Horror Review: Hold the Dark (dir. by Jeremy Saulnier)


Hold the Dark

Jeremy Saulnier, writer and director of Blue Ruin and Green Room, invites the brave and the curious to experience his latest creation steeped in the dark, foreboding Alaskan wilderness with a hint of the supernatural and folklore mysticism.

One could never accuse Saulnier of being timid when it comes to on-screen violence. While there’s countless other filmmakers who can and have put on the screen much more dynamic and violent sequences, Saulnier is more of the Peckinpah school of film violence instead of the Michael Bay. His films portray violence at its most unglamorous. His study of the sort of violent means man can inflict on another man are neither titillating or exploitative.

He sees man’s tendency towards violence as primal and something inherent in every man with the veneer of civilization the only thing holding it back. Man, in how Saulnier sees him, is not a civilized species but one playing at one and who feels more at home practicing such violent means.

Whether it’s as an itinerant caught up in an old school blood feud or a hardcore punk band fighting to stay alive against some Northwest backswood Neo-nazi skinheads. They all dig down deep to find that inner primal self that revels in the bloodletting even when they try to hold on to that small slice of civilized behavior they’ve been taught was necessary to survive.

With Hold the Dark, Jeremy Saulnier veers away from the much more straightforward narrative of his last two films and more like an ambiguous campfire tale that may seem obtuse for some. The very ambiguous nature of the plot will definitely confound some viewers who prefer their thrillers to be easy to follow with well-defined roles of protagonist and antagonist. While Hold the Dark veers from that very linear narrative focus of Saulnier’s last two films, it does share those films study of the blurred lines of who is good and who is bad.

The film starts off with retired naturalist Russell Core (played by Jeffrey Wright) being summoned by grieving mother Medora Slone living in a remote village in the northern reaches of Alaska. She’s just lost her young son to what she says are a pack of wolves who have also taken two other children prior to her own. She knows that he is also a wolf expert and has hunted and put down wolves in his past. She wants the animals who killed her son found and killed in order to have an answer and closure for her husband who is currently deployed in Iraq.

From the moment Russell arrives in Medora’s village of Keelut, Alaska the film slowly,  but surely moves from being a man-vs-nature story to something that’s more a dark fairytale whose ending will definitely not be happily ever after. This is where Hold the Dark will either grab a viewer and tell them to just hold on and experience the violent, albeit sometimes confusing, happenings in this grim and dark corner of the world or they will fail to hold on and remain confused to what’s transpiring. Wanting to know whats going on in concrete, by-the-numbers facts and story beats.

Like Saulnier’s previous two films, Hold the Dark doesn’t shy away from showing how brutal man can be when it comes to inflicting pain and damage on another human being. The violence comes sudden, brutal and horrifically efficient in how a body can fall apart.

The screenplay, this time written solely by fellow collaborator Macon Blair, does bring some very interesting questions as to whether violence (or darkness) is inherent in man that is held at bay by the “light” of civilization or is it something that is learned, picked up like disease and passed on from generation to generation. Is violence a natural cycle that is just part of what makes humanity human or is it one that can be broken and left behind and cured of. These are some questions that sometimes has no easy answer and that lends the film’s obtuseness that may frustrate some viewers. Yet, it’s the film’s very ambiguousness that allows the viewer to marinate on the questions and ideas proposed. Whether there’s an answer to these questions will be up to the viewer.

Where the film’s story may frustate, the performances by the cast is excellent from start to finish. Whether it’s Jeffrey Wright’s Russel Core who is the stand-in for the viewer and one who also shares some of the viewers befuddlement at the situation he has found himself in but unable to break free from. Then there are Riley Keough and Alexander Skarsgard playing the Slone’s. One the grieving mother and the other the husband away at war whose reaction to news of his son’s death pushes the film’s narrative from a whodunit and straight into horror territory (some would say slasher film trope with creepy mask included).

Hold the Dark may not be a straight progression from what Jeremy Saulnier has done before with Blue Ruin and Green Room, but it is one that shares similar themes and ideas. It’s a film that allows for Saulnier to dabble in the more esoteric but nonetheless still keep his signature style as an auteur of raw, primal violence. There’s nothing light or hopeful in this latest dark fairytale from Jeremy Saulnier, but then again fairytales were never happy and hopeful to begin with, but tales to try and explain the encroaching darkness and something to help one hold it at bay.

Review: The Hunt for Red October (dir. by John McTiernan)


The Hunt for Red October

Fresh off the success of his two previous films, The Predator and Die Hard, John McTiernan was now tasked with adapting one of the 1980’s most popular novels with Tom Clancy’s debut techno-thriller, The Hunt for Red October.

