Why Kristen Stewart Is One of the Best Working Actors Today by Keith LaFountaine

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Hollywood is not a forgiving place. One bad film, one bad performance, one flopped blockbuster and your career can be effectively ended overnight. This is especially true in 2018, where social media and aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes can driving money to (or away from) specific projects.

Kristen Stewart experienced this in 2008 when she was cast as Bella Swan at eighteen-years-old. Despite being a popular actress who had already been working in the industry since 2001, this one role was what she became known for. Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances, ranging from bad direction to a poor supporting cast, Stewart’s acting abilities were largely maligned and made fun of. Couple that with a few scandals, and it looked like she was bound to carry the baggage of this one role for the rest of her acting career. After finishing the Twilight franchise (and even in-between production on each installment) Stewart focused on independent films with smaller filmmakers. It is there that she consistently proves why she is one of the best working actresses today.

One needs only to look at her work with French director Oliver Assayas to see how talented she is.

Between Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart showcases a quieter, more introspective approach to acting. She inhabits her characters to a stunning degree, spending time with them to flesh out their insecurities and their motivations. While it’s easy to assume that her soft speaking voice and her lack of flamboyance mean she’s a bad actress (or, as some have claimed, a monotone one), these kinds of criticisms are missing the point of her acting style. It’s this understanding of her character from the inside out that helps make her performances more nuanced, less obtuse, and increasingly impressive with each new film.

Camp X-Ray is another example of this; playing a military guard in Guantanamo Bay, she manages to bring a profound level of humanism to a complex character. While the film around her isn’t perfect, Stewart is a quiet, steady force throughout its entire runtime.

Stewart also has a surprising amount of range. While the aforementioned films all showcase her quiet, introspective style she has plenty of films that are more bombastic and lively. Take for instance her performance as Joan Jett in the 2010 film The Runaways. Not only does she manage to embody Joan Jett’s mannerisms and style to a startling degree, she also brings her own punk attitude to the role, helping make the role much more than just a copy of a real person’s mannerisms. Her performance in the action-comedy American Ultra also showcases this more fiery style of acting she can bring to a role.

Ultimately, what separates her style from other actresses is her understanding of each character that she plays. Acting is so contingent upon other factors — the director one is working with, the supporting cast, or even working in a green screen studio as opposed to an actual set. No matter what film she’s in, or what role she’s playing, Kristen Stewart always tries to understand the person she is portraying. Some actors are incredible at mimicking accents; others, like Daniel Day-Lewis, immerse themselves in their character on and off set so as to remove the barrier between them and their role. Stewart, to my knowledge, is not a method actor. Rather, she focuses on embodying her character, rather than immersing herself in them. That’s what sets her apart from other actresses.

As a director, I am sometimes asked by friends and colleagues what I look for in a performance. That’s a complicated question because it’s dependent on the project and the type of role I’m casting. However, what I look for in an actor is dedication. I want to cast someone who will work hard to not only understand the script, but to bring their own personal flair to a role. Kristen Stewart does this in her own way. Whether she’s playing a quiet, more contemplative role or she’s playing punk rock on stage as Joan Jett, she always brings her A-game. That’s an admirable trait in an actress, and one that we should recognize (and praise) more.

"Hearts Beat Loud" Is the Feel-Good Film We Need In Our Troubled Times by Keith LaFountaine

You aren’t going to see Hearts Beat Loud nominated for any Oscars this year, nor will you see it plastered all over every inch of the Internet. This indie film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, got a limited US release in June, made just under $3 million at the box office, and is now available to rent on Amazon Prime for just $0.99.

All of these things do not change the fact that Hearts Beat Loud is one of the most effortlessly likable films not just in 2018, but in recent memory. Fueled by endearing lead performances, an all-star supporting cast, and top-notch music this film made an impression on me in its first act.

Hearts Beats Loud follows a widower, Frank and his daughter Sam. Frank, played by Nick Offerman, was in a band with his late wife, and he has been trying to carry on the musical tradition with his daughter, played by Kiersey Clemons, who is studying to go to medical school out in California. During one of their late-night jam sessions, they write and record a song that ends up being a hit on Spotify. Sam is then faced with an important question: does she continue to pursue medical school, or does she pursue music with her father?

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The thing that really helps sell this film is its cast. In fact, I was surprised at how star-studded this little indie film (made on a budget of just $2 million) is. In supporting roles are Ted Danson, Sasha Lane, Toni Collette, and Blythe Danner; that is a hell of a lineup! Offerman and Clemons are perfectly cast as the father/daughter duo, and their chemistry is believable. Offerman is in top form, managing to switch between grieving widower, supportive father, and excited music enthusiast with ease, while Kiersey Clemons steals all of her scenes with her magnetic voice and her impressive screen presence.

Best of all, the music is really good. There is a lot of importance placed on “feeling” in this film — in fact, there is one scene where Frank explains to his daughter that lyrics don’t need to make sense if the feeling is there — and these songs drip with emotion, whether it’s the titular song “Hearts Beat Loud” or the emotional “Everything Must Go”.

The narrative does stumble in places, mainly in its more dramatic moments where the script relies on old cliches to push the narrative forward. These moments don’t derail the entire film, though, and the cast helps ground these conventional moments with emotional clarity.

Overall, I implore you to go watch Hearts Beat Loud at your next opportunity. Not only is it a fun, enjoyable film that is endearing, funny, and well made, it is the kind of feel-good antidote we need in our troubling times.


