Tag Archives: Suspense

Anna

[3 stars]

Imagine Lucy crossed with Mission Impossible with a bit of Red Sparrow and you’ve got a sense of what Anna is like. It is a fun romp with some great fights and good twists…all with a darkly Russian demeanor and French sensibility. In other words, a Luc Besson  film.  This isn’t a classic, but it is certainly good summer entertainment.

Sasha Luss (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) in the title role is suitably inscrutable, if not entirely accessible. And she moves well, helping us believe she could be a trained professional, even if her brawn isn’t obvious.

Around her, Helen Mirren (Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Luke Evans (Professor Marston and the Wonder Women), and Cillian Murphy (Free Fire) provide the intrigue and complications needed to propel the story nicely.

This is nothing more than fun entertainment that is loaded with dark humor, great fight choreography, and twisty plotting tropes that become their own brand of humor. Go for the popcorn and stay for the ride. It may not be the best the summer has to offer, but it is much more satisfying and fun than most of the middling sequels that have been on offer so far.

The Scarlet Hour

[4 stars]

Remember when films were ephemeral events…before it was all stored and streamable from the cloud? How exciting is it that we’re still in an era where movies can be rediscovered after vanishing from screens for decades. Thanks to The Palm Springs Noir Fesitival one of these, The Scarlet Hour, was presented with a pristine new print supplied by Paramount. And what a treat.

Noir is definitely a matter of taste. The style is delightfully (or painfully) arch and the character types are amusing or insulting, depending on your point of view. But when lines like, “If I were dead, you couldn’t take me to the morgue,” get bandied about, I lean more toward the amused entertainment side of interpretation.

But this isn’t just about femme fatales, malleable good guys, and mustache twirling bad guys, not to mention just simply bad choices, it is about moral indignation and escapism. And, when done well or with the right cast, a rewatchable classic.

OK, Scarlet Hour, despite its pedigree director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, White Christmas) isn’t quite a classic. But it has a number of aspects going for it, thanks to Curtiz’s ability to discover new talent. Scarlet Hour boasts several new, or relatively unknown, actors at the time including Carol Ohmart, Tom Tryon, and Jody Lawrance.

But it is Elaine Stritch (Just Shoot Me), in her film debut, that steals this movie utterly. She is the most believable and displays the trademark wit and timing that would distinguish her career for the next 60 years.

In addition, a number of recognizable faces of the time were around. Among them, James Gregory, E.G. Marshall, Edward Binns, David Lewis, and Richard Deacon. Each elicited applause or sighs of appreciation upon their appearance from the audience.

The movie knows what it is…even going so far as to have a copy of White Christmas in a bargain box at a record store in one scene. It doesn’t apologize for the heightened emotions and choices. It gobbles down the genre while still providing some nice variations and unexpected moments. It probably helped that Frank Tashlin adapted his own novel for the script, with the help of John Meredyth Lucas and Alford Van Ronkel. The final moments are all very much in question as the story unspools. It isn’t entirely satisfying, but it is certainly genre-acceptable.

There are many reasons to see this flick if you get the chance. The actors, the director, the silly fun of it all. But it is also a piece of history and a lens into time and style. And Curtiz distills a lot of it nicely and with a bit of a knowing wink.

The Scarlet Hour Poster

Brightburn

[3 stars]

Is there anything scarier than a 12-year old going through puberty? How about one with untried superpowers? The result is really more a horror flick than science fiction. Think We Need to Talk About Kevin, if Keven were Kal-El, more than Carrie with a guy.

Jackson A. Dunn’s Brandon Breyer isn’t so much an anti-hero as anti hero. He plays it nicely deadpan, but with enough confusion about  his new “feelings” to make it recognizable. Elizabeth Banks (The Happytime Murders) and David Denman (Puzzle) struggle as his parents to deal with his oncoming adulthood, as every parent does. Their concerns are essentially the same, but the price of failure and miscommunication are just higher. Watching them navigate the situation is as much fun as watching their son begin to come into his own. It makes Brightburn at once a tense trainwreck of a horror film and a darkly funny metaphor for adolescence. And the costuming for Brandon’s alter ego is a wonderful and subtle gift.

