Archive for the Mystery Category

Saint Maud

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on February 15, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I was starting to think this movie didn’t even exist. Saint Maud was one of the most promising premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019. Shortly thereafter A24 acquired US distribution rights and planned to deliver it to theaters in April 2020, but then cinemas were shut down. A24 ultimately shelved the picture with no proposed US released date. It was finally dropped on the premium cable network EPIX on Feb 12, 2021. Hallelujah! Saint Maud has been freed from purgatory.

So the story concerns Maud (Morfydd Clark), a nurse who has recently become a devout Roman Catholic. There is a suggestion that the traumatic death of one of her patients prompted this conversion. She’s no longer employed at St. Afra’s hospital, however. Now she’s working as a personal home care nurse for a hospice patient (Jennifer Ehle). Amanda is a former dancer and understandably depressed in her current state. She does have friends that visit. She has a lover named Carol (Lily Frazer) as well. Maud doesn’t approve of these hedonistic interactions nor for the the fact that Amanda is an atheist. Maud comes to believe that God has called upon her to save Amanda’s soul.

Saint Maud is a striking film that uncannily elicits an ominous mood. Writer and director Rose Glass relies on religion as a motif. Faith in God has been a common theme in some of the very best horror movies. Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen are prime examples. This isn’t as narratively strong as those classics but the atmosphere is rather affecting. The dramatic portrayal of a woman conflicted by pious mania can be mesmerizing. Imagine Piper Laurie in Carrie but less overwrought and more sympathetic. Stylishly filmed and strongly acted, the chronicle is provocative and troubling. Maud is unquestionably odd but she remains a fascinating individual. She genuinely wishes to help Amanda. She is sincere in her convictions and that earnestness initially compels the audience to tentatively embrace this mission.

Saint Maud is a compelling study of a woman come undone. It could also have been an inspiring take on theological fervor as well, but it falls short of understanding her beliefs. Maud soon veers into episodes of religious fanaticism that do make her seem a bit unbalanced. In disturbing episodes, Maud inflicts pain upon herself as some sort of absolution. In one scene, she punches several thumbtacks through two prayer cards. She then inserts them into her shoes to be transformed by the agony as she walks around town. As a person of faith, I am prone to regard such behavior as preposterous. However, there is some basis for these acts of spiritual discipline. Although it isn’t common, some ardent practitioners in the Philippines willingly subject themselves to an actual crucifixion. The Catholic Church condemns such acts of self-flagellation. Yet a small sect of believers continue to practice in this manner. Some insight into Maud’s thought process here could have deepened our understanding of this woman and transported the narrative to a higher plane. “It’s not a religion for wusses,” Carla once reductively explained to Sam on the TV show Cheers after he complained about the difficulty of doing a Catholic penance. This is cerebral horror that explores the passion of religion and then how those ideas can be distorted. Indie film distributor A24 also gave us The Lighthouse and The Witch. If you’re looking for that kind of experience, this should satisfy that thirst.

Run

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on December 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It wasn’t her first role, but I suppose people first became aware of Sarah Paulson back in 1995 on the supernatural-themed TV series American Gothic on CBS. It only ran for one season, but she’s been steadily working ever since. She’s arguably one of the hardest working people in show business. She’s done Broadway (The Glass Menagerie), starred in the ABC network TV program Cupid in 2009, and performed in supporting roles in a plethora of high profile films (12 Years a Slave, Ocean’s 8). However, what’s brought the most acclaim is her ongoing involvement in the FX anthology American Horror Story. She has portrayed many different characters on AHS. It has earned the actress a Golden Globe and 6 Emmy nominations for that show alone. She just began another similarly themed TV series Ratched on Netflix. She’s good at horrifying people. I mean that as a compliment. She radiates goodness on the surface but there’s a sinister quality underneath her placid exterior that is most unsettling. That edgy trait is put to good use here.

I didn’t’ watch Run when it debuted 2 weeks ago (November 20) on Hulu. It unexpectedly broke records as that streaming service’s most-watched film premiere ever. Then I took notice. The outstanding Palm Springs previously held that record. Run concerns a new mother (Sarah Paulson) who has recently given birth with complications. Flash forward 17 years later. Daughter Chloe, played by newcomer Kiera Allen, is in a wheelchair. She is housebound and chronically ill. Diane homeschools her daughter and seems to be a doting and loving parent. She unfailingly administers the medications Chloe requires to stay healthy. Then one day Diane gives Chloe an unfamiliar green pill. Chloe had inadvertently seen the bottle earlier. It was prescribed to her mother and this discovery creates a nagging suspicion in Chloe. She tries to get to the bottom of what’s happening.

