Category Archives: Movie of the Day Blog

Movie of the Day: It Follows (2015)


In horror movies, it sucks to be young. Our minds and our bodies are beginning to get adjusted to so many scary things and then you have to deal with some fool with a butcher knife or a ghost with a 200 year-old axe to grind.  It’s hard to grow up, but it’s even harder when it comes in the form of outward forces that we can’t explain – we get enough of that from the natural world.  Kids in horror movies have gotten a raw deal ever since that chainsaw business back in the early 70s, and we find that the best of the genre seems to lean on this idea.

David Robert Mitchell’s oddly titled new horror exercise It Follows is no different.  The kids are dumped on from beginning to end, but the difference is that there’s a method to all the madness.  They aren’t just pawns, they are actual human beings forced to deal with the unexplainable.  Mitchell’s genius is that he creates a dark mood and tone, and the feeling that something is around every corner and emerges from a place no one can quite explain.  He’s a born filmmaker whose efforts here got him noticed – the film was widely praised at the Cannes film festival last year, and I’m happy to say, it was earned.  Unlike most films in this genre that feel like fish food hammered together based on whatever seems popular at the moment, this is a movie that was put together with care – somebody wanted to make this movie.

It Follows is built on a premise that is almost fatally ridiculous but you don’t mind so much because the movie is put together with breathtakingly ambitious filmmaking that evokes a sense of fear and terror even when nothing is happening. It takes it’s horror from the simple but unsettling notion that even when all is peaceful and calm, someone is watching.

It Follows is a movie that might have found good company back in the 70s and 80s when filmmakers – newly free from the strangulation of the production code – were not only able to experiment with new kinds of explicit content but with mood and tone and a sense of dread. That was the age of Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Carrie, Halloween, The Shining and Poltergeist. We are reminded of the spirit of those films because it builds it’s supernatural terror from a foundation of reality.

The movie opens in a quiet suburban neighborhood with the camera planted in the middle of the street. The camera swivels around to a middle-class cracker box house from which emerges a young girl who is obviously scared out of her mind – something is chasing her.  In a few short moments, she gets in her car and drives away.  At a shallow spot in road, she calls her father to tell him goodbye and the next morning – well, you can guess.

Our focus shifts to a different girl – broody young Jay Height (Maika Monroe), a pretty blonde with gangly limbs whose 20 year-old youth ebbs somewhere between the end of budding teen years and the beginnings of the mysteries of her own sexuality. There’s nothing typical about her. She’s got a lot on her mind, and we can see in her eyes that something is going on – perhaps the terror that the kid years are ending and the real world expectations are about to begin. That’s the least of her worries, especially when she accepts a date with sort-of hunky Hugh (Jake Weary), a good-looking but dorky kid who tries and fails to hide jangled nerves – he takes her to a movie but bolts when he thinks he sees someone staring at him.

Spoilers Ahead!

Hugh’s eccentricity is not enough to keep Jay from accepting a second date so they go out for a drink before she (consensually) surrenders her virtue in the back of his car. What she doesn’t know is that Jay is cursed, and has passed the curse on to our heroine. That’s right — the curse is sexually transmitted. But! But! But! Just wait! Before you shut down this review in a fit of jaded cynicism hear me out. What happens to Jay is not based on plot but on blistering paranoia. She sees entities, dead people who approach her at a walking pace and never seem to stop. They come in through windows, across fields, down the beach, from everywhere, at any time, at any place.  Worse is that sometimes they don’t come at all.  At times she sees several dead people, at times she sees nothing. She never knows where they will come from or in which form they will take.

What makes It Follows so special is that director David Robert Mitchell has deep-fried his movie in an almost crushing atmosphere of dread. Every frame of this movie is steeped in dark tones, bare-bulb lighting and an electronic score that seems to be piped in from Mars. He has so much confidence in his tone that he hovers on long scenes of fields and parking lots and windows. We expect to see something emerge. Sometimes it does, many times it does not.

