Archive for the Thriller Category

The Lodge

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on May 17, 2020 by Mark Hobin

lodgeSTARS3When horror movies are bad, they are intolerable.  For me, that includes slasher flicks that solely exist to show blood and guts.  On the other hand, when they appeal to our psychological fears, they can be fascinating.  The Lodge comes from directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala.  They seem to specialize in what aficionados call arthouse horror:  Under the Skin (2013), The Witch (2015), and Midsommar are recent examples.  The genre is not for all tastes but if you enjoyed the Austrian filmmaking duo’s admittedly far superior feature debut Goodnight Mommy (2014) then this is a decent followup to that production.

This is a portrait that capitalizes on the emotional state of a person.  The tale concerns two children Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh).  They have been forced to spend Christmas at the family’s remote chalet in the mountains of Massachusetts with their father Richard (Richard Armitage) and his girlfriend Grace portrayed by an excellent Riley Keough.  The mood is grim because the kids’ mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone) has recently committed suicide upon learning that Richard intends to wed Grace.  While at the cabin, Richard the father responds to a work obligation, insensitively leaving Grace alone with the kids.  Empathy is clearly not one of this guy’s strong suits.  The “evil” stepmother is a trope, but Grace seems nice.  However, the children are understandably antagonistic toward her.  This stranger has ostensibly replaced their mom in their father’s life.  Some additional backstory, Grace was raised within a cult when she was a child.   She happens to be the only survivor of a mass suicide carried out by that group.  The underlying unease — inspired by that disturbing event — plays a significant part in the ensuing drama.   Let’s just say Grace is still dealing with some unresolved issues.

The inability to interact with our fellow man is genuinely lamentable.  As we currently shelter in place for the third month, the horror of social isolation has become a reality.  Whether it’s been enforced upon us by the state (COVID-19) or in a situation in which we have inadvertently placed ourselves (this movie), confinement can divide families.  Stepmom Grace (Riley Keough) is simply trying to coexist with her fiancé’s progeny.  The Lodge also involves physical deprivation.  Their dwelling soon loses power and heat.  That further adds to the ongoing tension.  Is this merely a matter of faulty utilities or is there something more sinister lurking beneath the surface?

Arthouse horror takes its time to progress.  It relies less on violent circumstances and more on a deliberate pace to intensify despair.  What I most appreciate about The Lodge is you can’t predict what’s going to occur at any moment.  The chronicle effectively exploits a creepy and unnerving atmosphere.  I truly admire that quality.  The narrative style captivates the viewer much in the same way that slow-burn storytelling snags an audience.  Plot developments unfold ever so slowly.  These characters aren’t keen on conversation but rest assured it’s all gradually building toward an explosive finale.  Before that happens, the anxiety is nerve-shredding.  I’ve purposely kept the specifics vague because more details would spoil the fun.  However, I will admit the account is seriously flawed.  There are some unexplored ideas the story could have considered.  The Lodge is a film of missed opportunities to be sure.  However, I was captivated throughout the saga and that’s saying something.

02-25-20

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

Extraction

Posted in Action, Drama, Thriller with tags on April 29, 2020 by Mark Hobin

extraction_netflixSTARS2A very wise person once said, “It’s not what you know.  It’s who you know.”  Extraction proves the adage still holds.  Director Sam Hargrave has been an enduring presence in Hollywood ever since 2005 when he did stunts for the WB TV series Supernatural.  However, I suspect it was his connections as a stunt coordinator for the 3 Marvel films (Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame ) the Russo brothers directed that ultimately led to this job.  Joe Russo even wrote the screenplay that supports Sam’s directorial debut.  Is this a story that will captivate your attention?  Let’s just say if action and stunts are more important to you than plot, then this will be an absolute treat.

Chris Hemsworth plays a black market mercenary.  It’s hard to feel too much concern for an individual that is seemingly invincible.  John J. Rambo exhibited more vulnerability.  Rest assured that this is a drama where even getting shot in the neck may not be a life-threatening injury.  The main character is a writer’s creation.  There’s an amusing bit of foreshadowing early on when Tyler unceremoniously slams someone’s head face down onto a steel rake.  The scene is brief, but halfway through the picture, we learn that this guy’s full name is Tyler RAKE.  Hats off to those who have already seen the movie and made this connection.  Anyway, he is hired to rescue Ovi Jr., (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) a teen who happens to be the kidnapped son of India’s biggest drug lord Ovi Sr. (Pankaj Tripathi).

