Archive for the Thriller Category

Alien: Covenant

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller on May 19, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo alien_covenant_ver4_zpskj0mddqh.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgCut to the chase: Alien: Covenant is not a good movie.   Dear me though its failings are so diffuse, I don’t even know where to begin.  Let’s start with some fast facts: Covenant is a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and is set 10 years later. Prometheus was an Alien prequel and this new production also details events that are supposed to have happened before that 1979 masterpiece. Alien was a nifty little horror gem that was brilliant in its focused simplicity to scare in style. It was unpretentious.  Conversely, Prometheus took the franchise into biological altering origins of life. I appreciated the attempt at something grander. However, Prometheus left audiences with more questions than answers and now Covenant struggles to further expand that storyline with more scientific mumbo jumbo as to why characters are doing what they’re doing and why things are the way they are.   Unfortunately with this installment, Ridley Scott exploits the admirable qualities of Prometheus to ill effect.  Perhaps a little heady thought was welcome, but now he’s gone full tilt into a philosophical consideration of existentialism. Where Prometheus‘ script was elegant and thoughtful, this reflection is brain dead.

Alien (1979) has such a high-minded reputation that it’s easy to forget that every installment in this franchise has always been served with a heaping cup of cheese. Yet Ridley Scott is directing and it’s highlighted by a talented cast that includes Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, and Jussie Smollett. Given that, I was expecting so much more. It makes the disappointment much more crushing. I acknowledge the crew members in these Alien films have always made a lot of dumb decisions, but Alien: Covenant tops them all.  Some random observations about that ensemble:  (1) Everyone is a couple on this expedition – including one same-sex duo.  (2) Katherine Waterston’s hairstyle recalls Jim Carrey’s bowl cut from Dumb & Dumber.  That’s not a reason to hate on a movie, but it’s such a distraction, I would be negligent not to at least mention it.

These crew members are more clueless than a group of sexually charged teens in a summer camp.  That a pair of naked lovers finds time to make out in the shower while one creature (known as a Xenomorph) prowls around the spaceship is the absolute nadir.  However, there are at least half a dozen examples where these people exhibit a brazen disregard for their own life.  Feels more like a Friday the 13th movie.  Protocols are ignored, nobody follows instructions, women weep and scream like it’s the 1950s. It becomes almost a laughable game of “Guess who’s next”. Whenever someone says they need to go off to a dark, isolated place (like use the bathroom) you know their role is coming to an end. The fact that these scientists, soldiers and shipmates have been entrusted with 2,000 human embryos to start a new colonization makes their behavior even more reckless.

The funny thing is, I can forgive a predictable elimination of lives if we’re still given an exciting version of And Then There Were None.   But no. Alien: Covenant is a really talky slog that is boring when it isn’t being thoroughly unpleasant.  Alien: Covenant does manage to serve up an abundance of gross-out “events” that are perfunctory demonstrations of body disfiguring horror.  Remember the chest bursting scene in the 1979 movie?  Of course you do. Well we get more of those. One from the front and another out of the back. But director Ridley Scott has traded on the memory of that spectacle so many times by now its impact has been destroyed. There’s nothing even remotely electrifying about these displays anymore. At a fundamental level, director Scott has satisfied a checklist of giving people the gore he thinks they want. Surprisingly most of this drama is dull until we’re served up some excitement in the final 30 minutes but you’ll have to sit through a slew of tedious conversations to get to it.

Alien: Covenant is trying to be all things to all people. On the one hand, it pacifies lovers of the original Alien by presenting a Grand Guignol-style horror film which gives the audience plenty of stomach-churning body mutilating carnage. On the other, it placates Prometheus lovers with ethical creationist theories. Crass pandering to both sides ends up satisfying neither. The best moments in Alien: Covenant center around Michael Fassbender who gets the opportunity to deliver two engaging performances. Here he plays lookalike androids: one named David (from Prometheus) and the other named Walter (an updated model). He delivers what little entertainment value can be found in this mess. By now, the slick aspects to champion in Alien: Covenant are nothing new. We get a colorful cast of astronauts differentiated by nationality, race, and gender, a gleaming set design of a spaceship and the soothing overhead voice of the ship’s onboard system they nickname “Mother”. These are the kinds of things that elevated Alien (and other sci-fi classics) from a rote story into a classy gem. But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.  I hate rehashing a cliché but it’s apropos.  This script is so bad it’s irredeemable no matter how much shellac you apply.

