Saturday, May 23, 2015


 2.5 / 5 

For 90 minutes, Tomorrowland had me captivated.  For the sake of sharing its unabashedly optimistic vision of a future that never was, for the sake of reliving the Spielbergian charm of its settings and pacing, and with the hope that it was all leading to a climax as gloriously nutty as its concept, I went along with it.

But Tomorrowland winds up in much the same place as the theme-park setting that shares its name, a place that has run out of ideas and lacks the courage of its ambitions.  With a final act that feels cribbed from The Abyss, Tomorrowland winds up as a beautiful, sleek shaggy-dog story, all setup and no punchline.

Still, it's one heck of a setup, one that will likely resonate most with longtime Disney fans -- and director Brad bird and writer Damon Lindelof are clearly fans themselves.  The Disney nut in me felt my heart flutter and my brain spin as Tomorrowland took us back to the legendary 1964 World's Fair, incorporated little notes of the Sherman Bros. "It's a Great, Big Beautiful Tomorrow" into its score, and conveyed exactly the right look and feel -- or, at least the one we imagine.  Though his name is barely uttered, Tomorrowland feeds off of the latter-years visions of Walt Disney, who remained defiantly optimistic even while the world flipped its lid and fell off its rocker just about the time he died.

Tomorrowland proceeds from the notion that the Disney vision was exactly right, that the American-led vision of a world filled with sleek, white buildings and lots of angular towers was where we all wanted to head until the damned Sixties and Seventies with their hippies and corporate CEOs mucked it all up.

The spectacularly Utopian vision of the future in Tomorrowland, the kind of future in which men wear jumpsuits and most modes of transportation have the word "hover" in front of them, was one that Walt Disney tried to depict in real life, first with Tomorrowland and then with the impossible (and, it's always been said, slightly sinister) idea of EPCOT, a real-life city of the future.

Tomorrowland approaches all of this with an absolute straight face and no sense of irony.  There's no acknowledgment that the very company that's releasing the film is the same company whose bottom-line-oriented CEOs quashed that idealistic, not-so-vaguely socialist vision because of its economic impossibility.  The future just isn't possible if you also want to make a lot of money.

Yes, this review is rambling, and that's exactly what Tomorrowland does for its first 90 minutes, doing more to convey its story points than actually tell them.  Even if you pay attention very carefully, you will likely have no idea exactly what is happening in Tomorrowland.  In part, that's because the movie is more enamored with the idea of presenting a lot of ideas than actually resolving them.  This may sound familiar to fans of the great TV series Lost, which was guided for a long while by Tomorrowland's Lindelof.  It was a great puzzle-box of a TV show that kept throwing out more and more and more ideas even until the last minute, but couldn't bring itself to wrap them all up.  Tomorrowland falls into the same trap, over and over and over.

The best I understand it, George Clooney's character, Frank Walker, was a little boy with grand ideas in 1964, and during a trip to the World's Fair got an invitation to journey to some parallel-universe futuristic city, but then he lost his hope.  After an extraordinarily long set-up, the movie introduces us to a girl named Cassie (Britt Robertson), who's equally intelligent and optimistic, and also gets a glimpse of this wondrous place, where Space Mountain (but, oddly, given its inspiration, not Spaceship Earth) is an architectural centerpiece.

About every 20 minutes, the plot turns back on itself and heads in a different direction until the screenplay feels like a hopeless jumble.  Eventually, Frank and Cassie and a sassy little British-accented robot make it back to Tomorrowland (apparently that's really its name) and find it in a horrible state of decay, much like the theme-park land or EPCOT Center.

Up until this point, I may not have understood what was happening, but I was reveling in it, having a blast -- the Disney geek and the movie geek in me were both thoroughly entertained, especially by a dazzling scene in which the Eiffel Tower becomes a rocket-launching pad.  In a film filled with visual inventiveness, it's perhaps the high point. But like a roller coaster that climbs and climbs and climbs, it's all downhill from there.

