Bird Box


Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream.

(2018) Horror (Netflix) Sandra Bullock, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson, Jacki Weaver, Trevante Rhodes, Rosa Salazar, Danielle Macdonald, Lil Rel Howery, Tom Hollander, Colson Baker, BD Wong, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Vivien Lyra Blair, Julian Edwards, Parminder Nagra, Rebecca Pidgeon, Amy Gumenick, Taylor Handley, Happy Anderson, Kyle Beatty, Ashley A. Alvarado. Directed by Susanne Bier

 

The secret to a great horror movie is to never reveal the monster too early. What we can’t see is often the scariest creature of them all.

Civilization has collapsed but it’s not a plague of zombies that has done it; rather, an unseen monster that when it establishes eye contact causes the viewer to commit suicide. Essentially, nobody can go out of their house because once you see the monster, you’re toast within moments. In the early scenes of the movie we see precisely how quickly things devolve into chaos as people ram their cars into immovable objects, stab themselves to death and calmly open the door of a burning car and sitting down in the passenger scene, immolating themselves.

Malorie (Bullock) is a take-charge kind of woman who finds herself in this environment. Pregnant, she is on her way from a routine doctor appointment when things go to Hell in a handbasket. She takes refuge in the home of a curmudgeonly novelist who watches his wife kill herself after she beckons Malorie and other stranded motorists into her fortress-like home. Her husband Douglas (Malkovich) is none too pleased about the new guests but admits grudgingly that they bring special skills to the table, including ex-military construction crew chief (Rhodes) who develops a relationship with Malorie, grandmotherly Sheryl (Weaver), conspiracy theorist and grocery clerk Charlie (Howery) and a few others who come and go, some with less-than-noble intentions.

This culminates in a harrowing journey Malorie takes with her children (identified only as Boy (Edwards) and Girl (Blair) five years after the fact in which she rows a canoe down a river while blindfolded, hoping to make it to a rumored sanctuary in Northern California which is mostly shown in flash-forwards.

Bullock is brilliant here in a rare appearance in a horror film for the actress (she doesn’t like horror movies and generally doesn’t take roles in them – her last horror movie was more than 20 years previously). Malkovich chews the scenery here in typical fashion while Weaver is competent as is Paulson. Sadly, the two juveniles playing Boy and Girl are as bland as their names would suggest; they spend most of the film trying to act rather than trying to project themselves into their characters. This is a problem for many juvenile actors and actresses which tend to lead to stiff performances which we get here.

We never see the creatures responsible although we see the carnage they cause. It is a good thing that we don’t; they are far more terrifying that way. Bier is a respected director having done most of her work in her native Denmark; this is her first genre film and she attacks it as she would any drama, allowing the emotions of the characters set the tone, making the movie more interesting than the average creature feature.

This was one of the most popular films released by Netflix last year; it even inspired another stupid dangerous internet phenomenon known as “the bird box challenge” in which people try to navigate a distance (indoors and/or outside) while blindfolding leading to a raft of injuries, some of which required visits to the Emergency Room. While the tension Bier builds is unbelievable, the story is just the opposite. While this isn’t the kind of horror film that uses creature effects to set it’s gory tone, although there is some gore. This is the kind of horror movies that even those who aren’t fond of the genre can see.

REASONS TO SEE: The tension is unrelenting. Another great concept, even if it is a little bit derivative. Some very smart decisions made by the director.
REASONS TO AVOID: The juvenile actors are a liability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and gore, profanity, adult themes and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bullock is actually blindfolded during the scenes in which her character is (which makes up about half the film) and refused to allow eye holes to be cut, causing her to bump into the camera more than once during shooting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Quiet Place
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Spy Behind Home Plate

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Hereditary


Toni Collette practices her Oscar acceptance speech.