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“HEARTS BEAT LOUD” ★★★½

directed by BRETT HALEY

written by BRETT HALEY and MARC BASCH

Released on June 8, 2018 ||’PG-13 || 97 MIN

Jim Cummings's "Thunder Road" Is Powerful, Poignant Exploration of Grief and Emotional Repression by Keith LaFountaine

It's difficult to acknowledge grief when you are in the midst of overwhelming pain. While everyone offers you apologies and condolences, while offering platitudes and statements masquerading as hope, it's difficult to push through the overwhelming darkness that usurps your life when someone you love passes away. The silver lining, of course, is that we talk about grief more in our current year than we have ever before, and every year that passes we get better at talking about it, about seeking help when we need it, and about understanding it.

What's not talked about, though, is how men react to this grief. It ranges from explosive outbursts of tears to years of bottled up sadness, both of which make their mark on the world in some form or another. That's part of what is so spectacular about Jim Cummings performance, and about Thunder Roadin general. It's not just the story of a guy grieving the loss of his mother. Rather, it's a poignant exploration of a man coming to terms with the fact that he can't control everything and learning that it's okay to feel.

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The opening scene perhaps best exemplifies this paradigm. Officer Jim Arnaud, while eulogizing his mother, drastically switches between emotional and stone faced. He apologizes profusely every time he has an emotional moment, and he feels ashamed after leaving the funeral despite offering a genuine, heart-wrenching dance which resembles his connection to his mother. This moment is transplanted from Cummings's award-winning short film of the same name (though there is a one big difference between the two scenes), but the remainder of the film allows us to explore Jim as a character in a much deeper, more profound way than the short film ever could. What was melancholic grief in the short film -- as we see a heartbreaking, yet endearing display of affection for his mother -- turns into a difficult, yet sympathetic character study of a man who struggles to allow himself to feel emotion.

Part of this can be inferred from his role as a police officer (a decorated one at that). Scenes of Jim on cases intersperse the family drama that makes up the majority of the film. I don't think it was a coincidence that Cummings chose a police officer, of all occupations, for Jim to be, either. When Jim is on a case he is methodical, easy-to-anger, and sometimes violent. His repressed sadness comes up in fiery waves, no matter if it's in response to a man throwing a drink at him, or a teacher discussing his daughter's academic performance. What's remarkable, though, is how Cummings manages to make Jim sympathetic even in light of these outbursts and these tendencies. It would be easy for a character like Jim to be unlikable. However, Cummings manages to ground Jim's emotional instabilities in a genuine affection for his daughter and his mother.

There's a reason I keep mentioning Jim Cummings, too. Not only was he the writer, director, and star of this film, he is also the lifeblood of it. The supporting cast is very good (especially his close friend, Officer Nate Lewis), but Cummings's deft direction and powerful performance are what help set this apart from other family dramas. Whether due to his distinct mustache, his manner of speaking, or his general demeanor, Cummings has managed to Jim Arnaud not just a good character, but a memorable one. Even more important, the film surrounding Arnaud is taut, emotional, and offers brief glimpses of dark humor.

It saddens me that Jim Cummings and Thunder Road won't be seen among the Oscar nominees announced this year, nor will it win the mainstream discussion it deserves. Yet, its independent nature (made on a budget of just $200,000) helps make it more accessible to young filmmakers and cinephiles. Cummings has clearly made a film he is passionate about, along with creating a story that is steeped in emotional turmoil and genuine brilliance. It's the kind of film I need when I hit a creative nadir; it's the kind of film any viewer can watch and connect with. The ubiquity of its accessibility is one of its many charms, and I cannot implore you enough to go see it as soon as you can.


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“THUNDER ROAD” ★★★★★

written and directed by JIM CUMMINGS

Released on October 30, 2018 || Not Rated || 92 MIN

The Moment Has Come: "Avengers 4" Trailer Dropped by Keith LaFountaine

We’ve been waiting for what feels like forever.

Despite the fact that Avengers: Infinity War released less than a year ago, every Marvel fan has been waiting with bated breath for any news they could get of the next film. Rumors swirled about the name of this climactic sequel. Now, the trailer has come and the subtitle for the film has been revealed.

Clearly there is a lot to unpack here, from Tony Stark’s ominous speech to start the trailer, to the final giddy moments with Ant-Man at the front door. However, if there’s one thing that the Russo brothers want you to take away from this trailer, it’s that they’re serious about this being an end of sorts. Of course, the MCU will live on after Avengers: Endgame, but it won’t exist in the way it has for the past ten years. That’s exciting and scary in equal measure.

I will say that this trailer feels a bit underwhelming, though I think that’s a calculated move on the part of Disney’s marketing team. While the Infinity War trailer showed off big, splashy CGI battles and explosive action, this trailer feels more like the calm before the storm. I’m sure with future trailers (Disney usually releases one or two more before the premiere date) we will see more of the climactic, emotional story elements we are waiting for.

The New "Captain Marvel" Trailer Has Dropped, and It's Everything We Could Have Wanted (and More) by Keith LaFountaine

Since the final moments of Avengers: Infinity War, fans have been waiting with bated breath for as much news about the upcoming Captain Marvel film as they could get. Now, with roughly four months until its release, Marvel has dropped a new trailer — and damn it’s good

Here’s the thing, I’ve personally been unsure what I want the Captain Marvel film to be like. Having seen so many origin stories at this point, a part of me was concerned (and still is concerned) that the usual clichés and superhero ascension conventions could rear their heads in this narrative, ultimately diminishing its power due to its familiarity.

However, this trailer seems to be using the origin story formula in a unique way. By framing the story in different timelines (the current one, and the one our hero can’t entirely remember), there is plenty of opportunity for interesting plot twists, more character depth, and narrative complexity — all of which are welcome.

The CGI also looks pretty good for the most part. I was worried about Nick Fury mostly; de-aging software still isn’t perfect (as we could see in Star Wars: Rogue One) and I was hoping that Fury’s face wasn’t going to look overly edited. Time will tell whether it does or not, but in this trailer it looked okay. Still, though, I would have been happy if they recast a young Nick Fury (another opportunity to get Donald Glover on the silver screen).

