 2 comes out and, already, it is expected to make almost $175 million this weekend.

That's not me knocking Incredibles 2, either. I will be one of the people buying a ticket this weekend. However, we need to notice our own reaction to these kinds of films.

Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It's the reason why we turn out highly anticipated sequels. It's also the reason these sequels are being made. Just think about it: if these films didn't consistently make money at the box office would producers invest in them? No, obviously. Even if those films have a passionate fanbase there is very little incentive to continually fund those projects.


VI. We Want Original Films, But We Don't Show Up for Them


And that brings is to the biggest reason why we don't see many truly original films nowadays: we simply don't show up for them in the same way we show up for sequels, remakes, and Marvel.

Now, granted, this isn't always true. Every now and then we have a film like Get Out which makes a killing at the box office. And, in some respect, films that turn into cinematic universes and sequels don't always start out like that.

Think about it like this, though. One of my favorite filmmakers is Martin Scorsese. He is an established name now who can get funding from anyone for any project. Yet, his biggest and most well-known film (Goodfellas) was his 12th film. He made some other classics before that (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, etc.) but none of them were the financial success that Goodfellas was.

Would Scorsese have survived in our modern filmmaking climate? I'm not so sure. I would like to think so, as his filmmaking prowess is clear from his debut feature, Who's That Knocking At My Door. I'm not sure modern producers would have funded these films over more profitable franchises, though. And, more importantly, I'm not sure we would turn out for those films.

In some respect the reasoning for both parties is the same: investors aren't as willing to invest in unknown projects and unknown filmmakers; we aren't as willing to pay for a ticket to go see a film we know nothing about, or a filmmaker we have never seen before. That brings us back to the central tenant of the film industry: if there's no money in it no one is going to make it.

David Lynch, probably the best example of someone who may not have made it in modern Hollywood with his filmography, did an interview last year before Twin Peaks: The Return came out. In it he said some depressing, but unfortunately true, things, which included this quote.

I think feature films are in trouble and the arthouses are dead.
— David Lynch

To hear the most well-known "art-house" director (though I think he would reject that label) say that the arthouses are dead and that cinema is in trouble should be the canary in the coal mine for filmmakers. He's not the only one concerned about the state of modern filmmaking. Jodie Foster has also voiced her concerns about the state of filmmaking, and movie-watching, today.

Going to the movies has become like a theme park...Studios making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders is like fracking — you get the best return right now but you wreck the earth....It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world.
— Jodie Foster

James Gunn had a rather candid and polite response to Ms. Foster, defending superhero films and spectacle cinema in general in a series of tweets.

I'm stuck in the middle of these two perspectives. "Spectacle cinema" is an important part of Hollywood; it always has been. However, this hard lean into spectacle cinema, at the expense of independent cinema and the arthouse, is killing the diversity that Hollywood used to be known for. It was that diversity that allowed filmmakers like George Lucas, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese, Kathryn Bigelow, and Sofia Coppola to thrive. To shirk that diversity is to reduce the quality of our filmmaking and our cinema.


VII. It's Not the End of the World


I don't want to make it seem like I am completely against sequels, franchises, and remakes -- I'm not. Some of the best films of all times were sequels -- The Godfather: Part 2, Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, etc. I also enjoy the Marvel films, even if they tend to be derivative.

Filmmaking is not in trouble in the way Jodie Foster is suggesting -- independent cinema is not dying, it's just changing the place it lives. A24 has done a lot to put independent films out for the public; those films are making a good amount of money domestically. Amazon has put a lot of resources into producing original independent films like Moonlight, Paterson, and Manchester By the Sea. Even Netflix, though it's original films are often of a lesser quality than we would like, is giving young, new, and established filmmakers a platform.

When you think about it, original films are very similar to good rock music nowadays -- it can be hard to find. If you want to listen to modern, quality punk bands you're not going to find them on your FM dial. They won't be the thing that is promoted immediately by Spotify. But if you know where to go, which site to search, and which people to follow you will be able to find some decent punk rock.

With the constant barrage of spectacle films in theaters, and the incessant churning out of sequels, prequels, remakes, reimaginings, cinematic universes, and franchises it can be difficult to find truly unique cinema. If you really want to find it, you just need to do a little bit of digging 

Suspense vs. Shock: Why Jump Scares Are Ruining Horror Films by Keith LaFountaine


I. The Difference Between "Shock" and "Suspense"


There is no terror in the bang, only the anticipation of it.
— Alfred Hitchcock

Which of these short films is scarier?

Both of these projects use a similar film structure (one uses Polaroids, the other uses light) but both have a similar payoff.

Except, they don't.

See, Polaroid uses "shock" to scare you. Sure, it builds suspense, but the payoff of the film is that moment where the monster is revealed -- where the music cue sounds loudly and the monster appears in a tight close up, growls, and then disappears. This is something we have come to expect from our horror films; we know these moments as jump scares. They are moments designed to overload our system with stimuli which triggers our "fight or flight" response. It's the same reason why, in all of those vines, that parents jerk when their child screams at them in the car. Our body is instinctively reacting to a possible threat.

Lights Out is different. It, too, builds up the suspense. It pushes it to an unbearable limit. For three minutes we only see the shadow of this specter. When our protagonist peeks out from under our bed covers, we are on the edge of our seats -- we are waiting for the jump scare. And then it doesn't happen. The woman looks relieved. She looks over at her light and sees the monster (as do we) for a split second before it turns off the light. This isn't a jump scare though -- there is no loud music, no horror screaming, nothing we usually identify with the typical horror film. Instead, it is just an image that is, for some reason, terrifying.

The differences between these two films perfectly illustrate the difference between shock and suspense.

Hitchcock famously explained the difference between "shock and surprise" *(as he called it) which also points to the inherent differences between these two methods of fear. Here, he explains it in a way that pertains to his own filmmaking (he never really made a "horror" film other than Psycho, so he's explaining it in the context of a thriller like North By Northwest).

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.
— Alfred Hitchcock

What Hitchcock is essentially saying is that the effectiveness of "suspense" comes with the immersion of the audience, whereas the inefficacy of a jump scare, or "surprise" derives from how short it lasts. The most memorable horror films of all time are the ones that truly unnerve you, that stay with you long after the credits roll, whereas we forget about other horror films once we leave the theater.


II. The Definition of Horror


The safest genre is the horror film. But the most unsafe – the most dangerous – is comedy. Because even if your horror film isn’t very good, you’ll get a few screams and you’re okay. With a comedy, if they don’t laugh, you’re dead.
— Roger Corman

It's important to make a small detour here to mention a simple fact: horror (that being what scares people) has changed.

Films weren't always littered with jump scares and "shock" storytelling. Instead, they focused on atmosphere and sound design to really sell how tense a situation is. One needs only to look at this scene from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, The Shining, to see this at play.

Kubrick sets up the scene by giving us all the information we need: at this point Jack is crazy; he has his ax and he is dangerous. Then we hear the sound of Dick Halloran's voice calling out from the hallway of the hotel. So at this point we know something is going to happen between the two of them. 

And then we get a beautifully suspenseful tracking shot that is just over 60 seconds long where we follow Halloran down a long hall littered with openings for Jack to appear from. We keep waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and then...the payoff. And when the payoff happens the initial attack does not have harsh musical cues to shock the viewer; the music only comes once we see the ax in Halloran's chest. 

Just compare this scene to the opening scene of Andy Muschietti's film IT from last year.

In this scene, within the first minute, we get a jump scare. What is the jump scare doing? Accompanying the opening of Pennywise's eyes. In other words it is a needless inclusion of "shock" with little to no suspense; it is specifically designed just to get you to jump.

The rest of the scene is relatively creepy, thanks to a neat lighting trick with Pennywises's eyes and the performance itself. But, when I saw the film in the theater, that moment ruined the scene for me. It didn't stop there, either; the film is full of cheap jump scares that force the horror. Nowadays, though, if you showed people IT and The Shining the vast majority of them would say that IT is the scarier film.

Horror is a subjective genre; what some find scary others find funny. However, this speaks to a cultural shift in terms of what people find scary and how horror films are made. Modern horror films, the good and the bad, have embraced "shock" over "suspense."

Is it so surprising, though?


III. Money Talks


Strategically, horror films are a good way to start your career. You can get a lot of impact with very little.
— Peter Jackson

The movie theater enhances all types of horror. We're stuck in a large, dark room with a huge screen and an impossibly loud surround sound system and we're shown creepy imagery and haunting music -- of course we are going to be scared by films like IT. Because of this, these kinds of films (along with The Conjuring, Insidious, etc.) gain a reputation for being terrifying and scary. In turn, they make money. Producers notice in this and they invest in the same kinds of films. The cycle repeats.

I wanted to test this theory and see if this was a valid theory as to why we have seen this sudden outcrop of jump scare horror films. Therefore, I Googled "scariest films of the 2010s" to see what audiences considered the scariest horror films of the past eight years. I then checked the box office returns of these films and cross-referenced it with their approximate budget. The results aren't that surprising, but validate what I'm talking about.

Revenue of Modern Horror Films Compared to Budget

Out of all of these films, which are generally positively regarded among audiences, only one of them doesn't utilize the "shock" style of horror filmmaking. That is Jordan Peele's film Get Out. The rest of them, though, utilize this tactic.

The other interesting similarity between these films: who produced them. The Conjuring, The Conjuring 2, and It were all produced by New Line Cinema. Get Out and Sinister were produced by Blumhouse. Insidious was produced by smaller production companies but was directed by James Wan (who also directed The Conjuring and The Conjuring 2.)

So in addition to the nature of horror changing, you have a small group of production companies and filmmakers controlling the majority of mainstream horror films. Because, while not as well regarded as these films, let's not forget that James Wan alone is attached to the Saw franchise, all of the side projects associated with The Conjuring (including Annabelle and The Nun), and all of the Insidious films. That's one man who is, directly or indirectly, connected to 9 of the highest grossing horror films released recently and an upcoming horror film that is sure to make a lot of money. Oh, and he's also produced the feature length version of the short film we watched to begin this, Lights Out.

