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Life of the Party (2018)/ Breaking In (2018)

Just in time for Mother’s Day weekend comes two eminently bland, safe, and unmemorable movies that generally waste their female stars. Melissa McCarthy has proven herself one of the most funny and dynamic performers in comedy, but Life of the Party is a listless and groan-inducing back-to-school comedy that feels tonally off, adopting the persona of its tacky, talky, and awkward middle-aged mother. You would think the premise would lead to plenty of R-rated shenanigans, but instead the film adopts a very sedate PG-13 atmosphere, dulling the wild collegiate experience into something so predictable and safe as to be completely inoffensive. It feels like a caricature reminiscent of a feature-length rendition of a Saved by the Bell: The College Years. McCarthy falls back on tired, corny jokes that don’t attempt to be anything else, and the supporting cast is left to gasp and grasp for anything to spark laughs (special credit Gillian Jacobs for doing everything possible as “coma girl”). McCarthy is best when given room to improvise and discover interesting odd angles for jokes, but she also needs a stronger comedic vision, and that’s not going to come from husband/co-writer/director Ben Falcone (Tammy). It feels like they had a general outline for a comedy and, in grand collegiate tradition, pulled an all-nighter and sloppily finished a serviceable draft. I chuckled about four times, mostly involving an exuberant Maya Rudolph and the one clever structural payoff revolving around a much younger fraternal hookup. Mostly, Life of the Party lacks a sense of stakes, credibility, surprises, development, and laughs, though the middle-aged mothers in my preview screening lapped it up, so take my opinion with a grain of salt if the trailer seemed moderately appealing for you.

On the other side, Breaking In is a mundane, low-budget home invasion thriller that disappears almost instantly from memory. I’m struggling to even come up with enough to say in this review that isn’t just repetitions of the word “boring.” Gabrielle Union (Bring it On) plays a mom who brings her two children to visit the estate of her recently deceased, estranged father. Also visiting is a trio of stupid robbers searching for a hidden stash of money. They take the kids hostage though keep them locked in a room and in little danger. Union’s determined mother must break in and save her children. It’s a thriller without anything genuinely thrilling to experience, as each chase or near miss hums along ineptly and tediously, finding the least interesting conclusion. There are no well-drawn suspense set pieces to quicken the pulse, no clever escapes or near-misses, no intriguing villains with strong personalities, and no entertainment to be had through its strained 88 minutes. There are glaring plot holes, chief among them why doesn’t she just flag down a car and call the police rather than hack it alone. Depressingly, Breaking In is actually directed by James McTeigue (V for Vendetta) who seems to have exhausted any sense of style and excitement he may have had earlier in his directing career. It feels like nobody really cared about the movie they were making, and that lack of enthusiasm and effort translates into one very boring and very poorly written and executed thriller. Union deserved a better showcase but, then again, the audience deserved a better movie too.

Nate’s Grades:

Life of the Party: C-

Breaking In: D+

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A Quiet Place (2018)

I’m going to write a sentence I’ve never written in my history of writing about film: make sure you get all the gas out of your system before sitting down to watch A Quiet Place in the theater. This intense little thriller relies upon a nearly silent film experience which makes you, in the audience, hyper aware of just about every little noise permeating your surroundings. Munching popcorn, opening candy wrappers, brief coughs, you’ll become highly attuned to the faintest of noises. This is why you, dear reader, should be advised to make sure you have no bodily gasses stored in your system. Unless that’s your plan all along, to break the tension with a well-timed expelling of flatulence, going from screening to screening, finding new purpose with being that guy, eating plates of beans in preparation for the long withholding. With all that being said, A Quiet Place is an ingenious little thriller with near flawless execution.

It’s over a year into a world overrun by monsters that are trained to attack the smallest of sounds. What’s left of humanity has had to adapt to a very quiet way of life. The Abbott family has ironically be given a head start to adapt into this scary new world that prioritizes silence. Lee (John Krasinski, also co-writer and director) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have a daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who is deaf, so the family has learned to communicate via sign language. The family walks barefoot on paths of sand and resides in a farmhouse on the edge of a rural community. The Abbott clan is still overcoming the loss of their youngest child who, at and innocent and naïve four years old, was taken by the monsters. Now Evelyn is expecting a new child and the Abbotts must stick together if they are going to survive.

A Quiet Place is a brilliantly simple concept that’s exceptionally well developed and executed. Using the very concept of sound itself as the monster, or the prelude to the monster, is so clever and completely relatable. It trains the audience to fear sound itself. It also serves the role of placing the audience in a hyper aware state of continuous dread. Any little sound we deeply dread, and there are so many ways to make sound in this world above a whisper. The emptiness of the aural landscape creates a template to build upon, so that any small noise feels like an alarm to the sense. The gripping sound design brings a sense of the looming dangers as we hear the thundering claps and crashes of the monsters approach. Krasinski also very cleverly communicates the world from Regan’s deaf perspective. When the camera focuses on her, the sound levels drop entirely, and then when another character is onscreen, they rise back up. It’s an extremely effective and smart way to drop the audience into her vulnerable position.

