Centigrade (2020)


Baby, it’s cold outside.

(2020) Thriller (IFC MidnightGenesis Rodriguez, Vincent Piazza. Directed by Brendan Walsh

 

I think one of the basic fears of modern man is being stranded, particularly in the middle of nowhere. We rely so much on our modern conveniences – a working car, the Internet, our creature comforts – that when they’re taken away, we’re at a loss as what to do. In the immortal words of The Clash, should I stay or should I go?That’s what faces young American married couple Matt (Piazza) and Naomi (Rodriguez) when they pull over to the side of the road one night during a blizzard. They are on a European book tour for her latest tome, and were driving to their next stop, a hotel in the hinterlands of Norway. She is very pregnant, nearly ready to give birth and they wake up after sleeping the night away to discover that the car won’t start. They can’t open the doors because of the weight of all the ice and snow. It is dangerously cold, and they have precious little in the way of food and water.

The two have very different ideas as to what they should do next. One of them wants to stay put and wait for rescue, while the other thinks that their best chance of survival rests on getting out of the car and walking to safety. Initially, it’s not much of an argument – getting out of the car is out of the question anyway, so they are more or less forced to stay put but as time goes by and desperation grows, something is going to have to give or all that will be found of them re their frozen bodies, still wrapped in blankets in the car.

Rodriguez and Piazza are both fine actors and they do a decent job. It’s a pity that they weren’t given more defined characters to work with. We really don’t find out very much about them during the course of the 90 minutes we are forced to spend with them, which considering that they are stuck inside a car with nothing to do, seems to be almost criminal. They do bicker, but so do most couples and the stress of a life-or-death survival situation is likely to bring out the worst in both of them.

The production is pretty minimalist which makes sense given the confined quarters the characters are in. Walsh at least is creative with his camera angles, but after a while it isn’t really enough to keep our interest. This is the type of movie that would have been much better as a short than as a feature length film; there’s not enough dramatic conflict to sustain us and we don’t even get the benefit of flashbacks to change the monotony

A word about true stories: the movie claims it is “inspired by a true story,” but I couldn’t find any information anywhere about whose story this was based on. That could mean one of two things (at least that come to mind right away); either the people this happened to were unwilling to grant the rights to their story, or the finished story veered so far away from the truth that the real couple wanted nothing to do with it. For all we know, some friend of the producer might have been stranded in their car on a chilly night and the producer thought “Hey, this could be a great movie if we add a blizzard….and they’re snowed in! Yeah, that’s the ticket!!!” All kidding aside, the words “inspired by” can hide a lot of sins, so take the true story aspect with a grain of salt. One aspect couldn’t possibly be true; no obstetrician on the planet would let a woman as pregnant as Naomi fly to Europe to do a book tour.

This is another case of strong concept, less successful execution. For a movie like this to work, we have to get invested in the characters and without really getting much of a glimpse as to who they are, we haven’t much to hold onto and so our interest wanes. Even though the movie isn’t a long one, the lack of action or character development really made it feel much longer. That might be a little bit cold to say, but given the circumstances I think it justified. Still, the actors do give it their all, so if you like either Piazza or Rodriguez (or both) this isn’t a bad rental, but otherwise this is disappointing to say the least.

REASONS TO SEE: Nicely tense and claustrophobic.
REASONS TO AVOID: Too long for the type of movie it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a pretty good amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rodriguez and Piazza are an actual couple in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews, Metacritic: 42/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lamp Light
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Unfamiliar

Greta (2018)


Besties being stalked by a very disturbed woman.

(2018) Thriller (FocusIsabelle Huppert, Chloë Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Zawe Ashton, Stephen Rea, Jeff Hiller, Thaddeus Daniels, Raven Dauda, Parker Sawyers, Elisa Berkeley, Jane Perry, Brandon Lee Sears, Arthur Lee, Rosa Escoda, Jessica Preddy, Nagisa Morimoto, Graeme Thomas King, Aneta Dina Keder, Frankie Verroca, Angela Dál Riata. Directed by Neil Jordan

 

Isabelle Huppert, with 140 (and counting) films to her credit over a distinguished nearly 40-year career doesn’t appear to be slowing down in either quantity or quality. She elevates what is a fairly typical and predictable thriller into a decent, fun time.