Put simply, this is a lot of money and a lot of influence put in the hands of one director who has a very distinct style of -- you guessed it -- using jump scares and shock to sell his horror. And while other production companies have jumped into the ring and have been successful (A24 being the most obvious example with the success of films like The Witch Green Room, It Comes At Night, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Hereditary) they are more the exception to the rule, especially when it comes to audience approval.


IV. Does Quality Really Matter?


There’s a very specific secret: It should be scary.
— John Carpenter

Many people may be thinking Keith, I don't go to horror movies to get "immersed"; I go to horror movies to be scared. To some extent, I can understand this argument. As much as I hate jump scares, I can't deny that they work -- people like them. The films people see nowadays, which are riddled with them, are considered terrifying while the more thoughtful, suspenseful horror films I prefer are often given the label "psychological horror" as though to downplay the scares they can offer. So does quality really matter?

At the box office it definitely doesn't seem like it. This year the film Truth or Dare, produced by Blumhouse, was released. It has a whopping 14% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 4.7/10 on IMDB. And yet, despite that, it made an impressive $87 million, far exceeding its measly $3.5 million budget. Truth or Dare isn't alone, either. In 2017 alone there were three horror films audiences and critics abhorred that made a profit at the box office: The Bye Bye Man, Rings, and Jigsaw.

Some of this can be chalked up to our enjoyment of "brain candy" films -- the kinds of films where you don't need to really think about what's going on. It's important to recognize that the reason we keep getting these films is that they are cheap to make and we keep paying for them.

Does quality really matter when it comes to horror? I would argue yes. Because, putting aside our motives for buying a ticket to the newest horror film, we still want to see a good movie. We still want to feel like we got what we paid for in the theater.


V. Where Do We Go From Here?


Everybody’s making horror films and, to me, not especially well. I don’t know if it’s [due to] the corporations taking over studios or what it is. But it really calls for some young filmmakers to come in and just do something from their hearts.
— Wes Craven

I know that this seems like a very cynical way to view horror films. If "jump scares" are reducing the efficacy of actual tension, and if a small group of filmmakers and producers are controlling the type of horror film we are watching, then how can quality horror films ever get produced or see the light for day? More specifically, what if I want to make a horror film? Is it even possible to make one nowadays that doesn't utilize this shock style?

The answer is yes! In fact, A24 is leading the way for really intellectual, thought-provoking, jump-scareless (or jump-scare lite) horror. Films like It Comes At NightThe Witch, The Babadook, and Hereditary are garnering a lot of critical praise and making a decent amount at the box office. Other independent films, like It Follows, are also making waves with critics and audiences.

The issue is that a lot of people aren't used to this kind of horror style. Since 2000, and even a little bit before, the vast majority of horror films produced by large companies have utilized the shock style. This has effectively made us Pavlov's Dog ("Horror's Viewer" if you will). When we hear the sound get quiet and when we see constant shots between a character and an empty space we automatically know what is coming; we brace ourselves for the loud noise.

What a lot of independent horror films are doing is using this to their advantage. They are building suspense to an unbearable level, knowing full well that we are bracing ourselves for something to happen, and they are not giving us that payoff. That makes those scenes much scarier. It also lasts longer than a jump scare would, making it more effective; it sticks with us longer.

So what is the future of horror?

Well, I would argue the future of horror is what it always has been: young filmmakers and independent cinema. Films like A Nightmare On Elm Street and Halloween weren't massive productions with huge budgets. They were small, independent efforts from young directors. These directors had a lot of creative freedom and through their creativity (both in terms of their filmmaking and how they allocated their budget) they created some of the best examples of tension and suspense in the horror genre.

Jump scares are not the worst thing in the world. They can be used effectively. The goal of suspense and horror is not to hide the bomb from going off (using Hitchcock's example). Instead, it is just to make the moments leading up to it effective.

I'm hopeful for the future of horror films. I think that we will get to a point where suspense becomes the dominant horror technique again. Once that happens, horror will, again, reinvent itself through young filmmakers and the indie scene. 

In the meantime, I'll just have to put up with jump scares and put my money towards higher quality examples of horror, as will we all.

Hereditary: Two Acts of Brilliance, One Act of Mediocrity by Keith LaFountaine

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There is a reason why we are more afraid of the absence of a spider than of the spider itself.

When we see a spider on our ceiling, on our wall, on our floor (if you are scared of spiders) we have an instant shock of horror. We feel this electrical pulse surge through our hearth and we jump, or we flinch, or we scream. When we don’t see a spider, though, we worry about where the spider might be. We worry about what might happen if we let our guard down, even for a single second.

Hereditary, for two acts, is the film version of the spider that is missing. It taunts you with shadowed imagery and slow pans. It toys with you by leading you to expect something and then suddenly pushing you forward without giving you that expectation.

It’s actually quite smart -- for years we have been conditioned by horror films to fear the dark, to fear silence, because we know when we are immersed in those specific environments something pops out at us, or crashes loudly. We expect the forced fear that we have continuously witnessed again and again in countless horror films, good and bad. But here, in Hereditary we don’t get that. Even in the sub-par third act there is this incredible restraint on the part of writer/director Ari Aster. He is completely comfortable letting the camera sit in a corner, or look down a hallway while leading us up to the moment we are expecting and then, at the last second, pulling away.

Because of this style (which is not wholly original to Aster’s film; The Witch also did this excellently) we are left in a perpetual state of anxiety and stress -- we can’t see the spider, but we know it’s out there.

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The difficulty with this film comes in its final act where it finally shows its hand. I won’t spoil it here but I found it, to put it politely, disappointing. It felt like a very clichéd way to finish the story. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t anxiety inducing or well acted or well directed -- it was. It just wasn’t well written.

Part of my frustration with many horror films is their incessant need to clarify and contextualize the “menace”, especially when it comes to supernatural horror. That restraint I just praised a few moments ago is thrown out the window narratively when the third act hits its stride.

Now, granted, you may not have the same problems I had with it. You may even really love the direction they pulled the story. I, however, felt it was derivative and lazy in a film that -- for two acts -- had been anything but those two things.

Moving on from narrative, the technical aspects of this film were astounding.

I loved the cinematography. There is something about long hallways -- they are simultaneously too cramped and too big. I got very uneasy watching the characters whenever they were in one of the hallways (or whenever they were framed with a hallway behind them). One of the final sequences, which follows a character through these hallways, is the perfect example of why I find this kind of architecture creepy -- it reveals and hides in equal measure.

The sound design is also superb. The film flows between its unsettling score and complete silence; I preferred the silent scenes more.

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The cast in this is excellent. Toni Collette is electrifying in the lead role, managing to display grief, anger, shock, and horror perfectly. There is one scene where she is crying by her bed, screaming “I want to die” that was incredibly powerful.

The rest of the cast is good, too, though they are overshadowed by Collette. The only person who feels underwritten is Steve, played by Gabriel Byrne. He spends a lot of the film playing the straight man -- comforting his wife, being a skeptic to the weird things going on, occasionally displaying some level of grief (but not often).

Overall, Hereditary is very well made. Ari Aster joins a long line of good filmmaker debuts that are surprising and stick with you. Unfortunately, though, that third act took a lot of the wind out of the story for me which, in turn, knocked down its score.

Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Just be prepared to be looking for that spider for two hours.

MY RATING: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

5 Shows to Binge This Summer by Keith LaFountaine

There are a lot of different shows out there to watch. With how saturated the TV market is right now it can be difficult to pick and choose quality shows. This becomes even more complicated when you consider the huge amount of shows that have finished or been cancelled.

I wanted to help give you some options for shows you may not have watched yet but which are worth your time. All of these shows have ended, so you don't have to worry about waiting for another season.


5. Chuck (2007 - 2012)

5 SEASONS | 91 EPISODES | 45 MINS

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Chuck was one of the most enjoyable shows to grace the small screen. With a dynamite cast (including Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski, and Adam Baldwin) and a dedicated fan base this show managed to survive for five seasons.

Chuck follows a computer geek who accidentally downloads a bunch of government secrets into his brain. Because of this, the NSA assigns to agents to protect him. 

The show is a perfect combination of comedy and spy thrills.

With 91 episodes (all of which are about 45 minutes long) you could complete this show over the course of the summer. Each season is roughly 22 episodes and they are very easy to binge.

All seasons of Chuck are currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.


4. Justified (2010 - 2015)

6 SEASONS | 78 EPISODES | 45 MINS

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Justified is one of those shows that you don't expect to be good and it ends up surprising you. While the first season struggles a bit due to a case-of-the-week format, the rest of the seasons are generally focused on season long arcs, making it very easy to binge.

The show follows Raylan Givens, a detective in a poor coal-mining town in Kentucky. 

What makes the show so great is its characters. From Raylan, to the main antagonist Boyd Crowder, to the supporting characters and season-long antagonists this show is full of memorable heroes and villains. It also has some of the best dialogue ever written for a TV show.

With six thirteen-episode seasons, this is very easy to blow through in a couple of weeks. If you want to make it last a little longer, you can also watch a couple episodes a week and still get through it rather quickly.

All seasons of Justified are available to stream on Amazon Prime.


3. Hannibal (2013 - 2015)

3 SEASONS | 39 EPISODES | 45 MINS

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While many fans, myself included, still hold out hope that Hannibal will be brought back at some point or another, there is no clear evidence that that will happen. Plus, considering the show was cancelled by NBC in 2015 and creator Bryan Fuller has moved on to other projects, it looks like three season of Hannibal is all we'll get.

Still, what an amazing run it was. Hannibal had a small, but dedicated fan base. It was also heavily praised and loved by critics.

Hannibal follows Hannibal Lector, played by Mads Mikkelsen, and his relationship with everyone from Jack Crawford (played by Laurence Fishburne) to Will Graham (played by Hugh Dancy). It was a highly stylized and has some of the best visuals of any show.

It can be grotesque at times (I mean, it's about a cannibal), but this show was always thought provoking, beautifully shot, and perfectly paced.

