A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) – Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively Lift Uneven Comedy Thriller

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Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)

The combination of comedy and thriller is a complicated dance.

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018), the new film by director Paul Feig, known mostly for his comedies, with films such as BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), makes an energetic attempt to master this nuanced tango, but with a few missteps along the way, especially towards its latter half, it’s not exactly a polished polka.

The best part of A SIMPLE FAVOR, and honestly the main reason I wanted to see this one, is its casting of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, as two very different moms whose lives intersect in a way that at first suggests an unexpected friendship but gradually reveals the hatching of a sinister plot.

Kendrick and Lively are both excellent, and they are the main reasons to see A SIMPLE FAVOR. What stopped me from really liking this one was its story, filled with more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, and as such, far less believable.

A SIMPLE FAVOR opens with Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) hosting her vlog, which is usually a platform for helpful tips for moms, but this time she’s discussing the disappearance of her best friend Emily (Blake Lively) who five days earlier had asked Stephanie to do her a simple favor and pick up her son from school because she had to work late, but then Emily never showed up, and no one has seen her since.

Stephanie decides to bring her viewers up to speed and tell the whole story leading up to Emily’s disappearance, and thus the film flashes back to how the two friends first met. Stephanie is an incredibly energetic single mom who volunteers nonstop for her son Miles’ first grade class. When Miles wants to have a play date with his friend Nicky, Nicky’s mom Emily (Blake Lively) at first says no, that she doesn’t have time, but eventually changes her mind and invites Stephanie and Miles over to her luxurious home.

They live in a small town in Connecticut, and Emily works for a high-profile designer in New York City, and her lifestyle is completely opposite from Stephanie’s. But the two strike a friendship which at first seems odd but happens because the one thing they both have in common is that neither one really has any friends.

When Emily disappears, Stephanie joins forces with Emily’s author husband Sean (Henry Golding) to find out what happened to her. And what quickly becomes apparent is that this is not an ordinary missing person’s case. With that in mind, I’ll stop right there because the less known about the plot the better.

That being said, the story as a whole even with all its twists and turns, didn’t really work for me. For starters, there are just so many curves thrown to keep the audience off-balance that after a while it simply becomes too farfetched. By the end of the movie, I found myself believing very little of it.

And this is where the thriller/comedy combo comes into play. Had this been a straight comedy, then I most likely wouldn’t have cared as much if the story wasn’t all that believable. But A SIMPLE PLAN in spite of frequent comedic outbursts retains a serious tone throughout, and when a thriller isn’t believable, that’s problematic.

The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, mixes things up from the outset. In her opening vlog Stephnie announces that Emily is missing, a serious beginning, but in the ensuing flashback Stephanie is shown in highly comedic scenes. It’s an odd mix. The overall look of the film is light and bubbly, yet the dialogue and the plot is most often somber. At one point Emily says the best thing she can do for her son is “blow her brains out,” to which she quickly follows with an “I’m kidding.” The entire film plays like this, and to be honest, as it went along, I had a difficult time determining what was supposed to be taken seriously and what wasn’t. The plot certainly goes down some dark roads as it involves fraud and murder.

And it’s not a comedy which just happens to feature murder a la some of the classics of yesteryear like FOUL PLAY (1978) and MURDER BY DEATH (1976). It’s much more a thriller with some quirky characters and brief comedic moments.

Both Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are excellent, even if they are playing characters who by film’s end I didn’t find very believable. Which is another problem I had with the movie. Most of the characters didn’t seem credible, and so you have this rather serious plot inhabited by characters who were difficult to take seriously.  It just didn’t quite work for me.

I like Anna Kendrick a lot, and her performance was my favorite part of this uneven movie. At first, as Stephanie, she seems to be this supermom, but when she starts loosening up and confiding with Emily, she has some secrets of her own to share. And later, when her relationship with Emily’s husband Sean changes, it opens up the door for some questions about her character and motives. Kendrick does a nice job capturing the nuances of the character, even if the script ultimately lets her down.

