Sunday, October 30, 2016

Under the Shadow (2016)

Director: Babak Anvari. Cast: Narges Rashidi, Avin Manshadi, Bobby Naderi. 84 min. Rated PG-13. UK/Qatar/Jordan. Horror.

I, like millions of other Iranians, had first-hand experience of the city-to-city missile attacks during the Iran-Iraq War. It was ... "scary". Now, first-time director Anvari has used that real fear as a context, added foreboding metaphysical, political, and religious elements from his native Iran, and created a milestone in horror film-making. Taking elements from The Shining, The Amityville Horror, and modern Japanese horror (The Grudge, Dark Water - all creepy apartments), the film is still unique on its own, because both in terms of story and scares, it hits every note right. And all without spilling a single drop of blood.

PS: Currently hitting 98% on the Tomatometer. Available on-demand from Amazon.

PPS: This is UK's entry for the 2017 Foreign-Language Oscar race.

Mo says:

Saturday, October 29, 2016

My Top Scariest Movie "Scenes" Ever

For this year's Halloween, I will list, not my top 10 scariest movies, but my top 10 scariest movie scenes. If you exclude all the "jump scares" from movies (most of which are fake scares), making such a list wouldn't be too difficult - because you're listing scenes that have created the most excruciating tension/suspense you've ever experienced, without necessarily being gory or macabre.

So here it is, in order of production year, with the scene included. Would love to hear yours:

1. Spider walk, from The Exorcist (1973):

2. Discovering the truth, and Mrs. Baylock, The Omen (1976):

3. Twins in the hallway, The Shining (1980):

(This was the greatest movie scare of all time. No competition.)

4. The hobbling scene, Misery (1990):

5. Candyman appearing, Candyman (1992):

6. "Hey, come on", from The Sixth Sense (1999):

(Admittedly a jump scare, but still unique.)

7. Samara crawling out of the TV, The Ring (2002):

(Okay, this makes a pretty good argument for #1 also.)

8. The empty orphanage, The Orphanage (2007):

9. Door moves an inch, Paranormal Activity (2007):

Clip unavailable. This clip of the door slamming shut is on YouTube, but in terms of scariness, pales in comparison to the scene I have in mind, which occurs far earlier in the movie.

10. The 16 minute tent scene, Willow Creek (2013):

(Just a 5 minute taste.)

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Nice Guys (2016)

Director: Shane Black. Cast: Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Angourie Rice, Keith David, Kim Basinger. 116 min. Rated R. Crime/Comedy.

The pairing of a hunky non-nonsense Russell Crowe with a thin whining Ryan Gosling as two 70s PIs in a comedy, is already strange casting, and their attempt to appear as a new generation Abbot and Castello (notably Crowe acting as the wiser of the two, and Gosling's soundless screams when he's scared) is hard to stomach. But somehow, it works. They do manage a few genuine laughs, and their rapport in an elevator scene, without actually doing anything, is the movie's peak. Wouldn't be surprised if there's talks of an upcoming franchise.

PS: There is.

Mo says:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Don't Breathe (2016)

Director: Fede Alvarez. Cast: Stephen Lang, Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette. 88 min. Rated R. Crime/Thriller.

A nail-biting surprise. Three young skilled burglars break into the house of a blind Army veteran (Avatar's Colonel Quaritch) to steal his award from a prior court settlement, but soon realize he is far better equipped at handling himself than any healthy person. Would call this a thriller rather than a horror, because the clever screenplay and dark cinematography make superb narrative use of the victim's blindness, and in lieu of some medical nonsense towards the end, I was impressed how the movie kept me on the edge for almost its entire length, without even a breather.

Mo says:

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years (2016)

Director: Ron Howard. 110 min. UK/USA. Documentary.

There are "n" number of Beatles documentaries out there, and every single one of them excite me. They make me nostalgic for the days they were at the height of their fame - even though I wasn't even born at the time. Images of these singers and their fans going wild never cease to lose their attraction, and Ron Howard's take was no exception. I just didn't understand ... what's new here? And what prompted a prominent filmmaker to make the effort? Okay, the short clip of a young Sigourney Weaver at a Beatles concert was cool.

Mo says:

13th (2016)

Director: Ava DuVernay. 100 min. Documentary.

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery ... except as a punishment for a crime. That loophole is the subject of Ava DuVernay's documentary. She claims that white people used that loophole to continue slavery, by mass criminalizing and incarcerating Blacks - and even making a profit out of privatizing the prison system. My only issue, was that the film, while not outright saying it, seems to imply Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. and Clinton, all intentionally created this system. Nevertheless, this is a very compelling and eye-opening film, and I'd prefer the calm, wise DuVernay to the angry, self-promoting Spike Lee any day.

Mo says:

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Captain Fantastic (2016)

Director: Matt Ross. Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Frank Langella, Steve Zahn, Ann Dowd, Missi Pyle. 118 min. Rated R. Drama/Comedy.

Father forces an intense mental and physical education on his six children in the forest; also known as child abuse/torture. Imposing ideologies on children by selfish parents is not limited to hermits in a forest, but rather the rule (religious upbringing, anyone?). So the film is controversial from the get-go. The problem is, under the guise of "playing fair", the film-makers avoid taking sides, and fail miserably. You're not sure what their take-home message is, and the final 20 minutes can easily be cut out without affecting the story. Either take a stand, or don't make a disputable movie.