Because of how short this show is, you could finish it in a month, easily, or space it out over the course of the summer.

All seasons of Hannibal are available to stream on Amazon Prime.


2. Happy Endings (2011 - 2013)

3 SEASONS | 57 EPISODES | 20 MINS

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Happy Endings has one of the best ensemble casts to grace a sitcom (and that's saying something). Elisha Cuthbert, Damon Wayans Jr., and Eliza Coupe are just half of the stars that grace the screen in this show.

Following six friends in Chicago, this sitcom covers the usual territories (love, sex, friendship) while also going some surprising places. It was always funny and always entertaining.

Three seasons, 57 episodes, and 25-minute episodes all mean you could easily binge this show in a matter of weeks. As always, though, you can stretch this one out if you want and still love it.

All seasons of Happy Endings are available to stream on Hulu.  


1. Chappelle's Show (2003 - 2006)

3 SEASONS | 33 EPISODES | 20 MINS

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Chappelle's Show had a short run, but in those three(ish) seasons Dave Chappelle cemented his show as the best sketch comedy show ever to come out (okay, I'm a bit biased because I love Chappelle's Show but still). 

Easy to binge, fun to watch, and very insightful at times Chappelle's Showis perfect if you just want something fun to watch this summer.

All episodes are free to watch on Comedy Central's website.


Fahrenheit 451: An Important Message Is Diluted With Flashy Visuals and Messy Execution by Keith LaFountaine

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What is truth? How do we deduce facts? What can we trust when it comes to news, information, and history? These are all questions that have been asked in the so-called "post-truth" era, where emotion has overtaken logic and conspiracy has enveloped coherent analysis.

Compounding this is the slow descent of literature and novels. As Hollywood and visual mediums continue to grow and make more money, the print industry is falling behind. Some newspapers are entirely online, while others are siphoning off money to support their online entities. Book sales are down, magazine subscriptions are largely a thing of the past, and many Americans (roughly 30%) haven't read a single book in the past year, according to a recent Pew survey.

These two issues are what drives Ramin Bahrani's new film, Fahrenheit 451, an adaptation of Ray Bradbury's groundbreaking novel published in 1953. However, the message of that book, and the story of Guy Montag, has taken on new meaning in the past few years. With the ascent of Trump, the near ubiquitous usage of the term "fake news" and the consistent assault on the free press, on logic, and on truth these themes have become more important.

Bradbury's novel, according to his own words, was a response to the threat of book burning during the age of McCarthyism. He also explained that the book was a commentary about mass media and its role in the reduction of interest in literature.

Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was.
— Ray Bradbury

For these reasons, and many more, it is easy to understand why the novel -- and any adaptations of it -- would be an important response to our current dilemma when it comes to truth and literature. So does Bahrani's film live up to this?

 Michael B. Jordan as Guy Montag in  Fahrenheit 451  (2018)

Michael B. Jordan as Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451 (2018)

Sadly, no. Fahrenheit 451 does a lot to visually express a country that no longer cares for truth or books (long shots of the city, seemingly ripped from Blade Runner, as looming images of wolves and eagles tell citizens: see something, say something). However, as much as it attempts to make its authoritarian world as dark and scary as possible, it never feels original. We've seen this world before, in almost every film that deals with authoritarianism. No amount of fire, slow motion, or blue and purple shadows will change that fact.

The narrative of the film is lacking, too. All of the character moments (especially towards the second act, where character depth is crucial) fall flat, feeling forced and inorganic to the narrative. There are a few twists and revelations revealed throughout the 100-minute runtime and none of them have any gravitas or punch.

Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon do their best with the script they have. But, without any real character depth or internal conflict for them to express, they feel like cardboard cutout characters, lacking any semblance of realism. Even worse, they're not very interesting to watch.

This is worsened by the discordant first act, which presents characters in a certain way, only for those same characters to betray their motivations and actions in the second act. While it is not uncommon to start your character somewhere that is completely different from where they end up (think about the trajectory Walter White went on in Breaking Bad) the transition is especially important. We have to feel these characters genuinely struggling with who they are and who they are becoming, otherwise the switch feels forced and inorganic. That's exactly what happened with Michael B. Jordan's character.

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At the end of the day, Fahrenheit 451 has a lot of good intentions. I appreciate the attempt to update Bradbury's book, giving the themes more power in a modern context than the source material does. However, unfortunately, the execution of these themes is not there. Both due to the script and due to unoriginal visuals, there is not much here that works.

For now, ironically enough, I recommend you read Bradbury's novel instead of seeing of seeing this film adaptation.

MY RATING: ★★☆☆☆

7 Films to Watch If You Want to Get Into Foreign Cinema by Keith LaFountaine

For many filmgoers, foreign cinema is difficult to get into. You often have to read subtitles to understand what is going on, and even if there is an English dub for the film, the voice actors are not always good and you lose some of the film's quality.

It's unfortunate that foreign cinema is passed over by many Americans because there is a ton of really good, really engaging filmmaking going on outside our borders

If you want to get into foreign cinema, but you're having trouble doing so, here are seven films that you can start with. They are all engaging, have international appeal, and can ease you into the experience of reading subtitles while watching the film (always read subtitles over dubs; there is no comparison when it comes to quality).


1. Pan's Labyrinth (2006, dir. Guillermo del Toro)

RATED R | 118 MIN | MEXICO

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"Living with her tyrannical stepfather in a new home with her pregnant mother, 10-year-old Ofelia feels alone until she explores a decaying labyrinth guarded by a mysterious faun who claims to know her destiny. If she wishes to return to her real father, Ofelia must complete three terrifying tasks."

Chances are you have probably seen this masterpiece. From the wide range of foreign films I have seen, most of my friends will say they have seen Pan's Labyrinth at some point in their life.

If you haven't seen it, though, this is a perfect starting point. With gorgeous, lush visuals, incredible acting, and del Toro's penchant for eerie horror and dark fantasy this film has easy appeal and plenty to adore. The subtitles were also personally translated by del Toro himself.

Few films are as widely adored as this masterpiece and for good reason. If you have never seen a foreign film before this is one of the best ones to start with.


2. The Wailing (2016, dir. Hong-jin Na)

NOT RATED | 156 MIN | SOUTH KOREA

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"A stranger arrives in a little village and soon after a mysterious sickness starts spreading. A policeman is drawn into the incident and is forced to solve the mystery in order to save his daughter."

One of the difficulties that many find with foreign films is that storytelling is approached very differently. While American cinema is, for the most part, very linear and straightforward (with very simple narrative arcs), other countries approach narratives differently. Yet this different approach is the reason so many Eastern horror films are effective.

Case in point: The Wailing. 

There are no jump scares in this South Korean horror film and yet it is tense, dark, and terrifying. The cinematography helps sell the darkness of the film and the plot is pretty simple to follow (though it does have its twists and turns). If you're a suspense/horror junkie then you will love this piece of South Korean cinema.


3. Battle Royale (2000, dir. Kinji Fukasaku)

RATED R | 114 MIN | JAPAN

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"In the future, the Japanese government captures a class of ninth-grade students and forces them to kill each other under the revolutionary “Battle Royale” act."

Battle Royale is like The Hunger Games on steroids. Released in 2000, this Japanese action film takes place in a dystopian future where 9th-grade students are forced to fight each other to the death. Full of memorable characters, visceral action, and plenty of blood you are sure to love this film. If you like the propulsive, bloody action of Tarantino then this film will easily appeal to you.


4. Dead Snow (2009, dir. Tommy Wirkola)

NOT RATED | 91 MIN | NORWAY

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"Eight medical students on a ski trip to Norway discover that Hitler’s horrors live on when they come face to face with a battalion of zombie Nazi soldiers intent on devouring anyone unfortunate enough to wander into the remote mountains where they were once sent to die."

Two words: Nazi zombies.

Did you like Shaun of the Dead? Zombieland? Then you will love this Norwegian zombie film. With an incredible setting, gruesome effects and make up work, and sharp direction this film is sure to appeal to all zombie lovers. Best of all, while there is an underlying story about the Nazi zombies (and some important character dynamics to understand) the majority of this film can be enjoyed without having to worry about every single line of dialogue.


5. City of God (2002, dir. Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund)

RATED R | 130 MIN | BRAZIL

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"Two boys growing up in a violent neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro take different paths: one becomes a photographer, the other a drug dealer."

City of God is an excellent film in every respect. it has complex characters, a strong cinematic voice, gorgeous cinematography, and plenty of action. If you like gang movies, or if you are just looking for a film that combines complex characters with an easy-to-digest narrative, then you will love this film.


6. Oldboy (2003, dir. Chan-wook Park)

RATED R | 120 MIN | SOUTH KOREA

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"With no clue how he came to be imprisoned, drugged and tortured for 15 years, a desperate businessman seeks revenge on his captors."

Olboy is actually one of the first foreign films I saw. It is an impressive combination of revenge storytelling, action, and mystery. It's also directed with such flair and confidence that you get lost in the world almost immediately.

The narrative is very dark and twisted, so it may be off-putting for some. The action is also very bloody. However, if you like these kinds of films, or if you can force yourself to push through these elements, you will be extremely impressed by this film.

There is an American remake directed by Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin, but it is horrible and I do not recommend it.


7. Cinema Paradiso (1988, dir. Giuseppe Tornatore)

RATED R | 155 MIN | ITALY

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"A filmmaker recalls his childhood, when he fell in love with the movies at his village’s theater and formed a deep friendship with the theater’s projectionist."

Cinema Paradiso is the first foreign film I ever saw and it is truly a masterpiece in every respect. It has fun, engaging characters, an emotional story, and a brisk pace. If you love movies you will immediately connect to this endearing story of how a boy fell in love with cinema under the tutelage of a projectionist.

It's a bit on the long side, but you barely feel the length. If you love Spielberg or Zemeckis films you will love this one too.

Ranking Every MCU Film by Keith LaFountaine

It has been 10 years in the making -- Avengers: Infinity War is finally hitting theaters. I am going to see it tonight and I thought it would be fun to rank the 18 films that make up the MCU right now.

