Death Note (2017)
★ / ★★★★
For a story that is supposed to highlight the power of imagination, “Death Note,” based on the screenplay by Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slate, is malnourished of this very element, from the way the characters are written to the manner in which events unfold surrounding a teenager named Light Turner (Nat Wolff) who comes across a mysterious notebook imbued with the power to kill any individual whose name is written inside its pages. It is a challenge to sit through material with potential to genuinely engage and impress but proves incapable of doing so with every passing scene.
Due to the writing’s lack of depth, we never believe the fantastic reality the protagonist finds himself embroiled in. While the dialogue acknowledges that Light is supposed to be smart for his age, his decisions prove otherwise—he is unable to think three to five steps ahead of whatever he is up against, whether it be his girlfriend (Margaret Qualley), his father (Shea Whigham), who also happens to be the chief of police, an enigmatic detective from the FBI (Lakeith Stanfield), or Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe), the demon god of death that enacts the killings specified by the owner of the notebook. That is, until the moment when the plot requires that he be intelligent enough to pull off a surprising final act. Since it is all too convenient, we feel cheated of our time.
The plot requires an exploration of moral gray. Essentially, it brings up that question that if you had the power to kill anybody at a drop of a hat, would you do it? But the material is not at all interested in depth or philosophical musings. Rather, it is interested in pushing the pacing in such a way that the story creates a semblance of the story moving forward—even if it is inappropriate at times. In actuality, ironically, mindful viewers will recognize that the story is stuck in one position. Sure, events occur and unfold, but, for instance, do we actually learn about the subtleties implied within the numerous rules surrounding the curious notebook? An important sequence involves a ferris wheel. This ride works as a metaphor for, and critique of, this picture.
While the deaths are visually impressive, reminiscent of “Final Destination” horror films when we can actually see them transpire rather than being manically edited, less striking is the look of Ryuk. While appropriate that it hides in the shadows, when it is shown under some shade of light, the substandard CGI takes away from the already low-level tension of the film. Although Dafoe taps into some interesting notes when it comes to his voice acting, it is disappointing that the character itself never does nor says anything particularly revealing or surprising.
“Death Note” is directed by Adam Wingard, filmmaker of stylish pictures such as “The Guest,” “You’re Next,” and “A Horrible Way to Die.” But his sense of style comes with a load of painful mediocrity, leaving a bland taste in the mouth, content-wise, rather than a shock to the system. With the aforementioned works, at least it is apparent he intends to follow his own vision. Here, however, the material reeks of desperation to be liked, to be modern, to be mainstream to the point where his stamp is no longer visible. A bad movie with a specific vision (and execution) is always more tolerable than a bad movie that embraces any and all compromises.
Blair Witch (2016)
★ / ★★★★
The scariest thing about “Blair Witch,” directed by Adam Wingard, is its audacity to exist despite having no good reason to. From top to bottom it reeks of mainstream horror film stench, from the painfully standard jump scares to the ostentatious exhibition of paranormal phenomena. Its most crucial limitation is that it has forgotten what made “The Blair Witch Project” so effective and chilling as a found footage picture: every image in the 1999 instant classic is so realistic, one can believe—and people did believe—that it actually happened.
This unbearably dull modern sequel dares to establish a tenuous connection to the first simply by mentioning a doomed character’s name from its predecessor whenever convenient. It makes no effort to establish an identity of its own despite being a sequel—curious because Wingard has shown in the past that he is a filmmaker who understands the importance of tone and mood to support a specific story being told. “You’re Next” and “The Guest” showcase his abilities from behind the camera. Put this work next to these films and it not merely pales by comparison but it disappears completely.
The curious twenty-somethings who venture into the woods (James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Corbin Reid, Brandon Scott) are not at all interesting. A fresh idea is that the four friends are equipped with various gadgetries. However, the writer, Simon Barrett, fails to inject intelligence, creativity, irony, or even a sense of humor into the increasingly desperate situation. Instead, we get the usual servings of the place, or possibly the witch, or witches, who reside in the forest, supposedly being able to manipulate time, potential victims running around while screaming, and flashlights not working during crucial moments. Not one personality is memorable.
