A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Before any more time goes by I’d like to review A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—a strange, small, Persian-language vampire movie set in Iran but filmed in California. Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, it began making the rounds of film festivals almost two years ago and was finally released online in April. So far it has only pulled in about $500, 000 at the box office. But while it isn’t a money-maker, it is a popular darling. The low-key, positive word-of-mouth about it never stopped—and for good reason.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night claims to be a vampire spaghetti western, and in some respects it is. But it is also a stylized horror film, a supernatural romance, and possibly even an avant garde coming-of-age story for our human hero. This is one of those weird, beautiful little movies that straddles classic and experimental in interesting ways and is well worth the hundred minutes it will take to watch it.

In broad strokes, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night takes place in a decaying western town where the life of a young man rapidly losing hope intersects with the existence of a vampire willing to show a measure of mercy. The town, called simply Bad City, is a bleak landscape of factories, tiny houses, packed apartment blocks, chain link fences, and graffiti. There is a railroad, and oilfields, and flat, dusty stretches of scrub. Bad City has its wealth, but it doesn’t trickle down.

Amirpour plays with incongruity throughout the film. Her vampire is a predator, one who will slaughter her chosen prey with no mercy and then steal anything of value she can easily carry away. But she is also capable of letting a young boy go under the implied threat in her question, “Are you a good boy?” She spares a not-entirely jaded prostitute, telling her the shared truth “You’re sad. You don’t remember what you want. You don’t remember wanting. It passed long ago. And nothing ever changes.” And when she meets Arash, stoned out of his mind and wandering the streets dressed as Dracula, she makes the decision to bring him to her home when he tells her, “I’m lost.”

And lost he is. Arash knows he is being pulled inexorably into a criminal life, and his only chance to save himself is to get out. “Let’s leave Bad City. Come with me. Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me alone” he begs the vampire. His wants, her mercy, and the decisions they make while knowing they do not know each other are the core of the story. Desperation is a serious driver.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night--Arash and the Vampire
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—Arash and the Vampire

The black-and-white cinematography in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is gorgeous, at turns hallucinatory and starkly real. There are elements of Eraserhead, Near Dark, and Let the Right One In (the original, not the remake) in the lighting and atmosphere, and even something reminiscent of The Last Picture Show in the setting. Sheila Vand as the unnamed vampire and Arash Marandi as Arash, the young man who courts her are both luminous, beautiful creatures. It is hard to look away from any of Amirpour’s actors—even the criminal Saeed (Dominic Rains) and the aging prostitute Atti (Mozhan Marnò) are rendered beautiful in their dusty, night-ridden world.

An amazing, electronica-heavy soundtrack carries along the story’s shifting moods effectively. For example, the opening scene has Arash walking past an open trench full of discarded bodies to the distorted rhythm of a tinny, carnivalesque song slowing down like a music box in need of winding. In between the songs there are strange, still moments without dialogue that only deepen the soundtrack’s effect. Even when the characters speak with each other, the dialogue is spare, structured, and often oddly formal, with much of the emotional weight remaining with the music.

But Aminpour doesn’t stand strictly on formality. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night she makes clever use of several old tropes. Classic vampire postures are reinterpreted here, with the vampire girl lying awake on the bed in her basement bedroom during the days, or her black chador billowing behind her like wings while she rides a stolen, completely incongruous skateboard through a deserted neighborhood. Beneath her flowing cloak, this vampire wears jeans and a striped tee shirt. And her basement room seems to be made of remembered eighties high-school trivia—a mirror ball, not-quite Madonna and Bee-Gees posters, string lights, a turntable and records. But against the teen-aged backdrop, there is something incredibly mournful in the young vampire’s face, framed by the black chador, her dark eyes ringed with kohl, blood smeared around her mouth like lipstick.

