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'Hereditary' Review: A strange, deeply unsettling, and thoroughly terrifying horror film


The first time Hereditary was put on my radar was a trailer before A Quiet Place. The film that followed was thoroughly enjoyable, but the audience was left partially distracted just by some of the imagery from the trailer before it. The bird, the mouth sounds, the ants, it put everyone completely on edge. Then I learned it would be shown at the Overlook Film Festival where I'd be attending in a month, and I was overjoyed. Hereditary was the closing film of the festival, and for very good reason: I couldn't imagine seeing anything else after it, let alone look anyone in the eye. 

The film begins just as the trailer does, with Annie Graham (played with nail-biting intensity by Toni Collette) bringing her family to her mother's funeral. Through her eulogy, we get the sense that Annie isn't terribly distressed over the loss of her mother, a "very secretive and private woman." To say that this film is partially about the oddity of grief and how it effects us in waves is an understatement, strangely finding a companion in another recent grief-via-family film, Manchester by the Sea

The film follows the Graham family as they navigate a life where Annie and her teenage children, played by Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro, are forced to face a long history of mental illness on their mother's side of the family, all of which seems to have bubbled up since the funeral. Meanwhile Annie's husband, played with reserved coolness by Gabriel Byrne, must contend with the fact that something is objectively wrong with his family. New faces come into play, new fears, new anxieties, or maybe they were always there and these characters haven't had a name for them yet.


Everyone in the cast is astoundingly on point here. I've never seen a performance quite as dedicated as the one given by Toni Collette, who also produced the film. She owns every word, every movement of her character, and becomes an unsettling and terrifying force unto herself, a parent unsure of what to make of the world around her, the one she's helped create, the one passed on to her. Alex Wolff is a wonder as well, playing a teenage boy who hasn't quite fit in to the same sex-dominated world as his peers, a young man who becomes entangled and drowned in a guilt I've not seen on screen before. Milly Shapiro is a miracle, diving deep into the weird world her character inhabits, floating in and out of scenes, trying to be invisible to those around her, cripplingly uncomfortable in her own body. None of which would work without Gabriel Byrne, trying everything in his power to keep the family level, make sense of things, and not play into the demons and ghosts his wife and children seem to have inherited.

Above all, the film posits some upsetting questions: What do you do if you don't particularly like your children? What do you do if you suspect someone in your family is a danger to themselves or others? What do you do if you know something's wrong with you, if you know you can't trust your own mind, but you feel you're in danger all the same? 

The trailer and plot synopsis are both purposefully vague, as any more information would completely change the way you approach the film, and that's a good thing. Several of my film peers are hesitant, being burned before by such misrepresenting ad campaigns for It Comes At Night and The Witch (both of which I thoroughly enjoyed while also acknowledging that the trailers were a bit misleading, It Comes At Night especially), but I can promise you that going in as blind as possible is for the best. What you'll get in return is a truly terrifying experience, all centered around very real familial drama. Even scenes that would normally serve as exposition end up being uniquely horrifying simply due to the mindset of these characters, specifically for Toni Collette, who seems like she could snap at any moment. Thankfully the film sprinkles in bits of humor that point at the ridiculousness of the entire situation, for all of which the audience was incredibly grateful. 

After the film was over we attended a party sponsored by A24, and I don't think there was a single person in attendance who wasn't still shaking long after the movie was over. Conversations were interesting an enlightening for sure, but everything was clouded by the fact that we had just witnessed one of the greatest and most effective horror films of the past few years, and we weren't sure how we were going to ever get through a family holiday again. 

Look for Hereditary in theaters June 8th. And call your mother more often. 

Overlook Film Festival 2018 Review Roundup


The Overlook Film Fest was an absolute hit this year, one of the main upgrades being the switch from the traditional Overlook Hotel to the wild and witchy city of New Orleans. It's difficult not to have a good time in NoLa, even if you're a completely introverted "I don't like fun things" character like myself, but to also have the chance to spend 4 days watching some of the strangest, most inventive horror films around is an absolute blast. Below are some quick reviews of the films I got to see while in attendance. 



Set in modern day Mexico City, Tigers Are Not Afraid tells the story of several children forced to fend for themselves while living in a city run by drug cartels. The film does an excellent job of allowing the horrors of what these children face each day stand in for a more typical horror-movie boogyman. While it isn't without some "just go with it" flaws (if you can't afford good CGI, please find a way to tell your story without it), director Issa López puts the audience in the shoes of these kids in startlingly effective ways. There wasn't a dry eye in the theater by the time the credits rolled. 




Director Darren Lynn Bousman is better known for his Saw films and experimental genre events such as Repo! The Genetic Opera, so you would assume a story about a young pregnant woman held captive by a convent of nuns would be a gross-out gore fest. However Bousman, during the Q&A after the film, has made it clear that as he's gotten older and become a parent he's not been able to stomach much gore these days. He wanted to tone things down and allow the setting of the film, as well as its characters, creep out the audience. Alas St. Agatha is not entirely unwatchable, but its not got much going for it. A few interesting gross moments are peppered in, but are otherwise rendered moot by the writing, acting, and overall story. Actors Carolyn Hennesy and Trin Miller help elevate the film with their scene-stealing roles, but it's not enough to save everything else. 



