Tag Archives: Suspense

Murder: Mundane and Supernatural

I’ve been picking up a number of series of late, which has cut down on my movie time. Not all are worth mentioning, but a few of the mysteries bubbled to the top. These three are about as different from one another as you can get in the genre, but all sport sharp intelligence and humanity.

Chestnut Man
Ah, those twisted and dark Danes. This is a great ride of a mystery, led by Danica Curcic (Equinox), Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, and David Dencik (Soap). It is a a collection of interesting character studies as well as a complex and layered story that unfolds in its own time. There are some familiar tropes driving the story, but it manages to make something new of all them thanks to the directing. For lovers of Scandinavian mysteries, this is a must.

Post Mortem: Nobody Dies in Skarnes
And even more twisted and dark folks from Norway. Post Mortem is delightfully of its culture with a dark sensibility, and yet also touching. It isn’t really a murder mystery so much as a black comedy, despite how it is setup. Sure, there are mysteries to be solved, but that is framework for the rest of the story to hang on. Kathrine Thorborg Johansen (The Quake) and Elias Holmen Sørensen make for an amusing pair of siblings, each struggling with their own failings and issues, unaware of the challenges each is facing. Their stories, and those of the residents of Skarnes around them, intersect and come together in unexpected and entertaining ways. It isn’t the show I expected when I tuned in, but I had fun and would watch the next series if it comes about.

Only Murders in the Building
All of which sets up the silly dark satire of Steve Martin (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and Martin Short (Innerspace), with a queue-up from Selena Gomez (The Fundamentals of Caring). The three are the oddest collection of sleuths in a long while, crossing style barriers as well as generational ones in wonderful ways. The story is a little odd and forced at times, but with folks like Nathan Lane (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) there to help it all along, it is a fun bunch of half-hour episodes to entertain you with a queue up for the next season as well. It is best simply enjoyed rather than too much examined (it just doesn’t stand up to that). But, oh, the characters and the twists are plenty fun.

The Chestnut Man Poster Post Mortem: No One Dies in Skarnes Poster
Only Murders in the Building Poster

Untitled Horror Movie

[2 stars]

The pandemic has gifted us with a slew of found footage/phone footage movies. It was a trend already in motion with movies like Searching, but it had taken a new sort of energy because what else do creators do when not allowed to create in groups? They create in groups virtually. Staged and Language Lessons are probably the best examples of what has come out of that approach so far.

This film, however, is not in their ranks. It is, to be fair, intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but that can’t forgive all its flaws. The issues are really mostly with the script. Or, to be fair, perhaps it is having me as an audience. It just wasn’t funny. It was all very inside-baseball for the entertainment industry, but with a millennial and GenX attitude that I found more annoying than entertaining.

Luke Baines (Shadowhunters) co-wrote with Nick Simon (Truth or Dare?). For a first feature script by Baines it isn’t horrible. Derivative to a large degree, but not horrible. Simon’s hand is visible in the shaping of the material into a genre film. But Baines also had a major role in the movie, playing a pretty, but not very talented, actor. Draw your own conclusions.

The rest of the main cast are similarly aged talent, all with recognizable faces. Darren Barnet (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), Timothy Granaderos (13 Reasons Why), Claire Holt (47 Meters Down), Katherine McNamara (The Stand, Shadowhunters), and Emmy Raver-Lampman (Umbrella Academy). While none of the individual performances really rise to the top, the ensemble creates a believable cadre of a sitcom cast stressing their series renewal, and managing to get along only with the utmost effort on all their parts.

The story picks up pace as it goes along, but it doesn’t find the proper end, nor does it really manage to thrill, satisfy, or scare you. It simply is. Honestly, I can see why the crew got together to make the piece. It was clearly fun for them and it was an outlet during a period of isolation and little-to-no work. That journey is somewhat memorialized in the script itself. But that is also part of the issue, at least for me. I could see all the gears, both in the story and surrounding it. It was a project that was best left on the shelf and dragged out at private parties they could enjoy together. It was a game attempt, and no performer irked me such that I wouldn’t watch them again in something else, but this wasn’t really worth my 90 minutes. YMMV.

