Archive for the Thriller Category

Lamb

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on October 19, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Can overanalyzing a movie diminish its enjoyment? I love this question because it acknowledges a simple truth about films we love. Some accounts — while fascinating — don’t stand up to that kind of analysis. Lamb is a captivating picture, but it needn’t be scrutinized. It’s not for everyone, but it was for me. I enjoyed its weirdness.

Director Valdimar Jóhannsson is making his feature-length debut. He co-wrote the screenplay with Sjón, a poet, novelist, and lyricist who frequently collaborates with singer Björk. This folk tale concerns sheepherders in rural Iceland. On a fateful Christmas Eve, one of their sheep has a baby. This lamb is different. The couple has lost a child and perhaps this is why they take extra interest in the animal. The overarching through-line is a tender yarn about a maternal bond. They wrap the animal up, bring her into the house and have it sleep next to them in a crib in the bedroom. They name her Ada. It takes some time before we — the audience — understand what makes this baby unique. Although if you’ve seen the trailer, her deformity will not be a surprise.

The mood is somber and there is little conversation. The actors convey a lot with looks and glances . Actress Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [2009]) imbues María with a steely resolve. Rapace is a Swedish actress but she lived in Iceland for a few years with her family as a child. She is still fluent in the language. Actor Hilmir Snær Guðnason (The Sea) is less famous outside of his native Iceland. As Ingvar, he manages to convey both the stoicism of Gerard Butler and the lighthearted goofiness of John Ritter. I use those references because he suggests both actors in appearance.

Haunting and hypnotic. That’s Lamb in a nutshell. It is a production that heavily relies on atmospherics . Developments unfold rather slowly. There’s a palpable feeling that something sinister is brewing. Like a pot simmering on the stove just on the precipice of a boil. However, there are welcome bits of levity that alleviate the solemnity. Ingvar’s brother Pétur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson) shows up unannounced to stay for a while. The next morning he is sitting at the breakfast table. When Ana comes to the table, the look on his face is priceless. His response affirms what the audience has been thinking.

Lamb can be challenging. The story is not heavy on plot. Movies that get by on simplicity should be brief. This saga is 14 minutes shy of 2 hours. There are periods where the lack of dialogue and events don’t serve the production. The stretches of silence can almost parody the minimalism of an art-house flick. Then again, I’m convinced the humor is intentional. The visual manifestation of Ana is a weird hybrid of horror and comedy. A chronicle with a slow narrative with little action can often tax the viewer’s patience. Here however the quality has enough provocation to keep the viewer enrapt. There is so much to appreciate here.

10-12-21

No Time to Die

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller with tags on October 10, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Daniel Craig doesn’t smile. At least that’s the claim. This is the 5th and final film of the series to star the actor and he has grown progressively despondent with each entry. Hey, I’ve enjoyed his interpretation. Casino Royale (2006) and Skyfall are in my Top 10 of Bond movies. The actor has been reinventing the character ever since he fell head over heels in love with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) in the iconic Casino Royale. That failed romance haunts him. Despite his ongoing depression, Spectre ended on a happy note. James Bond retired and drove off into the sunset with Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). He should’ve quit while he was ahead.

In this story (and I’m liberally using the official synopsis), Bond has retired from MI6. He is enjoying a tranquil retirement in Jamaica after leaving active service. Nevertheless, his peace is short-lived as CIA field officer Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) shows up and asks for help. The mission to rescue kidnapped scientist Valdo Obruche (David Dencik) leads Bond on the trail of an enigmatic terrorist named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) who is armed with Project Heracles, a bioengineered weapon selectively tailored to an individual’s DNA. Lyutsifer is your standard-issue megalomaniac with an affected speech pattern. Actor Rami Malek enunciates each word with a nod toward camp. The confusing target of his evil plan seems to fluctuate, but I think his vendetta is ultimately against SPECTRE, the organization that murdered his family.

