ANTEBELLUM (2020) – Horror Drama Thought-Provoking and Disturbing In Spite of Questionable Twist

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ANTEBELLUM (2020), a new movie written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, and starring singer/songwriter/actress Janelle Monae [HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) and MOONLIGHT (2016)], is a powerful hybrid drama/horror movie that while not always successful remains disturbing throughout.

In fact, the first third of this movie is as unsettling an opening to a movie as I’ve seen in a while.

ANTEBELLUM begins at a southern plantation during the years of the Civil War, and it’s run by a very sadistic group of Confederate soldiers. Slaves are shot, branded, not allowed to speak without permission, and the women are regularly offered to the soldiers for sexual pleasure.

Eden (Janelle Monae) is for reasons unknown the slave who others turn to for leadership, but she resists, urging those around her to be patient for the right time. The last time she attempted an escape, people were killed, and the sadistic Senator Denton (Eric Lange) who runs the plantation branded Eden when she wouldn’t say her name. Denton has a thing for Eden and keeps her as his personal slave.

The day to day operations at the plantation are run by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) who is exceedingly cruel.

As I said, the first third of this movie is as unpleasant at it can get and is not easy to sit through.

Then, one night, as Eden lies in bed, she hears a cell phone ringing, and when she opens her eyes she’s in the here and now in 2020 and her name is Veronica and she is a successful author with a loving husband and a cute young daughter.

Whaaaat???

What, indeed!

The film switches gears here, big time, and the audience of course is wondering, how is this going to tie in to what we saw earlier?

Rest assured, things do tie in, but it’s in a reveal that isn’t entirely successful. For starters, it reminded me an awful lot of the twist in the ill-fated THE VILLAGE (2004). It wasn’t quite as jarring as that one, but it will raise a few eyebrows, that’s for sure!

Writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have constructed a story that for the most part works but doesn’t entirely. The first third of the tale, which takes place on the plantation, is heavy and disturbing. When things switch to 2020, the tone shifts, and Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles liven things up with some comedic relief as Veronica’s girlfriends Dawn and Sarah. Their night on the town is a real hoot. And it’s during these sequences that there’s a sinister undercurrent, as the audience knows that at some point this is going to connect to the horrors seen in the opening of the movie.

While both these sections of the film work, they are not without their problems, as the pacing remains methodical, the emotions charged but not off the charts, the tension present, but not riveting.

And then the third act comes along. The twist is huge, and while it didn’t ruin the movie for me, it’s a challenge to accept. That being said, a lot of things have happened during the last four years that I though would never happen, and so I’m inclined to view this twist with less incredulity than I would have prior to 2016.

And if you can get past the twist, the third act is very good. It’s satisfying to watch Eden fight back after suffering thoughout all the horrors of the first act of this movie. I thought the ending was very satisfying.

The cast is very good. Janelle Monae is excellent as Eden/Veronica. I think I still prefer her performance in HIDDEN FIGURES to this one, but she still packs a wallop here. And her climactic struggle with the main female baddie Elizabeth (Jena Malone) is one of the best scenes in the movie.

Speaking of Malone, she’s cold and proper as Elizabeth, the southern belle who runs the plantation. She also gets one of the better lines in the movie when, after Eden has disposed of most of the male soldiers in her way, Elizabeth steps forward and declares that as always is the case, it takes a woman to pick things up after a man has made a mess of them.

Jack Huston, the grandson of John Huston, and nephew of Angelica Huston and Danny Huston, is annoyingly cruel as Captain Jasper. I’d say he’s the best villain in the film, except Eric Lange is just as good as the depraved Denton.

And as I said, Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles are enjoyable as Veronica’s friends Dawn and Sarah.

The film also has a powerfully haunting music score by Roman GianArthur Irvin and Nate “Rocket” Wonder.

The other thing I liked about ANTEBELLUM is it contains some powerful cinematic images. The scene where the Confederate soldiers chant “blood and soil” was chilling, reminiscent of the real life scene in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

There’s also a scene featuring a statue of Robert E. Lee, and some potent images involving fire.

All in all, I liked ANTEBELLUM a lot. Not quite as good as GET OUT (2017), but certainly a horror/drama worth checking out. Some may not be able to get past the twist, but if you can, and I did, there’s a lot to like about this thought-provoking and very disturbing movie.

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REBECCA (2020) – Latest Version of Daphne Du Maurier’s Novel Better Suited for Lifetime Than Netflix

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rebecca 2020

REBECCA (2020), the new Netflix movie based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier, is an elegant production billed as a mystery/romance. The emphasis here is clearly on the romance, and as such, it comes off more as a Lifetime movie than a Netflix one.

Du Maurier’s novel was filmed before in 1940, and was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. That version of REBECCA received ten Academy Award nominations and won two of them, including Best Picture. Hitchcock, of course, didn’t win for Best Director, as strangely, he never won an Oscar.

This new version of REBECCA I expect will not be receiving these kinds of nominations.

In REBECCA, a young woman (Lily James) meets the dashing Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer). A romance follows, and de Winter asks her to marry him, and she does. They return to his massive estate, Manderley, on the English coast, and there, she discovers that he is not quite over the mysterious death of his previous wife, Rebecca, as her spirit seems to pervade over the entire household, including the head housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) who also seems obsessed with the late Rebecca.

Caught in a situation in which she feels woefully unprepared to deal with, the new Mrs. de Winter attempts to save her marriage by learning the truth about Rebecca’s mysterious death, and her husband’s involvement in it.

Again, this new version of REBECCA plays up the romance, and the mystery of what happened to Rebecca, while it sounds intriguing in a review, hardly has much of an impact in the movie. In short, while I enjoyed the two main performances by Lily James and Armie Hammer, and appreciated the handsome photography, I found this one at the end of the day to be terribly boring. And for a film that runs for a full two hours, that’s a long time to be bored.

Director Ben Wheatley struggles mightily with the pacing here, and the film never becomes an exercise in the unraveling of a mystery like it should. Even the elegant photography is just so-so. While the film looks good, it doesn’t look special, and that’s one of my biggest knocks against this new version of REBECCA. It’s not cinematic. It plays like a TV movie, and I couldn’t imagine seeing this on the big screen. It’s just sort of there.

Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, and Ana Waterhouse wrote the screenplay, based on Du Maurier’s novel, and it does a nice job establishing the character of Mrs. de Winter, who as in the novel, is not given a name, to emphasize the influence and power of Rebecca, who is referred to by name repeatedly. And there are some attempts to tie her plight into modern day women’s issues, but not enough to make this story speak directly to 2020 audiences. And the rest of the story is pretty blah.

Jane Goldman has some pretty impressive writing credits, as she worked on the screenplays for such films as KICK-ASS (2010), X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011), and THE WOMAN IN BLACK (2012), all very good movies. The screenplay here for REBECCA is far inferior to those other films.

Lily James gives the best performance in the movie in the lead role as Mrs. de Winter. She successfully captures the audience’s sympathy, and you want to go along with her as she tries to learn what happened to Rebecca. James was equally as good in DARKEST HOUR (2017), in which she shared lots of screen time with Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill. She was also memorable in a smaller role in BABY DRIVER (2017).

Armie Hammer acquits himself well as Maxim de Winter, but at the end of the day, his main job in this movie seems to be to look good. We don’t really get much insight into his tortured soul or how he truly feels about Rebecca. While Hammer has enjoyed some high profile roles, like the Lone Ranger in the flawed THE LONE RANGER (2013), and as Illya in THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015), I enjoyed him more in HOTEL MUMBAI (2018) and in a supporting role as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s husband Martin in ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018).

Kristin Scott Thomas plays the cold Mrs. Danvers to the hilt, and she’s sufficiently icy throughout. Like Lily James, she also co-starred in DARKEST HOUR, as she played Churchill’s wife Clemmie.

I had higher expectations for this new version of REBECCA. For starters, I’d hoped it would speak to modern day audiences the way Greta Gerwig’s LITTLE WOMEN (2019) did. It did not.

I also hoped it would be an intriguing mystery. It wasn’t.

Instead, it was pretty much a basic romance with a secret lurking in the shadows which never comes to light enough to truly impact the story.

As a result, REBECCA remains substandard fare. If you love romances, you’ll enjoy it. For the rest of us, you’d be better off seeking out the 1940 Hitchcock version. That one, after all, was the Best Picture of the year.

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ENOLA HOLMES (2020) – Story of Sherlock Holmes’ Younger Sister Charming But Dull

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ENOLA HOLMES aka Ferndell

ENOLA HOLMES (2020), the new Netflix movie about Sherlock Holmes’ younger sister, features a wonderfully spirited performance by Millie Bobby Brown in the title role.

Brown brings so much energy and charm to the character that she single-handedly carries this movie, and she has to, because sadly, the rest of this feature, from the directing, writing, and acting, is all rather dull. Painfully so.

Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown), whose name spelled backwards is “Alone,” has been raised by her mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter). But one day, shortly after her sixteenth birthday, Enola awakes to discover her mother has disappeared. When her two brothers, Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill), who is now known as the world’s greatest detective, arrive, Enola hopes they will help her find her mother, but when they appear less than interested in doing so, Enola decides to take the case on her own.

Complicating matters is Mycroft wants Enola enrolled in a proper women’s school, and when she she leaves in search of her mother, he uses his resources to find her and bring her back. Meanwhile, Enola meets the dashing young Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) who’s embroiled in a mystery of his own, and when it becomes clear that his life is in danger, Enola sets out to help him as well. The game is afoot!

Too bad it wasn’t a more interesting game.

As I said, Millie Bobby Brown is absolutely wonderful in the lead role. She exudes charm and charisma as Enola, and her spirited performance is infectious. Combined with her lively voice-over narration and her frequent addresses to the audience as she looks directly into the camera, make her performance here a clear winner. By far, Brown is the best part of this movie.

While I still prefer Brown’s work as the character Eleven on the Netflix’ series STRANGER THINGS (2016-2021), that doesn’t take away from her outstanding performance in ENOLA HOLMES.

Sadly, she just doesn’t get much support from anyone else in the cast, which is surprising, considering the talent inolved here. But a lot of this falls on screenwriter Jack Thorne, whose screenplay is based on the novel by Nancy Springer, because he simply didn’t give these folks much to do or much of interest to say.

Henry Cavill, who’s been playing Superman in the recent DC films, is okay as Sherlock Holmes. He definitely has a presence, but the character is largely in the background, and as such, it’s one of the more subdued and least effective characterizations of the famous literary detective as you’re ever going to find.

Sam Claflin, another talented actor, has a bit more to do as the cantankeous Mycroft Holmes, but at the end of the day, he doesn’t do much either. Claflin was much more memorable in the underrated Hammer Film THE QUIET ONES (2014) and the World War II comedy-drama THEIR FINEST (2016).

Louis Partridge as Lord Tewkesbury shares some nice chemistry with Brown’s Enola, and I really enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter as Enola’s mother Eudoria, but she’s not in the movie much since the character disappears early on.

As I said, Jack Thorne’s screenplay was somewhat of a disappointment. He goes all in with Enola’s character, and she is the one character in the story that works. The dialogue for everyone else is ho hum, and the plot I thought was a snooze. The story I was most interested in— what happened to Enola’s mother— often took a back seat to the political intrigue surrounding Tewkesbury’s predicament and Mycroft’s efforts to force Enola to attend the women’s school.

Director Harry Bradbeer keeps everything light and lively until the final thirty minutes when things get a bit darker, which incidentally, was my favorite part of the movie. The film looks great but sadly lacks that innovative touch which might have made it really memorable.

I thought eveything about ENOLA HOLMES was pretty standard and not very exciting, with the one big exception being Millie Bobby Brown’s performance.

She’s the reason to see this one and the reason why it is even worth a look. The rest, especially if you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, is sadly lacking.

It’s all rather dull and….elementary.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

Dark Corners cover (1)

Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT (2020) – Dark Drama Starring Kevin Bacon & Amanda Seyfried Doesn’t Tell Much of a Story

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you should have left

YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT (2020), the latest movie by prolific screenwriter David Koepp, who also directed, is much more a dark drama than a horror movie, as the genre stuff is all rather subdued.