In the middle of the picture, I caught my mind going back to the original and appreciating its minimalist approach. There are no flying yellow tents, no skeletal-looking figure lurking in the woods, no sudden boom in the score or soundtrack. Instead, there are creepy shadows (accidental or on purpose), it captures the eeriness of the forest even though the camera sees nothing there but the movement of the leaves, and the silence is deafening when a subtle sound of twigs breaking can be heard in the night. There is an escalating level of tension and suspense that this horrific sequel lacks.
Nobody expects “Blair Witch” to reinvent the found footage subgenre or to be as impactful as its predecessor, but I do expect it, at the very least, to try to deliver the requisite chills and thrills that should come with the kind of movie it attempts to be. But I got the impression that the filmmakers here did not even try to make a good movie but to merely cash in on a familiar name. The lack of inspiration is palpable in every frame.
24 Exposures (2013)
★ / ★★★★
There is a way to make every day lives interesting, but writer-director Joe Swanberg has not found a way to capture cinematic qualities in seemingly small moments—which is why “24 Exposures” is ultimately a waste of time and film. Just about everything about the picture is intolerable, from the lack of a compelling script to the way certain scenes—which are supposed to make us care about the murder mystery—are shot.
The plot involves a dead woman, a detective (Simon Barrett), and a photographer (Adam Wingard) who just so happens to be the main suspect. But the plot is irrelevant because the screenplay finds one excuse too many to avoid dealing with it head-on. Instead, we get numerous and increasingly tired scenes where women’s bodies are objectified whether it be by way of being topless or a woman kissing another woman. We are even forced to sit through a warmup for a threesome. These are moments when the camera is most still and focused.
One might claim that the film is about modern voyeurism and how it desensitizes. After all, the main character, Billy, is used to observing the world through the lens of his camera, the subjects almost always being women who wish to start a career in the entertainment industry. The subjects regard him as someone who can potentially ignite their careers while he sees them as mere objects. And when the camera is not in his hands, he views the world through his spectacles—every image is, in a way, filtered.
But to make such a claim gives the work undue credit. While elements that can make such a commentary valid are present, there is a lack of well-defined connective tissues to give the claim weight. So, in the end, one gets the impression that the writer-director has no idea what he wishes to communicate, that he is too lazy to actually try and make his work cohesive.
The film has neither dramatic core nor a convincing tension. At first, it appears as though we are supposed to care about Billy, his girlfriend, and their open relationship, but it fails to evolve into anything other than two people sharing the same room and sleeping together once a while. Then the whole subplot of the detective trying to be friends with Billy is introduced and so the murder mystery is swept under the rug completely. Swanberg forgets to convince the audience why we should care about the story and the characters in it.
“24 Exposures” is one exposure too many. With a running time of under eighty minutes, it feels so much longer because so-called scenes are placed in front of us and barely anything of consequence happens. The movie is not for everyone, not even patient viewers. Maybe it’s for audiences who are braindead but to even make such a claim is cruel—because the movie is not for anybody other than for Swanberg’s masturbation of his ego.
Guest, The (2014)
★★ / ★★★★
For a while “The Guest,” written by Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard, is quite a solid throwback to thrillers from the ‘80s, but it ends up becoming a letdown because it fails to establish a protagonist the audience can root for. While it is enjoyable that the villain is written in such a way that we almost want him to get away with all of the things he did, at the same time we know that he must be punished for them. For the film to have been a fully effective throwback, however, polarity ought to have been established. In ‘80s thrillers, there is almost always a defined good versus evil.
The Peterson family has recently lost their son and brother in the war. So when a man named David (Dan Stevens) knocks on their door and introduces himself as one of Caleb’s close friends in the army, the Petersons welcome David into their home to stay for a couple of days until he figures out what to do next. Anna (Maika Monroe), the middle child, feels there is something not quite right about the guy so she decides to ask questions, starting with a call to the military.
Stevens plays David with such charisma that it is near impossible not to want to like him. The performance is comparable to what Ryan Gosling might do: approach a potentially morally corrupt character and try as hard as possible to hide that evil within. The key word is “try” because once in a while he lets out a certain look or stands in such a way that there is no shadow of a doubt that the person in front of us is not right in the head. It is a smart performance by Stevens; he hits all the right notes.
The weakness is in the character development of the two remaining siblings, Anna and Luke (Brendan Meyer), the duo that we are supposed to root for to survive the ordeal. While we are given a skeletal idea of who they are and what they deal with on a daily basis, they do not go through a significant change divorced from David’s direct influence. Thus, David has the active role while Anna and Luke merely respond. It might have been more engaging if the formula were changed once in a while.
The picture is at its lowest when the military gets involved. Great tension is gathered at times when there is only the family and the stranger living under the same roof. We grow curious as to how they can possibly outsmart or overpower David. There is suspense. However, when the guns come out and bullets come flying, it becomes a standard, unimpressive action film. It is a good decision, however, to have the final confrontation somewhere that is isolated with a synth pop soundtrack that injects excitement and poetry to the violent turn of events.
“The Guest” takes a number of risks. While some of them do not pay off, especially the scenes with the parents (Sheila Kelley, Leland Orser), a few high points are memorable. The scene at the bar with the high school bullies and Anna’s terrible timing of letting her secret out quickly come to mind. Certainly the picture entertains and has some style. However, one gets the impression that the writing is unfocused not only with respect to providing well-defined protagonists worth rooting for but also in the mishmash of genres prevalent in the second half.
You’re Next (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
It is the thirty-fifth anniversary of Aubrey and Paul (Barbara Crampton, Rob Moran) so they invite their grown kids to their vacation home, unaware that their neighbor next door was massacred the night before. Dinner is served and barely two minutes into what should have been a nice meal, an argument between brothers (AJ Bowen, Joe Swanberg) explodes. As upset voices fill the room, a guest is hit by an arrow, shot by someone from outside.
“You’re Next,” written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, is slightly better than an average slasher flick for one reason: a final girl named Erin (Sharni Vinson) who is worth rooting for until the very last second. On the other hand, its premise, masked strangers terrorizing a family, is painfully standard. It only gets better when unexpected pitch-black humor, such as a line uttered by someone who is badly hurt, surfaces.
The first half is stronger than the latter half. I enjoyed watching panicked people running around the house as they try to gather the fact that someone outside wants to kill them. The material finds a few creative ways to move a group of people from one room to another despite an avid shooter picking off the weakest links. Here, the screams of terror works even though lines like, “We’re gonna die!” cheapen the moment a little bit. One of the most effective scenes involves Aubrey having a meltdown as she watches one of her children die.
But the star of the picture, appropriately, is the survivor. In horror movies, I always find it annoying when a whiny weakling makes it to the final act or, worse, survives. Erin is the antithesis of a dumb blonde who asks, “Is anyone there? …Hello?” while entering a dark room with no weapon—and no chance. Erin is tough mentally. She makes brisk movements. She is always looking around for whatever she can use to defend herself. She knows what to do with the weapons. She can be creative when resources are limited. Most importantly, she is given enough background to make the fight in her believable.
The masked murderers are not interesting at all. While we are given to understand their motivation, there is not much substance to them except to look sinister as their image is reflected on glass. The problem is that they are not as smart as the heroine. Still, some of the kills are inspired. I liked the one where a masked figure traps one of his victims, lying on the ground, and uses an ax as if he were playing crochet. Though one anticipates the crunching sound of a skull being split open, one still cannot help but flinch.
Those who make careless claims that “You’re Next” is innovative need to get their eyes checked—or watch more horror movies. It is entertaining during some parts and at times it falls completely flat due to the lack of energy and precise execution while tension is supposed to be escalating. We are given a good protagonist but the screenplay requires more work in order for the final product to be truly worthwhile.
★★ / ★★★★
I hated “V/H/S” so much, I was not sure I could stomach a sequel. However, I abide by a personal code of giving every film a chance so I leapt into “V/H/S/2,” composed of four segments and one unifier, feeling optimistic and willing to be impressed. In some ways, I was. There is a hidden gem here that deserves to be made into a full-length feature film.
“Tape 49,” the unifier, is not that segment. On the contrary, it is the least developed and most predictable of the bunch. Although it has potential because it involves two private investigators (Lawrence Michael Levine, Kelsy Abbott) who are looking for a college student that has gone missing, the writer-director, Simon Barrett, gives his characters neither engrossing detective work nor a functioning brain when turn of events bring up red flags. For a pair of detectives, it is most frustrating that they lack common sense.