Untitled Horror Movie Poster

Squid Game

[3 stars]

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are at least aware of Squid Game. It has had even bigger viewership numbers than Bridgerton and has made the news and even a song on SNL. Everything everyone has said is true. It is hyperviolent. It is dark as hell. It is a bizarre lens and commentary on capitalism, life, and society. So no need to go there. I want to talk about what people aren’t mentioning.

To start off, I had spotted the show very early in its release, but the description/warning that pretty much just said that it was “hyperviolent” had me put it off. And then the hype grew and so I gave it a shot. The first episode was numbing and depressing. There were no obvious characters worth investing in, based on their actions. I knew who we were supposed to root for, but frankly couldn’t find a way in to do so. So I paused my return to the Korean spectacle.

And then the hype grew more. I just couldn’t grasp what was causing all the hoopla. So, I went back…and that’s where it all got interesting.

The storytelling in Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Squid Game is odd and non-linear. It starts us at a dark nadir for Lee Jung-jae as our main character. But then, with the second episode, we start getting backstory for him and the other players. None of it forgives their actions, but it provides context. And there are lots of stories to tell in this cast, though Park Hae-soo, Jung Hoyeon, and Oh Yeong-su have some of the more interesting. No one in this story is blameless and they all, essentially, accept the reality that they are where they are thanks to their own actions. But the context allows for some amount of empathy and, ultimately, some devastating moments. Unlike, say, Battle Royale, it definitely pays off with a purpose.

Add to all this the amazing production design and you have a show you can’t seem to look away from…unless of course you can’t handle hyper-violence, in which case what the heck are you doing watching this anyway? Ultimately, the story is allegorical and not a little absurd. It jumps the shark near the climax with the arrival of the VIPs for me, and the ending was neither overly surprising nor satisfying. It simply happened to allow for a second season. And, to be fair, I want to see what they do with it, even if I don’t forgive the character manipulation that brings us there.

This isn’t an easy show. It won’t raise your opinion of humanity. But, in a weird way, it leaves you feeling hopeful and with some faith in the individual. It will also put some questions in the back of your head that will rattle uncomfortably as you contemplate them in private. Should you watch it? Again, see hyperviolence. It is brutal at times. If you can’t deal with that, the answer is a flat: no. If you can tolerate the intensity and blood, yeah, it’s something you should see.

Squid Game Poster

Babylon 5 (rewatch n)

[5 stars]

TL;DR: If you’ve not rewatched Babylon 5 recently, you should. If you’ve never seen it, make the time. Forgive its faults and revel in its incredibly intricate and intentional plotting that no one other than Dark has even come close to in the intervening years since its release. And gawk at its unexpected relevance 30 years after its original airing.

And, yes, I started this effort before the recent reboot announcement: https://deadline.com/2021/09/babylon-5-series-reboot-j-michael-straczynski-development-cw-1234845022/

There are some genre shows I come back to on a regular basis. No matter how many times I rewatch them, I find new moments or surprises…or simply enjoy certain stories so much I never get bored with them. Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Stargate SG-1, Star Trek (OS, TNG, DS9)…and Babylon 5 which is probably the least widely appreciated of that list, but which had a most outsized influence on the genre and all that followed.

I am more than willing to admit that some of the writing and directing of B5 is painful at times. But the fact that it remains rewatchable despite that and, more importantly, still relevant and impressive all these years later is a testament to what it was. B5 changed the landscape of genre TV. By creating a pre-planned 5-year arc J. Michael Straczynski (Sense8) was able to thread through clues and foreshadowing with intent rather than retconning them into plots conceived down the road. Not that the latter can’t be done well; Buffy and Angel did it all the time, as did Game of Thrones. But no one has come close to the beautiful construction of B5 through its first four seasons. And no show has purposely evolved in style, focus, and design from season to season the way B5 did. Only The Expanse comes close, and possible Farscape before it.

