Archive for the Thriller Category

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

Terminator: Dark Fate

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on November 2, 2019 by Mark Hobin

terminator_dark_fate_ver3STARS3The story in a nutshell: a malevolent Terminator is sent from the future to terminate a woman from the present. It is believed she will be the mother of a resistance leader in the war against the machines.  The resistance also sends somebody back to fight that Terminator.

There are 2 ways to watch this production.  With your arms folded as you realize the plot is nearly a carbon copy of the original film or with relief that the story in a Terminator movie is actually more concerned with extracting humanity and emotion from a simplified screenplay than special effects.  Deadpool director Tim Miller is at the helm and he mostly keeps things moving.  Although the screenplay by David Goyer, Justin Rhodes, and Billy Ray does sag in the middle.  What could have been a brisk efficient 98-minute actioner is stretched to an interminable 128 minutes.  The action sequences are indeed good.  I just didn’t need so many.

Terminator: Dark Fate is the 6th entry in this series.  Oscar-winning filmmaker James Cameron (Titanic) and Gale Anne Hurd created the franchise back in 1984 with The Terminator.  Then came Terminator 2: Judgment Day in 1991.  I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, some time passed and then we got this installment in 2019.  I’m ignoring 3 other sequels and James Cameron has wisely decided to do the same.  He’s gotten involved in the franchise for the first time since T2 and has relegated entries 3 through 5 as part of some alternate universe.  Also reuniting after 28 years are Arnold Schwarzenegger as T-800 and Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor.

Let’s not underestimate the sheer joy of rejoining these two on-screen.  OK, so the producers have decided to introduce a whole new cast as well.  I won’t discount the contributions of characters Grace (Mackenzie Davis) the modified human-cyborg sent to protect Dani (Natalia Reyes) from evil Terminator Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna).  Incidentally, the advanced Rev-9 can separate the skin from its body and act as two units at once.  I guess that’s what passes for innovation in this screenplay.  It was a little confusing at first because I don’t recall an explanation in the movie as to why he was doing this.  It just sort of happens.

The new additions to the cast are serviceable, but the real spotlight belongs to seeing Linda Hamilton again and to a lesser extent, Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Yes, their relationship arc admittedly copies what happens in T2 but that was nearly 3 decades ago.   I think enough time has passed that you can now choose to label their interaction as an homage.   Linda Hamilton is especially good.  She adopts this world-weary “seen it all before” persona.   She’s so grizzled and tough that the portrayal almost borders on parody.   I enjoyed her much in the same way it was nice having Jaime Lee Curtis return in the Halloween movie from 2018.  That follow-up also chose to ignore a collection of inferior sequels too so it’s very similar in spirit to this film.  Still, did we really need a sixth chapter in the Terminator franchise?  Simply put, no.  However, this is the best entry since T2 so there’s that.  It could’ve been a lot worse.

10-31-19

Parasite

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Foreign, Thriller with tags on October 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

parasite_ver2STARS4Over the past decade, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival hasn’t exactly set the U.S. box office on fire.  You have to go back to 2011 just to find a Palme d’Or winner that made over $10 million (The Tree of Life).  That low bar will most certainly be crushed this year by a South Korean entry that is arguably the festival’s most accessible winner since Pulp Fiction.  Internationally Parasite has become a box office sensation and it’s likely to become a U.S. success also.

The Kims are a South Korean family of four consisting of Dad Ki-taek ( Song Kang-ho ) mom Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik who was also in Okja) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam).  They’re very poor.  They live in a small dark underground apartment where stink bugs dwell and a local drunk frequently relieves himself within full view of their tiny window.  They have a tiresome job folding pizza boxes and they steal Wi-Fi from their neighbors.  Well, that is until the nearby residents change the password.

Their fortunes begin to change when a school chum of Ki-woo, recommends him as a substitute tutor for the high school daughter of the affluent Park household.  Ki-woo cons his way through the interview with fake teaching papers.  The mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) is impressed and soon he’s charmed Mrs. Park into hiring his sister Ki-jung as an art teacher for their little boy.  That’s merely the beginning.  One by one the rest of the Kim clan begins working for the well-to-do Park family who have no clue that each additional hire is actually related.  It’s a home invasion of sorts but one where the owners are willing — albeit duped — participants.

