Tag Archives: Suspense

Velvet Buzzsaw

[3 stars]

If you’re a fan of films like Theater of Blood, Vincent Price and Diana Rigg’s 1973 horror delight, you’ll likely enjoy this latest, admittedly imperfect, Netflix release. It is a wry look at the art world but also quite dark. Not a huge surprise given it is writer/director Dan Gilroy (Roman J. Israeal, Esq), though the tenor of this movie is quite a bit more tongue-in-cheek despite the horror elements.

Gilroy pulled together a talented and committed cast that pivots primarily around his reunited Nightcrawler leads Jake Gyllenhaal (Okja) and Renee Russo (Just Getting Started). The other substantial role is delivered with mixed results by Zawe Ashton (Oasis). She isn’t so much bad as without plumbable depths. Perhaps it was part of the point, but the result diminishes her impact and the impact of the story. Adding to the mix in a series of supporting character roles are Toni Collette (Hearts Beat Loud), John Malkovich (The ABC Murders), Billy Magnussen (Ingrid Goes West), Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting), and Tom Sturridge (Song to Song). Each is a forced extreme, but all are entertaining in their ways.

But if you were hoping for a break-out horror, like Get Out, based on Gilroy’s previous powerful main releases, you’re going to be disappointed. It isn’t horrific enough for the horror fans nor intellectual enough for lovers of satire. This is simply some evil fun with a social eye and a mean desire to slam the more obvious absurdities of the art world. Where it fails is in its lack of clear explanation or point and, ultimately, by not providing anything positive about an industry that Gilroy knows has value…and is even using to send his message. In other words, it is somewhat rudderless with some fun moments and serious talent, but that’s about it. That doesn’t make this flick something to skip, but go in knowing it isn’t what you think it is and probably won’t reach what you hope it is.

Glass

[4 stars]

Go to Glass, but don’t try to watch the movie you wanted to see… see the movie that is on offer to watch if you want to enjoy yourself.

M. Night Shyamalan has always made the movies he wanted to make, for better or worse. He rarely compromises his vision, but he also often confounds audience expectations. And, sadly, most audiences don’t want to be challenged. Their loss, more often than not. And Glass definitely isn’t the movie you think it is going to be. Honestly, I loved it once I let go and went with it, but I know a lot of people out there were frustrated.

Another aspect weighing on Glass is that it isn’t a stand-alone story. Absent Split and Unbreakable, it means nothing and doesn’t work. Together, they are a great trilogy, but Glass has no individual foundation like the other two films. Ninteen years ago Unbreakable left us hanging with David Dunn’s and Mr. Glass’s story. It was a love it or hate it comic book film that predated the current rush of such things, but foresaw the tone. Split surprised us all a couple years ago by connecting to Dunn’s tale at the end. And now…Glass…the story we’ve been waiting for so long it was almost guaranteed to disappoint. To be fair, Shyamalan and the studios probably strung out the anticipation a bit too long to make this a complete success–we’ve had too long to plan on what we expected.

The challenges of the movie aside, Shyamalan managed to collect almost all the principles from the previous two movies. Bruce Willis (Death Wish), Spencer Treat Clark (Animal Kingdom), Charlayne Woodard (Pose), and, of course, Samuel L. Jackson (The Hitman’s Bodyguard) all came back and felt like they’d lived the 19 intervening years. Likewise for James McAvoy (Sherlock Gnomes), and Anya Taylor-Joy’s (Thoroughbreds) three years since Split. Taylor-Joy, in particular, has a fascinating challenge for her character.

But these were from the past, and Shyamalan was just as invested in his world in the present. Sarah Paulson (Bird Box) with some assistance by Luke Kirby (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), and Adam David Thompson (The Sinner) create the framework for the new story…or the explanation of the old ones. As with all Shyamalan films, there are things that feel wrong or out of place, but if you trust the filmmaker, it will all eventually make sense.

