Tribute: George Romero

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We mourn the loss of writer/director George Romero, a towering figure in the history of American film. The influence of his “Night of the Living Dead” is immeasurable. Not only did he invent an entirely new genre of zombie films, but it was a major breakthrough for independent films, and, as “Rosemary’s Baby” would do later, it was an original re-imagining of the horror genre by virtue of its setting, in this case not a spooky castle or a haunted mansion but the American countryside. Equally important, the film, released in 1968, one of the most tumultuous years in American history, was utterly revolutionary in having a black man as its hero. The political overtones in his films continued in, for example, “Dawn of the Dead,” again using the setting, this time a shopping mall, to make some sharp points about mindless consumerism.

May his memory be a blessing.

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Directors Horror Tribute

The Beguiled

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexuality
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: War (off-screen), injuries, murder
Diversity Issues: Gender issues
Date Released to Theaters: June 23, 2017
Copyright 2017 Parmount

Writer/director Sofia Coppola has taken a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie about a wounded but manipulative Civil War soldier cared for and disruptive of the staff and students of a small girls’ school and reframed it as a story about the staff and students of a small girls’ school who care for and are disrupted by a wounded Civil War soldier. It is not so much telling the story of the spider and the fly from the perspective of the fly; it is more like telling the story with the women as the spider.

From her first film, “The Virgin Suicides,” through “Marie Antoinette,” “The Bling Ring,” “Lost in Translation,” and “Somewhere,” Sofia Coppola has been transfixed by stories of slender, ethereal young women who are a bit lost in a world created by powerful but inadequate men, and she has done her best to transfix the audience as well. Her next project, “La Traviata,” the story of a consumptive courtesan who turns out to be more noble than the man she loves, is certain to fit this pattern as well.

It is impossible to consider this latest work, a remake of a film directed by and starring two of the most testosteronic filmmakers in movie history, without that context. And that context is increasingly repetitive, with each iteration revealing not only the limits of the individual film but also the lacunae of the previous ones as well. What once seemed intriguing, mysterious, and thoughtful now appears, when the work is viewed as a whole, as superficial. It turns out that what was omitted was not because it was subtle and deep but because she had nothing more to say. While this film touches on issues of war (and warring emotions), it eliminates the slave character played in the first film by Mae Mercer, because there is really no way to do that relationship justice and any attempt to do so would throw the rest of the story off balance.

It is a pity, because she is just so good with the externals. The settings, costumes, music, and performances in her films are always superb, which makes the dispiriting emptiness even more disappointing.

Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) runs a small boarding school for girls, a retreat precariously close to Civil War battles being fought nearby. When one of the girls is out gathering mushrooms in the woods, she discovers a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell) and she brings him back to the school for treatment. Miss Farnsworth is not pleased, but she cannot turn him away. She treats him and tries to keep his presence as a male and an enemy combatant from disrupting the students and her co-teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst). But he is a novelty and a distraction especially for those who long, perhaps unaware how much, for male attention.

McBurney has a gift for making each female in the house feel that he is what they most want him to be, from the teenager (Elle Fanning) to the widow (Dunst). “I’m grateful to be your prisoner,” he says. At first, he is gracious, unassuming, and charming. But he becomes a more ominous presence, dividing and disrupting the women until they take drastic action.

Kidman and Dunst are outstanding, representing two very different reactions to the intruder. It is precisely presented, even beguiling, but Coppola needs to move on or go deeper.

Parents should know that this film contains peril and violence including war (mostly offscreen), a wounded soldier, an accident, amateur surgery, mutilation, and murder, as well as sexual references and a situation, alcohol, and some strong language.

Family discussion: How did McBurney assess the vulnerabilities of each of the women and girls? How does this version reflect our era in differing from the original?

If you like this, try: the original version with Clint Eastwood

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Based on a book Based on a book Drama Horror Movies Movies Remake War

Get Out

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MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references
Profanity: Some strong language including racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and very graphic and scary peril and violence with very disturbing images and sounds including surgical situations, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: February 24, 2017
Date Released to DVD: June 7, 2017
Copyright Universal 2017
Copyright Universal 2017

Two caveats before I begin the review: First, I am not very knowlegeable about horror films and therefore do not have the context I normally bring to evaluating a film. Second and more important, this movie has complex themes about race and privilege that I do not pretend to have authority to speak to. I strongly recommend that people who are interested in understanding this film read the perspectives of critics who are African-American or people of color, and I will post links to some of the ones I especially admire at the end of this review. With those limitations in mind, here are my thoughts on “Get Out,” in my opinion a superb film on many levels.

Writer/director Jordan Peele, like his “Key and Peele” partner Keegan-Michael Key, is biracial, which gives them both a lifelong experience with being both part of and observer of black and white culture and a lifelong fascination with code-switching, as we saw in their film “Keanu,” written by Peele. Moving from comedy to horror, Peele continues to explore the themes, giving depth and emotional power to a genre film. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, who carelessly purloins historic settings as a shortcut to the audience’s emotional investment so he can get right to the gore, Peele cannily plays the conventions of the genre and the discomfort and hostility about race off of each other.

