Archive for the Thriller Category

Halloween

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on October 21, 2018 by Mark Hobin

halloween_ver3STARS3.5We’ve waited 40 years for this. That’s how long it has been since that fateful Halloween night when Michael Myers unleashed his reign of terror on the inhabitants of Haddonfield, Illinois. Now he’s back having been incarcerated in a maximum-security mental health facility for all that time. There have been 7 sequels to that first film, a Rob Zombie remake (2007) which was also followed up with its own sequel (2009). Jaime Lee Curtis has appeared in three of the previous installments: Halloween II, Halloween H20, and Halloween: Resurrection. Despite all that, this current incarnation conveniently disregards everything that has happened before. Halloween (2018) purports to be a direct continuation to the 1978 feature ignoring 4 decades of convoluted and sometimes conflicting backstories. The takeaway is, you don’t need to have seen any of the previous installments to appreciate this production. In fact, it’s probably better if you haven’t.

Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) didn’t endure the events of that fateful night very well. She has been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Sporting long wild unkempt hair, she lives in a remote area on the outskirts of town. Twice divorced and having lost custody of her daughter, Laurie believes the world is an evil place. Her estranged daughter Karen (Judy Greer), now an adult, isn’t convinced of that.  She resents the way she was brought up.  Karen is married to Ray (Toby Huss) and they have their own teen daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak).  Allyson is more sympathetic to her grandmother’s trauma.  Laurie has built a heavily fortified home equipped with booby traps.  She has prepared for what she believes to be Michael’s (Nick Castle) inevitable return.  Of course, her suspicions are correct.  The bus transporting Michael and several other patients from the facility doesn’t look secure enough to hold a class of kindergartners.  It certainly isn’t strong enough to hold violent mental patients.  Naturally it crashes and of course Michael escapes.

Halloween essentially takes the bare bones plot of the 1978 classic and simply reproduces it for an audience that is primed to feel nostalgic for the 1978 picture.  I mean even the title is exactly the same — not even a number to differentiate it from the original.  Over the years, slasher flicks have developed their clichés.  Typically oversexed teenagers are the victims.  In the new film, however, Michael begins his serial killings with the murder of a couple of podcasters (Jefferson Hall & Rhian Rees) who want to study him.  Director David Gordon Green also co-wrote the script with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley.  They liberally sample from the first movie.  When police officer Frank Hawkins (Will Patton) discovers a body sitting in a ghost-sheet costume — it recalls the same one Michael wore just before he killed babysitter Linda (P.J. Soles) in the first Halloween.  Hawkins goes downstairs to find someone pinned to the wall with a knife in the identical way that Linda’s boyfriend Bob (John Michael Graham) was slain in the 1978 Halloween.

Director David Gordon Green relies heavily on the spirit of the original. Even John Carpenter’s iconic score is heard. It’s only slightly modified with the help of collaborators Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies.  Slasher films aren’t generally known for their complex plots and this one keeps things refreshingly simple.   When the picture deviates from the blueprint of Halloween (1978) is when this version becomes satisfying.  The most innovative addition is that the hunted Laurie isn’t a helpless victim, but rather a tenacious woman ready for her adversary.   In the past, the killer’s point of view was voyeuristic.   The Boogeyman preyed on promiscuous young teens.   However, this is a horror film for the #MeToo era.   The audience never doubts for a second that Laurie isn’t able to take care of herself.   She is like Linda Hamilton in The Terminator or Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.   The narrative develops into a revenge thriller depicting a powerful heroine that is perfectly capable of handling herself, thank you very much.   As such, it’s not particularly scary.   It’s more like a catharsis for fans of the original.   Still, there is a winking sense of tension that recalls the earlier movie.   Fans will call it an homage. Critics might say rip-off.   I kind of fall somewhere in the middle.