The first half is an outstanding account of carefully laid plans.  After an hour had passed, I was convinced this was going to be the best movie of the year.  The way the Kim household ever so slowly insinuate themselves into the lives of the Parks is fascinating to watch.  It happens coincidentally at first and then as each new family member is welcomed into the fold, the Kim’s methods become more and more aggressive.  Then the original housekeeper, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun) returns.   From that point on the developments are somewhat less, uh shall we say, systematic.  It’s important to pay attention to the little things the wealthy Parks say and do because they will have a profound effect on the struggling Kims — the father especially.  The sad sack dad Ki-taek is portrayed by actor Song Kang-ho who is a frequent collaborator in this director’s efforts.   He’s excellent in turning in a performance that is a gradually building focus of resentment.

Parasite is a genre-shifting tale from the mind of filmmaker Bong Joon-ho who mainstream audiences may know from The Host and Snowpiercer.  It has comedy, drama, thrills, and gore.  Put simply, it’s a dark comedy about classism.  He has dealt with these themes before.  Inequality amongst different classes was a major theme of the riveting Snowpiercer so it’s clearly a topic the director is particularly fond of.  There’s a reason for this.  In the past 50 years, South Korea has gone from being one of the poorest societies in the world to becoming an advanced industrialized economy.  As a result, the wealth gap there has widened exponentially.  Class warfare proves to be a gripping subject complete with wild tonal shifts and abrupt story changes.  The various plot machinations that occur can feel a bit convoluted.  The way people behave isn’t always rational either.  Still, the events are so unpredictable that they seize our attention.  It’s intriguing to see what occurs next.   No specifics though.  I wouldn’t even think of spoiling them.  I will only assert that the metaphor of upstairs/downstairs class distinctions gets more heavy-handed and therefore less clever.

What else can I say?  I’m optimistic about the Oscar chances.  South Korea has never been nominated in the Foreign Language Film category, let alone for the highest honor, Best Picture.  For the first time, a submission has the potential to compete in both.  This is a production where the joy of where the narrative will go next means I can’t give any more details.  I will offer a random but humorous aside.  At one point the Kims return home. It has been raining non-stop and they come to find their apartment flooded with rain and sewage.  Their bathroom is essentially an open toilet inexplicably mounted on a high ledge with no door to separate it from the rest of the living room.  Parasite features the most disgusting commode I can remember in a movie since Trainspotting.

Official Secrets

Posted in Biography, Drama, Thriller with tags on October 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

official_secretsSTARS3There have been many: Mark Felt, Daniel Ellsberg, Karen Silkwood, Mark Whitacre, Linda Tripp, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden.  You may not know all their names, but what they did had a profound effect.  A whistleblower can change the course of history.  The current presidential administration is now dealing with one.  A C.I.A. officer has alleged Ukraine interference in the American elections.  No doubt that’s the topic of another production in the future.   Needless to say, the subject has never been more timely.

The tale of this film set in 2003 concerns British translator Katharine Gun who worked at the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters.  She comes across an e-mail directing the GCHQ to dig up dirt on members of the U.N. Security Council.  The information to be used as blackmail so as to encourage a positive vote approving the U.S. push for war against Iraq following 9/11.  I wasn’t familiar with her account.  That may have made this chronicle a more exciting experience for me.

Katherine leaks the memo and the drama hinges on whether this whistleblower is a hero or a traitor.  The main character is played by Keira Knightley so you can probably predict how the audience is supposed to feel about this woman.  As the events unfold her life becomes more and more fraught with turmoil.  These political thrillers can be very dry and this one is paced is like a police procedural.  It’s not flashy.  However, I’ve always found Keira to be a compelling actress so her predicament becomes quite interesting.   She brings an urgency to the role that makes the movie feel important.  I was indeed invested in the story of Katharine Gun.

