There’s a heartbeat cadence throbbing in the background of Her Smell. Racing like a speed addict’s BPM, undulating and omnipresence, it thrums. Maybe it’s the pulsing cry of the expectant crowd. Or the muted surge of an opening act bleeding through thick subterranean walls. But it’s there, subtly informing the uneasy tension and amplifying the sense that things could go desperately wrong at any given moment. With Becky Something, disaster – in the form of a looming overdose, public implosion, or full mental break – lurks in every corner. Read More
Colossal, about a drunken dead-ender who discovers she has become an unwitting remote control for a massive horned monstrosity, is a film at war with itself. On the one hand, the spectacularly strange conceit prompts a delicious revision of the monster movie genre. Still, the potential novelty fails to take flight, making Colossal both too strange for mainstream audiences who typically buy tickets for monsters bashing each other movies and not really strange enough to satisfy audiences hoping for something truly nutty. Read More
Don’t mess with a good thing, so croons an age old adage and Beauty and the Beast, the most recent live action Disney remake, is exemplary of that statement. A near-perfect update of the beloved animated Disney classic, this live-action contemporary version is in many ways a literal note for note transfer, with everything from story beats to musical runs to the lavish costumes tracing 1991’s hand drawn offerings but despite its reciprocal, borderline redundant nature, Bill Condon’s product feels sumptuously loved nonetheless. Read More
Scott Frank‘s slick, sky-is-falling neo-noir may be sold as the next installment in the “Liam Neeson kicks ass and takes names” genre but it’s as far from Taken as it is from The Grey. Dedicated to telling an uneasy tale of grisly murder and off-the-record justice, A Walk Among the Tombstones is the perfect vehicle for Neeson’s defining intensity. Adapted from one of Lawrence Block’s many new-age dick novels, Tombstones is plump with a decadent sense of malevolence often missed in films of its ilk. At times, Frank’s dedication to being so relentlessly dark ends up wounding the film, but irregardless, you gotta respect his all-or-nothing commitment to such a bleak, uncompromised vision. Like New York City before Giuliani cleaned up the streets, this gumshoe yarn is as nasty as stepping on a dirty needle.
Neeson is Matt Scudder, an alcoholic gunman who’s worked as a private detective ever since an incident made him leave the police force eight years back. When an AA acquaintance asks his assistance in a family matter, Matt becomes wrapped up in a ghastly murder case that can’t be brought to the cops. His employer is Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) an independently wealthy man (read: drug smuggler) whose wife was kidnapped and ransomed. But even after Kristo paid the hefty bounty, his wife was sent home in pieces, packed like the very drugs he dealt. Even without a ton to work with, Stevens broods through his scenes sporting a spindly black caterpillar of a mustache, his intensity burning through his baby blues like rising fires.
Before you can say “Boo”, Matt has hit the ground running, unearthing a series of clues that trace the murders back to associates of the DEA. Considering the film is – for some reason – set in the dwindling 1990s with misplaced Y2K fears running rampant and technological ability the exception rather than the rule, cell phones are sparse and clue huntin’ involves actually going to the stacks. Plopped in a rain-pounded library, Matt meets TJ (Brian ‘Astro’ Bradley), a street smart and techno whizz homeless kid with sickle cell anemia. Teamed up little Short Round and Doctor Jones, they race towards finding the devilish duo behind these macabre homicides.
This aforementioned unorthodox partnership between Matt and TJ could easily have been a massive problem throughough, as any adult-teenager movie relationship tends to be, but it actually works by and large. Having a competent but vulnerable youngin under his wing gives Neeson an opportunity to flex some less predatory and more protective muscles. Surely, the sickle cell anemia aspect is a strangely cheap ploy for tension in a movie already thick with it but giving Neeson’s Matt a character to watch over ups his vigilant instincts to silverback gorilla levels. Plus it makes for some great one-liners.
An unexpected bonus of the film is Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s dreary, deferential cinematography which offers a variety of interesting angles and lighting choices that harken back to the action films of the 60s and 70s. The opening credits scene as well as a POV shot down the barrel of a 9mm bring particularly noteworthy visual flair to the picture, further assisting to distinguish it as noir rather than a simple humdrum, action movie. There’s poignancy to Malaimare’s shots that won’t necessarily be worked out the first time through. But even while Malaimare and Neeson largely succeed, there are elements to this lurid tale that turn towards the cartoonish.