Tomorrowland gets stuck.  Backed into a corner by its own endless cleverness, it has nowhere to go and nothing to do except state its intentions rather than reflect them.  The talky, lumbering final 45 minutes are filled with awkward exposition, as if the moviemakers suddenly discovered that geeing out on Disney-inspired futurism wasn't enough to keep Tomorrowland moving forward.

The Blu-ray release is going to have a lot of bonus material, and that's in large part the problem: Tomorrowland is overstuffed with ideas that never quite expresses in a satisfying, cohesive way.

Viewed May 23, 2015 -- Walt Disney Studios Theater


Friday, May 22, 2015

"Pitch Perfect 2"

 3.5 / 5 

Hyperactive, hyper-sexual, hyper-aware, Pitch Perfect 2 is a direct descendant of the Airplane!-style movies where jokes come faster than you can react to them, and when one of them lands with a thud, who cares?  The movie just gleefully, effortlessly moves on to the next one.

There is a plot in Pitch Perfect 2, which has to do with the Barden Bellas, the singing group from the first movie, competing in the world acapella championships, but that's entirely beside the point.  The movie, directed with humor and flair by Elizabeth Banks, just cares about the laughs, and since the majority of them are delivered with, well, perfect pitch, the details of the story are merely window dressing.

The cast from the first movie reassembles, including Anna Kendrick as the leader of the singing group, Rebel Wilson as its most wildly inappropriate and oversized personality, Britany Snow as its most ambitious member.  They're the leads, but they're surrounded by surreal supporting players like Hana Mae Lee as the a reclusive and oddball Korean girl, Ester Dean as a spirited lesbian, and, hanging around like the original Mousketeers, the "other ones" who lurk in the background.  (The movie plays some sly tricks with these borderline-extras, including a moment where Kendrick's Becca admits she's not sure which one is which.)

The sequel makes some assumptions that the audience has seen the first film, but if you haven't, you'll miss very little.  The Barden Bellas have achieved some national fame after winning whatever championship they won in Pitch Perfect, and begin Pitch Perfect 2 with an outrageously catastrophic performance in front of President and First Lady Obama.

They fall from grace rather spectacularly, but find a way to redeem themselves, and as far as plot goes, that's about it.

All Pitch Perfect 2 really wants to do is create clever and elaborate jokes, situations that escalate like a plot-driven Goldberg device until they pay off with mostly impressive punchlines, the bulk of which can't be repeated despite a highly questionable PG-13 rating.  The parents next to me may have regretted bringing their 8-year-old girls to see this, though even the raunchiest, most sexually oriented humor (and there's a lot of that) is presented with such levity it's not possible to be really offended.  That said, if hearing "vagina" and its many synonyms causes discomfort, Pitch Perfect 2, which also seems to relish in jokes about lesbianism, might not be your thing.

The music is presented as impressively this time around as it was the first, though even it takes a backseat to the rapid-fire verbal and visual silliness.  A subplot about Becca getting an internship at a recording studio seems more like a digression than an integral part of the proceedings, but its lightened by a small-but-memorable performance by Keegan-Michael Kay as a megalomaniac music producer who dreams of a Christmas album recorded by Snoop Dogg/Lion.

What kind of sense does that make?  About as much as anything in the film, including the imposing, hard-edged, black-clad German acapella troupe that becomes the Barden Bellas' biggest competition.

Pitch Perfect 2 just bounces along giddily from scene to scene, not pausing to care whether any of it really goes together.  The movie brings in Hailee Steinfeld from True Grit as a new member of the Bellas, and since she's actually 18, her presence suddenly make the rest of the cast look about as age-appropriate as Stockard Channing playing a high-school student in Grease.

Maybe it would be worth caring about inadequacies of plotting and characterization in another film, but Pitch Perfect 2 is such a happy lark it just speeds past any little bump it finds.  As a director, Banks wants to keep things moving -- though she also shows some real style in shooting the musical scenes, and knows when to let the actors, instead of the camera, carry the comedic moments.  It's an impressive feature debut, which shows off her desire to please the audience.