This is a movie that sets up the stakes upfront. A young child dies for doing something stupid but entirely in character for a young child (whom I’m assuming never personally encountered these creatures). A Quiet Place establishes immediately that this new world is unforgiving of mistakes. A distracted mind, a false step, a sudden impulse, and anyone can be gone forever.

Like the similarly themed Don’t Breathe, the fun is setting up the world, the playing space, and the rules, and then watching it all play out. A Quiet Place does a great job of establishing its world and surroundings and once the action hits midway through it doesn’t let up until the end credits. Fortunately, the thrills never get old too because Krasinski and the other screenwriters, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, keep finding new and intelligent challenges to explore. The pieces all add up and the details make this world feel extremely well realized, from the marked squeaky floorboards to the routines if separated to the colored warning lights. The tension is already at a constant simmer from its very effective opening sequence that sets the mood. A simple exposed nail on a stair can be a returning point of tremendous uncertainty time and again. The very presence of a pregnancy with a looming due date feels like a bomb waiting to explode. How in the world will a baby be born in a world that punishes sound? I watched this movie with my hand covering my mouth for a far majority of it. Even the jump scares feel well distributed and earned in this movie. Mostly, it’s a film that makes you twist in that delicious sense of anxiety as you wait. It’s nerve-rattling in the best possible way.

Another aspect of what makes the film so worthwhile that won’t get as many headlines is how well developed it is as a drama about a family overcoming grief and guilt. Each member of the Abbott family feels some level of blame for the tragedy and is punishing his or herself. In a way, the events of the film are about processing that grief and handing over the protection of the family. It’s an unspoken shroud that hangs over the entire family, you can see it on their faces, with the heaviness in their eyes, and in their day-to-day anxiety. The film does a great job through the character of Marcus (Noah Jupe), the middle child, of showcasing how this terrifying new normal would affect and fray one’s psyche. He’s petrified with fear and consumed with the scary burden of having to ascend into the role of protector and provider that his father is trying to groom him for when the inevitable comes. The happy version of “the inevitable” is Evelyn and Lee growing old and feeble. The more realistic version is the two of them at some point being felled by these murderous monsters. When Marcus is given a moment to let his guard down, to not worry about the volume of his voice, it’s a sweet father/son moment of bonding that feels entirely fulfilling as well as insightful about this new, peculiar way of life.

A central conflict is the friction between Regan and her father and their desire to understand and empathize with one another. The film’s biggest emotional moment is the conclusion of this, and it feels so fully earned and poignant that even typing it out now stirs me. It’s the culmination of a well-structured screenplay that has found its moments for character development in a nearly silent movie, so that when declarations are made, even with the monsters and its creepy gimmick, you’ll still feel something. These characters matter and their struggles are universal and emotionally appealing. The acting all around by the young children and Krasinski and Blunt is completely believable and engaging.

For a relatively low-budget thriller, I was surprised how much of the monsters we actually saw onscreen. Krasinski still prefers to keep his monsters on the peripheral or in the background, letting the audience’s imagination fill in the horrifying rest. That’s where I thought the movie would stay, but it does not. There are several close-ups of the creatures at work, a mass of teeth and auditory sensors. Their heads open up like blossoming flowers. I know the designs are CGI and yet they looked very realistic, as realistic as a fanciful monster can, naturally. It had the sheen of practical effects, which is the best compliment. The monsters reminded me of the Cloverfield creatures mixed with the Pitch Black aliens. It’s a spooky design and under Krasinski’s attention the menacing creatures never stop being scary.

Who knew John Krasinski had this in him? The affable actor best known for portraying Jim Halpert on the long-running American version of The Office has directed before, an adaptation of a David Foster Wallace book and an indie family dramedy. He’s never ventured into genre filmmaking before. But then again, neither had fellow funnyman Jordan Peele, who came out of nowhere in 2017 with Get Out and rode that to box-office riches, critical acclaim, and an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Maybe more performers we view simply through the lens of comedy have tremendous potential to be genre virtuosos. A Quiet Place is not an outright silent movie but one where silence is most keenly felt. The simple premise is beautifully realized, the characters and their plights are affecting, the details are fully thought through (though newspaper publishing is questionably late into this sound apocalypse), and the structure is smartly placed and paced. If you’re looking for a suspenseful, intense, and invigorating movie, A Quiet Place feels like a work out for the senses.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Unsane (2018)

