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The Menu (2022)

The first thing I thought about with the horror black comedy The Menu is what famous film critic and pun enthusiast Gene Shalit would do with this title and setup. He’d say, “Don’t send this one back to the chef,” or, “I’ll have seconds,” or, “Book your reservation now,” or any number of bad jokes (fun fact: Shalit is STILL alive and 96). Regardless, The Menu is an excellent main course for fans of dark comedies and biting satire. It’s not really scary or thrilling, even if it borrows liberally from the structure of contained thrillers. A dozen wealthy guests are selected for a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience from a legendary chef (Ralph Fiennes). The story is a balancing act of mysteries, with what is happening on this secluded island, each new course on the menu and what it reveals about its chef and his intentions, why each of the couples is present and what troubles they have, and why our head chef is so fixated on Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), a last-second replacement date for arrogant would-be foodie, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), and who she really is and whether she belongs here or not. Part of the wicked fun is watching things escalate and the characters freak out, or try and rationalize or bargain through the experience. I was chuckling throughout the movie, tickled by its sardonic humor and the excellent heightened performances from its ensemble cast. Fiennes (The King’s Man) is locked-in as his enigmatic yet intensely dedicated chef, so much so you might admire him while also being creeped out. His annoyance and cold disdain for the guests is a constant source of entertainment, especially a scene where he insists that the know-it-all foodie put on a chef’s robe and try his hapless hand at actual cooking. Hong Chau (Downsizing) is terrific as a no-nonsense sous chef simmering with barely concealed contempt. Her pronunciation of “tortilla” is one of the movie’s biggest laughs. With The Great and now this, Hoult is finding a great stride in playing outsized egotistical buffoons. By the end, I was left wanting a little more in the way of answers or catharsis or even its class conscious commentary, but The Menu still packs plenty in its 105 minutes to be an appetizing experience.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Smile (2022)

Smile was not initially intended for a theatrical release. The $17 million-budgeted horror thriller had been intended as a streaming exclusive for Paramount Plus, but after the movie tested so well, its parent company thought why not try a theatrical run? They even hired real actors to creepy stand still grinning outside Good Morning America or behind home plate for baseball playoffs. Then the movie made over $200 million worldwide and possibly began its own franchise. Not bad. After having finally watched Smile, I can understand why it became a word-of-mouth sensation. It’s thoroughly unnerving and a horror film that just knows its fundamentals.

Dr. Rose Cutter (Sosie Bacon) is a clinical psychologist with her own trauma. As a child, she discovered her own mentally ill mother’s body after she had overdosed on pills, and this has spurned Rose to try and help others suffering from depression and mental illness as a career. She encounters one very frantic young woman, Laura (Caitlin Stasey), who fears she is in danger. She says she keeps seeing… smiling people, people that aren’t there, and she was told today was her last day to live. Sure enough, the woman struggles and then stands, eerily smiling, and casually slices her own throat in front of Rose. While she tries to shake off the disturbing burst of violence, Rose is starting to see Laura again, smiling that same eerie smile, and this propels Rose to investigate the origins of this curse that leads each victim to take their own life.

There isn’t much in the way of deeper themes or social commentary here, though I suppose you could find some pieces about how we stigmatize mental illness or that the curse has to be spread through witnesses of trauma. Smile isn’t an example of elevated horror and instead it’s just a well-constructed, well-developed horror movie that knows what to do to properly get under your skin. The premise reminded me of the indie breakout in 2014, It Follows, where there is a curse with very specific rules for passing it along, and new chains can be created or broken depending upon the duplicity of the person (see also: The Ring). I liked thinking of the curse as a puzzle, and my wife was able to jump to a conclusion before the movie as far as how to possibly break the curse, going against the assumptions of Rose and her ex-boyfriend police detective, Joel (Kyle Gallner). Much of the second half of the movie is this discovery period, untangling the longer history of the curse, implicit with this is that each new occurrence involved a violent suicide and an observer. I suppose maybe there is some theme possibly attempted about the shared nature of trauma, how it unpredictably spills out before us and is tricky to be cleanly contained. After establishing the pattern with the curse, now it’s time for our protagonist to wonder if she can beat the odds. I appreciate that writer/director Parker Finn provides plausibility to make her efforts credible. My issue with the latter part of It Follows was why the beleaguered teens would have thought that they could electrocute an invisible phantom and kill it when it was otherwise unfazed by bullets.

As a straightforward horror thriller, Smile knows what it takes to make you squirm and jump. It taps into something universal: smiling, without careful context, is often very creepy. It’s not a world-breaking observation and yet its simplicity is part of what makes it all so effective. Very often, the movie will anticipate the audience’s dread, feeling out that something is about to go off the rails or a jump scare might be approaching, and it will deliver in a different direction. Much like James Wan’s Conjuring movies, the film also has a firm handle on setups and payoffs, establishing a situation and then letting the audience simmer in dread. There was one moment where Rose was instructed to turn around and look behind her by a voice that no longer seemed so helpful, and the drawn-out response was deliciously squirm-inducing. There was another moment that I knew a jump scare was coming, it was literally walking towards Rose, and I kept thinking, “Okay, here comes the startle,” and then the movie brought it but in a way that still surprised and elated me. Given the nature of the curse messing with its victim’s mind, you might start to anticipate what Rose sees and hears is not to be trusted, and there are a few fake-outs too many. Thankfully, the movie doesn’t just rest on one spooky trick. There’s a children’s birthday party that manages to tie a few plot elements together in a masterfully traumatizing manner. When Smile does start revealing more about the design of its monster, that’s when my wife started averting her eyes more often and muttering “No no no” to herself. Some of the imagery is prime nightmare fuel, and I applaud Finn’s innate ability to scare the hell out of an audience.