(2018) Horror (A24) Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Christy Summerhays, Morgan Lund, Mallory Bechtel, Jake Brown, Harrison Nell, Briann Rachele, Heidi Mendez, Moises Tovar, Jarrod Phillips, Ann Dowd, Brock McKinney, Zachary Arthur, David Stanley, Bus Riley, Austin Grant, Gabe Eckert, Jason Miyagi, Marilyn Miller, Rachelle Hardy, Georgia Puckett  Directed by Ari Aster

There are critics who shouldn’t be allowed to review some genres. Those who abhor emotional manipulation should not be allowed to review romantic comedies. Those who think movies exist only to illuminate and educate shouldn’t be allowed to review Hong Kong action films or superhero films for that matter. There are some who don’t have the patience for kid flicks. and there are plenty of critics who don’t get horror movies at all who should be kept away from horror movies with physical restraints – and I suspect some of them would be just fine with that. Me, I love horror movies so at least you won’t get genre snobbery below.

\Annie Graham (Collette) is burying her recently deceased mother. She is strangely ambivalent about it; her relationship with her mom was strained to say the least. In fact, the only member of the family who is sorry to see the old lady go is the youngest, daughter Charlie (Shapiro) who is as creepy a child as you’re likely to find on any movie screen, theatrical or home.

Annie has kind of a strange job; she’s an artist who builds miniature rooms with meticulous detail. These rooms are largely from her own past and present. Annie is already kind of a high strung sort much to the chagrin of her stoner teenage son Peter (Wolff) and grounded husband Steve (Byrne). When a second tragedy strikes the family, it threatens to send Annie over the edge.

Reluctantly, she attends a grief-counseling group where she runs into Joan (Dowd), a motherly sort who has lost her husband and son to a car accident. She confides in an increasingly depressed Annie that she has discovered a means of communicating with the dead. Given a straw to cling to, Annie seizes it with both hands but as anyone who knows anything about the horror genre knows, it’s never a good idea to contact the dead.

Now, the synopsis above makes this sound like a pretty run-of-the-mill horror concoction but I assure you that it is not. This is one of the most justifiably acclaimed horror movies of this year or maybe even any other year, both by critics who do get horror films and fans of the genre alike (not to mention film buffs and cinephiles). The movie is ingeniously crafted, a slow burn that builds to an absolutely twisted finale that will leave you terrified of turning out the lights for days.

One of the reasons to love this movie is Toni Collette. Horror films rarely generate Oscars for actors but this is one that truly deserves to. Collette’s depiction of Anne’s descent into paranoid madness is the stuff of horror rubbernecking – you simply can’t turn away. Collette has been nominated for Oscars before but this may well be her best performance. I can’t imagine anyone topping it. The rest of the performances are strong, particularly the always-reliable Byrne, the up-and-coming star Wolff and veteran character actor Dowd. Shapiro is also particularly strong but she doesn’t get as much screen time as the others.

Steve Newburn is credited with designing the miniatures; they are exquisite and add considerably to the creepy factor So too does the score which doesn’t take cheap shots with ersatz scares. When the really scary stuff starts to unfold, it’s honest and quite frankly, this movie is scary as fcuk. Seriously, if you are easily frightened or overly sensitive this movie may well be too much for you.

This is not the kind of movie that throws jump scares at you to keep you off-balance. This is a slow-building ticking time bomb that immerses you in an atmosphere that is both normal and not-quite-right. As things begin to go off the rails for Annie, we begin to understand she’s not the most reliable of narrators. Is it really happening? I say yes. Whether you’re on the same page as I am, this is certainly one of the most unforgettable horror movies of the past decade and if you didn’t see it during its brief run this past summer, you NEED to see it this Halloween.

REASONS TO GO: Collette delivers a career-defining performance. The ending sequence is terrifying. It’s very likely to become a horror classic. The dysfunctional family dynamic feels authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: This might actually be too scary for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of graphic violence and disturbing imagery, some drug use and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Wolff, Byrne and Shapiro knew each other from previous film work; Collette alone didn’t know any of the actors that played her family, contributing to her sense of isolation which comes out in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Four

UFO: It Is Here (UFO: Es Ist Hier)


These German lasses just found out that Donald Trump COULD be elected U.S. President.

These German lasses just found out that Donald Trump COULD be elected U.S. President.