Steven Soderbergh is a restlessly experimental filmmaker who enjoys adopting new technology to tell familiar stories. Unsane was shot entirely on an iPhone (7s, if you must know) but I’ll never know the reason other than to see if it could be done. Otherwise, Unsane is Soderbergh’s woman-in-peril Lifetime movie of the week. Claire Foy (Netflix’s The Crown) plays a harried woman on the edge that accidentally commits herself to an in-patient mental hospital. That’s the best part of the movie, the first twenty minutes, as she diligently tries to convince everyone she is not crazy and there has been some sort of mistake. From there she begins seeing images of her stalker (Joshua Leonard) from another city. Is she really crazy? Is he really there? Has he followed her and gotten a job at a mental hospital and been waiting his time anticipating she would commit herself to this exact facility? The film answers this question ridiculously early and finds the most boring yet also preposterous route to go with its pedantic thrills. There’s a good concept here with the idea of a person trying to navigate the Byzantine, bureaucratic system to prove their sanity from behind bars, but it’s so poorly developed as to feel like a promising TV episode stretched thin. There simply are not enough twists and turns to keep an audience consistently engaged. Soderbergh has played in the trashy B-movie realm before with 2013’s Side Effects to much better effect. There aren’t enough credible characters to grapple onto. Foy is enjoyably incensed and erratic and keeps your attention, though I think she studied at the Kate Winslet School of American Accents. Gorgeous looking movies have been shot on cell phones, like Sean Baker’s Tangerine. This movie looks like it was shot on someone’s phone while it was dying. It looks so ugly on the big screen, flat and over-saturated in lighting, and just unappealing. It’s deeply un-cinematic and Soderbergh has the skills to do better. Unsane is un-good.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Thoroughbreds (2018)

Thoroughbreds is a dishy, tart little treat that kept me squirming, laughing, and gleefully entertained. Olivia Cooke (Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl) and Ana Taylor-Joy (Split) are outstanding as privileged teenagers trying to resuscitate their former friendship through collaborative murder. Cooke plays Amanda, a sociopath who cannot feel anything, who is incurably honest, and has stopped caring what others think. Taylor-Joy plays Lily, a self-involved young lady that feels overwhelmed by life and is skilled at dissembling. Together, the girls scheme to kill Lily’s boorish stepfather and enlist the aid of a hapless small-time dealer with big plans (Anton Yelchin, in his final performance) through blackmail. The story from writer/director Cory Finley is immediately engaging with how it naturally reveals the complicated histories between Amanda and Lily as well as what makes each questionable. These are two very interesting people and just watching their probing push-and-pull was entertaining enough, especially with such strong performances. The characterization of a sociopath without a heavy moral condemnation was refreshing. We assume Amanda will be the bad influence but it really becomes the other way around, with Lily faking for her own purposes. Thoroughbreds is more dread-filled and unsettling than conventional thriller, and while there are some gallows humor to be had from the abnormal characters, this is less a dark comedy. There are drawn out tracking shots and methodical push-in camera movements meant to build audience anticipation, and they’re mostly effective. The first half is a bit more engaging than what it ultimately delivers as a climax. It’s still satisfying and well handled, but Finley throws in some misdirects that don’t add a rising sense of stakes. The stakes are really more personal, which works since the crux is on the relationship between the girls and whether they are being honest or manipulative with one another. By the end, I thought I could argue either way who was manipulative and when. Small irony: the last scene you see of Yelchin is him as a valet parking other people’s cars.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Red Sparrow (2018)

The Cold War-worthy spy thriller Red Sparrow is a misfire that doesn’t seem to be able to commit to what it wants to be. It wants to be provocative but serious; however, it lacks the substance to be serious and lacks the conviction to be provocative. It lands in a middle ground between the sleek genre fun of Atomic Blonde and the understated paranoid realism of a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. By landing in the middle zone, Red Sparrow is that rare boring movie plagued by untapped potential.

Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a classically trained Russian ballerina that suffers a gruesome injury. Her leering uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) enlists her into a state-run school for spies and assassins who specialize in seducing their targets. “Whore school,” as Dominka terms it, is run by the Matron (Charlotte Rampling), who methodically trains her recruits by stripping away every ounce of fear, shame, and defiance. Their bodies belong to the state now, she says, and they will be put to good use for Mother Russia. Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is an American spy working in Europe who tries to convince Dominika to switch sides, to take refuge in the United States. Dominika’s superiors order her to get what she can on Nash, find their secret contact, and eliminate them both.

Firstly, Red Sparrow is far too long and far too leisurely paced at a bladder-unfriendly 140-minutes. When things do get interesting, the overall slow pacing has a tendency to sap whatever momentum was starting to emerge. The entire first act should have been condensed down into an opening ten minutes rather than stretching out into 30-some minutes. We don’t need a full half-hour explaining what Dominika’s life was like before her new life as a deadly state-sponsored seductress. We don’t need all that time to see her life as a ballerina, her life caring for her sick mother, and her hesitancy with her first mission before she’s roped into fully accepting her fate. I don’t need this much convincing that her life was better before or that she was trapped into this decision. I don’t care that Lawrence studied ballet for four months. It’s not integral and it’s a deadly start to a story. Once Dominika is at her spy school, that’s when the movie really starts. I was getting awfully sleepy as the movie just seemed to drift along. I know a high school student who saw the movie and said, “I fell asleep at the beginning, and then I woke up later and it was STILL the beginning!”

