The Empty Man

The “creepy cult” subgenre of horror movies has been having a renaissance lately.  Films like  Hereditary (2018) and Midsommer (2019), both directed by Ari Aster, have breathed new life into a very familiar template.  David Prior’s The Empty Man isn’t in the same league as those films, but is a very effective horror movie nonetheless.

The movie begins in 1995 with a group of clueless and entitled Americans hiking through Bhutan, where they stumble upon an ancient evil.  Flash-forward to Missouri in 2018, where James (James Badge Dale), a former detective, looks into the disappearance of his young neighbor Amanda (Sasha Frolova).  After her high school friends commit suicide, James visits an organization Amanda was familiar with, a Scientology stand-in named the Pontifex Institute.  The more James learns about the Institute, the more nefarious the organization appears to be.  Even more troubling is that the group appears to know all about him.

Writer-director Prior expertly combines the story’s many locations and disturbing visuals to build an overwhelming sense of dread.  The acting is mainly serviceable, the exception being the wonderfully loopy Stephen Root (Barry) as a Pontifex lecturer.  The Empty Man incorporates many horror movie themes, but is a creepy cult movie at its core.  It doesn’t tie things together as perfectly as the aforementioned films, but it’s a good creepy cult movie regardless.  Recommended.

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Another Round

The story of four middle-aged men in Denmark who decide to engage in a psychological experiment: to see whether living life slightly tipsy makes them better teachers.  Their teaching actually improves, and they confirm that having a drink (or two) helps to put one’s troubles aside temporarily and live and in the moment (surprise, surprise).  Their personal lives take some unexpected turns, however.  Just like with car performance, your life on alcohol may vary.  For the characters in this movie, it’s a choice between soberly dealing with depression and regret on a daily basis, or letting yourself be free enough to let loose and dance.  Highly recommended (unless you’re a teetotaler).

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Come Play

“Once you take Larry’s hand, you’ll never be alone again.”

Misunderstood Monsters

Come Play is a very effective low-fi scare movie.  The movie is the first I’ve seen where the haunted is portrayed as autistic.  Oliver is a young autistic boy who has unwittingly attracted the attention of Larry, a ghoul from another dimension.  Larry wants Oliver to be his friend, and creates a picture book that, when someone reads it to the end, allows Larry to cross over into our world.  As Horror movie hooks go, the one used by Come Play is as incredulous as any other.  What elevates this movie above others is its excellent pacing, realistic direction and solid acting.  Similar to Insidious and Lights Out, what you don’t see is scarier than what you actually see.  Highly recommended.

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Soul is a clever examination of the nature of being presented in the guise of an animated feature.  The movie delves into what comprises our souls, from how we get the different aspects of our personality, to what gives our lives its spark (or inspiration).  As expected, the animation in Soul is exceptional, and its depictions of the Great Beyond (and the Great Before) are a treat for the eyes.  Soul’s main story focuses on one man’s dream to become a professional jazz pianist, and how that may or may not be his calling in life.  While Soul doesn’t reach the same emotional height as Inside Out, it is insightful, thought provoking and very funny.  Highly recommended.

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Freaky (2020)

Too bad Freaky couldn’t have called itself “Freaky Friday the 13th”, since that’s basically the concept behind the movie.  Freaky is a mashup of slasher movies (Friday the 13th, Halloween) and body swapping movies (Freaky Friday, Big).  The combination of those two genres proves to be an original and rewarding one, producing scares, gross-out moments, tender moments and plenty of laughs.  Highly recommended.

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Promising Young Woman (2020)

Promising Young Woman is an in-your-face story of a woman taking revenge on men who take advantage of women.  Carey Mulligan stars as Cassandra, a woman whose motives become clear as the movie progresses.  Her performance is unlike anything she’s done before, and easily elevates her to the upper-tier of actresses working today.  If you’re a woman, I’d think there’s plenty in the movie you can relate to.  If you’re a self proclaimed “nice guy”, the movie is a splash of ice water to the face.  Highly recommended.

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Sound of Metal (2020)

Many great movies are based on a question.  Sound of Metal asks two: would you be able to adapt to a major life-altering change to your body?  Also, if you could get back what you lost, would you do it?  The movie is the story of a heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing.  He is given the opportunity to learn how to function as a deaf person, but he can’t let go of his former life.  Riz Ahmed is excellent as Ruben, the drummer who is forced to learn how to live his life completely differently than before, but cannot let go of his former life.  Highly recommended!

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Minari (2020)

While watching Minari, I couldn’t help but think: is farming the saddest profession?  With so many variables out of your control, a happy and successful farmer would seem to be the exception to the rule.  Farming requires you to deal with the weather, pricing futures, insects, water (or the lack thereof), the physical toll, bank loans, and so on, any of which could leave you teetering on the brink of insolvency.  Being a farmer requires incredible fortitude, physical as well as mental.  You have to fully acquiesce to whatever fate may bring you, good or bad.  Minari fits squarely into the “tough life of the farmer” category of movies, and acquits itself well as a drama. Definitely recommended.

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (or TTC7) presents itself as an historical reenactment, and it is that to a certain degree.  Set during the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago in 1968, the movie is actually an Aaron Sorkin greatest hits package, with a bit of Oliver Stone visual razzle-dazzle thrown in to emphasize both the anarchy of the riots and the absurdity of the trial afterwards.  Fans of Sorkin’s trademark rat-a-tat dialog will not be disappointed, but few of the performances stand out from the superficial treatments of their characters.  Unfortunately, the directorial missteps outweigh the few good choices made, and the movie comes off more as a one-sided diatribe than an objective examination of the events presented.  That the movie has a topical connection to present-day events some fifty years later does not give it a pass for its flippant regards towards history.  Recommended for Sacha Baron-Cohen’s performance only.

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