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The Stylist gives the slasher genre an overdue makeover

The Stylist
The Stylist, poster

To no one’s surprise, the slasher genre has largely been dominated by male killers, most of them with deeply seated mommy issues. Norman Bates, Jason, Leatherface (as revealed in the 2006 prequel), all take their childhood traumas and dump them on unsuspecting women that must die because they remind them of their own mothers. One woman’s failure becomes a blight on the entirety of womanhood.

Jill Gevargizian’s The Stylist isn’t unaware of this trend among slashers. It actually acknowledges it for its story’s benefit, finding in it an opportunity for subversion, for turning the table on the formula without completely disposing of it.

The Stylist presents audiences with a female killer called Claire (played by Najarra Townsend), a hair stylist that kills unsuspecting customers and removes their scalps to preserve their hair. The reasons why she does this is where the formula gets refreshingly tampered with. Claire isn’t obsessed with hair. She’s obsessed with the image people want to project with their new hair styles.

The movie takes advantage of Claire’s macabre methods to offer commentary on acute social anxiety and how the weight we put on physical appearances forces certain inflexible expectations upon people. One of Claire’s victims, for instance, makes a comment on how we always want what we can’t have as we settle into our lives, mostly by making decisions that box us into society’s idea of what we should be. This is basically the movie’s motto. We always want what we can’t have.

The Stylist

The movie develops this idea by focusing on a particular character that reaches out to Claire for her wedding hair, a thing that stresses the bride to be to the point of considering it the thing that’ll brings the whole experience together, as if the event’s success hinges on curls and extensions.

The concept of marriage, being one of the experiences people struggle with the most in terms of when to do it or even if it should be done in the first place, acts as the catalyst that puts Claire on crisis mode. It puts her face to face with a human tradition that requires having certain things she unfortunately doesn’t have: meaningful friendships.

The situation lends itself well to the metaphors at play. It helps them surface more noticeably as given how it’s commonly assumed that the person that has to shoulder the burden of making sure the wedding ends up being a resounding success is the bride, who also has the responsibility to dazzle in her dress and keep up appearances.

Claire takes all this in and struggles with her place in it, fortifying her frustrations with fitting in as a woman within that environment. In this regard, parts of the original slasher formula start seeping in. Women are still the killer’s main source of anguish, but the killings aren’t borne out of misogyny. They come from a profound frustration, and perhaps incompatibility, with the roles they’re expected to fulfill. That’s what makes the story feel so subversive as a slasher.

The Stylist

Najarra Townsend’s performance as the serial killer stylist is a definite highlight and one of the best in a year filled with strong horror performances (Robert Patric’s in What Josiah Saw comes to mind as one of the others). Claire is a very awkward character that always looks as if she’s uncomfortable in her own skin—hence her desire to become other women while wearing their scalps—and Townsend captures that in every single scene.

The film’s lighting is another high point. It has an eye-popping color palette that could’ve fooled anyone into thinking the story was going to borrow heavily from Giallo slasher movies. While there’s certainly a wink or two here and there that’ll surely leave fans of the genre satisfied, the overall tone of the story and its focus on deep character development owes more to films like Maniac (1980) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), in which the intention is to paint a picture of the killer in as many shades as possible.

The Stylist is an unsettling film that relishes in its ability to make audiences uncomfortable. It’s confrontational even, shoving viewers into a place where they’re forced to ask themselves if Claire’s experiences wouldn’t be enough to drive anyone to do the things she does to try and fit in. It’s stylish, smart, and quite simply unforgettable, the same things one would expect from a killer haircut.

Movie Review: Halloween Kills betrays its characters in the franchise’s dumbest entry

David Gordon Green’s 2018 Halloween was a masterful take on the small but heavily storied world of Michael Meyers and Laurie Strode. It succeeded in not being another babysitter murder flick where horny teenagers get the knife as the sadistic masked killer goes from house to house. Instead, it turned the main survivor of the 1978 John Carpenter original movie, played by Jaime Lee Curtis, into a hardened and battle-ready warrior that weaponized her trauma while also training her daughter to also be able to defend herself.

Halloween Kills
Halloween Kills

Halloween Kills takes all of that and throws it out the window without much to offer in return, other than a dumb violent movie burdened with messy metaphors and unnecessary lore alterations. Sure, Michael Meyers kills, and some of the kills are satisfying to watch, but what ultimately gets butchered in the process is the core Strode family struggle the first movie worked so hard to establish.

