The Girl in the Spider’s Web


Lisabeth is not someone you want to cross.

(2018) Suspense (MGM/ColumbiaClaire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, LaKeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Beau Gadsdon, Carlotta van Falkenhayn, Stephen Merchant, Christopher Convery, Claes Bang, Synnøve Macody Lund, Cameron Britton, Vicky Krieps, Andreja Pejic, Mikael Persbrandt, Thomas Wingrich, Andreas Tietz, Paula Schramm. Directed by Fede Alvarez

One of the most intriguing literary characters to come along in the last fifteen years is Lisbeth Salander, the avenging angel/hacker/righter of wrongs/badass from Stieg Larson’s Millennium trilogy and the David Lagerkrantz novels that succeeded it after Larson’s death. While the Swedish Millennium films ended up being massive art house hits, the two big budget attempts from MGM/Columbia both flopped. It wasn’t because of the lead actresses.

Lisbeth Salander (Foy) is living off the grid, using her uncanny computer skills to help out a security firm. In her spare time, she punishes the abusers of women, as she herself was a victim of sexual abuse from both her father and her guardian. It’s enough to make you hate men – and I’m a man!

She get involved with a remorseful computer programmer (Merchant) who wants her to steal his program from the American military, which will gain too much power from it. She is assisted by an NSA agent (Stanfield), crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Gudnason) and fellow hacker Plague (Britton). Opposing her are the Spiders, a global criminal gang and one of their finest operatives (Hoeks) – who happens to be Lisbeth’s sister.

There is definitely some post-feminist anger deep in the DNA of this series and Alvarez manages to capture it without blunting its impact too much. The veteran horror director also proves he’s no slouch with action sequences, including a thrilling motorcycle chase. Alvarez has a very strong visual style – the white and grey of a Swedish winter is juxtaposed with the bright red attire of the Spider Queen.

Sadly, neither this film – a “soft reboot” of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – nor its predecessor measure up to the Swedish trilogy. Maybe Hollywood just doesn’t get the subtleties that make the Swedish versions superior; sometimes, a big budget is actually detrimental to a film. That isn’t to say that this is a bad movie – it’s certainly entertaining, and Foy does a magnificent job. It’s just not as high-quality by comparison.

REASONS TO SEE: Well-staged action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: Neither American film holds a candle to the Swedish film series and Noomi Rapace.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some violence and brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stieg Larson, who created the Millennium series of novels, originally planned for ten books in the series but passed away in 2004 after writing only three. His partner Eva Gabrielson has possession of his notes outlining the remaining books, but because they were never married the literary rights passed to his father and brother. With both sides unable to agree on what direction the series was to take, the family commissioned writer David Lagerkrantz to continue the series. This book is based on his first effort, the fourth official book in the series.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews, Metacritic: 43/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Gelateria

Lone Star Deception


Smoke gets in my eyes.

(2019) Suspense (Tri-Coast WorldwideEric Roberts, Anthony Ray Parker, Nse Ikpe-Etim, Merlisa Determined, Gary Lee Mahmoud, Eliza Roberts, Johnny Ray Gibbs, John Maciag, Sunday Flint, Karina Pal-Montaño, Brian Thornton, Chris Mayo, Melissa Wilson, Archie Ashcroft, Jeff Brody, Enrique Davila, Binette Dialio, Charles Emmott, Joe Grisaffi, Taylor Nieland, Brandi Barbee. Directed by Robert Peters and Don Okolo

 

There’s the United States and then there’s Texas. Texas is on its own planet and they’re very proud of that down in the Lone Star state. It isn’t like anywhere else and that can be a double edged sword.

Tim Bayh (Parker) is an executive at a big Texas oil firm. His boss, Bill Sagle (Eric Roberts), is masterminding the Republican gubernatorial campaign of his nephew Stuart (Mahmoud). When that is derailed by the presence of a sex tape, Bill decides to run Tim as the first African-American candidate in state GOP history.

That turns out to be not such a good idea for Tim, as he is beset on every side, by racists, members of his own community who think he’s selling out, greedy oilmen who want to keep the status quo and then there are the criminals who took down Stuart who have an idea to get another payday out of Tim. He will have to have eyes in the back of his head (and on both sides) if he’s going to make it to the finish line.

