Sex Monsters, Dogs, and Hipsters Will Kill Us All
By Johnny Pomatto
It may be difficult to find a movie screen this weekend that isn’t playing FURIOUS 7, but for those of you who don’t wish to see fast cars go vroom vroom, here are some alternate suggestions, all of which get my personal recommendation.
The bar for horror movies is set pretty low these days. Usually the most disposable of genres, they generally adhere to a simple cut and paste template of false alarms and jumps, and even if the trailers haven’t spoiled every plot twist and grisly death, one’s enjoyment might not even be sustained past the first few scares. But something exciting is happening in the horror movie genre right now, and filmmakers are discovering that it’s not the jolts and jumps that really scare us, it’s the waiting for them to happen. Much like last year’s outstanding “The Babadook,” David Robert Mitchell’s new film, IT FOLLOWS, is a fine addition to the new genre, Dread Horror.
One doesn’t need to allow any huge thing to happen in a film like this, because our fear of what could happen is far more frightening than anything we might actually see. Mitchell’s set up is simplistically brilliant. A teenage girl named Jay, (Maika Monroe, of last year’s equally excellent and similarly toned “The Guest”), wakes up after a sexual encounter to discover that her lover has drugged her and tied her to a chair. He explains that through their carnal act he has passed something on to her, a kind of sexually transmitted monster, if you will. It will follow her, slowly but constantly, until it kills her. Once it does, it will go back to pursuing him again, going down the line until it kills the original host. Her only hope is to have sex with someone else, thus passing it on to him and securing her safety until that boy gets caught by the ever-following ghoul. From that point on, Jay is always on the lookout for the spirit as it slowly creeps towards her. It can take any form and is invisible to everyone else, so even her skeptical but supportive friends aren’t much help. We, the audience, can’t help but scan the background for signs of the potential spirit as well. That tiny white dot, way in the distance, that could be the terrifying stalker, and we wait with trepidation, as the figure gets closer and closer.
In a modern age when teens are constantly warned of the consequences of sex, whether they be disease or pregnancy, Mitchell personifying those fears into an actual monster is a novel idea. Charles Burns’ graphic novel “Black Hole” takes a similar approach to sex, and is currently in development with David Fincher for a film adaptation. Though her initial sex act is consensual, Maika Monroe’s performance has all the composure of a victim of a sexual assault. The experience traumatized her enough to make her never wish to have sex again, and yet she is forced to do just that if she ever wants to return to any sort of normal life. As terrifying as the creature is, the dread of engaging in intercourse again seems to haunt Jay just as much. Jay is not the only caught up in sexual pressure. Her platonic friend Paul, (Keir Gilchrist), sees Jay’s predicament as an opportunity to consummate a lifelong crush he’d never have a hope to be with otherwise, not to mention the chance to be her chivalrous savior, even if it would mean the curse transferring over to him. Is it really worth it?
IT FOLLOWS gives the audience a lot to think about and a lot to be afraid of. I wish that Mitchell had stayed content letting the audience scare themselves with anticipation rather than feel the pressure to deliver a climactic showdown. Just when I thought that I was watching one of the most perfect and inventive horror films I’d seen in years, Mitchell gives us a head-scratching scene at a swimming pool, where suddenly the film starts to make new rules about what the monster can and can’t do, and how it might be defeated. The scene feels so out of place that it nearly risked ruining the movie for me, and I keep trying to convince myself that perhaps a second viewing might help put some of it in perspective and reverse some of my confusion. But the very fact that I even want to see IT FOLLOWS again is proof of its quality. For a genre that is usually so familiar and disposable, this film may stay with me for a long time.
It’s very difficult to determine who to recommend the unique new Hungarian film WHITE GOD to. As a dog lover, I was mystified by it, but I can see how the average animal enthusiast might find it wholly unpleasant as well. I guess the key is to use your best judgment on this one. A winner of the “Certain Regard Award” at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, WHITE GOD tells the harrowing story of a dog named Hagen. Hagen’s owner is the devoted young teenager Lili, (played by the impressive Zsofia Psotta), who has to go live with her depressed and burdened father for three months while her mother is out of the country. Lili’s father takes an immediate dislike to the dog and abandons Hagen in the city, leaving him to fend for himself. On his journey to be with Lili again, he goes through many adventures and encounters several unpleasant people. After an attempt to live with the wild street dogs he is picked up by a dogfighter and trained to be a powerful beast. His travels ultimately lead him to an animal shelter and it’s at this point that Hagen can take no more of the abuse he’s been put through and this is where the film takes a shocking and wonderful turn. Hagen rebels and leads his fellow dogs in a revolution, escaping the shelter, running wild through the streets, and taking violent revenge on all who wronged him. Think Disney’s “The Incredible Journey” crossed with Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” Hagen, (played by two dogs who even won the prestigious “Palm Dog Award” at Cannes), gives a remarkably expressive performance, and seeing hundreds of dogs run down a city street, with humans fleeing and hiding in their wake, is an absolute joy, even if it represents a special kind of horror. For those sensitive to animal cruelty, I can help reassure you that none of the unpleasantness of Hagen’s story ever feels too real. Even the dogfights are heightened by violent audio while we watch two dogs clearly playing gently with one another. Once the dogs have free reign over the city and begin causing chaos, all I could think was that these actor dogs seemed to be having the time of their lives. This film has the power to play as a dark, horror movie, or as a satirical comedy. Hints of the true nature can be found in its title, a winking play on Samuel Fuller’s 70’s classic “White Dog.” So I can’t confidently tell you that you will enjoy this movie as much as I did, but I can be sure in my claims that you haven’t seen anything else quite like it. Even as I watched a dog rip the throat out of a particularly cruel dogcatcher, I couldn’t help but say under my breath in the darkened theater, “Who’s a good boy?”
