Tag Archives: Suspense

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)

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

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

[1.5 stars]

The last film Yorgos Lanthimos directed and co-wrote with Efthymis Filippou was the oddly compelling and flawed The Lobster, which captivated a significant section of the film world and earned them an Oscar nod. Despite some early rumblings about Sacred Deer, it has nowhere near the sense of dark whimsy nor fascinating alchemy that The Lobster did. In fact, it is a bit of a boring mess that never pays off, though teases with many promises.

Much like The Lobster, the entire film is structured to get to the final moments, or final scene and coda in the case of Deer. It is a powerful couple of images, but they mean nothing because the previous two hours were spent laying out plots and ideas that went nowhere and had no support.

It probably didn’t help that Lanthimos prefers a presentational style of acting akin to pure Brecht; flat, stated rather than “acted,” allowing the ideas to be formed by the audience rather than manipulated or guided by the characters. It is a very intellectual approach to theatre and it is rarely as blank as Brecht probably wanted. However, if the ideas aren’t there to be formed, a lack of emotional connection simply distances and bores an audience.

[For a really good documentary and an interesting look at such a production done well, watch Theater of War that chronicles a production of Mother Courage starring Meryl Streep at the Papp.]

Given that Colin Farrell (Roman J. Israel, Esq) and Nicole Kidman (The Beguiled) lead this cast, a lack of connection is near criminal. Scraping against them and their family is the creepy Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk), who creates a twisted combo of Crispin Glover and Paul Dano to drive the story as best he can. Sunny Suljic and Raffey Cassidy (Tomorrowland), as the children of Kidman and Farrell, struggle in this film to make an impression. Cassidy gets more opportunity, but neither ever make sense of it all and so their performances simply fade away.

And that, in the end is the real problem. The Lobster certainly left audiences with questions and debates around its ending. But there was context for that debate; there had been a story, however weird, that latched into base, human needs and desires. You couldn’t not talk about that film for days afterwards. Sacred Deer reaches for something similar but misses the grab leaving the rest of the story  just a series of forced vignettes and actions that have nothing driving them. It is a credit to Lanthimos that I kept thinking there was something coming, which is what kept me watching for two long hours. But, having never paid it off, I left the movie angry and frustrated rather than contemplative or in the mood to discuss it.

Even though I finished it, I can’t give it my normal 2 stars in rating for getting me to the end, because there was no end there. However, it is beautifully filmed and with competent actors that delivered a clear and consistent (if pointless) vision, so it isn’t a 1 star film either. Suffice to say: skip it. I’m sure Lanthimos and Filippou will deliver something down the road, but this movie is better shelved and ignored, except by film classes who wish to dissect it for craft.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Snowman

[2.5 stars]

Tomas Alfredson (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Let the Right One In) would have seemed a perfect director for a mystery suspense out of Norway. But the result is something less than I hoped for.  In fact, it comes across more as a bit of TV drama than it does a feature film due to its pacing and plot cheats. Frankly, the result is odd given the collection of actors Alfredson landed for the film.

Michael Fassbender (Alien: Covenant), while admittedly too young and handsome for the part, can do the brooding, damaged adult just fine. However, age here was really against him. Hole is supposed to be well established, revered even, despite his penchant for drink and cowboy mentality toward work. The character just never came together and never really had any stakes in his life or in the story.

Rebecca Ferguson (The Greatest Showman) had a greatly complex character and is Hole’s protege, or should be. Their relationship never fully gels either in respect nor in cooperation.

In three supporting roles, Charlotte Gainsbourg (Nymphomaniac), Jonas Karlsson (Strings), and J.K. Simmons (The Accountant) each bring some potential to screen. None of that potential is ever fully realized, again thanks to the script and lack of filling out the plot. But they do their best with what they’ve got and it certainly helps flesh out the world.

In addition, there are two small roles worth mentioning. David Dencik (Top of the Lake: China Girl, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) creates a wonderfully creepy doctor who, again, sort of just exists in the story, but doesn’t really connect in it. And, in an almost total throw-away role, Val Kilmer (Song to Song), gives us a great character and history for the suspense tale. One last actor in this film is inanimate: the landscape of Norway. The location shots are stark and cruel and gorgeous, capturing a good sense of the book and the mentality of the characters. It is the one aspect of the movie that works very well, but not enough to overcome the other weaknesses.

Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series is deep, dark, and complex. This film, which drops us in the middle of that sequence, veers from book so radically as to destroy any chance of a faithful depiction, let alone a continuing series. It isn’t a bad evening in front of the TV, but it isn’t a great movie. Such a shame to squander a well of material that is that deep and interesting on what amounts to a forgettable throw-away.

The Snowman

The Book of Henry

[4 stars]

Henry was a rather divisive tale during its release, but I honestly don’t understand why. It is dark, yes, but on a clear trajectory from its outset and with an emotional intelligence that is rare in films, and even rarer in films driven by children.

Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special), in the title role, is controlled but never forgets he is a child in a co-dependent relationship. Alongside him is the incredibly capable Jacob Tremblay (Wonder), who consciously takes a back seat in this film to his screen brother, but delivers a great performance nonetheless. In the third child role, Maddie Ziegler(Leap!) rides a very subtle line without ever overplaying her cards. Having three capable young actors driving a movie was a great surprise.

