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—

 

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THE COMMUTER (2018) – Liam Neeson Action Formula Wearing Thin

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Vera Farmiga and Liam Neesson in THE COMMUTER (2018)

Like many of you, I’ve been a big fan of the Liam Neeson action movies, going all the way back to TAKEN (2008).

It’s been a fun ride, but these films are starting to wear out their welcome.  The trailers for THE COMMUTER didn’t look so hot, and the initial reviews were pretty bad, but being a Liam Neeson fan, I still wanted to check it out.

Yup, the formula is definitely wearing thin, but that being said, I still enjoyed THE COMMUTER, even though I pretty much didn’t believe any of it.

In terms of storytelling, THE COMMUTER gets off to a strong start as former cop turned insurance salesman Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) abruptly loses his job, as he is fired without warning, which leaves him a mess since he’s 60 years old with two mortgages and a son who’s about to go off to college. This plot point resonates because any family these days with kids getting ready for college knows firsthand how insanely expensive it is, and how unfortunately where a person can go to college often has less to do with ability than with finances.

Michael rides the train every day into and out of New York City, and on this particular day, on his way home, he meets a strange woman Joanna (Vera Farmiga) who tells him she’s a behaviorist who studies human behavior.  They strike up a conversation and she throws a hypothetical situation his way: would he be willing to do something without knowing its consequences if he were paid $100,000. Of course, on this particular day, without a job, Michael is intrigued, but he’s hardly interested, until Joanna intimates that she’s not kiddng and tells him $25,000 is hidden in the bathroom, and the rest is his after he finishes the job, which is to locate one passenger and place a tracking device in the passenger’s bag.

After Joanna departs the train, Michael’s curiosity gets the better of him and he checks out the bathroom, where he finds $25,000 in cash.  He decides to pocket the money and get off the train, but before he does another stranger warns him that he’s being watched and if he doesn’t do the job, they will kill his wife and son. Flabbergasted, Michael resists at first but he quickly learns that the powers that be are watching his every move and they will kill without hesitation if he doesn’t do what they want, which of course, begs the question: if they’re so all knowing and all powerful, why do they need Michael’s help in the first place? If they can kill at will without detection, why can’t they find one guy on a train?  You’d think they’d easily be able to do this themselves.

Anyway, Michael finds he needs to use all of his former police detective skills to locate the unknown person, all the while trying both to learn why this person is being targeted and how he can outsmart Joanna and her cohorts.

As action thrillers go, THE COMMUTER is pretty gimmicky.  With the exception of the initial plot point where Michael loses his job, I don’t think I believed any of it.  The idea that these people would go to such lengths to get rid of one person, and by such lengths I mean killing multiple people, coercing a former cop Michael to do a nearly impossible job, and eventually working to derail an entire train, is very hard to swallow.  One contracted hit man could have easily done the job without any fanfare.

Still, Liam Neeson is fun to watch, and I for one definitely enjoyed watching him.  He still makes for a likable hero who’s easy to root for, and Neeson remains a strong enough actor to carry a movie like this.  However, that being said, he’s certainly getting up there in years, and so it’s getting a bit more difficult to believe that he’s as physically unstoppable as his character is supposed to be here.

The film also boasts a veteran supporting cast, although no one really has a whole lot to do, other than Neeson.  I’m also a huge Vera Farmiga fan, and she’s excellent in her brief screen time, but sadly, it is brief.  And while she’s sort of the main villain, she’s never on screen enough to make much of an impact, which is too bad, because if she were, this would have been a much better movie.

Patrick Wilson plays Michael’s former police partner Alex Murphy, and Jonathan Banks, Mike on both BREAKING BAD (2009-2012) and its prequel BETTER CALL SAUL (2015-2018), plays Michael’s friend and fellow train commuter Walt.  And both Sam Neill and Elizabeth McGovern have thankless roles, Neil as police Captain Hawthorne and McGovern as Michael’s wife Karen.

