“It Comes at Night”

The apocalyptic horror genre is one of my favorites because it raises moral questions about survival. How far will you go to survive? Can you trust anyone? Can you live with killing someone? “It Comes at Night” asks these questions and the answer from watching this is no. “It Comes at Night” is the most haunting film I’ve seen this year.

An unknown plague has wiped out most of civilization. A family of three lives in a secluded mansion in the woods and consists of father Paul (Joel Edgerton), mother Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and teenaged son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). They offer shelter to a mysterious man named Will (Christopher Abbott) and his wife Kim (Riley Keough) after a brief violent confrontation.

Rules are established, but the two most important ones are don’t go out at night and leave the red door locked at all times. Will someone break the rules? Can Paul trust Will? Why does Travis wonder the house at night?

“It Comes at Night” is an unconventional apocalyptic horror film. Yes, there are gas masks, a nasty human virus, and barbaric standoffs. But there isn’t a known source of the virus, zombies, or a soldier with a false promise. That’s where writer/director Trey Edward Shults excels is his focus on the characters and minimal setting.

The characters stay within the home or its grounds. When they’re together, they have brief conversations and little is known about them, leaving the viewer to analyze them. The ruthless Paul is a former history teacher, so he was likely civilized prior to the virus. Will had various odd jobs before the outbreak and relocated several times during, so he struggles to protect his family.

“It Comes at Night” is told primarily through Travis’s point of view. He witnesses Paul’s survival instincts and realizes he may have to take drastic measures to survive. He has a series of nightmares that risk being cliched, but are ultimately used to reflect Travis’s emotions or foreshadow what’s to come. They’re refreshingly chilling sequences.

“It Comes at Night” will likely polarize audiences since some viewers will love its artistic take on horror while others will compare it unfavorably to “The Walking Dead.” I personally am on board and can’t stop thinking about this masterful study of human nature.

Grade: A

“Wonder Woman”

The DCEU has finally gotten their act together! After their three consecutive misfires (“Man of Steel,” “Batman vs. Superman,” and “Suicide Squad”), they’ve redeemed themselves with “Wonder Woman.”

Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) grows up training to fight Ares, the God of War. She’s trained by her fierce aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) until one day a soldier named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) appears on their beach, informing them of World War I. Diana agrees to help Steve stop a powerful enemy, under the assumption it will end all war. But will it?

“Wonder Woman” is the first DC film since the original “Superman” that paints heroism in a positive light. Diana doesn’t bomb buildings like in Tim Burton’s “Batman” or recklessly destroy buildings and kill thousands of people in a fight like “Man of Steel.” She fights, kills only when provoked, and she saves people (did Superman save anyone in “Man of Steel?”).

Diana’s flaw is often highlighted in key scenes where she has to decide between saving someone in front of her or pursuing the greater evil and save thousands of lives. This sets up some emotionally investing conflicts as she learns the hard way that she can’t save everyone; even if she wins a battle.

Gal Gadot is charismatic as the lead heroine; despite showing off impressive stunt work, I was more impressed with her emotional moments. It’s sweet watching her discover small joys such as babies or ice cream. It’s funny to see her match an outfit with her battle gear. It’s sad watching her mourn the loss of loved ones in battle and learning war has consequences.

Chris Pine brings boyish charm as the sly Trevor. He acts as Diana’s mentor, partner, and lover. I was more invested in their mentor-protege and buddy cop relationships rather than the actual romance. The romance between them is forced, but not annoying.

The main villains could have also used some more development and originality since they are cliched mad scientists; however, “Wonder Woman” is about the hero and not the villain, so I’ll let it pass.

Director Patty Jenkins also pulls off something few indie directors have accomplished: transition from a low-budget film to a big blockbuster and direct both competently. Each action sequence looks like an expressionist painting and are strengthened by Jenkins’s exceptional use of slow motion (a style I’ve resented in recent years).

“Wonder Woman” is arguably the best film so far this summer. And when that guitar solo kicks in during action sequences, it will likely have you quietly saying, “Yes,” like it did for me.

Grade: A-

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

I am Groot… I am Groot…  I am impressed with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” It’s the first MCU sequel done right since “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

After completing another successful mission, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) meet the enigmatic Ego (Kurt Russell). He helps the group and reveals himself to be Peter’s dad, shocking the group.

Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) return to settle their scores, Peter and Gamora must deal with their feelings, Rocket Raccoon comes to terms with who he is, and Baby Groot dances adorably.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” maintains its predecessor’s energy, colorful effects, kinetic action sequences, and killer soundtrack. It takes the humor and character moments up a few notches, resulting in a surprisingly hilarious and emotional sequel. If “Vol. 1” is “A New Hope,” then “Vol. 2” is “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Without getting too much into the plot, the Guardians split into two groups where alliances form, betrayals occur, and revelations are revealed. Quill spends a portion of the movie torn between family and his destiny; it’s bittersweet and sometimes heartbreaking.

“Vol. 2” is fun, though! Don’t let my description fool you. The standout sequences are a delightful opening credits sequence, a space ship battle that’s an obvious nod to the arcade gaming era, and any scene involving Yondu (Rooker kills it).

The cast is once again great with their chemistry and comedic timing; they’re even better in their dramatic moments. Kurt Russell’s performance is a little too exposition-heavy, but his charm and charisma make it acceptable.

I could have done without Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord. He literally has two minutes of screen time, angrily delivers exposition about Yondu, and leaves until the end. For a hyped character, I expected more for Sly to do.

The MCU has a bad history with sequels, but “Vol. 2” proves you don’t have to one-up all elements for a sequel; it’s okay to slow down and expand on the characters’ back story. You don’t see that in a superhero film often, which is admirable.

Grade: A-

“Your Name”

After reading a few reviews, I’m happy I gave a little anime film called “Your Name” a chance. This is a beautiful mind-bender with a rewarding payoff.

Taki and Mitsuha, two Japanese high school students, wake up to find they’ve swapped bodies. They wake up the following day back in their normal bodies, and then again the next day having swapped again. Why? They don’t know and neither to we. This keeps happening as they try to solve this mystery.

“Your Name” is an innovative depiction of time. It utilizes subtlety and editing to keep you guessing what’s going on. Pay close attention to each time a door opens or shuts to catch the body swaps. “Your Name” contains no exposition-fueled monologues, which is a nice change of pace for a sci-fi/fantasy film.

Taki and Mitsuha’s story is more emotional than fantasized. Taki deals with angst and not knowing his place in the world while Mitsuha deals with an estranged father and a difficult political climate. They help each other using text messages and notepad apps in their phones (a clever use of modern technology). They feel like real teenagers and not soap opera characters.

Director Makoto Shinkai (“The Garden of Words”) has made a beautifully drawn film that explores the power of dreams and twilight, as well as the beauty and horror of comets. Each time I felt “Your Name” was slowing down, something new would happen that kept my attention.

“Your Name” is exhausting to watch because we want Taki and Mitsuha to solve their own mystery. Each time they come close, something stops them, whether it’s a person, a dream, or a disaster. It gets mildly redundant, but thankfully the ending is sweet, poetic, and ambiguous enough to keep us wondering what happens afterwards.

Due to its popularity, we can count on a remake of “Your Name,” but it isn’t needed. Especially since the 2006 Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock vehicle “The Lake House” is a tamer version. Do yourselves a favor and just see “Your Name.” Especially if you’re an anime fan.

Grade: A

“The Belko Experiment”

My worst day at work didn’t involve being locked in my office and forced to kill my coworkers. “The Belko Experiment” depicts this nightmarish scenario with little-to-no impact.

Belko is a non-profit with a vague description in the middle of Columbia. One day, all of the branch’s outsourced American employees are locked in their office and given instructions from their intercom to kill or be killed. Why? Well, we don’t exactly know (or find out).

Written by James Gunn (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), “The Belko Experiment” has potential of being a sharply funny horror satire. Leave it to a hack director like Greg McLean of “The Darkness” (my pick for 2016’s worst film) to take a great premise nowhere.

Your list of characters includes the COO with military background (Tony Goldwyn), two bromantic maintenance workers (Michael Rooker and David Dastmalchian), the office creep (John C McGinley), and two lovers reminiscent of Jim and Pam Halpert (John Gallagher Jr. and Adria Arjona). McLean and Gunn have every opportunity to take these characters into insightful and satirical turns, but rely on violence as their shock source.

“The Belko Experiment” is violent in hardcore fashion and I wouldn’t expect less from McLean. Though after the fifth head explosion and third mass shooting, the violence becomes tiresome and meaningless. Even a particular tape roller kill is underwhelming. And of course, McLean loves violence against women, showing men once again sadistically stalking and killing their female coworkers (Ebert must be rolling in his grave over this).

The game is part of an experiment that isn’t fully explained, even when the big revelation occurs. All we get is a, “We learned a lot about humanity here.” What did they learn? Well, we sadly have to wait for a sequel to find out. The ending is a forced sequel setup that has me thinking the filmmakers didn’t even fully develop their own premise.