It works. What might come across as crass, unformed or even desperate in another movie feels here like it's all part of the whole -- a whole that, like the Bellas themselves, just wants the audience to love it.  In the end, it's kind of hard not to.  Pitch Perfect 2 is a movie that sends you out of the theater wearing a broad, well-earned smile, and that's something that happens all too rarely these days.

Viewed May 22, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, May 2, 2015

"While We're Young"

 4 / 5 

In a particularly vulnerable moment, Josh, the documentary filmmaker played by Ben Stiller, tells his much younger protege, "Before I met you, I had two emotions: Wistfulness and disdain."  It's more than clever writing -- it's a sentiment that will feel uncomfortably real to the target audience for Noah Baumbach's insightful, warm-hearted While We're Young, which explores much more than a generation gap.

More urgently on its mind is an emotion gap, one into which many of us childless, (ulp) middle-aged children of the 1980s fall.  We're not old enough to be the wise adults -- or, as the film makes it clear, we don't want to be old enough to be that -- yet not young enough to have our whole lives before us.  We're as stalled in our careers and ambitions as Josh is with the documentary he's been working on for the better part of a decade, a thuddingly dull film so obtuse that even Josh doesn't know what it's about anymore.

Into the life he shares with his patient and equally uncertain wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) come the retro-bohemian twenty-somethings Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), free spirits if ever there were ones.  They eschew a digital life and favor books, board games and vinyl records: The very things Josh and Cornelia have thrown away are alchemized into useful objects once more, and Josh is enamored by their youthful enthusiasm.

Suddenly, Josh is wearing hats with brims, riding bikes instead of hopping in cabs, and turning his back on old friends, who begin casting wary eye at him for his middle-aged craziness.

Even more excitingly, Jamie thinks Josh's modest acclaim as a documentarian can help him with his own quest to enter the field, and in a heartbeat Josh feels something he hasn't felt in a long time: He's wanted.  Admired, even.  Hesitant at first, even Cornelia becomes smitten with the idea that maybe they aren't as old as they thought they were.

While We're Here is a final fresh and vibrant breath of maturity and adulthood before the multiplex is overrun with explosion-filled blockbusters.  It's made for grown-ups, and takes as much glee in being off-putting to youngsters as the latest Marvel film does in shutting out the old fogeys.

Baumbach covers a lot of territory in While We're Here, from the ethics of documentary filmmaking to the dread that greets the first diagnosis of arthritis.  (Josh's visit to a straight-shooting, humorless doctor is painfully funny.)  Charles Grodin, who at 80 is the embodiment of Baumbach's thesis that age does not diminish effectiveness in humans, plays an extended supporting role as Josh's father-in-law, a legendary documentary filmmaker whose own success was more hard-won than Josh imagines.

In a key scene, Josh rushes in to a Lincoln Center tribute to the old man.  Wearing an ill-fitting jacket and roller-blades, he recalls the panicked Dustin Hoffman at the end of The Graduate, and has much of that younger character's heated emotion.  But the result is different here, and Josh's seemingly heroic pronouncements are met with tepid response.

Josh, it turns out, hasn't been aiming for success most of his life.  It was his goal once, until he learned more about the world, until he defined success in his own terms.  In While We're Young, he comes to the realization that he's never understood his own ambition, his own desires -- and it's just now, as his body starts to creak and groan and his hair starts to gray, that it's time to re-examine what's important to him.

It's that sudden realization, and the accompanying moment of self-reflection that many audience members are going to feel when it happens, that makes While We're Young more thrilling and more exciting than the latest super-hero movie.  For me, at least.  Then again, I might just be getting old.  And the most lovely thing about While We're Young is, it made me feel OK about that.

Viewed May 2, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, April 19, 2015

"Ex Machina"

 3.5 / 5 

Beneath the glassy, controlled surface of Ex Machina a question about technology churns and roils the waters: Do we even know what we're doing?

Though that big philosophical question lingers, to Ex Machina's credit that's not what's mostly on its mind.  Above all, it aims to be a crafty, unpredictable cat-and-mouse game, and it admirably succeeds, occasionally despite the calm, assured style that can sometimes get in its way.