By 1990, the year the film was released, Gorbachev had thawed the Cold War that existed between East and West. The Berlin Wall was months away from being torn down and glasnost became the word of the day for most people who knew nothing but the spectre of nuclear annihilation hanging over their heads since before born.

It was during the final years of the Cold War that an insurance salesman with a penchant for military and spy thrillers tried his hand in writing one. this first attempt became a worldwide sensation and was quickly put up in a bidding war by all the major studios. It would be Paramount Pictures who would win to adapt The Hunt for Red October for the big-screen and John McTiernan would be hired to steer the film.

While Sean Connery would ultimately be cast in the main role of Soviet submarine Marko Ramius, he wasn’t the first choice. German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer was originally cast but ended up leaving production a coupe weeks into production due to prior commitments. So, in comes Connery and the rest, as they would say, is history.

The thing about film adaptations of popular novels has been how much of the novel could the filmmakers, especially the screenwriter, be able to fit into a film that would run around 2 hours or so. Some cutting of scenes that fans loves would have to be done and depending on the scenes in the novel, a backlash could begin against the film even before filming was completed.

Fortunately, this was Hollywood in the late 1980’s and there was no such thing as the internet as we know of it today. There were no blogs dedicated to reporting on every minute detail of a film production. No amateur film newshound bringing up unsubstantiated rumors of the going’s on during a film’s production. This was still a Hollywood who controlled how news of their activities were going to be reported and what they decided to tell and show reporters.

This would be a boon for McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October since the film had some major help from not just the U.S. Navy, but from the Department of Defense in trying to make sure the film was as realistic as possible in portraying the life of American submariners, Naval personnel and how the intelligence community in the West operated. Again, this was also with the film portraying all these groups in a much more positive light in return for their assistance.

In today’s world, such a compromise from the filmmakers to gain the help from the military-intelligence apparatus would be akin to some as perpetuating warmongering and glorifying the military. I could see blogs shouting for boycotts if such a thing happened nowadays.

But returning to the film The Hunt for Red October, for a straight-by-the-numbers thriller it still brings a certain surprise and inventiveness in the action-thriller genre that other filmmakers decades later would try to emulate (Crimson Tide and the many Jack Ryan-based films). Despite a Russian accent that really was cringe-worthy even when first heard, Sean Connery made for a charismatic and sympathetic Marko Ramius whose reasoning for defecting with the titular submarine Red October went beyond just the politics of the era.

Backing him up was a strong ensemble cast with a very young Alec Baldwin in the role of Jack Ryan, James Earl Jones as his boss CIA director Adm. James Greer and Sam Neill and Scott Glenn as Cmdr. Borodin and Capt. Mancuso. The film goes in heavily into Clancy’s love for technobabble and military jargon, yet the actors involved seemed very game and convincing in acting out the dialogue that would sound ridiculous is just read without context and understanding.

While the film does sacrifice some of the more political maneuverings in the book, which meant less scenes with Richard Jordan as National Security Advisor Dr. Pelt, it does streamline the film to be more action-oriented. It was a shame they went that way in which parts of the novel to cut out since Jordan’s performance as Dr. Pelt was one of the highlights of the film, despite his limited screentime.

In terms of action, The Hunt for Red October proved once again that McTiernan knew how to handle both tension and action in equal measure. He makes the cat-and-mouse battle between the Soviet and American subs seem as thrilling as any fast-paced dogfight scenes that thrilled filmgoers when Top Gun premiered on the bigscreen.

Even the film’s orchestral score from the late and great composer Basil Poledouris would lend the film a certain level of martial prowess that Poledouris’ compositions were known for. Even after many viewings it’s still difficult not to hum the film’s Soviet national hymn-inspired theme.

While The Hunt for Red October was one of the last films of the Cold War-era that still showed the tug-of-war between the East and West, it was a fitting end to a part of Hollywood’s cinematic history that portrayed Communism, especially that of the Soviet Union, as the big go-to Enemy that made action movies of the 80’s so popular with the Reaganite crowd.

The success of this film would begin a cottage industry of sequels featuring the character of Jack Ryan who would be portrayed in subsequent films by none other than Everyman himself Harrison Ford then in a miscasting in a later sequel by Ben Affleck.

