Viewer’s notes: my week in movies (11/18)

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

I realized shortly after starting this blog that I would not be able to review every film I watched, or talk about every little noteworthy film-related thing I experienced. I’m going to offer a bit of a recap of my week here (just for the films I have not already talked about).

Give it a shot, it’ll be fun. 

  • The score for “Suspiria” (2018) by Thom Yorke is my standout favorite of the year so far. 2018 has been gifted with several quality horror/sci-fi scores, including “Annihilation,” “Hereditary” and “Mandy.” This score is beautiful and scary, incorporating gorgeous piano arpeggios with Yorke’s signature soft, spacious falsetto sailing over it, as well as violent synthesizers that imitate voices screaming over a static-soaked radio. The music instills pure existential terror, so in other words it’s been a real blast. 
  • The original “Suspiria” (1977) is an enjoyable and rather inventive horror. Unlike the 2018 re-imagining — which grapples with philosophy and a moving truck full of deep thinking — this film is mostly concerned with providing a psychedelic, contained experience. And it does it well. Status: Recommend for Fans (Horror, Witches, good things like that). 
  • “Singing in the Rain” is incredible, though I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that. Status: Strongly Recommend
  • After experiencing disappointment with “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, I needed reminding of a better time. “Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix” is current “Fantastic Beasts” director David Yates’ first of six installments in the J.K. Rowling world. The film is a highlight of the series, as Yates navigates the darkness the story necessitates without loosing the glimmer of joy that makes the series what it is. Status: Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘Crimes of Grindelwald’: the slowest magic around

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

My prevailing question after walking out of the latest “Fantastic Beasts” installment was: who are these movies for? 

Director David Yates’ fourth entry in the Harry Potter universe (he directed the last four Potter films and the first “Fantastic Beasts” entry) is a dark, plodding thriller that is more interested in its Dan Brown-esque family tree mystery than it is the spectacular universe it lives in. 

And, to state it simply, it’s boring.

“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is mostly set in late 1920s Paris, as Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) and allies follow clues and leads that will lead them to stopping Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), an evil and powerful wizard who has recently escaped from custody.

Harry Potter creator and author J.K. Rowling penned the screenplay for the film, and served as a producer. 

Much like its predecessor, the film moves slowly with heavy dialogue and a very dark, limited color pallete, a recipe for a nap. It is evident from two full-length endeavors that these films are not designed for children anymore. Beyond just the dire circumstances (which we admittedly got in later Harry Potter installments), the film’s interest in a family mystery completely consumes it. Much of what unfolds is not easy to follow, and seemingly impossible for a child or early teen. But more importantly, it’s blatantly uninteresting. 

So its not for kids. But as as an adult who grew up on the Harry Potter books and films, I can’t say I find much to love about these either. Though the Potter series went to some very dark places, it felt ultimately rooted in friends, family, love and morality. I can’t quite get to the bottom of what these films are rooted in. Maybe that will become more apparent in the third, fourth, fifth or twelfth installment. 

The character of Newt Scamander remains the obvious highlight of this series, and Redmayne’s portrayal of him is perfection. Though it gets very little screen time, Newt’s relationship with potential love interest Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is one of the more interesting components of the film, though it is clumsily addressed at times. 

Jude Law is superb as Albus Dumbledore, and if I look forward to anything in the coming installments, its him and Newt. Depp does a fine job as Grindelwald. He’s still quite capable of onscreen villainy.

Some of the current political undertones running through Grindelwald’s rise in the film seemed like an easy dunk, if not a tad heavy handed. However, there is a sequence later in the film where a projection of real-life future horrors is thrust upon people of the time. It was an effective look at the good intentions often confused and misled in the machine of propaganda.

Despite some compelling characters and really cute magic beasts, “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is a drag. 

Status: Do Not Recommend

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘Suspiria’: a beautiful, tangled web Luca weaves

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Suspiria” (2018) is exceptionally dark and decidedly brazen, seeking meaning in many directions with some of the most effective moments and sequences of any film this year.

The thematic juggling act does not form an entirely focused portrait in the end, but provides a truly memorable spectacle. The film nearly necessitates multiple viewings. One — for me — will simply not cut it.

“Suspiria” is Luca Guadagnino’s re-imagining of the 1977 film of the same name, centered around a young dancer joining a studio with some dark secrets in Berlin, Germany. I should mention that I have not seen the original “Suspiria,” which will admittedly create some blind spots.

The 2018 film flows like a slow and torturous song. Thom York’s spacey score accompanies trippy and horrific dream sequences, brutal deaths and stunning dance; it is easy to get lost in Guadagnino’s vision. The “Call Me By Your Name” director’s immersive tone is both coaxing and revolting, but it is obvious that a craftsman is at work in nearly every scene.

Dakota Johnson stars as the new dancer Susie Bannion. Johnson has a secret buried in her eyes in nearly every close-up, which the film ultimately vindicates. Tilda Swinton plays three roles (a choice worthy of a discussion on its own) and Chloë Grace Moretz and Mia Goth both shine in smaller parts.

