Annabelle (2014)

MV5BMjM2MTYyMzk1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDg2MjMyMjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_The Conjuring was one of the breakout hits of 2013, so it’s no surprise that Hollywood fast-tracked a spin-off to take advantage of Conjurin’ fever. Enter John R. Leonetti, the accomplished cinematographer on The Conjuring and director of bad sequels like Butterfly Effect 2 and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Now in the spotlight, little Annabelle is proving to be a star of her own as far as box-office grosses are concerned. It’s too bad her new movie is about as lifeless as she is.

In the late 1960s, Mia (Annabelle Wallis) is pregnant with her first child when murderous cultists terrorize her home. They are dispatched but not before one young woman slices her own throat holding one of Mia’s expensive porcelain dolls, the Annabelle one. Her husband (Ward Horton, who looks like a living Ken doll) is afraid to leave her alone and reaches out to the church to help his wife. Strange things are going on in their home, mostly concerning the infamous Annabelle doll.

ANNABELLEThe impact of Annabelle will depend directly upon your good will concerning The Conjuring and what your law of diminishing returns is with a creepy doll. To be abundantly clear, the Annabelle doll is one creepy looking thing. But how much can an audience take of a creepy looking doll that doesn’t have any articulation or expression? The character, and it feels like a stretch to label the doll as such, worked effectively as a prologue to The Conjuring due to the relative brief appearance. The doll was creepy enough for ten minutes and then the audience moved on. Now in a starring vehicle all to herself, Annabelle risks overexposure and the realization of just how limited this little demonic figure might be. A killer doll that comes to life is a genuinely unsettling proposition, one richly explored in a classic Twilight Zone episode that’s still spooky to this day. However, Annabelle doesn’t really do anything, and I suppose that’s the point. The doll is a conduit for the larger, invisible demonic force at play. We already know that it’s not the doll or a ghost but a demon posing as such. Ultimately, the doll isn’t anything more than a device to go back to again and again, a horror staple in place of true unnerving tension and dread. Hey, it’s hard to carefully manufacture and ratchet suspense, so why not just keep going back to a creepy looking doll instead?

With a lackluster antagonist, it’s no surprise then that Annabelle has to rely on all the hoary tropes of horror just to fill out its running time. The plot by writer Gary Dauberman plays out like the filmmakers watched Rosemary’s Baby, a documentary special on Sharon Tate, and said, “That’s it, we got out movie.” The Manson family-like cult is a plot element cast aside too quickly. They bring the demon to the doll, but the followers of this demonic presence never terrorize the couple again. It seems like one of many missed opportunities. Instead we get a slow series of events of the doll/demon messing around with Mia. There’s the kindly older priest that’s called into service, who does nothing. There’s a helpful neighbor mourning the loss of her own child who ends up an insulting plot device (more on this later with spoilers). And oh are there characters behaving stupidly, chief among them our heroine. She’s rather slow to realize the danger she is in and often leaves her baby alone to investigate said supernatural shenanigans. You know, the baby that is the object of desire for this demonic force. Rather than be proactive and have any sense of agency, Mia is that older type of horror heroine who runs around screaming and cowering in corners. It gets tired. There’s one scene where she’s trying to escape via an elevator that keeps opening on the same haunted floor. She literally hits the elevator button four times each time expecting something different, and the camera angle remains the same, leading to titters from my audience.

annabelle-1While The Conjuring certainly wasn’t a brave new direction in the realm of cinematic horror, it was skillfully executed and masterfully setup its scares. Annabelle does have a few decent boo moments, many of which were showcased in the trailer, but it cannot overcome the burden of all its clichés and wooden characters. Audiences are used to characters making poor decisions in horror films, but you still should have some level of believability or internal logic to their decision-making that doesn’t make your brain hurt. Sadly, Annabelle cannot rise above the limitations of its titular “monster” and so it has to rely upon an assemblage of familiar horror tropes to make due.

This paragraph is going into spoilers concerning the ending so I’d advise any reader wishing to remain pure to skip to the next paragraph. The great actress Alfre Woodard plays that grieving neighbor lady, the one who is joyously buying Mia baby clothes for her little one. During a climactic confrontation, Mia demands to know what the demon entity wants. It communicates via crayon scrawls on the ceiling: “Her soul.” One of the film’s creepier moments. Then the baby disappears and she wants to know what it will take to save her child. Mia looks to a window and written on it is, “Your soul,” just as it gently pushes itself open. Again, a creepy moment. I was starting to get the impression the film was picking up momentum. She’s about to sacrifice herself when she’s pulled back inside. This is where the film goes from bad to insultingly bad. I kept repeating under my breath, “Don’t do it, don’t do it,” and wouldn’t you know, they did it. Woodard realizes her purpose: she must sacrifice herself so this nice white couple will be safe. She dives out the window and evil is vanquished… sort of. It’s a stupid character arc made all the more unpleasant by the racial casting choices. I’d rather Woodard just save herself.

This small prequel has proven to be a smash at the box-office, so where does Annabelle go from here? Another prequel seems unlikely considering the events of this movie cover the birth of the demonic doll and lead directly to the prologue of The Conjuring, where this spunky little doll met her match with the married paranormal investigators played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson. The real Annabelle is encased in a glass prison. The only direction seems to be forward, with Annabelle breaking free of her prison and having a night on the town. Maybe she can locate Chucky and that Twilight Zone doll. I just hope future adventures with Annabelle, and its box-office grosses almost assure there will be, veer away from the overload of uninspired genre clichés. There’s not enough effort on display to warrant this solo side project for a creepy doll that mostly just remains creepy. Annabelle the film could have used less of Annabelle the doll. Then again an unblinking and silent doll was still the most interesting character on screen.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Equalizer (2014)