This is a beautifully shot, but unsettling movie to experience. Mitchell lingers on long shots, of grassy fields, parking lots, dirty houses, and long corridors. We remember little details like tin cans, a beach chair, a telephone, a blade of grass. The movie’s production design is not slick but made up of filthy rooms, dingy corridors and open spaces. Much of the movie is seen through Jays eyes, and we feel her terror. Young Maika Monroe – an actress that I am unfamiliar with – gives a wonderful performance as a young woman whose problems of youth are doubled by the terror she experience from the curse. She has an expressive face with eyes that reveal feelings that she doesn’t express in words.

In many ways, It Follows reminds me of the early films of Wes Craven (particularly the first Elm Street), only this film isn’t quite as plotted as Craven’s work.  Much of what happens once the curse is set in motion is left to the filmmaking, not the writing.  Much of Jay’s journey is helped along by her high school friends who take her at her word that something wicked this way comes.  Mitchell keeps the viewer at arm’s length and seems unwilling to hold our hand.  We don’t get inside Jay’s head but we feel more like we’re standing next to her.  We’re in the room with her and her friends as they hear noises outside.  The friends are not standard movie types, but specific individuals who seem to exist in Jay’s hemisphere as classmates who are on the verge of moving on with their post-high school lives – this is a movie very much about time and place.

The third act does get a little gimmicky as the kids try and confront the curse on a physical level.  That part of the movie seems a little hokey.  The movie works best when the dread is suggested rather than confronted.  Still it ends on a terrifyingly reasonable note suggesting an endless vicious cycle.  Life goes on and so, apparently, do the dead.


Movie of the Day: Lovelace (2013)


Let’s face it, the world wasn’t exactly missing a biopic about Linda Lovelace, the  former actress who made her immortality in 1972 by becoming the star of “Deep  Throat” the most profitable adult film in the history of the medium. Digging around in the trash of a celebrity has a certain level of titillation, but it’s no more necessary than digging around in the sex life of Liberace (at least his story has music to fall back on).  But how far have we come? Once, long ago, Hollywood made biopics about monarchs  and presidents, people who accomplished things and changed the world. Now, rather than pages out of history books, we get pages out of the tabloids.  You’ve gone the wrong way, baby!

That’s exactly how “Lovelace” feels. This is not the portrait of a life, but a  dreary soap opera about an abused woman with a scummy husband who forced her (at gunpoint, we’re told) into a life of pornography and prostitution. The problem is that this movie is all tragedy and no substance, giving us a story  that might have been better suited for a documentary, which is curious because  the movie comes from directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman who have made  great documentaries like The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet. Why didn’t they just make a documentary? This is drama  played at the level of a bad Lifetime Original Movie.

Lovelace – henceforth referred to by her given name, Linda Boreman – is played  in a stiff performance by Amanda Seyfriend, an actress of breathtaking beauty  who has yet to find a role that proves that she is more than just photogenic.  She plays Boreman as a wounded saint, a Little Girl Lost who is pushed and bullied and manipulated by her husband  so much and so often that we never feel that there was another note to her personality or their relationship.  Her performance is made up of wide-eyed petrified looks wrapped up in period clothes.

The movie hits the bulletpoints of Boreman’s life without examining any of  them. She was born Linda Boreman in Brooklyn, New York in 1949 under domineering parents, and then uprooted to Florida where she had a baby by age 19. In the aftermath of giving up her child, she met Chuck Traynor (Peter  Sarsgaard), who initially seemed like a nice guy, but turned out to be a slimeball who (she said) got her involved in the porn world against her will.  He even sold her into prostitution to get himself out of debt. Sarsgaard is a good actor whose range here moves from creepy nice guy to desperate pervert with an unnerving slow burn.

Most of the movie follows Boreman’s volatile relationship with Traynor.  The film’s first half shows a loving  relationship that builds between him and Boreman, but the second half rewinds the clock and tells her side of the story in flashback, this time containing  the more realistic bits of his control over her every move. You can’t help but feel pity for Boreman, but knowing the rest of her story, when she renounced the industry, divorce, remarried and had a child, you can’t help but feel that there was more to her story than just sex and being slapped around. Her life away from Traynor, and her famous interview with Phil Donahue, are handled in a few brief scenes, but you get the feeling that this is where the film’s second act should have begun.  The film wants us to understand the circumstances that took Boreman from porn star to anti-porn feminist but it wallows in the glow of her early profession with lots of soft light and nudity.  Epstein and Friedman wallow in the decadence of a lifestyle they are trying to renounce.

