Archive for the Thriller Category

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.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Posted in Action, Adventure, Thriller with tags on August 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

hobbs_and_shaw_ver6STARS3
It’s been a while but does anyone remember that The Fast and the Furious was originally about illegal street racing?  Oh so much has changed since that 2001 film.  Dwayne Johnson joined the franchise in Fast Five (2011) as American federal law officer Luke Hobbs.  Jason Statham would be introduced later in a cameo during the end credits of Fast & Furious 6 (2013).  Statham is a British special forces assassin-turned-mercenary named Deckard Shaw.  It was the box office success high of Furious 7 (2015) that prominently featured both stars which ultimately inspired this offshoot.  Together they had an adversarial relationship.  Now the two are starring in the first spin-off of the series and the results are exactly what you’d expect.  Muscle cars and even muscular men.  Oh and a Moscow mansion of deadly beauties with a leader (Eiza González) that’s more appropriately dressed for a Victoria’s Secret fashion show than commanding a gang of arms dealers.

The tale has these frenemies paired against their will to extract a deadly virus called “The Snowflake” that has been manufactured by a terrorist group called Eteon.  Shaw’s sister, MI6 field agent Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) has injected capsules containing it into her own body for safekeeping.  She will die if an antidote isn’t found soon.  Lead terrorist Brixton Lore (Idris Elba) just so happens to be genetically enhanced by cybernetic augmentations.  Naturally, villains can’t be mere humans anymore.  Indeed this super soldier’s enhanced field of view is not unlike something The Terminator or perhaps Tony Stark might see.  “I’m Black Superman” he declares.  He seeks to claim and unleash The Snowflake to kill the half of humanity that Eteon has deemed weak.  The central duo is enough but the filmmakers still feel the need to insert unnecessary cameos from Kevin Hart and Ryan Reynolds into the mix.  Must the ever-sarcastic Reynolds act/sound like Deadpool in every single role?  His unexpected arrival is pleasant at first but his many appearances (including in two of the three — yes three! — end credits sequences) really grates on the audiences’ nerves like an unwelcome guest.

Don’t even try to make any sense of it.  This picture has amusing continuity errors on a Plan 9 from Outer Space level.  Flashbacks show Deckard and Hattie as roughly the same age as brother and sister.  Yet actors Jason Statham and Vanessa Kirby are over twenty years apart playing the roles as adults.  Ok, so not a big deal, but more logic is thrown out the window during a climactic battle on the island of Samoa.  Apparently, the sun in this world doesn’t follow the rules of the solar system.  Shaw lights a ring of fire around enemy soldiers in a conspicuous display at night.  A second later and it’s broad daylight.  It’s such an abrupt transition.  There’s more, but I already know what you’re thinking.  You don’t watch movies like this for intelligence or sense.  I’ll move on.

It’s a cliche to call a feature “big dumb fun” but Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw IS a cliche.   To call the plot formulaic is an insult to the very word itself.  As a story, the account isn’t built on a coherent narrative but rather a string of carefully planned spectacles.  The car chases and pyrotechnics are ridiculous.  That’s part of their cartoonish charm. You came for stunts and you’ll get mayhem aplenty.  Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) understands how to photograph a crisp action sequence.  It’s chaotic and nonsensical but you can still see what’s happening.  Just don’t apply the laws of physics.

What pushes this flick into something I’d recommend is the chemistry of the lead pair.  Mix two cantankerous individuals together and watch the sparks fly.  It’s a recipe that works.  Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham are enough to carry the narrative.  The mere sight of them together is comical.  Statham has a solid build.  He stands about 5’10. He’s not small.  Johnson, however, has mutated into a roided out inhuman hulk.  Statham looks positively diminutive next to this guy.  These action set pieces are linked together by hilarious banter courtesy of screenwriters Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce.  The way these stars trade insults is even better than the way they trade punches.  Shaw cracks that the massive Hobbs’ tight t-shirt size is “spray-on”.  Upon meeting Shaw’s sibling Hattie, Hobbs quips, “She’s too pretty to be your sister”.  They bicker like an old married couple.  At one point Shaw must create pseudonyms for both of them at the airport.  “Mike Oxmall” is the name he gives to his associate.  Sound it out.  Granted this is low-level humor.  If that doesn’t make you chuckle, you probably won’t be swayed by the screenplay’s superficial charms.