Some action movies and horror flicks are best described as thrill rides, an experience that exhilarates and delights and doesn’t offer much more by the end than the experience, and that’s perfectly acceptable. Not every movie has to be one with deeper meanings or breaking the mold in a way that no filmmaker has ever achieved before. Sometimes just having a good time from a well-constructed thrill ride is sufficient for a fun and diverting viewing. Smile is that film, a horror/thriller that is cleverly focused and developed to garner every goosebump. I will also say that I incorrectly thought that this movie was PG-13, and that was quickly disproven by the intensity and disturbing nature of its violence. I can’t say why I always thought that this was a PG-13 movie, maybe because of its instant box-office success, but it definitely doesn’t soft pedal its intense atmosphere and disquieting nature. It takes a lot to scare me, and Smile made me sit on the edge of my seat and perfectly dread the next moment, that is, when I wasn’t averting my eyes like my wife and trying to forget its nightmarish imagery.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Don’t Worry Darling (2022)

By now, you’ve likely heard all about the gossip-churning headlines from behind the scenes of Don’t Worry Darling, which eclipsed everything else about the movie and is, sadly, the most interesting thing about an otherwise flawed Stepford Wives retread. There were scandalous rumors of affairs, rumors of actors uncomfortable with affairs, rumors of actors refusing to take part in publicity for the movie, which motivated legions of online super sleuths to analyze every social media missive to the finest point to discover hidden messages and meaning. There was even a point where the Internet debated for a week whether or not Harry Styles actually and actively spit upon Chris Pine at the Venice Film Festival (both actors deny this happening). Looking back, it was a wild time, a bit silly, and far out of proportion for the actual movie we eventually get with Don’t Worry Darling.

Alice (Florence Pugh) is living the perfect 1950s life – OR SO SHE THINKS. Her husband, Jack (Harry Styles), leaves with the other men for work in the desert facility owned by Frank (Chris Pine). The wives of the community diligently tend to the household chores, gossip poolside, and have a full-cooked meal and drink in hand for their returning breadwinners. Alice begins seeing disturbing visions she cannot explain, and another wife (Kiki Layne) starts acting up, trying to warn her, and men in red suits seem to pounce whenever someone steps out of line. It’s a lush suburban community designed by Frank, meant to be the sparkling, hopeful epitome of the American Dream, but it might be a nightmare instead as Alice investigates.

Don’t Worry Darling is a fleetingly entertaining movie with big ideas but it doesn’t know how to handle them and what to say beyond its obvious points. Immediately in the movie, you’ll know something is wrong with this idyllic community. The Stepford Wives is an obvious comparison point, so I kept waiting for the movie to pivot from this predicted influence, to go a separate route or go deeper, making its commentary meaningful for today’s world. Unfortunately, the movie never does move beyond this influence, nor does the movie go deeper than to easily castigate its men for wanting to control their women and remodel them as dutiful, cheerful, robotic housewife throwbacks to the halcyon age of 1950s Boomer nostalgia. It’s all too surface-level for a movie about superficial men wanting to unburden themselves of having to live up to the expectations of women. There’s plenty that could have been said about the pernicious forms of toxic masculinity festering around the darker corners of society and the Internet, the rise of fragile men in the alt-right and incels and trolls, and their angry, entitled, self-loathing feelings toward women projected into harassment. This movie only merely glances at its touchy subject. The commentary is too basic, leveling men want to dominate women and erase their agency and identity for their own satisfaction, the same points from The Stepford Wives in the 1970s, which was a direct response to the feminist movement challenging traditional gender roles in the home. I won’t spoil the exact means of what this false reality is for Alice and the others, but suffice to say, it leaves a lot more questions for me than answers (Has nobody reported any of these women missing? Their friends and family? Why have such potentially deadly stakes? Why would modern men fantasize about six-decade-old Boomer nostalgia?).

In short, this reality is false, and the screenplay by Katie Silberman (Booksmart) and Carey and Shane Van Dyke (The Silence) makes it known immediately, so the story is structured with our foreknowledge in place. It becomes a game of how long before Alice puts together her conclusion and which strings she chooses to pull and what blowback from the established order that demands ignorance and obedience. There just isn’t enough intrigue here. In The Truman Show, the protagonist gradually began to doubt his reality but each suspicious peculiarity added to a better sense of the larger picture, and since it wasn’t until halfway through that we saw “the other side” of Truman’s manufactured world, the audience too was learning about this facade and all the effort to keep it hidden. Don’t Worry Darling has a repeated motif of Alice seeing confusing images of her and the other wives in a stark Bubsy Burkeley-esque musical number, but why? What does this reveal about the inner workings of the reality behind the reality? It’s not even made clear what it relates to literally, so it must be a metaphor, but it’s again too obvious and heavy-handed. I understand all the women are learning and practicing dance, but to what end does this serve? I needed further rules established about this secret society so I had more of an understanding of what was at stake as Alice begins to test her boundaries and put others in danger. The conclusion is also ludicrously short-sighted, just a matter of crossing a magical line, like a kid touching base in tag, and that’s before a segment of self-awakening that made me wonder if Alice had miraculously become Neo. It’s the kind of conclusion that feels way too easy and unfulfilling, attempting a note of “what happens next?” ambiguity but really feeling more unsatisfyingly incomplete and empty.

Even though Don’t Worry Darling is flawed, Wilde’s directing is still an asset. She’s clearly having fun playing in a much different genre than 2019’s Booksmart, and the thriller elements are achieved by the eerie contrasts that Wilde finds to highlight of this hidden prison. The sunny cinematography and retro production design are sharp, and the musical score by John Powell (How to Train Your Dragon) has an off-kilter but electric charge to it, often working in hums and stutters to better accentuate the horror atmosphere creeping into this would-be paradise. Wilde even captures the speeding cars in the desert with a certain thrilling aplomb. Much publicity was made about the portrayal of the sex scenes within Don’t Worry Darling, namely, with a woman behind the camera, that they focus on feminine pleasure, a feature often lacking in a male-dominated field built upon the sizzle of the male gaze. I’ll agree that both scenes put more focus on Alice, also our main character so perhaps there’s that, but knowing the full context of the story, it seems more than a little misguided to purposely emphasize feminine pleasure. Also, it’s hard for me to actually believe these kinds of self-involved, parochial men would prioritize giving pleasure to their partner. This detail seems in conflict with the larger thesis.

Thank goodness for Florence Pugh, a refrain every viewer repeats with every movie co-starring the Oscar-nominated actress. Pugh (Black Widow) ably carries this movie on her back. Her performance has more nuance than the character writing provides, and it’s enjoyable to see her challenge the imposition of authority and push back. It’s yet another emotionally heavy role with several scenes of sobbing and screaming, and Pugh is one of the best actors when it comes to expressing the heights of emotional distress without overdoing it into histrionics. As my wife said by the end of the movie, Pugh deserves to star in a feel-good, chippy rom-com after all the grueling emotional work she’s endured in many of her more prominent roles.

Harry Styles (Dunkirk) doesn’t fare as well, dwarfed by his scene partner. There is one moment where he has an emotional breakdown in his car that is nicely portrayed, a mixture of pity and guilt and pure cowardice, and Styles really nails it. However, his smooth hunky husband persona works well enough, enough so that it’s hard for me to see someone like Shia LeBeouf, who Wilde originally had cast in the role, working as intended considering his more intense presence would make you doubt the man’s intentions almost immediately. I wish somebody gave Chris Pine more to do in this other than smugly smirk in the background (admittedly his “being in the background” of one scene was an uncomfortable oddity that demanded further exploration).

