Tag Archives: Suspense

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.

Motherless Brooklyn

[3.5 stars]

Are you craving a classic noir with a patina of modern times to it? Then you’re in luck, this is very much a noir, tempered with contemporary sensibilities and commentary. For his sophomore directorial outing and writing debut, Edward Norton (Collateral Beauty) tackled a monster. It may have taken 20 years to drag Johathan Lethem’s book to screen, but it found its time, especially in theme.

To make the result more impressive, Norton also stars in the film as a physically and emotionally complicated, aspiring detective on a mission. The film is also told almost entirely through his perspective, making his directorial accomplishments even more impressive…there is almost no scene he isn’t in.

But Norton also loaded the cast with talent. Top among those is Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Fast Color). She is wicked smart, but also the damsel in distress with which his life gets entangled.

Several smaller roles bring the story and world to life as well.  Michael Kenneth Williams (Assassin’s Creed) brings entertainment in character and music. Willem Dafoe (Vox Lux) and  Cherry Jones (The Beaver) create poles around which information and plot flows. And, of course, Bruce Willis (Glass) gets it all moving along with a hardboiled kick.

Only Bobby Cannavale (I, Tonya, Ant-Man) and Alec Baldwin (BlacKkKlansman) felt wrong to me. Cannavale was just too obvious…possibly the fault of script and directing more than the actor, but it diminished his work. And Baldwin was probably the only complete miscast in the film. He does fine, but his very presence (and probably on purpose) evokes his SNL persona of the last few years. When they began production, Norton probably had no sense of how popular that satire would become, but it worked against him here. While appropriate for the tale and the point, it pulled me out of the film multiple times.

Overall, this is both a period detective movie and a modern commentary. It makes the plot somewhat predictble and obvious, but not in a destructive way, just a familiar one. And the more you know of New York City history and politics (I’m talking about you, Robert Moses), the more you can pull from the story which is only a thinly veiled retelling of the past…way closer to reality than you might expect. I’m not entirely sure why it was all veiled given how close it is to the truth, but there you go.

The film does take its pacing queues from the past, but it manages to keep the tension high and the mystery intriguing which makes the 2.5 hours move along as you stumble with Norton through the dark and glorious sets that recreate the NYC of old. If you like old movies and want to see something different from the majority fare currently in theaters, this is a solid choice.

Parasite

[4 stars]

Joon-ho Bong (Okja) doesn’t make easy movies, nor does he have a high opinion of humanity. Even when he allows for happiness in his worlds, it is typically for children and in spite of what the reality is around them. Parasite is no exception. It is dark, funny, human, and, above all, a tragic tale of class and identity.

Parasite is, generally, a tale of two families, one with means and one who will do anything to achieve means. The cast is a mix of recognizable and newer faces, assuming you watch Korean films. Kang-ho Song (Snowpiercer),  Hye-jin Jang, Woo-sik Choi (Okja), and So-dam Park form the main focus, struggling to survive. They collide with Yeo-jeong Jo and her family as well as Jeong-eun Lee (Mother) and Myeong-hoon Park in funny ways that eventually turn pitch black.

But, of course, it is never so simple as it sounds in the description of Joon-ho’s films. Why any of these characters are succeeding or struggling is a matter of debate and perspective. And it all takes place in meticulously designed settings and cinematography that capture the story and subtext.

I know this is running at near 100% on Rotten Tomatos, and from a craft point of view I understand that. As an experience I found it a little more uneven. However, I can see why the movie has won so much attention and awards; but it is more a powerful experience than it is an entertaining or instructive movie. And while not as physcially violent and tackling different issues as the Korean classic, Oldeuboi (Oldboy), it is in many ways just as challenging. Joon-ho has delivered  a pitch-black comedy that is as timely as Joker. And, ultimately, both tackle many of the same aspects of people and society, leaving you breathless. The question is whether your psyche is strong enough to take the journey.

Gemini Man

[4 stars]

Movies, generally, shouldn’t be recommended solely for their technology. But there are exceptions. Avatar, was a lousy movie, but amazing 3D. Life of Pi was a gorgeous fantasy that pushed limits, but wasn’t a perfect film. Gravity took liberties with physics to tell its own (strained) story, but also used the value of 3D in exciting ways. In each of these cases, seeing the film in 2D was a disservice to the director and to the audience. They were conceived in 3D and were intended to be seen that way. You wouldn’t view a statue only as a photograph if it was there in front of you, why should we see a flattened version of story?

Ang Lee (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) attacked Gemini Man very much in the same vein. He wanted to push the value of 3D and to create a new experience for his audience with a high frame rate (HFR) presentation. He succeeded, but far too few people will see the movie as intended. And, to be fair, without 3D and HFR the movie will seem like just a rehash of older adventure film without much to offer. See this movie as intended. It is either the swan song of 3D in movies or the genesis of a new approach and experience.

But let’s talk about the story first. One of the challenges with this film is that the original material had been in development for over 20 years. That sensibility continues to inform it. The studio also didn’t know how to promote it without giving away a huge portion of the plot, so we’re all in on the crux of the tale going in. It’s not as bad a reveal as ruining The Sixth Sense or The Crying Game for someone, but it certainly changes your viewing of it.

Will Smith (Bright) is compelling as an aging assassin and as his younger self. He isn’t just world weary, he is awakening. By his side, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (The Hollars) offers up a solid companion and comptent fighter, while Benedict Wong (Annihilation) helps focus the humor and assist in the action.