10-18-18

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A Simple Favor

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

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

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

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

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

09-13-18

Searching

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

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

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

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

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

08-30-18

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller on August 2, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mission_impossible__fallout_ver3STARS4The rather generic sounding “Fallout” label of the latest Mission: Impossible title has sort of a dual meaning. There is the obvious threat of nuclear terrorism on which the entire movie is based, but it also can apply to the adverse side effects of a past decision. That certainly plays a part in the life of Ethan Hunt. This is the sixth chapter in the Mission: Impossible franchise and I dare say this just might be the very best episode. Despite beginning way back in 1996, the film series shows absolutely no signs of fatigue.

Tom Crusie has anchored this franchise since the very beginning. Ethan Hunt is a solid action hero that ranks up there with characters like James Bond and Jason Bourne. Much has been made of the actor’s age-defying looks and stamina. I must throw my approval on top of the heap. He does an incredible job here. The original TV show was an ensemble piece. Mr. Cruise is definitely the face we associate with these pictures. Still actors Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames and Alec Baldwin return from the previous film. They all provide ample support in varying degrees. Also of note is an arms dealer known as the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), new CIA Director Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) and her operative August Walker (Henry Cavill). Cavill is best known as Superman, but here he brings the same rugged sophistication that he demonstrated in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He’s a charismatic addition to the colorful cast.

These flicks have never been known for the continuity between installments. This is actually a benefit because you can pick up the story without ever having seen a previous episode. Each one admittedly a convoluted manifestation of plot machinations that make something like The Big Sleep appear simple by comparison. Everyone’s allegiances are in doubt. If you haven’t figured it out by now, the way to enjoy these movies is not to get caught up on plot specifics like why who is doing what to whom. You just sit back and revel in the excitement. Other parts of the drama are positively rote. The evil villain’s credo is “The greater the suffering, the greater the peace.” Isn’t that that the justification for like every Marvel villain too? Each entry in the Mission Impossible franchise has always been helmed by a different director with a distinctively different style. That is until now. Filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) has been a frequent Tom Cruise collaborator for over a decade. He’s back after having also completed the last installment, Rogue Nation in 2015. The two obviously work well together. Tom Cruise trusts the director implicitly and is apparently game to perform almost any action sequence. This is amidst much hype that the actor does his own stunts. I still maintain a healthy degree of skepticism, but the stunts do look impressively REAL. In this day and age of reliance on CGI, you can best believe that matters.

The saga is jam-packed with spectacle and each set piece is so breathtaking, it could be the climax of any drama. The great thing is that there are a lot. Right at the beginning, Ethan does a HALO jump out of out of a C-17 plane. HALO is a “high-altitude, low-open” skydive for the uninformed. Hey, that includes me. I had to look it up. A fight in the men’s room of the Grand Palais in Paris is profoundly intense. Walker and Hunt go toe to toe with a man they believe to be the mysterious John Lark (Liang Yang) The high contrast, brightly lit altercation of raw fist punching testosterone is a demonstration of broken tile and smashing mirrors that rain down like glitter on the bloody participants. These things aren’t random. There is a choreographed art to this scene whose precision equals the most graceful ballet. A car chase down the impossibly narrow streets of Paris provides more excitement on another setpiece. The ACTUAL climax includes a helicopter chase, mountain climbing in Kashmir, and two ticking time bombs. Director McQuarrie piles exhibition on top of extravaganza in a ridiculously over-the-top display. Of course, no Tom Crusie actioner would be complete without the obligatory running scene. No one books like this guy. By now the appearance has become fan service but it gives the people what they want and what we want is to be entertained. Simply put, Mission: Impossible – Fallout delivers that in abundance.

07-26-18

Hereditary

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on June 21, 2018 by Mark Hobin

hereditary_ver2STARS3.5Horror is a genre in which many entries rely so heavily on blood and gore for thrills, that when a story is varnished in a veneer of class and sophistication it appears almost revolutionary.  Hereditary opens with a tracking shot of a dollhouse from far away. As the camera pans in closer it centers on a bedroom where the father (Gabriel Byrne) enters bringing a blazer for his sleeping son (Alex Wolff) to wear at his grandmother’s funeral. It’s a bewitching introduction because it conveys so much.  Mother Annie (Toni Collette) makes miniatures, small-scale versions of things influenced by her own life. That’s merely one reason why the beginning is so apropos. This production is highlighted by sleek cinematography, atmospheric music, and good performances. One is truly great. I’m talking Oscar nomination. More on that in a moment. But strip away all the stylish flourishes and you’re left with a screenplay that seems like it was cobbled together after a night of watching Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and the 1976 composite they inspired: The Omen.

