Gerald’s Game


Carla Gugino is literally a captive audience.

(2017) Thriller (Netflix) Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Carel Struycken, Henry Thomas, Chiara Aurelia, Kate Siegel, Natalie Roers, Tom Glynn, Stu Cookson, Gwendolyn Mutamba, Ben Pronsky, Jon Arthur, Nikia Reynolds, Kimberly Battista, Michael Amstutz, Chuck Borden, Dori Lumpkin, Chad Kinney, Bill Riales, John Ceallach, Tony Beard, Victoria Hardway, Adalyn Jones. Directed by Mike Flanagan

It has been the year of Stephen King adaptations, with Dark Tower and It having already made their theatrical runs and 1922 recently released on Netflix. This adaptation is of particular interest because 1) Mike Flanagan, who has been impressive with Oculus and Hush, is in the director’s chair here and 2), this is one of King’s lesser works that was thought to be virtually unfilmable. How wrong they were.

One can see why that thought occurred however. The movie is mostly set in a single bedroom with the protagonist alone and immobile for the bulk of the story. There is also a kinky sexuality to it that in the current atmosphere is both timely and perhaps may incite a certain segment of the population to point their fingers and cry shrilly “Objectification! Objectification! Objectification!” We are, these days, gunshy about sex (particularly of the kinkier variety) on both sides of the political aisle.

The marriage between successful attorney Gerald (Greenwood) and his trophy wife Jessie (Gugino) has been troubled for some time now and the two decide to take a romantic trip to a beautiful but remote vacation cabin to try and heat things up. Gerald’s idea of romance is a lot different than Jessie’s however; he wants to handcuff her to the bed and enact a rape fantasy on his wife. At first she goes along with it, but as Gerald gets deeper into the game she freaks out and demands that he stop and free her. At first he is petulant, like a little boy who’s been told he can’t have a cookie. Then he does what most little boys don’t do – he has a heart attack and dies.

Slowly the realization comes to Jessie that she is in an absolutely terrifying predicament; she has no way to free herself from the stainless steel cuffs, no way to get food or water and she is sharing the bedroom with her husband’s corpse and a hungry dog who is desperate enough to enjoy some Gerald tartare. As panic begins to set in and she realizes that nobody can hear her screams, she begins to speak with the angels and devils of her better nature – her angels represented by a strong, self-possessed version of herself and her devils by Gerald himself. While Gerald mostly relates the scenarios in which she dies a horrible death, the alter-Jessie figures out ingenious ways to get water and eventually to concoct a desperate plan to escape – one that will take all of the actual Jessie’s willpower and courage.

But there is soon another player in the play; a deathly, spectral figure with a bag of bones who is stalking her after dark. She realizes that as the last evening falls that he will come for her in the night…and she will join her husband as potential puppy chow if she doesn’t escape before then.

The script follows King’s book pretty faithfully but it lacks the sense of dread and terror that King was able to weave in the book – but to be fair, not every writer is as talented at that particular skill as King is. In fact, very few writers are. Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard turn this more into a suspense film than a supernatural thriller which is what King produced – but the Moonlight Man is excellently rendered, I’ll give them that.

I’ll also give you that this is the performance that I’ve been waiting for Gugino to deliver. It’s masterful as she captures both the strong, self-assured side of Jessie and the frightened, wounded and disregarded part of her. She spends nearly the entire movie in a negligee (and looks mighty fine doing it) but you never get a sense of her being exploited (although some may disagree); she’s a woman who is comfortable with her sexuality and one senses that if Gerald had actually had a romantic weekend getaway planned instead of a kinkfest, he’d have gotten plenty of action.

She and Greenwood actually work very well together. Greenwood is sixty-plus at this point but he looks a lot more buff than the overweight Gerald of the book; it’s possible that Gerald’s use of that Little Blue Pill may have been what done him in. The relationship between Jessie and Gerald is believable; these are people who feel like they’ve been together for awhile but have begun to diverge away from one another and neither one knows really how to get back on the same page – or if it’s even possible. They remain civil to one another but there is that undercurrent of tension between them that tells a story of frustrations not voiced and petty arguments that are.

There is a subplot about Jessie’s past about a terrible incident that takes place during a rare total eclipse that does a lot to explain her backstory. It’s sensitively handled and again is pretty timely considering the events of recent months but it might be a little disturbing for people who have a history of childhood sexual abuse.

All in all this turned out much better than I think most of us had a right to expect. It re-emphasizes that Flanagan is the genuine article, a master of horror films who tends to elevate every project he works on and this one is no exception. Not only is it maybe the best adaptation of King you’ll see this year, it is one of the better original films you’ll see on Netflix this year as well.