05-18-17

The Wall

Posted in Drama, Thriller, War with tags on May 16, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo wall_zps3dqmhke6.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgU.S. Army Sergeant Allen “Ize” Issac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his spotter Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena) are on a mission. They’re in Iraq to retaliate after U.S. contractors building a pipeline, are killed.  Matthews is shot by a sniper and when Ize attempts to rescue him, he too is injured by the unseen assailant. He seeks a safe area. The title refers to the long barrier of crumbling stones that Isaac quickly hides behind as he communicates with the adversary who is trying to take his life.

The Wall is a movie of words. The story by aspiring screenwriter Dwain Worrell actually made the Black List, a compilation of the most liked unproduced screenplays, in 2014. The Wall was ultimately purchased and produced by Amazon studios, their very first spec script. Worrell’s compact drama details a single conversation between the U.S.Issac and a heard but not seen Iraqi sniper (Laith Nakli). Director Doug Liman, known for action extravaganzas like Edge of Tomorrow, Mr. & Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Identity, scales his action aesthetic way back for this lean-and-mean war tale. And the chronicle is indeed mean. The situation is tense and the futility of war is highlighted with deft precision. It is particularly significant that we learn at the start that the Iraq war is supposedly over. Yet for these combatants, that designation is meaningless.

The Wall has a lot going for it. It has a tightly concentrated script by Dwain Worrell. There is an engaging performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson in what is essentially a one-man show and it has a brisk running time. The screenplay is particularly clever as the sniper draws information from his opponent. Ize is clearly at a disadvantage and actor Taylor-Johnson makes this soldier immediately affecting.  It’s easy for the audience to feel empathy for this character. I was reminded of Rodrigo Cortés’ 2010 single location set Buried starring Ryan Reynolds. That also had a unique take on the Iraq war through a conversation. The Wall isn’t quite as claustrophobic as that picture, but it’s close. Their interaction plays out like a chess match as the unrelenting stress of the conditions escalates. The dusty bleak landscape only adds to the tension. The account ends in a manner over which I still have mixed emotions. It’s either smug or smart.  I’m on the fence…or more appropriately, “the wall”.  Either way, if brevity is the soul of wit, then this artfully focused drama is well worth your 80 minutes.

05-11-17

Life

Posted in Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller on March 25, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo life_ver3_zpseahijifv.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgLife concerns six astronauts from around the world aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The plot begins when they discover a single-celled organism in a soil sample from Mars. They revive the microscopic entity with some external stimuli. As a result, the little amoeba, which they’ve dubbed “Calvin” starts to develop at a rapid rate. It’s soon clear that their understanding of this entity is not very good. They’ve underestimated the intelligence of this thing. They make that error several times actually and it’s always to the delight of an audience seeking more thrills.

You can’t read a review of Life without the critique referencing a certain sci-fi classic. That’s totally fair. Life is made up of the DNA of others films, and one in particular. I’m not even going to name the picture because I think it unfairly poisons the mind against this production. Apparently, a story loses credibility if it’s inspired by another film, even one that came out nearly four decades ago. That’s hogwash. The act of homage isn’t a reason to castigate a film. Even the precise movie in question, now venerated as a masterpiece, was chastised as merely a remake of 1958’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space at the time, so there! Let’s give director Daniel Espinosa some credit. He stole from the best and he does it with the polished art of a seasoned pro.