She plays the title character who is befriended by Frances (Moretz), a sweet but naïve young woman trying to make it in New York after the passing of her mother. Greta is similarly alone, her daughter studying overseas in Paris. As time goes by and Greta begins to show signs of possessiveness, Frances makes an unnerving discovery that causes her to try and cut ties with Greta. However the lady won’t take no for an answer and soon the two are involved in a cat and mouse game which just proves the adage that in any cat and mouse game, the mouse is over-matched.

This is the second time Huppert has played a deranged piano teacher (the first was in the aptly-titled The Piano Teacher) and she is no less delicious here. Although Moretz is adequate as the scream queen, Huppert is clearly having fun and with veteran director Jordan behind the camera, we are treated to a visually arresting film in which every sequence seems carefully considered. Oh, and Maika Monroe does surprisingly well with the comic relief best friend role, having done the scream queen thing herself on occasion. She is certainly an actress with great things ahead of her.

The problem is that the script is about as predictable as political diatribes in an election year. Anyone who has watched any horror/suspense film over the past few years is bound to figure out where this is going, even if they haven’t seen or don’t remember the trailer. And as with any thriller that is lazily written, there are way too many jump scares, some predicated on musical cues that become tedious and obvious before too long.

The reason to rent this bad boy is the visual aesthetics of Jordan and the performances of Huppert and Monroe (and to a lesser extent, Moretz who is a fine actress in her own right – just not so much here). You could do worse than renting this one – but you could also do a lot better.

REASONS TO SEE: Huppert is delightful as the villain.
REASONS TO AVOID: An unsurprising, typical potboiler.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence as well as a few disturbing and creepy images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moretz and Monroe previously worked together on The 5th Wave.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews; Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Single White Female
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
CRSHD

This Teacher


Sign of the times.

 (2019) Thriller (Breaking GlassHafsia Herzi, Sarah Kazemy, Kevin Kane, Lucy Walters, Gabe Fazio, Lev Gorn, Lawrence Novak, Rebekah Del Rio. Directed by Mark Jackson

 

We don’t always get to choose how we are defined. We may see ourselves one way,  but the world insists on putting its labels and prejudices on us. A beautiful French Muslim girl, therefore, is looked at as a hijab-wearing potential terrorist despite the fact wshe doesn’t wear a hijab nor does she seem interested in detonating bombs.

Hafsia (Herzi) has taken up her friend Zarah’s (Kazemy) offer to visit her in New York, paying for Hafsia’s plane ticket. Zarah is now an actress, living with Heath, a much older rich white man (Fazio) and essentially turning her back on her past, drinking, wearing revealing dresses and Westernizing her name to Sarah. Hafsia, for her part, has remained provincial, a cashier in a bakery who, as Zarah tells her partner late one night, smells bad, like the world Zarah fled. Zarah is unaware that Hafsia can hear her.

With the reunion between the two childhood friends going catastrophically, Hafsia arranges to rent a cabin in upstate New York, taking Zarah’s identity as well, professing to be a nurse (the profession Zarah was in before she came to America) and living the rustic life in the woods, with no electricity and an outhouse in the back. Her mental state, always fragile, begins to unravel. She meets a couple – teacher Rose (Walters) and cop Darren (Kane) – in an adjacent property and is cajoled into drinking with them. Thus she begins an education into what being a Muslim in America in the third decade of the 21st century entails.

Herzi gives a marvelous performance; sometimes she seems so withdrawn that her physical body language makes it appear as if she’s scrunched into herself. Other times, she is shrieking in fury. Never do her actions feel forced, but there are times, particularly during the third act when she is let down by a script that is too strident by half.

Jackson clearly has a bone to pick with the attitudes of Americans at this time in history (not that I blame him), so when Hafsia attends a party that Zarah and Heath throw, she encounters the kind of subtle, condescending racism that is most often displayed by people who probably don’t think of themselves as racist at all. It’s what you might call “white liberal rednecks” in action.

There’s some lovely cinematography and the score is pretty decent; the problem here is that third act when the movie loses the good will it’s built up and instead of making points that resonate, turns into essentially a diatribe against white Christian privilege and while I don’t have an issue with that – there’s an awful lot of that going around lately – I found it literally to be oppressive in a different way. There is a point when if someone screams at you long enough, you just stop listening and it all becomes background noise. I fear that this film has reached that point.