Another problem is that the parallel storyline about Nash and the Americans is far less interesting. Every time the movie jumps to his perspective, you can feel the movie stalling. A U.S. spy who is pushing against his own brass and the politics of the agency can’t compete with a woman who is thrust into unfamiliar and dangerous missions that test every physical and psychological boundary she knows. When Nash and Dominika cross paths, he finally starts to justify his placement. Much like the delayed first act, though, the extra time setting up his life before he was important was not time well spent. Their relationship together is mean to appeal to Dominika to convince her to flip allegiances. They don’t feel like they really connect, and part of that is the lackluster chemistry between the actors. The emphasis on their romantic relationship is even more moot because Dominika’s real motivation is revenge. She didn’t need a handsome, doe-eyed American man for that to happen.

Where Red Sparrow does work is with its unique, high-pressure, destabilizing training environment. There’s a prurient appeal when it comes to watching the training program for assassins who must strip everything away and use their bodies as a weapon. This is where the film is at its most interesting and its most sensational as far as use of genre elements. There is an uncomfortable amount of stark sexual violence depicted in the movie. I lost track of the number of times Dominika is raped, tortured, sexually assaulted, or assault is attempted upon her. I don’t feel like these moments of sexual violence are glamorized or designed for base titillation; it’s a window into the harsh reality these women face. They have been robbed of their agency, their very sex weaponized. There’s a fascinating story to be told from that perspective and the trials and tribulations within “whore school” are harrowing, shocking, and always intriguing, which makes it even sadder when the filmmakers try and posit an arty sheen of self-seriousness. This is a movie about training spies to seduce the enemy and then prove their skills. This is a movie where the head of the spy school runs a play-by-ply analysis on a student’s use of a handjob. This is not going to be John le Carre, and that’s fine. Rather than embrace its inherently trashy side, Red Sparrow tries to stay above the icky stuff, while still indulging in a heaping helping of blunt sexual violence. It’s truly strange. It’s like the filmmakers felt they were making something sober and thoughtful and didn’t want to taint their award-caliber production with too much emphasis on the thing that makes it most interesting. And then instead they threw in a lot more sexual violence, because that’s also serious, and that’s the kind of thing serious movies do to be serious.

Lawrence (mother!) is once again a strong anchor for the audience, even if her Russian accent falters from scene-to-scene. This is a very different role for Lawrence and requires her to simultaneously put much of herself on display physically while finding ways to hide the inner life and thinking of her character from the audience. There’s an interesting character here buried under layers. After her accident, Dominika viciously injures her dance partner and his new leading lady, and it previews the cruelty that Dominika is capable of. Much of the press in the lead up has focused on Jennifer Lawrence’s nudity, and it’s there, okay, but it’s never really emphasized. There is one sequence in particular where she disrobes and taunts her would-be rapist to try and ravish her available body, humiliating him, and it’s one of the few scenes where Dominika turns her body around as a tool of empowerment. Granted, it’s within the prism of a school that’s practically state-run sex slavery, so let’s not get carried away with larger feminist implications. Lawrence keeps the audience guessing scene to scene as she transforms from setting, slipping into different identities that suit her, thinking on her feet, and being, frankly, adult.

There are a slew of good supporting actors tasked with saying ridiculous and foreboding things, like Charlotte Rampling as the headmistress of “whore school” and Jeremy Irons as a high-level Russian spymaster. What really catch the attention are the accents. We have a group of actors from the U.S., Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany portraying Russians, and with Edgerton, an Aussie portraying an American. As you might expect, the Ruskie accents can be a bit thick and obviously phony at times.

It’s not too difficult to see the kind of movie that Red Sparrow could have been. It even previews it from time to time, providing a glimpse into an alternative version of the movie that decides to take ownership of its more sensational, sexualized elements with genre pride. Red Sparrow feels like an out-of-time throwback to the erotic thrillers of the go-go 90s. I mean does Russia even need to train sexy assassins any more in the information age where a troll farm and some Facebook ads can get the job done? Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games movies) has a controlled, precise Fincher-like visual acumen that gives the film a sleek and sterile allure to the spy shenanigans. It’s a nice-looking movie to watch, but without a better story, let alone a verdict on tone, it’s a nice-looking movie that runs self-indulgently too long. Consider it a screensaver you forgot was still going on but with Jennifer Lawrence nudity.

Nate’s Grade: C

Game Night (2018)

Very funny and surprisingly satisfying, Game Night is a comedy thriller that further cements my appreciation for the comedic prowess of writer/directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Horrible Bosses). The premise about a group of couples on a wild “game night” they don’t know is real seems like it could go wrong in so many different ways, chiefly being unable to sustain its premise. Fortunately, the film is filled with strong characters who are each given a moment to shine. Jason Bateman and a loose Rachel McAdams are fun as our lead couple, and they’re even better when they’re bouncing off one another, but the real star of the movie is a hilarious Jesse Plemons (Hostiles) as a creepily intense neighbor. Plemons will hold onto certain jokes, taking something that was funny and pushing it into an even funnier, more awkward place. The comic set pieces are well developed and clever, set up earlier and allowed to go in unexpected directions to better complicate matters. While the movie is clearly a riff on David Fincher’s The Game, with some sly visual nods to Fincher’s signature style, the jokes don’t get lost when the action heats up. A good action-comedy makes sure that the action or suspense sequences are still constructed through the prism of comedy. I was laughing often and surprisingly hard throughout the whole movie. Game Night is a wickedly fun movie that has plenty of rewards and enjoyable surprises.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Annihilation (2018)