There are things that genuinely work with Don’t Worry Darling, moments that dazzle and excite, technical elements that elevate the material, and performances that stick, but it all comes down to a disappointing and underdeveloped script that cannot figure out what to do with its messy themes. It’s too obvious where the movie is headed given its heavy thematic similarities to The Stepford Wives, but it could have taken that familiarity and reapplied it to today’s Internet-age misogyny preying upon female autonomy, but it doesn’t. It could have also fleshed out the particulars of its fraying world-within-a-world to better feel complete and intriguing and meaningful, but it doesn’t. It could have presented a compelling hero’s journey of Alice pushing back against formidable opponents, but it doesn’t do that. It could dress down these bad men and make them account for their misdeeds, but it doesn’t really. It’s a mystery with an all-too obvious answer, with the exception of the exact circumstances behind the pretty facade, and not enough substance and commentary that pushes beyond simple social moralizing. I guess ultimately the movie is much like its own gilded reality: pretty to look at but lacking much below the surface.

Nate’s Grade: C

Barbarian (2022)

It’s rare for a movie to be truly surprising, which is why I would suggest if you’re unfamiliar with Barbarian to try and go in with as little advance knowledge as possible. This is a movie that delights in upending its audience and making them reconsider what they previously thought, re-examining characters and situations with new key pieces of evidence, swapping allegiances and sympathies. It begins ordinarily enough with a young woman, Tess (Georgina Campbell), arriving at her Air B&B rental with a mysterious stranger (Bill Skarsgard) already there claiming it’s his rental. He invites her inside, and she hesitates but follows, and from there the night will go down as one to remember, if she survives it. The joy of Barbarian is how it keeps changing its gears, leaving the audience guessing what could possibly happen next, and the movie will make some remarkable tone and time jumps. Writer/director Zach Cregger (part of the comedy troupe The Whitest Kids U’Know) has made a Jordan Peele-esque leap into the realm of horror with starting results. Cregger really knows his genre goods, and his camera will elegantly frame his visuals while letting the dread compound, as we nervously anticipate what’s to come, often the result of investigating something we know will only lead to bad ends. For a low-budget indie horror movie, the photography and production design work wonders at building suspense and unease. The lingering flaw of Barbarian is that it’s a surprise show, a haunted house ride that doesn’t have much more to it than the entertaining yet finite experience. I don’t think there’s much in the way of re-watchability and many of the plot and thematic elements feel too timidly explored, ladled on haphazardly when they could have earned far more attention, especially with the reveals in the second half. Still, if you’re looking for a delightfully unpredictable and squirm-inducing horror movie that delivers on the WTF moments, then Barbarian is ready for you, whether or not you’re ready for its many deranged detours.

Nate’s Grade: B

Halloween Ends (2022)

If you’re a fan of the hallowed Halloween horror series, I can understand why Halloween Ends can be a disappointment, since it dramatically steers away from the formula that has carried this franchise since its beginning. However, if you are like me and find Michael Myers to be one of the most boring slasher killers, and too much of the slasher genre to be rote and repetitive, then this movie might actually be something of a welcomed surprise. Ends might be the least Halloween movie since the third film, the failed 1982 sequel that tried to establish life outside of the hulking menace that is Myers, and then the series shortly retreated back to its familiar bloody formula. Ends might be the least amount of screen time Myers has ever had in any film in the franchise, excluding the third movie; he doesn’t even get his first kill until almost an hour in.

The 2018 reboot was a mixed bag of a horror movie but it ended on the strongest note, with three generations of Strode women fighting together to end their torment. Unfortunately, the series had to continue because the 2018 movie made so much money for the studio, so we’ve been given two rather perfunctory sequels. It’s clear director David Gordon Green and his co-screenwriters, including actor Danny McBride, didn’t really have a desire to continue, and so they spent the sequels exploring other avenues of Haddonfield. I wasn’t a fan of 2021’s Halloween Kills, but the subplot about the mob of scared citizens becoming vigilantes was at least something new and added to a larger understanding of the trauma of this terrorized community. I can say the same with Halloween Ends, namely that the things that were most unexpected and tertiarily related to Myers were what I enjoyed the most. Halloween Ends is messy and disjointed but at least it’s interesting even as it strains to justify its existence and even seems slightly disdainful as well.

It’s Halloween time again in Haddonfield and the citizens are still psychologically recovering from the events of the prior year, as featured in Halloween Kills. Nobody has seen Myers since he killed Laurie’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) adult daughter. In fact the Myers’ estate has been demolished, at long last, and the town is trying to move on from yet another massacre. Laurie is trying to transition into domestic territory, watching over her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) as she works at an urgent care center. The real star of the movie isn’t Laurie but Corey (Rohan Campbell), a teenager who accidentally killed a child he was babysitting years ago. Corey is a pariah in town as he tries to get his life back on track, with the meager options that Haddonfield offers for someone with his baggage. He is befriended by Laurie, who introduces the lad to Allyson, and the two instantly connect as outsiders unfairly maligned by their town. These star-crossed lovers get more complicated when Corey begins to tap into his darker impulses and discovers the location of a recuperating Michael Myers. How far will he go?

Because Myers is such a colossal bore as a character, so readily deemed pure evil as to remove anything remotely interesting, I was grateful that Halloween Ends chooses to be something else for most of its running time, precisely the evolution of a killer. Characters that are just born as soulless evil don’t require much in the way of understanding or back-story. This movie decides to spend the majority of its time setting up a protégé figure for the big bad boogeyman, so much so that you could cut the scant Myers appearances in his subterranean lair and make the first half of this a completely different movie. It’s proof that Green and his screenwriters weren’t just coasting from creative inertia of delivering the same-old same-old. There is an actual story here that wants to explore elements of the franchise that have been dormant and chronicle how a young man can fall onto a dark path and lose himself. It’s the appeal of the dark side, and it’s personified in one young man’s journey. It’s the serial killer origin structure, and it mostly works. I was far more interested in Corey than anything else happening in Ends. The prologue establishes him as misunderstood and an outcast, blamed for an accident that nobody seems to think was actually an accident. It’s about how the ailing town treats this young man and how he tries to reform after tragedy, only to be met with suspicion and resentment. Getting to know Corey’s limited world and watching him succumb to his darker impulses, it’s like a little side story that you never would have known existed in the larger Halloween universe so often dominated by the endlessly wheel-spinning Laurie vs. Michael drama. I’m not going to say that the screenplay was nuanced and populated with three-dimensional characters, and the pacing of Corey’s descent is indeed rushed, but I appreciated the efforts to try something different.