The simple truth is that if B5 had been birthed in the streaming world it would have been a smash. Its huge gamble was to have an ongoing tale rather than reset, episodic adventures. They kept losing audience and weren’t able to easily pick up new viewers since the earlier shows weren’t available. Joe was ahead of his time…but his influence reshaped entertainment and set a high bar.

But what is amazing to me is how relevant the story remains. Presented in the early 90s, I was glued to the TV every week watching the story reflect the world of politics and society…with a lot of grand adventure, humor, and action to boot. Decades later I was somewhat worried it would have gone threadbare. But no, the mirror still works for today, even with its faults (let’s face it, Joe really didn’t write women well, though he tried).

In fact, the first season or two are disturbingly accurate for today. Politics, in the era of 45, are even closer to the horror story B5 lays out. There are pandemics, which once reflected the AIDS crisis but today are a perfect extrapolation of COVID. Stories of media suppression and control in the age of Fox news and Murdoch. Endless wars and generational hate have moved from the Soviet Union to the Middle and Far East, but still echo in our reality. Honestly, you’d think it was written recently.

Up through most of season 3 and into the start of 4, Babylon is one of the most beautifully, tightly constructed shows ever put to screen. It would have been even better if they weren’t forced into 21 episode seasons; some of the pointless stand-alones could have been dropped. But if you’ve seen it more than once, you start noticing phrases and moments that wouldn’t originally pay off for, literally, years in air-time. The level of conviction and trust involved in that is breathtaking. Because of the history of the show (it wasn’t going to be renewed for broadcast and then had a last minute save for its final season on cable) the fourth season is a bit rushed at the end. And then the fifth season had its own struggles with budget and cast changes…and the fact that Joe did his fans a favor and gave us finale ahead of what he’d planned in case the fifth season never came.

The result is that the fourth season becomes more about falling dominos as the intricate clockwork of the plots spins down. Which isn’t to say that the fourth and fifth season don’t have their moments, but it is more about action and result and less interesting as a modern mirror. But it is still a great ride to the multiple conclusions of threads, revelations about moments we’d been promised and had misinterpreted for years, and harsh and honest commentary on world politics, religion, war, but most of all: humanity.

The real question now, after a recent announcement, is whether the story can be retold better than the original? I wasn’t expecting this when I started my rewatch. Will Joe and the studio allow more writers to be involved and more up-to-date world views (particularly around gender) to have traction? Is the CW really the best home for a show that is this adult? Frankly, I would have looked at streamer like Amazon, HBO Max, or Netflix where the grittier aspects would have been welcome, and where people could have jumped in at any time and started from the beginning. And I’d have pitched it more as an update and rethink than a reboot. But, regardless, I’ll certainly be there to find out if it can fly. If nothing else, perhaps we’ll finally get an HD version of this story since some idiot at Fox deleted all the digital originals to save disk space (no, I’m not kidding).

Babylon 5 Poster

Level 16

[3 stars]

Danishka Esterhazy (SurrealEstate) imparts a nicely dark sensibility into this suspense/horror with her directing and writing. It isn’t a story that really pays off believably by the end, but the trip to the end is taut and suitably creepy.

What really sells the story, such as it is, is a couple of the performances. Katie Douglas (Defiance) is the undisputed center of the story, along with Celina Martin helping to move it along. The two young women have great presence and nicely leveled deliveries. Peter Outerbridge (Code 8) also helps ground the pervading weight of the situation, even if his placement is predictable and self-conscious.

But some of the production is also over-the-top. For instance Sara Canning’s (Nancy Drew) Jackboot fetish styling is a bit much. And the mixed culture of the real bosses feels unlikely.

Ultimately, this is a silly sort of fun…if one can look at a story like this and the abuse of young women in that light; it is a horror film after all. Unlike many others of the genre, it doesn’t really deliver a message, only a creepy disgust of the situation. Part of that is that the science and logic are a little ridiculous. But part of it is also the intentional distancing of the characters and locality from its primary audience geographically. It makes it hard to connect with the situation.

