Back Rowe Reviews
Real Time Movie Reviews from the Back Row of a Theater

Horror

Overlord (R)

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Directed by: Julius Avery
Starring: Jovan Adepo
November 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


They say honesty is the best policy. In that case, I need to be honest from the start…this isn’t my kind of movie. But if I’m being totally honest, I feel like I’ve been the victim of a bait and switch. When I signed up to review this movie, I thought Overlord, the J.J. Abrams produced WWII tale, was going to be a straightforward action movie. Then I saw the trailer and thought, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?” The movie’s premise is straightforward…a group of American soldiers parachute into France on the eve of D-Day. Their objective is simple; sneak into a French village under the cover of darkness and take out the radio tower that sits atop a church building. However, when the American soldiers infiltrate the church, they discover many living and dead people who’ve been mutated by evil alchemy in a makeshift dungeon. To accomplish their mission, the American troops must engage in a series of gun battles with Nazis while evading the fast-moving zombies that lurk in the claustrophobic corridors of the church. From that brief description of the story, you’ve guessed right that Overlord is a mash-up of Saving Private Ryan and I Am Legend. Although the story has some semblance of a plot, the novelty of its premise wears thin around the movie’s midpoint. Writers Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith weave their paltry plot among the tapestry of overblown action sequences and zombie brawls. Overlord is directed by Julius Avery, a virtual unknown who has directed only one other feature-length film. The cast is populated with newcomers, bit players, and journeyman character actors with nary a star among the bunch. Other than the intrigue of its story, Abrams’ name is the movie’s only real draw. The movie’s theme is as obvious as its premise: the dangers of playing God. Though taken to unrealistic extremes, you can totally see how Hitler would sanction such a diabolical plan to create super-soldiers. The “1,000 Years of the Reich” program is an interesting concept, but the zombie subplot is flagrant revisionist history and is only in the story to provide thrills and chills for the audience. Overlord has an excessive amount of violence, swearing and disturbing images. Aside from its myriad shoot-outs between Nazis and American forces, the movie also contains a graphic torture scene and two attempted rapes. We catch glimpses of disfigured and mutated humans inside the cells in the church’s basement. The surgery room contains mutilated cadavers and several experiments gone wrong, like a talking woman who has only a head and spinal column (which is much more macabre than the initial image of the bodiless Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact). The mutation process, when human subjects are turned into zombies, is quite hideous. Another horrific scene is when corpses (failed experiments) are carted out of the church, dumped into a ditch and incinerated with a flamethrower. Those with a weak stomach have been forewarned. One area of the movie that’s commendable is its production. From the opening CG shot of the Allied fleet to the pyrotechnics and FX, to the costumes and creature makeup, Overlord is a well-crafted movie. It’s to Avery’s credit that he only sparingly resorts to standard horror movie gimmicks, like characters suddenly appearing in front of the camera to startle the audience. In the final analysis, Overlord is a war/horror hybrid that’s unabashedly graphic. From start to finish, the movie is gratuitous for the sake of being gratuitous. Though Overlord is a unique film, it certainly isn’t a great one.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4

The Meg (PG-13)

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Directed by: Jon Turteltaub
Starring: Jason Statham
August 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


“There’s always a bigger fish.” – Qui-Gon Jinn, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