The concept is an intriguing one. Texas politics are an entirely different animal and there is definitely room for a great movie here. Sadly, this isn’t it. The script is botched, coming off as a relatively tame movie-of-the-week quality with the tension – which should have been ratcheted up into the red zone – barely discernible, and a feeling that the directors were in a rush to get from one set piece to the next without giving much thought to character development or plot development, for that matter.

Eric Roberts is an Oscar-nominated actor who has had a long and satisfying career. He’s a consummate pro who gives at the very least an entertaining performance and despite some overacting, does so here. You get the feeling that he’s giving his best, but is hamstrung by script problems and frankly, some issues with direction. While both directors are fairly experienced, they seem to have a love for camera movement and there’s a ton of panning and dolly shots which gets to be noticeable at times. You should never notice what the camera is doing; when the camera is in constant motion it takes focus away from what is going on onscreen. Trust your actors and let them be the center of attention.

Chalk this up as a good idea poorly executed. Texas Republicans tend to be the rock-ribbed sort – after all, they are the state that gave us George W. Bush – and to see what having a black front-runner for governor would do to the party would be extremely interesting, but I don’t think the writers did much in the way of research and if they did, it sure doesn’t show in the final product. It’s a shame but I can’t recommend this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Eric Roberts is always entertaining.
REASONS TO AVOID: An interesting concept lacks execution. Stiff acting and a tired plot doom the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Not for the kids; there’s violence, drug use, sexuality, profanity…everything but the kitchen sink.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eliza Roberts, who plays Bill Sagle’s wife, is married in real life to Eric Roberts, the actor who plays him.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miss Sloane
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Robin Hood (2018)

M.O.M. (Mothers of Monsters)


Being a mom means knowing how to D.I.Y.

(2020) Suspense (Indie Rights) Melinda Page Hamilton, Bailey Edwards, Edward Asner, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Julian de la Celle. Directed by Tucia Lyman

 

Every mom thinks her child is an absolute angel, right? There’s that unbreakable bond between mother and son that is maybe one of the most beautiful relationships there are. But what happens when a mom begins to suspect that her little angel is in fact potentially a homicidal monster?

That’s the situation that Abbey (Hamilton) finds herself in. Throughout his childhood, young Jacob (Edwards) has had anger management issues and has acted out in troubling ways. Now that he’s a teen, Jacob’s rages have grown in scope and he has begun to take an unhealthy interest in guns and Nazi symbology. His acting out is getting increasingly violent. Abbey is calling out in the wilderness, to school officials who see a different side of Jacob, and a psychiatrist (Asner) who believes that Abbey is the one who’s losing it. And maybe he’s right; living in a constant state of terror is taking its toll.

This found footage film, mostly video confessionals, security cam footage, cell phone footage, laptop cam footage and home movies, is woven together by veteran TV showrunner and first-time feature director Lyman, perhaps not seamlessly but close enough.

She does a masterful job of building up the tension in the film, giving the viewer a feeling that they can’t look away even for a moment. It’s not exactly like a train wreck; it’s more like hearing noises outside your window and staring out to see if there’s something out there. You know there is and you’re just waiting for it to make its move.

The movie does move into a psychological horror mode in the last half which is a bit weaker than the first; the movie would have benefitted by exploring Abbey’s mental state a little bit more as well, because part of the movie’s strength is that you’re never quite certain whether Jacob is the monster his mommy thinks he is, or whether Abbey – herself traumatized by a childhood incident which is only revealed near the end of the film – is the one who is losing her mind. That question is sorta kinda settled in the shocking ending, but not really. You are left wondering which one of the two needed professional help. Maybe both of them.

The film benefits from strong lead performances by both Hamilton and Edwards. Edwards projects menace, occasionally staring at the camera with an utterly blank expression that screams “psychopath,” whereas Abbey seems to be growing more and more brittle as the film goes along, a tribute to Hamilton who manages to be both sympathetic and yet leaving room for the audience to question her own sanity. In that sense, the film is well-written.

The movie has a lot of resonance in an era where kids shoot up schools for no apparent reason other than that they can. I think a case could be made that we’re all suffering from PTSD given the national obsession with guns and how often we have a mass shooting dominating the headlines. Many parents of teens (or parents who survived their children’s teen years) will find some empathy for Abbey, while younger viewers may actually identify with Jacob, whose issues have him taking all sorts of meds and whose dad is not really in the picture, not to mention Abbey can be a bit on the controlling side at times.