In what’s the second movie in a trilogy that was originally meant to be a two-parter, Halloween Kills picks up moments after the ending of the previous movie to see Michael Meyers surviving the fire at the Strode house. Laurie, daughter Karen (Judy Greer), and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) drive off thinking Meyers is a pile of ash underneath the rubble they left behind, but little do they know that The Shape is alive and well, and royally pissed off to boot. Chaos ensues.

In an interesting turn on expectations, Halloween Kills takes Easter eggs to a new level by making characters from the original film take on larger roles in this one, shifting the focus from Laurie’s fight against the Boogieman and onto how Haddonfield itself figures into Michael Meyers’ plans (which the movie very lazily tries to reveal through exposition dumps, in addition to trying to convince audiences on the silly idea that the killer has a masterplan of sorts). In fact, it’s what lies at the heart of the movie. The Boogieman isn’t just someone’s problem. It’s everyone’s.

Halloween Kills
Halloween Kills

Things start to get very shaky here as the expansion of the mythos seems inconsequential and sidelines Laurie and her family’s story in favor of half-baked messages and forced alterations to formula. For instance, it turns out that Michael (intentionally?) exposes Haddonfield as the real monster as its people take arms to dole out justice by themselves in a spectacularly dumb show of mob rule that tries very hard to evoke images of the January 6th Capitol Riots, resulting in the tragic death of an innocent man in the film.

One character actually blurts out the movie’s message at one point, observing that the unruly mob has basically become Haddonfield’s real killer (an issue that is “fixed” by creating a smaller, more focused mob, it seems). What’s worse is that all the time spent setting the angry mob up is time taken away from doing anything meaningful with what the previous movie brought to the table.

On the killing side of things, the movie fulfills the promise of its title, but it does so at the cost of turning Meyers into another kind of slasher that shares more with Friday the 13th’s Jason rather than the one we all know and love by now. Not that there’s anything wrong with experimentation, but implementation is key for these variations on character to succeed. Halloween Kills does not approach this aspect convincingly.

Michael is at his most sadistic in this installment, but his signature ‘slow and intimate’ killing style feels too out of character. There is only one kill scene in which we get a glimpse of that behind-the-scenes sadism Meyers usually indulges in out of camera in previous entries, in which the victim gets several knives stuck to his back for no other reason other than to show how much violence truly drives the character’s identity.

Halloween Kills
Halloween Kills

Remember, this is the same killer that beheaded a cop in the previous film and turned the head into a grizzly Jack-o-Lantern, lighted candle included. We never see him carve the cop’s face in the style of a Jack-o-Lantern, but we know he likes to get creative with his kills. Halloween Kills’ focus on fast, action-heavy kill sequences rob him of that creativity.

David Gordon Green’s Halloween sequel sacrifices too much of everything for an uninspired and clunky sequel. Its most tragic casualty is Laurie’s story, which never reaches anything worth writing about other than clichés and stunted character development. It’s a shame. I had hopes for this new trilogy. All I was left thinking of was that everything should’ve been left wrapped up in 2018. Unfortunately, we still have one more movie to go.

The Suicide Squad review: Blood, Guts, and Comedy

The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad is one of the best movies of 2021, one of the best comic book movies of the last several years, and one of the best movies based on DC Comics of the last decade of their attempted construction of a shared movie universe. Director James Gunn is in his best form, tongue planted firmly in cheek, serving up ridiculous violence layered with humor and pathos. It’s clear that this is where DC should be going with its films: finding hungry filmmakers with a specific take on their properties, and then letting them go wild.

Although really I’m not convinced James Gunn wrote and directed this, or much moreso that “James Gunn” is not actually three kids in a trenchcoat. This movie is ridiculous, violent, and hilarious in all the right ways. It also proves the adage that we shouldn’t be remaking good movies, we should be remaking bad movies (like David Ayers’ Suicide Sqaud) and taking good elements from them.

Because those do exist. Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn continues to be amazing, playing incredibly well in this ensemble even with her own specific character arc. And Viola Davis as Amanda Waller is everything we want her to be and more. A scene between her and Idris Elba is a master class by two actors bringing all of the gravitas possible to set the personal stakes for this silly violent comic book movie that is The Suicide Squad.

Gunn also embraces the silliness of the premise. With a team of truly expendable anti-heroes, how do you make us care about each of these people, set up their stakes, and then let us laugh at so many ridiculous deaths. But this is the magic of James Gunn: he makes us care about Ratcatcher. And not just Ratcatcher, but technically Ratcatcher 2. And Polka Dot Man. And he makes their silly powers something not to underestimate.