(2016) Horror (Daredo) Laura Berlin, Dennis Mojen, Olga von Luckwald, Leonard Hohm, Jan Walter, Hacky Rumpel, Andreas Ladwig, Fabio Cimpeanu, Nika Cimpeanu. Directed by Daniele Grieco

 

If you’re gonna be a film student, you might as well be ambitious. It’s all well and good to film a documentary at the local zoo, but when an object appears in the sky above your heads, causing the animals in the zoo to universally freak out, that’s a whole other matter. Abandoning your original project to search out a crashed meteorite might just be the ticket not only to getting an “A” but perhaps getting your name out there in the industry.

That’s exactly the situation that confronts Melissa Stein (Berlin), Leo Best (Mojen), Paula Idem (von Luckwald), Erik Greven (Hohm) and André Selke (Walter). Afterwards, they take a vote among themselves to drive to the Northwest and find the crash site of the meteorite and the vote passes, with only sensible Paula voting to finish their Zoo assignment.

Paula is however overruled and off they go in their van into the woods of Germany/Luxembourg/Belgium (where the movie was filmed by the way) and find what amounts to a needle in the haystack. Wouldn’t you know it but they do; a plume of smoke signals that they’ve found what they were searching for.

The crash site is covered with a haze of smoke and is nothing like they expected. There are metal fragments everywhere; scattered all over the ground among scorched trees and embedded in the trunks of trees as well. It is nearly dusk by the time they get there and worried that the authorities will have cordoned off the area before they can get the footage they need, they elect to remain there overnight with once again Paula voting for going home. They should have listened to Paula.

One of their number turns up missing the next morning and when they eventually make a grisly discovery, it becomes clear they are being hunted. Eventually they find a cave where they have an encounter with the thing that’s stalking them and it is like nothing seen before on this Earth, at least for as long as humans have been here.

This is a found footage film which may turn some off to it immediately; for awhile there it seemed like every other horror movie utilized the technique until it became pretty much overused. These days it has become decidedly less so, which makes reviewing it a bit easier. Still, it’s hard not to compare it to the granddaddy of all found footage films, The Blair Witch Project whose template is followed pretty closely by Grieco and to be fair if you’re going to follow a template, that’s a pretty good choice. There are also some nods to Alien, a movie Grieco professes much admiration for. The creature has some similarity to things encountered in the Ridley Scott film, although I think it’s more of an homage than a theft in this case.

Essentially what you have here is five good-looking young people making bad choices in the woods (and later, in a cave and even later in an abandoned farmhouse). That’s essentially the recipe for any horror film, but I was pleased that at least one of the characters seemed to be sensible; she just wasn’t listened to  There is a fair amount of gore here – it’s not for the squeamish by any standard – and mostly practical effects. The alien itself is pretty nifty, although I wouldn’t call it a state-of-the-art creation. We don’t see much of it except in one cave scene where one is found that appears to be in a slumber while digesting a recent meal. There is also plenty of shaky-cam going on which those who are sensitive to such things should be wary of.

I admit that for me to be wowed by a found footage film it has to be really innovative and bring something to the table that no other film in the genre has. This one does have a few things worth checking out but otherwise it really doesn’t add anything particularly new to the genre. It’s solidly made by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few years down the line he starts to get some mention with the young lions of the horror genre.

REASONS TO GO: The creature effects are primitive but effective.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many found footage tropes here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of profanity, some disturbing images and plenty of horror violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second straight found footage film that Grieco has directed, having had a hit in her native Germany with The Presence in 2014.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Deepwater Horizon

Mozart and the Whale


Mozart and the Whale

Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchell are taken for a ride.

(Millennium) Josh Hartnett, Radha Mitchell, Gary Cole, John Carroll Lynch, Rusty Schwimmer, Erica Leerhsen, Nate Mooney, Sheila Kelly, Robert Wisdom. Directed by Petter Naess

Asperger’s Syndrome is a form of autism in which the patients are high-functioning, with a difficulty in socializing but an amazing ability to lock in on something that fascinates them, whether it is mathematics, trivia or molecular structure. They are often misunderstood as social misfits when in reality they just don’t have the mechanism to cope with social situations that the rest of us take for granted.