Brightburn isn’t exactly drawing in a wide audience. In some ways, it is timely in the superhero glutted days of movies as counterpoint. But we, as a population, flock to superheros when things are bad and we need hope. Is it surprising that during today’s struggles most people want their heroes to be heroes rather than … well, not? Go to this for the evil glee and mayhem that it offers. It isn’t brilliant in script or direction, but it is solid and delivers what it intends without the stupidity on the part of characters that most horror films provide and rely on. Frankly, I had fun with it, even as I found it disturbing as heck.

Prospect

[3 stars]

I couldn’t help but think of Dark Star while watching this film, even though Prospect has much more action and story. The reason, I think, is that Prospect, like Dark Star, tries to show real life for the grunts out in the universe. In other words, it isn’t particularly quick-paced. However, it’s not a comedy, dark or otherwise. Prospect is a character-focused drama that takes place within an interesting world and set of challenges.

It is also, basically, a Western in space. Pedro Pascal  (Equalizer 2) doesn’t even try to hide that…in fact, he leans into it massively. Pascal uses Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s first feature (as writers and directors) to deliver overblown homilies and colorful language that seem at once self-conscious and, somehow, wholly believable thanks to Pascal’s consistency and talent.

But it is really Sophie Thatcher, in her feature debut, that holds everything together as we get to know her and her abilities, not to mention rooting for her survival. She is a strong female character who has layers we discover over time. At first, with her father, Jay Duplass (Beatriz at Dinner), Thatcher is the supportive, if frustrated, daughter. But it becomes apparent rapidly that she has much more going on.

As I said, this isn’t a fast film, despite its action. And it isn’t a great film, despite its ambitions and delivery. However, it is a good film if you trust it. Enjoy the characters and the complicated world that is presented. Caldwell and Earl don’t insult you by explaining too much and they allow the actors to shade in their stories around the edges of it all. You do have to be a science fiction geek to want to spend the time, but if you are, it is worth it. I’d love to see what they come up with next; it is so rare to see a story like this that isn’t ham-handed in its world-building.

Serenity

[3 stars]

It is impossible to really talk about this film without ruining the experience. So suffice to say it isn’t what you think it is, but neither does it really manage to achieve its goals. Writer/director Steven Knight (The Girl in the Spider’s Web, Locke) definitely likes to explore odd niches and create tension. And though he is trying to be too clever in this movie, he smartly focused on character, rather than the deeper mystery, to sell the story.

You know something is off very early on in the story; a sense of David Lynch definitely in play. But the story is played straight and with a persistent reality that is tinged with a sense of distortion for the viewer. Without that distortion, that hint of something other, I would have turned off the movie in the first 10 minutes, to be honest. But there was something there, mostly in the form of Jeremy Strong (Molly’s Game), that kept me curious enough to go forward.

Matthew McConaughey (The Dark Tower), Anne Hathaway (Ocean’s 8), and Jason Clarke (First Man) make an interesting triangle, though none of them is particularly sympathetic or believable. In part, that is the story and the style. Even Diane Lane (Paris Can Wait) and Djimon Hounsou (Captain Marvel), for all their sincerity, never really rise above or stand out. How Knight got McConaughey and Hathaway on board, let alone convinced McConaughey into all the gratuitous sex and nudity, I’m not sure, but it is certainly a credit to his powers of persuasion.

Generally, this is more of a curio of a movie than a great bit of noir or suspense, or whatever it is. Much like Locke, it is a concept wrapped in a script and delivered nicely by the cast. It isn’t great, but neither is it bad. You just have to be in the mood for an odd ride, and willing to approach it with an open mind.

Destroyer

[3 stars]

Nicole Kidman (Aquaman) delivers a devastatingly broken-but-not-down detective, evoking more Charlize Theron than the characters we’ve come to expect from her. She is ugly, both mentally and physically; an anti-hero extraordinaire. Intense and gripping, but with the smallest bit of sympathy to keep us on her side.