In prep, I did rewatch Unbreakable for the first time in about 18 years and I was glad I did. It still holds up wonderfully and there are some important and minor aspects I’d forgotten. Unbreakable was also eerily prescient, coming out the year before 9/11 and with nods to other current movements in our culture. But, most of all, it was it’s intent on making an origin story that was ahead of its time. Heroes that are human, villains too, was not the coin of the day back then, but was about to sweep the entertainment world two years later with Spider-Man and eight years later with the launch of the MCU.

As the end of a trilogy, I think Glass will eventually find its place in the pantheon of fandom. Why? Because it is a real trilogy, with three different stories that connect into a great whole. Compare this to other trilogies that are just the same story but with raised stakes to sub in for more story (Hunger Games, Fast & Furious, John Wick). It is going to take some time for folks to adjust to the realities of this final installment and, perhaps, some investment in rewatching the previous movies to see how they all fit together so nicely. There aren’t many directors out there who would have even tried to complete that vision, and fewer still who have properties that deserved it. Shyamalan is still a storyteller I respect a great deal, even with some of his truly awful films like After Earth and The Happening.

So, again, let go of what you think the story is of Unbreakable, Split, and Glass. Give each character and tale their due, and trust a great storyteller to make something complete and satisfying, even if it isn’t quite the meal you expected to sit down to.

Luther (series 5)

[3.5 stars]

This is either an ignominious end, or a brave new platform from which, to relaunch what has been one of the most shocking and strong suspense/mystery series to come out of the BBC. Brutal, dark, and fun as always, this fifth series of Luther really got back on its feet, at least for the first three-quarters and a bit of it.

Luther has evolved over time. From the dark and twisted first season, into the hyper-violent second tale, the maudlin third and then the odd, bridging fourth, which was interesting but not particularly satisfying. This new, four-part installment gives us a story we are more familiar with, while adding some new faces.

Idris Elba (The Mountain Between Us) and Ruth Wilson (Mrs. Wilson) continue to drive most of the action, along with Patrick Malahide (Mortal Engines). But Wumi Mosaku (The End of the F***ing World), coming in as a wet-behind-the-ears detective under Luther’s wing, really gets to show her range as well. Mosaku has been typically cast as the jaded copper of late, but this fresh persona has lost none of her sharp intelligence or strength, providing an immediate and interesting focus in the story. And, of course, Dermot Crowley (Hard Sun), is still there to helm the ship in his odd and MI-6 sort of way.

The wonderful counterpoint of Hermoine Norris (Outcasts) and Enzo Cilenti (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), both with each other and Luther’s cadre, is great fun to watch. The two are a dark dance of fun with many currents running below the surface.

As I implied, up till the final half hour, this is a great series. It isn’t at all clear where the story is going to go or how it will all go down, though you’ll have strong suspicions. The question, at the very end , is whether writer/creator Neil Cross wimped out or if it was simply easy set of choices to bring it all to a close. As of a few days ago, there are rumors it will continue into a series six, but in a very new direction. However, nothing has been confirmed.

If you like Luther, this is a must-see continuation of his and his department’s tale. If you haven’t discovered the series yet, start at the top and see if you can handle the oppressive weight of Luther’s world. This is not a light series, but it is wonderfully acted and, often, intriguingly written.

The Ipcress File

[3 stars]

Sometimes it is nice to dig out a classic you’ve missed. I recently did that with Iprcress. It is very much out of date at this point, but with some amusing moments and a rather young Michael Caine (Sherlock Gnomes). Ipcress released the year before Caine’s breakout in Alfie (1966), which really launched him on the international stage.

The plot of this flick isn’t very surprising, though it is all carried off with a quiet English humor and a staid set of reactions. It feels like a weak version of The Manchurian Candidate, which released a few years earlier. However the wry humor is an unexpected aspect to it all. It isn’t Kingsman funny, but it is somewhere between that and Bond.

One of the things that caught me off guard was how much the opening is reflected in the series opening sequence of Dexter. Even the music is similar. As it turns out, I’m not even close to the first to realize that. Really, it is jarring how close it is.

