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

Things We Lost in the Fire


Halle Berry sleeps one off.

Halle Berry sleeps one off.

(2007) Drama (DreamWorks) Halle Berry, Benicio del Toro, David Duchovny, Alexis Llewellyn, Micah Berry, John Carroll Lynch, Alison Lohman, Robin Weigert, Omar Benson Miller, Paula Newsome, Sarah Dubrovsky, Maureen Thomas, VJ Foster, Patricia Harras. Directed by Susanne Bier

Loss is something we all deal with in our own way. Some of us turn inward and shut the world out. Some of us throw ourselves into work or family. Still others lash out in anger, frustration and/or grief. It’s a powerful emotion that all of us must face in one form or another sooner or later.

For Audrey Burke (Berry) that time is now. Her husband Brian (Duchovny) is dead, killed trying to get an abused woman from being beaten up. The day of the funeral she sends for Jerry Sunborne (del Toro), one of Brian’s closest friends. He had gone from being a promising lawyer to a junkie and the source of much contention between Audrey and Brian. Brian had continued to visit Jerry and support him – in many ways he was Jerry’s sole connection to the world. Audrey thought he was a hopeless cause who she wanted as far away from her family as possible.

Getting Jerry to the funeral proves to take some doing. He is homeless now, having lost everything to his addiction. However, once Jerry gets there Audrey impulsively and not without some reservations invites Jerry to stay in the family home. She realizes that Brian would have wanted that and convinces herself that’s why she’s doing it but truth be told she wants someone around the house; their son Dory (Berry) needs a strong father figure around the house, their daughter Harper (Llewellyn) needs some guidance and to be honest she herself needs someone to lean on.

Audrey isn’t an easy person to be around. Her grief makes her touchy and sometimes she lashes out for no real good reason. In the meantime, Jerry is flowering in this environment. He is finding a new sense of purpose and the drugs are, for the moment, receding. A family friend (Lynch) is even helping Jerry get a real estate license and back to being a productive member of society. However both grief and drugs can be mercurial and unpredictable and both Jerry and Audrey have yet to face a very dark night indeed in both of their souls.

This started life as a screenplay by Allan Loeb, appearing on the inaugural “Black List” of unproduced screenplays (the Black List is a survey of 250 producers of the best screenplays they’d seen that year that were as yet unproduced). It was picked up by DreamWorks and acclaimed Danish director Bier (who had directed the acclaimed Open Hearts up to that point and later won an Oscar for In a Better World since) was attached to it.

They also put together a pretty powerful cast in Oscar winner Berry who once again gives a powerful performance as a woman who is lost and hurting. Audrey isn’t always likable and she doesn’t always act the way we’d like her to act. That’s a credit to Loeb who creates a character who is flesh and blood rather than an ideal. She has good days but she also has some bad ones. Berry fleshes Audrey out, turns her into a person you’d find walking around the mall or sitting in the movie theater next to you. Of course, if someone who looked as good as Halle Berry were sitting in the theater next to me I’d notice it pretty quickly.

Del Toro is no less impressive. Jerry is as wounded in his own way as Audrey is and like Audrey, Jerry doesn’t always act the way we’d like him to. He is trying, however and is basically a good man deep down – he’s just also a weak man when it comes to narcotics. These two performances drive the movie and are the main reason to see it.

Bier has a thing about eyes and there are a lot of close-ups of the eyes throughout the movie which can be disconcerting. While I agree that the eyes are the window to the soul, they are also kind of boring when you keep seeing them over and over again. As an old-time Hollywood producer might have put it, Susanne baby, lose the eyes.

The movie has a European sensibility to it so the pacing might not be to the liking of an American audience; that is to say, it takes it’s time and gets to where it’s going at its own pace. There are some moments when the movie veers into soap opera territory but thankfully those moments are few and far between.

This is a movie that didn’t get a whole lot of fanfare when it was released and the general attitude of critics and moviegoers alike was a resounding “who cares” but the truth is that you should. This is a very strong and powerful film on taking control of your own life and learning to deal with pain. The performances of Berry and del Toro are worthy of your time alone, but for my money this is one of those gems that didn’t get the love it should have.

WHY RENT THIS: Marvelous performances from del Toro and Berry; Duchovny, Lynch and Lohman excellent in supporting roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many extreme close-ups. Maudlin in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bier’s sole English-language film to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.6M on a $16M production budget; the movie is considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monster’s Ball

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Chasing Ice

In a Better World (Haevnen)


In a Better World

Some father and son heart-to-hearts don't quite have the desired effect.

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Mikael Persbrandt, Markus Rygaard, William Johnk Juels Nielsen, Trine Dyrholm, Ulrich Thomsen, Toke Lars Bjarke, Kim Bodnia, Wil Johnson, Elsebeth Streentoft, Camilla Gottleib, Odiege Matthew, Simon Maagaard Holm. Directed by Susanne Bier

All of us have some sort of moral compass that guides them, be it a motivation to do the right thing or one to act only in one’s own self-interest. There are also times in all of our lives when we are required to use that compass in order to make a profound decision, one that may affect not only our own lives but of those around us.