imagesIf your idea of a fine time at the movies is watching Denzel Washington be a badass and murder people in grisly fashion for two hours, then The Equalizer is right up your alley. There’s not much to the plot of this loose remake of the 1980s TV show of the same name; Denzel plays a man with a mysterious past who works at a large Home Depot-esque hardware store. He sees injustice transpiring against his pals, and he fixes it in a violent fashion. The movie is two storylines that don’t converge until the final act, namely the Russian crime syndicate trying to ascertain who this vengeful badass just might be, and Denzel doing his episodic vigilante good deeds. The climactic act is a drawn out showdown where Denzel uses every part of the hardware store to deadly results. There’s definitely a pleasure in watching Denzel dispatch tough-talking baddies, and that’s what the film delivers, no more, no less. The confrontations are generally well written and ratchet tension nicely, especially when Denzel has some chilly conversations with his soon-to-be-victims before they inevitably make their bad decisions. The tense sit-downs were more entertaining for me than the bloody violence. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen) goes about his business in a more than competent manner; the technical qualities are above average, though the film has moments where it seems too infatuated with its slick sense of style (slow-mo rain gun battles?). With a stream of bad guys to be toppled at a steady interval, The Equalizer can start to feel like an assembly line of cocksure carnage, a ready-made vehicle for audience blood lust. Still, watching Denzel be a badass and kill a whole lot of bad people is enough for a movie. Just don’t expect much more than that scenario and you may be satisfied if you’re not too squeamish when it comes to bloodshed.

Nate’s Grade: B

Gone Girl (2014)

121808_galRest easy fans of Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller, because Gone Girl the movie is pretty much exactly Gone Girl the novel. There were rumors that Flynn and director David Fincher had drastically retooled the controversial ending, but this was only premature speculation. Fun fact: it’s easy to tell the people who didn’t read the book in your audience because they will more than likely be the ones who groan once the end credits kick in. The fealty to the book is a relief because, as we book readers know from those late nights compulsively turning Flynn’s pages, the real star of the movie is the story, which was ready-made for a grand, pulpy thriller, and that is Gone Girl the movie. Whether it’s anything more than an exceptionally well made thriller is up for debate

Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing from her supposedly perfect life. Her husband, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), starts off as the tortured, grieving husband. He comes home one day to find his home wrecked and his wife missing. The police (Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit) are worrisome about Nick’s abnormal reaction to his wife’s disappearance. He doesn’t seem to know much about his wife. He seems like he’s hiding something. Even Nick’s twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) has her doubts that Nick is telling the full truth. Amy’s diary paints a different portrait of her husband, a man prone to increasing anger, mostly stemming from the loss of his job and a relocation from New York City to Missouri. Most of Nick’s anger is focused squarely on Amy, enough that she fears for her life. As various clues keep piling up and Nick’s public behavior appears suspicious, the media spotlight transforms him from victim to prime suspect.

c097ea2f2748e58d9724a50331c5aa24971c6506c673cd3195a8f5f62353b5ff_large-590x360No question having an artist of Fincher’s caliber raises the quality level to its highest degree, but it’s the perfect marriage of filmmaker and material that allows this movie to soar. Both Fincher and Flynn have a cold manipulative streak that twists an audience into knots. It’s a terrific whodunit with several booby-trapped surprises that only make you dig in more. It seems like every few minutes we’re learning more about Nick and what he’s been hiding from others. Flynn, who also adapted the screenplay, does a terrific job of playing with our loyalties, getting us to doubt what we see and who these people really are, and she does this even to the final minute, leaving us with no clear-cut answers to wash away our reservations. Flynn’s strengths as a writer are how she reveals her tale over time, how she makes us rethink the past and the characters and their sincerity. It’s a patient film, and just under two and a half hours perhaps too patient, but it’s not the least bit lackadaisical. Flynn’s story is wrapping a web around Nick and watching him get caught, and every perfectly timed reveal only widens that web. Gone Girl is a film bursting with intrigue. It snares you and then fiendishly plays with your expectations.

Affleck (Argo) was an obvious choice for the role of Nick Dunne, the charming man whose self-effacing smile rubs people the wrong way. He’s rarely been better onscreen, giving strong life to all the conflicting parts of Nick, from his calm aloofness at his wife’s disappearance to his cunning way with his own truths. He gets way in over his head, and watching Affleck navigate the tenuous situation is one of the film’s many twisted pleasures. Pike (The World’s End, Pride and Prejudice) is going to be an unfamiliar face to most American audiences but not for much longer. This is the biggest role of Pike’s career and much like Fincher’s other “find” Rooney Mara in Dragon Tattoo, she knocks it out of the park. In just a look she conveys Amy’s upper-class upbringing, her icy demeanor being interpreted as disdain. Through Amy’s journals, the character opens up to us, becoming better defined, making us fear for her, and Pike sells it. Hers is a performance of layers; it’s like she gets to play several Amy’s in this movie. Her demeanor is always so composed, so modulated and controlled, so the big moments that draw out her anger and horror register even more. It’s too early to determine what kind of awards buzz Gone Girl will have through the season, but if anyone has a chance, it’s her.

From top to bottom, the supporting cast adds great value to the film. Most surprising is Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry) as Nick’s high profile, slick, morally flexible defense attorney. It is no stretch to say this is Perry’s finest acting ever put to film, in or outside a dress. I wanted more of him, and that’s not something I’ve ever said before. Dickens (TV’s Treme, Footloose) would ordinarily be the best performance in most movies; smart, empathetic but no-nonsense, and wryly funny. In an ordinary crime thriller, she’d be our lead character. Coon (the breakout actress from HBO’s The Leftovers) is the audience’s voice of sanity, providing necessary gallows humor to punctuate all the discomforting dread. Casey Wilson (TV’s Marry Me) is a suburban housewife send-up and provides some laughs too. Even Emily Ratajkowski, otherwise known as one of the topless models in the “Blurred Lines” video, is pretty good as a naive coed. Thus is the power Fincher wields as a director of actors, a quality often overlooked by his technical prowess. The one casting question is Neill Patrick Harris (TV’s How I Met Your Mother) as Desi, Amy’s creepy ex-boyfriend who still very much clings to the notion they should be together. Harris tries too hard to be creepy, concentrating too much that his style becomes mannered and halting.