THE COMMUTER was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who also directed the Liam Neeson films UNKNOWN (2011), NON-STOP (2014), and RUN ALL NIGHT (2015), all of which are better movies than THE COMMUTER.  The film does open with a creative commuter montage that sets the tone that this is going to be a slickly made thriller, and it is, as there are some vicious fights on the train and an exciting train derailment climax that unfortunately doesn’t look all that real.  In fact, the special effects of the crash look rather cartoonish.

Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi, and Ryan Engle all wrote the screenplay which can be summed up with one word: contrived.  As I said, little in this movie was believable, and the main plot point of Michael being coerced to find an unknown person or else his family will be killed plays exactly like the plot point of a bad movie rather than something that would really happen in real life.  The dialogue is okay, with Neeson getting all the good lines, but even those aren’t really all that memorable.

If you’re a Liam Neeson fan, you’ll probably find THE COMMUTER fairly entertaining.  I did. But other than Neeson, and Vera Farmiga’s brief screen time, there isn’t much else to like about THE COMMUTER.  It’s really not that great a movie, and it’s certainly not a credible thriller.

Like its main character, Michael MacCauley, THE COMMUTER is a bit worn and weary, but while Michael has enough left in the tank to fight back, the same can’t be said for the movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SNOWMAN (2017) – Lurid, Ugly Tale More About Detectives than Serial Killer They Are Hunting

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The_Snowman_Poster

I should have hated this movie.

There are a lot of things wrong with THE SNOWMAN (2017), but there’s also something oddly mesmerizing about it.

THE SNOWMAN is the tale of a Norwegian detective named Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender)—it’s a good thing his first name isn’t Asa — on the trail of a serial killer whose calling card is he builds angry-looking snowmen outside the homes of his victims. And that’s really all you need to know about the plot of this one.

Now, right off the bat, you’re probably thinking, “Here we go.  Another serial killer movie. I’ve seen this show before.”  But that’s one of the things that works in THE SNOWMAN.  Its unconventional brooding style isn’t like most other by the numbers serial killer movies.  As such, in spite of its issues, it somehow works.

Director Tomas Alfredson, who directed the critically acclaimed vampire movie LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008), has created a somber, moody, and oftentimes ugly tale that is actually far less interested in its serial killer than in its two main detective characters, Harry Hole and his young protegé Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson).  Harry, who is supposed to be this legendary detective, spends most of the movie drunk, as he is dealing with his own personal demons, and while Katrine is sober, she’s haunted by her own issues as well.  The serial killer here is almost an afterthought, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The film takes place in Oslo, and it’s snowing for most of the movie, which is not a good thing for the detectives, since fresh falling snow seems to set off the killer.  Alfredson’s photography does not capture a happy fluffy snow but a haunting depressing snow, with the emphasis on cold, which creates a mood which fits in perfectly with the anguished characters in this one.

The screenplay by Peter Straughan, Hossein Amini, and Soren Sveistrup, based on the novel by Jo Nesbo, focuses on Harry and Katrine, which makes sense, since Nesbo’s novel is part of a series featuring detective Harry Hole.

That being said, it’s a strange narrative.  It jumps back and forth in awkward fashion between the present storyline and a flashback of an earlier detective, another officer dealing with alcoholism, named Rafto (Val Kilmer) who’s investigating what looks to be the same serial killer.  It’s a cold case that Harry refers to once his investigation heats up, and we catch glimpses of it via flashback.

Of the three screenwriters, Amini has the most screen credits, having written films like DRIVE (2011), SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012), and OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016).

THE SNOWMAN is not a happy movie.  It opens with a brutal disturbing scene in which a young boy witnesses his mother physically abused before she takes her own life in front of him, all while the man who is father stands by and watches and then disowns  him, since the boy is his illegitimate son.  As opening sequences go, it’s a bit much.  Plus it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  The boy and his mother chase after the man on an icy road after he declares he’s never coming back.  But we’d just witnessed him beating up on the mom, and so you’d think they’d be happy to be rid of him.  Weird.  But it does set the tone for the rest of the movie.

Everybody is miserable, which probably won’t make audiences like this one all that much.

