Tag Archives: Suspense

After We Leave

[3 stars]

Yes, the millionth-and-first end of the world movie. But, much like the recently viewed Last Night, this one is more contemplative although with a bit more action and violence thrown in. And while it’s a little predictable, there are some nice variations and sense of motivation helping lift the story.

For a first feature, Aleem Hossain wrote and directed his story with a sure and clever hand. The world and story aren’t over-explained, some things are just inferred or hinted at. And the resolution is both hopeful and weird but still manages to be romantic and obvious.

Brian Silverman does a nice job carrying the movie as a n’ere-do-well who’s turned the page on his life. And Anita Leeman Torres adds a subtle sub-plot to it all that allows for a lot of satisfying interpolation. The rest of the cast is, frankly, a bit over-wired, particularly Clay Wilcox. The choices can all work, but they felt too much like stock bad-guy decisions rather than organic decisions.

There is enough world-building in this story, even with the inconsistencies, to make it stand out. And there is enough tension and action to keep you connected even with the slower pace thanks to the story and the editing. I appreciated the movie and my time spent with it. Houssain has an interesting eye and an opportunity to build on a solid foundation with this first film. I’d definitely be curious to see what comes next.

After We Leave

21 Bridges

[3 stars]

Director Brian Kirk’s first feature after decades of solid TV work is impressively put together from a visual, editing, and pacing point of view. In fact, the opening has one of the nicest visuals I’ve seen…I had to rewind and watch it again. But the script, from Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) has several credibility gaps that, while attempts are made to provide reasons, made my procedural skin crawl. But let me come back to that. It wasn’t that the ride wasn’t entertaining, I think I just wanted more given the cast.

With Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther) in the lead on the cop side, there is a solid sense of upright justice and drive. We trust him implicitly, even as we wonder at his naiveté at the overall aspect. With JK Simmons (Klaus), Victoria L. Cartagena (You) and others backing him, we watch the improbable and absurd plot spin out, violating more rules than are easily quantified here. So the trick is to just pretend and go with it…cause, why not? You put this on to escape, not think. (And after this week, when NYC is actually contemplating a city-wide lockdown due to COVID-19, perhaps I’m rushing to judgement.)

The targets and patsies of this fantastical heist and cop movie are Taylor Kitsch (American Assassin) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk). The two spin out their portion of the tale nicely as they, too, have to unravel what the heck is going on and why. A nice cameo by Alexander Siddig (Atlantis) helps all that along.

Now, back to that script: It is obvious there is more going on from the beginning, so that’s not a spoiler (and if it is, you really weren’t paying attention). However, none of the reveals are surprises, so the action feels drawn out beyond patience for the results. The entertainment value really lies in the various confrontations and reactions to the reveals rather than the information itself. Is that enough? Well, it wasn’t for its general release, but as a rental, it’s more than adequate to the task.

21 Bridges

Little Joe

[3 stars]

I’m always a sucker for intelligent science fiction, whether it is near-term like Arrival or far-future philosophical like Blade Runner 2049 (and it says something that both of those are by the same director) or even total gonzo pieces like Aniara or 28 Days Later. The point isn’t the presentation, it is the amount of thought behind the world and characters that snags me.

Little Joe walks some very well-trod ground, but approaches it with care and at an oblique angle. It even picked up several awards, including a Cannes Palme d’Or nomination and a Cannes win for Emily Beacham (Hail, Caesar!, Into the Badlands) as best actress. Honestly, I don’t really quite understand either recognition, though director and co-writer Jessica Hausner certainly maintained control and vision throughout the piece. And her script, written with Géraldine Bajard, is an interesting riff on a subject that will be familiar to anyone who enjoys the genre.

Supporting Beacham are Ben Whishaw (Mary Poppins Returns), Kerry Fox (The Dressmaker), Kit Connor (His Dark Materials) and Sebastian Hülk (Dark). Each brings a different level of creepy or concern to the story. None of the performances are particularly brilliant, but the quiet, understated approach to the tale is consistent and, often, subtle.

