By Michael Thielvoldt, OWA Film Programmer / Tour & Transportation Director
2017 is proving to be yet another domino in a building line of high-caliber annual film fare. Not restricted to budget size or genre classification--high budget and low budget, genre films of all stripes or films that avoid genre classification all together---the last few years have been defined by unrelenting quality that is pushing forward to the present day. With the first seven months officially under our belts, I am going to take a look back at seven of the best SciFi and Horror films from the first half of the year.
A DARK SONG
First up is A DARK SONG, the dark horse of this group. It is the underseen holdover from last year’s Fantastic Fest that follows a woman’s journey into the netherworld to obtain an unrestricted wish from the beyond. What Sophia will wish for and what is ultimately driving her is intentionally obfuscated, but what is made abundantly clear by the specious man hired to cast the spell is that once the preparations to bridge our world and the next start they cannot be stopped. This arduous ritual creeps along through a slow burn build of repetitive practices, suspicious demands, and increasing paranoia as the viewer and characters alike are forced to question what they see and eventually Sophia’s sanity.
With LOGAN, X-Men fans finally get the R-rated Wolverine movie everyone’s favorite berzerker-inclined Canuck deserves, closing out a middling trilogy in brilliant and bloodied fashion. His wounds may not heal as fast as they once did and his adamantium claws suffer from erectile dysfunction, but this aging Logan can still sever limbs with the best of them as he channels John Wayne and the other fading brutes of dusty old Westerns. Yes, we get to see him use those claws in all the ways he couldn’t since Hugh Jackman first stepped into the iconic sideburns in 2000’s X-MEN and his many PG-13 appearances that followed. We even get a second set of claws with the addition of Laura who reminds us what unabashed youthful vigor and eight inches of razor sharp metal looks like. The death margins widen as a result but so too does the film’s narrative scope as Logan is invited to assume a paternal role to Laura and her unchecked rage. Tagging along for this dysfunctional family road trip is the beloved Professor Charles Xavier (played equally adoringly and also for the last time by Patrick Stewart) who is suffering from declining health and the vagaries of some traumatic past incident. The familial interactions between Logan, Laura, and Charles are the lifeblood of the picture pushing it beyond simple--albeit very enjoyable--bloodletting and into the realm of existential contemplation where we are invited to consider our own mortality and judge how well we have, are, or will spend our passing years.
IT COMES AT NIGHT
IT COMES AT NIGHT is not what it appears to be in the trailer (which is likely why it faded so quickly from theaters after months salivating over its striking promotional materials). In fact, it’s unclear what it is at all. Ambiguity floods this film leaving its audience with only a handful of discernible facts. Fact: Father Paul, mother Sarah, son Will, and dog Stanley are a family. The early backwoods euthanasia of a grandfather character introduces the first of the film’s many question marks. He is sick with something--something bad--but what and how it truly works are never fully addressed. Fact: the world--at least the limited world we are invited to see--has plunged into disorder. Again, we are given only periphery details about this disorder. Is it fully related to whatever this illness is? Again, we are left to wonder as characters are introduced and others disappear. Obscured information plays like plot holes and questions mount and are left to fester in parallel with the escalating tensions inside a secluded family home. The ambiguity of IT COMES AT NIGHT will be a selling point for some and a deterrent for others in a horror film that struggles with whether to celebrate or condemn humanity.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL 2
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL 2 revisits Marvel fans’ favorite motley crew of space misfits strengthening connections between the central team of Peter Quill/Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot (still in baby form) and once antagonistic figures like Yondu and Nebula. Also returning for a makeover is the 80s mixtape soundtrack (though, this time the hits are mostly B side titles). Lesser holdover characters and a slew of new faces round out the character list--none more impactfully than Ego (played noddingly by 80s icon and all around cool dude Kurt Russell), Quill’s father and a godlike being of near infinite power. To say this film stews in the familial is an understatement: Quill unites for the first time in his life with his lionized absentee dad, while his surrogate father, Yondu skates the periphery; Gamora and Nebula continue bonding over their shared resentment for their adopted father, Thanos; Drax holds fast to the memories of his lost wife and children; and Rocket’s abandonment issues and appreciation for group acceptance grow increasingly transparent. Third act moves raise the stakes in ways that I cannot cover here without major spoilers, but it’s safe to say that VOL 2 surpasses its predecessor and the rest of the MCU in terms of decision making. In the end, it’s not about whether the good guys can trump the all powerful baddy. Rather, it’s the relationships, the losses, and the ways in which narrative details illuminate characters and--in the case of Quill--literally redefine them. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL 2 is a step above the average MCU film and in terms of risks, bold choices, and ultimate stakes, it has no current parallel.