If someone were to ask me "Hey Isaac, how many Indonesian horror films have you seen?" I would probably say "There are Indonesian horror films?" Evidently yes, and I've been missing out. Satan's Slaves is a remake of its 1982 original of the same name, wherein the mother of a family has become bedridden due to a mysterious disease. She can only communicate with a bell next to her bed, and boy oh boy does that bell come in later. The first half of this film is utterly terrifying, with the second half dragging its feet a bit while using the same scares that were so effective before. Highly recommend if only for the wonderfully inventive scares and setting you'll see during the first 45 minutes. 



Welp, this movie is absolute hilarious insanity, I'm not sure what else I can say. Thomas Lennon leads a cast of soon-to-be-murdered hotel guests, hunted by some super racist Nazi puppets. Udo Kier is in it. I'm honestly not sure if you need to know anything else. See it with as many people as possible. 



Though it's difficult to describe this as a horror film, I will not question a film about a paralyzed man who can walk with the help of a super-AI chip in his neck. Oh and also the chip in his neck can talk and turn him into a hand-to-hand combat killing machine. Logan Marshall-Green has been a favorite since his elevated turn in The Invitation, and it's nice to see him get to have a little fun with a role. My only complaint is not actually with the film, but with the trailers they've released. There are only 4 big action set pieces in the film, and the trailer shows the ending of all of them (this is especially an issue with the red band trailer, which shows in full exactly how he kills people). Please please go in blind, it's well worth your while. 




I have to keep this short because I'll be diving in to a spoiler-filled review later on, but this is hands-down the best horror film I've seen in years. I cannot emphasize enough just how utterly upsetting so much of the content is, and it's made all the better when that content is based on extreme family trauma. Toni Collette will be absolutely robbed if she isn't given at least an oscar nomination, and Alex Wolff has suddenly become an actor I'm going to keep on my radar for years to come. I was shaking a half-hour after the film ended and I've not been able to get it out of my head even days after I've seen it. Parents be warned, this is very difficult to watch. 

The Art of the Trailer - 'Cargo' (or How to Sell a Movie)


Welcome to The Art of the Trailer, a (hopefully) regular piece that breaks down the good and the bad of a studio's decisions when selling their movie or TV show to an audience.

Trailers have evolved over the years. Voice over is out, so picking the right visuals and audio from the film becomes increasingly important. Studios are also banking heavily on the quality of a trailer to determine the success of their film or TV show. If an audience is seeing a film in theaters, they're likely going to see five or six 3-minute-long trailers, you damn well better make sure yours is the best so they'll remember it three hours later. 

A few weeks back, a trailer was released for the film Cargo starring Martin Freeman. An expansion to the short film of the same name, Cargo tells the story of a man tasked with finding a safe haven for his infant in a zombie-infested Australia. The trailer was released before the film was acquired by Netflix, and was presumably cut in-house by Umbrella Entertainment

This version isn't bad, but it's not ideal. We're shown an awful lot that audiences don't need to see which could otherwise make for a pleasant surprise upon viewing. The opening with his wife becoming infected, biting him, and leaving him with their daughter is mostly unnecessary while we're told twice "After you're infected you have 48 hours before you turn." We're shown the "Clever Man" the boy speaks of a few times (played by David Gulpilil, always a welcome sight since I first saw his work in The Proposition), leading the audience to know that Martin Freeman does, in fact, find him. Then there's the overly-ernest music, with no less than 8 dramatic swells using the same musical cue. Some of what's shown is fine, the image of the soldier with his head buried in the sand is extraordinary. 

Now watch the version Netflix just released after the acquisition. 

First you might notice is the runtime; Netflix's trailer is 2:13 while the original is 2:44, definitely some fat-trimming there. But even without the shorter runtime the original feels like it's much, much longer than it actually is, likely due to how many times it stops the action to show a plot point, as if they have any time to actually slow things down and build tension (spoiler, you almost never have that kind of time in a trailer). The trailer focuses less on Freeman's struggle with his change and his destination and more on the danger surrounding him on all sides, all while only suggesting once that he's been bitten and is doomed unless he finds a cure. The entire setup with his wife has also been scrubbed, instead devoting more time to the world around Freeman and his daughter. Another big change is the relationship between him and the young boy he teams up with. The original suggests that the kid's father has become a zombie and subsequently killed (and maybe Freeman is around to witness it?), so Freeman throws him a bone and offers him to tag along. The Netflix trailer instead shows Freeman saving the boy from a group of murdering humans, establishing a more dynamic relationship between the two of them. 

It's normal for a film or TV show to come out with several trailers before its release, but it's rare and fascinating to see a trailer released for the same film by two different studios. It really goes to show you how effective a trailer can be and how differently a story can be told based on what you choose to show and how you choose to show it. 