The running theme here is absent fathers.  Characters have fathers who have died, who have left, or who simply were never around.  As such, one of the more emotional scenes in the movie involves Harry and his “son.”  Harry is now estranged from his girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg) but he’s very close to her teenage son, who’s having a tough time of it because his real father is out of the picture, and so he is constantly running away.  When Harry promises to join him for a weekend camping trip sponsored by the boy’s school, he’s overjoyed, since it’s clear that he never has any “dad” time.  But Harry completely forgets about it, and the scene where the boy realizes Harry isn’t showing up, and the ensuing conversation where his mom tries to suggest that she can go with him to no avail, is a gut-wrenching painful scene that is so good it has no business being in a movie about a serial killer.

The actual serial killer scenes are bloody and violent, since the killer likes to decapitate his female victims and hack off their limbs.  Nasty stuff, and while it is violent, it’s not gratuitous.  It’s also far less interesting than the stories featuring Harry and Katrine.

Probably the weakest part of the movie is the snowman itself, or the snowmen, since the killer makes a new one each time he kills someone.  Rather than being creepy and ominous, they come off as goofy and laughable.  In fact, every time there was a close-up of Frosty’s evil cousins, I wanted to burst out laughing.  Not the intended effect, I’m sure.

As expected, Michael Fassbender is very good as Harry Hole.  He spends most of the movie brooding, drunk, or hung over, and manages to be sober long enough to eventually chase down the killer.  It’s a performance that in a lesser actor’s hands, could have easily turned off the audience.  But Fassbender plays Harry as a man who’s been emotionally scarred.  The performance reminded me a little bit of the work Idris Elba does on the TV show LUTHER.  And Fassbender doesn’t play Harry like a jerk.  He’s a sympathetic character, as even when he stands up his young “son,” it’s clear how badly he feels.

Rebecca Ferguson is every bit as good as Fassbender.  Her detective Katrine has her own demons to deal with, and so she is just as intriguing as Harry. We just saw Ferguson earlier this year in the underwhelming science fiction thriller LIFE (2017).  She was also in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016) and starred opposite Tom Cruise in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (2015).  She’s excellent here in THE SNOWMAN.

Val Kilmer, battling cancer in real life, looks thin and unhealthy here as Detective Rafto. Yet, in his few scenes he manages to be really good.  However, in spite of Kilmer’s performance, his scenes seem to have been sloppily overdubbed, with his voice not matching his mouth movements.  I felt like I was watching a dubbed Japanese monster movie during his scenes.

THE SNOWMAN boasts a strong cast of supporting actors, but unfortunately, none of them do very much.  J.K Simmons has a small thankless role as a rich businessman and possible suspect, and speaking of dubbing, I swear it sounds as if someone else dubbed his voice.  He doesn’t sound at all in this movie the way he does in every other movie he’s been in. Weird.

One of my favorite character actors, Toby Jones, has even less screen time— it’s more like a cameo– as yet another flawed detective. Chloe Sevigny plays twins, and in one of the better supporting performances, David Dencik plays a creepy doctor who is also a suspect.

THE SNOWMAN is an ugly, lurid movie that a lot of people are going to hate because its narrative style is slow, sloppy, and rather unconventional, but all of this somehow makes this film which tells a standard serial killer story refreshing.  No one in the story is all that likable, but you care for them anyway, because their lives are all so miserable and cold.

Do not see THE SNOWMAN expecting a polished suspenseful story about the manhunt for a crafty serial killer.  It’s not that movie.  It’s an awkward, dark, depressing, moody tale of the detectives investigating a serial killer, and as such, in spite of its many flaws, it succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is, namely, to point out that it takes a certain type of person to take on the darkest sickest criminals, and that type of person is often just as tortured and wounded as the people they are hunting.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  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.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  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

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

 

 

 

GOOD TIME (2017) – A Thrill Ride You Do Not Want to Miss

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GOOD TIME (2017) is a strange title for a movie about a bank robbery gone wrong and its aftermath, but don’t let that stop you from seeing this one because GOOD TIME is one of the more intense, energetic, and insane thrillers to come out this year.