The Girl With All The Gifts Gives A Glimpse of A Hungry, Dystopian Future


TheGirlWithAllTheGifts

Several years ago, a video games was released for the PS4 that took on the zombie survival horror genre and put a new twist on it. The game was called The Last of Us. It was a game set in a post-apocalyptic Earth where an unknown fungal infection had decimated the world’s population by turning those it infected into mutated creatures with a taste for living flesh.

There’s been talk of turning the game into a live-action film, but things never progressed beyond the concept and pre-development stage. The game’s narrative does lend itself well into being a live-action film.

Now let’s move up a few more years. The year 2014 to be exact and we see comic book writer and novelist M.R. Carey release a novel titled The Girl with All The Gifts. It’s a novel which shares the detail of a fungal infection creating zombie-like creatures (called “hungries” in the book and film) from those who become infected. Outside of that important detail the novel and the game only share the post-apocalyptic setting.

The novel was so well-received by critics and readers alike that plans to adapt the book into a live-action film was made soon after it’s release. While the live-action plans for The Last of Us languishes in development hell, it looks like we’ll finally be able to see something similar with the soon-to-be released film The Girl with All The Gifts.

The film stars newcomer Sennia Nanua as the titular girl with all the gifts with veteran actors such as Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton and Paddy Considine backing her up. As the so-called zombie fatigue (maybe for some general audiences but definitely not to most horror fans) begin to set in, it’s stories like The Last of Us and The Girl with All The Gifts that continues to breathe in new life into a sub-genre of horror storytelling to keep it going strong.

The Girl with All The Gifts is set to hit the theaters on September 23, 2016.

Guilty Pleasure No. 30: Wolfen (dir. by Michael Wadleigh)


Wolfen_1981A guilty pleasure is a film that we might enjoy, but isn’t as loved by others overall. It’s the kind of film that you can watch on any given day, but to speak of it may cause raised eyebrows among your peers. Everyone has at least one film or two that they treasure in this way.

My Guilty Pleasure pick is 1981’s Wolfen, directed by Michael Wadleigh. Loosely based off the novel by Whitley Strieber, the film focuses on two homicide investigators who learn that the case they’re working may actually be caused by animal attacks. Often mistaken as a werewolf film, I really wouldn’t group Wolfen into that category. It’s supernatural in some ways, yes, but you won’t find any serious werewolf activity in it. Surprisingly enough, Wolfen was released in the theatre just a few months after Joe Dante’s The Howling. This makes me wonder how audiences took to Wolfen after seeing all of the make-up effects in Dante’s work. From an effects standpoint, Wolfen’s big claim to fame is the negative photography used to showcase the animals’ point of view. I can’t imagine it was incredibly amazing when comparing the two, but on it’s own, it’s not bad. It’s one of the few movies I’d like to see get a remake, if only to have the story match Strieber’s book better.

When a millionaire land developer and his wife are found brutally murdered in Battery Park, Detective Dewey Wilson is brought on to investigate. Albert Finney (Miller’s Crossing, The Bourne Ultimatum, Skyfall) easily carries the film as Wilson, feeling a lot like the owner of your favorite corner deli. Wilson’s detective work is subtle in the film, and Finney plays to that with a relaxed alertness. He comes across as calm, questioning, but you get the sense that if it came to blows, he’d be ready to react. I suppose most detectives are that way. When the murder is believed to be a possible terrorist attack, a Security Agency brings in a psychological expert named Rebecca Neff, played by Diane Venora (Heat, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet). Wolfen was Venora’s first film and she’s good in this, though the screenplay is written in a way where it’s more Dewey’s tale to tell. The book did Neff’s character more justice than the movie, overall. Rounding out the casting is Gregory Hines (Running Scared, The Cotton Club – also with Venora) as a forensics expert, Edward James Olmos (Miami Vice, Battlestar Galactica) as a Native American worker who may know more than he says and Tom Noonan (Manhunter, The Last Action Hero, F/X – once again, with Diane Venora) as a Zoo Worker who’s just a little to into wolves in general. That’s just my opinion, though Noonan’s been known to play creepy very well. The performances here are all pretty good. No one is really out of place here, as far as I could tell.

If Wolfen suffers from any major problem, it’s in the writing. In adapting the novel, they had the chance to really bring the terror from the novel on screen. In the book, we’re given an understanding of what the Wolfen are – creatures older, faster and more terrifying than your typical canine. They came complete with their own way of communicating with one another, and Strieber’s novel even referenced his other story about Vampires, The Hunger. The final standoff of the book was a fight similar to From Dusk Till Dawn, with the hope that our heroes could maybe hold off what was coming. The movie decided to go a different route. Not terrible in any way, but it could have been really good if they stayed on track.