Run is a modest but efficient thriller from director Aneesh Chaganty. He did the mystery movie Searching in 2018, a missing child saga entirely set on computers and smartphones. This is given a traditional approach, but it’s likewise compelling. Sarah Paulson is good at playing the kindly mother that may not be all she appears to be. Kiera Allen is impressive in her debut as Chloe. The actress has used a wheelchair for 6 years in real life. The account builds, exploiting a growing feeling of anxiety. Things get crazier and the adventure involves a battle of wits. The writing is dependable. As details unfold, however, there is a salient sense of predictability. The screenplay by Aneesh Chaganty and frequent collaborator Sev Ohanian contains foreseeable story beats. A game of pursuit, near captures, and escapes isn’t innovative. Yet a tale can succeed if the actors invoke your emotion. This boilerplate narrative might have failed in the hands of lesser talents. Paulson and Allen believably sell this movie. Because of them, I enjoyed Run.

11-23-20

Palm Springs

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance with tags on July 27, 2020 by Mark Hobin

palm_springsSTARS4So I’ll just cut to the chase and start off by saying that Palm Springs made assembling my Top 10 list for 2020 a little easier.  I wasn’t prepared for how thoroughly enjoyable this tale would be.  Romantic comedies are often given short shrift when it comes to discussing great cinema but when they are done well the genre can hit emotional highs in a way that few stories can.

The amorous entanglement concerns two strangers who are both guests at a wedding in Palm Springs.  They meet and then promptly get stuck repeating the same span of time over and over.  It’s obviously similar to Groundhog Day.  I cherish that classic and I dare say Palm Springs is a close 2nd in all films featuring a time loop.  That may seem like a narrow bar but there’s a surprising number of choices that qualify: Source Code, About Time, Edge of Tomorrow, Naked and Happy Death Day are but only a few.  This is a story about how Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) become an unlikely couple in the midst of bizarre circumstances.

Palm Springs has a breezy screenplay that doesn’t take itself very seriously.  Yet it’s smart and coherent when it needs to be.  Nyles and Sarah aren’t about love at first sight.  He’s actually there with his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) who one of the bridesmaids.  Oh, it’s OK he flirts with Sarah.  Misty has been cheating on Nyles and he knows it.  Sarah isn’t some demure heroine.  In fact, she’s kind of edgy and bitter. Meanwhile, Nyles isn’t a suave leading man. He can be a goofball but he’s still charming nonetheless.  Neither Sarah nor Nyles wants to be a guest at this wedding.  So they have that in common and are united by this feeling.  That’s enough.  Then the temporal loop shenanigans begin.

None of this preposterous — albeit inspired — nonsense would work if the two stars weren’t so charismatic.  The saga stars Andy Samberg who got his start on the long-running late-night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live in 2005.  He’s part of a contingent with a persona like Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon in the ensemble.  Pete Davidson currently holds that casting slot.  This may sound like I’m negating actor Samberg’s individuality.  I’m not.  In fact, he is probably the most appealing member that has ever held that niche.

Nyles has met the woman who will change his life in Sarah.  Cristin Milioti is probably best known for her role in the final season of the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother.  She’s featured in one of my favorite scenes in this production.  Sarah is hardcore studying quantum physics to figure out how to end this infinite time loop in which she’s stuck.  The inspired montage is set to “The Brazilian” by Genesis.  Another endearing musical vignette involves the couple’s impromptu dance in a bar while “Megatron Man” by Patrick Cowley blasts in the background.  These displays aren’t rare occurrences but representative of the many delightful moments contained within.  It’s been a while since a romantic comedy captivated me this much.  It’s funny, sweet, and a little acerbic.  I loved it.