Captain Marvel is slated to be released on March 8, 2019 in the United States. Until then, we’ll have to pick apart this trailer for any and all easter eggs while we wait!

Despite Rami Malek's Energetic Performance, "Bohemian Rhapsody" Is A Muddled Mess of Pulled Punches by Keith LaFountaine

What does one want out of a Freddy Mercury biopic? When you push past all of the other issues this film has -- from Bryan Singer's problematic presence and dramatic leave-of-absence, to the film's problematic revisionism -- this is the question that lingers. This is also the question that has divided critics and audiences, with the former (in my view) wanting a film about Mercury, and the latter wanting a biopic about Queen.

Those are two very different things. After all, Mercury was not defined by his time with Queen, though his place as their frontman was certainly important. With Bohemian Rhapsody, Singer and his team (including Fletcher, who finished up the last few weeks of principal photography after Singer left the project), seem as though they want to have their cake and eat it, too. In attempting to mix the difficult personal life of the enigmatic Mercury with the crowd-pleasing performances of popular Queen songs, Bohemian Rhapsody feels like a muddled mess of pulled punches.

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It cannot go without mentioning that Bohemian Rhapsody has issues beyond the film itself. The decision to use Queen's most iconic live performance -- Live Aid -- as an integral, and emotional, part of the plot, effectively revising the truth and changing history, is one that I could not condemn stronger. Biopics have always played fast and loose with the truth (such is the nature of creative liberty), but it is disrespectful toward the icon the film is exploring. In addition to that, the usage of Live Aid as this profound moment, as a reunion concert, is also untrue. The usage of Live Aid just manipulative, to put it as bluntly as possible, and with that it’s difficult to take this film as the truthful and complex biopic it claims to be.

This speaks, as I mentioned before, to the desire this team has to both tell the honest story of Freddie Mercury and to have a crowd-pleasing climax.

Bryan Singer is lucky that Queen and Mercury are as important as they are. The film itself feels undefined from the multitude of other musical biopics; in fact. As another critic, David Ehrlich, pointed out in his review, this film could have been about any band. It follows the same structure as every other biopic (though, as mentioned before, with some detours), and it comes across less as an honest exploration of Mercury, and more as an opportunity to play Queen's greatest hits.

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The diamond in the rough, here, is Rami Malek. Despite the shortcomings of the script, he manages to turn in an energetic performance as Freddie, and it shows on screen. His most impressive moments are when he is off-stage, though. HIs tumultuous relationship with Mary Austin (played impressively by Lucy Boynton) feels earnest and honest. It also, thankfully, is very true to their real relationship; a rare glimpse of honesty in this biopic.

The supporting cast, unfortunately, is never written with the care that Malek and Boynton receive. Some of them, like Ray Foster (played by Mike Myers) feel silly and disrespectful.

It's easy to be seduced by the charm of Queen's music and Malek's performance. As someone who grew up listening to classic Queen albums, I had to resist that urge myself. Queen will always remain one of the most seminal rock groups ever to form, and Freddie Mercury will always be an important figure for the LGBTQ+ community, as well as one of the best frontman rock as ever seen. If the goal was to humanize Mercury, though, then nobody -- except for Rami Malek -- who worked on this film should be patting themselves on the back.

At best, Bohemian Rhapsody integrates complex elements of Mercury's personality into a film about Queen; at worst, it changes history to maintain the legendary star power of its subjects. Thus, its subject is not Mercury, but rather Queen and their fame. That, when pushing aside all other faults, is the gangrenous wound that rots this film from its core.


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“BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY” ★★

directed by BRYAN SINGER & DEXTER FLETCHER

written by ANTHONY McCARTEN

released on November 2, 2018 || Rated PG-13 || 134 MIN

Reboots & Sequels Have Dominated 2018, While Original Filmmaking Has Floundered by Keith LaFountaine

It comes as no surprise that sequels and reboots have dominated the cinematic landscape throughout the entirety of 2018. While we have had occasional flashes of original, stand-alone films making a decent chunk of change at the box office (Hereditary comes to mind) they are by far the exception to the rule, not the rule itself.

We should not be surprised by this, though. Marvel, for instance, set them up for an incredible year by releasing Black Panther, Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp all in the same year. In fact, Disney has shown the power of their cinematic entities, both through Marvel and with the release of highly-anticipated projects like Incredibles 2.

On the flip-side, stand-alone projects, like Steve McQueen’s Widows, Alex Garland’s Annihilation, Damien Chazelle’s First Man, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale, or even Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (which, while technically being a remake, had almost nothing in common with its predecessor) all flopped at the box office — and hard.

Just look at the box office revenue compared to the films’ budgets and see if you can spot a difference between the two types of films released this year.

Stand-Alone Original Films' Budget vs. Revenue (Millions)

 

Sequels/Reboots Budget vs. Revenue (Millions)

I couldn’t even fit Avengers: Infinity War on this graph because it made over $2 billion (domestic & foreign combined) at the box office.

Now, please understand, I’m not saying “death to all sequels” or that we should end Marvel because it’s taking up too much of the box office revenue. However, if we are serious about wanting new, original films we need to actually show up so they make money. Hollywood is a machine, and its fuel is box office revenue. Without that fuel, investors aren’t going to go with new, brazen ideas; they’re going to go with what’s safe. That’s why Disney is rebooting every single one of their animated films — even the ones nobody is asking for. That’s why Marvel is pumping out 2-3 films a year. That is why every production company is obsessed with the “cinematic universe” concept. Now, with Disney acquiring Fox and all of its entities, it looks like we’re going to see even more of this.