So, without further ado, here is every MCU film ranked.


18. THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008, dir. Louis Letterier) 

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It's not nearly as bad as everyone says it is, but The Incredible Hulk was extremely disappointing upon release (especially following the incredible Iron Man) and it has not aged well. Most of its issues stem from an unfocused narrative and drastic changes in tone that feel sloppy. Edward Norton is also not great in his role. It doesn't help that he reportedly re-wrote every scene he was in, too.

Fun fact: director Louis Leterrier wanted Mark Ruffalo in the role, but Marvel forced him to cast Edward Norton. It seems like they've realized their mistake.


17. Thor: The Dark World (2013, dir. Alan Taylor)

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Another example of behind-the-scenes issues affecting the final product. Thor films have always suffered from tonal inconsistencies (until Ragnarok directors seemed unsure whether they wanted Thor to be funny or dark and brooding). The Dark World just isn't that interesting, unfortunately, and has one of the most forgettable villains in the MCU.

On top of that. Natalie Portman was reportedly very mad about how Marvel and her lack of enthusiasm can definitely be seen on screen.


16. Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Age of Ultron is the most noticeable sufferer of "over-stuffing." Not only does this film bring all of the Avengers together to fight Ultron, it also set up films in the next phase of the MCU, hinted at the demise of the Avengers, had a post-credit scene that set up Infinity War (which was still 3 years away from release). Even with its 141 minute run time there was just too much in this film.

Over-stuffing can still be okay if the film itself has a solid core (Return of the King is the perfect example of how a film can work even if it's bursting at the seams with story), but most of Ultron felt messy and half-hearted. Even Ultron, voiced by James Spader, didn't work as the  sinister villain he was marketed as.


15. Iron Man 2 (2010, dir. Jon Favreau)

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Iron Man 2 had a lot of potential to be good. Despite losing Terrence Howard, the film boasted a cast of Robert Downey Jr., Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, and Scarlett Johansson and had Jon Favreau back in the director's chair.

Unfortunately, Iron Man 2 is stuffed with too many elements; Rourke's character is underdeveloped and one note and Rockwell is severely underutilized.


14. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, dir. Joe Johnston) 

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Captain America: The First Avenger is not "bad" by any stretch, but it leaves a lot to be desired. It's an effective origin story and does a great job of fleshing out Steve Rogers as a character. Hugo Weaving wasn't as great as Red Skull, though, and the narrative isn't as memorable as the other two Captain America films.


13. Thor (2011, dir. Kenneth Branagh)

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Thor worked because of its incredible cast (including Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman). Unfortunately the writing and the direction doesn't complement the dynamism of the cast, leaving the narrative feeling one-note and conventional.

If there's one thing I think the Thor films really dropped the ball on, it's the how underutilized Anthony Hopkins is as Odin. In the first two Thor films his writing is very bland, and in Ragnarok he doesn't have much screen time (though the screen time he gets is great). It's just an unfortunate waste of an incredible talent.


12. Spider-Man: Homecoming

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Homecoming is definitely my third favorite Spider-Man film (right behind Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man, respectively) as it gets the manic energy and the endearing nature that makes Peter Parker so interesting. Yes, he's a superhero but he's also a teenage kid (something both The Amazing Spider-Man and Raimi's Spider-Man films did not capture very well). Homecoming makes Peter Parker a more dynamic, more fun character.

I was hopeful that Michael Keaton was going to be an interesting villain, but he's unfortunately very one-note here. He has his moments (the scene in the kitchen, for instance) but for the most part his motivation and actions seemed ridiculous.


11. Doctor Strange (2016, dir. Scott Derrickson) 

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Doctor. Strange has, arguably, the most distinct and jaw-dropping visuals in the MCU. Its script is also rather smart (especially the end with Dormammu). Benedict Cumberbatch is pretty good in the lead role, though he didn't wow me in the same way that other casting decisions have.

The other issue with Doctor Strange is the conventionality of his origin story -- a rich, arrogant man goes through a life-threatening experience and chooses a life of servitude over a pursuit of power and money; he has the same arc as Tony Stark.

Still, though, Doctor Strange is fun to watch and boasts a pretty awesome cast.


10. Ant-Man (2015, dir. Peyton Reed)

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Ant-Man isn't perfect, but it does effectively blend comedy and action in a satisfying way. Paul Rudd is perfect in the lead role, and he has a decent supporting cast behind him. The visuals are also extremely impressive.

I will always wish we were able to see the Edgar Wright version of Ant-Man, but Peyton Reed wasn't too bad in the director's chair.


9. Iron Man 3 (2013, dir. Shane Black)

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Yes, I was mad about the Mandarin bait-and-switch, too. It felt like a cheap marketing gimmick and it undercut a lot of potential that this film could have had.

However, I really did love how they subverted all expectations with this film. Tony Stark has always been defined by his suit; his real superpower is his intelligence. Stripping Tony of his suit and thrusting him into a dangerous mission may not have sat right with me the first time I watched it, but I appreciate it more and more with each re-watch.

I also love Shane Black's direction and writing. A really great blend of pathos and comedy.


8. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017, dir. James Gunn)

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While it doesn't quite re-capture the magic of the first film (mainly due to its ineffective "family" theme), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 manages to remain unique, colorful, and well executed thanks to its incredible cast and Gunn's confident direction.


7. The Avengers (2012, dir. Joss Whedon)

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This was the first time we saw all of these superheroes together and it was an unforgettable experience. The film was full of excellent action, great comedy, and tight character writing. The narrative was straightforward and strong. Loki was a great villain -- personable, dynamic, and funny.

The CGI is a bit spotty in places and the character work falters in spots (mainly with characters like Hulk and Hawkeye), but this one still holds up pretty well.


6. Thor: Ragnarok

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As I mentioned before, other directors didn't know how to handle Thor as a character. Is he supposed to be a badass with a hammer? Is he supposed to be funny?

Taika Waititi effectively said "why not both?" with Thor: Ragnarok. While I know some people did not like how funny the film was, I thought it was a breath of fresh air for a character that was feeling increasingly one-note and stagnant. Plus we were introduced to Valkyrie, Hela, Korg, and a ton of other fun characters that helped round out this film's narrative.

Waititi's direction is very strong and the comedy is excellent. It essentially burns everything we know about Thor to the ground and births him again, more powerful and more enjoyable than before.


5. Iron Man (2008, dir. Jon Favreau)

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The one that stared it all. Nobody knew what was going to happen when Iron Man was released. However, I don't think anyone would have guessed how powerful and massive the MCU would become following the release of this film.

Robert Downey Jr. is the best casting decision Marvel has made (with Chadwick Boseman coming in second as Black Panther). He immediately breaths life into the character from the opening moments of the film -- his pattern of speech, and his arrogant demeanor, feels directly ripped from the comics.

Jeff Bridges is pretty good as the villain, though he isn't given much to do here other than monologue and do evil things. Still, Favreau's direction makes it work and this film's cast could not have been more perfect.


4. Black Panther (2018, dir. Ryan Coogler)

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Talk about perfect casting. Chadwick Boseman is excellent as T'Challa, but Michael B. Jordan is the true star of Black Panther with his performance as Killmonger.

What makes Black Panther stand out from the rest of the MCU is how real Killmonger feels. He may be in a superhero film, but his struggle (and his motivations) are birthed from something that is found in our own world. At the end of the day he's still the villain, so he has a world domination plan, but his motivations don't feel nearly as forced or inorganic as other villains.

The supporting cast of this film is also incredible. Everyone, from Danai Gurira, to Lupita Nyong'o, to Letitia Wright this film is perfectly cast and beautifully directed. I really hope to see Ryan Coogler come back to the MCU to direct another film.


3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, dir. the Russo Brothers)

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It can not be understated how important The Winter Soldier is to the MCU. Not only did it set up events that still reverberate throughout the world years later, it also re-invented Captain America in an exciting way, added depth to Black Widow, made Nick Fury more than just a glorified Avenger-wrangler, and created a memorable villain in The Winter Soldier.

On top of that, it has the twist that blew everyone's mind.


2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, dir. James Gunn)

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Part of the reason Guardians of the Galaxy is so revered by fans is because of how unexpected it was. Nobody (myself included) thought this film was going to be as good as it was. Yet James Gunn managed to pull off the unexpected: to bring some obscure characters from the Marvel comics to the big screen, make them extremely likable, and create distinct personalities for all of them.

Yes, this film suffers from a bad villain as Ronan doesn't rally have much depth. However, Gunn makes up for it by really adding a lot of characterization to Quill, Gomorra, and Rocket.


1. Captain America: Civil War (2016, dir. the Russo Brothers)

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This may be a bit of a controversial pick, however I stand by it. What the Russo Brothers did with Civil War was really explore the core characters of the MCU in interesting, provocative ways. What's more remarkable, though, is how true to the past films this film is. Tony's beliefs and actions make sense when put in the context of his previous situations -- the same goes for Captain America.

While Civil War is often criticized for being exactly like the critically panned Batman V Superman, the Russo Brothers ending twist makes a lot more sense, and feels more powerful and organic, than the "Martha" moment in BvS. Not only did they set it up in Winter Soldier, it also plays better on screen because these characters feel real -- we have spent a lot of time with them and we are invested in them.

It's not perfect -- none of the MCU films are -- but it gets a lot right. There is a reason why the Russo Brothers were tapped to direct the Infinity War films.

Why Do We Romanticize the Confederacy In Film? by Keith LaFountaine

How does one address the Civil War in a film? This is a question that many filmmakers have asked for years. More difficult to answer, though, is the question: how does one portray the Confederacy in a film?

One would think that the Confederacy would be consistently portrayed as villainous and evil due to their beliefs and the history surrounding the Confederate secession from the United States. However, surprisingly, the Confederacy is often given a sympathetic lens in films. Sometimes the South and the Confederacy are even romanticized in the context of the Civil War.

So why does this happen? Why do filmmakers like to romanticize the Confederacy?