It’s a movie you definitely do not want to miss.

GOOD TIME (2017) is the story of two brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie).  Nick is mentally challenged, and Connie is very protective of his brother, but that doesn’t stop him from involving Nick in an armed bank robbery. During their escape, Connie eludes the police, but Nick is arrested.

Connie approaches a bail bondsman to pay for his brother’s release from jail, but he is $10,000 short, so he turns to his friend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and asks her to put up the money for him.  Corey is somewhat unhinged and easily manipulated, and it doesn’t take Connie long to convince her to charge the $10,000 on her mother’s credit card, promising her that it’s a loan, and that she’ll get the money right back.  But Corey’s elderly mother quickly cancels the card, causing an emotional scene at the bail bondsman’s office.  Connie learns the money doesn’t matter because his brother has been transferred to a hospital and cannot be eligible for bail until his health his cleared.

Connie finds out which hospital his brother is being held in and plans to break him out. What follows is a roller coaster ride of a night as Connie faces one obstacle after another in his attempts to free his brother, and the film treats its audience to one twist after another.

GOOD TIME doesn’t stop.  It’s one of the more frenetic movies of the year, and certainly one of the most satisfying.  It’s a ride you definitely do not want to miss.

GOOD TIME was directed by brothers Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.  Perhaps the fact that these two guys are brothers is why they captured so expertly the brotherly bond between Connie and Nick.  Or perhaps it’s just that they are two talented guys, and they are talented, very much so.

Benny not only co-directed this movie, but he also plays Nick, the mentally challenged brother, and it’s a phenomenal performance.  There’s nothing artificial about it.  He makes Nick seem like the real deal.

And Josh not only co-directed this one, but co-wrote it with Ronald Bronstein.  It’s an excellent script with realistic dialogue and vibrant, living characters.  Nearly every character who appears in this movie is interesting, a testament both to the acting and to the superior writing.

The best part of GOOD TIME though is just how creative it is.  It opens with a long dialogue-driven scene between Nick and his psychiatrist, and it has the feel of a documentary, and so you’re sitting there early on thinking, what is the deal here?  I thought this was supposed to be a thriller? And then Connie shows up, chews out the doctor for the way he’s treating his brother, and the film is off and running.  It takes off like a rocket and never looks back.

The camerawork is phenomenal and really brings you into Connie’s world and what it’s like to be him.  The camera gets in close, as there’s some nifty hand-held camerawork. And there are a lot of cool memorable scenes in this one.  The robbery early on and the chase afterwards is as intense a sequence as you’ll find, as are Connie’s efforts to break Nick out of the hospital.  There’s a sequence at an amusement park that is equally as good.

The ending is also suspenseful.

Now, the very ending is a different story.  After such a thrill ride, the movie is just begging for a high-octane conclusion , but that’s not what happens.  However, somehow, it still works, especially when you think back to the first scene in the movie.  The story comes full circle, and the ending, while not explosive, makes sense.

As I said, co-director Benny Safdie also stars as Nick, and he turns in a very strong performance.

But the performance of the movie belongs to Robert Pattinson as Connie.  Regardless of what you think about the TWILIGHT movies, it’s best to simply pocket them away and move on, because Pattinson is proving to be a very good actor.

This is his best performance yet, and he gives Connie a depth not often found in a character like this.  He definitely cares for his brother, and yet he still puts his brother in harm’s way. Connie is a man who thinks he’s better than everybody else and has the gumption to try to prove it, but as most people who think this way eventually find out, that’s not really the case.

Earlier this year, Pattinson had a supporting role as a reporter in THE LOST CITY OF Z, a film which I thought was just okay.  He delivered a very good performance, and he’s even better here in GOOD TIME.

Jennifer Jason Leigh knocks it out of the park in a brief bit as Connie’s friend Corey, an unstable woman who is driven to help Connie because he promised to take a vacation with her.  Likewise, Taliah Webster enjoys some remarkable moments as 16 year-old Crystal whose grandmother takes in Connie temporarily, setting up some situations between Connie and Crystal that are both refreshing and disturbing.