REASONS TO GO: Gugino gives a career-defining performance and she works very well with Greenwood. The plot is fiendishly clever.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is not nearly as creepy as the book.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, a good deal of sexuality and some disturbing images and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dialogue and plot devices from the film reference such Stephen King books as Dolores Claiborne, Cujo and The Dark Tower.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girlfriend Experience
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
More of Six Days of Darkness

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The Anatomy of Monsters


A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

(2014) Thriller (Artsploitation) Tabitha Bastien, Jesse Lee Keeter, Conner Marx, Keiko Green, Satori Marill, Tori McDonough, Lauren Brooks-Wilson, Andrew Tribolini, Asher Vast, Natalie Miller, Nick Frank, Tammy Miller, Ken Miller, Andre Kirkman, Roxanne Nihiline, E. J. Bastien, Dave Shecter, Simone Leorin, Alex Upton, Meredith Binder. Directed by Byron C. Miller

 

How can you tell who the monsters are? They don’t come with fangs and claws, after all. That handsome, clean-cut guy on the blind date could be a sadistic rapist; the beautiful, sweet girl-next-door sort could take great pleasure in destroying the lives of others. You just never know who is going to turn out to be a sociopath.

Andrew (Keeter) looks like a frat guy at first glance, like the preppy from Connecticut slumming down in the city…or in Seattle, as the case is here. He gets dressed and heads out to the bars to find that just right girl. And it appears he’s found her in Sarah (T. Bastien) who is obviously interested and carries her sexual hunger like a Vera Wang handbag. She even has a pair of handcuffs, which she obligingly puts on in the hotel room she’s rented for the two of them. That’s when he pulls out a wicked-looking knife.

But Sarah has some secrets of her own, starting when she was just a kid who found her jollies in killing her pet kitties, moving through her teen years when she maimed a romantic rival right through when she was an adult when she discovered the joys of taking down bigger prey – the two legged variety. Which one of these two is the predator and which is the prey? Don’t think that the answer is a simple one.

I like this concept immensely and it could have made for a chilling, thrilling good time. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t have the experience to pull this off effectively. The pacing is all over the board; some scenes feel like the writer just couldn’t wait to get to the end of the scene and move on to more weighty matters; other scenes are excruciatingly drawn out. While it’s possible the filmmakers were going for an effect of putting the viewer off-balance, it just came off to this viewer as undisciplined and poorly edited.

Also gaining some negative points is the score; quite frankly, the soundtrack is intrusive and ineffective at establishing a mood. It sounded like the composer was trying too hard to set a mood, using menacing organ riffs to establish tension, and a bouncy soft rock background when Sarah and her boyfriend Nick (Marx) are together. A good soundtrack doesn’t create the mood; it enhances it and that’s something composer Paul Morgan needs to learn.

Tabitha Bastien (not to be confused with E.J. who plays a one-night stand for Sarah) takes control of the movie early on as we realize that the original focus on Andrew has shifted to Sarah. That’s not altogether a bad thing; Tabitha certainly has the screen charisma to carry the film. Although at times she’s given some really florid dialogue to mouth, most of the time the dialogue is well-written and sounds the way people talk, or at least the way I’d think a pair of serial killers might talk if they were to have a conversation; ‘Hey Ted Bundy.’ ‘Hey Jeffrey Dahmer.’ ‘Rough day at the office?’ “It was murder.’

One of the biggest mood killers is that the murders themselves are unconvincing. At one point a baseball bat is taken to a sleeping father, but the blows look like bunts rather than grand slams. There’s no force behind them and it absolutely takes the viewer out of the picture. I get that the filmmakers were operating on a minuscule budget but at least they can get the actors to slam the bat into a pillow and add the sound effects in post. If you want to do a realistic look at serial killers, you had better make everything realistic or else it just won’t fly.

This was a movie that sounds better on the printed page then it unspools on the screen. It’s available free for Amazon Prime users and if you are a lover of all things slasher you might give it a try if you have that service available. Otherwise, you need to be a very patient and understanding viewer, knowing that this is the work of relatively new filmmakers. There is certainly room for improvement but if they can keep the good concepts coming their execution will catch up to their imagination eventually.

WHY RENT THIS: The concept is intriguing. Tabitha Bastien makes a compelling lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the murder sequences were unconvincing. The film felt a little bit rushed in places and overly drawn out in others.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find some gore, violence, adult themes, sexual content and some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title of the film was The Witching Hour but was dropped in favor of its current title.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon Prime, Vimeo, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

The Perfect Husband


A walk in the woods.

A walk in the woods.

(2014) Thriller (Artsploitation) Gabriella Wright, Bret Roberts, Carl Wharton, Tania Bambaci, Daniel Vivian, Philippe Reinhardt, Maria Ester Grasso. Directed by Lucas Pavetto

 

Who knows what goes on behind bedroom doors? The relationship between a husband and a wife is largely unknown to the world other than to the two people in it; the things they choose to share with close friends and family may shed some light on at least the perspective of one member of the couple, but at the end of the day, the truth is known only to the husband and the wife.

