Tag Archives: Suspense

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud)

[3.5 stars]

Louis Malle’s (Vanya on 42nd Street) second film, dating from 1958, is an entertaining look at noir. From its opening moments to its close the story spins out of control in unexpected ways, headed toward a conclusion that has many possibilities; none of them likely good. Hey, it’s noir. But it isn’t quite the noir you know and expect. This story owes much to Dassin’s Rififi, particularly its treatment of silence and its quiet building of character.

The story is primarily guided through the inner dialogue of an emotive Jeanne Moreau in her breakout roll. Moreau is a light amid the beautifully filmed, dark night of the story. It also boasts a score and performance by Miles Davis, which deepens the sense of emotion and thickens the Parisian night into something almost palpable.

Though over 60 years old, the movie manages to hold up in many ways, though it’s style feels a little forced and dated. But it is a taut 90 minutes and, though aspects feel like bad writing, much more of it comes together than you’d expect. And it is an early look at one of the huge influencers of cinema.

We the Animals

[3 stars]

A deep and disturbing look at growing up and how much children pick up from their parents. But this story never quite goes where you expect it to, keeping what could have been an overwhelming drudge something darkly magical.

The three leads, Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian work beautifully together as free-range sibs. Only Gabriel had any previous credits, but they all come across as natural and with a sense of craft. The story is primarily from Rosado’s point of view, but without his onscreen brothers, the story wouldn’t have worked.

In a supporting, but brutal role, Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) gives us a mother surviving and loving while stumbling through life. Likewise, as their father, Raúl Castillo (Atypical) delivers an honest, destructive, and somehow still loving role model. Neither parent is going to win awards, but neither is so devoid of love and compassion as to be utterly evil in our eyes. That complexity is part of what sets this story apart.

In his first feature, Jeremiah Zagar drew on his documentarian roots in directing and co-writing this adaptation. He creates an atmosphere that is part Florida Project, part Kings of Summer, and maybe a dash of the atmosphere of Moonlight. It is deliberate and nearly poetic as it follows the three brothers through their days and lives over the period of about a year. It also managed to stack up a number of awards.

Honestly, this isn’t an easy film to watch. It is emotionally challenging and it flows at a low energy, allowing everything to feel very natural (which can border on naturally boring). But it pulls you along inexorably to the final moments. While it isn’t an entirely dark and depressing story, do save it for a night of catharsis or when you’re already feeling well centered. But see it for Zagar’s efforts and the performances, all of which will have an impact.

The Hate U Give

[3.5 stars]

Imagine a Spike Lee film that is less stylized and aimed more at teenagers (though still very resonate for adults) and you have a sense of this powerful offering by director George Tillman, Jr. It is uncomfortably honest and it builds tension very much like Lee’s recent BlacKkKlansman. It also evokes and challenges all sides of the issues it raises, though it certainly has a point of view, and one it wastes no time establishing in its first scene. Getting that moment right was one of Tillman’s great triumphs in the film.

Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) drives this story from start to end. She is narrator and focus of the action as well as the gateway through which we enter both worlds she navigates. She is a talent we will be seeing a lot of over the coming years. The rest of the cast form up around her and every one of them has more levels than you expect as we travel through her story.

Among her family Regina Hall (Girls Trip), Russell Hornsby (Fences), and Common (Hunter Killer) stand out for the adults. Algee Smith (Earth to Echo), as her childhood friend, too. And then there is Anthony Mackie (Io), an actor we’re used to seeing with a bit more positive emotion and influence. His delivery is solid, though it is one of the least dimensional in the story. And, to be fair, it needs to be.

From Stenberg’s school-life, one of the more difficult roles was Stenberg’s friend, nicely created by Sabrina Carpenter. Carpenter has to stand in for every well-intentioned person of non-color and do so unselfconsciously. It is hard to watch and far too recognizable. And, as her boyfriend, K.J. Apa ( A Dog’s Purpose) was solid, but not particularly groundbreaking.