This hazardous mission requires Tyler to transport the young boy out of Dhaka, Bangladesh which —  from the looks of this production — has got to be one of the worst places on Earth.  Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (The Usual Suspects, Drive) is a talented individual but here he chooses to film the events through a yellow filter that gives everything in this country a grimy haze.  The overall effect is off-putting.  I suppose it’s a superficial way to make the air appear unhealthy.  Extraction does for Bangladesh what The Hangover Part II did for Thailand.  I can safely bet the Bangladesh Tourism Board will not be endorsing this release.

This is an exceptionally violent production — the kind of generic shoot-em-up that dually redefines the word disposable.  First, in terms of memorability.  See this once and then forget about it immediately after, but also in the way it treats humanity.  A lot of people are murdered and every human life extinguished is treated with the same emotional weight of swatting a fly.  Nevertheless, the duplicitous script still manages to sprinkle little bits of “poignant” information throughout the movie to make sure the audience feels something (anything) for this character.  Tyler is haunted by the memory of his own young son, who died of leukemia while Tyler was away on an assignment in Afghanistan.  Normally that would be troubling, sure.  The thing is, it’s hard to sympathize with his love for one life when he’s responsible for so many deaths.

As many hunker down during shelter in place, Netflix has been the go-to source of entertainment for 60 million people in the US.  Now more than ever there are plenty of options but the streaming service has proven to be one of the most popular.  Netflix has made its Top 10 programs become a matter of public record.  I’m a pop culture fanatic which is akin to being a cultural anthropologist.  I’m fascinated by the things that end up in the #1 position.  Extraction is a big hit and so I watch what becomes part of the zeitgeist.

I wouldn’t have paid to see this in a theater.  Yet that’s exactly where a product like this would be best experienced.  That’s where connoisseurs of this stuff can appreciate all the explosions, carnage, and destruction on a widescreen in full digital sound.  Sadly fans will never get that chance.  Extraction was released to Netflix on April 24th and the title promptly shot to #1.  I’m not surprised.  It stars Chris Hemsworth.  I too think the actor exhibits charisma when he plays Thor so I figured if he’s starring in this, how bad could it be?   The answer is…extremely.

04-24-20

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.

Gretel & Hansel

Posted in Fantasy, Horror, Thriller with tags on February 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

gretel_and_hansel_ver3STARS3.5Cinephiles know that January is a dumping ground for terrible movies.  I’m not talking about pictures like 1917 which go wide in the first month.  Award-worthy films like that have limited openings in December in New York and LA to qualify for the Oscars.  No, I mean productions that drop in January for the first time.  Horror flicks are especially suspect in the winter months because the best ones are usually distributed in summer and fall.  The Grudge and The Turning both opened to extremely negative reviews and “F” Cinemascores.  Gretel & Hansel is also a horror movie released this month.  Plot twist: It’s actually good.

Gretel & Hansel is indeed based on the 200-year-old German folklore tale.  Those fables collected by the Brothers Grimm have always been a little twisted so the fact that this has been reimagined as a dark adventure isn’t such a stretch.  Director Osgood Perkins or rather Oz (son of Anthony) essentially recounts the same legend but with a few tweaks.  As the reversal of the title implies, the girl is the focus in this drama.  Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is now a teenager looking after her younger brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey).  Their father has already passed on.  After their awful mother kicks them out of the house, the two venture into the woods in search of food.  They come across a dwelling in a clearing where they meet a mysterious woman named Holda (Alice Krige).  In exchange for food and shelter, they’ll cook and clean for her.  Sounds like a fair trade…or is it?

The cast is uniformly excellent — particularly actress Alice Krige (Star Trek: First Contact) who narrowly gets my vote for the MVP as the wonderfully creepy Holda.  She delivers her lines with a Shakespearean energy that imbues the words with more importance than they actually deserve.  Sophia Lillis is exceptional as Gretel too.  Her interaction with the aged woman — OK let’s be honest, witch — is an interesting relationship that propels the story forward.   Gretel may exhibit an anachronistic personality but that demeanor makes her more relatable to a modern audience in fact.   The behavior applies to her brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey) as well.  Gretel has visions that verge on nightmares.  The witch senses Gretel’s abilities.  She teaches Gretel how to tap into her powers.   Also worth mentioning is Jessica De Gouw as a young Holda who is a malevolent presence.