I mean if you’re going to steal, might as well rob from the best right? Hereditary is a very effective flick. It’s just that any horror aesthete even mildly versed in the classics of the medium is going to find this drama a bit reductive. Annie and her husband Steve have two children, Peter and their 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro). They’re attending the funeral of Annie’s mother, Ellen. There’s a bit of foreshadowing that bad things are afoot. We learn that Annie and Ellen had an estranged relationship, the family suffers from mental illness and little Charlie attends special education classes. A pigeon dies after flying into her classroom window with a “sudden loud bang” designed to startle the audience as well as the students.  We later see Charlie on the playground pocketing the head of that lifeless bird after she has removed it with a pair of scissors. That’s pretty freaky, right?  It’s only the first beheading we’ll see. I used to think the decapitation scene in The Omen was pretty dreadful, especially for its time, but this film actually tops it for sheer shock value.

Hereditary is so impressive in producing fear that it deserves to be raised up as a new touchstone. Much of the credit goes to Toni Collette in a portrayal that is certain to remain among the very best of the year. She is a mother shaken to her very core by the events around her. It is a flawless achievement so raw and unhinged that I literally started to tear up at her desperate pleas in the climax. It would seem the role is custom made for her.  Collette famously played the mother of a child that “sees dead people” in one of the most successful horror films of all time (The Sixth Sense). She is so memorable that it stands out even among the other remarkable performances.  Actors Alex Wolff as her teen son and Milly Shapiro as her little daughter are convincing in exhibiting the undoing of their characters as well.  Ann Dowd is an upbeat presence as Joan, a chatty friend Annie meets in a support group for the bereaved.  Hereditary is an emotionally compelling experience. The feature from writer/director Ari Aster is a notable debut. He proves he can creatively mold cinematic influences into an entertaining movie. Looking forward to his next production that hopefully charts a more innovative course.

06-14-18

Beast

Posted in Drama, Romance, Thriller with tags on June 14, 2018 by Mark Hobin

beast_ver4STARS4Beast is a hard movie to characterize. Pundits often label this as a psychological thriller. I suppose the designation works because the account deals with the emotional state of a person. Yet it really doesn’t adequately embody the gorgeous mood of the film. That’s what makes this picture so affecting. Let’s call it an atmospheric thriller. One might even say dreamy. This is a character-based drama about two people who need each other. Although this is not your conventional love affair. There are elements to the romance that might make this seem like more of a horror flick. It’s those conflicting dichotomies that make this feature so enthralling.

Beast is about a repressed 27-year-old woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley). She lives on Jersey.  Not the U.S. State — the UK location.  The Bailiwick of Jersey is the largest island in the English Channel. Moll works as a tour guide and lives with her overbearing mother Hilary (Geraldine James). Her family is celebrating Moll’s birthday but she’s not having a very good time. It’s meant to be her day, but her older sister (Shannon Tarbet) steals her thunder by announcing that she’s having twins. Mother’s demand that Moll fetch champagne for the guests is the last straw.  Frustrated, Moll leaves her own party. She goes to the local watering hole and dances the night away. She later absconds to an isolated area with a guy she meets at the club. Their date grows sinister when his flirtation becomes increasingly hostile. Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who happens to be illegally hunting game in the area, rescues her from the scoundrel. The only problem is there’s been a rash of murders in the area and her “savior” appears to be a person of interest in the ongoing investigation.

Beast is the debut feature from British director Michael Pearce who also wrote the script. It had its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival where it was nominated for the Platform Prize (Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country won). It was released in May with a limited run in U.S. theaters to critical acclaim.  Peace was born on the island of Jersey so he obviously has an affinity for this location. The events were inspired by the real-life case of a serial attacker known as the “Beast of Jersey” back in the 1960s. The setting is an asset because the remote location gives the production a timeless feel. It seems almost otherworldly. The sumptuous cinematography from Benjamin Kracun helps to heighten the mood. The movie kind of burrows its way into your consciousness. Moll and Pascal’s love is a slowly mounting anxiety that creeps up on you. These two have incredible chemistry.