The problem with telling the story of Linda Lovelace is that there really isn’t much to tell. If “Deep Throat” has been a flop, no one would care or even  remember her. The only way to tell this story would be to portray the 70s porn chic world that surrounded her as Paul Thomas Anderson did with “Boogie  Nights,” which showed the glamour and the superficial hedonism of an era in which the morals of America were  slipping so fast that porn was threatening to become mainstream.  The story of the film’s impact was also told much better in the 2005 documentary “Inside Deep Throat,” which wasn’t a great movie but offers more insight into that world than is portrayed here. What we get in “Lovelace” is an  exploitative portrait of misery and despair that ends with Linda becoming a  feminist. Yet, that transformation comes as a momentary revelation.  Screenwriter Andy Bellin misses the journey that got her there.  Why do we care?  What is the journey?  What is the point?  Who was this woman?


Movie of the Day: Twin Peaks – Fire Walk With Me (1992)


I have no objection to a director who fancies himself a stylist but once in a while I do ask that a stylist occasionally let me in on the joke. David Lynch has always been the master of his own work, sometimes brilliant but often times baffling, confusing and frustrating. Frustrating because he tries so hard to outsmart the viewer and himself that often, I think, he forgets to just make a movie.

`Twin Peaks’ was no exception. I didn’t mind being taken into his comic nightmare on television (however one or two episodes were about all I could take) but this senseless and tiresome movie grates on +your nerves the moment you realize that it isn’t even going to try to make an attempt at any cognitive reason. In my mind the movie plays like a stubborn child who won’t budge from his seat and keeps smiling just the irritate you.

What I saw of `Twin Peaks’ on television I foolishly thought could be explained here. `Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’ chronicles that last seven days of the life of Laura Palmer, the McGuffin at the center of the entire enterprise. The series begins with the discovery of her dead body and the subsequent investigation to trace how she got there. The movie takes us back a full year before that discovery to lead us through Laura’s life up to the day of her murder.

The movie begins with another murder under investigation by two FBI agents (Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland) who predict, rather predictably that the killer will kill again. Agent Cooper (Kyle McLaughlin) has a vision about this time of a red room and some babbling nonsense about garborzonia.

Then we meet Laura, whom I found to be a robust, fascinating and very well written character. She lives with her parents, she persistently abuses drugs and her own body in pursuit of reckless sex. Her father (Ray Wise) has an unhealthy fixation on her and her mother (Grace Zabriske) is too much of a weakling to do anything about it. The only solace that Laura seems to find is in her friend Donna (Moira Kelly) whom she almost takes down with her.

All of this is fine and good. I wanted to see a movie about this particular subject but Lynch isn’t satisfied with just a simple story, no, he has to leaden it with a lot of weird rooms, backward talking midgets, nonsensical twisty timelines and unnecessary plot machinations. I swear the last hour of the movie just seems to completely leave the earth.

I would like to have seen that story. I think Lynch had it in his hands to make a great drama about a trailer trash girl with a drug habit, an unhealthy sex life and a home life that is a ticking time bomb. That would have made for the kind of drama that Tennessee Williams would have envied. C’mon David use your gifts for great filmmaking and stop with the self-indulgence already.


Movie of the Day: Bitter Moon (1994)


There is an easy way to tell if a movie that is breaking sexual taboos. Sex scenes that don’t work make people laugh. Sex scenes that do work make them squirm. Bitter Moon fits comfortably into the latter. I saw this movie back in 1994 with a theater of about 150 people, a third of which were gone by the time the first hour was up.  This is an uncomfortable movie, a movie that opts for weird sexual practices from people who have replaced love for lust.  Does it surprise anyone that it comes from Roman Polanski?

Bitter Moon looks, for all the world, like trashy melodrama.  It juggles bad taste and sexual intrigue but it doesn’t do it in a juvenile way with bad laughs.  It does so in a mature way and builds it on a story about people not plotting.  It is an exploration of whether or not two damaged people can work out their inner demons through sexual cohabitation or whether such a scenario will destroy them as human beings.

