Tag Archives: Suspense

Unlocked

[3 stars]

Unlocked is a solid, but standard, espionage and betrayal tale with few surprises, but some fun action. Unfortunately, also completely without heart. There are no personal stakes here other than Noomi Rapace’s (Child 44) individual struggle with her past…death, even of friends, is far too cheap to get us to engage with the story. What should have been Rapace’s version of Salt ended up more a forgettable drama with some nice moments and a strong female lead.

Toni Collette (Japanese Story) delivers her own solid performance as well, and even gets to have a couple brilliantly fun moments. Orlando Bloom (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), Michael Douglas (Last Vegas) and John Malkovich (Shadow of the Vampire) fill out the known cast and each provide what was required. None however exceed that requirement in memorable ways. At least Bloom is playing a kind of character we’ve not really seen of him before, and he does it well. No one is bad in their role, they’re just victims of the movie itself.

The root problem of this film is in the inaugural movie script by Peter O’Brien. Michael Apted’s (Voyage of the Dawn Treader) direction was nicely contained and naturalistic, keeping it all within the realm of the believable amid the craziness, but it couldn’t solve the problems of predictability and uninspired mystery. The film isn’t boring, but it just isn’t surprising. We’ve seen all this before.

Unlocked

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

The End of the F***ing World

[3.5 stars]

Evil, evil fun (with a point) in the vein of Skins meets Misfits meets Perks of Being a Wallflower. It even brought to mind God Bless America and not a small dash of Bonnie & Clyde, though this takes place in England. I hate trying to describe things by comparing it to other offerings, but sometimes it is the best way to get across a sense of what a non-traditional or surprising bit of media is like. And, boy, is this surprising.

Jessica Barden (Penny Dreadful) and Alex Lawther (A Brilliant Young Mind) create compelling teens struggling through the hell of adolescence by creating strong facades. We get to hear their inner voices as well as watch their actions, which adds to both the pain and the humor. Let’s face it, there isn’t a person who survived into adulthood who hasn’t lived through at least a moment of that kind of duality. Their journey, while alternately absurdist and hyper-realistic, will resonate with most people if they can get past the violence of it all. 

Wunmi Mosaku (Fearless) and Gemma Whelan (queers.) are the officers in pursuit of these hapless teens. Mosaku is starting to get type-cast a bit in her cop roles, but Whelan got to try out some new moves and layers. This isn’t a police procedural or typical UK suspense. The relationship between these two characters is reflective of the kids they’re after, directly in their relationship to one another and indirectly as a representation of the “world that is against them.”

Better known as an actress in shows such as Marcella and Cucumber, writer Charlie Covell tackled the adaptation of Forsman’s graphic novel brutally and without flinching. It took some serious guts to even consider the tale and serious skill to sell it with the nod and wink she did; and she even manages a stark and effective conclusion.

The series itself is designed like the serial graphic novel that was its root. It is broken into 8 2-part shots, each shot about 10 min. It isn’t a long commitment, but it is a wild ride right up to the final unforgettable moments. If you’ve got the stomach for it, and can ifnd it, this is definitely worth your time.

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Your Name. (Kimi no na wa.)

[5 stars]

If you follow anime, it was hard to miss hearing about Your Name. It had taken Japan by storm and then was released worldwide, finally landing on US shores last summer. In the States, despite the advance word of mouth, it only grossed around 5M. However, worldwide it had amassed an additional 350M. Outside of domestic juggernauts that we export, this is the second highest grossing animation to date (topped, I think, only by China’s Monster Hunt from the previous year).

So, why discuss money out of the gate? Because it is an indicator of impact. This story transcended its original audience and spoke to the world. Even the US box office is impressive when you consider this is a sub-titled animation.

And it deserves all of its accolades. Your Name is a surprising tale of love that will keep you guessing and hoping as the plot unwinds. It starts off feeling like it is aimed young, but it rapidly becomes clear that it is richer than the typical romantic comedy it hints at being as it veers into other territory. It is also beautifully drawn and directed and, though retaining some anime tropes in character reaction, well acted. It’s artistic approach lives comfortably with and echos films like When Marnie was There or The Wind Rises (or any other Miyazaki film). Writer and director Makoto Shinkai (5 Centimeters Per Second) has created a classic film accessible to anyone over 12 years of age.

If I sound a little effusive, well…I am. This plays straight into my nature and love of films like Sliding Doors. But Shinkai’s novel and script is more complex and its plot not nearly as neatly constructed. Your Name has multiple, unrelated aspects playing out that interact with one another. Cause and effect aren’t quite as clear as they would be in a Western film where we prefer perfect construction.