But the film also smartly anchors us around Idris Elba‘s Bloodsport and John Cena‘s Peacemaker, whose chemistry is great and whose competition over who is better using very similar power sets is quite enjoyable. And a truly spot-on performance by Sylvester Stallone as King Shark is absolutely everything we want it to be.

While The Suicide Squad is 90% ham and cheese and blood and gore, there’s also a surprising amount of pathos. Between this and Guardians of the Galaxy 2, I have to wonder if Gunn doesn’t have some unresolved daddy issues. Or? It’s just an easy way to motivate characters. But so much of this is about intergenerational trauma. It’s also stealth feminist and puts a diverse cast of characters at the forefront. The women of this movie kick all sorts of ass, but are also flawed where they need to be. It’s refreshing because it’s usually not something we get in our movies, much less our comic book movies.

The Suicide Squad as a movie is just bonkers. It’s not even worth trying to explain the plot, because that’s not what’s important or impressive here. Here’s what is worth watching this movie for. Harley Quinn’s spree of violence set to “I’m Just a Gigolo”. A fight scene with large sections shot from the perspective of the reflection of Peacemaker’s helmet. So. many. character deaths. Caring about Polka Dot Man and Ratcatcher 2. King Shark being hilarious.

And yes, stay though the credits. There’s a final scene that sets up the John Cena Peacemaker series coming exclusively to HBO Max.

And that’s my ultimate recommendation: as much fun as this would be to go see on a giant screen with an audience and popcorn (and it’s probably the most theater-experience-y movie that has come out so far), the Delta variant of COVID is nothing to mess with. Watching this on HBO Max is going to be perfectly adequate for most people. Or? Make sure if you are going to a theater to go to one that is mostly empty, wear a mask, wash your hands, etc, etc. You don’t want to become a part of the Suicide Squad by catching a potentially deadly disease.

But go watch this movie. Enjoy it. While the squeamish should not check this out, those who enjoy the ridiculous and violent will find this a perfect summer treat.

4 out of 5 stars

Movie Review: Snake Eyes: G.I. JOE Origins

Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins

You know who the coolest GI Joe action figure always was? Snake Eyes. You know who was pretty cool in those otherwise terrible GI Joe movies from a decade ago? Snake Eyes. So it makes a lot of sense to reboot the franchise and include at the center the oh-so-hot-right-now Henry Golding as your black-clad ninja, right?

Yes, but then you need to deliver a better movie rather than one centered around the least interesting character in the entire film. You know who’s a badass in this movie? Storm Shadow. Scarlett. The Baroness. Multiple other members of the Arashikage clan. You know who wasn’t? Snake Eyes.

This movie could’ve been really cool. But ultimately it serves as a better origin story for Storm Shadow than it does for Snake Eyes, who is just sort of there. The film doesn’t give us a lot of reason to root for him and like the slowest fighter ever, it telegraphs its every move, making it a cliched “curse your inevitable but sudden betrayal!’ vibe. No lie: my 13 yr old son whispered to me 10 minutes into the movie “He’s going to be the bad guy, right?” When your target adolescent audience is that far ahead of the movie and its main characters, you’ve officially dumbed it down too far.

The story is pretty simple: Snake Eyes was orphaned at a young age and has spent his entire life fighting on the streets and seeking revenge against the man who killed his father. When a powerful member of the Japanese mafia hires him with promises to deliver his father’s murderer, Snake is ordered to befriend a young man named Tommy, heir to the leadership of the Arashikage, a legendary clan of ninja. They take in Snake Eyes and train him, ultimately leading to him having to make a choice to betray them to seek the path of vengeance or to choose the path of honor and his new clan and family. And also COBRA and GI Joe sort of show up and have interest in how all of this plays out, too.

All of this might be cool if done just a little more deftly. And here the problem lies with both the script and direction. Director Robert Schwentke, responsible for the R.I.P.D. film and a couple of the Divergent series sequels, faces the same problems he did in those films: the directing is competent but lackluster. Utterly devoid of voice or any personal statement or connection, it’s hard to emotionally connect with the film, even with such a slam dunk toyetic premise as “Action figure ninjas!” This may also be due to screenwriters Evan Spiliotopoulos, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse, and the no doubt 8-12 other members of the script by committee who demanded certain elements be included in the movie to satisfy the desires of Hasbro or other studio executives. Shrapnel and Waterhouse have collaborated on other good projects in the past, including the 1936 Olympics Jesse Owens story Race and the recent Seberg, and it’s hopeful that they’re being tapped to write an Untitled GI Joe sequel as it’s likely the good things in this movie (and there are many good things). But the dullness seems very familiar for Spiliotopoulos’s work, which mostly includes uninspired Disney straight to video sequels and the recent live-action Beauty and the Beast (talk about uninspiring).