REASONS TO SEE: A gripping performance by Herzi.
REASONS TO AVOID: The last half hour is just off the rails.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of profanity as well as some sexual situations and frank sexual discussions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Executive producer Reed Morano, best known for his work producing A Handmaid’s Tale, was Director of Photography on Jackson’s last film War Story.
BEYOND THE THEATER: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Woman Under the Influence
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Sharkwater Extinction

Serenity (2019)


Captains cantankerous.

(2019) Thriller (AvironMatthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, Diane Lane, Jeremy Strong, Charlotte Butler, Rafael Sayegh, Michael Richard, Robert Hobbs, Kenneth Fok, Garion Dowds, John Whiteley, Edeen Bhugeloo, Redd Pepper (voice), Guillaume Silavant, Vinaya Sungkur. Directed by Steven Knight

Serenity is not a great movie. Serenity isn’t even a good movie. I’m not talking about the 2005 Joss Whedon sci-fi epic, which is a terrific movie; this is a 2019 sexy noir-lite set on a Caribbean island incongruously called Plymouth with an even more incongruous zydeco film score. I kid you not.

On said island lives the incongruously named Baker Dill (McConaughey) who is a fisherman who when not chartering his boat for wealthy tourists (and even when he is) is on the hunt for a giant tuna called, most incongruously of all, Justice. Ahab, meet Dill.

He has a fairly laid-back island existence (he IS Matthew McConaughey after all) enjoying a torrid affair with a local cat lady (Lane), but all that goes out the window when his ex-wife Karen (Hathaway) shows up with an indecent proposal; to take her abusive new husband (Clarke) out to see, murder him, and let the sharks take care of the body. What’s an island boy to do?

The movie has a terrific cast full of Oscar winners and nominees as well as Hounsou as Baker’s first mate and Strong as an oddly persistent fishing equipment salesman. This is one of those films that you simply can’t take seriously. Don’t try to inject logic into it, just kind of go with it. There is a twist in the film but I can’t tell you about it without ruining the film, which is a shame because it’s really the best thing about the movie, unless you have a thing for McConaughey’s bare ass, which gets shown off to fair effect several times throughout the flick.

In the end, I couldn’t really get past the ridiculous dialogue, or the movie’s waste of a good cast, although to their credit they do commit to their roles. I suppose you could see this if you own Prime and you’ve binged everything else; it’s not horrible but it’s just not very good.

REASONS TO SEE: The twist is a decent one.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score doesn’t really match the tone of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some bloody images and a fair amount of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in Mauritius where a scandal was created when that country’s Prime Minister was accused of misappropriating funds to support the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Identity
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Return to Hardwick

Union Bridge


On his way to a “Reopen the Economy” protest.

(2019) Thriller (Breaking Glass) Scott Friend, Emma Duncan, Alex Breaux, Elisabeth Noone, Nancy Linden, Kevin Murray, Samantha Trionfo, Lateicia Ford, Jean Miller, Tim R. Worley, Bobby J. Brown, David Cohen, Andy Hopper, Bolton Marsh, David Cohen, Grant Garson, Graydon Hipple, Dan Verkman, Teresa Majorwicz. Directed by Brian Levin

 

There is an aphorism that goes “some things should stay buried.” In this film, that’s a literal truth. Unfortunately, it’s the only literal thing in the movie.

Will Shipe (Friend) returns to his small southern town following years of living and working in the City (doesn’t matter which one). His father has recently passed on and his shrewish mother (Noone) is essentially just as happy the old codger is gone. Now, maybe Will can get their family back into the prominence it has always deserved.

Of course, returning home means returning to those you grew up with, and for Will that includes his former best friend Nick Taylor (Breaux). However, Nick has become slightly unhinged; he sees visions of buried Confederate gold and spends his nights digging for it. He also has a hair-trigger and carries a gu around with him, never a good sign. Will’s Mom wants Will to stay as far away from Nick as he can, but not before he convinces Nick to stop digging. Mommy dearest, you see, is concerned that along with the gold Nick will dig up a secret that’s been buried since the Civil War – one that will destroy both the Taylor family and the Shipe family as well.