The film is just a little long for its inevitable payoff for my taste (both in metaphor and reality), but it does manage to pull you along and the production design is striking. Little Joe is a worthwhile time investment if you like genre. It isn’t a perfect little gem, but it is a surprising ride, being dealt with intelligently and as adult fare.

Little Joe

Wisting

[3.5 stars]

You may be thinking: yet another Scandinavian mystery series? But there are reasons to take a look at Wisting. While the feel and flow of the mysteries may seem familiar, the series has an intriguing structure.

First, there are two main mysteries in two five-episode chunks. But there are several smaller mysteries as well, not all of which connect (but some of which that do) over the ten episodes. That alone helps provide a more interesting journey through the season; we see cause an effect of various decisions within the season rather than from season to season.

Second, to help gain a broader audience, the first five episodes include an American element. Carrie-Ann Moss (Jessica Jones) is a core part of the first mystery as a semi-rogue FBI agent on the heels of an old murder.

There are some challenges with the series. Part of that stems from the difference in culture (and that Wisting’s family is messed up on top of that). The other part stems from different power structures and laws in Norway. If you’re a procedural fan, the stories here will hurt your head at times as you try to figure out why some things are such a big deal and who is really exposed by aspects.

That said, as a whole it is a solid start that adapts several of Jørn Lier Horst’s books into a fairly satisfying series, and whets the appetite for the next.

Wisting

Midsommar

[4 stars]

Looking for something different in your horror? This may be the answer. Like his Hereditary from last year, writer/director Ari Aster’s lastest takes a page from horror past from tales such as The Wicker Man (and a bit of an “Hereditary in the sun vibe”). It isn’t about blood and guts, it is about human frailty and weakness. If there is a supernatural element, it is purely as part of the psychotropic drugs used by the characters in the film.

What sets Aster’s work apart is the level of detail he puts into his worlds. Midsommar has a deep mythos and culture governing its world and characters. It isn’t unpredictable…you’ll likely know exactly where it’s going early on. But that’s OK. It works because of how it slowly reveals itself in inventive and, often, unexpected ways. Aster continues to improve his craft with this film, showing he has a very trained eye and a unique voice. As challenging as his films are, he is someone I’ll continue to pay attention to regardless of content.

Aster’s other gift is in casting. While the structure of the movie will pull you along, it’s Florence Pugh (Little Women) that really serves as lynch pin holding the whole thing together. Her raw performance often grabs you by the throat even as you want to shake her and make her choose differently. Her journey through Aster’s world is complicated and, often, uncomfortable. Pugh makes this movie work the way that Collette raised Hereditary to a different level.

Pugh’s story is, at least initially, driven by her association with Jack Reynor (On the Basis of Sex), William Jackson Harper (The Good Place), and Will Poulter (Black Mirror: Bandersnatch). None of these men are paragons of, well, just about anything. That is clear from the beginning, but their presence is essential as part of the facets Midsommar reflects upon. If there is a fault here, it is that they are not really sympathetic, which makes them and their journeys less interesting. They aren’t unrealistic (entirely) but they aren’t anyone you really care about.

So for some creepy, beautifully appointed horror, Midsommar is a solid choice. It isn’t fast, but it is intense.

Midsommar

1917

[4 stars]

Some movies are just great rides, and this is one of them. What Sam Mendes (Spectre) has accomplished with his planning and directing is a movie miracle from a technological point of view. And, in this case, that’s enough to recommend it. The script he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), however, isn’t quite on the same level; it is more than a little forced. These aspects make 1917 an interesting duality.