09-24-19

Joker

Posted in Crime, Drama, Superhero, Thriller with tags on October 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

joker_ver2STARS3.5There’s a moment in Joker that takes place on a subway where three bro-ey guys in suits are behaving in an obnoxious and contemptible way.  They’re rich white well-dressed types and they’re hitting on a woman who clearly isn’t interested.  Our protagonist Arthur Fleck sits farther away keeping to himself.  He will ultimately become the title character but that happens much later.  The dudes soon set their sights on hapless Arthur.  The scene will end in three deaths but it’s symbolic of something much more fascinating.  You see douchey frat boy figures were once the heroes of a movie called The Hangover back in 2009.  Todd Phillips directed that film as well as this one.  Oh, how times have changed over the past decade.

Joker is an origin story about the villain who first appeared in the debut issue of the DC creation Batman back on April 25, 1940.  However, the atmosphere here goes to conspicuous lengths to separate itself from being a typical comic book feature.  It’s an evocative period piece set in 1981.  There’s a bit of Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) and Water Hill (The Warriors) in there.  However, Joker has a lot more in common with a couple of flicks directed by Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Those classics are the blueprint of this movie.  Robert De Niro even appears as a talk show host like the one that Jerry Lewis portrayed.  The subtle distinction between homage and rip-off is really put to the test.  I suppose your judgment will rest with how entertained you are by the final product.  There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by other directors.  I was engrossed and occasionally appalled at various points throughout this drama.  However, my attitude veers closer to admiration than disgust because this is a compelling chronicle.

Joker wallows in an alternative view of New York society called Gotham where depravity and inhumanity are borderline de rigueur.  It is a presentation of how hateful and nasty and empty the world is.  The irony is, the film itself is hollow as well.  The screenplays of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy were complex.  The political commentary of the script by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver is a superficial examination.  It has absolutely nothing to say about the civilization it presents.  It merely creates a community that is so uncaring and so awful that violence seems like an acceptable response.  The Joker sees himself as a victim and we the audience are supposed to view him in the very same way.  There is no insight.

What Joker has is a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix that invites the viewer to sympathize with an individual you never thought you’d side with.  We watch him kicked and beaten and punished and belittled so mercilessly that when he finally rises up and shoots a man point-blank in the face with a gun, it’s a cathartic display toward a callous character.  We almost understand his frustration.  This won the top prize at the Venice Film festival.  The win was surprising but not unexplainable.  This movie is very much a product of our times.  Joker casually exploits hot button topics like bullying and mental illness for his descent into violence.  Oh and be forewarned, this can be extremely brutal.  Two murders, in particular, are exploited for shock value.  However, they’re so over-the-top under the guises of a comic book that the drama kind of gets away with it.

The Joker has been played in theatrical films by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and now Joaquin Phoenix.  The part is like the Hamlet of our age.  Joaquin Phoenix is indeed great.  He swings for the fences in a scenery-chewing role.  He lost weight and looks physically emaciated.  He bursts into uproarious laughter at inappropriate moments and dances with a showy flair.  It is an act that is going to polarize people because it is an overwrought and risky exhibition.  I dug it quite honestly.  I was captivated throughout.

10-03-19

Ad Astra

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

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

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

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

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

09-19-19

It Chapter Two

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on September 7, 2019 by Mark Hobin

it_chapter_two_ver3STARS1.5Warning: It Chapter Two is almost 3 hours which doesn’t translate into “better”, just “more”.  That means objectionable situations, jump scares, blood, and gore in perpetuity.  Director Andy Muschietti takes everything awful about his first film and significantly increases that unpleasantness exponentially.  I will say this. If you thoroughly enjoyed part one, I should think you’ll enjoy part two as well because it’s more of the same.  That’s about as ringing an endorsement I can give this turgid mess.

