Tag Archives: Suspense

Thelma

[3 stars]

Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs) brought his award-winning ability directing and co-writing (with constant collaborator Eskil Vogt) this intense and suspenseful tale. It isn’t an easily defined story, but Eili Harboe (The Wave) owns the title role with wonderful subtlety and angst.

The result, as close as I can come, is a coming-of-age horror(ish) tale. You know from the opening scene that something isn’t quite right but it is a paced story that builds the situation from Thelma’s point of view. Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen support Harboe as Thelma’s parents in echos of many other similar stories, but without becoming histrionic.

In fact, that is one of the biggest differences in this riff on a plot you’ll recognize quickly, it is told simply and naturalistically rather than with big moments and effects. It is, above all, a story about Thelma and her becoming an independent adult. It is also doesn’t explain everything or provide simple answers to some of the actions, though it certainly raises questions. The story is as much metaphor as truth.

This isn’t a fast film, but it is gripping and interesting,  performed and constructed with real ability. It was nominated for and won many awards deservedly, but it is more on the art-house end of the spectrum than, say, A Quiet Place, that subverts the genre in a different way. When you want something familiar, but that feels new, check this out.

Thelma

A Quiet Place

[3.5 stars]

A tight, post-apocalyptic family drama, told with real skill. From the beginning, you are made aware that while the story is familiar, the rules you know may not apply. It is also a beautifully appointed tale of deaf child coming into her own in a world of imposed silence, which makes for some great, if never spoken, contrasts.

The danger of this film was really with writer, director, and one of the three main actors, John Krasinski (The Hollars). That is a lot of hats to wear and not screw something up. As you might have guessed, he didn’t. He builds a level of tension through scenes that few other directors have pulled off without cheap tricks. This is very important as some of the key moments you’ll see coming, but the editing and performances will keep you gripping your armrest. And, sure, you’ll recognize some of the moments and where he learned them from, but this world is very much his own. I was so involved with the story on screen that it was only afterwards that the echos came to the surface for me.

The story is entirely about Krasinski’s small family trying to survive together in a near-impossible situation. With Emily Blunt (The Girl on the Train) as his wife, she again proves her mettle on screen. It may not be her kick-ass warrior from Edge of Tomorrow, but she brings the energy and determination. Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck), on the other hand, brings the tragedy and strength that you would have normally expected one of the adult actors to take on. It is a complicated role that succeeds enough for its purpose. It will be interesting to see how her career progresses. The last main cast member I expected a bit more subtlety from given his turn in Wonder, but Noah Jupe’s tackling of the family’s son was a bit ham-handed for me at times. Honestly, that was Krasinski’s mistake more than Jupe’s, but it stood out for me amidst the other more contained performances.

All that said, this taut, 90 minute science-fictionesque/family/horror/drama is really fun and worth your time to see with an audience. When the whole room gets tense and groans and jumps with you, the experience is heightened even more. And while there are certainly brief moments of contained gore, it is really more all about the tension and release.

Some more mysteries

A few short write-ups on some new mystery series coming our way.

Bancroft is one of the darker origin tales to come out of the BBC. A four-part tale following the exposure of a 27 year old cold case, and the damage it can still imbue. Staring Sarah Parish (Atlantis) and Faye Marsay (Game of Thrones), both women climbing in the British police force and playing an increasingly dangerous game of politics. It is a very British series and will not be to the taste of everyone, but it is also a good setup for the next sequence. If you need a touchstone, think Line of Duty meets Prime Suspect.

The Miniaturist is faithful to the book, which is both its strength and weakness. A conundrum to be sure. The story is a compelling historical drama and romance in 17th Century Holland, well-led by Anya Joy-Taylor (Split). But the central conceit of the story and title are incidental to the plot itself. You could rip out the entire aspect of the miniaturist herself and nothing in the story would have to change. The book is the same way. It reads like it was originally a different story, but that the author got caught up with other aspects, but never removed the original concept. Either way, it is worth the time to see and/or read.