Still, this is a powerful movie that flew under the radar but definitely has the chops to be worth your while. It’s not on a whole lot of streaming services at the moment, but that may change once people are clued in to how good this movie is. However, if you’re practicing social distancing with a teen in the house, you might want to think twice before watching this. You could end up with all sorts of paranoid nightmares.

REASONS TO SEE: Genuinely chilling. Leaves you feeling like you can’t look away for even a moment. Strong performances by Hamilton and Edwards.
REASONS TO AVOID: The middle third drags a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity and some disturbing violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Lyman, whose background is in television..
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: We Need to Talk About Kevin
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Pacified

Exit 0


Is it paranoia when everyone is out to get you?

(2019) Suspense (Breaking GlassGabe Fazio, Augie Duke, Federico Castelluccio, Peter Greene, Kenneth McGregor, Daniel O’Shea, Ariel Eliaz, Boomer Tibbs, Ashley Jordan, Tara Rose Schreiber, Lindsey Axelsson, Kevin Ebner, Cash Kortum, Terry O’Brien, George Lind, Yara Mulder, Mary Anuzzi Voigt. Directed by E.B. Hughes

 

There is a fine line between madness and sanity. We all push the envelope of that line from time to time, whether it is obsession with a sports team, or the puzzling madness of doing the same thing time after time and expecting a different outcome. We all have some soft of insanity in our DNA.

Billy (Fazio) and his girlfriend of nearly a year Lisa (Duke) are heading up to the seaside town where Billy grew up for a weekend romantic getaway. We see that there are already cracks in the relationship; Lisa spends an inordinate time on our cellphone, Billy is paranoid as to who she’s texting. At a rest stop, Billy notices that there is a mysterious black car following them, but doesn’t think anything particularly sinister about it.

Once at the hotel, things really start to get creepy. While Lisa is taking a bath, Billy unpacks only to find a mysterious videotape. Being curious, he plays it and to his horror watches a young couple being stalked by a pair of men who rape and the wife and then murder the couple in the very hotel room in which he’s staying. Not wanting to freak out his girlfriend, Billy keeps the disturbing information to himself.

He does call the police, but when skeptical Det. Muller (Castelluccio) shows up the tape mysteriously disappears. Billy decides to spend the day doing touristy things with Lisa. While on a tour of the local lighthouse, tour guide Charlie (O’Shea) informs the couple that the inn in which they are staying is well-known as being haunted.

Then the videotape shows back up again, but this time it is blank. Muller begins to suspect that Billy has some mental issues and talks to Lisa about it. Meanwhile, Billy grows more and more paranoid. Are he and Lisa being stalked by the same people who murdered the couple? Is there a malevolent ghostly presence in the Inn? Or is Billy losing his mind?

There are a fair number of suspense movies that utilize the “is-it-or-is-it-not-paranormal” card, and for that kind of film, Exit 0 tends to follow the formula pretty dang closely. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it tends to rob the movie of any major surprises. We are then left to rely on the actors ability to inject some personality into the movie to make it unique and while the actors do try their best, at the end of the day they don’t quite pull it off.

I’m not sure where they filmed this but Hughes and company do a good job of creating a creepy environment. Still, it isn’t quite enough to overcome the somewhat tired script. It does come close, though.

REASONS TO SEE: The old hotel is suitably creepy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very much on the formulaic side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexuality, some violence and a scene of rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Zonana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
M.O.M. (Mothers of Monsters)

Disappearance at Clifton Hill


Trying to pretend an alien isn’t eavesdropping on their conversation.

(2019) Suspense (IFC Midnight) Tuppence Middleton, Hannah Gross, Eric Johnson, David Cronenberg, Marie-Josée Croze, Andy McQueen, Noah Reid, Dan Lett, Aaron Poole, Paulino Nunes, Elizabeth Saunders, Mikayla Radan, Addison Tymec, Tim Beresford, Janet Porter, Clyde Witham, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Kris Hagen, Connor Lucas-Loan, Devon Hauth, Alanis Peart. Directed by Albert Shin

 

Coming home again is never easy. It’s even harder after a beloved parent dies and you’re there to dispose of her worldlies. How difficult must it be on top of all that when it is the scene of a traumatic act that has shaped your entire life?

Abby (Middleton) is in that latter situation. Her mother is gone and her mom’s one asset, the Rainbow Hotel in the seedy tourist trap area of Niagara Falls known as Clifton Hill, needs to be sold to pay off debts. Fortunately, there’s a taker; Charles Lake III (Johnson), the head of the Charles Lake Corporation (a.k.a. CLC) which owns most of the run-down tourist attractions in town – hell, he owns the town!

What has haunted Abby her entire life was the occasion of seeing a terrified one-eyed boy beaten and kidnapped before her very eyes. When she tells her sister Laure (Gross) what she saw, Laure doesn’t believe her. Laure probes to be justified as Abby embarks on what could charitably be called a checkered life.

But now the events of that Thanksgiving weekend have resurfaced to haunt her and Abby is determined to get to the bottom of it and prove once and for all that she wasn’t crazy. She identifies the boy as Albert Moulin, the son of a pair of second-rate magicians (Nunes, Croze) who at the time were the big dogs in the small pond.

She finds an unlikely ally in Walter Bell (Cronenberg), a local historian/conspiracy theorist/podcaster/line cook at a local themed restaurant called the Flying Saucer Café. Walter also worked with a group called the Diving Bells who recovered bodies from the Falls. “Ever seen someone who jumped into the gorge?” he inquires in a soft but intense voice, “It’s like they swallowed a live hand grenade.”

Bell leads her in the direction of Lake, who has a checkered past of his own and an apparent taste for small boys. Abby is sure that Charles had Albert killed and decides to go out to prove it, which isn’t a very good idea considering that he owns the hotel her mother built and he has the police force and City Hall in his pocket. Still, Abby feels compelled to vindicate herself after all those years in the eyes of her sister, but the cost of vindication could be unbearably high.

Shin is a talented young Canadian director who is very clearly influenced by the work of fellow Canadian director Cronenberg. Casting him here was a stroke of genius because Cronenberg is actually a pretty talented actor as well. He plays Walter as quirky but never a parody of the paranoid conspiracy theorist. His laconic delivery is on the low-key side but it actually adds to the character’s allure.

Middleton, who most know from the Downton Abbey series (I wonder if the character’s name was an intentional in-joke or just a coincidence) gives Abby just the right amount of edge to make the audience call into question her veracity as a narrator. That is really at the heart of the movie; can a congenital liar be believed? Obviously, the audience is rooting for yes, but the final twists of the movie call into question even that.

The score by Alex Sowinsky and Leland Whitty is the kind of dissonant jazz that William S. Burroughs would have loved and serves to keep the audience off-balance. Shin excels at that and it is the movie’s greatest strength. On the weakness end, there are too many extraneous bits of business and characters refer to what are apparently important events that aren’t explained until later. It’s maddening and makes it feel like the filmmakers were winging it ore than they actually did.

All in all, though, it’s a pretty decent thriller that utilizes its Niagara Falls location excellently, even if we get no cliché shots of the famous “horseshoe” falls. Middleton makes an appealing lead and Cronenberg makes a compelling addition. If you’re looking for a good thriller, you could certainly do much worse than this.

REASONS TO SEE: Shin takes his cues from David Cronenberg’s early work; it’s therefore fitting that he cast the legendary director in his film.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a little bit jumbled, particularly towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled Clifton Hill when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year, but the name was changed when it was picked up by a distributor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes:69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deep End of the Ocean
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Maria by Callas

A Simple Favor


Cocktails and besties, the perfect combination.

(2018) Suspense (Lionsgate) Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Eric Johnson, Jean Smart, Sarah Baker, Gia Sandhu, Kelly McCormack, Glenda Braganza, Linda Cardellini, Andrew Rannells, Rupert Friend, Joshua Satine, Ian Ho, Glenda Braganza, Danielle Bourgon, Andrew Moodie, Bashir Salahuddin, Aparna Nancheria, Gia Sandhu, Katherine Cullen. Directed by Paul Feig

Da Queen will tell you that I love a good whodunit. Da Queen will also tell you I despise a lazy one. A Simple Favor falls somewhere in between; I don’t love it but I don’t hate it either.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a suburban supermom who has a mommy vlog full of life hacks for moms and so on. Her son (Satine) is a school chum of the son (Ho) of Emily (Lively), a high-powered public relations VP for a high-powered New York fashion firm led by the aptly named Dennis Nylon (Friend) who never met a wardrobe he couldn’t insult, especially if it didn’t involve his own clothing line.

Stephanie and Emily bond over martinis and quickly become besties, sharing their deep dirty secrets – Emily’s marriage to struggling writer Sean (Golding) is crumbling. Emily’s job is demanding more and more of her time and Stephanie is only too happy to pick up both boys from school, but then one night, Emily doesn’t come to pick up her boy – nor does she show up the next day. Stephanie fears the worst.

But Stephanie is a bit of an amateur sleuth and when the police don’t seem to have any leads on the whereabouts of Emily, Stephanie takes over looking for the lost item as any proper mom would. And what she finds…isn’t what she expects.

Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, isn’t afraid to inject some humor – okay, a lot of humor – into the neo-noir thriller. Sometimes, the movie seems almost schizophrenic at times. The tone varies from light to dark and sometimes in between. The chemistry between Lively and Kendrick absolutely works; they both look like polar opposites but it isn’t hard to see what draws the two characters together. The humor works well, but surprisingly it’s the thriller portion that’s less successful; the denouement isn’t hard to figure out in advance and the movie definitely loses narrative steam during the last third. Still, the things that work in A Simple Favor work very well; the things that don’t can be overlooked.

REASONS TO SEE: Kendrick and Lively have excellent chemistry.
REASONS TO AVOID: More or less mindless entertainment, appearances to the contrary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexual content and some graphic nudity, drug use, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the character of Emily is a heavy drinker, Blake Lively (who plays her) has been a teetotaler all her life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Vudu. YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone Girl
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Searching

Radioflash


The production went underwater quickly.

(2019) Suspense (IFC Midnight) Brighton Sharbino, Dominic Monaghan, Will Patton, Fionnula Flanagan, Miles Anderson, Michael Filipowich, Kyle Collin, Sean Cook, Arden Myrin, Max Adler, Lance Valentine Butler, Juli Erickson, CJ Legare, Shawn Law, Jerry Basham, Amir Abdullah, Ryan Shrime, Eryn Rea. Directed by Ben McPherson

 

There’s no doubt that our society functions on technology. It is both a blessing and a curse; it has allowed us to lead lives more comfortable than any of our predecessors but at the same time, what would become of society if all our technology suddenly was no longer available to us?

Nothing good, posits this film. Reese (Sharbino) is a bright teenage girl with superior problem-solving skills. She lives with her dad (Monaghan): both are still grieving the death of Reese’s mom from cancer a year earlier. When the power flickers out, it’s no big whoop at first. After all, power outages are a function of life as our devices suck more and more juice from the grid.

But the power doesn’t come back on and soon it becomes apparent that it won’t anytime soon. Reese’s survivalist grandpa (Patton) has been preparing for this all his life and he urges Reese and her pa to gather up as much gas as they can get hold of and head out to his place in the mountains before things turn to anarchy back in the city. They are just shy of too late.

At that point, the movie goes off the rails as Reese is kidnapped by Maw (Flanagan) and her brutish son Bill (Filipowich) and grandson Quinn (Collin) and the film takes a wide left into The Hills Have Eyes territory. The movie seemed really promising at first, with Reese being set up as a modern heroine who is smart, savvy and strong but she is essentially reduced to a typical damsel in distressed, trussed up in a burlap sack or locked in a basement. Her problem-solving skills we see early on are nowhere to be found.

Faring slightly better is Monaghan who plays the dad well; we’ve seen him as a irresponsible hobbit and a drug-addled rock star but he excels here as a devoted but sad-eyed dad. The film is bolstered by some beautiful Northwestern vistas, often mist-shrouded but McPherson is unable to generate a whole lot of excitement or suspense, leaving audiences indifferent to the fate of the characters. Considering the introduction he gave Reese, it’s a damn shame; I would have liked to have seen her less in peril and more in charge. Patton, a veteran character actor, is given little to do, showing up in brief moments to show concern and worry, for the most part.

This is one of those frustrating films where you see that if the filmmakers had just taken a certain direction that the movie had tons of potential to be something more than it turned out to be. While there are some worthwhile elements here, overall it ends up being a mediocre thriller that doesn’t quite do the job it’s supposed to do.

REASONS TO SEE: Monaghan does a crackerjack job in a type of role he’s not known for.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really generate a lot of excitement.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and violence herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McPherson has partnered with the Conservative View and Glenn Beck on short film projects, and co-writer Matt Redhawk is the founder of a survivalist supply company.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walking Out
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Synonyms