All of this sounds very negative towards this film, and perhaps we shouldn’t be so hard on it. At the end of the day, it’s a serviceable action movie and has a few actually really cool moments. This isn’t surprising, since the supporting cast is full of martial arts veterans. I just wish they got to do more. And I wish I didn’t have to wait until 90 minutes into the film to really get to something that felt cool.

And to be very clear, this is the best GI Joe movie that has been made. That is an extremely low bar since the first two are ridiculous disasters. But here’s the weird thing: those movies at least left a huge impression on me. It was a bad impression, no doubt, but an impression nonetheless. I couldn’t tell you the villain’s name from this movie. But I do remember the bat$#!^ insane performances by Joey Gordon Leavitt and Christopher Eccleston as Cobra Commander and Destro. And I remember the second movie, where they had the audacity to literally kill off 90% of the characters from the first movie in the first 10 minutes so we could start fresh with The Rock and Channing Tatum. Bad movies. But I’m still thinking about them. In two weeks I will likely have forgotten Snake Eyes even came out.

Which is a shame. Snake Eyes as a character deserves better than this. Henry Golding deserves a better role written for him. Andrew Koji, who gives the breakout performance here as Tommy/Storm Shadow, deserves better. I only hope they do all of them justice in whatever sequel will come. Let’s hope it feels at least a little more personal and interesting than this did.

At least the toys are still cool.

2.5 out of 5 stars

You can watch the trailer for Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins here.

Review: Werewolves Within pokes fun at American politics and sneaky lycans, in that order

Werewolves Within
Werewolves Within poster

Imagine a werewolf story where the coming of the full moon is the least of the main character’s worries given he’s surrounded by a group of people more invested in the construction of a pipeline than the prospect of being torn to shreds by a lycanthrope. That, in a nutshell, is Werewolves Within, directed by Josh Ruben and written by Mishna Wolff.

Based on the VR game of the same name, Werewolves Within centers on a group of people forced to stay together under a single roof, during a snowstorm, just as a series of grizzly happenings have scared everyone into thinking a werewolf is loose on the small town of Beavertown.

The story unravels like a game of Clue, where every character is a suspect, only in this case the suspicion revolves around the identity of the werewolf. And yet, the movie takes a sharp turn into oddball political paranoia, in which each suspect is a unique caricature of American politics that makes them as predictable as they are dangerous. It’s as if everything is split between party lines, right down to the way the group should go about solving the mystery.

The main divide that pits each character against each other is the potential construction of a pipeline through the natural beauty that surrounds Beavertown. A bullyish, macho oil man is all for the pipeline and is trying to get as many residents to his side as possible while an environmentalist, a forest ranger, a mailperson, the owner of the local inn, and a rich gay couple stand it total opposition to it.

Werewolves Within
Werewolves Within

A woman with small business aspirations (and a cute small dog called Chachi), her creepy grabby husband, and a money-hungry couple are all for the pipeline. Alliances are drawn from each side’s prejudices against the other and that’s where the movie finds its groove.

Werewolves Within’s two main leads, Finn and Cecily (played by Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub respectively), are the glue that keeps everything together. Finn is Beavertown’s new forest ranger and Cecily is the town’s mailperson. Their chemistry carries an undeniable pull that immediately places them as people worthy of trust in case of a werewolf crisis. They’re easy to root for, which makes all the violence around them bite that much harder.

What’s smart about the two leads is that they function as balancing agents, towing the line between the left-leaning suspects and the pro-pipeline right-wingers. To be clear, I don’t believe the movie is a right-wing bashing free-for-all where the more liberal camp comes out as the clear winner. Each side is a caricature of itself and the movie invites making fun of everyone.

You might’ve already noticed I haven’t mentioned the werewolf that much. There’s a reason for that, but I’ll let the movie do the talking on that front. I’ll say this, the direction they take it in is whip-smart and well worth the many twists and turns the movie throws at its audience at nearly every turn.