I could be off here, but I believe the film elected to try to make the story more relevant for its time by circling the murder around terrorism and using the Security Agency. The Security Agency has so little to do with the film outside of bringing Neff on the case, it’s incredible. About every 20 minutes, the film cuts back to this crew of personnel at their computers, watching footage of attacks (that have little to do with the original victim) in an attempt to piece together why this death happened. Meanwhile, Wilson walks into bar and gets the whole solution handed to him in a short story over a beer. I wonder if Wadleigh (who co-wrote the script) was trying to say that with all the technology at their disposal, all it really took to solve a crime was just regular legwork. To quote Olmos’ character “It’s the 20th Century. We got it all figured out.” That’s just my speculation on that.

From a Cinematography viewpoint, Wolfen has some impressive scenes, particularly those of the Manhattan landscape. For a city that doesn’t sleep, the streets as they’re filmed here are barren, with lots of shadows. One scene in particular has Finney and Olmos’ characters talking on top of a bridge, and I have to wonder not only how they were able to get that shot, but how the actors maintained their composure. One wrong slip and either of them could have fell. I also love seeing New York City in the early 80’s, where most of the Bronx and Brooklyn looked like warzones. Both Wolfen and Nighthawks (also released in the same year) are great examples of how bad the city really was during that time.

Wolfen was also one of James Horner’s first scores. Listening to it, you can hear elements of what you’d find in Aliens, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and his other pieces.

Overall, Wolfen is a good film if you find yourself running into it late at night and there’s nothing else to catch. I watch it on purpose, but that’s just me. We all have our tastes. If at all possible, consider reading the novel as well.

Previous Guilty Pleasures

  1. Half-Baked
  2. Save The Last Dance
  3. Every Rose Has Its Thorns
  4. The Jeremy Kyle Show
  5. Invasion USA
  6. The Golden Child
  7. Final Destination 2
  8. Paparazzi
  9. The Principal
  10. The Substitute
  11. Terror In The Family
  12. Pandorum
  13. Lambada
  14. Fear
  15. Cocktail
  16. Keep Off The Grass
  17. Girls, Girls, Girls
  18. Class
  19. Tart
  20. King Kong vs. Godzilla
  21. Hawk the Slayer
  22. Battle Beyond the Stars
  23. Meridian
  24. Walk of Shame
  25. From Justin To Kelly
  26. Project Greenlight
  27. Sex Decoy: Love Stings
  28. Swimfan
  29. On the Line

The Jungle Book Super Bowl Trailer


The Jungle Book

A month before we marvel at Captain America: Civil War we shall be treated to the latest film adaptation of Disney’s animated film The Jungle Book which itself is an adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling of the same name.

This film has such an impressive pedigree. In the director’s chair is Jon Favreau who is the man who help begin the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man. The cast is a who’s who of some of the most recognizable actors working today: Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Lupito Nyong’o, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito and Bill Murray.

The Jungle Book is being touted as the next step in visual effects in filmmaking with everything except the young Mowgli being computer-generated. The film’s sizzle reel trailer wowed everyone at this past summer San Diego Comic-Con and this Super Bowl trailer does everything to help make that sizzle turn into a full-blown firestorm of hype.

The Jungle Book is set to come out on April 15, 2016.

Ant-Man Keeps the Marvel Train Moving Along


Ant-Man

Will Marvel Studios have it’s first misstep when Ant-Man arrives in theaters this July? Or will it surpass many people’s expectations the way Guardians of the Galaxy did when it came out late summer of 2014? These are questions that fans and critics alike have been pondering since the rather underwhelming teaser trailer which was released earlier this year.

Now, with Avengers: Age of Ultron just weeks away from bulldozing over everything in it’s way it looks like Marvel and Disney have turned their attention to getting the Ant-Man hype train up to speed. If any film needs some fueling up it would be this one which has had a more than contentious production. It loses it’s original director in Edgar Wright after he and the heads at Marvel Studios (Kevin Feige) disagreed on how to proceed with the film. The search for a director to replace Wright became a game of which comedic filmmaker would pass on the project next (Peyton Reed finally was the last man standing).

When the teaser finally came out the tone it gave seemed too serious for a film that was being billed as a sort of action-comedy or, at the very least, an action film that included more than the usual comedic beats than past films in the MCU.

Today we see the first official trailer for Ant-Man and gone is the super serious tone of the teaser and in comes a mixture of action and comedy. It’s a trailer that actually gives us an idea of the sort of powers the title character has outside of being just being tiny. Then we get more than just a glimpse of Scott Lang’s main antagonist with Corey Stoll in the role of Darren Cross aka Yellowjacket.