Your film can be a steaming pile of garbage, but if your trailer is good enough the audience will never know. Take, for instance, the critically panned Battle: Los Angeles

Though overly done these days, the surreal cover of a classic song combined with stark war imagery is staggeringly effective, especially without hearing a word of dialogue from the film. I remember seeing this trailer and thinking "Wow, this is 'Platoon' with aliens!" Then it came out and was revealed to be an absolute turd; the reason they didn't have a word of dialogue or any plot details other than the invasion was because they knew it was garbage and they'd never in a million years sell it on the plot or characters. As much as the movie stunk, I'd gladly acknowledge that it had one of the best trailers of the year. 


When the first trailer for Drive dropped, we were shown an image of a smoldering Ryan Gosling racing around Los Angeles, doing what he does best: he drives. Audiences around the world saw it and thought "oh snap, it's like a moodier Fast & the Furious!" 

Gosling's on the run and everyone's trying to kill him when a robbery goes wrong. The trailer is technically not wrong, that is what happens in the movie, but when the film came out audiences were not shown a moodier Fast & the Furious, they got a mostly quiet, introspective rumination on what it means to be a good person who does bad things. Yes, there was driving, but roughly 4 scenes of it. And based on the reaction after the movie came out, people did indeed feel they had been duped into seeing something other than what was advertised.

It didn't really matter that critics loved this movie, proudly shown off by a solid 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences didn't want artful, poetic introspection, they wanted to see Gosling put a hammer through a dude's skull. 


Though it seems a no-brainer, it's not enough to make a good movie. A trailer can still make or break the excitement that leads up to its release. When Christopher Nolan's Interstellar was announced and the first vague plot details were released, I was already hooked, but nothing could have prepared me for the first trailer. 

This trailer made me tear up in only a few minutes, and even now, years after its release, I still get goosebumps when I see it. What's more incredible is almost everything you're seeing is from the first act. You're brought into a world that is dying and shown a man who must sacrifice his relationship with his children in order to save them. The trailer sells the movie's bigger picture without even showing it, but by suggesting exactly where it will go. 


On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is a trailer I was bestowed upon while I was in a theater earlier this weekend. Adrift is the classic story of boy meets girl, boy gets an opportunity to sail around the ocean, girl goes with boy, there's a storm, they are in trouble, and then they're saved. But don't take my word for it. 

It's nice of them to save anyone from going to see this by showing the entire film in the trailer. Yes, I'm sure there are some things they're leaving out (I'll eat my hat if Sam Claflin doesn't die just when they spot land), but there's not much left to the imagination here. I've noticed trailers doing this more and more often, but I imagine it's the same phenomenon as when you buy a new car or article of clothing and suddenly start seeing it everywhere. 


The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by David Fincher split audiences and critics, and I don't blame anyone for being a bit indifferent with it. It's a strange movie, breaking most conventions by adapting a 5-act structure and leaving things hanging when we all assumed there would be two more films out there, but it certainly still has its following. What did not split audiences was the first trailer, which is, to date, one of my favorite trailers of all time. 

I simply cannot get over this trailer. The cover of Immigrant Song by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rex featuring Karen O is phenomenally well utilized and mixed to throw the viewer into the chaos which is this film. The trailer never even overtly says what the plot of the movie is, who the protagonist is, or what the stakes are, all you know is that everybody is in danger and it's all coming down to this one singular location. Most viewers probably already knew about the novel or the original film trilogy, but I hadn't seen a thing before this trailer and I couldn't believe how badly I wanted to see it. 

I wouldn't be the first to make the case for an Oscar for Best Trailer, but I don't think it can be stated emphatically enough. Whether or not the end result is actually a good film, a trailer is an art form all its own and deserves the recognition its due. Besides, if an absolute garbage pile of a movie like Suicide Squad can get an Oscar for best makeup, I think it's time to consider trailers as well. 

And now, I will leave you with one of the most baffling trailers of all time: Zardoz. Yes, that's Sean Connery in red underwear. 

Script to Screen - Pixar's 'Up' Intro


For many of you, myself included, seeing Up in theaters was a delightfully fun, heartwarming experience.

Except the intro.

Never have I been subjected to big ugly tears as quickly as I was during the first 10 minutes of that movie. I DIDN'T EVEN KNOW THE CHARACTERS, THEY WERE MADE UP OF POLYGONS, AND YET HERE I WAS CRYING IN THE DARK DANG THEATER OVER ANIMATED PEOPLE. 

It seems appropriate to continue on the theme of wordless storytelling after my review of A Quiet Place. The fine folks at Pixar are absolute masters of showing a story rather than telling it. And so follows one of the most effective introductions to a character you're likely to see without hearing them say a word. 

Fellow writers take note, there's some wonderful stuff you can suggest here that you would normally be told are screenplay no-no's. "Oh well; Ellie adds her handprint as well." "Carl closes his eyes and smiles. He's lucky to be with her." "Without looking up from their books, they hold hands." I can't tell you how many times during school I was told not to write in this fashion, and as the years have gone by I've seen just how effective it is to express the world to your reader. 

Also sorry about ruining your morning. I'll make it up to you with the psychodelic tripping scene from Pixar's The Good Dinosaur. 

'A Quiet Place' Review - A Surprising Dive into Visual Storytelling


To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock when speaking on suspense: "There is a distinct difference between suspense and surprise. If two people are having a conversation at a table and suddenly a bomb under the table goes off, that's surprising, but then it's over. But if you tell the audience there is a bomb under the table at the beginning, you've completely changed the scene, and they'll hang on every word." 