Werewolves Within is a remarkable satire of our current political climate and it uses horror conventions just as well as it subverts them to make it stand out. It serves a higher purpose and it’s all the better for it. It has quite a few tricks up its sleeves, and you’ll laugh hard through each one as you try to figure who is and who isn’t an asshole. I mean, who is or who isn’t a werewolf.

Movie Review: Black Widow

Black Widow

After much delay, the highly anticipated Black Widow soon comes to theaters. The film delivers popcorn escapism, the exact sort of adventure and story to allow you to forget the chaos of the current world. It also feels like a well-positioned film to address exactly that too. Taking place after Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff is on the run and a wanted woman. Scarlett Johansson against slips into the role giving the character a send-off after her fate in Avengers: Endgame. It’s a solo adventure that’s long overdue and more importantly, delivers a worthy successor to fill Black Widow’s role going forward.

The story has Black Widow and her allies dealing with their legacy and the Red Room, the secret program to train and build assassins across the world. The film goes out of its way to mention, or at times how, the abuse of the program. It’s a very dark subject matter for Marvel films that have often dance around the subjects. While it doesn’t fully explore the psychological impact, it does dive a bit deeper into the horrid things Natasha endure growing up, having been mentioned in passing in previous films. Black Widow fills in the gaps and answers so many questions.

Black Widow at its center is about control by the state and those “behind the curtain”. Its villain in Dreykov, played by Ray Winstone, is the powerful man manipulating women and abusing them for his own means. There’s multiple levels it can be taken, the clear abuse of women, but in today’s unease, there’s a nice aspect of the 1% manipulating us all.

The film could easily dwell in its dark subject matter only broken up by action sequences. Instead, the film delivers a lot of humor and a solid recurring discussion about what it means to be family. Black Widow introduces us to Natasha’s sister and her parents from the program, all of whom outshine its star.

While Johansson might get the top-billing, it’s her castmates that stand out.

Florence Pugh has a star-making turn as Yelena Belova. She delivers dry humor that picks apart Natasha’s superhero turn. There’s a brilliance to the film taking all of the “ticks” of how Black Widow has been portrayed and mocks it a bit. Mix it in the fact her role within the Avengers, it delivers a nice punch and laugh along with the action.

Pugh as Belova is Natasha’s partner in crime helping to bring down the Red Room and explore their experiences growing up. She delivers a different take on a similar character with a dry delivery to her lines that gives it all a kick in laughs. She’s the “cold Russian” to Natasha’s “Americanized Russian”. She also has the best lines of the film.

The two are joined in their adventure by Rachel Weisz‘s Melina Vostokoff and David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian. The two are the Red Room parents to Natasha and Melina giving the film a dysfunctional family dynamic to work through. Harbour especially delivers the laughs in his out-of-shape Red Guardian and Weisz smacks his ego down regularly. The four characters together bring a nice aspect to the film as it explores family. It’s a juxtaposition to the one Natasha has found with the Avengers.

The film emphasizes either the quiet moments or massive action sequences. There is some issues where scenes feel like they pick up just before the actors begin to do their scene but overall, the film delivers spectacle. There’s also a Bond-like quality about the film as Natasha and Yelena must break into and out of locations and escape capture. While I saw the film on my tv with surround sound, it looks great and should be fantastic to experience wherever you choose.

Black Widow is a solid solo outing for the character delivering a little over 2 hours of escape and entertainment.

What the film impressively does is give its star a fun, final performance before exiting the role while setting up the next generation of Marvel Cinematic stars.

Overall Rating: 7.5

Movie Review: Zack Snyder’s Justice League Shows Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Zack Snyder's Justice League

In 2017, I was excited to see Justice League on the big screen. The film brought together classic DC characters in a new formula that skipped the individual origin films and started with a spectacle. The film was middling, not good and not bad. There were things to like and things not to. Four years later, we get to see a new take on the film on HBO Max with Zack Snyder’s Justice League.

The film is director Zack Snyder‘s take using some of his original material and some new scenes and reshoots filmed just for this. Snyder was unable to deliver his vision originally due to a family tragedy. And all these years later, we get a sense of what he wanted to do and while it’s very different, it too is rather middling. Like the original take, some things work and some things don’t. It’s not a disaster of a film but also delivers nothing new, in fact, it feels like steps back in the gains comic films have made in the four years since.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League basks in its creator’s vision. That’s drilled into viewers before the first scene rolls, stating that’s the reason the film is in 4:3 ratio. The movie is full with visuals that only work on a big screen (thankfully my tv is large with a solid sound system) and has a glee about it, like a child playing with toys in an ever-escalating adventure. It’s also very basic in its concepts. At no point does it really show that it “gets” its characters beyond their powers in a very surface-level way.