Qui-Gon’s wry comment is perfectly illustrated by one of the movie posters for
The Meg, the new deep sea thriller from director Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure), which depicts the terrifying tableau of a diver swimming toward the surface who is being pursued by a great white shark which is stalked by a massive megalodon (technically, carcharodon megalodon, a supposedly extinct mega-shark that serves as the movie’s ubiquitous threat). Simply put, it’s eat or be eaten out on the open water. Our “supersize” mentality has permeated every segment of society, ranging from value meals to movie monsters. This is particularly true of thriller franchises like Jurassic Park where the T-Rex was replaced by the Spinosaurus, which was supplanted by the Indominus Rex which was superseded by the latest bigger/faster hybrid introduced in the recent Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (which I won’t spoil in case you haven’t seen it yet). Instead of starting off with a great white shark and working up to a larger predator, the movie goes right to its supersized antagonist, the megalodon. The movie opens with an ill-fated rescue mission, where Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) makes a difficult judgment call that condemns half his crew to a watery grave after the ship is attacked by what he later describes as a 70-foot creature. Five years later, after losing his career and marriage, Jonas is a guilt-stricken alcoholic who has sworn off diving for the rest of his life. Jonas’ pity party is interrupted when pal Mac (Cliff Curtis) and Mana One underwater station supervisor Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao) show up to enlist his help on another rescue mission. Jonas is adamant about not getting involved until Mac reveals the identity of the person trapped inside the disabled submersible, which is rapidly running out of air…Jonas’ ex-wife. And I’ll give you one guess as to what damaged the sub and lies in wait for Jonas at the bottom of the ocean. As would be expected for a summer creature feature, the movie is packed to the gunnels with stock characters. Statham is the reluctant hero. Bingbing Li is the love interest. Rainn Wilson is the unscrupulous business tycoon with no respect for people and no reverence for nature. Ruby Rose is the uber-smart techie. Page Kennedy is the comic relief. Robert Taylor (who is solid as usual, but seems miscast here) is the cool under fire doctor. Shuya Sophia Cai steals the show as precocious youngster, Meiying. The real star of the show, of course, is the giant shark. The sheer immensity of the creature is breathtaking. And yet, even though the leviathan is undeniably imposing, there’s something lacking in this terror from the deep…some aspect that prevents it from inducing the same level of bloodcurdling dread that the violently thrashing creatures showcased in earlier shark movies did to a superlative degree. Maybe it has something to do with the way Turteltaub frames the super-shark. Or maybe it’s the photo-realistic CGI that’s so finely rendered that it leaves nothing to the imagination. Say what you will about Steven Spielberg’s animatronic shark in Jaws (1975), it was downright terrifying. The less-than-impressive title creature leaves us with a lingering question: how is it possible that something so gigantic, so powerful, and so quick can be so unconvincing? One of the major reasons why the megalodon fails to frighten is that the story, written by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (based on the novel MEG: A Novel of Deep Terror by Steve Alten), has no teeth. The story is highly imitative of the Jaws series and the many cheap knockoffs it inspired: Deep Blue Sea (1999), Megalodon (2002), Sharknado (2013) and The Shallows (2016), to name just a few. With the subgenre’s tropes so well-defined at this point, it’s almost impossible to make a shark attack film without being derivative, and The Meg is no exception. The scene where the giant fish approaches the teeming Chinese beach is reminiscent of the initial shark sighting at the beach on Amity Island in the first Jaws film. Someone needs to inform the writers that humans don’t taste good to sharks, and that all the people in the water would only serve as an appetizer to the colossal creature. Plus, as one scene slyly visualizes, clothing, snorkels, flippers, etc get lodged in between the megalodon’s massive teeth…and there’s no such thing as shark floss. Though the crew pursues the megalodon in a big boat, it turns out they need an even bigger one, which, of course, is a tip of the hat to the famous line in the first Jaws movie. Mana One station is a high-tech, less commercial version of SeaWorld Orlando’s underwater tunnels in Jaws 3-D (1983). Also, there’s more than a passing resemblance between Jonas firing a spear-like weapon with a tracker at the whale-sized shark and Captain Ahab hurling a harpoon at the white whale in Moby-Dick. Suffice it to say, the list of comparisons between The Meg and other shark films is expansive. The one thing the story does right is pacing. The ratio of character beats to action scenes is surprisingly well-balanced for a horror/thriller flick. In the end, The Meg is a disappointing effort that feels more like a big budget Syfy channel movie than a major studio tentpole. Even when characters are face-to-face with the megalodon, the movie has a strange lack of peril. Still, The Meg delivers exactly what it promises…a summer popcorn flick that boasts a generous number of adrenalin-pumping chases and close calls with rows and rows or razor-sharp teeth. So, will there be a Meg 2 and if so, how will they outdo the mega-shark in this film? Or, to put it a different way, how can you supersize a megalodon?

Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

A Quiet Place (PG-13)

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Directed by: John Krasinski
Starring: Emily Blunt
April 2018


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

A family struggles to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where making the slightest noise can attract the attention of carnivorous creatures.