Alex Garland has been one of Hollywood’s most stable sci-fi screenwriters for some time. In 2015, Garland made his directorial debut with Ex Machina, a sly and invigorating potboiler that made you think. It helped make Alicia Vikander a star and Garland himself was nominated for an Academy Award for his original screenplay. The movie even won an Oscar for best visual effects, beating out some pretty pricey competition. With one movie, Garland displayed a natural knack for directing. His follow-up, Annihilation, is based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer and has already run into some trouble. After poor test screenings, the producer tried to force changes but these were refused. In a face-saving outreach, Annihilation will only be playing theatrically in North America and will debut on Netlfix weeks later for the rest of the world. The suits are not confidant in the larger public clicking with Annihilation, and they might be right. This isn’t going to be one of those films that people leave declaring their love over in effusive terms, despite what the critical praise may lead you to believe. This is a movie that you leave saying, “Huh.” It’s so powerfully inscrutable to the point that most other conventional forms of cinematic entertainment and narrative are smothered. And yet, it’s that inscrutability that might be the movie’s biggest point and might be its biggest asset.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biologist whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has been missing for a year ever since he ventured into a strange environmental disaster zone. Then he reappears with a mysterious illness and little memory of the events. Lena joins an all-female crew of scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny) to find out some answers by exploring The Shimmer, the site where an alien meteorite collided with coastal land and has been changing local life forms at an alarming pace.

Like I said, this movie is a conundrum, not just in a “What did I just watch?” sort of analysis but also in a, “Did I actually like that movie?” personal introspection. There isn’t really a mystery here to unpack as there is an enigmatic experience to explain. I’m doing something I don’t normally like to do, which is immediately type my review shortly after seeing a movie. I generally like to marinate on my feelings after experiencing a movie; however, with this one I felt compelled to put furious fingers to the keyboard, trying to explore my myriad conflicted feelings and find my way out the other side, or at least articulate that journey. I’ll try and steer away from any major spoilers though I worry that even discussing some of my confounding responses will require some thematic and plot context, so beware readers who wish to go into this experience completely pure.

Annihilation is an existential horror movie about biology’s indifference to mankind; at least that’s my best thematic interpretation. In the beginning, Lena is explaining the history of cellular life, the simple splitting of cells that begat all life on the planet. There was no larger forethought, no agenda, and no malice, only the enacting of DNA programming. Ultimately, I think the alien mutations are running on a similar principle. This isn’t an invasion by any traditional definition. This isn’t anything nefarious. This isn’t even anything as clearly identifiable as a virus spreading its illness. This is simply life stirring in a few new recipes. There’s a general level of indifference to the overall setting, which makes the environmental wonders and horrors more dispiriting. For those who demand clear answers from their storytelling, they will be left sorely disappointed. Annihilation doesn’t have any real answers for why these things are happening. They just are occurring, much like the beginning steps of cellular life that found new modes of survival on Earth billions of years prior. It’s just another stage in the development of life. The fact that humanity can be so easily cast aside, it’s hard not to feel insignificant. There’s a mounting sense of existential dread about man’s inevitable demise. One character dubs their mission suicidal and is corrected by another. “People confuse suicide with self-destruction,” she says. “Very few people are suicidal, but all of us are self-destructive.” The plotline confirms this as characters fall victim to hubris and curiosity. However, one may argue there is biological in destruction and reconstitution.

Be warned, dear reader, this is a rather slow movie with a lot of space for breathing, the kind of thing meant to establish a particular atmospheric mood. If you connect with the material, it works, obviously. The problem with Annihilation is that because it’s so inscrutable, because it keeps you at a distance on purpose, that it allows more opportunities to check out. We’re anticipating weirdness and a general breakdown in the group of scientists, and Garland seems to understand this, which may be why he gradually delivers his genre scares. There is an amazing sequence in the middle that is the fuel of nightmares, made all the more searing and scaring by a horrifying sound design that’s even worse when you connect it with the visual source. I was almost compelled to look away and spare my memory this ghastly sight. There are other unsettling moments and the overall feel of the film is definitely one of discomfort and dread, but it’s this scene I’ll always remember and that also solidified the nasty surprises from Mother Nature. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The eventual ending should be easy enough to predict thanks to Garland’s flash-forwards tipping your expectations, that is, if you can actually understand the ending. I still cannot say for certain what happened and why or whether I cared about a why. If, as stated above, the point of the movie is man’s inability to find a recognizable motive in the replication of life by biological factors, then that lends itself to a generally unsatisfying end.

