In the Earth

Release: Friday, April 16, 2021

👀 Hulu

Written by: Ben Wheatley

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Starring: Joel Fry; Ellora Torchia; Reece Shearsmith; Hayley Squires; John Hollingworth; Mark Monero

Distributor: Neon

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Cabin fever never sounded so appealing after “getting back out there” in the new psychedelic experiment from avant-garde British filmmaker Ben Wheatley. His tenth film In the Earth is a thoroughly disorienting and unsettling venture through the woods, one set against the backdrop of a global pandemic.

Filmed over the course of just 15 days and during a locked-down August 2020, In the Earth may be horror done on the cheap but it doesn’t particularly look or feel like it. What admissions there are chiefly surface in some character interactions that feel rushed, while later on the more abstract passages can feel indulgent to the point of being filler. Impenetrable though it may become, you have to be impressed with the fact Wheatley has wrangled together such a crazy movie amidst creatively infertile conditions.

It’s what he manages to pull off with setting and atmosphere that leaves a bruising mark and that serves as the best distraction from the film’s financial limitations and, quite frankly, the barriers to comprehension it tends to build, particularly towards the end. A stone monolith with a perfect hole in the middle watches over all. You’ll spend almost the entire movie trying to get in its good graces so that it may allow you to understand what the frikk it is. The table-setting (and plain old setting) is reminiscent of Annihilation (2018) but this time the foolish entrants aren’t loaded with pistols and rifles and thingies that explode. Nope, just backpacks and research materials. And, as with so many characters in this kind of story, plenty of arrogance.

Stripped of the basic comfort of likable protagonists — they’re not unlikable per se, but hard to get a read on — In the Earth is a trippy, gory and at times perverse horror that follows a scientist and a park ranger into a forest laced with threats, some natural and others inexplicable — a surreal and dangerous ecosystem with its own rules, its own creepy mythology and maybe even its own agenda. Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a lodge that’s been converted to a research facility on the edge of a dense forest just outside Bristol, England. He’s here to check in on a colleague and former lover, a Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), who hasn’t been seen or heard from in months.

Upon arrival he’s whisked through a rather serious sanitization procedure and meets a few researchers hanging about the place, all of whom seem physically and mentally worn down. Martin is to make a two-day trek to her research base deep in the woods, accompanied by experienced park guide Alma (Ellora Torchia). With all his focus on rescuing Wendle, he has no time to really care about the strange painting on the wall of the lodge, a depiction of an apparent woodland creature known around these parts as Parnag Fegg. That’s nice. It’s just cool artwork though, right?

The journey starts off with a bad omen as Martin confesses with annoying nonchalance to a lack of fitness and experience roughing it. Then a midnight assault in which both campers lose all essential equipment, including shoes, forcing them to continue barefoot. (Does this style of hiking ever end well?) Eventually they cross paths with a grizzled loner (Reece Shearsmith) who after a tense standoff introduces himself as Zach and offers to help and heal. It is at this point your brain might recall that early childhood lesson: Do not drink the mushroom milk offered by strange men in the woods.

All of this, including the unholy and stomach-churning sequence that soon follows, remains predictable for a horror flick buried deep in the deciduous. Especially when you have nervous doctors back at the lodge foreshadowing the shit out of people’s tendencies to get “a bit funny” in the woods. On another level, for those better traveled in Wheatley’s exotic and weird brand of filmmaking you know the film is, sooner or later, going to walk off a cliff.

Avoiding of course the literal precipice, In the Earth frustratingly descends into an edit-fest, assaulting you with aural and visual menace in massively churned-up chunks of footage that feel pieced together from the weirdest acid trip you could possibly have. Dissonant sound overwhelms while strobing lights penetrate the eyeball like knives. Encroaching fog presents a terrifying new challenge while the stone monolith continues to breathe and sigh. The final act is something to behold, if not quite believed or even understood. Like the film overall, it becomes something to admire rather than enjoy.

Stoned out of your mind

Moral of the Story: Though appearing to be set in a time similar to our present miserable reality, this appears to me to be as much a movie about man’s relationship with nature as it is one about man and virus. Far from a crowd-pleasing good time, In the Earth is a novelty horror for the more adventurous. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Let me guide you out of the woods.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; www.movieinsider.com 

The Way Back

Release: Friday, March 6, 2020

→Theater

Written by: Brad Ingelsby

Directed by: Gavin O’Connor

Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) had a future in basketball beyond high school. Probably beyond college. Once the pride of Bishop Hayes High in the 1990s, he led his team to more victories and championships in his four years than the many iterations managed in the decades since. These days, his alma mater barely manages to field a varsity team. They’re not an also-ran, they’ve been irrelevant for so long cobwebs are forming on those banners hanging from the rafters.