The Evaluation:

Normally a movie inundated with this much hype would collapse under the weight of the insurmountable expectations placed upon it. Since the trailer looked so intriguing, it comes as a great relief that
A Quiet Place delivers on its promise—it’s a thought-provoking, spine-tingling good time. John Krasinski does triple duty (actor, writer and director) on this horror/thriller/sci-fi hybrid. The linchpin to the film’s success is its premise. In a dystopian world, aliens have invaded Earth and wiped out a large percentage of the human population. The good news is that the creatures are blind. The bad news is that they have super-sensitive hearing. To safeguard against being attacked, the Abbott family learns to communicate by speaking in hushed tones or using sign language. Though the movie is disciplined at following the strictures of its self-imposed rules, the concept certainly has its fair share of nitpicks. First, how is it possible to run a farm without making any noise? Also, when approaching humans, wouldn’t the creatures hear breathing, however controlled, or a rapidly beating heart (yes, what we learn during the waterfall scene significantly weakens this argument, but the criticism holds up when the creatures are at close range)? Raising kids under such strict conditions would be a monumental task—no frolicking in the front yard or roughhousing in the living room. And, as if that wasn’t hard enough, how in the world would you bring up a baby in such an environment (a similar grievance was raised by fans of The Walking Dead over Rick’s baby, Judith, being raised during the zombie apocalypse)? As the creature closes in on Blunt and her baby, and later, Blunt and her daughter, it can’t quite locate the humans in either instance. So then, are we to believe that these blind creatures also have no sense of smell? These minor gripes are forgivable. What mars the movie most is the climactic sacrifice, which could’ve been prevented if one of the characters had been as quick on the uptake as the audience. Fortunately, this is the movie’s only instance of flaccid plotting. There are many parallels between this film and Signs (2002). Aside from both movies featuring an alien invasion storyline, cornfield encounter and farmhouse showdown, the aliens in both movies have one fatal weakness—a plot device borrowed from the original The War of the Worlds (1953). Also pilfered from Worlds is the “aliens travel in trios” concept, which is particularly relevant here since the minimum number of points required to triangulate the location of a sound is three. Though the movie’s creatures are reminiscent of the ones in Alien (1979), they do have a unique design (See: Visual FX). Despite its many similarities to other horror films, Quiet features one of the most clever and original concepts in the history of the genre. So, will this Signs meets Aliens post-apocalyptic chiller stand the test of time? Time will tell. One thing’s for certain, in Krasinski’s world, everyone can hear you scream.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Krasinski’s craft is impeccable—he channels Hitchcock and Shyamalan to great effect. Some of the moments Krasinski creates are utterly terrifying, like the baby in the basement sequence.

Acting- Emily Blunt mesmerizes in a physically demanding role—she had to stand in water for a good portion of the movie. Blunt effectively conveys a range of emotions without speaking for most of the movie. Likewise, Krasinski delivers a marvelously measured performance—the scene where he slowly raises his finger to his lips, signaling others to remain silent, will go down as an iconic image in cinema history. He’s come a long way from his days as Jim Halpert on The Office. The child actors (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe) also do excellent work in challenging, largely non-speaking roles.

Story- A difficult screenplay to write and execute, but handled with expert skill by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck and Krasinski. With a dearth of dialog, most of the action had to be described in detail in the script or storyboarded.

Costumes/Make-up- Functional and appropriate for the world the characters live in.

Cinematography- Charlotte Bruus Christensen does a superb job of capturing the pastoral landscape and the action sequences inside and outside the farmhouse. There are many memorable scenes in the movie, particularly those involving the bridge, silos, fields and basement. The sweeping shots atop the silos help to establish the terrain and atmosphere of the agrarian world the characters have been relegated to. The rows of white or red lights also make a striking visual.

Music- The film’s eerie mood is further enhanced by Marco Beltrami’s ethereal score which, like the characters for most of the movie, goes largely unnoticed.

Visual FX- Truly astounding creature FX—the next iteration of the Alien creature is jaw-dropping, literally. The design of the creature’s malleable head is ingenious and sets up the movie’s most memorable visual during the climactic confrontation. These FX should be a shoo-in for an Oscar nod.