Theo (Kevin Bacon) and his much younger wife Susanna (Amanda Seyfried) decide to vacation with their six year-old daughter Ella (Avery Essex) at a luxurious rental home in the Welsh countryside. And they decided they needed this getaway because things have been tense at home. Theo is dealing with events from his past, as years ago he was the subject of a high profile trial in which he was accused of murdering his wife. He was found innocent of the charges, but whenever he is recognized people seem to think he is guilty. Susanna is a very busy actress, and her schedule and frequent use of her phone stokes up feelings of jealousy in Theo.

It doesn’t take them long to discover that there’s something not quite right about the house. They all suffer vivid nightmares while there, Theo discovers seemingly endless hallways, and the dimensions of the house aren’t right, as rooms are larger on the inside than on the outside. Soon, Theo realizes that it’s almost as if the house summoned them, that it’s speaking to him and to his violent past, and that this violence may not yet be over.

As I said, YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT is much more a dark drama than a horror movie, and that’s because the horror elements never really take off. Early on, I found the story very intriguing. The dynamic of Theo’s and Susanna’s relationship held my interest, and once they get to the house, the stage is set for some weird stuff to start happening. But as this one progresses, not a lot happens. There are long scenes of Theo wandering through dark hallways, lots of hints and innuendos, but it takes forever for anything to really happen, and when it does, it’s subued and frankly, disappointing.

And that’s because the main mystery isn’t really all that impressive, and so when answers are revealed, it’s like, shoulder shrug. Okay. Well, tell me something I didn’t already suspect.

The screenplay by David Koepp, based on the novel by Daniel Kehlmann, works best early on when it is establishing the mystery. The story stalls midway through, and then the conclusion just doesn’t have any teeth. As I said, Koepp has lots of screenplays under his belt, including major films like INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (2008), SPIDER-MAN (2002), and JURASSIC PARK (1993). However, he’s also one of the writers involved in the Tom Cruise version of THE MUMMY (2017). I think he should try having his name removed from that disaster.

Koepp also directed YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT, and even though I didn’t feel the story held up, he does create some creepy scenes, a couple in particular involving mirrors. There’s also some sinister shadow use, and so visually, the film does have its moments, but none of them come together enough to lift this one to higher heights. Koepp also directed SECRET WINDOW (2004), the thriller starring Johnny Depp, based on the Stephen King novel.

Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried are both very good in the lead roles, although they don’t really generate much chemistry together, which is probably by design, since their marriage is in trouble. Bacon is cold and introspective as Theo, and you really do get the feeling he’s hiding something deep inside about his past. It’s been a little while since I’ve seen Bacon in a movie, and the last two times he played a federal law enforcement officer, in PATRIOTS DAY (2016) and BLACK MASS (2015).

Amanda Seyfried is excellent as the busy actress who seems to love her husband. Seyfried is no stranger to thrillers, having starred in GONE (2012), RED RIDING HOOD (2011), and CHLOE (2009).

In a key scene that serves as a snapshot of their relationship, Theo tries to visit his wife on set, but it’s a closed set, and he’s denied entrance, and so he has to wait outside. The scene is a sex scene, and he’s forced to listen to his wife act out having an orgasm multiple times. Afterwards she laughs it off. Theo stews.

And young Avery Essex is sufficiently cute and innocent as Ella, the young daughter stuck in the mess created by her parents. This is another weakness of the movie, however. Things really are never that messy. For the most part, their family life seems pretty good, and later, when Ella’s life is threatened, again, it’s all rather subdued. The film never becomes horrifying.

There were parts of this one that reminded me a little bit of the Daniel Craig horror movie DREAM HOUSE (2011), another haunted house thriller about a father harboring a deep dark secret. It was a film I didn’t like all that much. And I can’t say that I liked YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT all that much either.

YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT doesn’t really have much of a story to tell, and that’s its biggest problem. The acting is there, the creepy house is there, and the potential is there, but without much of a story, there simply isn’t much of a payoff.

This one may grab you if you’re in the right frame of mind, but it was much too subdued and predictable for my liking.

You should have left? Maybe you shouldn’t have started.

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THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020) – Blake Lively Actioner As Dull As Advertised

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the rhythm section

Sometimes I need to listen to the critics.

THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020), an action thriller starring Blake Lively, opened in theaters back in January to some pretty tepid reviews, but I like Blake Lively, and I enjoyed the film’s trailers, so while I missed it on its first run, I finally decided to catch up with it this weekend.

As I said, I should have listened to those critics. THE RHYTHM SECTION was actually worse than I expected it to be.

Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) is so distraught after her parents and brother are killed in a plane crash that she turns to a life of prostitution and drugs. But when a reporter approaches her with the news that the plane was blown up by a terrorist bomb, and that the news was covered up, and that he knows who was responsible, well, she cleans up her act and decides to train as an assassin to personally bring those responsible for the death of her family to justice. Of course. That’s what anyone would do. Right?

Hardly.

Anyway, Stephanie trains with former MI6 agent Iain Boyd (Jude Law) who tells her she doesn’t have what it takes—cue ROCKY music here— but she sets out to prove him wrong. And she does, and soon she’s travelling all over Europe to assassinite those nasty terrorists.

Okay, there are a lot of things wrong with this movie but the biggest one is the story.  The screenplay by Mark Burnell, based on his novel, just never becomes believable. Why Iain Boyd would ever give Stephanie the time of day is beyond me and never made any sense. Why not just train anyone to be an assassin? The story gives us no reason why Stephanie is particularly suited to become a hired killer, other than her drive to avenge the death of her family. Furthermore, the film puts zero effort into convincing us that Stephanie can become a cold-blooded murderer at the drop of a hat, and that she can morph into a super skilled fighter who would give Jason Bourne a run for his money.

Also, before this, it’s not clearly explained why the reporter seeks out Stephanie in the first place. Why does he reveal the story about the bomb to her? Does he plan to interview her? It’s never made clear what his purpose is, other than to serve as a plot device to have Stephanie learn that her family was murdered.

And since no one knows the true identity of the mastermind behind the bombing, it’s part of Stephanie’s “mission” to learn his identity, and so the film also suffers from not having a villain. There’s no one to root against. Stephanie keeps moving up the food chain with one hit after another, but the main terrorist is unknown until the end of the movie, and even that reveal is disappointing and anticlimactic.

