Archive for the Mystery Category

The Curse of La Llorona

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on April 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

curse_of_la_llorona_ver2STARS2.5In Mexican folklore, La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) is the legend of a “weeping woman” who drowned her children in a blind rage.  The act was to take revenge on her philandering husband, but once she realized what she had done, the river had already carried them away.  After her death, she was prevented from entering the kingdom of heaven until she found them.  Thus, she continues to wander the night looking for children whom she mistakes for her own.

The Curse of La Llorona is the sixth installment in producer James Wan’s horror franchise that began with the breakout success of The Conjuring in 2013 and includes Annabelle (2014) and The Nun (2018).  The fable dates back to 1673 and it’s nicely reenacted as an eerie intro that sets the stage for the proper story here.  The production is a period piece that mainly takes place 300 years later in 1973.  This allows for Father Perez (Tony Amendola) who appeared in the 1967 set Annabelle to briefly pop up, so there’s the connective tissue to the rest of the series.

Recently widowed Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) becomes familiar with the myth when investigating a case of possible child abuse.  She is a social worker questioning the mother (Patricia Velasquez) of two sons.  Soon Anna’s own kids Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) are being terrorized.  She appeals to a former priest named Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz) for help.  This isn’t great art.  It’s a lot of scares loosely strung together by a generic tale dressed up in period detail.  Even though this is primitive stuff, there is some enjoyment in experiencing one shock after another.  Car windows roll down by themselves, transparent umbrellas reveal shadowy figures when lowered then disappear when raised.  Later, Rafael spreads seeds from a special tree across the doorway to prevent La Llorona from entering their home.  The scene where that barrier of protection is compromised is exceptionally intense.

The Curse of La Llorona is a very efficient horror movie.  Evaluating the way it’s constructed is kind of like looking for the nutritional value in cotton candy or analyzing the plot of a roller coaster.  This is a pure yet simple entertainment.  You’ll laugh at how openly guileless the production is in eliciting frights.  In a scant 93 minutes, director Michael Chaves piles on more jump scares per minute than any film I can remember.  That is a backhanded compliment.  The technique of creating surprises with an abrupt image accompanied by a loud sound is perhaps the laziest way to frighten the viewer.  Nevertheless, there’s a certain satisfaction in getting the very basic requirement of what you paid for.  Unfortunately, that’s all you get.

04-18-19

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Pet Sematary

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on April 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

pet_sematary_ver3STARS3.5It’s been 30 years.  Pet Cemetery was ripe for a remake.  Oh pardon me, that’s S-E-M-A-T-A-R-Y.  Although a hit in the spring of 1989, the original isn’t held in particularly high regard.  Additionally, author Stephen King has never been hotter.  His novel It was reworked for a second time as two theatrical features in 2017 and 2019.  Even accounting for inflation, Part 1 became the biggest box office success of a Stephen King property ever.  This critic wasn’t a fan actually.  I’d have to go back to 1408 to find something based on the author’s work I enjoyed so I wasn’t highly anticipating this.  I’m happy to say that this is the best Stephen King adaptation in over a decade.

The best horror movies establish an evocative mood.  There’s something really eerie about a burial ground.  A graveyard for animals is even creepier still.  Now add the fact that I’m not a cat person.  Just the set-up of Pet Sematary is inherently scary.  Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) has relocated his family from Boston to rural Maine.  His wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their youngsters, daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and son Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie) are getting used to their new surroundings.  Their home deep in the woods affords them peace and quiet.  The acres that now make up their backyard also includes a pet cemetery used by the locals.  While out walking one day, Rachel and Ellie come upon a funeral procession of children in frightening animal masks.  One malevolently beats on a toy drum.  The spectacle is even more menacing than it sounds.  When Ellie tries to climb beyond a tangled mass of fallen trees and brush, she is stopped from going any further by the Creeds’ well-meaning new neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow).  We’re immediately curious about what lays past the deadfall.  The unsettling unknown is often scarier than the actual reveal.