Despite a reported additional $70 million spent, the special fx far too often looks dated. This becomes apparent early on in the opening slow-motion of various Mother Boxes where some look very “off” in a glitchy sort of way. Wonder Woman’s opening scene is another example of this. Her speed was handled in a less jerky/choppy way in her own film. Here, here movements look like a nightmare from 1999’s House on Haunted Hill. Her solo film handled this in a much-improved manner and one that’s more visually appealing. Cyborg, Steppenwolf, far too much looks slightly off in its delivery where lines don’t match up at times or even “collisions” of objects. There’s far too much of a reliance on CGI that hurts the film and distracts.

Slow motion is to Snyder’s vision as lens flair is to J.J. Abrams. It’s overused and a distraction. In Snyder’s case, it also drags out the film, slowing the pace to the point of near boredom at times. The dour mood of the film is enhanced by the overuse and obsession with the technique. It’s so overused that by the time The Flash is introduced (in the third segment) that his powers, which benefits from the technique, no longer feels interesting visually.

At a little over 4 hours, the film delivers more of everything. Each of the characters are given more to do as the movie attempts to deliver the epic fight with evil while acting as an origin story for six characters. It does what it can with that with a jumble of side-quests and tangents as we meet the various pieces of the puzzle. The Flash and Cyborg, play by Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher gain the most out of this and each plays a more pivotal role than just members of the team. Miller especially comes out a star with his different and very likable take on Barry Allen.

There are things that make absolutely no sense in the film beyond style. The battle between the Amazons and Steppenwolf left me with so many questions. Queen Hippolyta pausing to do battle while escaping. The fact they thought sealing a rock building would do anything. And again, the fx that look like they belong in video games like Dragon’s Lair and Revolution X as opposed to a big-budget film in 2021. The movie is filled with WTF moments that feel so stilted and not fleshed out and dialogue that’s childish in creativity at best.

About the only way Snyder’s version improves upon the original release is in the film’s ending. Though there are some issues with it still, the film delivers a more satisfying ending in its key action, again giving The Flash and Cyborg a much bigger role in stopping things. The epilogue too feels like it’s a much better way to send things off.

This is a film though that’s Snyder’s to own. And it’s a depressing one. From the action sequences, to the look, to the color, the film has a dour sense about it. It’s drap, depressing, and lacks joy. The actors (as wonderful as Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, and Henry Cavill are in their roles) feel like it’s all a bit too serious. Beyond Miller’s Flash, everyone feels like a stick is up their asses with a stiffness that sucks the fun from it all. It’s a bit too serious and at four hours, it all drags.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League isn’t bad. There’s a lot to enjoy about it. It’s an improvement upon the original in some ways. It’s a step back in others. The enjoyment of it all will be in the eyes of the viewer and whether you enjoy Snyder’s style. It can work, and work well, in a lot of his other films, but here it results in a downer of a film. This is one that should have been an exciting coming together of titans but the end result is a film that takes itself too seriously.

Overall Rating: 6.0

You can view Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max

Movie Review: The Vigil turns Jewish folklore into claustrophobic horror

Much has been said about how The Vigil ventures into Jewish folklore to create a truly genuine Jewish horror story. The movie accomplishes this convincingly and it’s nothing short of impressive, especially when one considers how much of it happens almost exclusively in a small house setting.

The Vigil is a very focused horror movie. It takes place in a small Hasidic household that hides more secrets than one thought possible along with a Jewish entity known as the Mazzik (from the Hebrew word mazikeen which translates into “damager” or “destroyer”). A member of the Orthodox Jewish community has passed away and a man called Yakov Ronen (played by Dave Davis) is asked to become the body’s shomer from midnight to early morning, a religious responsibility that entails acting as the deceased’s watchman. He’s supposed to care for the dead man’s soul as it crosses over.

The Vigil
The Vigil

Complications arise as we learn Yakov has recently left the Hasidic community after a traumatizing experience. In the process, his faith has been broken, leaving him somewhat isolated while in the process of dealing with his separation from the life he’s always known.

Director Keith Thomas, who also wrote the film’s script, decided to cram as much as possible into the story to create a fully realized nightmare specific to the Jewish experience. The intention is to get at the terror behind trauma, memory, and the unknown.