But this isn’t just a tale of the children. The adults around them have equally interesting paths to walk. Prime among them is Naomi Watts (The Glass Castle), who continues to be a conundrum for me. She is a very natural actor who never quite seems natural because she has such charisma and power on screen. This film manages to contain her relatively well, but it wavers at moments. Sarah Silverman (A Million Ways to Die in the West) is surprising as Watts’ best friend; funny, but in a dark and subtle way with a sad, but very real character. Finally, there are Dean Norris (Girlboss) and Lee Pace (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) in critical, smaller roles. Both performances are quiet and full of implied layers which fill them out despite minimal screen time.

Colin Trevorrow has had an odd trajectory as director, going from the utterly delightful Safety Not Guaranteed to the overblown and absurd Jurassic Park and now a return to his more indie roots with Book of Henry. While Jurassic has made him a mint, it is clear that, left to his own devices, he can craft and control deeply emotional and complex tales. His execution of Gregg Hurwitz’s first feature script was done with real skill. It is oddly structured in ways that will keep surprising you as it subverts traditional plots.

I know this movie will not interest everyone; it somehow manages to credibly combine the sensibilities of The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet and Florida Project and Gifted without a nod or a wink. It captures small-town life and the quiet corruption that can lie beneath, but it isn’t so jaded as to go sour. The performances are near flawless and the story is both timely and effective. In other words, for the right and receptive audience, it is a solid choice.

Side note: I don’t often do this, but I’d waited months to read the Esquire review of this film and feel compelled to link to it. Not because I agree with it all, but there are aspects that are interesting. There are also aspects that make it clear the reviewer wasn’t paying attention, so I have to discount the whole given how intricate the plot is; missing anything is to make it all shaky. Regardless, the reaction is typical of what I was seeing. Do be warned, he retells a lot of the plot, so I’d wait before you read it as I did.

The Book of Henry

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

The Foreigner

[3.5 stars]

You don’t typically go into an action film expecting to be affected emotionally. The better ones have emotional threads and, certainly, fantastic catharsis, but rarely do you have fully realized characters that act in ways you fully understand, even if they do it with skills that few have mastered.

Director Martin Campbell, who rebooted Bond with Casino Royale, (but who also brought us Green Lantern), puts himself back on the map with this film. The story slowly reveals itself in bits and pieces while Jackie Chan (Kung Fu Panda 3) incrementally escalates the pressure that accompanies his demands. Pierce Brosnan (Survivor), the focus of those demands, does a great job of playing the reformed soldier/terrorist (depending on who you ask). The dance between these two is intense and, in its weird way, great fun. They are also surrounded by an incredible collection of supporting characters, all great, but frankly incidental.

Another aspect that sets this story apart is that no one comes out of this movie unchanged or unscathed, Chan included. His tale is both energizing and heartbreaking because there is no good result, only closure. But it is closure definitely worth making time for. Chan has always had a sense of reality to his parts, but this is the first time he’s combined some serious acting chops with his action efforts. It is a part that will hopefully see Chan in even more challenging roles in the years to come; he can clearly handle them.

The Foreigner

Witnesses (Les témoins)

[3.5 stars]

I jumped into series 2 of this show by accident, but haven’t found that to be a detriment. The sequence feels like it stands on its own as a dark, character-driven police mystery with a greatly imaginative perpetrator. It is also full of female characters, most notably Marie Dompnier and Audrey Fleurot (Spiral). The influence of shows like The Tunnel are even more amusing given that the primary lead, Dompnier, has appeared in that show as well.

The writing is generally very realistic; information is ignored, but usually justifiably so. The officers, even when they seem to be bull-headed or lazy, are actually all pretty good at their jobs; some are just more jaded than others, like Jan Hammenecker (Broken Circle Breakdown). The last couple of episodes stretch credibility for some of the decisions, but they do a heroic job trying to give them cover. And by that time, much like in The Bridge and The Tunnel, you don’t care, you just want to understand and see it all resolve.

The overall effect is a French version of the Nordic wave of mysteries taking over the book shelves and streams ever since The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo hit the scene. The moody and complex plot is fun and disturbing, and the acting compelling. I am definitely going back to pick up series 1 and look forward to series 3, should it come about.

Dark

[4 stars]

What would happen if Stranger Things collided with the last couple of seasons of Lost? Well, you’d get something like Dark.

This show takes some work to follow, especially with the added challenge of subtitles (if you watch in its original German; and why wouldn’t you?). The story is incredibly complicated and slowly revealed over its 10 parts. Part of the fun of the story is trying to get ahead of it and only occasionally succeeding. But Dark is also aware and unapologetic about the challenge of the story, even providing guidance to help viewers. Some of that comes as some classroom teaching via the teens in the series, other assistance comes as voice over, and still more as allusion or as split-screen explanations.

But all the effort is worth it. I say this even admitting it is based on some of the worst kind of science fiction. What saves it is very clever plotting and structure and solid acting across the board.

One of the things that makes limited series so much better, typically, than the more standard American 20+ episode approach is that a limited series (or season) can be fully and carefully crafted; even over multiple arcs with less time pressure and more craft. And, while this is an example of that advantage, the series inevitably allows itself an escape hatch into series two. As long as there is a series two, I’m OK with that. However, too many shows do that with the hope of garnering enough outcry and interest to get renewed, when what really works isn’t so much open ended plot points as really good writing.

At the time of this writing, Netflix has yet to commit to the follow-up, but interest in the show points to a renewal. Give it a shot even without the commit, if you haven’t already.

Dark