07-11-20

The Vast of Night

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on June 1, 2020 by Mark Hobin

vast_of_night_ver2STARS3The camera slowly enters a black and white TV set.  We overhear a familiar-sounding narration and are presented with opening titles that recall Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.  The narrative gradually morphs into color.  It mostly stays this way, but every so often it turns black and white again as an affectionate reminder of the homage.  Director Andrew Patterson retro ode recreates a 1950s mood that concerns a mysterious sound that bewilders two teens.  There’s switchboard operator Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and the comparatively more worldly DJ Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz) at local station WOTW.  The Vast of Night is set in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico and it’s certainly an impeccably fashioned period piece.  The portrait has been lovingly put together.  Although I’m surprised no one associated with this production realized that call letters for radio stations west of the Mississippi begin with a ‘K’.

The Vast of Night has a beguiling approach.  All of the events take place after dark.  The initial dialogue is delivered at a breakneck pace and it can be hard to follow at first.  During the first 30 minutes, the meandering introduction felt especially unfocused.  Stick with it though because this is superfluous exposition.  The proper story doesn’t even begin until half an hour later when Fay hears a bizarre audio frequency coming through the electronic circuits.  She forwards the intonations to Everett who plays it on the air.  The strange humming noise is identified by a disabled veteran named Billy (Bruce Davis).  The phone caller conveys his experiences in an extended auditory sequence.  Later on, the duo travels to meet an elderly woman named Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer).  She too recounts her experiences with the same sonic vibrations in another static shot.  Her verbose monologue is a long-winded sequence that may test the patience of most viewers.

The Vast of Night is a gloomy drama built solely around an enigmatic reverberation.  Evidence suggests a conspiracy theory involving a military experiment.  Most of what makes this saga compelling is its commitment to a B movie atmosphere.  However — save for a few showy unbroken tracking shots — the assemblage is not particularly cinematic. The film is regrettably centered entirely around the recollections of two loquacious individuals: Billy and then Mabel. Their lengthy monologues would be perfect vignettes for a popular radio program. That is before TV became the dominant entertainment medium in the 1950s. The interludes are not the most visually captivating. Some have labeled this release science-fiction but honestly, this extremely low budget tale is more mystery than anything else. It isn’t until the final 10 minutes that the feature ultimately succumbs to a spectacle that deems it as sci-fi. It’s unquestionably a powerful ending to a protracted buildup but its effectiveness also serves to underscore another insight. It’s at that moment we the audience suspect the film’s lo-fi aesthetic was more due to a lack of finances than art.

05-29-20

Disappearance at Clifton Hill

Posted in Drama, Mystery, Thriller with tags on May 8, 2020 by Mark Hobin

disappearance_at_clifton_hillSTARS3After her mother’s death, a troubled young woman named Abby (Tuppence Middleton) returns to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.  She has recently inherited the Rainbow Inn, a family-owned motel in the city’s tourist trap town of Clifton Hill.  While there, the experience dredges up some long-suppressed memories from when she was 7-years-old and witnessed the kidnapping of a boy with a bandaged eye.

Sounds like the basis of a fascinating film, right?  It should’ve been.  However, too many developments prevented me from embracing this complicated tale.  Let’s start with the fact that Abby now finally decides to investigate this crime 25 years after she was aware of it.  That’s the first of many unexplained situations.  One or two is a mysterious curiosity, but ten or more becomes a muddled head-scratcher.

Director Albert Shin is clearly influenced by the work of David Lynch.  It’s a bit unfair because the work of his idol can be so unbelievably abstract that it almost defies critique.  On the contrary, Shin’s endeavor is rooted much more in traditional storytelling.  Because of this, we expect a certain amount of coherence.  The mystery is pretty convoluted.  A traumatic memory triggered by the return to one’s hometown is a solid foundation to sustain any great thriller.  I was immediately drawn into the production and enjoyed it up to a point.

Interestingly, Albert Shin along with co-writer James Schultz introduces one embellishment on top of another.   While in Clifton Hill, Abby is reunited with her estranged younger sister, Laure (Hannah Gross).  Apparently, Abby is a compulsive liar.  Laure understandably doesn’t believe a single word her sister says.  This is something we discover for ourselves when Abby arrives in town.  She immediately picks up some random man (Andy McQueen) in a bar.  Their awkward exchange results in a failed connection.  Nonetheless, they unexpectedly meet again when she contacts the police department.  Surprise!  He’s a police officer too.