The villains’ – both of whom are without an ounce of humanity – morbid fascination with crudely deconstructing the female body exposes the sickly nature of their violent crimes but threatens to almost push the envelope too far. But then again, we live in a world that’s already seen Se7en and, more recently, Tusk so “too far” seems almost obsolete in this day and age. Nonetheless, Frank’s taste for bloodshed may leave some viewers wishing for less.
When darkness devours all, we’re left not being able to relate, but maybe that’s the point of a film that warns that “people are afraid of all the wrong things.” On the surface, it’s a winking Y2K tech joke but I’d like to believe there’s something beneath the surface that’s only vaguely hinted at. Something that pertains to how the embodiment of evil may be what we fear most when instead it should be how we respond to evil or, even more simple, how we respond to any kind of strife. Giving into a need for bloodthirsty revenge or ill-plated justice is what we should fear most, not the “evil” itself. It’s just a theory but I welcome a film that gives the opportunity for filmgoers to make their own meaning of things.
In opposition to those intriguing, subtle elements at play, a late stage shootout amongst, you guessed it, tombstones plays off as far too heavy-handed, showcasing a strong directorial decision that doesn’t entirely work out. As bullets tear the night sky apart, Frank intersplices a 12 step AA moral message amongst freeze-framed images of lives lost and chaos asunder. It’s probably the easiest scene to point to that tries at something almost novel and falls on its nose. I can’t however deny my appreciation for Frank making that nonconventional choice, even though it, as I mentioned, doesn’t fully pan out. While not a total representation of the picture as a whole, the hit-and-miss aspect of doing something great and following it up by tripping over the shoelaces does neatly define the endeavor as a whole.
But from the categorically necessary duster to that retro first scene goatee, this is Neeson’s show. Instead of just another paint-by-numbers actioner where Neeson’s shoots, solves and barks, Tombstones flushes out some actual inner demons, allowing Neeson to balance his proven dramatic chops with his newfound action star persona. He’s so much more than a loaded gun and a bottle of whiskey, part and parcel of what makes this film ideal for a bushel of sequels if they approach it from the right angle.
With easy humor courtesy of Neeson’s growled quips, well-directed drizzly dramatics and a thick air of hardboiled, gloomy atmospherics, A Walk Among The Tombstones brings to life the aged marvel of a good noir. It’s not always perfect and may run a touch too long but it works heartily as a well-greased, appropriately artful affair. And for those expecting another Taken, don’t be scared off. This is miles better than Taken 3.
NOTE: Re-printed from our 2014 Sundance review.
Slam Drive and Stocker together, rub them down in a spicy 80’s genre marinate and sprinkle with mesmerizing performances and dollops of camp and you have The Guest. Like a turducken of genre, Adam Wingard‘s latest is a campy horror movie stuffed inside a hoodwinking Canon action flick and deep fried in the latest brand of Bourne-style thriller. It’s clever, tense, uproarious, and hypnotizing nearly every second.
Coming off the success of You’re Next and the crowd-pleasing anthology V/H/S films, Wingard has assembled another cast of “where did these people come from?” talent. Dan Stevens is absolutely magnetic as the titular guest and from his vacuous eyed stares to his charismatic domination of conversations, he oozes character. You might recognize Stevens from Downtown Abbey but his turn here is a reinvention and could signal the birth of a true star. While youngsters have a floppy tendency to detract from the overall thespian landscape, newbies Brendan Meyer and Maika Monroe each hold their own, elevating cliches into compelling characters.
Wingard and scribe Simon Barrett admit in the writing process, the film was inspired by Terminator and Halloween, an unlikely combination but you can see the influence bleeding from both. By transcending a single genre, The Guest is able to riff on the tropes of nearly all mainstay film culture. But don’t confuse homage with mocking, there is artistry present here that escapes cheap imitation, a fact that garners such a spectrum of emotions. The fact that the film’s mood can change on a dime depending on Steven’s facial composure is a sure sign of its thematic success. The Guest may not be deadly serious but it’s never not deadly funny. We laugh because its familiar and yet new; a crossroads of homage and invention.
Completed in a mere 31-day shoot, the technical aspects of Guest shine as bright as Stevens immaculately pearly chompers. The throbbing soundtrack is a living heartbeat, becoming a secondary character that informs the laughs and tension in equal stake. Gorgeous sets born of Susan Magestro make up for the otherwise bland middle American landscapes with a final Halloween-themed set piece that was exactly what one hopes for.