James Bond has a long and rich history. The British secret agent was introduced in 1953 by novelist Ian Fleming and adapted to movies starting with Dr. No in 1962. Forget what you knew. James Bond has changed. No Time to Die recasts the lothario as a monogamous family man. Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), his pretty love interest from Spectre returns. She’s got a mysterious five-year-old daughter named Mathilde (Lisa-Dorah Sonnet) in tow. Mathilde may have piercing blue eyes, but Madeleine informs him that “she is not his.” Bond visits the grave of Vesper Lynd in the prologue so you know he’s still pining for that woman. I guess Madeleine is the next best thing because he’s devoted to her now. However, Daniel Craig and Lea Seydoux generate as much heated passion as two damp towels in a freezer. These two look more like father and daughter than lovers. As progressive as this Bond is, dating a woman his own age is the one thing that doesn’t change. Side note: Their 17 year age difference isn’t a record gap for the superspy. Carol Bouquet and Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only were 29 years apart.

No Time to Die subverts the nature of what makes this man tick. Cary Joji Fukunaga (1st season of the HBO series True Detective) directs this long-delayed continuation, taking over for Danny Boyle who left the project in 2018. Screenwriters Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have written seven episodes beginning with The World Is Not Enough (1999). Also contributing to the script is Phoebe Waller-Bridge (BBC Three TV show Fleabag) who was brought in to spice up the dialogue at Daniel Craig’s request. Every woman is a fully realized human being that most definitely does not exist to satiate your lascivious desires. Thank you very much. There’s even a competitive new 007 named Nomi (Lashana Lynch). She has replaced Bond at MI6. He is ostensibly working for the CIA at this point. Their combative rivalry is amusing.

Then there’s the action apex of the entire production. The setpiece recalls the elegance and winking silliness of the past. Bond travels to Cuba. There he is assisted by a sexy CIA operative named Paloma memorably played by Ana de Armas. The ensuing sequence unfolds when they infiltrate a SPECTRE meeting. The two face off in a balletic shootout against a host of various gunmen including Safin’s right-hand man (Dali Benssalah). At one point, Paloma rams the car she’s driving into the structure that corrupt scientist Valdo Obruchev is climbing, causing him and it to collapse onto the car. Ana De Armas outshines Bond. Sadly her appearance is merely a cameo. She steals the show and left me wanting more.

Daniel Craig’s version of 007 has always displayed world-weariness but here his sadness looms large. This is a surprisingly dour affair with the biggest downer of an ending to ever grace this franchise. At two hours and 43 minutes, the 25th entry from Eon Productions is the longest Bond film ever made. It feels like it. The good news is there’s ample opportunity for redeeming highlights. I loved seeing all the familiar faces return: Naomie Harris as Miss Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, Christoph Waltz as arch-enemy Blofeld (in MI6 custody), and Ralph Fiennes as head of MI6. There are some cool vehicles too. #1 is a scissor-wing plane that folds into a submarine. #2 is the Aston Martin DB5 of course. Cinematic flair has been one of the hallmarks. Oscar-winning director of photography Linus Sandgren (La La Land) significantly contributes to the overall style of the production. The intimate and clean cinematography is a real throwback to the classic era before CGI and shaky-cam. Features like these reminded me why I love these movies. There are flashes of exhilaration buried amongst the melancholy.

10-07-21

Stillwater

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on August 12, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is an oil worker from Stillwater, Oklahoma. He periodically travels to the port city of Marseille in France to visit his estranged daughter. Allison (Abigail Breslin) has been serving a prison sentence for the past four years. While attending university, she was charged with killing her roommate and lover for being unfaithful. Allison maintains she is innocent. She has recently learned from Patrick (William Nadylam) – a professor at the university – that a student in his outreach program overheard a man brag at a party about stabbing someone and getting away with it. In a detailed letter that she gives to her dad, Allison pleads for her lawyer Maitre Leparq (Anna Le Ny) to reopen the case. Leparq deems it hearsay and refuses. Unbeknownst to Allison, her father decides to investigate himself.

Stillwater is best appreciated as a character study. As such, it features a handful of good performances. I begin with Abigail Breslin as Allison Baker. Bill’s daughter is in jail for most of the picture. She only appears in a few key discussions during her father’s visits. Though the part is small, Breslin effectively conveys the dependence on but also alienation from her dad. Matt Damon is the blue-collar Bill. He sports a thick goatee and a tattoo of an eagle-clutched skull, but he also prays before every meal. He’s a doughy monolith dressed in plaid and always wearing a baseball cap. He rarely smiles. The misguided marketing even highlights this generic image on the poster.