Matters then become more tortuous.  Abby’s investigation turns up an array of various personalities.  Another person of interest is a bizarre character named Bev Mole (Elizabeth Saunders) who mysteriously holds her incapacitated husband (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) like a prisoner.  How’s about an additional complication?  We’re informed that Abby had been in Phoenix, Arizona for the past 18 months while pretending to have retrograde amnesia.  This is about the time I checked out of this perplexing mess.

These ongoing concerns about Abby’s psychological stability are such a distraction.  The mind tends to wander when faced with an incoherent plot.  I couldn’t help but notice how Tuppence Middleton is similar in appearance to actress Rooney Mara who happens to have a sister (Kate Mara) who also acts.  This would’ve been a perfect project for the two of them.  That’s neither here nor there.  Tuppence Middleton is talented and a solid thespian in her own right.

Some of the characters are pretty exceptional.  There’s a couple of cheesy magicians that are fond of tigers.  The Magnificent Moulins are portrayed by Paulino Nunes and a stellar Marie-Josée Croze.  Her overtly theatrical achievement belongs in a campier feature.  Let me be clear, Croze’s performance is an absolute joy.   She injected some much-needed levity in this pseudo serious drama.  Oh, and speaking of iconic directors like David Lynch, how about a different David — Cronenberg that is — who pops up as Walter Bell, one of the longtime residents.  He portrays a local historian, deals in conspiracy theories, and hosts a podcast.  He delightfully enters the flick while scuba diving for sunken relics at the bottom of the falls.  He also owns a diner called Flying Saucer Restaurant that is just about the kitschiest eatery I’ve ever seen.  Turns out it isn’t a set but rather a genuine place.  If I’m ever in Niagara Falls, Ontario, I plan on stopping by.

It would appear the screenwriters didn’t know where they wanted the narrative to go.  Let’s simply throw in everything but the kitchen sink.  Music and mood are the movie’s considerable strengths.   What elevates this neo-noir is the eerie and immersive ambiance that sustains the piece.  As weird as it is, I kind of wanted to visit Clifton Hill.  The original score by Alexander Sowinski and Leland Whitty is an avant-garde jazz piece featuring woodwinds and brass to create a creepy atmosphere.  It’s so effective. I would begrudgingly give this release a pass.  However truth be told, most people will probably be frustrated by the disjointed story.

05-05-20

Vivarium

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 8, 2020 by Mark Hobin

vivarium_ver2STARS2.5Before March 2020, a science fiction-themed work like Vivarium would’ve been just another riff on a Twilight Zone episode.  Ok, I’ll concede that it utilizes a premise stretched preciously thin by its feature-length.  Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) are a young couple that go house hunting.  A peculiarly unsettling real estate agent, named Martin (Jonathan Aris)  introduces them to a residential tract development called Yonder that takes cookie-cutter housing to its conformist extreme.  Martin leads them into house #9.  They go inside. They chat for a short while and suddenly * poof * he’s gone.  They attempt to leave themselves but get lost in Yonder’s labyrinth of similar-looking roads.  After a while, they run out of gas.  Now they are compelled to spend the night.  The nightmare has begun.

Vivarium is a pessimistic ordeal about two individuals trapped at home.  Tensions arise due to the oppression of their forced isolation.  Occasionally there are incidents that will pique the viewers’ interest.   Early on the couple awake to discover a box with a living infant boy inside.  The instructions on the box read: “Raise the child and be released.”  The perplexing occurrence continues to lull the viewer into a state of unease.  The misery of parenthood is definitely a theme but it’s made worse by their confinement and inability to escape.  Their involuntary restriction to interact with anyone else adds to their growing hysteria.  Director Lorcan Finnegan has co-written a story with Garret Shanley about a civilization where personal freedoms have been eroded.

Vivarium‘s existentialist horror is admittedly helped by admirable production design.  Philip Murphy creates a maze of generic green monopoly houses that stretch endlessly unto the horizon.  The vivid color palette is quite effective.  However, no amount of style can obscure the fact that this is simply a movie about two people constrained to stay at home with an unruly child.  Can anyone relate?  The point could have been conveyed in a 10 minute short.  Yet Vivarium cruelly hammers the same objective for a full 98-minute feature.   The film is not only a descent into hell for the couple but for us the audience as well.  Let’s get down to brass tacks.  A month ago I might’ve found this to be an amusing — albeit implausible — bit of fantasy about a dystopian society.  At this moment in time, it feels strangely prescient.  Timing is everything in life.  Regardless, it doesn’t matter when this bit of hokum was unleashed onto the public.  It’s not powerful.  This a case where sadly real life is stranger (and a lot bleaker) than fiction.