Jerry (Hartnett) is a New York cab driver who is afflicted with Asperger’s. He can add numbers in his head like a human calculator, but he has trouble carrying on a conversation without turning it into a non-stop soliloquy filled with random facts. He loves birds to the extent that many fly free in his terminally cluttered apartment, and he often takes one with him to work driving his cab (which begs the question; wouldn’t it fly out the door whenever someone got in or out?) much to the discomfort of his passengers.

Like many Asperger’s patients, he needs routine and structure and when things break out of the routine, he has difficulty coping. When he accidentally runs into a parked car, he gathers his things and walks away, leaving a group of angry people.

He belongs to a group of fellow Asperger’s patients, and he takes comfort in the presence of people he can relate to, even though some of them like Gregory (Lynch) can be a bit on the curmudgeonly side.

Into this group comes Isabelle (Mitchell) who has been referred to it by her therapist. She is the diametric opposite of Donald; where he is introverted and shy, she is straightforward and without fear. She is direct where he is not. She comes into his life much like a cannonball would come into a group of Civil War-era infantrymen and she has much the same effect. She invites him to a Halloween party and dresses up like Mozart; he puts on a rather disheveled whale costume and almost doesn’t show up because he is so obsessive about time.

Despite all the obstacles, the two form a romantic partnership that brings a brand new dimension into their lives. When Isabelle cleans up Donald’s apartment, he freaks out but eventually he begins to learn how to accept her presence into his life. When he realizes that they can’t afford the house she wants and the lifestyle they both want, he takes a job at a university in statistics where he excels. When he invites his boss over for dinner, it turns into a disaster largely in part to Isabelle’s inability to cope with the situation.

There is obviously a deep emotional connection between the two, but it becomes just as clear that their Asperger’s is getting in the way of their relationship. Will they be able to overcome something so deeply ingrained in them?

This is based loosely on real life couple Jerry and Mary Newport. Norwegian director Naess, whose resume includes the Oscar-nominated Elling, does a magnificent job in portraying the disease, so much so that the movie is often screened at legitimate autism conferences as an illustration of the social consequences of the disease.

Hartnett, who was reportedly unhappy with the final version of the film and consequently did little or no promotion of the movie, does some of the best work of his career here. He gives Donald depth that one wouldn’t expect, making him seem real and authentic. Much of this is due to Ronald Bass’ script but Hartnett pulls out some nuances that I didn’t think he had in him based on previous performances. This is the kind of movie that could get him more challenging roles if he wants to pursue that kind of work.

Mitchell, who has become a steady leading actress since first attracting notice in Pitch Black, also does a great job, making Isabelle entirely non-stereotypical and giving her the kind of spunk and fullness of life that make her in many ways the most memorable aspect of the movie. While Hartnett’s performance is more subtle, Mitchell gets to go over the top here and she does it nicely without descending into parody. Her and Hartnett make an attractive couple and while the chemistry is non-traditional, it works all the same.

The supporting cast of veteran character actors does well in their roles, particularly Lynch and Schwimmer. At no time do you get the feeling that anyone is looking down on their characters; these are all real people with real problems and while they may have different challenges than we do, that makes them no less fascinating.

This is director Naess’ first American film, and he does pretty well although the pacing gets a little choppy. Then again, that may be due to the nature of the characters that can lose interest in something and simply stop. That makes it occasionally difficult on the viewer who feels like the movie is veering off unexpectedly. It’s a kind of cinematic vertigo. While he never descends into movie of the week treacle, there are a few moments that are overly sentimental to me but thankfully they are few and far between.

While most look at Rain Man as their view into autism, in many ways this is a much more authentic look (although some groups have criticized the movie for playing into the perception that all autism patients have savant-like skills, which is actually much more rare than Hollywood would lead you to believe) at the disease. As a society, we tend to marginalize these people or worse, ignore them altogether. Hopefully, a viewing of Mozart and the Whale will give you a fresh perspective on a disease that affects real people and is in nearly every community in one form or another.