The chronicle relies on an emotional core.  The screenplay doesn’t treat grief as some throwaway concern, but an emotion with which one must come to terms.  We learn early on that mother Rachel was traumatized by the passing of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine).  Death has always been a hard subject for her to talk about.  When the family cat Church is hit by a truck, she decides to hide this detail from the kids and simply say the cat ran away.  Louis and Jud go to bury Church in the established shrine.  However, Jud shares a bit of information with Louis that will change their lives forever.  Pet Sematary is a horror reflection that contemplates bereavement.  Perhaps these harsh realities of life are better to accept than to reject.

This is a simple drama unencumbered by extraneous details.  Matt Greenberg (1408) has slightly changed the story from one of Stephen King’s shorter novels.  This may anger some King purists.  I don’t worship the text so it’s didn’t faze me.  Screenwriter Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy) has adapted the source for directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) who take a refreshingly spartan approach to the proceedings.  This is a bare-bones study with effective scares and a chilling atmosphere.  As we’ve recently seen in Hereditary and Us, a performance can greatly enhance a production.  11-year-old actress Jeté Laurence gives a nuanced portrayal.  Ellie Creed is a complex role worthy of an actor twice her age.  Unfortunately, the developments succumb to blood and guts violence in the final act.  I’m not a fan of viscera.  Then again it probably wouldn’t be Stephen King if it didn’t include some.  Thankfully this tale depends more on emotions than gore.  The sophisticated craft is markedly better than the silliness of the 1989 version.  Christopher Young’s ominous score adds to the disturbing milieu.  The ambiance is a mounting wall of impending dread.  I “dug” this Pet Sematary.

04-04-19

Us

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller on March 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

UsSTARS4I’ve been waiting for this.  Us is director Jordan Peele’s followup to his much-lauded debut, Get Out.  It nabbed the filmmaker an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  My expectations were high simply because it was this reviewer’s 4th favorite picture of 2017.  It’s hard not to make comparisons as Us is another work in the horror genre that incorporates both creepy and funny elements.  For example, the 1986 charity benefit “Hands Across America” is woven into the narrative as an illustration of both.  But Us has such a different agenda.  It’s something else altogether.  I’ll cut the suspense.  This is not as coherent as his first feature.  Yet there’s still so much to recommend.  At worst, it’s proof that Get Out was not a fluke.  Jordan Peele is an imaginative talent with a vision.  The screenplay extracts fear out of our safe space.  Us is a highly entertaining thriller meticulously built upon a foundation of unrelenting tension.

The movie concerns the well-to-do Wilson family.  There’s mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) along with their two children, teenaged daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger son Jason (Evan Alex).  The clan is on vacation and they’ve gone to Santa Cruz beach.  While the group is hanging out with the Tylers, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker), young Jason wanders off.  He encounters an incongruous stranger dripping with blood right there on the sand.  At that same moment, Adelaide notices Jason is missing.  She panics running down the beach snapping up her little boy before anything grave has happened.  However, she’s freaked out.  Time for everyone to return back to the house.  That night, they will be visited by a family that looks unnervingly like their own.

Every exceptional horror film is elevated by at least one galvanizing performance and Lupita Nyong’o is the star of this show.  For the first time in her career, a story revolves around the actress.  She is more than up to the task.  The opening vignette is a flashback to 1986 when Adelaide was a little girl (Madison Curry).  Back then, she too had a negative experience at that very same beach.  It was here that she entered an old funhouse with a hall of mirrors and confronted another girl that looked exactly like herself.  Adelaide was reunited with her parents but is so traumatized by the experience she was unable to speak.  This unresolved childhood trauma informs their present-day dread when they are visited by what appears to be duplicates of themselves.  Nyong’o gives two markedly distinctive portrayals.  Her human copy speaks in a deep guttural croak of a voice.  The unnerving low pitch only serves to emphasize how her evil twin has become her own worst enemy.  Director Jordan Peele is a self-proclaimed black nerd, or “blerd” and it’s hard not to see the auteur’s presence in the father.  Winston Duke was the powerful and virile warrior leader M’Baku in Black Panther.  Here he is a doughy, goofy dad with large spectacles proud of his newly purchased dilapidated speedboat. He’s prone to corny dad witticisms too. When out in the wilderness, daughter whines “There’s no Internet!” He happily chirps back, “You have the outernet!”