04-06-20

The Invisible Man

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on March 16, 2020 by Mark Hobin

invisible_manSTARS4I’ve seen a lot of good movies over the past year, but it’s been a while since an opening scene grabbed me as quickly as this one.  It’s so perfectly crafted.  A woman (Elisabeth Moss) wakes up in the middle of the night.  Cecilia is lying in bed.  There is a man (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) sleeping beside her.  His arm draped around her waist. A look of fear appears as she gently extricates herself from his grasp.  A nearby bottle of Diazepam suggests he has been drugged.  Quietly and methodically she retrieves her belongings, turns off the alarms and positions one camera to face Adrian, the sleeping man, so she can monitor him from her phone.  She attempts to leave.  However, at the last minute, his dog accidentally sets off a car alarm.  Cecilia is forced to make a run for it into the street where her sister (Harriet Dyer) is already waiting in a car.  No sooner has she entered the vehicle when Adrian comes out, smashing the window before Emily drives her away to safety.

I’m a big proponent of less is more.  Those early minutes are the very definition of that phrase. Despite the fact that no words are spoken, the introduction is a perfect tease to whet your appetite for more.  Sure you will have questions, but the answers are skillfully revealed over time in a way that supports the artistry of this narrative.  It may not rival Hitchcock, but someone has clearly studied his methods.  The Invisible Man was written and directed by Leigh Whannell – perhaps best known for writing movies directed by James Wan (Saw, Insidious).  Whannell may have made an unfortunate directorial debut in 2015 with Insidious: Chapter 3.  I won’t mince words.  It was an execrable work.  However, this feature is a solid example of his skills as a director.

The Invisible Man is such a fascinating endeavor.  That effectiveness is due in no small part to the performance of Elizabeth Moss.  The actress rarely does commercial releases like this.  She generally favors indie fare, although Us was a rare exception.  This is actually Moss’s first true lead role in a studio production and if it’s any indication of her abilities, there should be more.  We slowly come to learn the man she escaping from is Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a powerful tech entrepreneur who also happens to be an abusive boyfriend.  No injury is depicted.  However, her behavior tells you everything you need to know.  The intro is rather sophisticated.  However, the rest of the account amps up the violence.  People are dragged, hit and thrown by an unseen force.  It’s pretty well done so I found that action to be captivating.  However, on two occasions a person’s throat is graphically sliced open and those demonstrations are decidedly less understated.

The Invisible Man is a remake of the classic 1933 Universal monster movie (which was based on H.G. Wells’ 123-year-old sci-fi novel.  This saga bears little resemblance to the original source.  They’ve basically extrapolated Wells’ seed of an idea to create a completely different film for a contemporary audience.  The feature was originally going to star Johnny Depp and be a part of Universal’s Dark Universe.  Then the reboot of The Mummy franchise starring Tom Cruise flopped.  It deserved to — it was simply awful.  So when the idea of continuing the “Dark Universe” was canceled, we narrowly avoided a potential catastrophe.  Given how great this smaller-scale version turned out, it now seems like a blessing in disguise.  The Invisible Man is so much better than I could have imagined.  A low-budget Blumhouse production may have more modest ambitions.  However, it still manages to highlight the creativity and character development that makes a story compelling.  These characteristics elevate this horror flick which remains one of the very best films in the first quarter of 2020.

03-10-20

Brahms: The Boy II

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on February 25, 2020 by Mark Hobin

brahms_the_boy_iiSTARS1.5Brahms: The Boy II is a fittingly awkward title for a story that did not demand a continuation.  The Boy was a modestly budgeted horror release in January of 2016.  It went on to gross $35 million in the U.S. and ultimately made $68 million worldwide.  It only cost $10 million so the fact that a sequel was made isn’t surprising.  The bewildering concept is that the previous entry ended on a note of finality.   A clever reveal made it seemingly impossible to create a compelling follow-up from that basis.  None of the actors from the film return incidentally.  My fears were indeed justified.  This movie is utterly uninteresting.

