Streaming Movie Review: THE GIFT (2015)

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Rebecca Hall, Justin Bateman, and Joel Edgerton share an awkward dinner in the mystery/thriller THE GIFT (2015).

Even though I see lots of movies each year, I’m never able to see every one I want to see at the theater, so it’s always fun to catch a film I missed the first time around.

Such was the case with THE GIFT (2015) a thriller from few years back written, directed, and starring Joel Edgerton.

I like Joel Edgerton a lot.  I’ve enjoyed nearly every movie I’ve seen him in, from IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), BLACK MASS (2015), to THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where he played Tom Buchanan.  THE GIFT was his directorial debut, and as debuts go it’s pretty darn good.

 

THE GIFT tells the story of a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) who move to California to get a fresh start in life since Robyn had recently suffered a miscarriage. They move to a place close to Simon’s home town. Not long after they are there, they run into a man (Joel Edgerton) who says he used to know Simon, but Simon doesn’t recognize him until he tells Simon his name, Gordon Mosely, or “Gordo” for short. At that point Simon does remember him and they have a polite exchange.

That is the end of that until Gordo sends them a gift, a gesture Robyn thinks is sweet, but Simon strangely seems unnerved by it, and explains to his wife that Gordo was something of an odd duck back in school, so much so that he earned the nickname “Weirdo.” When Gordo begins to visit more often and attempts to become closer friends with the couple, Simon pushes back, and the whole thing raises a red flag for Robyn because she doesn’t quite understand her husband’s feelings of hostility toward Gordo.

As things grow weirder and tensions rise, and as Simon and Robyn begin to feel threatened by Gordo, Robyn decides to look deeper into the man’s background, and what she finds is not what she expects, especially regarding her husband.

I really enjoyed THE GIFT.  Its story grabbed me right away and held my attention throughout. Because I thought I knew where the plot was heading, I kept expecting it to become stupid or predictable, but that didn’t happen.  It stays strong throughout and kept me guessing all the way to the end.

As a result, THE GIFT is a solid mystery/thriller.

The three principal actors all do an excellent job, and as a director, Joel Edgerton should be commended for getting so much out of his actors, even if one of those actors was himself.

First and foremost, it was fun seeing Jason Bateman cast against type. The comic actor, who has enjoyed a very long career and has starred in the recent comedies GAME NIGHT (2018), IDENTITY THIEF (2013), and the HORRIBLE BOSSES movies, as well as the ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (2003-18) TV series, is really good here as Simon, the seemingly wonderful husband with a dark past. I bought his performance throughout.

Likewise, Rebecca Hall is equally as good as Robyn. It’s a nuanced performance because she has to react to things that affect her intuition and gut feelings, rather than to things that are blatantly in her face.  And she pulls it off because most of the time I knew exactly what she was thinking and feeling. I’ve enjoyed Hall in other movies, in films like THE TOWN (2010) and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2008), but her performance here ranks as one of my favorites.

To round out the trio, Joel Edgerton does a fine job as Gordo as well.  As I said, I’m a big fan of Edgerton’s, even though the last two films I saw him in weren’t very good, GRINGO (2018) and RED SPARROW (2018), but that being said, Edgerton’s performances in those movies were just fine.  In THE GIFT, as was the case with Rebecca Hall, Edgerton’s performance is a nuanced one. At first, there’s something quite sad about the man, and then something a little creepy, but then sad, or is it creepy? That’s part of the reason this movie works so well.  It keeps you guessing.

Which brings me to the screenplay, also by Joel Edgerton. It scores high on several fronts. It creates realistic three-dimensional characters who are difficult to label, because we get to see different sides to them. It also works as a solid mystery and thriller.  I did not figure out where the story was going ahead of time, which is always a good thing, nor was I disappointed with the reveals at the end of the movie. Everything pretty much works.

The screenplay also works as a social commentary, as it has something to say about bullying, and it says it well.

And as I said, it’s an impressive directorial debut for Edgerton. In addition to being a successful mystery, it’s also an effective thriller.  The best part is that it doesn’t rely on violence to unnerve its audience.  It relies on its story and its characters. There is a feeling of unease throughout the movie, a feeling that keeps the audience off-balanced, and this feeling pervades until the end credits roll.

THE GIFT is an excellent thriller, one that I’m sorry I missed at the theater during its initial run. But it’s currently available on Netflix, and I highly recommend you take a look.  You’ll be sure to enjoy it— unless, of course, a long-lost friend shows up at your doorstep bearing gifts. If that happens, you might want to look over your shoulder— or into your significant other’s past.

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HUSH (2016) – OK Horror Movie Is Too Quiet At Times

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Shh!

HUSH!

Why the silence?  Because today I’m revieiwng HUSH (2016), a new horror movie about a deaf woman terrorized by an insane killer.  It’s available now on Netflix Streaming.

HUSH was written and directed by Mike Flanagan, the same guy who brought us OCULUS (2013), a horror movie I wasn’t all that crazy about.