And so it is with A Quiet Place, the new horror film directed and co-written by John Krasinski, wherein we are treated to some of the most effected foreshadowing and visual storytelling we'll see this year. 

Set in the not-too-distant year of 2020, the film takes place in rural upstate New York (the main location filmed in Beacon), where Earth has been invaded by predators who hunt by sound. Though blind, the creatures are so sensitive to sound that anything above a bare-footed walk on dirt will send them hurtling toward the source. 


Holed-up together are Krasinski and Emily Blunt with their three children, including deaf actor Millicent Simmonds (whom Krasinski insisted on casting)The family's ironic advantage to this situation is, due to their daughter's condition, they already know sign language and can communicate silently with each other. I imagine the amount of spoken (and unspoken) dialogue in this film would fit within 5 pages. 

There are several things done well with this film, thankfully none of them require me to spoil anything, which is due simply to the fact that the film is told so efficiently that there's almost nothing to spoil. There are aliens (?), they hunt based on sound, a family has set up a system that allows total silence, they have to survive when things go wrong, that's it. 

To say specifically what the family's system is would spoil what are otherwise "oh would you look at that!" moments in the film, suffice to say there are several moments of utter brilliance that evolve as the story moves forward. 


What I can say is that every film student should see this, it should be added to the curriculum of every film studies and production program, and it should be remembered every time you're about to put words to script. There are certain filmmakers who use dialogue in really interesting ways which add to the characters we're following; The Coen Brothers, Scorsese, Sorkin, you know them. I would not fault any young filmmaker who strives to emulate them, but more often than not film students will rely on their characters explaining how they feel and why they do what they are doing. I'm guilty of this, it's something I've been struggling with as a writer for years, and this film is a stellar reminder in how to show the audience the story without telling it to them. It works not just because the characters are forced to stay silent, but because the visuals are so strikingly effective in how they set up the plot and move things forward. 

The sound design is, of course, a major star here. The audience in my theater didn't dare utter a whisper or shift in their seat during the entire screening, while hushed gasps came in place of outright screams. Sound in this film has such an oppressive and startling weight that even the slightest thing out of place feels like a shout. Sounds that should otherwise be almost inaudible are mixed to appear much louder than they would in real life, accenting and underlining just how imperative it is to silence it as soon as possible. Yes, some of these come off as cliched jump scares (honestly there are only 2 that are completely unnecessary), but they are the exception to the rule. 

But greater than the sound is the foreshadowing this film utilizes. The first half of the film is devoted to setting up pieces that are doomed to come tumbling down, a balancing act so fine-tuned and precarious that the audience has no idea the kind of payoff they're about to be gifted (or cursed by) later on. I have to be vague here, but there's one element in particular that is shown to the audience fairly early on that got an audible "no" from somewhere in the theater, something that we knew was going to come up later, something we've all encountered before in our lives, something somehow worse than the killer aliens, and we were on the edge of our seats for every scene that took place after because we just didn't know when it was going to come into play again. 


A huge congratulations to John Krasisnki for pulling this off and absolutely nailing his first foray into the horror genre. Maybe it'll be lightning in a bottle for him, but I'm looking forward to whatever he brings next. 

Amazon's 'Lord of the Rings' Series Moves Forward - 5 Season Commitment and All The Money Ever


Hesitantly bouncing off of my chair. 

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy made an incredible influence on me. My dad, normally avoidant of fantasy epics, took my brother and myself to midnight screenings of each film and it meant the world to both of us. I had read the books and just could not believe I was not only seeing them on the big screen, but they were good, really goodOnce the DVDs came out I was introduced to the most thorough behind-the-scenes work of any film I had ever seen, and there are still days during the weekend where I'll just have them on in the background to get me excited for a project. 

We first learned that Amazon had beaten Netflix to the rights (for a measly $250 million), but now it's come to light that they are contractually obligated to a five season commitment providing they begin production within two years. 


Details about the series are hazy at best, but we do know they will act as a prequel to the events of The Lord of the Rings, and will be allowed to utilize 'materials' from Peter Jackson's films. What 'materials' means remains left to be seen; they can be referring to props, wardrobes, sets, characters, or even footage. No word yet on any returning characters or actors, which I doubt we'll see. 

Though I'm excited for this beyond words, it is all still a little baffling. Thankfully Amazon's show will not be a simple recreation of Jackson's trilogy nor his later Hobbit films, but the deal does not include the rights to The Silmarillion, which means the window of time which this will cover seems like the end of The Hobbit to the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Still, Tolkien crafted a massive world full of potential for rich stories and characters, it seems a pretty solid possibility we'll be seeing a bevy of original characters with the occasionally familiar face. And yes, of course, Peter Jackson is in talks to have some sort of role behind the scenes. 



Listen, I love this series. I love the world that Tolkien created and Jackson realized for the big screen. But I'm hesitant after The Hobbit Trilogy (side note: if anyone hasn't seen the first and second part of Lindsay Ellis' Hobbit autopsy essay on the trilogy, I highly recommend it for a little vindication). Fellowship had 3 years of development before the cameras started rolling, and you see it in every frame, in every stitch of clothing, in every line. No, the original trilogy was not perfect, but damnit if it wasn't close. 

