Wednesday, April 8, 2015

It Follows

IT FOLLOWS: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, directed by David Robert Mitchell (100 min.)

It Follows begins with a chilling and disorienting scene, and it builds upon that mystery and initial shock to deliver one of the more inventive and refreshing horror movies in years. A young woman runs out of her home, stands frightened in the middle of the street, then takes a strange circular run back into her house, past her father, retrieves her keys, and drives away to the beach. Nothing is explained to us, and we don’t need it explained; the music, the wonderfully synthetic, prickly score, lets us know things are going poorly for this tragic figure.

From that virtuoso opening sequence, we move into the characters and the central story. In a faceless city (filmed in Detroit), in a timeless existence, there is Jay (Maika Monroe), a beautiful young girl who lives with her sister and alcoholic mother, who is a mere background prop. Seen from behind, slightly off camera, or out of focus, Jay’s mother is necessarily absent for the film to take shape. Jay has her sister, her friend Yara, and her childhood crush Paul, played with a desperate longing by Keir Gilchrist. She also has an older boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), who would like to sleep with her. Jay doesn’t object.

Eventually Jay and Hugh have sex in his car in the middle of nowhere, but Hugh is hiding a secret. He forcibly takes Jay to an abandoned paking garage and warns her that something, or someone, is going to follow her now, and it wants to kill her. This thing could take the shape of a complete stranger or someone familiar to Jay, Hugh doesn’t really know. What he does know is that sex passes this threat along to the next person, and he is hoping to rid himself of the apparition by sending it Jay’s way.

Immediately, Jay begins seeing this… thing… this person. Be it an old woman, a young nude woman, a large man, it doesn’t matter, this apparition walks blankly towards Jay no matter where she might be. These scenes are handled perfectly, save for a scene near the middle which takes on a beach that seems to change the rules of the apparition for the worse. Director David Robert Mitchell, who also wrote the screenplay, has supreme confidence in his ability to build suspense and keep the horrific at a minimum. Because suspense, we all know, is better.

Consider one scene at a high school, as the camera rotates 360 degrees the entire time. As Jay and Paul are inside the building, the camera spins, showing the doors to the building, then the exterior, then back to Jay and Paul. We catch sight of someone walking towards the building outside, then we spin around, and when we get back to that shot, they have gotten closer and are still mindlessly walking. Then, we are gone again, filled with building dread; I could feel the tension in my muscles.

Mitchell manages to weave a tapestry full of familiar horror films and still manages to make this story feel entirely original. The neighborhood resembles those found in Halloween and Nightmare on Elm St. There are echoes of the madness in Suspiria, of the early horrors of Roman Polanski, and the mood and synthetic score make everything feel like a spare European film. One scene in particular hearkens to Let The Right One In. The texture of the cinematography is true, and Mitchell’s characters are fully realized. These teenage girls and young men are not brainless, sex-crazed idiots stamped out of the disdainful clichés of so many horror films. Despite the fact that the entire film revolves around sex and is a clear allegory for STDs, the coitus is not as important as the desperation of these tightly knit friends.

I already mentioned the scene at the beach that doesn’t quite fit in with what we get before or after this moment, and I’ll leave it at that. It’s one scene and it doesn’t pack the punch of the rest of the film. But the end, well, the end seems to stumble. It works on a frenetic level of horror and action, but the subtle and disturbing thrills that came before it are not as present here. We are treated to action, albeit well crafted action. And the reveal after this scene adds some weight to what happened. Mitchell isn’t quite sure how to wrap up the film, so he leaves it open ended, and leaves us with a handful of different shots we must decipher on our own. On one hand I appreciate the trust in the audience to make their own conclusions, on the other hand, the tapestry that was so tightly woven up to this point feels like it frays ever so slightly.

Regardless, It Follows is something anyone who appreciates new visionaries in horror should definitely see.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

BLU REVIEW: A Most Violent Year

J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year, his follow up to the phenomenally minimalist Robert Redford lost-at-sea drama All Is Lost, suffers from a serious identity crisis. The film has no idea if it wants to be a gangster picture, a labor-related drama, a story of redemption, or a family thriller. It tries to balance all of these plates in the air, and the result is an aimless, lifeless story, suffocated by its lack of focus.

The cast is stellar, and Chandor certainly knows how to patiently stage scenes and effectively frame his story. But there is almost nothing to latch on to here. Oscar Isaac is Abel Morales, the hero of the story, a businessman who is constantly fighting an uphill battle. His trade: a heating oil business with a fleet of delivery trucks, trucks that are consistently under the threat of being hijacked. Despite the pleas of his father in law and his more aggressive wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), to arm the truck drivers, Abel wants nothing to do with anything illegal. He has morals which drive his business acumen and may keep him from truly getting in with the right crowds in a poisonous, corrupt New York governmental system.

Abel has another motivation to stay on the straight and narrow, and that is District Attorney Lawrence (Selma's David Oyelowo). Lawrence is tasked with cleaning up the corruption in the business industry of NYC, and despite Abel's claims that his nose is clean, Lawrence is absolutely convinced he is operating dirty somewhere. Not because he has been involved in criminal activity before, but because he must be in order to stay alive as a business in this climate. The forces are weighing heavy on Abel's shoulders, and he remains strong despite the fact that illegality may be the easier way to success.

And yet, with so much set in place, with the stakes as high as they are, and with so many compelling actors on the screen, A Most Violent Year moves at a glacial pace. There is no forward momentum, and the tension is stifled by scenes where very little happens. I'm not asking for shootouts and car chases, but the performances from the likes of Isaac and Chastain feel nothing like what these actors are capable of doing. They both seem tired, disinterested. Even though Chastain has some powerful moments, they feel forced, and Isaac seems to be distracted throughout. Chandor's camera is slick and there are some beautiful scenes, but the story is claustrophobic.

Also, the entire basis of the film involves New York in 1981, which is known for being the most violent year on record for the city. Hence the name of the film. But there is hardly a mention of that outside of this narrow tale. The violent history of the year is never a focus of the film, despite it being the title. That was a lost opportunity, as was the majority of the film.