One interesting idea that I regret gets short shrift is just the fact that this is an all-female group of scientists venturing where literally only men have gone before. I’m not celebrating this as some sort of nod at feminism but because it offered an interesting storytelling avenue. All the previous groups were all men and they either were killed by the new environmental dangers or went crazy and killed each other. Minor spoilers, but the women fall under the same sway, destined to the same fate, and it feels like a shame. If you’re going to make a point of questioning whether the deterioration of order and sanity is related to an all-masculine entanglement of thinkers, then don’t just have the women repeat the same decline. Or maybe that’s the point? I don’t know.

Portman (Jackie) does an convincing job of alternating looking confused and spooked, mimicking most of the audience reaction. Her character isn’t asking to be found likeable, only capable, though the first time we get a little taste of her as a person is far too late into the movie. Her marriage might not have been built on the strongest foundation, which again leads to the potential thematic deliberation over self-destruction and rebirth. Leigh (The Hateful Eight) is a bit too flatly monotone for my liking. It feels like she’s sleepwalking through the film, like maybe she was on Ambien and can’t remember even performing in this movie. Tessa Thompson is underwhelming especially with knowing how fully captivating she can be onscreen (see: Thor: Ragnarok). The other notable actress is Rodriguez (TV’s Jane the Virgin) who put on some muscle and swagger and has a terrific breakdown sequence that showcases some unnerving desperation.

I still cannot even say if I liked Annihilation. There are aspects I can definitely admire, like the commitment of its actors, the emphasis on a more scientific approach to an outbreak/invasion thriller, and Garland’s general sense of place. I still think the majority of audiences are going to leave shrugging. Annihilation is more akin to an Under the Skin or Solaris than a monster hunt. It’s quiet, philosophical, and also often boring. It has its thrilling points, its moments of mystery and intrigue, but it also feels like a slow windup to the eventually disappointing reveal that won’t be enough to justify the lethargic pacing. In the end, this is a difficult movie, but not in a way that requires a thorough decoding like mother! or even in a way that requires repeat viewings to play out the twists. Annihilation is difficult by design, keeping its audience from fully engaging, and then offering little in the way of answers or resolution. And I still don’t know if I like that. Dear reader, this is a confounding movie but it might not be the good kind of confounding.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Tragedy Girls (2017)

I wanted to enjoy Tragedy Girls. I really did. There’s a good starting point with a story about two self-involved teenagers who turn to murder to raise their social media profiles. I like the lead actresses, Alexandra Shipp and Deadpool’s Brianna Hildebrand, and the film has a quirky sense of style by co-writer/director Tyler MacIntyre. The opening is even great where Hildebrand purposely lures a lover to his sacrificial death in order to trap a familiar slasher film-styled villain. Where it all goes wrong is that Tragedy Girls doesn’t have enough substance or commentary to outweigh its arch nihilism. The message is very flimsy (millennials are shallow, social media is harmful) and the film wants you to revel in the girls’ violent, gory murders but also be repelled by them. It’s a sisterhood of slaying. There are some interesting story ideas that don’t feel better attended. The girls are clumsy at their murders and luck into some absurd Final Destination-worthy kills, but the film doesn’t embrace this concept and makes them untouchable. They kidnap a local serial killer in the opening and demand he train them, but the guy refuses and is shoved to the side for almost the entire movie, stranding another interesting possibility. The high school characters are thinly designed and unworthy of their demises, though that’s also the point. Tragedy Girls doesn’t earn its candy-colored nihilism. It ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth and I found it off-putting and empty. It thumbs its nose with prickly devil-may-care attitude but without anything to really say.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Mom and Dad (2018)

The appeal of the indie thriller Mom and Dad is its frenetic, gonzo, absurdist spirit that accelerates into delicious dark comedy with a maniacal glee seldom seen in movies. The nature of the movie and its bloody violence will put off many viewers; however, if you have a healthy appetite for the bizarre and tonally incongruous, then Mom and Dad will serve as a thrilling and hilarious treat.

The Ryan family, father Brett (Nicolas Cage), mother Kendall (Selma Blair), teen daughter Carly (Ann Winters), and young son Josh (Zackary Arthur), are a typical suburban family with their share of secrets and antipathy. It’s a normal day until it isn’t. While at school, a mob of parents forms to collect their children. A rumor of a terrorist strike has circulated widely. But when the parents get close to their children they viciously harm them. It seems someone or something has flipped that parental instinct to protect one’s child at all costs. Now the urge is to kill one’s young. Carly and her friends escape the school mob and have to survive their homicidal parental units.

I didn’t realize it while watching but it became obvious in hindsight that this was the fodder of one of the debased, juvenile, and altogether hyperactive minds from the Crank movies, a series best described as debased, juvenile, and hyperactive. Brain Taylor takes a Twilight Zone premise and shoots it full of adrenaline and mescaline and whatever else was lying around on the ground. The action gets going in a relatively efficient fashion, establishing our family unit, and then setting them up for a collision course. From the 45-minute mark onward, it becomes more a self-contained thriller inside the family home, pitting our kids against their homicidal elders. It reminded me a tad of Don’t Breathe in its ability to set up a playing field and have its characters find organic ways to get into trouble, escape it, and get into worse trouble. It’s a series of moving pieces that feel elegantly arranged on the playing field. It keeps the movie barreling forward while still finding room for surprises and payoffs, including a glorious late Act Three payoff that I had long ago forgotten about its setup. It’s not quite dues ex machina because there’s more to come after, but it made me so happy.