A good part of the success of this movie is its script. Audrey Wells (A Dog’s Purpose) adapted the book smoothly; there wasn’t a hint of it being a reflection of something else. It was entirely its own being, standing on its own feet and feeling whole and full of real people, situations, and emotions. Navigating that mine field with a teenage audience in mind wasn’t easy. Unlike Dope, it reaches out for a broader audience and more explicit message, but earns its moment of preaching in a very different way.

I have to admit I avoided this film for a long while, despite its excellent and deserved reviews. With all the hate and damage in the world, I wasn’t sure I could sit through a story about it as part of my evening relaxation. As it turns out, while it is certainly a tense story and unflinching at moments, its teenage perspective and the balance of the tale kept it digestible and still very powerful. Tillman’s ability to keep the tension going as he slips between the worlds that Stenberg navigates keeps you engaged and interested even as you may want to turn away or shout. He also employs subtle production values separating the haves and have-nots by time of day. Though some of that is story driven, it is also clearly intended to enhance light and dark.

Make time for this. It will leave a mark, but not one that will bleed too deeply. And it is a clear-eyed perspective that can start conversations or, at least, get people thinking. It is well acted, written,  and presented and will keep you guessing till the end.

Hunter Killer

[2.5 stars]

An uneven adventure film that has its moments, but pisses them away at almost every turn with painful cliches though it manages to escape others. And, saddest of all, the last major appearance of Michael Nyqvist (John Wick). It isn’t as bad as Raul Julia’s Street Fighter, but this clunky action film gets sunk by Donovan Marsh’s uneven directing that no amount of talent can overcome. I will admit that there are moments where it works, particularly when the military in the field are working together. But that is, often as not, followed up by moments of absurd scenes with the likes of Gary Oldman (Tau), whose great talent is sorely abused into an histrionic military leader who would have never risen to his position.

That aspect of the characters makes this actioner into a weird, blue-collar polemic. Simply put: Those in power are fools; those on the ground are the sober thinkers. The truth is that most military leaders in first-world countries are very calm, considered people who hate to risk lives without purpose or to play politics… well, ever. The fantasy world of Hunter Killer resurrects false views of the military, at least our military, from decades ago.

The movie isn’t entirely absurd on that level though. There are few characters that have risen to admirable leaders. Gerard Butler (Den of Thieves) is a fairly credible, if somewhat wooden-er than usual, submarine captain. And Nyqvst gives us a subtle and stoic Russian as his counterpart. But Common (Smallfoot), though calm and collected, just has no credibility as a 1-star general. It is a hollow performance, however earnest. And Linda Cardellini (Green Book), though allowed to have brains, is also guilty of a silent coup thanks to the writing. And even some of Butler’s crew come across as having been inappropriately promoted, particularly his XO played by Carter MacIntyre.

Now, all that said, if you squint…quite a bit…the story is engaging and tense, particular during the fighting and evading scenes as most good sub stories can be. The setup is intriguing and the cinematography really something spectacular at times. But it isn’t a good movie. It is barely a passable one. It could have been so much more, but the producers clearly had a point of view and no sense of the real world, only the macho world they envision as they mouth-breathe their nights away.

Free Solo

[4 stars]

How many people spend 8 years waking up every morning thinking: I’d like to risk my life climbing that sheer rock face without a rope?Well, Alex Honnold did, planning and then executing a nearly inhuman feat. You end the journey with him feeling entirely inadequate…and also full of possibility.

Through phenomenal photography and honest story-telling, you spend 90 minutes on the edge of your seat, riveted and tense. Frankly, it is both exhilarating and exhausting. But you leave with an appreciation of the skills needed to accomplish such a feat and the kind of mentality it takes to even consider it.

Of course the story may be centered on the scaling of El Capitan, but it is the “why” of it all that adds the emotional tension to the very real physical fear Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary manages to elicit. They layer the physical challenge with Honnold’s personal and emotional challenges in life. We never quite get a full picture of of him, past or present, but much is teased. We are left with an incomplete metaphor for Honnold’s efforts as they reflect in his life, but it adds to the moment the entire film is focused on. Had this just been about the climb on the final day, it may have been pretty and intriguing, but it would have revealed nothing about the man, the sport, nor, to be a bit broad, the human condition.

It is clear that it takes a particular kind of mindset and approach to life to free solo at the level Honnold and his colleagues do. The film doesn’t exactly celebrate nor judge that mindset, but it definitely attempts to present it with genuine affection and wonder. It is beautifully and amazingly filmed. Without distracting from the story, the documentary even becomes part of the story itself. And, yes, it is most definitely worth your time. It definitely earned its Oscar.

Velvet Buzzsaw

[3 stars]

If you’re a fan of films like Theater of Blood, Vincent Price and Diana Rigg’s 1973 horror delight, you’ll likely enjoy this latest, admittedly imperfect, Netflix release. It is a wry look at the art world but also quite dark. Not a huge surprise given it is writer/director Dan Gilroy (Roman J. Israeal, Esq), though the tenor of this movie is quite a bit more tongue-in-cheek despite the horror elements.

Gilroy pulled together a talented and committed cast that pivots primarily around his reunited Nightcrawler leads Jake Gyllenhaal (Okja) and Renee Russo (Just Getting Started). The other substantial role is delivered with mixed results by Zawe Ashton (Oasis). She isn’t so much bad as without plumbable depths. Perhaps it was part of the point, but the result diminishes her impact and the impact of the story. Adding to the mix in a series of supporting character roles are Toni Collette (Hearts Beat Loud), John Malkovich (The ABC Murders), Billy Magnussen (Ingrid Goes West), Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting), and Tom Sturridge (Song to Song). Each is a forced extreme, but all are entertaining in their ways.

But if you were hoping for a break-out horror, like Get Out, based on Gilroy’s previous powerful main releases, you’re going to be disappointed. It isn’t horrific enough for the horror fans nor intellectual enough for lovers of satire. This is simply some evil fun with a social eye and a mean desire to slam the more obvious absurdities of the art world. Where it fails is in its lack of clear explanation or point and, ultimately, by not providing anything positive about an industry that Gilroy knows has value…and is even using to send his message. In other words, it is somewhat rudderless with some fun moments and serious talent, but that’s about it. That doesn’t make this flick something to skip, but go in knowing it isn’t what you think it is and probably won’t reach what you hope it is.

Glass

[4 stars]

Go to Glass, but don’t try to watch the movie you wanted to see… see the movie that is on offer to watch if you want to enjoy yourself.

M. Night Shyamalan has always made the movies he wanted to make, for better or worse. He rarely compromises his vision, but he also often confounds audience expectations. And, sadly, most audiences don’t want to be challenged. Their loss, more often than not. And Glass definitely isn’t the movie you think it is going to be. Honestly, I loved it once I let go and went with it, but I know a lot of people out there were frustrated.

Another aspect weighing on Glass is that it isn’t a stand-alone story. Absent Split and Unbreakable, it means nothing and doesn’t work. Together, they are a great trilogy, but Glass has no individual foundation like the other two films. Ninteen years ago Unbreakable left us hanging with David Dunn’s and Mr. Glass’s story. It was a love it or hate it comic book film that predated the current rush of such things, but foresaw the tone. Split surprised us all a couple years ago by connecting to Dunn’s tale at the end. And now…Glass…the story we’ve been waiting for so long it was almost guaranteed to disappoint. To be fair, Shyamalan and the studios probably strung out the anticipation a bit too long to make this a complete success–we’ve had too long to plan on what we expected.