In 1989, the group of kids known as “The Losers” made a blood pact to return to the town of Derry if the entity known as “It” ever came back.  It Chapter Two begins in 2016 – 27 years later.  The picture opens with the shocking depiction of a vicious assault on Adrian (Xavier Dolan) and Don (Taylor Frey), a gay couple.  The men are mercilessly beaten by a group of homophobic thugs.  Then Adrian is thrown over a bridge into the water below.  He has an asthmatic attack and nearly drowns.  Suddenly the poor man is pulled out of the water by a scary looking clown.  He is then eaten alive.  His boyfriend Don watches in horror.  Few will realize that the violent hate crime that unethically sets off this intro is based on the real-life murder of Charlie Howard in Bangor, Maine in 1984.  Unbelievably this killing is thoughtlessly used to signify that Pennywise is back.

This act sets the story in motion.  Mike (Isiah Mustafa aka the Old Spice Guy), is now an adult and still living in Derry as the town librarian.  He alerts his childhood friends that they must once again fight IT.  We proceed to catch up with the other Losers in adulthood.  The original screenplay reduced these kids to basic simplistic traits.  That’s what passed for characterization in the first movie and so I’m obliged to use those same descriptive adjectives here.  There’s stuttering writer Bill (James McAvoy), sexually abused Beverly (Jessica Chastain), overweight turned hottie Ben (Jay Ryan), foul-mouthed comedian Richie (Bill Hader), hypochondriac risk assessor Eddie (James Ransone) and Jewish accountant Stanley (Andy Bean).  Neighborhood bully Henry (Teach Grant) is back again too.  He kills a guard and escapes a mental institution so he can continue to terrorize.  What, the clown isn’t enough?  As a secondary antagonist, his presence is completely unnecessary.  This isn’t a production that relies on acting.  However, Hader delivers the most recognizably human performance of someone with genuine feelings.  Also kudos to the casting director for hiring actors that perfectly suggest grown-up versions of their youthful selves.  The chronicle employs frequent flashbacks to the past and the similarity of the child actors to their adult counterparts is uncanny.  There aren’t many compliments I can bestow, but the optics of the cast are on point.

The brutal attack of the opening scene is merely one regrettable vignette.  Unfortunately, it kicks off the entire movie.  I was willing to get past that and still give this a chance.  Sadly, we’re assaulted by more heavy abuse that is exploited to inject superficial weight to a script that has no respect or understanding for the gravity of the issues it so carelessly desecrates.  Writer Gary Dauberman returns to adapt Stephen King’s novel.  When we’re introduced to Beverly (Jessica Chastain) as an adult, she’s married to an abusive husband named Tom (Will Beinbrink).  Beverly tells her husband that she must travel to Derry to visit friends.  However, he now thinks she is cheating on him because he heard Mike’s name.  Tom starts to physically beat Beverly and then attempts to rape her.  This is yet another really ugly spectacle.  Luckily she fights back and runs away, but the feeling that lingers is pure ick.  It casts a pall over this production.  This feeling never goes away.  Stanley (Andy Bean) is so scared to hear the news that he commits suicide by slitting his wrists in the bathtub so he doesn’t have to endure any more nastiness.  Dear Lord, please forgive me for saying this, but I envied him at this point.

I already hated this film 30 minutes in and it had only barely begun.  Remember it’s 3 hours.  The rest is just as appalling.  It Chapter Two is an absolute dumpster fire.  The piecemeal tale is manufactured from a conventional attempt to string together a lot of expensive special effects and jump scares.  The saga revisits the Losers as children in a protracted and convoluted sequence in the second hour.  This dump of a narrative throws everything it can at the audience including the kitchen sink.  The drama is so sloppily constructed, ultimately it doesn’t feel like a story but rather a highlight reel for the visual effects teams at Method Studios and Atomic Arts.  The impressive technology grows increasingly ubiquitous.  To make matters worse, the screenplay has no sensitivity for the sincere loss of human lives and suffering that it depicts.  There is no emotional connection to the depravity.  But I’ve grown tired of my rant as I’m sure you have too.  I needn’t continue to list this movie’s many offensives.  If I did, my review would be 10 pages long.