We like familiar ideas; we like characters we know, and we thrive on childhood nostalgia. This is all understandable. A Star Is Born for instance, is currently my #3 film of the year. Remakes and reboots are not inherently awful. However, the amount of money they are claiming at the box office, and the amount of remakes and reboots being pumped out of the Hollywood machine, is frightening. Compounding this is how quality films from accomplished filmmakers (Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave scored a Best Picture win just four years ago, and Luca Guadagnino was nominated last year for Call Me By Your Name) are failing miserably at the box office, lowering the chances of investors giving them further opportunities to create original, stand-alone films. That is not good for filmmakers, and it is not good for cinema as a whole.

This Teaser Trailer Proves Just How Unnecessary the "Lion King" Remake Is by Keith LaFountaine

The Lion King remains one of my favorite films to date. Not only does the 1994 film, directed by Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff, have its own vibrancy and unique aesthetic that sets it apart from other Disney films, it also has one of the most robust and impactful narratives. The Shakespearian depth to the relationships between Scar and Mufasa, and the impressive character growth seen in Simba’s ascension to power, rivals many other films — children or otherwise.

That is part of the reason why I was skeptical of the remake, slated to be released in 2019. And now, with this teaser trailer being released, my concerns have been substantiated.

Here’s the thing - I don’t dislike remakes. Quite the contrary; a quality remake can bring new depth and perspective to an older film. However, for me, there needs to be that spark of creativity. I need to see that the director is going to be doing something different with their vision of the film, not just updating the previous version.

The best example of this is how David Lowery handled the remake of Pete’s Dragon.

Lowery’s version of the film found new emotional depth, better character interactions, and better performances. It is the exploration of a family, and of grief in the face of profound loss. However, it never loses its childlike appeal. In creating the film the way that he did (Lowery also co-wrote the screenplay), he managed to take inspiration from the original film and find a new lens through which to view it. Not only does it pay homage to its predecessor, it pushes the narrative to new heights. That’s how a remake should be handled.

From the teaser trailer, I have a feeling that this new version of The Lion King is going to be just what it looks like: a remake whose only purpose is to update the visuals of the story that came before it, with no creative autonomy, comfortable just copying the narrative that came before it. While I will always support any project that gives Donald Glover work (in fact, if there is one thing going for this film it’s the casting), this remake feels unnecessary and — frankly — silly.

Time will tell whether I’m right or wrong on this. However, for now, I remain unimpressed.

In Steve McQueen's Near-Masterpiece, "Widows", Change Is Front and Center by Keith LaFountaine

Widows is about much more than a heist. On the surface, this remake of the 1983 miniseries updates its characters and themes accordingly to further service its slick, explosive action. However, there is something deeper going on here; McQueen is not just telling a story about a heist, he's telling a story about change.

This is ironic given the events of the final act, but I think that is intentional. Rather, I am confident it is. Widows takes place during an election. Jack Mulligan is running for alderman of his ward, a position his family has held for decades. Running against him is Jamal Manning, a man of color who also happens to be involved in criminal enterprises throughout Chicago. Their election largely happens behind the scenes, with flashes of yard signs, radio broadcasts, and occasional conversations being all we see. Yet, the implications of this election's outcome directly parallel the importance of the widows' final heist. Both have the potential to change everything.

At the end of the day, though, very rarely do things change on a macro scale. While in film and television we are used to seeing these macro changes -- elections bringing sweeping change, characters attaining millions of dollars and running away to another country, and more -- the smaller, more personal changes have more of an impact. Not only is it more realistic for a person to change rather than an entire ward, it's more fulfilling for us as a viewer. Yet, it is also more difficult for us to process.

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Widows follows four women who undertake a heist in the wake of their husbands’ death. As they do, Jack Mulligan fights to win a seat for alderman that his family has held for four decades from insurgent candidate Jamal Manning.

Widows is nearly perfect when it comes to characterization. Aside from the men, who we don't have time to really contextualize due to the nature of the plot, every character is handled with care and depth. Even Robert Duvall's character -- the slimy, sinister Tom Mulligan -- has enough characterization for him to seem like a real person while also functioning as an integral part of the plot. The women are also very well written, especially Viola Davis as Veronica. Their individual stories are interesting, though the film really fires on all cylinders when they are together. The final twenty minutes are a perfect example of how consistent characterization and meticulous plotting can lead to a memorable and exhilarating climax.

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McQueen's direction is just as impressive as you would expect. His visuals are always on-point (especially one of the final moments in the film, where two characters' faces are reflected in mirrors in a wide angle shot), but his editing is particularly taut. Despite the film's runtime topping out at two hours and ten minutes, the pacing is brisk and engaging. You never feel as though the story is going to fast, nor too slow; rather, it is taking its time in the right places, and pushing you to the brink in others. Gillian Flynn's writing is as good as one would expect. Her ear for dialogue is as sharp as ever, and paired with McQueen's weighty themes, they make a great team. I would love to see them work together on future projects.

I have a bad feeling that Widows is going to get passed over this year. It's not doing well at the box office, and it's the kind of film that we will look back on with fondness. I even think this is the kind of film film professors will dissect in classes, especially in terms of its sociological themes. I implore you to go see it in theaters though, if for no other reason than it is a thrilling, exciting, and engaging experience.


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“WIDOWS” ★★★★½ 

directed by STEVE McQUEEN

written by GILLIAN FLYNN & STEVE McQUEEN

released November 16, 2018 || Rated R || 129 MIN

"Eighth Grade" Is the Coming-Of-Age Story We've Been Waiting For by Keith LaFountaine

Bo Burnham did something quite astonishing: he made a very accessible, very compelling coming-of-age film.