Nevertheless, Hobbs & Shaw is surprisingly wholesome.  This PG-13 rated movie is completely devoid of gore.  Furthermore, its redemptive message of unity makes this an uplifting paean to honoring your relatives.  There’s even a reunion with Hobbs’ beloved mom (Lori Pelenise Tuisano).  The screenplay pounds the notes of sentimentality with a sledgehammer.  Hallmark Channel, take note.  The culminating showdown set in Hobbs’ childhood home of Samoa provides him an opportunity to mend ties with his estranged sibling, Jonah (Cliff Curtis).  Later Hobbs and his brothers perform a Samoan war dance — the Siva Tau — before going to battle with the far more technologically advanced bad guys.  Each display designed to pluck at your heartstrings. This series has never failed to emphasize the importance of friends and family.  The setting is different, but we’ve seen this buddy-action blueprint before.  The car chase scene with his Samoan brothers could’ve been lifted directly out of an episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.  It’s straightforward fun, so there’s no earthly reason why a simplistic action picture needs to be patience-testing 2 hours and 15 minutes long.  However, those funny and abundant put-downs make this saga entertaining.  Johnson and Statham boost the production and it’s their charisma that pushes this derivative story into passable time filler.  Stay tuned, Fast and Furious 9 arrives May 2020.

08-01-19

Ma

Posted in Horror, Thriller with tags on June 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

maSTARS3.5There’s something so wonderful about Ma, the new horror movie starring Octavia Spencer.  I’ll be honest, it’s kind of a cheesy film.  Tate Taylor also directed The Girl on the Train which was one of my least favorite releases of 2016.  But Ma is something else entirely.  It’s a completely idiosyncratic story about a middle-aged black woman that befriends a group of mostly white teens.  She invites them over so they can have a safe place to hang out and drink.  Obviously, juveniles under the age of 21 shouldn’t be drinking but Spencer isn’t supposed to be playing an admirable person.  However, there’s a lot more to uncover here than initially meets the eye.

Ma is trashy fun.  Screenwriters Scotty Landes and Tate Taylor know exactly the kind of campy film they’re making.  So does Octavia Spencer.  It’s not great art but it is entertaining.  She plays a veterinary assistant named Sue Ann Ellington who is approached by a group of adolescents who ask her to buy alcohol for them.  Sue Ann is awkward.  She sports a hairstyle seemingly inspired by Joey Lawrence in the TV show Gimme a Break! circa 1983.  It isn’t only the way she looks, though.  It’s the way she acts.  Spencer’s identity is that of a kindly mature woman desperate to be liked.  The kids start calling her Ma and she likes the attention.  The script gives this misfit a detailed backstory recounted in flashbacks.  There are details to this character that aren’t readily apparent.  There’s a reason for her unhinged behavior.  She still harbors unresolved anger from her past.

Ma goes to places I didn’t foresee.  At first, she simply buys the kids booze, but pretty soon she’s offering up the basement in her home as a place for them to party.  Then she’s celebrating right alongside them.  That’s so unexpected.  So is the soundtrack which includes “The Safety Dance”, “Kung Fu Fighting” and “Funkytown”.  I didn’t reckon Ma would crank up the bouncy hit “September” by Earth Wind and Fire while running over a victim.  It’s refreshing to see a production where Octavia Spencer gets to be the star and the supporting cast are there to support her.  The ensemble consists of teen Maggie (Diana Silvers, Booksmart) who has just moved to the area with her mother Erica (Juliette Lewis).  Luke Evans is Ben, an old high school classmate from Erica’s childhood and Missi Pyle portrays Ben’s girlfriend who can’t hold her liquor.   There’s also Allison Janney who’s highly memorable as Ma’s irritable boss.  There is literally only one note to her performance.  That sounds like a condemnation but it’s not.  Janney is hilarious.  She doesn’t have many lines but every one she utters is vicious.  This is a reunion of sorts. Janney and Spencer were in The Help together which was likewise helmed by Tate Taylor. He happens to play a police officer here.