Production Values- Certainly not a lavish production, since most of the movie takes place in or around the farmhouse. However, the set design for the plundered general store, work station inside the basement and silos is truly exceptional.

Movie Magic- Off the charts. This is a wholly immersive experience that draws you into the movie’s terrifying reality and thoroughly enthralls you with one thrilling sequence after the next. Quiet is a high art horror flick that will be certified as an instant classic.

Rating: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

The Shape of Water (R)

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Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Sally Hawkins
December 2017


Warning! This is NOT a movie review. This is a critique of the film. Intended to initiate a dialogue, the following analysis explores various aspects of the film and may contain spoilers. Views are my own and elaborate on comments that were originally tweeted in real time from the back row of a movie theater
@BackRoweReviews. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!


The Premise:

While American and Russian agents seek to exploit a recently discovered aquatic life form for their own purposes, a lonely mute woman falls in love with the creature.

The Evaluation:

Del Toro, who brought us
Pan’s Labyrinth, two Hellboy films and Pacific Rim, has perfected his craft with The Shape of Water (easily one of the most evocative movie titles ever), a Cold War, trans-species love story told through a skewed filter and delivered with a visual brilliance nearly unparalleled in recent cinema history. So let’s dive right in…Shape has many layers. If you think you’ve figured out what’s going on in the film’s text, there’s always the subtext to consider. The movie uses symbolism, thematic echoes, unexpected reverses, inverted stereotypes and modern parallels to great advantage. One conspicuous bit of symbolism involves eggs. Eliza Esposito (Sally Hawkins) uses an egg timer (in the shape of an egg) when boiling eggs and timing her activities in the bathtub, which also deals with reproduction (female eggs). When Eliza makes first contact with the creature, she gives it a hard-boiled egg as a gesture of friendship. Later, when she copulates with the dubiously compatible creature, Eliza consummates (literally and figuratively) the egg subplot, since having her physical needs met by another has freed Eliza from her tub prison (more symbolism). Eliza’s water habitat is the tub; the creature’s water habitats are the tube and pond. Eliza and the creature merge in three other bodies of water: her tub, her flooded bathroom and the bay of the ocean. Before we leave the egg timer metaphor, it’s worth mentioning that Eliza’s regimented existence is a reflection of our own in many respects, since daily routines and responsibilities (chores, shopping, cooking, working, paying bills, etc) can be their own special form of incarceration. Ironically, Eliza is just as much a prisoner as the creature is—freeing the creature will free her from her self-imposed prison of loneliness. There’s overt symbolism in the various reactions to the creature…when faced with the unknown, some will be filled with curiosity and others with fear (fight or flight). The conservative vs. liberal reactions to the creature are fairly transparent (and oversimplified) and reveal a clear bias against one of those political worldviews. Also clear is the movie’s pro-Russia, anti-America sentiment, which turns the Cold War on its head. American agents (particularly Michael Shannon’s Colonel Strickland) are loud, crass and aggressive, while the Russian agent (brilliantly underplayed by Michael Stuhlbarg, who, along with Shannon, was a cast member of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is reserved, calculated and sympathetic toward the creature. Strickland’s racist, nationalist, isolationist agenda is abhorrent and is a little too on-the-nose in its portrayal of adherents of the political party in question. Strickland is an angry man who’s in a loveless marriage; contrast his angry and messy love-making with the beautiful bathroom coitus between Eliza and the creature. Strickland also makes inappropriate advances toward Eliza, racist comments about Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) and tortures the creature in his own, private Guantanamo (another political parallel). When the creature bites off Strickland’s fingers, the military man is more concerned with retrieving his severed digits than his wedding ring. His ring, and marriage by extension, isn’t precious to him (LOTR’s Gollum in reverse). All of this reveals Strickland, not the creature, as the movie’s bona fide monster. One curious side story involves Giles’ (Richard Jenkins) desire to matter in a world that’s passed him by. Giles painfully learns that he’s lived past his shelf date relationally (his attempts at wooing a young waiter implode) and occupationally (the sensibilities of his ad artwork have become outdated). This subplot touches on the ageism that exists in today’s job market and how marketing typically targets the youth of our society. As Eliza’s friend/neighbor/mentor, Giles serves a key role in the plot to extricate the creature. The message is clear; everyone has a part to play in the unfolding human drama. Though there are deeper zones to be explored in the film, this brief overview of the movie’s many layers of meaning should suffice in recommending it as an instant classic…and frontrunner for Best Picture.