There is no question that that is worth seeing and, in particular, worth seeing on the big screen. It pulls off what Birdman tried to but was too coy and self-conscious to pull off: making the one-shot completely invisible as a device. From the moment it begins, 1917 makes you walk alongside the young soldiers about to traverse a special kind of hell. George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded By the Light) are perfect choices to lead our trip…they aren’t very recognizable, allowing them to be more believable. In fact, their lack of celebrity only heightens other faces we do recognize such as Andrew Scott (Lear), Mark Strong (Shazam!), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Current War), and Richard Madden (Rocketman). It is a purposeful effect, lending power to these small parts and diminishing even more the pawns we are following.

But here’s the tricky thing… their mission and the course it takes, in order to be dramatic, feels directed or manipulated. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen all the time, but you have a good sense since we’ve been on these rides before, just on more highly edited trips. MacKay, in particular, is simply a vessel for us. He is a complete cypher until the very end of his particular journey and then, well, it just isn’t enough.

1917 is a tchnologlcal monster in the way Gravity was in its year. In addition, it has an uncomfortable resonance, particularly now as we sit (yet again) on the brink of war. But despite all that, it isn’t a great story…which makes it only a solid movie and not a great one. Still, it will wow enough voters to get a Best Picture nomination and it may even sway enough to win. Certainly the editing, cinematography, and sound are worthy of notice. Directing as well, given the Herculean effort it took to pull it all off. But the story just isn’t there for me.

Part of my sense of the emotional gap is because of They Shall Not Grow Old, which never really focused on a single soldier, but which managed to create a more emotional journey for me. Part of it was the difference in scale. MacKay and Chapman spend most of their time in No Man’s Land. This sets them in an empty landscape surrounded by the debris of war but not in the midst of it. Those moments come, but the scope of it all was lost by the narrow focus, even as the beginning and end try to bring it back in. Though I fully admit the tension of the journey (one of many soldiers like these had to make) leaves you a wet rag as the credits role; physically, if not entirely emotionally, exhausted.

See this on big screen with big sound (Dolby definitely did this film justice on that level). 1917 is late to the race this year, but it is one you’ll be hearing a lot about over the next month or so.

1917

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

[3 stars]

Solid, classic horror done with just enough self-awareness and creativity to keep it fresh is rare. Scary Stories dances along that line like some kind of refugee from decades past. But unlike Stranger Things, it isn’t so much tongue-in-cheek as it is honest with its characters. Director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) managed to keep the story somewhere between real and fantasy in its feel, though clearly lensing the world through eyes of a young teen.

Zoe Margaret Colletti (Skin) is the solid spine of this movie. Her confidence and vunlerability sell the possibility of the story. She has a cadre of followers in Michael Garza (Wayward Pines), Gabriel Rush (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Austin Zajur. They, of course, have their nemeses in the guise of nasty high schoolers…complicated by the supernatural.

Dan and Kevin Hagerman (Hotel Transylvania) joined with Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) to pull together a clever script that manages to maintain the sense of a horror anthology but pulled together into a solid and seamless story. The ending is a little empty, but the journey getting there was better than I expected. As a fun distraction, it was a good evening for snacks and rain pounding on the windows.

 

The Good Liar

[3 stars]

In all the decades of their careers, it is unimaginable to realize that Helen Mirren (Anna) and Ian McKellen (Lear, All is True) have never appeared together in a film. It is long past time, but I wish it had been with a better vehicle.

The problem with The Good Liar isn’t its acting, its directing, or its production values. The problem is that you know way too much going in. As Hitchcockian as this story is (and that is already too much to know), it struggles to surprise in part because of the caliber of the cast. A cast that, I will happily say, included Russell Tovey  (Years and Years), who is starting to get some dues.

Bill Condon (The Greatest Showman) managed the story well from the director’s chair. I wish, however, that writer Jeffrey Hatcher (Mr. Holmes) had had the guts to rework the story more completely from its source. He should have accepted the reality of today’s audience and how the film would have been marketed and realized we needed the story from more than just McKellen’s perspective. The mysteries and classic vibe could have remained, but the cat-and-mouse game would have been ever so much more delicious if we were included more all around.