Damon’s stoic mood is a choice. While it may embody an authentic person, it isn’t particularly charismatic. This is the same actor who played the sociopathic preppie in The Talented Mr. Ripley. It is a stretch given how different it is. Conversely, French actress Camille Cottin is overflowing with personality. She plays Virginie, a woman staying in the hotel room next to his in France. The woman would seem to be an unlikely ally. “Did you vote for Trump?” her friend Nedjma (Naidra Ayadi) suspiciously asks him one point. Virginie also has a young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) who is a memorable presence as well. Virginie agrees to help him in his quest.,

The accomplished filmmaker Tom McCarthy gave us the prestigious Best Picture winner Spotlight. The director of Stillwater himself has acknowledged that the screenplay — which he co-wrote with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noé Debré — was inspired by the real-life Amanda Knox trial. To further emphasize that point, there was an American woman who spent time in a foreign prison. However, the developments and characters are all invented. To explain how it diverges would be to spoil what happens. I only mention these facts to emphasize this is not “The Amanda Knox Story.” The coverage of the movie has implied it contains more facts without acknowledging the major distinctions. It’s a work of fiction.

A father will do anything to prove his daughter’s innocence. That concept is the inertia that propels the account. Bill’s crusade is fascinating. Yet the narrative is a lot of other things. It’s a character study, a murder mystery, a father/daughter drama, a fish out of water tale, and even a romance. That last development occurs at a moment where the chronicle already had a clear direction. Then it exasperatingly goes off the rails before returning to the matter at hand. Stillwater is a patience-testing 2 hours 20 minutes. It’s easy to see where a half-hour could have been excised to present a more focused and powerful saga. I’ve always maintained the screenwriter plays the most important role in a film. Stillwater makes me question that idea. Some judicious editing could have made this great.

08-10-21

The Courier

Posted in Biography, Drama, History, Thriller, War on June 24, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Do you love Cold War spy films? Well then I have good news!

Greville Wynne is a mild-mannered British businessman with no connections to the government. That’s a plus. His frequent trips to Eastern Europe on business is another advantage. The two qualities make him a perfect candidate to be a spy. MI6 recruits him to be just that. Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) is an American CIA officer who assists. Greville is tasked with acting as a courier transporting classified information to London. His contact is Soviet agent Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) — a high-ranking foreign military officer providing top-secret intelligence

The fact that this is a true story makes it infinitely more interesting. The confrontation in 1962 was between John F Kennedy in the U.S. and Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR. The Cuban Missile Crisis was perhaps the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear conflict. That’s the historical basis but this is a character drama first and foremost. The friendship between Greville and Oleg, two men from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain forged a bond that is affecting. Greville’s wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) is kept in the dark about her husband’s activities but she suspects something is amiss. At one point she mistakenly thinks her husband is having an affair.

These portraits of history are fascinating. It’s all about the point of view. This unsurprisingly aligns with American and British interests. From the U.S. perspective and its allies of the Western Bloc, Penkovsky is a hero. His undercover operations helped put an end to the Missile Scare. However, to the Soviets and the Eastern Bloc, he was a traitor. How Penkovsky weighed patriotism vs. his moral compass would have been a compelling study. Although those ideas percolate underneath the surface, the screenplay doesn’t delve too deeply into that conversation. This is a simple movie with clearly delineated characters representing the “good” and “bad” positions.

The Courier is very much an old-school espionage thriller. They were all the rage in the 1960s: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Ipcress File, Torn Curtain, The Double Man, Ice Station Zebra. They’re something of a vanishing breed these days. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies are recent examples of note. If I’m being charitable, I’d say this is less engaging. If I’m being blunt, the account is a bit stodgy and dull. It’s a decent well-acted movie with nice production values though. I’d recommend it to fans of those films.

The Courier debuted domestically back on March 19. After earning a paltry $6.6 million in theaters, it went to video on demand April 16, where it’s currently available. It got a DVD release June 1st.