Nicola (Roberts) and his wife Viola (Wright) have been going through a very rough patch. After a family tragedy had left her wallowing in grief and him trying to resurrect their marriage from the strained doldrums it’s fallen into, he decides that maybe the best thing for them would be a change of venue. Accordingly, he drives the two of them out into the Italian countryside where his Uncle has a cabin up in the mountains. It would seem to be a good place to reconnect and rekindle.

The problem is that Viola seems diffident to any kind of reconciliation; she’s high-strung, sneaking smokes when she thinks her husband can’t see her, and refusing any sort of sexual advance by him. His frustration is growing; he is trying to be as perfect a husband as it’s possible to be but she won’t give him even an inch of slack. Something has got to give…but when it does, what will be the cost?

The plot here is pretty simple and could be extremely effective in the right circumstances. Sadly, these aren’t them. The acting here for one thing is extremely inconsistent. The two leads are required to carry nearly the entire film and I’m not sure if the case here is that they’re not equal to the task, or if they didn’t get the direction they needed to turn in the kind of performances that the movie needed – and didn’t get. Roberts, in particular, seems particularly stiff; at times he looks like he would rather be anywhere but in this film. His character changes drastically about two thirds of the way through; the change comes off drastically with little warning and makes one feel as if they are lurching on a train that is in the process of derailing; there are no subtle hints as to why his character changes or any indication that he’s going to change. I suspect that is more the director’s choice than Roberts’ idea. Wright fares little better, but at least she conveys some modicum of feeling.

Pavetto is an Italian director who is working on an English-language film and that might have hampered him somewhat; the dialogue is a bit flat-sounding to my ears, and quite frankly, the tension that the movie needed to succeed isn’t always there. The last 30 minutes of the movie should be tense and pulse-pounding but at this point the viewer is checking their watch or loading up another movie to watch.

But the movie isn’t completely without merit. One thing that Pavetto does nicely is combine the genres of 80s slasher films and Italian giallo into a nice little mix of styles that actually works, or would have worked with a little more realism in the acting department. Cinematographer Davide Manca gets full marks for setting up some beautiful shots that seem to indicate that there is someone watching, occasionally giving some startle scares with half-glimpsed figures that make one wonder if there is more to the story than meets the eye. As it turns out, there is – but you have to sit through the entire film to discover what it is.

Therein lies the rub; the movie has an ending that does have quite the twist involved, but in order to suss it out you have to sit through a movie that doesn’t do the twist justice. It is incumbent upon the viewer to determine whether that payoff is worth sitting through the rest of the movie for and to be honest, I can’t really advise you one way or the other whether you should; it will depend on your tolerance for subpar acting. I found it enough to give the movie a very mild recommendation, but you might not agree. The gore ‘n’ guts crowd will probably appreciate some of the violence but will bemoan the lack of nudity. The rest of us will likely bemoan the lack of passion.

WHY RENT THIS: A nice mash-up of giallo and 80s slasher-films. There’s some nice cinematography here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is a bit stiff. The film could have used a little more tension.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence, some of it graphic and brutal; some sexual scenes, rape and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Pavetto originally made a short by the same name, but later fleshed it out into a feature with a new cast and filming in English rather than Italian which the original was in.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The original short film is included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sleeping with the Enemy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Captain Fantastic

Lucy


Lucy in the sky with data streams.

Lucy in the sky with data streams.

(2014) Action (Universal) Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Min-sik Choi, Amr Waked, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Pilou Asbaek, Analeigh Tipton, Nicolas Phongpheth, Jan Oliver Schroeder, Luca Angeletti, Loic Brabant, Pierre Grammont, Pierre Poirot, Bertrand Quoniam, Pascal Loison, Claire Tran, Sifan Shou, Paul Chan, Laura D’Arista (voice). Directed by Luc Besson

What would it be like if we could be smarter? What kind of miraculous change in our lives would we be able to affect? What sort of secrets would we unlock?

The myth is that we only use 10% of our brains – according to Scientific American that’s simply not true. We actually use all of it, which debunks the science in this movie thoroughly. So, let’s play a game of “let’s pretend” that Besson’s assertion here is true, that we go through our lives only using 10% of our potential.

Hard-partying grad student Lucy (Johansson) might not even use that much. She hooks up with Richard (Asbaek), the sort of guy who would set off all sorts of alarm bells in any rational person but apparently that particular function of her brain is inactive. He is supposed to deliver a brief case to Mr. Jang (Choi) in a posh Hong Kong hotel but wants Lucy to do it instead. She is reluctant and they spend the first seven minutes of an 89 minute film arguing about it. Think of a movie starting with an old style Life cereal commercial “I’m not gonna try it you try it” “I’m not gonna try it – hey let’s get Lucy! She won’t like it! She hates everything!” “She likes it! Hey Lucy!”