Clive Owen (Anon), on the other hand, is a little cookie-cutter in his bad merceny role. There were levels there, but they didn’t quite sell for me. This was as much a choice as a fault and part of the 80s/90s vibe of the overall movie that writers David Benioff (Game of Thrones), Darren Lemke (Goosebumps), and Billy Ray (Overlord) baked into the script. But the story is exciting, entertaining, and enjoyable…just not revelatory for spy thrillers.

Now let’s get to the technology layer that brings this film over the top. First off, the digital Will Smith came across as completely real for me. However, I saw Gemini in a modified HFR 3D (60 fps/2K resolution). Unfortunately, only four theaters in the country can show the fim as intended (120fps/4K resolution)…and I envy those that could see it that way. Why? Because at even at half the rate and resolution of the intended viewing, it was astounding. The clarity was jaw dropping. The action was visceral. The use of 3D was mostly carefully selected to enhance the tale. The movie literally jumps off the screen putting you in it at points. HFR tricks your brain into making it feel real. Typical films keep you at a distance at 30fps. Your brain sees it as unreal. But at 60fps it can’t always tell the difference.

It does cause some cognitive dissonance. At least for me, when there were extreme closeups, putting giant heads into frame, my brain balked at the relative perspective issues. But action sequences were like being on a roller coaster. No motion sickness, but you do feel like you are strapped in with the characters. The point is that the tech doesn’t just make it all pretty (though wait till you see the water scenes) it changes your experience of the film.  An interview with Lee goes over some of the technology and story aspects if you want it from the horses mouth.

Go see Gemini in HFR 3D if you can. It is fun and it is something you haven’t seen before, unless you were fortunate (or unfortuanate, as some have claimed) to see The Hobbit in its HFR release. In 2D, Gemini probably will leave you a bit underwhelmed because half the story and experience won’t be there for you.

Greta

[3.5 stars]

Up for some intense suspense and a truly well-done, credible stalking movie? Then you’re in luck. Chloë Grace Moretz (The Miseducation of Cameron Post) spars with the wonderful Isabelle Huppert in this story of friendship, loneliness, obsession…and just a little insanity. It is a fun tango of pain and desired connection.

With Maika Monroe (Tau), the three form and interesting triangle of female empowerment and connection. There are also Colm Feore (Umbrella Academy) and Stephen Rea (Utopia) hanging about the edges of their story, but it is the women who drive it all. And though written by two men, the script rarely falls into the trap of making them stereotypes. Each is strong in their own ways.

As both co-writer and director, Neil Jordan (Byzantium) is in his element with intense relationships and tales of suspense. He and co-writer Ray Wright (The Crazies) helps pull you along through small moments and decisions, each adding up to inevitable danger and tragedy. It really is one of those films you cringe through as it unfolds in the only way it can, but that you’re unable to look away from because you have to know how it will resolve. But that very tension is why it may not be a movie for everyone, even though it is done well. So, tackle this one only if you can stand the stress.

Ad Astra

[3 stars]

Despite what your eyes may be telling your brain, this is not a science fiction epic…it’s an allegory. And, as an allegory, it is about 30 minutes too long, though given the story framework James Gray (Lost City of Z) stuck himself with, it is probably about right for hitting all the plot points.

The movie is pretty much a one man show for Brad Pitt (The Big Short). It is told tightly from his point of view and with him narrating his inner thoughts. That narration dominates; the psychology of Ad Astra is the unifying center of the solar system spanning story.

Pitt isn’t alone, but most of the rest of the characters have short scenes or cameos. Only Tommy Lee Jones (Shock and Awe), Ruth Negga (Loving), and Donald Sutherland (The Leisure Seeker) get any added depth. Negga and Sutherland are gone too soon, and Jones’s depth is a very shallow pool.

Most disappointingly for me, the science throughout the movie is fairly weak, or adjusted for convenience. I can forgive the latter, but the former made me itch a bit. And after Gravity, I expect depictions of space to be a little more accurate (at least in terms of the effects of movement and weight).

Certainly this is a pretty film. And it has style and mood. But it isn’t what it purports to be. The movie is a weird cross between Contact and Solaris; a very personal story amidst the isolation of space with the thin framework of the search for intelligent life, all told at a leisurely pace. The truth is, this same story could have been told if Jones had buggered off to Africa or South America and disappeared for 18 years. In other words, there was no scientific center that was necessary to tell this story, which is why it isn’t science fiction…it is simply an artistic choice to frame a question and emotional journey.

If you have an interest in seeing it, do see it on a big screen as it won’t translate nicely to small. But be prepared to let go of what you think it may be about and just go with it.

Legacy: Black Ops

[3 stars]

It isn’t so much the story that makes this powerful as much as Idris Elba’s (Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw) performance. The story itself is fairly straight-forward and obvious, but his journey through the story is not. And the ending will leave you with more questions than answers (in a good way).

Director, writer (and even editor) Thomas Ikimi crafts this primarily psychological suspense with a sharp eye. He backs Elba’s efforts with careful visual construction. He only distrusts his audience once or twice in the 90ish minutes, and never in a way that is insulting. The ultimate point and message of the story is slowly eeked out before hammering it home. One interesting bit of trivia about this movie is that it introduced Lara Pulver (The City & The City) to screen in a supporting role.

Even 10 years after its release, this movie is still topical and insightful, but this isn’t a laid-back or relaxed story for a fun evening; be prepared for the dark.