Amirpour is skilled with these contrasts. There are ripples of playfulness, even silliness, generated by the skateboard and by the wanderings of a fat, placid cat. There are also elements of the surreal in characters like the silent man in a fancy western shirt, full female makeup, and a delicate head scarf dancing with a balloon, or the multiple unnamed people dumping bodies into the open pit in full daylight. The combination is one of carefully weighted unease and amusement.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night--Vampire, Cat, and Arash
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night—Vampire, Cat, and Arash

In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Ana Lily Amirpour has created a small jewel of a vampire movie. With understated but well-placed gore and a reliance on what is not said, she makes a movie that is at once familiar and still asks her viewer to think. Even her final scene strikes a note of uncertainty, questioning what had seemed until then a foreseeable resolution. I enjoyed the discomfort. I look forward to what will come next.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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Fantastic Four is not as bad as some of the more descriptive reviews would have it. But it really isn’t good.

You might get the impression that I don’t like a lot of movies, but that is not true. The Avengers was amazing, and showed how it should be done. Ian McKellan’s Mr. Holmes was essentially flawless. Ex Machina was thought-provoking. Even Ant Man was solid entertainment.

I didn’t want to trash Fantastic Four, to jump on the bandwagon of negative reviews. So I thought it over, looking for what it did right. Unfortunately, there are precious few aspects of it to praise: the cast was good. Some of the effects were pretty cool, especially the interdimensional travel. Doom was imposing with his fused metal skin and tattered cloak. The young Reed and Ben were cute. However. However.

The whole thing ultimately fell flat.

We all know about the internecine conflicts between the studio and the director, and by some accounts the director and everyone else. But instead of parsing the conflict and placing the blame, let’s just look at the results.

Fantastic Four was another barely adequate movie, oddly disconnected from its audience and itself, hampered by a script littered with trite pep talks and an inflated sense of its own melodramatic tension. The pacing was a real issue. So much time was spent in exposition that the ending felt rushed and incomplete.

And the exposition was so much about setting up the planned second movie that they forgot to make this Fantastic Four actually about anything. There were no characters substantial enough to care about, no discovery or threat unveiled in such a way as to invest the audience in the outcome. Even the big reveal of Dr. Doom was a deus ex machina, tacked on seemingly to showcase more of the second-earth CGI.

Fantastic Four
Fantastic Four

The script had some initial potential that faded into simplistic, self-important, heavy handed presentation. The demands of getting to the end of this installment overshadowed any concern for believable or even consistent characterization. The reasonably funny jokes were infrequent and unintegrated—Fantastic Four lacks the sense of humor that makes other Marvel movies engaging. Let’s face it, even Thor is funny, and he’s a god. The occasional profanity also seemed tacked on, as if only to avoid a G rating.

The actors have the unfortunate chore of being late-twenty-somethings playing high school students. They all seemed fully capable of delivering coherent performances, yet they were working with an unwieldy story that cared nothing about them.

As the future Dr. Doom, Toby Kebbell gave hints of what could have been. His smirk suggested the ability to breathe some life into a limited character. Doom’s killing method—going all Scanners on people–was jarring for being the only gore in the film. It could have been effective if Doom’s bitter reasoning made any sense.

Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm showed similar capabilities as a performer, and was just as trapped by the material. He brought a touching intelligence to his monster. The most human scene in the whole concoction was when Reed asked Ben whether his transformation hurt. Ben’s answer was simply “I’m used to it.” More moments of vulnerability like that would have done wonders in making the characters matter for the audience.

Alas, there was no chemistry between any of the characters, romantic, platonic, or familial—relationships were stated but never felt. All their motivations and decisions existed without any relatable frame of reference, because the plot had to reach a certain point to set up the sequel. This could only manifest as a profound lack of character development. The result left us with scenes of the defiantly rebellious Johnny becoming a team player at the drop of a hat, and the U.S. military immediately caving in because Reed Richards and company don’t want to play anymore.

Making the characters recent high school graduates also weakened the film. They may be geniuses, but handing them a government facility was awkward and unbelievable. They haven’t earned it. And anchoring the action so firmly in time—2007—allowed the audience to evaluate the real-world technological components and make continuity checks. The movie isn’t strong enough to brush off that kind of scrutiny.