It begins on a cruise ship with Nigel (Hugh Grant) a bitter Englishman who is married to Fiona (Kristen Scott Thomas) a cold and distant prude.  One night at the bar Nigel meets a gorgeous French woman named Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner).  Naturally, he is intoxicated by her – she’s a ball of sexual fire that works in contrast to Fiona’s icy demeanor.

A short time later he meets her alcoholic husband Oscar (Peter Coyote) who is confined to a wheelchair.  He begins to tell Nigel the long story of how he and Mimi met. Spinning a tale from which Nigel is only held by the presence of Mimi, their story begins with a simple love story, how they met, and fell in lust with one another. Their sex life was robust and deliciously kinky with all manner of weird scenarios and sex shop implements that such activities are heir to.  After a while, of course, they got bored, locked themselves away and began a bizarre, kinky S&M roleplay that got more and more serious until Oscar ended up in that wheelchair.  This is the template for most of Bitter Moon.  The relationship is built on destruction and the frothy kinks that cannot be sustained.

Naturally, Nigel is fascinated by the story of Oscar and Mimi and he makes excuses to Fiona so that he can spend more time with the couple (Mimi more than Oscar).  He likes their story but we suspect that something may be afoot, that Nigel may be part of another con, another sex game established by this odd couple that may get him into trouble.

Bitter Moon is overly sexual, trashy, kinky, freaky and uncomfortable. In anyone else hands that might be a bad thing but in the hands of Roman Polanski we expect a degree of quality control. He is, and always has been, the master of his instrument and his achievement here is the ability to create this kind of bizarro sex tragedy and never make it laughable.

That works mainly because of the casting. Hugh Grant is wonderful as the kind of meek, mild fellow who probably thinks about sex but never acts on impulse. He’s married to Fiona (Kristen Scott-Thomas) who offers little sexual energy and allows us to understand why Nigel is so intrigued by the couple.

Peter Coyote has always been a mature, fearless actor with a slightly scary voice whose words in this films slither through his teeth with a kind of slippery anger. He informs Nigel that: “Everyone has a sadistic streak, and nothing brings it out better than the knowledge you’ve got someone at your mercy.” The best performance in the film, however, belongs to (Emmanuelle Seigner) as Mimi. She gives the kind of lurid performance that could illicit bad laughs like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct or Madonna in the godawful Body of Evidence. She is better than either by making her sexuality come from within and not wearing as a costume role. She’s gorgeous and mysterious and plays a rube like Nigel like a pinball machine.

Bitter Moon is a trashy film but a good one. Polanski is willing to go over the line with lurid melodrama and he doesn’t lose his nerve. He is brave filmmaker. Even braver is Emmanuel Seigneir (Polanski’s wife) who is required to do things in this film that many actresses wouldn’t touch for fear of their reputation. She does them and never backs off. ‘Bitter Moon’, like ‘Damage’ is a movie for adults. Both films speak about sex in a mature fashion without compromise.


Movie of the Day: An American Werewolf in London (1981)


I find myself pulled back and forth in my feelings about “An American Werewolf in London.” Here is a movie put together with brilliant technical craftsmanship, with special effects and make-up that deserve to be applauded. Yet, they serve a story that feels unfocused and even unfinished. It’s hard to know where to stand with this movie because there isn’t much to stand on.

The story is not the most original in the world. Two American college guys David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne) are backpacking through England and stop off at a remote pub one moonlit night to have a drink – they both order tea. The locals don’t like the looks of these two yanks, and when one says the wrong word we get the standard horror movie scene in which the entire place comes to a halt while the grizzliest of the patrons warns them to stay off the moors because a werewolf lurks in the darkness.

The boys poo-poo this nonsense and veer off the road anyway. Jack is killed by a wolf and David ends up in the hospital under the care of the voluptuous Alex Price (Jenny Agutter). He starts having nightmares involving killer zombies. His dreams are so vivid that at one point he has a dream within another dream. Jack’s bloody and mangled corpse returns to inform David that he has the werewolf curse, which he is slow to believe, and that he must kill himself in order to break it.

That’s pretty much the entire story. From there it is a straight line right down to the attacks by full-moon and repeated scenes of David waking up naked with no memory of where he’s been. There is some comic ingenuity in place involving covering of David’s naughty bits to keep the movie’s R-rating intact. Some of the comic bits work. There’s a funny running gag involving Jack who keeps turning up to remind David to kill himself. His face is more and more gelatinous and rotten every time we see it.