Life has the look of quality in every detail from the elegant art direction to the talented cast. What better way to dress up your picture than with an A-list ensemble. Ryan Reynolds is Rory Adams, the wisecracking (is he ever anything else?) mechanic of the crew. He operates the machinery. The actor worked with Daniel Espinosa before in Safe House. The connection initially gave me pause because that drama was utterly generic. Life, in contrast, is not.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays the space station’s doctor, David Jordan. His limited part is eclipsed by the other actors in a bit of casting unpredictability. Rebecca Ferguson is Miranda North, a scientist from the Center for Disease Control. She’s responsible for keeping everyone safe. Let’s just say she’s not too good at her job. Ferguson is best known as the fetching Ilsa Faust in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. She’s an appealing presence here as well.

The rest of the cast will be more unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, but no less captivating. Miranda is joined by fellow Brit Hugh Derry, a microbiologist played by Ariyon Bakare (British TV miniseries A Respectable Trade). ** Spoiler Alert ** The black guy does NOT die first – a refreshing twist. Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (Sunshine, The Wolverine) is Shō Murakami the experienced astronaut who’s ready to retire. While on board, his wife gives birth back on Earth. Last but not least is Russian actress Olga Dihovichnaya as Katerina Golovkina, the commander of the ISS. She has appeared in a smattering of Russian films since 2002. The thespians go a long way into making this spectacle something engaging. After all, if we didn’t care about these people, the story would fail.

Life is an intense, heart-pounding saga that never lets up. The production design is dazzling. The opening scene, an uninterrupted nearly 7-minute take, is a marvel. The ISS set is constructed like a labyrinth and it’s easy to feel claustrophobic within. That adds to the tension as I was riveted throughout. Screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese have worked together before (Zombieland, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Deadpool). The script gives us just enough detailed jargon to seem cerebral but without getting bogged down in a lot of intellectual mumbo jumbo. They have a sophisticated take on this outer space thriller that really elevates the presentation into something classy. I mean let’s be clear. At heart, this is a formula sci-fi horror tale and nothing more. Don’t go in expecting to have your mind expanded. Nevertheless, it is nice to see something that isn’t part of some larger franchise. The action entertains a lot better than some warmed over reboot or sequel. Life is worth living….er uh I mean watching.

Split

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on February 2, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo split_ver2_zpsatpjsbnf.jpg photo starrating-1star.jpgIt’s a testament to my tolerance level that I continue to give M. Night Shyamalan a chance despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I haven’t enjoyed any of his films since Signs in 2002. That was 15 years ago and yet I still keep hoping that one day he’ll exhibit a flicker of his former talent. I wasn’t even going to give his latest a chance after The Visit (2015), a shaky-cam found-footage non-starter of a project. However reviews for Split were positive and it drew a healthy box office so I thought, how bad could it be? Pretty awful as a matter of fact. I didn’t foresee that the big twist of this M. Night Shyamalan film was that such an inferior product would implausibly become a success.

Split starts out interestingly enough. Three girls (Anya Taylor-Joy, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula) are getting ready to leave a birthday party. The father of the guest of honor is going to drive them home. He is approached in the parking lot by a mysterious figure after the girls are already in the car. The next minute the stranger gets into the car and there’s a chilling moment where he sprays them with a toxin. This probably would have been more effective if it wasn’t already in the trailer, but that’s not the movie’s fault. Regardless, it’s a chilling beginning.  The man’s name is Kevin (James McAvoy) and he subsequently locks them up in a basement dungeon. I started getting shades of Silence of the Lambs at this point, but that’s about where the similarities end. This screenplay has none of the depth of that film. It’s also rated PG-13 so it’s less intense, but the subject matter still feels pretty icky. I certainly wouldn’t bring children to this. Honestly, I wouldn’t bring anyone because it’s simply not good.

It turns out that Kevin suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID) and has 24 individual personalities living inside him. Already I’m not comfortable with that ridiculous number because it’s impossible for an actor to do 24 distinct characters justice. To be fair, he really only attempts like nine, but sadly, McAvoy doesn’t even give us one person that we can truly embrace. They’re a smorgasbord of various people: young/old, male/female. I thought about detailing some of them in my review but they’re really not interesting enough to warrant discussion. I will add though that the 24th entity is called The Beast. Not the same creature as in the biblical book of Revelation but I’m sure the allusion is intended.

Dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder, is a real mental illness. I suppose we should be thankful that Shyamalan at least knows the difference between schizophrenia and DID, but don’t look to this script for any real factual basis for the way it occurs. The movie does include a therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, played by Betty Buckley. She was the nice gym teacher in the Stephen King adaptation Carrie (1976) and starred in the TV series Eight is Enough. I’ve always liked her so it was nice to see she continues to get work. Her character sort of pops up at various points in the narrative. Another actor pops up near the end. I assume it’s another one of Shyamalan’s signature twists. So please enjoy that if you can even figure out what it all means. For the record, I did. Didn’t care.

Garbage is an epithet that’s thrown around so frequently these days that I hesitate to use the word, but here goes: Split is garbage. I don’t use that dismissive label lightly.  I’ll explain what took this beyond merely bad to downright offensive. M Night Shyamalan resorts to capitalizing on mental illness for sensational thrills without the care to even convey its complexities. It also exploits child abuse in a cheap attempt to give his weak story more meaning. It does not handle these subjects in a meaningful or sensitive way but rather shamelessly mines the inherent gravity in these issues for superficial kicks. It is artless. Split certainly isn’t the first film to manipulate weighty subjects in a crass manner. Last year’s The Girl on the Train served up a vulgar recipe of alcoholism, depression, and domestic abuse.   It was exploitative much in the same way and Split caused me to relive that awfulness.  Girl was one of my least favorite pictures of 2016, but it came out so late in the year that it was only among the “worst of 2016” for 3 months.  With Split‘s January release, we have a major contender just 20 days into 2017. This production has the potential to go the distance.

1-30-17

Nocturnal Animals

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on November 14, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo nocturnal_animals_ver5_zpse44rfy9v.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgWithout warning, wealthy art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receives a letter from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He requests that she read his first novel, Nocturnal Animals, which he has also included in the package. This lure is merely the tantalizing set-up for a crackerjack thriller. We learn that the title was Edward’s nickname for her. In fact, the manuscript has been dedicated to Susan. As she sits down to pore over the novel in her austere modern mansion in Beverly Hills, the wicked tale unfolds before our eyes. This story within a story has painful parallels to Susan and Edward’s failed marriage in the past. Edward was a dreamer. Susan loved that about him but his need to write ultimately became a source of consternation for her. It also resonates with her current situation because her relationship with husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), is also less than ideal.

Nocturnal Animals is highlighted by a colorful and diverse cast. Jake Gyllenhaal is essentially playing two roles, Susan’s ex- husband Edward Sheffield, but also Tony Hastings, the central character in the book. Tony is a gentle man driving his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) on a road trip across a deserted West Texas highway late at night. Incidentally, if you think Amy Adams and Isla Fisher look alike, then you’re already making the right associations. Along the way, Tony is sucked into a nasty road rage duel with a gang of hillbilly rednecks (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, and Robert Aramayo). These guys look more like the appropriately distressed models for a jeans ad photoshoot than country hayseeds but hey this is a Tom Ford movie after all.

The violent tale becomes uncomfortable viewing but it never ceases to be captivating. Tony is forced off the road and a confrontation ensues. The narrative also manages to feature a mesmerizing performance by the always great Michael Shannon as a detective named Bobby Andes. The juicy role couldn’t be more tailor-made for the actor. He’s certain to garner some attention come awards season. Laura Linney is briefly seen in flashback as Susan’s Dallas-rich mother complete with bouffant hair and the requisite pearls. Her one scene is memorable. Finally, I have to add, that even though the chronicle is pretty dark, Jena Malone’s cameo as Susan’s millennial gallery assistant in the present is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a film all year.

