Don’t Breathe Review: Dance in the Dark


Director: Fede Alvarez

Writers: Fede Alvarez, Rodo Sayagues

Stars: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang

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Release date: September 1st, 2016

Distributors: Screen Gems, Stage 6 Films

Country: USA

Running time: 88 minutes


4/5

Best part: The cinematography.

Worst part: Daniel Zovatto’s character.

2016 is the year of bottle-film/horror-thrillers. Movies like 10 Cloverfield Lane, Green Room and Don’t Breathe feature helpless people, trapped in small spaces by complete psychopaths. Of course, the drama relies on their repeated attempts to escape. This peculiar resurgence delivers the goods. Don’t Breathe, although not the best of them, makes for an exhilarating 88 minutes.

Don’t Breathe is more thrilling and fun than most of 2016’s blockbusters. Maybe, the lack of expectations helps smaller-budget/independent features become more fulfilling experiences. This horror-thriller kicks off with three criminals – Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto). The trio burgle high-end residences secured by Alex’s father’s security company. Saving up to leave Detroit for Los Angeles, they get word of a one-last-heist opportunity. The three track down a blind war veteran (Stephen Lang) said to have $300,000 in his home in an abandoned neighbourhood. The man, whose daughter died in a car accident, was supposedly paid off by the culprit’s family. Obviously, the mission does not go smoothly. Upon entering the house, they discover the blind man’s taste for murder.

Writer/director Fede Alvarez (the Evil Dead remake) delivers a gruelling and tightly wound horror-thriller from frame one. Don’t Breathe subverts every overplayed horror-thriller trope. The blind man’s house, although filled with darkened crevasses, features minimal jump scares. He and cinematographer Pedro Luque veer away from shaking cameras or gratuitous clichés. Its set pieces throw young, spritely protagonists against a formidable villain and a vicious rottweiler. The infra-red sequence provides plenty of edge-of-your-seat thrills. Like Panic Room, the situation, characters and plot collide without excessive violence or gore. However, due to the second half’s disturbing plot twists, it turns from David Fincher thriller to Park Chan Wook stomach-churner.

He, alongside screenwriter Rodo Sayagues, focuses on character and story depth. Although similar to many anti-heroes, its three leads are fully developed from the opening scene. In reality, they are purely despicable. Here, their code of ethics and goals make sense. The first heist sequence, with limited dialogue, establishes their rules (not stealing over $10,000, making it look authentic etc.). After entering the blind man’s realm, the movie’s tension and stakes spike drastically. Although depicted in the trailer, Money’s brutal death makes for a crucial scene. The cast throw themselves into ostensibly schlocky material. Levy and Minnette are two of Hollywood’s most dynamic young actors. Lang, known as Avatar‘s scarred-up baddie, is a force of nature. Sadly, Zovatto’s gangbanger stereotype does not work.

Don’t Breathe – beyond creating #turkeybaster – is one of 2016’s most visceral cinematic experiences. Alvarez deserves the leap from indies to blockbusters. His relentless style and screenwriting touches flip genres on their heads.

Verdict: A tight horror-thriller.

The Shallows Review: Shark Bait Ooh Ah Ah


Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Writer: Anthony Jaswinski

Stars: Blake Lively, Oscar Jaenada, Sedona Legge, Brett Cullen

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Release date: August 18th, 2016

Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 86 minutes


3/5

Best part: Blake Lively.

Worst part: The CGi shark.

Sharks are fearsome and fascinating members of the animal kingdom. Jaws, since its 1975 release, has scared people from going into the water. The Steven Spielberg classic is essentially an expertly crafted B-movie. It also paved the way for many shark-related thrillers from Deep Blue Sea to Sharknado (sadly). The Shallows is…yet another one.

Although better than most of them, The Shallows is Hollywood’s perfunctory return to the sub-genre. Its marketing campaign relied on two things – the monster in question and Blake Lively’s stunning post-pregnancy body. If that sounds appealing, this survival-thriller is cinematic gold. It follows former medical student turned permanent traveller Nancy (Lively). Nancy’s trip through Mexico includes a secluded beach her mother had once visited. Whilst surfing throughout the afternoon, she meets two beefcake surfers (Angelo José Lozano Corzo and José Manuel Trujillo Salas). Catching that one last wave, she is stranded 200 metres from shore.

Of course, a massive Great White Shark forces her between a rock and a hard place. In shark-thriller fashion, The Shallows balances between genuine moments and silly plot twists. The central premise is simple – placing one person in one dangerous place/situation for 90 thrilling minutes. Like your average survival-thriller (Life of Pi, 127 Hours, Gravity), the drama pinpoints our basic fears. Lively and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop, Run All Night) stick by the simple-yet-effective formula. Collet-Serra handles the loneliness-in-a-large-space set-up expertly. The first third sees Nancy connect with the picturesque setting. It’s easy to lose one’s self in the blue sky and pristine ocean vistas. However, its surfware-commercial style and fetishistic butt-shots extend this sequence several minutes too long.

Screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski tries and fails to develop Lively’s character. Her back story – her mother’s death, dropping out of medical school, daddy problems etc. – has been done countless times before.  However, once the mayhem begins, Collet-Serra and Lively elevate the material. The movie devotes time to the lead character’s intelligence. Developing multiple survival strategies, Nancy is a fun and interesting character by the third act. Monitoring the shark’s behaviour, She puts her medical skills and tenacity to the test. The movie’s most exciting moments see her rushing between the reef, nearby whale carcass and buoy. The third act is a schlocky, over-the-top thrill-ride between obstacles. Lively puts her impressive physicality and neat comedic timing to good use. Sadly, her shark co-star never looks convincing. The gleaming CGi aesthetic undercuts opportunities for jump scares.

The Shallows may be one of 2016’s most entertaining blockbusters. Its simple-yet-effective formula overshadows the dumber elements. It lacks the pretentiousness, cynical attitude and haphazard storytelling of most of the year’s bigger-budget efforts.

Verdict: A silly survival-thriller.

The Conjuring 2 Review: London Calling


Director: James Wan

Writers: James Wan, Chad & Carey Hayes, David Leslie Johnson

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe

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Release date: June 9th, 2016

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 134 minutes


3½/5

Best part: Farmiga and Wilson.

Worst part: The familiar story structure.

The horror genre has gone through some strange and rocky times over the past several decades. The genre was once a cinematic paradise of trend-setters (Jaws,  The Exorcist) foreign treats (Suspiria) and franchises (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th etc.). Nowadays, thanks largely to Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes juggernaut, horror has been swallowed up by reboots and remakes. Thankfully, the Conjuring franchise is here to show its fellow Hollywood counterparts how it’s done.

2013’s The Conjuring was the first movie to receive an R18+ rating based entirely on terror rather than nudity, violence, or explicit language. The original has your classic ghost/demon story – a family is terrorised, a young girl becomes possessed, crucifixes are bared, and the power of Christ compels the spirit back to hell. This time around…all of those elements occur. Set in 1977, this sequel follows a family stuck in lower-class Enfield, North London. Single mother Peggy (Frances O’Connor) Hodgson struggles to keep everything afloat. Making matters worse, The family – youngest daughter Janet (Madison Wolfe), in particular – are hampered by spirits wandering their dilapidated council house. Paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), made famous by their involvement in the Amityville massacre investigation, are assigned to the Hodgons’ concerning case.

Like many of 2016’s sequels, The Conjuring 2, despite closely resembling the original, falls just short of recapturing the magic. Director/co-writer James Wan, coming back to horror after Furious 7 and before Aquaman, delivers his trademark style of graphic supernatural-thriller filmmaking. The Australian-Malaysian director’s vision is fascinating – introduced with the original Saw flick, built upon with projects like Death Sentence and the Insidious franchise, and perfected with the original Conjuring. Here, however, his direction far outshines the screenplay. Developed by Wan, Chad and Carey Hayes, and David Leslie Johnson), the script stretches standard horror-thriller/ghost story/exorcism conventions over a tiresome 134-minute run-time. This installment is a tad predictable; carrying tropes including an overpopulated family, a rundown house, and questions about faith over from the original.

Wan continually establishes himself as a hyperkinetic and intensifying filmmaker. Free from studio constraints, he lathers every frame with his unique and uncompromising vision. Wan is the jumpscare master – toying with our expectations whilst building to moments of unrequited dread. Joseph Bishara’s relentless score flutters in and out at opportune moments. The composer’s screeches and strums ratchet up the tension throughout its many set pieces. Don Burgess’ impressive camerawork floats through hallways and in between rooms with textbook precision. Wan’s eye for period detail, costume and set design balances between bold and subdued. Adding to the movie’s flair, Farmiga and Wilson blend into the narrative and make for a believable married couple.

Featuring demon nuns, possessed children and Elvis Presley sing-a-longs, The Conjuring 2 is equal parts fun and frightening. Wan’s unique and kinetic direction overshadows the familiar screenplay. His latest blood-curdling jaunt is a contender for 2016’s best horror flick and most successful sequel.

Verdict: A chilling horror-sequel.

Pride & Prejudice & Zombies Audio Review: Bennet the Vampire Slayer


Director: Burr Steers

Writers: Burr Steers (screenplay), Seth Grahame-Smith, Jane Austen (novel)

Stars: Lily James, Sam Riley, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth

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Release date: February 25th, 2016

Distributors: Lionsgate, Screen Gems 

Countries: UK, USA 

Running time: 108 minutes


3/5

Review:

Poltergeist (Home Release) Audio Review: Rotting Remake


Director: Gil Kenan

Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire

Stars: Sam Rockwell, Rosmarie DeWitt, Jarred Harris, Jane Adams

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Release date: May 22nd, 2015

Distributor: 20th Century Fox 

Country: USA

Running time: 93 minutes


 

2/5

Review:

Unfriended Audio Review: Memes & Mysteries


Director: Levan Gabriadze

Writer: Kiel Kimsey

Stars: Shelley Hennig, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki

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Release date: April 17th, 2015

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 83 minutes


 

3½/5

Review:

The Babadook Review – Domestic Demons


Director: Jennifer Kent

Writer: Jennifer Kent

Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall


Release date: October 24th, 2014

Distributor: Cinetic Media/eOne Films International

Country: Australia

Running time: 94 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: Kent’s direction.