It all speaks to Thomas’ ambitiousness and drive to create an authentic Jewish horror film by fully committing to the culture behind its subject matter. The film goes as far as shooting on location at Williamsburg and Borough Park, two places known for their Hasidic populations, to capture as much as possible from the community that hovers around the main character.

The Vigil

Despite these elements being put firmly in place for maximum narrative effect, what makes The Vigil intriguing is its decision to keep to an enclosed place as it makes Yakov relive his traumas just as the house’s cursed memories start spilling out.

The small, two-story house the story takes place in carries itself like an old and bruised place, overtaken by shadows that seem to only recede in dimly lit spots. Light sources themselves are tinged with opaque reds and greens, making everything seem somewhat shapeless. It makes for a location that comes across as ill-intentioned, persistent in boxing in its chosen victim with no escape in sight.

Thomas uses this to his advantage and amplifies it by keeping the camera close to Yakov. And yet, there’s always enough space left over to peer into the background and see if something unnatural moves closer to him. It allows for a heightened sense of tension and dread to build up and it results in some great scares.

Dave Davis makes the entire experience work with his measured and tortured performance as Yakov. His fear is palpable, but so is the pain he carries. The house and its entity put Yakov inside a black hole of fresh wounds and traumatic memories, all concerning his decision to leave the community he’s currently back in for the night, in spite of his best efforts.

Davis lets the viewer in on his character’s suffering and makes him infinitely relatable, even in the face of his character’s specific cultural traits. The house’s lack of big open spaces creates the eerie sensation one is also trapped inside it with Yakov, making us feel the same claustrophobic terror he’s engulfed in.

Jewish horror
The Vigil

In this regard, The Vigil reminded me in parts of Scott Derickson’s Sinister. That movie’s demon also turned the house setting into a place where memories and hard life choices became things an evil entity could feed on. It exposed them and turned them into nightmares of their own. The Vigil showcases a similar approach to its horror, basically turning the house into a representation of the character’s fractured psyche.

In the middle of all this, the movie also finds a way to comment on antisemitism—from the Holocaust all the way to more modern forms of it—but not in a way that feels heavy-handed or forced. It’s presented as a constant that doesn’t need to rear its head on-screen to remind viewers of its existence, but it’s present enough to also play a role in creating its own sense of claustrophobia for whose who are victims of it.

The entity that attacks Yakov, both spiritually and mentally, is cleverly allowed to be seen in key moments so as to not allow the film to be solely consumed by its metaphors. The Vigil has a lot of things to say, but they don’t get in the way of making sure the movie also gives its audience a proper horror experience. The Jewish demon is memorable and is given the full weight of myth and history to have it embody a kind of evil that is ancient but still relevant.

The Vigil
The Vigil

The Vigil succeeds at making each story beat and horror sequence correspond organically with its Jewish folklore influences and elements. The demon, the house’s haunted memories, and the trauma are all specific to the Jewish experience, but they never close the door on audiences from other cultural backgrounds so they can relate to the horrors on display. It’s claustrophobic and it actively tries not to make anyone feel safe within its story, all attributes of a great horror movie.

Movie Review: Saint Maud offers a disturbing portrayal of faith and loneliness

Saint Maud
Saint Maud

Pay attention to the title of the movie Saint Maud. Really think about what it is that makes someone a saint. In fact, if you look up some of the key saints from Christianity you’ll find the path to sainthood is often paved in blood. Be it through obscure instances of violence or culpable sin, the title of saint is still considered as an undertaking of absolute faith with the good grace of God standing as its ultimate reward.

Rose Glass Saint Maud looks at all this through a different lens, employing psychological horror to produce one of the most disturbing explorations of faith, devotion, and mental illness in recent memory.

Written and directed by Glass, Saint Maud follows a young, pious nurse called Maud as she comes to terms with the meaning of her relationship with God. In essence, Maud lives to answer the question of what God wants with her. As she looks for answers, she’s assigned to take care of a woman dying of cancer. Maud believes she can save the troubled woman’s soul, but God seems to have a harder test in the works for her.

The movie’s most resounding successes rest on the shoulders of actress Morfydd Clark, who plays Maud. Clark masterfully captures the title character’s tug and pull with being both hopeful and lost at the same time. Clark plays Maud as a young woman constantly teetering between a full-blown mental breakdown or a divine revelation.

Maud is given brief but revealing bits of internal dialogue that keeps viewers informed on the latest developments on what she thinks God is asking of her. Morfydd’s narration does a great job of showing Maud’s frustrations with her lack of understanding, always aware of the mounting pressure she faces while trying to make sense of her situation.