This is a movie that strangles the concept of tone, and yet it decidedly knows what points to hit up the darker comedy, what moments need more drawn out suspense, and what moments can straddle the difference. The build-up of dread can be beautifully applied and then turned for laughs. Take for instance a moment when a teen girl comes home and notices an open blender with margarita mix, implying her mother is home. Just as a signifier of terror, it’s kind of fun, but then she leans closer and reaches into the open blender, her hand picking the blades. We’re leaning in, waiting for the blender to turn on all of a sudden, and then… she walks away, and the moment passes. Then we laugh to ourselves about how something so ordinary was turned around to be menacing. Taylor finds other little moments like this to assure the audience he’s thought through the premise and found ways to properly develop it to its potential. I was covering my face at parts in tense anticipation and I was cackling to myself at other times.

Cage (Snowden) is one of the few actors that seems to get exponentially more compelling to watch the nuttier he acts, and his crackpot zeal can elevate bad movies into something approaching unintended hilarity, like 2006’s woeful Wicker Man remake. There are few actors that go for broke regardless of how silly they eventually come across. In the wrong hands, this is an attribute that can betray Cage’s efforts and sink a movie. In the right hands, like Taylor’s, it provides the spark of madness needed to push a movie into another level of irascibility. Cage finds humor in the strangest of places, and it’s not a derisive sort of humor but more a genuine delighted bafflement at the character. If you love crazy Cage, you’ll have plenty to love in Mom and Dad.

Blair (Hellboy 2) is the more restrained parent while still getting scenes to cut loose. She’s having terrific fun getting to play bad. When she’s teamed with Cage, they form a darkly funny couple bonding over their shared intent for murder. It becomes an oddball romantic comedy in the darkest sense. Blair also impresses in her scenes of dramatic response. She’s one of the last parental figures to succumb to the hysteria, so we get to witness her process the shock and confusion of the day. There’s a great scene where she’s present in a hospital birthing room. Blair scrambles to save the newborn and try to understand what is happening, and it’s a personal kind of fear and betrayal that registers.

One of the more surprising aspects of Mom and Dad was how it’s able to build the parents as characters in clever and genuinely sincere ways. This is a crazy movie, and that’s its main appeal, but it can also find room to take things seriously. Taylor will momentarily pause the action to insert choice flashbacks that are enjoyable little asides, monologues that provide texture to the world and the characters. The flashback relating to a pool table’s demise opens up an entire analysis of a rocky marriage, a middle-aged man raging against his life’s mediocrity and the faded glory and promise of his youth, and the despair of losing your sense of self through parenthood. It builds and builds and allows the actors to unload. It doesn’t serve as significant a narrative point as other character-based flashbacks setting up ironic convergences. It’s just Brett and Kendall being able to voice their insecurities and disappointments. It’s about this point where the movie positions both as unswayable evil forces, so giving them a chance to come across like genuine human beings before they’re kill-crazy cartoons is unexpected and effective.

I know I’m having a great time with a movie when the worst thing about it is the last few seconds. Mom and Dad just sort of ends. It almost feels like there was some kind of editing accident and you may turn and say, “Wait, is that it?” I didn’t want Mom and Dad to end. This is a raucous dark comedy with an anarchic spirit but a strong sense of pacing, tone, and structure, layering in surprises and escalations dutifully while still finding equitable space to better shade the characters. If you’re looking for a risky dark comedy that will make you feel a tad crazier for watching, give Mom and Dad a whirl. This is the kind of movie you might hate yourself for loving.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Commuter (2018)

Liam Neeson has been bedeviled on an airplane. He’s been bedeviled on a train. At this point, Neeson is going to find trouble on every form of public transportation. The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between America’s favorite geriatric action star and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night). None of those movies had the success of Taken but several had some pleasures or an intriguing mystery or hook. The Commuter makes Non-Stop look like Agatha Christie in comparison.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is an ex-cop-turned life insurance salesman who commutes into New York City every weekday. He recognizes many familiar faces on the train, except for Joanna (Vera Farmiga), an expert on human behavior. She makes a strange offer: find a passenger by the code name of “Prynn” before the last stop and he’ll receive $100,000. The passenger, a high-value witness, will be less well off. Michael taps into his old cop instincts to deduce who might be the desired target. As each stop passes, he has less time to figure out the identity and decide whether he’ll go through with it all.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the plot is so bizarrely similar to 2014’s Non-Stop, with Neeson as a former cop trapped on a mode of travel, being harassed by a mysterious figure, and tasked with discovering the identity of someone on-board before it’s too late while he’s possibly being set up to take the fall. It’s almost as if the producers said, “Hey, let’s get the director of Non-Stop, the star of Non-Stop, and why don’t we just make Non-Stop but, like, on a train?” And then that man bought a new house in celebration of his genius. I look forward to the next entry in the Neeson-Stuck-on-Transportation Trilogy where he’s stalking a ferry approaching Niagara Falls and being blackmailed into finding hidden diamonds. The major problem, besides being so recycled that it could have been retiled Phoning It In: The Movie, is how nothing makes sense at all. With lower-rent genre thrillers, things don’t always have to make the best of sense. Even the best thrillers suffer from leaps of logic but are excused because of how engaged we are in the movie. With The Commuter, I was so detached from the movie that I was impatiently waiting to get off on the next stop, no matter what was waiting on the other side.