The Breakdown:

Directing- Del Toro has delivered a visual masterpiece, which effectively combines a Cold War thriller with a fantasy romance. The formalism on display here is truly staggering.

Acting- The eclectic cast of top-tier performers (Shannon, Stuhlbarg, Jenkins, Spencer, David Hewlett and the brilliant Doug Jones) are completely upstaged by Hawkins’ mesmerizing, deeply-affecting portrayal of the lonely, lovelorn lead character.

Story- The script by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor is equal parts fantastical, historical, meaningful and magical. The allusions to classical Hollywood movies are a nice touch; they tangibly tap into feelings of nostalgia for that era. When taken at face value, Shape is just a fantasy film. However, the story’s many aspects contain plot points that the viewer might not even be aware of—which makes the film such an enjoyable, and immersive, experience.

Costumes/Make-up- The period appropriate costumes are well designed. The style of the creature’s costume hearkens back to the titular monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and is brilliantly realized.

Cinematography- While it’s del Toro’s vision that makes the film cohere, it’s Dan Laustsen’s brilliant framing that provides much of the movie’s visual wonder and beauty. Who will ever forget the flooded bathroom love scene?

Music- Another exceptional score by Alexandre Desplat. Many of the cues written for Eliza’s character are whimsical and sublime. The underwater passages, where several flutes combine to produce an otherworldly effect, are moody and moving.

Visual FX- Other than the underwater scenes there are very few visual effects in the movie.

Production Values- Top-notch. Real world elements (with historically accurate detail) are seamlessly juxtaposed with fantastical elements (and even flourishes of the absurd like the refrigerator filled with slices of Key lime pie) to forge a wholly original world.

Movie Magic- Immeasurable. The brilliant visuals, pitch-perfect performances, superlative directing, affecting accompaniment, multivalent story and period appropriate production elements all make for an unforgettable viewing experience.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars

Life (R)

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Directed by: Daniel Espinosa
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal
March 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

It’s very tempting to call Life a cheap knockoff of Alien and just leave it at that. Actually, Life pilfers from other sci-fi movies too, like the recent Passengers. Both films open with a meteor shower wreaking havoc on a spaceship and end with one male and one female survivor who must save that ship and humanity as we know it. Granted, what lies between those narrative bookends is divergent to the extreme. The Alien comparison is more apropos since the bulk of Life’s story deals with a too strong, too fast and too smart creature that slinks about the ship picking off one cardboard character at a time. Like so many sci-fi and horror creature features these days, there’s no emotional impact when characters die because we have no personal connection to them—a failure on the part of the writers to customize personality traits and construct compelling back stories. But character development isn’t the only area of the movie where screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were derelict. Plot holes large enough to fly a Soyuz spacecraft through bedevil a story that already has problems with pitch and yaw thanks to its derivative storyline and plot contrivances. These contrivances, designed to keep the thrills coming at a rapid pace, are so daft they make you want to throw your bucket of popcorn at the movie screen. Chief among these inanities is the poorly designed exhaust manifolds (or some other such technobabble) on the ship’s thrusters. The creature will enter the ship unless the crew engages the thrusters to flush it out of the engines, but commencing a burn will put the ship on a collision course with Earth’s atmosphere. So the lesser of two evils is to let the creature back into the ship where they hope to kill it, despite the fact that they didn’t even come close to doing so earlier. Utter tripe! The creature design and FX that brought it to life are absolutely spectacular. As such, the creature’s greatest flaw doesn’t come from the drawing board but from the script. Rhett and Wernick, along with director Daniel Espinosa, made the creature too indestructible. The fact that a Martian creature can thrive in an oxygen environment is dubious from the start, but when that squid-like blob can outsmart humans at every turn…on their own turf? C’mon! At the very least, you’d expect the stellar cast to be able to pull the story out of its tailspin, but due to the poorly drawn characterizations, such is not the case. The fact that Ryan Reynolds’ wise-cracking character (a slightly toned down version of the titular antihero in Deadpool) can never keep his mouth shut is ultimately his undoing. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rebecca Ferguson make the most of what they’re given, which isn’t much aside from running and shouting. One of the only things the film gets right is that the black guy (Ariyon Bakare) isn’t the first character to die. However, this one eschewed stereotype doesn’t make up for the virtual procession of tired thriller tropes employed by the movie. Well, there you have it—this is Life or something like it. Actually, due to its hunter/hunted plot, this movie should’ve been called Death. Unless you’re pulling for the Martian creature, in which case the current title works just fine.

Split (PG-13)

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Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: James McAvoy
January 2017

What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Split is a devilishly deceptive film. It lures us into thinking it’s a standard Kiss the Girls (1997) style female abduction story and then morphs into a cognitively complex character study that delves into the darkly demented, spiritually skewed aspects of mental illness. The film wastes no time in initiating its plot as Kevin Crumb (James McAvoy in a turn for the ages) jumps into a car with three teen girls—Casey Cooke (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire Benoit (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula)—sprays them in the face with Mace and whisks them away to his dingy underground lair. We soon discover that Kevin has dissociative identity disorder. We also quickly discern that Casey can adapt to Kevin’s shifting personalities, an ability that distinguishes her from the other prisoners and equips her with the wherewithal to make it out of the catacombs alive. The film splits its time between Kevin and Casey, revealing insightful bits of their back stories in flashback sequences, and adroitly graduates their interactions from a war of wills to a dance of the wounded…whereas Casey’s scars are physical and emotional, Kevin’s are psychological. As such, there’s an unspoken understanding that exists between these characters since they both know what it means to be deeply hurt by a family member. Even though we can’t justify Kevin’s actions, we can have sympathy for him since his mother’s controlling nature laid the foundation for his mental illness. What we can’t excuse, however, is what Uncle John (Brad William Henke) did to young Casey (Izzie Coffey) out in the woods…I firmly believe that there’s a special place in hell for such individuals. This prompts a topical, hypothetical question: what’s worse, a heinous crime committed by someone with a mental illness or an ostensibly sane person? One of the movie’s ongoing themes, a variation of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” ideology, is revealed in its hunter/hunted subplot. Preteen Casey learns how to hunt a deer in one of her flashback sequences and Kevin/The Beast stalks his three captives during the movie’s X-Files style climax. Even more disturbing than the movie’s brief images of cannibalism, however, is its insidious intimation that “the broken are the more evolved” members of our species. That notion is fleshed out by another of the film’s unsettling lines, “What if they’re more than us?” The implication here, of course, is that people with multiple personalities are superior to those with just one—as if they possess superpowers like the mutants in the X-Men films (incidentally, McAvoy stars as Professor X in that franchise’s First Class movies). Just as the definition of gender has broadened to include a variety of mental/physical/sexual types in recent years (Facebook now offers 56 gender options to choose from when creating a profile and the January 2017 National Geographic cover article on the Gender Revolution presents its own codified gender matrix), the DSM has also expanded to include many new kinds of mental illnesses. So then, has the mainstreaming of a variety of sexual identities opened the door to the acceptance of new mental illnesses, and is there a connection between the two? In our society of broken families, fractured realities and shifting gender identities, are individuals with split personalities the wave of the future, and if so, how will we treat them and coexist with them? Not only has this seismic shift in the mental health landscape opened up a whole new classification of Civil Rights, it has also anticipated serious legal complications, i.e., can Kevin/The Beast be arrested for eviscerating his victims since that behavior is part of his nature? Kevin’s psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), asks a poignant question in relation to Kevin’s case: “Is there a limit to what a human being can become?” Or, to put it a different way, is there a nadir to the depths of human depravity and derangement? With so much to mull over here, it’s clear that Split isn’t your standard issue thriller. Just as Kevin’s numerous alternate personas are stratified in a dysfunctional hierarchy, the movie itself contains many layers of meaning which have far-reaching ramifications for the human condition. Despite the occasional nitpick, i.e., psychiatrists don’t make house calls, Split is a thoroughly captivating yarn and comes complete with eerie, skin-crawling direction by Shyamalan, a mesmerizing lead performance by McAvoy and (Spoiler Alert) one of the finest stunt cameos/Easter eggs in cinema history with the brief appearance of Bruce Willis, whose one line links this film with Unbreakable (2000). Split qualifies as a considerable comeback for Shyamalan, who suffered an ignominious drought during his The Village (2004) through The Last Airbender (2010) years. Due to its performances and shocking subject matter, Split is sure to be a water cooler film…whether or not it’s a box office hit remains to be seen. Well, I’d love to chat more about this film but it’s time for me to split.

