BAD SAMARITAN (2018) – Routine Thriller Not That Thrilling

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David Tennant in BAD SAMARITAN (2018).

BAD SAMARITAN (2018) is one of those movies where the idea behind its plot is better than the actual movie.

Supposedly influenced by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the movie barely resembles the work of the master director.

In BAD SAMARITAN, two buddies, Sean Falco (Robert Sheehan) and Derek Sandoval (Carlito Olivero) struggling to make it in the world— Sean’s a photographer who wants to create art— have taken to robbing people’s homes. They park cars for an upscale Italian restaurant, and when they spot someone they feel has stuff worth stealing at their home, one of them drives the car back to the customer’s house and robs it while the other keeps an eye on the victim dining inside the restaurant.

When a rather rude and obviously very rich man Cale Erendreich (David Tennant) shows up at the restaurant, Sean and Derek agree he’s the perfect candidate for them to rob. Sean breaks into the man’s home and all is going well until he discovers a woman, Katie (Kerry Condon) chained in his bedroom like an animal. Sean tries to rescue her, but when Cale abruptly leaves the restaurant, Sean has to race back to get the man’s car back in time, but he promises to return to rescue the woman.

Knowing that he had broken into the man’s house, and fearing arrest, Sean makes an anonymous call to the police, but when they arrive at Cale’s house, Cale is there with another woman, and everything seems so normal the police do not even go inside. Sean vows to do whatever it takes to rescue the woman, but that’s easier said than done, because it doesn’t take Cale long to figure out what Sean is up to, and he in turn decides to stop Sean by making his life a living hell.

As I said, the idea behind the plot is a good one. I liked the notion of a thief breaking into the home of a serial killer and discovering the chained body of his next victim. But that’s about all I liked, really, because unfortunately, there’s nothing in this film to lift it above the level of a straightforward and very predictable by-the-numbers thriller.

Obviously, the biggest draw here is that David Tennant plays the villain, Cale. Now, Tennant is a very talented actor, but this isn’t the kind of movie you buy a ticket to hoping to see a tremendous performance by your favorite actor. Besides, you’ve already seen Tennant play this type of role if you watched Season 1 of the Netflix Marvel TV show JESSICA JONES (2015-18), where Tennant played the villain Kilgrave. His performance here is nearly identical, and about the only difference is Cale doesn’t have Kilgrave’s mind-controlling abilities.

The script by Brandon Boyce doesn’t help matters. Cale is a straightforward villain with very little depth. We know hardly anything about him, and while Tennant tries to make the character a three-dimensional one, the truth is he just doesn’t have enough material to work with. At the end of the day, in terms of villainous characters, Cale is rather boring.

One part of the screenplay I did like was the angle that both Sean and Derek not only feared getting arrested, but they also were afraid of getting deported, since neither one of them were born in the U.S. This was a timely plot point. Unfortunately, it’s mentioned all too briefly and not really developed.

I also liked the performances by Robert Sheehan as Sean and Carlito Olivero as his buddy Derek. Both actors are very good, and Sheehan makes Sean sympathetic in spite of the poor decisions he makes in his life, like robbing people’s homes. Derek tries to convince Sean just to forget about the woman, but Sean refuses, making it almost his mission to find her and rescue her. Sheehan is in most of the movie and is easily watchable.

Olivero is in the film much less than Sheehan, but he also makes an impression, and his character Derek, although he initially tries to dissuade Sean from finding the woman, does not shy away from helping his friend in the quest to locate the victim.

But the rest of the characters are all way underdeveloped and don’t leave much of a mark, including Jacqueline Byers as Sean’s girlfriend Riley. They’re in the first scene of the movie together, and they generate such wonderful chemistry I thought much of the movie would involve them, but Riley simply fades into the background, as do all the other characters, like Sean’s mother and step-father, the police, and the FBI agents.

The movie spends a lot of time on the relationship between Cale and his victim, Katie, played by Kerry Condon, but these scenes shed very little insight into either character.  We learn little about Katie, other than she’s a victim, and the strangest thing about this movie is how little sympathy it builds for Katie.

BAD SAMARITAN also does a poor job wrapping things up for its characters. It introduces a lot of characters but doesn’t show what happens to most of them.

Director Dean Devlin’s thriller is devoid of any originality and plays like most other thrillers you’ve already seen. There are a couple of very good performances here, but none of them are strong enough to carry the movie or make it better than what it is.

