Sputnik


A space oddity.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (IFC Midnight) Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondrachuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Aleksandr Manushev, Albrecht Zander, Vitaliya Kornienko, Vasiliy Zotov, Anna Nazarova. Directed by Egor Abramenko

It is said that in space, nobody can hear you scream; in a Soviet-era research facility slash prison, everybody can hear you scream – they just pretend not to.

It’s 1983 and do you know where your cosmonauts are? It is the last gasp of the Cold War and a Soviet space mission has crash landed, leaving one cosmonaut dead and the other, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Fyodorov) with amnesia. He is brought to a forbidding research facility by Colonel Semiradov (Bondrachuk), a fatherly sort who seems genuinely interested in finding out what happened. To that end, he enlists disgraced psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Akinshina) who cured a young teen of his fears by holding his head underwater. That’s apparently too extreme even for the USSR, so she’s about to experience an abrupt career change when she’s approached by Semiradov to see if she can rescue the memories from the cosmonaut, a national hero.

But it turns out that the hero isn’t alone inside his body. He has an alien hitchhiker, translucent and almost jelly-like, able to fold itself into a much smaller space – say, a man’s esophagus – and come out at night to feed. And what does an alien parasite – or is that symbiote? – eat? Cortisol, the pheromone of fear. And then, he tears off the head of the victim and feeds more conventionally.

Tatyana is determined to suss out Konstantin’s secrets and is remarkably successful, in more ways than she can imagine – she begins to develop sympathy, and then maybe emotional attachment – to Veshnyakov. When it turns out that the government is interested in the little stowaway and has some pretty nasty plans for it, she knows she and Konstantin need to make a run for it, but where can they go that would be safe from the creature inside?

In a lot of ways this harkens back to the creature features of the late 70s and 80s, particularly Ridley Scott’s Alien and the other films (and there are many) that it inspired. The parasite/symbiote is no xenomorph, but it is virtually indestructible and very, very aggressive. Tatyana wants to get the creature out of Veshnyakov without killing him; she is the conscience. Veshnyakov is the id, where the monsters dwell. Semiradov, who comes off something like a Bond villain here, is the cold logic unencumbered by compassion. In a sense, he is as much a monster as the alien.

Abramenko has assembled a slick-looking film that takes good advantage of Soviet-era brutalist architecture and of the horror tropes of the era that the film is set in. It is a bit of a slow burn, but it does heat up until it gets to its preposterous yet nevertheless satisfying ending.

The creature design is off the chain; it’s scary as hell, completely alien but makes logical sense. Akinshina and Fyodorov do good work as the heroic leads, but it is Bondrachuk who really shines as the kindly-on-the-surface-but cruel-to-the-core Colonel, whose absolute loyalty to the state will ring a troubling chord for some who have seen this kind of obsession all too often these days.

This is another great horror film for 2020, a year that seems to be destined to be remembered as a horror film in and of itself. I had a few quibbles – the creature is introduced far too early, robbing it of some of its effectiveness, and the pacing is a little uneven and there are a few too many clichés at work, but overall, this is a stellar horror film that is bound to have you wishing for a brightly lit place to repair to immediately afterward.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a good job building the tension. The creature effects are solid. Spartan production puts emphasis on the story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reveals the creature far too early.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence, gore and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 18
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Hole in the Ground

The Social Ones


It’s Facebook’s world and we’re just living in it.

(2019) Comedy (Comedy Dynamics) Debra Jo Rupp, Richard Kind, Stephanie March, Peter Scolari, Colton Ryan, Amanda Giobbi, Laura Kosann, Danielle Kosann, Setareki Wainiqolo, Desi Domo, Allegra Edwards, David T. Patterson, Jackie Hoffman, Davram Steifler, Gianmarco Soresi, Nicky Maindiratta, Nancy Nagrant, Nicole Kang, Martin Tsien, Vera Kelman. Directed by Laura Kosann

 

Social media has become a major force in our lives. We peruse Facebook daily, check out the Instagram of those we admire, watch our YouTube video channels and hang out in SnapChat, among other social media enterprises. It’s gotten so that we can’t say anything without wondering how we can make it a hashtag.

This mockumentary sends up social media culture. It revolves Round Influencer magazine – which covers the celebrities of social media – that is about to celebrate their fifth anniversary. The cover story for their milestone issue will feature the five most important social media influencers. There’s SnapChat sensation Dan Summers (Ryan) who has the largest following of anyone and is considered the biggest influencer in social media; fashion diva Josie Z (Giobbi) who terrorizes her assistant (Steifler) no end, viral chef Dixie Bell (Domo) who has the vocabulary of a sailor to go with a butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth Southern demeanor away from the kitchen, the self-proclaimed God of Memes Kap Phat Jawacki (Wainiqolo), and vlogger Jane Zap (Kang) who dresses animals in costumes and asks important questions of the day – “should I wear one barrette or two?”

Presiding over this zoo are twins Ava (D. Kosann) and Mia (L. Kosann) Archer, co-editors in chief of the magazine. Dealing with all the egos and vapid demands are causing their anxiety levels to skyrocket through the roof. They are augmented by a university professor (Scolari) who teaches bored college kids about social media “What is a like? Anyone? How about a troll?” an author of breathless romantic novels based on social media (Rupp) and a psychiatrist who treats on emotional disorders brought on by social media (March). And in the background? The architect of modern social media (Kind) although don’t mention MySpace to him – we all have our triggers, after all.