WHILE WE’RE YOUNG
Even at my young age, I’ve felt the sting of the younger generation seeping into my territory. Walking a few blocks through Williamsburg can be somewhat disheartening, a cliché perhaps, but a true one. Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy WHILE WE’RE YOUNG is about a couple trying to cling to their past by embracing the future, and it should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone who tries to do the same. Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play Josh and Cornelia, a couple who enjoy the freedom that being childless affords them, until they start to realize that they never take advantage of it. Enter Jamie and Darby, (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried), a bohemian pair who seem to live in the moment and embrace a new passion whenever they’re inspired. She makes avocado ice cream while he makes short, punchy documentaries about the friends he meets on Facebook. Josh is a documentarian too, but his films tend to consist of filming a Jewish philosopher talk to a camera for six hours. Josh bypasses feelings of jealousy and instantly tries to imitate Jamie’s life and attitude, bringing Cornelia along for the ride.
At times Baumbach’s film utilizes fairly broad comedic set pieces that don’t feel too far removed from a typical Ben Stiller studio comedy. There’s obligatory scenes in which Stiller picks out a new pork-pie hat, struggles to ride a bicycle, and even hallucinate on ayahuasca. Driver’s Jamie is so seductive and carefree that even though Josh knows his lifestyle can’t possibly amount to much, he wants to prolong his own youth so he keeps doing more and more things that the more sensible Josh would never approve of. The film almost plays like a backdoor Faustian tale, where at first Jamie makes Josh feel young and alive, then suddenly he realizes how old and unhappy he feels. This is where the film starts to feel like less of a comedic fable and more like a soapbox for Baumbach’s diatribes about youth culture. Baumbach definitely has something to say, but it sometimes feels a little forced coming out of Stiller’s mouth. His criticisms on modern documentary filmmaking sometimes feel a bit too specific and pointed, and while the third act of the film is interesting, I longed for some of the humor from the earlier scenes. It’s strange that this is the film Baumbach chose to make following his wonderful “Francis Ha,” since many of the characters in WHILE WE’RE YOUNG don’t feel too far removed from Francis and her friends, but here they’re treated with a lot less affection.
The dour finale might have been a disappointment were it not for the exceptional performances from the four leads. This is Stiller’s best and funniest performance in years, even surpassing the excellent work he did in Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” I miss this Stiller and would love to see more of him. It was only five years ago I was seeing Driver tread water in dreadful Off Broadway plays. I never could have anticipated the turn his career would take, but now having seen him walk away with movies, no matter how famous and talented his co-stars are, I believe that his career is just about to take off. There’s no one out there like him right now and if he keeps taking such interesting and bizarre roles, I think we’ll see him with an Oscar statuette before long. Watts and Seyfried are both quite good in their roles, with Watts in particular showing some real comedic chops, but the film is dominated by the two men and their other halves get less and less to work with as the film goes on. It’s a real shame since Baumbach was able to capture such an authentic female voice in “Francis Ha,” that he doesn’t do it again here. Last but not least, the great Charles Grodin makes a welcome return to the big screen as Watts’ father, and seeing him interact with a few generations removed from him is an absolute joy. I hope he continues to pop up in more films, maybe even again with Stiller who seems to relish the task of getting scolded by the real Heartbreak Kid.
Baumbach has made a very funny comedy in WHILE WE’RE YOUNG. I wish that it didn’t dissolve into such a “message movie,” or perhaps I just wish that the message blended in better with the comedy. And I must say that I actually really identified with Baumbach’s opinions on the younger generation, even if he expressed them in a more grouchy way than necessary. It was nice to watch a movie that critiqued my generation but still managed to make me feel old. No, not old. Perhaps better to say, mature.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes