Tag Archives: Suspense

The Wife

[5 stars]

It is rare to find a near-perfect movie, from the acting to the writing to the directing. The Wife is in that category and you need to see it.

First and foremost, it is brilliantly acted by Glenn Close (Crooked House). Close dominates this film but for a single scene where, by design, Elizabeth McGovern (The Commuter) takes over. Jonathan Pryce (Breaking Glass, Game of Thrones) manages the tricky job of being at the center of the on-screen action, but ceding the focus to Closes’s title character. All around the couple are a host of well cast supporting players. Even the petulant portrayal of the son by Max Irons (Terminal) slots in wonderfully.

And while the performance alone are worth taking the time to see The Wife, that is only part of its worth and power.

Björn  Runge directed this drama wonderfully. He reminds us of what an art form the media really is. For, while Jane Anderson’s (Olive Kitteridge) script is very natural, believable, and subtle, it is Björn Runge’s direction  and choices that make it work. While the dialogue unrolls on screen, it is the small looks, the action in the background, and the slowly building tension that drive the tale, rarely the words themselves. This is a movie of almost pure subtext, delivered through visual cues and great acting. I do, however, give Anderson credit for her adaptation of a book that must have been loaded with internal dialogue and making that work on screen.

And then there is the ephemeral aspect of timing of this move that helps set it apart. Not to confuse things, this film would have been good at any time it was released. However, the themes are also pitch-perfect for the current times in ways that would have been hard to predict and which resonate in wonderful and uncomfortable ways.

Make time for The Wife so you know why you’re going to hear so much about it during awards season. Close is brilliant, a study in subtlety and determination. The movie gripping and inexorable. The results powerful. It approaches cinematic perfection in terms of craft and will leave you breathless through its inexorable and accelerating pace that picks you up and carries you along to the final punch. Now, forget all the hyperbole and just go let it do its thing on screen for you while it is out there to see.

Widows

[4 stars]

Think of this as the flip-side of Ocean’s 8; a very dark and disturbing flip-side, closer to Den of Thieves in sensibility.

Widows is a female-driven heist film dominated by Viola Davis (Fences) and Elizabeth Debicki (The Cloverfield Paradox). These women have the most compelling tales and the strongest screen impact despite it being primarily an ensemble movie. Joined by the equally capable, if less story impactful, Michelle Rodriguez (Battle: Los Angeles, Fast & Furious) and Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale), this group of women find themselves and their mettle trying to survive a lousy situation as they dig themselves out of the holes their respective partners dropped them in.

And speaking of their partners, the top line there is an unusual role for Liam Neeson (Peppermint) and a fairly standard one for Jon Bernthal (Baby Driver). Neeson’s time on screen is necessarily brief, but his and Davis’s intense relationship drive the entire tale. Garret Dillahunt (The Scribbler), Jacki Weaver (The Disaster Artist), and Carrie Coon (Izzy Gets the F*ck Across Town) also each get their moments to shine as the story unfolds.

Driving the movie from outside the women’s collective are a group of men, each with their own issues and particular brand of evil. Colin Farrell (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) has the most layered of these characters. He never quite comes into focus, but he is clearly conflicted and buffeted along by the past and the current situation. You never really know whether to feel sorry for him or to revile him. The same can’t be said for Brian Tyree Henry (Irreplaceable You), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), or Robert Duvall (The Judge). These other men are dark, twisted, and out for themselves regardless of the pain and damage they cause. And they do. This is a violent film and hard to watch at moments.

Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Shame) took an interesting risk directing this story. First, he dove into the story quickly, getting to the meat of the tale at the top. Typically, this would have been a good and obvious move. However, then he plowed on before we got to know anyone. He remained very natural rather than heightening or manipulating the audience with standard structures, letting us see realities, but not allowing us to bring emotion to it. We don’t know these people and we can’t yet sympathize with them at the beginning. We can abhor the situations, but there is no connection. The challenge is that it makes the first third of the film very flat in some ways. However, as the movie continues, it slowly builds the story and gets there; but it takes its time.