The movie owes much to the oeuvre of Christopher Guest; his This is Spinal Tap! really established the genre. Kosann has a similar style to Guest’s and a similar deadpan delivery. As it is for Guest, that’s a double-edged sword that when it works (Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind) can be amazing but also can be excruciating to sit through when it doesn’t.

Guest also had the benefit of comedic firepower that Kosann simply doesn’t have access to, names like the late great Fred Willard, Michael McKean, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Rob Reiner, and Harry Shearer, among others. While there are some pretty decent talents here (Domo and Giobbi stand out as well as veterans Kind, Scolari and March), they don’t approach that level. Kosann also has to contend with built-in obsolescence; this is the kind of movie that will seem quaint and out-of-touch in only a few years, so its staying power on VOD will likely be short.

What Kosann does well is send up our shallow, self-obsessed internet culture in which we are absolutely frantic with FOMO and need to document everything to the point of mania. I have to admit that I find it amusing to see a person staring at their smartphone with an expression like they’re analyzing Plato’s Republic or thinking up a new algorithm that will make it possible to end disease, war and poverty in a single day. If we as a society put in the kind of effort to eradicating those things as we do at staring at cat videos, we might just actually accomplish something.

The dry humor may not be appealing to everyone but the movie does have some laugh-out-loud moments, although those who have trouble telling apart Facebook from Instagram may not get as much value from the movie as those who are caught up in social media, and those folks might find this trite and condescending. Still, those who obsessively follow influencers and endlessly document the minutiae of their day may well find the attention to be exactly what they’re after.

REASONS TO SEE: A fairly accurate skewering of the social media generation.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit dry and low-energy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and rude behavior.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Laura and Danielle Kosann are sisters in real life, although not twins as depicted in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Best in Show
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
A Peloton of One

Blood Fest


A bunch of friends take a moonlit stroll through the woods.

(2018) Horror Comedy (Cinedigm/Rooster Teeth) Robbie Kay, Seychelle Gabriel, Jacob Batalon, Barbara Dunkelman, Tate Donovan, Zachary Levi, Olivia-Grace Applegate, Owen Egerton, Isla Cervelli, Paul Ogola, Nicholas Rutherford, Samantha Ireland, Tristan Riggs, Rebecca Lynne Wagner, Chris Doubek, Carl Thomas, Lynn Andrews III, Jessica Polk. Directed by Owen Egerton

 

Horror has rules. That has been drilled into the heads of fans throughout the annals of horror films; at least since Wes Craven’s Scream outline most of them for us. Still few genres have as much structural similarities between films as horror does. That has made for some pretty nifty self-referential meta films that remind us that virgins have a better chance of survival and never ever go into the basement by yourself.

Dax (Kay) loves horror movies, a love instilled by his mother (Ireland) who promised him that horror movies give us the opportunity to realize that we are stronger than our own films. Of course, she tells him that moments before she is brutally murdered by one of her husband’s (Donovan) patients who has a similar love for scary movies.

Flash forward fifteen years and Dax is eager to go to a major horror event called Blood Fest promising haunted attractions, panel discussions with filmmakers and horror icons, and a rave-like atmosphere with a horror movie theme. However, his dad won’t allow it (and tears up his precious ticket before his very eyes after a similar warning from his sister (Wagner): “Blood Fest is going to suck.” Little does he know how right she is.

Dax manages to get his hand on a precious wristband and makes it in for the big event and at first it’s everything he hopes it would be as he and his best friends Sam (Gabriel) and hacker Krill (Batalon) at his side. The MC is a well-known horror producer (Egerton) but he has plans for the revelers. You see, the horrors at Blood Fest are real and it will take all of their knowledge of the rules of horror films along with all their resourcefulness and courage to survive the night.

I’m not a big fan of horror comedies. Few of them succeed in balancing the screams with the laughs and this one is no exception but it is more successful than most. The fact is that they don’t go for the over-the-top laughs that bring the comedy into spoof territory, and spoofs are as far as I’m concerned the lowest form of cinematic humor. The scares are never particularly over-the-top either but there’s enough energy in the pacing and from the performers that the movie keeps your attention other than a few points where some exposition is going on.

The performances by the fairly low-budget cast are solid and professional. Chuck star Zachary Levi (also from the upcoming Shazam) has a thoroughly enjoyable albeit brief cameo, while the female cast is mega-sexy without any nudity which is quite a feat when you consider there’s at least one obligatory shower scene and a lesbian vampire make-out scene. Still, that’s just further proof that a woman doesn’t have to show her boobs to be sexy.

The writing is a bit spotty; the reveal is early on in the movie and while the mysterious partner behind the murders is kept hidden until near the end (and veteran horror fans should be able to figure out well before then) and while some of the plot points stretch the boundaries of plausibility to the breaking point (and beyond), for he most part the writing is pretty decent for this kind of film. The dialogue sounds authentic and there is a good deal of affection for the genre and those who love I – and obsess over it. This is a pleasant gem that will probably find a long shelf life on VOD and home video.

REASONS TO GO: Entertaining and generally well-paced.
REASONS TO STAY: A few plot points lack cohesion.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and gore, a good deal of profanity and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rooster Teeth is a content supplier mainly for YouTube; this is their third feature after Lazer Team and Lazer Team 2. It is actually however the second film released as Lazer Team 2 hasn’t yet received a release date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scream
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Support the Girls

Winchester


Sarah Winchester doesn’t get out much.