You really have to suspend a lot of disbelief with Ma. The way these children keep going back to Ma’s house makes absolutely no sense. It almost becomes an unintentional(?) running joke.  There are so many signs that Ma isn’t quite right.  Early on she points a gun at one of the students and demands that he remove his clothes.   It’s an uncomfortable scene, but the kids inexplicably seem fine with it after she laughs it off.  Later she hugs Erica and her expression over toward Maggie goes from delighted to deranged in a half second.  That’s part of the movie’s spell.  Spencer adroitly switches from sympathetic to cruel.  I felt sorry for this woman.  Then I hated her.  Earlier this year Neil Jordan’s Greta employed a similar camp sensibility.  Ma is even less inhibited and therefore more fun.  For the majority of the picture, this is a compelling character study. Unfortunately, the drama’s final 20-minute descent into Grand Guignol is a letdown.  Yet through it all, Spencer endures as a fascinating personality.  The achievement would be a parody in a lesser actor’s hands.  Spencer extracts both pathos and absurdity from the screenplay.  The individual is cut from the same cloth as Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Piper Laurie in Carrie, and Kathy Bates in Misery.   Those may be iconic grandes dames of horror but Spencer is most definitely in the same league.

06-08-19

The Curse of La Llorona

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on April 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

curse_of_la_llorona_ver2STARS2.5In Mexican folklore, La Llorona (Marisol Ramirez) is the legend of a “weeping woman” who drowned her children in a blind rage.  The act was to take revenge on her philandering husband, but once she realized what she had done, the river had already carried them away.  After her death, she was prevented from entering the kingdom of heaven until she found them.  Thus, she continues to wander the night looking for children whom she mistakes for her own.

The Curse of La Llorona is the sixth installment in producer James Wan’s horror franchise that began with the breakout success of The Conjuring in 2013 and includes Annabelle (2014) and The Nun (2018).  The fable dates back to 1673 and it’s nicely reenacted as an eerie intro that sets the stage for the proper story here.  The production is a period piece that mainly takes place 300 years later in 1973.  This allows for Father Perez (Tony Amendola) who appeared in the 1967 set Annabelle to briefly pop up, so there’s the connective tissue to the rest of the series.

Recently widowed Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) becomes familiar with the myth when investigating a case of possible child abuse.  She is a social worker questioning the mother (Patricia Velasquez) of two sons.  Soon Anna’s own kids Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) are being terrorized.  She appeals to a former priest named Rafael Olvera (Raymond Cruz) for help.  This isn’t great art.  It’s a lot of scares loosely strung together by a generic tale dressed up in period detail.  Even though this is primitive stuff, there is some enjoyment in experiencing one shock after another.  Car windows roll down by themselves, transparent umbrellas reveal shadowy figures when lowered then disappear when raised.  Later, Rafael spreads seeds from a special tree across the doorway to prevent La Llorona from entering their home.  The scene where that barrier of protection is compromised is exceptionally intense.

The Curse of La Llorona is a very efficient horror movie.  Evaluating the way it’s constructed is kind of like looking for the nutritional value in cotton candy or analyzing the plot of a roller coaster.  This is a pure yet simple entertainment.  You’ll laugh at how openly guileless the production is in eliciting frights.  In a scant 93 minutes, director Michael Chaves piles on more jump scares per minute than any film I can remember.  That is a backhanded compliment.  The technique of creating surprises with an abrupt image accompanied by a loud sound is perhaps the laziest way to frighten the viewer.  Nevertheless, there’s a certain satisfaction in getting the very basic requirement of what you paid for.  Unfortunately, that’s all you get.