At its basic essence, Us is a home invasion thriller.  Then, in the final stretch, seemingly descends suddenly into a disorganized hodgepodge of allegorical plot ideas.  Let’s throw race, class, and nationality as topics for consideration.  Without context, I’ll simply add that “We’re Americans” is perhaps the most memorable utterance in the entire picture.  Wait, so is that title Us or is it the abbreviation U.S.? I’m not here to spoil the deeper themes.  Just want to acknowledge the assortment of concepts swirling around this chronicle.  This is sure to inspire a boatload of think piece articles that pontificate about things like existentialism.  I didn’t warm up to all of that.  Us works best if you don’t try to pick it apart too much, although repeat viewings will undoubtedly uncover more clues to bait that desire to delineate a singular point.

Great cinema isn’t just about WHAT you say but HOW you say it.  Horror movies are rarely this evocative.  It’s unbearably stressful but wisely uses unexpected dashes of humor to alleviate anxiety. Michael Abels’ score is frightfully good at extracting tension.  The cinematography by Mike Gioulakis artfully captures the action.  This production looks fantastic.  He appreciates faces, lovingly highlighting the visages of its stars in closeup so we the audience feel emotionally connected in their plight.  What’s interesting is despite the fact that each doppelgänger is portrayed by the same actor, they appear slightly different in some imperceptible way.  Call it makeup, lighting, or perhaps skillful acting.  Whatever the reason, it’s an unsettling effect.  Ok, so I’ll concede that their clothes are a dead giveaway.  They all wear red jumpsuits, sport sandals, and one fingerless driving glove.  Scissors are their weapon of choice.  Curiously, not a single gun is fired in this film.  The heightened visual presentation makes these villains iconic.  Does anyone want to guess what the hot Halloween costume will be this year?

03-21-19

Everybody Knows

Posted in Crime, Drama, Mystery with tags on March 19, 2019 by Mark Hobin

todos_lo_saben_ver6STARS3Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has a genuine talent for depicting moral dilemmas.  He specializes in presenting domestic conflicts within an intricate narrative.  They highlight ethical stakes informed by social class, gender, and religion.  I’ve been a big fan beginning with his fourth movie, About Elly (2009). I’ve seen everything of his since.  A Separation (2011) came after and it was a flawless masterpiece.  The Past (2013) and The Salesman (2016) followed.  Though not as spectacular, they were each impeccable achievements that excelled at extracting raw emotional drama.  I’m not the only one who thinks so.  Twice his pictures have won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (A Separation, The Salesman).  His latest is Everybody Knows and it finds the director functioning within the same milieu of interpersonal relationships.  It’s a solid if unexceptional, addition to his filmography.

Asghar Farhadi continues to test the universality of his themes in various countries.  In The Past, he explored his subjects with a French-language drama.  In Everybody Knows, Farhadi has made a Spanish movie, a language he doesn’t speak.  Yet this production just might be Farhadi’s most accessible creation.  For one thing, it reunites Oscar winners Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) and Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona).  The real-life married couple has now done nine features together.  The two have always had palpable chemistry.  This time, it is the actors, not the screenplay that is the main reason to see the work of Farhadi.

The is a story about a secret that supposedly “everybody knows”.  That confidential information is first discussed by teen wild child Irene (Carla Campra) and her friend Felipe (Sergio Castellanos).  Suddenly Irene goes missing.  Her mother Laura (Penélope Cruz) and husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) are distraught.  A subsequent investigation is carried out entirely by the members of the extended clan who had been attending the wedding of Laura’s sister (Inma Cuesta).  I’m being particularly vague with the details because part of the fascination is uncovering the layers as developments happen.  Farhadi’s cinema is all about the art of human relationships.  What he does is not easy.  For the first time, however, his craft feels overly labored to serve developments that culminate in a less satisfying end.  A lot of things are considered as the past is dredged up which illuminates the history of these people.  The dynamics of Laura’s family are brought to light.  It’s just that the reveals aren’t revelatory.  The dialogue is dense and excessive.  It gets cluttered in a tangled web within a more traditional account.  It ultimately descends into the melodrama of a soap opera.