I will never fault a studio for wanting to make money off of a franchise; it's part of the business and it keeps people employed and happy to do what they love, but boy oh boy do I not want another rushed cash grab like The Hobbit Trilogy. The idea of a five season commitment with a two year deadline is worrisome in that they may spend too much time looking at the creeping deadline and not as much time looking at the story and characters (story and characters which are potentially going to be brand new with no literary basis), but maybe the poor reception of the Hobbit will help light a fire under their butts, the same fire the original filmmakers lit that said "this has to be good and everyone's counting on us." 

Filmmaker Must-See: Gareth Edwards SXSW 2017 Keynote


Back in 2010 I remember stopping by The Ritz Theater in Philadelphia and seeing a last-minute screening of a little indie film called Monsters. One of my other film nerd buddies tagged along and we were astonished at how a movie with such a title could contain so few, well, monsters. It wasn't a bad thing, it was an extraordinarily impactful reminder that the scale of a film is what you make it (it was also my introduction to Scoot McNairy, now an essential face in almost all my favorite films and TV shows). 

What I wouldn't learn for another 7 years is just how a production such as Monsters could ever happen, and where it would take director Gareth Edwards, now better known for directing Godzilla and Star Wars: Rogue One. For a filmmaker of any sort, to hear this guy speak is like hearing a future version of yourself calling out to tell you what it'll take to get you where you want to go. 

Yes this is an hour-long speech, but if you have an ounce of inspiration in your body I cannot recommend it highly enough. Even if you consider his recent work flawed (and, c'mon, your horse isn't that high, you can be happy for the guy), I think the work and excitement and risks that he's put into his films is undeniable and are a true gift. I dare anyone interested in film to watch this and not immediately start jotting down ideas for their future projects. 

First Look - George R.R. Martin's 'Nightflyers'

Boy do I love me some horror-scifi, and considering George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) has described the adaptation of his novella as a "haunted house set in space," it seems fairly clear that that's what we're going to get. 

From the description by Netflix: 

"Based on George R. R. Martin's novella and set in the future on the eve of Earth's destruction, a crew of explorers journey on the most advanced ship in the galaxy, The Nightflyer, to intercept an alien spacecraft. One that might just hold the key to their survival."

Interestingly enough, Nightflyers was not originally a Netflix original. The art and the name seemed familiar, and after some searching it looks like Syfy had originally developed the show. It's a tiny bit worrisome considering Netflix's habit of buying up IP's which were originally doomed to fail (The Cloverfield Paradox and Mute to name a few) in an effort to maintain their subscriber base, but I'll stay optimistic for now. 

More interesting is the vast difference in plot description between Netflix and Syfy, the latter's is as follows:

"Nightflyers follows eight maverick scientists and a powerful telepath who embark on an expedition to the edge of our solar system aboard The Nightflyer—a ship with a small tightknit crew and a reclusive captain—in the hope of making contact with alien life. But when terrifying and violent events begin to take place they start to question each other—and surviving the journey proves harder than anyone thought."

Time will tell.

Filmmaker Must-See: 'Phantom Thread' Camera Test with commentary by Paul Thomas Anderson

In college I had a few classmates who struggled with school. Tests, assignments, homework, etc. It didn't agree with them. But all their lives they had been told that it was necessary, that school was the way they would get ahead in life. They were battered with this idea and it visibly ate away at their self-worth. I remember sitting down with one of them and saying "Listen, I know this isn't for you, that school isn't your strength, but that's okay. It isn't mine either. It's okay because we're aspiring filmmakers and our achievements won't just be about assignments and tests, they're going to be within the real world while we make goddamn movies." 

I'm glad that this remained true through my own (still young) career, as I've learned more while tinkering on sets than I'd ever learn in a classroom. And this is exactly why it's important for every filmmaker to catch a golden glimpse of the behind-the-scenes work of a master such as Paul Thomas Anderson. We've been gifted a glance into his world thanks to the lovely folks at Universal where we can see him test and tinker with lenses, film stock, light, and Daniel Day Lewis. For some this may be boring and trivial, but for filmmakers looking to light a candle under their own ass (like myself) I highly recommend setting aside the 8 minutes and 42 seconds this video offers. 

For those of you who have worked on sets before, it may seem fairly obvious that pre-production of this minute scale is necessary, but I can't tell you the amount of times I've been rushing to light a set that I've only just seen for the first time a few minutes prior. It's proof that these things take time and consideration and second-guessing. Nothing should just be "good enough" on the first try, and if you're setting up your camera where a comfortable apple box happens to be for your butt, you're probably wrong. 

Now Listen - 'Annihilation' soundtrack by Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow

Welcome to Now Listen, a (hopefully) recurring segment devoted to the soundtracks of film and television. 

As a writer, I often find it helpful to have a strong collection of soundtracks to bubble up some inspiration. As a companion piece to my recent review of Annihilation, I highly encourage other artists to give a listen to its soundtrack. It relies a bit more heavily on tones rather than melodies or fugues, but I've found it wildly useful while working on a couple darker projects. 