  Cold Mountain  (2003, dir. Anthony Minghella)

Cold Mountain (2003, dir. Anthony Minghella)

I began to notice this trend recently after, coincidentally, watching some Civil War films and episodes of The Twilight Zone in close succession. The most recent of these (I watched it this morning) was Anthony Minghella's 2003 adaptation of Cold Mountain, a romantic drama about a wounded Confederate soldier trying to make his way back to his wife.

Cold Mountain does not try to hide the fact that the Confederacy owned slaves; however, it does romanticize the agrarian image of the South, with a muscled Jude Law building houses and women (mainly Nicole Kidman) wearing bonnets and playing piano. It represents the south as this sort of idyllic landscape ravaged by war and the Union army.

  Gone With the Wind  (1939, dir. Victor Fleming)

Gone With the Wind (1939, dir. Victor Fleming)

The other famous example of this is in the 1939 classic Gone With the Wind. Again, we are focusing on a love story between two Southerners while the Civil War rages in the backdrop.

However, it's not just these classic films that paint the South, and the Confederacy, in this light. For instance, in the 2014 film The Keeping Room the story revolves around three women (one of whom is a slave) fighting off two rogue Union soldiers who are trying to kill them. In Clint Eastwood's 1976 film, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Eastwood plays a Southerner who joins the Confederacy after his family is murdered by Union soldiers. And then, of course, there is the infamous (and incredibly racist) D.W. Griffith film, The Birth of a Nation, which paints the Confederacy and the KKK in a heroic light.

Now very few of these films (except for Griffith's) actually romanticize the Confederacy. Rather, these films seem to be romanticizing the tragic image of the South. Many of these films take place towards the end of the Civil War, when the Confederacy knew their time was up.

It's also important to say that not every Civil War film is about the Confederacy, of course. Films like Glory, The Red Badge of Courage, and Lincoln are all told from the North's point of view.

But there is still a question of why. Why do directors seem so interested in telling stories of Confederate soldiers and Southerners sympathetic to the Confederacy?

  Lincoln  (2012, dir. Steven Spielberg)

Lincoln (2012, dir. Steven Spielberg)

Part of the appeal of telling a Southern story may come from the more complex morality at work. How does one tell the story of a good Southerner when the South during that time was synonymous with the Confederacy? Furthermore, telling the story from the Confederate side avoids romanticizing the Union army (who, to be fair, did do some horrible things during the war). 

But there is still no escaping the fact that these films, either overtly or subtlely, romanticize the Confederate army.

None of these films are ignorant of their history (except for The Birth of a Nation); many of them have scenes dedicated to showing white Southerners being kind to slaves or show harrowing images of slavery. However, their polished version of the South and their idyllic vision of lush countrysides and small towns contradicts the horrors we know happened during this time.

  The Outlaw Josey Wales  (1976, dir. Clint Eastwood)

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976, dir. Clint Eastwood)

Is there anything inherently wrong with telling a Civil War story from the South's perspective? I don't think so, as long as we are not trying to avoid or rewrite history. There is no way to spin the atrocities that the Confederacy committed (and there should never be an attempt to spin it) but there were still people in the South who were not directly associated with the Confederate army. There are plenty of stories that could be told -- especially from the perspective women and people of color -- which may be complex morally and may challenge audiences in a new way.

With that said, though, romanticizing the Confederacy feels uncomfortable for lack of better words. When we see a film that portrays the Union army as evil and the Confederacy as heroic it skews everything we know about American history. When we see polished cinematography of white farmers and lush countrysides without any sight of a slave (which happens often in Cold Mountain) it seems to be pushing aside history for something more palatable and digestible.

I don't have the answer for which stories should be told, or how they should be told (and I don't think I'm in a very good place to dictate that regardless). However, I think we should take a look at these films and really question why they are being told from a Southern perspective. What benefits (if any) does this offer us?

The answer may not be as clear-cut as we may think.

 

Modern Horror Films Are Missing This One Crucial Element by Keith LaFountaine

  The Texas Chain Saw Massacre  (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, dir. Tobe Hooper)

This is one of the most iconic images in horror film history. Our protagonist, who we have seen struggle through horrific circumstances, is bathed in blood, sitting in the back of a pickup truck, looking back at Leatherface as he chases her with his chainsaw.

This film came out during one of the most innovative decades for filmmaking (both in general and in terms of horror). Independent productions, like Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and John Carpenter's Halloween, became hugely influential and popular. Horror, as a genre, was changing. 

There are a few things that differentiate the horror of the 70s and modern horror (mainly the integration of PG-13 horror films and the reliance on jump-scares to sell tension) but there is one thing you may not have noticed.

Film grain.

If you watch horror movies nowadays they are crisp, polished, and slick. They have the "digital" look (which makes sense, since a large portion of Hollywood has switched from film to digital in the past two decades). But, except in certain circumstance with certain directors, the digital look doesn't lend itself to horror in quite the same way.

The grainy film look of the 1970s -- seen in films like The Exorcist, Alien, Carrie, Jaws, Suspiria, and so many other horror films -- was an aesthetic in and of itself. It took away the polish of Hollywood and put horror in the dirt of middle-class America. It became more real because of this.

The other difference between the film and digital look is that lighting these two mediums is very different. Just look at these shots from The Exorcist and The Conjuring.

  The Exorcist  (1973) Shot on Panavision

The Exorcist (1973) Shot on Panavision

 
  The Conjuring  (2013), Shot on ARRI Alexa

The Conjuring (2013), Shot on ARRI Alexa

Now, the difference here isn't necessarily in the lighting setups themselves (though I have tried to find stills that are similar to each other) but in how the light affects the image (both in terms of quality and clarity).

The lighting in The Exorcist feels dramatic -- the shadows are large and powerful; the light is harsh on the left side of the frame while the priests are bathed in darkness; the contrast between light and dark could not be harsher.

The lighting in The Conjuring still evokes a dramatic mood, but the contrast between the lights and the darks are much smaller. Its frame is more elegant, more refined, and more polished.

You may not care about this difference in the slightest and that's okay. However, I prefer the visual style of The Exorcist over The Conjuring. The film grain just as much of a tool for the horror genre as anything else. It adds this indescribable aura to the film that no other genre has. It grounds everything, whether that's a supernatural menace or a rogue killer.

You can see it in remakes especially. Just check out these two stills of Carrie from the 1976 original and the 2013 remake.

  Carrie ( 1976) 

Carrie (1976) 

 
  Carrie  (2013)

Carrie (2013)

The first image is just more striking. The way the light hits Carrie, and the way the camera registers that image, is much more grounded than the polished, shiny Carrie in the 2013 film. Something feels fake about the latter image.

Now, this is not to say that shooting on film or digital is a defining feature in "good" and "bad" horror films. There were plenty of bad horror films made the in 70s that used this aesthetic and there have been a few good horror films (mainly indie projects) made in the past 20 years that have shot on digital.

However, there is something to be said about the differences these visual styles bring to the table. The aesthetic of 70s horror helped enhance the fear and terror in a particular film while digital doesn't necessarily do that.

Granted, there are reasons filmmakers shoot on digital over film nowadays -- film is expensive, digital is cheap. You have a specific amount of time per roll of film that you can shoot on, whereas you can shoot forever with digital. Plus, there are now filters where you can put grain onto your film to get that aesthetic. But it's not quite the same. Pasting film grain over a polished image does not make that image look like it was shot on film.

Nowadays the film vs. digital argument is largely up to personal preference. The industry is moving away from film, while some filmmakers (like Christopher Nolan) refuse to shoot on anything other than 35mm. When you go to a horror movie next, consider this small difference. Go back and watch those classic horror films from the 70s. I think you'll find that film grain enhances the horror in a small, very subtle way.

"The Americans" - The Critically Acclaimed Show You Aren't Watching by Keith LaFountaine

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What's the most critically acclaimed show on television this year? According to Metascore.com (an aggregator, similar to Rotten Tomatoes but a bit more selective in its reviewers), it's season 2 of Donald Glover's show, Atlanta, holding a 97/100 with reviews. Second is Planet Earth II with a 96/100. Third is season 6 of The Americans with a 92/100.

That's right, The Americans is rated better than the majority of your favorite TV shows and it has been since its inception. The Walking Dead? It's not as highly acclaimed as The Americans. Game of Thrones? It's not as consistently acclaimed as The Americans. You get the point.

Critical Ratings of "The Americans" By Season (Out of 100)

Viewership of "The Americans" Per Episode, by Season (Millions)

So is this just a show that the critics love? Surprisingly, no -- audiences who watch it love it too! It has a 8.3/10 on IMDB and an 8.4/10 user score on Metacritic.

You may be asking yourself: "What's The Americans?" You are not alone if you are. That's because The Americans , despite holding near-universal acclaim during its entire six-season run, is watched by less than a million people in the US (according to the Nielsen ratings).

So what is going on here? Why does one season of this universally acclaimed show have fewer viewers than a Logan Paul video?

Well, there are a few reasons.

Firstly, The Americans is on FX. While FX is a great network (let's be honest, it's incredible this show is still on the air with ratings like that) it also has a huge number of shows. Unless it's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or one of their other flagship shows, it doesn't get much in terms of promotion. Plus, when it does get some promotional material it's marketed as a sexy spy thriller full of gunfights, espionage, and action.

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The Americans is not an action packed show. It does have gunfights, and sex, and spy elements, but those are not the focus of the show. Instead, the central themes of The Americans center around loyalty, marriage, trust, and patriotism. It asks hard questions, like would you choose your country over your spouse in a life or death situation? How do you maintain your heritage and your identity when those things can get you killed?

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are Russians in the 1980s. They actively complete missions that hurt, and kill, Americans. And they have a double life, with USA-born children, as a normal American family.

As you can imagine from this description, this show is focused on its characters more than anything else. That is one of the reasons it's one of the best shows on TV (and one of the best shows ever made). Its characters feel real, intense, and layered. In an age where we are begging for good character writing (especially when it comes to women) The Americans consistently delivers thought-provoking conversations on what it means to be a family, a spy, and an American.