09-05-19

Luce

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on September 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

luceSTARS3What’s worse: a movie that never shows any potential to be good in the first place or a feature that begins with an intriguing setup and then squanders that opportunity?  I can definitely attest the latter is more disheartening.  That’s the experience you’ll get if you watch this provocation of a film.  It sets up an intriguing premise meant to provoke but then carelessly dismisses all those ideas with more questions than answers by the end.

Luce (pronounced loose) is all about Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), all-star athlete, accomplished debater, and an academically gifted high school student.  He is also a black teen adopted at the age of seven by a wealthy white married couple Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy (Naomi Watts).  He came from impoverished war-torn Eritrea in East Africa.  There as a child soldier he was taught to fight at a young age.  None of this violent background is immediately apparent from the calm, upstanding child we see here.  He appears to be an affable teen, popular with students and teachers alike.  He is an inspiration at assemblies with his stirring speeches.  He’s seen addressing his classmates at the beginning of the movie and once again at the end.  You’d think life would be all roses for Luce.  His teacher, Ms. Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) views him as “an important example to the school”.  However, his relationship with this woman is strained.  He feels an overwhelming pressure to be the ideal representative of his race.  There’s unresolved conflict bubbling beneath the surface of his personality.  His conduct will arouse many questions.

Octavia Spencer is one of our finest actors working today.  She was mesmerizing earlier this year in the underrated Ma.  Here again, she imbues this role with such gravitas that I was absolutely riveted to her whenever she was on screen.  As Luce’s history teacher, she is unnerved when she reads the paper he turns in.  The assignment was to write from the perspective of a historical figure.  Luce chooses Frantz Fanon, a 20th-century revolutionary and writer who believed violence by the oppressed was necessary for the struggle against colonialism.  When Harriet finds a bag of illegal fireworks in his locker, she views him as a potential terrorist threat.  Is he being judged fairly?  There’s a powerful dichotomy between this teacher who wants to do the right thing and the confident Luce who is exceptionally glib.  He’s a slippery chap and actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. is very good in the role.  He has an answer for everything.  It’s hard for the audience to truly determine who is in the right.  That set-up is indeed compelling and Octavia Spencer elevates this woman to seem more astute than her character has been written.

Luce is directed by Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox).  He also adapted the script with JC Lee who wrote the original play on which this film is based.  They are constantly playing with the audience’s perception.  This is a highly theatrical work where people say and do things that wouldn’t occur the same way in real life.  When Harriet makes her discovery in Luce’s locker, she goes out of her way to hand the fireworks over to his mom first rather than simply going to the principal.  Her decision is not prudent.  This will have negative repercussions for her later but it acts as a conduit to create other manufactured situations for the purposes of contemplation.

Luce, the film, is ultimately a frustrating experience.  The screenplay introduces many fascinating ideas.  Then smugly neglects to make a lucid point about any of them.  It creates well-intentioned people for whom we sympathize.  Then later “pranks” the audience by giving the people behaviors to stimulate our contempt.  Luce’s liberal parents have given him an opportunity to shine.  That’s commendable but then they point to his success as a testament to how virtuous they are.  Later we learn that because mom Amy couldn’t pronounce Luce’s original name, his parents gave him a new one so they could.  We discover ex-girlfriend Stephanie was sexually abused at a party but by the end, it is implied that she actually can’t be trusted.  Harriet has a sister named Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake) that lives with her.  Their relationship is an engaging plot point that humanizes Harriet.  Rosemary will later exhibit a needlessly exaggerated display that is uncomfortable to watch.  Luce himself is a big question mark too.  He seems like a model student, but maybe he has everyone fooled.  Could he be a sociopath that has perfected the ability to code-switch depending on the listener?  You’ll never know and the movie doesn’t provide enough info to make that determination.  Luce is an unfinished thesis that considers race, privilege, prejudice, tokenism, and adoption.  It merely exploits those subjects to incite a fire, then irresponsibly leaves without making any attempt to quell the flames.