(2018) Horror (CBS) Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Emm Wiseman, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Tyler Coppin, Angus Sampson, Alice Chaston, Eamon Farren, Michael Carmen, Bruce Spence, Curtis Bock, Andy de Lore, Adam Bowes, Laura Brent, Amos Ciza, Red Horse Rivera, Tom Heath, Phoenix Suhrou-Dimarco, Laura Sutton. Directed by Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig

 

In the face of multiple and intolerable tragedies the human psyche can react in a variety of ways. Sometimes, it gets stronger, allowing the person to become better, more charitable and closer to those they love. Sometimes, it builds a wall, shutting everyone out. Other times, it simply goes around the bend, preferring to explain those tragedies with some sort of preposterous explanation.

By all accounts Sarah Winchester (Mirren) took the latter course. The heiress to the massive fortune of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, following the untimely deaths of her husband and only son became convinced that her family was cursed due to all the deaths caused by the guns her family company had manufactured. She was convinced that the only thing appeasing the ghosts was 24 hour a day seven day a week construction on the mansion she inhabited in San Jose, California – then an orchard-filled backwater town south of San Francisco.

Alarmed at the prospect that the person running the company was a certified loon, the officers of the company set out to, well, certify her. They enlist the aid of San Francisco psychiatrist Eric Price (Clarke) who is slowly drugging himself to oblivion with laudanum, a potent combination of whiskey and opium, after the tragic death of his wife.

Dr. Price is given the rare opportunity to observe Winchester in the confines of her massive home and as time goes by, he discovers that the woman is far from the mentally frail old woman she is portrayed to be; she is, quite frankly, an imposing independent woman who is very clearly in charge of her own household. Yes, she is getting architectural instructions for her kooky mansion via séance but even given that she seems no less sane than you or I…which then leaves the unthinkable conclusion: that she is right about the curse.

I lived for more than a decade in the San Jose area and have been to the Winchester Mystery House; yes, it’s a real mansion and the story of Mrs. Winchester believing the family to be cursed is a true one. Pretty much there is where the similarity between fact and fiction ends. I will say that I have many fond memories of my visits to the mansion and that may color my review a bit. I can tell you that the interiors, built on a set in Australia, are reasonably close to the actual rooms in the mansion that are shown on the tour (the external shots were of the actual house).

Mirren is one of the finest actresses working today and to her credit she makes her portrayal of Sarah Winchester a memorable one, even if it isn’t anything like what the real woman’s personality was said to be – she was rarely seen publicly (only one photograph exists of her) and she was said to be shy and somewhat easily shaken up. The Sarah Winchester here is more of a warrior than a wimp. Clarke also delivers a strong performance here and holds his own against Mirren, no easy task indeed.

There are an awful lot of jump scares – too many for my taste – but when the Spierig brothers go for genuine atmosphere, they succeed. They also use a minimal amount of CGI, opting for more practical effects and dong so makes the movie feel a bit homier, if you get my drift. This is how they used to make them and given the setting, it makes a lot of sense that the Spierigs opted for that route.

This is a haunted house movie that delivers the goods for the most part. While there are some historical inaccuracies (there are references to victims of the Winchester rifle during the Civil War but the company wasn’t formed until 1866, the year after the Civil War ended), the final test of any good horror film is whether you come out the other side grinning ear to ear and so I did. This is complete nonsense but it’s wonderful nonsense.

REASONS TO GO: When it is at its best, the movie succeeds. Mirren is a force of nature here.
REASONS TO STAY: History is played with in a fast and loose manner.
FAMILY VALUES: There is supernatural (and natural) violence, disturbing images, some drug use and sexual allusions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Sarah Winchester was a mere 4’11” tall and walked with a distinctive gait due to her severe and debilitating arthritis. By comparison, Helen Mirren is 5’4” tall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious: The Last Key
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
War Machine

Clinical


The line between doctor and patient blurs.

(2016) Thriller (Netflix) Vinessa Shaw, Kevin Rahm, India Eisley, Aaron Stanford, Nester Serrano, William Atherton, Sydney Tamilia Poitier, Dion Basco, Adrian Flowers, Trevor Snarr. Directed by Alistair Legrand

 

Sooner or later, all of us without exception must endure some sort of traumatic experience. These experiences help shape us and we all deal with them in different ways. Some of us tackle them alone and try to work our way through them without help. Some of us lean on family and friends and allow them to prop us up as we learn to adjust to them. Still others seek the professional help of a therapist or psychiatrist. One wonders though; how do psychiatrists get help when they undergo a traumatic experience themselves?

Dr. Jane Mathis (Shaw) is having to deal with this vexing question. One of her patients, Nora (Eisley) didn’t react to Jane’s treatment well. Jane believes in forcing patients to confront their traumas which is a controversial therapy in and of itself but in Nora’s case the patient went right over the edge. Feeling that Jane was to blame for her situation, Nora went to Jane’s office (which is part of Jane’s home) and in front of Jane’s horrified eyes slit her own throat. Nora survived fortunately but was confined to a psychiatric hospital after the bloody suicide attempt.

Jane struggled to pick up the pieces, seeing her mentor Terry (Atherton) as his patient. She also got involved in a relationship with Miles (Stanford), a police detective which begs the question: why do movie psychiatrists always have romantic relationships with cops in psychological thrillers? Anyway, Jane finds herself having a hard time concentrating on her patients’ problems which seem mundane and petty to her. She’s drifting along some – until Alex (Rahm) comes along.