Gretel & Hansel is the third feature from director Perkins.  He bestows a vibrancy to this ancient yarn heretofore unknown.  His previous efforts were The Blackcoat’s Daughter which made a mere 20k domestically and I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House which debuted on Netflix – both horror films.  It’s clear that Perkins loves the genre.  He explores it with a rare subtlety.  The box office of Gretel & Hansel may have been a modest achievement.  It earned just $6.1M in the U.S. opening weekend but given that the budget was only $5M, I’d call that a success.  It’s well on its way to profitability.

There is so much to recommend about this production.  As the PG-13 rating would imply, this movie relies far more on atmospherics than gore.   The outstanding production design is arguably the movie’s strongest asset.  Jeremy Reed extracts fear out of gloomy spaces.  The rooms and buildings have an ominous air to them.  Cinematographer Galo Olivares captures all of this with stylish elegance.  He was a collaborator on Roma and the talent he brought to that triumph is clearly evident here.  One particular set piece involving a bucket of guts leaves a lasting impression.  Now let’s talk about the soundtrack.  I love the Beatles and the Moody Blues so I’ve always been a sucker for any melody that features a mellotron.  The eerie synth-heavy score is composed by Paris-based composer ROB aka Robin Coudert (Maniac, Horns).  He adds a glorious soundscape that further immerses the viewer into a sinister environment.

If I must register a gripe, it’s that director Oz Perkins favors slow-burn pacing at the expense of a compelling story.  Ironically it’s during the climax that the chronicle suddenly feels rushed.  Plot is not this saga’s strong point.  However I enjoyed this overall, so I won’t end on a pessimistic note.  The gorgeous production is content to revel in a dark climate.  It’s intensely disturbing.  The music and visuals really add to the sense of dread.  I was quite taken by the mood.  Gretel & Hansel mesmerizes while it simultaneously unsettles.  What it lacks in a narrative, it more than makes up for in some hauntingly beautiful tableaus.

01-30-20

Bad Boys for Life

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Thriller with tags on January 18, 2020 by Mark Hobin

bad_boys_for_life_ver2STARS3 I was skeptical.  When they unearth and dust off some long-done franchise for another sequel, it’s very easy to simply view it as a cash grab.  Bad Boys II was released in 2003.  17 years have passed and now we get this entry.  Surprise!  The result is a lively diversion.  Jerry Bruckheimer is back again to produce but Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are helming the film.  The ambiance is calmer and more coherent than the previous movies directed by Michael Bay.   However, fans will appreciate this.  Critics have already hailed it as the best of the trilogy.  (Side note: a fourth episode is planned).

Bad Boys for Life is entertaining.  Sometimes going back to the well can yield engaging results.  I was one of the few that enjoyed Men in Black: International, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  The fundamental difference with this release is the original stars have returned.  The pairing of Will Smith and Martin Lawrence is the reason to see this.  They ground the film with their considerable charisma.

The comedy smartly acknowledges that they are indeed older.  Although can they rightly be called “boys” at this point?  They’re quinquagenarians.  Nevertheless, Will Smith doesn’t seem to age.  As Mike Lowrey, he’s the straight man while Martin Lawrence gets to be the comic relief as Marcus Burnett.  Marcus just wants to retire and spend time with his newborn grandson.  It’s a formula but hey it works.  This conventional action movie coasts on the affable charm of its stars.  The screenplay by Chris Bremner, Peter Craig, and Joe Carnahan has given some depth to the backstories of these characters. Actors Kate del Castillo and Jacob Scipio portray antagonists that are better than the run of the mill kingpins that have blighted this franchise in the past.   One individual has prior ties with a villain.  That connection adds some interesting insight into these relationships.

Bad Boys for Life is undemanding fun.  That is — it has little value beyond providing an evening’s worth of amusement.  If anyone should be enriched the most from this exercise it’s Sony Pictures.  This was a surprise hit.   People often bemoan the fact that Hollywood likes to recycle old properties.  The success of this picture is a prime example of why studios rely so heavily on the practice.  It’s perfectly fine.  Aficionados of the earlier flicks will be satisfied and those seeking 2 hours of distraction should be appeased as well.  I was.  Nonetheless, I’m glad I wrote this review shortly after I watched the film.  I doubt I’ll remember much of it by next week.

