A Quiet Place


Splish splash I was taking a bath.

(2018) Horror (Paramount) John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward, Leon Russom, Rhonda Pell. Directed by John Krasinski

 

Who doesn’t love a little peace and quiet from time to time? Here is a movie that gives you plenty of the latter but not a whole lot of the former.

The premise is fiendishly simple; the Earth has been invaded by insect-like alien creatures who, blind, hunt exclusively by hearing. The slightest noise will bring the down on you and your end will not be pleasant. The Abbott family – papa Lee (Krasinski), mama Evelyn (Blunt), daughter and eldest child Regan (Simmonds) – who in a bit of intentional irony is deaf – middle son Marcus (Jupe) and youngest son beau (Woodward) try to survive in a world where noise is death, a point driven home in the opening scene in a visceral and shocking manner.

Evelyn, to make things worse, is pregnant and her due date rapidly approaches. As any woman will tell you there is nothing quiet about childbirth and certainly nothing quiet about babies. Papa Lee however isn’t willing to say die and has things pretty much figured out – except that almost nothing goes the way he plans it.

The creatures in this movie are terrific; they make logical sense and in fact this is a horror movie that creates its own universe and the rules therein and sticks to them. This is essentially a silent movie although there is ambient noise but it isn’t always quiet. In this space, nobody had better hear you scream.

The performances here are really, really good from Krasinski as the embattled father butting heads with his headstrong daughter and his wife who thinks he’s being too hard on her and Simmonds – so good in Wonderstruck – proves that performance wasn’t a fluke. It is Blunt however who is the most memorable here. Blunt is so emotionally expressive; she acts mainly with body language and facial expression without dialogue to aid her, she communicates directly with her audience without needing subtitles. While I’m not sure Oscar will take notice, she should at least be considered for a Best Actress nod.

Krasinski as a director is promising enough; while he hasn’t broken through to the A-List quite yet as an actor, he once again shows he has the talent to get there eventually. It may turn out that his future lies in directing, which isn’t an easy path to take. Krasinski shows he is more than capable enough to follow that path. Still, it’s hard to dismiss his acting skills, particularly in light of a poignant scene near the end of the movie in which a father’s love shines brightest in the darkness.

This is an outstanding horror movie that is going to end up as one of the year’s best chillers. It’s a shame if you didn’t already catch it on the big screen which is where this would be much more effective; however if you didn’t you at least have the opportunity to see it on your own home video setup. Don’t make the same mistake twice; even if you’re not fond of genre movies you should see this one. Even film buffs are raving about it.

REASONS TO GO: Krasinski the director keeps the tension high throughout and Krasinski the actor once again shows star quality. The monster in this film is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene may be too shocking and disturbing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence and bloody images, alongside some children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the entire film not a single door is opened or closd.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: See No Evil
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Across the River

The Beaver


 

The Beaver

A lot of beaver jokes are suggesting themselves but I’ll take the high road (for once).

(2011) Drama (Summit) Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones, Riley Thomas Stewart, Zachary Booth, Jeff Corbett, Baylen Thomas, Kelly Coffield Park, Michael Rivera, Kris Arnold, Matt Lauer, Jon Stewart, Terry Gross. Directed by Jodie Foster

 

Depression is one of those insidious things that can trap you in a room and cut off all the exits. For some of us, depression is something we escape through drugs, alcohol or sex. For others, depression is something we learn to live with and accept as being a part of ourselves, often along with the medication we take to deal with it. Then there’s Walter Black.

Walter (Gibson) is the president of a toy manufacturing firm whose fortunes have fallen on hard times. This has led to serious depression on Walter’s part, robbing him of his inertia (as many depression patients do, he sleeps an awful lot) and his ability to communicate with his family. His teenage son Porter (Yelchin), already at odds with his parents as teens will be, finds new reasons to loathe his dad. His wife Meredith (Foster) tries to be supportive but even she has reached her limits. She throws his ass out, sadly, reluctantly but inevitably for the good of her children – there is another son much younger, Henry (Stewart) who doesn’t quite understand what’s happening.

Hitting rock bottom, Walter tries to kill himself but his attempts fail miserably. He finds a disreputable-looking beaver puppet and to his surprise finds himself able to speak through the puppet and say the things he’s wanted to say – and more to the point, discovering an avenue to rejoin his life.