Badly burned and disfigured in a car accident, Alex is having a terrible time adjusting. He has issues going out into public; he feels like he’s being stared at (and he probably is). Jane is intrigued by his case – her professional curiosity has been stimulated for the first time since, well, since Nora filleted herself in front of her. She begins devoting more and more time to Alex and is beginning to see some progress.

However, Jane is beginning to have some terrifyingly realistic visions of Jane, visions in which Jane is paralyzed and unable to move. Terry writes them off as a specific kind of dream but Jane is beginning to have doubts about her own sanity. If she’s not sane, can she help others to find their own sanity?

I can’t say I have a particular fondness for psychological thrillers although I do enjoy them when they’re done well. This one, unfortunately, is only half-done. The story is pretty similar to many most veteran film buffs will have seen already and quite frankly isn’t as good as most of those. There are plenty of logical misses and characters do insanely dumb things in order to further the plot along. While there are a few genuine surprises, most of the twists and turns experienced moviegoers will see coming.

Legrand does a good job with the atmospherics, keeping things nice and tense throughout although he relies a little too much on jump scares for my taste. He also managed to get together a decent cast with a few names like Atherton, who is best known for playing officious bureaucratic sorts putting in a notable role as a supporting good guy as well as Serrano who plays the officious bureaucratic sort here.

Rahm is an up and comer, getting some good supporting roles and a couple of decent lead roles on television. He grabs the most attention here and not just for his make-up; he does a terrific job as a man cowering from life and hiding an inner bitter core. It’s the kind of performance that can lead to better things for a young actor and I certainly that becomes the case here.

Shaw who most will remember from 3:10 to Yuma and the first season of Ray Donovan is a bit wooden here. I get the sense that this is a director’s decision to make the character closed-off emotionally but I think it is taken too far and eventually we as an audience feel disconnected from Jane as a character. I don’t think it was a particularly good decision and I know Shaw is capable of much better.

In short, this is a fairly middle-of-the-role movie that is reasonably entertaining but compared to other things Netflix has to offer a bit lacking in quality. I think if Jane had been a little bit less of an ice queen the movie would have been a lot more intriguing. As it is I can give it a mild thumbs up but not much more than that. If you’re looking for a thriller that will pin you to the edge of your seat, keep looking.

REASONS TO GO: The vibe is sufficiently creepy. Atherton does some strong work in a rare sympathetic role. Rahm is an up and coming star.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is pedestrian. There are too many jump scares, plot holes and lapses in logic. Shaw is too wooden in this role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some gore, plenty of terror, some violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shaw previously played a psychiatrist on House, MD.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fourth Kind
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea

The Holly Kane Experiment


“Now, this won’t hurt a bit…”

(2017) Thriller (108 Media) Kirsty Averton, Nicky Henson, James Rose, Lindsey Campbell, Matthew Neal, Sophie Barker, Justin Hayward, Simon Hepworth, Emma Davies, Will Harrison-Wallace, Euan Macnaughton, Tom Cox, Tom Clear, Nicholas Fagerberg, Steve Doyle, Axel Kaae, Aidan Creegan, Stevie Raine, George Stocks, Claire Ashton, Sian Dobson. Directed by Tom Sands

 

There aren’t a lot of things we can be sure of in this life but one is that our thoughts are our own. However, technology is coming in which perhaps we cannot even be sure of that any longer.

Holly Kane (Averton) is a psychiatrist in Brighton who has come up with a means of implanting thoughts into the heads of other people, using sensory deprivation tanks and subliminal audio. She may seem a beautiful, competent professional on the surface but just below she is deeply terrified of becoming like her sister Rosalyn (Barker) who is committed to a mental institution.

Her technique is too much like brainwashing and after being invited to help a patient undergoing an appendectomy do so without anesthesia strictly utilizing her technique, she finds herself being sued by the hospital that asked for her help. No good deed will go unpunished, right? However, her savior comes in the form of Marvin Greenslade (Henson), a pioneer in the field of subliminal communication and a personal hero of hers. He offers to fund her research and gives her office space in his building to do it. Although he’s 70-something, he is clearly attracted to the much younger Holly.

Holly’s personal life is pretty much a mess; her best friend is Jeannie (Campbell) who in addition to being a brilliant chemist is also a bit of a party girl. She is the one who is supplying Holly with the highly illegal substances she needs to concoct a liquid that opens up the mind for adjustment. It also provides a psychedelic trip that while it wouldn’t do Kubrick proud is nonetheless fun to watch.

She’s also getting into the handsome young Scot Dennis MacIntyre (Rose) who although a bit on the scruffy side is nonetheless quite into Holly. However, she calls it off with him when she finds out from Greenslade that he’s a former spy; she lambastes him for lying to her – a lie by omission but still. In any case, as Dennis begins to dig deeper into Greenslade, it turns out that Marvin isn’t the wonderful guy he makes himself out to be. He’s got government connections at the highest levels and might be looking to use Holly’s technique as a means of brainwashing terrorists. He also is using her own technique against her to make her believe that she wants to have sex with him and she eventually does although judging from her expression she’s clearly not enjoying it. He also uses the subliminal audio to tell her to trust only him and to distrust Dennis. Using some nasty spy sorts like, for example, Carl Gower (Neal) who also messes up MacIntyre’s mind when he starts to get too close, Greenslade has eyes and ears everywhere. Can the two escape the clutches of Greenslade before he wipes out their minds permanently?