As a film, it is diverting and is executed well, though more of an interesting curio than brilliant movie. Still, entertaining.  It is also packed with a slew of talent that is no longer with us. Caine is one of the few survivors in that cast, along with director Sidney J. Furie. That Caine is still putting out quality work is what makes him one of the most working and recognizable actors of our time, and Furie continues to dabble across all genre over his equally wide ranging career.

Bird Box

[3 stars]

If you are a Netflix subscriber, you probably have already seen this movie, which has smashed all kinds of expectations for this kind of release. If it had the same attendance in theaters, it would have been a certified hit. As it is, no one knows quite how to judge the results, but they were impressive nonetheless with 45 million account accesses within the first couple days and moving up from there. But is it worth it?

Horror has seen a Renaissance over the last year or so. Get Out, It, and A Quiet Place, even Suspiria, Halloween, and Hereditary have each staked out different corners of the genre successfully, if not always financially. Bird Box lives happily in the Quiet Place corner of that realm, focused on family survival during an unknown and little understood threat. Its story is somewhat predictable, but as it is told in flashback, and there is a lot you can assume from the start, it is intended that the journey and the coda at the end are what you’re sticking around for. And, of course, the cast.

Who would have seen Sandra Bullock (Ocean’s 8) taking on a lead in a horror movie, let alone a streaming only horror? She brings considerable talent and range to an otherwise standard role. Trevante Rhodes (Predator) provides her a nice foil, though not necessarily much of a performance on his own. But he is part of very unexpected cast list. With additional roles by Sarah Paulson (Carol), John Malkovich (Mile 22), Jacki Weaver (Widows), BD Wong (Jurassic World), Lil Rel Howery (Get Out), and Tom Hollander (Bohemian Rhapsody), you’d be understandably surprised. It certainly signals a strong turning in the streaming game.

Director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager) brought all of her suspense know-how to bear on this story. Even when the adaptation by Eric Heisserer (Extinction, Arrival) isn’t quite to his previous crafting, she helps pull it together with the actors and directorial choices. Ultimately, this is a story about people, not about events, which is what, I’m sure, attracted the cast and Bier to the production.

Depending on your love of the genre, you will like this to differing degrees. As a pure horror, it is only OK. As an examination of the human condition amid calamity it fares better. Purely as a movie, it is entertaining and gripping, but not brilliant. But if you like Bullock, or any of the other cast, it is worth some time and popcorn. For me, the ending was more than a little obvious and forced, but since this really is about the journey, as I’ve said, I’m giving it a break. On the other hand, you might find the journey itself questionable, depending on your interpretation (one interpretation is quite cliche, while another is a bit more broadly acceptable). Most folks will be able to go along for the ride and enjoy it without the over-intellectualizing I found myself unable to escape. Give it a few minutes to see if it hooks you…I’m betting it will for most.

As a side note, this is quite the double punch for Netflix, whose technology setting Black Mirror: Bandersnatch also released this past week.

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

[5 stars]

For anyone who thought Netflix was just an aggregator or simple studio, think again. They just created a whole new set of goal posts for the competition and for mass entertainment.

OK, I’ll admit, my rating is high here, in part, because of the technology and novelty of the piece, but Avatar got that kind of reaction as well, and let’s face it, that script and story were appallingly bad.  But Bandersnatch has a good script, is very clever and fun…and I can’t wait to watch it again. My first time through, even with multiple loop-backs, I hit a 90min version, which is likely close to the happy path, even though that wasn’t my intention.

Fionn Whitehead (queers.) drives the movie with a bit more excess energy than is probably needed, but it is certainly consistent. As his father, BBC serial standard Craig Parkinson (Line of Duty) gets to ride a roller-coaster of a part, much depending on your selections moment to moment. Similarly, Alice Lowe (Sherlock) gets to have some fun as Whitehead’s therapist. But those two stabilizing beams in the story aside, a real special mention has to go to Will Poulter (The Little Stranger), who completely transformed himself for his role; he wears the accent and British intellectual toff rather well.