Killer toys usually involve a doll coming to life.  It’s practically a horror genre unto itself now.  They have a long and rich history.  I often point to the 1963 episode “Living Doll” from the TV series The Twilight Zone as a key inspiration.  It wasn’t the first example but it was a notable work.  The Child’s Play series is probably the most famous incarnation for audiences of today.  The Boy is part of that tradition and it was a serviceable drama that offered an amusing twist.  For this work to exist, however, screenwriter Stacey Menear had to retroactively introduce new elements.  These additions change what made the original film unique and reduce this new offering into something wholly pedestrian and dull.

Brahms: The Boy II is so thoroughly generic, mundane, banal, mediocre, uninteresting that to write a longer review would essentially be a creative exercise in using a thesaurus.  Sadly the narrative is a complete zero.   Nevertheless, it has some nice attributes.  I will admit the production design is lush.  The old mansion with its rooms of ornate furniture is nicely photographed and there is an underlying sense that something exciting could happen at any point.  Actor Christopher Convery as 8-year-old Jude conveys weirdness.  Sitting in a sweater-tie combo alongside his porcelain doll dressed in identical attire is a captivating image.  Now how’s that for a plot twist?  A one-and-a-half star review that ends on a positive note.

Ad Astra

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on September 22, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ad_astra_ver3STARS3Heaven knows there isn’t a shortage of movies that use outer space as a metaphor for depression.  That’s because the setting is an exquisite allegory for distance, loneliness and broken relationships.  2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Contact, Moon, Interstellar, and First Man are just a few that exploited these feelings.  It’s impossible not to think of one of these chronicles set amongst the stars when watching this picture.  That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. Ad Astra – Latin for “to the stars” – is part of a hallowed and timeworn tradition.

Our saga concerns Brad Pitt who plays Roy McBride, an astronaut tasked with tracking down his father.   Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) is a rebel astronaut who has gone missing for years in the outer reaches of the solar system.   The plot actually evokes a literary classic that has nothing to do with deep space.  A man on a meandering quest to find his symbolic “Kurtz” figure is pure Heart of Darkness, the 1899 novella by Joseph Conrad which also inspired Apocalypse Now.  McBride must unravel the mystery of recent catastrophic power surges that threaten the very future of the entire planet.  Needless to say, the stakes are high.  The story begins as a thinking man’s exploration of the cosmos.  Although the tale of a son that harbors deeply buried abandonment issues against his dad slowly becomes the focus.  The father complex can get a bit tedious.  Roy McBride seems to be pretty cool and collected at first.  His pulse rate never accelerates.  As the possibility that Clifford might still be alive, the man’s placid exterior begins to crumble.  I greeted this turn of events like the psychoanalysis from a dime-store therapist.  An unhealthy parental relationship is the root of his emotional problems.  I tried hard not to roll my eyes too far in the back of my head for fear I would miss a dazzling set-piece.  Ad Astra presents these conventional ideas with stunning cinematography.

This is a gorgeously photographed production that demands to be seen on a wide screen.  Writer-director James Gray is known for his portraits of families in crisis (The Yards, We Own the Night) and this narrative also fits within those descriptive confines.  However, this is the first time he’s ever worked with an $80 million budget.  Gray makes excellent use of the increased funds.  An electrical surge causes the International Space Antenna to go haywire.  Roy falls to earth and I gasped at the spectacle.  A lunar buggy chase on the unsettled areas of the moon, where our hero and his men are pursued by pirates, is spectacularly thrilling.  This is the near future and such things are to be expected.  Later, against Roy McBride’s protestations,  the team answers a mayday call.   The discovery aboard the foreign rocket ship contains a surprise that is scarier than anything I saw in the recent horror IT Chapter Two.  These are the moments I remember the most.  Unfortunately, they are few and far between.

Ad Astra is content to luxuriate within the contemplative mood of an introspective study of a man who misses his daddy.  Why oh why did father prefer searching for extraterrestrial life out in the galaxy when he had life right here on earth that loved him?  That is the central dilemma.  The elegant presentation is somewhat undone by intrusive and excessive narration by Brad Pitt’s character.  His reflections are extraneous expository thoughts.   The vocalized inner monologue comes across as self-indulgent.   This is not a device that elevates our enjoyment.  It might have helped if there were other significant personalities to share the load of the drama.  Both Donald Sutherland and Ruth Negga pop up briefly but each of their appearances are incidental in nature.  Liv Tyler as “the wife” has minimal dialogue.   I’d say she gets roughly five lines in total and that’s a charitable estimate.   Eve McBride is more of a symbol than an actual role.  This is clearly the Brad Pitt show.  He is indeed good and so are the visuals.  It’s a mixed bag to be sure, but overall the visual extravaganza won out over the stuffy sections.  One day someone will revolutionize storytelling and make a film where the beauty of the cosmos is a metaphor for a happy and well-adjusted life.  Until, then, there’s Ad Astra.

