Tag Archives: Suspense

Homecoming (series 2)

[3.5 stars]

The first season of Homecoming was a twisted tale of mind-bending fragments that coalesced into something more pedestrian and down-to-earth. That wasn’t a bad thing…it was honest and logical. The perspective was from inside the mystery and it added great suspense and confusion. But now we know the truth.

What we get with the second series is a look at some of the peripheral aspects and the extension of the fallout as we follow the thread left by Stephan James’s (21 Bridges) character. And there are some interesting paths and aspects to explore.

But the best reason to see this second round is Janelle Monáe (Welcome to Marwen) and Hong Chau (Watchmen). They are natural and unforced as a couple. They also each have their own stories and arcs to travel. Chau’s starts in the first season, but this provides another angle on the wonderful final moments she is part of. And Monáe fits seamlessly into the twisted world we traversed as if she’s always been there.

Like the first round, there is a mystery to unravel, though with fewer surprises. And it is full of suspense with bursts of activity. I was with the story completely (despite some willful stupid moments) until the final 10 minutes or so.

The ending didn’t ruin the ride for me; I can understand the decisions that were made. However, it left me very conflicted. To my mind it was out of proportion in scope and depth for the plot. Basically, it violated my sense of balance and left me without sympathy for the characters we probably should have had some sympathy for. Was it a fair choice by the writers? Maybe, but it wasn’t the satisfying punch I think they were hoping for. More importantly, it makes me question whether the third round, assuming it happens, is something I want to see.

Homecoming Poster

 

See You Yesterday

[4 stars]

If you just avoid thinking about the hand-wavy science and focus instead on the logic, story, and message this is one powerhouse of a flick. First-time feature director Stefon Bristol co-wrote this topical and clever tale with another first-timer, Fredrica Bailey.  The two shared the Independent Spirit Award for their efforts for good reason.

Not only is the tale entertaining and a nice variation on well-known theme, it’s also topical and honest about the world in unexpected ways. And, to top it all off, it is aimed at a younger audience while satisfying adults. While different in tenor and intent, this film would live comfortably with Attack the Block or Chronicle.

The film is driven by Eden Duncan-Smith (Annie). She brings a flawed, real person struggling with the realities of her life and the fact that she’s smarter than almost everyone around her. Her friends figure heavily, given life, if not quite as much depth, by new-comer Dante Crichlow and up-and-comer Johnathan Nieves (City of Angels). But as her older brother, Astro  (Luce) adds a number of  important and challenging levels.

This isn’t an easy film to watch, especially right now, but it is probably exactly what you should be watching. It is clever, entertaining, and even funny at times, but it also exposes aspects of reality that is rarely tackled with such honesty and sympathy. It also has a near-perfect ending for its purpose. You can think of it as a science-fantasy tackling of Waves or Do the Right Thing, but that would lead you a bit astray as well. Maybe it’s closer to being Run, Lola, Run in Flatbush if you still need a touchstone.  But, really, it is its own story, and you should see it. And I know I’m looking foward to seeing what Bristol and Bailey come up with next.

See You Yesterday

Into the Night

[3.5 stars]

In many ways this feels like an unauthorized and unofficial sequel to Hard Sun, not that any of the same people are involved; I speak only in terms of story. Or, if you prefer, a new twist to On the Beach. But Into the Night is far from laconic. It has a very clever conceit and structure which keeps the suspense at a constant high, and a credible backstory and clues to keep you engaged.

This is also a tale where no one is safe, which makes every one of the six episodes high-stakes. And, though we deep-dive on different individuals in each segment, they are not the sole focus of their titled vignette. In other words, trying to predict this one is a solid challenge and a compliment to adaptor/writer Jason George. His directing team however, Inti Calfat and Dirk Verheye, were a bit less adept. Some of the characters are portrayed a bit, well, extreme. The story attempts to provide reasons for that, but doesn’t always fully succeed. And there are some liberties taken with time and how long certain efforts might take which put some cracks in the foundation. However, generally, it remains fairly true to its choices.