Of course this twisted piece of mental suspense came from the mind of the Charlie Brooker, creator and writer of the Black Mirror series. Brooker always puts technology at the center of his stories, though what makes them work is how the characters respond to that tech. Making tech part of the experience now is just a natural evolution of his approach. Director David Slade (HannibalAmerican Gods) took Brooker’s vision, and its many branches, to create a series of paths and endings that all feel right for the story at hand and Black Mirror generally. I found three endings on my first watch, looping back each time to try something else. Each was satisfying, though there is clearly an intended ending that is very much in Brooker’s vein.

You can’t even think about Bandersnatch without thinking about how it was made and delivered. And, of course, the technology is bloody amazing. Sure it watches sort of like a high-end video game. But it plays like a movie and the transitions are visually seamless. Angel Devoid tried to do this years ago, but hardware quirks and other weaknesses left it working only marginally well. Bandersnatch is the payout on the promise of branching movies, and manages to do it at scale. That achievement is pretty astounding when you think of the number of concurrent watchers, each making their own choices, and no one seeing a break in the action. There are some drawbacks to how it all works. For instance, you have to watch it on a supported device and you are forced to break the wall between you and screen by being involved. However, neither overwhelms the piece and the latter works into your watching experience interesting ways given the plot.

But, tech aside, it is an engaging and interesting story. The mystery is thick and the stakes are high from near the very beginning. There are some obvious aspects to it all, especially if you’re a Black Mirror fan, but not so many or much that it ruins the fun. The story is  highly rewatchable as well. I know there are huge chunks of info I’ve yet to unearth and I absolutely intend to go back and find them all. Once you see the movie, you’ll understand the delicious irony in that as well. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of this kind of entertainment, but an occasional, well-done piece would always be welcome.

Make time for Bandersnatch…it is history in the making, no matter how the eventual reception of it goes.

 

Little Drummer Girl

[3 stars]

John Le Carre stories are always complex and often dark. From The Night Manager to A Most Wanted Man to, well pick one, they are deliberate tales of behind-the-scenes espionage that reveal knowledge only as needed. Little Drummer Girl is no exception. But this time it is as much Mission Impossible as it is The Third Man. The focus of this series is what goes into becoming and surviving in deep cover. Well, that’s the main thread, there are plenty of political and other aspects of intrigue as well.

The cast, as always, is quite solid, but it is dominated by Florence Pugh (Lear) as the semi-naive recruit. Her path through the six episodes is convoluted and layered. I never quite buy her being confused or undetermined about her beliefs, but her emotional conflicts about people and survival are very real. Helping her along is Alexander Skarsgård (Disconnect) in a role that is nicely different from many of his others. His Gadi is quiet and intense, but not bombastic. Similarly, Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water) gets to explore interesting new territory as a ground-down spy and bureaucrat who is both exhausted and determined. While his contemplative nature remains, it is wonderfully crusted with life.

As with all the Le Carre tales, following all the motivations and politics is an effort, but it is part of what sets the stories apart. The attention to and adherence to details keeps the stakes high and visceral.

Like many of director Chan-wook Park’s (The Handmaiden) efforts, the pacing of this series is a bit slow, but never dull. And the new view into the world of spies and the era it is exploring will keep your attention to the very end.

The Nun

[3 stars]

What is the difference between a legitimate sequel/prequel and a cash grab? The easiest answer is the quality of the movie. This prequel to The Conjuring series is full of surprises and nice visuals. It is creepy and relatively well performed. And, I have to admit, it had a great trailer that got me to watch the full flick. As one of its gifts to its followers, Taissa Farmiga (The Final Girls) takes over from her mother as lead in this outing. Demián Bichir (Alien: Covenant), as the travelling Vatican demon hunter, and Jonas Bloquet (Three Days to Kill) are fine as well.

Truthfully, however, no one really stands out as great. Part of the issue is the number of stupid things they do, like running alone toward danger. Director Corin Hardy (The Hallow) doesn’t even try and help the actors smooth over those moments, accepting the genre low-bar for expectations. Writer Gary Dauberman, who also penned the spin-off Annabelle series, was either rushed or simply didn’t put in the effort for the story which doesn’t quite hold together if you look at it too hard. The background ideas are engaging, but the execution is sloppy. I will grant him the humor and, rare, humanity he injects into the tale, but those moments stand out because of the story that surrounds them.