James Gunn explained he backed out of directing because he wasn’t in the mood to direct anything too violent. If he had stayed on, maybe “The Belko Experiment” would have had the satirical edge, some more innovation, and no sexist undertones. Maybe he’ll stay on for the unnecessary sequel.

Grade: D+

“Split”

Well, I can say I’m looking forward to whatever M. Night Shyamalan does next… For the first time since middle school.

“Split” opens with a mysterious man named Kevin (James McAvoy) abducting three teenagers, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula). They wake up in a mysterious basement and learn that Kevin has Dissociative Identity Disorder, possessing 23 personalities. Meanwhile, Kevin’s therapist (Betty Buckley) suspects Kevin of hiding something sinister.

Shyamalan has fallen on hard times between the polarizing “The Village,” self-indulgent “Lady in the Water,” plain stupid “The Happening,” and flops “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth.” I missed “The Visit,” but “Split” is a return to form.

Shyamalan has a few of his usual flaws, like the quirky side characters, exposition-fueled monologues, and overly intelligent kids, but he makes it work. The quirks tie to the characters’ back stories, the exposition is fascinating and authentic, and the intelligent kids defy the usual dumb horror kids.

Shyamalan goes down some dark paths, exploring trauma, sexual abuse, and even cannibalism, but none of it is done for shock value. This is a character study of Kevin and Casey. They are both victims and understand each other. Casey not only learns how to trick Kevin through his personalities, but she learns what makes him tick, tying to her past.

I was worried about “Split” because I thought it would be an insensitive stereotypical depiction of mental illness, but it’s surprisingly sensitive. Each personality is a guard for Kevin, but only three of Kevin’s personalities are villainous. The rest want to help him and we can’t help but root for Kevin at times.

McAvoy brings his A-game as Kevin, Dennis, Barry, Miss Patricia, Hedwig, and The Beast. I know it’s a January horror movie, but this is a performance that should be considered for awards. For an egomaniac director such as Shyamalan, this isn’t his movie at all. It’s McAvoy’s.

Plot twist? Oh, yes. But you’ll have to find out for yourself.

Grade: A-

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

So, “Star Wars” is now a yearly thing, huh? I can dig it.

“Rogue One” is a prequel to “A New Hope,” and without going into details, it’s about a rag tag group of rebels trying to uncover the Death Star’s weakness.

“Rogue One” is still a space opera like the previous films; however, this is the franchise’s most political and psychological installment. Our main characters are morally ambiguous and aren’t afraid to kill *anyone* that can compromise them. Even the high-ranking rebel leaders have their own agendas.

The new characters include Gyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a young rebel with a grudge against the Imperial Military. We also have Rebel Alliance operative Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a sassy android K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (the great Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and Imperial traitor Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). They’re the Expendables of the “Star Wars” universe!

On the villains side, we have the great Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, a high-ranking Imperial Officer with a raging God Complex. There’s no lightsabers or Force. This is a espionage movie in space.

Each character has their own agenda or reason for participating in the war, and we see their weaknesses and flaws. Unlike the other “Star Wars” movies where we have traditional heroes, the heroes in “Rogue One” are all flawed and feel more like people.

Director Gareth Edwards knows how to photograph action sequences, and the battle scenes are frenetic and gorgeous. There are a lot of slow tension-filled moments, emphasizing the film’s espionage aesthetics.

Every cast member does a great job, but I was disappointed that a few of them didn’t get their moment, particularly Ahmed as Bodhi Rook. Ahmed is a talented, versatile actor, but he doesn’t have his moment like the other cast members.

The biggest flaw is at times, “Rogue One” keeps alternating between its own movie and being a traditional “Star Wars” movie. Edwards wanted to make this his own, so the traditional “Star Wars” credits are absent. But we still get the traditional closing credits and numerous callbacks?

Same time, I can’t bash on “Rogue One” too much since I loved “The Force Awakens” (it was on my top 10 of last year), and that’s one big homage to “A New Hope.” If this month’s artsy movies or holiday comedies aren’t for you, check out “Rogue One” instead.

Grade: A-

PS, in case you’re all wondering what my ranking of the series looks like:

  1. A New Hope
  2. Return of the Jedi (not the best, but my personal favorite)
  3. The Empire Strikes Back (arguably the best, but I have a stronger attachment to the other tw0)
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. Rogue One
  6. Revenge of the Sith
  7. The Phantom Menace
  8. Attack of the Clones