Tag Archives: Suspense

Bad Times at the El Royale

[4 stars]

Are you looking for something different? Then checking into the El Royale may be your best destination. Director and writer Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has a very particular style to his film making. His stories have a similar color pallet and the plots are recognizable but not formulaic. They buck tradition but cleave to a sense of moral reality that is believable. They feel almost refreshing in their approach despite playing heavily into genre, whether that is horror, science fiction, or, in this case, noir. And his stories are chock full of subtle references for those steeped in the movies and television. (One nod to Silence of the Lambs was inspired.) This story is subtly political in its message as well.

Goddard is also good at assembling talented casts capable of bringing his vision to life in earnest without losing track of the style he is aiming for. Jeff Bridges (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) and Cynthia Erivo (The Tunnel) are particularly solid at driving a good part of the action. But Jon Hamm (Nostalgia), Dakota Johnson (A Bigger Splash), Cailee Spaeny (Pacific Rim: Uprising), and Lewis Pullman (Battle of the Sexes) complete the ensemble of odd characters who, despite coming to the El Royale for different reasons, find their paths crossing in unexpected ways. Nick Offerman (Hearts Beat Loud) has a nice cameo as well. As a final treat, Goddard got Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers) to reteam with him for a funny and terrifying role that continues to help establish his range (he can’t be Thor forever).

Like Cabin in the Woods, I suspect this film will take time to find its audience, which is a shame. It is crafted beautifully. Despite its almost 2.5 hour length it moves along crisply and keeps opening up surprises through till the finale. It is solidly acted and funny as well as dark and dangerous as its centering genre. It is very much a classic noir, but with Goddard at the helm very little can ever be assumed, and that is part of the joy of the story. And, as only his second stint in the director’s chair, it shows immense promise for what may come in the future as well. If you’re tired of sequels and formulaic drivel, support movies like this one that try to do something a bit different.

Disconnect

[3 stars]

Social media has remade relationships: familial, romantic, and even legal. Not a particularly clever statement nor revealatory, but still true. Disconnect is a cleverly plotted trip through various aspects of that idea. In a bit of nice subtlety, it intertwines several concurrent stories without forcing the combinations. The overall trip feels like a twisted path through a dark wood.

In one story, Jason Bateman (Game Night), Hope Davis (Wayward Pines), Haley Ramm, and Jonah Bobo (Choke) navigate family and school life…not exactly together, which is the point.

In the other main tale, Alexander Skarsgård (Mute), Paula Patton (Warcraft), and Michael Nyqvist (John Wick) form a tangled triumvirate working toward resolution.

Frank Grillo (Captain America: Civil War) and Colin Ford (Under the Dome) have their own familial challenges both within and without their house. These two form a natural point of intersection in the story to nicely bring it into a single focus.

And then there is Andrea Riseborough (The Death of Stalin) and Max Thieriot (Point Break) who dance a tarantella that raises all sorts of interesting questions, of which technology is only a small part. Their story rides mostly outside the others and, while the least compelling in many ways, also raises the most questions.

Every one of the actors delivers a strong performance. One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is actually how the various actors are mostly playing against their typical types. Grillo is probably the least off his normal characters, though his tough ex-cop is grounded in family life and emotional connection.

As a first film in the primary director’s seat, Henry Alex Rubin tackled a dark and complicated vision in Andrew Stern’s script (also a first time on big screen). There isn’t anything really new in the story, even from when it was made six years back, but it handles the various lines of social commentary naturally. It is less about exposure and more about raising questions and offering glimpses of issues across a whole environment. The end result is a taut suspense that slowly ratchets up the tension before releasing the wires all at once. To see Rubin and Stern’s potential and some nice performances, it is definitely worth your time, but you’re going to walk away from this one more contemplative than smiling.

Disconnect

The Beyond

[3 stars]

The Beyond is Hasraf ‘HaZ’ Dulull’s  first film. It actually has a bit more going for it than his second outing, 2036: Origin Unknown, but also some particular issues. However, on a craft level it is a fascinating little trip.

So let’s talk a bit about how the story was told first, because that is where this movie is the most intriguing. While the pseudo-documentary approach is a little tired generally, this is the best execution of the idea in the genre I’ve seen since Europa Report. The result is down to two aspects. The first is editing and effects which are both done well. Scenes are presented in short bursts to keep you pulled along, even past some of the weaker moments, while the effects are impressive (unsurprising given his f/x background). The second aspect was the delivery. The actors really hit the right tone, especially Jane Perry (A Hologram for the King) who sold it perfectly.