KONG: SKULL ISLAND
KONG: SKULL ISLAND was on people’s radars for some time before its release because it is the latest linkage in a historical franchise, because the superbly cut trailer suggested something different and ultimately better than the last Kong film, and because a ragtag cast of awards darlings and fan favorites offered a veritable tasting menu of talent to meet nearly any moviegoers palate. When the film finally dropped, it did so to unsurprising box office success. Still, after all the peaked interests early on, I was surprised at just how fully this picture delivered. The acting talent was not wasted or weakened by flimsy dialog. Sure, Samuel L. Jackson’s military officer gets to yell aggressively at man and ape alike, but--hey--he’s really, really good at that. Brie Larson and Tom Hiddleston fulfilled similar expectations with emotionally nuanced and sympathetic performances. And, the scene stealer of the trailer, John C. Riley, continues to land lines that straddle funny and foreshadowing in line with those driving the tone of the trailer but given additional weight as his marooned American WWII soldier character is fleshed out. Additionally, the film offers an original narrative that refuses to retread the same ground trotted out every few decades to indoctrinate a new generation. Kong will not be taken captive; he will not be shipped to New York City to be gawked at by slack-jawed city folk; and, he most certainly will not be scaling the Empire State Building. As the name suggests, this story takes place on Kong’s home turf where it embraces a Vietnam War film vibe peppered with bouts of breathtaking wonder. In more than one scene the sheer scale of Skull Island and its inhabitants had me short of breath in my theater seat. The standout example comes when Larson’s field photographer, Hiddleston’s guide, and a few military representatives break at a pond in time to see a behemoth water buffalo rise from the water, its outstretched horns caked in moss. It’s an awesome image in the most traditional sense of the word and a distillation of the finer qualities this film has to offer beyond the action set pieces that it both promises and pays out in full.
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APE
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES wraps the story of Caesar and his pressed war for simian peace against an increasingly desperate and depleting human population. Andy Serkis returns behind the mo-cap eyes of Caesar for another defining turn, and Matt Reeves eases back into the director’s chair and the war form he initiated in his previous installment, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Like DAWN, which took a logical evolutionary step up from the inciting RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, WAR progresses the narrative this time by raising the stakes with an early motivating tragedy for Caesar and an end of days scenario for the humans. Yet, WAR also pays tribute to its roots. It shifts the dramatic focus back toward RISE by forefronting the humanism and tragedy at the center of that film ahead of the action that more readily drives DAWN. It also breaks new ground by smartly inserting some much-needed laughs into a film that conjures heavy Holocaust imagery and plenty of suffering for its sympathetic ape character. These laughs come with the addition of the tragically comedic Bad Ape, played by Steve Zahn, a zoo escapee who has languished in seclusion for--as he puts it--a “Long. Long time.” Yes, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is the swan song these films deserve. It puts a bow on a top tier trilogy that serves as a complement to the original franchise without demanding comparison.
Of all the films on this list, THE BEGUILED is sure to be the one to ruffle the feathers of the genre film gatekeepers. Sure, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL 2 resides in the MCU, which is noted for having magical elements that are conventional to the fantasy genre, but with its abundance of space crafts, aliens, and intergalactic groundwork, its scifi credibility is strong (even before rationalizing away the “magic” of that universe using Thor’s precursory explanation that science and magic are one in the same). LOGAN makes an even more concrete case coming out of the X-Men universe where the superpowers of its characters have always been rooted in evolution. LOGAN simply perpetuates this reality even as the picture pushes it forward into man made scientific breakthroughs that lead to similar ends. Like IT COMES AT NIGHT, THE BEGUILED is not a typical horror picture, despite similarly misrepresentational trailer. The real film fails to deliver on the ruthless exploitational torture promise of its marketing and instead delivers a much subtler form of horror that can look unrecognizable as such to many modern moviegoers. Yet, it stems from a historical tradition of gothic horror with elements of the paranoia thriller and just enough gore to appease its genre’s bloodlust. Also, like IT COMES AT NIGHT, THE BEGUILED’s horror ultimately resides in its characters, though in the latter’s case: without the aid of a catalyzing sickness. Instead, director Sofia Coppola exploits the ambitions and perspectives of her characters to drive this period piece Civil War drama to horrific ends that start with a sympathetic act (a Southern boarding school for girls taking in and nursing the wounded Yankee soldier, Corporal McBurney). As McBurney regains his health with it comes his second nature charm and ultimately lustful ambitions. The consummate charmer, McBurney is quickly able to size up the desires of the women and girls around him and fashions himself into the reflection of such desires. There are no monsters here, no apocalyptic plagues, just the looming threat of the war at their gate, the webbing of wants and manipulations with McBurney at its center, and the realization that perspective and self-justification rob the narrative of a true villain even as McBurney acts the role as the film takes a notably darker turn toward the end in the second act.