Another issue I have is that first-half Laurie and second-half Laurie feel like two totally different characters. This version of Laurie Strode feels like a completely different character from the prior two Halloween movies that shaped her as a grizzled, obsessive, survivalist loner. This version is making awkward meet-cute small talk in grocery stores and burning pies she’s determined that her granddaughter will eat because of nascent Strode family traditions. Who is this woman? I know some time has passed from the previous movie, but where is the response or lingering grief over the loss of her daughter, the same person she spent years preparing to defend herself against the return of Myers and then was killed by him anyway. For all the weight given to this passing, it feels like an afterthought and that is bizarre. It’s as if Laurie’s daughter never existed for all the impact that her murder has on this story. Once Corey and Allyson become a romantic pair, that’s when something clicks over with Laurie and she recognizes the danger this boy represents, and then she becomes the overly protective mother (granted, her instincts are correct, but the characterization is blah). There was potential to explore the continued strained relationship between the different generations, but Allyson mostly comes across as the naïve child who just wants to run away with her dreamy new broody boy. Had the characterization for Laurie and Allyson been more coherent, and meaningfully tied to the past events in the new trilogy, I think it would have better aided the aims of the Corey examination.

Say what you will about the Halloween series stretching things out over its two lesser sequels, but Green and company add a definitive end note to their title. The degree to which the movie seeks definitive closure is almost comical. It feels like Green is saying to the studio, “Okay, this time it’s really, really over. There is absolutely no coming back from this. That’s it.” This sequence of finality goes so many steps beyond confirming its ending that I began to chuckle to myself at the absurdity of the movie telling its audience that this is the serious end. We go beyond beating-a-dead-horse territory into making the dead horse into a vase that is then shattered, and then the pieces thrown into a fire, and then the ashes launched into space. Of course, all of this will depend on the box-office viability of the movie and whether or not its parent company wants to squeeze even more money from the 40-year franchise (maybe an H50 in 2028?). After all, picking and choosing specific sequels to eliminate from franchise canon has become more popular, as evidenced by the 2018 movie blinking every sequel out of existence for its timeline, so all of these would-be definitive events can just be erased as easily by another sequel. That’s the nature of popular horror: everybody dies but nobody ever stays dead for long.

As slasher thrillers go, there’s probably not enough going on here to appeal to your baser desires, as there is no real memorable or gruesome kill. As a character study, there’s not enough careful development and plotting to reward exploring an offshoot to this universe. It’s fascinating to me, at best a middling fan of the Halloween series, how this sequel seems to simply not care about being a Halloween sequel, hence the shelving of Myers for so long, as well as the inconsistent characterization of Laurie and lack of follow-through, and the shirking of extensive gore and terror. I loved the strange detail that the friend group that bullies Corey aren’t a group of roided-out jocks but… marching band geeks (granted, with unchecked privilege). I loved how the movie goes above and beyond to persuade its conclusive ending, even closing out on the “Ends” of the title. You can almost feel certain degrees of disdain that Green and company have to create this added content, a misshapen denouement to the better climax in 2018. I guess there’s nothing stopping anyone from pretending these sequels are non-canonical, and it’s likely only a matter of years before the studio does the exact same thing to reignite the series. Halloween Ends is a strange, frustrating sequel that struggles to be a Halloween movie, for better or worse.

Nate’s Grade: C

Fall (2022)

It’s no more, no less than its bald premise, but with the benefit of some nifty aerial photography to heighten viewer veritgo, some seamless special effects, and a streamlined story structure, Fall is serviceable survivor escapsism. The motivation is pretty inconsequential as to why these two young women (Grace Caroline Currey, Virginia Gardner) are climbing an old radio tower, but they do, they reach the top, and then the ladder crumbles below them, trapping them way up high. From there, it becomes a survival thriller that isn’t as dumb as its straightforward title and premise might have you believe. I recall 2010’s Frozen, not the popular Disney musical, but the small indie thriller about a group of characters stranded on an abandoned ski lift. It’s a similar scenario and becomes less of a question over whether they will get down and more how they will endure the elements and simply survive long enough to draw attention to their plight. If you have a fear of heights, there are several deft moments that draw out that anxiety-ridden tension; I even gasped a few times at the movement from teetering positions and leaps. There’s a late twist I wasn’t expecting that I think is handled well, and there’s just enough character introspection to keep things interesting without de-escalating the urgency and tension of the premise. Also, Fall originally had a lot more swearing and 30-some F-bombs and these were eliminated from the use of a Deep Fake A.I. software that swapped the actors’ mouths into contorting new PG-13-approved syllables. I didn’t even notice it, which is a sign of how remarkable the technology has become and how cost-effective (the budget for Fall was only $3 million). There’s little else to this than being a well-developed, well-executed 100-minute thrill ride (you get Jeffrey Dean Morgan for exactly two whole scenes) and when you’re looking for fleeting fun, that’s certainly agreeable disposable entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: B

Prey (2022)

Prey is the kind of Predator movie I have been clamoring for years to make. The franchise was in some major need of a mojo rejuvenation, and instead of constantly repeating the same stories to lesser and lesser effect (see: 2018’s sloppy release), the filmmakers finally saw the obvious and exciting answer. By placing the Predator into different points and places in world history, the producers have finally tapped into the creative potential of the equation of [cultural warriors] vs. alien bounty hunter. Each new movie allows a new selling point jumping from famous warrior to famous warrior. Imagine samurai versus the Predator, or Crusaders versus the Predator, or Vikings versus the Predator, or a Wild West showdown against the Predator. It would be like an intergalactic Deadliest Warrior franchise. It’s a super advanced alien species, so why can’t we establish that they’ve been flying to Earth for centuries for their recreational sport? Each movie can establish a larger mythology, but it also just supplies the fun of seeing history’s greatest warriors and different settings and cultures versus a powerful alien monster. Prey is the best Predator sequel, by far, and arguably as entertaining and engaging as the 1987 original.

In 1719, we follow a tribe of Comanche in the Northern Great Plains. Naru (Amber Midthunder) wants to be a respected warrior like her big brother, Taabe (Dakota Beavers), who cautions her about the weight of responsibility. She discovers strange tracks and is convinced that their tribe is not safe from a new predator. How little does she know how right she is.