Just set aside some time and see this gorgeously rendered animation with a tale that will grab you by the heart and shake you hard.

Your Name.

Rellik

[3 stars]

We’ve all seen stories told in reverse before, but you’ve never seen anything quite like Rellik. It sustains the trope for 5 of the six episodes in its story (5 of the 6 hours) and keeps working its way backwards in varying increments to reveal the surprises. I still got well ahead of it, but that didn’t really matter because the reverse telling keeps you off balance. Your sense of narrative is totally mucked because you keep trying to think forward but are going backward. Honestly, it was a lot of work and probably drawn out too long. Still, it had quite the list of revelations to play with, though it certainly lost track of some folks as they became unimportant in the past (a flaw in the design since they become important again in the future).

The writers, who also created The Missing, played fast and loose with medical and police matters. But as a mystery and and a police suspense, it kept my attention despite any missteps.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the performances as, again, we watch them devolve rather than evolve. In particular, Richard Dormer (Fortitude) felt wrong going in this direction while Jodi Balfour (Primeval: New World) managed to stay in focus for me. Rosalind Eleazar also manages a rather interesting and creepy character for the run.

It isn’t a perfect mystery/suspense, but it is somewhat unique if you can deal with the effort. Sometimes “new” is enough. Certainly the gaps weren’t with the performers or director. Any weak choices for me came from the script, especially the forced denoument of discovering the killer’s identity with such hand-wavy tech that I actually threw insults at the screen and then got on with it. It certainly isn’t the first show to go with an easy answer because they watch too much CSI, and it won’t be the last. It wasn’t enough to spoil the trip which, in the end, is all that mattered.

Rellik

Beatriz at Dinner

[2.75 stars]

Yeah, I know, that is a weird rating, but it comes down to how the movie paid itself off…or not. Salma Hayek (Sausage Party) does a wonderful job driving this film and navigating a journey of revelation and frustration. But the resolution took days to crystallize for me…and even after I finally got it to make sense, I wasn’t entirely sold on it.

The ending aside, there is a great dynamic set up, Led by Connie Britton (American Ultra) and John Lithgow (Miss Sloane). Britton serves as the uncomfortable bridge between Hayek and Lithgow’s worlds. Each brings a particular kind of tension to the screen.

Jay Duplass (Transparent) and Cloë Sevigny (Love  & Friendship), provide some distraction and a peek at the next generation coming up in the world. They are an odd couple, and come off with varying degrees of believability. In addition, Amy Landecker (Project Almanac) and David Warshofsky (Now You See Me 2) are side notes to the tale. Warshofsky is probably the most grounded and credible of the cast, outside of Hayek, but has relatively little screen time. Landecker is  her typical, crass, ugly person. She does it well, but it is rarely an approach I find sympathetic or engaging.

You can’t help but compare this to The Dinner, which released around the same time and has a similar sort of dynamic and pathway. And again, the path and story are intriguing in Beatriz, but it ultimately didn’t pay off for me. I will admit this is a huge leap above Mark White’s most recent script, The Emoji Movie. The level of maturity is an entirely different league. And Arteta’s direction of it is uncomfortably realistic while maintaining a sort of theatrical stage sensibility. Perhaps I wasn’t able to see the point or wasn’t ready to see the point, but either way, it left me (amusingly given White’s involvement) with a “meh” feeling.

Ultimately, you see this for the performances. So whether you seek this out or not has to be left up to you.

Beatriz at Dinner

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

It Comes at Night

[2 stars]

You have to give this movie credit for being what it wants to be: an intensely personal look at the dissolution of society after an unidentified catastrophe. Basically it asks, “What price, survival?” We’ve seen a lot of these in recent times (a subject I won’t go into here) but this is one of the weaker executions. Both Girl With All the Gifts and Into the Forest manage something more compelling and with better commentary.

The issue, however, isn’t with the acting. Joel Edgerton (Loving), Carmen Ejogo (Alien: Covenant), Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Enders Game) give life to the main family. Christopher Abbot (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Riley Keough (The Discovery), provide another perspective and a bit of suspense and tension. Sadly, however, no answers. In all cases the families feel real, given the situation.