Blake Lively is equally as good as the complex Emily Nelson. She’s the complete opposite of Stephanie. She’s the trend-setting go-getting career woman with little or no time for her son, but yet she and Stephanie do become friends. Stephanie is attracted to Emily’s fierce no-apology take-everything-you-can philosophy of life which is so opposite of her own self-sacrificing personality. Lively has a field day as the no-nonsense power mom, whose shadowy past is revealed once Stephanie starts looking into her disappearance.

Henry Golding rounds out the triumvirate as Emily’s husband Sean. Fresh off his starring role as eligible bachelor Nick Young in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) Golding is married this time around but still brings his attractive good looks to dress up the proceedings. Golding makes for a confused husband. At times he’s completely mesmerized and dominated by Emily, and at others he seems genuinely in love with her and sincere in his efforts to find her.

But when his relationship with Stephanie develops, it raises questions that ultimately I’m not sure the film does the best job answering.

When all is said and done, and all the twists and turns have come to a halt and the dust has settled, the result is a plot that is pretty darn ludicrous. I bought very little of it. And one of the main twists in the film is one I’ve seen done many times before.

But it might not matter. I saw A SIMPLE FAVOR in a crowded theater, and there was lots of genuine laughter from the crowd.

Some dark comedies work. In fact I love most dark comedies. But A SIMPLE FAVOR is less a dark comedy and more a comedic thriller, with the emphasis on crime and mystery, but it’s a crime and a mystery that I just didn’t believe.

I ultimately found  A SIMPLE FAVOR to be a disappointment, even with solid performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Kendrick and Lively are very good, but the story they occupy is too far-fetched not to have been played completely for laughs.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

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SEARCHING (2018) – Missing Daughter Thriller Nearly Done In By Ridiculous Ending

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SEARCHING (2018), a new thriller about a man named David Kim (John Cho) searching for his missing daughter, hooked me in immediately and never let go— until its ending.

The gimmick in SEARCHING is that all of its action takes place on a computer screen, which is similar to the same gimmick used in the horror movie UNFRIENDED (2014), a film I thought I would hate, but I didn’t, as I found its computer use surprisingly refreshing. I found the same here with SEARCHING. In spite of the fact that everything that happens in this movie is seen through a computer screen, it all works. I believe this is so because we are all so familiar with personal computers that looking at them for the duration of a movie seems both comfortable and natural, which I know sounds weird, but I think it’s a major reason why the tactic works.

SEARCHING opens with the familiar Windows screen from a decade ago, and in an opening computer montage, we learn all about David Kim’s family. We see footage of his daughter Margot’s first day of school, and fun videos of him and his wife raising Margot. But then things get serious as his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) learns she has cancer, and we follow her struggle to beat back the disease, achieve a victory with a remission, only to ultimately lose the battle and die, her death depicted on a computer calendar marked with the words “Mom comes home,” the phrase copied and pasted to a later date, before it is quietly deleted.

This opening montage, completely told from images on a computer screen, emits more emotion in five minutes than a lot of traditional movies do in their entirety.

After this montage, the action settles on David communicating via Face Time to Margot (Michelle La) who is now in high school, as she’s rushing off to a study group which she says will go late.  The next day, David awakes to find a couple of missed calls from his daughter. His attempts to contact her the next day go unanswered.

As the entire day and night pass without word from Margot, David suspects foul play and calls the police. He’s put in touch with Detective Vick (Debra Messing) who’s the lead detective on the case.  She promises David she will do her best to locate his daughter, and what follows, as David continues to track down leads himself using his daughter’s computer, searching her contacts and friends, is a series of twists and turns that will keep audiences off-balance and guessing until the final reel.

It’s all riveting and exciting, until the end, which provided one twist too many. This final revelation is rather ludicrous and for me ruined what ultimately would have been a very credible thriller.