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on June 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Back in 1970, Comedian Flip Wilson performed a routine on The Ed Sullivan Show featuring a character that would become his most famous persona. Geraldine Jones was a sassy, liberated Southern woman. Stay with me. I promise this is relevant. In the comedic bit, she is a preacher’s wife. Her husband angrily demands why she bought an expensive new dress. Denying all culpability she replies, “The Devil made me do it.” The response became a ubiquitous expression of the 1970s and a hilarious way to deny all responsibility for one’s actions.

This chapter could have simply been called The Conjuring 3 but the more creative title harks back to when it was a popular and lighthearted catchphrase. Yet there’s nothing funny about this flick. In fact, a very real event inspired this story. In 1981, Arne Cheyenne Johnson, 19, was charged with murdering his landlord, Alan Bono in cold blood while they fought over his girlfriend, Debbie Glatzel. The defense? “The devil made him do it” — or more specifically a demon manipulated Johnson into stabbing Bono to death with a pocket knife.

This is technically the eighth film in “The Conjuring Universe” but only the third to star Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as Ed and Lorraine Warren, two paranormal investigators. Ed is a self-professed demonologist. Lorraine is a clairvoyant and a light trance medium. Together they form a powerful team. The Warrens are called in to contribute evidence for Arne Johnson’s (Ruairi O’Connor) defense.

That factual basis could have laid the foundation for an ambitious courtroom drama highlighted by intelligent discourse and legal precedents. I would have so much preferred that narrative to the one presented here — a shallow fright-fest. As is de rigueur for satanic possession movies, we get scenes that steal iconography from The Exorcist. Look! A hat-wearing priest (Steve Coulter) carrying a bag steps out of a car and approaches a house at night in the beginning. Now Father Gordon is evicting demons from people by shouting scripture. There are lots of bizarre happenings that utilize unsettling special effects. The series of horror vignettes admittedly do give some genuine frights.

The production provides some creepy images that manage to engage at times. It begins when a supernatural presence is trying to obtain the soul of mild bespectacled 8-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard), Debbie’s (Sarah Catherine Hook) younger brother. The little boy is possessed and his body contorts in weird ways so that you hear his bones crack. Arne Johnson gets involved when he sacrifices his own body to save the boy by speaking directly to the beast: “Come into me, I’ll fight you, come into me.” Later in flashback, we see David was visited by the evil spirit earlier while lying on a waterbed. Those are effective displays. The film is entertaining in fits and starts.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are great actors slumming in a so-so movie. It’s not terrible. I’d recommend this to anyone who is a big fan of chapters 1 & 2. However, if you’re a demanding connoisseur of quality horror pictures, there are far better choices. A Quiet Place Part II is currently playing in theaters.

06-04-21

Army of the Dead

Posted in Action, Crime, Horror, Thriller with tags on May 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

It’s about quality not quantity in art. There is a power to simplicity. Most movie genres benefit from efficient storytelling. In particular, I’ve always thought comedies and animated films are better when they’re 100 minutes or less. After watching this 2 hour and 28-minute chronicle, I’m ready to add zombie movies to that list. The 1968 horror classic Night of the Living Dead adhered to that rule. Even Zack Snyder’s first foray into this genre qualifies. His feature debut was a remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Ok, so I’ll concede the 1978 original was 126 minutes. There are exceptions to every rule.

Complicated epics may benefit from longer runtimes. However, this saga is rather simple. The zombie apocalypse has left Las Vegas separated from the rest of humanity. Scott Ward (Dave Bautista) is a former war hero who’s now flipping burgers. Casino boss Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) tasks him with retrieving $200 million sitting in a vault beneath the strip. Slight complication: In 32 hours, Las Vegas will be nuked by the government as a solution to its infestation. Scott accepts the challenge and assembles a team of experts for the heist. There’s little time to waste. The clock is ticking.

The narrative highlights a flamboyant band of mercenaries. Characterization isn’t a highlight, other than to emphasize tough guys and gals in its lively cast of personalities. Scott and his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) have unresolved issues that are shoehorned in for ersatz sentimentality. I remember Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick) and Ludwig Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). The latter looking like a sturdier version of Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles. Their prickly interactions at the outset predictably develop into a friendship by the end. French actress Nora Arnezeder as Lily suggests Kristen Stewart in Charlie’s Angels with her short blonde hairstyle. Then there’s Zeus (Richard Cetrone ) the alpha male, and his queen (Athena Perample) in this society of the undead. Question: Can an intelligent entity with emotions and highly evolved problem-solving skills still be considered a zombie?