What I liked the most about this film is that it really evokes a 70s espionage film vibe from the pulsating electronic score to the paranoia to the plot twists and turns. While the suspense for the climactic chase isn’t built up as much as I would have liked, nonetheless this had a distinct cold war feel to it You were never quite sure who you could trust.

The character of Holly Kane is written a bit strangely. At times she’s emotionally closed off; other times she’s very emotional as when she visits her sister after a long absence. Averton plays her as well as can be expected, particularly during one of the most curious sex scenes in movie history when she has sex with Greenslade; her face is so emotionless and her body is so rigid that Greenslade may as well have been schtupping a plank. Otherwise Averton plays Kane cool which goes along with the overall vibe. Even when she’s partying Holly is a bit on the reserved side. There’s a scene in the deprivation tank in which Holly is masturbating which kind of comes from left field; even there her expression is almost clinical.

I’m not sure why the psychiatrist has to look like a super-model. I am also not sure why that she has to be saved from rape and brainwashing by a man who is at least as in trouble as she is. After going to the trouble of establishing Holly Kane as a strong, independent and brilliant woman, writer Mick Sands then turns her into a typical victim. Just once I’d like to see a woman like Dr. Kane not need rescuing from a guy but be able to take matters into her own hands.

The chase scene as Holly and Dennis try to escape the clutches of Greenslade and his goons is oddly flat. One doesn’t get the sense of imminent danger that should go with a scene like this. Time and time again, goons burst into the place where they think the two are only to find them gone. I don’t remember seeing their pursuers in the same frame as them at any time during the chase. It could have used a little more of a thrill factor.

Despite the flaws this is a satisfactory film and even a little bit more. It gets the tone right and although it could have used a bit more oomph in the suspense generation, it nonetheless keeps you guessing until the final chase. Considering the miniature budget for this thing, there’s a lot of bang for your buck here.

REASONS TO GO: The atmosphere and paranoia of a 70s espionage film is recreated here in a good way. The concept that both the heroic leads may be clinically insane is interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels anti-climactic towards the end. The surveillance photo stops get to be annoying after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: Sensuality, some nudity, rape, drug use, violence and profanity throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tom Sands directed his first feature, Nazi Vengeance (2014) at the age of 24. His brother Mick wrote both of his features to date.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Parallax View
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Bang! The Bert Berns Story

Split


James McAvoy is having a ball.

James McAvoy is having a ball.

(2016) Thriller (Blumhouse/Universal) James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Izzie Leigh Coffey, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Neal Huff, Ukee Washington, Ann Wood, Robert Michael Kelly, M. Night Shyamalan, Rosemary Howard, Jerome Gallman, Lyne Renee, Kate Jacoby, Peter Patrikios, Kash Goins, Julie Potter. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

 

The human mind is a marvelous thing but also a dangerous thing. When you scratch the veneer, you never know what you’re going to find. Sometimes what you find can be absolutely horrifying.

Three young girls – haughty Claire (Richardson), sycophantic Marcia (Sula) and outsider Casey (Taylor-Joy) – are kidnapped in broad daylight from a birthday party at a mall in suburban Philadelphia. They are rendered unconscious with a kind of spray chloroform and brought to a dungeon by Kevin (McAvoy), a seemingly mild-mannered young man.

Except it’s not just Kevin; there are a lot of different personalities jockeying for position “in the light” (i.e. the dominant personality allowed to show their face to the light) including prim and proper Miss Patricia, scheming manipulative Dennis, foppish Bradley, and 9-year-old child Hedwig. All are completely unique and some are more dangerous than others.

Kevin is under the care of a psychiatrist (Buckley) who specializes in Dissociative Identity Disorder, what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder or good ol’ schizophrenia. Kevin has 23 such personalities rummaging around his head and a 24th getting ready to emerge with the ominous name of The Beast who has special plans for the young girls.

There have been some who have called for a boycott of the movie for it’s portrayal of DID patients which is, to say the least, far from realistic. I find that kind of disingenuous since nobody in their right mind would think of this movie as a scientifically accurate portrayal of a very real psychiatric issue – it certainly isn’t meant to be that any more than The Incredible Hulk is meant to be a realistic presentation of radiation poisoning. It’s a case of agenda-pushing politically correct sorts with sticks lodged firmly and deeply up their anal cavities trying to inflict their world view on the rest of us. Sometimes a movie is only after being a good time; lighten the hell up already.

Shyamalan who started out as a golden boy after his first couple of movies fell out of favor with both critics and fans alike and after a couple of really awful movies (I’m talking about you, After Earth and The Last Airbender) rebounded in 2015 with The Visit which was the highest-grossing horror film of that year. Judging on its performance so far, Split has a good shot at equaling that accomplishment.

One of Shyamalan’s strengths has always been his ability to tell a story well. It is when he drifts away from that strength and tries to be either too complicated or too cute that he gets into trouble. His last two movies have been more economical not only in terms of budget but also in terms of story; there is little or no fat on the bones of either film and as a result the movies feel more taut and involving.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have an actor deliver an exceptional performance and McAvoy does as Kevin. It’s hard to imagine but Joaquin Phoenix was originally cast in the role but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts; I don’t think the movie lost a thing for the change. In fact, I think Phoenix might have been less effective in the role, as good an actor as he is. McAvoy doesn’t oversell the various personalities and uses a lot of subtle facial expressions to convey his characters. There is a little CGI help, particularly near the end of the movie (which is not coincidentally the weakest part of the movie) but otherwise it’s all McAvoy and hopefully it will help him garner some meatier roles in the future.