WHY RENT THIS: A very authentic-feeling look at the lives of those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Hartnett and Mitchell have some quirky chemistry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie’s pacing can be a bit abrupt. There are moments that are a bit mawkish.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some allusions to sexual subjects and a little bit of foul language but otherwise nothing too disturbing. However, the subject matter may be a bit much for smaller children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The screenplay was written by Ronald Bass who also wrote Rain Man, another movie about autism. He was inspired in this case by a 1995 article on Jerry and Mary Newport.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Tony Manero

12


12

Twelve angry Russian men.

(Sony Classics) Sergei Markovetsky, Nikita Mikhalkov, Sergei Garmash, Alexei Petrenko, Valentin Graft, Yuri Stoyanov, Mikhail Efremov, Sergei Gazarov, Alexander Abadashan, Viktor Verzhbitsky, Alexei Gorbunov, Roman Madianov, Sergei Artsybashov, Apti Magamaev. Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov

A trial of our peers, twelve good and true. Our justice system is based on it, as is the justice systems of other countries as well. We entrust the fate of accused criminals to twelve jurors and expect that they will make their decision impartially and fairly. Of course, any jury is made of twelve human beings and any human being is a slave to their own preconceptions.

In Moscow, the murder trial of a Chechen teen (Magamaev) accused of killing his adopted Russian father has concluded and the jury has been sent off to deliberate. Because of renovations being done at the courthouse, the jury has been sent to a neighboring school to use their gymnasium for that purpose. Nobody expects them to be gone long; after all, the evidence is pretty cut and dried.

With no working phones (this is Russia, after all), the bailiff hands them a homemade walkie talkie in case they need anything (unlikely) or reach a verdict (more likely). After a bit of bantering and electing a foreman, they cast their first vote, expecting a unanimous guilty verdict. When the votes are counted up, they are astonished to find that one of their number has voted “not guilty.”

So begins the odyssey of twelve Russian men, some angry, some not so much. This is a disparate group; one is a Harvard-educated mama’s boy, another a flinty anti-Semite; one is a bit of a clown and another is an intellectual. All are linked by the events they have been only described to them. What it all means and what will happen to a young Chechen boy is up to them.

The movie is ostensibly a remake of the classic courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men but it is more accurate to call it a movie based on the original. The writer of the original movie, Reginald Rose, is given screen credit but little more than the concept remains. While the original was something of an indictment of McCarthyism, this one is far more Russian and carries additional layers. While not as tense as the original movie, it nonetheless has a great deal of power of its own.

The movie is extremely well-acted, although in Russian so we miss a lot of nuances by having to read subtitles constantly. It unfolds like a Russian epic, Dostoyevsky gone Hollywood, and in some ways it feels like “Crime and Punishment” with an edge.

Each of the characters is fleshed out nicely, never coming off as a caricature or a cliché but curiously, none of the characters are given names. They are all identified as juror numbers or as some sort of title and yet they all like real people walking the streets of Moscow. As they are called upon to defend their positions, they reveal something about themselves, which in turn reveals to us something about modern Russia. There is some very powerful stuff here.

Russian attitudes also come into play. There is a palpable hatred of the Chechens by the Muskovites; it permeates their reasoning, particularly when it comes to this particular crime. Does it compare to white American attitudes towards the African-American in the 1950s? Probably not, but its pretty close.

This is the kind of movie that transcends language. Even if you aren’t Russian and don’t understand the Russian mentality, you’ll be moved by what you see here. It shows in clear, distinct detail that we are more alike than unalike, and that the same things that trouble folks in Moscow trouble folks in Montana. Those things need no translation.

WHY RENT THIS: A rare look inside the Russian legal system, as well as insight into the modern Russia and modern Russians. At times this is very powerful and very moving.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We miss many nuances due to the translation and watching of subtitles. Russians are very fond of irony so we miss facial expressions while reading subtitles that give us further clarity.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some violent scenes, as well as some drug references and sexual references but it’s the tension and overall mature theme of the movie that makes it unsuitable for younger audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Mikhalkov, only the third Russian director to win an Oscar, is the son of the man who wrote the lyrics to the national anthem of the Soviet Union.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Titanic