Within minutes, Prey had me. I’ve seen complaints that the first half is slow, but I think people are discounting the time needed to establish the ordinary baseline life of this community, their relationships and conflicts and goals and hopes, before introducing the change agent. That takes time if you want to be able to understand this different life but also if you want to really connect with the characters. The first half provides the foundation for the second half to run with and have bloody mayhem that counts as more than surface-level entertainment. The best compliment I could provide for screenwriter Patrick Aison (plus director Dan Trachtenberg) is that had the Predator never beamed down, I still would have found the story to be interesting. The details are rich and build an authentic picture of life 300 years ago before European colonists would completely upend indigenous life. The Predator series, at its core, has been a nativist underdog tale, where the primitive people of Earth have battled against the technologically superior alien warrior. The dynamic makes it easy to root for the Earthly heroes, but it’s even easier when you have a protagonist like Naru, fighting for respect as a woman already. The character is shown as headstrong but capable, and her mistakes provide opportunities for her to learn and better strategize later. I genuinely gasped when certain indigenous characters died. I’ve never had an emotional response to any Predator film.

The reveal of the Predator is cautiously handled, with the big guy taking time to explore his own surroundings. I enjoyed that this Predator also isn’t as advanced as his more modern ilk. He wears an intimidating alien skull mask and has more limited, though still high-tech, weaponry. I also enjoyed that this Predator feels like he has more of a personality. It’s not just a mirthless tall guy in a thick suit. The actor, Dane DiLiegro, is still providing a tactile, physical performance, and he has moments that reveal the cruelty of this alien but also its volatile temper, which is kind of hilarious. He encounters the wildlife and goes from snake to bear to man, right up the food chain, but some of his more violent kills demonstrate an almost petulant attitude. This is a Predator that doesn’t quite have it all together, and it makes the eventual battle with the Comanche feel like a conflict that has two sides that are worthy but also with their vulnerabilities. It makes the final showdown more interesting. It also allows us to take perverse pleasure in the big guy mowing down a team of predatory French fur trappers that imprison Naru and use her as bait. Oh boy, the gory comeuppance is fun.

The action sequences are smoothly handled by Trachtenberg (10 Cloverfield Lane) who favors verisimilitude without sacrificing the visual artifice. The photography is gorgeous, and the emphasis on natural light and environments add so much the overall authenticity. Trachtenberg also knows what visual style will work best with which moments. There’s one scene where Naru sneaks back into the trapper camp and her vengeful fury is portrayed in a breathless long take to make the moment even more intense and enjoyable to appreciate the beat-by-beat fight choreography. The scenes with the Predator stalking in the fog play with claustrophobic suspense. The action has a very pleasing sense of construction that clearly presents the pieces that are needed for the scene-to-scene goals, and then the characters will adapt as necessary through organic complications. This is just good action construction, and Trachtenberg fields each like an expert.

Another fun addition with Prey is that they filmed it with two audio tracks, an English-language track and one fully in the Comanche language. It’s not the most necessary option since most viewers will likely simply watch it in English, or not know about the alternative until after watching, such as myself, but it’s an impressive addition that can make the movie even more immersive and authentic and generally considerate of another culture and language.

Now, with all my points of praise for Prey, why oh why did Disney shunt this movie straight to its secondary streaming arm with Hulu? After the Fox merger, I understand that the Mouse House doesn’t quite see the same level of value in every Fox property not named X-Men or Avatar. This was restarting a franchise that still has some life in it, but even more than that, this is a good movie with plenty of artistic acumen that would have played splendidly on a big screen and an excellent sound system to really sell every fleshy slice and alien gurgle. It seems preposterous to me that a new Predator movie, let alone an actually great one, is denied theatrical release. I know the domestic box-office is still not what it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. I understand that Fox’s leftovers don’t have the same sexy appeal to the new bosses. It just puzzles me that nobody thought that they would make money off of Prey, which has proven to be a big hit on Hulu with critics and fans (ignoring cranky misogynists questioning the physical ability of women). Prey is a great action movie built upon solid characters and patient, clear plot and action development. When it comes to gore, I wish it wasn’t as heavily CGI and a more memorably gruesome, but that’s my only real criticism of what is fundamentally a fun and exciting movie. Give me more like Prey.

Nate’s Grade: B+

River Road (2022)

I was asked to review River Road by an Ohio producer, although he is the lone Ohio connection and it was filmed in British Columbia, so it doesn’t exactly count as an official Ohio indie. It’s written and directed by Rob Willey, a Canadian commercial and music video director with one previous feature credit, 2016’s Dark Cove, a horror thriller with a budget of only $25,000. Willey is definitely a talented visual stylist, that much is apparent from watching clips of his shorts or the trailers for his movies. He sure makes a pretty picture. My issue with River Road as a drama is that the plot, characterization, and structure felt not nearly on par with the alluring visuals.

Travis (Cody Kearsley, Daybreak) is a Vancouver guitarist living a wild life of drugs, sex, and rock and roll. He meets Zoe (Lexi Redman) at his journaling spot while he’s luxuriating at a friend’s home on the eponymous River Road. She’s an American visiting a friend and over the course of a party they hook up in more ways than one. Zoe’s cocaine ends up being heroin and now both become inexorably tied together, two addicts sinking lower and relying upon one another for support. Travis empties his bank account, sells his belongings, including his prized guitar, and then considers increasingly risky crime to be able to afford more drugs. This brings him and Zoe to their most dangerous option: robbing local drug lord, Fresno (Steven Roberts), and making a very bad man a very clear enemy who will want very real and violent vengeance.

In short, I found these characters to be insufferable. This is billed as a crime movie but it’s really more of an addiction narrative following the descent of two people into more desperate and self-destructive behavior. As an addiction narrative, it’s best to start with some tangible semblance of what the “before times” are like so we have a baseline to contrast with the damaging effects of drug abuse. If we followed a story about a deranged homeless man with alcoholism who suddenly started using crack, that’s not enough of a dramatic contrast to effect much added drama and tension. This is the first error of River Road. Our introduction to Travis is that he’s a traveling hedonist, playing in a rock band and going through women like water. He has a montage about “getting clean” after the band’s last tour but this literally lasts minutes before he’s right back to snorting cocaine at the local parties (maybe we have different definitions of “clean”). With Zoe, we have one meet-cute first encounter, and then she’s already at the same party snorting cocaine and introducing Travis to heroin. This all happens fifteen minutes into the movie, so not enough time to effectively establish a “before” phase, but Willey errs by failing to give us more to either Travis or Zoe as characters. They were vague before and now, for the next hour, they will be defined by the depths of their addiction. However, I was never emotionally engaged with either of them so I found much of their rather redundant wallowing to be tedious and, shocking, failing to provide further needed characterization.

My engagement was also hampered by much of the clunky and inauthentic dialogue. When people speak, you don’t really feel like you’re learning much about them; it’s like empty air unless they’re directly expositing what is, by all other means, unclear. Travis says, via helpful future narration, that he never met someone “so alive” like Zoe and he was won over by her sense of humor. I shook my head and wondered where the evidence for this was, because the previous twenty minutes did not establish either of these aspects. The dialogue often falls into being redundant or exceedingly expository. We’re told Zoe has a great sense of humor, but where did we see it? We’re told this romance was electric, but where did we see it? The conclusions are being dictated to us rather than shared and earned. And then paradoxically we’re given scenes where characters will talk in circles but just hit the same note into oblivion. I found every scene with music producer Cash Dirty (Sunee Dhaliwal) to be excruciatingly long and unnecessary. I think he’s supposed to be “comic relief” but he’s just a more verbose version of most of the men, trading in the same levels of hedonism and casual misogyny. The big villain likes to keep taking but it’s the same improv note with too much time to fill. I’ve seen this kind of haphazard writing before in other indies that confuse “authenticity” with uninteresting and bland dialogue.

If you’re making an addiction movie you chiefly go one of two tonal routes: tragedy or immersion. Naturally, you can combine the two like Requiem for a Dream, but usually a filmmaker wants you to feel an emotional connection or a vicarious immersion with an overload of style. So, if you’re falling short from a characterization standpoint you can at least provide a satisfying array of style to bring to haunting visual and auditory life what the addiction process is like. I suppose one could argue that depictions of addiction without even the attempted integrity of characters and drama is simply cheap exploitation, and that can be true. With River Road, the characters don’t cut it to supply the tragedy. It’s just not there. I think it was another screenwriting error to provide not one but two framing devices, Travis and Zoe each narrating from the future when they’ve both gotten some form of treatment or help. I understand why this would be appealing to Willey because you can immediately plug into a scene of the past and cut to the character literally explaining, via voice over, what they were thinking at any moment. The problem with this is that the insight of these future narrators is pretty deficient. We don’t need future Zoe to tell us such obvious statements like “once you’re high there is no pain, there are no worries.” I think we understood that through the serene expressions on their faces, plus the general nature of drugs. They’re appealing for a reason. The other problem is that having both of our participants in this doomed love story as future storytellers means they won’t die. It eases some of the tension of its more fraught Act Three when they begin their dangerous decisions.

There’s also a misplaced twist at the one-hour mark that I find absolutely self-defeating, but to explain further will require some spoilers, so if you want to remain pure dear reader, skip to the next paragraph. From the fifteen-minute mark until the one-hour mark, we’re beset with redundant scenes of Zoe and Travis getting high, wandering around, being happy, and then being mopey during their withdrawal times, which shockingly don’t take up more time. It’s awkward to watch Travis mess up recording his guitar part for a song, and this is one of the few instances where we at least get a semblance of personal before/after contrast, but how many stagnant scenes do we need of people getting high, then begging people for money, then getting high again? This descent into debauchery doesn’t feel like we’ve regressed too far. Then at the one-hour mark the twist detonates that Zoe… actually knew about Travis when she saw his band perform in New York City. She stalked him online and followed him and planned her “chance meeting,” and my response was to merely shrug. So what? What does this twist do for the narrative? They were addicted to heroin before the first act was finished, so what does her being a stalker change with their current addiction crisis? After he demands she leave, Zoe comes back, and it’s as if this weird twist never happened for all its minimal impact. Travis does get to scream that Zoe hooked him on heroin on purpose, to try and control him, but, again, this is not evident with what we’ve seen onscreen. Also again, what does it matter? They’re stuck now. The manipulative woman trope, added onto the crazy groupie trope, is tacky, though I don’t know if we’re supposed to adopt Travis’ assessment when he learns the real truth. If this twist were going to be effective, we needed a lot more work done with Zoe’s characterization, with more time spent establishing a clear persona before the drugs became the dominant force. As it’s written, the twist plays like, “Hey, that vague girl who got addicted to drugs really quickly had maybe some other motives while she was vague.” You can’t earn that Gone Girl-style twist without putting in the proper time and effort for the rug pulling to genuinely upend the viewer.

From a technical standpoint, River Road is a slick-looking movie with moody, neon-drenched cinematography and an atmospheric and evocative film score, both done by Willey (he also edited and produced too). There are some fantastic visual compositions here and that’s where I think Willey has his true passion. The movie makes extensive use of montage where you can tell the shot composition and arrangement and editing are just much more ambitious. It almost feels like the drug montages and time lapse montages were what Willey enjoyed making the most. In contrast, the scenes of characters talking have less appealing composition, often relying upon a stifling shot-reverse shot rhythm where each person is left in a single shot. After a while, the discerning viewer can start to categorize the scenes that Willey prioritized more. Every filmmaker invariably does this to some degree; it’s just more apparent with River Road. The drug use sequences are entrancing, like the first taste of heroin leading to Zoe and Travis losing one another in the cosmos with snow falling on them being overlapped. I’m surprised we don’t have more visual sequences trying to convey the highs. Much of the scenes after this initial jolt are watching people close their eyes and nod in contentment. The editing in the montages is also smooth and seamlessly melting from shot to shot with ease. There are other scenes where the editing gets less prioritized as well. A scene where Zoe is laying perpendicular across Travis’ stomach kept cutting at sharp forty-five-degree angles that it ruined the flow of the scene. Likewise, a climactic foot chase is hampered from edits where the proximity is hard to judge. We needed more shots of Person A being seen with Person B. Without, or without clear markers to denote progression of the chase, it’s a jumble of frantic images without forming an important visual continuity.

River Road is a production where I would recommend just about every element with one big exception, the storytelling. I don’t blame the technicians nor the actors. It’s the screenplay that doesn’t know what to do with its 85 minutes, the wasted and redundant characterization, and the shrug-worthy climax (why do I care about an ultimate showdown between the big bad dealer and the guy who Travis works with at the gym?) that mitigate the other shining qualities. I think Willey is a filmmaker with some serious chops but maybe defer on the screenwriting next time.