Fans of the movie may notice a section of the score is missing, which is a shame as it's coming at what could easily be my favorite moment in the film. To say what scene would give away a massive spoiler, but it's a particularly mind-bending moment towards the end. This features The Mark - Interlude by Moderat, curated for the film and technically not a part of its original soundtrack. It's short, but feel free to give it a listen below. 

And who's to forget Helplessly Hoping by Crosby, Stills & Nash? Expertly utilized within the film to illicit dual meanings (the lyrics are at first melancholic, but in hindsight are malevolent once the film is over), there's never a bad time to give a listen to what is arguably one of the greatest folk songs ever written. 

'Annihilation' Review: A gorgeous, haunting, and sometimes frustrating dip into hard sci-fi.

Images Copyright Paramount 2018

Images Copyright Paramount 2018


This past summer I was in the middle of sweating through a road trip when I suddenly got into a sci-fi kick. A friend leant me a book, Lathe of Heaven, an entirely confusing and fascinating brain-churner, which I burnt through in an afternoon. I reread VALIS by Philip K Dick and was considering treading back into House Of Leaves before it was interrupted by an outdoor screening of The Fifth Element (I'll never not want to see that movie). After the show, I returned Lathe of Heaven to the friend while we walked back home. We were several beers deep when she started telling me about another book she'd lend me. She attempted to describe it but it was as if she was trying to remember a dream she once had. "I don't know, something happens, like there's this weird thing wrong with somewhere in Florida or something, and these researchers go in but none of them have names and they're all women and there are, like, pigs with people's faces I think." The next day she gave me the book Annihilation.

After only a few chapters I could understand how someone would have a hard time explaining it. It is entirely surreal, dreamlike, its concepts seemingly intangible and inaccessible to someone with an overly visual brain like myself. I'd catch myself wondering "How in the world could you film something like this?" and quickly decided it would never be done. Lo and behold, I was only halfway through when I heard that, not only was it being adapted to film, but Alex Garland was writing and directing it. I closed the book, I wanted Garland's version. 

In a way it seems that Garland had the same idea. The book was unfilmable in its current iteration, so instead of adapting it directly, he chose to write his memory of it and its themes without re-reading. Jeff VanderMeer, the author of Annihilation and its subsequent sequels, discussed the adaptation with Garland and gave it his blessing, understanding that this was its own story. 

And what a story. 

The film begins with an image we've seen in several different ways; something comes crashing from space into our world. John Carpenter would be proud. The object crashes into a lighthouse on the coast of a Florida state reserve, and from it grows an iridescent, constantly morphing bubble. By the time Natalie Portman shows up, the bubble has consumed several miles of land and grows larger every day. 

Natalie Portman plays Lena, a scientist who specializes in cancers. Lena's home life is in tatters: her husband, Kane, (played by the always welcome Oscar Isaac), hasn't returned from his deployment a year ago, and the guilt she feels during her affair with her co-worker in his absence is destroying her. She sits quietly in each room, attempts some DIY projects, and listens to "Helplessly Hoping" by Crosby, Stills, & Nash, a song which will mean something completely different by the end of the film. In the midst of her grief, depression, and self loathing, Kane appears in their home. He's confused, not sure how long he's been gone, where he's been, or how he got back. Lena's frustration with his vagaries quickly gives way to worry when he begins to bleed from his mouth. "I don't feel very well." Suddenly they're in a speeding ambulance, captured by military personnel, separated, and sedated. Lena wakes up in a military compound overseen by Dr. Ventress, played with ghostly restraint by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Just beyond the compound sits the growing bubble, dubbed The Shimmer by the scientists who have attempted to study it. Kane was a member of the most recent military expedition inside, and is so far the only one to return. 


It doesn't take long for Lena to join up with the next expedition, a group led by Ventress which includes Josie, (Tessa Thompson), Anya (Gina Rodriguez), and Cass (Tuva Novotny). "Women?" Lena questions. "Scientists," they correct her. They've already tried sending military, why not try a new approach? And so they press on into what is almost certainly a suicide mission. 

With the question of why each scientist would participate in something doomed to fail comes one of the films first big questions; Why do we seek self-destruction? Ventress believes we're biologically programed to, that its out of our will. From Cass we learn that each scientist is dealing with their own trauma. Josie cuts herself in order to feel anything, Anya is a drug abuser, Cass is still dealing with the grief of losing her young daughter to cancer, and Ventress is terminally ill herself. Then there's Lena, someone who doesn't understand why she makes the decisions to ruin her marriage that she does, but can't seem to stop herself. Maybe that's what caused Kane to begin the expedition to begin with? When he suddenly leaves Lena to ship out the man is transparent in his sorrow, in his frustration. But knowing later that he was fully ware of Lena's affair makes the scene all the more tragic. He knows what she'll do once he's gone, maybe it isn't worth coming back after all. 

