Tag Archives: Horror

Thelma

[3 stars]

Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) brought his award-winning ability directing and co-writing (with constant collaborator Eskil Vogt) this intense and suspenseful tale. It isn’t an easily defined story, but Eili Harboe (The Wave) owns the title role with wonderful subtlety and angst.

The result, as close as I can come, is a coming-of-age horror(ish) tale. You know from the opening scene that something isn’t quite right but it is a paced story that builds the situation from Thelma’s point of view. Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen support Harboe as Thelma’s parents in echos of many other similar stories, but without becoming histrionic.

In fact, that is one of the biggest differences in this riff on a plot you’ll recognize quickly, it is told simply and naturalistically rather than with big moments and effects. It is, above all, a story about Thelma and her becoming an independent adult. It is also doesn’t explain everything or provide simple answers to some of the actions, though it certainly raises questions. The story is as much metaphor as truth.

This isn’t a fast film, but it is gripping and interesting,  performed and constructed with real ability. It was nominated for and won many awards deservedly, but it is more on the art-house end of the spectrum than, say, A Quiet Place, that subverts the genre in a different way. When you want something familiar, but that feels new, check this out.

Thelma

Requiem

[3 stars]

Requiem is an odd, 6-part mystery that is both modern mystery and Gothic horror. From the outset, it is clear that there is some kind of supernatural aspect to the events, but the story unfolds for a long time with that being very much in question and at the periphery. Part of the fun of the story is trying to identify truth and interpretation from fiction and assumption.

Lydia Wilson (Star Trek Beyond) leads the story as a delightfully and frustratingly flawed young woman. For all her strength and focus though, her character drifts into “willful stupid” territory about two thirds into the sequence thanks to writing choices. The Code collaborators, Mrksa and Ayshford,  relied a bit too much on some tropes to push the plot along rather than find more natural ways to have confrontations in their latest delivery.

Wilson’s sidekick, Joel Fry (Game of Thrones), has one of the more challenging paths in this story. Honestly, it never really entirely comes together, but it leaves him hanging in a realistic way. It is clear to us what the motivations are even though the characters rarely broach the subject.

Three other women have nicely complex roles in the series. Two are well recognized faces from many shows and movies; Joanna Scanlan (Electric Dreams) and Claire Rushbrook (Murder: Joint Enterprise) are terrific characters with difficult plots to navigate. The third,  Clare Calbraith, is less known, but is as integral as Wilson in driving the plot forward.

Additional support by James Frecheville (Adore), Brendan Coyle (Me Before You), Sian Reese-Williams (Hinterland) and Darren Evans (Galavant) are all worth mentioning, though far from the entire cast.

Overall, the mystery unfolds nicely and inexorably, but don’t expect all questions to be answered. Most will, and certainly enough will, but the show left itself a way forward and didn’t try to cover all bases. That was fair given that not all answers were or could be known in this part of the story. If you like moody horror and mystery, this is a good mix of the two, and definitely a binge-worthy series that will hook you quickly.

mother!

[2 stars]

Straight up, I am a Darren Aronofsky (Noah) fan and have been since Pi. His narratives are almost always complex and unexpected. Certainly mother! is anything but straightforward. Oddly, though, it isn’t anything new or unexpected either. And it certainly didn’t land with most audiences.

From the outset of the film, you know there is something off. First there is the apparent rollback in time from a disaster. Then there is the odd tension between Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers) and Javier Bardem (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) which just isn’t quite natural. By the time Ed Harris (Geostorm) and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, it is clear this isn’t reality, or isn’t being viewed from clear eyes. Domhnall Gleeson (The Revenant) makes a solid appearance as well to help seal the deal.

If you insist on still seeing the story as reality at any level after that point, it is no wonder that you would hate the film. Honestly, I was willing to go along for the ride, but in a year that included similar themes, like the more recent Phantom Thread, I was looking for something new, not just visually surprising.

Aronofsky has created a very personal vision and tale of his favorite themes: art, love, and religion/spirituality. But ultimately it is about a half hour too long to sustain the story and audience interest. After the first 90 minutes, you want answers, not more outrageous and infuriating situations. I appreciate he wanted to slow burn to the climax, but he asked too much from his audience; he never really fully earns our trust, providing no answers, only mystery and weirdness upon strangeness and offkey oddity. He has always been great skirting the edge of reality, as in Black Swan, to lead to a point. Here, however, the end result here is more the feeling of a surrealist play that is weird for weirdness’ sake alone rather than a cohesive movie. By the way, achieving that play-like presentation and pulling us along inexorably while staying true to the media is no small feat in itself.