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The Americans is airing its final season right now, but all of its previous seasons are available on Amazon Prime. If you are looking for an incredible show to watch -- one that has a lot of time, care, and detail put into it -- then this one will not disappoint you. Just don't go into it expecting Casino Royale. That's now what this show is about.

Why I Prefer "Soft" Science Fiction by Keith LaFountaine

I recently came across a list on Letterboxd that interested me. It was about science-fiction films where the "sci-fi" element is not the main plot point of the film. I have linked this list below -- there are a lot of really good movies on it that you should check out.

I was really intruiged by this usage of "soft" too -- it's the perfect descriptor for films like Another EarthMelancholia, and even Tarkovsky's Stalker which use the sci-fi element of their film more as a backdrop and less as an overt plot point.

Take Melancholia for instance. The film (as the opening minutes reveal) takes place right before the entire Earth is destroyed. In this way, it is a science-fiction film, concerned with the imminent destruction of the planet. However, the substance of the film is about depression -- mainly Justine's depression as she goes through the motions of her wedding day.

Lars von Trier uses the intriguing sci-fi element (the destruction of the planet) to tell a more powerful, human story. By doing this it not only elevates the genre itself, it also puts the human story in a fresh perspective. The planet is used as a metaphor, rather than just an overt plot device.

Take another film -- Spike Jonze's Her. In it Joaquin Phoenix's character is depressed and lonely. Then he gets Samantha -- a Siri like device which speaks with him. Eventually, he develops a relationship with this device. However, the story is not about the device itself, or its cognitive capabilities (though they are mentioned throughout the film); the story is about loneliness, attachment, human interaction, and depression. By putting it through a sci-fi lens, though, Jonze was able to take old themes and present them in an exciting way, making them feel fresh and original.

But "soft" sci-fi doesn't have to just reprise old ideas. Films like James Ward Byrkit's Coherence stand out as incredibly impressive independent efforts that use science-fiction to twist a narrative in creative ways. While the underlying themes of Coherence are familiar (paranoia, lost love, etc.) the way Byrkit tells his story is new and interesting. The way he twists his narrative is unexpected. He uses science fiction to tell a very interesting, very engrossing, very original story that could not have been told to the same effect with that "soft" sci-fi element.

Now, none of this is to say that there is anything wrong with more generic science fiction. I, like everyone else, enjoy films like The Martian, Terminator, and 12 Monkeys (just to name a few). But I do prefer making "soft" science fiction films (Mirror is a good example of that) and I do prefer watching those films as well.

I always go back to Fritz Lang's masterpiece, Metropolis, when discussing this dichotomy. While there is a lot of science fiction going on in that silent masterpiece, it's a story about workers rising and fighting back. It's a human story at its core, in other words. That makes it more accessible and more engrossing.

Big blockbuster science fiction films are also human stories but in a different way. Films like Star Wars or Armageddon are so wrapped up in the science-fiction element their human drama often gets replaced with melodrama. Often times those kinds of films are only trying to entertain their audience, not make them think. Again, there's nothing wrong with that. I just prefer the films that push me; "soft" science fiction tends to do that the best.

Bates Motel Is One of the Most Important Modern TV Shows Ever Made by Keith LaFountaine

Season 5 of Bates Motel recently arrived on Netflix. I had missed its original run last year and I had been eagerly awaiting its arrival on the streaming platform so I could finish up this very surprising, very good show.

I'm not being hyperbolic when I say that the fifth season of this show cements it (in my mind, at least) as one of the most important modern TV shows ever created.

For those who are unaware, Bates Motel is a prequel of sorts to the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film, Psycho. It follows a young Norman Bates as he and his mother, Norma, move to the small town of White Pine Bay and establish the Bates Motel -- a rather seedy motel off the highway.

Hitchcock's original film is incredible for a number of reasons (seriously, if you haven't seen it you need to), but one of its main draws is the huge twist. Marion Crane, the main character for half of the film, is killed off in one of the most memorable sequences of all time (while it seems tame nowadays in terms of violence, this scene caused people to faint in the theater). So, as you can imagine, setting up the characters before this event is like setting a stopwatch and waiting for it to tick down to completion.

To be quite fair, I spent the better part of three seasons waiting to see how the show was going to carefully move its chess pieces to give us this incredibly pivotal scene in the film. But, much like the series itself, it sometimes does what we're expecting it to do, but not exactly how we're expecting it to do it.

This happens mainly in seasons four and five. I won't get into spoilers here, however there are a number of pivotal moments that occur differently than the backstory that was developed. At first I was confused about why these changes were made. And then it made sense.

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Bates Motel is important because it isn't connected to the Psycho universe. I mean, sure it shares some of the same characters, similar settings, and even some similar cinematography at times. However, this show is much more inspired by the original film than making a prequel of it.

The difference is important. If this were just a prequel then my stopwatch analogy would be applicable -- we would spend the entire run of the show waiting for the other shoe to drop (the other shoe here being Marion's shower scene). But with Bates Motel the plot, and even some of the characters, aren't that important. It takes its own path, taking inspiration from the source material to create something new and original from it.

Because the writers decided to do this, we got some incredible new characters: Dylan, Sheriff Romero, Emma, Chick, Caleb, etc. Not only that, I had no idea going into this final season who was going to live and who was going to die. I had my suspicions (slight spoilers: this is the season that deals with the aforementioned shower scene), but I was continually surprised again and again until the shocking ending.

Bates Motel is important because it took one of the most iconic pieces of entertainment ever created and put it aside. It took the pieces it wanted from it, but -- at the end of the day -- it became its own entity. This world of White Pine Bay, of Norman and Dylan's sibling relationship, of the Twin Peaks-esque nature of the small town paid homage to the film without dipping overboard into prequel territory. I respect that.

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In a decade where producers of film and television are more concerned with creating franchises, prequels, and sequels (and in the age of television where some producers are milking a show for everything it has -- *cough* Walking Dead *cough*) its amazing to see a show that so boldly does its own thing.

Bates Motel isn't perfect. It's first couple seasons are more interested in the town of White Pine Bay than in the Norman Bates story, but this dedication to world building and character development really pays off in the climax of the series in surprising ways. It's for this reason that I confidently say it's one of the most important modern TV shows ever created.

The MPAA Needs to Go. Here's Why. by Keith LaFountaine

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We have all seen this image before. It begins before the vast majority of trailers released in the United States. Most of us take it for granted -- it doesn't mean much to us when we are in the theater. Even the rating system itself is taken for granted. Every now and then we may scratch our heads at it, but the average moviegoer doesn't analyze the rating system.

And yet, this private company (this will be important later) is the keyholder for a film's success in theaters.

I think it's time we drastically re-invent our rating system in the United States and do away with the MPAA once and for all.

 

Firstly, it's important to understand that I am not saying we shouldn't rate films. Quite the contrary. We have always had rating systems and censorship boards in place since film's inception.

In 1909, the New York Board of Censorship was created to dictate specific standards of morality for films being released. This spread to other states, who did the same thing, eventually becoming known as the National Board of Censorship. However, its name was changed to the National Board of Review to avoid the term 'censorship.' They still acted as a censorship board, though, as producers would submit films for review and adhere to the changes the Board requested.

The Board's goals ultimately changed, though, around 1930. They began focusing more on championing art and reviewing films than dictating what sort of moral fiber should be present in filmmaking standards. The National Board of Review still functions to this day, but its film commentary and awards (as seen in Screen Magazine) became its primary goal.

The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was created in 1922. It quickly took responsibility for creating industry standards for ethics and guidelines, ultimately coming up with the Motion Picture Production Code.

The Motion Picture Production Code was implemented from 1930 to 1968. There were a strict set of guidelines filmmakers had to follow in order to be in good standing with the MPPDA. They included the following:

"Don'ts & Be Carefuls":

  • profanity (including words like God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, hell, damn, and other curses)
  • Suggestive nudity (including on-screen nudity and silhouettes)
  • drug trafficking
  • inferences of sex perversion
  • white slavery
  • sexual relationships between white and black folks
  • mention of venereal diseases
  • scenes of childbirth (on-screen or silhouetted)
  • children's genitalia
  • ridiculing the clergy
  • offending any race, creed, or country

Also in the code was a list of things where "...special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized."

This included:

  • using the flag
  • avoiding any unfavorable mentions of other countries' religion, history, institutions, etc.
  • arson
  • using firearms
  • theft, robbery, safe-cracking & the dynamiting of trains and buildings
  • brutality and gruesomeness
  • committing murder
  • smuggling
  • actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishments of crime
  • sympathy for criminals
  • attitude towards public people and institutions
  • sedition
  • cruelty to children and animals
  • branding people or animals
  • the sale of women, or a woman selling herself
  • rape, or attempted rape
  • one night stands
  • men and women in bed together
  • deliberate seduction of girls
  • the institution of marriage
  • surgical operations
  • the use of drugs
  • titles or scenes dealing with police
  • excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one is a criminal.

Seem ridiculous? That's because many of the things in the Motion Picture Production Code were ridiculous. Films had rules where kisses could only last for three seconds, and the act of flushing a toilet could not be filmed. Things that seem excessively trivial today (one night stands, drug use, interracial relationships, nudity, profanity, etc.) were strictly enforced for over thirty years!

The Production Code eventually stopped being enforced, but only because a rating system was being formulated. Unsurprisingly the MPPDA renamed itself the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) and created a new rating system. And here we are today.

 

So what's so wrong with the rating system? It seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, it is and it isn't.

Let's start with the things that make sense. Firstly, it makes sense to categorize films that are okay for children (G & PG) and films that are not (PG-13 & R). It also makes sense to divide these films by their content -- things like blood, sex, profanity, etc. would not be expected in a film marketed for five-year-olds, while it would be expected in a film marketed for adults.

For films that only adults should see (meaning a kid can't see them with a parent/guardian), the MPAA created an NC-17 rating.

So far so good.

