Orphan (2009)

Jaume Collet-Serra is an interesting fella. I’ve gotten to know the Spanish-born Hollywood director through his recent string of high-concept, single-location thrillers like The Shallows, where Blake Lively fights a vengeful shark while stuck alone on a rock, and The Commuter, where Liam Neeson takes down a global conspiracy network from a pedestrian commuter train. However, before Collet-Serra was making over-the-top Liam Neeson thrillers that could be reductively described as Taken on a Train (The Commuter) or Taken on a Train (Non-Stop), he got his start directing mainstream horror productions for Hollywood bigshot Joel Silver. The first was a fairly innocuous remake of the Vincent Price classic House of Wax, best remembered for its stunt casting of Paris Hilton. Collet-Serra’s sophomore effort was something much more novel, an aughts perversion of The Bad Seed that leaned heavily into shocking twists & children being depicted in sinister, adult scenarios. 2009’s Orphan was a modest hit that has been largely forgotten in the decade since, only remembered by those most incensed by its controversial amorality & head-on dedication to tastelessness. It’s also quite possibly Collet-Serra’s best work to date, as it allows the director to chase a new bonkers idea every few minutes instead of tying him to a single concept at feature length. As much as I’ve come to respect Collet-Serra for essentially remaking Speed with a new novelty conceit in every subsequent picture, Orphan is wildly entertaining for setting him loose and allowing him to indulge in whatever silly idea inspires him from minute to minute. It’s a movie that deserves to be forgotten for its sins against good taste, but I can’t help but be tickled by it.

Vera Farmiga stars as a grieving mother whose third child was miscarried, stillborn. Nightmares about horrific, gory childbirth scenarios and guilt over past relapses into alcoholism plague her marriage with an insensitive oaf played by Peter Sarsgaard. To help alleviate the trauma of losing her would-be youngest daughter in childbirth, she decides to adopt – turning a family tragedy into an act of charity. The adopted child is a precocious, morose little girl with a cold Russian accent & a mysterious past, coming across like a 90s Goth update to Rhoda Penmark. The titular orphan’s old-fashioned wardrobe (including a ribbon choker she refuses to be seen without) looks like it belongs to a fairy tale princess, teasing a supernatural twist in its gradual reveal of her background. Whatever the cause, she’s deliciously evil, taking perverse pleasure in staging “accidents” that harm other children, purposefully spying on her new parents mid-coitus, and eventually just full-on murdering adults with guns, knives, and hammers. The reveal of her true biography & motivation to kill is astoundingly tasteless, ludicrous, and easy to guess well before it’s explained; the journey to get there is still a perversely fun ride. Collet-Serra turns each set piece & heinous act into a new toy to play with, the same way he’d later gleefully fool around with all possibly novelties offered by the planes, trains, and bloodthirsty sharks of his subsequent thrillers. The ill-considered morality of Orphan suggests that there is great danger in adopting an unknown orphan with a foreign-born past, which is a much more harmful angle to take than movies like Cooties, The Children, and We Need to Talk About Kevin, which reflect parents’ fears of their own kids. My guess is that neither Collet-Serra nor fist-time screenwriter David Leslie Johnson paused long enough to consider that morality as they chased this preposterous scenario’s potential for over-the-top, in-the-moment thrills. To be honest, the movie is all the more entertaining for it.

I’ve come to associate Collet-Sera most closely with over-the-top visual gimmickry, which is his most consistent auteurist tell. As absurd as their basic premises can be, some of the things that most stand out to me about the director’s post-Taken thrillers will be the way he constructs a time-lapse montage in The Commuter or the way he makes text messages appear visually dynamic in Non-Stop. Orphan’s best quality is in the freedom it allows Collet-Serra to indulge in this visual gimmickry in a variety of locales. The way he shoots kitchen window reflections, POV angles from car doors & paintings, and (in an early precursor to A Quiet Place) children communicating via American Sign Language is endlessly fun, as there’s a new toy for the director to play with in every new set piece. The pinnacle of this over-stylized visual artistry is a sequence set on a children’s jungle gym in a public park, which Collet-Serra shoots like a Gothic horror set in a maze. The menace of children-at-play on plastic slides & monkey bars is delightfully handled with a straight-faced terror, concluding with a genuine jump scare despite the tableau’s built-in absurdity. If made a decade later, Orphan might have been entirely set in that single jungle gym set piece, with the titular villain chasing around the same pint-sized victim (presumably not played by Liam Neeson) at feature length in a challenge to see how far the premise of that chase could be stretched. Here, it’s allowed to thrive for just a few minutes as an isolated novelty before the film moves onto its next ridiculous indulgence (and there are plenty more to come). It’s a willingness to visually experiment & indulge that keep the movie perversely fun despite the amoral implications of its twisty, ill-considered plot.