I truly admire the craft and acting in the film, even if I disliked the result; it doesn’t feel satisfying in the end. After his last film, I was worried Aronofsky would try to stay more mainstream…I suspect he feared the same and veered way off the track to try and prove he wouldn’t both to audiences and, more importantly, to himself. The result is mother! Now that he’s made his point, I hope he will find his path again. He is a gifted film maker, but this isn’t his best onscreen musing.

Mother!

It (2017)

[4 stars]

So here was a chance for me to eat my words about remakes that I covered when discussing Flatliners. And I am. But as good as it (It) is, and it is, director Andy Muschietti’s (Mama) is eerily similar to the previous classic and equally brilliant adaptation of King’s book by director/co-writer Tommy Lee Wallace. But we’ll get back to that comparison.

First things first, how was this movie? It is full of tension, scares, and compelling relationships despite knowing what’s going to happen nearly every step of the way. In short, the flick is really good and worth your time if you like tense horror. It perfectly captures the logic and sense of the world from a child’s perspective and understands how that terror can dog us into adulthood.

As with the book and the original adaptation, the core of the story is the Loser’s Club of unlikely friends. In this version, it is also a collection of capable young actors: Jaeden Lieberher (Book of Henry), Jeremy Ray Taylor (Geostorm), Sophia Lillis (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things), Chosen Jacobs (Hawaii Five-O), Jack Dylan Grazer (Me, Myself, & I), and Wyatt Oleff (Guardians of the Galaxy). Most of them are getting their first big break in this film, but a few have already shown themselves capable in recent movies and shows.

The adults are all fine, but it is in the structure of the story that they are simply other monsters in our intrepid children’s lives. They may not even really be their parents; they may instead be projections or controlled by the monster beneath the streets. In other words, they aren’t really worth talking about in this chapter of the story as they are instigators rather than full characters.

The nemesis of this suspense horror cannot escape comparisons to the previous adaptation either (fair or not) performed by the creepy and wonderful Tim Curry. Curry’s performance was marked indelibly on the horror pantheon and into the brains of more than one generation of terrified children and adults. Enter Bill Skarsgård (Hemlock Grove), who had to tackle what is one of the Hamlet’s of the horror genre (along with Freddy, Dracula, and a very few others); the part everyone wants to play but which will always be compared to what came before. In this case, only a singular comparison. But Skarsgård holds his own well and adds his own sort of childlike undertone to the creepy clown. Is it a lot like Curry’s approach? Well, yes, and that brings me back to my first statement.

It is a true credit to the clarity and impact of the book that two different productions are so similar in sensibility and character. Each is its own version, but any of the characters and events could comfortably be shifted into one or the other’s venue. The differences are primarily around rating and budget. Because Muschietti was on the big screen with an R rating (which he rightly fought for), it is a bit darker, a tad more violent, and with more realistic language against a larger backdrop of a world than the TV version.

But the characters, despite being written by wildly different kinds of scribes, talk and act almost exactly the same. The 1990 version was co-written by its director. This version was a triumverate of horror and literary writers: Cary Joji Fukunaga (Beasts of No Nation), Gary Dauberman (Anabelle: Creation), and new-comer Chase Palmer. But all of the writers respected the source material. One of the more interesting changes in the new version is that it is told in chronological order rather than as revealing flashbacks, which was more like the book. Given it was a theatrical release it made more sense to do it that way, though it will be interesting to see how that plays out in Chapter 2 next year.

In both cases, the power of the original material maintained a long shadow and strong control over the final product. There are variations, particularly around Pennywise’s domain, but they are not materially impactful or distracting, they are simply different views of the same tale, like looking in the side window versus the front. But no matter how you slice it, the room inside is bloody and full of scary shadows.

It (2017)

The Cloverfield Paradox

[3 stars]

At the end of last year, Netflix stepped afield from original and purchased series programming and entered the big-budget feature game with Bright. It wasn’t an instant classic, but it was a shot across the bow of the current film distribution system and raised the bar in some ways for its pure streaming competitors.

This latest feature had a surprising trajectory that may remake the release landscape yet again. Bright was bought early in its inception  band guided by Netflix. In the case of Cloverfield, what was supposed to be a big theatrical release this April got picked up and near-instantly released by Netflix. Mind you, there are reasons it was available for such a purchase, but it speaks both to the power of the streaming giant and the new thinking of studios who are scared of losing money.

The movie itself, even with its flaws, is certainly on par with a lot of what hits the big screen; a low bar, I know. It parallels the Cloverfield universe, offering up (perhaps) some answers to where we left it off in 10 Cloverfield Lane.  And it tackles the story with the expected bad science fiction the series has embraced, and a great cast.