This may not seem like a revelation; there are tons of coming-of-age films released every year, often centered around high school students, all of whom are searching for themselves in a world that seems increasingly odd and uncomfortable. In fact, coming-of-age films tend to cover the same basic themes of alienation, bullying, breaking out of one's shell, and discovering inner confidence.

Eighth Grade follows Kayla Day during her last week of eighth grade, during which she struggles to connect with fellow classmates.

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The difference between the usual coming-of-age film and Eighth Grade could not be starker, though. Comedy tends to be the lens through which tragedy is viewed, taking the gravitas out of the latter element. While these films are still well worth watching, and can even be considered great (Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused comes to mind) none of them have truly captured the young-adult experience quite like Bo Burnham did here. Kayla Day is a regular eighth-grader, someone who I could imagine being in school with. Her experiences are grounded and realistic, from the conversations she has with her father, to the ways she attempts to interact with girls who are more popular with her. While these elements of Burnham's scripts aren't groundbreaking (as I said, these are the same themes other writers and directors have covered), his direction and execution of these themes do feel fresh.

The best thing about Eighth Grade is that it treats Kayla as a person: someone who is flawed, who is struggling with her identity, someone who wants to be liked and accepted. She feels layered and complex; when people say mean things to her, or laugh at her, we see the consequences of those actions on her psyche. Even the smallest details -- from the way her face contorts into sadness when she hears her senior superlative, to the breathless way she talks on the phone while pacing back and forth -- inform her personality without using dialogue or exposition. In fact, one of the largest elements of her personality -- her disconnect with her father -- is never truly explained until the end of the film, even though we can clearly see an empty spot at the kitchen table.

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In other words, Bo Burnham made a film that actually explores what middle-school (and young-adulthood) is like; he didn't make the typical coming-of-age film. He set out to tell a specific story about a young girl coming to terms with her own insecurities during the last week of her middle school experience. That is drastically different than what films like I Love You, Beth CooperAmerican Pie, and Superbad offered us. Eighth Grade does not offer scenes of rambunctious parties filled with drunk high schoolers, nor does it create the "gorgeous jock" character who our protagonist befriends and/or dates. Instead, it is a stripped-down, turbulent, and complex film that is accessible to the current generation of young-adults and people like me, who left middle-school a decade ago. It is for these reasons that this film will be looked upon fondly as the definitive coming-of-age film for quite some time.


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“EIGHTH GRADE” ★★★★½

written and directed by BO BURNHAM

Released August 3, 2018 || Rated R || 93 MIN

"A Star Is Born" Is a Masterfully Crafted Exploration of Stardom and Alcoholism by Keith LaFountaine

It would be easy to write off A Star As Born as just another remake of a tired love story. On the surface, Bradley Cooper's directorial debut does hit similar plot beats that its predecessors have tread down; however, Cooper and Lady Gaga (in a defining, likely award-winning performance) find humanity in characters that previously felt like plot devices.

In fact, every moment in Cooper's film feels refined and important. The smallest interactions inform our protagonists and their arcs -- from Ally's father huddling around to watch her breathtaking performance of "Shallow" on YouTube with his friends, to Bradley Cooper taking in the friendly banter at the drag bar he winds up in after a gig. Not only does that deepen our characters, it also provides more texture and nuance to the film itself; the world feels lived in, not artificial.

A Star Is Born follows Jack and Ally, the former a musician struggling with alcoholism and depression, the latter a starry-eyed, aspiring singer and writer. While this set up feels very dry from reading it (likely due to the fact that the plot was derived in 1937), Cooper's deft direction and Lady Gaga's mesmerizing performance breathe new life into this concept and make it into an astounding experience.

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Hollywood has a tendency to lionize struggling male artists, often to such a degree that the female lead's entire role is to support the male lead. While A Star Is Born does dip its toe into the waters of romanticization when it comes to Jack's alcoholism (mainly in the first act of the film), it's refreshing how Cooper treats Ally as an equal partner (revolutionary, I know). In fact, her arc is just as important as Jack's; they are intertwined, but also independent. One understands that, while Ally is supporting Jack through his struggle, she is not waiting on his beck and call. It's this sense of narrative equality that makes the final act so devastating.

Cooper also treats Jack's alcoholism and depression with the degree of delicacy it deserves. His performance and his direction both show how complex addiction and depression are. As devastating as it was to watch Jack's arc unfold, it was comforting watching Cooper treat it with the gravitas it deserves.

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A discussion of A Star Is Born is not complete without mentioning the music. This is part of the reason Cooper's version of this story is the defining one, in my humble opinion. "Shallow" is an incredible song; it could have been released as a single not associated with this film, and it would do well on the radio. It's catchy, emotional, and impactful. As is expected, Lady Gaga's musicianship remains as confident and powerful as ever. What is surprising is Cooper's abilities behind a microphone and on the guitar. One gets the sense that this is truly a troubled musician, someone who escapes into their work to avoid the realities of their life. This is especially true when we see Jack and Ally perform "Shallow" together for the first time; there's a glint that appears in Jack's eyes -- it's knowing, happy, excited even. We get the feeling that Jack is, for the first time in a long time, excited to play. Not only is that exciting to watch, it is to integral to the efficacy of the plot.

"Shallow" is not the only hit from this film, though. Every song that we hear, from Jack's blues-rock singles to Ally's pop numbers are catchy and impressively written. Yet, there is a clear difference drawn between the music Jack and Ally write and sing together, and the music they play alone.

A Star Is Born could have been bad; it could have felt dry, tired, and repetitive. The story has been told so many times that retreading similar themes and plot points would have been easy. However, Cooper, Lady Gaga, and the rest of the team that worked on this film injected life, pathos, and sympathy into this project. Every emotional beat, from the end of the first act to the ending moments, feel earned and honest. A Star Is Born is technically a remake, but it earns its distinction as the defining version of this tragic story.


