Friday, March 27, 2015


It’s a busy movie weekend here in the Valley; here are quick takes on a few of the openings:

It FollowsA young college student (Maika Monroe) has sex with the guy she’s been dating, only to find out that he’s placed a curse on her. She’s now being followed, albeit at a walking pace, by a malevolent entity, invisible to those around her but visible to her in various hideous guises. She can pass on the curse if she, in turn, sleeps with somebody else, but if the being kills that unfortunate person, it starts following her again.

This simple, initially low-tech conceit gives quite a charge to this indie shocker, written and directed by David Robert Mitchell and set in the gloomy, economically blasted neighborhoods of Detroit. It’s got that cautionary terror of sex in which so many horror tales are rooted, and the inexorability of the zombie and mummy movies, but with a set of arbitrary rules, a la “Casting the Runes” or “The Bottle-Imp,” that make dream-logic sense. Most of the acting isn’t far above the high-school-play level, but the kids are attractive and likable, so they have a poignant guilelessness.

For about an hour, It Follows is truly, nerve-janglingly scary. But then there’s no third act. I thought I could sense Mitchell struggling to figure out how to end it satisfyingly—it’s as if the being he’s created is so implacable that even he can’t escape it, and he doesn’t, to his credit I suppose, want to resort to the corniness of consulting some Van Helsing-type authority. So the story stumbles one way and another in its last third, throws in some unnecessary and (I thought) ill-advised special effects, and ends vaguely.

But I feel ungrateful for these gripes, because it’s been a long time since a new horror movie honestly chilled me, without mindless cruelty and ugliness. To be legitimately harrowing for an hour is no small accomplishment, and it may be enough to call It Follows a 21st-Century horror classic.

A Girl Like HerAnother low-budget indie shot in Detroit, this one is also a cautionary melodrama. The threat, this time, is not sex but rather bullying—the movie was previously titled The Bullying Chronicles.

The story is told via video footage, some of it supposedly shot by a documentary filmmaker (played the actual writer-director, Amy S. Weber), some surreptitiously shot by Jessica (Lexi Ainsworth), a teenage girl who attempts suicide and ends up in a coma. When we see Jessica’s footage, we see the reason for the suicide attempt—horrific, criminal bullying by her popular classmate and former friend Avery (Hunter King).

Weber makes us despise Avery for her vile abuse of Jessica. But she really wants us to see the psychology of Avery’s nastiness, especially in the not-much-subtler bullying she receives at home from her passive-aggressive mother. The acting, especially by King, is top-notch, though I don’t know if it’s enough to make us pity Avery more than we hate her.

Still, while I’ve long suspected the “anti-bullying” campaigns of recent decades were well-intentioned but quixotically naïve, I think it’s possible that A Girl Like Her could have some of the efficacy of old-school anti-drunk-driving movies. It might just scare a mean girl or two out of her meanness.

Merchants of DoubtThis is another of those lefty documentaries which present, in a slick, amusing, graphically engaging manner, an infuriating indictment. The director, Robert Kenner, takes on the general theme of the deliberate sowing of doubt in the media by corporate powers against well-founded science that they regard as bad for business. While the stooges and shills that do the sowing are sometimes sincere ideologues, the corporate honchos paying them more often are not—they frequently know perfectly well that the science is right, and simply don’t care.

The tobacco industry is the obvious model for this, and Kenner parallels the history of their manifestly fraudulent—but long effective—campaign to deny the harmful effects of smoking, and even to make smoking a civil-rights issue, with the current monkeyshines of the climate-change-denier lobby. The trouble, as usual, is the preaching-to-the-choir objection—anyone who would go see this film, based on a book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, probably won’t need to be convinced by it. When this plays on TV, however, it might change some hearts and minds.

But there was a moment near the end of this film that, though not ill-intended, hit a very sour note with me, and I can’t refrain from mentioning it. Author Oreskes, in a talking head interview, is pointing out that the disasters caused by climate change will cost human lives, and that this is her motivation for activism, not “polar bears, or people in Bangladesh.”

I doubt that the shocking implications in this remark—assuming I even heard it right—reflect Oreskes’ conscious feelings about the value of all humanity, including people in Bangladesh; I suspect it was just an unfortunate choice of words. But it occurred to me that if I wanted to distract from the point of what she was saying, I could whip up a lot of outrage over it. I could probably be a pretty competent merchant of doubt myself.

HomeOn a lighter note, this animated kidflick, based on the Adam Rex book The Real Meaning of Smekday, is sweet and pretty funny. Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory gives voice to Oh, one of the Boov, aliens who, fleeing a scary-looking race called the Gorg, have invaded the earth and relocated the humans to reservations. Rihanna gives voice to “Tip” (her real first name is Gratuity), a human girl who gets separated from her mother. When Oh gets in trouble with his own unashamedly craven race for accidentally tipping off the Gorg to the Boov’s whereabouts, he, Tip and Tip’s cat become fugitives together.

Steve Martin and Jennifer Lopez are also in the cast, as the dumbbell leader of the Boov and as Tip’s mother, respectively, and there are some pleasant songs on the soundtrack. Home is nothing to write…well, you know, home about, but the bonding between the two main characters has charm, and the movie has a generosity of heart that made me like it.

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