Lanky, awkward Domhnall Gleeson anchors the movie as Caleb,  lanky, awkward young computer programmer who wins a contest to meet the head of his company, the barely older Nathan, played by a bearded Oscar Isaac.  (Ex Machina will likely be remembered by Star Wars fans as the movie that paired these two before they went into that galaxy far, far away.)

Meeting Nathan isn't really the big prize, though, because the reclusive, insanely wealthy head of the company has a task for the winner.  He's invented a robot that he thinks can pass as a human and wants Caleb to administer the "Turing test," a fabled examination of technology that aims to see if artificial intelligence can be mistaken for the real thing.

The robot is named Ava, and she's played with gentle complexity by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander.  What she does with the role is astonishing: She makes us really believe we're watching an advanced robot, some sort of digital creature.  If her performance feels less flashy than Gleeson's and Isaac's, it's because Vikander is so convincing and captivating; the way she breathes real life into Ava is one of Ex Machina's greatest achievements.

The audience catches on to the central drama of Ex Machina faster than Caleb does: Something is not quite right about Nathan and his impossibly large and imposing technological compound.  (The movie's luxurious vistas seem to be set somewhere in the high-tech realm of the Pacific Northwest but were shot in southern Norway.)

Nathan's got a screw loose, but wouldn't anyone with a similarly vast fortune?  He insists just a little too hard that he and Caleb should be best buds, allows himself to get just a bit too drunk every night, and when the power goes off unexpectedly during Caleb's first night at the compound, Nathan's just a little too comfortable with such a giant bug in the system.

Caleb knows he's in for some trouble, but he's not quite sure what it is.  Part of the fun of Ex Machina is working it all out for yourself.  Though it has a highly sleek and polished look, make no mistake: Ex Machina is something of a funhouse.  It's not strictly a murder-mystery, but it might as well be; if there aren't bodies at the beginning of it there may well be by the end.  Imagine yourself to know where the movie is headed when it starts and you'll be sorely mistaken once the end credits role.  It may look supremely even-keeled, maybe even a little cerebral, but you can be absolutely certain that beneath its frosty exterior Ex Machina is giddily impressed with itself.  And well it should be.  The storytelling feats it accomplishes are impressive ones, and the final moments are spot-on, leaving you with a well-earned, sinister smile on your face.

Even though I'm plagued by one central loophole I still can't quite rectify (one so critical to the plot that I can't reveal it here -- email me separately if you want to have a discussion about it), I enjoyed Ex Machina while I watched it ... and like it even more as I think about its stealthy twists and clever deceptions.

It never really delves into those deeper philosophical questions about technology, and never really needs to -- it's got its hands full just keeping all of its surprises coming, and Ex Machina is far too entertaining to need to teach us any sort of a lesson.

Viewed April 19, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks



 2 / 5 

Walter initially presents itself as the story of a young man whose job is to decide whether people are going to heaven or to hell.

It's the basis, I suppose, for a good movie, but Walter forgets about that concept more or less immediately, and instead offers up the sort of quirky, character-driven comedy that independent films do best and, truth be told, worst.

Walter knows it can't sustain such a slim story unless it dives head first into some serious religious territory.  Its title character believes himself to be the son of God, but knows full well that another guy claimed that title long ago.  So, he carries his conviction lightly and quietly.  As played by Andrew J. West, Walter doesn't claim to have any divine insight beyond a God-given ability to determine, just by looking at you, whether you're going up to the Pearly Gates or down to the land of fire and brimstone once you shuffle off this mortal coil.

He got this ability, the movie shows us, when his father died.  He also got saddled with a mother (Virginia Madsen) who has never been right since her husband's death.  She and Walter are all each other has got, except for Walter's job as a ticket-taker at a local megaplex.  The cinema is staffed with the kind of sweet-natured, middle-class suburbanites who in real life would never, ever deign to take a job as a concessionaire or usher at a movie theater that pays eight bucks an hour.

Walter goes to his job every day and believes in his destiny until one night when he sees the ghost of a man (Justin Kirk) whose spirit is trapped between here and there, stuck in a limbo from which only Walter can help him escape by telling him which way he is supposed to go.