There are also plenty of missed opportunities. Sean is a photographer, for instance, but his photography skills hardly play a factor in the plot. I also expected more from the relationship between Kale and Katie. Strangely, she never seems all that scared. She should have been terrified.

And for a thriller, it’s not very thrilling. I don’t think I jumped once, nor was I on the edge of my seat. The suspense was minimal.

I would imagine this one’s not doing all that well at the box office. There were just three of us in the theater.

BAD SAMARITAN is not a bad movie. It’s just not a very good one.

—END—

 

 

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE NIGHT STALKER (1972)

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“This nut thinks he’s a vampire!”

So says reporter Carl Kolchak to his editor Tony Vincenzo, as he tries to convince him to publish his story.

THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) is not only one of the best horror movies from the 1970s, it’s also one of the best horror movies period.

Even more impressive, it was a made-for-TV movie, which isn’t surprising for the early 1970s, as that part of the decade was a great time for made-for-TV horror movies. Films like THE NORLISS TAPES (1973), GARGOYLES (1972), and TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975) were all made-for-TV shockers.

The best of the lot was THE NIGHT STALKER.

THE NIGHT STALKER starred Darren McGavin in the role that most of us consider to be his signature role, the inexorable reporter Carl Kolchak.

This movie earned such high ratings when it premiered on television on January 11, 1972 that in a largely unprecedented move, it was released theatrically after it played on TV because the film was that popular. Amazing.

And it really is a superior horror movie, which is no surprise since it was produced by Dan Curtis, the man behind the Dark Shadows phenomenon. It’s also an incredibly lean production, as it clocks in at just 74 minutes. There isn’t an ounce of fat on this baby.

THE NIGHT STALKER boasts a fantastic script, and you would expect no less since it was written by Richard Matheson, based on an unpublished novel by Jeff Rice. The legendary Matheson wrote a ton of movies and so it would be difficult to call THE NIGHT STALKER his best screenplay, but I will say that for me, it’s probably my favorite Matheson screenplay.

In 1972 Las Vegas, young women are being murdered, their bodies drained of blood. The authorities want this information kept out of the news to avoid a panic, but reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) sees this story as his ticket back to the big time, as he’s been fired from one major newspaper after another, due to his in-your-face abrasive style.

Kolchak’s efforts come much to the chagrin of his hard-nosed irritable editor, Tony Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) who has a love/hate relationship with his reporter.  Kolchak describes his boss in a voice-over, “Rumor has it that the day Anthony Albert Vincenzo was born, his father left town. The story may be apocryphal, but I believe it. The only point I wonder about is why his mother didn’t leave too.”

Vincenzo recognizes that Kolchak is a top-notch reporter but grows increasingly frustrated that he can’t control him. Their verbal exchanges are some of the liveliest parts of the movie.

The vampire, Janos Skorzeny (Barry Atwater) possesses superhuman strength and performs such feats as hurling doctors through windows, tossing police officers about like twigs and outrunning police cars. He’s a type of vampire seldom seen in the movies, and to 1972 audiences he made for a violent shocking killer.  He’s quite scary.

The film does a nice job building to the inevitable climax where Kolchak finally tracks down Skorzeny.

Carl Kolchak was a perfect role for Darren McGavin and it’s no surprise he’s most known for the part. What I’ve always liked about Kolchak in THE NIGHT STALKER is unlike other heroes in vampire movies, Kolchak knew absolutely nothing about vampires.  For him, it was just a story, and at first, he didn’t even think it was a real vampire until he saw with his own eyes the vampire in action. He then researches the supernatural, and before you know it, he’s the one who’s telling the police about crosses and wooden stakes through the heart.

The vampire scenes in THE NIGHT STALKER are second to none.  Barry Atwater makes for a chilling vampire, hissing and dashing in and out of the shadows a la Christopher Lee, and like Lee in some of his Dracula portrayals, Atwater has no dialogue. In fact, Atwater’s performance as Skorzeny is even more visceral and violent than Lee’s Dracula. The success of THE NIGHT STALKER also influenced Hammer Films to make their next Dracula movie, DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972) as a modern-day vampire tale set in 1970s London rather than the usual 1890s period piece. THE NIGHT STALKER is the superior film, by far.