03-08-19

Greta

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery with tags on March 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

greta_ver2STARS3Neil Jordan is one of Ireland’s most celebrated directors.  He’s the auteur known for helming Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire and The End of the Affair.  All the aforementioned received widespread critical acclaim.  He actually won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (The Crying Game).  He’s talented to be sure.  However there’s also the director who has directed High Spirits, We’re No Angels and In Dreams, less enthusiastically received pictures of questionable artistic merit.  That’s the director that showed up to direct Greta.

Frances McCullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a naive ingenue.  How innocent?  Well, she finds an unattended handbag on a New York subway and proceeds to take the item into her possession.  She means well, she only wants to find its rightful owner.  I don’t know about you, but an abandoned bag in a New York subway screams bomb threat to me in this post 9/11 world, but OK, I’ll accept her lack of judgment.  When she returns the purse she meets one Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), a lonely widow who teaches the piano.  Now if art-house thrillers like The Piano Teacher and Elle have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t mess with Isabelle Huppert.  Here the French actress trades on that persona by playing a seemingly kind woman.  Greta reminds Frances of her own recently departed mother. They strike up a rapport.  The female bonding that evolves is not unlike any number of Lifetime movies that center on female friendships. Unfortunately, Greta is not all that she seems.

Stalker movies are the genre that won’t go away.  Narratives about an unhealthy obsession include exemplars like Fatal Attraction, One Hour Photo, Notes on a Scandal and The Gift.  We seem to be drawn to these tales.  The 1990s were a halcyon decade for of the genre.  1992, in particular, was a banner year producing Single White Female, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Unlawful Entry and The Bodyguard.  Greta could have been a Hitchcockian thriller.   It’s not.  However, it’s still an entertaining throwback to those trashy, classics of yore.  In fact, the story construction is even simpler.  The plot is ridiculously paper thin.

Frances and Greta form this pseudo mother-daughter bond.  Frances lives in a gorgeous loft with her wealthy roommate Erica (Maika Monroe), a brash party girl.  The much shrewder Erica is suspicious of this relationship right from the get-go.   Sure enough, Frances makes a discovery early on that signals Greta isn’t all that she appears to be.  Rather than gradually enter the realm of speculation, the tale simply flips the crazy switch.  The screenplay co-written by Ray Wright (Case 39, The Crazies) and director Neil Jordan has no time for deep character development or motivation.  “My friends say I’m like chewing gum,” Frances initially informs Greta.  “I tend to stick around.”  The silly dialogue kept me amused, but a scene where Huppert spits an actual piece of gum into Chloë Grace Moretz’s hair made me laugh out loud.  Frances is promptly freaked out and Greta grows instantly clingy.  It’s as if 20-30 minutes of the film is missing.  Rarely have I seen such a stately composition go off the rails so quickly.  From then on, it’s a battle of wills as Greta’s increasingly unhinged behavior escalates.

Greta is a tawdry production.  Neill Jordan isn’t above resorting to nauseating visuals for the sake of cheap gore.  A rolling pin and a cookie cutter are utilized as lethal weapons.  This is followed by the use of a hypodermic syringe in an unsettling image I cannot shake, no matter how hard I try.  Then again, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  There’s an element of exuberant glee to the proceedings.  Huppert’s acting prowess is captivating.  The Oscar-nominated actress is so winking, so obviously aware that the script is beneath her, that she digs in with all fours.  If she played it more serious, the mood wouldn’t have been as fun.  She exhibits a maniacal delight that is equally charismatic and frightening.  A table-flip in a crowded restaurant shows a complete lack of restraint.  The events are beautifully shot by Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina).  Never underestimate the power of exquisite cinematography.  Meanwhile, Frances appears to be overreacting to such a degree that she doesn’t elicit our sympathy.  After a while, you sort of enjoy her unraveling demeanor.  It’s rare that we should root for the villain in a stalker film.  The campy theatrics are wholeheartedly a plus.  Isabelle Huppert gives life to an otherwise slight drama.

02-28-19

Game Night

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Mystery with tags on December 31, 2018 by Mark Hobin

game_night_ver4STARS4Pssst….I’m going to let you in on a little secret that few people realized in 2018.  Game Night was one of the funniest (and best) movies of the year.  It’s hard for broad farce to be taken seriously.  I mean its raison d’être is to make you laugh by being silly.  But this production is so inventively funny and wonderfully acted that it fitfully entertains to the very end.  Last year wasn’t good for R-rated comedies.We got Girls Trip sure but then we also got Snatched, Baywatch, Rough Night, and The House.  Into that wake came this picture.  It got released without much fanfare in February of 2018 – one week after Black Panther – the biggest hit of the entire year.  Game Night got lost in the shuffle.

