Tag Archives: Suspense

Get Out

Wow. Just, wow.

Probably the best horror film I’ve seen in ages. It has only one open question (resolved about 2/3 through) and one surprise; it derives its horror from how real it all feels. It is honest and rarely keeps you waiting when you’ve gotten ahead of it. That allows you to feel the tension of Daniel Kaluuya’s (Sicario) character to the fullest. He never comes off as dumb. He unpuzzles the plot as fast as the audience and acts. Part of what makes it so scary is the feeling that he really can’t avoid the inevitable. It is a powerful and compelling performance.

Helping that along are some equally solid performances by Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks) and Allison Williams (Girls). The rest of the family is a bit less believable with Catherine Keener (Begin Again) being marginal, but intriguing, and Caleb Landry Jones (Stonewall) just feeling out of control. I think that was writer and first-time director Jordan Peele’s intent, but I wish he had reined it in more to keep it just a bit less obvious.

However, as the horror of the situation unfolds, we are swept along. It is uncomfortable and frustrating, embarrassing and angering. And, yes, pretty terrifying, but not in a monster-going-to-eat-your-face way, but more in a this-feels-almost-like-it-could-happen way. It makes Peele a great choice for the upcoming series adaptation of Lovecraft Country, which also has to walk that line. (Also a book I highly recommend.)

But Get Out goes beyond just the typical horror movie/teen angst level. There is a sociological aspect to this movie. It will be taught in years to come in universities and high schools by those brave enough to do so. The resonance of the tale, both as personal nightmare and social commentary is loud and disturbingly clear.

If this had released even 8 years ago (maybe less), it would have felt like propaganda or blaxploitation. In today’s times of stress and fear it comes across more as object lesson and metaphor. What is white privilege? What is it to abandon your own culture or have it co-opted? We get a complete spectrum of the latter with LilRel Howery (Carmichael Show) at one extreme end, Kaluuya as a middle ground, and Lakeith Stanfield (War Machine) at the far extreme end, with two painful touch-points by Marcus Henderson (Pete’s Dragon) and Betty Gabriel (Good Girls Revolt) as the family help. It isn’t, of course, that straight forward, but from an academic standpoint it is ripe for debate and examination. Add to it the realities of the plot itself, once revealed, and it is even more powerful.

This film had a huge reception in theaters, earning $250M worldwide. And while $$s aren’t always the best way to judge a film, in this case it is a great measure of the chord it struck. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it is well done, well conceived. Like Hell or High Water, it is a movie of its time, though with frankly much more meat to the bone. If you somehow missed Get Out, make time for it. It is a great ride that also happens to comes with a message. If nothing else, it is guaranteed to start a conversation.

Get Out

Cardinal

Apparently, the new Norwegian substitute is Northern Canada. In this case, north of Toronto. Like Bellevue, Cardinal is a serial murder procedural in the thinly populated, icy north of Canada. Billy Campbell (Helix) and Karine Vanasse (Revenge) deliver nicely conflicted detectives in the introductory series (based on Forty Words for Sorrow) to what could be a good run of stories to come.

It is a dark tale, and a tad graphic, but all in service to understanding the characters. A good part of that darkness, and its effectiveness, is down to Brendan Fletcher (The Revenant), who has a ridiculously long cv for his career. Along with Allie MacDonald (Stories We Tell), the two are a twisted pair who we can’t help but want to watch, even if we don’t root for them.

Originally aired on CBC, it appears to be difficult to find, so the best I can say is watch for it when it airs elsewhere (and it will).

Cardinal Poster

Prime Suspect (1973)

Dame Helen Mirren (Collateral Beauty) cemented Jane Tennison as one of the bedrocks of British mystery, and one of the strongest and most complicated women to make it to screen. You cannot think of Jane Tennison without thinking of Helen Mirren in that role. The show had a much vaunted 7 series run (1991-2006) that still enjoys reairs today.