The decision to widen the scope beyond the studio, and include Dr. Josef Klemperer (a Swinton role) as a central figure, seemed odd during the film’s run-time. However, the character serviced a contemporary and relevant theme that added yet another dimension, but also another pin in the juggling act.

In the midst of the deeper and more psychological focus, plot clarity is sometimes sacrificed. Most developments are easy enough to follow, but some of the less-emphasized moments, such as the power struggle within the coven, are vague at best.

While the ending is far from predictable, there seemed to be no build up to it from a character standpoint (perhaps this is something that a re-watch will bring new light to). The chaotic and exuberant ending contradicted the more quiet, brutal insanity that the rest of the film portrayed so well.

The film is one of the most interesting and well-directed endeavors of the year, though it is not entirely cohesive. I’m quite intrigued to see how my feelings will change after a re-watch.

Status: Recommend for Fans (of Arthouse films, horror, Luca Guadagnino)

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘Overlord’: body horror for the masses

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

By Brandon Semler

“Overlord” layers its genres better than it layers its characters, but serves as an entirely watchable body horror with the spirit of a video game.

Director Julius Avery manages some truly gasp-inducing moments. Using a well-balanced pallet of practical effects/makeup and CG, he creates a clear and nightmarish portrait of the small France town the film is set in, and the large, daunting facility where bad things are happening.

Oh, and the bad things are pretty startling too.

The JJ Abrams-produced film follows a small crew of US troops on D-Day, as they make their way through rural France with a specific mission in mind. “Overlord” plants the seeds of a few themes early on, but when the bloodshed starts, they fly out the window along with any remaining normalcy.

The development of the main character Boyce (played by the impressive Jovan Adepo) is clunky and contradictory. Most characters in the film are largely archtypes for monster/military shoot-’em-ups.

Despite a conventional structure, the film’s energy is contagious. Plus, the story is told with a clarity and focus that seems rare for blood fests.

Status: Recommend for Fans (of body horror, JJ Abrams).

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

Viewer’s notes: ‘Blade Runner’ in 4K is a must-see

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more.

The depth of Ridley Scott’s neon noir landscapes in 1982’s “Blade Runner” take on new life when watched on a 4K television in UHD.

Normally, differences in contrast and format of films only do so much for me. A film’s direction and story exclusively make or break my interest (not too interested in the frames-per-anything). But upon rewatching the sci-fi classic, it seems there are treasures in each frame that could only be unearthed by advanced technology in the distant future.

What a trippy notion.

“Blade Runner” is a film I didn’t catch up with until last year in anticipation of Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049.” I know, I’m trash. Upon this re-watch, the depth and detail of Scott’s work towers. From the dusty light shooting out of windows in dark, smoky rooms, to small transports soaring the width of building-sized advertisements, the details emerge with clarity in UHD.

The higher frame rate also makes me far more appreciative of the old way of filmmaking. The use of miniatures and other practical devices create a feeling of authenticity that just seems foreign in 2018. Scott and cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth’s vision is made to feel so close, so touchable, it makes the falling rain cold and the replicant punches painful.

So, moral of the story, I highly recommend it.

Also of note, “Viewer’s Notes” will be a short, first-person series within this blog about something film-related that I’m interested in. It could be anything. So these entries are not reviews. However, just for fun, I will present my status for “Blade Runner” (1982).

Status: Strongly Recommend

Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

‘Halloween’ (2018): back to the basics

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more. 

By Brandon Semler

“Halloween” (2018) wisely reverts to much of the subtlety and tension-building of the original, and serves as a perfectly competent and enjoyable slasher (with plenty of callbacks).  Plus, we get to see a ready-to-fight Laurie Strode wielding a shotgun like Rambo.

Did we need the film? Probably not. But it’s the best installment since Carpenter’s original masterpiece, which you can read my thoughts on here

The film revolves around Laurie, who maintains a rocky relationship with family due to her trauma and obsession around the events that took place 40 years ago. Michael Myers — triggered by some dramatic podcasters who took his mask — escapes while being transported, and stopping him becomes a family affair for the Strodes.

Director David Gordon Green is probably the best director the franchise has sported since Carpenter. When the humor doesn’t completely trip up the momentum (we’ll get to that), Green manages some truly tense and gritty sequences, namely a scene that takes place in a gas station bathroom (another reminder not to No. 2 in a public space), and the long, inevitable finale.

Some of Green’s tricks behind the camera really pay off. He pulls a stunning tracking shot in the middle of the film as Michael begins his neighborly trick-or-treating that shadows him from one violent escapade to another. The camera’s general handling of Michael is careful and mysterious throughout. Green’s notable shift in momentum in the finale is also a highlight* in the franchise’s long history.

While much of the horror was handled with precision, the humor killed off too much of the scary. While the funny scenes are objectively funny, they stomp out the tension in several scenes, and remind the audience they are in a popcorn movie, not walking the streets of Haddonfield. Blumhouse Productions is known for humor in their horror (“Get Out,” “Happy Death Day”), but in this context, dread is a better fit.