 

Actually she is forced to do it when he cuffs the briefcase to her wrist and tells her that Jang is the only one who can remove it. Jang turns out to be a ruthless criminal and Richard, instead of saving his own skin, ends up being the first to exit stage left. Lucy is hustled up to a swanky suite where Jang has just finished murdering a couple of people, stepping over corpses and washing his blood soaked hands in front of an understandably panicky Lucy.

She is knocked out and when she wakes up, there is an incision in her tummy and she is told she is to be a drug mule, transporting a new drug called CPH4 which Jang’s suave English speaking flunky (Rhind-Tutt) assures her that the kids in Europe are going to love. However through a set of unforeseen circumstances, the bag of drugs begins to leak into her system. Lucy begins to learn at an amazing rate, develops powers of telekinesis and control of magnetic waves. She is able to wave her hands and have people fall asleep. The more of the drug that’s absorbed into her system, the more her powers develop. She goes from 20% to 30%, 30% to 40%.

She is easily able to escape from Jang’s thugs and makes her way to a Hong Kong hospital where she demands that the bag be removed from an astonished surgeon, doubly astonished when she shoots the patient he’s operating on dead, telling him “You couldn’t have saved him. The tumor’s already spread.” Even though there still remains about half a bag of the stuff, the damage is done. Lucy can feel her cells reproducing at an accelerated rate. She estimates she has about 24 hours before her body dies.

She flies to Paris to enlist the aid of Professor Norman (Freeman), an expert on the development of the human brain, as well as Parisian detective Del Rio (Waked) whom she brings aboard to protect her but also to nab three other drug mules sent by Jang to other European cities. She needs the drugs they are carrying to complete her work which is now essentially to download everything she knows, which is growing more considerable. As she inches towards 100% neither Professor Norman nor even Lucy herself knows exactly what’s going to happen.

Besson, who has written or directed some of the most compelling action films of the past 20 years (including The Fifth Element, District B-13 and The Professional) channels Stanley Kubrick a little bit here. He inserts mostly vintage clips of all sorts of things like animals mating, magicians creating illusions and cameras travelling through canyons and across endless oceans to denote the gradual increase in Lucy’s powers and knowledge. He is fairly liberal about it when he should have used it a bit more sparingly; it does get distracting and in a film this short feels like filler it doesn’t need, particularly when he could have used the time to build relationships.

Johansson has never been an actress who has played “smart” but this year with roles in Under the Skin as an alien with a superior intellect, and as the operating system in Her she has shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is more than an agent of SHIELD. The trouble is that once the drug enters Lucy’s system Johansson’s expression essentially doesn’t change and she speaks in an emotionless monotone. I’m not sure why it is that in science fiction that evolution of the human species seems to be that we move past our emotions. I would argue that our emotions would evolve along with our intellect but that’s another fight for another day.

The special effects are nifty, with Lucy able to see trees absorbing nutrients through their roots, or streams of data travelling from cell phones to the satellites above. Near the end of the movie she takes a journey backwards through time in a sequence reminiscent of the opening sequence of The Tree of Life only with a human element involved – Lucy meets the first known human ancestor, also named Lucy (not a coincidence with the names, that) – going all the way back to the Big Bang and before.

 

But for all the scientific gobbledygook, my favorite sequence in the film is the most human – a phone conversation between Lucy and her mother (D’Arista) in which Lucy tearfully tells her that she can remember everything – even things she shouldn’t have been able to, like the taste of her mother’s milk in her mouth. It is a sense of saying goodbye, and it is a poignant moment because Lucy knows that she will be evolving past the feelings shortly and not long after, departing this Earth entirely.

The movie is largely unsatisfying. We get Hong Kong-style gun battles and the car chases Besson is known for but little development in the way of the characters. Besson likes to move things along at a frenetic pace and that’s not a bad thing but we get no sense of human connection – other than that one scene I just described – between Lucy and the world so when that connection begins to drift away, there is no sense of loss. Certainly there is some fine eye candy but eye candy alone doesn’t make for a substantive and ultimately satisfying film experience. Besson is certainly capable of delivering on those sorts of films but in this instance he fell short.

REASONS TO GO: Nice premise and some nifty special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Directing misfires. Johansson misused. Look ma, I’m directing!

FAMILY VALUES:  Violence, some of it disturbing, some drug use and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Angelina  Jolie was originally cast in the title role but had to drop out due to directing commitments and Johansson was cast in her place.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/28/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Limitless

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Fluffy Movie