Things are kind of odd in Union Bridge beyond Nick; Nick’s cousin Mary (Duncan), whom Will used to date in high school, has taken up witchcraft. And while everyone seems pleased to see Will back, there’s an undercurrent that makes Will feel uneasy. And when he starts seeing the same visions that Nick has been seeing, well, you know what happens when the going gets weird – the weird go shopping. Or digging, as the case may be.

I tend to be the sort of critic who prefers efficient storytelling. Brevity is my watchword, and when a filmmaker can give me a story with a minimum of extraneous material, I tend to be more impressed. This is not that sort of movie. Now, some people revel in more detail. This is not that kind of movie either; there are a lot of images shown just for the sake of showing them; they have little or nothing to do with the story or the film and they can be jarring. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t something that I’m personally into, so take my objections with a grain of salt.

The discordant score adds to the off-putting and off-kilter feel. Levin is certainly not above thinking outside the box and that’s to be commended, but here he’s doing it to the detriment of the story, which becomes a slog to sit through. There are some moments that are Shirley Jackson-esque but not enough of them to really hold this film together.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments of Southern Gothic goodness.
REASONS TO AVOID: Incomprehensible in places and poorly paced. The characters don’t exactly invite me to spend a pleasant 90 minutes with them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the original creators of the Spider-Man comic, passed away during production of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Destroyer

Blood and Money


The Great White North (almost).

(2020) Thriller (Screen MediaTom Berenger, Kristen Hager, Paul Ben-Victor, Bates Wilder, Erica McDermott, Mark Sivertsen, Brian Duffy, Melissa McMeekin, Jimmy LeBlanc, Catherine Portu, Gary Tanguay, Ryan Hornchick, Ace Gibson, David J. Curtis, Lisa Lynch. Directed by John Barr

 

We all have actors who we are fans of even as they fly under the radar of everybody else. For me, that’s Tom Berenger, who has been a terrific if underused actor for decades, resonating in films like The Big Chill, Platoon, Major League and Sniper. He’s also been in his share of B-movies, including this indie thriller.

Jim Reed (Berenger) is an ex-marine, living in a dilapidated custom-camper. Once upon a time he had a family, but that all comes to an end when his daughter dies in a drunk driving incident when he was at the wheel. His wife and son were never able to forgive him for that; Hell, he’s never been able to forgive himself for that.

He lives in the North of Maine and its deer hunting season and he’s particularly anxious to bag himself a buck. You see, Jim is vomiting blood and passing out; he knows he’s sick but he’s loathe to do anything about it. He mainly wants to be left alone, coming in to town to load up on supplies and hang out with Debra (Hager), a waitress who reminds him of his late daughter. She’s in a marriage to an alcoholic husband (LeBlanc) and wants to get out.

The talk of the town is a recent violent casino robbery in which five thieves got away with over a million dollars in cash. There’s a manhunt going on for them, but that’s of no mind to Jim, who basically is all about getting back to hunting.

Back out in the wilderness, he thinks he’s bagged his buck but it turns out to be a woman. Jim is absolutely distraught about the situation but when she dies, he flees the scene. He later finds out she as one of the gang that robbed the casino. So, Jim returns to the scene of the shooting and takes the big duffel bag full of money. Of course, it goes without saying that the surviving members of the gang want their ill-gotten gains back.

Berenger will be 71 at the end of the month and while he moves gingerly like a 71-year-old man, he still has the presence he did when he was younger. Berenger plays the silent type as well as anybody, and he gives Jim Reed a world-weary patina that just screams “Get off of my lawn.” He look utterly at home in the snowy wilderness of the north woods of Maine, and the cold temperatures match the cold demeanor of Reed.

Barr, in addition to directing, also co-wrote and shot the film as director of photography, and as a writer he makes a great cinematographer. The snowy vistas are harsh and beautiful, setting the tone for the thriller nicely. However, the plot is pure bargain bin; we’ve seen this movie before and done better, despite the best efforts of Berenger.

All in all, it adds up to a fairly pedestrian thriller that won’t give you any surprises or shocks, but is worth looking into for the beautiful pictures as well as for the performance of the lead.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful scenery.
REASONS TO AVOID: Kind of a typical plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is both violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Barr’s feature-length debut as a director. He’s been a cinematographer on 20 other projects.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cliffhanger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music

Murder Death Koreatown


Even the couches are out to get you in Koreatown.

(2020) Found Footage Thriller (Self-Released) Cast unknown. Directed by Unknown

Some movies come to critics with reams of information; pages of publicity notes, director’s quotes, actor and crew bios and so on. Others come to us with much less information to go on. This one came with almost none.

Found footage films are not always received kindly in the critical community and among horror fans in general. There was a time when the market became over-saturated with them and let’s face it, most of them were really bad. The best-known were the original, The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, both of which would eventually see sequels made by major studios.

=The film centers around an unemployed man who is shocked to discover that a murder has taken place in a nearby apartment in which a young wife suddenly and without explanation brutally murdered her husband (it is implied although not directly stated that she stabbed her husband to death). The man is seriously shaken by the brutal event so close to home, but there are some things that are troubling him. For one thing, there are blood spatters on the sidewalk away from the crime scene. Also, the arrest of the suspect took place nearly a block away from the crime scene.

He takes out his cell phone and starts talking to people around the neighborhood, filming the interviews. At first, most of the subjects know less than he does. As he looks into it, there are a few people who admit to knowing the slain man and his wife and they are baffled by the event; all of them say that the suspect was a real sweet girl, although a co-worker of the husband noted that he hadn’t been sleeping and he thought that the couple were fighting which was uncharacteristic of them.

=The more that the filmmaker delves into the crime, the more dead ends arise. One theory gets squashed and another one arises, only to be squashed also. Leads don’t pan out; then things get creepy. People he talks to begin to disappear. Mysterious graffiti in Korean begin to appear all around him and the filmmaker begins to get unhinged. His girlfriend begs him to drop the investigation, concerned for his well-being at first and then angry when he ignores her. Strange things begin to happen; he hears voices. He sees things that can’t be real. Is the murder victim trying to contact him from the dead, or is he losing his mind? And who are the mysterious Pastors?

Like most critics, I have grown weary of found footage movies but I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Put simply, it is the best in the genre to come out since the original Blair Witch Project way back in 1999. It’s taut and believable; the interview subjects don’t feel like they’re acting and even though the camera is very shaky (it IS supposed to be cell phone footage), there are some really good cinematic moments of bright blue L.A. skies and the palm trees of Paradise in SoCal.

I give the unknown filmmakers props for having the foresight to keep the story simple and stick with it. Even though the movie leads in unexpected directions, all of those shift changes are organically done and don’t feel forced. It does take a little while to get going and the coda is a bit anti-climactic but there is a powerful payoff in the film’s climax.

Sometimes the best movies come out of left field and this one certainly does. They aren’t re-inventing the wheel here; they’re taking a straightforward story and telling it in a straightforward manner. That’s something Hollywood veterans sometimes have a hard time doing.

The best found footage films make you feel as if you might be watching something real, and this one does. You are left unbalanced; is there something weird happening here? Is there a conspiracy going on? Or is this guy losing his mind? There is a disclaimer in the closing credits (what little there are) that state that “No reasonable person would believe this film or its claims are real…Investigations into this project or its subject is strictly discouraged. There is nothing to find. It’s just a movie.” Even given that disclaimer, I was left wondering if it was real. That’s how the film messes with your head. It truly is creepy AF.

The movie at present has no distribution and has played but once. Hopefully a local film festival near you will find their way clear to show this; ask your local art house to look into it. In the meantime, be aware that this is out there and if it does manage to make its way to a film festival, movie theater that is willing to play indie fare, or a streaming service, for sure check it out. This one is solid gold.

REASONS TO SEE: Maybe the best found footage film since the first one. When clicking it feels very real.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses steam in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: This is quite a bit of profanity, some gruesome and unsettling images and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere on Leap Day at the Unnamed Footage Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  The Blair Witch Project
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Disappearance at Clifton Hill

Bad Times at the El Royale


Evil can be sexy.

(2018) Thriller (20th Century FoxJeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Shea Whigham, Mark O’Brien, Charles Halford, Jim O’Heir, Gerry Nairn, Alvina August, London A. Morrison, Bethany Brown, Rebecca Toolan, Hannah Jane Zirke, Billy Wickman, William B. Davis, Tally Rodin. Directed by Drew Goddard

 

This was one of my favorite movies of 2018. Goddard hits it out of the park as a group of disparate characters gather at a rundown motel straddling the California-Nevada state line. It is 1969, and the El Royale lost its gaming license a year prior and has fallen on hard times ever since – once it was a playground for the rich and shameless.

Being checked in by whitebread clerk Miles Miller (Pullman) is Father Dan Flynn (Bridges), on the road to see his family; vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Hamm) who has the patter and the smile to sell an Eskimo an ice cube; singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo) who is on her way to a gig in Reno and needs a cheap place to stay for the night; and young Emily Summerspring (Johnson) who just wants everyone to stay the hell away from her.

As it turns out, all four of the guests have secrets. As it turns out, the hotel has secrets too – one of which is revealed in the prologue. The story is told non-sequentially but we eventually learn why each of them is there. Emily, for example, has kidnapped her kid sister Rose (Spaeny) from a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Hemsworth), who doesn’t take kindly to others stealing his property. It all ends up in a confrontation in the lobby of the El Royale.

I loved the complexity of the story, which Goddard tells non-sequentially, going from room to room to concentrate on each individual guest. There are some twists and turns – some of which are jaw-dropping – and plenty of sex and violence. Comparisons have been made to early Tarantino and the comparison isn’t out of line; in fact, at times, I think that this homage to the pop culture maestro is a little too strong but if one is going to imitate someone, Tarantino is a good one to emulate.

Goddard is aided by a tremendous cast, all of whom deliver strong performances. The real revelation is Tony award winner Erivo who absolutely kills it as Darlene Sweet (clearly based on Darlene Love), and she sings mighty nicely some soul classics from the early 60s. She also has a scene with Bridges that absolutely gave me the chills; I thought for sure she would have gotten a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but sadly she didn’t. She deserved it, though. Her strong work since then has shown that her performance here is no fluke; she is a talent who is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in short order.

Bridges adds heart to the proceedings and Hamm gives a sly performance. I also loved Hemsworth, who plays Billy Lee as a combination of Charles Manson and Jim Morrison. Dakota Johnson has never been sexier than she is here, which includes her 50 Shades films.

realize that this isn’t going to be a film that appeals to everyone. Some might find it overly violent – and it is. Some might find it overly self-indulgent – which it is. Others might think it’s too Tarantino-esque – guilty as charged. However, I personally look at those as strong points in this film. It’s one that I have watched several times since and it hasn’t lost its appeal. That’s my definition of a great film.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely well-written and tied nicely together at the end. Strong performances throughout, particularly from Erivo. Places itself nicely in the era. Some of the twists are a bit unexpected.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a little bit too much like a Tarantino film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, brief nudity and sexuality, some drug content and a copious amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The El Royale is based loosely on the CalNeva resort in Lake Tahoe. The hotel was once owned by Frank Sinatra.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Hate U Give

Searching


Somewhere you never want to see your daughter’s photo.

(2018) Thriller (Screen Gems) John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Sara Sohn, Joseph Lee, Dominic Hoffman, Briana McLean, Roy Abramsohn, Kristin Herold, Ric Sarabia, Gage Biltoft, Lasaundra Gibson, Connor McRaith, Dominic Hoffman, Erica Jenkins, Johnno Wilson, Rasha Goel, Erin Henriques, Steven Michael Eich, John Macey, Betsy Foldes, Katie Rowe. Directed by Aneesh Chaganty

Every parent’s nightmare is for their child to go missing. In a world filled with predators who lurk disguised as would-be friends on social media sites, it is all too easy for a naïve youngster to get in over their heads in a situation that could prove to be dangerous.

David Kim (Cho) is a widower who hasn’t quite come to grips with the death of his wife and has become, in many ways, a helicopter parent, hovering over his daughter Margot (La) – the only family he has left other than his brother Peter (Lee) – to prevent the possibility of him losing her too. But when she doesn’t return home after an all-night study session and after some inquiries he discovers to his horror that she left the study session early, he calls the cops. Helpful detective Vick (Messing) gets his case and suggests he search through her laptop, which she had left at home (another ominous sign), to find out who she is close to and start contacting them.

The more David looks into his daughter’s online life, the more he realizes how little he really knew his daughter. With time ticking away and only a precious few clues as to her whereabouts to peruse, David grows more desperate.

The entire film is seen through laptop screens, smartphone screens, surveillance footage and news broadcast – very much a product of the 21st century. This could have been extremely gimmicky and towards the end it starts to feel that way, but first-time feature director Chaganty keeps things pretty fresh; he uses actual websites and apps in an effort to play to the target demographic who live their lives online. The problem with that is it is going to horribly date this movie in a matter of just a few years and it will lose its relevance quickly.

Still, Cho’s performance as a grieving husband and terrified father is universal and he is as good as I’ve ever seen him.  The director’s point of how rather than being connected by the Internet, we have actually grown more isolated and fragmented, is well-taken. Unfortunately, all the good will the film builds up is nearly lost with a preposterous ending that will lead to much face-palming, even with the online crowd.

REASONS TO SEE: Cho delivers the most powerful performance of his career. Really plays up the disconnect of the digital age.
REASONS TO AVOID: Jumps the shark a bit at the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some sexual references, adult thematic content and some drug references as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The firm where David works, AppEnsure, actually exists. It was founded by Chaganty’s father and both his parents are executives there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes::92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfriended
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Mile 22

Grand Isle


Nicolas Cage, after reading the script to his next movie.

(2019) Thriller (Screen MediaNicolas Cage, Luke Benward, KaDee Strickland, Kelsey Grammer, Beatrice Hernandez, Emily Marie Palmer, Zulay Henao, Duncan Casey, Oliver Trevena, Haley Milsap, Isabella Grace Roark. Directed by Stephen Campanelli

 

Nobody freaks out in the movies better than Nicolas Cage and I mean that as a compliment. Sure, Conan O’Brien once suggested the Department of Homeland Security use clips from his films to demarcate the various terrorist threat levels (not a bad idea, actually) but nonetheless Cage knows how to lose his shit onscreen better than anybody.

In this film he plays Walter, a Vietnam vet slowly drinking himself to death in a small Southern town. It’s one of those delta locales where the steam seems to rise from the skin and even the flies find it too humid to buzz. Campanelli does a good job of establishing the locale (you can almost smell the sweat) although his actors for the most part overdo the Southern accent.

Walter hires a fellow vet (albeit much younger) named Buddy (Benward) to fix a section of picket fence just as a hurricane is arriving in town. As Buddy’s long-suffering wife Fancy (Strickland) observes, it takes some kind of idiot to repair a fence before a hurricane but I suppose it makes sense to the bourbon-soused.

Buddy has been chronically unemployed, putting massive strain on his relationship with his wife Lisa (Palmer) who is coping not only with Buddy’s lack of income but with the health problems of their infant daughter as well. It goes without saying that he’s happy to take any sort of work, even if the job makes him feel uneasy. Much of that uneasiness stems from Fancy (Strickland), the oversexed wife of Walter.  Her husband is, shall we say, less than a stellar performer in the bedroom and she’s plenty frustrated over it.

Of course, Buddy gets caught in the hurricane and is forced to hunker down with Walter and Fancy. And of course, the tension between the three starts to edge over the boiling point. And of course, Walter and Fancy are hiding a dirty secret in that basement which has been locked in such a way as to guarantee curiosity if not outright suspicion.

There are elements of both Southern Gothic and film noir, two genres that usually compliment each other well and to be fair to the filmmakers they manage to strike a fine balance here. However, there is also a lot of disquieting elements to the film. For starters, the actors chew the scenery with so much gusto one would question whether or not they had just been liberated from a prison camp.

Cage is usually the actor I look to when it comes to commanding attention, but he’s much more low-key than usual here which I suppose has to do with the southern demeanor. Naturally, it came as a bit of a surprise that it was Strickland who really made an impression on me, in this case as a Southern femme fatale. She is as seductive as a siren, as acerbic as a pundit and as merciless as a snake.

The script kind of falls apart in the last third. The clichés and tropes begin to pile up and all plausibility goes right out the window. The saving grace here is the entertainment factor; if you don’t think about this one too much you might find yourself enjoying it in spite of itself.

This is the sixth film starring Cage to be released in 2019 (with at least four more scheduled for 2020), almost all of them action thrillers and none of them released wide. Not a great standard for an Oscar-winning actor but hey, you take work where you can get it.

REASONS TO SEE: Southern gothic meets film noir.
REASONS TO AVOID: Southern-fried clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and some sexual situations
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Walter is supposed to be an ex-Marine, the uniform he wears in the penultimate scene carries Army insignias and medals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 29/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Key Largo
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Noelle