Movie Review ~ The Vigil

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A man providing overnight watch to a deceased member of his former Orthodox Jewish community finds himself opposite a malevolent entity.

Stars: Dave Davis, Lynn Cohen, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Fred Melamed, Nati Rabinowitz, Moshe Lobel

Director: Keith Thomas

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  If you’ve been following along these past few weeks, you know that I like to include a wide range of films for this website from the mainstream to the tiniest of indie films.  This not only helps make me more well rounded and exposed to a number of different genres and filmmakers, but I think it gives you a variety of titles to choose from when you don’t know exactly what you want to watch.  What I’ve now picked up on my own is that the Toronto International Film Fest (TIFF) truly is the “it” place to launch (or continue to launch) exciting buzz for a hefty number of titles.  In particular, the 2019 festival is starting to have a trickle-down effect on a bounty of films I’ll be reviewing shortly. While I wasn’t too crazy about Saint Maud a short time ago, other familiar titles that have gone on to greater notoriety since their premiers were Parasite, Sound of Metal, Corpus Christi, Les Misérables, Waves, Pain and Glory, Marriage Story, Judy, and Knives Out to name but just a few.

The horror genre tends to be a little slim at TIFF, only because there’s a kind of prestige level that comes with the territory.  Emerging from the 2019 fest were The Vast of Night, Color Out of Space, Sea Fever, and The Vigil, the latest release from IFC Midnight.  In keeping on brand with the indie distributor’s reputation for exploring a more complex side of the scary movie, The Vigil might be lacking in propulsive movement at times but makes up for it with a well-established creeping sense of fear.  Though we may begin the movie in a more relaxed state, it isn’t long before we’re as skittish as the main character thanks to an impressive sound design and cinematography that uses the light, not the darkness, against us.

Still recovering from a terrible tragedy that was the impetus for separating from his insular Orthodox upbringing, Yakov (Dave Davis) attends a support group with other Hasidic men and women that have left their faith.  All struggle with adjusting to new customs and finding their own way forward but Yakov is in pretty dire straits where money is concerned.  So the offer from his Rabbi cousin (Menashe Lustig) is appealing to him, but only because he needs the money, and his cousin is desperate enough to pay extra for his services.  Apparently, in his days as an active member of the Hasidic community, he excelled in serving as a shomer, watching over a dead body until it gets taken off for burial and guarding it from evil. Usually, a family member or friend of the family takes on this responsibility but in some cases this long-time customary observance of superstition can be a paid obligation.

A recently deceased man, Mr. Litvak, needs a shomer because his wife Mrs. Litvak (Lynn Cohen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) is unwell and can’t do it herself.  Yakov would only need to stay for a few hours so she can rest in order to collect his money.  Arriving at the home, aside from Mrs. Litvak’s slightly odd state, which is to be expected in her time of grief, everything else seems to be in order so Yakov settles in for what should be an easy way to earn some cash to pay his rent.  Yet something seems to be out of order, there’s a sense of unease within the confines of the Litvak home.  Floorboards creak, walls moan, and shadows take shape.  The longer Yakov stays in the house the more he (and soon, we) come to see that evil has been present for some time, tethering itself to the family.  Now that’s it has been faced with eviction…it’s looking for a new home.

First time writer/director Keith Thomas keeps The Vigil running taut for most of the way through it’s economical running time.  Sure, it’s padded with an extra character or two that pop in and slow things down, but the movie is alarmingly frightening when Davis is by himself just letting the eerie atmosphere of the house sink in.  It’s enough to give you the shivers watching him, who has performed this task many times, get progressively more terrified as the night continues.  He shares a nice scene or two with the late, great Cohen as the Litvak widow who appears distraught and out of it at first but might be more on her game than we are led to believe.

If Thomas gets himself into a corner by the souped-up finale where there is no easy way out, it’s a forgivable misstep but not one that lacks in ambition.  If anything, it’s a case of showing more than implying and then not really answering the questions you posed in the first place.  That’s fine if you were always keeping your cards close to the vest but The Vigil is fairly straightforward most of the time. Even so, I watched this late at night and definitely had to keep the light on a little longer before comfortably being able to succumb to the pitch-black bedroom…so Thomas obviously achieved his goal.  Approach this one with confidence.

