Lights Out (2016)

David F. Sandberg’s feature directorial debut, Lights Out is a horror gem.  The film is based on the 2013 short film of the same name that was also directed by Sandberg.  Along with The ShallowsLights Out may very well be another summer sleeper hit.  The film examines our fears of the dark, particularly when the lights are switched off with a combination of mental illness and hysteria.  Perhaps what causes those fears are the fears of the unknown and what we cannot see.  Our minds make us think that there might be something (usually bad, negative or evil) lurking around us.  Most of the time we think to ourselves and reassure ourselves that if we feel or see something, it’s only our imagination.  On the other hand, could these be instances where perhaps we do see something malevolent?

The plot of Lights Out is fairly simple.  Members of a dysfunctional family see a strange weirdly shaped female silhouette when the lights are turned off.

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The female silhouette as seen in Lights Out (2016)

Often times, the female’s silhouette is seen, other times scratching on the floor is heard.  The members of the family include the mother, Sophie, played by Maria Bello.  Sophie suffers from a mental illness, possibly depression.  Then there is the son and brother, Martin, played by Gabriel Bateman.  Martin, who was living with his mother, decided to live with his sister Rebecca instead, after many sleepless nights and encounters with the female entity.  Lastly, we have Rebecca, played by Teresa Palmer, who is somewhat estranged from her mother and has also had encounters with the female entity as can be seen by some scratches on one of her arms and during a flashback scene.  Rebecca’s semi-boyfriend, Bret, played by Alexander DiPersia, who is loyal but somewhat of a dork follows along and attempts to help both Rebecca and Martin determine who the entity is, how to get rid of the female entity and how the entity is connected to Sophie.  Throughout the film, it is known that Sophie has and can communicate with the female entity as if she’s some kind of imaginary friend.  Later on in the film, we find out that Sophie and the female entity had spent time together while institutionalized in a mental hospital.  What is frightening, but also clever is that the horror cliche of the imaginary friend has been broken.  This time, the mentally ill mother has an imaginary friend as opposed to the vulnerable little boy.  Knowing that the mother has a mental illness, a question arises.  That question is, is the mother imagining the female entity, which we later find out is named Diana, as a result for her mental illness or is Diana in fact real?  “Real” as in a spirit, ghost or other demonic force that can be seen and felt by others, not only in Sophie’s mind?

Lights Out doesn’t necessarily offer anything new or original, but the way Sandberg and the writer of the film, Eric Heisserer handle and execute the horror conventions makes the film very well made.  Being a lower budget horror film with a $5 million budget, the film delivers the horror conventions in a minimalist but very effective manner.  Sandberg and Heisserer don’t over do it.  They throw the scares and jumps only when they need to and leave the rest to the imagination and interpretation of the audience, which is what every great horror film should do.  There are a few moments when the film tends to get a bit campy, but it’s all in good taste.  Everything in this film is superb.  From the technical side  of the filmmaking process to the conceptual creative process.  The execution of the writing, directing and acting are all excellent.

Besides being a horror film showcasing a demonic female entity whenever the lights are turned off, the film is also a brilliant examination of the family dynamics with their distinct problems, the main problem being mental illness.  On a filmmaking level, Lights Out shows how a great horror concept can be done on a low budget minimalist scare without having to go over the top and with loads of exaggeration.  See the film for a genuinely good scare of things that go bump in the night but also for the perils of mental illness and disturbances.

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The Purge: Election Year

The third installment in what is now The Purge TrilogyThe Purge: Election Year, is perhaps the best political, social commentary satire dissecting American culture that we have seen in quite some time.  In fact, the same can be said about all three of the films which were all written and directed by James DeMonaco.  No other American film that I can recall can accurately depict what is currently happening in America at the current moment, particularly the current 2016 political climate.

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The NFFA watches Charlie Roan, played by Elizabeth Mitchell, campaign on ending the purge.

By utilizing the social science fiction dystopian formula, DeMonaco shows us his interpretation of the America of the past few years.  The idea of an actual, annual purge where people can release their anger, hatred and murder on one another for twelve hours on a certain night can be absurd to many, but the theory as to why the purge was created as explained in the third Purge film is somewhat terrifyingly true.