To summarize: The script was an exercise in blunt-force exposition. There was no discernible character development, hence very little reason to care. The ending seemed to belong to a different movie entirely—the 2017 sequel we are threatened with, to be precise. And by making the Fantastic Four teens at the outset, the movie appeared to be grabbing at the coattails of the YA dystopian juggernaut. See recent high-school grads invent interdimensional travel! See them harness incredible powers! See them oppose the establishment, and win!

I’d like to see a Fantastic Four I could care about. This certainly wasn’t it.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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It’s mid-way through the summer, and we need a refresher; a little light super hero entertainment. Nothing too massive and self-important—we had that already. Certainly nothing too serious. And now we have Ant ManIt’s hard to be epic when your hero is the size of an ant. But it’s easy to be pretty harmless fun.

A few minor spoilers lie ahead.

Ant Man ComicCon Poster courtesy Wikipedia
Ant Man ComicCon Poster courtesy Wikipedia

The frequent pingbacks to the Avengers and the larger Marvel Universe lend some substance to what is otherwise a very fluffy enterprise. While a few characters and critters meet their ends, Marvel doesn’t venture into Food of the Gods territory at any point. The peril to loved ones and faithful companions is moderate. The bad guys are, dare I say, cartoonish—almost more cranky than evil.

Our hero, Scott Lang, is supposed to be an electrical engineer ex-con trying to go straight for his daughter’s sake when he gets sucked into being a super hero. His prison stint taught him how to MacGyver pretty well, although it seems to have reduced his knowledge of electrical engineering to using a voltmeter correctly. No matter, though, because once he gets into his Ant Man suit it’s a whole new game.

While the backstory and set-up for all the comic book heroism drags on longer than it should in an action movie, the cast more than makes up for it until the action really kicks in.

The movie is peopled with familiar faces who all seem to be having a grand time with the material. Paul Rudd is his usual likeable self as our Ant Man. Rudd is a pleasant actor who lacks the commanding presence for a more substantial character, but he has plenty of charm to carry off this one.

Fortunately, Michael Douglas brings the gravitas, and also a snide crustiness that fits the reclusive genius Dr. Pym. Evangeline Lilly is intense and competent as Pym’s daughter, Hope, while Corey Stoll is intense and crazy as the primary villain, Darren Cross. Did anyone else notice that the bad guy’s initials are “DC”?

Rounding out the reluctant hero line-up, Ant Man’s literal partners in crime are played by Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, and the surprisingly personable T.I. The trio are an excellent comic distraction when the story leans too far toward playing it straight. Peña especially provides some hysterical expository/connecting narration that both keeps things moving and drops a lot of hints about the sequels we all know are coming.

At various points, Ant Man seems to be channeling any number of other movies, not just foreshadowing Marvel films. There are some frenetic action sequences that are reminiscent of both Fantastic Voyage and Flushed Away, and one spectacular battle that fully embraces the silliness of an ant-sized superhero and his equally tiny nemesis that has overtones of Toy Story. The CGI of another pivotal scene seems to have been cribbed from Interstellar, and yet another brings to mind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. There are a lot of familiar bits referenced here, and I’m sure I’ve missed some. Fortunately, the familiar bits are better than simple pastiche. They are well executed, in-context, and create an immediate likeability because they are familiar. Not quite homage, but nicely played.

The bottom line, for me, anyway, is that Ant Man is a fine way to spend a hot summer evening. It’s good, not great. It’s fun, not epic. It exists primarily to get Marvel a little closer to Civil War. And it helps keep us entertained until we get there.

 

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

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Summertime, and the movies are easy. No-one expects deep thoughts from the summer blockbusters. They’re like fireworks. We look forward to them and expect them to be BIG! and LOUD! and FUN! Which, for the most part, both Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World managed to be. We got excellent dinosaurs. We got flashy post-apocalyptic mayhem. There’s no reason not to suspend disbelief at the door and watch them in glorious 3D while happily munching popcorn.

So then why am I overthinking this? Why do these two particular cinematic spectacles bother me?