And the cast is probably one of the more surprising aspects of the story. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Miss Sloane) drives this tale with incredible and complex (and occasionally questionable) emotional and intellectual strength. David Oyelowo (Queen of Katwe), as well, brings a command and depth to his performance. Daniel Brühl (Burnt) is a bit forced, but commits to his part of the story. The same is true for Ziyi Zhang (The Grandmaster), Elizabeth Debicki (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2), as well as the relatively unknown (in the US) Roger Davies. Chris O’Dowd (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) is the odd man out in the cast personality-wise. He works, but mostly as delightfully understated comic relief. He isn’t a particularly credible crew member, but then again, none of them are. The most abused by the bad aspects of the script was Aksel Hennie (The Martian), whose taciturn Russian was way too cookie-cutter.

As his second feature, director Julius Onah shows some solid promise controlling big stories. He built a good path in terms of energy and flow and elicited some real emotion in the middle of what is arguably just a horror film on the order of Event Horizon. The real weakness was Oren Uziel’s (Shimmer Lake) script, which had unrealistic characters as well as forced and unexplained plot trajectories and moments. Fun? Sure…and O’Dowd got to take the most advantage of that…but completely inconsistent in ways that just left too many questions rather than a sense of something happening. For all its absurdity, Life at least had their astronauts behave like astronauts and their creature obey some set of definable rules.

Netflix still doesn’t quite know how to produce a solid feature-length film, but they’re learning and getting to use some impressive name dropping to keep it going until they do. I’ve seen way (way) worse on the big screen over the last year, and this is a perfectly fun and distracting entertainment with a couple really good performances.

Ultimately, and not unsurprisingly, there are more Cloverfield stories to come. Overlord is due in October this year to continue the universe (or so it’s rumored). What dropping a critical installment of this sequence of films straight to streaming will do to the franchise will be an interesting story to follow.

Winchester

[3 stars]

Winchester struggles from the moment it starts. It can’t decide if wants to be a Gothic horror, a modern horror, a romantic supernatural, or a true history movie. Given the guts and clarity of vision of the Spierig  brothers previous Predestination, the vacillation and lack of control were surprising.

It isn’t a complete loss. There is a good story at the core of it all, but it takes more than half the film for it to come into focus and, by that point, you just want it all to resolve. There are some good scares; even the utterly predictable ones will get you to jump. Certainly it has some great production values and a heck of a cast.

Part of the story focus issues may well have been because of Helen Mirren (Collateral Beauty), who was certainly the name-draw for the film. But while her story wants to dominate the film, it is really just the McGuffin to Jason Clarke’s (Mudbound) journey.  Clarke, however, doesn’t have the same level of presence nor familiarity for audiences; his efforts seem to constantly take a back-seat to the rest of Mirren’s efforts, even when they really aren’t.

Sarah Snook (Steve Jobs) and Eamon Farren (Twin Peaks) round out the important characters, each with their own sense of oddity. Neither gets to develop their character much, but neither feels unformed either.

The Winchester house is a fascinating study in guilt. Unlike the Nobel family, Winchester simply pushed away the ill gotten gains rather than trying to have it do good in the world. Unless, of course, you believe this film. In any event, there are some clever ideas and weaving in of real history. It isn’t a great movie, but does have some nice visuals and a number of good scares. Frankly, though, unless you’re a Mirren complete-ist or hooked on one of the other actors, go watch something else to get your heart pumping.

Winchester

Flatliners (2017)

[2.5 stars]

After seeing Flatliners, I had to ask myself, why do “remakes” of plays work while remakes of movies tend to fall flat, even when done reasonably well, like this movie? The only answer I can come up with is that plays are live and have a sense of both the ephemeral and imperfect execution; by virtue of being live they are different and flawed in 100s of small ways every performance. But we like seeing plays remounted (which is a shade different than remaking) because new things are brought to the story every performance.

Movies, on the other hand, are crafted to be a singular, perfect representation (or at least that is the goal). The result is etched in celluloid/digital and is forever the same. So when a film is released, that is intentioned to be the quintessential version of it (perfect or not). Remaking something at that stage feels like a copy rather than as a viable and vital new take; and copies always lose fidelity with each iteration. There are exceptions, but generally, unless it is massively reworked or set as a sequel, remakes have a heck of a hill to scale to get attention or achieve success.