Now they’re without their coach, who has suffered a heart attack. Dan, an algebra teacher (Al Madrigal), pulls double-duty as an assistant but he’s no coach, at least not the one with the capital C. There are a few stand-out athletes running around the gym, but it’s all in disorganized fashion and the average player is as good at sinking three’s as Shaq was at free throws. Miraculously they still have a pep squad and a team chaplain (Jeremy Radin) and despite the dismal win record they abide by basic moral principles of competing fairly and with the understanding that the results of the game, fair or foul, do not define them as students, as young men.

Life after the game hasn’t been rosy for Jack. Working construction, living alone and drinking uncontrollably, Jack is functional but clearly in a good deal of pain. The Way Back slowly, cautiously inches its way towards an explanation as to why he has isolated himself not just from the game but from making social connections. One day he is thrown a lifeline in the form of a voicemail from Bishop Hayes’ Father Divine (John Aylward), imploring him to come and fill in as Head Coach for this struggling team. After a night of booze-soaked introspection and exhausting all possible reasons to turn down the offer, Jack of course shows up at practice and sets about coaching up. His goal is to toughen up the team, improve their fundamentals, make them eligible for the playoffs for the first time since his playing days.

Director Gavin O’Connor, most famous for Miracle (2004) and Warrior (2011), presents yet another character-driven sports drama. I’ve always admired the way he marries realistic, intensely choreographed action with interesting characters going on powerful emotional journeys. The Way Back has all those ingredients and yet the flavor lacks. The drama, whether on the court or off of it, really doesn’t have any surprise plays in its playbook. To its credit basketball is not where the movie really lies; Brad Ingelsby’s screenplay de-emphasizes spectacle for the quieter emotional battles taking place away from the game.

The difference here is the bonafide movie star who delivers the emotion and nuance this patently predictable movie needs. It’s a terrific, authentic performance, not least because it’s often difficult to separate the Movie Star from the character. Affleck does just that though, in fact he succeeds to an almost profound degree, especially in the scenes in which he is forced to confront the source of his pain alongside his estranged wife Angela (the lovely Janina Gavankar). Ultimately, Affleck’s heartbreaking performance — no doubt elevated by this acute awareness of what he himself has gone through over a prolonged period — is what redeems the movie.

Recommendation: Empathetically told and impressively acted, The Way Back (not to be confused with the 2010 drama The Way Back . . . or for that matter, the 2013 indie comedy The Way Way Back) is yet more proof of the natural, amiable personality of director Gavin O’Connor. It hopefully marks a rebound for actor Ben Affleck as well. Word of caution for fans expecting on-court drama and personal tension on a Hoosiers level: don’t uh, don’t do that. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “You want to know why they’re leaving you open? It’s because they don’t think you can hit the ocean from the beach.”

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Photo credits: IMP Awards; IMDb 

The Shallows

'The Shallows' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Anthony Jaswinski

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra 

Blake Lively vs. Huge Shark: The Movie is a pretty sweet little thriller, a self-contained enterprise that seeks to unnerve rather than terrify by tapping into human’s innate fear of deepwater-dwelling beasts like great whites (not to mention horrifyingly large jellyfish).

Jaume Collet-Serra’s tropical-set horror/thriller is a refreshingly slight film set adrift in a sea of complex, bombastic . . . well, I’m not gonna name names or genres but we all know where I’m going with this. The premise is simple, the cast is engaged and the cinematography transports us to ‘Paradise’ with Lively’s big-wave-seeking, medical-school-abandoning Nancy Adams who has been having a rough time since the passing of her mother. Nancy has seemingly inherited her mom’s love for surfing as she finds herself now on the sands of a secluded, nameless cove — apparently the very place her mom claimed as her favorite surf spot.

This really is Lively’s movie — okay, and the shark’s, yes how could I forget — because her interactions with others, including the local with whom she hitches a ride to the beach, are limited to a flurry of brief exchanges, most of which are designed to prove that Nancy doesn’t speak very good Spanish and the locals don’t speak good English. That particular communication barrier doesn’t really matter because no one speaks Shark and that’ll come in handy more than anything later.

The Shallows is indeed an intimate experience, reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s 2011 survival drama 127 Hours at least when it comes to the harrowing quasi-first person perspective. Serra’s vision is certainly fun and exciting, but it hardly effects the emotional and psychological involvement Boyle did when James Franco decided to throw down the performance of a lifetime. In fact, in spirit this shares more in common with the personal trials we endure with Reese Witherspoon as she attempts to reconnect with herself and her family by embarking on a bold solo hike in Wild.

As Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon’s performance was informed by a mixture of guilt and bitterness as she continued along her journey, strong emotions that only fueled her to keep going. Lively’s Nancy isn’t so much bitter as she is guilt-ridden and still at a loss for words when it comes to talking about the past. We see it in the brief glimpses we get of her sister and father via FaceTime on her phone prior to her hitting the waves. She can barely hold a conversation with her father because the conversation about why she decided to drop out of med school inevitably surfaces.

