Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Movie Review: The Eyes Of My Mother

Nicolas Pesce makes a brutal horror debut with The Eyes of My Mother
© 2016 Borderline Presents/Tandem Pictures

Teach Your Children Well


Francisca (Olivia Bond), a young girl, lives with her parents on an isolated farm. Her mother (Diana Agostini), once a practicing surgeon in her native Portugal, instructs the girl in both the spiritual and scientific marvels of nature, encapsulated by the devoted veneration of her namesake Saint Francis. Francisca’s taciturn father (Paul Nazak), while not outwardly cruel, appears to suffer from an excess of rural repression. Horrible tragedy befalls the family one day, at the hands of a leering drifter named Charlie (Will Brill). Nicolas Pesce’s debut film The Eyes Of My Mother moves this far down a predictable genre path, and no farther.

Following the emotional example of her family unit, Francisca confronts her trauma with unnerving dispassion, and even a certain scholarly interest. Rather than cope with her grief, she embarks on a study of its causes. Faced with the human capacity for senseless brutality, she notes both its devastating effect and its prurient allure. She accepts both in the spirit of education, an ironic perversion of the intellectual curiosity her mother imparted with the best of intentions. Gradually, in subtle glimpses of her life, the film reveals Francisca as a perfect storm of love, fear, clinical stoicism and spiritual hunger. Each of these qualities, we learn, is marked by the ugliness life has dealt her. Privately she burns with humanity, but within her may also lurk sufficient inhumanity to cancel it out.

Outwardly, Francisca grows into a lovely young woman (Kika Magalhães). She carries herself in a near-constant attitude of birdlike observation. Only in utter solitude and darkness does her demeanor slip to show the true ruin that loneliness and horror have made of her. From minute to minute the film invites its audience to ache with sympathy, tremble with revulsion, and sometimes do both at once.

The Eyes Of My Mother is a short and, at least in its formal construction, a simple film. Discussing individual scenes out of context might do them disservice. A somber black-and-white palette, an understated narrative pace, and frequent ellipses in action mask intermittent moments of pure, soul-scorching horror. As the story progresses, less is implied and more is shown of Francisca’s dreadful secrets. Her sporadic interactions with the world outside are sincere efforts to know love and fulfillment in the eyes of others. Even so, each desperate act yields more hideous results than the last, tightening the confinement of her arguably doomed existence.

Francisca is, without doubt, a monster. It is fair to say that she was made into one, but at such a crucial stage of her formation that it may be inseparable from her nature. Psychological points of escape, moments where she might turn aside and spare herself a monster’s fate, are never certain until they have passed. The film’s chief dramatic question seems to be whether Francisca will be able to touch another life without turning it monstrous as well.

Be aware. This is a horror film, and a savage one. It is often beautiful, occasionally even tender, but no less harrowing for that. Personal sensitivity to depictions of physical and emotional suffering may face a strenuous test or two. The rewards of such an ordeal are the promise of explosive catharsis and the pleasure of sharp, economical drama presented for its own sake.

Movie Review: Hush

Mike Flanagan and Kate Siegel create weave soundless horror in Hush
© 2016 Blumhouse Productions/Intrepid Pictures

Now Hear This

To date, director Mike Flanagan has helmed two successful horror films. The first is Absentia, a poignant and absorbing yarn in the style of a creepy urban myth. The second is Oculus, a blistering fable about family dysfunction (and haunted mirrors) told in parallel timelines. For his latest film Hush, Flanagan steps off the supernatural plane, applying his visual storytelling prowess to a more straightforward suspense thriller. Straightforward it would seem anyway, but the script by Flanagan and lead actress Kate Siegel (also seen in Oculus) has just as many sneaky tricks without conjuring ghosts or other forces from beyond. Brace for old-fashioned hometown horror with some keen new ideas.

Maddie (Siegel) is a novelist caught in the chasm between publishing a successful first book and the nebulous, looming horror of penning an equally brilliant follow-up. Her main stumbling block is the ending. Early in the film she agonizes over a suitably powerful and satisfying denouement for her new story. Are you getting a prickly feeling about where this narrative might be headed?
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Movie Review: The Witch

Robert Eggers weaves New England period horror in The Witch
© 2015 A24

The house began to pitch, the goat to twitch…

Some horror fans have complained that The Witch failed to scare them. Too bad for them. It is certainly a horror film, but not one whose pace or tactics will be to everyone’s taste. There are moments of pure shock and horror, but these rely on long periods of foreshadowing and quiet dread to set them up. Something important to note is the opening title card, which announces The Witch as “a New England Folktale.” That is exactly what viewers should go in expecting. The key themes of the film are the reality of frontier life, the dour trappings of superstition, and a lingering ambiguity about where the two might intersect. The Witch is a fanciful, fatalistic yarn that a master storyteller would take an entire evening to tell. As with any story told by candle or campfire light, the more you open yourself to The Witch the more firmly it can grip you. Those hoping for the squirm-a-minute pace of James Wan’s The Conjuring, or even the abstract visceral menace of Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, may not find what they want here. Those willing to stew with painful slowness in suspense and paranoia will find their patience well rewarded. The Witch is very scary.

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Movie Review: Mr. Holmes

Bill Condon directs Sir Ian McKellen as the great aging sleuth in Mr. Holmes
© 2015 Roadside Attractions

The Game Is Adrift

Those reasonably familiar with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes tales will know that the master sleuth dreamed of retiring to Sussex once his cases were all solved, specifically to raise bees in solitude. Bill Condon’s film Mr. Holmes, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher from Mitch Cullin’s novel A Slight Trick Of The Mind, imagines just such a scenario, in which Holmes (Sir Ian McKellen) has outlived nearly all his old comrades and, just after the close of the Second World War, dodders about his coastal cottage nearly a century old.

Many authors after Doyle have added their ideas to the Sherlock Holmes canon, with varying degrees of success and wildly divergent levels of regard for the source material. Some stories, including a few by Doyle himself, toy with the classic Holmes format by flashing significantly forward or backward in the life of the great sleuth. More than one fiendish problem has imposed itself on his placid country retirement, but in almost all such cases Holmes retains his razor-keen intellect no matter how physically diminished by age. Hatcher’s screenplay, by way of Cullin’s novel, presents another more poignant possibility. What if the mind of the world’s greatest detective (sorry, Batman) began to fail him with one crucial mystery left to solve?

This premise, though rendered with due respect for the character’s history, seems to cast a glum shadow over the happy retirement which Doyle must have meant as a parting gift for his greatest character. The two other inhabitants of the cottage are his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). Holmes, notoriously brusque with fellow humans throughout his life, is no easy charge. Though softened by old age into a genuine fondness for the precocious boy, he functions in a near-constant state of abstraction that wears on the mother. Obliged to take up the duties of a home nurse, at “cook’s wages” as she puts it, she frowns upon her son’s worship of the august Mr. Holmes. A modest woman tried by grief and sacrifice, she feels her relationship with Roger slipping as Holmes fosters the boy’s ravenous curiosity. She adores her son and admires his cleverness, but fears he may grow to look down on his own humble roots. Having lost much in life herself, she may also hope to spare him the ravages of grief when his decrepit hero inevitably dies. She tries to impose distance between the two when she can, without much success. Linney does typically excellent work in this role, wielding a convincing Southern English accent that never intrudes on a strong and moving performance.

McKellen, a vibrant and energetic actor now in his middle seventies, plays the precarious physical state of a hard-worn chap in his early nineties with conviction. His rich intonation is known to most moviegoers by now, but he acts just as eloquently with mournful eyes, trembling hands, and a stubbornly jaunty flourish of his walking cane. It is surprising that this should be his first turn as Sherlock Holmes.

Roger, meanwhile, trails Holmes wherever he goes, begging him to continue a half-written manuscript correcting the late Dr. Watson’s account of the very last Baker Street case. At several points the film gets playful with the slippery nature of Holmes the person. Sherlock Holmes, as we know him, is a fictional character so familiar that he often seems like a real figure from history, while in the world of Mr. Holmes he is a real person conflated to legendary status on page, stage and screen thanks to all manner of literary license. Throughout his career Holmes has tolerated discrepancies between life and legend, such as the briar pipe and deerstalker hat he claims he never used, but evidently Watson’s account of his final case has the facts so wrong that Holmes feels compelled to set them right.

Young Milo Parker, who plays Roger, is a rare find. He looks every bit the simple country lad, but his presence and delivery are laudable. There are many fine young actors (which is, after all, how we get fine old actors), but few as young as Parker have the chops to act alongside dramatic veterans like Linney and McKellen. He steals as much of the camera’s attention as they do, and this early performance ought to start his career on a good path.

The details of the lost case itself are better shown than explained. They involve a curious course of music lessons, a grief-stricken lady (Hattie Morahan) wandering London to the dismay of her husband (Patrick Kennedy), a somber visit to postwar Japan, a mysterious foreign host (Hiroyuki Sanada), and the peculiar life cycle of bees. All the ingredients are ready-measured for a classic Holmes adventure, but the race against his ailing faculties is a new enemy for the old sleuth to conquer. Supporting turns from such seasoned players as John Sessions and Frances de la Tour will delight cameo spotters.

The film is beautiful. Carter Burwell’s score drifts through shades of wonder and sorrow. Long shots of breezy coastline and the saturated colors of Holmes’s hyper-idyllic seaside garden are constant reminders that this, too, is yet another story for the collector’s bookshelf. Even London, as recalled by Holmes in his nightly writings, resembles the set of a well-staged murder play or an illustration from Doyle’s own books.

Besides the aesthetic appeal, Condon’s film has another sort of beauty as well. Holmes’s eccentric manners and comic arrogance have always offset his intellect. Doyle found many deft ways to hint that his combination of talents formed a blind spot regarding certain points of basic humanity. Despite observational prowess and a preternatural grasp of forensic links most people never see, Holmes could, on occasion, find his frosty reason bested by chaotic whims of the human heart. Though he seldom tipped the cards of his own capacity for affection, it did happen more than once as Doyle brought the chronicles to a close. Mr. Holmes takes those glimpses of tenderness as a starting point to show a brilliant man at the end of his life, quite overcome by a depth of feeling he never knew himself to possess. Once, in a sly reversal of Doyle, McKellen’s Holmes misses a vital clue because, possibly for the first time in his life, personal investment trumps his unquenchable thirst for cold hard evidence.

There are many forms of latter-day Sherlock Holmes tale. Reinventions, critical revisions, satires and outright spoofs of the great consulting detective abound. Possibly next to Count Dracula, no literary figure of the period has been more widely appropriated. Mr. Holmes story takes all this into account, yet hearkens to tradition with great respect. Its unfamiliar pathways ultimately complement the legacy more than they challenge it. Presuming that the original conception of Holmes in retirement was meant as a reward from his author, this further elegy suggests a Holmes who, despite the cost in grief and physical pain, may go to his grave having found the final, elusive piece of the human puzzle. The journey promises to be tragic and even terrifying when the heart takes up slack for the brain, but the hope of balance and peace may well justify the risk. Perhaps the “real” Holmes would have been content to die without such an epiphany, but the emotional payoff is fine indeed for his generations of fans.

Movie Review: The Babadook

by Dan Fields

The Babadook terrorizes Essie Davis in Jennifer Kent's horror tale
© 2014 eOne Films/IFC Films

Early this year, director Mike Flanagan brought audiences a horror story of surprising cleverness and punch. That film, Oculus, took a soul-sickening look at the decay of an American family at the hands of of a sinister entity with the power to prey on souls across generations. Now Australian director Jennifer Kent presents a fresh exercise in domestic terror. The Babadook is the more straightforward horror yarn, but thanks to skilled direction and performance it manages to be several times more personal and devastating.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a loving mother in a tough time of life. Widowed by tragedy, raising an eccentric and troubled son (Noah Wiseman), she is a familiar face in horror films. She is the parent doing her best, which never seems to be quite good enough, and in the tradition of stories like Pet Sematary or The Shining she is dangerously close to the edge when we meet her. Son Sam has an overactive imagination which makes him a keen inventor and illusionist, but it also leaves him horribly prone to nightmares. He almost never sleeps, which means Amelia sleeps less. He is sensitive and sweet, but unable to cease the morbid jabbering of his thoughts in the company of others, he often proves embarrassing to his overtaxed mum.

Barely coping with the twin devils of loneliness and exhaustion, Amelia discovers a mysterious children’s book about a cloaked figure named Mister Babadook, so named for his habit of knocking “Ba-ba-Dook! Dook! Dook!” on the door to be let in. The story turns darker from there, enough to upset mother and son alike. Amelia quickly puts the book out of sight, but the monster becomes Sam’s new obsession. Plotting to trap and destroy the Babadook (which seems more and more real every night) he withdraws further and further into his paranoia until Amelia’s nerves are perilously frayed. She does not stop to consider that maybe the shadowy intruder has begun to change her too.

The Babadook is exceptionally crafted, inventing a plausible storybook hobgoblin and then exploiting his dreadful potency to the very last scream. Not many times in recent memory has an original horror film maxed out its monster so vigorously. The film manages not merely to shock or unsettle. It is genuinely frightening throughout most of its running time, a rare distinction among movies of its kind.

When done with care and skill, an exploration of the desperate lengths required to turn a caring parent on a child arguably makes the most poignant and frightening kind of story. The best ones never lose sight love’s power to overcome any spell of darkness. Whether or not love will triumph in this end is immaterial. Until the very last moment, there must be hope.

Movie Review: The Houses October Built

by Dan Fields

The Houses October Built is a Halloween haunted house meta-journey in found footage style
© 2014 Image Entertainment

Found footage horror is played out, to the extent that an exhausting number of reviews begin with the complaint that “found footage horror is played out.”

See what I mean?

With that requisite disclaimer covered, Bobby Roe’s The Houses October Built is pretty excellent entertainment for this Halloween season. The notion of a POV camera going all meta-fictional on the phenomenon of live haunted house attractions, now simply termed “haunts” owing to the diversity of venues, turns out much better than it may sound.

Five friends – Zack (co-writer), Bobby (co-writer and director), Mikey, Brandy and Jeff – set out in an RV to tour and document the most extreme haunts out there. Most of them seem to be in Texas and Louisiana, by the way. While most are fairly traditional walkthrough attractions, other memorable outings include a hayride modeled on a zombie apocalypse, complete with paintball guns to pelt the legions of shambling ghouls. However, some of the “haunters” appear more aggressive and personally invasive than the rest. It even seems that certain characters are following the RV from one location to the next, across dozens and eventually hundreds of miles. Continue reading

Movie Review: Horns

by Dan Fields

Daniel Radcliffe pursues the truth with diabolical powers in Alexandre Aja's Horns
© 2013 Dimension Films / RADiUS-TWC

Synergy With The Devil, or
Faust Highway

Alexandre Aja, a French filmmaker gone Hollywood down the most gore-splattered highway possible, engages a story more firmly rooted in the human soul than ever before. His prior moviemaking turns (most recently as producer for a harrowing remake of William Lustig’s Maniac) betray a penchant for jittering, shrieking horror that attacks the senses, the brain and heart second. Horns, based on the much-lauded novel by Joe Hill, plunges his raw director’s hands into a moral fable whose questions and troubling answers require some serious thought.

Ignatius “Ig” Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) is a tortured soul in a bruised body. His dual burden is to come to terms with the brutal murder of his girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple), while staving off an angry mob of former friends and neighbors convinced that, despite his acquittal, Ig himself killed off the hometown darling. His only true allies seem to be his brother Terry (Joe Anderson) his defense attorney Lee (Max Minghella), and his torch-carrying bartender Glenna (Kelli Garner), all of whom have known Ig since childhood. Between the three of them, there just might be some answers lurking, but Ig’s impotent rage at the cosmic unfairness of it all seems to have him deadlocked in limbo.

Ig finally lets his rage out in a drunken spree that apparently shakes something loose in either heaven or hell. Waking the next morning, he finds a wicked pair of horns sprouting from his head. Not only that, but everyone he meets treats him differently. His horns grant him a devilish power over people, compelling them to pour out their secret sins and desires. At first an unwilling confessor, he gradually realizes that lurking among the nauseating secrets of his neighbors is the identity of Merrin’s killer. With this in mind, he hones his fiendish influence to maximum effect, stalking the truth around town as the changes in him take deeper root. Continue reading

Movie Review: The One I Love

by Dan Fields

Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss discover a new side of their marriage in The One I Love
© 2014 RADiUS-TWC

Remember That Weekend When…?

From director Charlie McDowell and producers the Duplass Brothers comes The One I Love, a curious tale about being with the one you love and loving the one you’re with which could send Stephen Stills to the madhouse. It is no good to summarize the film in the ordinary detail, since most of the plot hangs on an early twist. Sophie (Elizabeth Moss, Mad Men, Top Of The Lake) and Mark Duplass (The League, Safety Not Guaranteed) are a married couple in therapy for a marital strain that threatens to drive them apart. They are beset by romantic memories of their early time together, but cannot rekindle the old flame they once had. Their therapist (Ted Danson) rents them a secluded house for a weekend of privacy and quality time.

Both Sophie and Ethan apply themselves gamely to getting along and having some fun, but each begins to notice curious inconsistencies that point in mysterious directions. Their quest to uncover the truth becomes an exercise in mutual trust and devotion that promises to unite or split them for good.

At face value, this is a novel and entertaining drama about love and romance. Further down, are clever metaphors for the joys and pitfalls of any adult relationship. We always want to be our best selves around the people we love, but we have little control over when our better or worse qualities display themselves. Spontaneity accounts for such a large part of attraction that we may find it impossible to synthesize or recapture a bygone feeling, strong as it was when we first felt it.

The One I Love is a fable which presents the difficulties of enduring love, without necessarily suggesting how or even whether they can be fixed. This is a good-looking movie, with greed wooded exteriors and warm tones all throughout the quaint getaway home. Even so, the camera often sits in small spaces with limited perspective, sometimes giving a feeling of intimacy, sometimes of confinement. The score is nicely placed to help keep the story at the right pitch – serious themes, but with a light tone to avoid dragging. With almost all the screen time share between them, Moss and Duplass put in commendable work. Having to play nuanced, multidimensional characters in a most unusual way, they still have the natural chemistry of characters who have known and loved each other for years. It is not a dynamic or forceful film, but the depth and intelligence of the script, in the hands of capable performers, make The One I Love well worth your attention.