Case in point, this perfectly fine take on Flatliners, which is an unimpressive and unmemorable remake of the 1990 classic. Not because it is a bad movie, but because the original was so good and etched in the culture due to timing, subject, and cast, that remaking it, not as homage but as literal remaking, just didn’t do much for me. I don’t think director Niels Arden Oplev (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the original)  did himself any favors by having Keifer Sutherland (Pompeii) as a nod to the original in the film either… especially as a different character. If his original character returned and explained to them what was going on or quietly recognize it, but allowed them to make their own mistakes, it might have resonated more rather than distracted. Now that is a take on it I’d have liked to see.

As I said, the new cast did perfectly fine with what they had. Ellen Page (Into the Forest), James Norton (Life in Squares), Diego Luna (The Book of Life), and Nina Dobrev (xXx: Return of Xander Cage) , and Kiersey Clemons (Dope) aren’t particularly credible residents, but neither were they screaming fools in a horror film. There was some depth to each of them, though their relationships were a little undefined.

Honestly, just go get the original and see it. Or, if you must, watch this version first and then see its roots. It isn’t a total waste of your time and there are some interesting shifts in this remake, but I can’t say it grabbed me or made me want to rewatch it.

Flatliners

Happy Death Day

[3 stars]

Happy Death Day is an irreverent horror/dark comedy distraction that is actually worth seeing. It has suspense, mystery, comedy, clever writing and a respect for its audience. Sure there are some standard tropes and not an insignificant amount of violence, but it all builds on itself nicely and to a point with plenty of surprises.

Jessica Rothe (La La Land) is both the nasty chick in heels and the heroine of ability; imagine Buffy meets Heathers. But she is also the  butt of the jokes, which Rothe navigates rather well as she grows the character through her ordeals. Helping her along is Israel Broussard (Earth to Echo) serving as a natural counter-point and obvious romantic interest. The two make the perfect unlikely and inevitable couple.

What makes this work even more is that the movie admits you know the base story and keeps subverting it nicely. It is up there with Final Girls for recent horror satires that are still truly horror (unlike Get Out which is surely satire, but still primarily horror). Director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell took a tired old trope and really made it sing.

If you like the horror genre at all, this is worth your time. If you enjoy laughing at horror, and can still handle the violence, it is also worth your time. If you want to see something a bit different and that has its tongue firmly planted in cheek, yep, also worth your time. Blumhouse productions continues to do for small budget horror what A24 is doing for indies in general: finding the unusual and getting it to an audience that will appreciate it…even if they don’t know they will till they see it.

Happy Death Day

47 Meters Down

[3 stars]

I’ll admit up front that this is a tautly constructed suspense tale, even when some of it is obvious. However, as a diver myself, I really cringed through a lot of the opening and cavalier stupidity of the choices Mandy Moore (This is Us) and Clare Holt (The Originals). It wasn’t unrealistic…people really are that dumb, especially when trying to prove something to themselves; it was just painful.

Matthew Modine (The Hippopotamus, Stranger Things) was a  surprisingly well done character too. His motivations and choices managed to avoid the expected at almost every turn. For a small role, his was an important one to keep the movie on track.

Co-writer and director Johannes Roberts’s crafted a good horror film out of a fairly simple concept that plays homage to Jaws, Alien, and dozens of other similar efforts but without feeling like a copy. The camera work and production also did a great job capturing the action and underwater world. I can see why it was such a surprise hit. I can’t say I’d need to see it again, but Roberts clearly has ability and a sense of how to hold an audience. I’d be curious to see what he manages next and if he can apply it to something a bit less cheap-genre.

47 Meters Down

Cop Car

[3 stars]

When this movie kicked off, I thought I was in for something like the Kings of Summer, but it quickly became clear that it is going to end up more like Free Fire. What is wonderful about it is how well it navigated that shift and its ability to capture kid-logic. James Freedson-Jackson (Jessica Jones) and Hays Wellford  (Independence Day: Resurgence), who are the catalyst for the plot, are endearing and frustrating, but wholly believable.

But as good as the kids are in this film, once the adults come on scene the focus shifts. Kevin Bacon (Black Mass), Camryn Manheim (Extant), and Shea Whigham (Kong: Skull Island) take over through sheer presence; particularly the calm and calculated Bacon. The intensity of the movie doesn’t diminish, but it does cause the through-line to get muddled.

Director Jon Watts (Spider-Man: Homecoming) does a good job keeping the story evolving and there are some truly terrifying moments, particularly the final scenes, that feel horrifyingly real. He and co-writer, Christopher Ford (Robot and Frank), found the perfect setting and set of events to keep the movie intriguing and believable. And the two managed to balance the humor on a knife edge.

For Bacon’s performance alone, this is worth catching. It isn’t quite what you expect and the ending isn’t quite as crisp as I’d like, but I was definitely on the edge of my couch for a good part of it in between the dark laughs.

Cop Car