By this point, Walter has just enough faux-eccentric charm to keep things interesting, but then it begins veering wildly off course, delving into the private life of the pretty concession-counter girl, introducing a ludicrously inappropriate psychologist (William H. Macy) and losing sight of its central concept.  Walter, it turns out, isn't really the son of God -- he might not even be all that religious, despite his nightly prayer time.  He's just emotionally damaged, and Walter wants us to see how "everyone is broken," as one of the characters puts it.

Though it runs less than 90 minutes, Walter has a tough time sustaining interest for even that brief duration.  As it meanders through plot point after plot point, it loses more and more focus as it tries to show us what happened to Walter to trigger his delusions.

Still, it all leads Walter (and Walter) to a moving moment of catharsis, one that surprises with its intensity and effectiveness -- it's just not necessarily worth all the effort it took to get there.

Walter has its charms, which might make it worthwhile Saturday-afternoon viewing some day, but with so many better films about similar subjects (The Fisher King comes to mind, as do Fight Club and K-PAX, and it's not necessarily a good thing for a film to be unfavorably compared to K-PAX) it's ultimately just too sweet, too safe and too confused for its own good.

Viewed April 13, 2015 -- DWA Theater


Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Kingsman: The Secret Service"

 2.5 / 5 

Kingsman: The Secret Service is such a full-throttle assault to sensibility, an attempt to be both retro and modern that seems so off-balance that I found myself in a quandary: I loved it except when I hated it.  After it was over, I wondered, was it a gloriously excessive romp or a frustratingly failed spoof?  Like Betty White says in the census-taker sketch from Saturday Night Live, "There's really no way of knowing."

Amid some of the worst visual effects in a big-budget studio release and violence that crosses the line from gratuitous to relentlessly excessive, Kingsman: The Secret Service delivers a long stretch of giddy inventiveness as it reveals the existence of a spy ring so secret even its members seem unsure if it exists.

The Kingsmen are named for a Savile Row tailor, or maybe the shop is named for them, it's never clear and it doesn't matter.  What matters is that they are the special agents that MI6 would call on for help if MI6 knew about them.  They are the kind of spies James Bond could only aspire to be, ruthlessly effective yet impeccably cultured.

The movie begins with a thoroughly botched scene of a thoroughly botched mission.  For the first 10 or 15 minutes of Kingsman, director Matthew Vaughn seems incapable of telling a story using modern tools -- in fact, Kingsman opens with what has to be the most amateurish effects shot in recent memory.  The visuals don't even rise to the level of a cheap video game.  In an effort to plunge the audience right into the action, nothing is clear and the movie itself is distracting.  Things get even worse when Kingsman introduces Eggsy (Taron Egerton), an East London thug whose life is so stereotypical thuggish (baggy pants, hip-hop music, fast cars, thick accents) that Kingsman has nowhere to go but up.

And it does.  It rises, it rises, it rises, and finally it doesn't achieve lift-off as much as it shoots straight into the cinematic heavens, finding its way after the first blind stumbles and morphing into exactly the kind of movie we wish James Bond films could be again.  It's fast on its feet, clever and charming, and more than a little thrilling.  It's all going so well.

Then, as Kingsman does time and again, it comes crashing back down, falling hard when it introduces the lisping, curious character played by Samuel L. Jackson, a multi-billionaire who, it comes to pass, has a plan to take over the world.  True, total global domination is a villainous motivation we see far too little of in spy movies anymore -- they've all become so literal, so real, so gritty.  Kingsman is figurative, silly, lighthearted.  But neither Jackson nor the script (based on a graphic novel) can figure out this bad guy, and the movie suffers for it.  His plan, when it's finally revealed, seems so full of gaping holes, and is presented with such impossible-to-believe amateurishness, that there's no way Kingsman could expect us to take it seriously -- but it does.

Jackson's prodigious talents fail him this time around, and even Kingsman's script points out that the plot is only as good as the villain -- and when your villain is presented as a lightweight, lisping Russell Simmons knock-off, it's hard not to think what might have happened if he had been Blofeld, Scaramanga or Blofeld rather than a character who's a quarter-of-a-step up from Dr. Evil.