But before that final twist SEARCHING is a first-rate thriller.

It also has some things to say about families and computer use.  David is shocked to learn once he starts looking into his daughter’s contacts that he really didn’t know his daughter, that there was so much in her life that they never talked about. The film serves as a nice reminder for parents to remember to take the time to talk to their kids.

David is able to learn so much about his daughter once he starts searching her computer because everything is recorded. That’s one of the more fascinating parts to the story, that he can learn as much as he does by researching Margot’s online connections. The electronic stamp we leave with our online use is both fascinating and somewhat scary.

John Cho gets most of the screen time in this one as frantic father David Kim, and Cho is more than up to the task of carrying this movie. He’s excellent throughout.  We get to see a lot of emotions from David, from when he first fears his daughter is missing, to learning that she probably ran away, which goes against everything he knows about her, to other evidence which supports foul play.

Cho, who plays Sulu in the new STAR TREK movies, and who played Harold in the silly HAROLD & KUMAR movies delivers a top-notch dramatic performance here.

Michelle La is also very good as Margot, although since her character is missing she’s really not in the movie all that much and makes less of an impact that Cho.

As Detective Vick, Debra Messing, who plays Grace on TV’s WILL AND GRACE (1998-2018), is okay, but there was something grating about her character. The film continually hammers the point home that for Vick family is everything, and so she is extra driven to help David find his daughter.

A stronger performance was turned in by Joseph Lee as David’s brother Peter, who like any good brother is there for David both as support and to help search for Margot. Until there are some sketchy revelations regarding Peter that suddenly cause David to question his brother’s character.

Director Aneesh Chaganty has made a very entertaining thriller.  I really enjoyed its creative style of storytelling by only showing events on computer screens. This gimmick didn’t detract from the story at all.  On the contrary, it somehow made it even more compelling.

Chaganty also wrote the screenplay with Sev Ohanian, and it’s a good one.  The mystery of Margot’s disappearance is strong, the characters three-dimensional and fleshed out, and the dialogue very sharp. I completely bought David’s relationship with his daughter, and it played out like an authentic father-teen daughter relationship.

I also enjoyed the various twists and turns this one had to offer.

Except for the last one.

Just how bad was that last twist?

It was so bad. How bad was it?

It was so bad it came close to ruining the entire movie for me. It didn’t. But it came oh so close.

It reminded me, for those of us who used to watch soap operas back in the day, of one of those really bad soap opera plots. You know the ones I’m talking about.  Where someone disappears and the clues lead everywhere, and then there’s that one person who should be the last person who is a suspect, but since this is a soap opera where anything is possible, it turns out that yes, that’s the person who committed the crime!

It’s one of the more ridiculous endings to a movie I’ve seen in a while, which is too bad, because everything that came before it was pretty darn good.

All in all, I enjoyed SEARCHING.  It held my interest throughout, all the way to its very disappointing ending, where it offered one twist too many, a twist that comes oh so close to ruining all that came before it.

If only the writers had spent more time searching for a better ending.

—END—

 

 

 

OPERATION FINALE (2018) – Tale of Nazi Capture Relevant Today

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Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley in OPERATION FINALE (2018)

There are moments in OPERATION FINALE (2018), the new historical drama about the capture and extraction of Nazi Adolph Eichmann from Argentina in 1960 by a group of Israeli agents, that resonate more powerfully today because they call to mind current events.

Watching a raucous Nazis meeting you can’t help but recall images of the hate-filled march in Charlottesville or the frenzied crowds at a Trump rally.  The images are eerily similar.

But the action in OPERATION FINALE is all historical.

When we first meet Israeli Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) he’s leading a failed attempt at capturing a Nazi target.  Shortly after they remove the man from his home, ripping him away from his wife and kids, Malkin realizes they have the wrong man, but before he can do anything about it, his associates shoot the man dead. When Malkin tells them they grabbed the wrong Nazi, his partners shrug and ask, does it matter? He was still a Nazi.