Mo says:

Friday, October 14, 2016

Nerve (2016)

Director(s): Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. Cast: Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Juliette Lewis. 96 min. Rated PG-13. USA/Hong Kong. Crime/Thriller.

I remember the 1995 Sandra Bullock movie, The Net, making baffling claims about the Internet's power and reach, but already expiring by the time of its release (the lack of imagination in the movie's title shows). In Nerve, astonishingly coinciding with Pokemon Go, the Catfish directors refine their ideas, picturing a society obsessed with reality-based video-games, to a (very believable) point of provoking another player's murder. While the story's ending resolution is hard to stomach, and I predict the movie will fall behind the real world by next year, the warning it provides makes it worthwhile. At least for 2016.

PS: Thanks for the recommendation, Mohi. Emma Roberts usually has me running.

Mo says:

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

Director: Stephen Frears. Cast: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson. 111 min. Rated PG-13. UK. Biography/Comedy/Drama.

The hard-to-believe funny/heartbreaking true story of the rich Florence Foster Jenkins, who in 1940s New York attempted to sing in the most reputable places ... with the most god-awful voice. Aside from beautiful production design, the movie is above all a triumph in casting: Big Bang Theory's Helberg is perfect as Jenkins' ultra-hesitant pianist, Hugh Grant walks the incredibly meandering tightrope of showing true love for his wife while enjoying her immense wealth, and the great Meryl Streep performs the impossible task of playing a character who's trying to sing good, but actually sings bad. Imagine pulling that one off.

Mo says:

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Witness (2015)

Director: James D. Solomon. 89 min. Documentary.

In 1964, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in NYC while screaming for help. The New York Times reported 38 people saw/heard/knew what was happening, but did nothing; thus symbolizing urban apathy. Since then, her brother has been on a crusade (which included losing both legs in Vietnam) to understand why this happened. And that's where the film falls short: neither we, nor his family, understand why 50 years later, he cannot let go - regardless of whether the city was apathetic or not. The documentary's importance is splendidly described here; to me, William Genovese borders on masochism.

Mo says:

Suicide Squad (2016)

Director: David Ayer. Cast: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, Cara Delevingne, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Common, Ezra Miller. 123 min. Rated PG-13. Action/Fantasy.

Superhero movie producers are so desperate for new story-lines, they're painting the good guys in shades of grey (here, here, and here). But with this one, they're testing the opposite: How about looking at the bad guys' bright side? The idea seems absurd, but strangely, it works. They manage a coherent story, composing super-villains you can root for, and while Leto as The Joker is quite disappointing (who can top Heath Ledger anyway?), Will Smith leads the pack with a heart, and Delevingne as the "real" villain both looks and acts interesting. This was a very difficult job, well accomplished.

Mo says:

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Tickled (2016)

Director(s): David Farrier, Dylan Reeve. 92 min. New Zealand. Rated R. Documentary.

A New Zealand documentary TV show host accidentally runs into a "Tickling Endurance Contest" in LA, is threatened not to pursue the story when he becomes curious, and then discovers the very bizarre world of tickling fetish, and an underworld of privileged organizers who blackmail contestants, without even much financial gain. So that's all there is to it: some weird subject about some psychotic sadists. I'm not sure painstaking investigative journalism on out-of-this-world subjects, let alone giving them cinematic forms, is worth anyone's time.

Mo says:

Friday, October 7, 2016

Amanda Knox (2016)

Director(s): Rod Blackhurst, Brian McGinn. 92 min. Denmark/USA. Documentary.

Jung once said: “Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.” That's how the film opens: If you believe Amanda Knox was innocent, then she's innocent, and if you believe she was guilty, then she was. Thus starts the story of Meredith Kercher's disturbing murder in an Italy town, how her fun-loving, crazy-acting roommate Knox was accused of it, and how the media spun it far after a credible culprit was found. This is about whether a personality like Knox is "asking for it" when she acts as she does, or the society is expected to think rather than judge.

PS: Streaming on Netflix. Don't miss it.

Mo says:

Life, Animated (2016)

Director: Roger Ross Williams. 89 min. Rated PG. France/USA. Documentary.

I had previously heard about this on the Radiolab episode "Juicervose",  about the boy who was rescued from the abyss of autism, by his connection to Disney cartoons. And the first half of the documentary is actually both heartbreaking and fascinating, showing in scattered beautiful animated segments what happened to little Owen Suskind can happen to any child, and how there is hope for any child. But then the second half shows him trying become independent in his 20s, and the film significantly loses its charm. Makes you suspicious if and to what extent Disney contributed to producing the film.

Mo says:

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Blair Witch (2016)

Director: Adam Wingard. Cast: James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid. 89 min. Rated R. Horror.

I loved the original Blair Witch Project: the first movie to introduce the found footage sub-genre into the mainstream, and make ingenious use of the newfound phenomenon called "the world-wide-web" as a promotional vehicle. I researched the movie, wrote articles about it ... even gave talks about it! But that level of originality can never be reached. So repeating the same elements, with almost everything redone in an offensive way, sprayed with numerous painfully unnecessary shock-shots, and lots and lots of intolerable screaming, will not change anything - neither one year after the original, nor seventeen years, nor a hundred.

Mo says: