Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)
As I stated in my review for the 2016 Ghostbusters, allow me to wax nostalgic and explain my own private history with the franchise: “Growing up in the 80s, other kids had Transformers, or G.I. Joe, or He-Man, but I was a Ghostbusters kid. I fell in love with the 1984 original movie, slept below the poster for most of my childhood, and obsessively collected all of the action figures and toys, watched with glee the animated TV series, and hold the world and its characters in a special personal place.” This franchise means something to me. I think about the hours I spent playing in this world and my imagination and my own stories illustrated with marker and crayon, and it makes me extremely happy as well as reminds me how I fell in love with weird storytelling and macabre, ironic humor. I’ve been waiting for more Ghostbusters movies for my adult life. The 2016 movie was fine, I wasn’t enraged by it in the slightest, but it didn’t scratch that itch. While replicating some of the same plot beats, the 2016 movie was not reverent to its source material. Now the 2021 Ghostbusters, delayed over a year and a half from COVID, goes completely in the other direction. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is reverent to a fault, and while it has been met with mixed reviews and complaints of overdosing on slavish fan nostalgia, I found it to be a charming and fun family adventure that left me laughing, cheering, and even crying.
Egon Spangler (Harold Ramis, R.I.P.), original Ghostbuster, is dead, killed by a malevolent spirit. His estranged adult daughter, Callie (Carrie Coon), and her two teen children, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mackenna Grace), are shocked to learn of his death and their unexpected inheritance: a dirt farm in small-town nowheresville Oklahoma. They don’t know much about their grandfather and the kids are not exactly excited about relocating to a secluded mining town. Phoebe starts discovering weird pieces of technology hidden in the old house of her grandfather’s. A presence seems to be reaching out and trying to get the family to understand their real legacy. It appears that Gozer the Gozerian was not fully defeated on top of that New York City skyscraper in 1984, and Phoebe and her family must learn about the past in order to make sure we all have a future.
I can understand the charges of Afterlife being too nostalgic, but I don’t understand the charges of it being so enamored with its past that it poses a disservice to the movie standing on its own. This movie is intended at its very DNA to live within the shadow of the original films. The director and co-writer, Jason Reitman, is the son of the original films’ director, Ivan. It’s going to be reverent but that’s not an automatic bad thing. Whereas the 2016 reboot shrugged at past convention and went completely comedic, this edition takes the opposite approach, hugging onto the lore and past of Ghostbusters with heartfelt affection. If you’re a fan of the franchise, this adoring approach will likely be more favorable, not that the 2016 film is wrong for eschewing the established canon of the franchise and trying something new. If Afterlife had been a completely original story set in a Ghostbusters universe, I would have happily accepted that. However, just because something is outwardly nostalgic, or taps into fan service, does not mean it is destined to be an exclusive retread that only satisfies the hardcore base. I didn’t need the gratuitous Easter eggs of passing shots of a twinkie or Crunch bar, but they’re blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments that don’t really relate to anything of consequence, so I can excuse them. Afterlife is similar to The Force Awakens in that it uses familiar plot beats to mirror events of its predecessors to ease back fans and new members to the fanclub, most especially in Act Three where Gozer’s demonic pooches are unleashed. I can understand many chaffing at this, but I feel that Afterlife does enough to justify its own creative existence even in facsimile rather than as some insular, facile, fan-stroking cash-grab.
This is, by far, the most dramatic of the Ghostbusters movies, a series that has existed in the realm of comedy. The prior movies were never spooky on adult terms, but they reached back into a primal, childlike curiosity and anxiousness over the unknown that made them creepy when they wanted to be. I don’t understand the umbrage some have expressed over Afterlife being more of a drama. First, the comedy is present throughout the movie with the characters making specific and wry observations that feel fitting for their situation. The humor is not as forced as the loping line-a-rama improv jazz riffs of Paul Feig’s 2016 film. I think this universe can sustain different kinds of stories being told, and I think that drama is perfectly acceptable as long as it’s earned, just like the comedy or horror elements. The central premise involves an estranged family coming to know the secret life of an absentee relative who abandoned them, so the more they learn about his Ghostbusting past and responsibilities, the closer they come to uncovering a clearer picture of who this man really was as well as their connections to him. Reitman and co-screenwriter Gil Kenan (Monster House) have smartly connected the investigation of the past into the development of personal relationships. We in the audience know the significance of the Ecto One and the ghost traps, but the new characters do not. We await them to understand the knowledge we already attain, but the movie doesn’t play this as characters dawdling. Each discovery unlocks new potential for the characters to shape who they choose to be, and each one gets them closer to their grandfather and reshaping their conception of the man who they wrongfully believed abandoned them for folly.
This all leads to a climax that had me genuinely in tears. I won’t exactly spoil it but Afterlife’s conclusion is less concerned with beating the Big Bad Gozer yet again and saving the universe. Reitman and company have smartly placed the real climax as an emotional catharsis; it’s more in keeping with Field of Dreams than some huge Marvel apocalyptic showdown. The ending is personal, emotional, and reaches into our universal desire for closure, for having that one last moment with a beloved who we no longer have any moments left to share, Reitman is clearly missing Ramis, a close family friend and inspiration who died in 2014, and this is his own way of processing his personal grief, offering an emotional output for the fans to share in, and allowing a grieving character/surrogate to find that needed release. It serves as a fitting conclusion and a special end note for any Ghostbusters fan who has held this franchise close to their heart for several decades, especially if shared with a paternal figure who may be gone.
The film also successfully channels a childhood perspective of awkward and awesome. It’s hard to create a story where a group of precocious adolescents discover strange things cooking in their sleepy small town without suggesting Stephen King and Stranger Things, but this isn’t necessarily a total negative. The earlier movies were always from a more cynical adult perspective. Yes, there were characters like Ray (Dan Ackroyd) and Egon who were true believers, but they were often set up for easy laughs. The tone of the series was mostly tied to the irony of the character of Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) that looked at the supernatural with droll detachment. This is the first Ghostbusters entry where the primary perspective is from children, and there’s something hopeful and heartfelt about a younger point of view with the supernatural material. These kids are excited and eager to learn more about the somethings strange in their neighborhood. It becomes endearing to ride along with them as they get to jump into the action. I loved the concept of a sidecar gunner seat for the Ecto One and how it felt like a childhood dream coming true. But it’s more than fan service because it serves as a point of progression for Phoebe’s sense of self, of embracing her scientific interests and roots, and taking charge in the face of unknown danger. It’s a coming out of sorts. When the kids are driving through (the always empty?) town and chasing a runaway ghost, wrecking storefronts from the boom of the proton pack, it’s a blast for them and us.
This is Reitman’s most commercial and mainstream film of his Oscar-nominated career. It’s interesting to me that this indie darling, who was on such a hot streak in the late 2000s, hit some speed bumps with the critical misfires of 2013’s Labor Day, 2014’s Men, Women, and Children, and 2018’s The Front Runner, so the next movie is a retreat to a big-budget franchise film. Reitman doesn’t necessarily have the best feel for large-scale spectacle, but he knows intimate character dramas and guides his actors well. Grace (Gifted, Haunting of Hill House) is wonderful as our plucky lead. Unfortunately for Wolfhard (It, Stranger Things), his dull character has nothing to do but pine for a local girl, scoff at his family, and then fix up the old ghostbustin’ mobile. Paul Rudd (Ant-Man) is as charming as ever as the school science teacher, especially as he nerds out over interacting with the Ghostbusters paraphernalia like an excitable fanboy living out his childhood dream. I wish Coon (The Leftovers) had more to do, but that’s my primary complaint in any movie where Carrie Coon is a supporting actress. Her chemistry with Rudd is strong and they could have done so much more together as adults trying to make sense of madness. They could have eliminated Wolfhard’s mopey older brother character entirely and given us more time with the goofy adults too. One feels like there is some secret contract where anything relating to 80s nostalgia requires the hiring of Wolfhard on hand.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife will not be the best movie of 2021. There are areas that could have been improved and streamlined and better developed. However, Ghostbusters: Afterlife will most assuredly be my favorite film experience of 2021. It’s a heart-warming continuation for fans with enough wit and whimsy to charm while owning its obvious and intended connections to the original. I may not be the most objective source on this particular matter, but I know what I like, and this movie had moments of pure happiness that just shot right through to my dopamine center. We’ll see if this movie can restart the dormant franchise, and strike more on its own, but even if this lone 2021 entry is all that we eventually get, I’m happy I got to experience this magic once again. I can’t wait to see it again with my dad.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Double Walker (2021)
After watching so many nominal Ohio-made indies, it’s a welcomed surprise to come across one that falls into the category of an “almost” movie, and by that I mean one with clear ambition and talent that almost fully works as a legit movie without any lingering qualifiers. Double Walker, filmed partially in Columbus and now given a national digital release, comes so tantalizingly close to being a full recommendation without hesitation. I can see what it’s going for, and with a little more careful development and clarity I think it would have achieved all of its genre-busting goals.