The action jumps ahead a few years to 1960, where in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a young German girl Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) brings home her new boyfriend Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) to meet her blind father Lothar (Peter Strauss). When Lothar hears the boy’s name, he sends word to the Israeli government that he believes he has met the son of Adolph Eichmann, the infamous Nazi known as the mastermind of the “Final Solution,” the Nazi plan which led to the mass murder of millions of Jews.

Israeli agent Isser Harel (Lior Raz) sends a team which includes Malkin to Buenos Aires, and shortly thereafter they confirm the identity of Eichmann (Ben Kingsley).  They then plan to capture him and extract him from the country so he can stand trial in Israel for his crimes, which will be no easy task, since Eichmann is surrounded by a vigilant group of Nazis looking to rise to power once more.

OPERATION FINALE really isn’t receiving strong reviews, as I keep hearing it described as slow and unimaginative, but it really deserves stronger praise than that.  I will agree that it is subtle in its storytelling, and it’s rated PG-13 so the horrific violence from the Holocaust will not be on full display here, but there are enough potent images to make it work just fine.

The film is anchored by two very strong performances by Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley. Both actors drive the story forward with their convincing interpretations of the two leads.

I like Isaac a lot, and he seems to get better in every movie I see him in. While he’s probably most known today for his recurring role as pilot Poe Dameron in the new STAR WARS movies, it’s not in that role that he’s really been allowed to strut his stuff.  He’s been excellent in films like ANNIHILATION (2018) and EX MACHINA (2014), and way back when he made an impression in the stylish action fantasy SUCKER PUNCH (2011).

He’s excellent here as Israeli agent Peter Malkin.  He plays Malkin as a man not quite sure of himself at first, and his confidence grows as he’s allowed to establish a relationship with Eichmann while they’re held up in a safe house awaiting the opportunity to fly out of Buenos Aires. The Israelis need Eichmann to sign a document expressing his willingness to leave the country, and when their hardball tactics continually fail, Malkin believes he can get him to sign by appealing to his ego.

The two men partake in a psychological cat and mouse game which heats up in one of the movie’s best scenes when Eichmann attempts to get under Malkin’s skin by telling him the story of how he shot a woman and her baby, knowing that Malkin’s sister and baby were lost in the Holocaust. He asks Malkin if he thinks it was his sister and her baby he shot , and if so, wouldn’t that have been a good thing, for them to have been killed so quickly as opposed to the horrifying ways Eichmann saw others killed?

Ben Kingsley is very, very good as Adolph Eichmann, a man who refuses to stand trial in Israel because he knows there will only be one result, his death, and he believes that in order to receive a fair trial he should be tried in Germany. He also refuses to be the scapegoat for the sins of his former government, and he makes the argument that he was only following orders, just as Malkin is doing now.

At one point Eichmann tells Malkin that he actually tried to help many Jews escape, as he didn’t agree with his fellow Nazis’ solution for getting rid of the Jews. He believed they should have been relocated, and he in fact did relocate many of them, to which Malkin scoffs that he sent them to malaria-filled Madagascar. Eichmann replies that no other country would take the Jews.

It’s a subtle performance by Kingsley, yet it’s no less successful. He makes Eichmann a formidable  force to be reckoned with, and there is something icy cold and sinister underneath nearly every civil line he utters.

The rest of the cast is equally as solid. Lior Raz as Israeli agent Isser Harel, and Nick Kroll as fellow agent Rafi Eitan, and Michael Aronov as agent Zvi Aharoni are all convincing, as are the rest of the actors who round out the team, including Melanie Laurent as the sole woman of the group, Hanna Elian, tasked with drugging Eichmann during their escape.

I also enjoyed Haley Lu Richardson as Sylvia Hermann, the young Jewish woman whose relationship with Klaus Eichmann led to the capture of his father. Richardson is a promising young actress who has yet to land her break-out role. She’s been memorable in supporting performances in films like SPLIT (2016) and THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016). Her role here in OPERATION FINALE is again small, and she again makes an impression.