World War Z (PG-13)

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Directed by: Marc Forster
Starring: Brad Pitt
June 2013

This review was originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater and appears @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. The original tweets appear in black, while follow-up comments appear in red. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. All ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!

Pasted Graphic 5

Hopefully the movie will be more watchable than the book is readable.
Written by Max Brooks, the book is an oral history of the outbreak and subsequent war on zombies. The “narrative” consists of one character interviewing eyewitnesses to zombie activities in various regions around the globe. I struggled to get through the first fifty pages at which point I promptly shelved the book, where it now sits nestled under a blanket of dust. Maybe since I killed and buried the book it will rise up some day in a mutated form and exact its revenge upon me. Actually, that would be more exciting than the book itself.

Drafting behind a trash truck...smart move.

12 seconds to zombie time.
A very heads-up move by Pitt’s character…amazing presence of mind amid the tumult.

The last place I’d want to be stuck in a zombie apocalypse...Newark.

“Movement is life.”
As opposed to staying in one place when you’re lost.

Roof-top rescue is heart-pounding.
…but was savagely spoiled in the trailer.

Speech on the plane about “serial killer” is utterly fascinating.
One of my favorite scenes in the film. Great dialog and a way of looking at the world that really broadsided me.

You’ve heard not to run with scissors. Same is true for a gun.

A memorable cameo by David Morse.
Clearly his character’s never heard of 1-800-DENTIST.

In the history of poorly timed phone calls...
This is a spoiler, but if you’ve seen the movie you know exactly when this occurs.

The tenth man of Jerusalem. Yep, we’re globe-trotting.

Zombie ladder is absolutely frightening.

You thought snakes on a plane were dangerous, how about the undead?

B wing...into the lion’s den.

Teeth chattering is a bit much.

Final analysis: An effective blend of
Contagion and I Am Legend.

Good action and a fairly airtight plot.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars. Worth seeing if you can abide zombies.
Otherwise, there’s bound to be lighter fare in an adjoining theater.

This film will probably disappoint audience members expecting all-out action…this is a thinking person’s zombie film. The insult to injury here is that most of the movie’s action sequences are teased in the trailer, so the movie can seem familiar even while watching it for the first time (curse you movie trailers!). However, WWZ is a pleasant surprise because the plot is smart and taut and the performances are well-suited to the alternating exposition/action story line. Although classifying WWZ as a high art zombie film would be a misnomer, it will go down as a serious and scientifically feasible outbreak movie.

Check out my Twitter run for
#LearnFromMyMistake to read an amusing story of what happened to me at the theater the night I watched this movie.

AVP: Alien vs. Predator (PG-13)

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Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Sanaa Lathan
August 2004

“Lots of Hype, Not Much Bite”


“Whoever wins, we loose.” The movie’s slogan refers to the humans in the movie, but can just as easily apply to those in the audience…especially if you’ve paid full price. Alien vs. Predator, or AVP, is a lackluster affair that creates a patchwork plot from the highlight reels of the Alien and Predator series. There’s little innovation here, just a few new faces, namely adventurer, Alexa Woods (Sanaa Lathan) and wealthy industrialist, Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) and some updated special effects.

A plot device that runs through both series is that all the secondary characters get thrashed and one main character, somehow, escapes certain death. Be it Sigourney, Ah-nold, or Danny, they all found a way to beat their extra-terrestrial nemeses and in some cases, earned their respect along the way (and in Sigourney’s case, held on just long enough to make a sequel).

AVP’s premise is simple: Weyland discovers an ancient temple beneath the frozen surface in Antarctica. Before his drill team arrives, they discover a shaft has already been cut down to the temple (that should be their first clue to leave the premises). Upon entering the ancient remains, the team learns two valuable bits of information: 1, there’s an Alien hatchery in one of the chambers and 2, the Predators have arrived to do some hunting. The twist: the humans unwittingly steal the Predator’s special weapons, and without them, the Aliens just might be able to defeat the Predators and overrun the earth (oh no).