The main story is reasonably good, if a standard trope in many ways. But the script is full of issues, errors, and contradictions, which was a bit frustrating. There are a number of facts that change from scene to scene as well as leaps of logic. A bit of squinting gets you past it all, but not without some gritted teeth and frustration. Still, it manages to work and go some interesting places. The ending, much like 2036, will either resonate, annoy, or anger depending on your particular mood, patience, and beliefs.

I like that Dulull wants to tackle big ideas and issues. I’m not sure he’s found the best ways to translate those to screen, but the results aren’t unwatchable, just abrupt and rushed. For the execution of the film alone, The Beyond is an interesting presentation. As a first film, it is highly polished and executed; Dulull clearly has ability. But, right now, his plots feel more like written stories put on screen than stories written for the media he’s using. He needs a writing collaborator and some extra eyes to help his talent reach its best delivery, but the talent is definitely there.

Cardinal: Blackfly Season (series 2)

[3 stars]

The first series for Cardinal was highly personal, very twisted and very bloody. This second series picks up the story where it left off with Billy Campbell (Modus) and Karine Vanasse (Revenge) putting their lives back together and expanding their partnership to catch killers. And, yes, this one is as gruesome as the first, though with considerably fewer unknowns.

Campbell’s story this round revolves around the return of his wife and the challenges of mental illness. Vanasse’s story is less clear this time and, frankly, rather side-lined. Overall, this felt like a transition series where the writers were trying to get the characters to a new place, but chose not to jump there. Instead, we are taking the long journey. While that works with a darker, slower-paced show like Wallander, it made this series drag a bit with a lack of energy, despite all the events.

On the wrong side of the law are two rather chilling, and very different, sociopaths embodied by Bruce Ramsay (Behind the Candleabra) and Dan Petronijevic (19-2). Unfortunately on this side of the story, though we also have Alex Paxton-Beesley (Copper) and Jonathan Keltz (Reign), there is nothing much sympathetic about any of them. The result is that we don’t invest overmuch in the outcomes. In the first series, we had characters to care about on all sides, so this was a definitely step backwards.

The series remains hard to get a hold of, but I expect it will eventually get wider distribution as it is about to go into its third series on CBC. If you like the darker suspense mysteries, this is one to add to your queue.

Cardinal Poster

Maps to the Stars

[2.5 stars]

I was rather rooting for this movie from about 15 minutes in. You can feel the craft and control as threads quickly begin to come together. No surprise given it is a dark fantasy by David Cronenberg (Crash). Unfortunately, the meaning and purpose all sort of drifted away by the end into the stardust it references. Perhaps I was just too dense to get the references, but even a bit of research afterwards didn’t illuminate anything obvious for me.

That said, there are some very good performances in this peek behind the surface of families and Hollywood. There really isn’t a truly sympathetic character in the cast, but there are those that are less despicable and more pathetic. However, there is no one who you can really feel good supporting or wanting to succeed, which makes the story a bit of a slog at times.

Mia Wasikowska (Alice Through the Looking Glass) is the best of the cast. She is intriguing and the most believable. The rest are all interesting to watch, but not entirely credible. Robert Pattinson (Water For Elephants) comes close, but then gets let down by the script. Julianne Moore (Maggie’s Plan) gives a brave and raw performance that is likely close to reality, but not a reality that many of us will have experienced and certainly not one that you’d support emotionally. Olivia Williams (Victoria & Abdul) and John Cusack (Chi-Raq), as bumbling parents, make a microcosm within the film that is interesting, but not much explored. Cusack does gets to explore a rather different character than his usual, which is intriguing to watch. And, finally, Evan Bird (The Killing) creates an l’enfant terrible, but without a lot of depth, only a wooden and hollow sort of desperation.

Admittedly, there are layers to this story…layers I also much admit I couldn’t uncover though it tickled my brain at the edge of understanding. Either I was trying to build patterns from chaos or I just missed the point. And, frankly, there were so many lost story opportunities to explore in the tale that it felt as surfacey as the culture it was exploring. It is also interesting to consider that this was released four years ago, before #metoo. I’m not entirely sure how reactions might differ before that boundary in culture. Within the first 5 minutes of the movie, several references are already out-of-date, not to mention nods and appearances by recognizable figures who have since died.