When all is said and done, The Guest is 30-caliber entertainment, mainlining laughs, thrills, and excitement like a junkie on a bender. A step forward for the already majorly competent Wingard, this kind of genre movie reminds us of just how much fun a time at the theaters can be.
I’ve added another of my favorite films from Sundance, The Guest, to this delightful series of Q&As that’ll give you a peek into the process of how these great works are pieced together as well as what you can expect when these films eventually hit theaters. If you appreciated Adam Wingard‘s early work (You’re Next, V/H/S) be sure to slot The Guest high on your anticipated movies list, as it’s easily his best yet and a snarky splatterfest thrill ride from start to finish. Listen to Wingard and his cast, including Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens, talk about writing the piece, inspiration from 80’s movies and getting pierced by exploding shrapnel.
Adam Wingard: We actually explored doing an action film in South Korea, and we went down the road of that a little ways, and it didn’t really work out because the whole film is just one nonstop action scene, we thought that would be kind of the experiment of that movie. Ultimately, it just never came together because, you know, when you’re doing a nonstop action scene there’s not really character development, things like that.
Simon Barrett: I said I’d wasn’t able to make it.
AW: So this one night I was just sitting around, I had a stack of Blu-Rays at this new office, and I just happened to watch Terminator and Halloween, the original, and I was watching it and I called Simon up the next day, I mentioned I’d seen those two, and I told him I wanted to do a Sci-Fi, action kind of thing, with an android and stuff like that. And Simon’s like, I have an idea that could fit into that. Maybe you can pick up from there…
SB: This is actually unique to our process, because usually Adam comes up with the type of movie he wants to make and I come up with the story. I’d started an old script that was going to be a really depressing drama, with kind of the same premise as this film, but it was a PTSD drama. Ultimately, we’re pretty big believers in the idea that art, unless the point of it is not to be entertaining, that art should be entertaining. So I stopped at around page 35 because I was like, literally no one in the world wants to see this film. (Laughter) I’m not enjoying writing it, and it’s not good. It was about this guy who comes back from the war and kills his friends and family. Ok, cool. And so Adam called me up and I was like “You know, if for some reason he was kind of bit of a malfunctioning robot, suddenly that script is actually awesome.” Not only awesome, but it’s funny, if we’re playing it for the laughs of it, and it’s not just like punishing. And then I just completely started at page 1.
AW: Well, no, it was literally like, we had that discussion, I mentioned that stuff to Simon, Simon said all that stuff, he’s like and then we’ll call it “The Guest”. I said, “Ok do you want to write that?”, and he said “Sure.” And he just went off and did it. It was like suddenly after all this time we spent on this other idea, when we really sat back and said what kind of story do we want to tell, not just saying we want a bunch of cool crazy shit, you know, it was like, you know, it was just took like a little moment, to kind of rest, and there it was.
Q: How long did it take you guys to film it?
AW: It was a thirty one day shoot, I think.
SB: And we did a 2 day reshoot in Los Angeles. Because of corporate stuff.
Q: I’ve noticed that music is pretty essential in a lot of your movies and it seems like with “You’re Next”, you have a little bit of a sort of Carpenter-ish driving electronic music, and with this it was just like a totally different kind of grittiness. I was just wondering, do you curate that or do you work with someone who does the music?
AW: Well, “You’re Next” was a totally different group of composers. It was a little bit more hodgepodge. One guy did the synth stuff really well, and one guy did atmospheric stuff. This film, for me, just spoke to me that it was like an 80’s Cannon action film, as a matter fact we wanted to actually just put the Cannon logo at the beginning of the film, you know, that’s why we do the Snoot logo kind of in that style. So, it tried to process the way to go about that. I feel like after Grindhouse there’s a lot of really good imitations of 80’s films and 70’s films. I really like Grindhouse but the post effect of that is that it’s become a sort of parody almos.? And that’s exactly the opposite of what I wanted from the music out of this. Actually going back to my very first film I did, called Homesick back in 2003, I worked with a band called Zombie. And we had a really good experience working together, they’re very prog rock, very Goblins inspired, John Carpenter stuff. Since then, one of the members of Zombie, Steve Moore, he started a solo project, and the solo project is still kind of him doing that old school thing, because Steve uses all vintage synthesizers and all that stuff. The interesting thing is that he’s just making his version of whatever music he wants to make. It’s a very modern kind of thing, but since he’s using vintage synths, then it has that quality to it. But it’s still something new and it’s not pretending to be it. From the beginning I called Steve up and we had a lot of conversations. A lot of the soundtrack, the starting point was basing it on Halloween 3 and the original Terminator soundtrack, both really great, incredible 80’s synth scores. And it kind of just went from there.