The story employs a brilliant ensemble cast. Rachel McAdams and Jason Bateman star as Annie and Max, a married couple who were made for each other.  They are super competitive.  The chronicle begins during one of their regular game nights which includes dim bulb buddy Ryan (Billy Magnussen) who brings an even dimmer date, along with another wedded couple Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and wife Michelle (Kylie Bunbury).  Oh and there’s also creepy police officer Gary portrayed by actor Jesse Plemons.  He’s Max and Annie’s neighbor who used to attend their social gatherings when married to their friend Debbie (Jessica Clair Lee).  Now that Debbie and Gary are divorced, they just find him awkward.  Much to their dismay, he’s still interested in hanging out with them.  He’s absolutely perfect.  I’m talking Oscar nomination.  It won’t happen, but I’m putting it out there.  Meanwhile, Max has always lived in the shadows of his slick, handsome, more successful brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) a venture capitalist.  So when Brooks shows up driving the car of Max’s dreams, a Corvette Stingray, and then invites them all to the ultimate game night at his place, they accept the challenge.  This is where the plot takes off.

Game Night is an increasingly outrageous but good-natured, comedy.  That amiable spirit goes a long way into having us embrace these characters into our hearts.  We care about them.  This group of friends gets together for a night of fun.  Things spiral out of control from there.  This develops into a murder mystery party which keeps begging the question. “Is this real or just pretend?”  In that respect, it’s kind of reminiscent of David Fincher’s thriller The Game which was inspired by the work of Alfred Hitchcock.  This is directed by John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (2015’s Vacation) from an efficient script by Mark Perez.  Perez co-wrote Herbie Fully Loaded back in 2005 and followed that minor success with the Justin Long/Jonah Hill vehicle Accepted back in 2006.  Those credits wouldn’t prepare you for how well crafted this film truly is.  Perez hasn’t ever really ever been on my radar before, but he’s in my sights now.  Every scene propelled the movie forward.  Not a single line is wasted.  Occasionally things get violent, hence the R rating.  Most of it is played for chuckles.  Getting sucked into the blade of a jet engine is more Wile E. Coyote vs. the Road Runner than Tarantino.  The carefully calibrated silliness never lets up.  It’s a hilarious delight from beginning to end.

02-26-18

Burning

Posted in Drama, Mystery with tags on December 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

beoningSTARS3Director Chang-dong Lee’s work over the past two decades has defined the Korean New Wave.  Burning, his first production in eight years is no different.  The sheer number of Top Ten lists on which this South Korean drama has appeared, practically compels every critic to see the picture in 2018.  It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and it’s the South Korean entry for the Best Foreign Language Film for the 91st Academy Awards.  South Korea has submitted entries since 1962. Despite this, no South Korean movie has ever even been shortlisted or even nominated for a best foreign-language Oscar.  That may change this year.  Now having said that, my flattering buildup is an ironic segue into my lack of enthusiasm for this picture.

The story begins as a simple boy meets girl tale.  Aspiring writer Jong-su (Ah-In Yoo) runs into a girl named Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jeon) that he knew when he was young.  She is dancing outside a store to attract customers.  Over coffee, he learns his old acquaintance is studying pantomime and she pretends to eat a tangerine by peeling it.  He is impressed but she downplays her talents.  “Don’t think there is a tangerine here…but rather that there isn’t one”.  She seduces him and they sleep together that night.  Later when Jong-su never sees the cat that Hae-mi has asked him to feed while she is away in Africa, your mind starts to wonder.  Is there even a cat at all?  Director Chang-dong Lee drops lots of little perplexities that solicit a closer examination of details throughout the story.  Things get more complicated when Hae-mi returns from her trip with a new beau named Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow.  A possible love triangle of sorts is formed.  Although even that’s up for debate.  Who is this guy?  What does he do?  Are they a couple?  One individual confesses to enjoying a strange hobby.  Another character goes missing.  Or do they?  You will have many questions amidst the speculation. Few will ever be answered.