So, cash grab or not? Yeah, to my mind it is. This movie barely stands on its own. And, despite some fun moments, it is rife with bad horror tropes that make it too easy to stay ahead of dialogue or scares. If you’re a Conjuring fan, it is probably a lot of fun to see the genesis of the evil. And that’s one of the tricky parts: even knowing that it is a prequel helps give away a lot of the story, making a solid script even more necessary. As a distraction it isn’t a horrible 90 minutes, but it isn’t the first thing I’d queue up if you’re looking for an evening of chills and entertainment.

Searching

[3.5 stars]

When I’m wrong, I’m wrong. I honestly expected a really poor movie tied together with clever tricks. Instead, I got a rather good suspense/mystery that really captured a lot of how life has changed over the last 10 years or so for families. It is far from perfect and definitely gets some things very wrong, but it clips along nicely and has compelling characters.

John Cho (Gemini) gives us a father we can relate to and sympathize with, even as you want to occasionally slap him. But his hyperfocus and obstinance are necessary elements to drive the tale. Debra Messing (Like Sunday, Like Rain) surprised me as a very down-to-earth detective. She is very much in control, but not unemotional. It is a very different role for her, but one which she delivers on nicely.

First time feature director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty made quite a splash with this low-budget thriller. There was lots of buzz about it as it over-performed in release, but I still felt like it would do fine on a small screen and skipped it in theater. To a degree, the result does feel familiar. 11 Cameras comes to mind, or even the more recent Disconnect. And it is timed unexpectedly well given the rise of social media as a primary source for news. However Chaganty also manages to create a driving mystery, with just enough technical wizardry to make it feel real but possible. And he gives us characters and high stakes without resorting to soap-opera like relationships.

Searching is a surprising film, if only because you just don’t expect it to be so engaging. The 100 minute ride is tight from beginning to end. I’m definitely curious to see what Chaganty delivers next. Meantime, for a good distraction, pop this one in or, more appropriately, stream it and enjoy.

The Wife

[5 stars]

It is rare to find a near-perfect movie, from the acting to the writing to the directing. The Wife is in that category and you need to see it.

First and foremost, it is brilliantly acted by Glenn Close (Crooked House). Close dominates this film but for a single scene where, by design, Elizabeth McGovern (The Commuter) takes over. Jonathan Pryce (Breaking Glass, Game of Thrones) manages the tricky job of being at the center of the on-screen action, but ceding the focus to Closes’s title character. All around the couple are a host of well cast supporting players. Even the petulant portrayal of the son by Max Irons (Terminal) slots in wonderfully.

And while the performance alone are worth taking the time to see The Wife, that is only part of its worth and power.

Björn  Runge directed this drama wonderfully. He reminds us of what an art form the media really is. For, while Jane Anderson’s (Olive Kitteridge) script is very natural, believable, and subtle, it is Björn Runge’s direction  and choices that make it work. While the dialogue unrolls on screen, it is the small looks, the action in the background, and the slowly building tension that drive the tale, rarely the words themselves. This is a movie of almost pure subtext, delivered through visual cues and great acting. I do, however, give Anderson credit for her adaptation of a book that must have been loaded with internal dialogue and making that work on screen.

And then there is the ephemeral aspect of timing of this move that helps set it apart. Not to confuse things, this film would have been good at any time it was released. However, the themes are also pitch-perfect for the current times in ways that would have been hard to predict and which resonate in wonderful and uncomfortable ways.

Make time for The Wife so you know why you’re going to hear so much about it during awards season. Close is brilliant, a study in subtlety and determination. The movie gripping and inexorable. The results powerful. It approaches cinematic perfection in terms of craft and will leave you breathless through its inexorable and accelerating pace that picks you up and carries you along to the final punch. Now, forget all the hyperbole and just go let it do its thing on screen for you while it is out there to see.