Kidman navigates the world, past and present, with the help of a great supporting cast. Toby Kebbell (The Female Brain), Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya, Avengers), and Bradley Whitford (The Darkest Minds) chief among them. And then there was the otherwise unrecognizable Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black). If it weren’t for the credits, I wouldn’t even have spotted her, and it wasn’t for lack of screen time.

Better known for her television work, director Karyn Kusama (Girlfight) is no stranger to female driven tales. In this case, however, she tries just a little too hard to maintain the atmosphere. The music is heavy-handed and the pacing just a tad strained at moments. But she does manage to create a dark, dark tale… a daylight noir in the harsh LA sun that drives forward relentlessly as flashbacks fill in the history. Oft-time writing collaborators Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi (R.I.P.D.) gave Kusuma a well constructed script to work with, but it is Kidman’s and Kusuma’s molding and delivery of that tale that makes it work.

Make time for this one when you’re in a mood for a bit of violence and mystery. The performances make it worth it alone, but the story is, itself, a good ride.

Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud)

[3.5 stars]

Louis Malle’s (Vanya on 42nd Street) second film, dating from 1958, is an entertaining look at noir. From its opening moments to its close the story spins out of control in unexpected ways, headed toward a conclusion that has many possibilities; none of them likely good. Hey, it’s noir. But it isn’t quite the noir you know and expect. This story owes much to Dassin’s Rififi, particularly its treatment of silence and its quiet building of character.

The story is primarily guided through the inner dialogue of an emotive Jeanne Moreau in her breakout roll. Moreau is a light amid the beautifully filmed, dark night of the story. It also boasts a score and performance by Miles Davis, which deepens the sense of emotion and thickens the Parisian night into something almost palpable.

Though over 60 years old, the movie manages to hold up in many ways, though it’s style feels a little forced and dated. But it is a taut 90 minutes and, though aspects feel like bad writing, much more of it comes together than you’d expect. And it is an early look at one of the huge influencers of cinema.

We the Animals

[3 stars]

A deep and disturbing look at growing up and how much children pick up from their parents. But this story never quite goes where you expect it to, keeping what could have been an overwhelming drudge something darkly magical.

The three leads, Evan Rosado, Josiah Gabriel, and Isaiah Kristian work beautifully together as free-range sibs. Only Gabriel had any previous credits, but they all come across as natural and with a sense of craft. The story is primarily from Rosado’s point of view, but without his onscreen brothers, the story wouldn’t have worked.

In a supporting, but brutal role, Sheila Vand (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) gives us a mother surviving and loving while stumbling through life. Likewise, as their father, Raúl Castillo (Atypical) delivers an honest, destructive, and somehow still loving role model. Neither parent is going to win awards, but neither is so devoid of love and compassion as to be utterly evil in our eyes. That complexity is part of what sets this story apart.

In his first feature, Jeremiah Zagar drew on his documentarian roots in directing and co-writing this adaptation. He creates an atmosphere that is part Florida Project, part Kings of Summer, and maybe a dash of the atmosphere of Moonlight. It is deliberate and nearly poetic as it follows the three brothers through their days and lives over the period of about a year. It also managed to stack up a number of awards.

Honestly, this isn’t an easy film to watch. It is emotionally challenging and it flows at a low energy, allowing everything to feel very natural (which can border on naturally boring). But it pulls you along inexorably to the final moments. While it isn’t an entirely dark and depressing story, do save it for a night of catharsis or when you’re already feeling well centered. But see it for Zagar’s efforts and the performances, all of which will have an impact.

The Hate U Give

[3.5 stars]

Imagine a Spike Lee film that is less stylized and aimed more at teenagers (though still very resonate for adults) and you have a sense of this powerful offering by director George Tillman, Jr. It is uncomfortably honest and it builds tension very much like Lee’s recent BlacKkKlansman. It also evokes and challenges all sides of the issues it raises, though it certainly has a point of view, and one it wastes no time establishing in its first scene. Getting that moment right was one of Tillman’s great triumphs in the film.