08-21-19

Ready or Not

Posted in Drama, Horror, Thriller with tags on August 25, 2019 by Mark Hobin

ready_or_notSTARS2If Ready or Not is the question, the answer most assuredly is “not”.  I didn’t much care for this umpteenth variation on The Most Dangerous Game.  It is a violent hunt where the audience’s pleasure is extracted from the way in which various characters are murdered.  Will they be bludgeoned, shot, or crushed to death?  Oh please don’t keep me in suspense! Somewhere, buried underneath this blood-soaked free for all, there is a seed of inspiration that could have sparked a more intellectual consideration that dealt with issues of classism.

Penniless Grace (Samara Weaving) is a bride about to marry her beloved.  By contrast, Alex ( Mark O’Brien ) the groom is exceedingly rich.  He is of the Le Domas family who made their fortune through board games.  Their impressive wealth has also afforded them the ownership of four professional sports teams.  They are a dynasty.  “We prefer dominion” the patriarch offers.  Grace is a foster child with no friends or relatives of her own.  This conveniently relieves the writers of having to give this poor woman any sort of backstory.  Tradition states that any new addition to their wealthy empire must randomly pick a card on their wedding night and play the game selected.  This has been decreed by the clan’s original benefactor, a mysterious figure named Mr. Le Bail.  Games in the past have included Old Maid, Checkers, and other ordinary selections.  But when Grace selects “Hide and Seek” the room grows silent.  This is the one card you do not want to draw.  She is unaware but soon she will be literally hunted to death through the halls of the estate by the rest of the household.  Crossbows, spears, axes, and muskets will be the weapons of choice.  Oh, and if I may quote Paul Thomas Anderson, there will be blood.

The superior cast disguises this B movie dross in a sheen that can camouflage the muck.  Lead heroine Samara Weaving is gamely athletic as Grace.  Naturally, we want her to live.  Yet this woman’s ability to continually evade her captors suspends disbelief to the point of exasperation.  She’s restricted to a mansion, not an entire country.  Eliminating her shouldn’t be this hard.  The affluent Le Domas clan includes some recognizable name actors.  Adam Brody (FOX TV’s The O.C.) is alcoholic brother Daniel.  Aunt Becky is portrayed by Andie MacDowell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Groundhog Day) and patriarch Tony is embodied by old standby Henry Czerny.  He memorably played a bureaucratic jerk in Clear and Present Danger and has been reliably playing slimeballs ever since.  Melanie Scrofano (Syfy TV’s Wynonna Earp) is indelible as the fluttery, pill-popping Emilie.  Her theatrical character delivers lines that would sound a lot funnier on a stage.  “Why does this keep happening!” Emilie whines after she unintentionally kills the wrong person yet again.  Her lack of compassion is hilarious.  It’s just that the loss of human life amidst such gory details makes Emilie’s disinterest a lot less funny.  Her flippant reaction should be the punchline, not the brutal slaughter.

Ready or Not had the potential to be so much more.  As I watched this grisly pursuit unfold, I pictured the production reimagined as an unconventional play — an intricately plotted comedy of manners that satirized the upper class with a macabre sense of humor.  The screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy obviously means to skewers the well-to-do as a godless class prone to murder and mayhem.  Yet there is no wit or subtly.  “They’re just trying to figure out if you’re a gold-digging whore,” one family member tells Grace early on.  It’s pretty heavy-handed.  Rich people are jerks is what passes for insight.  In time, various people will accidentally die in grotesque ways.  In a play, we’d only have to imagine the carnage.  The emphasis on the cruel deaths is at odds with the lighthearted feel of the script.  Violent murder isn’t funny in any era but when mass shootings seemingly occur on a weekly basis, the depiction is especially ill-timed.  In the hands of Busick and Murphy,  Ready or Not clumsily devolves into a ghastly and oppressive product.  The drama takes place in an ornate manor which suitably lends the setting an elegance.  The cinematography, however, wallows in dark tones which ultimately sabotage any feeling of lightness.  Grace’s wedding dress is completely covered in blood and guts by the end.  Thank goodness this is only 90 minutes long.  Under the auspices of a more capable writer, classism, not killing would be the raison d’être of this piece.  There are much more talented writers who could do this type of material justice.  Is John Guare available?

08-22-19

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

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

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

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

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

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