The supporting performances are adequate but frankly the three captives have little depth to them (which is more a function of the writing than the performances) although Taylor-Joy continues to develop as one of the most exciting up-and-coming actresses in Hollywood right now. Buckley hams it up a little bit as the scientist too blinded by her research to see the real danger that is developing right in front of her very eyes. Like McAvoy, she seems to be having a grand old time making the film and it shows. In fact, I get the sense that Shyamalan himself seemed more confident and while he did express that this was one of his most challenging shoots ever, there is an element of fun throughout with some appropriately placed humor.

Some are calling this his comeback film but I am still a bit on the fence about that. Certainly he is on the right path but this doesn’t compare with his best two films, both made at the beginning of his career. While the post-credits scene absolutely floored me and left me leaving the theater with a huge grin on my face (and sets up a sequel that is sure to happen), the movie drags a bit particularly in the middle and the final sequence when The Beast makes his appearance is a bit of a letdown in many ways.

Still this is in the upper echelon of Shyamalan’s filmography and that’s a good thing. While he has been disappointing of late, his last two movies are showing a return to form and leaves me hopeful that we will soon be seeing movies on the level of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Now that would be truly a Hollywood miracle.

REASONS TO GO: The tone is nicely taut and suspenseful. McAvoy gives a very strong performance. The twist in the post-credits scene is absolutely wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The girls are in general pretty much without personality. The film drags a bit in the middle. The Beast is a little bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, thematic content that may be squirm-inducing for some, a bit of foul language and some behavior that is suggestive of pedophilia.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth film directed by Shyamalan to gross more than $100 million at the box office.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Psycho
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Book of Love

The Girl on the Train (2016)


Emily Blunt realizes she's on the express train to Hell.

Emily Blunt realizes she’s on the express train to Hell.

(2016) Thriller (DreamWorks/Universal) Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Rebecca Ferguson, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, Lisa Kudrow, Lana Young, Gregory Motley, Mac Tavares, John Norris, Peter Mayer-Klepchick, Darren Goldstein, Nathan Shapiro, Cleta E. Ellington, Tamiel Paynes, Fernando Medina, Rachel Christopher. Directed by Tate Taylor

 

Perception is a tricky thing. Memory is unreliable; we may think we see something but did we really? Was it something that our minds embellished, either because of altered perception or our own prejudices? Was it something important? Ask ten people about something they saw fleetingly from a moving vehicle and you’ll get ten different answers as to what they saw.

Rachel Watson (Blunt) takes the Long Island Railroad train from the Island into the City twice a day. She’s been through a lot lately; a divorce following the revelation that her husband Tom (Theroux) had been cheating on her with their real estate agent Anna (Ferguson) – and had worse still married Anna and had a beautiful baby daughter with her, after efforts for Rachel to get pregnant had turned out fruitless. She already had a problem with alcohol when they were married; now that problem has become full-blown alcoholism.

From the train she sees a house not far from the one she used to live in and where Tom still lives with her new wife. In the house live a beautiful blonde and her husband, the perfect couple to Rachel’s mind, who have everything she ever wanted but cannot have. It comforts her somehow that this perfect union exists. Then one morning she sees the wife in the arms of another man and this sends her into a tailspin. She gets blackout drunk and ends up in a field not far from her old house and the one that the not-quite-perfect couple live in.

Then comes the news that the woman is missing; her name is Megan Hipwell (Bennett) and husband Scott (Evans) is frantic. As Rachel was spotted in the area, she is questioned by Detective Riley (Janney) about the situation. Rachel tells the Detective what she knows but Rachel isn’t exactly the most reliable witness.

Consumed by the case, Rachel sets out to find out who the mysterious man was and to find out what happened to Megan. Slowly, as she stumbles drunkenly from one clue to another, she begins to get closer to the truth about what happened to Megan – and discovers to her shock that the answer is closer to her than she could ever know.

This is based on the runaway bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins and is quite frankly a hot mess. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) has a history of deftly weaving multiple tales of different women together into cohesive films but that doesn’t happen here. The focus is largely on Rachel but Megan and Anna are both heavily in the mix and we do get their points of view as well.

Blunt has gotten some strong praise for her performance as Rachel, even critics calling for Oscar attention but I don’t see it. Frankly, this is one of her weaker performances that I can remember. She is unconvincing when asked to do scenes of drunkenness; quite frankly I’ve spent a lot of time among the inebriated and this is more of a caricature than anything else. Blunt tends to be more successful here when we get glimpses of her underlying torment. Rachel is definitely not a happy woman and when Blunt gets to let glimpses of that out, the performance works.

She isn’t helped much by the other cast members. Their performances are mainly unmemorable, but that isn’t necessarily the fault of the actors. They are given preposterous dialogue to say and characters who have little or no development to work with. It’s like the filmmakers decided to do something Hitchcock-esque (which this is) but instead of writing actual characters they used stereotypes from other films to fill in the blanks. While Rachel’s alcoholism is a nifty idea, it’s used more as a gimmick than as a real interesting plot point.

I haven’t read the novel this is based on but I’m told it’s very well-written by people whose judgment I trust on such matters. I can’t believe though that the story is identical; it’s too pat, too been there-done that. The twists are telegraphed and let’s face it, if you can’t tell who the criminal is in the first twenty minutes you’ve been asleep.