HUSH tells a rather simple story.  Deaf author Maddie (Kate Siegel) lives alone in a secluded house in the woods, where she spends her days working on her novel.  She is close to her neighbors, a woman named Sarah (Samantha Sloyan), who visits her in the opening scene of the movie, and Sarah’s husband John (Michael Trucco).

Life is good, until one night when a masked killer (John Gallagher Jr.) armed with a deadly crossbow shows up at her door and decides he’s going to spend the night terrorizing her before ultimately slaying her. Maddie immediately tries to use her laptop to call 911, but the killer cuts the power to her house, rendering her server, router, and modem useless.  Maddie then spends the rest of the movie trying to stay alive, as she not only needs to defend herself against the killer, but she also has to find a way to escape from him.

Been there, done that.

And that’s the biggest issue I had with HUSH.  It’s nothing I hadn’t seen before, and there’s nothing about it that makes it better than those similar films that had come before it.

That being said, it’s a polished good looking flick, it’s got good acting, and it has a couple of interesting scenes, so it’s not all bad.  It’s just not all that exciting either.

It gets off to a good start.  I enjoyed the opening scene between Maddie and Sarah.  It establishes Maddie as a likeable character, someone I felt I could easily care for.  The killer’s initial entrance is also a good one, as we first see him when he brutally murders Sarah.  It’s a violent scene, and in terms of shock value I thought it scored high on the fright meter.  The killer definitely caught my attention at this point.

But then, strangely, the film takes a nose dive.  The killer confronts Maddie, and the cat and mouse games begin.  This is where the suspense should have taken over, but to my surprise it really didn’t.  It becomes one of those movies where there are lots of scenes without dialogue where Maddie is creeping around her house, looking for ways to escape.  She then tries to escape,the killer stops her, she retreats back into her house, and the process repeats itself.  This part of the movie bored me to tears and I really had a difficult time sitting through it.

It also suffered somewhat from the “Home Alone” syndrome, where Maddie would play the role of Macaulay Culkin and find ways to inflict pain on the killer, who would groan and grunt a la poor Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.  Not something a horror movie should be proud of.

Things do get better though, around the time Sarah’s husband John shows up, mostly because it introduces a third character, which if nothing else, provides the movie with some much needed dialogue.  And I thought the ending worked, even if it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before.  Basically, Maddie uses her writer’s brain to evaluate the various “endings” which in this case means her options for escape.    I thought this worked, and the ending was one of the more exciting parts of the movie.

I really enjoyed Kate Siegel as Maddie.   She does a nice job bringing the deaf character to life and gives her a lot of energy, making her a believable heroine when she fights off her attacker.  One criticism however is I never found her to be as frightened as I imagine she would have been.  I didn’t get the sense that she felt she might die at any second.  Siegel also starred in OCULUS, and I enjoyed her more here in HUSH than in that other horror movie.

For the most part, I enjoyed John Gallagher Jr.as the killer.  At first, he’s wearing a mask, and as much as I like masks in horror movies, I thought this one was rather silly, and when he finally took it off, I was glad.  The mask had this silly grin which reminded me of David Naughton in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981).  I kept expecting Griffin Dunne to show up beside him.

However, even without the mask, the character struggled to exhibit any personality.  We never really get to know much about this killer other than he’s just some random psycho, which to me, hurt this movie.  Give this guy a background story and it gets that much better.  We do get to see more of his personality as the film goes along, and the character eventually grew on me as a villain, but I can’t say that I thought he was all that scary or disturbing.  Gallagher is up to the task of getting inside this character’s head, but there’s just not much there to play with.  Gallagher was also in the recent 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) and in that movie he was given much more to do and was able to deliver a stronger performance.

The screenplay by director Mike Flanagan and lead actress Kate Siegel is okay.  I liked the premise, I thought Maddie was a strong main character, and there were some shockingly violent scenes, but the film suffers through a long stretch where nothing much happens. The killer needed to be developed more, which would have helped the story.

I thought Flanagan did a fine job directing.  The first murder is a brutal stabbing death that really grabs your attention, and some of the scenes near the end also worked, like when Maddie gets her hand stuck in the door, and the killer mercilessly crushes it with his foot.  The film also looks slick and polished and doesn’t come off as low budget at all.

There’s just not a lot to this one.  HUSH really needed something more, an edge of some sort, to make it stand out from similar horror films of its type.

All in all, not bad.  It’s a good looking thriller, it’s got some scary parts here and there, but at times it’s just a little too— hushed.

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Thought-Provoking THREE KINGS (1999) Quirky and Intense

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Streaming Video Review:  THREE KINGS (1999)

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Michael Arruda

 

With the upcoming release of George Clooney’s latest movie, TOMORROWLAND, due in theaters on May 22, 2015, I decided to check out an earlier Clooney film that I had missed the first time around.  THREE KINGS (1999), a movie about the first Iraqi war, starring Clooney and Mark Wahlberg and now available on Netflix Streaming, takes place in the waning days of the Persian Gulf War.