It was also fun to see Peter Strauss back on the big screen as Sylvia’s blind father Lothar. I think the last time I saw Strauss in a movie was the Johnny Depp thriller, NICK OF TIME (1995). Of course, Strauss mostly did TV work, bursting onto the scene eons ago in the highly popular mini series RICH MAN, POOR MAN (1976).

Director Chris Weitz’s straightforward unassuming style allows the story to unfold gradually and build towards a rather riveting conclusion.

The film does a good job of getting under your skin without blood and gore. For instance, the scene where the young mother raises her child to Eichmann is unnerving to watch even without the actual shootings occurring on-camera.

Weitz also directed THE TWILIGHT SAGA: NEW MOON (2009), the second TWILIGHT movie. Needless to say, OPERATION FINALE is a much better movie than NEW MOON and should go a long way towards helping moviegoers forget that Weitz made that vampire clinker.

The scenes between Malkin and Eichmann are the best scenes in the movie, and they’re also the best written, thanks to a credible screenplay by Matthew Orton.

And while the screenplay doesn’t make Eichmann a sympathetic character, it does make him a three-dimensional one. We see him caring for his family, we catch glimpses of the cold psychological power he possesses, we experience his raw fear when first captured, and we are allowed to enter his calculating mind while he’s a prisoner.

Critics are not being overly kind to OPERATION FINALE, and that’s too bad, because it’s a solid well-made movie.

It works as both a historical piece, in that it’s a compelling tale of the capture of Nazi Adolph Eichmann, and as a cautionary tale for our times, reminding us of the importance of striking down fascism.

—END—

 

 

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018) – SICARIO Sequel A Solid Thriller

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Isabela Moner and Benicio Del Toro in SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018).

 

SICARIO (2015) was my favorite movie of 2015.

It was also the first film written by Taylor Sheridan, who, along with his screenplays for HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016) and WIND RIVER (2017) has become one of my favorite screenwriters working today.

So, my interest in the sequel to SICARIO went up when I realized that Sheridan was writing it.

That sequel, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018), does what most sequels fail to do: it tells a completely different story from its predecessor, as it follows the natural progression of two of the main characters from the previous movie and tells their ongoing story. As such, it feels more like the next episode in a quality TV series rather than a rehash of the first movie, the trap into which many sequels fall. In fact, it’s the second chapter in a proposed trilogy of SICARIO movies.

Its plot is also timely, as it involves smuggling immigrants over the southern border from Mexico.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO opens with Mexican immigrants being rounded up as they try to cross the border. One of the men flees and just as the officials are closing in on him, he detonates a bomb and blows himself up. The action switches to Kansas City where we witness a deadly terrorist attack where suicide bombers blow up a crowded shopping area.

Special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) is called in to meet with Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) and a group of other officials.  Graver explains that while Mexican cartels used to make most of their money smuggling drugs, nowadays they make more money smuggling people. Riley then informs Graver that the cartels have upped the ante as they are now smuggling terrorists.

Riley wants Graver to put a stop to this, and Graver, an expert in dealing with the cartels, says the best way to do it is to get them to fight each other, and so a plot is hatched to kidnap the daughter of a Mexican drug lord and make it look like the work of a rival cartel. Graver is given the green light to do whatever it takes, and as he assembles his team, he includes the shadowy hitman Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).

Graver’s team pulls off a brazen daytime abduction of the daughter, Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner) and they do indeed lay the blame on a rival cartel. But before their plan of getting the cartels to fight each other can take shape, things get messy, and as we know, the best laid plans of mice and men—.

In addition to Taylor Sheridan once again writing the screenplay, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO also reunites two of the stars from the first movie, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, as they both reprise their roles from SICARIO, and as you would expect, they are both excellent once again, delivering solid performances.