Shakespeare & Hathaway is of a very different cloth than the previous two. It is mostly a light comedy detective series in Stratford-upon-Avon. But while it has a great deal of fun with Shakespeare’s plays (which isn’t necessary to understand, but lots of fun if you listen carefully) it ranges into some rather dark mysteries and motives. To give you a sense of their whimsy amid the blood, Amber Aga (Abstentia) plays DI Christine Marlowe. To borrow a phrase from the Bard’s time, it is neither fish nor flesh nor fowl but something a bit wonderfully weird and entertaining. The stories are led by veterans Mark Benton and Jo Joyner along with capable and relative newcomer Patrick Walshe McBride. When you are looking  for something that is somewhere between Father Brown and Midsomer Murders or The Coroner this will really fit the bill with some laughs and even some surprises. 

 

Collateral

[3.5 stars]

Writer David Hare (DenialThe Worricker Trilogy) has delivered another complex and tight suspense/thriller. It is a beautiful study of chaos born from a simple, small event. The 4-part tale is one, primarily, of three women in very different places in life, but all intersecting through a seemingly random crime in London.

Carey Mulligan (Mudbound) makes a nice switch to the staid DI Glaspie from her previous strong, but often gender-bounded parts. Glaspie is a tough woman, straight talker, and flawed in ways the keep you interested as she tackles her first big case.

Special ops Jeany Spark (Wallander) brings some interesting flavor to the story. Her struggles, both internal and within the military are often horrific, but she rises above that in her own way. Admittedly, her choices are less than mainstream, but you understand her better than you’d like to admit.

Nicola Walker (River), on the other hand, gives us yet another of her strong but shattered women, a trademark character she manages to make feel fresh and real no matter the story she brings it to. It is hard to recall she started in comedy way back when before she found her meal ticket in film and TV.

Then, of course, are a panoply of others from John Simm (Doctor Who), to Billie Piper (Penny Dreadful), to Hayley Squires (Miniaturist), Nathaniel Martello-White (Moonwalkers), Ahd Kamel (Wadjda), July Namir, and Ben Miles (The Crown). There isn’t a weak casting choice in the lot and S.J. Clarkson directed them and the overall sequence well. Despite the potential for soapy histrionics, Clarkson kept it all very real, contained, and pressurized.

The four installments pull you along as it drops clues that slowly build to a complete picture. It isn’t quite as complex or solidly interlinked as Worricker, but it is full of great moments, dialogue, and performances. Definitely worth a bit of binge when you want a slightly more challenging distraction.

Hard Sun

[3 stars]

Assumption: The only thing that holds society generally, and people specifically, in check is the expectation of a future.

Experiment: Take away that future…what happens?

It isn’t a new idea, nor is it even the best tackle of that idea (Children of Men, probably tops that list). However, when the creator and writer of Luther, Neil Cross, wanted to tackle this idea and deliver something a bit more speculative in genre, it was something I wanted to check out. The dark, violent sensibilities of Luther are put into a new frame where the world itself could be ending. The concept and effects are an interesting study, and sad admission, about human nature.

The two detectives who lead the 6-part serial, Jim Sturgess (Geostorm) and Agyness Deyn (Clash of the Titans), are an uncomfortable  pair with complex lives. Splitting the focus between two leads challenges the show at times, but watching them work through their relationship and through the chaos of the world is instantly intriguing. The give and take doesn’t always feel quite real, but Deyn is a kick-ass fighter while Sturgess is an onion of strange psychology that never really comes completely into focus.

Nikki Amuka-Bird (Luther), a wonderful and prolific actor, adds an element of menace, but without a great deal of character. Perhaps that is fair in what is clearly intended to be a 5 series story. However, it doesn’t do her any favors in believability in this first installment. Derek Riddell (Happy Valley), another well-known face from many British series, is likewise incomplete in his character, but with the talent to make the thin meat on his bones work and leave it open to build on if it continues.