But how did Tennison become the ballsy, broken, insightful DS we bade farewell to 11 years ago? Since 2006 several other unforgettable detectives have been given the prequel treatment. Endeavour and Young Montalbano come immediately to mind as especially successful forays into that territory.  These shows provide(d) both a continuation of series when the original show either had no where to go or when the original actor was no longer available, and an opportunity to understand the characters in a new way. We love their quirks (good and bad), but rarely know how they came about. For instance, Morse’s love of Opera, Montalbano’s love of seafood, and, of course, their love lives and tendency to drink.

Tennison was definitely ripe for this treatment. However, while the casting physically wasn’t bad, with Stefani Martini (Emerald City) in the lead role, the writing by series creator, Lynda La Plante, and Glen Laker just wasn’t as complex and solid as their competition. Had this series come out five years ago, I think I would have been much more impressed. But what the other two examples manage, and which this missed, was the steady building up of the character we know. Every episode of Endeavour, for instance, adds one of his traits or clearly leads to it.

Compounding my frustration with the series, I just couldn’t see Tennison in Martini. Even by the end of the 6 episode arc, there is only the barest hint of the Tennison we followed for over a decade. Whether that issue should be laid at the feet of Martini (lack of research?) or director Caffrey, I can’t be sure, but the fault doesn’t matter so much as the effect. What I got was a good mystery, but not so much a peek into the driving formation of Tennison herself. Or, not as much as I’d have hoped over 6 episodes.

I am willing to give them another bite at the apple on this one. The story of this particular series was interesting. The cast solid, especially with Alun Armstrong (The Hollow Crown), Jessica Gunning (Pride), and slew of other recognizable faces. It isn’t bad and there is definitely potential and room for growth. I would hope they would look around and realize that these kinds of shows require something just a bit different than the typical Brit mystery. They have a legacy to support and an audience to re-engage.

I have to say that with all these prequel and existing series running, I now have a dream to have a cross-over that starts with Endeavour, goes to Prime Suspect, then into George Gently, and finally ends, years later, as a cold case for Vera. For fun, you could involve Montalbano somewhere in the Gently cycle as I think they’d overlap by the next Gently series. As long as each kept their own sensibility, it could be a fabulous romp. If you really want to go crazy you could bring in a few of the longer running, cozy mystery series as well, but I think that would shatter the illusion of a single world.

Product Details

The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos)

Sometimes you just miss a great movie when it comes out and have to play catch-up. In 2009, Juan José Campanella (Underdogs) broke out of his TV mold for a brief moment to deliver this quietly intense mystery/suspense romance that swept up awards worldwide. It is a highly complex story, playing with layers of fiction and reality across two time periods in a group of people’s lives. But it all comes together seamlessly and beautifully allowing each aspect of the story room to breath.

The tale is driven primarily by four players: Ricardo Darín (XXY), Soledad Villamil, Pablo Rago (Underdogs), and Guillermo Francella. One of the truely brilliant aspects of the film is watching the characters between the two time frames. They mature as well as visibly change in wonderfully subtle ways. The make-up is pretty amazing, but it is the actors and director that sell the shift. 

If you missed this, like I had, make time for it. It is really a solid film and story. If you are familiar with Argentine or Italian police procedurals, it will help (there are some significant differences with the US), but it isn’t required. This is primarily about the characters who are swept up in a decades-spanning case that haunts each of their lives in different ways.

The Secret in Their Eyes

Thale

Aleksander Nordaas’ award winning bit of cinema is one of those rare films that lives in the horror genre but manages to transcend it as a story. This tale lives somewhere between suspense, horror, and fantasy by focusing on the characters, mystery, myth, and story. Most horror forgets that good story is based on characters, not just about setting up mildly interesting characters so they can be killed off in spectacular ways.

This is a very short film (81 minutes). While there is certainly some carnage (and perhaps a bit too much vomiting at the top) most of the film is dialogue and relationship work. You get to know the four main characters and, to some degree, understand and sympathize with all of them. It is, in some ways, reminiscent of Spring in its feel and approach. It is, at time, beautifully filmed, but also quite good at stretching the tension to provide a good ride.