It works wonders. Walter is able to reverse the financial decline of his company and reconnect with his family – first with Henry and then with Meredith. Porter still spews venom at his dad and is going through his own turmoil; he writes term papers and speeches for other classmates in their own voice. He’s in the middle of trying to connect with Norah (Lawrence), a cheerleader and class valedictorian who is going through her own life crisis.

But all is not necessarily golden. Walter is becoming consumed with the puppet, to the point that he uses it in his sexual reconciliation with Meredith which is just a little bit more than creepy. One soon has to wonder who’s in charge – Walter or the puppet and if it’s the puppet, where is Walter?

Foster, one of the most gifted actresses and directors of her generation, returns to the director’s chair for the first time in 16 years. She’s a marvelous storyteller – go see Home for the Holidays or Little Man Tate if you don’t believe me – and tends to prefer scripts with unconventional stories to tell, as this one surely is.

As a look at the effect of depression on a family, I’m not sure how to take it. As someone who battles depression himself, I can understand Walter’s behavior to a certain extent, although I kind of wonder what most psychologists would have to say about his self-treatment. I’m not sure talking in a funny cockney voice through a glorified sock puppet is the way to wellness.

Of course, one can’t discuss the film without at least mentioning the elephant in the room. Gibson’s threatening phone calls to his girlfriend became public. There are many who had yet not forgiven him for his anti-Semitic remarks five years earlier as well. His battles with alcohol are public record, and there are those who feel he is a miserable excuse for a human being. Personally, I’m not one of them; I think he’s made a lot of mistakes in his life; there are many people who are close to the man who say he’s neither violent nor racist but their voices tend to be drowned out in all the self-righteousness. I don’t know him personally; he may well think Jews are responsible for all the wars ever started. He may have just said that in a drunken depression. Either way, it’s not germane to the matter at hand.

Say what you like about him as a person, he is a really good actor. He captures the gaze of a man caught in the grip of depression without overdoing it. It’s a hangdog look, the look of a man for whom life has hit the rocks and he expects no better. As Gibson the actor shows the ravages of alcohol on his face, Walter the character shows the ravages of life there. It’s a performance that may on the surface seem over-the-top but when you peel the layers back you realize that you’re watching a man at the top of his craft constructing a gem of a performance.

Yes, there is some heavy handedness here – Walter unable to speak with his own voice and his son writing term papers and speeches in the voices of others but never his own while being terrified that he’s turning into his dad. Yup. And the literal battle for Walter’s soul that ends up….well, I won’t say because that would be telling.

The movie is considered  financial flop which can be attributed to the off-beat subject of the film (and Americans are less warm towards off-beat than they are to dramas, which is what Foster attributed the cold reception to) as well as quite frankly a general perception that Gibson is a jerk and his films should be avoided. That’s kind of sad because if you can filter out your feelings about the guy this is a pretty good movie, offbeat as it might be.

WHY RENT THIS: Gibson does a terrific job and has good chemistry with Foster.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is a bit of a mess. Heavy-handed pop psychology.

FAMILY VALUES:  The themes and subject matter is pretty much on the adult side dealing with depression; there are a few bad words and some disturbing images, not to mention a teeny bit of sexuality and drug references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foster originally wanted Kristen Stewart for the part of Norah but she was committed to doing Twilight so the then-unknown Lawrence was cast.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.4M on a $21M production budget; the movie was a major flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Bourne Legacy

Martha Marcy May Marlene


Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sarah Paulson and Elizabeth Olsen contemplate a world without the Oprah show.

(2011) Thriller (Fox Searchlight)  Elizabeth Olsen, Christopher Abbott, Brady Corbett, Hugh Dancy, Maria Dizzia, Julia Garner, John Hawkes, Louisa Krause, Sarah Paulson, Adam Thompson, Allen McCullough, Gregg Burton, Diana Masi. Directed by Sean Durkin

The mind is a terribly fragile and easily manipulated thing. If you tell it something with enough conviction and enough reputation, it will largely believe anything. Someone with enough will and skill can turn a group of people into their own personal marionettes.

Lucy (Paulson) gets a phone call one afternoon from her sister Martha (Olsen) who hasn’t spoken to her in two years. Martha seems a bit skittish and somewhat confused; Lucy offers to pick her up, a three hour drive each way. She brings her sister home to a beautiful, sleek lake cottage (and I use the term “cottage” advisedly; it could easily sleep ten) where her husband Ted (Dancy) waits to meet Martha for the first time. Martha’s behavior is a bit odd, but nothing too out of the ordinary at first.