Director Reed Morano doesn’t help matters. Right off the bat the film gets off to a muddled start. It opens in a confusing manner as we see Stephanie closing in on a kill, and then it jumps back in time to show Stephanie enjoying time with her family, but then this turns out to be a flashback within a flashback as suddenly we jump ahead to Stephanie as a prostitute. It all adds up to an opening that did not draw me in. Period.

The characters are also pretty blah. The biggest snooze, unbelievably, is the main character, Stephanie Patrick. I never warmed up to her or really liked her, nor did I ever believe later that she could do the things we saw her doing.

The action scenes are also unimpressive.  I expected this one to play out in similar fashion to ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), but the action scenes in that movie were much more stylized and better executed.  The fight scenes here often seemed slow, the choreography not that exciting.

The soundtrack also didn’t work for me, as the songs chosen to cover key scenes seemed out of place, and the film’s score by Steve Mazzaro was hardly noticeable at all. The one song that does work, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” performed by Sleigh Bells, which was featured heavily in the film’s trailers, doesn’t appear in the movie until just before the end credits. So much for that.

I usually like Blake Lively, but her performance here didn’t really work for me. I never believed that Stephanie became that assassin. Likewise, Jude Law was rather wooden as former MI6 agent and current assassin trainer Iain Boyd. And Sterling K. Brown, usually a very reliable actor, is also subdued here as a former CIA agent also involved in the mix, Mark Cerra. Brown knocked it out of the park as attorney Christopher Darden in the TV series AMERICAN CRIME STORY (2016), and he’s been similarly striking in other movies as well, but not so much here.

Also, there was simply no chemistry between Lively and Law, or between Lively and Brown. Their relationships with each other simply fell flat.

The film did take advantage of its many European locations, so much so at times it resembled a James Bond movie, which is no surprise, since it was produced by Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson

Incidentally, the rhythm section refers to Boyd’s advice to Stephanie to slow the rhythm of her body, to let her heartbeat be a drum, all in an effort to cool her nerves to make her a successful killer.

I think the filmmakers heeded this advice too literally. The film is slow and cold and really could have used an infusion of energy and oomph!

THE RHYTHM SECTION is an inferior action movie, with few compelling scenes, characters who never come to life, and a story that not only didn’t grab me but never came off as believable.

The only rhythm here was the tap, tap, tap, of my fingers on the arm rest of my chair as I waited for the end credits to roll.

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THE NIGHT CLERK (2020) – Drama About Murder Suspect With Asperger’s Only Mildly Entertaining

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the night clerk

Ana de Armas and Tye Sheridan in THE NIGHT CLERK (2020).

While THE NIGHT CLERK (2020), a tale about a young man with Asperger’s syndrome who becomes the suspect in a murder case, is being billed as a crime/drama/mystery, the emphasis here really is on drama.

The crime, a murder which occurs right at the beginning of the movie, surprisingly never becomes a driving force here, and it’s not much of a mystery.

What it is though is a vehicle to showcase the talents of actor Tye Sheridan, who does a really nice job in the lead role as Bart, the young man with Asperger’s. Sheridan is an up an coming actor who has starred in READY PLAYER ONE (2018) and played Cyclops in the two most recent X-MEN movies, but his work here in THE NIGHT CLERK is better than what he was allowed to do in those movies.

Bart (Tye Sheridan) works the night shift at the front desk of his local hotel. In an effort to learn more about people and how to interact with them, since that is something Bart struggles with because of Asperger’s, he secretly records the activities and conversations of the hotel guests in their rooms. He does this by setting up cameras in the rooms and watching from his laptop. While this is voyeuristic and creepy to the rest of us, Bart doesn’t mean any harm by this, and he innocently watches people to practice conversing with them.

But one night, he witnesses a murder in one of the rooms, and rather than call the police, he runs into the room where later one of his co-workers finds him sitting by the dead body of the murdered woman.  Police Detective Espada (John Leguizamo) questions Bart, and because there are holes in his story about his whereabouts, Espada considers Bart a person of interest in the case.

Bart lives at home with his mother Ethel (Helen Hunt) who does her best to support her son although it is difficult since her husband and Bart’s father has passed away. As Detective Espada continues to poke and prod Bart in search of answers, things become more complicated when Bart befriends another hotel guest, Andrea (Ana de Armas) a beautiful young woman with problems of her own. Bart finds himself immediately attracted to Andrea, and as he tries to get to know her better, the murder plot thickens.

Well, it doesn’t thicken that much, which is the biggest problem with THE NIGHT CLERK. If it were a stew, it’d be darned watery, that’s for sure! And that’s because the murder takes a back seat to Bart’s story and his crush on Andrea, and the mystery itself is pretty obvious. You’ll know from the get-go exactly where this one is going, in terms of who is out to get who.

The screenplay by Michael Cristofer, who also directed, works much better as a character study than as a crime drama. Bart’s character is well-written, and his observations on life as seen through his eyes are intriguing. For example, when he talks to Andrea about love, and speaks of how being in love is not really an emotion but an addiction, he’s spot-on. As is the script. When Bart struggles to be sociable, it’s refreshingly honest.

Tye Sheridan delivers a topnotch performance as Bart. He effortlessly captures what it’s like to live with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s the best I’ve seen Sheridan on screen yet.

Ana de Armas is really good as Andrea, even though her character is stuck in the lame murder mystery plot that never really gets off the ground because it’s so obvious. Her best scenes are when Andrea interacts with Bart, and they share some tender moments together.

I like Ana de Armas a lot, and she’s making movies left and right these days, which is fine by me, because she’s fascinating to watch. She was just in SERGIO (2020) which I reviewed a few weeks back. She was amazing in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) and her performance was one of my favorite parts of that movie. She was also in KNIVES OUT (2019) and she is slated to star alongside Daniel Craig in the next James Bond movie, NO TIME TO DIE (2020).

Helen Hunt is solid as Bart’s mom Ethel, although it’s a small role and she ultimately doesn’t really do a whole lot. The same sadly can be said for John Leguizamo as Detective Espada. He actually has some of the best scenes in the movie, but he disappears for long stretches when the film becomes more about Bart and Andrea and less about the murder investigation. And towards the end, when you expect that things will be heating up, they simply don’t. So while Leguizamo is good, he’s not in this one enough to really make much of a difference, in the way, for example, he did with his fine supporting work in THE INFILTRATOR (2016) in which he starred with Bryan Cranston.