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“A STAR IS BORN” ★★★★★

directed by BRADLEY COOPER

written by ERIC ROTH, BRADLEY COOPER & WILL FETTERS

Released October 5, 2018 || Rated R || 136 MIN

"Mandy" Is a Bold, Visually Stunning Descent Into Violence and Vengeance by Keith LaFountaine

There is something to be said for Panos Cosmatos's visual aesthetic, both in terms of its vibrancy and its uniqueness. I can think of no other director out there that utilizes a similar blends of visceral, saturated colors, appealing composition, and ethereal, surreal visuality. Even though I was mixed on Beyond the Black Rainbow, I could not deny that it was a stunning piece of visual art.

What Cosmatos has done with Mandy is refine his narrative ambitions and expand his unique visual aesthetic. While Beyond the Black Rainbow felt listless and lost in its own themes, Mandy feels lucid, in control, and always two steps ahead of its viewer.

Mandy follows Red, played by Nicolas Cage, who embarks on a bloodthirsty search for vengeance after a hippie biker gang rips his world apart. A better way to describe it, though, is John Wick on PCP.

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While surrealist filmmaking often has this effect on me, I felt like I was in the middle of a fever dream while watching Mandy. Not only does Cosmatos lean into heavily saturated color schemes, dreamlike crossfades, and lens flares, the narrative itself feels barely tethered to our world. The gritty action helps give the film some balance that I think Beyond the Black Rainbow was lacking; however, that does not mean this feels like a realistic film. Quite the contrary; everything, from Cage's over-the-top performance, to the weapons he wields in the final act of the film, to the villains themselves -- many of them lacking any semblance of personhood or humanity -- feels like something pulled out of an 80s metal band's album cover, mixed with John Carpenter brand of gritty slasher-horror.

The benefit of this is how fresh Mandy feels in the modern cinematic landscape. There is nothing like this film in theaters right now -- nothing as bold, nor as insane, nor as invigorating. While Hollywood seems content resting on its laurels as it pumps out superhero films and franchises galore, Cosmatos has created a grungy cult classic, the kind from which his cinematic influences garnered their fame.

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Mandy also gives Nicolas Cage the space he needs to create a truly impressive performance. It's sad to me that Cage has become such a meme nowadays (to be fair, he's done it to himself) because he is a genuinely good actor. Watching projects like David Gordon Green's Joe, or Spike Jonze's Adaptation., or even Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas, it is clear that Cage can deliver a stunning performance when given the tools to do so. And while Mandy does give us the modern, "scream-his-lungs-out-at-the-camera" Nicolas Cage, Cosmatos also gives Cage space to truly act. The moments between the action, between the frenetic energy, Mad Max inspired villains, and saturated red hues show a man in torment, in mourning, overtaken by his emotions and drowning in his need for revenge. That is potent stuff, and it's a perspective I think Cage handles incredibly well.

If you go into Mandy expecting slick violence, tons of action, and a breakneck pace you will be disappointed. That's not the kind of film Cosmatos is trying to make here, nor is that the kind of film I ever see him making. However, for those who have the patience to sit through some of the more indulgent sequences in Mandy, you will find a stunningly unique, confident, and fresh vision that you will not forget anytime soon.


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“MANDY” ★★★★

directed by PANOS COSMATOS

written by PANOS COSMATOS & AARON STEWART-AHN

Released Septmeber 14, 2018 || Not Rated || 121 MIN

5 Science-Fiction Films You Probably Haven't Seen (But Should) by Keith LaFountaine

Science-fiction is one of my favorite genres. Amidst the aliens, the space travel, and temporal fluidity, and the eerie sense of displacement there is a lot of really good storytelling that happens within the confines of this genre. Aside from horror, science-fiction is the only genre where you can literally do anything, tell any story, and use any type of film language you need.

Unfortunately, a lot of really good science-fiction films get left by the wayside, unable to compete financially with the likes of the Marvel franchise and other more established, well-known filmmakers. Because of this, I wanted to create a list of five science-fiction films you (probably) haven’t seen, but should.


5. Timecrimes (2007, dir. Nacho Vigalondo)

written by NACHO VIGALONDO

R | 92 MIN | SPAIN

Available to rent on Amazon Prime

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If you are looking for an inventive, refined, and engrossing time travel movie, you can’t do much better than Timecrimes. It follows a man who accidentally gets sent back an hour in time. He begins to run into former versions of himself; as you can imagine, insanity ensues.

What makes this film so impressive is its gorgeous cinematography, its taut writing, and its impressive main performances. While there are moments of levity interspersed throughout its 90-minute runtime, this is a dark film that never shies away from pushing its premise to the absolute limits.

Timecrimes is a Spanish film, and as such all dialogue is in Spanish (with English subtitles). Still, even if you are not used to reading subtitles while watching a movie, the plot is easy to understand and fun to watch.


4. Triangle (2009, dir. Christopher Smith)

written by CHRISTOPHER SMITH

R | 99 MIN | UNITED KINGDOM

Available for free on Amazon Prime

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Triangle took me by surprise when I first saw it. As is the case with the other films on this list, I was scrolling through one of the many streaming services I subscribe to (in Triangle’s case, Amazon Prime) and read the logline: “A group of friends suffer a yachting accident and take refuge on a cruise drifting on the open sea, but quickly realize they were better off on the upturned yacht.” Not only was I immediately intrigued, I had enjoyed another film Christopher Smith had directed (Black Death).

If you are someone who likes time loops, horror, and really breathtaking editing, you will adore Triangle. The story takes some serious twists and turns along the way, but you never feel lost; rather, the script is so refined that it’s easy to follow the action and the plot as you uncover its mysteries.

Its low-budget shows in spots (especially the opening, when our protagonists are on the sailboat in the middle of the ocean), but it makes up for its financial issues with very impressive execution and engrossing action.


3. Snowpiercer (2013, dir. Joon-ho Bong)

written by JOON-HO BONG & KELLY MASTERSON

R | 126 MIN | UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Available to rent on Amazon Prime

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Snowpiercer is probably the most well-known film on this list. With its all star cast (including Chris Evans, John hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris) and its stylish action, this film is already intriguing without having to know much about it. What makes Snowpiercer so impressive, though, is it manages to take some really old, worn-out themes and make them seem fresh.

Snowpiercer is about a train in a post-apocalyptic world. A failed climate change experiment has caused world temperatures to plummet. Only the crew of the train, Snowpiercer, are left alive. Inside, a class system has emerged, where the rich passengers live in luxury and the poor ones live in the back of the train. Chris Evans plays Curtis, a leader in the back of the train who builds a resistance that fights to take the train from the rich passengers.

The action is grisly and stylish; the cinematography is beautiful; the sound design is top-notch; the performances are incredible. This is just a very fun film that also discusses weighty themes (classism being the main one). If you want something you can enjoy, while also making you think, Snowpiercer is an excellent option to consider.


2. Time Lapse (2014, dir. Bradley King)

written by BRADLEY KING & BP COOPER

NR | 104 MIN | UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Available for free on Amazon Prime

Time Lapse has a really, really cool premise. It’s about three friends who find a camera that takes pictures of what will happen 24 hours in the future. What follows is an exploration of greed, distrust, and betrayal. This is a very low-budget film and the majority of it takes place in the living room of a house. However, the elevated premise of this film, and the surprising performances all help make this entertaining, gripping, and surprising.

If you are looking for a film that is different, unique, yet very accessible then you will love Time Lapse and everything it has to offer.


1. Coherence (2013, dir. James Ward Byrkit)

written by JAMES WARD BYRKIT

NR | 89 MIN | UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Available for free on Amazon Prime

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Coherence is one of the most rewarding and surprising micro-budget science-fiction films you will ever seen. Following a group of friends, who have gotten together for a dinner party, a meteor passing overhead wreaks havoc on this small friend group as the barriers between dimensions seem to dissipate. What follows is a story of doubles, parallels, and betrayal.

Shot documentary-style, with handheld camerawork and improvised dialogue, Coherence also has a profound sense of realism that few others can match. The majority of it takes place in a dining room, as these friends attempt to uncover clues and discover what is going on. The ending is a gut-punch and a compelling twist that will leave you on the edge of your seat.

Lush Production Design and Taut Action Doesn't Save "Outlaw King" from Mediocrity by Keith LaFountaine

Medieval films are often caught in a difficult Catch-22. They all follow the same sorts of stories and characters, treading over the oft-worn paths of films — both based on true stories and fantasies — that have come before it. This creates a desperate need for uniqueness, for some element of surprise (or, at the very least, for the story at hand to be told in a powerful, gripping fashion). When directors try to do this, though, as Guy Ritchie did in 2017 with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the result is a film that feels caught between modernism and antiquity. A defining aesthetic is not found; rather, it is muddled.

In many respects, Outlaw King is engaging. It has a lot of elements that work, from taut, gory battle sequences, to lush production design, to masterful lighting and cinematography. Beyond these elements, though, it doesn’t offer much for its viewer that countless other medieval films haven’t also explored. In this way, it is like a beautiful photograph of a lake: you can acknowledge the visual mastery, the composition, and the lighting, but it’s a photograph you’ve seen plenty of other people take, as well.

Outlaw King follows the true story of Robert Bruce (played by Chris Pine), the King of Scotland who has been forced into exile by the English after he is crowned. The film follows his attempt to take back his throne and to save his family.

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Now, don’t get me wrong — just because a certain narrative has been explored multiple times does not mean that nobody should tell that narrative. To the contrary, there is no such thing as an original story anymore; rather, we are telling variations of the same stories, constantly reinventing both storytelling and filmmaking in the process. However, there is a difference between taking a well-worn concept and putting a unique spin or aesthetic on it and taking that concept and telling it in the same way other people have.

To further defend director David MacKenzie (who also directed the phenomenal Hell or High Water), I don’t think anything here is outright bad. As I mentioned above, this film is beautifully crafted and fun to watch; I never felt bored.

Still, though, these characters are people I have watched before. The differences between characters like Robert Bruce, William Wallace, King Arthur, or other medieval European figures are minuscule at best. Robert Bruce is a man defined by his kingship, his family, and his desire to retake both things. It’s this brand of shallow characterization that can kill a film before it even hits its stride.

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In fact, Outlaw King further exemplifies a key tenant of filmmaking: if your script is bad, very few things can save it beyond a re-write. This is purely due to the differences between what these people are doing in the filmmaking process. It is the writer’s job to create the story, to build a foundation and a set of characters who we will follow. The director’s job is to bring the script to life, to take the words on the page and create images from them. The script for Outlaw King was written by three people (one of whom is director David MacKenzie), and additional writing was provided by two other people. That is a lot of writers working on a single story.

I will say that it is impressive, given how many people were working on this project, how streamlined this film feels. It lays a very linear path and does not stray far from it. It’s unfortunate, though, that these writers could not find a more interesting way to tell this story of rebellion and uprising.