In the style of 1970’s B-Movies and even reminiscent of the early films of John Carpenter, particularly Assault on Precinct 13 and Escape from New York, DeMonaco exposes the America that glorifies violence, hatred, racism and discrimination perpetuated by whites against blacks and latinos, class warfare, the rich vs the poor, corrupt government and government officials, as well as religious fanaticism that disguises violence, fear and hatred in the form of scripture and sermon. All of these negative aspects about America can not only be seen and found in the films, but also on the usual local evening news. The reason for that is because what we see in the films is actually happening. DeMonaco brilliantly turned his cultural knowledge and awareness into brilliant social commentaries and the films are self reflections of America.

Although the first two Purge films deal with all of the social commentary that DeMonaco displays, The Purge: Election Year is the most subversive, in your face and overtly political.  It’s no surprise that the concept of election year was chosen as the premise which was originally rumored.  In The Purge: Election Year, the political, tyrannical establishment and the purge itself is under threat from a female presidential candidate by the name of Charlie Roan, played by Elizabeth Mitchell, as she promises to eliminate the purge altogether if elected president.  Seeing her family killed and surviving a purge night 18 years prior to the events of the election year, Roan says enough is enough and wants to bring an end to the purge.  The elite and corrupt government officials who support the purge are no fan of Roan’s anti-purge rhetoric.  As a result, they plan on assassination attempt on Roan.  The New Founding Fathers of America, or NFFA, explain that the purge has contributed to the prosperity and economic wealth in America.  The people, however, are no fools anymore and know exactly why the purge exists.  The purge exists to eliminate the poor, usually minorities and the homeless so that they won’t continue being a drag and dependent upon the rich.  Sound familiar?  Say what you will, but several thoughts come to mind such as some conspiracy theories (are they really?) about government made diseases created for population control to wipe out certain ethnic, racial groups.

What makes The Purge: Election Year work is that it brings all of the social commentary elements and satire of the first two films and explicitly and subversively reveals itself as a critique on modern American culture.  Some say the films are mere anti-American propaganda.  I, on the other hand, don’t view The Purge films as being anti-American propaganda.  To me the films are meant to be satirical and are a critique on modern American culture.  We must remember, though, that even though DeMonaco is trying to make a statement with The Purge films, the films also have entertainment value.

My love for the cinema – An appreciation

My love for the cinema began at a very young age.  Since I was a child, I have been obsessed and fascinated with cinema and its’ images.  According to my parents, the first film that I ever saw at a movie theatre was the Disney version of Aladdin.  Truth be told, I don’t have any recollection of actually seeing Aladdin at the movie theatre, but I do have fond memories of seeing the film many numerous times during my childhood.  The film that I do, however, have the earliest memories of seeing at the movie theatre as a child is The Flintstones, directed by Brian Levant and starring John Goodman.  As with Aladdin, I also have very fond memories of seeing The Flintstones numerous times as a child.  Even though those two films played a major role in my exposure to the cinema at a young age, the films didn’t necessarily shape and determine my outlook and views of cinema.  As I contemplate upon both of the films, however, I look at both films as being an introduction or gateway as to what the cinema is and what it can be.  As a child, though, how could I know any better?

Cinema is an art form.  To the most traditional film, the most experimental, to the most trashiest and sleaziest, to the most commercial, to me the cinema is the highest and most superior form of artistic expression.  The cinema is full of senses, feelings and emotions conveyed through the use of image and sound.  The cinema is sound and image.  Through the use of sound and imagery, the human condition and experience, emotion and psyche is conveyed and displayed through flashes of imagery.  The cinema can and should encompass all of the elements with which create a living, human experience for us all.  The cinema revolves around life and life revolves around cinema.

To some, the cinema is just mere entertainment, but the cinema is much more than that.  Why must the cinema be subjected to only being mere entertainment?  The cinema is much more deep and complex and has a much greater purpose and meaning.  As civilization has progressed, so to has the cinema.  A question that can be asked, however, is has the cinema progressed as a result of the advancements and progression of our society and civilization or has our society and civilization progressed as a result of cinema? The cinema is a representation of who we once were, who we are now and what we can and may become.