Also not helping the credibility of the show are some really, really dumb choices around mental health treatment and police procedure. More than once I found myself gritting my teeth through short-cuts and outright ridiculous choices. All very surprising given Cross’s ability and background.

Overall, there is enough here to keep you intrigued and wondering what will come next. It combines apocalyptic fiction with the standard British police procedural in an interesting, if sometimes clumsy, way.  What is most interesting is the final moments that are visually stunning, but probably lost and confusing to a general audience. Hopefully, though, it is enough to get the rest of the series made, because it definitely leaves you hanging and with a whole lot of potential going forward. Seek it out on Hulu in the States.

 

Una

[2.5 stars]

This isn’t an entire waste of a film, but in the #MeToo era it rings a bit oddly and, frankly, doesn’t manage a satisfying journey even absent that cultural phenomenon. I will say that David Harrower did manage to adapt his own play successfully to a movie script, but Benedict Andrews’s direction of the result never quite leaves his National Theatre roots behind.

The experience is basically a two-person play with a few extra characters thrown in, despite the number of locations and situations that are used. Rooney Mara (A Ghost Story) does believably create the results and shattered confusion of a young victim grown up. It isn’t a break-through performance, but builds on her odd energy and presence to help us feel her damage. Opposite her, Ben Mendelsohn (Lost River) gives us a tortured, denying predator. There is also a nice turn by Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, The OA) who helps pull some of the threads together.

The struggle with the film in this hyper-aware atmosphere is that it dances between something a bit too close to Lolita and a bit too far from something like The Club or Mysterious Skin or any number of other titles. A couple of years ago, this may have been seen as intriguing or challenging, but today it is politically deaf, even with the best interpretation of the ending. It isn’t that the story doesn’t have points to make, it is that it plays heavily in the gray area of the subject at a time when only black & white are going to resonate. So, if you do want to give it your time, watch with care and awareness that it may be a tad out of step with your expectations.

A

Annihilation

[3 stars]

Much like my comments about Altered Carbon, Annihilation is an actual piece of science fiction intended to inspire thought rather than just show off effects. Not a huge surprise given this is the follow-up feature for Alex Garland after his surprise hit Ex Machina. So strap in for a taught, but paced story that explores the definition of life, the waging of war, and the question of intention while still managing to have a highly intimate tale as its core. I’m not saying it is without flaws…there are definitely some gaps in logic and some forced choices, but it is generally rather well done. 

In addition to tackling large topics, it is also an almost all female driven tale. With Natalie Portman (Song to Song) at the helm as a credible ex-military/current-biologist, the motley collection of women head off into the unknown. Jennifer Jason Leigh (Morgan) is the next most impactful character, again both strong and intelligent, if a bit odd and lost at times. Rounding out the group are Tessa Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) and Tuva Novotny (ID: A) in two distinctly differing portrayals of what a troubled adulthood can look like. The last member, and surprisingly least credible, was Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin). To be fair, Rodriguez was given a tough task and, frankly, was left hanging more by the script than her own petard.

There are some men in the mix in integral roles as well, but they are side-characters. Despite the lack of lines and screen time, Oscar Isaac (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) and Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange) do well.

As this is adapted from a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer,  don’t expect complete closure nor complete answers. In fact, I don’t think Garland would have been happy if there were pat answers to it all. And while this is a major studio release, it has much more of a sense of an indie to it. Despite a budget almost 50 times that of his previous film, Garland clearly told the story his way. Sadly, that is also going to cost him and the flick at the box office, but hopefully it will eventually find its audience and its place. It is a gorgeously filmed piece and with enough meat to make multiple viewings both desirable and enjoyable; assuming, of course, you’re there for the story and not just looking for empty entertainment and action.

As a final sort of spoilerish (but not much) comment, the ending goes off into 2001 land by way of a particular puzzle in the first Tomb Raider game. Given the set up and explanations, the choices are all fair, but I have to admit the imagery rang in my brain a bit more than I’d have liked it to at the climax. Regardless, I still think it was worth my time and that Garland has an interesting career ahead of him.

Annihilation

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