On the other hand, Emily Blunt, who played the main character in SICARIO, did not return for the sequel and her presence is definitely missed. Likewise, director Denis Villeneuve also did not return, and these are two of the reasons why SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO, a solid thriller nonetheless, isn’t as good as its predecessor.

It’s a decent enough screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, although it’s probably not as tight as his previous scripts. It tells a tense and riveting story, and gives us realistic characters and dialogue. Like his previous screenplays, it also gives us layers. There’s a lot going on in this story.

One of the fresher and very timely aspects in the script is its take on immigrants coming into the country. For the most part, it seems to vindicate those who argue for stronger borders, but later in the movie, as the mission is spiraling out of control, it’s revealed that the Kansas City terrorists were American citizens and weren’t smuggled into the country after all, which turns the entire mission upside down. It also is one of those layers I was just talking about. Things are never black and white in a Taylor Sheridan screenplay.

But the story isn’t quite as tight as previous Sheridan tales. While the intensity is palpable for most of the film, it doesn’t quite hold up till the end. The story fizzles somewhat by the time we get to the final reel.

But as I said both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reprise their roles and are both exceptional. I actually enjoyed Brolin more this time around, as his character seemed to be a bit more fleshed out. Del Toro, while less chilling and mysterious than he was in SICARIO, still makes Alejandro a force to be reckoned with.  There’s more sympathy for the character this time around.

I like both these characters and would be more than happy to see them in yet another movie.

The younger actors here also fare well. Elijah Rodriguez is very good as Miguel Hernandez, a teen recruited by his adult cousin to work for the cartels smuggling immigrants across the border. It’s a cold-hearted performance that definitely strikes a chord.

But the performance of the movie belongs to young Isabela Moner as the kidnapped daughter Isabel Reyes. When we first meet Isabel, she’s in a fight at her school with another girl, and when she’s called into the principal’s office, she pretty much tells him off. And when he says he should expel her, she calls him on it, and when he does nothing, she says, “Yeah. That’s what I thought.” She then casually strolls out of his office, knowing full well she’s untouchable because of her father.

Once abducted, she’s terribly frightened, as she should be, and rather than being a clichéd “handful” she’s smart and resilient. The story arc where she bonds with Alejandro also works. It’s a terrific performance by Isabela Moner, and as much as I enjoyed Brolin and Del Toro in this movie, I think I enjoyed Moner even more. She really brings Isabel Reyes to life.

The supporting cast is full of veteran actors, including Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Shea Whigham, and Bruno Bichir.

Director Stefano Sollima doesn’t imbue this film with as much sweat-inducing intensity as Denis Villeneuve gave the original, but he’s also working with a weaker story. As much as I like Taylor Sheridan’s writing, the story told in the first SICARIO was a stronger one than the one told here.

Still, there are some effective scenes. The sequence where Graver’s team is attacked by the Mexican police is a good one, as is the initial kidnapping scene. And near the end, where Alejandro finds himself at the mercy of cartel members, the suspense is nail-biting.

But SICARIO was a tight thriller that remained riveting right up until the end, whereas SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO simply doesn’t do this. It has its moments, a lot of them in fact, but it doesn’t match the phenomenal original.

Sicario, by the way, is Spanish for “hitman,” and soldado means “soldier.” I’m guessing that’s a reference to Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver character, who’s portrayed here much more as a soldier this time around.  And he does tend to take center stage here.

I’m also guessing this one might underperform at the box office. I saw it on opening night with a sparse crowd which was almost entirely male. I spotted just one or two women in the audience.  And these guys were jacked and — well, let’s just say they  looked like they wanted to sign up for Matt Graver’s special ops team. So if you’re looking to put together a secret military unit, look no further than the audience at a  SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO movie.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO is nowhere near as strong a film as the original, but it’s still a hard-hitting thriller which successfully tells a complex and timely story involving cartels, immigration, and the shadowy missions of the U.S. government.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel 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

 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, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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.

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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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