Jamie Lee Curtis delivers an effective performance as Laurie, now defined by paranoia and a whole lot of kickass. The film was well-acted from top to bottom with a notable performance from newcomer Andi Matichak as Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson.

As enjoyable as the film was, its score is its strongest asset. John Carpenter returned to kick out the jams, delivering familiar themes, biting synths and chilling piano. It can be enjoyed with or without the film.

“Halloween” (2018) is best served with a popcorn and a crowd. Status: Recommend for Fans (of slasher films, horror and fans of the “Halloween” franchise)

Spoiler notes

* Green’s decision to make Laurie “the hunter” in the final scene was brilliant. Beginning with the glorious callback of her lying still on the ground, then vanishing in the next shot, Green completely turns the tables on Michael as the Strodes gain the upper hand. They stab and shoot Michael, and eventually trap him, setting fire to the house. The three women — forever affected by his evil — look down at the trapped killer as the house burns around them, and I left the theater with some pep in my step.

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

 

‘Halloween’: 40 years of scary

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more. 

By Brandon Semler

From the opening image of a symmetrical suburban home, to the closing shots of a stairway, living room and front yard, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978) remains a masterpiece of horror, and a source of paranoia and fear for suburban America, and hell, the rest of the world as well.

No matter how many times one has seen Halloween (for me, it’s about 15), Carpenter’s images still inspire fear; the camera following a teen down a leafy fall sidewalk, a psychopathic killer standing in between the clothing lines in the backyard, a teenager knifed to a wall through his stomach.

And most importantly, the notion that Michael Myers could be anywhere, at any time, any day.

The premise of “Halloween” is wonderfully simple. Merciless killer Michael Myers escapes from a mental hospital and returns to his hometown of Haddonfield to kill again, 15 years after killing his sister.

Carpenter creates the template for the modern horror masterwork. A slow build of tension, a feeling of menace in the air and a horror so graspable, so close, it seems almost inevitable that you will come across it.

One major factor contributing to the tension is Carpenter’s at times melodic, at times atmospheric score. The first film includes a handful of pieces that are repeated frequently throughout the film to great effect. The iconic piano riff, the dissonant synth chord held up in the air, the dramatic piano octave thump when Michael is on the prowl, all these touches contribute to the chaos that is only moments away (or already taking place). 

Jamie Lee Curtis earns her future “scream queen” title in her debut feature. Her performance allows for every film-goer to empathize with her vulnerable and self-conscious, but strong and protective Laurie Strode. Donald Pleasence also shines as Dr. Loomis, showing off his talent for the theatre with several larger-than-life monologues.

The small plot point involving Laurie’s crush at school, and her friend’s incessant teasing about it, is crucial to the message of the film. These teenage girls are real. The conversations are real. Most credit co-writer Debra Hill with these well written young female characters. They are a big reason the film succeeds at the level it does. If these young adult women are all real, the crazy man with the worn William Shatner mask and a kitchen knife must be as well.

Who knows, maybe he’s outside.

Status: Strongly

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

A reader’s guide to my film reviews

Semler at the Cinema features Brandon Semler’s thoughts on the world of film, including reviews, think pieces, previews and more. 

By Brandon Semler

I’ve received a few questions about the style/punctuation of my film reviews, so I figured I would post a quick road map. There are only two elements of each review that will remain consistent, so I’ll elaborate on them.  

1. Status

Firstly, while I don’t do star ratings or grades for films (I’m not a big fan of quantifying them), I will indicate whether I recommend films or not. Obviously, everyone has differing tastes, so people will like films I do not, and dislike films I love. But I like to think of these distinctions as what I would tell someone at a party if the subject came up in conversation.

Each review will include  of the following statuses:

Do Not Recommend: I do not believe people will generally enjoy the film.

Recommend for Fans: I recommend the film for fans of a certain genre, actor, style etc.

Recommend: I believe people will generally enjoy the film.

Strongly Recommend: I STRONGLY believe people will enjoy the film.

That said, these distinctions do not necessarily reflect how much I enjoyed/loathed the film. For example, my favorite film of 2018 (so far) is “Annihilation,” but my recommendation would be “Recommend for Fans” for those who enjoy slow-burn, heady sci-fi and horror. I would not recommend it for everyone because I do not think everyone would enjoy the film.

Like everything in art criticism, everything I’m saying is subjective and just reflects what I think. I don’t have better film taste than anyone else. I just enjoy writing about it.

2. Spoiler notes

I’m a firm believer that if you don’t want anything in a film spoiled, you should refrain from reading a review before seeing it. Each of my reviews will likely include mild spoilers in general, so tread cautiously. However, for specific, significant spoilers, I will include an asterisk next to a component of my review I wish to elaborate on, and will address it in a spoiler section at the bottom.

That’s the general gist. Happy reading.

Brandon Semler can be reached at popdiversifies@gmail.com, or on Twitter @BrandonSemler.

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