There’s a generous reading of Orphan that sees its fear of adopted children gone murderously rogue only as a reflection of Vera Farmiga’s character struggling with her own anxieties as a “flawed” mother with a shaky past. Farmiga sells the emotional core of that conflict as best she can, especially in arguments with a husband (Sarsgaard) and a therapist (esteemed character actress Margot Martindale) who are cruelly dismissive of her skepticism over her new adopted daughter. The film just has too much gleeful, amoral fun for that reading to fully play out, especially in scenarios where the orphan is beating victims to death with a hammer or inserting herself into adult, sexual scenarios with a perverse curiosity. The Babadook is a film about a mother who is unsure of her own stability & value as a nurturing parent. This film is more of an update to The Bad Seed, where it’s the kid who’s clearly at fault & taking pleasure in the chaotic violence that surrounds them. It’s a set-up with some disturbing, half-cooked implications about the adoption process as a result, something I wouldn’t fault any viewer for finding too distasteful to be entertaining. Personally, I consider Orphan to be an exquisite slice of mainstream-horror trash and a thoroughly entertaining showcase for a visually-skilled director who can’t help himself whenever afforded an opportunity to over-indulge in a set-specific gimmick. I’d love to see Collet-Serra return to this style of filmmaking, where his tones & gimmickry are allowed to be more free-wheeling & varied in their minute-to-minute whims instead of being dedicated to a single concept for an entire film. It’s a looseness in premise & morality than I believe has produced his best work to date.

-Brandon Ledet

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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fourstar

I hate Westerns. I really, really do. When I was a kid in rural East Baton Rouge Parish (and especially when we went to visit even-more-rural friends and family in St Helena), they seemed to make up the bulk of television outside of primetime; moreover, family friends who were fortunate enough to own more than ten videocassettes (which was how I defined wealth then, and, perhaps, now) still had a collection that was largely made up of Western cinema. The filmic depiction of the mythological Wild West, with its overwhelming anxiety about bandits, borderline racist depictions of native people, the uniform whiteness of the protagonists (which led me, as a child, to be unable to tell characters apart), and overall bland cinematic eye really turned me off. I can barely even stand to watch the Western episodes of The Twilight Zone, my favorite show of all time; when one comes on during Syfy’s annual marathons, it’s the cue for me to go outside and get some fresh air.

There are exceptions, of course, to every rule. As a rule, I loathe musicals, but I can see the merits in, for instance, the Heathers musical, which I saw both in New York and in Austin, and I am more willing to accept characters breaking into song in animation, which is already acceptable removed from cinema vérité (Bob’s Burgers and The Simpsons most notably, but also more traditionally musical fare like The Little Mermaid). There are Westerns that I like, enjoy or otherwise feel something like fondness for; my grandfather loved Quigley Down Under and thus so do I, The Quick and the Dead is a fun movie, and Sergio Leone’s Westerns are cinematically engaging on a level that intrigues me. And, of course, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.

When The Verge did their write-up on 2016’s Magnificent 7 last month, they heralded its arrival in their headline: “behold, the progressive Western.” I didn’t see that review before I saw the film, but it was also the first thing that struck me about this film after I largely ignored the promotional materials. Although the film follows the structure of the original film (and, by extension, Seven Samurai), gone are the questionable and dated trappings of the old school Western, replaced with an easily digestible parable about capitalism and race dressed up in a gunslinger’s shoot ‘em up. And it’s pretty great!

Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is a corrupt industrialist who has his sights set on Rose Creek, a mining town in northern California. He and his cohort of morally bankrupt private detectives, thinly veiled versions of the Pinkertons who broke up strikes in the real West, roll into town and burn the facade of the church, telling the townsfolk that he will return in less than a month to purchase the last of their hard-earned land for less than half of its worth, and they can either fall in line or die. Shortly thereafter, widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and her friend enlist the help of warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) when he passes through town in pursuit of a fugitive. Although he is at first reluctant, Chisolm relents when he hears that the Bart Bogue is behind this transgression, he agrees to help Rose Creek defend itself.

In a plotline that has been homaged from The Avengers to Star Wars (so much so that most viewers likely think it’s older than locomotion), Chisolm recruits six more men to join him: rapscallion sharpshooter and gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Mexican outlaw gunslinger Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Ruffo), legendary New Orleans rifleman “Goodnight” Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding associate Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Comanche wanderer Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). The seven men come together (with Emma acting as a kind of alternate teammate in various situations) to try and teach the settlers of Rose Creek to defend themselves against Bogue’s imminent invasion.

I really enjoyed this film. Above and beyond the general thrill of a legitimately fun Western with clearly evil and less-clearly-good characters, I loved the subtext. Gone is the marauding bandito who terrorized the peasant village of the original, replaced by the face of true evil in every generation: avaricious capitalist men driven by their lust for and worship of material goods (and the power that they bring) with no regard for the cost of human life and dignity. Instead of helping to protect and serve the populace of Rose Creek from outside influence, the sheriff of the town has been bought and paid for by Bogue; the innocents who have entrusted him with their lives are mowed down by him for immoral reasons, just as we so often see the loss of life (largely of people of color) at the hands of modern police forces. The deputies of the town are amoral thugs with no sense of right or wrong, hired mercenaries with so much blood on their hands that they’ll never be clean; not only are they evocative of the Pinkertons but also of the PMCs used in Iraq and elsewhere, before and during the war on terror.

Standing in their way are a black man (given that the film is set in 1879 and the fact that Chisolm refers to living in Arkansas, he is likely to be a former slave), a Native American, an Asian man, and a Mexican sharpshooter (in one notable exchange, Vasquez remarks that there is no such thing as a “Texican,” illuminating the lie in the name given to him by others who sought only to steal the land and livelihood of himself and his people). Beyond these POC are other marginalized people, including a soldier with PTSD and an elderly man who has been declared useless by society. And a woman!

In a more traditional Western, Bogue would represent progress, the man bringing civilization to the “savage” western edge of the country, but here he is shown for who he really is, a corrupt monster who uses bullying and violence to make his mark on the world, and, ultimately, he is undone by a diverse coalition of men (and a woman!) who forsake old grudges (as seen in the interactions between Red Harvest and Jack Horne as well as Vasquez and Faraday) in order to prevent an evil reaping of innocent people. And, hey, it’s a surprisingly progressive film that you can probably get even your racist grandpa to watch. Check it out!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Black Mass (2015)

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threehalfstar

What the hell has Johnny Depp been doing for the last decade? It used to be that every new Depp performance was worth getting excited about, but the last time I can remember being impressed with him was as the notorious reprobate John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester in 2004’s The Libertine. Everything since feels like a formless blur of pirates, Tontos, and CGI chameleons. No matter. Depp has returned to his past life as a solid, exciting actor in another formally middling biopic packed to the gills with great performances, Black Mass. With his receding hairline, hideous teeth, ever-present aviators & pinky rings, and eyes so grey-blue they almost make him look blind, Depp plays the infamous South Boston crimelord Whitey Bulger like a strange cross between Hunter S. Thompson & Nosferatu. It’s a measured, but menacing performance that proves Depp still has it in him to terrify & captivate, completely transforming beyond recognition & losing himself in his best role of the past decade.

The worst accusation that can be thrown at Black Mass is that it’s a little formally & narratively overfamiliar. The film doesn’t bring anything particularly fresh to the 70s-era organized crime drama format, calling to mind works from names like Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, and Martin Scorsese in nearly every scene. In fact, because of the thick Boston accents inherent to Whitey Bulger & The Winter Hill Gang it’s easy to pinpoint a specific point of reference in Scorsese’s oeuvre that Black Mass can be accused of being a little too reminiscent of: The Departed. Just know that if you’re looking forward to this film as a fan of that genre there’s not going to be long stretches of brutal violence & gunfire that usually accompany organized crime films. Black Mass has its moments of brutality, sure, limited mostly to bursts of fist to face sadism & quick bursts of assassination, but for the most part it’s a calm story of political intrigue. The movie is almost entirely focused on the real-life Bulger’s secretive “alliance” with the FBI that allowed the two agencies to work together to eradicate the Italian mafia from Boston, making room for Bulger to bloom from a small time crime boss into an all-powerful kingpin. Black Mass is concerned with the audio surveillance tapes, buried/forged paperwork, and back alley dealings with the federal government that allowed for Bulger’s rise to power much more than it is with his murderous deeds, which amount to exactly one onscreen shooting & two strangling on Depp’s bloody hands. Bulger is terrifying, but the threat he poses is more systemic than it is physical, making for a film that may have defied the more bloodthirsty expectations of its audience. I noticed quite a few viewers at our screening checking their cellphones in the second & third acts . . .

Any muted expectations I had for Black Mass based on its 70s-era crime drama familiarity (an aesthetic that somehow hilariously continues well into the 90s in the film’s timeline) were surpassed merely on the merit of its performances. Besides Depp’s horrifying, career-revitalizing turn as Whitey Bulger, there’s also great, unexpected screen presence from Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, and, my personal favorite, Julianne Nichlson (who was fantastic in both Boardwalk Empire & Masters of Sex and whom I only want the best things for). This is an actor’s movie. The 70s crime pastiche is merely a backdrop for the absurdly talented cast’s parade of heavy Boston accents & emotional turmoil. The screenplay offers very little in terms of surprise. Of course Bulger is the kind of gangster that is gentle & neighborly with old ladies, but will have a man killed for threatening to punch him in a bar. Of course, despite his official status as a “top echelon informant”, he’s prone to saying things like, “I don’t consider this ratting or informing. This is business.” Of course, because this is a gangster movie, the script is a long procession of a million “fuck”s, one with just a few homophobic & anti-Italian slurs thrown in there for good measure. I consistently got the feeling that we’ve all seen this play out countless times before, but I still enjoyed it a great deal. Just as a particularly corrupt FBI agent justifies his involvement with Bulger as “a little white lie to protect the bigger truth”, Black Mass is a little, unassuming movie worthwhile for how it supports such a massive list of excellent performances, Depp’s return to form, believe it or not, being just one drop in the bucket.

-Brandon Ledet