It’s probably not worth delving into character development at any great depth since that’s pretty much the extent of it. Suffice it to say there’s enough here to actually make us feel something when Nancy finds herself, ironically much like Aron Ralston, stuck between (or in this case on) a rock and a hard place when the shark’s aggressive circling pins her to a small outcrop of rock that appears at low tide. She’s only 200 yards from shore but the shark is much too fast for that to be viable option. There’s a small metallic buoy about 15 yards from the rock she could swim to when high tide reclaims the rock.

Can Nancy out-smart her toothy predator?

Boobs. We’d love to find out the answer if the cameras weren’t constantly fixated on ogling Lively’s lovely beach bod. I had a lot of fun with The Shallows — the increasingly versatile Lively is certainly committed to the material and the movie looks glorious — but some part of me can’t shake the feeling this was kind of a pervy shoot. And that is a thought that somewhat diminishes the enjoyment I got out of a film that was never meant to be taken seriously.

blake lively in 'The Shallows'

Recommendation: More Deep Blue Sea than it is JawsThe Shallows manifests as a silly but ultimately fun bit of summer escapism, one shot confidently enough to ensure those who have a mortal fear of beaches will never go near one again. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 87 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

San Andreas

Release: Friday, May 29, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Carlton Cuse

Directed by: Brad Peyton

San Andreas turns a massive crack in the earth into the Ultron of natural disaster villains, and Dwayne Johnson seems to be the only man fit to star opposite in this chunk of supposed summer entertainment.

The former wrestler fits in well with his surroundings as rescue helicopter pilot Ray Gaines, although it’s anyone’s guess as to how the guy actually fits inside a chopper. In a tense opening sequence involving a girl and her car stuck between a couple of rocks and a hard place, we are privy to Ray’s death-defying abilities. (Those will come in handy later.) A respected member of the L.A. Fire Department, Ray is of course no model human. An impending divorce from wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is putting pressure on him as he wants his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) to remain in his life as much as possible. Both relationships remain fraught with tension since the loss of a fourth family member in a drowning incident some years ago.

While the strategy is far from original, getting us to invest in this particular family’s affairs works because Johnson and Gugino exude charisma as a couple on the brink of divorce. Strange as that sounds, the pair are suitably cast and make ridiculously cheesy character development somehow watchable. Or at least tolerable. For the world — make that the western American seaboard . . . er, no, strike that: the California coastline as far as Ray and his family are concerned — is about to fall apart in more ways than one.

Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) is a scientist (you know this because of his permanent frown and a hairline that suggests his scalp and Rogaine have never met) at Caltech who is on the brink of discovering more accurate ways of predicting seismic activity. Unfortunately he isn’t too good at predicting that which strikes the Hoover Dam and claims the life of a long-time colleague. “Uhh, yeah — that fault line wasn’t supposed to be there. That was . . . my bad.” Or so says his furrowed brow in the ensuing scene, a retreat back to the university, when a local news crew inundate him with questions about any progress he might be making. Oh, such poor timing.

The incident at the dam is merely a precursor to a series of escalating, catastrophic earthquakes that come to define the plot, the characters, essentially the film’s score, ultimately any lasting memories of what you’ve just seen upon leaving the theater. However long those memories last may well depend on the magnitude of the ‘quake. The best way I know how to criticize San Andreas while sounding like I had a good time is that it is far too eager to get to these big CGI set pieces.

Everything is rushed, the biggest victim being the characters. For an action/disaster flick in 2015 there need not be a poetic fascination with them but there should be more discovery than what we get. Peyton clearly favors pushing past all that icky stuff to the visual goodies. A tidal wave engulfs many a Californian landmark; buildings collapse as though they are built from Jenga pieces; fires scorch the afternoon sky at the tops of those remaining upright. We certainly get the sense that not even Giamatti’s math could save millions from the carnage.

But the concluding sequence all but confirms the only interest Peyton and his writers have in showcasing the power of Mother Nature — the raging, pissed off one living beneath our feet apparently — is parading this year’s minuscule improvement in special effects technology. This is a visual feast and nearly two hours’ worth of society falling apart implies that, while the world may collapse, CGI will be here to stay. Like cockroaches living long after nuclear fallout. CGI is rapidly becoming the main vein feeding the industry, the lifeblood of many a filmmaker with eyes larger than their intellect.

Even by disaster movie standards, the chaotic (but beautiful) computer graphics dominate, rendering any human-related drama as deep as a paper cut. While science can at least somewhat support Peyton’s vision of a California torn asunder by massively destructive earthquakes — it has been three centuries since the southern portion of the fault line has made its presence known, and seismologists do in fact predict it is overdue for some kind of rupture — what begins as hypothetical quickly devolves into laughable.

Recommendation: Yes, San Andreas is harmless and mindless summer escapism but this is a film that had greater potential. I could smell The Rock cooking up a more memorable performance than this as well, but he and his co-star Carla Gugino pull off a marriage in trouble convincingly enough. But given the rest of the cast, they are outliers. There’s not enough in this action spectacular to recommend to the casual viewer of these sorts of things; diehards, on the other hand. . . .

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “The earth will literally crack and you will feel it on the East Coast.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Watermark

watermark_xlg

Release: Friday, April 4, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

I’ve never had to pee so bad in a movie in all of my natural life. . . .

Not that I would miss much if I were to step out to find the bathroom. With hindsight, I could even take my time in my quest, perhaps stopping in to say hey to some people in an adjacent theater. I could mingle with other theatergoers, or distract and annoy them just for a few minutes — just enough time to allow me to forget what I myself had come to see.

This is the kind of light fare where I could be out goofing around like this for a solid 20 minutes and then be able to get right back to my seat, refocus, and get back into it without feeling the slightest bit confused or disoriented. I don’t want to call the subject matter on display trivial; it’s certainly anything but that. However, what documentaries lack — environmental documentaries, especially — in being able to take dramatic license, they tend to make up for with a strong human element, a perspective that engages from the get-go. It usually comes packaged in the form of interviews, a spoken narrative, a focus on groups of people changing over time, or any combination of all the above.

The problem with Watermark is that it lacks this human element. It quite literally and almost exclusively features dramatized shots of water captured in its many shapes, forms and quantities, with only but a few of these moments actually involving human interaction. The set-up makes for a pretty picture, but an emotionless story. In fact, the extensive opening shot, an admittedly powerful wide shot of a massive dam release in China, is a microcosm for the emotional journey about to be undertaken. If this one scene doesn’t catch interest, it’s likely that most of what comes next won’t, either. The question is posed — “how do we shape water, and how does water shape us?” — and this film from Jennifer Baichwal attempts to set out answering this by juxtaposing shots of bodies of water with mankind’s interaction with it. Too bad man doesn’t factor in more.

We are firstly introduced to a Mexican woman living near the Colorado River Delta, a harsh crop of land so dry it literally makes one regret the choice to buy popcorn (whoever buys popcorn for documentaries ought to be slapped, anyway); cracking slabs of brown plate-like dirt bemoan the likely many, many years of water’s absence. This scene is a beautiful contrast to the film’s deafening roar of an opening. In fact, there’s not a lot to disagree with relative to the film’s construction or the way it looks. Watermark is quite competent in both of those regards. But the face time we get with conflicted individuals such as the aforementioned woman feels all too brief and fleeting.

Beyond the arid delta plains, we travel far and wide to many a foreign and exotic location where relationships between humans and water are in varying degrees strained. Highlights include the windswept, almost alien world that is the Greenland Ice Sheet, where scientists are drilling kilometers deep into the ice to extract measurements. (Ice is really, really cool, by the way. I think ice is nice.) From there we visit India, and stop in during the annual Kumbh Mela bath in the Ganges River — a mass gathering of some 30 million people during which souls are cleansed and purified in the waters; we also visit one of the most massive structures on Earth — the Xiluodu Dam, a whopping 937-foot-tall arch dam, one piece in a larger project impacting the Jinsha River.

Watermark leads us away from these tense battlegrounds — where usually man wins and water loses — by trotting us out to the isolated regions of the Canadian Rocky watershed, a beautiful crop of North America where it’s feasible to go days without crossing another human being. Here, water is sparkling and looks drinkable. If you haven’t been on the verge of wetting yourself by now, this positively drool-worthy sequence probably will take care of you. Okay, so maybe it’s a lie that there’s no drama involved here. The drama stems from whether or not you can make it through this in one sitting. Whether you can clench those knees together for well over half an hour. Whether you can hold it. . . . .hold it. . .

. . . hold it. . .

You’ll have to forgive me for hardly taking a thing seriously at this point; Watermark disappointingly amounts to little more than a Discovery Channel special, and something seemingly more appropriately filed in the scientific record than packaged as a theatrical release. I blame my lack of focus on keeping things serious here because the film likewise did not seem enthused on talking about people; it seemed more interested in letting water do all of its talking. It wanted to dismiss me, so I feel compelled to dismiss it.

watermark-2

2-5Recommendation: Jennifer Baichwal’s story and Edward Burtynsky’s cinematography combine to form a nature documentary that’s guilty of talking to itself and failing to leave an emotional impact. Its not intended to be a sensational movie nor is it meant to suggest that its time to panic about our lack of conservation of water just yet (though for some places it might be that time), and yet it’s difficult to believe that feeling as though you’re waking up from a nap come the end credits is the desired effect. It takes more than a lot of pretty pictures to tell a strong story.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 92 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com