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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The Death of Stalin


Stalin has the literal last laugh.

(2017) Comedy/Satire (IFC) Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Olga Kurylenko, Jason Isaacs, Paddy Considine, Paul Chahidi, Adrian McLoughlin, Andrea Riseborough, Rupert Friend, Richard Brake, Dermot Crowley, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Paul Whitehouse, Cara Horgan, Karl Johnson, Diana Quick, Jonathan Aris, Dave Wong, Eva Sayer. Directed by Armando Iannucci

 

While history is often written by the victorious and comes from that point of view, there are some things that transcend opinion. For one, tyrants like Hitler and in this particular case, Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union, were homicidal monsters who are to be reviled rather than revered. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good for a laugh or two

Stalin (McLoughlin) barely makes an appearance in the film; he has his life-ending cerebral hemorrhage about 20 minutes into the film, but his presence hangs over the entire proceeding as a power struggle develops between secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (Beale) and the politically canny Nikita Khrushchev (Buscemi). The rest of the central committee, including the spine-challenged Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) and the flip-flopping Vyacheslav Molotov (Palin) are busy scrambling to make sure they don’t get caught in the fallout that is sure to come once one of their number assumes control of the Soviet Union.

While the movie compresses a period of about three years into a few days (the final denouement which is shown here to take place shortly after the funeral actually occurred three years after Stalin was laid to rest), the historical facts as we can come by them seem to be pretty accurate. That the movie is based on a French graphic novel makes that a bit astounding but in this era of fake news and bald-faced lies that come from our own politicians, not surprising.

Buscemi has always been something of an underrated comic performer but this might be his best role yet. He plays Khrushchev as paranoid and somewhat high-strung, relating funny stories from the siege of Stalingrad including one of sticking a private’s finger in warm water in order to cause him to wet himself which turns out to be somewhat ironic since Stalin himself would shortly do exactly that (which is historically accurate; the hemorrhage caused him to lose control of his bladder).

Iannucci has created such spot-on satires as the HBO series Veep and the seminal British show The Thick of It but while those tend to be somewhat harder edged than Stalin he manages to concoct a story that is both timely and of a specific time simultaneously. We here in the West understand that being near the top of the political heap in the old Soviet Union was inherently dangerous to life and limb and we pat ourselves on the back to say “it was never like that here” but then we look at the current White House and its revolving door and wonder if it wasn’t a lot more similar than we think.

There are some moments of wonderful nonsense, such as when Beria and Khrushchev (neither one of whom are particularly athletic) racing through the woods of Stalin’ s dacha in order to be the first to greet his daughter Svetlana (Riseborough), or when war hero Grand Marshall Zhukov (Isaacs), then in charge of the Red Army, arrives at the Kremlin dripping with medals and roaring “What does it take for a soldier to get lubricated around here?”

Not everyone will find this funny. The Russians have banned this movie, claiming that it was insulting to Russian history which I suppose it is – if the Russians did a satire on the death of President Kennedy I suppose we wouldn’t be laughing much either. But then again, Putin has a lot more in common with Stalin than Trump has with JFK and I don’t doubt that those who are Trump supporters may find this to be a thinly veiled dig at their hero. I don’t think it is in particular, but parallels can certainly be glimpsed.

Da Queen found the film to be a bit long-winded and she has a point. I also have to point out that I was laughing out loud hysterically the first time I saw it but the second time I saw it with Da Queen it wasn’t quite as funny. That may mean that it won’t lend itself to repeated viewings although comedies rarely do. However, the first viewing really got me into the somewhat anarchic and zany world that Iannucci created and while it may not have been too laugh-inspiring at the time, at least today we can look back on it and see the humor – not so much in the situation but in how we react to it.

REASONS TO GO: Much of it is hysterically funny. Buscemi is at the top of his game. The dialogue is wickedly funny. Those who love Monty Python are going to enjoy this.
REASONS TO STAY: The subject matter may make laughter a somewhat uncomfortable reaction. It’s a little bit on the long side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is consistent profanity, adult themes, violence (some of it graphic), sexual references and intimations of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was banned in Russia, two days before it was due to be released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monty Python’s Life of Brian
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
La Familia

Chloe


Chloe

The garden isn't the only thing that's growing in this greenhouse.