The story itself has some serious cred behind it. It was originally written by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect) and then adapted by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl) and McQueen himself. None of these artists thinks in a straight line nor bends toward the light and airy in plot. Widows will coddle and assault you, but it will bring you along and make you invest. I will admit that while the ending left me wondering if I’d really understood the McQueen’s main point in the film, but I didn’t feel cheated, only a sense of pondering. It also contained a particularly wonderful moment with mirrors (which seem to be getting more popular again in films).

Widows is not your typical heist film, not just for its female leads, but also in its approach to story. If you want something different for your holiday week’s fare, this is one that should be on your list.

Black Earth Rising

[4 stars]

Like his previous Honourable Woman, Hugo Blick’s Black Earth Rising has a unique tone and flavor determined by its story’s origins. The approach sets his work apart keeps them feeling new, despite recognizable venues, structure, and format. The 8-part road is twisty and complex, but laid out logically and credibly to bring you along, though you are unlikely to get ahead of it. His ability to find strong and capable talent doesn’t hurt the result either.

This story, also like Honourable Woman, is driven by a powerful female character…given terrible life by Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum, Black Mirror). Coel dominates the tale from her first moments on screen until her last in a complicated and dark role. It is riveting and heart-breaking to watch this woman come to terms with her past and her present. She is fiercely intelligent, physically powerful, and with a magnetism that takes over the screen when she appears. She doesn’t steal focus, but she cannot help but remake each scene around herself.

She is joined by John Goodman (Atomic Blonde) who brings us a troubled and layered lawyer seeking justice and happiness, though often watching both slip through his fingers. Harriet Walter (Donmar Project), as her mother, is a study in conflicting emotions; a tight and warring collection of memories and intentions expertly controlled and utterly riveting.

Additional roles fill out the world, with some notable performances by Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: SVU), Noma DumezweniLucian Msamati (The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), Abena Ayivor, and Emmanuel Imani. But the entire cast is strong.

While these performances alone are a great reason to watch the series, it is the writing and the story that make it worth tuning into this dark but fascinating story about international justice and questions of truth and history. That quality shouldn’t be surprising given it is from Blick as the creator and writer/director for the 8 episode sequence. He also employs some interesting visual approaches to both expose the past and pull themes through the series.

Blick is unafraid of complex questions, politically and personally. He does have a penchant for high conspiracy but, in this case, it feels very logical if disturbing. The point of Black Earth Rising is to raise awareness and to force viewers to recognize some very hard truths about the world and how their own desires help drive it. But it is also a highly personal story and one that is deeply emotional and healing. Whether or not the story gets the accolades it deserves, Coel’s performance will certainly be identified as one of the best of the year.

The Bodyguard

[3.5 stars]

A six part series that can keep you off balance to near the end is a rarity. The Bodyguard delivers on this point. Richard Madden (Oasis) is the largest part of that success. He brings painful and unexpected layers to the character willing himself between ice block and utterly vulnerable.

In addition to Madden, UK mystery/suspense stalwarts Keeley Hawes (High-Rise), Gina McKee (Line of Duty), and Pippa Haywood (Scott & Bailey) each bring different kinds of strong women to the tale. There are some other familiar faces, such as Stuart Bowman (Versailles), but despite a male lead, this is a heavily female-driven tale. One real standout is Anjli Mohindra (Bancroft) who has really grown up since the Sarah Jane Adventures.

The finale episode is this show’s only real stumble. The breathless rush to the ending confrontation is well orchestrated but is done primarily to (hopefully) keep you from noticing the bad plotting and choices. It works emotionally, but it is utterly wrong technically. Squint a little and you’re fine. It frustrated me mainly because up to these moments it had been so well done. The show as a whole is still very much worth the viewing time, but it is a slightly flawed resolution.

Halloween (2018)

[3.5 stars]

This sequel is different than most. One of its most radical choices is that it discarded every film that followed the 1978 original, even those with Jamie Lee Curtis in them, to give us a different follow-up and one more fitting for the times. The depiction of a woman under threat and not being believed becomes a metaphor made manifest. The result is a bit more than a slasher flick…but not much. Though it tried to subvert that formula, it ended up bowing to the weight of expectation and gave in a bit too often.

Along with Curtis Judy Greer (Wilson) and Andi Matichak as her daughter and granddaughter add some generational expansion and views. And there is a host of potential and realized fodder with some nice talent throughout, including Virginia Gardner (Runaways) and Dylan Arnold (Mudbound) for some nice teenage hijinks. The rest of the cast is good. But then there was Haluk Bilginer’s (Rosewater) shrink, who fills the hole left by the late Donald Pleasence. Like Dr. Loomis, he is an obsessive with his own agenda. This is also where the script is at its weakest and moves the furthest from its updated feel. But none of it is far from the genre.

Director and co-writer David Gordon Green (Your Highness) was a mere 3 years old when the original Halloween hit screens in 1978 and spawned a 40 year franchise. Despite growing up with the sequels, he really managed to make it his own but with nods to both the original and the sequels as we knew them. Stylistically, however, it fits right in with the original. The script, co-written with Danny McBride (Hell and Back) and Jeff Fradley shows a real love for the series and the horror experience. It isn’t brilliant, but it manages a few surprises and some grounded aspects to its plotting.

As a side note, I’ve been watching a number of conversations about why horror is making such a come-back these days. One explanation is that horror is best experienced with others in a theater, that is more fun and satisfying that way. Sure, I’ll give you that, but I think it has more to do with our current state of the world. As with during the Cold War, people want safe ways to feel scared and in control. Then it was primarily scifi monsters. There is also a new trend in horror (Get Out, Quiet Place, It), that takes itself seriously as film, not just pulp. Halloween doesn’t rise to that level, though it certainly takes itself a half-step above pure slasher film by the end very cleverly.

For the heck of it, I also decided to see this in one of AMC’s new Dolby theaters, assuming that sound was more important than visuals for this kind of skin crawl and seat jump film. I have to say, the visuals and sound are pretty astounding. While it doesn’t quite have the visual scope of IMAX, it certainly has impact. If you’re wanting to try it out, pick a film like this one to try it out where you are less invested and think sound will be impactful.

But back to the film in question. If you like this kind of horror or just have a penchant for Halloween, you’ll have fun with this. I wish it had been a little more, but I definitely had fun and appreciated the result.

Bad Times at the El Royale

[4 stars]

Are you looking for something different? Then checking into the El Royale may be your best destination. Director and writer Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has a very particular style to his film making. His stories have a similar color pallet and the plots are recognizable but not formulaic. They buck tradition but cleave to a sense of moral reality that is believable. They feel almost refreshing in their approach despite playing heavily into genre, whether that is horror, science fiction, or, in this case, noir. And his stories are chock full of subtle references for those steeped in the movies and television. (One nod to Silence of the Lambs was inspired.) This story is subtly political in its message as well.

Goddard is also good at assembling talented casts capable of bringing his vision to life in earnest without losing track of the style he is aiming for. Jeff Bridges (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Cynthia Erivo (The Tunnel) are particularly solid at driving a good part of the action. But Jon Hamm (Nostalgia), Dakota Johnson (A Bigger Splash), Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising), and Lewis Pullman (Battle of the Sexes) complete the ensemble of odd characters who, despite coming to the El Royale for different reasons, find their paths crossing in unexpected ways. Nick Offerman (Hearts Beat Loud) has a nice cameo as well. As a final treat, Goddard got Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers) to reteam with him for a funny and terrifying role that continues to help establish his range (he can’t be Thor forever).

Like Cabin in the Woods, I suspect this film will take time to find its audience, which is a shame. It is crafted beautifully. Despite its almost 2.5 hour length it moves along crisply and keeps opening up surprises through till the finale. It is solidly acted and funny as well as dark and dangerous as its centering genre. It is very much a classic noir, but with Goddard at the helm very little can ever be assumed, and that is part of the joy of the story. And, as only his second stint in the director’s chair, it shows immense promise for what may come in the future as well. If you’re tired of sequels and formulaic drivel, support movies like this one that try to do something a bit different.

Disconnect

[3 stars]

Social media has remade relationships: familial, romantic, and even legal. Not a particularly clever statement nor revealatory, but still true. Disconnect is a cleverly plotted trip through various aspects of that idea. In a bit of nice subtlety, it intertwines several concurrent stories without forcing the combinations. The overall trip feels like a twisted path through a dark wood.

In one story, Jason Bateman (Game Night), Hope Davis (Wayward Pines), Haley Ramm, and Jonah Bobo (Choke) navigate family and school life…not exactly together, which is the point.

In the other main tale, Alexander Skarsgård (Mute), Paula Patton (Warcraft), and Michael Nyqvist (John Wick) form a tangled triumvirate working toward resolution.

Frank Grillo (Captain America: Civil War) and Colin Ford (Under the Dome) have their own familial challenges both within and without their house. These two form a natural point of intersection in the story to nicely bring it into a single focus.

And then there is Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin) and Max Thieriot (Point Break) who dance a tarantella that raises all sorts of interesting questions, of which technology is only a small part. Their story rides mostly outside the others and, while the least compelling in many ways, also raises the most questions.

Every one of the actors delivers a strong performance. One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is actually how the various actors are mostly playing against their typical types. Grillo is probably the least off his normal characters, though his tough ex-cop is grounded in family life and emotional connection.

As a first film in the primary director’s seat, Henry Alex Rubin tackled a dark and complicated vision in Andrew Stern’s script (also a first time on big screen). There isn’t anything really new in the story, even from when it was made six years back, but it handles the various lines of social commentary naturally. It is less about exposure and more about raising questions and offering glimpses of issues across a whole environment. The end result is a taut suspense that slowly ratchets up the tension before releasing the wires all at once. To see Rubin and Stern’s potential and some nice performances, it is definitely worth your time, but you’re going to walk away from this one more contemplative than smiling.

Disconnect

The Beyond

[3 stars]

The Beyond is Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull’s  first film. It actually has a bit more going for it than his second outing, 2036: Origin Unknown, but also some particular issues. However, on a craft level it is a fascinating little trip.

So let’s talk a bit about how the story was told first, because that is where this movie is the most intriguing. While the pseudo-documentary approach is a little tired generally, this is the best execution of the idea in the genre I’ve seen since Europa Report. The result is down to two aspects. The first is editing and effects which are both done well. Scenes are presented in short bursts to keep you pulled along, even past some of the weaker moments, while the effects are impressive (unsurprising given his f/x background). The second aspect was the delivery. The actors really hit the right tone, especially Jane Perry (A Hologram for the King) who sold it perfectly.

The main story is reasonably good, if a standard trope in many ways. But the script is full of issues, errors, and contradictions, which was a bit frustrating. There are a number of facts that change from scene to scene as well as leaps of logic. A bit of squinting gets you past it all, but not without some gritted teeth and frustration. Still, it manages to work and go some interesting places. The ending, much like 2036, will either resonate, annoy, or anger depending on your particular mood, patience, and beliefs.

I like that Dulull wants to tackle big ideas and issues. I’m not sure he’s found the best ways to translate those to screen, but the results aren’t unwatchable, just abrupt and rushed. For the execution of the film alone, The Beyond is an interesting presentation. As a first film, it is highly polished and executed; Dulull clearly has ability. But, right now, his plots feel more like written stories put on screen than stories written for the media he’s using. He needs a writing collaborator and some extra eyes to help his talent reach its best delivery, but the talent is definitely there.