Bailey as Megan shows some promise (she’s also in the much better Magnificent Seven remake) doing her best Margot Robbie impression and ironically enough Robbie was originally considered for the role. Ramirez incomprehensibly has a Spanish accent for a character who’s supposed to be Arabic and Janney is unbelievable as a tough Detective Sergeant. I mean, think about it; these are all competent actors who are known for their consistently strong performances. Why are they all doing subpar work here all at the same time? One can only blame the filmmakers. The only actor who really makes an impression is Lisa Kudrow in a brief but important role who gets to utter the immortal line “Rachel! I haven’t seen you in a million years!” which may or may not be a conscious reference to Friends.

I’ve read some decent reviews for this thing and can’t for the life of me which movie those critics saw. Most of the reviews have been, like this one, on the negative side. The houses don’t look lived in, the lives don’t feel real. It’s like watching a movie in which Barbie and Ken dolls are used as surrogates. Blunt shows flashes of her normal brilliance but that is tempered with her portrayal of drunkenness as more of a lampoon than anything remotely approaching realism and that is symbolic of the movie’s issues as a whole; at the end of the day, this feels empty and without a connection to anything like real life. Why spend money on a movie that feels divorced from reality when you can watch a presidential debate for free?

REASONS TO GO: The alcoholism makes for an interesting plot point.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot twists and the whodunit are incredibly predictable. The acting is surprisingly blah.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, sexual content, profanity and a bit of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film Taylor has made that hasn’t had Octavia Spencer in it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Vertigo
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: The Handmaiden

Asylum (2005)


Natasha Richardson takes in a little sun while contemplating a lot of sin.

Natasha Richardson takes in a little sun while contemplating a lot of sin.

(2005) Thriller (Paramount Classics) Natasha Richardson, Marton Csokas, Ian McKellen, Hugh Bonneville, Joss Ackland, Gus Lewis, Judy Parfitt, Sean Harris, Hazel Douglas, Wanda Ventham, Sarah Thurstan, Alwyne Taylor, Maria Aitken, Andy de la Tour, Anna Keaveney, Robert Willox, Roy Boyd, Rhydian Jones, Nick Chadwin, Veronica Fairhurst. Directed by David MacKenzie

Boredom can lead us to do things that we wouldn’t ordinarily do. As a species, we are particularly irritated by having nothing to do. We need stimulation and we will go to great lengths in order to get it.

Dr. Max Raphael (Bonneville) has just been appointed superintendent at a maximum-security insane asylum outside of London as the 1950s draw to a close. The facility, built in the Victorian era, is crumbling into ruin, but I daresay not nearly as much as Raphael’s marriage to Stella (Richardson), who is suffering from terminal boredom to her workaholic husband to the point of a kind of misery-induced trance, much to the dismay of her son Charlie (Lewis) and disgust of her mother-in-law (Parfitt). Dr. Raphael himself has to deal with the acid barbs of Dr. Peter Cleave (McKellan) who was passed over for Raphael’s job by the director of the asylum, Dr. Straffen (Ackland) and Cleave is not letting people know that this is a terrible mistake.

Maybe, but not as massive as the mistake Stella is about to make. A garden house a few steps from her on-site home is literally a standing ruin; keen on gardening, she wants to turn it into a rookery. Inmate Edgar Stark (Csokas) is assigned to do the grunt work. Charlie, who has been ignored pretty much by both parents, latches onto Stark as a buddy/father figure which disquiets Stella at first. After being assured by both Dr. Cleave and her husband that the man is perfectly safe, she begins to accept him.

Her acceptance is a godsend to Edgar, who treats her like a princess. Not used to being treated well, Stella slowly begins to fall for the handsome Stark, which leads to sex, lots of it and in all sorts of places. It isn’t long before their transgressions are being noticed, and Edgar’s yearning for freedom begins to match his passion for the psychiatrist’s wife. Stella has started a journey on a train that is very likely to run away on her; what will her passion eventually cost her and those she loves?

The cast, with the exception of McKellen, was not particularly well-known when this was made (although Csokas appeared with McKellan in The Lord of the Rings as Celeborn). Richardson is required to be sexy and passionate and her sex scenes are unusually graphic. Csokas is solid as the brooding inmate with the horrors burning just below the surface. McKellan has to play a conniving man with little or no scruples and he plays him with the kind of polite front you might expect from such a man – this is the kind of reminder that the man is so much more than Magneto and Gandalf. Most of the rest of the cast is solid, but unspectacular. I was tickled to see Ackland, a character actor best known for such movies as The Hunt for Red October and Lethal Weapon 2, working; he is a fine character actor who classes up a production whether he’s playing a villain, a hero or a supporting cast member. McKellen gives a very nice performance of a complicated and not very nice character. The brooding hospital is almost a separate character within the film, creating an atmosphere well-suited to the downbeat nature of the movie.

Much of the action takes place in the titular Asylum; production designer Lawrence Dorman makes sure that the hospital has that look of an older building gone to seed but like many old buildings used for that purpose, you can almost feel the decades of anguish and insanity breathing within its walls. The filmmakers also capture the period nicely with Consolata Boyle’s costumes, the period magazines and the abundance of cigarette smoking that goes on; in some instances, the cigarettes are almost like weapons used to convey the disdain of the smoker.