This is a Zack Snyder movie through and through. He’s not only the director but also a producer, and one of the screenwriters. This also marks the first time that the director has been his own DP. Much of the cinematography has a “unique” look. The actors in the foreground are often clear but the background is blurry. Occasionally even the stars are out of focus too. This was a conscious choice the director made, but it didn’t improve the experience in my living room. In a theater (this played on 600 screens) one might be more forgiving. On a TV it comes off like a visual glitch. It’s a strange decision in this 4K Ultra HD Blu-Ray age. Incidentally, Tig Notaro was digitally added post-filming, although the late addition doesn’t stand out from anyone else.

Army of the Dead has its moments. The high points occur when the adventure doesn’t take itself too seriously and calls attention to how — let’s face it — stupid it is. I especially enjoyed all the “on the nose” needle drops. They are a welcome reprieve from the heavy-handed gore. Snyder ends his saga with the most literally titled song you could imagine. The Cranberries’ protest anthem “Zombie” has absolutely nothing to do with reanimated corpses but here it is, appropriated out of context for your listening pleasure. “Night Life” and “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley can be heard. However, the version of “Viva Las Vegas” that opens the film is a campier rendition by Richard Cheese and Allison Crowe. A cover of “Bad Moon Rising” by Theo Gilmore, “The End” by The Raveonettes, and Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” also pop up at amusing points.

Army of the Dead is a straightforward story undone by its interminable length. You could depict two heists in this ridiculously long zombie apocalypse tale. Is it too early to start championing a new hashtag on Twitter? “Release the NON-Snyder cut!” I’d prefer a version where the studio boldly makes the deep cuts necessary to edit this distended tedium into a compelling piece of entertainment. There’s a decent movie buried somewhere amongst all the excess.

05-22-21

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller with tags on May 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Ideas for a Movie:

Plot #1: Hannah (Angelina Jolie) is a specially trained wildland firefighter traumatized by the deaths of 3 children she failed to save.

Plot #2: Patrick (Nicholas Hoult) and Jack (Aidan Gillen) are two contract killers that complete a hit on a district attorney and his family in Fort Lauderdale.

Plot #3: Owen (Jake Weber) is a forensic accountant that sees the murder of his boss on the news. Fearing for their lives, he escapes with his 12-year-old son Connor (Finn Little).

Plot #4: Ethan (Jon Bernthal) is the strapping sheriff and ex-boyfriend of Hannah. He is now married to Allison (Medina Senghore). The couple is anticipating a new arrival. She’s pregnant.


Each one of these disparate threads could be the basis of a different production. Yet these four situations all occur in literally the first 15 minutes. They will converge in a orderly manner later, so thanks for that. Nonetheless, the segments are pitched at the audience in a haphazard deluge without clarification. I craved coherence and sense.

It’s nice to see Jolie looking like herself in an action-packed thriller. She’s directed 5 films since 2007. Over the last decade, Angelina Jolie has most notably focused the acting side of her career on (1) playing a wicked fairy godmother and (2) voicing a tiger sidekick with a talent for kung fu. She’s a tough-talking smoke jumper battling the natural elements and evil hitmen. She’s the only female firefighter hanging out with a rowdy group of manly men. They naturally accept her as one of their own, but her gorgeous countenance stands out in the crowd. This is what the actress does. Jolie has such a physicality. She is beautiful, sure, but that belies a fiery personality. In a word the star is — charismatic. Seeing Angelina in her element is clearly something Warner Bros. wanted to highlight. The marketing prominently features the star on the poster with newcomer Finn Little partially visible in the lower-left corner. Thing is, it’s not just about Hannah. Nor is she the most interesting character.