The villain's name is Valentine, and without giving too much away, his plan involves using billions of cell phones all over the world to emit a signal to -- well, exactly what it does (and, more importantly, why) are never entirely clear.  For those who may be familiar with the story, imagine he gets his way: Then what?  You knew what Goldfinger had in mind, Valentine not so much.

But nevertheless, the Kingsmen are going to stop him, including the newly recruited Eggy, whose training and indoctrination into the Kingsman program form the best part of the movie.  Eggy's training by the no-nonsense Merlin (Mark Strong) and by Firth's Harry Hart (code name: Galahad) -- all the Kingsmen are named for Arthurian legends -- is endlessly entertaining.  Watching the London lad become a gentleman spy is as entertaining as the name-checked transition of Eliza Doolittle.  More, even.  For this long, long stretch of time, Kingsman had me believing it had not only overcome its early difficulties, but that it was introducing us to a situation and characters that could form the basis of sequel after sequel -- all of which I was already envisioning myself going to see.

Kingsman is fast, funny, cheeky, clever and, most of all, suave and sophisticated, as any spy who received a bespoke-made suit from Savile Row must be.  Eventually, Eggy even learns how to order the perfect martini (hint: only look at the bottle of vermouth).

Then, just as the Kingsmen should be making the plans for a final attack on Valentine's mountaintop compound (another digital mess of a location), everything goes kablooey. I mean that literally.  During a stop at a Southern evangelical church that may hold a secret to uncovering Valentine's plot, something happens.  I won't say what it is, I'll say only that it leads to the most excessive, depressing, ugly and out-of-place outbursts of violence, one that is so spectacularly ill-conceived it made me want to leave the movie then and there.

I didn't.  I stayed, even though I didn't want to.  And I'm glad I did.

If you think that last paragraph is confusing, it's nothing compared with the emotions I felt watching Kingsman.  I was angered, I was disgusted, I was shocked, I was confused and, more importantly, I felt I had been betrayed.  True, the movie's opening scene also contains some rather over-the-top violence, and the rest of the movie will have lots of exploding heads and splattered brains, but this particular scene stopped the show in its tracks.  It presents violence for no other reason than to get us to laugh at big wooden poles being shoved into someone's head, at bullet blasts to the face, at body parts falling off.  Maybe Vaughn intends to convey some sort of "meta" message through the over-the-top violence, but it doesn't work.  (And if it's not, if he means it solely as entertainment, it still doesn't work.)  It comes close, at least twice, maybe even three times, to ruining the film.

But Firth, Egerton, Strong and Michael Caine (as Arthur, naturally) are there to bring it all back.  When the violence turns cartoony and silly as people's heads blow up in multiple colors, shot from above like a Busby Berkeley Technicolor musical, they manage to rise above it all.  These are solid actors with terrific characters.  In Kingsman, they've found a concept that could grow and get better and turn into movies that audiences don't just half-love but whole-love.

Kingsman almost works.  It is wonderful fun.  It made me smile and laugh at exactly the times when it wanted me to smile and laugh.  It sucked me in to its story, made me believe in what I was seeing.  And then, it wasted all of that goodwill by its insistence on being edgy, by bringing in "meta" elements that referred to other (better) films, by spilling blood in such aggressively ugly ways.

As a film, Kingsman should aspire to be exactly like the debonaire Harry Hart/Galahad, but still has far too much Eggy on its face.  Next time around, let's hope they get it right, because I do hope that Kingsman will have a next time around.  I'd love to see what they could do if they figure out how to get the tone right.

Viewed March 28, 2015 -- AMC Promenade 16


Sunday, March 22, 2015

"It Follows"

 3.5 / 5 

Horror may be the toughest of all genres to pull off.  What scares one person may bore another.  What gets under my skin may leave you shrugging.  So, ever since the slasher fad of the 1980s, horror films have pushed the limits ever further of what an audience can stomach, reasoning, I guess, that if an audience can't be scared, it can at least be revolted.