Nate’s Grade: C

K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released July 19, 2002:

There’s a rule of thumb I’’ve come to find in Hollywood, something so certain you could set your watch to it. No, not the Emmy’s nominating Frasier for everything. I’m talking about man-owl Larry King, who seems to dabble in the land of film reviews. Kindly readers beware, if you see an ad for a film and it has Larry King’’s salivating blurb in it, run away. Run away like the plague, like Pamplona. Just run. The only films I can remember off hand (though this theory has come true every time) are 15 Minutes and Wind Talkers. And now there is the horrifically titled sub-sub movie K-19: The Widowmaker.

K-19 should not be confused with K-9, the Jim Belushi teams up with a dog to fight crime film. No this one takes place in the early 60s in the thicket of the Cold War. An opening title sequence tells us Russia has enough nuclear weapons to blow up the world two times, but the United States has enough to blow up the world six times over. Whoo! U-S-A! The maker of widows is itself a docked submarine in the Russian navy in preparation for combat. Before it even leaves the shore it is said to be cursed, having five men die already from its widow maker-y hands. Liam Neeson is the captain of K-19 and well respected and beloved by his crew. However, Neeson is willing to put the lives of his men ahead of the agenda of the state, so the Communist government places Harrison Ford on the sub and gives him the reigns of command. Ford is a rigorous taskmaster who puts his men through countless drills and does not exactly see eye-to-eye with the more empathetic Neeson.

The story’’s real turn comes about midway in, when after successfully launching a test missile above the arctic ice the nuclear core of the sub springs a leak. If something is not done to slow down the heating core the men could be vaporized in a mushroom cloud. Except that patrolling the waters nearby is a Unites States destroyer and thus would be destroyed as well, surely igniting the start of World War III. Crew members take shifts to enter the radioactive core area to try and do what they can. The situation gets even direr when the men come out looking like something from a George Romero film.

K-19‘s biggest fault is fictionalizing what would have been an interesting hour block on The History Channel. The Neeson and Ford characters feel like two sides of a debate, not exactly characters. The whole movie has been Americanized with heroic proportions. Instead of compelling drama we’re left adrift with what the studio wants as a summer movie with material that should no way be associated with it. I mean, the horribly dishonest marketing campaign actually has a crew member shout “Torpedo headed straight for us!”” then shows a torpedo surging ahead. There was never a torpedo in the entire movie or a scene where they were being attacked! Somewhere in this ho-hum story is an exciting tale of the courage these men were forced into as well as the strain of not being able to tell their friends or family about anything that happened.

Submarine movies have so many limitations to them that’s it’s hard to make a unique one anymore. Everyone knows there’ll be a point where they go beyond THE RED AREA with the needle and hear the hull ache and creak. Everyone knows they’ll have to stop an onslaught of water leaking. Everyone knows that if you talk about writing a letter to your girlfriend at home in case you die, well, the fates have it in for you. Either you love seeing these things a million times in cramped space or you grow tired of the expectations.

Director Kathryn Bigalow (Strange Days) manages to give it the ole college try with the long camera movements inside and the close-ups of men glaring at one another. Although technically able, Bigalow doesn’t do anything to transcend the limitations she has to work with. And while she meets her mark as a director, it is neither spectacular nor worthwhile.

Ford has a horrible Russian accent he likes to flirt around with through the film. I don’t exactly know if people are supposed to like his character, being rigid and pragmatic at the expense of human life. Neeson, on the other hand, is quite capable and shines in his role. The rest of the crew alternates between Russian accents to even some Australian ones I heard.

K-19: The Widowmaker’ tells us that this story could not be told until the fall of communism, except at the end it shows a clip of the Berlin Wall coming down and the crew then gathering to finally remember their fallen comrades. Some people just don’t have their dates right, and some people just don’t know how to take an interesting unknown slice of history and tell it well. Damn you Larry King.

Nate’s Grade: C

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I just think submarine thrillers aren’t for me. I won’t argue there aren’t good movies based almost entirely in the tight quarters of subs, like Das Boot or Crimson Tide, but I think most of them just blur together into a wash of genre cliches. As I so presciently wrote in 2002 for my review of the submarine drama, K-19: The Widowmaker: “Submarine movies have so many limitations to them that’s it’s hard to make a unique one anymore. Everyone knows there will be a point where they go beyond THE RED AREA with the needle and hear the hull ache and creak. Everyone knows they’ll have to stop an onslaught of water leaking. Everyone knows that if you talk about writing a letter to your girlfriend at home in case you die, well, the fates have it in for you. Either you love seeing these things a million times in cramped space or you grow tired of the expectations.” I’ve grown even more bored by these sub-genre staples. In some ways, submarine movies are a precursor to the Hollywood fascination of the contained thriller, the limited location setting that acts as a pressure cooker of conflict. However, the setting isn’t as important and the people and the conflicts that reside inside those cramped quarters. For Crimson Tide, the reason that movie really worked is because of the feud between its stars, each man fighting for dominance and gaining allies and plotting mutinous moves in the name of security. You could have told that same story in a military base on land and it would succeed. The problem with K-19 is that the true story is more interesting than a rehash of submarine cliches.

Here is a forgotten chapter in history of heroism and sacrifice, and the fact that it’s from a Russian perspective during the height of the Cold War makes it unique, at least as such in an American marketplace. The movie also feels so out of time thanks to the last decade of Russian aggression under Vladimir Putin. But for a time in the early 2000s, Russia opened up its naval shipyards to Hollywood to tell a very Hollywood version of their own history they had, for decades, insisted be kept only as secret. The crew aboard the K-19 avoided an escalation that would have likely triggered World War III. They were victims of their country’s arms race, building Russia’s first nuclear submarine to compete with the Americans but not building it to ship-shape shape, a point Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) cites during an electrical malfunction. For those well-versed in USSR history, or having seen the truly excellent HBO mini-series Chernobyl, this shoddy workmanship is hardly uncommon when the government insists on results through fear and dire repercussions, and so the state meets its quota, though perhaps only on paper to satisfy a bureaucrat who doesn’t want to be shot by his own government. This is one reason why the real story of these men was withheld for 30 years, as it would cheapen the image of the Soviet state during a time where any mistake is viewed as weakness. I would have preferred a movie that opened up more of the men on this submarine, that really dealt with their hopes and fears more in a more personal and intimate way rather than just hand-waving “Cold War destruction” as it’s catch-all for drama and stakes. Let’s also really dwell on the sacrifices of these men taking turns to venture into a highly irradiated nuclear core to stop it from exploding. Let’s let these men feel like people rather than as indistinguishable and plentiful sacrificial offerings.