The film enjoys a fine supporting cast, led by Carol Lynley as Kolchak’s girlfriend Gail Foster. There’s Claude Akins as the aptly named Sheriff Butcher, who also butchers the English language. During one press conference, he yells at Kolchak saying the reporter is there by the “mutual suffrage of us all,” to which Kolchak quickly corrects him, “it’s sufferance, sheriff.””

The cast also features Kent Smith as D.A. Paine, Ralph Meeker as Kolchak’s friend and FBI contact Bernie Jenks, and Elisha Cook, Jr. as another of Kolchak’s sources, Mickey Crawford.

The best supporting performance though belongs to Simon Oakland as Tony Vincenzo. Oakland would reprise the role in both the sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER (1973) and the subsequent NIGHT STALKER TV series.

Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, THE NIGHT STALKER is a quick efficient thriller with enough chills and thrills for a movie twice its length. The early scenes chronicling the violent attacks on women in Las Vegas are scary and unsettling, and thanks to Richard Matheson’s superior script, the story moves forward with nearly every scene as the suspense continues to grow..

Moxey worked mostly in television, and he directed other genre TV movies as well.  He also directed the little seen Christopher Lee horror movie CIRCUS OF FEAR (1966), also known as PSYCHO-CIRCUS, a West German/UK co-production, and Moxey directed the English language version.

But the biggest reason, of course, to see THE NIGHT STALKER is Darren McGavin’s performance as reporter Carl Kolchak. Kolchak is a man who isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers or get into the faces of the authorities in order to tell the truth.  That’s part of the attraction of the character.  That he’s fighting through the lies of the establishment.  As he says in another voice-over, “Sherman Duffy of the New York Herald once said, ‘A newspaperman is the loneliest guy on earth. Socially he ranks somewhere between a hooker and a bartender. Spiritually he stands with Galileo, because he knows the world is round.'”

McGavin would play Kolchak again in the sequel THE NIGHT STRANGLER and in the NIGHT STALKER TV series (1974-75), which sadly lasted only one season.

He also gets the last lines in the movie, as he speaks into his tape recorder and concludes, “So think about it and try to tell yourself wherever you may be in the quiet of your home, in the safety of your bed, try to tell yourself, it couldn’t happen here.”

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

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BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

—END—

 

A QUIET PLACE (2018) – Smart Horror Movie Riveting and Scary

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Talk about quiet horror!

Shh! No yelling! This is A QUIET PLACE.

A QUIET PLACE is a new horror movie by director John Krasinski, known mostly for his recurring role as Jim Halpert on the comedic TV show THE OFFICE (2005-2013) starring Steve Carell. Krasinski both directs and stars here, along with his real-life wife Emily Blunt.

A QUIET PLACE is a simple thriller that nonetheless works well.  Its tagline, “If they hear you, they hunt you,” sums up the film perfectly.

It’s yet another horror movie about an apocalypse, as this time it’s strange violent creatures that roam the countryside preying on human beings. They’re unstoppable and they’re hungry.  They’re also blind. To make up for their lack of sight, they possess incredible hearing, and thus that’s how they hunt. It’s exactly as the film’s tagline says, if they hear you they hunt you.  So, to survive, you have to be awfully quiet.

It’s kind of a silly premise, when you think about it, that these creatures would have made it this far without being stopped, but that being said, there’s nothing silly about the rest of A QUIET PLACE. It’s a solid thriller throughout.

A QUIET PLACE basically follows one family trying to survive among these creatures. They live in silence in their farmhouse.  There’s the father Lee (John Krasinski), mother Evelyn (Emily Blunt), teen daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) who happens to be deaf, and younger son Marcus (Noah Jupe). They live in mortal fear of the creatures, having lost their youngest son to one of them in the film’s pre-credit sequence.

They’re also quite resourceful, devising a system to communicate with lights and creating an undergound sound proof room. But with three of these creatures living in the vicinity of their farm, they need to be.  And, oh yeah.  Evelyn is pregnant and is about to give birth. So much for a quiet place!

A QUIET PLACE possessed the same tone as another recent apocalyptic horror movie, IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), a movie I liked a lot. The big difference between the two is the threat was never defined in IT COMES AT NIGHT while here in A QUIET PLACE the threat is made known at the outset.

The creatures here reminded me of things found in the CLOVERFIELD universe. In fact, for a time, Paramount considered making this movie a part of the CLOVERFIELD franchise, which would have made perfect sense. The chilling scenes in the cornfields were also reminiscent of similar scenes in M. Night Shyamalan’s SIGNS (2002).  That being said, A QUIET PLACE isn’t derivative of these films. It stands on its own.