Worst part: The creaky CGI.

Horror and romantic-comedy, the only two genres with long-lasting demographics, keep Hollywood in operation. For generations, adolescents have made a habit of catching (sneaking into) the latest celluloid bloodbath. Thanks to their buying power, the studios don’t need to try. Seriously, why do you think we keep getting Friday the 13th remakes and Paranormal Activity sequels? However, several movements and industries, residing well outside the studio system, still seek to change the game.

Essie Davis.

Australian horror cinema – existing since the industry’s beginnings – revolves around irking grimaces from film-goers and commendations from critics. Connecting with Ozploitation buffs, horror freaks, and each demographic in between, break-out frightener The Babadook loudly asks the question: Why aren’t Australians watching Australian movies? Despite the lack of transforming robots and superheroes, Aussie industry does deliver worthwhile entertainment. In 2014, The Rover, Predestination, and Son of a Gun grasped tightly onto worldwide acclaim. The Babadook, despite the limited budget and small scale, is the David to Hollywood’s Goliath. Blitzing Kevin Smith’s Tusk at this year’s Fantastic Fest, the movie has more supporters than slip-ups. How did this happen? Well, the story makes for gripping and intelligent horror cinema. In the first scene, the movie establishes its tone and never lets up. Amelia (Essie Davis) is pregnant with her first child. En route to the hospital, her husband is killed by an oncoming vehicle. We jump seven years, and Amelia is a single mum struggling to juggle responsibilities. Her precocious son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), makes dangerous contraptions and causes trouble in the school yard. After pulling Samuel out of school, our widowed lead is soon hounded by her employer, her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney), the next-door neighbour Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), and social services.

Noah Wiseman.

Obviously, calling attention to spoilers would be unnecessary. Despite modern horror’s cash-grabbing, made-by-committee aura, each entry deserves credit. Tackling one of cinema’s most subjective genres, The Babadook enters the underdog and emerges the deserving victor. Void of jump-scares, debauchery, and unlikable teenagers, it dodges almost every horror trope. Despite touching upon The Shining, The Exorcist, The Ring, and Carrie, this Aussie fright-fest holds up to criticism. Its story takes a peculiar turn after Amelia and Sam find a disturbing pop-up book in his room. Reading it together, they unearth a nightmarish, Nosferatu-esque figure dressed in hipster threads. Similarly to Sinister‘s film-reel and The Conjuring‘s Annabelle doll, the titular children’s book causes enough scares to have an asylum named after it. Complete with bleak colour patterns, distressing imagery, and threatening messages, it’s an unholy creation. Set to be released as a collectable, the question must be asked: Who would want this thing?! Writer/director Jennifer Kent, expanding upon her notable 2005 short, enriches each momentous frame. As our mother/son duo flips through the book, Kent stretches the stakes and tension to breaking point. Setting paranoia upon its characters and audience, multiple threads are let loose. Is it a supernatural force or a stalker? And why is this happening to them, specifically? Throughout this gothic freak-out, her directorial flourishes and commendable intentions fit each twist and turn.

“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” (Amelia (Essie Davis), The Babadook).

Aussies vs. ghosts.

Relishing in its smaller moments, The Babadook crafts terror, suspense, and, subtext. Kent’s visuals – turning wholesome settings into labyrinthine deathtraps – elevates conventional material. Utilising a muted colour palette, sweeping cinematography, and haunting shadows, her direction lingers on terrifying imagery without indulging in blood. Holding the scare tactics back for extended periods, this frightener knows when and how to bump in the night. Fuelled by purpose and reason, the story examines many common familial and social issues. The central conflict, kick-starting after Samuel’s excision from school, sinks into the skin. The story, possessing each character with realistic personalities and emotional currents, carries a human touch. Examining lower-middle class issues, the central dynamic overshadows the spooky creatures. Pitting spirits and ghouls against emotional demons, it delves intently into Amelia’s psyche. Tackling grief and loneliness, she’s a fascinating protagonist. Amelia – fighting against Samuel’s troubling condition, the world around her, and household scares – is worth siding with. Tackling the school system, parenthood, and mental instability, its agenda integrates with its blood-curdling scenarios. Davis, known for remarkable TV and theatre appearances, is one of Australia’s most consistent actresses. Switching between innocent mother and psychotic disturbance, her searing turn elevates the material. Wiseman’s wondrous performance, jumping from manic glee to shrieking chaos, elevates the drama.

Sticking to story and character over box-office receipts and target demographics, The Babadook terrorizes the competition. Peering over big-name horror filmmakers’ shoulders, Kent delivers enough game-changing sequences and stylish flourishes to stand out. Beyond the narrative and technical achievements, Davis and Wiseman elevate the material. As 2014’s biggest sleeper hit, this horror-thriller/psychological-drama boots Australia’s film industry. This year, genre cinema was stolen by a nation of convicts.

Verdict: The decade’s best horror flick.