The ensemble, as a whole, is fairly good. Pauline Etienne, Laurent Capelluto (Mr. Nobody), Stefano Cassetti (Rosemary’s Baby), and Mehmet Kurtulus are the strongest and most complicated players. But everyone on the flight has a tale to tell and something to lose.

Ultimately, the first series pays off nicely and has plenty of runway for the next set of installments…assuming they get to continue. I’m certainly hoping they will if they can keep up the intensity and the story so we can answer some of the open questions.

Into the Night

Extraction

[3 stars]

If you’re looking for a nearly pure action distraction with just enough story to fig-leaf it as a movie, this isn’t a bad choice. It has high production values and solid, if somewhat repetitive, fight choreography. Think Black Hawk Down meets Taken or an alternate version of Mile 22. Basically, the movie is a nearly real-time view of a hostage extraction from overwhelming odds.

Stunt coordinator turned director Sam Hargrave does a fair job for his first feature outing, especially given the scope. But the adapted script from Joe Russo, who is better known as a director (Avengers: Endgame), is just too predictable and thin to support the two hours of action.

Chris Hemsworth (Men in Black: International) toplines this movie and brings a number of layers to his broken-down mercenary. He has both motivation and emotion between his bursts of necessary violence. There are only a couple other characters of note. The young victim is nicely played by relative new-comer Rudhraksh Jaiswal. It isn’t a breakthrough performance, but he gets a few beats are impressive…but he’s otherwise there as a foil/prop for Hemsworth’s battles, internal and external.

Two smaller roles are add some depth to the mayhem. Golshifteh Farahani (Paterson) has a small supporting role from which Hargrave manages to wring a good deal of information with her just looking silently. But David Harbour (Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein), delivers what he can with a ham-handed character; the script did him no favors.

Is this worthwhile as a film?…well, it isn’t a great film, but it is a well-made distraction if you’re in the mood for what it has to offer. It does show what Netflix is starting to become capable of as they start putting lots of daylight between them and their nearest competitors while we’re all locked away. Enjoy it for what it is. There are much worse of this genre out there, but it still hasn’t quite reached the quality on all levels I’d like to see the streamer achieve in the feature category. But it is getting closer.

After We Leave

[3 stars]

Yes, the millionth-and-first end of the world movie. But, much like the recently viewed Last Night, this one is more contemplative although with a bit more action and violence thrown in. And while it’s a little predictable, there are some nice variations and sense of motivation helping lift the story.

For a first feature, Aleem Hossain wrote and directed his story with a sure and clever hand. The world and story aren’t over-explained, some things are just inferred or hinted at. And the resolution is both hopeful and weird but still manages to be romantic and obvious.

Brian Silverman does a nice job carrying the movie as a n’ere-do-well who’s turned the page on his life. And Anita Leeman Torres adds a subtle sub-plot to it all that allows for a lot of satisfying interpolation. The rest of the cast is, frankly, a bit over-wired, particularly Clay Wilcox. The choices can all work, but they felt too much like stock bad-guy decisions rather than organic decisions.

There is enough world-building in this story, even with the inconsistencies, to make it stand out. And there is enough tension and action to keep you connected even with the slower pace thanks to the story and the editing. I appreciated the movie and my time spent with it. Houssain has an interesting eye and an opportunity to build on a solid foundation with this first film. I’d definitely be curious to see what comes next.

After We Leave

21 Bridges

[3 stars]

Director Brian Kirk’s first feature after decades of solid TV work is impressively put together from a visual, editing, and pacing point of view. In fact, the opening has one of the nicest visuals I’ve seen…I had to rewind and watch it again. But the script, from Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) has several credibility gaps that, while attempts are made to provide reasons, made my procedural skin crawl. But let me come back to that. It wasn’t that the ride wasn’t entertaining, I think I just wanted more given the cast.

With Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) in the lead on the cop side, there is a solid sense of upright justice and drive. We trust him implicitly, even as we wonder at his naiveté at the overall aspect. With JK Simmons (Klaus), Victoria L. Cartagena (You) and others backing him, we watch the improbable and absurd plot spin out, violating more rules than are easily quantified here. So the trick is to just pretend and go with it…cause, why not? You put this on to escape, not think. (And after this week, when NYC is actually contemplating a city-wide lockdown due to COVID-19, perhaps I’m rushing to judgement.)

The targets and patsies of this fantastical heist and cop movie are Taylor Kitsch (American Assassin) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk). The two spin out their portion of the tale nicely as they, too, have to unravel what the heck is going on and why. A nice cameo by Alexander Siddig (Atlantis) helps all that along.

Now, back to that script: It is obvious there is more going on from the beginning, so that’s not a spoiler (and if it is, you really weren’t paying attention). However, none of the reveals are surprises, so the action feels drawn out beyond patience for the results. The entertainment value really lies in the various confrontations and reactions to the reveals rather than the information itself. Is that enough? Well, it wasn’t for its general release, but as a rental, it’s more than adequate to the task.

21 Bridges

Little Joe

[3 stars]

I’m always a sucker for intelligent science fiction, whether it is near-term like Arrival or far-future philosophical like Blade Runner 2049 (and it says something that both of those are by the same director) or even total gonzo pieces like Aniara or 28 Days Later. The point isn’t the presentation, it is the amount of thought behind the world and characters that snags me.

Little Joe walks some very well-trod ground, but approaches it with care and at an oblique angle. It even picked up several awards, including a Cannes Palme d’Or nomination and a Cannes win for Emily Beacham (Hail, Caesar!, Into the Badlands) as best actress. Honestly, I don’t really quite understand either recognition, though director and co-writer Jessica Hausner certainly maintained control and vision throughout the piece. And her script, written with Géraldine Bajard, is an interesting riff on a subject that will be familiar to anyone who enjoys the genre.

Supporting Beacham are Ben Whishaw (Mary Poppins Returns), Kerry Fox (The Dressmaker), Kit Connor (His Dark Materials) and Sebastian Hülk (Dark). Each brings a different level of creepy or concern to the story. None of the performances are particularly brilliant, but the quiet, understated approach to the tale is consistent and, often, subtle.

The film is just a little long for its inevitable payoff for my taste (both in metaphor and reality), but it does manage to pull you along and the production design is striking. Little Joe is a worthwhile time investment if you like genre. It isn’t a perfect little gem, but it is a surprising ride, being dealt with intelligently and as adult fare.

Little Joe

Wisting

[3.5 stars]

You may be thinking: yet another Scandinavian mystery series? But there are reasons to take a look at Wisting. While the feel and flow of the mysteries may seem familiar, the series has an intriguing structure.

First, there are two main mysteries in two five-episode chunks. But there are several smaller mysteries as well, not all of which connect (but some of which that do) over the ten episodes. That alone helps provide a more interesting journey through the season; we see cause an effect of various decisions within the season rather than from season to season.

Second, to help gain a broader audience, the first five episodes include an American element. Carrie-Ann Moss (Jessica Jones) is a core part of the first mystery as a semi-rogue FBI agent on the heels of an old murder.

There are some challenges with the series. Part of that stems from the difference in culture (and that Wisting’s family is messed up on top of that). The other part stems from different power structures and laws in Norway. If you’re a procedural fan, the stories here will hurt your head at times as you try to figure out why some things are such a big deal and who is really exposed by aspects.

That said, as a whole it is a solid start that adapts several of Jørn Lier Horst’s books into a fairly satisfying series, and whets the appetite for the next.

Wisting

Midsommar

[4 stars]

Looking for something different in your horror? This may be the answer. Like his Hereditary from last year, writer/director Ari Aster’s lastest takes a page from horror past from tales such as The Wicker Man (and a bit of an “Hereditary in the sun vibe”). It isn’t about blood and guts, it is about human frailty and weakness. If there is a supernatural element, it is purely as part of the psychotropic drugs used by the characters in the film.