A QUIET PLACE starts off— well, quiet, and after a jarring pre-credit scene moves slowly for a bit before really picking up steam during its second act.  There are some really suspenseful scenes in this one. The centerpiece and the most intense scene by far is the entire birthing sequence when Emily Blunt’s Evelyn is trying to give birth while there’s a creature pursuing her.  Scary stuff!  And I loved every minute of it!

As I said, early on, things are really quiet, as the characters need to be silent, and with a minimum of dialogue, very little happening on the soundtrack, it made for a very different kind of viewing for a while. All the folks in the audience munching on popcorn seemed to stop and the theater got really silent.  Some of the younger audience members, teenagers, couldn’t contain themselves and felt the urge to shout out comments every once in a while, but once things heated up in the second half, they fell frighteningly silent.

I really enjoyed A QUIET PLACE.  The acting was superb.  John Krasinski is solid as Lee Abbott, the caring dad who will stop at nothing to protect his family.

I thought Emily Blunt gave the best performance in the film as mom Evelyn Abbott. Like the rest of the family, she’s haunted by the death of their youngest son.

Millicent Simmonds, deaf in real life, is excellent as Regan, the daughter who has issues with her father, since she believes he blames her for her little brother’s death. And Noah Jupe, who we saw in last year’s WONDER (2017) as Auggie’s friend Jack Will, makes for a very frightened Marcus Abbott.

A QUIET PLACE has a smart screenplay by Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski. Its story is frightening throughout, and its characters likable and believable. It’s not perfect. I thought it was slow-going at first, and its resolution, the steps taken by the Abbotts to combat the creatures, made me scratch my head in disbelief that no one else had thought of this before.

John Krasinski does a terrific job directing as well. The early scenes, though slow-paced, take full advantage of sound, or lack thereof.  With a nearly silent soundtrack during its first half, all sounds are magnified and used to full effect.  And once the film takes off during its second half, the suspense is pretty much nonstop and a heck of a lot of fun.

A QUIET PLACE is a high quality horror movie, the kind of film like last year’s GET OUT (2017) that helps raise the bar for the horror genre.

It’s my favorite horror movie of the year so far.

—END—

 

 

LEADING LADIES: BARBARA SHELLEY

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Barbara Shelley in DRACULA – PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

Welcome back to LEADING LADIES, that column where we look at lead actresses in horror movies.

Up today it’s Barbara Shelley, a woman whose talent and beauty adorned some of Hammer Films’ best shockers.  Of course, Shelley starred in more than just Hammer horror movies, appearing in all sorts of movies and TV shows as well.  Here’s a partial look at her long and successful career, focusing mostly on her horror films:

MAN IN HIDING (1953) – Barbara Shelley’s first screen credit, under her real name, as Barbara Kowin, in this British whodunit murder mystery starring Paul Henreid and Lois Maxwell.

BALLATA TRAGICA (1954) – Betty Mason- Shelley’s first credit as Barbara Shelley in this Italian crime drama.

CAT GIRL (1957) – Leonora Johnson- Shelley’s first horror movie, a variation of the more famous CAT PEOPLE (1942), where she plays a young woman affected by a family curse that warns she will turn into a murderous leopard when angered.  Some girls have all the fun.

BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE (1958) – Madeleine –  One of my favorite Barbara Shelley movies, this atmospheric horror movie about a mad scientist named Dr. Callistratus (Donald Wolfit) conducting strange blood experiments in a creepy prison is a subtle exercise in “thinking man’s horror.”  It looks and plays like a Hammer Film, but it’s not, but it was written by Jimmy Sangster, who wrote some of Hammer’s best shockers.

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) – Anthea Zellaby – Probably my favorite Barbara Shelley movie, this science fiction classic about the strange children with the glowing eyes is one of the best science fiction horror movies ever made.  Also stars George Sanders, Michael Gwynn, and Laurence Naismith.

THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961) – Beth Venable – Shelley’s first Hammer Film, another cat tale involving murder and the supernatural. Also starring Andre Morrell and Freda Jackson.

THE SAINT (1962) – Valerie North – appeared in the episode “The Covetous Headsman” of this classic TV show starring Roger Moore.