David Cronenberg loves crawling in the muck of people’s lives and emotions. But he is capable of good storytelling while doing so. He took Bruce Wagner’s complex script and slowly revealed its levels. But while there is a solid conclusion to the story, there isn’t a final meaning to it all. This can work when the point of the multiplicity of storylines and lack of direct connection is the intent, but not when you’ve gone to great lengths to imply a mythological or otherwise greater tale being told. It feels like a Sophomoric attempt to force meaning to come from the brain of the viewer rather than the mind of the filmmaker. Not a satisfying way to wrap your travelings through some very dark woods.

Maps to the Stars

The Little Stranger

[3.5 stars]

You never go into an adaptation of a Sarah Waters story expecting something straightforward. Fingersmith, Tipping the Velvet, The Handmaiden, are all complex and layered tales of deep psychological intensity. Lenny Abrahamson (Room) understood this when he tackled directing this Gothic horror that lives comfortably alongside Remember MeTurn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House (its latest upcoming remake), and other deliberately paced, unsettling fare.

Abrahamson had each actor wound so tight they were always on the verge of flying to bits. Domhnall Gleeson’s (Goodbye Christopher Robin) pauses and looks each spoke volumes to his motivations and actions. Ruth Wilson (How to Talk to Girls at Parties), alternating between cornered mouse and mother bear, was also utterly transformed into something we’ve not really seen before with a new accent and even a new walk. Will Poulter (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) was a sympathetic and twisted wreck of a man, barely holding onto his sanity after the war and severe injury. And Charlotte Rampling (Red Sparrow), while the least transformed physically, was a walking wound of a bereaved mother and fallen aristocracy.

Writer Lucinda Coxon (Danish Girl) gave each of the characters beautifully trimmed sentences that were loaded with subtext, thanks to sure directing and deft acting. Unlike most Waters’ stories, this is presented primarily from a male point of view and its sense of the supernatural is quiet but very palpable. Waters often plays along this line, but in this tale it is up to the audience to decide what is really going on, at least as it is told by Coxon and Abrahamson.

This is a horror story, but it is aimed at lovers of period drama and psychological terror. It isn’t about cheap scares or buckets of gore. Because of that, it is likely to never find a wide audience despite its excellent craft and delivery. If that is the kind of story you enjoy, make time for it. If you are hoping for highly paced action and scares, move along to something else. This is a movie to absorb, contemplate, and even discuss after the credits roll.

The Little Stranger

Mile 22

[2.5 stars]

Oh, Peter Berg (Battleship), you always promise so much and deliver so little. This bit of what amounts to terrorist porn is certainly full of action, but bereft of character. While Mark Whalberg (Ted 2) may have created a fast-talking and somewhat entertaining team leader, he isn’t a person, he is simply putting on an interesting idea.

And while there are strong female parts, they aren’t much in the way of characters either. Ronda Rousey (Furious 7) doesn’t really get to explore what she had to work with. And Lauren Cohan (Chuck, The Walking Dead), who is certainly a tough-as-nails fighter, overplays the mother side of what was written. Not because a kick-ass military person can’t have family and emotion in their lives or even care that much, but because she came off as schizophrenic rather than as competent; and she’s meant to be Wahlberg’s protege.

Iko Uwais (The Raid 2) shows off his skills as a fighter and, to a degree, as an actor. To be fair, he really just has to look enigmatic most of the time rather than plumb any serious levels. And John Malkovich reprises his Unlocked gig, which isn’t saying much for a man with such talent.

Where this movie really goes wrong isn’t so much in its conception or even its subject matter. Even the basic plot is intriguing. Where it goes wrong is the framing, which is, essentially, a solipsistic treatise excusing government funded murder as necessary, even to be celebrated. For some audiences that will work just fine. In the world we live in now, even while admitting I was mildly entertained by the action and well paced suspense, I found the message rather off-putting at the end. Nearly the same plot could have been used without the commentary and it would have worked better. As it is, you go for the action, blood, and gore, if you go, but not for the story or any cogent political awakening.