Nocturnal Animals simply oozes with cinematic style. American fashion designer Tom Ford not only directs but adapts the screenplay from the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. Ford’s follow-up to A Single Man is even more accomplished, although this production should prove to be polarizing. I mean can we talk about those opening credits? They are a veritable slap in the face.  The visuals are perplexing to say the least. There’s simply no context at first.  These images may open the film, but I still won’t spoil the surprise. I will offer that they concern a video installation on display in Susan’s gallery. If you already think modern art is crass, this won’t change your opinion. Then again, maybe the intro is a biting commentary on the contemporary art world. So many interpretations and that’s just in the first 5 minutes.

Nocturnal Animals brilliantly juggles three different realities. As Susan reads the book we jump across shifting chronologies. There’s the adventure of the text, then forward to the present and then back to her past. The novel is the nifty little suspense within the proper film. In fact, I dare say it’s the most entertaining part of the picture. The clever framing device though is a nice touch because it draws parallels to the real and invented world and invites the audience to make conclusions about Susan Morrow based on the characters within the “fictional” literary work. As the account shifts through the various timelines, we start to uncover what went wrong in Edward and Susan’s marriage.

Tom Ford’s effort is a remarkably proficient saga that spans genres. It’s both a cruel Texas crime drama as well as gauzy middle-age melodrama. It’s not important that you like these people, but you will understand them. It will engender your empathy as you react to the situation of these different individuals. It’s artful sophistication blended with ugly sadism. The mix is tonally diverse but it all makes sense right down to the conclusion. I was initially put off by the final shot. It wasn’t what I was hoping for but then as I deliberated on the piece, I realized the ending actually bested my expectations. Tom Ford has crafted a meta mystery-thriller on which to reflect.

11-04-16

Arrival

Posted in Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on November 12, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo arrival_ver16_zpsbblz4gnr.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgOh, what hath 2001: A Space Odyssey wrought? Ever since Stanley Kubrick’s trippy, mind-expanding space adventure first unfurled back in 1968, the intersection of extraterrestrial life and the human experience at the movies has never been the same. The original set the bar inspiring a varying degree of diminishing results ever since. The latest sci-fi offering to delve into this concept is Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival featuring a screenplay adapted from a short story by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life”. Like Robert Zemeckis’ Contact or Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Arrival is the “thinking man’s” alien invasion flick. Elevate your consciousness. That means expect lots of existentialist mumbo jumbo and less in the way of action or events.

Villeneuve is a category-defying filmmaker with successes in several genres including mystery (Incendies), thriller (Prisoners), psychobiological head trip (Enemy) and crime (Sicario) . His latest is an ethereal dissertation on what transpires after alien beings land on Earth. Twelve UFOs descend, hovering mysteriously in the sky. Tall, oblong shaped orbs dangling like colossal footballs over random locations across the planet. The one in the U.S. is over a field in Montana, The world is concerned. The key question must be addressed: “What is their purpose?”. In order to make contact, the U.S. Government taps Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams in the starring role), a top linguist, and a theoretical scientist (Jeremy Renner in a bit part), to help them to better understand their intention. She will try and establish communication with the extraterrestrial visitors.

Somber, eerie, and virtually devoid of color, Arrival is an atmospheric mood piece that treats the landing of visitors from another planet with the graveness of a heart attack. In the first half, there are moments of dread. The circumstances hold promise for the audience like a dangling carrot tempting a mule to move forward.  Dennis Villeneuve conveys so much on a small budget.  The set design is bleak. The spaceships loom large. The tension is palpable. The life forms are called heptapods . Their presence is frightening. Like huge long-limbed spiders, they present seven squid-like tentacles that emit an inky black substance. The amorphous liquid is their written language which forms circular shapes that Dr. Banks tries to decode. How do we interpret their language? What are they trying to tell us? Are they friend or foe? It’s a captivating set-up. Dr. Banks and her operation argue over whether the information they glean should be kept private or shared with the other teams corresponding with the pods in their parts of the world. The human race stands on the precipice of a global war. Arrival is great when it’s a twisty conundrum….until it isn’t.

To its credit, Arrival eventually answers all of its questions. The problem is that when the enigma is slowly disconnected, then so is the film.  Subplots become red herrings.  The narrative isn’t ultimately preoccupied with the alien threat. It’s fascinated by how language molds who we are. The idea is that people approach the world differently because of vocabulary. Reality varies according to the linguistic tools employed. Terminology frames our understanding. Dr. Banks is changed by the experience. That’s the gist of the account, but I’ve purposefully omitted the closing truth. Your enjoyment of Arrival will derive out of how fascinating you think the final reveal is. Perhaps it will positively blow your mind. It has a philosophical gist. In keeping with the production’s chilly tone, I found the ending too dispassionate. The denouement is rather underwhelming after such a promising introduction. Denis Villeneuve has erroneously created a drama left unfulfilled.

11-10-16

Jason Bourne

Posted in Action, Thriller on July 30, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo jason_bourne_ver2_zpsmypfjyrl.jpg photo starrating-2stars.jpgThe current season has another month to go, but I’d like to dub the preceding 3 months as “The Summer of the Blah Blockbuster”: X-Men: Apocalypse, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Independence Day: Resurgence, Ghostbusters, and Star Trek Beyond. All big budget productions that made far less than their hefty price tags prescribed. The audience numbers have been underwhelming. To be fair, not all cinematic product is created equal. I found the latest  X-Men enjoyable, but I still wouldn’t call it necessary viewing unless you’re an X-Men completist. And that’s true of all of these releases. Other than an opportunity to make money, their stories lack a reason to exist. Did we need this film? The answer is no in every case. Into this atmosphere we get the creatively titled Jason Bourne. It feels right at home in the prevailing Hollywood climate.

Jason Bourne is the fifth installment of the Bourne series. This is a direct sequel to The Bourne Ultimatum, the third chapter and the last to feature Matt Damon. You’d think the previous star Jeremy Renner might warrant a cameo, but no such luck. Paul Greengrass is back directing, making this is third venture into the Bourne franchise. I concede that recounting all these facts is kind of boring to read, but writing about such a workmanlike movie almost demands it.

The story picks up 10 years after the events of The Bourne Ultimatum. Jason Bourne is hiding out in Greece and has taken up illegal brawling. This is a good time to note that Matt Damon is seen knocking a big guy out in one punch and it’s the most clearly shot action scene in the whole picture. Anyway, the former CIA assassin and recovering amnesiac is finally starting to remember who he is. Ex-CIA agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) has discovered some distressing information and has decided to contact Bourne with the info.  Bourne seeks to find out the truth behind the death of his father, Richard Webb (Gregg Henry). Meanwhile CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and CIA agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) aren’t happy with these developments. They are implementing a new program aimed at taking Jason Bourne down.

Jason Bourne is a somber thriller filled with dispassionate people doing very serious things. There’s some added nonsense about a Las Vegas tech convention with actor Riz Ahmed. He plays the CEO & Founder of a social networking app called Deep Dream. The CIA wants to spy on everyone through a back door surveillance program dubbed Operation Iron Hand. I couldn’t even summon up the energy to even give a care about this story tangent. I only mention it because actor Riz Ahmed was also in Nightcrawler and it’s another chance to promote the fine actor’s work in that film. At least his tech tycoon registers a little personality. None of the other actors express much emotion. No one even cracks a smile. Perhaps with Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones and Vincent Cassel, the stoicism is a bit more expected. However Alicia Vikander was such an effervescent presence in The Danish Girl. Although I admit she was also brilliant as a robot in Ex Machina. I’m just not sure why she was told to act like one here.

What follows is a lot of perfunctory chase sequences. We get shaky cam photography of chaotic movement edited with a hacksaw. Ladies and gentlemen, I present an entire feature made up of fast cutting. No scene lingers for more than 3 seconds before proceeding to the next shot. The ADHD cinematography can be frustrating. “Stop I want to get off!” I almost screamed, like right there out loud in the theater. Two people simply have a quiet conversation and the camera refuses to remain still – a nervous bundle of energy, constantly moving. Ok so at times it can be exhilarating as well. The camera jerks and dives to thrilling effect during a climactic fight. The motion gives the feeling of actually being physically hit before descending into a blurry mishmash where the human combatants are no longer discernible. Director Paul Greengrass is known for favoring this technique. He’s had much success in the past (United 93, Captain Phillips), but the plot developments aren’t memorable this time around. We’re just going through the motions.  In the end, I didn’t hate this movie. It’s too competent to be egregious. The effort fuses high production values with well choreographed action. Jason Bourne isn’t good, but it’s significant because it exemplifies how this kind of entertainment is now available on TV for free.

07-28-16

Green Room

Posted in Crime, Horror, Thriller with tags on May 2, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo green_room_ver2_zpsszgyt22s.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe release of writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival heralded an important new talent. Only his second feature, it was the winner of the FIPRESCI award that year. The chronicle was ostensibly about an emotionally damaged, shadow of a man, out for revenge. What made that grisly thriller so much more than just a routine genre exercise, was that we somehow sympathized with the lead character and his plight.

Now Saulnier is back with Green Room, another well constructed, but no less gruesome, labor of malevolence. It concerns The Ain’t Rights, a down and out punk band from the East Coast, desperate for a paying gig. They appear to be in their mid-20s. Despite their youth, the four group members (played by Alia Shawkat, Anton Yelchin, Callum Turner and Joe Cole) have a kind of a been-there-seen-it-all world weariness that is rather amusing. They steal gas by siphoning it out of other cars, wake up in a cornfield because the driver fell asleep, and attend a podcast interview that is incredibly awkward. A question about their favorite “desert island band” becomes an amusing running gag throughout the entire picture right up through to the very last line of dialogue. The movie teases with humorous asides initially, but humor is not really the fabric of the film.

The proper tale begins when the foursome is booked to play a gig at a remote club in the woods outside Portland, Oregon. Unbeknownst to them, the bar is actually a popular hangout for neo-Nazi skinheads. The young punk rockers aren’t too keen on white supremacists, but they need the cash, so they play their set for the rowdy patrons and collect their money. As they’re about to leave, an extremely tense situation develops and the band is prevented from leaving by the skinhead bouncers. This is all under the direction of the club’s owner, Darcy, a calm white supremacist leader, portrayed in an inspired bit of casting by Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Patrick Stewart. A less than committed skinhead (Imogen Poots), becomes an unexpected ally of our protagonists.

At first the band tries to calmly talk their way out of a sticky situation, but their negotiations fail. Now it’s punks vs. skinheads in an all out game of cat and mouse. The drama begins intelligently with words but ends morbidly with slaughter.  Ah but what are the stakes? There is an assortment of random human beings, but character development is anemic at best. Without that emotional connection, our desire to even give a care is severely diminished. Director Jeremy Saulnier relies on rising tension and it works for awhile. However after 60 minutes, the dialogue becomes less needed to further developments. Gore emerges as the story in the final third. Le carnage extraordinaire is the ultimate agenda for the day. People are sliced, diced and mutilated with guns, machetes and killer dogs. It’s competently done I suppose, but it’s not as terrifying as the intense standoff that came before it. It’s exactly what I expected would happen and after Blue Ruin, I expect more from Mr. Saulnier.

04-24-16

The Invitation

Posted in Drama, Thriller with tags on April 22, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo invitation_ver2_zpsdx4ycifp.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgHave you ever been invited to a dinner party you didn’t want to attend, but you went anyway because you figured the aftermath of skipping it would be worse than the actual event?  The Invitation concerns just such a get-together. As the story begins, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are driving up the Hollywood Hills to his former home. His ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard), is hosting an intimate soiree with her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). You can tell by Will’s demeanor that he’s dreading it. It’s been over two years since they’ve seen each other. The trip doesn’t get off to a good start. He accidentally hits a coyote on the way up and is forced to humanely kill the poor animal in order to put it out of its misery. The chance occurrence is random but it sets the tone.