THE GORGON (1964) – Carla Hoffman- co-stars with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in this Hammer shocker that is topnotch throughout except for an ending that exposes some very weak special effects when the titlular monster is finally shown on screen. Major role for Shelley, as her character is integral to the plot. Directed by Hammer’s best director, Terence Fisher.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (1965) – Bryn Watson – starred in the episode “The Odd Man Affair” of this classic secret agent TV show starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum.

DRACULA- PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) – Helen Kent – Becomes Dracula’s victim in this excellent Hammer Dracula movie, the first direct sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) with Christopher Lee reprising his role as Dracula once again. Also starring Andrew Keir, Francis Matthews, Suzan Farmer, Thorley Walters, and Philip Latham. Directed by Terence Fisher.

RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (1966) – Sonia – Reunited with DRACULA-PRINCE OF DARKNESS co-stars Christopher Lee, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer in this Hammer Film which also used the same sets from that DRACULA sequel.

THE AVENGERS (1961-1967) – Venus/Susan Summers – “From Venus With Love” (1967)/ “Dragonsfield” (1961)- Two appearances on the spy TV series starring Patrick Macnee.

FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH (1967)- Barbara Judd – Classic Hammer science fiction movie, part of their Quatermass series, originally titled QUATERMASS AND THE PIT. Stars Andrew Keir as Professor Quatermass.  This one’s got an impressive mystery and tells a neat story.  Also starring James Donald and Julian Glover.

GHOST STORY (1974) – Matron – Haunted house tale not to be confused with Peter Straub’s novel or the 1981 film based on Straub’s novel. Shelley’s final performance in a theatrical release.

DOCTOR WHO (1984) – Sorasta – appeared in the four part episode “Planet of Fire” of this classic science fiction TV show.  Peter Davison played the Doctor.

UNCLE SILAS (1989) – Cousin Monica – Barbara Shelley’s final screen credit to date in this horror TV mini-series starring Peter O’Toole as the mysterioius Uncle Silas.

Barbara Shelley was born on February 13, 1932.  She is currently retired from acting.

 

I hope you enjoyed this partial look at the career of actress Barbara Shelley, one of the more influential actresses from 1950s-1960s British horror cinema.

Join me again next time when we look at the career of another actress in horror cinema in the next edition of LEADING LADIES.

Thanks for reading!

—-Michael

 

 

UNSANE (2018) – Unimaginative, Unscary Thriller

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Claire Foy in UNSANE (2018)

UNSANE (2018), the latest movie by acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh, is un—.

Yeah, I know.  A movie with the title UNSANE is just begging for some word play with “un” words. Unwatchable. unlikable.  Unbelievable. Unusual.  Yadda, yadda, yadda.  Truth is, UNSANE is none of these things.

It is rather unsophisticated, though, for a psychological thriller.

And yes it is rather unbelievable at times.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is trying to make the best of her life, but she’s not having an easy time of it.  She’s doing well at her job, receiving glowing praise from her male boss, but when he suggests she join him for a weekend trip to a major business event, she doesn’t like the vibes she’s receiving and declines the offer.  On a date, she encourages intimacy early on, but later, when she brings the guy back to her apartment, she pushes him away and becomes physically ill.

Yup, Sawyer has some problems, and we learn that she has moved far away from home to get away from a man who was stalking her.  It was such a frightening experience, it has left her scarred emotionally and psychologically.  She decides to seek out help.  She visits a psychologist and during the interview admits she has had suicidal thoughts in the past.  She signs some papers agreeing to treatment but doesn’t realize she has just involuntarily signed herself into a mental institution.  The next thing she knows, Sawyer finds herself inside a setting right out of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1976).

Then, to make matters worse, she sees the man who had been stalking her now working at the institution as an orderly going by the new name of David Strine (Joshua Leonard). Of course, she flips out, believing that this man has followed her here to the institution. Or, is this all in her head?

That’s the question, or at least one of the questions, that is supposed to be driving the plot to UNSANE along, but the problem is, the film answers this question way too early, and once it’s answered, the film is far less fun.

I have to say, for the most part, I was really enjoying watching UNSANE, and the biggest reason was the performance by Claire Foy in the lead role as Sawyer Valentini.  Foy is in nearly every scene in this one, and she is more than up to the task of carrying this movie on her shoulders.  She does a fantastic job.  At times, she shows us a Sawyer who is in control and not in need of medical intervention, but most of the time we see her angry and unhinged, doing nothing to support her argument that she doesn’t need help.

And Foy is not helped by the script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer, which is by far the weakest part of this thriller. Take the main premise, for example. Please.  (Drum Beat.)

It’s so painfully obvious early on when Sawyer is signing those papers that she’s about to be involuntarily committed.  She misses one obvious sign after another, to the point where for me it was completely unbelievable that she wouldn’t realize immediately  that something is wrong. She’s there for just an interview, a conversation, and she finds herself being led into a facility where the bedrooms are in full view, and she doesn’t stop to question why she’s being taken back there? Plus, signing the paper in the first place seems like such a careless thing to do.  Then there’s the staff which are so evasive it’s clear they are trying to trick Sawyer into being committed. Is this how hospitals work? I hope not.

So, the next logical thought is this is going to be a sinister hospital, and because of Foy’s performance I was more than happy to go along for the ride and see where this story and sinister hospital would take me.  The problem is it took me in completely predictable directions that grew more unbelievable as they became known.  The situations also aren’t very clever or innovative.  The basic plot point, once revealed, and it’s revealed early on, is rather mundane.  Foy’s performance deserves a better story than this.

The rest of the cast is very good, so Foy is certainly not going this one alone.  I was particularly impressed by SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE alum Jay Pharoah as fellow patient Nate Hoffman. Nate is the voice of reason inside the institution, and his friendship with Sawyer is one of the only things she can rely on, which she does more and more as she becomes more desperate.  But there’s a plot twist involving his character which doesn’t really do much for the film nor is it all that believable.  But Pharoah is very good in the role, and when he and Foy are on-screen, the film is most watchable.

Joshua Leonard as the “is he really there or not?”  stalker David Strine is okay, but he’s really limited by a script that pretty much makes him the most ridiculous and unbelievable character in the movie.

Juno Temple is memorable as Violet, a rather volatile patient who gets under Sawyer’s skin immediately, and the two fight constantly.

And Amy Irving, who I haven’t seen in a movie in a very long time, appears as Sawyer’s mother Angela. Her screen time is brief, but she manages to get in a couple of noteworthy scenes in what ends up being a very thankless role.

Steven Soderbergh is a talented director whose films are often hit or miss.  His previous film, the quirky comedy LOGAN LUCKY (2017) starring Daniel Craig and Channing Tatum, I liked a lot, but his two prior thrillers, SIDE EFFECTS (2013) and CONTAGION (2011), I was lukewarm to. And I’ve never been a big fan of his OCEAN’S movies. But going all the way back to SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989), and moving on through his career, more often than not his films are hits.  That being said, I’d place UNSANE more in the “miss” category.

The potential was there.  A troubled young woman gets involuntarily admitted to an institution seems like the perfect premise for a hard-hitting thriller, but it’s not.  The institution takes a back seat to the stalker storyline which is simply incredulous. Likewise, the other patients are hardly developed, and what could have been a thought-provoking thriller is reduced to a by-the-numbers melodrama not any better than a standard soap opera plot of yesteryear.

One plot point that does work is the storyline that the hospital admits Sawyer and will keep her for seven days because that’s the length of time her medical insurance will pay for her stay.  After that, she’ll be released, the point being that the only reason the hospital admitted her in the first place was because of the business transaction with the insurance company, that it knew it would be paid. That’s one plot point, whether true or not, I certainly could believe.

And Soderbergh tries his darndest to lift this thriller above typical standard fare. There’s some innovative camera work, especially late in the game during a chase through the woods, but it’s certainly not enough to make up for the weak storyline. And then there’s the fact that he shot this film on an iphone. Interesting, but it didn’t help story all that much.

UNSANE also isn’t much of a thriller.  It’s rated R but isn’t all that violent, bloody, or suspenseful.  It’s mostly rated R for language, as Sawyer lets the expletives fly on numerous occasions.

Claire Foy’s performance as wronged patient Saywer Valentini is the best part of this movie, followed closely by a strong supporting performance by Jay Pharoah as fellow patient Nate Hoffman, who becomes Sawyer’s friend.

But the story is so weak and blatantly predictable that the bottom line is for a suspense thriller, UNSANE is unfun and unscary.

In short, UNSANE is unoriginal, unmoving and understandably underwhelming.

It’s unimaginably unimaginative.

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RED SPARROW (2018) – Cold Spy Thriller Doesn’t Heat Up

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red sparrow

RED SPARROW (2018) is as cold as a Russian winter.

