Monday 19 June 2017

It Comes at Night | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Uncertainty and mistrust take the lead in post-apocalyptic realism at its best.

A sickness is on the loose. It kills quickly. Paul, Sarah, son Travis and dog Stanley hide out in an austere home within the woods. Though they’ve seen the toll the disease can take, they have no idea of the extent to which it has affected the world. And it seems like something else could be lurking out there. Then another desperate family (Will, Kim and young son Andrew) enters the home. Everyone hopes for a mutually beneficial relationship. Alas, this is a horror movie.

It Comes at Night, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, is a believable portrayal of what happens when two families, both intent on survival and burdened by mistrust, come together in the midst of an indeterminate threat. The film combines the stripped-down, post-apocalyptic feel of The Road (2009), the backwoods locale and defensive paranoia of The Walking Dead (2010–present), the intimacy of Signs (2002), and the tension and desperation of Breaking Bad (2008–2013).

It Comes at Night relies heavily on the unknown to build tension. For instance, the film reveals very little character backstory – it doesn’t even divulge their last names – because in this world of uncertainty and immediacy, the past carries little value. More than once, the camera focuses on a frightened Travis as he looks into the forest. What is he seeing? Travis’s foreboding dreams and the many instances of light moving through darkness enhance the effect. Additionally, Shults keeps tossing in wrinkles to keep Paul (and the viewer) unsure of his guests’ true motivations.

Worth highlighting is Kelvin Harrison Jr’s portrayal of an awkward teen struggling in extraordinary circumstances. Travis eavesdrops on the home’s occupants, tries to please a severe, though caring father, and deals with a crush on Kim (a subtlety that a less thoughtful film would skip).

Shults, perhaps taking a page from the brilliant horror film It Follows (2014), was wise to insert the word “It” in the title of his film. The pronoun underscores the film’s ambiguity. What, exactly, is “It?”

Don’t expect to see a lot of “the enemy” in this film, but do remember: some of the most frightening horror films in the last couple decades have employed that very strategy. So if you, like me, delight in films like The Blair Witch Project (1999) or Paranormal Activity (2007), then you’re going to enjoy this one. – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Tuesday 13 June 2017

Wonder Woman | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Resolutely she enters the fray.

Finally, a female has joined the contemporary pantheon of high-profile cinematic superheroes . . . not as a peripheral wisecracking vixen or troubled outcast, but rather as an ass-kicking, yet empathetic lead.

Wonder Woman is tearing up the charts—fourth highest opening weekend for a solo superhero origin film, and the highest-grossing opening weekend for a female-directed (Patty Jenkins) film—with good reason.

Using her shield, sword, magic rope, and physical prowess, Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) gracefully dispatches the bad guys. When the film grandiosely portrays Diana in full superhero poise with hair blowing, one can’t help but feel exhilarated by the immense physical and moral power of this protagonist.

The “fish out of water” story is told in frame format, with a present day Diana reflecting on her escapades. American spy/pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) inadvertently discovers the beautiful Paradise Island and its all-female warrior inhabitants, including Diana. When Trevor tells her of the atrocities of the “war to end all wars”, Diana, convinced that Aries is responsible, sets off with Trevor to the front. She hopes to kill the god of war and therefore bring the battle to an end. Trevor, eager to get back to his superiors, goes along with it. So begins a burgeoning co-attraction, an exploration of evil and forgiveness, an opus on women’s empowerment, and an irresistible action film featuring one of the most versatile superheroes to date—Wonder Woman can just as easily bash through a brick wall as she can pull off stupefying gymnastic feats.

Never mind that Diana really has no weaknesses and that villains are one-dimensional. Even more admirable than Diana’s ability to plough through the enemy is her unabashed approach to a misogynistic London. She is not afraid to wear what she wants, speak her mind, and most important, to do something in the face of injustice.

Each of the two main characters’ vastly different world views helps shape that of the other. Diana, raised on an island cut off from the rest of the world, is willing to drop everything to help those in need and harbours no reservations about walking the streets in her conspicuous battle regalia replete with sword and shield. The war-wise Trevor, on the other hand, understands that achieving the ultimate goal sometimes requires tact and covertness.

The spectacle that is Wonder Woman keeps the viewer engaged from start to finish. It’s also inspirational as an artistic achievement. Lately, when I want to take a project to the next level, I’ve been asking myself, “How can I Wonder Woman this?” – Douglas J. Ogurek *****

Monday 5 June 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Shallow content, deep fun.

Seeing a Pirates of the Caribbean (POTC) film is kind of like spending time at an all-inclusive tropical resort—you don’t have to think, there are lots of drunken antics, and you walk away with a smile on your face. In the series’ fifth instalment, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, the party continues.

Dead Men Tell No Tales offers no profound life lesson. The bickering young lovers and comic book goal (i.e. find Poseidon’s trident) are shameless echoes of the previous films and the talk of maps and stars grows tedious. However, after indulging in the film’s strengths, the viewer who doesn’t need a serious film to be entertained can brush aside these shortcomings with all the nonchalance of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).

Sparrow at the Crux
Every major player (i.e. Captain Salazar, the British Empire, Royal Navy sailor Henry Turner, horologist (listen for the pirate banter on this one) Carina Smyth, and Captain Barbossa) is intertwined with Jack Sparrow.

Chief protagonist Henry wishes to use Sparrow’s magic compass to lift the curse that has indentured his father Will (Orlando Bloom) to servitude on a ghost ship. Primary antagonist Captain Salazar (aka “Butcher of the Sea”), played superbly by Javier Bardem, wants not only to unleash the curse that renders him and his crew ghosts, but also to kill Sparrow, who he blames for this misfortune. The power-hungry Salazar takes rasping breaths and his hair constantly undulates as if underwater. “Every time that I’ll stamp my sword,” he tells one adversary, “one man of your crew will die.” And Salazar’s ship rears up animal-like before slamming down on its victims.

Action and Eccentricity
The two-and-a-half hour escape that is Dead Men Tell No Tales immerses the viewer in lighthearted entertainment: humour, drama, a bit of horror, special effects, beautiful scenery, an entertaining villain, and that adventurous score. But that’s all on top of the two strengths that have propelled the POTC franchise: over the top action scenes, and the sometimes (physically and mentally) bumbling, sometimes graceful Captain Jack Sparrow.

Among the key action sequences are an escape from a botched robbery, a diverted execution, and, most gloriously absurd, an attempt to outrow a group of zombie sharks and pirate ghosts who run on water. Often, Sparrow’s clumsiness transforms into extraordinary acts of agility. When the film goes slo-mo at key moments, resist the temptation to roll your eyes, and instead just cheer! Yes, a zombie shark jumping over Sparrow and Henry’s rowboat is completely pointless, but it underscores the schoolboy spirit of the entire film.

Jack Sparrow, with his swaying movements and rum-infused, yet snappy commentary, secures his spot among the most engaging characters in the contemporary action-fantasy genre. This time, he seduces a politician’s wife, falls asleep (standing and pantless) while someone talks to him, fights while attached to a board, and asks his crew members to pay a tribute as they’re saving him. And what other character would tell zombie sharks to “shoo” while flapping a hand at them?

Justified Extravagance  
Like all the gems in the POTC treasure chest, Dead Men Tell No Tales recognizes itself for what it is: a high-action, high-special effects film that isn’t overly serious.

Admittedly, I watched this one in a “4DX” theatre replete with moving seats, fog, flashing lights, and sprays of water. But wouldn’t Captain Jack Sparrow applaud such extravagance? With the pirate Sparrow, overboard is the way to go. – Douglas J. Ogurek ****