This could better be accomplished by removing the core of the script by playwright-turned-screenwriter Christopher Kyle (The Way of Water, Alexander), namely the fight for control of the sub between the old captain (Neeson) and the new captain, Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). The mutiny subplot even becomes the focus of the third act, even after the development with the broken reactor, as if settling this command squabble was more entertaining to an audience. Vostrikov is willing to risk the lives of the men for the goals of the state; Plenin is not. It’s an easy setup to root for one man and hiss at another, but their glorified personality clash doesn’t have near the crackle of Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide. The fact that a mutinous conspiracy can outflank the danger of a nuclear accident will only work if the characters are that compelling, and woe they are not. We’re given some fleeting information about their backstories, with Vostrikov’s father having once been a hero of “the Revolution” but ultimately ended up in a gulag like so many one-time heroes for the Soviet state. There just isn’t enough here to really care. We side with Neeson because he’s more loyal to his crew, but this is also benefited with the hindsight that we know this real incident did not trigger a real war. When either actor begins their hard-line posturing, it feels like watching two older dads argue in a parking lot. Both of the actors suffer from their catastrophically bad Russian accents. If I was director Kathryn Bigelow, I would have just given up and said, “All right, forget accents. Everyone just speaks in their native tongue and we’ll just shrug it off.”

A more interesting tangent, at least for me as a film critic, is my opening salvo savaging the film tastes of the late Larry King (1933-2021) and the topic of “blurb whores,” critics who are so easily amused that their excitable, adjective-ready blurbs in the advertisement for a movie can be a bad sign of the movie’s ultimate quality. A website (eFilmCritic) used to track the most egregious examples of “film critics” offering their “takes” on movies in a scathing series called Critic Watch. Neither the series nor the website seem to be active any longer, but I remember every year checking in and taking stock and shaking my head in incredulous disdain. These were usually populated by the same names like Peter Travers from Rolling Stone, Shawn Edwards from the local Kansas City news station, Jeffrey Lyons and then eventually his son Ben Lyons, Pete Hammond for Maxim, and the most curious case was that of Earl Dittman from Wireless, the publication being like one of those little insert pamphlets for oblivious satellite TV subscribers.

Dittman was the king of blurbs on questionable movies, and his verbal ejaculate over Robots might be the best indication. He said of the 2005 animated film, “…Even more spectacular, computer-animated film than The Incredibles … In fact, the term ‘brilliant’ fails to accurately describe how wondrously witty and innovative Robot [sic] really is … If you thought the superheroes of The Incredibles and the ocean-dwellers of Finding Nemo were humorous, you haven’t heard nothing yet. The side-splitting humor of the mechanical beings in Robots is worthy of a capital ‘H’ … Forget The Incredibles, Robots is one heck of a funny animated comedy … Robots is a hilariously awesome and breathlessly inventive work of entertaining animated brilliance… You can’t afford to miss a single frame of this amazing, unforgettable animated classic.” Wow. He gave TEN different paragraph-length blurbs over Robots to the studio, an okay animated movie at best, and surely not one “more spectacular” than The Incredibles. I can even recall seeing a TV ad for Robots that was nothing but wall-to-wall Dittman quotes. With the man’s hyperbolic, effusive praise for even the crappiest of films, like calling Shark Boy and Lava Girl a “masterpiece” and Hostage as “more electrifying than Die Hard” (what????), there was a theory that the elusive Dittman didn’t even exist. Sony had been ridiculed when it was revealed in 2002 that “David Manning” was a fake critic they had created to positive blurb their movies (The Animal: “The producing team of Big Daddy has delivered another winner!”). Sony even had to pay out a modest settlement in a class action suit to any filmgoer having felt duped to see four movies. And then somebody proved Dittman was real, a freelance writer from Houston, and just a guy who seemed to love all movies and wasn’t that interesting. I don’t think he’s blurbed again since 2007. May he enjoy his retirement.

All of this is my way of saying K-19: The Widowmaker is a submarine movie where submarine movie stuff happens. If you can’t get enough of the likes of U-571 and Greyhound, then that would probably be all you would ask for in your nautical storytelling. Everyone attached has done better, though the old age makeup during an epilogue set in 1989 was eerie about what an older Harrison Ford would look like, so well done, makeup team. My review from 2002 rings so true twenty years later that I’ve had to resort to thinking what else can be added in discussion. That’s always nice, to recognize my critical self from twenty years hence was right on the money. K-19 is long, misshapen in its structure and attention, and bogged down with cliches. My initial grade still stands.

Re-View Grade: C

The Black Phone (2022)

This is the movie that director Scott Derrickson made after departing Marvel over “creative differences” with the Doctor Strange sequel, differences I feel like I can agree with. Based upon Joe Hill’s short story, The Black Phone is a return to Derrickson’s horror roots, along with regular screenwriting collaborator C. Robert Cargill, and you can feel the director’s reflexes resetting. It’s like three movies in one, not all of them needed or entirely coherent. It’s about generational trauma and abuse, a survival thriller about escaping a psychotic serial killer, and a little kid trying to hone her nascent psychic powers. The stuff with Ethan Hawke as “The Grabber,” a kidnapper of children who imprisons them in a locked basement dwelling with a broken black phone attached to the wall, is great, and Hawke is fascinating and unsettling. Each mask he wears seems to come with a slightly different persona attached, so with each appearance we get another sliver of who this disturbed man may have been. The story of survival is made even more intriguing when our protagonist, young Finney (Mason Thames), learns that the past victims can communicate with him through the mysterious black phone. The scene-to-scene learning and plotting is fun and efficient and requires Finney to be a little bit of a detective, exploring his dank surroundings and the failed escape attempts of the other kids to utilize for his own hopeful plan. The ghost kids also have limited memory of their experiences, which is smart so that he isn’t given a clear advantage without limitations. The parts that drag are where Finney’s little sister tries to convince the skeptical police officials that her dreams are real and can help find her missing brother. There is one hilarious moment where she prays to Jesus for guidance and then profanely expresses her disappointment, but otherwise it feels like a Stephen King stereotype leftover (Hill is the his son; apple meet tree) that doesn’t amount to much besides padding the running time. It doesn’t even lead to big breakthroughs for Finney to be rescued. As a small-scale creepy contained thriller, The Black Phone is an engaging survival story with a supernatural twist that works as well as it does. It doesn’t have much more depth or meaningful characterization, it’s really just about a kid using the power of neighborhood ghosts to escape a crazy man, and that’s enough at least for a passably entertaining 100 minutes.

Nate’s Grade: B

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