Maybe this film will still end up giving Marvel Studio it’s very first black-eye, but this trailer goes a major way in making sure it doesn’t happen.

Ant-Man is set for a July 17, 2015 release date.

Icarus Files No. 1: Cloud Atlas (dir. by The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer)


CloudAtlas

“My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet, what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” — David Mitchell

Let me tell you about Icarus. He took flight with wings of feather and wax. Warned not to fly too low so as not to have the sea’s dampness clog his wings or to climb too high to have the sun melt the wax. Icarus heeded not the latter and tried to fly as close to the sun. Just as his father had warned him the wax in his wings melted as he flew too close to the sun and soon fell back to earth and into the sea.

A tale from Greek mythology that taught has taught us about ambition reaching so high that it’s bound to fail. One such ambitious failure of recent times has been the epic science fiction film Cloud Atlas directed by The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer.

The film was adapted from the novel of the same name by author David Mitchell which looked to take six stories set in 19th-century South Pacific and right up to a distant, post-apocalyptic future. Each story’s characters and actions would connect with each other through the six different time and space. The film attempts to do what Mitchell’s novel did through several hundred dense and detailed pages.

CLOUD ATLAS

Just like Icarus The Wachowski and Tom Tykwer’s attempt to connect the lives and actions of all six stories amounts for what admirers and detractors can only agree on as an admirable and ambitious failure.

The film boasts a large ensemble cast led by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving. More than one of the actors in the cast would perform characters in each and every six interconnecting stories in the film which added a sense of rhythmic continuity to the whole affair, but also made for some very awkward and uncomfortable scenes of what could only amount to as “yellowface”. This was most evident in the story set in 22nd-century Neo Seoul, South Korea where actors such as James D’Arcy, Jim Sturgess, Keith David and Hugo Weaving have been heavily made-up to look Asian.

Cloud Atlas was and is a sprawling film that attempts to explore the theme that everything and everyone is connected through time and space. It’s how the action of one could ripple through time to have a profound effect on others which in turn would create more ripples going forward through time. The film both succeeds and fails in portraying this theme.

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It’s the film’s narrative style to tell the six stories not in a linear fashion from 19th-century to the post-apocalyptic future, but instead allow all six tales to weave in and out of each other. At times this weaving style and how it would seamlessly go from one time location to another without missing a beat made for some very powerful and emotional moments. But then it would also make these transitions in such a clunky manner that it brings one out of the very magical tale the three directors were attempting to weave and tell.

Yet, even through some of it’s many faults and failings the film does succeed in some way due to the performances of the ensemble cast. Even despite the awkwardness of the “yellowface” of the Neo Seoul sequence the actors in the scenes perform their roles such admirable fashion. One would think that someone like Tom Hanks who has become such a recognizable presence in every film he appears in wouldn’t be able to blend into each tale being shown and told, but he does so in Cloud Atlas and so does everyone else.

It helps that the film was held up from a very hard landing after reaching so high with an exquisite and beautiful symphonic score composed by Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek. It’s a score that manages to accentuate the film’s exploration of emotions and actions rippling through time without ever becoming too maudlin and pandering to the audiences emotions.

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Cloud Atlas was hyped as the next epic science fiction film from The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer leading up to it’s release. This hype was further built-up with thundering standing ovation during it’s screening at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival. But once the film finally was released and more critics and the general public were able to see it for themselves the reaction have been divisive. This was a film that brooked no middle-ground. One either loved it flaws and all or hated it despite what it did succeed in accomplishing amongst the failures.

Just like Icarus, Cloud Atlas and it’s three directors had high ambitions for the film. It was a goal that not many filmmakers seem to want to put themselves out on the limb for nowadays because of how monumental the failure can be if their ambitions are just too high. It’s been the reputation of The Wachowskis since they burst into the scene with their Matrix trilogy. Their eclectic and, somewhat esoteric, storytelling style have made all their films an exercise in high-risk, high reward affairs that makes no apologies whether they succeed or fail. Each of their films have a unique vision that they want to share with the world and they make no compromises in how this vision is achieved.

One could call Cloud Atlas an ambitious failure. It could also be pop, New Age psychobabble wrapped up in so-called high-art. Yet, what the two siblings and Tom Tykwer were able to achieve with the film has been nothing less by brave and daring. If more filmmakers were willing to allow their inner Icarus to fly then complaints of Hollywood and the film industry not having anymore fresh new ideas would fade.