The cinema, as Andre Bazin once said, is more in tune with our desires.  The cinema, more than any other artistic medium and mode of expression can release and fulfill those desires not only to the creator, but also the viewer.  The cinema, unlike any other artistic medium has the ability to create social awareness, transport us into worlds both known and unknown.  The cinema can introduce us to different cultures, to different languages, to different ways and modes of thought and living.  The possibilities of cinema are endless.  One of the most beautiful qualities, if not the most beautiful quality of the cinema is that no matter what film any given viewer is watching, each and every single viewer can come up with their own interpretation of what they have seen on screen.  No matter what the film is or what the viewer has seen, each individual viewer can create their own meaning and interpretations and analysis.  For this to take place, of course, we cannot have an elitist attitude of what is right and what is wrong.  By that I mean that every individual interpretation and analysis is worthy of discussion and examination.

By the cinema being more in tune with our desires, the cinema in turn is a reflection of ourselves, either who we are or who we want to be.  Through the cinema we can become more aware of who we are, discover answers and meanings about ourselves and reach out to our soul.

The Shallows

Summer 2016 so far has turned out to be another summer full of sequels and franchise films (think The Conjuring 2, Finding Dory and Independence Day 2 to name a few).  Typically, films that are released during the summer, otherwise known as summer blockbusters, serve one purpose.  That purpose is to entertain.  Those types of films are popcorn films.  Films that are meant to entertain and that do not offer much intellectual stimulation.  Don’t get me wrong, watching an escapist film is not a bad thing. Most of those films are fun and exciting, but beyond what is seen on the screen, there is not much else.  What we see is what we get.

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Blake Lively as Nancy Adams in The Shallows.

Jaume Collet-Serra’s (Orphan, Non-Stop) latest film, The Shallows, starring Blake Lively, could be this summer’s hidden existentially stimulating film, disguised as a killer shark attack film.  In the film, Blake Lively plays Nancy Adams, a medical school drop out who travels to a secret beach in Mexico while grieving the loss of her mother from cancer.  Although, the film doesn’t offer much backstory, we know that Nancy’s mother died of cancer from photos that Nancy looks at on her phone that are superimposed onto the film screen, taking up about half the screen.  We are not sure, though, when exactly Nancy’s mother died.  That information is never given.  We know that Nancy is a medical school dropout from a conversation that she has with her father through a Face Time style feature on her cellphone.  This conversation with her father is also superimposed on the screen.  Nancy knows of the secret beach because her mother knew the secret.  From the photos on Nancy’s phone, we see that Nancy’s mother would frequent the secret beach numerous times, particularly, when she was pregnant with Nancy.  Again this is seen in the pictures but also from a conversation that Nancy has with two Mexican surfers she encounters in the ocean.

To compete in the summer market, The Shallows was marketed as a shark attack film.  Though the film does feature a killer shark, The Shallows works more as a survival thriller film of a woman trapped in the ocean being stalked by a menacing shark.  The film does not feature a giant, mutant, genetically modified shark, but instead a realistic shark.  What makes this film terrifying is how realistic the film is.  The realism and minimalism is what distinguishes this film as more of a survival film as opposed to a shark attack film.  What Steven Spielberg started with Jaws, The Shallows picks up.  The film does feature several shark attacks, but they are not over the top.  What keeps the film engaging is watching Blake Lively’s character figure out how she will survive and succeed in defeating the shark that keeps stalking her as she’s stranded on a rock in the ocean.  The film is a cat and mouse game, or rather a shark vs woman as Nancy struggles to survive and outlive the shark.  The film becomes a contemplative film of survival and struggle, not only of surviving the shark, but also of Nancy’s existence and meaning in this world.  After Nancy’s mother’s death, Nancy feels as though she doesn’t have much of a purpose to live.  What’s the point of trying to help people if some can’t be saved, she says as she talks to her father about dropping out of medical school.  While Nancy struggles to survive and suffers and existential dilemma on the rock in the ocean, an injured seagull accompanies her.  The seagull can be seen as divine intervention, either that of her mother’s spirit or Nancy’s guardian angel looking after her.  The seagull provides hope for Nancy when all other hope is lost.

The film is exquisitely well crafted and made and beautifully shot.  In the beginning of the film, the film is shot almost as if the film was some sort of promotional travel video selling Mexico (or rather Australia, which the is the actual shooting location) as the ultimate travel location.  This relaxing, carefree tone is changed, however, as the shark enters the picture. The Shallows is highly recommended to cinemagoers who are not only interested in seeing a killer shark movie, but also who want a deeper, existential survival film that offers realism and hope.