Burning is clearly assembled by an artisan that likes to deliberate over his craft.  The slow build is carefully put together.  The performances by a trio of actors further draw you in.  Actor Yoo Ah-in is Jong-su, the protagonist.  He has an unexpected everyman quality that belies a seething resentment in his ineffectual character.  More memorable is actor Steven Yeun, as the enigmatic Ben.  As the wealthy antagonist, he is an ambiguous alpha male that inspires jealousy in our hapless lead.  His blissful confidence will inspire your hostility too.  Somewhat more disconcerting is the character of Hae-mi portrayed by newcomer Jeon Jong-seo.  She seems to simply exist as the object over which Jong-su can obsess.  Her self-initiated disrobings become rather troubling.  It inspires our irked hero to remark, “Why do you undress so easily in front of men? Only whores do that.”  Jong-su’s slowly mounting jealously builds over the course of the mystery.  Your ability to identify with his confusion and escalating frustration is key.  How this beta male will respond or even if he will respond, is an ongoing provocation.

Burning is based on the brief short story Barn Burning by Haruki Murakami that first appeared in The New Yorker in 1992.  Although “inspired by” is far more accurate.  Screenwriters Jung-mi Oh and director Chang-dong Lee have decided to be much more specific.  Their chronicle contains additional details not contained in the original work.  For one, the class differences between underprivileged Jong-su and affluent Ben is an underlying theme that is emphasized in the movie.  Jealousy is a major exploration of the film as well.  The repression of these feelings is cultivated by Jong-su.  This provokes a slowly building animosity of Ben. There’s a lot to chew on here.  I was moderately intrigued, particularly in the first half. The narrative meanders for two and a half hours before culminating in a violent climax. The story ends without ever answering THE “burning” question.  I suppose open interpretations can be fun, but the whole exercise left me rather….cold.

12-09-18

A Simple Favor

Posted in Comedy, Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller on September 15, 2018 by Mark Hobin

simple_favor_ver9STARS2.5Director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) has carved out a successful niche in Hollywood.  His female-centric comedies have been both box office successes as well as critically lauded hits.  I consider myself an admirer.  So when A Simple Favor was announced, I welcomed another offering from the filmmaker.  The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer (TV’s American Horror Story) is based on a 2017 novel by Darcey Bell.  I was intrigued by ads that led me to believe that he was undertaking something new. The trailer promised a shift into neo-noir thriller, that A Simple Favor would deviate from Feig’s comedy wheelhouse.  While the production attempts to affect a pseudo-serious edge, this material incongruously relies on laughs, sometimes awkwardly in the very same scene.

I was elated by the cast.  I am a Blake Lively fan. The statuesque actress plays Emily, a mysterious friend of Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) who goes missing.   Lively got her start in features with The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005). Then made a splash in the CW television series Gossip Girl (2007–2012). Initially subsequent films (Green Lantern, Savages) followed that didn’t make use of her talents.  I must confess she really didn’t impress until her appearance in The Age of Adaline. The willowy blonde epitomized cool stylish class in that production.  Visually, Lively is a chic throwback to Hollywood heroines like Jean Harlow, Kim Novak, Veronica Lake, or Grace Kelly.  She is undeniably well cast here.  With her designer duds and cosmopolitan demeanor, she is the epitome of a gorgeous sophisticate. The movie adopts a refined air.  Although her character subverts that mood with a vulgar temperament.  Her conversations with Stephanie make it clear.  Emily is a lewd and crude woman.

The rest of the cast intrigued me.  Emily’s husband is portrayed by Crazy Rich Asians newcomer Henry Golding.  He plays it rather straight.  The actor treats the screenplay as if he’s in a sincere drama.  Anna Kendrick, on the other hand, seems to be in a different picture altogether.  As a mother, she hosts her own self-produced internet program for fellow moms.  When she addresses her audience of mommies in her video blog, her strident performance makes sense.  Yet she maintains that same shrill demeanor even while sipping martinis with newly found friend Emily.  Her acting is broad and gratingly self-aware.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the part was originally written with frequent Paul Feig collaborator Melissa McCarthy in mind.  McCarthy was brilliant taking on an uncharacteristic role in Spy so I have no doubt she could have pulled off this part with aplomb as well.  She would’ve been a better casting selection given the way Kendrick is directed to behave.  Miss Kendrick’s constant mugging would be more at home in a Miller-Boyett sitcom.  I have nothing against Full House, Perfect Strangers, Family Matters, Step by Step, et al.  Those 90s hits have their place in TV history.  It’s just that the acting style doesn’t suit an elegant mystery.