You’d think the suspense in knowing whether “is he or isn’t he the killer?” would propel the narrative but actually it’s the relationship between Moll and Pascal. Moll projects a spirited intensity that has finally been allowed to breathe after years of oppression. Although a fresh-faced innocent, she doesn’t look like your classic ingenue. Her fiery ringlets of red hair are enough to separate her from the cookie cutter naïfs we typically see in romantic dramas.  It’s easy to see why Moll is drawn to Pascal. He exudes kind of a rakish charm suggesting a more working class Ryan Gosling. He represents a way out from under the oppressive rule of her domineering mother. She rules over her behavior with a passive-aggressive stance. Although Moll expresses regret when she inspires her mother’s ire, you can tell she resents her dominant posture. Her mother’s dislike of Pascal is clearly a plus in Moll’s eyes. Moll and Pascal form a dynamic duo with a charismatic fervor that only the coldest of hearts could ignore. The production is extremely well crafted. That makes the crushing feeling you have when you exit the theater such a heartbreak. The chronicle culminates in a denouement in which the tension just drains away from the picture. The resolution is seriously flawed, but that’s a discussion for people who have seen the movie. Until that point, however, Beast creates a hypnotic experience and that is something to treasure.

05-31-18

Ocean’s 8

Posted in Action, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Thriller on June 11, 2018 by Mark Hobin

oceans_eight_ver2STARS3.5It’s very easy to roll your eyes when Hollywood decides to take a tried and true movie series and simply tweak the formula in some cosmetic way to make it seem different for a new generation. i.e. “It’s ________ but now with women!” Back in 2016, the Ghostbusters franchise famously retooled the recipe with a cast of female comedians. This sparked a much-publicized outrage amongst Internet fanboys. Nevertheless, it was still a modest summer hit in the U.S. Although it wouldn’t have recouped its massive production costs without the benefit of the foreign market. Now Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy gets the gender flip treatment.  I’m happy to report the results are a frothy delight. It’s lighthearted, breezy and effortless.

To be fair, Ocean’s Eleven is merely a blueprint onto which you can tell any heist tale. Here Sandra Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of Danny Ocean, George Clooney’s now deceased character. There’s that connective story DNA. Cameos by Elliott Gould and Shaobo Qinbut try to link the series together but they don’t really add any substantive value to their adventure. The plot concerns Debbie Ocean, freshly released from prison for a fraud scheme. She immediately celebrates her freedom by shoplifting fragrances at Bergdorf Goodman within the first 15 minutes of the picture. So much for rehabilitation. In fact, she has been planning a jewelry heist while locked up for the past 5 years, 8 months and 12 days. Lou (Cate Blanchett,) is her confidant and best friend. Their witty exchanges suggest more than a hint of sexual tension between the two. Debbie enlists her help first.  Then Debbie mobilizes the assistance of a jewelry maker (Mindy Kaling), a suburban mom (Sarah Paulson), a street hustler (Awkwafina), a computer hacker (Rihanna), and a fashion designer (Helena Bonham Carter).  Each one ideally equipped with some special talent in lifting an item valued at $150 million.

Ah but what exactly is the MacGuffin in question? Why that would be the Jeanne Toussaint necklace created by Cartier. I was curious if this ridiculously expensive bauble was an authentic thing.  If you, dear reader, are anything like me, you’d want to know too.  It was created in 1931 for the Maharaja of Nawanagar, an Indian prince.  Since then, the necklace has been dismantled and the individual diamonds used in other pieces. However, the pendant did in fact once exist.  Cartier was hired to create a replica out of natural zirconium and white gold for the movie.  The prop is pretty valuable too, but at a value nowhere near the original obviously. Debbie Ocean wants to steal the treasure.  She insists on only hiring women because they are “invisible”. Then proceeds to plan a heist where the objet d’art will be worn by one of the guests at the annual Met Gala. Oh hell no! I thought.  That’s where the men in a sea of tuxedos are invisible.  The wearer of the adornment is Daphne Kluger, a self-centered celebrity wonderfully played by Anne Hathaway.  In a film stuffed with many charismatic entities, she arguably makes the biggest impression.  It is a fully aware performance that trades on the star’s real-world persona in such a knowing way, that it makes her acting achievement an absolute joy.

