It Follows — Writer/director David Robert Mitchell proves himself a horror movie natural with It Follows, a terrifying “Sex = Death” thriller. The overwhelming sensory experience on display in this movie is enough to distract from the thinness of its premise, which revolves around a young woman named Jay (the excellent Maika Monroe) being inadvertently passed a curse that has a shape-shifting ghost stalk her. The curse is transmitted sexually, and whoever is the most recent recipient needs to pass it on before the ghost catches up with them. It’s the slowness of the specter that is truly chilling, especially when combined with Dissasterpeace’s relentless, pulsating score. The movie initially toys with misogynistic audience expectations, sacrificing a barely-clothed young woman after watching her being stalked and then having Jay’s date drug her and tie her up in her underwear after sex to “warn” her about the ghost. Predatory men may not be the culprits on screen this time around, but Mitchell’s camera still uncomfortably fetishizes the young female characters’ bodies in those scenes. Thankfully the movie moves past it, though, and unfolds in ways that are wickedly entertaining and genuinely scary. Grade: B- Insurgent — The second entry in the Divergent series feels more alive than the stale, uneven first one. Insurgent trades in the half-assed, uninteresting world-building of the series debut for a story that is often visceral and compelling, as teen messiah Tris (Shailene Woodley) continues to fight back against the totalitarian, Kate Winslet-led regime. It helps greatly that Winslet actually looks like she wants to be here this time around, and the distilled chill of her performance blends well with the raw energy Woodley brings to her own role. Much of this installment revolves around Tris assembling a rebel army and completing a self-sacrificing series of grueling challenges for the dictator’s benefit (don’t call them Hunger Games). Director Robert Schwentke brings an urgency to the action sequences that is more compelling than anything else I’ve seen in a recent teen dystopia movie, though Insurgent’s world ultimately feels just as generic and unimaginative as that of its predecessor and those in The Hunger Games and The Giver. Grade: C+ Hard to Be a God — It is a great testament to this movie’s power to say that I now feel desensitized to the grossness of human body fluids. Hard to Be a God, a decades-long passion project of the late Russian director Aleksey German, is the filthiest feeling movie I’ve seen in years, maybe ever. Set on Araknar, a planet similar to Earth that is experiencing its own Middle Ages, Hard to Be a God tells the story of scientists from our planet who were sent there to study it and then become deities. If the movie had not explained that in its opening narration, I’m not sure I would have picked that all up, though. German’s camera is so embedded in the feelings of this world, of its eternal wetness and clogged sinuses, that narrative all but disappears. Araknar is in the midst of a violent rebellion where all intellectuals are being publicly executed. The movie’s black-and-white images are jaw-dropping and disgusting at the same time; from the get-go, German’s bizarre three-hour epic of depravity is thick with sludge, snot and shit. It captures human cruelty in a ferociously close proximity and with such an abundance of mind-twisting visual information that it’s exhausting to sit through and process in one viewing. I’d watch it again in a heartbeat, though. Grade: A-
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 – The premiere dystopian young adult franchise continues its gradual steps forward in quality in this third installment, which is slightly more above average than the second. In Mockingjay Part 1, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is at the center of a propaganda machine for a rebel group attempting to overthrow the sinister, Donald Sutherland-led central government.
This set-up, whether intentional or not, makes this third Hunger Games at times feel like a commentary on franchise filmmaking. The rebellion’s leaders critique Katniss’ blank, disinterested performance in the propaganda in the same way Lawrence was picked apart for her apathy in the first film (to her credit she has vastly stepped up her game since then). That’s the most interesting thing about Mockingjay, aside from seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore share the screen as those scheming rebel leaders. Director Francis Lawrence choreographs the uprising with just enough ferocity to make it resonate while still restraining it enough for a PG-13 rating. Grade: C+