09-19-19

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on August 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

scary_stories_to_tell_in_the_darkSTARS2It’s Halloween night, 1968.  In the Mill Valley suburb of Pennsylvania, a group of misfit teenagers seek refuge in the abandoned mansion where Sarah Bellows (Kathleen Pollard) once lived.  The legend contends that the vengeful woman held a terrible secret.  There in her room, they discover a haunted journal of individual tales.  The book contains scary stories of the past but there are blank pages as well.  When nerdy horror novelist Stella (Zoe Margaret Colletti) carelessly recites an incantation from the tome, Sarah’s spirit is unleashed.  Soon new chapters begin to magically appear on the previously empty pages.  Each one will have a dire consequence for a person trespassing in her home.  The appealing cast includes Stella’s friends, intellectual Auggie (Gabriel Rush), mischievous Chuck (Austin Zajur) and an enigmatic teen drifter named Ramón (Michael Garza).  Chuck’s sister Ruth (Natalie Ganzhorn), a dumb blonde stereotype, shows up later along with her date Tommy (Austin Abrams), a football player/bully at the school.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is an adaptation of Alvin Schwartz’s trilogy of children’s books that were published in 1981, 1984 and 1991.  Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro is a producer and co-writer.  The books were a horror compendium of urban legends and folk tales.  The movie interpolates several of the short stories by weaving them into an overall feature.  The film can easily be broken apart into pieces.  “The Haunted House”, “Harold” The Red Spot”, “The Big Toe”, and “The Jangly Man” are all episodes within the narrative.  The pale lady of “The Dream” is a high point.  It’s the only time I was ever creeped out.  Still, the interlude is effective only because it produces a haunting image.  The simple story is merely about an obese woman that wants to hug you.  Some fables are lifted directly from the text.  Others are composites.  They’re all dull and perfunctory.  Although the drama presents this all as one united saga, it’s obvious from its episodic nature that this account has been cobbled together from disparate yarns.  It still has the divided feel of an anthology.  There are thematic parallels to Creepshow (1982).  There’s even a gross-out tale that resembles that flick’s cockroach scene.

The kids are ostensibly here to unravel the mystery of why Sarah Bellows, even in death, is still so ticked off.  They are frustratingly ineffective for the duration of the picture.  The kids watch in terror as one new chapter after another writes itself in blood on the page before them.  There’s a Spielbergian mood.  Properties like the TV show Stranger Things and the adaptation of Stephen King’s It (2017) are very much in vogue.  This production clearly wants to exploit that same demographic.  Each youthful victim is eliminated one by one.  The remaining survivors seemingly learn nothing from the previous death.  I mean if they did then the film would be over a lot faster, right?  There is a solution to stopping these casualties but it’s about as generic as something like telling the truth.  Until that occurs, bad things just keep happening to these people Final Destination-style so the writers can justify a nearly 2-hour running time.  Oh, and the chronicle makes sure to isolate each character when they face their demise.  That also adds to the disjointed, fragmentary nature of this story.  The screenplay by brothers Kevin and Dan Hageman is extremely poor.

There are some positives.  The setting is small-town America, 1968, so it’s an evocative period piece.  It uses the Vietnam War, racial injustice and the presidential election of Richard Nixon as background elements.  The atmosphere is more picturesque than say a film set in our modern-day.  Unfortunately, the script doesn’t do anything interesting with those ideas.  It simply uses them as window dressing.  For fans of the series, I do think director André Øvredal (Trollhunter) has done a nice job at visually embodying the original freaky illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  However, your imagination is always going to be scarier than something manifested so literally in gross detail.  The movie employs copious amounts of CGI.  Some scenes are eerie.  One concerning a pimple is too disgusting for words, but none of it is particularly scary.