Now here's where things get weird. The MPAA is a private organization. It claims that it does not censor films because the rating system is strictly voluntary -- films can be screened without being rating, or with extremely adult ratings 

However, the vast majority of theaters refuse to screen unrated films and films with NC-17 ratings. This means that if you submit your film for review by the MPAA and you receive an NC-17 rating, your film will not get sold in theaters. Additionally, if you reject the rating and submit the film as unrated, your film will not get sold in theaters.

So you end up with two choices: either you re-submit your film to be rated again, or you cut out the things the MPAA mentions and re-submit your film to be rated again hoping they will lower the rating.

A very famous example of this, as was seen in the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (which I highly recommend) is Kimberly Pierce's film Boys Don't Cry. When Pierce submitted the film to the MPAA for a rating they returned it with an NC-17 rating in part due to a female orgasm that "lasts too long." When Pierce called the MPAA to ask what was wrong with that particular scene she says the MPAA responded: "well, we don't really know but that's offensive."

Another famous example is Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 1. During the fight at the House of Blue Leaves, the reason why the film becomes black & white halfway through is that the MPAA wanted to give it an NC-17 rating when the entire scene was in color. By changing it to black & white the MPAA re-evaluated their decision and gave it an R rating.

So what you have with the MPAA is, like with the National Board of Censorship, a de-facto censorship organization. They have a team of screeners who decide the ratings every film gets. Without those ratings, filmmakers don't have a chance to end up in theaters nationwide. So while they claim the entire process is voluntary, and therefore not censorship, they have created a system where filmmakers and production companies can't function without them.

And (unsurprisingly) the MPAA is just as ridiculous with their standards as they were when they were the MPPDA and were enforcing the production code. Female sexuality (ranging from explicit nudity to showing a female orgasm) often gets an NC-17 rating right away while violence, blood, and torture will get R ratings. If you say fuck more than once in a film you automatically go from PG-13 to R. In fact, there are some films that are rated R only because of their curse words (words, I should add, teenagers are already using on a daily basis in their personal lives).

 

So what do we do? Well, while I suppose it's not practical, what we should do is scrap the MPAA.

Firstly, as has already been detailed, it acts as a de-facto censorship board with ridiculous standards. It is not a voluntary system for directors who want their work to be seen (which is everyone) and it tampers with creative vision. In other words, the system is already so corrupt that trying to alter it would be just like the MPPDA changing its name and creating a new system.

Secondly, the ratings do not protect kids. This is their main goal, and yet more parents are bringing their kids to rated-R films every day. I remember sitting in the theater when Logan was playing and seeing parents file in with their six to ten-year-old daughters and sons. So if the system isn't "protecting children" what is it good for?

Finally, the MPAA rating system has often revealed itself to be sexist and homophobic, often giving films that deal with female sexuality and same-sex relationships much harsher ratings than films dealing with male sexuality and heterosexual relationships.

If you need a clear example of this, just look to Ghostbusters where Dan Akroyd's character gets oral sex from a ghost. That was rated PG. Boys Don't Cry had to fight against an NC-17 rating in part because of a female orgasm that went on longer than the MPAA liked.

 

Now we can't have total anarchy, either. I don't subscribe to an "anything goes" style system. But a new system needs to be built from the ground up. Maybe by directors; maybe by filmgoers. Regardless of where it comes from, though, it should not be shrouded in secrecy and held to complete privacy like the MPAA is. People have the right to know what is in the films coming out -- it can help them decide whether or not they want to see it. But the focus should not be to deter people from going to see films. It should be to excite them.

Just ask yourself this question: would you still have gone to see Kill Bill Vol. 1 if it had an NC-17 rating? If the House of Blue Leaves sequence had been fully in color? An NC-17 rating, or the lack of a rating, shouldn't bar someone from participating in the theater experience. The MPAA makes it so those filmmakers cannot have that experience, though, unless they bend the knee and obey their (often) ridiculous wishes.

That is why the MPAA needs to go.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi -- Leaving the Past Behind by Keith LaFountaine


SPOILERS BELOW -- READ AT YOUR OWN RISK

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was sold out in every theater in my hometown -- not just in one theater, but in three. To put that in perspective, I can't think of any other film that has successfully sold out one theater here, let alone three of them.

It is an understatement to say that The Last Jedi was one of the most anticipated films of the year. Coming off the heels of the socially and critically lauded The Force Awakens fans were ready to see what Rian Johnson and his team had in store for them. 

Or were they? Because while the film made an astounding $220 million at the domestic box office and $450 million worldwide, and despite the overwhelming critical praise -- this film holds an 86/100 on Metascore and a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes -- fans have been very split. In fact, this is the lowest rated Star Wars film for fans -- rated lower than both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones.

So what happened? Why are fans so angry with Rian Johnson's vision?

I think it's important to mention, firstly, that the hype for this film was unbelievable. It may have been more anticipated than J.J. Abrams' effort back in 2015. The trailer for The Last Jedi seemed to show a gritty, dark installment that hinted at Rey teaming up with Kylo Ren, facing off with Snoke, and learning from a potentially Gray Jedi-Luke. There was a lot of anticipation for how Johnson was going to add to the narrative. However, the fan expectation was that he was going to add to what was already set up before him.

Rian Johnson had other plans. He wanted to make his own film in the Star Wars universe. So he essentially took what he liked from The Force Awakens and explored the themes he was interested in while cutting off (literally and figuratively) the roots he wasn't interested in. He also took Luke, as a character, to a much darker place than fans were expecting and wrapped up a lot of major points of speculation (Rey's parents, Snoke's backstory) within minutes.

Oh, and he killed off Luke Skywalker.

Part of the reason so many fans were disappointed was that they believe Rian Johnson did not honor the legacy of the Star Wars franchise. It wasn't just that he killed off characters and ended big plot points from The Force Awakens, it was that he didn't honor the legacy of the original films. I don't agree with this point for a few reasons.

 © 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

© 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

 

Part of the difficulty with this new trilogy is its purpose -- is it allowed to be its own entity, or must it exist as a revamp of the original trilogy? J.J. Abrams managed to avoid criticism from some fans by delivering A New Hope 2.0 -- complete with a new Death Star, a new orphan stranded on a desert planet, and a new Empire. While there is no denying how effortlessly Abrams executed this vision, one also cannot deny that it was a bit easy. It didn't take any risks. Even the aspects of the film that hinted at larger themes for the trilogy -- the mystery of Rey's parents, who is Supreme Leader Snoke, etc. -- didn't blow me away. If anything, they were almost frustratingly one-note. Supreme Leader Snoke was just another evil, old dude who was really strong with the force (he was so familiar, in fact, that some fans theorized he was Darth Sidious). The mystery of Rey's parents was only interesting insofar as we would learn possibly why she was force sensitive.

There is no denying that these mysteries fueled fan theories for the past two years. In fact, that sentence might be an understatement. Who is Snoke? He might be Darth Plageuis! He might be Sidious! He might be Mace Windu! Who are Rey's parents? Luke! Han! She's related to Obi-Wan?

So what does Rian Johnson think? Well according to him -- and what is now canon -- Rey's parents were drunks who sold her off for a beer. Supreme Leader Snoke is another evil guy who is too blind with arrogance to see his own death. And fans are pissed about that. To be denied their theories, and to have two years of speculation end so anti-climactically, felt like a slap in the face for a lot of people.

But let's really pull apart these ideas -- did we really care about Supreme Leader Snoke? I mean, sure it would have been cool if he was Darth Plageuis or if he was Mace Windu. But those ideas betray everything we know about the saga. Darth Plageus's death was an essential part of Revenge of the Sith -- learning how to conquer death itself was what helped turn Anakin to the dark side, and Sidious's story becomes either ridiculous or silly (or both) if he ended up surviving. Mace Windu was a Jedi who channeled the dark side during battle, but he was still a Jedi Master held in high regard on the Council. Not only that, he was essentially second-in-command to Yoda in terms of power and reputation. Not to mention he got thrown out of a window. But even if he did survive that fall somehow, he was not going to turn to the dark side because of it.

So I would assert that people aren't necessarily angry about Snoke's character being killed off, but that their theories that have been percolating for the past two years have been thrown out the window for a rather anti-climactic ending. And I will absolutely grant that Snoke's death is anti-climactic (and very surprising). But did we really want to go down that road again? Another robed figure with lightning powers who's impossibly old and wants to rule the galaxy? We've seen that already. So why would we want to see it again? Killing off Snoke may have been a surprising move, maybe even a clumsily handled one, but it was the best decision available. It sets up Kylo as the main villain (which is definitely for the best as he is a more engaging character than Snoke ever could be), and keeps fans on the edge of their seats.

Rey's parents are still a point of speculation, as many fans are theorizing that Kylo was lying. But if he wasn't (and I like to think he wasn't) then what does it mean that Rey's parents were nobodies? Well, it means that midichlorians, and the whole aspect of the prequels that fans despised, no longer matter. Anyone can be a Jedi. It further cements the force as a binding, universal force that holds us together and not just a platelet count. 

 © 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

© 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Another point of contention for fans was Luke's characterization. How could this beacon of the light side, of morality and goodness, almost become dark? Further, how could he shirk his duty as a Jedi and become such a morose, frustrated person?

People seem to forget that Luke had to stop himself from murdering his own father in Return of the Jedi. After Vader manages to anger Luke by saying he would turn Leia, Luke screams "never", fights his father, and cuts off his hand. People also seem to forget that Luke has always been tempted by the dark side, ever since Dagobah. So why is the notion that he would be tempted again be ludicrous? Because he's a Master now? He's still a person at his core -- a person who has seen untold sadness, shame, and pain in his life (including almost killing his own nephew because he saw the dark side in him). Why wouldn't he exile himself? Yoda did, too for many of the same reasons.

What is most frustrating for fans, though, I think is that this is the first film in 34 years to actually push forward, to leave behind the original films and the extended universe and to create something new. And this comes back to the purpose of this new trilogy: do we just want these films to rehash the nostalgia of the original trilogy? Or do we want original Star Wars films that push the saga in new, brave directions?