This is a chronicle set in the Montana wilderness with multiple storylines that merge into a whole. Director Taylor Sheridan wrote Best Picture nominee Hell or High Water where he brilliantly utilized a similar blueprint. I hate to break it to the filmmakers, but this film ain’t winning awards. The narrative fragments are agonizingly vague. I understand what motivates that decision. Being bombarded with unnecessary minutiae can be a drain. I’m not asking for complicated exposition. However, laying a foundation is important. There’s hardly any explanation in the opening as to what is happening.

The screenwriters have deemed information as superfluous to our experience. We get to see WHAT people are doing, but not the details of WHO they are or WHY. What is on that piece of paper that Owen entrusts to his son? Why do Patrick and Jack wish this Connor kid dead? Tyler Perry pops up for an instant. He is never heard from or seen again. His appearance is so random it’s amusing. We can infer he’s a crime boss, but these and many other questions go unexplained. The writers don’t care. I did at first, then neither did I.

The movie begins badly. The screenplay simply drops us in the middle of the action. Michael Koryta is adapting his own 2014 novel with help from Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and director Taylor Sheridan. A storyteller can’t expect the viewer to care about a bunch of people we know absolutely nothing about. That changes though. As the events unfold, I got more invested. There are surprises — good ones — that kept me curious. Surprisingly it’s actress Medina Senghore, not Jolie, who gets to be the biggest badass. Patrick and Jack break into Allison’s home, looking for Connor. The fact she is pregnant seriously amplifies the tension of the scene. Her response is the most exciting sequence.

Those Who Wish Me Dead is a generic thriller dressed up with capable actors and lush cinematography. This is a real throwback to the pulp fiction of the 1990s. John Grisham’s The Client comes to mind. “Young boy witnesses a murder” is a development in both. DP Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) highlights the terror of uncontrolled wildfires. This trashy tale has the look of sophistication even when blighted by so much ambiguity. It’s frustrating at first. The movie recovers after a disastrous beginning — somewhat. The saga ultimately manages to entertain.

05-16-21

Oxygen

Posted in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on May 18, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Netflix has a thing for sci-fi thrillers about people confined to a small space with diminishing air. That description describes the plot of Oxygen which came out on May 12, but coincidentally also applies to Stowaway released last month. If you haven’t seen either and can only handle one similar premise, this is the one to watch.

The chronicle concerns Elizabeth Hansen, a young (thirtysomething) woman who wakes up in a cryogenic pod the size of a coffin. Elizabeth has no memory of who she is or how she got there. She has been entombed and must find a way to escape. Her very life is at stake. The inability to even sit upright is also reminiscent of Buried, the 2010 drama starring Ryan Reynolds.

What elevates the story is Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, Now You See Me). She is the MVP. This is essentially a one-woman show in which she convincingly portrays confusion, exasperation, and panic to the astonishment of an audience that fully appreciates the agony of her situation. Occasionally flashbacks of her past provide a reprieve to the claustrophobia. Her predicament is an experience and that is where the production uncomfortably entertains.

If she has a co-star, it is the informative computer within the hi-tech chamber. MILO (Mathieu Amalric) is a disembodied voice that constantly relays helpful information on Elizabeth’s declining resources. Though Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Quantum of Solace) is never seen, his contribution is a key ingredient. His soothing tones are both comforting and sinister. There is a real HAL 9000 vibe to his matter-of-fact delivery in the face of dire circumstances. I did enjoy their exchanges.

Oxygen is director Alexandre Aja’s (Piranha 3D, Crawl) first French-language film since High Tension in 2003. Side note. The default setting for international programs on Netflix is the English dub. You will have to manually select French with subtitles to hear this in its original format. It’s nice to have options, but I prefer when the actor’s mouth and words are perfectly in sync. This is a surprisingly restrained effort from the horror maestro. There are moments where Elizabeth must pull bloodied tubes and long needles out of her body and then insert them back in. However, that is the zenith of the gore. I appreciated the focus on emotional rather than physical terror.

In the end, Oxygen is a fine movie. It manages to entertain with a compelling performance. However, there is no earthly reason why such a simple tale should require 1 hour and 41 minutes. The account would have been much more efficient and effective as a 60 minute (or less) episode on an anthology series for TV. The extreme length really taxes the viewer’s patience. It doesn’t support what is essentially an impressive acting exercise limited by a restrained location. The considerable skills of Melanie Laurent are the highlight.