The weakness in this tale is the story itself. Trey Edward Shults follows up his critical hit Krisha with this latest foray into familial horror. Told primarily from the point of view of a teenage boy, we get a lot of suggestion, but little real resolution. And the ending is both obvious and pointless, and a tad out of left field. Initially the story has many elements of reality and dreams as Travis gets more and more sleep-deprived, whether due to sickness or stress we wait and see. The construct is an interesting aspect to the family’s predicament. However, it never pays off and we’re left wondering about far too much as the path that got us to the end just sort of peters out.

As a bit of tension and nihilist pondering, It Comes at Night succeeds. The film making itself is quite good. As a movie, however, at least for me, it felt unfulfilled and pointless.

It Comes at Night

The Loch, Dark and Fearless

This is a collection of three new series from the UK. All three are rather intense, but all boast strong female leads and nicely complex mysteries.

The Loch [3 stars]
A serial murder mystery set in the fictional community of Lochnafoy, on the shores of Loch Ness. Full of interesting characters and plenty of suspects, it is the weakest writing of these three, but still very engaging. At issue is that there are just too many unlikable characters who do some really foolish things. On the other hand, the mystery is nicely complex and is peeled back well over several episodes. How you feel about the final resolution may vary. I was a left feeling it was a bit unlikely, but not entirely unsatisfied. Siobhan Finneran (Happy Valley) and Laura Fraser (The Missing) are the driving female presences, balancing each other well. And there is a whole town of recognizable and new faces to enjoy as the bodies pile up and the detectives focus in on their perpetrator.

In the Dark [3 stars]
The shortest of the three series in this post (it is only two, two episode stories) it is also one of the slowest to reveal its character secrets, though less-so on the suspects. Its lead, MyAnna Buring (Lesbian Vampire Killers), just off the series wrap of Ripper Street, is transformed into an entirely different woman. If aspects of her face weren’t so distinct, I don’t think I’d have even realized who it was. The mysteries themselves are solid BBC style guessing games of possibilities. The first episode is a stronger story than the second, but both build on Buring’s character and set her up as a driven and strong detective, if not a bit reckless. She is supported by a range of recognizable men in her life, some in decidedly different roles than usual. How they go forward I’m not entirely sure, but I’d go back to see more if they make them.

Fearless [4 stars]
In some ways, this is the darkest of the three tales because it is such a reflection of our times and so close to the bigger realities. It spins around the political tides of public fear, war, and espionage even while the main plot is highly personal. It is definitely the strongest of the three on offer thanks to its writing and cast. Helen McCrory (A Little Chaos) is the primary driver in this unsettling, but likely to be more common theme, of terrorism and bad government actors (particularly the US) given today’s politics. She is joined by Wunmi Mosaku (In the Flesh) and Robin Weigert (Pawn Sacrifice). Each is a true-believer in their areas and has varying degrees of integrity based on those beliefs. What lines they will cross is part of the tale to tell. There is also a host of men it was good to see, starting with Michael Gambon (The Casual Vacancy), Jamie Bamber (Marcella), and, finally, Alec Newman who had been doing mostly voice overs for the last while. The story holds its tension from the first to the last and resolves in a believable and complete way. I am hopeful that we’ll see another mystery down the road for McCrory’s character. She is set up as an icon of public justice, which not only has a huge well to draw from, but is a much needed sensibility in today’s world.

The Loch Poster In the Dark Poster Fearless Poster

Top of the Lake: China Girl

[3 stars] The first round of Top of the Lake felt like a forced update of Twin Peaks; a bit less surreality but plenty of odd characters, strange speeches, and meandering plot. It was interesting, but not great. At least not to my mind. But the complexity of Elisabeth Moss’s (High-Rise) character was intriguing and I was curious to see where they might take her.

This second series returns Moss’s character to Sydney and approaches the story with a lot more realism. It takes a lot of the bits of the first series, in idea, and transposes them into more believable situations. It is still stretched in credibility, but a lot less obtuse in its plot and intention. For instance, the impenetrable Holly Hunter philosophy is mutated onto the differently twisted David Dencik (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Analogs to other characters can be found in Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones), Alice Englert (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), and Ewen Leslie. In particular, the broken creepiness of Nicole Kidman (Lion), who embraced her ugly role with abandon, is great fun. But the point isn’t to compare the two series too closely, only to highlight that the creators learned some lessons and built on them.

The series still loses its way about half way through, forgetting Moss is a police detective and focusing on the more soap opera aspects of the story. You get the feeling through the second half that if she’d just been doing her job finding the murderer, fewer bad things would happen. It still manages to keep up a good head of steam through to the end, and provides the opportunity for more stories to come. My hope is that they get someone on the team that understands police procedurals, which would really up the value and believability of the stories.

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