Then there’s the movie’s golden moment, a transformation scene, which is really the only scene in the movie that is worth your time. It is done right there in full light with hands that stretch into paws, a nose the stretches into a snout and fur that materializes out of nowhere. The real star of this movie is make-up artist Rick Baker who gives the movie everything that the script doesn’t.

Director John Landis who has made some brilliant comedies like “Animal House” and “Trading Places” turns in a script here that introduces meaningless characters, half-written scenes and ideas that cut short just as they seem about to get interesting. He stages elaborate special effects sequences, like an attack by killer zombies that leads nowhere and has no real purpose. Okay, they’re in a dream sequence but when you consider the work that went into that attack scene, you wonder why Landis wasted it all on a silly dream. Then there’s the ending, which seemed so sudden and so arbitrary that, for a second, I actually thought there was something wrong with my DVD. I thought something had been accidentally edited out.


Movie of the Day: Hitchcock (2013)


Alfred Hitchcock may have been the closest thing to P.T. Barnum that film history ever produced.  He was a showman, a trickster and a genius of self-promotion.  He knew how to whip up a delicious tale of evil, revenge, romance, murder and, yes, suspense (he was a master of it).  He is one of the greatest film directors of the last century, an artist who wove together a body of films that will live forever in movie history.  He made films for the moviegoing audience, not critics, not executives.  He respected our intelligence while proudly proclaiming “I played them like a violin.”

Hitch’s public persona was so unique that he made a game of hide-and-seek with his films, making cameos and trying to get the audience to spot him.  He possessed a dark and – for its time – sick sense of humor.  Once, on his television show, he announced that he had found a cure for insomnia and then presented a handful of bullets.

Sacha Gervasi’s film Hitchcock wisely does not try to be a tapestry of Hitchcock’s life, but an interesting curio of the days and weeks leading up to the release of Psycho.  What motivated him to make this picture?  After the elegance and deep sentimentality of Vertigo and the glory of North by Northwest, what made him want to scale back his artistry and make a horror film in black and white on a low budget with no hero, and a star who dies before the second act?  Everyone around him seemed to be asking those questions, but Hitch wasn’t talking.  He knew what we now know – that he had a nose for what the audience wanted.

The movie opens after the release of North by Northwest in which Hitch is aghast by critics who said that he was getting old and stale.  So, he buys the rights to a semi-popular pot-boiler by Robert Bloch and melds it together with the story of Wisconsin mass murderer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott), who unearthed corpses and wore their skins (not to worry, this is a bloodless film).  The fact that Gein’s habit of sleeping next to the corpse of his dead mother makes its way into Hitchcock’s film makes us question the miracle of how Psycho ever got made at all.

The title role is occupied, as well as it can be, by Anthony Hopkins who doesn’t look much like Hitch but manages to embody his spirit and his eccentric sense of style.  Those around him think that Psycho will ruin his career.  Paramount refuses to finance it, so Hitch and his wife Alma (Helen Mirren) mortgage their house and pay for it out of their own pockets.  Hitch fights with studio executives and with censors who are aghast that he wants a picture that contains no less than corpses, blood, bare breasts, stabbings and – worse of all – an actual toilet flushing complete with sound effects (that’s based on fact).

The story of the making of Psycho is only part of the story.  Most of the film deals with Hitch’s relationship with his wife Alma who, if the film can be believed, came up with some of the darker elements that made their way into the movie.  Hitch tells her that Marion Crane dies halfway through the picture, but Alma isn’t shocked and, in fact, suggests that he should kill her off sooner.  The relationship is really quite beautiful.  Alma is seen as a woman who is fiercely loyal to Hitch and stands by him at every turn – reminding us that behind every great man is a greater woman.  Helen Mirren actually gives the best performance in the movie as a woman with stubborn resolve, who is his voice of reason and occasionally shares his sick sense of humor.

Yet, the film isn’t perfect.  It is sometimes a jumble of interesting elements rather than a straight forward narrative.  There is a needless subplot involving Hitch’s suspicion that Alma is having an affair with the writer Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).  She calls off his suspicions with a brilliant monologue that won’t be spoiled here.  Then there are several strange moments in which Hitch imagines conversations with Ed Gein that seem pointless.  Still this is a very entertaining movie, the story of a very strange man and his very strange movie, one that – against all odds – became the most popular film that he ever made.  Hitch tested, mother approved.