The challenges of the movie aside, Shyamalan managed to collect almost all the principles from the previous two movies. Bruce Willis (Death Wish), Spencer Treat Clark (Animal Kingdom), Charlayne Woodard (Pose), and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) all came back and felt like they’d lived the 19 intervening years. Likewise for James McAvoy (Sherlock Gnomes), and Anya Taylor-Joy’s (Thoroughbreds) three years since Split. Taylor-Joy, in particular, has a fascinating challenge for her character.

But these were from the past, and Shyamalan was just as invested in his world in the present. Sarah Paulson (Bird Box) with some assistance by Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), and Adam David Thompson (The Sinner) create the framework for the new story…or the explanation of the old ones. As with all Shyamalan films, there are things that feel wrong or out of place, but if you trust the filmmaker, it will all eventually make sense.

In prep, I did rewatch Unbreakable for the first time in about 18 years and I was glad I did. It still holds up wonderfully and there are some important and minor aspects I’d forgotten. Unbreakable was also eerily prescient, coming out the year before 9/11 and with nods to other current movements in our culture. But, most of all, it was it’s intent on making an origin story that was ahead of its time. Heroes that are human, villains too, was not the coin of the day back then, but was about to sweep the entertainment world two years later with Spider-Man and eight years later with the launch of the MCU.

As the end of a trilogy, I think Glass will eventually find its place in the pantheon of fandom. Why? Because it is a real trilogy, with three different stories that connect into a great whole. Compare this to other trilogies that are just the same story but with raised stakes to sub in for more story (Hunger Games, Fast & Furious, John Wick). It is going to take some time for folks to adjust to the realities of this final installment and, perhaps, some investment in rewatching the previous movies to see how they all fit together so nicely. There aren’t many directors out there who would have even tried to complete that vision, and fewer still who have properties that deserved it. Shyamalan is still a storyteller I respect a great deal, even with some of his truly awful films like After Earth and The Happening.

So, again, let go of what you think the story is of Unbreakable, Split, and Glass. Give each character and tale their due, and trust a great storyteller to make something complete and satisfying, even if it isn’t quite the meal you expected to sit down to.

Luther (series 5)

[3.5 stars]

This is either an ignominious end, or a brave new platform from which, to relaunch what has been one of the most shocking and strong suspense/mystery series to come out of the BBC. Brutal, dark, and fun as always, this fifth series of Luther really got back on its feet, at least for the first three-quarters and a bit of it.

Luther has evolved over time. From the dark and twisted first season, into the hyper-violent second tale, the maudlin third and then the odd, bridging fourth, which was interesting but not particularly satisfying. This new, four-part installment gives us a story we are more familiar with, while adding some new faces.

Idris Elba (The Mountain Between Us) and Ruth Wilson (Mrs. Wilson) continue to drive most of the action, along with Patrick Malahide (Mortal Engines). But Wumi Mosaku (The End of the F***ing World), coming in as a wet-behind-the-ears detective under Luther’s wing, really gets to show her range as well. Mosaku has been typically cast as the jaded copper of late, but this fresh persona has lost none of her sharp intelligence or strength, providing an immediate and interesting focus in the story. And, of course, Dermot Crowley (Hard Sun), is still there to helm the ship in his odd and MI-6 sort of way.

The wonderful counterpoint of Hermoine Norris (Outcasts) and Enzo Cilenti (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), both with each other and Luther’s cadre, is great fun to watch. The two are a dark dance of fun with many currents running below the surface.

As I implied, up till the final half hour, this is a great series. It isn’t at all clear where the story is going to go or how it will all go down, though you’ll have strong suspicions. The question, at the very end , is whether writer/creator Neil Cross wimped out or if it was simply easy set of choices to bring it all to a close. As of a few days ago, there are rumors it will continue into a series six, but in a very new direction. However, nothing has been confirmed.