Amandla Stenberg (The Darkest Minds) drives this story from start to end. She is narrator and focus of the action as well as the gateway through which we enter both worlds she navigates. She is a talent we will be seeing a lot of over the coming years. The rest of the cast form up around her and every one of them has more levels than you expect as we travel through her story.

Among her family Regina Hall (Girls Trip), Russell Hornsby (Fences), and Common (Hunter Killer) stand out for the adults. Algee Smith (Earth to Echo), as her childhood friend, too. And then there is Anthony Mackie (Io), an actor we’re used to seeing with a bit more positive emotion and influence. His delivery is solid, though it is one of the least dimensional in the story. And, to be fair, it needs to be.

From Stenberg’s school-life, one of the more difficult roles was Stenberg’s friend, nicely created by Sabrina Carpenter. Carpenter has to stand in for every well-intentioned person of non-color and do so unselfconsciously. It is hard to watch and far too recognizable. And, as her boyfriend, K.J. Apa ( A Dog’s Purpose) was solid, but not particularly groundbreaking.

A good part of the success of this movie is its script. Audrey Wells (A Dog’s Purpose) adapted the book smoothly; there wasn’t a hint of it being a reflection of something else. It was entirely its own being, standing on its own feet and feeling whole and full of real people, situations, and emotions. Navigating that mine field with a teenage audience in mind wasn’t easy. Unlike Dope, it reaches out for a broader audience and more explicit message, but earns its moment of preaching in a very different way.

I have to admit I avoided this film for a long while, despite its excellent and deserved reviews. With all the hate and damage in the world, I wasn’t sure I could sit through a story about it as part of my evening relaxation. As it turns out, while it is certainly a tense story and unflinching at moments, its teenage perspective and the balance of the tale kept it digestible and still very powerful. Tillman’s ability to keep the tension going as he slips between the worlds that Stenberg navigates keeps you engaged and interested even as you may want to turn away or shout. He also employs subtle production values separating the haves and have-nots by time of day. Though some of that is story driven, it is also clearly intended to enhance light and dark.

Make time for this. It will leave a mark, but not one that will bleed too deeply. And it is a clear-eyed perspective that can start conversations or, at least, get people thinking. It is well acted, written,  and presented and will keep you guessing till the end.

Hunter Killer

[2.5 stars]

An uneven adventure film that has its moments, but pisses them away at almost every turn with painful cliches though it manages to escape others. And, saddest of all, the last major appearance of Michael Nyqvist (John Wick). It isn’t as bad as Raul Julia’s Street Fighter, but this clunky action film gets sunk by Donovan Marsh’s uneven directing that no amount of talent can overcome. I will admit that there are moments where it works, particularly when the military in the field are working together. But that is, often as not, followed up by moments of absurd scenes with the likes of Gary Oldman (Tau), whose great talent is sorely abused into an histrionic military leader who would have never risen to his position.

That aspect of the characters makes this actioner into a weird, blue-collar polemic. Simply put: Those in power are fools; those on the ground are the sober thinkers. The truth is that most military leaders in first-world countries are very calm, considered people who hate to risk lives without purpose or to play politics… well, ever. The fantasy world of Hunter Killer resurrects false views of the military, at least our military, from decades ago.

The movie isn’t entirely absurd on that level though. There are few characters that have risen to admirable leaders. Gerard Butler (Den of Thieves) is a fairly credible, if somewhat wooden-er than usual, submarine captain. And Nyqvst gives us a subtle and stoic Russian as his counterpart. But Common (Smallfoot), though calm and collected, just has no credibility as a 1-star general. It is a hollow performance, however earnest. And Linda Cardellini (Green Book), though allowed to have brains, is also guilty of a silent coup thanks to the writing. And even some of Butler’s crew come across as having been inappropriately promoted, particularly his XO played by Carter MacIntyre.

Now, all that said, if you squint…quite a bit…the story is engaging and tense, particular during the fighting and evading scenes as most good sub stories can be. The setup is intriguing and the cinematography really something spectacular at times. But it isn’t a good movie. It is barely a passable one. It could have been so much more, but the producers clearly had a point of view and no sense of the real world, only the macho world they envision as they mouth-breathe their nights away.