The weird things begin to happen. While Lucy and Ted are having sex, Martha crawls into bed with them, seemingly oblivious to their need for privacy and intimacy. Martha seems to place no value whatsoever on possessions and has developed skills in cleaning and gardening that she never had before. She also has the look and feel of a puppy who’s been kicked by her owner too many times.

What we know that Lucy doesn’t is that Martha has been in a cult for the last two years. Introduced into it by her friend Zoe (Krause), the cult looks more like a commune at first, a rustic farmhouse in upstate New York where all possessions are shared as is the workload. It is presided over by Patrick (Hawkes), a mild guitar-playing sort. Patrick takes one look at Martha and proclaims her name is Marcy May from then on out and that’s what everyone calls her. Martha doesn’t seem to mind. She is intrigued by Patrick’s philosophy of being self-sufficient.

Except they’re not. The farm is in desperate need of things they aren’t yet able to provide for themselves, so it becomes part of the routine for members of the cult to go to neighboring homes and steal things. This leads to an unexpected and brutal conclusion after which Marcy May makes the decision to flee and return to being Martha again.

At home, Martha is still haunted by her experiences. Little things – a pebble skittering across the driveway, the splash from jumping into the lake – bring her right back into memories of the cult. She becomes paranoid, certain that the cult is after her and is out to bring her back to the farm. How much of her paranoia is real, and how much is the result of a traumatized mind?

Part of what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene (the Marlene is a reference to the name all of the cult’s women adopt when answering the phone) work is the chilling realism of it. Patrick takes control of the women by changing their names just slightly enough that it doesn’t seem like a bad thing and slowly but surely strips them of their own will. Of course, sex is a big part of that.

In a chilling scene, we are made to realize that Patrick himself “initiates” the women into the family by drugging them and raping them. Afterwards, the women are convinced by their “sisters” that not only was it not rape, that it was not just consensual, but it was a purification that they desperately needed and wanted. So indoctrinated is Martha/Marcy May that she assists in preparing and drugging a new member for Patrick.

Women are not allowed to eat until the men have finished; when a hungry Martha absently pops something into her mouth while preparing a meal, she is smacked upside the head and not gently. Even away from the cult, Martha is seen to be mouthing the platitudes that Patrick repeated to her. It truly is chilling.

At opposite ends of the spectrum we have Olsen – yes, sister to the Olsen twins – who plays Martha like a wounded bird; hopelessly naive in some ways, worldly in others and just barely holding it together. It is a performance that if it doesn’t merit Oscar consideration, should at least be leading to some bigger, more visible roles for Olsen who proves herself  to be a fearless actress.

Hawkes, so impressive in Winter’s Bone last year, proves that his Oscar nomination for that film was no fluke. His Patrick is mesmerizing; never overtly evil except in a couple of places, menacing without appearing to be. He’s the kind of guy that inspires trust and only too late do you find that you are ensnared in his web.

Paulson and Dancy play a very self-absorbed couple who fail to see all the warning signs that Martha’s trauma and seek out professional help for the girl. Dancy’s Ted in particular is more worried about his own comforts than he is about the well-being of his sister-in-law. They are both shallow and materialistic and are thrown into a complete quandary by the arrival of someone who is neither.

The tension here sneaks up on you. It’s evident from the beginning that something bad is going on, and it just gets worse and worse while you wait for the other shoe to drop. By the time it does, you haven’t noticed just how much the level of tension has been wound up on you. That’s good filmmaking. What doesn’t work as well is the switching of timelines between Marcy May and Martha, which is I think meant to convey the confusion going on in her mind but winds up confusing the audience as well. That could have been handled better and is the main reason I didn’t give the movie a higher rating; I still suspect I undervalued it a bit.

The movie does build towards a climax which is deliberately ambiguous. I left the theater with a creepy feeling that was unsettling, like you’d looked into the home movies of someone involved in a tragedy and the movie doesn’t make it plain what the fate of Martha and her sister were although it suggests that it doesn’t end well. While this doesn’t pack the emotional wallop of Winter’s Bone, it leaves you with a good ration of something to think about. You feel like you’ve been through the wringer after watching it and quite frankly, not everyone wants to go through that at the movies. Those not looking for mindless entertainment would be well-advised to seek this out.

REASONS TO GO: Durkin establishes a tense mood from the get-go and only ratchets it up throughout, slowly and subtly until you’re a nervous wreck as a viewer. Some intense performances, particularly from Olsen.