01-16-20

Uncut Gems

Posted in Crime, Drama, Thriller with tags on January 4, 2020 by Mark Hobin

uncut_gems.jpgSTARS4I am a huge fan of Good Time – the tour de force the Safdie brothers directed in 2017.  It made my top 10 that year.  So when I noticed that their latest offering was appearing on one year-end critics’ list after another, I got very excited.  I was optimistic it would make my personal Top 10 for 2019 as well.  Alas, this effort comes up short.  It’s still very good.  This depiction of a doomed man is masterfully put together as a chaotic mood piece.  It’s worth seeing as an artistic exercise.  However, it’s less satisfying emotionally as a narrative feature.

The year is 2012.  Adam Sandler is Howard Ratner, a shady jeweler who works in New York’s Diamond District.  Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) is Howard’s assistant who recruits clients.  You see his jewelry store is by appointment.  He only caters to the well to do – apparently rappers and sports stars.  This includes Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (playing himself).  Howard has just received a precious raw black opal embedded inside the guts of a large fish packed in ice.  He proudly shows the gem to the basketball star who wants it for the NBA playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers.  KG, as everyone calls him, believes that it gives him the power to be a better basketball player.  Howard hopes to get $300,000 at auction for the uncut stone but he reluctantly loans the rock to KG and takes his championship ring as collateral.

Howard is a gambling addict.  He immediately turns around and sells KG’s ring at a pawn shop so he can place a large bet on the game.  He assumes KG will win and then plans to buy the ring back from the winnings.  Howard currently owes so much money to the mob that debt collectors are now following him.  He’s not succeeding at much in life.  He’s also a conspicuous adulterer so he’s a failure as a husband as well.  The only thing Howard is good at is giving people the runaround.  Howard Ratner is reminiscent of another similarly named movie character – Ratso Rizzo the regrettable con man from Midnight Cowboy.  These two are tragic characters united by their desperate desire to make a fast buck.

This is the portrait of an American schmuck.  Casting Adam Sandler as the jewelry dealer was a wise decision.  Howard Ratner is a degenerate — a liar, philanderer, and compulsive gambler — and yet Sandler imbues him with unexpected humanity.  His desperation is so mesmerizing we’re inexplicably drawn to him.  Adam Sandler is very good at dramatic parts.  He first took on a serious role with Punch-Drunk Love in 2002.  Then Spanglish (2004), Reign Over Me (2007), Funny People (2009), and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) followed.  He’s been acting in “meaningful” films for nearly two decades now, so anyone heralding his work here as something unprecedented hasn’t been paying attention.  However, I will concede that the actor is still best known for lightweight comedies.  Coming after a string of poorly reviewed (though highly watched) releases on Netflix — The Ridiculous 6, The Do-Over, Sandy Wexler, The Week Of and Murder Mystery – his performance here does seem meritorious by comparison.

The atmosphere is unrelentingly hyperactive and manic.  Howard is surrounded by an external network of family and friends.  Yet I was hard-pressed to embrace one likable character in the whole blessed ensemble.  Stress is metaphorically applied in the narrative like a metal vice with movable jaws as constant pressure slowly closes in on Howard’s existence.  His brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) is a loan shark to whom he owes a six-figure sum.   Dinah (Idina Menzel) is Howard’s bitter wife, threatening divorce.   He’s cheating on her and she knows it.   She’s the very manifestation of long-suffering irritation.  We can sympathize with her point of view.  There’s a comedic edge to her persona even though her situation is anything but funny.  Actress Julia Fox is a captivating presence in her debut.  The likewise named character Julia is one of Howard’s clerks and gorgeous girlfriend that’s way out of his league.  This may be a Safdie brother’s movie, but that Adam Sandler DNA is still present.

The Safdie brother’s work often employs visual style and skill.  Overtly showy camera techniques are fun but not when you are fully aware of the director’s hand.  The cinematography wallows in grotesquerie right from the outset.  The cinematic lens takes us on a microscopic trip through the channels of a black opal found in Ethiopia.  As we travel through the inside of the stone, we gradually realize that the tunnel we are traveling through is actually Howard’s large intestine after a colonoscopy.  The realization is like a slap to the face – a revolting start that dares you to watch a film that’s just beginning.