Inside the Shimmer we learn that the alien formation has caused all DNA to refract in on itself, creating new life otherwise impossible with our laws of nature. Several different flowers grow from the same stem, an albino alligator has developed teeth like a shark, a deer with flowers growing from its antlers bounds around with a duplicate deer. In ways these are beautiful images, but with them come seriously disconcerting questions and horrifying implications. DNA is not just refracted, but memories and matter seem to be as well. During the expedition, the group finds a house they can use for shelter. The only character who knows something is wrong with it is Lena; it's her house. Additionally on the first day they awake confused, realizing that none of them remember camping, and have evidently been there for 3 days already. Time, it seems, has also lost its meaning here. 


But I would be amiss to leave out mention of some truly, utterly horrifying nightmare fuel this film creates. A video found in a compound shows the fate of the previous party, filled with body horror not seen in film since David Cronenberg was in his prime. Kane, looking like a shell of himself, helps to hold a soldier down while he opens his stomach, revealing that the man's insides are now crawling and slithering like snakes. It's an image seared into my mind, thanks as well to the extraordinary soundtrack by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow

And the bear. Oh god that bear. Going back to watch the trailers, I was surprised to see they revealed glimpses of the bear scene. I'm so grateful that I had no idea it was coming, I can't remember the last time I gripped a theater seat so hard. I could swear that the moment the scene was done you could hear an audible relief wash through the audience. A bear, having recently killed a member of the group, has somehow adopted the sounds her her final screams. "Help me," a phrase cried so sorrowfully, so like the screams of an animal calling out as it's being killed, now coming from the mouth of this nightmarish bear, the skin on its face peeled away to expose a horrific skull. The bear doesn't eat people, it kills them, it's life now a constant loop of agony. The implications of who he's killed, Cass, are even worse. Her final moments of extreme pain and dread being soaked up by this bear, but also the memories of her daughter. Does this bear also grieve, now? Does it understand what it's grieving? Are its words, "Help me," only an echo of Cass' last moments, or is it all the bear can now feel? 


A moment now, if I may, to call out some deserved praise to the acting on display here. Natalie Portman balances a challenging character, one who at all times is a scientist, a warrior, and a person seeking self-worth. There are moments of utter disbelief that she must suddenly cast off in order to take charge of a situation, and she pulls it off wonderfully. Particularly there's a sequence at the end that I cannot wrap my head around, one that seems impossible to direct, and yet she and Garland seem to have a connection most directors and actors would only dream of. 

Jennifer Jason Leigh is enjoying something of a resurgence these days, and her Dr. Ventress is unlike anything she's done before. Ventress is sedate, having come to accept her fate, knowing that her insides are turning against themselves and will destroy her, and her thoughts and feelings mirror that acceptance beautifully. She's such a strange character, one who I would never have thought to write or direct, and her final moments of the film work perfectly for her character. 

I've not seen Gina Rodriguez's show so I've gone in blind in terms of her acting, but I was blown away by the end. She has the most difficult character in the film, one who fights at an impossible truth which ultimately destroys her. It's so hard to play a character going insane, and we've seen it done horribly far more often than we've seen it done well. She has a scene I'll never forget, "But you're a liar,"  a line spoken with so much hurt, venom, and bullheaded clarity that it comes across as a threat. And what a threat. 

I'm a newcomer to Tuva Novotny but she's welcome in anything I see after. She has slightly less to do than her counterparts but there's a scene of pure exposition which she manages to turn believable. Like Rodriguez, it's a scene that could easily have failed as it's merely pandering to the audience as well as Lena, but Novotny succeeds in taking it to another level. 


But then there's Tessa Thompson, an actor who I'm so glad has been getting the attention and screen time that she deserves. Her character, Josie, keeps are arms covered to hide her scars. She fails to feel anything, so she inflicts pain on herself to remember that she's alive. When she speaks she seems far away, as if her voice is being thrown by someone else, like someone who feels her presence has been punished too many times to draw any more attention. Josie reminds me of far too many people I've known in my life, and that makes her fate all the more haunting. 


Before the bear attack, the survivors hide out in a home surrounded by plants that have somehow grown into the shape of people. At first you may think that it is merely a reaction from the Shimmer, human DNA being refracted to change the way plants grow, but that assumption ends after the bear attack. Josie sits outside, her arms revealed, her scars sprouting tiny plants. She remembers the horrific night, Cass' final, horrifying moments being echoed in the bear for all time. When Ventress wants to face what's at the core of the Shimmer and Lena wants to fight it, Josie chooses to do neither. She leaves Lena, always a few steps too far out of sight, the buds from her scars now vines and flowers, and before we know it she's gone. All that's left are the plant people. These are not those who died screaming, these are not those who ran away, these are those who have submitted to the change the Shimmer would bring, to a different kind of existence. Maybe not all of them, maybe they didn't know what was happening to them before it was too late, but there's a part of me that sees this the same way you would see a group hold hands before an apocalyptic event, a group who would tell a child that it will be okay. 

And this brings me to the ultimate arc of this film. I believe there are 3 stories here, one on its face, one on its sleeve, and one deeper still. On its face is the story of an alien who inhabits our world and changes it without any reason. The alien does not want, it has no goal, it isn't evil nor is it good, it is just different, its very existence threatening our laws of nature. The 2nd story it wears on its sleeve is that of cancer. The characters mention a few too many times how similar this event is to a cancerous organism, and several of the characters are personally dealing with cancer as well. It's a fair study, one that looks at cancer on a geological scale and wonders if looking at it this way may help us understand it more thoroughly, but it gives way to the 3rd story within the film; depression. 