If you like Luther, this is a must-see continuation of his and his department’s tale. If you haven’t discovered the series yet, start at the top and see if you can handle the oppressive weight of Luther’s world. This is not a light series, but it is wonderfully acted and, often, intriguingly written.

The Ipcress File

[3 stars]

Sometimes it is nice to dig out a classic you’ve missed. I recently did that with Iprcress. It is very much out of date at this point, but with some amusing moments and a rather young Michael Caine (Sherlock Gnomes). Ipcress released the year before Caine’s breakout in Alfie (1966), which really launched him on the international stage.

The plot of this flick isn’t very surprising, though it is all carried off with a quiet English humor and a staid set of reactions. It feels like a weak version of The Manchurian Candidate, which released a few years earlier. However the wry humor is an unexpected aspect to it all. It isn’t Kingsman funny, but it is somewhere between that and Bond.

One of the things that caught me off guard was how much the opening is reflected in the series opening sequence of Dexter. Even the music is similar. As it turns out, I’m not even close to the first to realize that. Really, it is jarring how close it is.

As a film, it is diverting and is executed well, though more of an interesting curio than brilliant movie. Still, entertaining.  It is also packed with a slew of talent that is no longer with us. Caine is one of the few survivors in that cast, along with director Sidney J. Furie. That Caine is still putting out quality work is what makes him one of the most working and recognizable actors of our time, and Furie continues to dabble across all genre over his equally wide ranging career.

Bird Box

[3 stars]

If you are a Netflix subscriber, you probably have already seen this movie, which has smashed all kinds of expectations for this kind of release. If it had the same attendance in theaters, it would have been a certified hit. As it is, no one knows quite how to judge the results, but they were impressive nonetheless with 45 million account accesses within the first couple days and moving up from there. But is it worth it?

Horror has seen a Renaissance over the last year or so. Get Out, It, and A Quiet Place, even Suspiria, Halloween, and Hereditary have each staked out different corners of the genre successfully, if not always financially. Bird Box lives happily in the Quiet Place corner of that realm, focused on family survival during an unknown and little understood threat. Its story is somewhat predictable, but as it is told in flashback, and there is a lot you can assume from the start, it is intended that the journey and the coda at the end are what you’re sticking around for. And, of course, the cast.

Who would have seen Sandra Bullock (Ocean’s 8) taking on a lead in a horror movie, let alone a streaming only horror? She brings considerable talent and range to an otherwise standard role. Trevante Rhodes (Predator) provides her a nice foil, though not necessarily much of a performance on his own. But he is part of very unexpected cast list. With additional roles by Sarah Paulson (Carol), John Malkovich (Mile 22), Jacki Weaver (Widows), BD Wong (Jurassic World), Lil Rel Howery (Get Out), and Tom Hollander (Bohemian Rhapsody), you’d be understandably surprised. It certainly signals a strong turning in the streaming game.

Director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) brought all of her suspense know-how to bear on this story. Even when the adaptation by Eric Heisserer (Extinction, Arrival) isn’t quite to his previous crafting, she helps pull it together with the actors and directorial choices. Ultimately, this is a story about people, not about events, which is what, I’m sure, attracted the cast and Bier to the production.

Depending on your love of the genre, you will like this to differing degrees. As a pure horror, it is only OK. As an examination of the human condition amid calamity it fares better. Purely as a movie, it is entertaining and gripping, but not brilliant. But if you like Bullock, or any of the other cast, it is worth some time and popcorn. For me, the ending was more than a little obvious and forced, but since this really is about the journey, as I’ve said, I’m giving it a break. On the other hand, you might find the journey itself questionable, depending on your interpretation (one interpretation is quite cliche, while another is a bit more broadly acceptable). Most folks will be able to go along for the ride and enjoy it without the over-intellectualizing I found myself unable to escape. Give it a few minutes to see if it hooks you…I’m betting it will for most.

As a side note, this is quite the double punch for Netflix, whose technology setting Black Mirror: Bandersnatch also released this past week.