A smattering of guests show up at the intimate gathering. There’s a mixture of mutual friends and a couple of unfamiliar acquaintances present too. Will’s relationship with his ex-wife Eden is key. They share a tragedy. Eden’s relationship with her new husband David is important too. Throughout the course of the film we gradually develop an understanding of who these people are and what makes them tick. Director Karyn Kusama injects brief flashbacks of Will and Eden’s former life together and we start to understand more about what happened in their marriage. Then the guests play a variation of the party game “Never Have I Ever” called “I Want.” You’ve seen this type of material before. The soul searching thirty-somethings expressing their thoughts over wine and hors d’oeuvres. But what makes The Invitation so effective is how it confounds expectations.

Writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi really take their time in establishing the characters. Hosts Eden and David are so cordial. Are they overtly so or is that just in our heads? Will senses something is amiss. He grows ever more anxious. There is a fair amount of build up. So much so that after awhile you may be checking your watch as to where all this is headed. Rest assured, the gradual unfolding of the narrative serves to make the denouement even more effective. Karyn Kusama is an American director who first made a critical splash with the independent Girlfight in 2000. Then went Hollywood with bigger budgets and did Æon Flux (2005) and Jennifer’s Body (2009). The Invitation would suggest that she’s at her best with smaller scale pictures free from studio interference. I haven’t gone into the point of The Invitation. That’s something the viewer needs to decide after watching. All I can say is, it most definitively made me feel something and I liked the experience.

Addendum: I love awkward dinner party movies. Rope (1948), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Clue (1985). A small gathering of people can produce uneasy situations of clashing ideologies. It’s a self contained universe. Back in 2014, American writer/director James Ward Byrkit came out with Coherence. It was nifty little independent picture. The Invitation reminded me of that film. You should watch them both.

04-17-16

Midnight Special

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on April 5, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo midnight_special_zpstoozevoh.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgRoy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Edgerton) are waiting for the sun to go down in a darkened motel room. A television is on in the background. As we listen to a news report, we learn these very men have kidnapped an 8-year-old named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). He sits reading comics with bizarre blue goggles over his eyes and noise canceling headphones on his head. Day turns into night and now they’re on the move again. A religious group and the federal government are both involved as well. Everyone seems preoccupied with the fate of this special little boy. It’s not even clear for awhile where our sympathies should lie. For example, is Roy a good guy or a bad guy? To even reveal that would be a disservice to the story.

The pleasure of this slow burn thriller is in the way it slowly disseminates information so that the audiences gradually understand what’s going on as developments arise. Our minds are held captive by the truth. The trick is how much to reveal and how soon. Midnight Special does a pretty outstanding job at keeping us interested for the majority of its run time. It’s fascinating how “wanting to know more” fuels our appetite. There are well placed reveals throughout and these have the power to satiate our desire. Director Jeff Nichols shows remarkable restraint. The full scope of the chronicle is a gradual understanding.

Less is more. If you were to boil Midnight Special down to its very essence, it’s essentially a chase movie. But there is beauty in simplicity. Nichols has always been a visual story teller and his latest is no different. This is his 4th directorial effort. The drama manipulates sci-fi into a tale about family. The spirit of Steven Spielberg permeates the account. As such it’s Nichols’ most accessible movie. Actor Michael Shannon has been featured in all of the director’s films. He’s appropriately intense. Kudos also to young Jaeden Lieberher as the enigmatic little boy. He was the central child at the focus of the wonderful 2014 comedy St. Vincent as well. What keeps Midnight Special from achieving greatness is that you ultimately need to have some sort of an ending. That’s the difficult part in a narrative that’s all about the journey. I liked being in the dark, but the script ultimately betrays its own ambiguity. It gives us a destination.  This could have been handled differently. The resolution is a little too, hmmm shall we say, specific in this case. It’s the finishing misstep that ultimately lingers in a movie that is mostly captivating.

03-31-16