The diamond in the rough is “Safe Haven,” written by Timo Tjahjanto and and Gareth Evans. It involves a documentary crew interviewing a leader of a cult (Epy Kusnandar). The latter is convinced that it would be a good idea for the filmmakers to be invited into the very private community, who believe they are on a journey to immortality, so that they can capture the truth and show the world that their faith is good and pure.
I watched the segment in complete fascination. Its turn of events reminded me of off-the-wall Japanese horror–the willingness and the energy to be creative and entertain. For twenty minutes, I experienced a spectrum of emotion, from being tickled by the greenness of the crew to horrified by what is being shown on screen. Yes, it gets violent and bloody but there is a method in the way it builds from serenity to convulsing madness. I could not help but wonder what Tjahjanto and Evans can do if they were given an hour and a half or so to develop their characters and helm the thematic elements.
Solid work can be found in Adam Wingard’s “Phase I Clinical Trials.” It tells the story of a man, played by Wingard, who has just received a prosthetic eye that records every single thing he sees or does. Though it grants him the gift of sight, there is a catch. The premise is similar to Oxide Pang Chun and Danny Pang’s “Gin gwai,” which makes it somewhat predictable, but there is a freshness in the way it takes its time to build. The extra beat or two of delay prior to the jolt matters when the mood is tense.
The two remaining segments, Eduardo Sánchez and Gregg Hale’s “A Ride in the Park” and Jason Eisner’s “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” are more comedic than thrilling or scary, but they have their moments, too. It is an excellent decision to sandwich them between more serious work in order to prevent the mood and tone to go stale.
I enjoyed “V/H/S/2” because each part is able to offer something different to the table. While one or two of them is not great work by any means, as a whole it is a much brighter and more memorable compilation than its predecessor. Unlike the egregious “V/H/S,” there is not one segment here that comes off as an affront to the art of filmmaking. You get the feeling that this time the writers and directors strive to make something they can be proud of.
Horrible Way to Die, A (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Sarah (Amy Seimetz) recently joined Alcoholics Anonymous. On her first day, which happens to be the third month of her sobriety, she meets Kevin (Joe Swanberg). He claims he wants to get to know her outside of AA. She admires his honesty and figures she can use a little bit of that positive quality in her life. The two go on a date and everything goes swimmingly. Meanwhile, Sarah’s ex-boyfriend, Garrick (AJ Bowen), escapes from prison. We learned that when he was still with Sarah, whenever they weren’t together, he killed to feed his addiction for flesh. His motivation to get out of prison, it seems, is to see his ex-girlfriend and claim her as his most priced victim.
Written by Simon Barrett and directed by Adam Wingard, “A Horrible Way to Die” has some good ideas and rather solid twists before the closing chapter, but the muddled cinematography takes away the little power that the picture has going for it.
We spend a lot of personal time observing Sarah and Kevin. We watch them meet, exchange smiles out of politeness which soon changed into something genuine, go on their first date, and the first time they have sex. But the camera shakes so relentlessly and dizzyingly for no good reason whatsoever. It feels like we are watching a first take as the cameramen and director attempt to adjust the lighting and make sure that the microphones are in their proper places. By moving the camera in such a way, the connection between the characters and audiences are disrupted. Instead of engaging us in a flow, it becomes a difficult and frustrating watch. Because of its presentation, the material appears unprofessional.
Sarah has a lot of self-esteem issues which is rooted in her struggle against alcohol addiction and is perpetuated by news that her serial killer ex-boyfriend is on the loose. The camera should have been still so that we are allowed to look her in the eyes and infer some of the questions that might pop into her head. This is her journey and I wasn’t convinced that the filmmakers were aware of that. If they did, the least they could have done is to get the technical issues right so the audience can focus on the story.
The writing needs revision because it fails to incorporate two of Sarah’s monsters: the alcoholism and the ex-boyfriend. Although flashbacks are provided so that we can get a sense of our protagonist’s history, there is no effort from behind the camera to put them together in way that makes sense. Obviously, drugs can be a source of addiction but what are the similarities between a drug and a bad relationship? Instead of exploring this question, the filmmakers hands us random scenes like Sarah thinking about Garrick when she touches herself at night. What does that have to do with anything?
“A Horrible Way to Die” lacks a bridge between drama and horror/thriller so the emotions on screen feel like a sham. The whole charade would have been laughable, not just maddening, if it wasn’t such a frustrating chore to sit through.