Mile 22

Spinning Man

[3 stars}

Mysteries are wonderful things and difficult to do right. This particular mystery is playing in some very high-brow territory; it is an academic’s nightmare, a philosopher’s quagmire, and an intellectual’s mind game. Simon Kaijser (Life in Squares, Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves) directs us through a mutable landscape without ever once clarifying, but never cheating us either. And worth noting is one of the most beautiful mirror shots (at  little over an hour in) I’ve ever noticed; it is totally self-conscious and totally appropriate. Matthew Aldrich’s (Coco) script is also equal to the task, keeping the dialogue decidedly collegiate but understandable and not condescending.

The cast is solid, but unexpected. Many of them are not American, despite the very midwest, Minnesota setting and present an odd assortment of characters. In the main roles, Guy Pearce (Genius), Minnie Driver (Hunky Dory), and Pierce Brosnan (The Foreigner, Mama Mia!) bring the full force of their charisma and screen power. They all also struggle with their accents at one time or another, Brosnan more than most. In the supporting roles, Alexandra Shipp (Tragedy Girls) and Odeya Rush (Lady Bird) lend a disturbing frisson to it all. And, while not a ground-breaking role for him, the appearance of Clark Gregg (Labor Day) was a fun treat.

Yes, this is a cerebral movie, and not for the feint of heart if you don’t want to think. So you have to ask yourself if you’re interested in something a bit more interactive than your typical movie before you sit down with this one. It is worth your time, despite any weaknesses. It is full of subtleties and, if you’ve ever hung out with the academic set, some very recognizable characters, interactions, and moments.

Spinning Man

Equalizer 2

[4.5 stars]

Straight up, this is the best film I’ve seen yet this summer. There are other films out there which were more pure entertainment (Deadpool, Avengers), but Equalizer is also just a damned good film.

This is both Denzel Washington’s (Roman J. Israel, Esq) and Antoine Fuqua’s (The Magnificent Seven) first ever sequel, and they chose to do it together. And damn if they didn’t make a good choice.

The first installment of The Equalizer was fun, but frankly it was a riff on the old TV series and a bit of a money grab with some cheap emotional content. This sequel is much more personal, much more unique, and one hell of a suspense-filled ride. Richard Wenk’s (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) script is clever and tight. In Fuqua’s hands it sails through its 2 hours with its hands at your throat. This isn’t a Liam Neeson Commuter kind of romp. Our man McCall is active and purposeful, and, in this movie, driven to improve the world. The story is filled with layers, complexity, and metaphors. They could have called it The Oncoming Storm if that wasn’t already taken by Doctor Who.

Melissa Leo (Furlough) reprises her role with a bit of glee and sharp wits. Her partner, Pedro Pascal (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), expands that aspect of Washington’s world and brings in a new perspective. There are some other nice performances and side stories, but it is the interplay of these three that bring it together.

In the current times, where the rule of law and accountability seems to have vanished at the highest levels, a story about someone applying justice is compelling. It comes at a high cost in the film, but it also provides payment. There are a couple dropped threads in the story overall, but it is a great ride, fully satisfying, and should leave you catching your breath by the final scene.

The Equalizer II

Our Kind of Traitor

[3.5 stars]

Most John le Carré adaptations, like A Most Wanted Man or even The Night Manager, are slow, intense burns, usually from the perspective of the criminal or an abandoned spy. Out Kind of Traitor, however, is from the perspective of a basically normal couple, Ewan McGregor (T2: Trainspotting) and Naomi Watts (Rampage), who get caught up in a hot mess…due to a criminal and an abandoned spy. OK, some things don’t change.

Stellan Skarsgård (Cinderella) puts together a delightfully over-the-top Russian mobster that becomes the pivot for the tale. He manages to swing between affable and homicidal without blinking, but remains sympathetic throughout. Even Damian Lewis (Billions), as a disgraced and desperate MI-6 agent, manages to create an understandable, if often despicable human being.

However Hossein Amin’s (The Snowman) script and Susanna White’s (Bleak House) direction manage to keep it as a suspense drama while inching it along with more an action-film pace. The story is unrelenting in its tension, which starts with something marital and quickly expands to something more deadly.

Is it perfect? No. There are some foolish errors in the script (can we talk cell phones, procedures, and monologuing?) but it still works rather well and will keep you guessing as to whether this will end as a triumph or a tragedy. If you enjoy tight spy tales, this is one you should have in your list.

Our Kind of Traitor