When Major Archie Gates (George Clooney) learns that three soldiers have discovered a map leading to massive amounts of gold which Saddam Hussein had taken from the Kuwaitis, he decides to steal it.  He enlists the aid of these three soldiers, Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg), Staff Sergeant Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) and Private First Class Conrad Vig (Spike Jonze).  They set out in secret for the gold, but along the way they witness the Iraqi Republican Guard executing an innocent Iraqi, an action which Major Gates can’t let stand.  He retaliates, and in the process, rescues a large group of Iraqi prisoners, a group that includes women and children.

Suddenly, Gates’ objectives change, as he finds himself responsible for this group of prisoners, and he agrees to help them reach the Iranian border, a quest that puts him and his men up against Saddam Hussein’s forces and his own American army.  And then there’s the matter of the gold, which Gates still has no intention of giving up, setting the stage for a thrilling journey through the Iraqi desert as they attempt to escort Iraqis to freedom.

I really enjoyed THREE KINGS, both its story and its quirky tone, which for the most part works as a black comedy.

It was interesting to watch a movie about the first Iraqi war, made before the events of September 11.  So many recent movies have focused on the second Iraqi war and the events following 9/11.  Events depicted in this movie, while still disturbing— it’s a war after all— still don’t play as intense as recent films on the second Iraqi war and the war in Afghanistan, movies like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012), and THE HURT LOCKER (2008).  Our collective consciousness is much darker now than it was when this film was made in 1999.

But that’s not to say that THREE KINGS doesn’t have its share of intense moments.  It does.  The execution of the Iraqi woman in front of her young daughter, for example, is a jarring sequence, as is the torture sequence where Mark Wahlberg’s Sergeant Barlow is captured by Iraqi soldiers and tortured with electric shocks and is eventually forced to drink motor oil.  These scenes are not for the squeamish.

I also had to keep reminding myself that this was about the first Iraqi war.  For instance, when the film makes reference to Saddam Hussein and the influence he wields over his Republican Guard, I found myself scratching my head questioning, “Saddam Hussein?  Isn’t he dead?”  Of course, then I’d remember that the objective of this first war was only to oust Hussein from Kuwait, and that he wasn’t removed from power and eventually executed until after the second Iraqi war.

Writer/Director David O. Russell has made a hard hitting war movie that effectively makes its point that although Americans largely viewed this war as a “clean” war, in that not a lot of American soldiers lost their lives, and that its objective was largely met, it’s still a war, and for the people of Iraq, there was nothing “clean” about it.  It disrupted their lives and caused death and destruction.

Russell keeps things from being too bleak with a quirky tone that generates laughter, albeit mostly of the uncomfortable variety.  Spike Jonze’ Private Vig is humorous in his naivety, even though his ignorant views are as sad as they are funny.  His banter with Walberg’s Sergeant Barlow is the liveliest part of the movie.

Russell would go on to make THE FIGHTER (2010), also with Wahlberg, and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), two films I liked better than THREE KINGS.  Russell also directed AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), the overly ambitious 1970s con artist tale which I liked but didn’t love, and I think that while THREE KINGS is a less ambitious film than AMERICAN HUSTLE, I liked it more.

As screenplays go, Russell’s work here with THREE KINGS is very good, as the story remains compelling throughout and actually gets better and more exciting as the movie goes along, and the dialogue is first-rate.  It makes its points about the Gulf War and provides plenty of entertaining snappy dialogue that is riveting and real.  That being said, it’s not quite as good as his screenplay for SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).  That one was a grand slam.

George Clooney is terrific as Major Archie Gates.  At first, the jury is out on this character, as you wonder what kind of a man he is since he’s willing to steal gold from the Iraqis, but when he steps up to intervene on the innocent Iraqis’ behalf, you see firsthand what kind of a man he is, and he’s all the better for it.  Clooney is effective throughout and makes Gates in spite of his early actions a man you can root for.

Reportedly, Clooney and director Russell feuded on the set, so much so that Clooney declared he’d never work with Russell again.  Not sure if this is true or not, but Clooney’s Gates certainly seems like his he has a chip on his shoulder throughout this movie.

Mark Walberg is also excellent as Sergeant Troy Barlow.  There’s a youthful exuberance about Barlow, a naivety that nonetheless is balanced with a sense of responsibility and leadership.  Barlow takes the even more naïve Private Vig under his wing and looks out for him throughout the story.  It was fun to see a younger Walberg, and while he’s very good in this movie, he’s gotten even better over the years, improving to the point where he’s one of the better actors working today.

 

Spike Jonze is memorable as Private Conrad Vig, although I wanted to give the character a library card and a newspaper with the instructions to start reading.  Vig is a backwards but well-meaning character, and Jonze does a nice job capturing these traits.  Ice Cube is also notable as the religious Sergeant Chief Elgin.  He provides the moral conscience for the group.

Nora Dunn is also very good as reporter Adriana Cruz, who spends the bulk of the movie getting the runaround from Clooney’s Gates, but we get to know her well as she shares her lamentations about the war, wondering what this war was really all about.  And at the end, when Gates needs the help of the press to get his job done, it’s Cruz that he turns to.

I really liked THREE KINGS.  It’s a thought-provoking exciting movie about a war that nowadays has been largely overshadowed by the traumatic events which were soon to follow it.

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