OKJA is a film best experienced knowing as little about it as possible. With that, you’ve been warned. That you are continuing to read on means you have 1) already seen the film, 2) already know enough about it as to render my warning moot, or 3) have no interest in experiencing one of the most creative and ultimately heart-wrenching pictures with the same level of ignorant bliss as the film’s protagonistic pair enjoys at the outset of their story. OKJA is the Netflix produced product of Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho who dips his toes back into scifi territory after increasingly impressive turns in THE HOST (2006) and SNOWPIERCER (2013). The titular Okja is a genetically engineered “super pig” designed as high volume, tasty meat livestock with a minimal carbon footprint by the antagonistic Mirando Corporation. But don’t tell this to Okja or Mija, his doughty young bff human caretaker, who are content spending their days frolicking the mountainous jungle lands of South Korea in ignorance of Okja’s fate. The plot builds into a complicated narrative about industrial food economics and uses a vegetarian morality message and Holocaust imagery (am I sensing a trend here?) to break down its viewers as efficiently as Mirando Corp’s mechanized butchery devices. Perhaps the most surprising and enjoyable element of OKJA is Okja herself: played to perfect pathos through a fully CG character that lacks traditional language but makes up ground with swelling doe eyes and bumbling physicality. One quickly forgets that this rotund hippopotamus-like creature is an effects fabrication, which is ultimately why both Okja the character and the movie work so very well.
GET OUT marks the directorial debut of comedy savant Jordan Peele and the first installment of a promising series tackling modern “social demons.” Folding a keen sense of social criticism into the horror genre with airtight plotting and some of the sharpest pacing one is welcome to come across renders GET OUT a kind of academic exploitation treatise on modern American racism. Peele proves without a doubt that his talents are not restricted to comedy, though there is plenty of comedy to be had as well (particularly in scene stealer LilRel Howery’s best friend character). But, rather, it is the way Peele keeps this picture moving forward and the narrative conflicts moving upward as black protagonist Chris Washington struggles to identify if what he sees in his introductory encounters with his white girlfriend's family are glimmers of racism or reflections of his own insecurities. But those are Chris’s concerns. GET OUT is not a dodgy story that questions the reliability of its protagonist. We KNOW there is definitely something awry in these hyper manicured lily white suburbs where the only black people you see are dazed gardeners and maids. We are shown this in the opening minutes of the film in a brilliantly shot long take abduction scene. How far this plot goes, who is involved, and why: this is the popcorn ride that drives the picture while Peele keeps his social compass true north never allowing minds to wander far from the realities of race, even as machinations take on scifi twists.
THE BAD BATCH
With THE BAD BATCH, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour picks up where she left off following her 2014 debut effort, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT: contorting conventions into something recognizably genre yet fully unique and blindingly impressive. This time she leaves behind the black and white new wave (beatnik) aesthetic of that film’s Bad City backdrop in lieu of a sizzling desert wasteland populated by hulking cannibals at least one of who is as equally alluring and deadly as A GIRL’s disarming vampire. Amirpour holds fast to its Western tinges though, as she explores the makeshift junkyard gyms, endless salt flats, and the land’s only semblance of society, a dust bowl oasis known as Comfort, through the hobbled wobbling of the film’s anti-damsel, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse). Arlen’s enigmatic philosophy of rebellion pairs her with the king of the cannibal bodybuilders, the short spoken Miami Man (Jason Momoa), in a search for his daughter and some degree of human connection.