Cardinal: Blackfly Season (series 2)

[3 stars]

The first series for Cardinal was highly personal, very twisted and very bloody. This second series picks up the story where it left off with Billy Campbell (Modus) and Karine Vanasse (Revenge) putting their lives back together and expanding their partnership to catch killers. And, yes, this one is as gruesome as the first, though with considerably fewer unknowns.

Campbell’s story this round revolves around the return of his wife and the challenges of mental illness. Vanasse’s story is less clear this time and, frankly, rather side-lined. Overall, this felt like a transition series where the writers were trying to get the characters to a new place, but chose not to jump there. Instead, we are taking the long journey. While that works with a darker, slower-paced show like Wallander, it made this series drag a bit with a lack of energy, despite all the events.

On the wrong side of the law are two rather chilling, and very different, sociopaths embodied by Bruce Ramsay (Behind the Candleabra) and Dan Petronijevic (19-2). Unfortunately on this side of the story, though we also have Alex Paxton-Beesley (Copper) and Jonathan Keltz (Reign), there is nothing much sympathetic about any of them. The result is that we don’t invest overmuch in the outcomes. In the first series, we had characters to care about on all sides, so this was a definitely step backwards.

The series remains hard to get a hold of, but I expect it will eventually get wider distribution as it is about to go into its third series on CBC. If you like the darker suspense mysteries, this is one to add to your queue.

Cardinal Poster

Maps to the Stars

[2.5 stars]

I was rather rooting for this movie from about 15 minutes in. You can feel the craft and control as threads quickly begin to come together. No surprise given it is a dark fantasy by David Cronenberg (Crash). Unfortunately, the meaning and purpose all sort of drifted away by the end into the stardust it references. Perhaps I was just too dense to get the references, but even a bit of research afterwards didn’t illuminate anything obvious for me.

That said, there are some very good performances in this peek behind the surface of families and Hollywood. There really isn’t a truly sympathetic character in the cast, but there are those that are less despicable and more pathetic. However, there is no one who you can really feel good supporting or wanting to succeed, which makes the story a bit of a slog at times.

Mia Wasikowska (Alice Through the Looking Glass) is the best of the cast. She is intriguing and the most believable. The rest are all interesting to watch, but not entirely credible. Robert Pattinson (Water For Elephants) comes close, but then gets let down by the script. Julianne Moore (Maggie’s Plan) gives a brave and raw performance that is likely close to reality, but not a reality that many of us will have experienced and certainly not one that you’d support emotionally. Olivia Williams (Victoria & Abdul) and John Cusack (Chi-Raq), as bumbling parents, make a microcosm within the film that is interesting, but not much explored. Cusack does gets to explore a rather different character than his usual, which is intriguing to watch. And, finally, Evan Bird (The Killing) creates an l’enfant terrible, but without a lot of depth, only a wooden and hollow sort of desperation.

Admittedly, there are layers to this story…layers I also much admit I couldn’t uncover though it tickled my brain at the edge of understanding. Either I was trying to build patterns from chaos or I just missed the point. And, frankly, there were so many lost story opportunities to explore in the tale that it felt as surfacey as the culture it was exploring. It is also interesting to consider that this was released four years ago, before #metoo. I’m not entirely sure how reactions might differ before that boundary in culture. Within the first 5 minutes of the movie, several references are already out-of-date, not to mention nods and appearances by recognizable figures who have since died.

David Cronenberg loves crawling in the muck of people’s lives and emotions. But he is capable of good storytelling while doing so. He took Bruce Wagner’s complex script and slowly revealed its levels. But while there is a solid conclusion to the story, there isn’t a final meaning to it all. This can work when the point of the multiplicity of storylines and lack of direct connection is the intent, but not when you’ve gone to great lengths to imply a mythological or otherwise greater tale being told. It feels like a Sophomoric attempt to force meaning to come from the brain of the viewer rather than the mind of the filmmaker. Not a satisfying way to wrap your travelings through some very dark woods.

Maps to the Stars