There are some plot holes as well. For example, Bart is suspected early on of the murder, and it comes to light that he’s been recording guests in their rooms, yet he doesn’t lose his job! He’s not even given a warning of any kind. I thought this was weird. Also, he’s a suspect at first because Espada wrongly believes Bart never left the hotel, which he did, and he had a very memorable verbal exchange with a clerk at a store. This clerk would no doubt remember Bart. Yet, we never see Espada following up this part of the story, which had me scratching my head why we saw the exchange in the first place if not to establish an alibi for Bart.

The ending is also edited strangely. It’s set up to make the audience think one thing, while something else is really happening. The problem is in terms of Bart’s character, it doesn’t make much sense for him to do what he did the way he did. He could have simply dealt with Espada directly. In other words, it comes off as a forced contrivance.

THE NIGHT CLERK works best as a character study of Bart Bromley, a young man with Asperger’s, who as a suspect in a murder case, falls for a mysterious young woman Andrea, who’s also a guest at the hotel where he works. It’s not much of a crime drama or a murder mystery, as the criminal elements are downplayed, and the mystery is way too obvious to matter all that much.

At the end of the day, THE NIGHT CLERK is a mild drama with some solid acting performances by the principal players. It’s watchable, but it certainly would have benefitted from a tighter script with more emphasis on the murder melodrama.

An Alfred Hitchcock thriller this one ain’t!

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THE QUARRY (2020) – Quiet Yet Intriguing Drama Remains One-Note Throughout

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Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon in THE QUARRY (2020).

THE QUARRY (2020) has an intriguing story to tell.

A drifter (Shea Whigham) murders a preacher and then assumes his identity, moving to his new parish in a small Texas town. The drifter knows little of religion, and when he speaks to his small congregation made up mostly of Mexican immigrants, they are taken with his words because unlike previous preachers he is not judgmental, and he’s not judgmental because he knows so little of religion, so  he simply reads from the Bible and often chooses passages about redemption.

The local sheriff Chief Moore (Michael Shannon) while investigating a robbery uncovers clues which make him suspicious of their new preacher. As the congregation grows, and the drifter finds himself leading this desperate group of immigrants, Chief Moore follows the clues which lead him to the local quarry, the site where the drifter murdered and buried the body of the real preacher.

The story told in THE QUARRY is nothing new or innovative, but it held my interest for most of the movie. Things slow down towards the film’s final act, and its ending is not very satisfying.

I most wanted to see THE QUARRY because of its two main actors. Shea Whigham, who plays the unnamed drifter, is a character actor who has been in a ton of movies in various small parts, and he makes a mark in nearly all of them. If you see movies on a regular basis, chances are you’ve seen Whigham. He’s been in JOKER (2019), VICE (2018), BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018), FIRST MAN (2018), and BEIRUT (2018) to name just a few. He also played the brother of Bradley Cooper’s character Pat in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

He’s an excellent actor and I was glad to see him playing a lead role. He’s good here as the drifter, although the role has its limitations. For starters, he’s a man of few words, and so a lot of what happens in the movie features this drifter taking things in silently. As such, the film itself suffers from bouts of slow pacing where things deaden to standstill. Of course, the style of the film is mirroring the drifter’s character, and so the pacing is on purpose, but still it makes for slow viewing. We also don’t really get to know this character all that well, and for most of the movie, he remains a mystery.

As happy as I was to see Shea Whigham in a lead role, he’s made more of an impact in movies in his signature smaller roles.

I also wanted to see THE QUARRY because of the presence of Michael Shannon, another actor whose work I really enjoy. Shannon has starred in KNIVES OUT (2019), THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), and NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016), and he was outstanding as George Westingthouse in THE CURRENT WAR (2017), starring alongside Benedict Cumberbatch who played Thomas Edison. He also played General Zod in MAN OF STEEL (2013).

Here as Chief Moore, Shannon is fine, but ultimately it’s not an amazingly written role, and there’s not a whole lot for Shannon to do other than seemed bored as the sheriff of a small town and occasionally be suspicious.

One of the weaknesses in the movie is there is not a lot of tension between Chief Moore and the drifter. As a result, there sadly aren’t many decent scenes with Whigham and Shannon.

The screenplay by director Scott Teems and Andrew Brotzman, based on a novel by Damon Galgut, is best at writing realistic dialogue, which is strong throughout the movie. It doesn’t fare so well as a dramatic piece, as the film doesn’t really build to a suspenseful climax. As Chief Moore begins to investigate and close in on the drifter, this stranger doesn’t really react. He’s the same one-note character throughout the movie. The drifter’s story arc really is about his own personal journey. Early in the film, when the preacher offers to hear his confession, the drifter refuses, rejecting religion, but by film’s end, he’s ready to confess, although none of this involves the other key character in the movie, Chief Moore.

The film looks good, and director Teems does capture the mood of the drifter throughout, as the film is steadily paced and set in an almost dreamlike state, as if we are all sharing in the drifter’s internal search for peace and redemption. The problem is this doesn’t always translate into compelling viewing.

There are brief hints that the story is going to widen its lense and cover points on immigration— the boys who rob the drifter are young immigrants, as are most of the congregation, as is the woman Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who operates the house in which the preacher lives—-but it barely scratches the surface on this subject. Moreno, by the way, is excellent here as Celia, and I wish she had been in this movie more.

For the most part, THE QUARRY is an intriguing drama, although it’s not much of a mystery or a thriller. And while it doesn’t really generate that much emotion, I don’t think it was trying to. It succeeds most when it captures the persona of its main character, the elusive drifter turned preacher, a quiet man whose past we know nothing about.

As such, it’s a subdued piece that like its main character plays things close to the vest without any big reveals or revelations.

—END—

 

 

 

THE GOOD LIAR (2019) – First Movie Pairing Mirren and McKellen A Good One

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THE GOOD LIAR (2019) is a movie that I really wanted to see but missed when it came out in November 2019. So, here in the midst of staying home during the coronavirus pandemic, I thought it the perfect time to finally catch up with it.

And the main reason I wanted to see it was because of its two leads, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen. Not only am I fans of both these actors, but I like to support movies that feature older actors as well as younger ones. I watch movies because I love storytelling. And there are stories to be told about people of all ages. Hollywood tends to forget that.

In THE GOOD LIAR, Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) is a widow who joins Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), a widower, for a dinner date after meeting him at an online dating site. Their date goes very well, and soon Betty calls him again, and before long, she has invited him to move in with her. Sound like a romantic love story?

Not quite.

For moments after their initial dinner date, we learn that Roy is really a con man, and a high stakes one at that. He runs cons that earn him big bucks. Furthermore, he’s not above resorting to violence to get his way. Yep, he surrounds himself with enforcers who will get down and dirty with folks if they demand more money from the con than what they were promised. Roy’s con with Betty is just one of many. He’s in it for the money, yes, but also for the thrill. He does it because he can, and he likes it.

And Betty is quite wealthy, and so Roy stands to earn a considerable stash if he can pull off this con, which involves his co-conspirator Vincent (Jim Carter) posing as his accountant who suggests a “sound” investment which involves pooling their money into the same account.

The only hope Betty seems to have is her suspicious grandson Stephen (Russell Tovey) who doesn’t trust Roy at all, but he has an uphill battle to climb, because Betty is smitten with Roy and fully trusts him.

What’s a vulnerable widow to do?

Relax, people, it’s Helen Mirren! She knows what she’s doing!

Yep, in a movie like this, you fully expect some sort of twist, and in THE GOOD LIAR there is one. However, twists are a tricky thing. They don’t always work. Hello M. Night Shyamalan! And I have to admit, with THE GOOD LIAR, I definitely enjoyed all that came before the twist better, which is one way of saying I didn’t really like the twist here. I fully expected it, and for me it was somewhat contrived and strained credibility. There are simpler ways to get done what the character involved in the twist wants to accomplish.

But this didn’t stop me from enjoying the movie.

The best part of THE GOOD LIAR is as expected the performances of the two leads. Both Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen have a field day here.  Mirren is perfect as the sensitive widow, seemingly the perfect target for the charming con man, who nonetheless possesses a strength and intelligence that fully clues in the audience that she’s probably going to figure out Roy ahead of time before he steals her money, or at least the audience hopes this to be the case.

Ian McKellen is both a gentleman and a scoundrel as Roy, with the emphasis clearly on the villain side. As polite and charming as Roy is, McKellen makes sure you believe that he truly is a down and dirty con man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.

McKellen and Mirren even get to partake in an old-fashioned physical rough and tumble, as the two come to blows when the proverbial sh*t hits the fan during the film’s climax. And it’s a realistic looking brawl at that!

DOWNTON ABBEY (2010-2015) star Jim Carter also stands out as Roy’s co-conspirator Vincent.

THE GOOD LIAR has a decent screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Nicholas Searle. The dialogue is strong throughout, the characters sharp and believable, and the story it tells is a good one. As I said, I wasn’t a fan of the twist, which is about the only thing I didn’t like about this one. Of course, this is a rather big thing, and as such, it’s the one reason I didn’t absolutely love THE GOOD LIAR. Hatcher also wrote the screenplay for MR. HOLMES (2015), which also starred Ian McKellen, playing an aged Sherlock Holmes trying to solve a case while dealing with dementia. I liked MR. HOLMES a bit more than I liked THE GOOD LIAR.

THE GOOD LIAR was directed by Bill Condon, who also directed MR. HOLMES, and another Ian McKellen movie, GODS AND MONSTERS (1998),  in which McKellen played FRANKENSTEIN (1931) director James Whale. Condon also directed the recent Disney remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), a film I liked a lot. However, in the category of films I didn’t like— a lot—- Condon also directed the deplorable THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN – PART 1 (2011) and THE TWILIGHT SAGA: BREAKING DAWN – PART 2 (2012).

All this being said, THE GOOD LIAR is in good hands with Condon as director. The film is captivating and held my interest throughout, taking a slight hit when the very expected twist meddled with the climax.

Incidentally, THE GOOD LIAR marks the first time Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen have ever starred together in a movie. Their first pairing is well-worth the wait.

And that’s no lie!

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Books by Michael Arruda:

DARK CORNERS, Michael Arruda’s second short story collection, contains ten tales of horror, six reprints and four stories original to this collection.

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Waiting for you in Dark Corners are tales of vampires, monsters, werewolves, demonic circus animals, and eternal darkness. Be prepared to be both frightened and entertained. You never know what you will find lurking in dark corners.

Ebook: $3.99. Available at http://www.crossroadspress.com and at Amazon.com.  Print on demand version available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1949914437.

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

How far would you go to save your family? Would you change the course of time? That’s the decision facing Adam Cabral in this mind-bending science fiction adventure by Michael Arruda.

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

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Michael Arruda reviews horror movies throughout history, from the silent classics of the 1920s, Universal horror from the 1930s-40s, Hammer Films of the 1950s-70s, all the way through the instant classics of today. If you like to read about horror movies, this is the book for you!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, first short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For_the_love_of_Horror- original cover

Print cover

For the Love of Horror cover (3)

Ebook cover

 

Michael Arruda’s first short story collection, featuring a wraparound story which links all the tales together, asks the question: can you have a relationship when your partner is surrounded by the supernatural? If you thought normal relationships were difficult, wait to you read about what the folks in these stories have to deal with. For the love of horror!

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

HORSE GIRL (2020) – Intriguing Drama Asks: Mental Illness or Alien Abduction?

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There’s a fine line between mental illness and alien abduction.

That’s the dance played out in HORSE GIRL (2020), an intriguing drama about a sweet yet socially awkward young woman who suffers from nightmares and blackouts which she interprets as alien abductions while those around her believe more matter-of-factly that she suffers from mental illness.

Just where the truth lies is something the movie doesn’t make crystal clear.

HORSE GIRL tells the story of Sarah (Alison Brie) a shy young woman who works in a fabric store during the day and comes home to her apartment at night where she spends her evenings alone watching reruns of her favorite science fiction TV show, while her roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) occupies herself with her boyfriend Brian (Jake Picking). Sarah also has an affinity for a horse Willow which she visits every day at the stable, much to the annoyance of Willow’s owners. We learn later that Willow used to be Sarah’s horse but isn’t any more.

On her birthday, Sarah receives a birthday card from her co-worker Joan (Molly Shannon) who asks her if she has any special plans to celebrate, to which Sarah lies and says she’s going to go out to dinner with some friends from her dance class. Later, we witness the awkward scene where Sarah tries to make plans with these friends but fails miserably, so she returns to her apartment, content to spend her birthday alone, but her roommate Nikki feels bad for her and coaxes Brian to invite his friend Darren (John Reynolds) over who had recently broke up with his girlfriend. Surprisingly, Darren and Sarah hit it off well, and they agree to see each other again for a date.

Up until this point, HORSE GIRL has the makings of a tender romantic love story, but it’s at this time when Sarah realizes she’s been having some pretty bizarre dreams, dreams in which sleep walks and finds herself in other places, not knowing how she got there, and when she returns home, she finds that while she believes she’s been gone for hours, only minutes have passed in real-time.

She does some research on the internet and reads about alien abductions, and the descriptions of these abductions match things she has seen and felt in her dreams. It’s also at this time when she begins to think more about her grandmother and mother, both of whom dealt with mental health issues and spoke of experiences similar to hers. In her mom’s case, she recently committed suicide. But Sarah fixates on her grandmother, who in old photographs is the splitting image of Sarah, which gets Sarah thinking about clones.

Once Sarah starts speaking about this to her friends and family, it’s easy for them— and for the audience— to believe she has inherited the same mental health issues as her mother and grandmother. But Sarah is convinced otherwise, and she sets out to prove it.

HORSE GIRL is a thought-provoking movie that is well-written by director Jeff Baena and lead actress Alison Brie. And while its story is never fleshed out as well as one would hope, it still delivers in that it takes its audience for a ride that is compelling throughout, the only drawback being a conclusion that is a bit too open-ended.

I really enjoyed Alison Brie in the lead role as Sarah. She makes Sarah likeable and vulnerable. She nails the introvert persona suffering from social anxiety to a tee, and the scenes where she tries to be social are painfully realistic. And she does it without being cliché or superficial. In all other aspects of her life, in her job, for instance, she’s comfortable and quite good at it. So, Brie creates a three-dimensional character who we like even before all the weird things begin to happen to her, and once they do, we empathize with her and want her to be okay, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that she’s not okay.

Brie is a wonderful actress who I first noticed on the TV show MAD MEN (2007-2015) where she played Trudy Campbell. She also stars on the TV show GLOW (2017-2020). She’s in nearly every scene in HORSE GIRL, and she easily carries this film on her back.

And as I said, she also wrote the screenplay, along with director Jeff Baena. One of the best parts of the screenplay is how well-written the supporting characters are. They come off as real people, which in this story, is important, because Sarah increasingly becomes unstable, and if she were surrounded by a bunch of cardboard clichés, it would certainly make her story less believable. But that’s not the case here as these supporting characters have real reactions and really care for her.

In one of the film’s best sequences, when Sarah is on her date with Darren, it’s all going so well, and when Sarah opens up to him and starts talking about what she suspects is happening to her, at first since he’s happy and genuinely likes Sarah, he’s supportive and all ears. But as Sarah grows more intense and unpredictable and unrealistic, she becomes scary, and Darren’s reaction changes.  Had he been a cliché, the boyfriend only out for sex, for example, this scene would not have worked as well. Instead, it works wonderfully, because Darren tries so hard to  understand Sarah and to accept what she’s saying, but as she reacts more violently, he, like the audience, becomes unnerved and he has no choice but to react to that. It’s one of the more honest— and frightening— sequences in the film.

As I said, the one weakness in the movie is the ending. Based on the final sequence, you get a pretty good idea on which side the moviemakers favor here, mental illness or alien abduction, but still there’s something missing, and that something is an independent view on the matter. The film is told through Sarah’s eyes, and so even that final scene is from Sarah’s perspective, and hence you really don’t know its true meaning, which often is not a bad thing in a movie, and it’s not a terribly bad thing in this movie, as I still liked it a lot in spite of the ending, but a more emphatic ending would have helped, as it would have given this curious tale an exclamation point on which to end, rather than the way it ends now, with an ellipse.

HORSE GIRL also has an admirable supporting cast. Debby Ryan does a fine job as Sarah’s roommate Nikki, who although she gets frustrated with her does care about her. Likewise, Jake Picking is solid as Nikki’s boyfriend Brian, who’s much less supportive of Sarah and thinks she’s flat-out weird. Molly Shannon also does a nice job as Sarah’s co-worker Joan who also seems to care about her.

I really enjoyed John Reynolds as Darren, the guy who sincerely wants to start a relationship with Sarah, but he unfortunately picked the wrong week to ask her out. Reynolds does an awesome job making this guy a three-dimensional character, and he does it in very little screen time. Reynolds plays quirky Officer Callahan on TV’s STRANGER THINGS (2016-2020). He makes much more of an impact here in HORSE GIRL.

HORSE GIRL also benefits from a couple of screen veterans in the cast. Paul Reiser shows up in one sequence as Sarah’s step-father. It’s just one sequence, but it’s a good one. And John Ortiz plays a man Sarah sees in her recurring dreams, and then later she sees him in real life.

I liked the way director Jeff Baena handled this one. Sure, it’s a bit of a slow burn, as the pace is measured, and the first third is a straight drama. In fact, when Sarah experiences her first weird nightmare, it comes out of nowhere and is quite jarring. If HORSE GIRL were a horror movie, it would fall into the category of quiet horror. So, call this one a quiet mystery/thriller.

But it works.

HORSE GIRL is a captivating drama with sprinkles of mystery and science fiction thrown in that takes its time telling its weirdly provocative story, and while its ending isn’t completely satisfying, it remains a movie that creates a sympathetic main character who’s searching for answers about her past and her future. You’ll want her to find them.

It’s now available on Netflix.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOST GIRLS (2020) – Story of Serial Killer Victims Not As Powerful As Book On Which It Is Based

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Amy Ryan and Thomasin McKenzie in LOST GIRLS (2020).