Saint Maud plays a bit with what’s real and what’s inside the main character’s head, but it prefers the less ambiguous approach to what’s actually happening. There’s more evidence of Maud suffering from a severe mental illness rather than a fundamental crisis of faith. And yet, it’s her faith that wins out as the thing that guides her in this new phase of life as a recent convert. Maud wasn’t always religious. There’s an obscure trauma at play that the movie cleverly keeps pretty much under wraps. It’s what might explain how God has so completely taken a hold over her.

Saint Maud
Saint Maud

The manifestations of her faith do one very unique thing here that not many other horror movies can claim to do. It makes the movie unfold as a kind of possession story where God is the invading spirit. Maud’s religious devotion plays a central role here as her decision to give in to faith keeps her isolated from almost everyone else.

Glass’ script is careful not to overindulge with the supernatural elements, but whenever something gives the appearance of being otherworldly, the horror gets ramped up considerably. Glass does an excellent job of playing with shadows and dark corners without stripping a single scene of all color. In fact, the movie contains a very clear and solid color palette that serves to heighten the terror at the heart of Maud’s process.

This figures into Glass’ decision to put Maud in big open spaces that aren’t exactly crowded with people. Quite the opposite. Maud seems to live in a world devoid of meaningful human contact. This becomes an especially powerful source of pain while in the presence of male characters, none of which see Maud as someone worth being treated with care or respect. Maud’s world is hostile and even God is suspect.

Saint Maud has a lot of moving parts, each made more complex and disturbing thanks to the fact the element of faith serves as its source of horror. Clark’s performance elevates the story’s focus on the consequences of unchecked piousness with an eye to question not just religious behavior but also the effects it can have on a troubled mind. As far as explorations into these matters are concerned, Saint Maud stands as one of its greatest.

Movie Review: 76 Days

76 Days

January 23rd marks the one-year anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 lockdown in Wuhan, China. 76 Days is a documentary directed by Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, and “Anonymous” taking us into the region and giving us a look at their struggle against the deadly pandemic. The film takes place through four Wuhan hospitals beginning a few days after lockdown.

The documentary opens with a gut punch as family is torn apart from each other. It delivers a visceral start of a raw and emotional journey the world has been experiencing for over a year. The film focuses on the struggles of the people of Wuhan in the earliest days of the outbreak. It’s the stories at the humans at the center of ground zero attempting to survive and do their best in impossible times.

76 Days

Early on we’re takento a hospital as it needs to hold back the hoards of individuals attempting to seak treatment. The film feels like a zombie horror film as the hopsital staff are clad head to toe in protective gear and individuals bang on the door looking for treatment and refuge. It’s a surreal segment that doesn’t feel real taking us into the city’s lockdown and extreme measures from there. 11 million people on the frontline of the crisis.

The film might take place across the world but its struggles are universal. The pain clear. It’s hard to not tear up at as the phones of the deceased ring and messages are sent. To not cry as individuals recount the dead and family they’ve lost.

It also highlights the efforts of so many to fight the disease in its early days and the complete chaos of the situation. They were up against impossible odds constantly adapting and learning what they were up against. A year later, we’re in much of the same situation as the disease mutates and tests the world’s abilitiy to fight back once again.

76 Days

The humanity on display is inpsiring. Doctors and nurses scrambling to fight for patients, some of who have little fight in them. Some cut off from their family, these medical soldiers adopt their patients becoming their surrogate families in these trying times.

But what’s amazing is, this is a city clearly at war with a force it can’t see. This feels like a battle for survival. It’s amazing to watch this and reflect on the laxidazical response by so many in so many other regions.

But the film goes beyond that showing the impact on others. A woman faces a C-section alone as her husband isn’t allowed to attend the birth due to the risk of disease. Beyond that we see the struggle of the same family to bring their child home during a pandemic. We see the lines of food being handed out to keep individuals at home. There’s the amazing level of work put in to disinfect so much regularly. Often reminding workers of those lost to the disease and how it doesn’t care about age or class.

76 Days

But, the film constantly comes back to the struggle within the hospital. The hurdles are far more than I ever realized beyond the disease itself. Patients with different needs. Patients with different dialects. Some take to the internet filling them with misinformation. Some suffering from other diseases like dementia. It all comes together to make the battle that much more difficult.

This is a war film. There are losses and death. There is trauma that will live with individuals for years. For 76 days the city and its people struggled. It’s a struggle the world continues to experience with no end in sight.

Almost American
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