Because I remember the original movies in each franchise so fondly, and although these are worthy efforts I think the new additions don’t quite measure up to the previous films in each series.

Maybe it’s blockbuster burnout. My expectations are high after The Avengers got the season off to a phenomenal start. Which gives any subsequent releases a high mark to hit, and makes the near-misses even more bittersweet.

By rights, George Miller should have been able to resurrect his Mad Max franchise easily with this latest spin on the story. I had really hoped he would pull this off despite the thirty-year gap between it and Beyond Thunderdome. The cast is mostly stellar (I’m talking to you, Charlize Theron and Nick Hoult), the cinematography is astounding, the soundtrack visceral and remarkably effective.

But Miller, it seems to me, has nothing left to say about his most famous creation. Having seen the previous three movies way too many times, it seems to me that he mines his own past to fill in that gaping blank spot with highly- characters similar to The Road Warrior’s Lord Humongous, Beyond Thunderdome’s Master-Blaster and tribal children, and even the witches of The Witches of Eastwick. He even brings back Hugh Keays-Byrne, his former Toecutter remade as Immortan Joe. Lost in this crowd, I feel like Max just wanders around, handsome and brooding as always, haunted by his past in a mind-blowingly in-your-face way that eliminates any need for acting. I don’t like the way Miller leaves Max to function as a leather-clad accessory until he becomes entangled in Imperator Furiosa’s storyline. By including so much of Max’s (and pretty much everyone else’s) mental anguish on-screen, Miller only reminds me that he once knew how to evoke bleak despair and fragile hope without tortured dialogue or jarring cinematic flashbacks.

And also by including Max, Miller creates a distraction from some fiercely impressive character development in Furiosa and Nux.

But the largest distraction, I think, is that Mad Max was shoehorned into an otherwise solid action plot for the sole sake of name recognition. This was never Max’s story. And it bothers me that Miller chose to ignore that minor detail in reboot of the franchise that might have been better as a spin-off. So while I had a lot of fun watching the good Fury Road, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it could have been the GREAT Fury Road. Maybe next time.

Jurassic World is a different story. It struck me as coolly, weirdly self-aware about its own corporate underpinnings yet it does nothing interesting with that awareness. Based on how many close-ups I saw of the Mercedes emblem, I guess it doesn’t want to bite the hand that feeds it. But by playing it safe it misses a perfect chance to make some fun of corporate entertainment and to bring the audience in on the joke. Maybe I expect too much?

Image courtesy of wikipedia commons
Image courtesy of wikipedia commons

“Bigger, with more teeth” really is an accurate description of the latest venture, with more and scarier dinosaurs, showier rides, and a truly impressive amount of product placement. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice it. Its opening weekend box-office was record breaking. Its cast is A-list. And still…I can’t help but believe something is missing. Jurassic World does have more teeth, but Jurassic Park had more heart.

The stars seem better than the surprisingly flat script at all levels, with Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard oozing personal charm from every pore and trying their level best to inject some humor into the proceedings. But even with a stellar supporting cast helping with the heavy lifting, the plot and the action continues to strike me as only adequate. It seems that Jurassic World still needs T. Rex to make it truly worth the trip, at least for me. Ol’ Tyrannosaurus is not as big or terrifying as Imperasaurus, but she’s still cool in a way the flashier dino is not. And let’s face it, we all showed up for the dinosaurs.

But again, I don’t think the director, scriptwriters, and producers had anything new to say. And that’s really a shame, because everything else seemed to be in place. Incredibly likable leads, stunning effects (Oh, that mosasaurus!), creepy bad guys—this was going to be IT. And then it wasn’t.  Repeated references to the previous films will excite the young crowd, and this was a perfectly serviceable film for the older (dinosaurs!). But it doesn’t resonate for me. When I remember the thrill of my first sight of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the references only serve to underscore the magic, humor, and human warmth the current film does not, for all its artistry and production values, recapture. Again, maybe next time. I’ll give Chris Pratt another chance.

Until then, though, Terminator: Genisys had better be good.

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