The story is actually preposterous. Richardson’s Stella doesn’t act like a normal, rational human being would act. Especially in the middle and final acts of the movie, her behavior leaves you clutching your head to keep it from spinning around on your neck. Given that there are no characters within the movie that you can really relate to or even root for in any way shape or form (except maybe for Charlie and even he is something of a caricature whose sole purpose in the film is to introduce his mother to her lover, and then serve as the means for driving the final denouement of the story. This really is hideously written.

This was a Netflix rental for me; it played in Orlando for only a week or two and even then only in a few theaters (maybe only one – I’m not completely sure on that instance). I can’t say as I can recommend it even on that level for anyone. Those who enjoy explicit sex scenes will probably find this irresistible, but you’re probably better served watching a porno for that. Those who like period psychological dramas would be better served renting the very long list of better movies in the genre. I suppose if you’re a big Ian McKellen fan, this might be worthwhile for his fine performance but there honestly isn’t very much else worth seeing here.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling performance by McKellen. Captures the period nicely. Some very erotic sex scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly written and preposterously plotted. Lacks relatable characters. May have too much sex for those who are sensitive to that sort of content.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a very strong sexual element to the story and much nudity. There are also instances of wife beating, infidelity and child endangerment.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Paramount bought the rights to the Patrick McGrath novel this is based on with the intention of having Stephen King write the screenplay and Jonathan Demme directing. When both of them were unable to work the movie into their schedule, Paramount shifted the property to their boutique/art house Classics label (which has since become Paramount Vantage) and appropriately reduced the budget.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on an unknown production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfaithful
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: I, Robot

Side Effects


Is this what depression looks like?

Is this what depression looks like?

(2013) Psychological Thriller (Open Road) Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, David Costabile, Mamie Gummer, Vinessa Shaw, Michael Nathanson, Sheila Tapia, Ann Dowd, Debbie Friedlander, Polly Draper, Marin Ireland, Katie Lowes, Elizabeth Rodriguez. Directed by Steven Soderbergh

As a society we’re drug-happy. Our physicians and psychiatrists prescribe willy-nilly and Big Pharma encourages them to. Modern American medicine has largely become a matter of knowing what pill to prescribe. That’s not to deny there haven’t been serious advances in pharmaceuticals – but the question has to be asked if we rely on them overly much.

You would think Emily Taylor (Mara) would be happy. Her husband Martin (Tatum) is getting out of prison after doing four years for insider trading. Sure, their lives which had been all about privilege and pampering had gone to a more hand-to-mouth lifestyle but at least they’re together. Emily though suffers from depression and after a failed suicide attempt is sent to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), an expatriate Brit plying his psychiatric trade on American shores.

Various prescriptions of anti-depressants prove to be ineffective until Jonathan runs into Emily’s former shrink Dr. Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones) at a conference. They discuss her condition and Victoria recommends Ablixa, a fairly new drug, as an alternative (she’s even got a promotional pen to give him). Dr. Banks agrees to give it a try.

At first it’s everything advertised; Emily feels a lot better, her sex drive has returned and things are looking rosy. There are a few blips on the radar – she’s sleepwalking which is a common side effect of Ablixa but that’s not worth stopping the treatment. That’s when a tragedy occurs that changes everything, turning Emily’s life upside down and calling into question Dr. Banks’ abilities as a psychiatrist and threatening to destroy his life as well.

Soderbergh excels in these sorts of psychological thrillers and while this isn’t his best, it’s still a solid effort. He has a strong cast (particularly among the lead four) and casts Law perfectly into a role he specializes in. Law is equally adept at playing heroes and villains, largely because he is a bit twitchy to begin with but is also likable. That serves him well here as he is somewhat morally ambiguous although clearly he’s also having his strings pulled.

Mara has only had three leading roles thus far but she’s been excellent in all of them and here she plays a completely different character than her last big part – seemingly mousy, frightened of the world and everything in it, somewhat high maintenance. She’s a bit of an enigma and the movie relies on her being so. Plenty of actresses can be enigmatic but Mara makes her engaging enough that you want to see her get better, want to protect her and take care of her. That’s exactly what the part calls for.

Longtime readers know I’m not especially a fan of Tatum’s acting but in all honesty he does pretty darn well here. He’s certainly morally ambiguous – all of the characters are, a Soderbergh trademark – but he’s also much more warm and likable than I’ve ever seen him. I might just have to revise my opinion about the man.

Zeta-Jones has of late done some fine character acting. She’s still as beautiful as ever but her range has always been much greater than she’s been given credit for and she gets to stretch it a bit here. I’ve always liked her as an actress and she’s given me no reason to think differently now.

While well-written and even brilliant in places, writer Scott Z. Burns falters in the middle third. However the beginning and the last 25 minutes or so are taut and imaginative. You may see some of the solution coming but it’s unlikely you’ll see the whole picture unless you’re pretty damn clever and observant. This is an effective thriller that is sharp, brainy and sexy – everything you want in the genre. That’s not as common as you’d expect.

REASONS TO GO: Skillfully written thriller. Law and Mara deliver fine performances.

REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunity to skewer Big Pharma. Middle third muddles about a bit.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sex, a bit of nudity, a surfeit of foul language and some sudden and graphic violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Soderbergh has said that this will be his final feature film as a director (he’s currently putting the finishing touches on a premium cable mini-series) although he hasn’t ruled out coming back to the profession in the future.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100; the film has been getting good reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Firm

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Warm Bodies