Ocean’s 8 succeeds best when it focuses on telling its own story.  People recognize the Ocean’s Eleven brand.  Marketing this as a spin-off is an easy way to sell this film to the public.  Yet Ocean’s 8 is an enjoyable romp in its own right.  Honestly, this has less to do with the Soderbergh entries and more in common with other heist movies that feature women like Topkapi (1964), How to Steal a Million (1966) and Set It Off (1996). Setting the central heist at the Met Gala with its haute couture and luxurious trappings bathes the production in slick style.  The fundraising event is America’s most exclusive, elegant, star-studded party so the atmosphere is stylish and chic.  The stellar ensemble adds immeasurably to the sophisticated, high-class mood of the production.  Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) doesn’t have the innovative instincts of Steven Soderbergh but he is a reliable director that knows how to relate an account in an efficient manner. He also co-wrote the screenplay with Olivia Milch.  It doesn’t reinvent the formula.  Nor does it provide much conflict. The women sail through this heist with the greatest of ease.  There’s hardly any struggle in the entire 110 minutes. But there’s something to be said for a fizzy comedy in the early summer months that doesn’t tax your brain. It’s free-spirited fun, has ample charisma from an impressive cast and you’ll have a chuckle or two before it’s all over.  I left the theater in an upbeat mood and that garners a solid recommendation in my book.

06-07-18

First Reformed

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on June 6, 2018 by Mark Hobin

first_reformed (1)STARS2Filmmaker Paul Schrader has long been fascinated with characters hell-bent on a self-destructive path. Time and again whether it be the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or his own directorial works like American Gigolo, Hardcore, or Affliction, difficult themes infect his work. In a nutshell, First Reformed is the chronicle of a religious man’s crisis of faith. Yet the narrative covers a lot more than that as Schrader endeavors to explore religion, spirituality and one’s existence beyond the physical body. Oh yes, there’s a flying sequence over mountains and stars and a whole lot more in one of the few cinematographic moments contained within that does not rely on a static shot. A cinephile, Paul Schrader has long cited the work of the great French director Robert Bresson. Schrader is deeply influenced by his minimalist style, particularly Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest which is clearly a major influence on this production.

The account introduces Ethan Hawke as a Protestant minister of a Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. He keeps a journal which allows him to mournfully narrate the story with his entries heard in voiceover. The Reverend Ernst Toller is not a happy man. A divorcé, he still contends with the death of his only son Joseph whom he encouraged to go off and fight in the Iraq War.  Currently, Toller also struggles to even get a scant few to attend his services. The pews are mainly empty. This historical edifice is now more of a tourist attraction as the chapel was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. In his spare time, he gives visitors tours of the grounds that conclude in the gift shop where they can purchase a souvenir hat.  When he’s alone, he drinks.  It’s these little details that serve to underscore his growing despair. This is all in stark contrast to the nearby parent megachurch, Abundant Life, from which his parish receives financial support. Its evangelical ministry is 5,000 strong and headed up by the charismatic Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer – billed as Cedric Kyles here). He’s confident, upbeat, and life-affirming.   The man inspires hope. Toller arouses hopelessness. I mean let’s be honest, whose church would you rather attend?

The story is set in motion when Toller is visited by a lay person named Mary, a woman pregnant with child.  Her husband is named Michael (not Joseph — that was Toller’s son, remember?) Oh but do take note of these names. Their biblical allusions are not an accident. Side note: Esther (Victoria Hill) is the choir director with whom he has a past relationship. Anyway back to Mary. She is seeking help regarding her spouse who is consumed by radical environmentalist beliefs. Michael is apparently prone to violent acts that promote his cause. His anguish over the ecological state of the Earth is so strong he doesn’t even wish to bring his child into this world. We’re talking abortion mixed with eco-terrorism – two topics guaranteed to derail even the most pleasant dinner party. Toller’s rather dispassionate response is that the trauma of taking a life is much worse than having to endure the trauma of the world.