05-14-21

Stowaway

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on May 4, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A three-person research team heads to Mars for a two-year mission. There’s commander Marina Barnett (Toni Collette), biologist David Kim (Daniel Dae Kim), and medical researcher Zoe Levenson (Anna Kendrick). After they take off, they discover an accidental stowaway (Shamier Anderson). The unexpected passenger presents a conundrum.

Filmmakers Joe Penna (director, writer, producer) and Ryan Morrison (writer, editor, producer) offers the viewer another spare survival saga. The duo seems to have an affinity for this sort of thing. Their 2019 debut was Artic — an interesting tale that took place at the North Pole. Like Stowaway, Artic was a slow-burn account . However, Artic starred Mads Mikkelsen in a perilous adventure that was enough to carry us through. A cast of four people should be exponentially more engaging in theory. Unfortunately, the talented ensemble is limited by a deficient screenplay.

Fans of sci-fi are the ostensible target audience. It does indeed take place in deep space. However, most of the action is claustrophobically set inside a spaceship about the size of a large apartment. We’re treated to some impressive vistas that highlight the outdoors, but this is actually an existential drama. Granted there are some moments of tension and excitement. The crew debates ethical dilemmas while addressing various emergencies. A plan to acquire more oxygen is a heart-stopping vignette. Nevertheless, the story unfolds at far too leisurely a pace to justify a 2-hour feature.

Stowaway is a film that doesn’t cater to your expectations. Whether that’s good or bad is a matter of personal taste, but one thing’s for sure. The developments demand you continue to watch. There would appear to be more than meets the eye. Nonetheless, my suspicions went unfulfilled. The dull narrative is punctuated by one thrilling setpiece. Then culminates in a weak denouement that I found frustratingly abrupt. Sounds like a recipe for disaster and yet it isn’t because the actors are simply that compelling. This is a good movie because it’s a well-acted character study. Just not a particularly exciting one.

04-27-21

Synchronic

Posted in Drama, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 20, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Synchronic is one of those films that is conveniently described as “interesting” and it’s unclear whether you mean it as a compliment. The ambiguous word is perfection because it fits this movie to a T. Steve and Dennis (Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan) are paramedics in New Orleans who also happen to be best friends. They encounter a rash of unusual deaths in their line of work. A new designer drug called Synchronic is the common thread that unites all of the cases. It would appear this drug — which is sold in single-dose packets — might have otherworldly powers. When his partner’s daughter Brianna goes missing, Steve investigates.

The narrative is a slow starter. The first half establishes the close relationship between the central duo. It’s nice to see their bond is a positive depiction of male friendship. However, both men are adrift in their everyday lives, occasionally turning to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain. Anthony Mackie’s character is a ladies’ man that has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jamie Dornan portrays a man who had difficulty meeting women in the past (!) but is now married with two kids. He’s currently having marital problems. When the pair confront a series of bizarre fatalities in their job, it unfolds like a crime drama, disseminated in fragments using a piecemeal approach.

The second half improves. Steve becomes the hero as it concerns his investigation into the whereabouts of Brianna. His EMT partner Dennis is mostly sidelined. Dennis’ vague personality lacks a compelling identity anyway. Steve’s experimentation with Synchronic is intriguing. Here the chronicle starts to connect the threads of the grisly murders we witnessed before. These developments provide some much-needed clarification in a picture heretofore wallowing in existential gloom. The script plays with the idea that sometimes nostalgia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “The past f—–g sucks, man!” Steve cries out at one point.

This is the fourth feature from filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Scott Moorhead who specialize in quirky features (Spring, The Endless) that blend sci-fi with horror. Synchronic debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 but didn’t get released to the public until after Project Power and Tenet. It feels like an amalgamation of those movies but through a low-budget indie B-movie aesthetic. Synchronic is a real downer of a film. Not a criticism. Just a fact. Nevertheless, its aimless meandering feels somewhat pointless until that mic drop of an ending involving a troubling sacrifice. The “good old days” are a misnomer. “Be thankful you live in the present” is the veiled admonition presented in its final scene. Fair enough. However I suspect a hundred years from today, someone will make a similar movie condemning our current era.

04-19-21