Anton (Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor living in a small town in Denmark. Well, some of the time anyway – he spends a good deal of time working in refugee camps in what appears to be the Sudan (although it’s never specifically spelled out in the film). Much of his time is spent patching up the victims of a particularly sadistic warlord nicknamed The Big Man (Matthew), who likes to bet his functionaries what the sex of an unborn child but being somewhat impatient, prefers to rip the fetus out of the womb rather than wait for it to be born. His moral resolve is tested when the Big Man himself comes into the refugee camp, demanding to be treated for an infected leg.

He is married to Marianne (Dyrholm) but only loosely. A fellow doctor who stays at home with their sons Elias (Rygaard) and Morten (Bjarke), the relationship between the two has come to a breaking point after Anton cheated on Marianne. Edging closer to divorce, Anton’s infrequent visits home are characterized by separate residences and strained silences.

Elias is bullied at school, particularly by Sofus (Holm), a large blonde kid who doesn’t like Swedes to begin with (apparently there is some hostility towards Swedes in Denmark) but doesn’t like Elias in particular, referring to him as “Rat Face” (due to his angular features and braces). Sofus delights in tormenting Elias, flattening his bicycle tires and stealing the valves so that Elias can’t re-inflate them.

This is observed by Christian (Nielsen), a new kid in town whose mother recently lost a long fight with cancer. Christian is angered at his father Claus (Thomsen), who lied to him when promising his mother would get better but worse still – for wanting his mother to die during the late stages of the disease when she was suffering terribly. Christian has developed an intense hatred of bullies and defends Elias, taking on the much bigger Sofus – beating him mercilessly with a bicycle pump, at last threatening the bully with a knife.

This brings the police into the matter, although both boys defend each other and protect each other, knowing that if the knife is found or attributed to Christian it would mean immediate expulsion. Right about then Anton returns home, staying in the family summer house.

When Anton breaks up a fight between Morten and another boy, the boy’s father Lars (Bodnia) warns Anton not to touch his boy and slaps Anton, causing obvious embarrassment mostly because it was witnessed by Christian and Elias, who have become fast friends. Anton, a pacifist, believes that not responding to the provocation was the right thing to do. Christian and Elias are not so sure, believing Anton to be afraid. In order to prove to the boys he isn’t afraid, he takes them to Lars’ auto shop and confronts the adult bully. Lars continues to abuse and slap Anton, but Anton never flinches. Pleased with himself, he is satisfied that he has taught the boys a valuable lesson. Christian, however, has taken a different lesson away and resolves to do something about Lars – something serious that will forever change the course of his life and that of Elias.

This is the most recent recipient of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, winning also the Golden Globe for the same category (a very rare occurrence I can assure you). Director Biers constructs a morality play, setting it in a bucolic Danish town where life would seem idyllic, and in a refugee camp. She wisely plays the moral dilemmas of Anton (in treating the Big Man) and his son (in following Christian down a path of vengeance) side by side in parallel stories, emphasizing how similar the two situations are.

She is helped by having two fine juvenile leads. Both Nielsen and Rygaard are convincing, coming off as real kids without saving the day or acting beyond their years. Like all children, Christian and Elias don’t have sufficiently developed moral compasses at this point in their lives, and make decisions essentially based on incomplete information.

Persbrandt is not a name I was familiar with, but he does a terrific job as Anton, displaying the moral ambiguity of a man who cheated on his wife, yet lectures his sons about morality. Anton’s obvious anguish at having violated his own ethics is clear, as is his devotion to his sons. I understand he is one of the most respected actors in Scandinavia – I can certainly see why.

Dyrholm is also fine as a woman who feels completely lost and doesn’t know how to find her way back, or even if she wants to. Marianne can be shrill and sometimes takes her anger out on her son who blames her for not forgiving his dad. Thomsen, as the grieving father, is similarly solid. His grief renders him nearly inert, unable to take action as his son treads increasingly dangerous waters.

I like the conversation this brings up in terms of the use of violence as a tool of vengeance (in fact, the Danish title for the movie is “The Revenge”). Not that violence doesn’t exist in Denmark – of course it does – but it’s far less prevalent there than here, so the impact of the movie was probably more intense in Denmark than here. The truth is we become desensitized to violence, seeing it as a means of getting even, knowing that it solves nothing. Anton may have been ineffective in conveying his message to Christian and Elias, but it’s a good message nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: A quiet little drama that settles in on violence and vengeance. Juvenile leads do a tremendous job.

REASONS TO STAY: Needed to make its points a little more subtly.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence that’s occasionally shocking (some of it involving pre-teens), there’s some disturbing images and some snippets of foul language and sex.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story Christian reads at his mother’s funeral is “The Nightingale” by Hans Christian Anderson.

HOME OR THEATER: The great African vistas look terrific on the big screen but so too does the bucolic imagery of the small Danish town. In other words, catch it in a theater if you can.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

TOMORROW: Disgrace