You should still see this film. It is classically put together and impeccably performed. Just know it is also exactly what you expect, and don’t expect it to be more.

Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase

[3 stars]

This is a nicely updated Nancy Drew that captures the original’s sense and sensibility, but anchors it nicely in today’s world without altering it beyond recognition as the CW did. (While I was never a  particular fan of Drew or the Hardy Boys, I can see where drifting too far from that material was disturbing to some.)

But the best reason to see this amusing tween adventure is its lead, Sophia Lillis (It). Her positive energy, sense of timing, and vulnerability make for an engaging and even complex Ms. Drew. The rest of the young cast is good, but not particularly exceptional, though Andrew Matthew Welch (Ma) negotiates a nicely supporting role as Drew’s police assist. She also has some adult help selling the story with Sam Tramell (3 Generations) and Linda Lavin (How to be a Latin Lover) as her family and clients in need of rescue.

Katt Shea directed the tale with a sense of fun without losing the sense of urgency. She kept the mystery just edgy enough to provide suspense while not allowing the danger to exceed the boundaries of its target audience, which is clearly young. She definitely had some advantages with her Handmaid’s Tale writing duo, Nina Fiore and John Herrera, producing a clever adaptation.

For a simple and fun evening, you could do way worse. And, should you have young women in your home, it is good choice you all can share without insulting either side too much.

Doctor Sleep

[3 stars]

How do you create a sequel to a classic? It was never going to be an easy task for The Shining. Forgetting the fact that it is a terrifying bit of modern horror, Sanley Kubrik really muddied the waters with his 1980 “interpretation” of Stephen King’s book. King’s recent book sequel is less terrifying than its Shining origins, but it is also more emotionally complex and satisfying…and it rightfully ignores Kubrik’s reimagining.

Enter Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil) who tackled the project. As with his previous movies, he wore multiple hats: writer, director, and editor. He succeeded at differing levels at all of these.

To be honest, it is an interesting adaptation, taking much from the book but also finding a way to marry it to the Kubrik outcome…without insulting either side. However, what he decided to keep and what to dump was a bit of a confusion. Unlike It, which navigated a long timeline and complex story while remaining tense and tight, Doctor Sleep takes a while to get rev’ing. There is a lot of setup and then a good deal of compaction in the tale as it races to the end.

The cast is certainly solid. Ewan McGregor (Christopher Robin) as the grown Redrum boy himself does a great job of being broken while searching for peace and a path forward. Rebecca Ferguson (Men in Black: International) is wonderfully creepy and hard while remaining seductive, as she must for this character. I wasn’t really happy with her casting originally, but she won me over with her performance. And Kyliegh Curran as the young lead did a great job as well.

Of the smaller roles, frankly only Zahn McClarnon stuck out as worth noticing, though Jacob Tremblay’s (Predator) brief turn as the young victim that sets it all in motion was very effective and bravely nasty.

But is Doctor Sleep worth seeing? Yes and no. It really needed to be higher tension or more tightly edited. Though Flannagan did a good job collapsing many of the threads that spanned years in the book, he left in other aspects that left characters and ideas hanging. And while I was glad it had room to breathe at 2.5 hours long, I also wanted it to move a bit faster and feel scarier. The final quarter of the film, which diverges widely from the book, is the best structured and most tense. It was certainly beautifully filmed and well acted. It is a nice character study for McGregor and Ferguson, but as a horror film it won’t deliver for many people. It is more an emotional movie of recovery than a tense drama of psychological horror.

Your going to have to make your own decision as to when and how you’d like to catch this sequel to a seminal classic. However, if you read the original book, I do recommend the book sequel regardless. King found a path for Danny Torrance that feels both real and heartbreaking, even if Rose the Hat and her gang are less terrifying than the denizens of the Overlook Hotel.