Suffice to say this is a rainy afternoon flick, not one that fills a night in a satisfying way. And that’s OK. It was certainly interesting to see Douglas’ and Martin’s turns; I’d like to see what more than can do. Even Esterhazy impressed me with her ability to set a mood both in this and her television work. So not a total loss. Your call on whether you spend time with it.

SurrealEstate

[3 stars]

If you’d passed me a description of this show (which is essentially Ghostbusters meets any of a dozen house-flippers shows) I’d have laughed it off as a joke. As it turns out, George Olson’s creation for SyFy actually has some solid legs. It isn’t perfect, but there are interesting characters, some longer arcs, and snappy writing.

Like most good shows, a lot of the success comes down to the chemistry of the actors. From the outset, the cast feels like they belong together. And even when Sarah Levy (Schitt’s Creek) joins them in the first episode, providing us a way into their world, she fits in with the energy and style perfectly.

The stories are often rushed, but rarely entirely straight-forward. Tim Rozon (Wynonna Earp), at the agency’s helm, manages a massive transformation from his Schitt’s Creek days. But, more importantly, he makes sullen and broken work. He carries a real sense of history with him about his life and his agency.  And that agency is filled out with a bevy of odd misfits. From Savannah Basley (Wynonna Earp) on the front desk to Maurice Dean Wint (Hedvig and the Angry Inch, Cube) and Adam Korson (Female Brain) working the tech and research. Each carrying their own baggage. With Tennille Read (and yes, she also did Schitt’s) providing an ongoing relationship and anchor for Rozon, the gang tackle (house)monsters-of-the-week that all add up to a larger truth.

You may have noticed some crossover in background in the cast (also true on the writing and directing). I’d love to find out who brought who in from where at some point, but it definitely illustrates the size of the Canadian acting community.

You may have passed on this show initially based on its odd description. If you have, go back to it. It has humor and horror, and, most importantly, characters worth investing in. Hopefully they can secure and pull off a second series, but that decision hasn’t been made yet.

SurrealEstate Poster

The Voyeurs

[3 stars]

The Voyeurs is a movie that demands your trust, but it doesn’t really do enough to earn it, even if it eventually pays off. And because of that, Michael Mohan’s dark trip down a twisted rabbit hole never quite attains the credibility it needs to get you from event to event.

The real weakness here isn’t the story, it’s the casting. It aspires to be Rear Window with a dash of Eyes Wide Shut. But that cocktail requires a certain level of maturity and depth of character. We have to believe in each of these people and their choices. It isn’t that we haven’t all been in the position of choosing whether to keep watching something we shouldn’t or not, it’s that we have to believe in the obsession that builds for the main couple we’re watching (who are watching others…love the meta yet?).

Justice Smith (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) holds his own in this respect fairly well. So does Natasha Liu Bordizzo (Wish Dragon). But neither of their partners are, frankly, old enough to be believable. Sydney Sweeney (Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) is literally too young to have the position her character holds. She has nice range, if a bit shallow, but she’d have to have been a tween in college. And Ben Hardy (6 Underground) has the needed ego and frenetic energy, but none of the magnetism and maturity to help ground the character and set him apart from those around him. And it makes the dynamic between him and Sweeney somewhat frat-boyish rather than with more levels.

I did appreciate Mohan’s approach to the story and the complexity he engineered, but the casting issues really diminished the impact. Though the addition of Katharine King So (Transplant) as a grounding voice in the midst of it all helped. Still, the movie is filmed and edited well, and the story will pull you along, even if you cringe at a few particular moments. But Mohan crafted the journey nicely. I just wish he had cast it to better meet his goals.

The Voyeurs Poster

Motherland: Fort Salem (series 2)

[ 3 stars]

I can’t say the first series of this show did more than intrigue me. The ideas were interesting, if illogically constructed at times, and the writing spotty, at best. But they had gathered a good bunch of talent and there was an inkling of complexity that brought me back for series 2.