LOST GIRLS (2020) is a Netflix-original movie based on the nonfiction book Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker, which chronicled the still unsolved murders committed by the Long Island Serial Killer. I read this book when it first came out, and it remains one of the best books I’ve read this past decade.

Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery is a meticulously researched and compelling read that tells the story of the victims and their families, a fascinating narrative made more so by the fact that the killer remains at large.

Now comes the movie LOST GIRLS, and since I had been so impressed with the book, I was eager to see this one.

In LOST GIRLS (2020) it’s 2010, and Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) is a single mom who works two jobs to support her two daughters, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) a senior in high school who is hoping to be able to afford community college, and Sarra (Oona Lawrence) who’s in middle school and struggling with mental health issues. When Mari’s oldest daughter Shannan, who doesn’t live with them but does send money to them regularly, fails to show up for a promised dinner date with the family, Mari shrugs it off, but when Shannan’s boyfriend calls Sherre, something he has never done before, looking for her, and when she doesn’t respond to her messages on her phone, Mari begins to worry.

Getting no help from the police, Mari investigates on her own and learns the shocking truth that Shannan worked as a prostitute and was last seen in Oak Beach, New York, a private community on Long Island. She also learns some very disturbing facts, like her daughter made a 911 call screaming for help, and the police didn’t arrive on the scene until nearly an hour later. Shannan reportedly ran screaming down the streets of Oak Beach, and no one claimed to have seen or heard anything. Also, the security camera footage on those very streets from that night was erased, a camera controlled by the man who would later become a person of interest.

Mari makes her presence known to the local police and eventually is able to engage in face to face dialogue with Police Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) who pleads with her to remain patient, but she has no intention of doing so. Eventually, the remains of several bodies are found in the woods around Oak Beach, and it’s determined that a serial killer has been at work.

The victims’ families get together and form a support group and eventually hold a vigil on the streets of Oak Beach, all in an effort to memorialize their daughters’ lives. Mari makes the point that she wants them remembered as daughters, sisters, and women, not as prostitutes.

While the police do step up their investigation, Mari is there every step of the way, prodding them, and pointing out their shortcomings, like calling them out for refusing to search the densely wooded swamp area behind the main suspect’s house.

I wish I could say LOST GIRLS the movie was as hard-hitting and as moving as the book, but it’s not. It makes its points, but it does so briefly and without much depth. The film is short, clocking in at 95 minutes, and as such never really gives the subject its due.

I was able to fill in the blanks because I had read the book, but I wonder if folks who haven’t read the book would be able to do the same. The book was exhaustively researched. The reader really felt the scope and magnitude of what these families were going through, what it must have felt like to have daughters murdered and the police doing little about it. The book also chronicled in detail the police investigation and the problems it faced, mostly due to ineptitude. The movie focuses more on Mari and her one on one meetings with Commissioner Dormer. The scope just isn’t the same.

The book was haunting. For the longest time afterwards, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The movie is much more superficial. It has its moments, but there are far too few of them.

Amy Ryan is excellent as Mari Gilbert. She gives a powerful performance, and as we learn that Mari is driven by the guilt of her past, how she couldn’t handle Shannan as a child and gave her up to a foster family, Ryan shows us the scars of the character and how she uses them to find the strength to be the mother she wanted to be when her daughter was still alive. When Dormer says that Shannan’s fate is not on her, she replies tellingly “I’m her mother. It’s all on me.” It’s one of the film’s more powerful moments. I wish there had been more of these.

This is one of Ryan’s strongest performances to date, adding to the quality work she has already done in such films as THE INFILTRATOR (2016) and BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015).

Thomasin McKenzie is one of my favorite young actresses working today, as she has delivered some powerhouse performances in films like JOJO RABBIT (2019) and LEAVE NO TRACE (2018). Her role here as middle daughter Sherre is much more limited than her roles in the aforementioned movies, and as such she doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this movie, which is too bad, because she’s a great talent.

Gabriel Byrne is perfect as the tired and weary Police Commissioner Richard Dormer. While he wishes Mari would just go away, he never really tells her to do so, and in the movie anyway, seems sympathetic to her requests. We also learn immediately what kind of predicament he’s in, because at the outset, we are privy to a phone conversation in which he’s told point-blank that if he doesn’t downplay the serial killer angle he will lose his job.

I enjoyed Lola Kirke’s performance as Kim, a sister to one of the victims and a fellow prostitute. Her conversations with Mari are some of the better ones in the movie, and you almost get the sense that Mari feels like she’s talking to Shannan when she’s giving advice to Kim.

Dean Winters plays a smug and uncaring police detective and sort of stands in as the face of police incompetence here. And Reed Birney does a wonderfully creepy job as the outwardly “oh so helpful” Dr. Peter Hackett who for a long time was a major person of interest and suspect in the case. The scene where he puts his hands on Mari’s shoulders will give you chills. We just saw Birney in THE HUNT (2020), and he’s been in a ton of movies and TV shows.

The screenplay by Michael Werwie based on Robert Kolker’s book is not really a strength of this movie. It tells the story it has to tell, in that it gets in and gets out without any fluff, but it also doesn’t dig deep. It’s all very superficial, and without having read the book, it would be easy to dismiss it as just another serial killer story, albeit one based on true events. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of the victims and their families, and while the movie goes through the motions to say as much, there are few moments where it really tugs at your heart and makes you feel their plight and pain.

In the book these families go through hell. In the movie, scenes cut away and finish long before they should. Sharper dialogue would have gone a long way towards bringing these families’ stories to life.

Liz Garbus directed LOST GIRLS, and the result is an efficient production, and it’s all competently handled. I didn’t, however, get a strong sense of place. Oak Beach should have been a setting so disturbing I could smell the death there, but the camera never gets anywhere that close to make me feel that way.

And there simply are not a lot of heightened emotional moments here, which is surprising considering the subject matter.

Still, I recommend LOST GIRLS. It tells a disturbing story, one that needs to be told, but it does it in a way that may leave you with more questions than answers. As such, if you see this movie and feel you want to learn more, I highly recommend the book  Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker

Unlike the movie, the book is thoroughly comprehensive and as such is an incredibly moving and tragic read.

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