Thale

Eyes Wide Shut

Well, if you’re going to go out, you might as well go out with a bang (all innuendo intended). What a shame that it is such a misogynistic, narrow minded, old man’s dream of a bang. Director/writer Stanley Kubrick was never a stranger to controversy… he was an artist and committed to his vision of the films he wanted to make. This final project brought his life’s opus to a baker’s dozen… 13 movies that utterly changed film and garnered a ton of awards nominations and wins.

But awards don’t necessarily indicate quality or levels of enjoyment. Eyes Wide Shut is a challenge to watch. Like many of his films, it takes its time (well over 2.5 hours) to get to what amounts to a one-line joke/comment. I can’t tell if Kubrick really intended it all seriously or as thumbing his nose at the cinema universe.

It begins intensely and believably enough… a marriage challenged by time and the beginnings of middle-age and career frustration. Tom Cruise (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) and Nicole Kidman (Genius) embody the couple… and do so, weirdly, at the end of their own true-life marriage. The growth of discontent and jealousy leads by degrees to places you would never expect… at least for Cruise. Apparently, Kidman’s discontentment isn’t important enough to be acted on, she can only have dreams influenced by it.

To be a little fair, the entire tale could be considered through the eyes of Tom Cruise’s character, and perhaps untrue. You have to squint very hard to buy that as some of the tale is initially through Nicole Kidman’s eyes, but it may have been the thrust of it all. Sorry, I really can’t help myself, it is all just obvious verbiage.

Plot aside, it is packed with a wonderful stew of actors from Sydney Pollack (Sliding Doors) to Alan Cumming (Strange Magic) to a very young LeeLee Sobieski (My First Mister) and other recognizable faces throughout. Each small role has its moments. Kubrick allowed them to flesh out the characters to something more complex than just a walk-on. Like the rest of the film, they tend to be hyper-sexualized in odd ways.

This film also has one of the simplest and most-haunting scores I’ve experienced, by composer Jocelyn Pook. The single-note refrains get under your skin and evokes mystery, longing, and the unknown all at once. It reminded me of the motifs in Les Revenants.

I’d avoided this film for many years, mostly due to the Cruise/Kidman reflected reality. I’d seen images from it for ages… like many of Kubrick’s films he created iconic and memorable visions that become overused outside of the film itself. I honestly don’t think I could have appreciated aspects of it when I was much younger. This is a film aimed at someone in midlife or later. It requires you to be questioning your life and relationships in order to sympathize with Cruise on any level. Without a little simpatico he is simply being an asshole and Kidman his doormat. Ultimately, it sort of ends up that way anyway, but you need to hope it won’t. Perhaps a better way to view this in the cinematic universe is that this is one of the first big movies mainstreaming sexuality which ultimately gave us 50 Shades and its attendant movies. Wouldn’t that thought make Kubrick spin in his grave?

Eyes Wide Shut

Split

There are two things that you expect from any M. Night Shyamalan (The Visit) film. The first is tight construction that leaves virtually no thread loose by the end of the film. Split certainly delivers on its tight plotting. Shyamalan is also known for his twist endings. And, for a change, this movie doesn’t rely on that. There are gifts and surprises in the film, but no real twist. Instead we get a well executed suspense/thriller that is riffing on some very real movements in the Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) community.

This film also continues Night’s push into small, intense stories with few characters. In this case, it is really driven by three actors. First and foremost is James McAvoy (Victor Frankenstein), who does a great job of flipping between identities. Anya Taylor-Joy (Morgan) holds her own against him, both directly and in her own scenes, as she attempts to survive while revealing her past to us. Finally, there is the great Betty Buckley who strikes the perfect tone of a caring but driven psychiatrist. The dance of these three characters is tense and, ultimately, explosive.

It is almost impossible to say more without slipping and giving away information, so I’ll wrap here. I had several points spoiled for me by ads and internet babble. Frustrating. Avoid all info if you can before watching it. If you like Shyamalan’s films or just good, tense thrillers, throw it in the hopper or turn on the stream. You won’t be disappointed.