Fortunately they upped their game in this second round and reworked some of their logic (without apology) to create a topical and suspenseful story. The writing still isn’t perfect, but the character development expanded considerably and several mysteries are explained. However, to be honest, the writing still has some real problems, including a “surprise ending” that is anything but. However, there is also plenty to chomp on and commit to.

When the usual offerings on the use of magic are something more soapy like Discovery of Witches, this more action-and-suspense oriented storyline is welcome. Like Warrior Nun it also puts women at the center of power and story. Of course, like that it’s also referencing a clear threat of patriarchy, but that’s unavoidable. And, fortunately, it is all subtext rather than direct.

If you haven’t tried the show out yet, give a crack. The improvements in the second series give me hope for the upcoming third, which promises to be full of even more action and intrigue.

Brand New Cherry Flavor

[3 stars]

It’s hard to turn away from this unexpectedly magical, dark, and twisted Hollywood-meta horror ride. It not only echoes so much of what has come before (and current affairs), but builds its own mythos and little corner of hell. And Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel) and Catherine Keener (Incredibles 2) are wonderfully matched as they share and spar.

It’s also easy to see why both of these women took on their roles. Salazar gets to grow up and command the screen. Keener (Incredibles 2) took the challenge of trying to make the truly weird and fantastical into something accessible and believable. And she rides that line beautifully.

There are a few men playing in their world. Jeff Ward (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as a naif pulled into the maelstrom and Eric Lange (Wind River) as the catalyst and Weinstein stand-in. But one of the more unexpected, though his role is rather small, was Manny Jacinto (The Good Place, Nine Perfect Strangers). Jacinto proves again what a chameleon he is; every role his sense of age, even of height, seem malleable.

If you like the weird and dark, The ride of Cherry Flavor is worth every minute you get to spend with it. It’s sense of dread and magic, power and control as it all shifts and is explained is compelling. The ending…well, let’s just say they wimped out. Yes, it sort of completes, but they left it wide open for a sequel. Honestly, I would have preferred a solid ending. But that is only the last few minutes of an 8 episode dark epic that grabbed me and pulled me along, even against my will at times. It isn’t for everyone, but it is very well crafted and wonderfully acted.

Brand New Cherry Flavor Poster

SAS: The Rise of the Black Swan (aka Red Notice)

[3.5 stars]

Sure, this is a standard action/suspense thriller in most ways. But from the start it suggests a question that pulls you along wondering who it is going to focus on. While that becomes clearer as the story progresses, it is by no means simple…in fact, in some ways Laurence Malkin’s script is more than a little subversive in his attempt to show something a bit (just a bit) closer to the reality of mercenary and professional killer mentality. But that’s all the subtext.

Generally, this is just rockin’ good actioner with some solid talent and some clever surprises. It is cold and violent, however it also has a little bit of everything for almost everyone; even humor and romance.

Sam Heughan (Bloodshot) and Hannah John-Kamen (Brave New World), along with Tom Hopper (Umbrella Academy) are on one side of the line. Ruby Rose (The Meg, Batwoman) and Tom Wilkinson (The Happy Prince) are on the other while Andy Serkis (A Christmas Carol) gets to straddle the space in-between. The interplay between them all is understated and honest, if sometimes a bit ‘managed.’  But while this is probably the biggest project director Magnus Martens has tackled, he’s done a credible job keeping it all moving and clear.

One of the better aspects of this movie is that you can come to it just wanting to be entertained, or think about aspects of the world it takes time to expose. It doesn’t dwell on any of that…it is very much of its genre, but it does help set it apart just enough. It helps it feel new in a sea of similar thrillers. Certainly the script helped, but the actors also found just the right delivery. They aren’t acting evil, they are just acting as the sociopaths/psychopaths they need to be–on both sides of the line. This ended up being a solid launch to a possible franchise and I’d definitely be back to see where they could take it.

SAS: Red Notice Poster