REASONS TO STAY: Hard to follow at times and an ending that is disturbing as it is ambiguous.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing scenes of sudden violence, rape and sex. There are a few bad words and some nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The role of Martha was the only one that the filmmakers auditioned. Durkin wanted an unknown actress for the role and after Olsen auditioned twice, she was cast two weeks before filming started.

HOME OR THEATER: This is the kind of movie that you’ll want to see at home.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Piranha 3D

Water for Elephants


Water for Elephants

Pattinson and Witherspoon may come with their own baggage but the elephant brings her own trunk.

(2010) Drama (20th Century Fox) Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Jim Norton, Ken Foree, Mark Povinelli, Richard Brake, Scott McDonald, James Frain, John Aylward, Sam Anderson. Directed by Francis Lawrence

Be careful what you wish for, or so the old saying goes. Sometimes the things we wish for are the things we can’t have…or perhaps shouldn’t have.

A confused old man (Holbrook) is late coming to the Circus on a rainy night. He is escorted to the office by a sympathetic manager (Schneider) who is amazed to discover that the man worked at the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931, when one of the worst disasters in circus history occurred. The old man agrees to set a spell and spin the story.

Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) is studying veterinary medicine at Cornell, about to take his final exams. He is called out of his exam to receive some terrible news; both his parents are dead. To make matters worse, his father had gone deeply in debt to pay for his education; in a split second Jacob has lost everything.

He decides to walk to Albany to seek work but soon tires of walking. When he sees a train coming, he decides to hitch a ride. It turns out to be a circus train and a kindly roustabout named Camel (Norton) takes Jacob under his wing and finds him work. When the head animal trainer and ringmaster, August (Waltz) discovers Jacob’s veterinary experience, he brings him aboard as the circus veterinarian.

His particular charge is Rosie, a 54 year old elephant who is meant to be the star attraction. Jacob also casts his eye towards the beautiful trainer Marlena (Witherspoon) who happens to be married to August. Moreover, August turns out to be a somewhat sadistic and ruthless man who can be charming one moment, psychotic the next, often taking out his rages on the elephant and upon occasion upon Jacob.

Eventually it becomes apparent that Marlena has fallen for the callow young veterinarian and August’s rage defies all bounds. Jacob must find a way to get Marlena away from the clutches of her cruel husband if they are to find happiness – but what he doesn’t know is that the Circus and the people in it are headed for a date with tragedy.

The movie is based on the award-winning novel by Sara Gruen. Director Lawrence (who’s done I Am Legend and Constantine as well as a buttload of music videos) does a real nice job of creating the era and making it look lived-in. This is a terrific looking film, from the gorgeous outdoor shots of the train traveling in moonlit skies, to the seedy looking hotel rooms and flophouses of the towns.

Christoph Waltz made his bones as the villain in Inglourious Basterds and hasn’t looked back since. He is able to project charm and evil in equal amounts, making you at turns sympathetic and repulsed. He won an Oscar as the deranged Nazi in Tarantino’s film and he is nearly as good here, although sadly I somehow doubt he’ll get much Academy consideration.

Witherspoon has also won an Oscar (for Walk the Line) and she does good work here, playing a woman who is a star in her own limited firmament but knows that if she goes elsewhere her star won’t shine quite as brightly. She is in an abusive relationship, walking on eggshells all the time but lacks the self-confidence to believe she deserves better. It’s a marvelous role for Witherspoon and she hasn’t gotten nearly enough kudos for it.

Of the leads Pattinson fares the worst but in a very real way he isn’t in the league of Waltz and Witherspoon just yet. He plays his character as a little bit distant and unreadable. It’s hard to really get behind someone you don’t really relate to, and in many ways Pattinson is so distant that he becomes unrelatable. Doubtlessly legions of his fans from the Twilight series will disagree, but keep in mind he’s very new to the business and as he gets more experience he will be more expressive but here the chemistry with Witherspoon suffers because of it.

There are a few minor blips here and there. The climactic tragedy is a little bit disappointing; it hangs over the movie like the Sword of Damocles and when it finally arrives you hardly realize it’s there. Still, this is a quite good movie, one that at least met my expectations which were reasonably high. It won’t make me want to run right out and join the circus, but it did give me a greater appreciation for elephants.

REASONS TO GO: Waltz is terrific as is Witherspoon. Fascinating story and a nice look at circus life in the Depression.

REASONS TO STAY: Lots of cruelty to animals and humans alike.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some moments of extreme violence as well as some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sean Penn was originally cast in the part of August but dropped out to be replaced by Waltz.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the scenes look very nice on the big screen but for the most part this is well-suited for the home.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Super