Movie of the Day: Mom’s Night Out (2014)


There are no laughs in Moms’ Night Out.  None.  Nada.  Zilch.  Zero.  Bupkis.  Maybe there’s a smile, but that’s not exactly high praise.  When you can say that about a comedy, it pretty much empties out the entire picture.  Here’s a movie in which the only comic highpoint is a shout-out to Pinterest – it does them no favors.

The directors here are The Erwin Brothers whose apparent goal is to bring the kind of Hangover-style antics to a Christian-based audience without all the immoral filth. It’s a nice gesture, but in restraining the comedy their movie comes off like a limp sitcom pilot – the kind that doesn’t get picked up. With this, and last year’s anti-abortion misfire October Baby, it is clear that the Erwin Brothers need to work on the filmmaking before they try to send a message.  This time they’ve made a low-impact comedy so generic that it might as well have come stamped with a barcode.

The story deals with three mothers whose mental states have reached a boiling point. Primary is Allyson (Sarah Drew from “Grey’s Anatomy”) a frustrated ball of neurosis who is surrounded by three kids that are driving her insane. It is clear that she needs some time to herself, but her moods are so animated and manic that a reasonable person might suggest a Zoloft.  The movie, however, suggests that all of her problems can be solved by a dose of Vitamin Jesus.

At her side is her loving, but immature husband Sean (Sean Astin) a well-meaning Joe whose obsession with video games is not helping his wife’s mental state.  Much more grounded in the adult work are Allyson’s two BFF’s. There’s Izzy (Andrea Logan White), her childhood friend whose husband Marco (Robert Amaya) is a wimp with a pathological fear of luchadores, bikers and his own children (that’s suppose to be funny). And there’s Sondra (Patricia Heaton), a good-hearted, pressed-and-polished pastor’s wife who is dealing with a budding teenage daughter who comes home with a revealing denim skirt that would embarrass Miley Cyrus.

The connective tissue of these women is that they’re being driven mad by their off-spring and by the grown children that they call husbands. They decide that they need a night off from Mommy-hood, which sounds reasonable except that the husbands promptly lose the children, leading to a long series of boring slapstick scenes that climax in an arrest at which time we get some come-to-Jesus emotional pep talk about how wonderful it is to be parent. The mother’s night out is simply one of those Murphy’s Law situations that starts with a snafu over dinner reservations and ends with a police car chase down the interstate. It steals and pillages every Bad Night Out movie from The Blues Brothers to The Hangover to After Hours to Adventures in Babysitting to Date Night. Yet, this movie is a whimper in the company of those films. It tries nothing new and goes no place fast.

That wouldn’t be so bad if the comedy were based on well-written characters. All of the characters are written as caricatures. The women are shrewish nags who are never seen relating to their children – they’re more of an annoyance. The men are seen as irresponsible over-grown children who can’t take care of their off-spring for one night without a child being abandoned at a tattoo parlor. The message: mother’s stay home because your men are incompetent.

Even at a technical level, this movie flops over and dies. The cutesy-poo musical score twists and winds around the comic dialogue like a feux laugh-track before an emotional moment in which the emo-music twists even harder. We’re led by the ears to how we’re supposed to feel.

And yet, even that isn’t the worst thing about this movie. It was filmed last year in Birmingham, Alabama – my home – but it is only a backdrop. We see fly-overs that include glimpses of Vulcan, the Harbert Building, City Federal, Birmingham Southern College and various sites downtown. The car chase take place on 2nd Avenue South. Yet, no one ever mentions Birmingham or any of its landmarks. The city isn’t celebrated at all, nor is it ever mentioned by name. It might as well take place in generic town anywhere in the world. You might hope for some kind of loving tribute that does for Birmingham what Ferris Beuller’s Day Off did for Chicago. That movie, which is also about three friends who take some time off, was first and foremost about characters. It loved its characters, its dialogue and its city. Moms’ Night Out is a pitiful shadow of an idea. John Hughes, where are you when we need you?