Movie Review ~ The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright

Director:

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 146 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I honestly expected there to be a slip-up in bringing the second part of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy to the big screen.  After the whopper success of The Hunger Games in early 2012 (compounded by the fact that the film was quite good), tongues were wagging in anticipation of when the next film would arrive and a worldwide true love affair with down-to-earth star Jennifer Lawrence began.

Starting off 2012 with a huge box office hit and ending with another praise-worthy film (Silver Linings Playbook) along with a Best Actress Oscar for her efforts, Lawrence couldn’t have asked for a better year.  Then 2013 rolls around and the starlet saw the release of another film which has critics crying Oscar (American Hustle) as well as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a sequel that’s in many ways superior to its predecessor.

Though I keep my reviews fairly spoiler-free, there’s no real way to discuss Catching Fire without giving away some aspects of the original so if you’ve yet to see it…you’ve been warned.

OK…are we ready to move forward?  Good.

It’s a year after Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) defied the odds (and the authorities) and became the first joint victors of the gladiator-esque Hunger Games.  Though they may have new housing and comforts that have kept their families nourished, both are still haunted by what they saw in the arena.  The Hunger Games are presented as entertainment but really serve as a reminder of oppression by the wealthy and how inconsequential the poor are.  Katniss and Peeta came from the lowliest district and survived together…giving hope to those that had none.

This causes great fear in the upper crust, mostly from villainous President Snow (a smirky Donald Sutherland, Backdraft) who plots with new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Master, using his greasy ginger puffiness to his advantage) to teach the two young winners a lesson…by making sure that the next Hunger Games is an all-star battle with players culled from past victors.  Back into the area they all go and this time there can truly be only one winner.

Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and an Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire) brings out the best in Suzanne Collins novel, always reminding the audience of the stakes at play and the very real price for any kind of mistake.  Characters feel more fleshed out with very little favorite faces getting short shrift of screen time.  That  leads to the film running nearly two and a half hours but the time seemed to fly by for me thanks to director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) keeping things at a good clip and the continued strong performances of the cast.

It would have been easy for Lawrence to simply show up and recreate the strong work from the original but instead she goes deeper than before, uncovering new layers of Katinss that even Collins wasn’t able to scratch.  It’s a full-bodied performance that proves Lawrence is a formidable force that’s just getting started.

Maybe it’s because Lawrence flaunted her Oscar around the set (highly doubtful) but everyone else in the film seems to have stepped up their game as well.  Hutcherson has less of a moon-pie face in this one, letting the actor not seem so ruled by his character’s obvious infatuation with Katniss.  Woody Harrelson (Out of the Furnace), Stanley Tucci (The Company You Keep), and brief turns from Amanda Plummer (Joe Versus the Volcano) and Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale) are rich with the kind of character shading that gives the film its subtle dexterity.

Special mention must be made yet again to Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) in the beefed up role of chaperone/advisor Effie Trinkett. The actress could quickly have been lost within her colorful make-up, zany wigs, and Gaga-edgy costume design but she’s smart enough to show the beating heart of the person underneath it all.  And former child star Jenna Malone may have one of the best entrances of the last few years as the plausibly sinister former victor Johanna Mason.  Malone is so good that she often steals Lawrence’s thunder later in the film.

With a year to wait until Part 1 of the final chapter of the series, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that rare sequel that builds upon the solid foundation of the impressive original.  There’s more to love here and a greater sense of risk kept alive by Beaufoy’s detailed script, Lawrence’s skilled handling of the material, and a bevy of creative performances led by undeniable star Lawrence.

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The Silver Bullet ~ The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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Synopsis: Katniss and Peeta are dethroned from their respective victory riches and are put back into the arena for the most climatic and menacing of the Hunger Games, known as the Quarter Quell.

Release Date: November 22, 2013

Thoughts:  Arriving less than two years after the blazingly entertaining original, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has a lot to live up to when it’s released in November 2013. Not only has the profile of its leading lady risen astronomically (thanks to her Oscar winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook) but the second book is considered by fans of the series to be the best. What I like about this trailer is that it leaves out a few critical details that may sell more tickets but isn’t really the heart of what the movie is about. With a new director at the helm (Francis Lawrence, who delivered another dark future world in I Am Legend) and most of the players reassembled (I live for Elizabeth Banks and her take on Effie) this is easily of the more highly anticipated films of the latter part of 2013.