It is one of the most terrifying prospects of ordinary life: meeting the family of the significant other. This familiarly excruciating prospect can be played for comedy (“Meet the Parents”) or drama (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”), but horror is perhaps its best fit, with room for some comedy and drama as well. The fact that Rose (“Girls” star Allison Williams) has not told her parents that her boyfriend of five months, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), is black, adds another layer of tension. She assures him it does not matter. “They would have voted for Obama for a third time if they could!”

Kaluuya gives a star-making performance with help from cinematographer Toby Oliver, who makes this that rarest of movies, one that knows how to light African-Americans, especially those with darker skin, so that we can really see what they bring to the role. Watch his face in the early scenes as Chris navigates the fatuous pleasantries of Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener, both excellent), and then the bro-ish thuggery of Rose’s brother, and then the condescending appraisals of the friends who all seem like they are on their way to the yacht club. We see him calibrate each of these interactions, trying to be a good sport, trying to go along, trying to make his girlfriend’s family feel comfortable with him, but starting to lose his patience. One of the film’s many shrewd understandings is the way that a lifetime of having to reassure white people that he is not going to hurt them or make them uncomfortable makes him slow to pick up on or slow to doubt himself about the creepiness of Rose’s family. An early scene, where Chris and Rose get questioned by a highway patrolman after hitting a deer is subtle but sharply drawn. And before you can say “foreshadowing,” Chris is getting a tour of the house and Rose’s dad is explaining that the basement had to be sealed off because of black mold. Hmm. And did I mention the prologue when a black guy walking down a peaceful suburban street is followed and then captured? And that the only person of color beside Chris at the party (the always-great LaKeith Stanfield) is strangely subdued and doesn’t know about fist bumps?

It would be a disservice to say any more about the plot. I won’t spoil the twists. I’ll just say that Peele knows what scares us and how to scare us and make us enjoy it, and gives us a lot to think about about some comedy as well. And that it may be that the scariest thing about the movie is the reminder that it has taken far too long to shine the correct light — literally and figuratively — on stories that should be told because they are just that good.

I recommend these reviews: Travis Hopson, Aisha Harris, Jeffrey Lyles, Kevin Sampson, Stephen Thrasher, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Odie Henderson and Stephen Boone. Also, this piece on conversations with interracial couples who have seen the film.

Parents should know that this is a horror film with theme of racism and exploitation, extended peril and violence including gun, choking, and bloody, graphic, and explicit medical images and sounds, characters injured and killed, suicide, references to sad loss of a parent, some strong language including racist epithets, sexual references and a non-explicit situation, and smoking.

Family discussion: When does the story turn from insensitive to offensive to sinister? What makes Chris decide that he has to leave?

If you like this, try: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Wicker Man” (original version) and “The Stepford Wives”

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DVD/Blu-Ray Horror Race and Diversity Thriller

Tales of Halloween

B-

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Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody horror violence throughout, language and brief drug use
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, brief drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive and grisly violence, characters injured and killed, many disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: October 16, 2015

True to its name, “Tales of Halloween” is a collection of ten short horror stories of the type that Boy Scouts might tell around a campfire late at night. That’s both its strength and weakness.

The movie begins on Halloween night in a small town, where a radio announcer (Adrienne Barbeau, legendary horror star making a meta point) introduces us to a series of spooky goings-on about town. What follows are ten short films by ten different directors about monsters, murderers, devils and demons. Most of the directors are veterans of the horror genre with a genuine affection for the medium. Neil Marshall (writer and director of the 2005 horror film, “The Descent”), Paul Solet (writer and director of the 2009 horror film “Grace”) and Lucky McKee (writer and director of the 2002 horror film “May”) all do their best with limited budgets. Director Darren Lynn Bousman creates an enjoyable story of a trick-or-treater who inadvertently plays a trick on the devil.

These stories are short on depth, plot and dialogue. They are long on the kind of revenge fantasies that appeal to adolescent boys. Parents who steal their kids’ Halloween candy late at night, mean baby sitters and neighborhood bullies all meet terrible fates (usually involving buckets of blood). Many of the tales are more “icky” or “gross” than serious horror stories. Some moments turn out to be more laughable than frightening. But there is a kind of cheerful innocence and simplicity to these stories that will endear them to their target audience. It will not help the film’s marketers that most of that audience will be to young to see a film that is rated R for “strong bloody horror violence throughout, language and brief drug use.”

In a 92 minute movie, there is not much time to develop each individual story. This film is not destined to become a Halloween classic but the eclectic combination of directors, actors and costume designers manages to produce some interesting moments. Some segments stand out for their low budget creativity or for unusual twists and turns. The attitude of the film is displayed in the closing credit, “No animals were harmed in the making of this film, but we sure did kill a lot of pumpkins.”

Parents should know that this is a very scary film with many disturbing images and a lot of violence, as well as drinking, drugs, and very strong language.

Family discussion: Which episode do you think was the scariest? Which villain was the most convincing? Is it important in horror to believe the victims deserved their fates?

If you like this, try: “Dead of Night”

NOTE: I am proud to disclose my conflict of interest — my daughter, Rachel Apatoff, designed the costumes for one of the segments, “The Weak and the Wicked,” clearly the highlight of the film!

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