The Last Jedi is not perfect. The second act sags, and there are some very jarring editing moments throughout the film. Some characters aren't very fleshed out either (Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo, for instance). But, as a whole, The Last Jedi succeeds more than it fails, in my opinion. We just need to get beyond the fact that our fan theories weren't entertained and that the saga is moving forward. It's going to be weird and it's not going to be perfect. But it's time we leave the past behind and move forward.

If you want to watch the original trilogy, watch the original trilogy. It's time for this new trilogy to do something new. We should embrace that, not be angered by it.

Top 10 WORST Films Released in 2017 by Keith LaFountaine

2017 has brought us some really incredible films. From directorial debuts, like Jordan Peele's Get Out and Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, to lavish productions like Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 and Edgar Wright's Baby Driver we have had a slew of really incredible examples of quality filmmaking all throughout the year.

However, not every film is great. 2017 also had some stinkers. These are my least favorite films released this year.

All critic scores were pulled from Metascore.com.


10. The Book of Henry

WRITTEN BY GREGG HURWITZ | DIRECTED BY COLIN TREVORROW

PG-13 | 105 MIN | 31/100

Starring Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher, Jacob Tremblay, Sarah Silverman, and Dean Norris

"With instructions from her genius son's carefully crafted notebook, a single mother sets out to rescue a young girl from the hands of her abusive stepfather."

 Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa / Focus Featur - © 2017 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa / Focus Featur - © 2017 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved.

At its core, I can see what director Colin Trevorrow was trying to do. Even if he executed it more skilfully, I don't think it would have saved this film, though. In attempting to be a brooding drama, this film feels like a parody one would see as a Digital Short on Saturday Night Live -- it's silly, poorly written, and seemingly unaware of its own stupidity.

That is especially unfortunate given the film's all-star cast and decently respectable director (who, before this film was released, was slated to helm Star Wars 9). 

It's not the worst film of the year for me (obviously), but it wasn't too far from hitting rock bottom. Just a soulless, messy, incomprehensible affair in every sense.


9. Transformers: The Last Knight

WRITTEN BY ART MARCUM, MATT HOLLOWAY, AND KEN NOLAN | DIRECTED BY MICHAEL BAY

PG-13 | 155 MIN | 28/100

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, and Stanley Tucci

"Autobots and Decepticons are at war, with humans on the sidelines. Optimus Prime is gone. The key to saving our future lies buried in the secrets of the past, in the hidden history of Transformers on Earth."

 Photo by grochon - © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. HASBRO, TRANSFORMERS, and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro.2

Photo by grochon - © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. HASBRO, TRANSFORMERS, and all related characters are trademarks of Hasbro.2

Nobody -- myself included -- holds the Transformers films to the standard we would hold any of the best films released this year. In much the same way that it is difficult to compare a comedy and a horror (insofar as you need to use what amounts to a different rubric to judge them), it's hard to compare a film that has been made purely as epic sci-fi escapism to any sort of serious standard. I even liked the first Transformers film.

This does not detract from the fact that Michael Bay is one of the dullest, vapid, and shallow directors working today. His overreliance on poor dialogue, cliched and conventional writing, and splashy CGI hampers his films almost as much as his unforgiving two-and-a-half-hour runtimes are.

Michael Bay said he made this film for the fans, not the critics. If you don't mind the aforementioned issues then this film very well may be for you. For me, though, this film was boring. It slogged by, with CGI-fueled action setpieces blending together with Mark Wahlberg's frustratingly one-note performance.

In other words, this was one of the most frustrating theater experiences I have had in a long time.


8. Rings

WRITTEN BY DAVID LOUCKA, JACOB ESTES, AND AKIVA GOLDSMAN | DIRECTED BY F. JAVIER GUTIÉRREZ

PG-13 | 102 MIN | 25/100

Starring Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Alex Roe, Johnny Galecki, and Vincent D'Onofrio

"A young woman finds herself on the receiving end of a terrifying curse that threatens to take her life in seven days."

I was surprised when I learned there was going to be another Ring film. While Ringu is a cult classic, and Gore Verbinski's 2002 American adaptation is a respectable (if a bit critically mixed) effort. However, Ring 2, released in 2005 (and directed by Hideo Nakata, who directed Ringu) was both socially and critically panned. So the fact that a new installment was made with the possibility of it being a franchise should Rings do well at the box office (it made back $27 million at the box office with a $25 million budget, not counting marketing costs) surprised the hell out of me.

Unsurprisingly, though, Rings is a mess. Attempting to both create a new mythos and update the basic plot of the film to modern times (you won't find any Cathode-Ray tube televisions in this film) bogged the plot of the film down, while the overreliance on jump scares and forced tension made it annoying to watch.

I would be surprised if we saw any sequels to this effort considering it barely making its budget back at the box office and it was widely panned by critics and fans alike. However, stranger things have happened in Hollywood.


7. Death Note

WRITTEN BY CHARLEY PARLAPANIDES, VLAS PARLAPANIDES, AND JEREMY SLATER | DIRECTED BY ADAM WINGARD

TV-MA | 101 MIN | 43/100

Starring Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, and Willem Dafoe

"A high school student named Light Turner discovers a mysterious notebook that has the power to kill anyone whose name is written within its pages and launches a secret crusade to rid the world of criminals."

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Oh, where to start with Death Note? There is so much wrong with this film that it's almost insulting to watch.

To preface, I haven't read the manga, nor have I seen the show this is based on. However, immediately, I can see an issue in trying to adapt a feature-length film from those sources. It's a lot of material to cram into a small runtime. Things that could naturally unfold over the course of a few episodes, or a few pages, get crushed together and spit out as lousy dialogue, plot conventions, and weird character motivations.

The film is poorly made in almost every respect. The writing is clunky and odd; the cinematography is dark and muddy; the narrative structure is jumbled and contrived. In other words, there isn't really a redeeming factor here.


6. Kidnap

WRITTEN BY KNATE LEE | DIRECTED BY LUIS PRIETO

R | 95 MIN | 44/100

Starring Halle Berry, Sage Correa, Chris McGinn, Lew Temple, and Jason George

"A mother stops at nothing to recover her kidnapped son."

 Photo by PETER IOVINO

Photo by PETER IOVINO

I genuinely couldn't tell when the film was trying to be funny and when it was being unintentionally funny. While that can sometimes lead to a fun theater experience, Kidnap is just so dull I couldn't really enjoy it on any substantial level. Enough said.


5. Snatched

WRITTEN BY KATIE DIPPOLD | DIRECTED BY JONATHAN LEVINE

R | 90 MIN | 45 MIN

Starring Amy Schumer, Goldie Hawn, Joan Cusack, and Wanda Sykes

"When her boyfriend dumps her before their exotic vacation, a young woman persuades her ultra-cautious mother to travel with her to paradise, with unexpected results."

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Comedies, above all else, are supposed to be entertaining. Yes, they should make you laugh; yes, they should be emotionally and/or cerebrally interesting (like The Big Sick, released this year); most importantly, though, they should provide some sort of escapism.

Snatched isn't particularly entertaining though. And, unlike Schumer's other film, Trainwreck, it isn't very engaging on the emotional/cerebral front. Like many other films on this list, it just ends up being dull due to poor writing.


4. The Case For Christ

WRITTEN BY BRIAN BIRD | DIRECTED BY JON GUNN

PG | 112 MIN | 50/100

Starring Mike Vogel, Faye Dunaway, Erika Christensen, and L. Scott Caldwell

"An investigative journalist and self-proclaimed atheist sets out to disprove the existence of God after his wife becomes a Christian."

Marketed as "the film to prove atheists wrong" (on the heels of two other films -- God's Not Dead and Left Behind -- which claimed to be able to do the same thing), The Case For Christ is just intellectually dishonest. While it provides a potentially meaty human store at its core (the idea of reconciling opposing viewpoints in a family), it is painted over with the same "Christians right, Atheists wrong" brush that every other faith-based film uses.

That would be okay if it did engage the debate in a way that was fresh, new, exciting, or even challenging -- instead, it uses the same platitudes and debate points to pre-suppose, and "prove", its own conclusion.


3. You Get Me

WRITTEN BY BEN EPSTEIN | DIRECTED BY BRENT BONACORSO

TV-MA | 99 MIN | NO SCORE

Starring Bella Thorne, Halston Sage, Taylor John Smith, Nash Grier, and Anna Akana

"Tyler's crazy in love with his perfect girlfriend Ali, but when a big fight makes him and Ali break up, he lands in the arms of sexy out-of-towner Holly who shows him a night he's gonna remember. The next morning he finds that not only is Ali taking him back, but Holly is a new student at their school and is dead set on her new man."

MV5BNDkzYmVmMjgtODE0Zi00NmNjLWE0YWEtODc1NzAyZTM5ZTlhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTEzNzczMA@@._V1_.jpg

Oh, man. I knew I was going to hate this film five minutes in. Such a horribly written script. Horribly written characters. Dull, conventional cinematography. Frustrating narrative tropes and conventions. A ridiculous final act. A ridiculous first act. Did I mention how bad the writing was?

Maybe I'm being a little overly critically, but this truly was one of the most boring, stupid, and frustrating films of the year.


2. The Bye-Bye Man

WRITTEN BY JONATHAN PENNER | DIRECTED BY STACY TITLE

PG-13 | 97 MIN | 37/100

Starring Douglas Smith, Erica Tremblay, Lucien Laviscount, Jenna Kanell, and Doug Jones

"Three friends stumble upon the horrific origins of a mysterious figure they discover is the root cause of the evil behind unspeakable acts."

The Bye Bye Man is the epitome of what is wrong with modern horror. Jump scares, bad character writing, dull cinematography, and horrible story structure. There is nothing redeemable about this film.


1. The Emoji Movie

WRITTEN BY TONY LEONDIS, ERIC SIEGEL, MIKE WHITE | DIRECTED BY TONY LEONDIS

PG | 86 MIN | 12/100

Starring T.J. Miller, James Corden, Anna Faris, Maya Rudolph, Sofia Vergara, and Patrick Stewart

Gene, a multi-expressional emoji, sets out on a journey to become a normal emoji.

Do I need to even explain this one?