Split

The Equalizer (2014)

Before Fuqua and Wenk rebooted The Magnificent Seven, the director/writer duo tackled the 80’s show, The Equalizer. Frankly, this earlier collaboration is much more successful. Fuqua took his time building the character and back-story for Denzel Washington (Fences). The plot is tight and with little chaff. They also managed to get me to let go of Edward Woodward’s portrayal of the original character by capturing the root of his drives and wrapping them up in something new and plausible. OK, didn’t completely forget Woodward, but I was able to watch this rendition of the idea with an open mind thanks to the careful story telling.

Washington is surrounded by a bevy of actors, though he still dominates the movie. Chloë Grace Moretz (Clouds of Sils Maria) turns in a nicely understated performance that is the catalyst for plot. Bill Pullman (Independence Day: Resurgence) and Melissa Leo (Snowden) play an unlikely but comfortably aging couple that add support. And for Angel fans, there is always Vladimir Kulich without his Beast make-up.

My only gripe in the cast was Marton Csokas (Falcón). It is an interesting character, and a scary one at that, but beggared credibility for me. Unlike Washington’s work, the character felt more cliché rather than new and I could easily predict his dialogue and actions simply because there was little to guess at.

Like John Wick, the Equalizer kills by necessity and often after giving people a choice. But, though Washington is also rather cold and methodical about his attacks, they are clearly filmed for us to enjoy. We are not left with any sense of regret for his actions, we celebrate them. That is the point of the film and character, so I’m not criticizing, but seeing it in such close proximity to Wick, it is an interesting comparison to make.

As a franchise launch, this was a solid start. Whether that momentum can be maintained with the sequel will really depend on how much care they give the script and its production. On the up side, Wenk is still writing, but a director has yet to be confirmed at this time.

The Equalizer

The Accountant

At its core, the concept behind Ben Affleck’s (The Town) character is intriguing. Who, these days, wouldn’t be curious about a high-functioning autistic as a hit man/avenger? Affleck’s efforts in the role are good, if uneven at times. But how he got there, other than his fighting moves, is ignored, including some clearly important moments like how he ended up in prison.

If the story hadn’t focused on his origins, that would have been fine, but Dubuque’s (The Judge) script is full of flashbacks that are about who he is, where he came from, and why he does what he does. In the end, there are a lot of great elements in this tale, but the overall result is that the story itself is oddly empty and unexplained. O’Connor’s directing decisions on editing probably didn’t help;  more than once there are leaps of logic that you need to squint through to accept.

But it wasn’t just plot that suffered. With a cast that included John Lithgow (Love is Strange), Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 2), Jon Bernthal (Daredevil), and Jean Smart (Fargo), not to mention Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent) and JK Simmons (The Meddler)… how is it that I didn’t care a whit about any of them or their relationships? Talk about a waste of effort on their parts.

The movie isn’t a total loss, but it isn’t one you’re going to come back to after seeing it. It is a one-shot ride and without a lot to savor in the long term. It should have been more.

The Accountant

The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)

I shouldn’t be surprised that writer/director Chan-wook Park (Stoker) was drawn to Sarah Waters’ novel, Fingersmith. Both artists love complex tales, intense emotional entanglements, and dark humor. This story is no exception.

Park has produced a tale much closer to Waters’ original than an earlier adaptation of this story that was produced for the BBC. While both versions focus on the developing relationship between the two young women at the center of the film, Park’s approach is less hesitant around the darker side of the people and the plot. Both are good, but in very different ways, and Park’s is ultimately more involving as layers upon layers of the character are peeled away. This film also continues Park’s journey away from the hyper-violent and disturbing imagery that started with Stoker’s Gothic sensibility and loops back to his earlier days with its focus purely on the nature of love and humanity in I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK.

Tae-ri Kim and Min-hee Kim dominate this film and can alternately steal and crush your heart as they make their way through life and discover one another. Park films their development with care and in detail but without ever making it feel voyeuristic; it is the best and loving version of the material being read by Kim’s character.

What this story is and how it works is something you should discover for yourself: From the interaction and threaded tale, to the tension between Korean and Japanese cultures and language that battle on the screen and within the various characters. It is beautifully filmed and intense in unexpected ways. It may well be my favorite of his films to date and one worth rewatching down the road.

The Handmaiden