The story employs a cheesy gimmick (just one, you ask?) with the labyrinthine halls inside the temple; the chambers keep shifting like a giant Rubik’s Cube, separating characters and throwing some right into the path of razor-sharp incisors. The temple reconfigures every ten minutes, which is convenient since that’s the rate at which the humans are being slaughtered. The character development is weak for one reason, the writers don’t want the audience to become too attached, because they’re all gonna’ die anyway.

A motto that’s tossed around too often, and much too frivolously, is, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The Predators have butt-ugly mugs and fight like members of an intergalactic gang, but they do have a code of honor: they won’t kill Weyland because he’s dying of a fatal illness and they show their respect to Woods after she helps kill Big Mama Alien (the trophy ceremony is virtually identical to the one in
Predator 2).

Beyond the abysmal plot, there’s nothing redeeming about the movie, save for the brief camaraderie between human and Predator, which brings up an unanswered question: are we friends with the Predators now? Are the Predators getting soft or is it just the screenwriters?

Rating: 2

Godsend (PG-13)

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Directed by: Nick Hamm
Starring: Robert De Niro
April 2004

“Disturbing for the Sake of Being Disturbing”


This is a hard movie to rate. On the one hand, Godsend is an excellent movie when it comes to acting, directing and screenwriting. However, it’s so dark and disturbing, and devoid of any kind of virtue or edification, that the natural tendency is to grade down. This isn’t the first time a movie of this genre has been produced, and there certainly have been finer examples, (i.e. The Sixth Sense and What Lies Beneath), but the fresh angle here is the salient topic of cloning and genetic manipulation.

If there’s any saving grace to
Godsend, it’s that it paints a graphic picture of the potential terrors that await us as scientists continue flirting with genetics. Whereas Jurassic Park was frightening because it revealed the dangers of cloning dinosaurs, Godsend is even more terrifying because it deals with re-creating a human being.

Here’s the scenario: Paul and Jessie Duncan (Greg Kinnear and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) loose their eight-year-old son, Adam (Cameron Bright), in a car accident. At Adam’s funeral, Dr. Richard Wells (Robert DeNiro), approaches the Duncan family and offers them a chance to get Adam back through a cell cloning process he has recently perfected. Reticent at first, the Duncan’s break down and ultimately agree to go through with the process. Eight years later, after the second Adam (the symbolism is as subtle as a 2X4 to the head) grows past the experiences of his predecessor, new memories and behaviors begin to emerge. It’s later discovered that the new personality comes from Dr. Wells’ deceased son—Wells introduced some of his son’s D.N.A. into Adam’s—who just happened to be homicidal and suicidal (he burned a school to the ground around him along with other students and teachers). The ending doesn’t really resolve anything and leaves everything wide open to individual interpretation, making it the weakest link in an otherwise thought-provoking script.

The first half of the movie is a bit slow, but does a good job of painting the main characters, their dilemma and their fateful choice. But, the second half of the film is little more than a horror movie in the vein of
Bad Seed or The Good Son. Godsend services the audience by presenting a human cloning experiment gone horribly wrong, but it does a disservice by remaining morally ambiguous—presenting a case where cloning was bad “in this instance” because of D.N.A. tampering. It’s one thing to clone an animal and quite another to clone a human, or to put it a different way, we can clone a body, but can we clone a soul? This is the kind of moral/religious question the movie conveniently avoids, and maybe the safer route is the better one—after all, it’s just a movie.

Godsend is anything but, and manufactures goose bumps with haunting dream sequences, musical flourishes and things that jump at the camera. It’s a wild ride, but certainly isn’t for the faint of heart.

Rating: 2 1/2

The Ring (PG-13)

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Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Starring: Naomi Watts
October 2002

The Ring
was a disturbing film that began with a far-fetched scenario and ended with a resounding, “Huh?” Riddled with horror gimmicks and gaping plot holes, the most frightening aspect of The Ring was that it made it to the big screen.

Rating: 2