Barkhad Abdi, nominated for an Oscar for his role in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) has a memorable bit as a security guard.  And Hiphop artist Necro shows up as a drug selling heavy.

There’s also an absolutely frenzied and very effective music score by Daniel Lopatin that really adds a lot to the movie.  It reminded me of something John Carpenter would have written.

Without doubt, GOOD TIME is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  Its relentless pace will have you on the edge of your seat throughout, the acting will have you caring about the characters, and the screenplay and creative direction will keep it all real and believable.

The title GOOD TIME has little to do with what actually happens on-screen.  It does, however, describe what the audience will have while watching it.

—END—

 

 

 

 

KIDNAP (2017) – Halle Berry Deserves Better

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Kidnap poster

Halle Berry is a very good actress.  She deserves to be in better movies than KIDNAP (2017).

KIDNAP opens with a mother Karla Dyson (Halle Berry) playing with her son Frankie (Sage Correa) at a busy park.  When Karla is distracted by a business call on her cell phone, she loses sight of her son, and after the call, she discovers that he is missing.

She catches a glimpse of him being shoved into a car, and after failing to catch the car on foot, she jumps into her own car and begins a high speed pursuit.  Just how far will a mother go to get her son back?  That’s the question posed by this movie, and of course the answer is obvious- she’ll go to the ends of the earth.

The rest of KIDNAP is pretty much a nonstop chase as Karla pursues the kidnappers over roads, highways, and wherever they lead her.  Sounds like an intense thrill ride, but it’s not, because the filmmakers forgot one very important ingredient:  they forgot to make it believable.

The first problem I had with the plot of this one is the kidnappers’ motivations.  Karla chases them from the outset, and within seconds she’s on the road behind them causing an uproar.  You’d think that kidnappers, regardless of how much money they might be paid for stealing children, would not want this kind of exposure.  You’d think they dump the child and take off.  But no, they hang on, as if this particular child was the next Lindbergh baby.

The next issue is Karla in her pursuit of the kidnappers causes more accidents and collateral damage than James Bond and Jason Bourne combined.  You’d think the police would be all over her, especially after one of their own, a motorcycle cop, is killed in the chase.  But, nope, the police aren’t anywhere to be found.

At first, I thought the film was going for a DUEL (1971) feel, the classic early Steven Spielberg film about a truck chasing a car driven by Dennis Weaver in which you never see the driver of the truck. Early on in KIDNAP, you don’t see the kidnappers either, just their vehicle.  But, alas, this wasn’t to be as we soon do meet the kidnappers, and— well, it might have been a stronger story had we not met them.

The screenplay by Knate Lee starts with a scary premise- a young child abducted from his mother- but then does nothing with it.  It’s contrived within moments of Karla’s jumping into her car to chase after her son’s kidnappers.

Director Luis Prieto fares a bit better.  The chase scenes are done rather well, and in terms of action scenes, this one doesn’t disappoint.  And the scene early on where Karla discovers her son is missing in the park is a good one, full of suspense and that sense of dread parents feel when they realize their child isn’t where he/she is supposed to be.  But these positives are undercut by the fact that I just didn’t believe any of it.

The best part of KIDNAP is the performance by Halle Berry as Karla, the distraught mother who won’t give up her pursuit of the kidnappers who took her son.  It’s an exhilerating performance, one that makes this movie better than it actually is.

This is the second straight clinker that Berry has starred in, following THE CALL (2013), another pretty bad and convoluted thriller.  She deserves better.

The rest of the cast is neglible.  Chris McGinn and Lew Temple barely register as the kidnappers, mostly because we know nothing about them nor do we see them do a whole heck of a lot.  Temple was much more memorable when he played Axel, one of the prisoners, on THE WALKING DEAD.

Likewise, young Sage Correa as Karla’s son Frankie isn’t in this movie enough to make much of an impact.