o-GONE-GIRL-TRAILER-facebookWith Fincher’s name attached it’s almost redundant to talk about the technical superlatives of the movie; it goes without saying. One of the finest visual stylists of his generation, Fincher impeccably composes his shots. The man finds a kindred spirit with Amy and her color-coded meticulous organization. The cinematography is crisp and suitably eerie and dreamlike (or nightmarish), the mood always pulsating with a beautiful dread to tap into the unsettling unease of the Nick’s dire situation. The editing is rock-solid, keeping the audience guessing with the balance of Amy and Nick perspectives. There is a chilling sequence late that involves a mass amount of blood, but it’s made even more unnerving thanks to the judicious edits and fade outs, heightening the horror. The only technical aspect I found wanting is the same with Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, namely the score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor. Twice now I’ve labored through musical scores of theirs that could best be described as ominous ambient noise. You keep expecting it to build but it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s just the change of material, as it’s also been two films in a row based upon dark and grisly crime paperbacks, but consider me disappointed yet again. There’s nothing memorable here and that’s a shame considering how buoyant their Oscar-winning score was for still amazing Social Network.

But even with that Fincher polish and the sinister snap of Flynn’s plot, I can’t say that Gone Girl the movie rises to the level of its lofty ambitions. Much like Dragon Tattoo, this is a skillfully made crime thriller, but is it anything beyond that description? That’s not to say there’s anything particularly wrong with being a skillfully made thriller; Fincher’s Seven is one of my favorite films of all time, and yet despite its end-of-times philosophy about the dark hearts of man, it’s really nothing more than a exceptionally made thriller, and that’s fine because that movie is near perfect. With Gone Girl, the stabs at deeper analysis and social commentary feel just out of grasp. The tabloid news fixation, a landscape littered with missing wives and presumably guilty husbands, is ripe for satire, but it feels always on the peripheral, like Fincher is checking in to take the temperature and then going back to the muck. There’s much more that could have been done, but that’s fine. The larger missed commentary is with marital relationships. This is not, as some critics have labeled, a How We Live Now kind of film, a jarring wake-up call that human beings more or less suck. Nick and Amy are far from being relatable analogues for the masses, and that’s fine. They are allowed to just be interesting characters, which they are, rather than stand-ins for searing social commentary. The fact that five years into their marriage they’re both still strangers says something about them, but does it say something novel about marriage itself or human relationships in the twenty-first century? The idea of people wearing false masks isn’t exactly new. The average couple is not probably going to go to bed thinking, “Who is the real person I’m with?” The average couple is just going to go along for the ride and think, “Wow, these are some messed up characters.”

gone-girlAnd now some spoilers as I delve into Gone Girl’s ending, so if you choose to remain clean please skip to the next paragraph. The ending is unsettling and disappointing for people because the only person who gets what she wants is our main antagonist, Amy. The final shot, a replay of the opening image but with clarifying context, is her triumph, staring coldly, head atop her husband, as if she were a cat purring. She has won. And this ending pisses people off. For my money, this is the absolute perfect ending for a story about toxic relationships and a morass of a marriage. Nick is rescued by Amy’s reappearance, engineered through some canny media manipulation by Nick, but now he’s stuck, and stuck with his lovely psychopathic wife. The police know she’s guilty but won’t proceed further thanks to looking inept on a national stage. Nick can’t leave because then his child will be raised by Amy, twisting him or her into mommy’s little psychopath. The only way he saves that child is by staying, by sacrificing his own freedom, to become prisoner to his wife, to play the part she has wanted him to play, and he does it. He is condemned. I find that to be poetic and darkly satisfying, and it’s very true tonally for this sort of sordid tale, but I understand why people hate it. I just think a happy ending or one where the villain is vanquished would feel trite.

Gone Girl is a toxic relationship movie, an involving and pulpy suspense thriller, a rewarding character study that plumbs some pretty dark depths, and most of all a sickly entertaining movie with excellent craftsmanship. It is everything fans of the novel could have hoped for with Fincher attached. As our tormented husband and wife, Affleck and Pike deliver career-best and career-making, in her case, performances. The ending will divide audiences sharply just as it did readers but I consider it the correct denouement. The movie doesn’t provide much in the way of stinging, applicable social commentary or media satire that hasn’t already been covered by the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But does it have to be anything more than a terrific thriller? An exceptional thriller can be entertainment enough, and Gone Girl is definitely that.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Tusk (2014)

Tusk-poster-WEB-READY1You’ve never seen a Kevin Smith film quite like this. Even after the man’s first foray into the horror genre with the flawed but tonally ambitious Red State, I never would have expected the man best known for lewd discussions over pop-culture minutia to take note of The Human Centipede and more or less say, “Hey, let me try.” After a short self-imposed retirement, it seems like Smith is creatively reinvigorated, crafting even more boutique films that no one else would make, and Tusk is a prime example of this. Whether or not the world needs a film where a man is kidnapped and physically transformed into a walrus is a personal question you’ll have to answer in your own space.

Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) is an egotistical podcaster who is something akin to the mean-spirited version of Ira Glass. He travels around the country interviewing strange people for their strange stories, all to relate to his travel-phobic pal and podcast co-host, Teddy (Haley Joel Osment, all grown up). The two guys then crack jokes and make fun of these pathetic weirdos and losers. While in Canada, Wallace finds a curious posting in a men’s room from a man named Howard Howe (Michael Parks) seeking a companion to share his lifetime of stories with. Wallace jumps at the chance, enters Howard’s secluded home, and listens as the older, wheelchair-bound eccentric spins several yarns, notably a tale where he was lost at sea. His only “friend” was a walrus who he credits with helping to save his life. He misses his seafaring friend, and Howard has secretly drugged Wallace with the intent or transforming him into a human-walrus composite.

-1If you’re a fan of bonkers body horror and demented humor, then Tusk just might be a short but potently nasty little treat for you. If you’ve seen enough similar genre entries you’ll likely be guessing several of the plot turns before they happen, like the tea being laced with a chemical or Howard holding back his real and fiendish capabilities. However, there are moments that simply defy prediction, especially the last half of the movie where Smith doubles down on the madness of executing his premise. The tone is rather uneven and can prove to be a hindrance, with the first half more dramatic and the second half more absurd comedy. Smith impresses early on by slowly teasing the reveals: the duplicitous Howard, the revelation of missing parts, the full-on transformation. The knowing camerawork and long, creepy conversations build suspense even when we stop and realize how ridiculous this entire movie can be. And that’s not an insult but a compliment, even a saving grace when the movie takes a few too many unwieldy detours (more on that later). With a premise this bizarre, and from a director in such unknown territory as Smith has waded, I, dear reader, was laughing throughout. Tonally, it felt like Smith was acknowledging the silliness of his movie but still being true to genre. There are some genuinely creepy and unsettling moments sprinkled throughout. The practical makeup gore can at times make skin look like a crumply raincoat. The final image of Long as a human walrus is both ludicrous and a horrifying sight you cannot un-see.

Much of the movie is a series of conversations and monologues featuring Long (Dodegball, He’s Just Not That Into You) and Parks (Kill Bill). Hell, even Genesis Rodriguez (Man on a Ledge) gets a monologue; she’s Wallace’s put upon girlfriend who doesn’t like the man he’s become with fame. It’s a rather rote part undeserving of a performance as good as Rodriguez delivers. She must have thought, “Here’s my acting reel for the next few years; look casting directors, I can do much more than look hot.” Back to the central duo, Long and Parks. The film’s greatest assets are these actors and the movie is at its best when they share the screen. After his skin-crawling turn as a bile-spewing zealot in Red State, I expected Parks to be unhinged and frightening, which he is in spades. The man’s calm demeanor is especially eerie. When he breaks into openly mocking his victims, adopting Wallace’s howling cry, is another moment that bounces from creepy to funny and back to creepy again. It’s a performance pattern that Parks nimbly dances throughout the film. Honestly, this may be the strongest performance of Long’s career. He gets to portray an array of different shades with his character, from egomaniacal jerk to timid victim and finally raging science experiment (Smith’s script reminds you often how much of a jerk Wallace was). It’s more than just a performance of panicked screams. Long manages to find a character here and stays true to him, even as Wallace’s psychological grasp is broken. He almost grounds the absurd third act due to the strength of his performance.

720x405-TUSK_00063_rgbIt’s that more jocular second half where Tusk starts to lose its momentum and focus, and that’s primarily because of the introduction of the character Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp), a French Canadian private eye. Yes, that Johnny Depp, starring in a Kevin Smith movie, adopting a silly accent and a silly fake mustache and becoming what is essentially his take on Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. It’s a character that feels like he walked in from the set of a different movie, one that is far more aimlessly wacky. The sequences with Lapointe are also laboriously overstuffed. They just go on and on, and you fee whatever sense of momentum starting to flee, sadly. Depp is amusing and I’m genuinely thrilled to see him in a small movie where he can afford to be even weirder. The problem is that the Lapointe scenes feel more like an improv session that Smith was afraid to cut short or nudge in a different direction, as if he was so gracious about Depp agreeing to be involved that he ceded all control of those scenes. The introduction to the character is a ten-minute sequence, itself with an overextended flashback, and after the initial shock and fun of watching Depp wears off, I started wishing to get back to the man-walrus.

Tusk is a unique experience, a macabre experimental lark from Kevin Smith, but it also seems to be the first in a new direction for a man who made his millions on stoner comedies. Smith is currently underway on three other movies, all of them horror, two of which are the next stages in what has become his Canadian Trilogy of Terror. While Tusk hasn’t made a blip at the box-office (if ever there was a film that cried out for on-demand, here it is), it has reawakened Smith’s creative impulses and now the guy can’t stop. Tusk is gross, funny, and genuinely creepy before it goes overboard with its very special guest star. I understand from a plot standpoint why another main character was necessary, but the movie needs some further discipline and tightening that it lacks. Basically, after reading the premise, you’ll know whether or not this film is for you. My girlfriend accompanied me without any knowledge of the plot or the genre, and she enjoyed it. Perhaps there’s hope for you as well.

Nate’s Grade: B-

 

The Maze Runner (2014)

MV5BMjUyNTA3MTAyM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTEyMTkyMjE@._V1_SX640_SY720_If anyone can reasonably explain to me the end of The Maze Runner in a way that makes some tangible amount of sense, I will give you money. The latest YA-franchise-in-the-making starts off with a storyline that reminded me of Rod Serling. We follow a group of teen boys, memories wiped, as they wake up in the center of a giant mechanical maze. Who put them there? Why? What’s on the other side? As long as the maze and the mystery of it are front and center, the film works, twisting in intrigue. However, when the story veers away to the characters, mostly flat archetypes, and their new society, that’s when I started getting sleepy. You got this awesome huge maze to explore, kids. The film ends up being an exercise in less-is-more restraint when it comes to sustaining a mystery and knowing what points to emphasize and which to skip over. There’s a girl brought into their camp, the first, which they say should be a big idea and change the social dynamics of a group of boys, but it doesn’t. There are silly mechanical spider monsters that scamper through the maze, as if the filmmakers felt a giant maze wasn’t a sufficient enough obstacle and selling point. Scattered flashbacks early on spoil who is responsible for the maze, but when we get to the actual ending, the rationale for who built this large contraption and for what purpose doesn’t add up, like, at all. An explanation wasn’t necessary, but if they needed a quick one I would have accepted, “Aliens did it because.” There’s already a planned sequel in the works. My idea: the kids escape the maze only to discover… they’ve just entered a larger maze. Then they escape that maze only to discover… you get the idea. The Maze Runner is moderately enjoyable. Just don’t expect to enjoy, understand, or even accept the ending and its implications.

Nate’s Grade: B-

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)

MV5BMTQ3NzY2MTg1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODY2Njk4MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Scott Frank has only directed one movie, The Lookout, but as a screenwriter his fingerprints are everywhere in Hollywood. The man’s name is all over projects such as Out of Sight, Minority Report, Get Shorty, The Wolverine, Marley & Me, and those are just the ones that made it across the finish line. As any aspiring screenwriter knows, Hollywood is built upon an ever-amassing burial ground of unproduced screenplays. A Walk Among the Tombstones is only his second directing feature, which tells me it must have had significant personal value for this famous scribe. You can definitely tell Frank has an affinity for hard-boiled film noir of old, though the splashes of in-your-face sadism may be too much for certain audiences. It’s a genre movie all right, but it’s also a grisly one that bothers to take its time setting up character, plot, and resolution.

It’s New York City on the cusp of Y2K, and retired cop Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is just trying to enjoy his dinner. He’s pulled into a complex kidnapping scenario at the behest of one of his AA peers. Two men have been targeting the city’s drug traffickers, men with big pockets who cannot go to the police. These psychopaths enjoy abducting the trafficker’s wives, ransoming them for hundreds of thousands, and then slicing and dicing their victims anyway. Matt initially turns down the offer, working around the edges f the law, but the viciousness is too much to ignore. He reawakens his old detective habbits, falling back into a routine, and tracking down those responsible.

hr_A_Walk_Among_the_Tombstones_1Those expecting a regular Liam Neeson afternoon of top-draw face punching may be in for a slight disappointment, because A Walk Among the Tombstones is a gritty detective tale that swims amidst an ocean of moral decay and queasy sexual violence. It’s a detective yarn that unwinds at a casual pace but one that feels like a natural connecting of plot points. Thankfully, this isn’t a movie that treats the identity of the killers as a mystery that needs to be dragged out as long as possible, with the ultimate pained reveal being one of the otherwise harmless characters we’ve previously been introduced. We know who these two psychopaths are after about twenty minutes, so there’s no prolonged guessing game. Rather than linger on who they are we now await the ultimate satisfaction of Matt Scuder finally facing off against our two psychopathic killers, and they are indeed psychopaths. These two are very wicked men, gathering sadistic pleasure from torturing their captive women. The two men are kept as unsettling ciphers; we don’t know much about them except they have an addiction to killing. It’s not about the hundreds of thousands they scam from the drug traffickers; it’s really about the thrill of the hunt. While I wish there was more depth, they were menacing enough. I was itchy with anticipation for them to get some comeuppance. I’ve read reviews indicating that our two remorseless killers are a gay couple; if this is true it’s kept very vague for interpretation. In the age of equality, it could be homophobic to declare, in absolutes, that psychopathic killers couldn’t also be gay or lesbian. That would be… wrong?

With two strong villains, you need a strong hero to bring them down, and Neeson fits the part like a natural. To be fair, the role is somewhat stock from a passing description: the loner former cop with the tragic past, a drinking problem, the gruff style, the over-the-hill age, the man trying to adapt to a new and changing world, sometimes not for the better. It’s a role that feels ripped from the tropes of crime thrillers, a world we’ve also become accustomed to seeing Neeson. The detective role is familiar but, like most within Frank’s film, it’s given more time to breath and a surprising degree of attention. This doesn’t come close to last year’s Prisoners in the realm of character work, but it’s still an above-average entry for a genre too often ignored when it comes to realistic and satisfying characterization. Matt Scudder exists in a New York City that owes a debt to the pulpy noir page-turners of old, but it’s not exactly stylized, and neither is he. The man still uses microfilm and needs the assistance of a street-smart homeless teenager to assist him with this newfangled Internet thing. While it feels somewhat forced, the relationship with Matt Scuder and his young protégée is the strongest in the film, opening up the character’s redemptive arc. It’s always appreciated to watch Neeson get to flex his acting muscles rather than just being given action choreography and trite tough guy bravado.

There’s one other actor I’d like to single out, and I’ll thank my mother for this. Fans of Downton Abbey (like dear old mom) may recall Dan Stevens as the dashing and departed Matt Crawley, but he is almost unrecognizable as the grieving husband/drug trafficker that kicks off our story. For one, the guy lost a decent amount of weight and his gaunt face makes him seem all the more mercurial and intense. The characters plays against type with our expectations for a drug dealer, and you may find yourself, like I did, warming to him and yearning for the man’s vengeance for his wife.

hr_A_Walk_Among_the_Tombstones_4Frank’s direction is awash in the grime and seediness of New York City, with dark shadows washing over his troubled characters, and a sense of style that, while omnipresent in tone, doesn’t distract from the story. The rich cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master, Tetro) is a great asset. The film noir elements are here in abundance and with due diligence. It rains in just about every scene. Why? All the better for a moody and eerier atmosphere, though the rain does actually factor into a character-based conflict for Matt’s protégée. It’s a moody thriller that is assuredly above average for its genre. Not everything quite works (the third act is too drawn out; a montage of AA 12 steps narration over sequences of violence is more than a little heavy-handed; the explicit Y2K setting doesn’t really have a purpose other than to limit certain technological advances not becoming of the genre) but Frank knows how to draw out the strengths of the genre.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a gritty genre throwback, but what really jumped out to me was the hook of the premise. Neeson plays a man on the outer edges of the law but a man who still bends toward the justice system he once worked for. What makes this character unique, or at least the promise of, is that he ends up becoming the private detective for the criminal world, and that I find to be fascinating. We think of criminals, especially drug traffickers, are tough men who can handle their own problems with extreme authority. But they are also just people and can get in over their head as well, and when they need someone with private eye skills, who knows how to operate inside the bounds of the law and out of them, that’s where Neeson comes in. He does such a good job that he gets recommended around the New York ring of drug traffickers. He’s like a Michael Clayton-style fix-it guy but for the criminal underworld, and I think this concept it rife with juicy potential. Tombstones is based upon a series of books by Lawrence Block, so there could be further adventures, and I would welcome them, especially if the finished product is as entertaining as this first foray.

Nate’s Grade: B

No Good Deed (2014)

MV5BMzk0OTc3MDM5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTMzMDMzMjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Truthfully, I likely never would have seen No Good Deed in the theater if it weren’t for two events. It’s not that it looked especially heinous, just ordinary and not worth rushing out to see. The first event was my father’s newfound love of Idris Elba (Pacific Rim, Mandela) as an actor, an appreciation I too share for the charismatic leading man. The other event is a tad uncommon. Being part of a critics group, I regularly get e-mails from publicists about upcoming screenings. At the last minute, I received an e-mail informing me that an advanced screening was canceled, but what piqued my curiosity was the stated reason: there was a late twist/reveal that the studio did not want getting out. Really? What appeared on the surface like an ordinary home invasion thriller suddenly became a tad more intriguing, tempting my mind with possibilities. And so, with all of this achieved, I watched No Good Deed waiting to be surprised. My lack of surprise was the only real surprise, because just as I believed, this is your standard home invasion thriller that wastes the talents and time of just about everyone on screen.

Colin Evans (Elba) is a very bad man serving a five-year prison sentence for assault, though it’s believed he’s responsible for several missing women and former girlfriends. During his parole hearing he escapes and heads to his ex-girlfriend’s (Kate del Castillo) home. Colin doesn’t appreciate that she’s moved on to another man, and so he strangles her to death. He then leaves and drives off the road, an accident as the result of a powerful thunderstorm rolling through Atlanta. He comes to the door of Terri (Taraji P. Henson), a mother and wife whose husband is away. He asks to use her phone and then take shelter from the storm. She lets him inside. Big mistake.

no-good-deed-640Doggedly formulaic, there is nothing about this story that separates it from the rest of the tired, dim-witted thrillers that prey upon fears of home invaders. If you removed the high-wattage stars from the film it would be completely at home on the quality-starved Lifetime Network, another poorly made suspense thriller about a bad man stalking a woman with subtle allusions to punishment for viewing the man as a sensual, dangerous opportunity. I was able to accurately guess every step of this story and I imagine you will have no problem with it as well (more on that “twist” later). How come there are no news stories about an escaped and violent convict? Colin severs the phone cords… but does nobody have cell phones in the neighborhood? In the opening credits, both Elba and Henson are listed as executive producers, which means that they attached themselves to this project because they wanted it to get made. They used their collective power to ensure this story would leap ahead of the thousands of other notable and compelling scripts in Hollywood (ahem). And the big question is why? I suppose there may be some fun from an acting standpoint to play such stock thriller roles as brooding boogeyman and bewildered ingénue. Except there’s nothing to these one-note characters. The screenplay does the minimal amount of effort to establish them as victim and victimizer, but you’ll never care about them or find them slightly interesting. Terri keeps making dumb decision after dumb decision; when you bash the bad guy in the head, you don’t stop after one blow. She’s a former prosecutor who worked in the homicide division, and yet she seems absentminded when interacting with mysterious strangers that appear in the dead of night at her doorstep. She’s lacking all street smarts. There’s nothing that sets apart Colin either (that name is a non-starter as far as striking fear). For a supposedly charismatic and brilliant narcissist, he doesn’t do anything that smart.

I’ll highlight the small handful of moments that stood out to me, which will include the ending and that presaged “twist.” Henson is 44 years old and a very good-looking woman, though it’s a tad odd when the movie contorts to place her in a T&A scenario. Colin, covered in fire hydrant discharge, insists she get in the shower with him so he can get clean. For the remainder of the sequence, the terrified Henson is shaking in her white tank top, her body alerting us to her cold. When was the last time a woman six years away from 50 was purposely squeezed into a moment of gratuitous titillation, let alone a non-white actress? Another part about Terri is that she’s a mother, a fact that Colin routinely relies upon with veiled threats of harm to her little ones. The funny part about all of this is when she has to sneak around the house that Terri has to grab her 4-year-old with one arm and the baby carriage with another, creating an awkwardly comical image. And it happens again and again. She sets the kids down, then goes back to carry them out, and then repeats. It made me laugh every time because it’s just so unwieldy. Another example of the botched screenwriting: Terri has a baby and at no point in the film does the conflict of keeping the baby quiet surface. She has to quiet the child or else Colin will find them. It’s a natural setup with such a young baby. Instead the baby is completely silent for the entire movie, peacefully sleeping though lots of physical activity, screaming, gunshots, a thunderstorm, and tree branches smashing through windows. This baby is unreal. How could this never be utilized? Again, more wasted potential, whatever slight potential there was to start with.

1_NoGoodDeed-maxresdefault-2But this brings us to the so-called twist, which I will obligingly refer to with spoilers but rest assured, if this is the working definition of twists nowawadays, we’re all getting a little too carried away. When Colin takes Terri and her kids back to his dead ex-girlfriend’s home, the recently murdered woman’s phone rings. Who’s on the other end? Shocker, it’s Terri’s husband, who has been having an affair with this same woman. And… that’s it. That’s the twist, which is really more of a plot reveal but nothing along the magnitude of a “Bruce Willis is dead” revelation. As it happened, I thought, “Okay, that can’t be it, can it?” Oh, it was. What’s even more frustrating is that No Good Deed doesn’t build off this reveal. Colin was headed over to Terri’s address to make her husband suffer, but then what? Afterwards, Terri runs around the house and eventually dispatches Colin, and the movie ends with her moving out on her own, essentially the least complicated and most boring ending it could formulate. My father had a far more morbid rewrite that I’ll share with you, dear reader. His version would climax with the husband coming home and Colin casually murdering Terri and both of her young children, leaving bad hubby to forever suffer with guilt over the repercussions of his infidelity. While this ending would be controversial, it makes more sense in connecting the plot beats and at least stands on its own. At least it would be memorable.

No Good Deed isn’t a horrendous movie. It’s just dull from start to finish, never attempting to be anything beyond a mediocre thriller. Its complete lack of ambition is even more upsetting with the quality of actors who helped to get this film made. The direction is hackneyed, the visuals are poorly lit and clumsy, and the thrills are too generic and often stupid to be entertaining. The characters are dumb, the story is dumb, and the movie is dumb. Worst of all, it’s boring, the ultimate sin for a thriller. Unless you’re hard up for some precious Taraji P. Henson T&A (and no judgment, she’s a very beautiful woman), there’s no good reason to venture out and catch No Good Deed.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Lucy (2014)

lucy-scarlett-johansson-posterIf you’re looking for one of the more fun summer movies that have no intention of taking itself seriously at all, might I suggest Lucy, which is one part superhero origin tale and one part wonky French existential drama. It starts off quickly, with the titular character being forced into a being a drug mule. The substance is breaks in her bloodstream and the concoction transforms her from meek to a kickass vigilante of science. Lucy can now access far more of her brain’s potential, not just that meager 10 percent we plebs utilize, and who knew that we could all be superheroes if we really put our minds to it? Despite the presence of Morgan Freeman as really a talking head to let us know about the potential of the human brain, none of this really makes any sense, and thankfully the movie doesn’t pretend that it should. Lucy literally gains a new superpower every time we see her, from telekinesis to manipulating radio waves to eventual manipulation of matter and time travel. Yeah, it gets weird, but thankfully it’s also relatively entertaining, funny, fun, and short and sweet at a briskly efficient 90 minutes. The plot doesn’t exactly feel fully developed, more a gallop between events as we charge up the percentages from 10 to 20 to 30 percent, and so on. The criminals don’t seem like much of a threat despite their numbers. I’m shocked nobody assessed what happened to Lucy and said, “Hey, maybe I should ingest this drug into my bloodstream and become a super powerful being too.” While the action is well orchestrated, there is less of it than advertised, as Lucy spends a good amount of time adjusting to her new self-actualized human superiority, played by a detached yet amusing Johansson. I can’t even explain the bonkers ending except to note that maybe there’s a very good reason why human beings were not capable of using a maximum percentage of their brain’s capacity. It doesn’t make much sense but it’s pretty, entertaining with its messiness, and short enough not to waste your precious time.

Nate’s Grade: B

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

imagesWho would have guessed that a movie that featured a talking tree and an anthropomorphic raccoon would be one of the bets films of the year and one of the top grossing films of the summer? At this point for audiences, the Marvel name can do no wrong, but really it’s the degree of latitude given to Guardians of the Galaxy, an admittedly weird movie with strange characters, that allows this unique film to shine. Attaching offbeat director James Gunn (Super, Slither) to be writer and director was a risk that paid off tremendously, as Guardians is the Marvel film most entrenched with the particular personality of its creative director. This is a gleefully imaginative film that enjoys wading deep into weirdness, dancing to its adventurous Star Wars throwback beat, always with its focus set on comedy but not at the expense of quality drama or character development. Really, the characters are the focus of this entry into the franchise, and Gunn and his actors do a bang-up job of gathering the team and getting you to care about each and every one of them. Each one of these characters has a goal, several payoffs, and each is given their proper attention. In an ordinary superhero film, the archetypes would be ironclad. With Guardians, the tough guy made of muscle can also be a source of unexpected comedy with his literal-minded speech patters. With Guardians, the talking raccoon can also be an emotionally disturbed victim of genetic experimentation who doesn’t know how to play well with others. These are damaged characters, and their formation of an unconventional family unit is deeply satisfying and rather touching. I have seen the film twice and gotten teary-eyed both times. The real star of the film is Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation), and what a breakout role he is afforded; he’s like Han Solo’s more juvenile nephew. But like the others, the part is surprising in its depth, with a well of sadness and displacement he still hasn’t processed while he scavenges the galaxy. The plot can be a bit unwieldy at times but pays off better for repeat viewings. This is a world I want to spend far more time exploring and with these characters as my merry prankster guides. With a movie this action-packed, thoroughly entertaining, and gratifying, why come back to Earth?

Nate’s Grade: A

Boyhood (2014)

MV5BMTYzNDc2MDc0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTcwMDQ5MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Richard Linklater is one of the most experimental filmmakers in the indie community, but just about everyone was caught unaware when he announced the completion of his newest project, Boyhood. For the past twelve years, Linklater and a small crew had been shooting a secret movie chronicling the life of a boy from age six to eighteen. The ensuing twelve years gave Linklater plenty of time to examine his narrative, and he also happened to make nine other movies while working on Boyhood. Now his covert pet project is playing to near euphoric reviews and plenty of early awards buzz. As big a fan I am of Linklater as a storyteller, especially with his brilliant Before trilogy, I feel hesitant to find fault in such an ambitious, sprawling project. This is a very good movie all around, but I have enough remaining reservations that keep Boyhood from being in the same league as Linklater’s best work.

Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s own daughter) are living with their Mom (Patricia Arquette). She’s struggling to get by, with little help from their Dad (Ethan Hawke), who took off to Alaska to find work but really as a means of shirking responsibility. Dad comes back into their lives, Mom enrolls in school to provide a better life for her children, and along the way and many moves there are bad stepfathers that come in, new children and step-siblings, new schools, new boyfriends and girlfriends, and all the moments that add up to comprise a life.

Boyhood is less a film and more a cinematic experience that’s hard to replicate. It thrums with the natural rhythms of life, rising and falling on the small moments. Now there are a few larger scenes of drama, mostly concerning breakups and an abusive alcoholic stepfather, but otherwise the film follows the natural progression of not just Mason but his enter sphere of influences, namely family members, friends, girlfriends, etc. It’s a portrait of time beyond all else, and Mason’s parents are just as interesting to follow. Like their children, they too are in over their heads, looking for proper footing and a sense of identity, and in the ensuing 160-some minutes, we won’t just watch a boy become a man but two adults become responsible, accomplished, and determined caregivers. There is much to take in and to immerse one’s self in the refreshing minutia of life itself. The film feels authentic at every step, sometimes to its own detriment (more on that below), and it’s quite easy to plug into this relatable family drama and become engrossed. Don’t let the hearty length scare you, we are moving through 12 years and as such the segments don’t overstay their welcome. After every time leap, there’s a small game of trying to play catch up, noting all the differences, not just the actors growth spurts, but the new touchstones; before Mom was arranging a date with her psychology professor, and now they’re coming back from their honeymoon. It also allows us to watch the subtle transformation of characters but also watching the long consequences of anger. Dad takes Mason and Samantha out and is floored by the revelation that neither remembers a family camping outing that was filled with laughter. What they remember, starkly, are the shouting matches between mom and dad. It’s a definite wake-up call.

boyhoodBecause of its in-the-moment nature, it’s difficult to single out storylines that play out significantly better than others. Each person is going to respond better to different moments, the points of relatability and comfort. I loved a scene where Dad plunges into the awkward territory of having the Sex Talk with his teen daughter. It’s just as awkward and funny as you’d expect, but they plow along and it’s a small moment where Dad shows his own growth as a responsible parent, a man who understands the world his children will enter and the pitfalls that await, who wants them to do better than he did. It’s a funny scene sure enough but it’s also a clear shift in Dad as a character. The allure of realism is rarely broken throughout the film, which imbues the film with a bracing sense of honesty in its details. There aren’t any big inspirational speeches (maybe one by a teacher), mostly talks meant to bridge the gap of understanding. There aren’t any eureka moments, in fact Mom even bemoans the absence of feeling something more significant when her children have left the nest. There aren’t any singular-defining dramatic moments because we are all the sum total of many moments, good and bad. The greatness of Boyhood is that it is a film of moments but moments you want to indulge in, like lingering nostalgic memories. It’s a richly pleasant experience.

My friend and critic colleague Ben Bailey asked me whether this story would have been irreversibly different or worse had they just cast several young actors or used makeup as a primary force to illustrate the passage of time. After giving it a good ponder as any critic should, the conclusion I came up with was a surprising… “No.” With the 7 Up documentary series, or Linklater’s own Before trilogy, the passage of time is also a reflection of us, allowing us to likewise catch up with the familiar faces but reflect upon our own lives. Plus it’s a work in progress, a series that matures and evolves and with each additional segment becomes a stronger and more compelling whole. With Boyhood, we get the entire passage of time all in one movie, and it just doesn’t play the same. With the other series I’ve mentioned, we get entire movies to dig into these people at different pit stops in their lives. With Boyhood, it’s less so. Here we get the (to our knowledge) full story, and watching the actors age is its own interesting experiment, but is this story really aided by this approach? I have my doubts, at least to the degree to justify the 12-years-in-the-making gimmick that has captured most of the media attention. It’s just as interesting to compare and contrast the other actors, notably Mason’s onscreen parents. 2002 Ethan Hawke is still the young reckless heartthrob, whereas 2014 Ethan Hawke has a bit of a paunch, lines around the eyes, and the gradual acceptance of his changing life style. But does the gimmick add any greater thematic impact to the film other than the odd notoriety of watching a visual yearbook for a select series of actors?

boyhood-ethan-hawkeThe other quibble I have is larger, mostly that the movie is tied to a character that is rather something of a bore. As a child, Mason is more reactionary to the world around him, taking in all these experiences, especially the hurtful remarks of adults and the long-term effects of all that marital discord and abusive stepfathers. He’s quiet, a bit lackadaisical, generally procrastinating and stretching rules, but he’s really just a boring kid who grows into a boring teenager. Now there are certainly plenty of relatable qualities to him that extend beyond his external situations and family conflicts. Plenty will be able to relate about the struggle to fit in, the points of self-discovery, and the initial buzz of a romantic mingling, among other coming-of-age moments. The problem is that Mason is struggling with finding his own onscreen identity. It would be foolish to have this kid suddenly know with divine clarity who he is and what he wants to be, but would it be breaking the confines of realism to give this character a personality? He ends up becoming this blank canvas for the audience to project themselves onto. If we’re going to spend nearly three hours watching the emergence of a character, it needs to be someone the audience can engage with so that their journey has a lasting emotional impact. Mason is an ordinary teenager, which means he’s an otherwise shrug-worthy figure for this massive of an undeserved spotlight.

Perceptive, funny, warmly affectionate, and well made in just about every capacity, Boyhood is an enjoyable movie from start to finish, another fine achievement for director Richard Linklater. It is a movie about a young man coming into his own, but it’s also a film about those around him doing likewise, maturing, aging, but mostly gaining some stronger sense of themselves and stepping out to make this happen. It’s a tale of life told in micro and macro, and while it lacks the cumulative impact of the 7 Up series of the Before films, it certainly has enough measured drama and honest reflections to stir a bevy of feelings with its audience. I only wish the main character was a more interesting focal point for this twelve-years-in-the-making project, especially with all that added time for Linklater and company to double back and alter their narrative. The character quibbles, and the ultimately unnecessary gimmicky nature of its conceit, are enough to blunt its overall longstanding resonance for me, but this is still a very fine movie and one that no other filmmaker working today could deliver. I just wonder what other secret films Linklater is keeping from us.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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