And for a spy thriller that is about forced prostitution, murder, and espionage, that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian ballet dancer who suffers a grisly injury while performing on stage which breaks her leg and ends her career.  Dominika’s uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a higher-up in the Russian Intelligence Agency, and he recruits his niece into the organization, promising her he will take care of her sick mother’s medical bills if she serves Russia as a spy. Ah, supporting the sick mother storyline!  Where have I heard that one before?  In fairness, the plot does take a more believable darker turn when good old Uncle Vanya basically threatens to kill Dominika if she doesn’t work for him.

So Dominika is enrolled in a spy training school which, as she puts it, is really a school for prostitutes, since the candidates are trained to use their bodies to get the information they need. The training includes constant humiliation and degradation. The spies who graduate from this school are referred to as “sparrows.”

Dominika is then sent into the field to make contact with an American C.I.A. agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who knows the identity of a Russian mole who is selling secrets to the Americans.  Dominika’s mission is to extract this information from Nash. Of course Nash being a veteran agent, is on to Dominika from the start, and he believes he can turn her to the American side.

Let the intrigue begin!  And that’s pretty much the plot of RED SPARROW.

In terms of story, RED SPARROW is as bare as an empty bird’s nest.  The main plot is pretty simplistic and not all that believable.  And the early segment involving Dominika’s humiliating training at the sparrow school is so emotionless I hardly cared. And that’s the biggest weakness of the screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews.  I didn’t really care about any of the characters.  Dominika is a cold fish–obviously to survive her training she has to be— but the result is a robot-like character who I never warmed up to.

Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash is the more likeable character of the two, but he’s not the main focus here, nor do we ever learn all that much about him.

The dialogue is standard and doesn’t do the characters any favors as most of the folks in this story talk like robots.  Haythe also wrote the screenplay to the horror movie  A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2016), a movie I liked much better than RED SPARROW.

The theme that nothing happens by accident is true here, but not because of a sense of fate, but rather because the characters in this tale don’t allow anything to happen by accident.  They force, coerce, and manipulate everything.

Director Francis Lawrence fares slightly better than his script.  The film looks sufficiently dark and distressing, and the several scenes of torture in this one make their mark— literally— but again, like the movie as a whole, emotions just aren’t all that prevalent. There are some decent fight scenes, but nothing like the ones in last year’s ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) starring Charlize Theron.

Lawrence directed the last three HUNGER GAMES movies, also starring Jennifer Lawrence, and that’s pretty much where this film falls in terms of quality and feel, on par with a HUNGER GAMES sequel, and that’s not a good thing. Plus, as a spy film, it does nothing to set itself apart from other films of its type.

Jennifer Lawrence, in spite of her considerable acting talent, delivers a one-note performance here as Dominika.  She’s cold and she’s tough, and that’s about it. Obviously, Dominika had to be this way to survive the training and her ensuing mission, and so on paper Lawrence is doing what she should be doing to capture her character’s persona. But there’s nothing beneath the surface here.  We know little about Dominika before her conversion into a red sparrow spy, nor does Lawrence give us any insight into what kind of person Dominika is, other than she’s relentlessly strong-willed and resilient. But you can say the same thing about both Wonder Woman and Frances McDormand’s character Mildred in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), two very different characters who we learn a lot about in their respective movies and so we understand where they are coming from and where they are going.  Such is not the case with Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika.

Joel Edgerton does a fine job as Nate Nash, although his character is also under-written, and so  not a lot is known about him either.

The film is peppered with a strong supporting cast which helps keep this film afloat.

Matthias Schoenaerts gives one of the best performances in the film as Dominika’s uncle Vanya. He makes Vanya cold, calculating, and heartless, which pretty much sums up the feel of the entire movie.

Veteran actress Charlotte Rampling plays the Matron, the no-nonsense woman in charge of training the candidates at the Sparrow school. Mary Louise Parker is memorable in a small role as Stephanie Boucher, the chief of staff of a prominent U.S. Senator who has secrets to sell.

Sakina Jaffrey and Bill Camp are memorable as Nash’s C.I.A. handlers, while Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons play top Russian intelligence officials.

And Sebastian Hulk makes for a frightening Russian torture artist who likes to peel the flesh off his victims. Slowly.

RED SPARROW has strong acting, tepid writing, and by the numbers direction. Combined with an overall emotionless feel, and a focused but uninspiring performance by Jennifer Lawrence, the result is a formulaic and often lackluster spy thriller.

Its frigid tale simply never heats up.

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