The choice to mix folly with drama is black comedy and when it works, it can be marvelous.  But taking a serious subject and introducing humor is a difficult balancing act.  It’s been done successfully.  David O. Russell achieved the feat with 2013’s American Hustle to cite one recent example.  There has to be a modicum of respect for your own characters so the audience can be invested in their plight.  Quite simply, these characters lack depth.  All of them.  Even Emily’s young son (Ian Ho) comes across like spoiled brat on a bad sitcom.  I consider the moment when the little tyke surprisingly shouts “F— You!” at Stephanie to be the nadir.  With A Simple Favor, what initially begins like as a captivating mystery slowly devolves into superficial farce. Sometimes in mid-scene. The decision to undercut tension with silliness undermines the story’s more lofty ambitions.  I hesitate to mention Hitchcock because invoking his name in the same breath as a sordid piece of entertainment such as this is akin to blasphemy.  However, that’s clearly the aesthetic to which director Paul Feig was aiming.  Unfortunately, misplaced absurdity and then a convoluted denouement with a few too many twists, completely sinks the plot.  The recent Searching had twists too but at least they were coherent.  Perusing the number of one-star reviews on the social book site Goodreads for Darcey Bell’s 2017 novel leads me to believe the problem lies with the source material.  That’s a shame.  The ultimate mystery of A Simple Favor is why they buried an elegant thriller underneath this goofy mess.

09-13-18

Searching

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on September 2, 2018 by Mark Hobin

searching_ver2STARS3.5Searching is a tale about what happens when a father (John Cho) discovers his 16-year-old daughter (Michelle La) has gone missing after a late night study group. David’s hunt for Margot completely relies on the internet in his quest to uncover her whereabouts. He soon realizes that she had a whole other life he never knew.

Searching is the debut feature from writer/director Aneesh Chaganty. The drama is shot from the point-of-view of computer screens.  Oh, it might be relevant to mention that Chaganty used to work for Google.  The presentation is innovative, however, he didn’t invent the idea. The approach is not unlike the technique used in Leo Gabriadze’s 2014 horror movie Unfriended. Nonetheless, Searching should definitely get kudos for exploiting the idea in a captivating manner.  Not surprisingly Russian-Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov is a producer on both films.  Using an integration of Apple’s FaceTime and iMessage through his computer and then employing other social networking services like Facebook and Instagram, David tries to piece together the details of what happened to her.  All the while we witness his investigation via his monitor.

Searching brilliantly lays the emotional groundwork for our connection to this family right from the start.   Within the opening minutes (à la Up) we learn that mom Pamela (Sara Sohn) had been suffering from lymphoma.  She has recently passed on leaving father and daughter still grieving her loss.  Their dynamic is key, as there appears to be a somewhat uneasy relationship between the two.  Father’s constant admonitions for her to take out the trash gently underscores a hovering mentality.  Then, late one night her phone calls to him go unanswered while he sleeps.  The next day he returns her missed calls with no response.  This inspires a fear that is every parent’s worst nightmare.  He needs to determine who saw her last.  Her study group confirms she left early.  Then he calls her piano teacher and is shocked to learn she quit her lessons months ago.   Apparently, she had deposited the money for those classes in a secret bank account instead.  This is but the beginning of several revelations that the daughter he thought he knew was a stranger to him.  He contacts the authorities.  Officer Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is the detective that takes his case.