Sylvie Mix plays Ghost, a young woman who appears in a white nightgown in the woods. Who is she? What does she want? She is escorted by a young man into his home, disrobes, and then murders him. We come to learn that this adult woman is the ghost of a deceased child, and she’s chosen to walk the Earth as a spirit to seek vengeance. She’s only able to be seen by believers and sinners, though technically every person is a sinner unless there is an unspecified threshold to pass. The Ghost makes a friend, visits with her grieving parents, and reevaluates what it means to be human.
The first thing to know about this movie is that it is only 65 minutes long, short of the 80 minutes typically seen as the minimum expectation for a theatrical release. It’s not that far from meeting that goal, though the airy nature of the movie also makes it feel already stretched out. The other thing you should know about the movie is that you could describe it as Promising Young Woman meets The Crow, an avenging angel targeting the bad men responsible for her death, except tonally it’s not really a hard-hitting revenge thriller. It has those elements where our Ghost is stalking her very bad men, luring them into positions of vulnerability, and striking back for justice, but the movie seems more aligned in tone with something more ponderous and poetic like 2017’s A Ghost Story (though absent ten minutes of Rooney Mara eating a pie – thus fulfilling my obligation to mention this dumbfounding cinematic moment whenever I have the opportunity, you’re welcome).
For those people looking for sundry exploitation thrills, seized by the striking central image of its poster, you may be left checking your watch, but I found this middle ground between thriller and art film to be an interesting space for Double Walker to inhabit. The screenplay drops you into its bizarre scenario and unfolds slowly, which I think worked to the film’s potent atmosphere. You don’t really know what’s going on or what the character relationships are like. At first you see a grieving family, and next we cut to a man discovering a pale woman who seems lost in the woods. She comes across ethereal and mysterious. Then there is a murder, and from there we’re trying to identify the character connections and back-story, which comes across at a gentle yet assured pace that trusts the audience to put the different pieces together to form a whole. This works well except for an ending that comes across as too confusing, muddling an already convoluted system of supernatural rules that the movie seems to be undercutting, unless the whole thing is presented as a hopeful but passing dream, and if that’s the ending then I’m going to be quite disappointed. Still, this is a movie at its core more interested with the question over being human, being remembered, and personal identity than as a blood-soaked revenge thriller.
Again, it has its moments of blood, but there’s a somber tone poem quality to the movie that elevates its ambitions and also ties down its ultimate execution. Director and co-screenwriter Colin West is using the structure of an exploitation film to do more than deliver sleazy thrills. He devotes much more time to watching our Ghost character adjust to life as a spirit. The Ghost is the same spirit as the little girl we saw being eulogized in the opening. This presents some awkwardness for the character and the viewer. For the character, she’s gone from the mind of a child to being in the body of an adult, and it’s not determined whether this adult body is what she would have eventually grown into being or whether it’s just a default model. This allows for an even more curious performance as a character that feels alien in their own skin but also fascinated by that change in perspective, like Scarlet Johansson in Under the Skin. I understand the Ghost studying her adult body with curiosity. However, for the viewer, the numerous nude scenes can make you uncomfortable with the understanding that this is a little girl transported into the body of an adult and she is using her sexuality to lure men to their perverted doom. Maybe I’m just more sensitive to this connotation, and “using her sexuality” seems like an overstatement as she’s simply a woman being present with predatory men. I will say the nude scenes are tastefully portrayed where the camera doesn’t feel like it’s going to painful lengths to feature flesh. I was about to accuse the movie of possibly being skeevy with its plurality of nude scenes (does the Ghost need to run out into the woods in the buff?) when I noticed that Mix is also the producer and co-screenwriter. I assume she approved of her depiction.
Because of her newfound identity, and separation from most living beings, Double Walker presents a main character who is trying to form connections but cannot. The Ghost tries to console her grieving mother but is unable to be seen or felt by her. She does meet a kind man (Jacob Rice) at a movie theater who helps her out and who is not looking to take advantage of her. He shares his family’s home movies, which is a slightly strange thing to do so soon with a nearly mute stranger, and compares the images captured on film like ghosts, crystalized memories of people no longer with us. I have thought of this comparison myself and will morbidly watch background extras in old movies and think, “Here they are, alive once more, but likely gone for some time.” The direct connection of ghosts and memory allows the movie another layer to provide additional meaning. However, Double Walker feels more like a stretched out short film than a fleshed-out feature. With a few extra wrinkles and plot development, this could have readily afforded a larger story. Later on, the Ghost makes a rash decision and an innocent is harmed in her path to vengeance. I think that’s an interesting direction and questions the righteousness of her cause, while at the same time the script finds a personal way to make that mistake even more grueling. Again, the script really could have gone into this consequence and pushed the character into more inner turmoil, to question the cost of her mission, and to question her perception of human life. There are areas where the movie could have gone into further deliberation, but they feel short-changed. Double Walker is settled being the extra long version of the movie it presents in its first act.
This is a very professional looking and sounding movie and probably has the best photography of any Ohio-made indie I’ve watched yet. West also served as his director of photography, and his eye for visuals is crisp and pleasing. The use of light, shadow, foreground and background, composition, movement, it was very deliberate as well as being artistic in a way that didn’t feel like it was overly self-indulgent. West achieves an artistry without making it flashy, and that’s even harder to accomplish. The score and sound design are also polished as well. When the Ghost is luring a victim, the eerie sound is reminiscent of metallic scraping to elicit unease. The costuming keeps our Ghost in white outfits, noting her innocence but also visually connecting you to the associated color of traditional spirits (an also, maybe, A Ghost Story). It makes her standout on the screen. Speaking of that, Mix (Poser) is a natural actor. She has a presence to her and ably communicates the curiosity and otherworldly nature of her character’s dilemma. She doesn’t talk much, nobody really does in this movie, but there’s a melancholy to her that feels more pained than forced. The other actors do well with their minor roles, including other Ohio actors I’ve covered before like Justin Rose (False Flag) and Ralph Scott (Constraint) playing bad men who become ghostly prey.
By the end of Double Walker, I was left feeling almost satisfied, one of those film experiences where you can see the better movie just on the peripheral, the one that was so close. As it stands, it’s an arty and contemplative movie that uses the exploitation formula as a vehicle to explore more existential questions. I wish the movie had developed the story more from the potential on display, and what potential is on display. The filmmakers here feel like they are headed for great things. West has already filmed another movie he wrote, Linoleum, starring Jim Gaffigan and Tony Shalhoub about a science teacher who always wanted to be an astronaut and builds his own rocket ship in his garage. That sounds amazing and it has big names to fill out the cast. I’m rooting for West. This guy has the talent and ability to be a rising indie director and can do Ohio proud. Double Walker could end up being the flawed but promising start to a burgeoning film career. It’s worth watching but be warned that it might not be the movie you anticipate at first glance.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Others (2001) [Review Re-View]
Originally released August 10, 2001:
Nicole Kidman has saved the summer of 2001 – it is now official. In what would have been deemed a pit of mediocrity and nightmares consisting of Angelina Jolie as some raider of tombs or Marky Mark making dough-eyes at attractive apes, has now been bookended by two terrific Kidman films. First Moulin Rouge ushered us in and now The Others is leading us the way out.
The Others is the tale of Grace (Kidman) trying to take care of her two ailing young children shortly after the end of World War II. Kidman is waiting for the return of her husband from the war and is all alone in a giant Gothic mansion. Her two children suffer from a rare allergy to sunlight that is so severe that if exposed long enough their bodies will develop markings and they will asphyxiate to death. To accommodate this illness the entire Kidman household is in the dark and grounded in stern rules. No door is to be unlocked without locking the last, like trapping water in compartments of a sinking ship.
Grace discovers that she does need help and accepts three mysterious strangers that have said they were caretakers to this house once before. Before long the children start reporting odd events occurring that resemble ghosts; a door is opened when it shouldn’t be, someone is making noise where there is no one, and the children report having interaction with otherworldly spirits. Grace scoffs at any notion of the paranormal and goes back to instructing her children with the Bible and its accounts of penance and hell. The incidences begin to build further and further until The Others becomes a full-fledged ghost spectacle.
Spanish writer/director Alejandro Amenábar’s first English feature film is one of carefully textured craft and effective mood. The Others follows the points of ghost stories closely from dark hallways to the creepy and slightly dilapidated house closely. Every move, though, is so well in tune that they are highly effective in creating actual suspense and spookiness. One may have seen the same items numerous times before, however The Others utilizes them so gracefully that it achieves the full desired impact each can bring. Amenábar has created a ghost story that is genuinely creepy and at times scary.
Kidman shines as the dutiful and determined mother. Her performance is one of great dedication and she just consumes whole-heartedly the distress, confusion, and fear of this lonely mother. She is a true anchor for a film. Watching every moment of her on screen is amazing as well as invigorating. This role may lead to possible Oscar buzz come the end of the year but that is just speculation for now.
The rest of the acting is very thorough and well handled by the few other cast members. James Bentley and Alakina Mann portray Kidman’s afflicted children and have much of the movie hinging on their performances. Not to worry, these two excel and give credence to being two of the more gifted child actors in a while. Their efforts greatly induce sympathy as well as great scares at key moments.
The story of The Others by Amenábar may seem simplistic, or even predictable, but the more I thought of the structure and the order of events the more well oiled and calculated it became. This is a delicate story told with great precision with a fantastic knockout ending that had me reworking everything. The Others is an example of why screenwriting is not yet dead in Hollywood.
The Others is a wonderfully brooding film with real scares and great performances, as well as terrific turns in writing and directing by Amenábar. Nicole Kidman has thankfully done it again, and if anyone dares doubt the power and newfound importance of her then see the rest of the summer of 2001’s offerings.
Nate’s Grade: A
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
They don’t really make movies like The Others any more. It’s a patient movie with lots of old-fashioned craft and has more in common with horror movies from a different era. While I would claim that the popular Conjuring franchise, at least the James Wan entries, is a successful Old School horror throwback, its execution can also become quite extreme and ridiculous. Something like The Others dutifully takes its time and nips at your nerves, knowing precisely what key piece of information to tantalize and when to provide more, just enough to grab you deeper into its central mystery and worry over the looming danger for the characters. Twenty years later, the movie plays just as splendidly as it did initially in 2001 but now I have more reverence and appreciation for how it goes about telling its ghost story in a very methodical manner. Not every horror movie ages well. I’m sure that modern audiences could watch The Exorcist and laugh at what, in 1973, scared people to the point of vomiting in theater aisles. If you’re not executing at a high level, it could make for a tragically boring movie. It’s a good thing then that The Others is a PG-13 horror movie that plays all of its limitations to its many artistic advantages.
Coming at the end of a mediocre summer slate of movies in 2001, The Others was a surprise hit, earning over $200 million dollars on a modest budget of $17 million. It helps when your entire movie takes place in one Gothic house and one of the biggest fears is being caught in the light. The premise involves a World War II-era estate where Grace (Nicole Kidman) is seeking help for her two children, Anne and Nicholas, who have a rare photo sensitivity allergy. Direct sunlight will cause them to break out in lesions and potentially asphyxiate (this is a real and rare condition afflicting around 1000 people on the planet). This is a brilliant turn because it means that most of the movie must take place in darkness and even the hint of light could be enough to start causing trembles. A late scare in the movie is simply the realization by Grace that all of the curtains have been removed from the house. Taken without context, that can seem laughable or ludicrous for a horror movie. With the proper context, it becomes a devastating turn. Much like A Quiet Place so brilliantly made sound the enemy, The Others makes the prospect of light the enemy. We start to associate darkness with safety, and then writer/director Alejandro Amenabar uses that environment to drive minimalist horror to great effect. The sound design of whispers, of footsteps, of something that shouldn’t be there is elevated, and the intrusion into the safe space of the vulnerable children makes us all feel a little more vulnerable. It takes the familiar setting of old Gothic horror tales about dark corridors and creaky attics and elevates it anew.
The story is simple but so excellently structured and performed. A mother and her two children are terrorized by ghosts in an old house. Three caretakers arrive to help who know more than what they let on. These characters allow Grace to have someone to question and share her emotional state of mind but they also provide dramatic irony and dread for the audience. They know what’s going on with the house and they’re hiding something, initially tombstones they will later reveal but who do they belong to? They know the house intimately but what is their actual connection to its history? Early on we already have our concerns, as the notice Grace sent out seeking help was never mailed. Halfway through, the caretakers discuss among themselves a secret they are hiding relating to the history of the house. By this point, we have already had a few ghostly encounters so our assumption is that it will relate with the otherworldly intruders. These characters are conflict stirring and keepers of secrets to be revealed in time. Amenabar has a divine instinct of when to drop a new clue, when to pick up the escalation, and when to finally lay out his plot particulars. The big twist has been hiding in plain sight from the start, from the very opening image of Grace gasping awake in her bed and coming down from her frantic distress.
The ultimate revelation that Grace and her children are not being haunted by malevolent spirits but are in fact the real malevolent spirits is a terrific rug-puller. Much like the best twist endings, many of which occurred in contemporaries like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, you can re-watch the movie and see all the clues you missed or how the added perspective reinterprets sequences for added depth. It’s not just a great twist but a culmination of an emotional catharsis; much like The Sixth Sense, it’s a ghost coming to terms with accepting their ghostly identity. Unlike The Sixth Sense, our ghostly protagonist refuses to go gently into the light. Grace has her children repeat to her, “This is our house,” and they refuse to budge. One of the final images, of Anne dancing in the sunlight, is both a victory and condemnation. She can at long last not worry about the rays of sunlight harming her and can live life like an average child. However, she has no life to live and can never leave the house, never grow old, and refuses to part under the rigid determination of her mother, the same woman who killed her and doomed her to purgatory. In some regard it’s a happy ending because hooray the kids can relax, and in many other more disturbing implications, it’s a guilt-ridden murderous mother refusing to let go of her children even after killing them. The movie serves as an empathy experiment to provide back-story for the kind of specters that would haunt an old Hammer horror movie. It might make you rethink other ghost stories or at least try and see things from the ghostly perspective.
I will say that this movie was also maddeningly hard to hear at times. I had to crank up my TV to unheard of volume levels to clearly make out what people were saying. Kidman is quite good but she has a habit of falling back on very breathy acting, relying on whispered intonation. I’m glad I already saw the movie but the sound levels forced me to actively pay attention. Maybe your TV will be different.
Amenabar is a Spanish filmmaker that rose to international acclaim with 1997’s Open Your Eyes, starring Penelope Cruz and later remade into Vanilla Sky, also starring Penelope Cruz (coming to a Re-Veiw in December!). The Others was a significant breakthrough, and in 2004 Amenabar won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for The Sea Inside, a true-life drama where Javier Bardem portrays a man fighting for the right to end his own life. He seemed like an international director on an accelerated ascent, and it all came to a crash with 2009’s costly historical intolerance drama, Agora, starring Rachel Weisz and Oscar Isaac that examined the contentious relationship between Christians and Pagans in fourth century Egypt. It cost $70 million dollars, was over two hours, and made a pittance at the U.S. box-office. From there, Amenabar has primarily worked within the Spanish cinema (2019’s While at War), Spanish TV (2021’s La Fortuna), and one schlocky horror movie about a Satanic cult (2015’s Regression, a title that is too on-the-nose perfect). Admittedly, I haven’t watched any of these follow-ups and the Spanish productions could genuinely be great. I think Amenabar’s early success helped pave the way for another Spanish filmmaker, J.A. Bayona, whose 2007’s haunted manor movie The Orphanage was an excellent Old School horror that could be sincerely scary while still patiently building its unsettling atmosphere.
Looking back at my review from 2001, I think my love of Moulin Rouge carried over into my overly enthusiastic evaluation of Kidman’s increasingly unraveled performance. She’s good but she’s not quite at Oscar levels of accomplishment here, and yet Kidman was nominated for a BAFTA for this role instead of the singing courtesan. The child actors are both good, though neither acted again in credited roles after the mid-2000s, but for me to cite them as “two of the most gifted child actors in a while” reads like hyperbole. My original analysis didn’t get too deep into the mechanics of why everything worked so well, for fear of spoiling its big surprises, and instead kept to admiring its craft, care, and execution, aspects that are still easily apparent and admirable in 2021 as well. The Others is a splendid ghost story no matter the year and will likely still prove to be many years from now.
Re-View Grade: A
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) [Review Re-View]
Originally released July 11, 2001:
Final Fantasy is an exciting venture in the history of animation. It’s the second video game to be turned into a feature film this summer, though exponentially better than Tomb Raider. It took the makers of Final Fantasy four years and the creation of new technology to capture what will be a benchmark in animation for years to come.
The story concerns a future Earth where aliens have crashed and invaded long ago. These “phantoms” are slightly invisible energy creatures of different size and roam around various areas with the ability to suck the life force or soul from a human being. General Hein (James Woods) is trying to convince the Earth council to allow him to fire a satellite called the Zeus Cannon to obliterate the alien menace. In opposition to Hein is Dr. Sid (Donald Sutherland) who believes with his adventurous pupil Aki Ross (Ming-Na) that the Zeus Cannon will obliterate the “spirit” of Earth. Their solution it to collect eight spirits in whatever forms they might be including plants and small animals to gather together and… do something that will send the alien life force repelling.
Now I know Hein is supposed to be the bad guy as he’s a military man complete with the evil looking black leather cloak, but I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing with his logic. He wants to use something that has already been proven to kill the aliens whereas these two new age scientists want to collect a bunch of plants and animals and have their collective spirits ward off the interplanetary menace. I’d stand in my chair and say thank you to Hein when he dismisses the doctor’s plot. I know that Aki and Sid are the heroes and of course whatever theories they have will be proven true, but hell, I found myself agreeing more with General Hein than these two.
Complicating matters Aki is infected with a piece of the alien phantom that is slowly taking control over her body. Along in her quest to discover the final spirits is aided by a military commander Grey (Alec Baldwin) and his company of men. Turns out Grey and Aki are former sweethearts, so of course expect them to reconcile before the end credits.
The plot consists of something that could be an average episode on Star Trek: Voyager but does meander along at times. The dialogue is typical sci-fi buzzwords like “Fire in the hole” “The perimeter’s been breached” and the sort. Final Fantasy does have great excitement to it and some terrific action sequences better than most anything this summer. The ending is a disappointment as all the action hinges on two globs of energy propelled against one another. Globs or energy are not exciting. I thought we would have learned this by now.
Final Fantasy is a landmark in animation. Never has so much detail been put into a movie and pulled off so amazingly well. To the nit-pickers out there the animation isn’t exactly the Holy Grail of photo-realism, but it’s closer than anything ever before. At times the characters come off as too plasticy (like Jude Law in A.I.) and tend to move too much, notwithstanding that their mouths don’t always follow the words coming out of them. Put aside these small grievances and what you have is stunning animation that makes one constantly forget it is animation. There are numerous moments of eerie precision like when a character’s nostril flares and their nose scrunches up in response, and the movement of every one of Aki’s 60,000 strands of gorgeous hair, to even a kiss between two characters. Even inanimate objects like a crumbled wall, a glass of alcohol, or a gun and its rounds are given startling accuracy. Backgrounds and scenic vistas are beautifully rendered with great care. There has been nothing ever like Final Fantasy before and it is the first movements toward an exciting area in animation.
The discussion must be raised can actors be phased out by computers now and will they ever? No, never. Actors can portray nuances that computers will never be able to master. Despite some actors best attempts to prove otherwise, we will always need actors. Now that you have the near photo realism one might be led to question what is the greatness of creating a fully realistic looking CGI tree when one can just be shot on film for millions of dollars cheaper. The all CGI world will not replace the real world of film making.
The mediocre story can be excused by the awe-inspiring animation. Despite the clunker of a plot Final Fantasy is entirely enjoyable because it always gives the viewer something to sit in wonder and take in. There’s always something to mesmerize the eyes on screen.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
There was a time where the world wondered whether 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was going to put actors out of business. The Columbia/Sony animated feature, the first the studio released theatrically since the second Care Bears Movie, was a big technological leap. Square Studios, the makers behind the extremely popular video game RPG series, opened a new studio stationed in Hawaii to enter the realm of Hollywood, and they devoted four years and countless hours of processing to create photo-realistic visuals. This was still at the dawn of CGI animated features taking over the landscape and the leap was impressive. None other than Roger Ebert wrote in his review that he considered the movie a milestone along the lines of the first talkies. Before its release, there was scuttlebutt whether or not this was the wave of the future and actors would be replaced with computer versions, never mind that vocal actors were still being employed. The lead “actor,” Aki, was depicted in a swimsuit on a Maxim cover as an icky promotion. The 2002 movie S1mone satirizes this concept further, with Al Pacino fed up with temperamental industry actors so he secretly uses a photo-realistic computer program instead.
I don’t really know why people got so worried. There are nuances that humans can convey that machines cannot, but even beyond that distinction, it’s simply a lot cheaper to hire an actor, put a costume on them, and record them than to build a model from scratch in a computer and toil for hours just to get the right look of the character raising an eyebrow. The listed budget for Spirits Within is $137 million, though has been rumored to be as high as $170 million (even more than Waterworld). For reference, the budgets of other 2001 movies include $125 million for the first Harry Potter, $93 million for Jurassic Park 3, $100 million for the Tim Burton Planet of the Apes, and $93 million for The Fellowship of the Ring. Even if you view Spirits Within as paving the way for motion-capture animated movies, the kind Robert Zemeckis spent a decade of his career slaving over, even those were eventually deemed too expensive for their returns. I think we can, at least for the time being, put this question to rest. Beyond the complexity that real actors can bring to performances, there’s the ease and cost that cannot be beat by a computer. Maybe in time this will change but for now rest easy Tom Hanks. You’re not going anywhere.
Twenty years later, the animation that once inspired awe now feels dated and surpassed. That’s the nature of the speed of technological advancement; even the company had to redesign scenes from the movie as they finished because the tech improved dramatically over the four-year development process. The visuals of the movie have become the norm for modern-day video games. There are aspects of the animation that are missing or just unable to be fully formed at the time. The faces look too slick and plastic, absent grooves and pores and imperfections that provide texture to people’s faces. The human appendages move like rubber. The hair seems to flow like it’s captured from a bouncy shampoo ad (apparently a fifth of the processing power went to animate the lead heroine’s 60,000 follicles). The character’s mouths look to be wired shut and unable to articulate their words. From a 2021 standpoint, the animation looks more like an extended video game cut scene from late 2000s. Its innovation has become commonplace.
It should be no surprise that the script went through numerous rewrites. All the attention for Sony and Square was on the technical achievements and much less so on the story, which I guess they assumed would come together at some point. The project began with the Final Fantasy writers coming up with the initial plot, which would make sense until you realize the RPG fantasy series isn’t known for its sense of realism or cohesion. The plot of Spirits Within is not very in keeping with the more fantastical Final Fantasy series world. Screenwriter Jeff Vintar (I, Robot) was asked to read the script because the studio reportedly did not understand the project at all. His analysis was that they should completely start from scratch. The studio asked if he wanted to rewrite the script and gave him three weeks. His words were translated from English to Japanese and then back into English, which left something lost in translation a couple times over.
It’s surprising that the movie is even slightly coherent with everything it’s been through. It’s still a mess of a plot, with aliens having crashed onto Earth and made parts of the planet uninhabitable by their presence. They’re also revealed to be ghosts. So… alien ghosts. And there are eight horcruxes, I mean, um, spirits that need to be found to… something. The screenplay, under all of its laborious mutations, is really about a military team and a pair of scientists collecting MacGuffins and trying to use dreams to thwart a fascist from using a doomsday laser. It is simultaneously overly simplistic and overly complicated and quite silly. The villain, voiced by James Woods, even gets the full Nazi wardrobe but his viewpoint seems logical considering he’s pitted against scientists saying they need to break through to the “spirit of the Earth.” It’s hard to take their claims and wild speculation seriously in this more realistic world. Apparently, there was a plot development where Aki was revealed to be pregnant and her unborn child was the eighth and final spirit needed. You can still see its place in the plot. Reportedly, this storyline was cut because it was deemed “too Japanese” and I have no idea what that means.
The real reason to ever watch The Spirits Within has come and gone. It’s now a footnote in animation history and a mild curiosity at best. I suppose you can still try and think how cool everything must have been to experience in 2001, and then your mind will wander because the nonsensical story will do little to hold your attention. It was such a financial disaster that Square Studios closed down and the company went back to focusing on video games full time with the occasional CGI direct-to-DVD movie (2004’s Advent Children and 2016’s Kingsglaive). Square Studio did make one of the CGI animated segments for 2003’s Animatrix, a concept paving the way for other ambitious animated anthologies like Netflix’s Love, Death, and Robots. The entire emphasis of this expensive production was slated onto its visual decadence, but the story was muddled, confusing, trite, and alien to the source material and the fanbase it was appealing to. I want to give my 2001 self a high-five because I’m happy that even at 19 years old in my original review I could see the evident faults of the mediocre storytelling as well as the arguments for replacing real actors with virtual facsimiles. Back in 2001, I said Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within had the benefit of always giving the viewer “something to sit in wonder and take in.” Twenty years later, that lone benefit has all but disappeared. Conversely, video games have become so much more ambitious, artistic, and emotionally engaging since 2001. So skip the movie and just play a game instead.
Re-View Grade: C
The Curse of Lilith Ratchet (2018)
At its core, The Curse of Lilith Ratchet is a low-budget horror movie stuck between two paths of entertainment and sadly reaching neither. It could have been a genuinely good horror movie, one where its concept begets creative ingenuity, like a Lights Out or Final Destination, where the set pieces are well developed, the characters are interesting and meaningful, and there are pertinent themes linked to character to make the horror more immediate and impactful. Or it could have gone a completely different route and declared itself a schlocky horror movie, owning a trashy flair of fun while doling out exploitation elements of sex and violence to provide the prurient thrills of genre satisfaction. Unfortunately, Lilith Ratchet isn’t good enough to be legitimately good and it’s not knowingly bad enough to be particularly entertaining. It’s just another disappointing low-budget horror movie with too little thought given to its story and characters and horror sequences.
A group of friends steal a shrunken head belonging to the notorious Lilith Ratchet, a Civil War-era woman who murdered her cheating husband with an axe and was then killed herself. She would curse anyone who would say her name and attached nursery rhyme. Alice (KateLynn Newberry) and her pals offer the famous head to popular paranormal radio host, Hunter Perry (Rob Jaeger). He broadcasts from a dance club for a special Halloween show and brings in volunteers for a game of hot potato with the shrunken head (again, this is designed for an auditory medium, which doesn’t seem wise). The evil spirit roams the Earth, striking down in order those who held her shrunken head, and Alice scrambles for a potential way out.
Here’s an example that hits both areas I cited above as it concerns that middle ground between well-developed horror and schlocky camp (mild spoilers I guess). Our first Lilith Ratchet victim, after the prologue, is abruptly run over by a car. This news does not reach his girlfriend, Lauren (Brianna Burke), until Alice delivers it in person, which seems beyond bizarre to me. Side note: cell phones do not seem to really exist in this universe. They do appear every so often, but when it comes to reaching others during times of crisis, or distributing key information, nobody picks up their phone to dial or text. They instead wait to hear face-to-face, and that consistent delay of communication breaks the tenuous reality of the movie. Writer/director Eddie Lengyel (Scarred, Mother Krampus 2) might as well have set the film during the 1980s or beforehand if modern technology matters so minimally. These characters are still talking about a popular radio show; not a viral podcast but, an alternative radio show. It doesn’t quite feel of today.
Back to my example, Lauren is informed her boyfriend has died. She retreats indoors to take a long bubble bath. She doesn’t exactly seem too broken up after her immediate response but hey we all grieve in different ways. Now, considering we’re dealing with a supernatural presence, why not take the form of the dead boyfriend? This would make the encounter more personal; the spirit could dig into Lauren’s suffering and perhaps any feelings of guilt, it would be an opportunity to open her more up as a character before her inevitable death, and it would simply be more interesting. Sadly, the film doesn’t go this route. Instead, she lounges in her bathwater and oblivious to the Big Scary Lady walking around the room. Then she’s violently pulled into the water and released, and this happens maybe four times. I don’t know about you but if I’m being yanked by a malevolent spirit in my bathtub, I’m getting out of that tub quick. Lauren leisurely tries to catch her breath. So, if we weren’t going with the more character-focused and developed death, then we should go for something memorable or truly horrifying. Instead, we get a woman being pulled under her bathwater and it happens three to four times. It’s not interesting and it becomes repetitious to the point of unintentional comedy. It’s also a bathing kill that veers away from T&A or anything too tawdry, which means it fails to register either as effective, engaging traditional horror and as schlocky, fun, campy horror. It just made me think of the obvious homage to Nightmare on Elm Street and then it didn’t offer anything more.
Even with its low budget, that didn’t consign The Curse of Lilith Ratchet to certain doom. The problems begin early when it comes to establishing its universe and its rules in a way that feels consistent and credible. The script requires plenty of sloppy exposition and a questionable structure of this information. We should know the rules of Lilith Ratchet early to play along. It isn’t until over an hour into the movie where the characters even piece things together. There are also scenes that have no need to exist or their placement is questionable. Do we need a scene where the characters chat with a local shop owner who warns them about his open “not for sale” display? If we cut that scene, then it presents the characters as more devious when they explain how they obtained the shrunken head. When we do get the Lilith Ratchet back-story, we get it twice, first when Hunter is presented with the shrunken head and then second on his paranormal radio broadcast. Why not condense this into one experience? Why not even open with the back-story, then pull back and reveal him on his radio broadcast, and then from there have the characters on his doorstep with the shrunken head, knowing from the broadcast he was a fan? That’s a cleaner structure. There is a weird plurality of scenes of people consoling Dylan (Roger Conners), but it’s always someone informing you after-the-fact about relationships. I didn’t know he was best friends with a murder victim, and now everyone on the street wants to console him like he’s an unofficial mayor of the city. It’s storytelling that’s trying to fill you in on significance after it matters. If you’re going to be late giving us information to understand the characters’ emotional states, don’t bother.
As a horror movie, there are too many moments that are expected. It feels like we’re running through the motions to include certain moments because they’re expected. The opening prologue introduces a threat and some mild gore, but the massacre of this sorority doesn’t have any larger ramifications for the entire story. We see some of the dead girls, which means that Lilith Ratchet can indeed take the form of the dead, but they don’t act too suspiciously. It’s simply a quick visual cue for the audience not to trust these onscreen women. If she can take this form, I wish she had done it more often, especially as people started getting dispatched. The opening also has what might be the funniest moment in the entire film. One of our sorority girls sees the evil spirit, runs upstairs, hides in her bathroom without locking the door, climbs into the shower as a meager form of protection, and this is even funnier because the shower is a clear glass door. I don’t know what she was expecting hiding behind a completely transparent cover in an accessible room. Are we supposed to ridicule this person? I don’t get the sense anything is done for laughs. Likewise, there’s a preponderance of jump scares in place of cleverly designed set pieces of terror. There’s nothing tailored toward Lilith Racthet’s personal history to make it her feel more than a generic haunt.
The real star of the movie is Lilith Ratchet and the actress behind the spirit, Crissy Kolarik (Mother Krampus 2). It’s rare for a horror movie to not just create a spooky creature but to even create an affecting silhouette, something easily identified and quickly felt. Lilith Ratchet is a great looking creation. She’s in a flowing Gothic gown, her clawed fingernails stretched at her sides, her Victorian era hairstyle and pale face. It’s a creepy image and Kolarik has a really strong sense of poise and presence as she patiently stalks the sets, enough that I was reminded of The Nun, another immediately creepy specter with a clearly identifiable silhouette. The backlit moments that highlight Lilith’s shape also have an unsettling impact. I wish that this evil spirit had a more interesting story to utilize this actress and setup. While the movie never calls for her to do anything terrible different, Kolarik excels at being the big bad boo and glaring menacingly.
Under its DVD release title, American Poltergeist: The Curse of Lilith Ratchet is a bit misleading considering she’s not a poltergeist. Or a demon. Or much of a ghost really. She’s kind of a walking idea, a version of the Bloody Mary urban legend. This lack of clarity and personal alignment is symptomatic of the movie as a whole. It’s certainly not a bad looking movie for its reported $15,000 budget. It has professional lighting that establishes a mood and solid makeup and gore effects, and even the score can have its draw. The acting is acceptable even with characters absent goals, dimension, or general points of interest. I have seen far worse movies with far bigger budgets. What I’m getting at is that The Curse of Lilith Ratchet had effective and appealing technical merits and a capable cast that could convey dismay and confusion. It had a starting foundation that could have delivered had they been given a good and interesting story. Alas, the screenplay feels too unfocused, sloppy, overcrowded, and lacking in direction and escalation and personal stakes beyond the obvious. We’re talking about stuff like an extended sequence of hot potato with a shrunken head for a radio show. If you’re not going to make smartly designed scary sequences, then perhaps try your hand at making a campy, gory, silly, knowing movie. The tongue-in-cheek version of this movie could have been a blast. The Curse of Lilith Ratchet is a middling horror movie that just comes and goes, leaving little impression other than a lingering sense that somehow it should have been better.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Doctor Sleep (2019)
Mike Flanagan has taken the mantle from Frank Darabont and become the best film adapter of Stephen King’s stories. Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining but it’s a sequel to Kubrick’s movie version, which King notoriously hated for its alterations. We follow an adult Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) as he struggles with addiction in the wake of his family’s tragedy linked to the Overlook Hotel. He starts a new life for himself as a hospice worker, aiding the elderly into a peaceful demise (where he earns the titular nickname), and he takes it upon himself to mentor a young girl, Abra (Kyliegh Curran), who has the same “shining” powers that he has. Trouble is others are looking for these same gifted few, namely Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson) and her gang of traveling undead mutant vampire people feeding off the “steam” or life force of the super-powered they kill. They’re after Abra and her abilities so Danny must rescue her and eventually head back to the source of all his nightmares. This is a relatively solid sequel that has enough intrigue and suspense to cover over the dull parts. It takes too long to get going and then finishes things up too quickly, especially with a climax at the reawakened Overlook that is beginning to hit a groove with nasty ghostly suspense. It felt like I was watching Stephen King’s X-Men with his assortment of super powered people banding together and tracking each other down. The gypsy-like caravan of villains are pretty disposable and lacking strong personality or menace. Ferguson (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) is fun to watch even if she doesn’t feel that threatening. The rules and limitations feel vaguely defined and refined. The nods to the original Shining are selective and bring their own degree of power, as does seeing different actors portray these famous characters in flashback. Flanagan has reverence for both King’s source material and the beloved 1980 film, and bridging the two is a source of enjoyment. The characterization overall is pretty slack and there aren’t much in the way of genuine scares. It’s creepy, it’s occasionally atmospheric, and it’s also really long and drawn out, clocking in at 151 minutes, which is even longer than Kubrick’s movie. It’s an epilogue that gets by on the emotional investment and resolution it provides for Danny while setting up a larger universe of super “shining” psychics. If you don’t care about one, there’s at least some degree of the other to prove entertaining albeit also being underdeveloped. Doctor Sleep (a wasted title) is a workable balance between two masters of horror.
Nate’s Grade: B
Night Work (2019)
As I’ve been making a concerted effort to provide thoughtful film reviews for local Ohio projects, I’ve had to acknowledge my potential bias in several circumstances, having personal or professional connections to those behind and in front of the camera. Well, when it comes to the genre comedy Night Work, this is the most biased I may ever get for a project not carrying my name. Writer/director Kyle Rayburn cast a good friend of mine, Valerie Gilbert, in a key supporting role, and I was so inspired with her character’s unique situation that I went and wrote a 9-part rom-com Web series called The Spirit Inside Me exploring that dynamic in the context of a different genre. Gilbert co-starred in my production, served as my co-creator, and Kyle not only gave us his blessing for our own independent project, he offered constant encouragement and assistance, opening his home to us to film one of the episodes (our lead actress threatened to kidnap his sweetheart of a dog). If it wasn’t for Kyle’s creativity, and later his generosity, there would be no Spirit Inside Me, and I’m very grateful for that outcome (look for the first batch of Spirit episodes in late 2019?). Now I get to review the man’s finished film that he made throughout the fall of 2018 in central Ohio and instead of just blaring, “It’s awesome, go see it,” I feel like I can better serve the filmmakers by providing as objective and professional a review as I can especially for a fun movie that deserves to be seen on the festival circuit and later on home video release.
It’s a world of monsters and men living side-by-side. The Night Work team operate as a for-hire crew to bust some ghosts, keep some creepy crawlies in line, and handle the many supernatural beasties hassling the common folk. Frank Rooker (Scott Wood) is the grizzled, hard-drinking, punch-first-ask-questions-later partner with a tragic past. His young daughter Elizabeth was possessed by a spirit and she has been missing for years. Mysterious clues start to emerge pointing toward Elizabeth being alive, and Frank enlists the help of his magic-oriented, irritable Night Work partner Chase Hardy (Virgil Schnell) and Val (Gilbert), a strong-armed bartender who offers handjobs for a fee (she’s also shares her body with a lesbian samurai). Together, this motley crew will shake down creeps and fakes to find out what really happened to Elizabeth.
The fact that Rayburn and his company of first-time filmmakers threw themselves into the mix unabated and holding to their ambition to tell a funky indie version of True Blood meets Men in Black is impressive. They could have gone an introspective mumblecore route, or a teens-lost-in-the-woods genre slasher, but instead they went with a micro-budgeted fantasy/horror buddy film replete with monsters, vampires, and assorted lesbian samurai possessions. Given the budget, inexperience, and ambitions, I take my hat off to the entire Night Work cast and crew not just for going for broke with a twisted, silly comic vision but also seeing it through.
First and foremost, Night Work is a fun movie that seems to be bristling with weirdness and ideas. There are offhand statements that make me curious about additional stories within this universe of humans and the everyday supernatural. It feels like every scene has so much storytelling potential just around the edges, which may be one of the reasons I took a character concept on the peripheral (love story between two people in one body) and creatively ran with it, writing a whole project devoted simply to exploring that very concept. Each time we’re introduced to a new character with a special power or predicament, the world feels richer and more alive and lived in. That sense permeates the film and provides an enjoyment level no matter the scene. You’ll find something to smile about or to be intrigued over in just about every moment, and that’s because Rayburn and his collaborators have certainly given thought to this unusual world. I enjoyed that characters will make references we don’t fully comprehend (“I thought it was gonna be another Baton Rouge”) but point toward more lived-in experiences to unpack. This is a highly amusing and inherently interesting world open for deeper exploration, possibly in linked sequels, and I think that’s a strong necessity for any storyteller creating a setting different than our own.
Night Work is also a funny movie, borrowing from the likes of Sam Raimi and Kevin Smith. There’s a crude, juvenile humor to the movie, and even when characters are confronted with terrifying monsters and the unknown, they meet it with a devilish glee. If the movie could be condensed into a single expression it would be a mirthful smirk. I laughed out loud at a child getting punched in the face. There’s a playful camaraderie between the various players where they always seem on the cusp of cracking a joke. Rather than be annoying, it keeps things light even when we’re dealing with some pretty spooky stuff, allowing Night Work to maintain a ball-busting comedic tone. It’s the film’s way of telling its audience to enjoy the ride, soak up the characters, and not to be too troubled by the rest, even if there are certain implications that might be more troublesome like a diet of male phalluses. I laughed at several points but smiled even more consistently. Night Work didn’t quite have the budget to achieve affecting horror, so it dives headlong into slapstick, banter, and spunky mischievousness. This works well because clever doesn’t need a dollar amount, only a strong writer and a clearly articulated vision.
The performers are just as enjoyable as the funny banter they’re given. Scott Wood is so damn charismatic that it feels like he simply is Frank Rooker. His line readings have such spit and shine to them that the man can find jokes that I didn’t even know were in the lines; he discovers them with his sozzled, sarcastic nonchalance. He’s a presence that kept drawing me toward him and he serves as a terrific anchor for a movie. Wood needs more film work. His onscreen partner, Virgil Schnell, plays the straight man role growing more exasperated. They have a winning chemistry and, mysteriously, if you close your eyes and listen, Schnell’s voice sounds shockingly identical to Keegan Michael-Key. Gilbert (Pinheads, and, ahem, The Spirit Inside Me) is a welcomed addition and is cheerful and wry no matter what gets thrown at her. I wished she was in the movie even more. Gracie Hayes-Plazolles makes a strong impression as a late character who jostles back and forth between innocence and wickedness and has great fun playing those contrasts.
Because of its micro-budget nature, there are certain aspects of filmmaking you simply have to be charitable over as long as they don’t blunt the overall impact of the intent. There’s not much in the way of a sound mix or advanced lighting or set dressing, and I didn’t care, because this is a movie carried by the colorful characters, weird world, and spirited performances. The fact that Gilbert is splayed with what appears to be a blast of light from God (from an open car trunk in reality) doesn’t matter as much as the excellence with how she delivers an incredulous F-bomb after getting spat in the face as part of a protective ritual. The content of ideas, and the energy and commitment, overcome most of the production shortcomings and can provide their own homespun sense of lo-fi charm. There’s a later sequence where an entire conversation and fight inside a bar occurs through the use of silent movie-style inter-titles. I’m certain it was shot and/or edited this way from the realities of not being able to record good sound in a working bar at the time. However, it’s an unexpected and memorable moment that shows a silly and adaptable side at the ready.
With all that being said, there are some limitations that do affect the overall execution of Night Work and limit where the storytelling can go. For starters, this is a very heavily expositional movie. Going into a new world with monsters and magic requires a degree of expected world building which requires an expected degree of explanation. The trick is to make it seem as natural as possible and match it to the action on screen. Night Work follows a film noir-esque storyline where we follow our heroes from spot to spot, shaking down characters, following trails, picking up clues, and this also lends itself to monologues and interrogations. With Night Work, unfortunately there are too many moments of characters just talking and talking and unloading information about the world, its history, its differences, and it can feel like we just left one scene of characters talking to the audience and entered another scene of characters talking to the audience. Again, some of this is unavoidable, but the mission is to make exposition as invisible as possible and judiciously integrated, showing and not telling. It feels a bit like reading the game manual rather than playing the game. Some of this could have been mitigated by pairing it more through action, making the exposition more fluid. Instead of a character unloading information on what something does, we see it. Instead of learning what monsters exist, we see them, maybe even sitting pretty at a bar. I circle back to Men in Black and how it was able to slowly pull back and reveal more of its droll world and how it operated as needed.
The pacing can be strained at times and my theory is because of the effort to get the final product over the finish line of an 80-minute feature running time. Some scenes and shots feel like they go on longer than necessary to convey information or mood, and there are multiple scenes of watching people drive set to soundtrack music or watching people walk down the street, sometimes sped up, set to soundtrack music. It’s different later when we watch Frank and Chase slowly creep through an abandoned building because there’s tension and mystery, anticipation, but watching people drive while listening to music feels like mood setting at best and filler at worst. You can get away with some of this to establish a sense of style and place, but if you choose this route too often, it starts to feel like there just wasn’t enough material available.
Then this makes me think about what could have been added, namely more visual or demonstrative elements and general coverage. Val’s samurai ghost demands some form of visual insert to pair with her recounting of being visited in her dreams. Even if it was brief glimpses, something to show them “together.” Otherwise, this aspect only exists as a theoretical, with the exception of some Japanese words espoused (does the ghost assist with the handjobs?). The same goes with the tragic backstory with Frank’s family. We’re treated to a small moment of his daughter becoming possessed, but the rest is delivered via extended voice over while Frank trundles around his home. Moments that could be ten seconds are stretched to two minutes, to cover for the voice over, to cover for the running time, or simply because there weren’t other editing options. Rarely will sequences feel like there are more than two to three angles to select from, and this isn’t a problem by itself except when it comes to some edits. Without inserts or tighter shots (I can only recall a mere handful of close-ups) there aren’t opportunities to wipe clean edits, so occasionally the same shot will awkwardly dissolve to a different take of the same shot. It’s moments like that where the amateurism, which I find as a general badge of honor for the project, can become an unwanted interference.
Night Work is a fun, ribald little movie that has its own sense of charm, from its budgetary limitations to the expansive possibilities of its strange world. As soon as it was drawing to a close, with some life-changing circumstances and reunions, I was thinking, “Man, I almost wish that movie was starting right now.” It’s a great, drama-heavy starting point for a movie, and I’d be lying if part of me didn’t wish Night Work began at that point rather than ended there. However, what we do get with Night Work feels like the first step in a larger universe of monsters and mishaps, one I hope Rayburn’s promised next project, Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio, will synch up with, further exploring the outer edges of this dark and demented playing field. The actors are committed and highly amusing with a special commendation for Wood’s efforts. Rayburn and his entire team, populated with friends, family, and amateur craftsmen, have aimed high and mostly hit their entertainment targets, using limitations mostly to their benefit. This is a charming movie with a strong sense of itself and the desire to entertain in a broad, goofy style. Even with adjusted expectations, there should be something for fans of genre cinema, unconventional comedies, and monsters to dig into. Night Work feels like a promising beginning, both for the filmmakers and its world. Rayburn did it, he made a movie on his own, and now with one movie under his belt, I hope he keeps cranking out more genre comedies happy to be genre comedies.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Curse of La Llorona (2019)
The Conjuring universe has gotten pretty big pretty quickly, but all it takes is one substandard spin-off to make you realize just how much craft and care are needed to make these things work right. The Curse of La Llorona (safe bet the most mispronounced title of the year) has a connection to the priest from the first Annabelle movie, and it features a supernatural spirit, a ghostly woman in a wedding dress hunting for children to replace the ones that she murdered in spite centuries ago. The main problem with Llorona is that it is so repetitive. The ghost story winds up being over an hour of the same jump scares over and over, the same high-pitched shrieks, the same door slams, the same overzealous film score, again and again. The movie occasionally introduces a unique plot mechanic like the spirit not being able to cross a makeshift barrier as long as it stays unbroken. One minute later: one of the dumb kids breaks it to reach for her dumb doll. Why even introduce a plot mechanic that involves limitations for your supernatural villain to simply cast it aside literally minutes later? If a horror movie is not going to go to the trouble of developing characters I care about, it better produce clever and effective suspense set pieces to generate that missing entertainment. This movie is cursed by not doing either, and so it becomes a redundant series of the same lame scares. There really isn’t a reason for The Curse of La Llorona to exist other than one more chance to remind me just how much better James Wan is when it comes to horror scene construction. Skip this one, folks.
Nate’s Grade: C
A Ghost Story (2017)
Ever wanted to see Oscar-nominated actress Rooney Mara eat a pie? Odd question, I realize, but apparently one that writer/director David Lowery felt compelled to answer. With the success of last year’s utterly heart-warming Disney remake of Pete’s Dragon, Lowery secretly made a low-budget movie with Casey Affleck and Mara, reuniting two of his actors from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. The end result, A Ghost Story, literally involves a deceased Affleck stalking the screen in a long white sheet with two eyeholes. Lowery’s tone poem of metaphysical grief will likely alienate just as many people as it dazzles, and I fall squarely in the former camp. This movie is arthouse bluster.
This is a twenty-minute short stretched beyond a breaking point to fit a feature-length running time. It’s an impressionistic movie in the guise of the works of Terrence Malick, small and earnest and far more concerned about mood than story. That’s fine but if you’re going the impressionistic route I need scenes that aren’t self-indulgently laborious and constantly striking the same note. The majority of this movie is beautifully composed shots that eventually reveal the ghost standing in the background. It becomes a game of guessing when the camera will reveal the ghost’s presence. I understand that grief and loneliness is going to naturally deserve a slower pace to get a sense of the melancholic loss, but a slow movie that keeps delivering the same imagery is monotonous. The metaphors get old. The only thing holding the audience together is the time-traveling quest for the ghost to retrieve the note Mara’s character slipped into a door jam. It’s a long mystery that will ultimately prove an unworthy payoff. If Lowery is intending for the audience to feel the same sense of boredom and isolation as the ghost, that’s fine, but the movie dwells in this same emotional space with too little variance or further insight.
And this is where I have to come back to the pie as a symbol of the film’s self-indulgence. I have felt the urge to walk out of other movies but never acted upon them. I was minutes away from walking out on A Ghost Story, and it was the pie-eating scene that almost pushed me to bail. The idea of binge eating your feelings is a suitable metaphor for grief, and it works on its own initially, as she sniffles and holds back tears with every bite. And then she keeps eating. And then she keeps eating. The scene goes on for like ten minutes, uninterrupted, and with no further commentary. You are literally watching Mara eat a pie in real time and then throw up. After the sixth or so minute of pie consumption, I started laughing out loud, and then other people around me joined in. What can you do? Just as Mara’s character overindulges to the point of sickness, this scene pushes the beleaguered audience to the point of running out of the room gagging.
This would be different if the movie gave Mara anything really to do besides swallow her feelings. She has a few more scenes of the humdrum of moving on, painting the house she shared with her loved one, and then leaving. It seems like an awful waste of Mara’s talents but I would say the same thing for Affleck. I’m sure not having to memorize any lines after the ten-minute mark and getting to emote entirely through physical expression could be fun for an actor. It’s practically a throwback to silent film thespians. However, he’s just kind of there, like living furniture. I understand that part of grief is feeling like you’re a forgotten being and that time is infinite and punishing. I understand that sadness can feel numbing and cut to the bone. I get the mood; I even get the central metaphor of the de-contextualized ghost in a sheet just hanging around old haunts, unable to do much else, disconnected from the world and unable to move on or make sense of things. My issue is that this approach relegates the actors to stand-ins, squeezing the characters into intentionally bland ciphers for audience relatability. They are not allowed to be characters because somehow this would detract from the artistic appeal or message.
It’s frustrating because A Ghost Story has ideas, images, and moments that intrigue, beguile, and have a poignant power. It’s when the film expands beyond its limited parameters that it becomes its more interesting shape. As the ghost attempts to keep watch over Mara’s character, time moves much faster, to the point that a mere walk from one room to another can be the expanse of months. The triptych sequence of being unmoored through time, as everything speeds by so quickly, accentuates the helplessness of the ghost as well as the isolation. It’s like the world and life itself is outgrowing them, forgetting them, and leaving them further and further behind. There are also other ghosts and our ghost has a subtitled dialogue with them. It sounds silly but it’s actually one of the most sublimely affecting moments in the film, an idea that actually hits its intended mark. Take this exchange: “I’m waiting for someone,” “Who?” “I don’t remember.” Then the other ghost goes back to waiting, forever hopeful, forever clinging onto something that has long since evaporated, where even the memory, the concept of the idea of why has also vanished. Late into the movie the ghost starts going backwards and forwards in time, to a distant future of Bladerunner-like neon high-rises, to the nineteenth century to track a family of westward settlers. The abrupt careening through time says more about the ghost’s existence and it keeps things fresh. If this movie was a total wash, I could write off Lowery’s curio as self-important navel-gazing, but there are kernels of ideas, or moments, that stand out and demand a better presentation for better effect
A Ghost Story will definitely strike different people differently. It’s a deeply personal, poetic, and, if you’re not properly attuned to its metaphysical funeral procession, pretentious and pondersome film that wears out its welcome long before the end credits. I found the substance to be spread too thin over such a longer running time than this execution deserved. If you’re going for an impressionistic evocation, then the scenes need to be paced better. If you’re going for a mood of loneliness, then latch onto the character better and let’s follow Mara’s character as she rebounds and grows old. If you’re going for an existential horror movie, then present more confusion and terror and less of the same visual metaphors on constant repeat. If you’re going for Rooney Mara eating an entire pie in real time, then, well, actually you’ve succeeded. Congratulations. A Ghost Story is going to be one of those movies that critics fawn over that leaves me shrugging.
Nate’s Grade: C
Blair Witch (2016)
As is mandatory with all reviews, let us acknowledge the tremendous impact of the original Blair Witch Project, a full-borne cultural event that tapped into the zeitgeist. It was a rare indie movie that curated a must-see reputation and became a blockbuster. The found footage format was highly influential afterwards as were its low-fi thrills, community interactivity, viral marketing, and experimental construction. I remember having heated arguments with people about whether the movie was indeed real or a work of fiction. I pointed to the TV once and said, “Look, the actors are promoting it on MTV.” Naturally imitators followed suit and the studio looked to eagerly turn a curiosity into a franchise. 2000’s hasty sequel Book of Shadows was quickly rejected and just as quickly the Blair Witch phenomenon had slipped away. It remained dead until this summer. Director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest) and frequent screenwriting partner Simon Barrett had recently made a horror movie called The Woods, but at 2016’s Comicon the secrecy was finally dropped. It was a sequel to The Blair Witch Project, filmed in secret J.J. Abrams-style. It was a stunt that worked, and once again there was life in this franchise. This will only last until people see the new Blair Witch, a monotonous, confused jump-scare haven that’s too indebted to the original and discards anything interesting it stumbles onto.
Sixteen years after three backpackers went missing, footage has been posted that possibly shows one of these backpackers, Heather, still alive. James (James Allen McCune) is now an adult male and determined to find out if his sister is alive. Lisa (Callie Hernadez), a film student and maybe James girlfriend, tags along to record James’ hunt for the truth into her graduate thesis. Their friends (Corbin Reid, Brandan Scott) come along for the adventure into the woods, as well as a conspiracy couple (Wes Robinson, Valorie Curry) responsible for posting that new footage. The conspiracy couple leads them into the woods and it isn’t long before people get lost, tempers get heated, and strange disturbing noises materialize from the never-ending night.
Much can be forgiven if a scary movie delivers the spine-tingling goods, and standing in the shadow of one of the biggest horror hits of all time is no easy proposition. It’s too bad then that Wingard’s Blair Witch is far more tedious than terrifying. I didn’t fall under the spell of the 1999 original but I could appreciate its slow-burn efforts and execution, which relied upon a lot of unsettling dread left to audience imagination. With the 2016 reboot, the filmmakers have upped the ante but don’t have patience. There are over six different jump scares, each punctuated by a loud, often shrill scream. At one point there are three in a row in a succession of mere minutes, enough so that a character provides a meta dose of commentary by saying in exasperation, “Why do people keep doing that?” Calling attention to the annoying trait doesn’t make it better. The sound design is also, in a word, amplified. It sounds like Bigfoot or a dinosaur is tearing through the woods and wrecking havoc. It was enough that I hoped the movie would just reveal the Blair Witch never existed and instead it was some other sizeable monster of legend. I’ll give Wingard credit for the found footage cinematography not being self-consciously overdone. The characters have an incredible stash of cameras, from GoPros to flying drone cameras, which makes the editing less choppy and the movie easier to watch.
There are exactly two scenes that unnerved me. One is the sheer numbers of an expected item upon waking up, the immense quantity and variation in size providing an eerie sight as it fills the screen. The other is a late sequence that involves squeezing in a tight space, which allows Wingard to employ some nice claustrophobic tension. Short of these two moments, and they are mere moments, the movie was boring me so profoundly that I considered just leaving, and I’ve never walked out on a movie before. It felt like it was going nowhere fast with characters I didn’t care about and without any relevant suspense. The found footage filming elements are even used to enhance the jump scares with sudden visual and sound glitches amplifying the tired attempts to constantly startle its audience. This is a movie more concerned with startling its audience than scaring it.
When the movie does start to tantalize your interest, it’s like a mirage that soon vanishes and you’re once again left in your dire predicament. Getting lost in the woods is not interesting minus interesting aspects. However, finding out that time is operating at a different level, now that’s interesting. The characters set their alarms for seven A.M. but it’s still dark out. The possibility of the Blair Witch manipulating time to trap hikers was the first moment in this entire movie that made me sit up in my chair. It took the movie in a different direction that demanded my attention, and it opened up the possibilities of what had been a rather lifeless enterprise up that point. Show me this movie. Alas, it’s an aspect that is quickly shoved aside and largely forgotten even with the timeline of events regarding the footage. There’s a scene where the stick figures directly communicate a powerful connective relationship, and yet this too is never touched upon again. There’s a new threat introduced that takes the movie in a body horror direction and raises questions about whether the woods themselves can become alive. It’s another intriguing moment that culminates in what promises to be a memorable gross-out image, and instead it too peters out and then unwisely abandons the body horror angle. It’s almost like the movie is so single-minded in its path that it ignores the intriguing and preferable detours.
Wingard and Barrett are trying to expand the Blair Witch mythology but their reboot operates on the assumption that there is even a base to work upon and that its audience is familiar with heretofore unspoken rules that appear arbitrarily and randomly. This reboot operates in a world that acknowledges the release of the first Blair Witch movie, yet nobody seems to be any different from this. Obviously James is different having to lie with the legacy of the movie, but why venture out into the woods on a whim of hope to find his long-lost sister who vanished 16 years ago? Does he think she’s just been living off squirrels and twigs in the ensuing time? Why doesn’t James try and question who edited the footage from his sister into a narrative? Why doesn’t he try suing the film production for profiting off his family pain? Why hasn’t Burkitsville, Maryland become a counter-culture tourist destination from taking ownership over its supernatural legend, much like Salem or Roswell? The town should be swamped with adventurous backpackers who want to live the experience. The much maligned Book of Shadows did far more to discuss the reality of the Blair Witch phenomenon and the tenuous hold on reality that the Internet age was ushering in. Wingard’s version eschews this world-building context for narrative immediacy. James wants to find his sister, he gets a clue that she might be out in those woods still, so they all go into the woods. Once the conspiracy theory couple insert themselves onto the trip it seems odd that we’ve ignored the larger context of the legend, instead rehashing how the Blair Witch died.
As things begin to fall apart in the second half, the events start to feel arbitrary and poorly defined. There’s a sequence during the climax that I’ll try my best to describe with some discretion but be warned, folks (spoilers): the remaining characters eventually find that same shack in the middle of the woods, though the exact number of floors seems unclear. The witch looks to finally confront our characters, though why she/it waited until this moment is also unclear since she/it seems to be entirely overpowering. That’s when a character declares, with no prior guesswork to arrive at this conclusion, that they have to stand in corners and as long as they don’t turn around and look they will survive. And this works. It’s not explained why this Raiders of the Lost Ark closed-eyes routine is somehow the secret to supernatural survival (ignorance is bliss?). When the character unleashes this tidbit it’s treated like the audience knows the rules of the Blair Witch universe, and we sure don’t. At no point has a larger system been established, so when characters start spouting rules it feels like the movie is making it up as it goes. This don’t-look-back trick is played out almost to a comical effect, which culminates in the rising question of whether a character is going to backwards walk out of the whole stupid forest. The muddled world building (time dilation, voodoo sticks, tree monsters?) makes it feel like the doomed characters are ultimately trapped in a half-finished screenplay.
I was honestly expecting more from Wingard and Barrett after their previous genre collaborations. These guys know the underpinnings of enjoyable genre filmmaking and how and when t upend the conventions and expectations, zigging when others would zag. I felt these two would be able to take a studio gig like Blair Witch and find something new, something interesting, and certainly something scary with the property. I regret to say that this Blair Witch might be new but it sure fails to be interesting or scary. The characters are meaningless and interchangeable and boring. Their decisions are often illogical and stupid. The scares are stacked too high in favor of cheap jump scares, and the movie lacks the patience to develop its tension and horror. It can’t even properly establish rules for the audience to follow. It’s like the filmmakers are being upfront with their lack of faith in their final product. I think the key missing ingredient is, surprisingly, humor. Both You’re Next and The Guest balance along a delicate tonal line that can veer into macabre comedy any moment to lighten or heighten the tension. There are no (intentional) laughs to be had with this retread into the woods. I think the newest Blair Witch has done the unthinkable: it’s redeemed Book of Shadows.
Nate’s Grade: C-
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