The Conjuring 2

I have seen James Wan’s latest film, The Conjuring 2, twice now and already I cannot wait to see it again.  As I attempt to gather my thoughts as I write these remarks on the film, I wonder what exactly it is about the film that has really captured me.  Is it

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Madison Wolfe as Janet Hodgson in The Conjuring 2.

the paranormal, parapsychology aspect (which I am a staunch fan and believer of), the scary imagery, story, realism (the film is based on a true story) or the overall production values of the film?  Besides being a brilliantly made and crafted film utilizing and to an extent improving horror conventions, I would say that all of those aspects make The Conjuring 2 a superb film.

The overall style, tone and mood of The Conjuring 2 is what really intrigues me.  Set in 1977 London, The Conjuring 2 feels like a good old fashioned haunted house horror film that would have been made in the 1970’s.  It doesn’t feel like another modern, cliched, dumb horror movie with the usual gore and over the top violence of modern horror films.  As a result, this can turn off and disappoint a lot of cinema goers.  The same can be said to the same degree about the other great horror film released earlier this year and widely misunderstood, The Witch.  

Right from the beginning, The Conjuring 2 transports you, the viewer, into the paranormal research and investigative world of Ed and Lorraine Warren.  In fact, the film begins in an all too familiar previous case that Ed and Lorraine Warren were involved in.  As the camera slowly pulls back, it reveals that we are in the Amityville house.  We know this, not by the caption we see indicating this, but by seeing the infamous evil eye looking windows of the famous haunted house.  Right from the beginning we are thrown into the paranormal world of Ed and Lorraine Warren, not sure what will happen next.  Throughout the entire film, we eagerly wait to see what terrifying act will unfold in the film.  This is what a great horror film should d0, grab the viewer right from the beginning of the film when they are the most vulnerable and terrify and shock them to the core all throughout the film till the very end.  James Wan gives the audience hell, none of that fake and useless
blood lust.

There are several interpretations of the film, depending on which way of course, the viewer interprets the film.  The film can be seen as a straight-up, simple haunted house horror film, but it can also be seen as a more complex film, a humanistic, spiritual and even religious film.  Yes, the film does contain an overpowering demonic force entity that is plaguing and wrecking havoc upon not only the Hodgson Family in Enfield, England, but also the Warren’s.  The true unseen, almighty force in the film, however, is God.  There is a particular scene in the film where Ed tells Peggy Hodgson that demonic entities like to feed off of stressful situations, which is true for Peg and her children as they struggle through a post-divorce and poverty while living in a council house.  A demonic entity also disrupts Lorraine Warren’s religious faith and beliefs in the form of a blasphemous nun.

In the end, what the film teaches us is that despite being in horrifying, fearful situations where hope is lost, God is around to provide safety, security and comfort.  God defeats all evil and demonic forces that may haunt and plague our lives.  God is the almighty savior.  While The Conjuring 2 is disguised as a haunted house horror film, The Conjuring 2 is also a spiritual, religious film.  Forget about whether who is the ultimate superhero between Captain America, Batman and Superman. God is the ultimate superhero that will save the day, thanks to the assistance of course of Ed and Lorraine Warren.

The Theory of Everything

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde.

The Theory of Everything, directed by James Marsh, explores the complex and moving relationship between world renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane Wilde.  The film begins in 1963 Cambridge as Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) meet for the first time at a party.  As in a true love fairy tale, the two of them exchange looks at each other and quickly seem attracted to one another.  Jane, however, seems the most interested while Stephen appears nervous and awkward, but curious at the beautiful Jane.  This is the beginning of a very complex and “spiritual,” if you will, relationship between Jane and Stephen.

The film portrays a very intricate examination of the relationship between Stephen and Jane.  It appears, however, that Jane is the one that initiated and moved the relationship forward.  That would seem accurate as Stephen’s health would deteriorate due to his diagnoses of Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Stephen would become more and more dependent of Jane and as the film progresses, we see the difficulties that arise because of this.  It’s very sad and moving to see both Jane and Stephen try to keep a healthy and stable relationship, but as we may have known, the relationship would deteriorate as Stephen’s health.

Although the film is based on Jane Hawking’s memior, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the film does have some inaccuracies, as most biographical films do, such as the fact that Stephen and Jane began dating after Stephen was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Overall, the film displays a more realistic view of a moving relationship between a man and a woman by showing the difficulties and problems that arise in a relationship that seemed destined to last to infinity.