Searching is masterfully crafted.  Yet, I did find the gimmick of everything taking place on a computer screen to be a contrivance that somewhat hindered the exhibition.  The constraint was unnerving but in a claustrophobic style that didn’t serve the drama.  I would’ve preferred the expansive cinematography of a traditional narrative.  Director Alfred Hitchcock did this sort of thing to perfection.  Still, the screenplay co-written by Aneesh Chaganty and producer Sev Ohanian is clearly inspired by the master filmmaker’s oeuvre.  That’s a compliment of the highest order.  I adore Hitchcock and this production should bear a mention when discussing films he has inspired.  Searching is extremely well designed.  The chronicle gently unfolds slowly disseminating clues as the story sees fit.  The discovery of information is fascinating. At one point he unearths a questionable connection having to do with his brother Peter (Joseph Lee).  Figuratively, a lot of bombs are dropped.  I was riveted throughout the entire saga, but the ending is completely mind-blowing.  I can’t even begin to explain how one explosive revelation subverts another in the final 30 minutes.  I won’t even try.  Just go see Searching.  You’ll be so glad you did.

08-30-18

The Cloverfield Paradox

Posted in Action, Adventure, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction with tags on February 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

cloverfield_paradoxSTARS2It’s only February, but The Cloverfield Paradox just may go down as the most brilliantly marketed gimmick of 2018. Paramount couldn’t have asked for a better moment to drop their movie. Originally produced under the title God Particle, it was scheduled for an April 2018 release in theaters. Then during Super Bowl LII, a trailer teased that the $40 million budgeted film would actually be presented on Netflix right after the Super Bowl on February 4, 2018. Now retitled The Cloverfield Paradox and marketed as part of the Cloverfield series, the picture was debuted. The reviews were less than enthusiastic. There’s a reason for that. It’s pretty bad and I’m convinced that Paramount knew this would happen.

The studio heads were very smart. The protracted trajectory of a movie normally includes a lengthy build up of anticipation that in this case would have inevitably led to a crushing disappointment.  The studio sidestepped all this and minimized the damage. Instead, the negativity was contained within the surprise unveiling of a unique sci-fi film that many didn’t even know existed. I must admit, I was pretty excited to watch when I saw the trailer during Super Bowl 52. The instant hype created a need in me to see this fresh sci-fi production. I, for the record, enjoyed Cloverfield (2008) as well as it’s spiritual sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). I happily switched over to Netflix after the game. O dear! I have never watched the drama TV series “This Is Us” but I can safely say I wish I had kept the channel on NBC right after the game. The Cloverfield Paradox is simply awful.

It’s the year 2028 and the Earth is suffering from a global energy crisis. A crew of astronauts is thrust into space in order to help solve the planet’s energy problems. Unfortunately, their efforts may open portals to other dimensions that could have a negative lasting effect on their current existence. Naturally, this is exactly what happens. The charismatic crew (cast) includes Daniel Brühl, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz, David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi, Aksel Hennie and Elizabeth Debicki. They’re more than up to the task of giving this ridiculous script life. The problem is, nothing makes sense. The narrative is a grab bag of assorted sci-fi tropes that recalls Aliens, Interstellar and 2017’s Life. Anyone remember the cockroach scene when they burst out-out of E. G. Marshall in Creepshow? Yeah well, something like that happens in this movie too except it’s with worms this time. Yup, it’s just as gross as it sounds.

The Cloverfield Paradox is a mess. It’s a sequel to the franchise in only the most general sense. Some script tweaking has creatively brought this into the same universe. If you’ve seen the other entries you may see a loose connection, but it certainly isn’t necessary to be familiar with the franchise. This J.J. Abrams produced prequel was directed by the heretofore unknown Julius Onah with a screenplay by Oren Uziel who co-wrote the comedy 22 Jump Street. That’s kind of telling. This unintentionally veers into comedy on several occasions. The production also feels like the umpteenth version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Yet this adventure has no direction.

The Cloverifeld Paradox is all over the place. No focus. Just a mish-mash of ideas that occasionally captivates the mind for a moment only to be let down by another concept that subverts the one before it. When an astronaut played by Chris O’Dowd loses his arm in a freak accident, the occurrence is so bizarre we are captivated by the event. Then the arm comes to life, receiving instructions from some alternate reality that forces the viewer to pay attention.  I was enrapt for a while as the limb starts to write notes on its own volition, but the longer this nonsensical account plays out, the sillier it gets, At one point it appears that the planet Earth no longer exists. Then it does. There’s nothing here but a lot of half-baked theories and unresolved plot threads. The Cloverfield Paradox is a jumble of contrivances.  It’s an entertaining medley for only the introductory section of the movie. I was entertained in the beginning, then common sense took over.