Q: In a couple of scenes, it seems that the camera angle is just really focused on David’s stare. Did you intend to make the audience feel like he was trying to break through the fourth wall in a way?
AW: Um…no, not really, I mean, I felt like those are just key moments that stood out to me. To me, I just wanted to be able to watch David process, because we never really know what goes on in his head. And I felt like I liked the idea of picking these moments where the movie’s not telling you what he’s thinking ever, but I wanted to give the audience that moment to be able to kind of put that on there. I think Dan has such brilliant physical acting that he can hold on screen just a bit longer than necessary, or would normally be done. That just kind of came out of that.
Q: Actors of course have to have physical training. Was there any other physical training, like martial arts, involved?
Dan Stevens: Yeah, there was actually, training for well over a month. Doing like weights and stuff in the morning and martial arts in the afternoon. It was a big old transformation for me actually.
SB: Our action choreographer, Clayton Barber, who worked on “You’re Next”, worked out with Dan. They like hit you a lot. We don’t really know what happened.
DS: I don’t want to talk about it.
Q: Dan, did you have a favorite action sequence to shoot in the film?
DS: Yeah I had my ear pierced by a door.
SB: Yeah, when Dan is running by things that are exploding, that’s not a stunt double sometimes.
AW: Yeah, early on, we did some shots were Dan is running by some splintering wood being shot to pieces. For some reason, I felt like that was important that you be in that shot. And that was the last time, because a piece went through Dan’s ear. It basically made a perfect little piercing in your ear.
Q: Where did you find this guy (Dan)?
AW: On this little known show, Downton Abbey. When going through the casting of the film, I knew I wanted someone who had a very calm, cool aesthetic to them, but who was naturally likeable. I talked to a lot of actors going through the casting. And Dan was actually one of the first people I talked to. He was just so nice. I could just see the character in him. From the very get-go he was my top choice.
Q: How long did it take to write?
AW: Probably two months.
Q: There’s a lot of scenes that you guys got laughs for, that, if done a different way, could have been straight up creepy. How do you find the balance between those two?
AW: Yeah man, it’s hard to say. I don’t know, it was weird. Going into it, I wasn’t sure. The first few days of shooting, how much I did want to play into the creepy side or more the humor of it? Because when I first read the script I was laughing my ass off the whole time, especially when it got to the bar scene the first time. I just really enjoyed going through that. It was just one of those things, as soon as I saw Dan on set and everybody interacting. Because the very first scene that we shot was, you know, the sequence where he gets the guns from the guy and ends up shooting a long distance, impossible missile shot. But it just instantly kind of clicked that it was a funny movie to me, and that’s the direction that we took. And the movie kind of plays homage, by the end of the film, to our roots, coming from horror and stuff, there’s even a jump scare but it’s a manufactured way. It wasn’t se-f referential but more, yes, this is where we come from but now this is a different context. Instead of playing out a horror film throughout, now suddenly we put you in this ridiculous haunted house at the end.
SB: I’d also say that everyone, and definitely our producers, we all have a sarcastic sense of humor. Finding jokes that aren’t really winking at the audience, just kind of assuming you’re smart enough to get it.
Q: For the ladies, or for all the actors really, what was it about Adam that said ‘Yes I want to work with this guy’?
Sheila Kelley: Just so much about him. I was offered the part and I got on the phone with him. He’s not a simple director. He has a lot of layers for the way he wanted the character played and how he wanted the film to unfold. And that was really exciting for me, personally.
Maika Monroe: I went through the auditioning process and I remember the first time meeting Adam. I think Jess was in the room, one of the producers and, just how he would work on the scenes with me, how he would direct me and change things I would never have even thought. There was just something so special, I was like I have to work with this guy.
Brendan Meyer: I was huge fan of Adam and Simon for a long time, so working on this was a huge dream for me, it was really surreal. It was so much fun, I had the best time. Adam’s the best what can I say.
Leland Orser: I can’t add much more than that, Adam was really really good. He really knew what he wanted and the direction was really specific and great but not in