Outlaw King is not a bad film; in fact, it’s one I implore you to watch. It’s slick, brutal, and bloody. For those who have been craving a dose of good, ol’ fashioned medieval war, this is going to be a fun watch. However, don’t go into it expecting much substance, or much character development. When people die, you won’t feel much attachment to them; when Robert Bruce struggles with a moral quandary, you won’t feel the same burden on your shoulders. You will be entertained, but you will not be invested. That does not mean the film is bad, it just means it’s not as good as it could have been.


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“OUTLAW KING” ★★★

directed by DAVID MACKENZIE

written by BATHSHEBA DORAN, DAVID MACKENZIE & JAMES MacINNES

Released November 9, 2018 || Rated R || 121 MIN

"The Other Side of the Wind" - Review by Keith LaFountaine

It feels surreal to be reviewing an Orson Welles film in 2018, something I know the majority of people have not seen. Yet, while watching The Other Side of the Wind I was immediately struck by how modern this film felt. Despite having been shot forty years ago, the themes of disillusionment, especially with Hollywood, and the rabid ferocity of acolytes and fans seem more prevalent now than ever before.

It's no secret that The Other Side of the Wind is as referential as it is exploratory; this is not just a film about a film, this is a film about Welles at the end of his career, celebrated and adored, yet misunderstood. I think it's fair to submit the idea that the obsession people had, and have, with Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil gave him this godlike persona in cinema, which led to idolatry -- something Welles clearly disavows and despises in this film.


What is most interesting for me, though, is how cynical this film is, both of the industry it is portraying and toward Jake Hannaford as a character. Hannaford is a man drunk on power and lost in his own sea of ideas. The eponymous film in this film, "The Other Side of the Wind" has brilliance in it, but it's never fully realized. Much like the film Welles made, it's a terrifying fever dream, permeated with erotic explorations of sexuality and stitched together with dizzying editing.

The Other Side of the Wind follows a director, J.J. Hannaford, who is disillusioned with his work and his business. He returns to the United States from Europe with the purpose of finishing his comeback film, “The Other Side of the Wind.”

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The brilliance I find in The Other Side of the Wind has very little to do with the film in the film, though; rather, its the portrayal of the creative mind: always moving, always thinking, always tinkering and attempting to create with different elements. Both Welles and Hannaford are clear perfectionists, and there are moments -- often when Hannaford is watching his own film -- that you can see that glint of creative perseverance and ingenuity in his eye. It's the same drive that pushed Welles to shoot this film off and on over four years.

In many ways, those cinephiles who have waited with bated breath for this film's release may feel disappointed; the first half-hour of the film feels especially dizzying and disorienting, without purpose or structure (likely by design). However, underneath the surface, simmering just underneath the crisp close-ups and stunning wide shots, there is a deeper discussion going on, one which has stood the test of time.

Perhaps the best thing for The Other Side of the Wind is for it to be released now, when entertainment and filmmaking feel wayward, especially in terms of creativity. Nothing like this -- nothing this raw, or holding this kind of cynicism for the creative process and Hollywood -- has been released in the past decade. Maybe, from beyond the grave, Welles will spur some sort of creative retrospection; maybe, with his unique brand of dark storytelling, pervasive humor, lurid visuality, and cynical moralism he can save cinema from itself.


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“THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND” ★★★★★ 

directed by Orson Welles

written by Oja Kodar & Orson Welles

released November 2, 2018 || Rated R || 122 MIN

"Crazy Rich Asians" - Review by Keith LaFountaine

directed by: JON M. CHU

written by: KEVIN KWAN, PETE CHIARELLI & ADELE LIM

RATED PG-13 || APPROX. 120 MIN || RELEASED AUGUST 15, 2018


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In a world that is becoming increasingly cynical, especially in terms of romanticism, it can be difficult to make effective romantic comedies. The formula is so worn at this point that it takes a truly unique, or particularly effective, premise and team to make the genre work.

Crazy Rich Asians tows the line between embracing genre formulas and reinventing them; while the structure of its narrative follows the footpaths of films that have preceded it, it manages to bring a fresh, vibrant perspective to the genre that is steeped in cultural complexity and perfectly executed.

There are a few elements which help distinguish "good" romantic-comedies from bad ones. The former batch often have complex characters, swift editing, and engaging narratives. The narratives often take unique twists and turns, and their endings, while telegraphed, generally feel earned.

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Crazy Rich Asians fits these distinctions like a glove. Not only is this film rich with complexity, its characters are layered and interesting. While it's quite overt that this film deals with different asian cultures and the ways in which they clash, it was interesting to view the dual views of what a matriarch should be or do in the family dynamic. Not only does this conflict inform the narrative and elevate the character work, it also helps add subtle characterization. Eleanor is a perfect example of this; her steely demeanor is frustrating to watch at first, but once at the mid-way point in the film the viewer is able to realize the ways her own mother, Ah Ma, influenced that closed off persona.

Crazy Rich Asians also manages to subvert the genre on the visual plane. Every frame of this film feels as grand as its characters and the country they reside in. Majestic, symmetrical composition often isolates Rachel as she navigates her new environment, while Eleanor is often framed alone, with long hallways or doorways behind her, making her more prominent in the frame, adding to her strength on screen. In addition to these small visual touches, there are also a few different sequences, including one showing text messages being sent between people, that utilize flashy, almost Tarantino-esque graphics that make these moments more kinetic and exciting.


As a whole, Crazy Rich Asians does not reinvent the wheel. However, at this point, that is not an expectations for romantic comedies. Rather, this film is at its best when its embracing its uniqueness and the rich, cultural complexity that helps set it apart from other films. This isn't just an important film in terms of the representation it provides people of color; it's important because it's a fun, energetic, and complex romantic-comedy that is always fun to watch and surprisingly emotional in spots. It's important because it's a good romantic comedy, and that is not always easy to come by.


RATING: ★★★★

"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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