I wasn’t expecting much from KIDNAP, and it didn’t really deliver, in spite of a solid performance by Halle Berry and a decent directorial job by Luis Prieto.  It just never really came to life for me, as I never believed what was happening on screen.  This is a movie that was begging for another rewrite, to polish the script and make it more believable.

As it stands, KIDNAP is a rather ludicrous thriller that fails to draw in its audience because it’s difficult to root for Halle Berry when she’s operating in a world that seems so far removed from reality.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  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.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  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

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

 

 

 

 

 

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017) Hard Hitting Horror Movie Makes Its Mark

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belko_experiment larger poster

How low can humanity go?

For instance, would you willingly commit murder to save the lives of those around you? That’s one of the questions asked in THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017), a new horror movie by director Greg McLean and screenwriter James Gunn, the man who wrote the insanely entertaining Marvel superhero movie GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014).

Belko Industries is a company located in Bogata, Colombia.  On a morning that begins like any other morning, the employees come to work, but  they soon notice that the non-American employees are being sent home, and there is a heavier military presence outside the office building.  Rumor has it that there has been some kind of bomb scare, which makes sense in this day and age, and so the 80 employees inside the office continue with business as usual.

Normalcy comes to a crashing halt when a voice announces over the intercom that unless the office workers kill two of their own, innocent people will die.  The doors to the building then lock and metal shielding covers all the windows, effectively locking the 80 occupants inside, and cell phone service is also disrupted.

At first, everyone believes it’s a prank, and they rationalize that as long as they stay calm, nothing bad is going to happen.  When the time limit comes and goes, the voice announces they have failed the first part of the test, and suddenly two people inside the office die as their heads explode.  The workers discover that their co-workers were not killed by gunshot blasts but rather by explosions from within their skulls.  They realize that they all have implants in the back of their necks, put there by the company as tracking devices in case they ever got kidnapped in the highly dangerous Colombian countryside.  Now they understand that they all have bombs inside their bodies, and so they know that whoever is responsible for this horror can kill them with ease.

The voice on the intercom raises the stakes:  unless they kill 30 people inside the building, the voice says 60 people will be killed, so they must kill 30 to save 30.  The employees pretty much divide into two camps, one led by Mike Milch (John Gallagher, Jr.) who believes killing is wrong, and that they must use their energies to find a way to escape, and the other led by Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) who with his military background believes that it is best in order to save 30 lives, to eliminate 30 lives.

I really enjoyed THE BELKO EXPERIMENT, not because it’s a highbrow thought-provoking drama, but because it’s a quick efficient thriller that grabs you within the first few minutes and never lets you go, a hard-hitting actioner that remains intense from beginning to end.

Director Greg McLean makes this one lean and mean.  It clocks in at a mere 88 minutes. There’s no fat here.

McLean crafts some very suspenseful scenes, the high point when Barry and his team round everyone up and decide to choose who will live and who will die.  Then the power goes out, and all hell breaks loose.

James Gunn’s screenplay presents the perfect set-up for a thriller and then executes it brilliantly.  Sure, the characters aren’t as fleshed out as one might want, but this movie is a rare instance where I didn’t mind the lack of character development.  The characters are all terrified, and knowing that they could die at any moment, was enough for me.  They become instantly sympathetic because their lives are in danger.

I wasn’t nuts about the ending.  It’s not weak enough to sink the movie, but it is certainly not the film’s best part.  It’s inevitable with a story like this that you want to know who is responsible and why, and I don’t think the answers provided here were anything special.  The ending just isn’t as satisfying as all that came before it.

Other than the strong screenplay, the best part of THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is the acting.

John Gallagher Jr. is excellent as Mike Milch.  He makes Mike a very likeable character who’s easy to route for.  He also cares for his co-workers and values their lives, which is something some of the others quickly forget.  Gallagher Jr. was also in 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) where he was also very good, and he starred as the masked killer in the horror movie HUSH (2016).

Equally as good as Gallagher Jr. is Tony Goldwyn as Barry Norris.  Goldwyn plays Norris as a three-dimensional character, not just a cardboard cutout.  While Norris sees himself as the man most qualified to both choose who lives and dies and then to be the one to pull the trigger at the executions, when the time arrives for him to do this, you can see the pain on his face.  The horror of what he is doing is not lost on him.