Joshua and Benjamin Safdie glorify intensity.  The account is a ticking time bomb that mines suspense by presenting a plan that spirals wildly out of control.  The elemental anxiety is extracted with impeccable realism.  I can appreciate the care that went into crafting this scenario.  It’s highlighted by cacophonous conversations where people shout over each other.  There are some quieter moments and I grew to cherish them.  The dialogue is a blur of profanity.  A recent article ranked Uncut Gems seventh for the most F-bombs in movie history.  The intrusive electronic score — by Daniel Lopatin who records under the name Oneohtrix Point Never — rises and falls at various points to ratchet the apprehension.  The score escalates at points like someone suddenly turned up the volume to drown out the exchanges.  It doesn’t matter. This is more about creating an ambiance than a screenplay.  If I can take away anything from the ordeal, it is to view this as a cautionary tale.  There’s a lot to admire about this oppressive saga.  Uncut Gems is a brilliantly multifaceted experience although the unrelenting mood does get exhausting.

12-20-19

Doctor Sleep

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller with tags on November 14, 2019 by Mark Hobin

doctor_sleep_ver2STARS3Doctor Sleep vacillates between trying to please two factions.  Some audiences will come for the adaptation of Stephen King’s 2013 novel which the author wrote as a sequel to his 1977 bestseller The Shining.  Then there are the fans of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 movie that arguably has an even more devoted following.  King himself was famously not a fan of Kubrick’s vision.  The now-classic was a gorgeous evocation of horror that relied on visual imagery, not on detailed explanations.  Conversely, Mike Flanagan (Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game) has directed an account that offers a lot of exposition for people hungry for answers.  This chronicle is more plot-driven with lots of folklore to deepen your understanding of what “shining” is.  Doctor Sleep tries to schizophrenically appease both camps.

The story concerns Danny Torrance, now Dan, (Ewan McGregor), best remembered as the little clairvoyant son of his mad father, Jack.  He has become an alcoholic, desperate to forget the events at the Overlook hotel.  He comforts the terminally ill while working at a hospice where the patients give him the nickname “Doctor Sleep”.  He meets another psychic, a teenage girl named Abra (Kyliegh Curran) and they band together to fight a malevolent clan called the True Knot.  The group is killing children with special powers and feeding off the steam that they emit.  It’s just as gruesome as it sounds and there’s one death in particular (Jacob Tremblay) that is extremely hard to watch.  I suspect the methodical depiction of what befalls him could be a deal-breaker for some people.  A couple of other individuals with close relationships will be introduced and then summarily killed off as well.  The tale has an uncomfortable disregard for the lives of characters whose deaths should mean more than just another offhand development.

This presentation is largely missing the stately grandeur of its precursor.  So in that respect, it will not appease the die-hards of Stanley Kubrick’s atmospheric reworking.  However, I can wholeheartedly recommend it to people who thought Kubrick’s version should’ve adhered closer to King’s original text.  If you crave exposition and plot, this is the production for you.  It’s a convoluted follow-up that attempts to give lots of unnecessary details about Dan’s extrasensory “shining” power.  The bulk of the narrative isn’t a continuation of the events from the first film but rather a saga about what Dan encounters after he grew up.   The focus is on his interactions with the True Knot, the aforementioned nomadic group of evil visionaries.  In that sense, Doctor Sleep becomes a superhero origin story of nefarious mutants with psychic powers and goofy names.  There’s Crow Daddy (Zahn McClarnon), Grandpa Flick (Carel Struycken) and Snakebite Andi (Emily Alyn Lind), among others.

Doctor Sleep is a mixed bag.  It ultimately can’t escape the shadow of the 1980 film.  “This also exists very much in the same cinematic universe that Kubrick established in his adaptation of The Shining,” director Mike Flanagan has said.  He leans heavily on imagery from Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation in several key scenes, particularly in the third act.  This might have been more thrilling if Steven Spielberg hadn’t already exploited the same iconography in 2018 with Ready Player One.  There are roughly 30 minutes of developments that include sets that tastefully recreate the Overlook Hotel.  Additionally, lookalike actors are cast playing the parts of Dan’s younger self (Roger Dale Floyd), his parents Wendy (Alex Essoe) and Jack (Henry Thomas) and Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly) the cook.  When this appropriates the visuals of its predecessor, it can be distracting.  Also, at 2 and a half hours it’s far too long.  Nevertheless, this movie has some good points.  Chief among them is Rebecca Ferguson who is great as the central villain Rose the Hat.  True to her moniker, she wears a top hat and exudes this Stevie Nicks vibe of beautiful witchery.  She clearly enjoys the fun of being the baddie and its a compelling performance.  When Doctor Sleep isn’t overly wrapped up in mythology and explanation and simply focuses on the performances of the main characters, it can be fitfully entertaining.

11-07-19