Over time, Michael’s climate-change opinions have a negative influence on Toller’s religious faith. That’s not to say the screenplay presents Michael’s secular misery as something to admire. Plainly he is mentally ill with deeply rooted emotional problems. His wife, on the other hand, is the optimism at the center of this trio. She may share her husband’s respect for the planet, but not his dire methods. As the most sympathetic character in the entire piece, she resists her husband’s immoral discontent. Toller, on the other hand, does not. He is the preacher who has chosen a devotion to God as his raison d’être.  Toller’s existential crisis is his complete undoing.  Yet the reason for Michael’s profound effect on the pastor never seems clearly delineated. Toller becomes obsessed with the corporations responsible for the most damage to the Earth. However, it’s more than mere environmental matters at the root of his ennui.  The Abundant Life Church, with its acceptance of donations from one of those same powerful polluting corporations, is his downfall as well.  The system is broken. Yet he makes no attempt to fix it in any meaningful or constructive way.

First Reformed is the depiction of a man unhinged. As the 250th anniversary of the church’s consecration approaches, he grows more and more despondent.  It was in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed before his betrayal and arrest.  Jesus’ agony there was so deep he sweat blood.  In a genial display of concern, Jeffers lightly admonishes Toller. “You’re always in the Garden. Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden.”  Thank you.  Can I get an amen up in here?  First Reformed is a bleak film that subdues the viewer with fixed shots and minimalist style. The grim portrait is unyielding for most of the narrative and then at the eleventh hour offers something to contemplate with its parting image.  The abrupt “resolution” is a bit of a head-scratcher but perhaps a rare moment of hope in a drama about despair.

06-04-18

A Quiet Place

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on April 8, 2018 by Mark Hobin

quiet_placeSTARS3.5In the climax of a thriller, tension is often extracted when the main character is hiding from a dangerous threat lurking nearby.  It could be another person, an animal, an alien, whatever. You name it. As long as they don’t make noise, they’ll be OK. We hold our breath praying that our hero doesn’t give himself away. The menace looms closer. The protagonist’s heart beats faster. Our hearts beat faster in the audience. The stress can be unbearable. A Quiet Place is extremely clever. The story takes the crucial element of a horror film and makes that apex the entire picture. The anxiety is non-stop for the duration of the production.  It’s extremely compelling.

Things are hushed right from the beginning. A Quiet Place doesn’t waste time with exposition, but we can sort of gather info as things develop. We’re in the very near future. Earth has been taken over by some really scary looking aliens that prey on human beings. As long as people remain silent, they are safe. Make a sound, and individuals run the risk of being discovered. The Abbotts are a family simply trying to stay alive. You’ll find out within the first few minutes how hard that is. There’s Lee (John Krasinski), the father, mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), and their daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds). She happens to be deaf, both in the drama and in real life. Regan has two brothers as well: Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward). Complicating matters is when Evelyn becomes pregnant.   Psst….babies are kind of noisy.

A Quiet Place is an effective horror tale that entertains as it plays. To this fan, actor John Krasinski will forever be Jim Halpert on the NBC sitcom The Office. Clearly a man of many talents, he directed and co-wrote this screenplay with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck. He directed his real-life wife Emily Blunt who plays his fictional wife in the story.  That makes the role easier.  They’ve been married since 2010.  No need to feign onscreen chemistry.  They’ve had plenty of practice.  They’re the couple at the center of a very interesting but uncomplicated idea. For long stretches, there is virtually no sound at all. The tension is unbearably intense at times. The experience will require absolute silence in the theater too.   It will certainly be a most demanding test of a modern audience to not make a peep while watching a horror film. Obviously talking and cell phones are always forbidden but I’d recommend no food or drink as well. Loud popcorn eating and rusting candy wrappers were present at my screening, along with some hilariously exaggerated gasps as well. I could’ve done without the distractions. I’m not usually obsessive about such things, but go see this particular movie in a packed theater and then tell me I was wrong.