Adria Arjona also stands out as Mike’s co-worker and girlfriend Leandra.

John C. McGinley, probably most known for his role as Dr. Cox on the TV comedy series SCRUBS (2001-2010), but I always remember him for his outstanding portrayal as serial killer Edgler Vess in INTENSITY (1997), is excellent here as the unhinged Wendell Dukes, a role I could easily have seen Bruce Dern play back in his heyday.

The rest of the cast is also very good.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT isn’t going to win any awards for being a deep and thought-provoking drama, but it is a heck of a thriller, an intense horror movie that makes its point.  It’s also quite violent, although it is not a gore-for-gore’s sake movie.

In terms of intensity, it reminded me a lot of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, only without the zombies.  And while there’s nothing in this film as painfully disturbing as the Neegan scene in THE WALKING DEAD, the film does capture that feeling of the horror people feel at being helpless in a situation in which they have no control.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is the third straight above average horror movie I’ve seen in 2017, following A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) and GET OUT (2017).  All three of these films have featured a fresh story that hasn’t relied on clichéd material.  Even better, all three films have been well-acted, well-written, and well-directed.

2017 so far has been an excellent year for horror movies.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT continues this trend.

It’s a relentlessly intense thriller that will have you squirming in your seat.  For a horror fan, you can’t ask for much more than that.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  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.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  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

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

 

 

A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) – An Exercise in Artistic Horror

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a-cure-for-wellness-2017-poster

The new thriller A CURE FOR WELLNESS (2017) is an interesting hybrid— at times, it’s highbrow artistry, imbuing the screen with unsettling and bizarre images, while at others it’s a straightforward mystery melodrama, eventually morphing into an atmospheric horror tale reminiscent of the old style Hammer Films.

A young business executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent by his company to the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company’s CEO from a wellness center.  The company is in trouble, and in order to get through a complicated merger that will save it, they need their CEO, a man named Pembroke, who has declared that he has found life’s answers at this wellness center and will not return.  The company disagrees and sends the ultra ambitious Lockhart to Switzerland to bring back his boss.

The spa is a beautiful castle in the Alps, the seemingly perfect location for people to get away from it all.  When Lockhart arrives, he finds it inhabited by elderly people who are there seeking a “cure” for their problems, people who have spent their lives working and as a result their bodies are broken and sick.  The spa, with its purifying water, offers a cure to these maladies and promises to restore its occupants to full health.

Lockhart isn’t interested in any of this and just wants his boss back.  The head of the center Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs)  tells Lockhart that Mr. Pembroke is in the middle of a treatment, but if Lockhart returns later that evening he will be able to see him.  So, Lockhart leaves and decides to book a hotel room, but on his drive from the resort, he is involved in a car accident.  When he awakes, he’s in a bed with a broken leg, and he finds himself as a patient at the spa.  When he resists, Dr. Volmer tells him that he already cleared it with his company, that since his leg is broken, he might as well remain there in order to rest and heal.

Volmer advises Lockhart to drink plenty of water, because he says the climate there can dehydrate people, and the water there not only hydrates people but also possesses powerful purifying abilities.

During his stay, Lockhart learns a bit about the history of the castle, how a doctor conducted strange experiments there years ago, and how afterwards there was a catastrophic fire.  Lockhart also befriends a mysterious young girl Hannah (Mia Goth) who, like him, is the only other young person being treated there.  Lockhart eventually finds Pembroke and tries to convince him to leave, but his former boss isn’t interested.

Lockhart ultimately learns that no one leaves the spa, and as he begins to discover what really is going on there, things become far more horrific.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a thought-provoking and very creative thriller that I liked a lot.

It’s full of powerful images that are both bizarre and unsettling.  Chief amongst these images are the eels in the water. The water at the spa is advertised as being a natural purifier, but to Lockhart it tastes weird and he begins to see things in it, a glimpse here, a shadow there, and when he is inside a sensory deprivation tank, he becomes aware that he’s not alone, that there are eels swimming in the water with him.  He begins to see them everywhere.  Are they really there?  Or are they just imagined, images caused by the breakdown he seems to be suffering from?