(2009) Thriller (Sony Classics) Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson, Max Theriot, R.H. Thomson, Nina Dobrev, Mishu Vellani, Julie Khaner, Laura de Carteret, Natalie Lisinska, Tiffany Knight, Meghan Heffern, Tamsen McDonough, Kathryn Kriitmaa. Directed by Atom Egoyan

 

Sexuality is one of mankind’s preoccupations, and it occupies a good deal of our time and energy. We ascribe to it wonders and magic, but in truth it is just a physiological function. For a physiological function we sure give it a whole lot of our thought.

Catherine Stewart (Moore) is a gynecologist who knows more about the physical aspects of sex than most. She knows about it more professionally than personally however; her marriage to academic David Stewart (Neeson) has become more platonic over time. She chalks it up to familiarity and age, but there are signs that her good husband may be cheating on her.

Being a smart, capable professional lady rather than confront her husband or hire a detective, she hires Chloe (Seyfried), a prostitute she meets to attempt to seduce her husband and then report back to Catherine as to whether he takes the bait.

Soon, we discover that Chloe may have an agenda of her own and that Catherine is having a crisis of sexuality of her own. When Chloe takes Catherine and David’s son Michael (Theriot) under her wing, that agenda may be turning sinister.

Canadian director Egoyan is one of those cinematic soldiers who is better known to art-house lurkers and professional critics than the general public.  He is a talent who looks at sex in a more straight-forward way than his neighbors to the south tend to; he neither romanticizes it nor demonizes it, simply recognizes that it is a part of life.

Here there is a certain kinky side to things and Egoyan doesn’t shy away from that either. I’m not necessarily talking about fetishes so much as exploring darker aspects of our sexuality, and using sex to get what we want. Chloe is not above such things.

Although Neeson is the marquee name, Moore is the star of this show. Her Catherine is a complex, multi-layered creature who doesn’t always act the way you’d expect her to. I get that they’re trying to show her insecurities just beneath her professional demeanor, but c’mon, for someone as smart and accomplished as she is she sure does some dumb things (as mentioned above).

Seyfried, the sweet waif from Mamma Mia has become one of the more reliable young actresses out there. Here, she does the femme fatale for the first time that I’m aware of and she pulls it off very nicely. Her Chloe is obviously disturbed and has some pretty sick issues, but you still wind up feeling a little sorry for her, even after…well, let’s not get into that. Don’t want to spoil things for you.

Egoyan and writer Erin Cressida Wilson are not entirely to blame for this; Chloe is based on a French film by Anne Fontaine called Nathalie which I have not seen but I am assured by SF Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle is a pretentions and overbearing load of twaddle. I found that a bit surprising since Fontaine is normally a very good writer and director.

Still, everyone makes a misstep once in awhile. The premise is a bit ponderous, I grant you that. I mean, why would any woman in her right mind ask someone she doesn’t know to seduce her husband to prove that he’s faithful? Sounds a lot like entrapment to me. And just because you have a beautiful, sexy young woman throw herself at a middle-aged married man doesn’t mean he’s cheating. It just means he can be tempted – who’s to know that he would have ever strayed if not for the machinations of his wife.

Chloe is an Atom Egoyan film, so that means it won’t be completely without any merit whatsoever. There are certainly elements that are recommendation-worthy. However the cohesive whole doesn’t quite make the cut for me.

WHY RENT THIS: Good work by Moore and Seyfried, with Neeson in more of a supporting part. Extremely sexual which immediately casts it as non-American in origin.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The erotica is kind of Skinemax-worthy. Catherine doesn’t always act according to character.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual dialogue in the movie, some nudity and other foul language., not to mention a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming this movie, Liam Neeson’s wife Natascha Richardson passed away as a result of injuries sustained in a skiing accident. The schedule was rearranged so that Neeson only needed a further days of shooting after returning to the set.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.7M on a $14M production budget; the movie was not profitable at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Woman in Black