What sets Aster’s work apart is the level of detail he puts into his worlds. Midsommar has a deep mythos and culture governing its world and characters. It isn’t unpredictable…you’ll likely know exactly where it’s going early on. But that’s OK. It works because of how it slowly reveals itself in inventive and, often, unexpected ways. Aster continues to improve his craft with this film, showing he has a very trained eye and a unique voice. As challenging as his films are, he is someone I’ll continue to pay attention to regardless of content.

Aster’s other gift is in casting. While the structure of the movie will pull you along, it’s Florence Pugh (Little Women) that really serves as lynch pin holding the whole thing together. Her raw performance often grabs you by the throat even as you want to shake her and make her choose differently. Her journey through Aster’s world is complicated and, often, uncomfortable. Pugh makes this movie work the way that Collette raised Hereditary to a different level.

Pugh’s story is, at least initially, driven by her association with Jack Reynor (On the Basis of Sex), William Jackson Harper (The Good Place), and Will Poulter (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch). None of these men are paragons of, well, just about anything. That is clear from the beginning, but their presence is essential as part of the facets Midsommar reflects upon. If there is a fault here, it is that they are not really sympathetic, which makes them and their journeys less interesting. They aren’t unrealistic (entirely) but they aren’t anyone you really care about.

So for some creepy, beautifully appointed horror, Midsommar is a solid choice. It isn’t fast, but it is intense.

Midsommar

1917

[4 stars]

Some movies are just great rides, and this is one of them. What Sam Mendes (Spectre) has accomplished with his planning and directing is a movie miracle from a technological point of view. And, in this case, that’s enough to recommend it. The script he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), however, isn’t quite on the same level; it is more than a little forced. These aspects make 1917 an interesting duality.

There is no question that that is worth seeing and, in particular, worth seeing on the big screen. It pulls off what Birdman tried to but was too coy and self-conscious to pull off: making the one-shot completely invisible as a device. From the moment it begins, 1917 makes you walk alongside the young soldiers about to traverse a special kind of hell. George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded By the Light) are perfect choices to lead our trip…they aren’t very recognizable, allowing them to be more believable. In fact, their lack of celebrity only heightens other faces we do recognize such as Andrew Scott (Lear), Mark Strong (Shazam!), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Current War), and Richard Madden (Rocketman). It is a purposeful effect, lending power to these small parts and diminishing even more the pawns we are following.

But here’s the tricky thing… their mission and the course it takes, in order to be dramatic, feels directed or manipulated. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen all the time, but you have a good sense since we’ve been on these rides before, just on more highly edited trips. MacKay, in particular, is simply a vessel for us. He is a complete cypher until the very end of his particular journey and then, well, it just isn’t enough.

1917 is a tchnologlcal monster in the way Gravity was in its year. In addition, it has an uncomfortable resonance, particularly now as we sit (yet again) on the brink of war. But despite all that, it isn’t a great story…which makes it only a solid movie and not a great one. Still, it will wow enough voters to get a Best Picture nomination and it may even sway enough to win. Certainly the editing, cinematography, and sound are worthy of notice. Directing as well, given the Herculean effort it took to pull it all off. But the story just isn’t there for me.

Part of my sense of the emotional gap is because of They Shall Not Grow Old, which never really focused on a single soldier, but which managed to create a more emotional journey for me. Part of it was the difference in scale. MacKay and Chapman spend most of their time in No Man’s Land. This sets them in an empty landscape surrounded by the debris of war but not in the midst of it. Those moments come, but the scope of it all was lost by the narrow focus, even as the beginning and end try to bring it back in. Though I fully admit the tension of the journey (one of many soldiers like these had to make) leaves you a wet rag as the credits role; physically, if not entirely emotionally, exhausted.

See this on big screen with big sound (Dolby definitely did this film justice on that level). 1917 is late to the race this year, but it is one you’ll be hearing a lot about over the next month or so.

1917