Suspense and fright has given way to shock and disgust, and horror filmmakers have relied increasingly on startling sound effects and grisly visuals to sell their wares.  (You may have noticed that the easiest way avoid being "scared" at a horror movie is to plug your ears; without the jolting sound cues, most horror films lose their power.)

But there's been a slow and welcome change of late, with movies like The Woman in Black, Insidious and The Conjuring taking glee in the re-discovery of taking their time to establish a story, then turning the screws ever tighter.  It Follows is a nice addition to the growing trend of intelligently, skillfully made horror movies.

It begins with the horror-film truism that came up in the early 1980s, that a smart, capable young woman should never sully her reputation with sexual intercourse, that sex equals death.  The latter axiom may only have been implied in movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween, but became a part of the real world around the same time, when HIV and AIDS were making headlines -- and frightening young people away from sex of any sort.

The characters of It Follows seem to live in a world perpetually stuck in about 1982.  Their cars look like the sort of hand-me-downs that a 1980s high-schooler would have driven.  Their homes have above-ground pools and 4:3 television sets with rabbit-ears.  The girls feather their hair, the boys are attired in hopelessly retro ways, and there's nary a cell phone in sight.  And yet, this isn't a period piece.  It's more a kind of horror-driven fairy tale set in this imagined world that never moved on from the latter years of the Cold War, the time before we knew about AIDS and the ways sex could kill you.

From its first shot, It Follows establishes the off-kilter sense of doom and dread that pervade it.  Director David Robert Mitchell knows how to create a mood, one that never lets up.  I can't think of a movie as strangely unsettling, in ways both big and small, since Philp Kaufman's masterful 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Acting, production design, photography, music and sound effects are all used to keep us off-balance.

It Follows opens with a scene we don't understand -- a barely dressed young woman staggers out of a suburban house and stumbles down the street.  It's hard to tell if she's running, and if she is we can't figure out from what.  She assures neighbors and her father that she is fine, but she's obviously not.  And then, the next morning, she's dead, in the movie's only overtly grisly scene.  (Fair warning: It is indeed a disturbing image.)

Seemingly unrelated, young college student Jay (Maika Monroe) is getting ready for a date with a boy named Hugh (Jake Weary) who may be too old for her.  They flirt a little.  They sit down to a movie ... and Hugh begins to freak out.  He can't see something sinister that Jay can see.  They forget about the incident, and continue their flirtation.  They have sex in the back of a car.

Then things get really, really weird, because the sex they have is, well, cursed.  I won't tell you how, I won't tell you why, but Hugh has "passed on" something to Jay without her knowledge or consent, and he needs her to be certain that she has been infected.  There's only one way to get rid of it -- to pass it on to someone else.

Yes, in the revisionist horror-movie world of It Follows, sex isn't an instant death sentence, not as long as you can go out and have sex with other people.  In the 1980s, the way to survive a horror movie was to be the virgin.  In It Follows, the only way you can reasonably be assured of living to the end of the movie is to become sexually prolific.  It's a sly subversion, one that Mitchell plays both for laughs and for shock.

It Follows is never less than fascinating, occasionally genuinely creepy and scary, and frequently downright bizarre.  It sets its own rules and then follows them carefully.  It hints at a "meta" cinematic world view, one that allows it to comment on itself ... but just barely, never going over the top in that sense the way the downright silly Cabin in the Woods did a few years ago.  It Follows doesn't want to be an homage to other horror movies -- it wants to be its own.

Though it has an odd sense of pacing and an ending that plays things a little too coy, it largely succeeds.  It Follows is, above all, a wonderfully effective little horror show that knows the best places to find horrors aren't necessarily in monsters that live in our imaginations -- but in the monsters that live inside our heads, the ones that emerge and grow once we've entered the world of adulthood.  They're the kinds of monsters that take hold and never let go, following us everywhere we go, with the ability to take the form of anyone, but especially the people we care about the most.  As the title says, once we decide we're going to be adults, it follows that some pretty ugly stuff decides to start following us around for the rest of our lives.

Once you get over the effective creepiness of It Follows and start thinking about what it all means, its subtle and cutting observations become all the more fascinating.

Viewed March 22, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks