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The Silence (2019)

Sometimes in Hollywood there is such a thing as coincidence. The novel The Silence was published in 2015, the film adaption in the works in 2017, and yet it feels overwhelming like a rehash of another sound-sensitive blockbuster, 2018’s A Quiet Place. Following in the footsteps of a popular hit, you better be able to bring something different to the table or else you risk feeling like an also-ran. Having watched The Silence on Netflix, it’s hard not to constantly be comparing it with A Quiet Place, and it’s hard not to constantly be wishing you were watching A Quiet Place instead of this mess.

A group of scientific spelunkers unleashes a subterranean species of bat dinosaurs that are attracted to sound. A family (Stanley Tucci, Mirnada Otto), their ailing grandparent (Kate Trotter), deaf teenage daughter (Kiernan Shipka), son, dog, and uncle (John Corbett) hop in the car and head to the countryside for safety, but it’s not that easy.

The Silence fails as a thriller because it’s so unclear so often about the nature of its threat, its extent, and the lack of urgency on display. Once the bat dinosaur monsters are on the loose, it feels like the rest of society immediately knows the rules of what attracts them. People in subway cars are already banishing women with crying babies to die alone. At the same time, the reaction seems absurdly mellow. It dilutes the sense of danger when nothing feels imminent. The family casually piles up in the cars and heads out to the country but nobody seems to be too panicked. It was at this point, relatively a half hour in, that I started getting the first of many Birdemic vibes. Why would they think the neighboring countryside would be out of the reach of winged monsters? How many winged monsters are there? Because we’re dealing with the immediate aftermath of the first strike, it can create points of disbelief. At least Bird Box had that crazy and effective opening of society breaking down. We don’t get anything like that.

I also call into question the thinking behind going out to the country as a refuge. If they’re not outrunning the flying monsters, it’s the idea that there will be less noise away from the cities. This seems like the exact opposite of what people should be doing. It’s the nitpick from A Quiet Place about why the family didn’t just live under the waterfall (as we all do, of course) because the loud sounds muffled the other sounds that could be absorbed. Therefore it makes strategic sense to stay around the places that makes the most noise, like a bustling city that also has locked chambers within chambers. This is later demonstrated in a scene where the dino bats are discombobulated by an indoor sprinkler system. Perhaps this is because of the rain, but if that’s the case then everyone needs to relocate to the Pacific Northwest.

Without a sense of danger, the movie suffers from its timeline and lack of structure. It doesn’t feel like the movie is going anywhere. The immediate aftermath of the dino birds appearing leads to a limited response. How interesting or scary can things get when the Internet is still functioning and the teenage daughter can still keep up with her instant messages even out in the country? This brings me to the last act where the movie completely changes into a home invasion thriller with a religious cult that has bitten off their own tongues. This creepy cult is obsessed with the family, following them home to that country cabin because… the teen daughter is “fertile.” What the hell? It’s way too soon for this kind of apocalyptic nonsense. The world hasn’t broken down into factions. Society is still standing. It’s not like there is a shortage of fertile women, like some Children of Men doomsday. This group must have been waiting for any minor social setback to jump forward with their dreams of being a creepy cult. This late group of antagonists attach “sound bombs” in the form of smart phones. Even a little girl straps herself with several phones like she’s a suicide bomber. Even dumber, the other characters flail around once the phones ring like they have no idea how to turn off phones. It all comes together to form a hilariously awful conclusion that teeters into pure camp.

Let’s tackle one of the more essential elements of A Quiet Place that feels almost entirely unnecessary with The Silence, and that’s the hearing loss of the teen daughter. It astounds me that these two movies have similarities that go even that deep, even to the aesthetic choice of adopting the lack of sound when the camera takes her perspective (so many strange coincidences, which extend into its Bird Box-like cult as well). This element was a strength of A Quiet Place and played a significant plot purpose, placing the daughter in danger because of her sensory disadvantage, but it also related to the ultimate reveal of how to combat the monsters. It also communicated the distance she felt between the other members of her family after a horrible tragedy that she blamed herself over. It’s a carefully integrated and thoughtful addition to the movie.

Now take The Silence. The daughter has had a recent accident that damaged her hearing, which explains why she doesn’t have the vocal affectation that many hard of hearing people have adopted. The artistic choice that doesn’t work is that The Silence at no point makes her lack of hearing meaningful to the plot or for her character. If you were hardly paying attention you would never know she had hearing loss. Conversations between the family occur rapidly, with minimal signing, and sometimes the parents aren’t even looking at her when they speak. The best lip readers in the world only get a third of what is being said. She is holding normal conversations with no struggle. At no point does her disability put her at risk. At no point does it have any bearing whatsoever on anything, except showing the actors spent a weekend learning sign language.

Another laughable feature is the presence of completely superfluous voice over narration from the daughter. It is powerfully clunky and made me cringe in the beginning and at the end. She’s explaining things that don’t need explaining and doing so with lines that don’t add any real insight. “I had to adjust to being deaf,” she says, while jerky students make fun of her lack of hearing because I guess that’s a thing people do. Then at the end she bounds back with a resilient narration about how it’s a race for evolution, but is it really? I think mankind has a leg up over creatures that, until two days ago, evolved in a subterranean environment. It’s another sign the movie has no idea what it’s doing with its story and how to relay the important information or what even is important.

Much could be forgiven if the scares were consistent, well constructed, or even interesting, or if the characters were engaging and relatable, or if the structure packed a series of setups and satisfying payoffs, or if there was a sense of thought and care put into the world building with these unique creatures, or, all the things that A Quiet Place achieved. The Silence is a movie that is best deserving of being silent. Skip this Netflix original and, if possible, watch A Quiet Place again. This one is not entertaining, from a good or bad perspective, and even at a mere 90 minutes feels like a wasted opportunity for a nap.

Nate’s Grade: D

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War of the Worlds (2005)

Steven Spielberg is America’s favorite director. He’s made films about alien encounters before (hell, it was most of the title of one movie), but Spielberg has never tackled evil aliens. Alien movies either involve cuddly little green men or the kind that want to destroy our planet. The latter is usually more interesting and finally Spielberg takes the trip with War of the Worlds.

Instead of focusing on high-ranking government officials, War of the Worlds concentrates on an everyday man just trying to save his family. Ray (Tom Cruise) is a New Jersey dock worker and a divorced pop. His ex-wife (Miranda Otto) has dropped off the kids (Dakota Fanning, Justin Chatwin) for the weekend. Ray isn’t exactly father of the year and his sullen kids remind him of this fact. Meanwhile, there seems to be a series of lightning storms hitting the world that then leave an electronic magnetic field that eliminates all the electricity in the area. A storm hovers over New Jersey and lightning strikes not once but over twenty times in the same spot. Ray goes to investigate the site. The ground beneath trembles and caves in. A giant machine with three tentacle-like legs emerges from the earth and starts zapping any humans it can find. Ray escapes, packs up the kids in the only working car in town, and runs, runs, runs, all with the aliens just a step behind ready and waiting for a people zappin’.

There are three things an audience will have to put behind them in order to enjoy what War of the Worlds has to offer.

1) The film has no plot. War of the Worlds spends the first 15 minutes setting up its handful of characters and their misery with each other. After that, it’s nothing but all-out alien attacks. That’s really it. Ray and the kids run to one place and think they’re safe. The aliens come and attack. Ray and the kids escape to a new place. The aliens come and attack. Lather, rinse, repeat. There is little more to War of the Worlds.

2) Spielberg has pretty much forgotten how to make good endings. I think A.I. was the nail in the coffin. Routinely Spielberg films seem to run out of gas or end rather anticlimactically, but A.I. really cemented the glaring fact that Spielberg cannot sit still with an unhappy ending. So, yes, War of the Worlds both ends anticlimactically and with an abrupt happy ending. Of course the H.G. Wells novel ends in the same fashion so there’s less to gripe about, until, that is, until you reach the implausible reunion. Spielberg can’t keep well enough alone and forces the story to be even happier at the cost of logic.

3) Ignore whatever feelings you hold about Tom Cruise. Off-screen, many feel that Cruise is becoming an obnoxious, pampered, self-involved, couch-jumping cretin. No matter what your feelings about Cruise and his self-taught knowledge about the history of psychiatry, that is not who is in War of the Worlds. He is playing a character. I never understood the argument that because you dislike an actor as a person it invalidates all their acting. I’ve read magazines that actually say people are staying away from Cinderella Man because people think Russell Crowe is a grump. In War of the Worlds, Cruise plays a deadbeat dad who finds his paternal instincts during the end of the world. The character isn’t deep and acts as a cipher for the audience to put themselves in the scary story. Plus it’s not like Cruise is a bad actor; he has been nominated for three Oscars.

Since this is a large Hollywood horror film, the acting consists mainly or healthy lungs and frightful, big-eyed expressions. So it seems natural that little Dakota Fanning would play the role of Child in Danger. Cruise somehow finds some points in the story to exhibit good acting. There’s a moment right after Ray and his kids escape to their mother’s home. He tries making them food out of whatever they saved which amounts to little more than condiments and bread. His kids rebuff his offer and he throws the sandwiches against a window and repeats to himself to breathe. In lesser hands this moment would just be some light comedy, but Cruise turns it into an opportunity to see the character’s desperation. Tim Robbins shows up late playing a nutball going through some self-induced cabin fever.

War of the Worlds, at its core, is a post-9/11 horror film on a mass scale. Spielberg plays with our paranoia and anxiety and creates a movie that is fraught with tension and an overriding sense of inevitable annihilation. The aliens are so advanced and so powerful. The deck definitely seems to be stacked against Earth. I felt great amounts of dread throughout the film knowing that the aliens will find you, they will get you, and it’s only a matter of time. And that’s the recipe for a perfectly moody horror film. War of the Worlds is chilling in its depiction of worldly destruction, and yet it becomes even more terrifying by how realistic everything seems as the world falls apart when its under attack. The introduction of huge, human-zapping aliens is expected to be scary, but who knew human beings at their wit?s end could be just as scary? A crowd of people turns into a violent mob fighting for any last bit of space in Ray’s working car. A man sitting on top of the hood is actually ripping away chunks of windshield with his bare, bloody hands.

War of the Worlds really benefits from awesome special effects. As stated before, we live in a jaded age where most special effects have lost feeling special. Computer advancements have also created a more advanced audience able to point out the big screen fakery at a faster pace. If you don’t believe me, look back at some movies from 1995 or so and see if you’re still wowed. War of the Worlds marvelously displays destruction on such an incredible scale. City streets ripped apart, houses blown up, cars flipping through the air, ferries plunged into the water, and it all looks as real as can be. There are moments I know that have to be computer assisted, like seeing miles and miles of stranded vehicles and people on the side, but it looks like they filmed it for real. The only thing that seemed hokey was people being vaporized by alien ray guns and having their clothes remain. I don’t know if Spielberg was going for a veiled Schindler’s List reference or they thought anything more grim could rock their PG-13 rating.

Due to all of this realism, War of the Worlds is not a film to take young children to see. The startling realism and suffocating sense of dread will keep kids up for weeks with nightmares, maybe some adults too. There’s more than a passing reference to 9/11, and that may be a wound too fresh for some. Thousands of people walk the streets as homeless refugees. There are large tack boards with hopeful missing fliers of relatives. One of the most horrifying images consists of a flowing river filled with floating corpses. There’s also a grand set built around the remains of a downed airplane. When Ray is trying to explain the situation at first, his son interjects, “Were they terrorists?” Spielberg calculatingly uses our memories of 9/11 to create a true-to-life horror story that doesn’t feel exploitative. “War” implies some kind of even ground. This is a massacre, and one parents should be wise not to bring youngsters to.

With War of the Worlds, Spielberg has crafted a chilling, realistic, post-9/11 horror movie. The action is big, the destruction is bigger, and the dread is at a near breaking point. Sure the movie is plotless and the ending is anticlimactic and forcibly happy, but War of the Worlds should appeal to those looking for the safe way to witness the end of the world. Spielberg invented the big summer movie and War of the Worlds is a taught return to form. It’s not much more than watching aliens destroy things but for many that will be plenty for a summer movie.

Nate’s Grade: B

Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

To all those hairy-footed Tolkien geeks that chewed me out for having the audacity to call 2002’’s Two Towers, of all things, “boring,” let me say this: while I still find the second entry of The Lord of the Rings to be disappointing and pretty flawed, the final chapter, Return of the King, is a glorious and satisfying conclusion. Instead of doing a usual review (plot synopsis, strengths/weaknesses, etc.), I’’m going to bring back the charges I had against Two Towers and explain why Return of the King does not suffer from these ills. Will the defendant please rise as I read aloud the charges.

Charge Number One: Two Towers has nothing going on for its majority except hyping an oncoming battle.

And I still feel this way. Short of the great Helm’s Deep battle, there was oh so little going on in Two Towers that they could have easily trimmed an hour away from it. And don’’t give me this crap about the whole kingdom of man subplot or Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) realizing his eventual responsibilities. Whatever. Now, in Return of the King, there is so much going on and the pacing is so tight, that despite being the longest film by far (3 hours and 20 minutes), this is the FIRST Lord of the Rings films that has not put me to sleep in the theaters. The nearly hour-long battle involving the 200,000 Orc army with its huge elephant creatures is mesmerizing and visually stunning. But even after the battle and before, unlike Two Towers, there is plenty going on that actually matters, not just three characters running around endlessly.

Charge Number Two: Despite nothing going on except waiting for a battle, Two Towers has little characterization of any of its characters.

So even though little is going on, Two Towers still doesn’’t use all this free space to deepen characters. But in Return of the King, the characters come through and shine. The hobbits are back to the front burner and the film is better for it. Sam (Sean Astin, in the finest performance of the film) and Frodo’s journey becomes increasingly important and the strain and deception of Gollum puts a wedge between their friendship. When Frodo (Elijah Wood) looks scornfully at Sam and dismisses him from their journey, it’’s heartbreaking. Why? Because after two years we as an audience have come attached to these characters and do feel for their struggle. When Sam, toward the climax, says, ““I may not be able to carry the ring, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you!”” I dare anyone to try not choking up. We also get deeper moments of character with peripheral characters, like Faramir realizing he can only satisfy his father by a suicidal mission. Even the smaller characters from the second film, like Eowyn (Miranda Otto) and her kingly father Theoden (Bernard Hill), have wonderful moments where the emphasis is on characterization. Return of the King is filled with rich character moments that remind us how much we enjoy and feel for these people … uh, and hobbits.

Charge Number Three: Most of the characters from Fellowship of the Ring have scant appearances in Two Towers.

This still holds true. Gandalf (Ian McKellen, brilliant) returned from the dead but had about three minutes of screen time. The elves (Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett) were given the amount of screen time most people would consider cameos. And then the hobbits were left alone for the overlong subplot involving Theoden and his clan. What Two Towers really was was the dwarf, elf, and Aragorn movie. And I like each of those characters but this story is not theirs – it’s the hobbits. So the disproportionate amount of time spent with Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Aragorn felt like what would happen if, in Star Wars, C-3PO and R2D2 had their own film. It wasn’’t as interesting and it wasn’’t right. But with Return of the King, the attention is back to the hobbits, and all of the characters in the entire film have at least one stirring moment of quality time. Gandalf is back in a big way and it’s welcomed. What else is welcomed is the increasing attention Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) have. They started as merrymakers, but by this trilogy’s end they are desperate to join the ranks and fight. The shared moments between Merry and Eowyn in battle are great. The moments between Pippin and Gandalf are even better. And even though the elves still get the short end of the stick, they make lengthier appearances that are more satisfying. It appears, though, that Cate Blanchett’’s longest amount of time in this whole trilogy was narrating the opening prologue.

Charge Number Four: Excessive dwarf jokes.

Even if you disagree with me on the previous three charges, you must agree with me that Two Towers had about a million dwarf jokes too many. Return of the King, to my knowledge, doesn’’t even have ONE dwarf joke. Fabulous. This is not to say I want less Gimli. The subplot involving the Two Towers trio seeking an army of the dead (a tad deus ex machine) is intriguing, and his competitive banter with Legolas is still ripe (“Bah! That still counts as one!”).

Return of the King is an amazing experience and one that is a fully satisfying conclusion, unlike say, I don’’t know, maybe the last two Matrix films. The danger feels more abundant now that the end is near and the tension mounts. The payoffs are rewarding and the climax is fittingly climactic. However, the 20-minute resolution is a bit drawn out. It seems director Peter Jackson can give us three hours of fast-paced action but can’t speed through a medley of hugs. You think it’s over…. and then there’s more, then you think it’s over…. then there’’s more. This is a small quibble for such an epic trilogy, and Return of the King proves that it’’s really one large triumphant film, with a bit of a sag in the middle. What? Did you think I’’d get through all this Lord of the Rings love-fest and not take one last jab at Two Towers? Though I still prefer Fellowship of the Ring out of the three, Return of the King cements the trilogy’s cinematic greatness in our time. Oh yeah, and the cinematography, special effects, production design, makeup, and score are magnificent too.

The defendant is cleared of all charges.

Nate’s Grade: A

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

My countrymen and fellow Americans, I come here not to praise ‘Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’ but to bury it. I don’’t know if it’’s a result of being the bridge between the beginning and end of this saga (taking the role of neglected middle child), or a result of unmet sky-high expectations, but I may be alone here in saying that ‘Two Towers’ was a letdown. I’’ll try and frame my reasoning as to not be attacked by hairy hobbits and men with pointy hats and long flowing beards.

1) Story structure. Unlike Fellowship of the Ring, where we’re introduced to a rich world and have suitable character set-up, the second LOTR film puts almost all our characters on the backburner and gives us an insufferably long subplot involving a king and his brood. The movie peters out an ending and seems to throw its hands in the air saying, ““See ya’ a year from now.””

2) Length. This wasn’’t a problem with the previous film but man did ‘Two Towers’ become unbearable as it went. Some described the first film as three hours of walking; well the second could be described as two plus hours of folks hyping a battle and then — a battle. Seriously, there’s a lot of talk about a significant battle …and that’’s it. An hour could have easily been cut from this. It got to the point where my girlfriend was sprawled across my lap pleading for me to somehow make the movie end.

3) Characterization. So much time is spent doing nothing you think the film would further round the characters? Oh how stupid you would be. Nothing new seems to be drawn from any character, with the exception of the treacherous yet likable Gollum. Several people from ‘Fellowship’ (Liv Tyler, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Ian McKellen) have screen time that amounts to no more than a cameo, so why in the world aren’’t we getting anything more from our already established heroes? Everyone just looks friggin’ bored. As was I.

4) Excessive dwarf jokes.

I re-watched ‘Fellowship’ and all of the reasons ‘Two Towers’ suffered were not evident. So what does this tell me? Nothing particularly, except not to see the movie in the theater again. ‘Two Towers’ is by no means a bad film. The cinematography, production and special effects are all breath-taking and sweeping. I’’ll still look forward to seeing the next, and last, installment in Peter Jackson’’s ‘Rings’ epic, but ‘Two Towers’ has left a bitter taste of disappointment to linger upon.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Human Nature (2002)

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman jumped on to Hollywood’s A-list when his feature debut Being John Malkovich was unleashed in 1999. Malkovich was a brilliant original satire on identity, be it celebrity or sexual, and was filled with riotous humor but also blended beautifully with a rich story that bordered on genius that longer it went. Now Kaufman tries his hand expounding at the meaning of civilization versus animal instinct in Human Nature. As one character tells another, “Just remember, don’t do whatever your body is telling you to do and you’ll be fine.”

Lila (Patricia Arquette) is a woman burdened with excessive body hair ever since she was old enough for a training bra (with the younger version played by Disney’s Lizzie McGuire). Lila feels ashamed by her body and morbidly humiliated. She runs away to the forest to enjoy a life free from the critical eyes of other men. Here she can commune with nature and feel that she belongs.

Nathan (Tim Robbins) is an anal retentive scientist obsessed with etiquette. As a young boy Nathan was sent to his room for picking the wrong fork to eat his meal with. He is now trying his best to teach mice table manners so he can prove that if etiquette can be taught to animals it can be ingrained toward humanity.Lila and Nathan become lovers when she ventures back into the city, eliminating her body hair for now, because of something infinitely in human nature – hormones. The two of them find a form of content, as neither had known the intimate touch of another human being.“Puff” (Rhys Ifans) is a grown man living his life in the woods convinced by his father that he is an ape. One day while walking through the woods Nathan and Lila discover the ape-man and have differing opinions on what should be done with him. Nathan is convinced that he should be brought into civilization and be taught the rules, etiquette and things that make us “human.” It would also be his greatest experiment. Lila feels that he should maintain his freedom and live as he does in nature, how he feels he should.

What follows is a bizarre love triangle over the reeducation of “Puff,” as Nathan’s slinky French assistant Gabrielle (Miranda Otto) names him. Lila is torn over the treatment of Puff and also her own society induced shame of her abundant amount of body hair. Nathan feels like he is saving Puff from his wayward primal urges, as he himself becomes a victim of them when he starts having an affair with Gabrielle. Puff, as he tells a congressional committee, was playing their game so he could find some action and “get a piece of that.”

Kaufman has written a movie in the same vein as Being John Malkovich but missing the pathos and sadly, the humor. ‘Human Nature’ tries too hard to be funny and isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is. Many quirky elements are thrown out but don’t have the same sticking power as Kaufman’s previous film. It’s a fine line between being quirky just for quirky’s sake (like the atrocious Gummo) and turning quirky into something fantastic (like Rushmore or Raising Arizona). Human Nature is too quirky for its own good without having the balance of substance to enhance the weirdness further. There are many interesting parts to this story but as a whole they don’t ever seriously gel.

Debut director Michel Gondry cut his teeth in the realm of MTV making surreal videos for Bjork and others (including the Lego animated one for The White Stripes). He also has done numerous commercials, most infamously the creepy-as-all-hell singing navels Levi ad. Gondry does have a vision, and that vision is “Copy What Spike Jonze Did As Best as Possible.” Gondry’s direction never really registers, except for some attractive time shifts, but feels more like a rehash of Jonze’s work on; yep you guessed it, Being John Malkovich.

Arquette and Robbins do fine jobs in their roles with Arquette given a bit more, dare I say it more, humanity. Her Lila is trapped between knowing what is true to herself and fitting in to a society that tells her that it’s unhealthy and wrong. Ifans has fun with his character and lets it show. The acting in Human Nature is never really the problem.

While Human Nature is certainly an interesting film (hey it has Arquette singing a song in the buff and Rosie Perez as an electrologist) but the sum of its whole is lacking. It’s unfair to keep comparing it to the earlier Malkovich but the film is trying too hard to emulate what made that movie so successful. Human Nature just doesn’t have the gravity that could turn a quirky film into a brilliant one.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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