A Quiet Place is a sharp thriller made on a shoestring budget for only $17 million. Judging from the grosses this weekend it looks like it will ultimately reap at least 10 times that amount. I especially love when inexpensive productions (that I like) make a huge profit.  It proves you don’t always have to spend a great deal of money to earn a lot of money.  You simply need a good idea.  It doesn’t even have to be totally original either.  Director John Krasinski’s influences are simple and unmistakable. Like 1979’s Alien, these monsters are really big and ugly. Also like that feature, part of the giddy apprehension is how they’re introduced ever so carefully over time.  Just a glimpse of one here, another flash of one there.  These beasts cannot see, but they have extremely sensitive hearing.  The beautifully abhorrent details of the creatures become more and more familiar as the story wears on. “Don’t make a sound” was a gimmick recently used in 2016’s Don’t Breathe. That was good too, but A Quiet Place is more elegant and family friendly.  It’s rated PG-13.  It’s also incredibly exciting. Do go and enjoy it right now. Just please shut your trap when you do.

04-05-18

Unsane

Posted in Horror, Thriller on March 28, 2018 by Mark Hobin

unsaneSTARS3.5Unsane now marks Steven Soderbergh’s 2nd theatrical feature since the director announced his retirement back in 2013. No rest for the wicked I suppose. Logan Lucky arrived in the summer of 2017 and now — for anyone who thought that heist movie was merely a one-shot deal — in the Spring of 2018 we get this new offering. The filmmaker is still keeping a lower profile though. To begin with, this isn’t a Hollywood studio undertaking. Like Logan Lucky, it’s distributed by Bleecker Street – a little independent film company based in New York. Secondly, it was entirely shot on an iPhone 7 Plus. Back in 2015, the game-changing Tangerine was notably filmed with an earlier version of the mobile device. Unsane further proves that the format can be a liberating option for any burgeoning (or established) artist with a creative story to tell.

Unsane details the mental collapse of a businesswoman named Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy). Sawyer has recently started a new job in an unfamiliar city after moving away from her mother (Amy Irving). Following a panic attack during a blind date, we learn that Sawyer is not well. She visits Highland Creek, a mental-health facility and answers a few questions with the counselor on duty. After admitting she has contemplated suicide on occasion, she is presented with some forms to sign. Let this be a warning: ALWAYS READ THE FINE PRINT. As a result, Sawyer inadvertently commits herself to spend 24 hours in the hospital’s psychiatric ward. Her belligerent behavior quickly upgrades her stay to a full week.

Unsane is a nifty little thriller. In time she is confronted by a man (Joshua Leonard) working at the facility that she believes to be her former stalker. But what is real? Is Sawyer actually insane? Is she really in a mental institution? Is this nurse really her stalker? Savvy audiences are used to having the rug pulled out from under them. The screenplay by James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein skillfully exploits the mystery to great effect. Giving life to their efficient script is a masterful performance by English actress Claire Foy (TV’s The Crown) sporting an American Accent and long bob. She’s very convincing the role. In fact, she’s oddly reminiscent of Kristen Stewart. I’d love to see the two play sisters in some diabolical thriller, preferably directed by Olivier Assayas or David Fincher. Just take my money.

You might rightly classify this drama as a “woman-in-peril” potboiler. This is a B-movie at its most elemental core. Yet Steven Soderbergh is much too talented a director to succumb to clichés of the genre. The director keeps the action taut and suspenseful. There’s a lot of working components to stimulate the proceedings. Actors Jay Pharoah and Juno Temple portray two of Sawyer’s fellow patients. He is sympathetic. She is hostile. The primitive cinematography is assisted by a fisheye lens. The format lends a claustrophobic air to the proceedings. It’s an uncomfortable watch causing distress to the viewer. I can’t say I exactly “enjoyed” the experience but it effectively captivated my interest for 98 minutes. That’s a recommendation in my book.