The villainous scheme is predicated on so many people doing so many stupid decisions that are far more complicated than they have any right to be. First, this villainous organization essentially looking for a witness on the train has been tipped off from an inside source in the FBI. Except this source cannot say what that witness looks like. Also, why is the FBI allowing such an important witness travel by his or herself minus protection and among the public? I know for a fact that there’s an FBI office in New York City. The FBI members picking the witness up also don’t know what this person looks like, which again begets stupidly bad communication. The bad guys are also pretty bad if they have to resort to such efforts to suss out a witness. Can’t they find somebody to hack a phone? The bad guys steal Neeson’s phone to limit his communication. Yet, as he does in the movie, he simply asks another passenger to use their phone. What was the point of all of that? The villains also immediately inform Neeson that his family has been kidnapped, allowing little room for raising he stakes. Why don’t they wait to see who gets off and leaves with the FBI and use a sniper to take them out? Maybe it’s not about killing the person but destroying the evidence, so in that case you do random bag checks from a train worker. That’s it. Then there’s the nickname given to the target (“Prynn”). Who gave birth to this nickname and why would the witness carry the one item in public that would confirm their identity? If that’s the case, why did any of the bad guys need Neeson? He seems best served as a patsy considering he acts like a maniac, at one point pointing a gun at people and making demands, before settling back and assuring the passengers he’s trustworthy. That’s what stable people do, naturally. Why should anyone believe anything this guy says?

Here’s an example of how dumb this movie is. There are a few characters introduced in the opening act that you know will come back again because of the economy of characters and because name actors don’t take do-nothing parts in genre fare (unless you’re Chloe Sevigny in The Snowman, apparently). I’m waiting for confirmation that one of these characters is revealed to be working with our nefarious villains. A character has a very specific phrase they share with Neeson. Then, upon figuring out who the sought-after witness is on the train, he or she relates their story about bad cops and how one of them used the exact phrase. Fine, as expected, but then Neeson doesn’t respond. It triggers nothing from him even though he had only been with these people hours ago. It’s only later when this same phrase is said for the THIRD time does Neeson finally connect the dots. If a magic phrase is going to be the trigger then why have this extra step? It just makes Neeson look dumb and it doesn’t speak well to the film’s opinion of its audience.

Regardless of how nonsensical a thriller comes across, as long as it delivers the suspenseful genre goods, much can be forgiven. This is another area where The Commuter doesn’t perform well. There’s one decent hand-to-hand fight filmed in a long take that has a solid visceral appeal, but other than that this movie takes turns either looking ugly or like its budget wasn’t simply enough. The location calls for very cramped and limited environment that will require some combat ingenuity that the movie just isn’t up to the task for. Watching Neeson stalk from car to car, playing his Columbo detective games with resolutely stock characters (Lady Macbeth’s breakout star Florence Pugh deserves better), is not as fun as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that fun. Maybe if the rote characters were better drawn, if the evil scheme was a bit cleaner, if the hero was more morally compromised, then maybe the downtime wouldn’t be as boring. There’s a ridiculous derailing sequence and then there’s another twenty minutes after. Collet-Serra can only bring so much to the movie, and the script doesn’t have enough clever inventions or reversals to spur much in the director’s imagination. As a result, everything feels like a deflated by-the-numbers thriller that would be better appearing on late night TV.

Neeson (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House) is on action autopilot as he settles into the shed skin of one of his past Collet-Serra performances. He’s gruff, he’s cunning, he’ll take your best and keep swinging, and as he reminds the audience at three separate points, he’s sixty years old. He can still offer simple pleasures, and if your only requirement for entertainment is watching Neeson punch people and things, then The Commuter will fulfill your needs. His character is supposed to be placed in a moral question of self-interest but there’s never any doubt. If Neeson was a corrupt cop, I think that would be a better character arc and starting point for a guy questioning selling out a stranger. I’m surprised at how generally wasted every actor is, notably Farmiga (The Conjuring 2), who is literally only in two scenes on screen (her role is mostly nagging phone calls). She’s the only person given a little personality. Perhaps that’s because we already know where her allegiances lie so the sloppy screenplay doesn’t have to keep her an inscrutable suspect to interrogate.

The Commuter is a dumb ride to the generic and expected, and then it just keeps going. If you’re really hard up for entertainment and have a love affair with Neeson’s fists, I suppose assorted thrills could be found, but for everyone else this is one to miss.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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