There are other images as well, odd ones involving deer, for example, and bizarre flashbacks involving Lockhart and his parents.  The film throws a lot at you and gives you much more to chew on than your average thriller.

And with its weird imagery, it reminded me somewhat of THE NEON DEMON (2016), although I found THE NEON DEMON more disturbing.  I also thought the story worked better in THE NEON DEMON.  The twist in that movie I didn’t see coming, whereas here in A CURE FOR WELLNESS I did see it coming, and early on.

It’s directed by Gore Verbinski, the man who directed the first three PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, as well as the American version of THE RING (2002), and also the awful THE LONE RANGER (2013).  That’s a wide variety of movies.  A CURE FOR WELLNESS might be his best movie yet.

It looks great, from all the weird images to the elegant photography of the castle spa in the Alps.  It’s so convincing that at times I found myself wishing I could be there vacationing as well.  And as the film becomes more of a straightforward melodrama towards the end, it does take on the look inside this elegant castle of the period piece Hammer Films of yesteryear.  So, there’s a lot to like.

It’s pretty much a compelling mystery.  The film throws enough things at the audience to keep them guessing, but the eventual reveal is one I definitely saw coming.  Even so, I enjoyed the screenplay by Justin Haythe. It creates memorable characters, puts them in an ominous setting, and thrusts them into a truly horrifying tale of mystery and madness.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is also interesting thematically.  The idea that we are making our bodies sick from the stress of overworking, and that a spa could be the solution, resonates, because the need for a physical cure to our aging bodies is real, and so like the patients there, the audience easily buys into it.

And what is really going on with those eels is pretty horrifying.  This part of the story really worked for me.

I also enjoyed the cast.

Dane DeHaan is very good here as Lockhart.  At first I thought he was too young to be a corporate executive, but his performance grew on me, and he gets better as the movie goes along.  Early on he doesn’t come off as a sympathetic character at all, but as the story moves forward, and we see everything that he goes through—and he goes through a lot in this movie—and how he handles it, he becomes more likeable.  At times, he reminded me of Vincent Kartheiser who played Pete Campbell on the TV series MAD MEN.

DeHaan is a fine young actor. Unfortunately, he got stuck playing the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn in the awful THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014), but he was memorable before that in the very good science fiction flick CHRONICLE (2012).

I also enjoyed Jason Isaacs as Dr. Volmer.  Isaacs strikes the perfect balance with the character.  You don’t trust the guy, but he keeps coming back, speaking in level-headed and reassuring tones that he’s really there to help, and each time Lockhart believes him, and the audience does as well.  His performance reminded me of Timothy Dalton.  I could have easily seen Dalton playing this role.

Even better than both DeHaan and Isaacs is Mia Goth as Hannah.  She makes Hannah such an innocent and awkward character, she’s mesmerizing to watch.  There’s a scene where Lockhart and Hannah escape to a local pub, and Hannah plays a song on a jukebox and starts dancing in front of the local youths.  It’s a mesmerizing moment as we see this confused and misunderstood youth begin to express herself through movement.  It’s one of the best scenes in the movie.  Goth nails the sequence.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is not perfect.  It does go on a bit too long.  The film runs about 2 hours and 20 minutes, which was about 20 minutes too long.

Not everything in the movie makes sense.  There’s a couple of scenes with Lockhart and his mother which I’m not sure I understood, as at one point it’s shown that she is dead yet in another scene she’s speaking to him about his trip to the spa.  Also, there’s a confusing scene near the end where all the patients have a rather strange reaction to Lockhart’s words.

Plus the main story, in spite of all the imaginative imagery, is pretty straightforward.

All in all, though, I really liked A CURE FOR WELLNESS.  It’s an interesting hybrid of artistic cinema and straightforward horror, and it makes for a thought-provoking and very chilling movie experience.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  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.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  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

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