There's an argument to be made that the story we see on screen is not the story that happens, that the moment Kane leaves Lena to go to his final deployment the story ends and everything we see deals directly with Lena's struggle to come to terms with herself. Each of these characters who go into the Shimmer know that they are doomed, they even remark on the previous failed expeditions that "One of two things happened; either something killed them, or they went insane and killed each other." And yet they go anyway, because if they are all facets of depression, then they truly are all self-destructive. Cass goes out screaming, in a pain so extreme it echoes forever and haunts her comrades. Anya goes mad, turning a knife on her friends and accusing them of going behind her back to destroy her. Josie finds tranquility in the prospect of a new life and leaving behind one which did not agree with her, one which she has seen destroy too many people. Ventress becomes consumed with her efforts to understand a reason behind what is happening. For her there needs to be a reason, needs to be a thing she can point to and say "this, this is the problem." 


But then there's Lena. Lena who's actively destroying her marriage, who hates the co-worker she's sleeping with almost as much as she hates herself. And when she finally comes face-to-face with the alien, shown as a refracted, featureless humanoid who mimics her every move, her battle with herself is clarified in full. Her attempts to evade the thing almost become an interpretive dance, this mimicking thing watching her and becoming her, seemingly wanting nothing, but the moment she tries to escape it it almost kills her. Over and over again she attempts to fight it, run from it, out-manoeuvre it, but each time she fails and is pulled back in, almost being destroyed in the process. It isn't until it learns too much about her that she can get away, when it learns the only thing she knows; self-destruction. And even then, even when it emotionlessly burns its world to the ground, even then she's changed. She's learned too much, learned that the Kane who returned from the Shimmer is a duplicate, that nothing is what it seems. She asks him "Are you Kane?" He answers "I don't think so. Are you Lena?" In a way she is and is not. It's a shame the film tampers its brilliance with a final "dun dun duuuun" moment that takes you out of the mystery, but forgetting that allows Kane's question to sink in and plant the seeds of a question Lena will struggle to answer. 

I can't say I came out of the theater ready to recommend Annihilation to anyone. It was a lot, too much sometimes, to take in in such a short amount of time. The film is not without its flaws or lapses in logic. Certain lines are unnecessary, Benedict Wong's role as a mysterious scientist evaluating Lena after she returns is such a strange filmmaking decision and it screams "this is for the audience." I can understand the need for certain lines to benefit the average movie-goer, but when you've already got a film as challenging and frustrating as this, you really don't need to pander to an audience that isn't there. It's only within the past few weeks that I've been able to begin wrapping my head around how I feel about it. It doesn't deserve a number or Rotten Tomatoes percentage because of how strange it is and how it will almost certainly mean different things to different people, but what I do know is that I've not been able to stop thinking about it. That's what filmmaking and sci-fi is really about; planting a seed in us the way Kane does with Lena, keeping us up at night, asking friends and co-workers if they've seen it and what they thought, and wondering how the questions it presents will change us. 

'A Quiet Place' Debuts Its Final Trailer

Color me absolutely bouncing off my seat for this one. The past few years have been very good to the horror genre, even to the point that people have found it necessary to argue whether a horror movie is actually a horror movie. Somehow modern audiences have a hard time justifying that a horror movie can actually be challenging, surprising, unique, and well directed. I have gripes, but I'll save that for another time. 

John Krasinski has done a remarkable job graduating from his role from The Office to become an astoundingly versatile actor and director, roles which he puts on very affective display for A Quiet Place, alongside his consistently captivating co-star Emily Blunt. 

The trailers so far have done an excellent job selling the world these characters live in, and the concept has me frothing at the mouth. A world where everyone must keep completely silent lest they be heard by something horrible in the woods. Ugh, yes please.

If this is the first trailer you've seen for A Quiet Place I recommend leaving it at that. A few of the others reveal a bit too much for my taste, one scene in particular is an astounding study in tension and it's a shame the climax of it shows up in the previous trailer. 

Keep a look out in theaters on April 6th. 

Welcome, Let's See How This Goes

Oh hi, folks. As of writing this, I'm nursing a hangover that is a soft reminder that my body is not what it once ways. The end of my 20's is on the horizon, and with it comes an inability to casually enjoy a few cocktails without being punished mercilessly for it.

But this blog isn't about that. The scolding my body is giving me is also a reminder that I should have been putting a project like this together ages ago. I live, eat, and breathe all things movies, and it's frankly astounding that I haven't put words to page about it all yet. I'll attempt to retcon some of the time I've lost, but it would be unfair to review films and TV shows that have already earned their awards, made their festival runs, and have otherwise been opinion-ed enough that my take couldn't be unbiased.

It's a shame, because I'd love to talk about Star Wars, Blade Runner, The Big Sick, and so many other films from this past year. Alas, I'll start relatively fresh. The plan is to pepper in reviews (spoiler and non-spoiler), news, trailers, interviews, and whatever else I can find. In time I'll find some rhyme to everything, but for now it'll be something of a curated dump.