04-18-19

Pet Sematary

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller with tags on April 8, 2019 by Mark Hobin

pet_sematary_ver3STARS3.5It’s been 30 years.  Pet Cemetery was ripe for a remake.  Oh pardon me, that’s S-E-M-A-T-A-R-Y.  Although a hit in the spring of 1989, the original isn’t held in particularly high regard.  Additionally, author Stephen King has never been hotter.  His novel It was reworked for a second time as two theatrical features in 2017 and 2019.  Even accounting for inflation, Part 1 became the biggest box office success of a Stephen King property ever.  This critic wasn’t a fan actually.  I’d have to go back to 1408 to find something based on the author’s work I enjoyed so I wasn’t highly anticipating this.  I’m happy to say that this is the best Stephen King adaptation in over a decade.

The best horror movies establish an evocative mood.  There’s something really eerie about a burial ground.  A graveyard for animals is even creepier still.  Now add the fact that I’m not a cat person.  Just the set-up of Pet Sematary is inherently scary.  Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) has relocated his family from Boston to rural Maine.  His wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) and their youngsters, daughter Ellie (Jeté Laurence), and son Gage (Hugo & Lucas Lavoie) are getting used to their new surroundings.  Their home deep in the woods affords them peace and quiet.  The acres that now make up their backyard also includes a pet cemetery used by the locals.  While out walking one day, Rachel and Ellie come upon a funeral procession of children in frightening animal masks.  One malevolently beats on a toy drum.  The spectacle is even more menacing than it sounds.  When Ellie tries to climb beyond a tangled mass of fallen trees and brush, she is stopped from going any further by the Creeds’ well-meaning new neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow).  We’re immediately curious about what lays past the deadfall.  The unsettling unknown is often scarier than the actual reveal.

The chronicle relies on an emotional core.  The screenplay doesn’t treat grief as some throwaway concern, but an emotion with which one must come to terms.  We learn early on that mother Rachel was traumatized by the passing of her sister Zelda (Alyssa Brooke Levine).  Death has always been a hard subject for her to talk about.  When the family cat Church is hit by a truck, she decides to hide this detail from the kids and simply say the cat ran away.  Louis and Jud go to bury Church in the established shrine.  However, Jud shares a bit of information with Louis that will change their lives forever.  Pet Sematary is a horror reflection that contemplates bereavement.  Perhaps these harsh realities of life are better to accept than to reject.

This is a simple drama unencumbered by extraneous details.  Matt Greenberg (1408) has slightly changed the story from one of Stephen King’s shorter novels.  This may anger some King purists.  I don’t worship the text so it’s didn’t faze me.  Screenwriter Jeff Buhler (The Prodigy) has adapted the source for directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Starry Eyes) who take a refreshingly spartan approach to the proceedings.  This is a bare-bones study with effective scares and a chilling atmosphere.  As we’ve recently seen in Hereditary and Us, a performance can greatly enhance a production.  11-year-old actress Jeté Laurence gives a nuanced portrayal.  Ellie Creed is a complex role worthy of an actor twice her age.  Unfortunately, the developments succumb to blood and guts violence in the final act.  I’m not a fan of viscera.  Then again it probably wouldn’t be Stephen King if it didn’t include some.  Thankfully this tale depends more on emotions than gore.  The sophisticated craft is markedly better than the silliness of the 1989 version.  Christopher Young’s ominous score adds to the disturbing milieu.  The ambiance is a mounting wall of impending dread.  I “dug” this Pet Sematary.

04-04-19

Us

Posted in Horror, Mystery, Thriller on March 23, 2019 by Mark Hobin

UsSTARS4I’ve been waiting for this.  Us is director Jordan Peele’s followup to his much-lauded debut, Get Out.  It nabbed the filmmaker an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.  My expectations were high simply because it was this reviewer’s 4th favorite picture of 2017.  It’s hard not to make comparisons as Us is another work in the horror genre that incorporates both creepy and funny elements.  For example, the 1986 charity benefit “Hands Across America” is woven into the narrative as an illustration of both.  But Us has such a different agenda.  It’s something else altogether.  I’ll cut the suspense.  This is not as coherent as his first feature.  Yet there’s still so much to recommend.  At worst, it’s proof that Get Out was not a fluke.  Jordan Peele is an imaginative talent with a vision.  The screenplay extracts fear out of our safe space.  Us is a highly entertaining thriller meticulously built upon a foundation of unrelenting tension.

The movie concerns the well-to-do Wilson family.  There’s mom Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) along with their two children, teenaged daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and younger son Jason (Evan Alex).  The clan is on vacation and they’ve gone to Santa Cruz beach.  While the group is hanging out with the Tylers, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh (Tim Heidecker), young Jason wanders off.  He encounters an incongruous stranger dripping with blood right there on the sand.  At that same moment, Adelaide notices Jason is missing.  She panics running down the beach snapping up her little boy before anything grave has happened.  However, she’s freaked out.  Time for everyone to return back to the house.  That night, they will be visited by a family that looks unnervingly like their own.

Every exceptional horror film is elevated by at least one galvanizing performance and Lupita Nyong’o is the star of this show.  For the first time in her career, a story revolves around the actress.  She is more than up to the task.  The opening vignette is a flashback to 1986 when Adelaide was a little girl (Madison Curry).  Back then, she too had a negative experience at that very same beach.  It was here that she entered an old funhouse with a hall of mirrors and confronted another girl that looked exactly like herself.  Adelaide was reunited with her parents but is so traumatized by the experience she was unable to speak.  This unresolved childhood trauma informs their present-day dread when they are visited by what appears to be duplicates of themselves.  Nyong’o gives two markedly distinctive portrayals.  Her human copy speaks in a deep guttural croak of a voice.  The unnerving low pitch only serves to emphasize how her evil twin has become her own worst enemy.  Director Jordan Peele is a self-proclaimed black nerd, or “blerd” and it’s hard not to see the auteur’s presence in the father.  Winston Duke was the powerful and virile warrior leader M’Baku in Black Panther.  Here he is a doughy, goofy dad with large spectacles proud of his newly purchased dilapidated speedboat. He’s prone to corny dad witticisms too. When out in the wilderness, daughter whines “There’s no Internet!” He happily chirps back, “You have the outernet!”

At its basic essence, Us is a home invasion thriller.  Then, in the final stretch, seemingly descends suddenly into a disorganized hodgepodge of allegorical plot ideas.  Let’s throw race, class, and nationality as topics for consideration.  Without context, I’ll simply add that “We’re Americans” is perhaps the most memorable utterance in the entire picture.  Wait, so is that title Us or is it the abbreviation U.S.? I’m not here to spoil the deeper themes.  Just want to acknowledge the assortment of concepts swirling around this chronicle.  This is sure to inspire a boatload of think piece articles that pontificate about things like existentialism.  I didn’t warm up to all of that.  Us works best if you don’t try to pick it apart too much, although repeat viewings will undoubtedly uncover more clues to bait that desire to delineate a singular point.

Great cinema isn’t just about WHAT you say but HOW you say it.  Horror movies are rarely this evocative.  It’s unbearably stressful but wisely uses unexpected dashes of humor to alleviate anxiety. Michael Abels’ score is frightfully good at extracting tension.  The cinematography by Mike Gioulakis artfully captures the action.  This production looks fantastic.  He appreciates faces, lovingly highlighting the visages of its stars in closeup so we the audience feel emotionally connected in their plight.  What’s interesting is despite the fact that each doppelgänger is portrayed by the same actor, they appear slightly different in some imperceptible way.  Call it makeup, lighting, or perhaps skillful acting.  Whatever the reason, it’s an unsettling effect.  Ok, so I’ll concede that their clothes are a dead giveaway.  They all wear red jumpsuits, sport sandals, and one fingerless driving glove.  Scissors are their weapon of choice.  Curiously, not a single gun is fired in this film.  The heightened visual presentation makes these villains iconic.  Does anyone want to guess what the hot Halloween costume will be this year?

03-21-19

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

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