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.  

 

 

 

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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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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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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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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.

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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.  

SPLIT (2017) – Entertaining Thriller Not Frightening Enough

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SPLIT (2017), the new thriller by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, about a man with multiple personalities who abducts and imprisons three teenage girls, is an attempt to expand on the PSYCHO format.  Rather than a psychopath ruled by two personalities, let’s give audiences one who’s ruled by 24 of them.  Does it all work?  Up to a point.

Yup, I’m— split— on SPLIT. (heh heh.)

This one gets down to business right away.  The film opens with the three girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) about to be driven home from a party by Claire’s dad, but they don’t get that far.  That’s because a man (James McAvoy) overpowers the dad and enters the car where he proceeds to knock out the girls with some sort of gas.

When the girls awake, they find themselves in what appears to be an underground bunker. They are being held prisoner by a man who refers to himself as Dennis.  Later, they hear a woman’s voice outside the door, and the girls call to her for help.  When the woman enters, the girls are shocked to see that it is Dennis dressed in woman’s clothing, although he’s no longer Dennis but Patricia.

The girls quickly realize that they are dealing with someone with multiple personalities.

We learn more about Dennis—whose real name is Kevin— and his other personalities as he visits his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley).  Meanwhile, the girls try to find a way to escape, and they see as their best chance to take advantage of Hedwig, the 9 year-old personality inside Kevin’s body.  But they need to escape quickly, because Hedwig constantly speaks of “the Beast” who he says is on his way and will do terrible things to the girls.

M. Night Shyamalan, the man who brought us THE SIXTH SENSE (1999), UNBREAKABLE (2000), and SIGNS (2002), but then went on a prolonged slump which lasted more than a decade, bounced back last year with the very good thriller THE VISIT (2015).  SPLIT, while not bad, is a step back from THE VISIT.

While I liked the story in SPLIT, I didn’t find it all that suspenseful.  And rather than growing more tense as it went along it became tedious.

Part of the problem is the film’s trailer gave away way too much about this movie’s plot.  There were a lot of things that happened in this movie— Patricia’s first appearance, for instance— that I would have felt different about had I not known about them already.  This is also a case where the trailer is actually better than the movie.

But the lack of suspense isn’t just the fault of the trailer.  Shyamalan deserves some of the blame.  While the premise is certainly interesting, and McAvoy’s performance as all those multiple personalities is exceptional, not a lot happens in this movie.  I didn’t feel the suspense at all, and neither did the audience.  I saw it in a pretty packed theater, and I don’t think there was one gasp or scream to be heard.

The other thing about SPLIT that impeded the suspense is Dennis and friends keep talking about “the Beast” who is coming to harm the girls, and really, there isn’t a whole lot of build-up to this beast.  This should have been terribly frightening, but it’s not.  Worse, not only isn’t there build-up, but once the Beast does show up he’s about as scary as some of McAvoy’s X-MEN mutant friends.

That being said, the acting here is very good.  Hands down my favorite part of SPLIT is James McAvoy’s performance.  He is amazing here, although once again unfortunately we see nearly every personality he plays given away in the film’s trailer, which hurts more than helps.

I also enjoyed Anya Taylor-Joy as Casey, although she gave a stronger performance in last year’s  THE WITCH (2016).  Of course, her role in THE WITCH was a more challenging one, but she’s still very good here in SPLIT.

And while I did like Taylor-Joy as Casey, I wanted to know more about the character.  I think the film would have been stronger had more time been spent on Casey.  We learn about her past in the flashbacks to when she was a little girl, but I wanted to know more about her in the here and now.  She’s a very interesting character, and she and Kevin both share a troubled childhood, a bond which could have been played up more.

Haley Lu Richardson is very good as Claire as well, although she gave an even better performance in THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016).  I actually thought that Claire made the most sense of the three girls.  When they talked about what they needed to do to survive, it was Claire who talked about fighting back and hitting Kevin hard to escape, while Casey said that didn’t make sense and that they needed to hang back and think their way out of this.  I thought Claire had the right idea, although in this story it’s Casey who has more success.

Betty Buckley is also very good as Dr. Karen Fletcher.

Shyamalan’s screenplay was okay.  I liked the premise, but ts execution not so much. It had plenty of opportunities to become a suspenseful movie, but it didn’t.  The film also seemed to lack a sense of urgency.  It just sort of meanders along telling its story.

Actually, the most frightening part of the story are the flashbacks showing Casey’s past, and the most disturbing scene is the revelation at the end of the movie about Casey’s present life.  I found that far more disturbing than any of the traditional horror stuff involving  Kevin and his multiple personalities.

My favorite part of the screenplay is summed up in a line which the Beast utters to Casey near the end, when he sees the scars on her body and says something to the effect that it’s the broken who are blessed, which brings tears to her eyes.  It’s a theme that runs through the movie, often voiced by Betty Buckley’s Dr. Fletcher that what we see as weaknesses or disabilities in people like Kevin, may actually be strengths and things that make them superior.

I liked this part of the screenplay.  I liked McAvoy’s performance.  But I never felt frightened by the main premise of this movie:  the three girls being held prisoner by a madman.  Those scenes I just didn’t find that intense, and so in spite of the things I liked about this one, it didn’t possess enough of an edge for me to really love it.

There is a surprise cameo at the end by a major star, but seriously, this “twist” did little for me.

Long story short, I liked SPLIT, but I thought I would like it more.  Not once during this movie did I feel like I was on the edge of my seat, and this is in spite of a fairly interesting story and an amazing performance by James McAvoy.

SPLIT is a decent movie, but it’s simply not edgy enough to succeed as a hard-hitting thriller.

—END–

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016) – Thought-Provoking Creative Exercise in Moviemaking

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NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, the new thriller by writer/director Tom Ford, and starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, is the type of movie that gives its audience lots to think about, and the more you think about it the more you like it.

I’m still thinking about it.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS opens with one of the most difficult-to-watch opening credits you’ll ever see in a movie.  The credits play over images of naked obese women dancing, in slow motion with nothing left to the imagination.  When the credits end, it’s revealed that these women are part of a modern art exhibit hosted by the film’s main character, art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams).

But even the reason for this choice of exhibit, these opening credit images, is something to think about, expecially when you juxtapose the outward ugliness and happy faces of these obese women with main character Susan Morrow’s outward beauty and internal sorrow.

So, Susan Morrow is a very successful art dealer and gallery owner, but she’s also terribly unhappy.  Her current marriage with the handsome and successful Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) is not going well, as her hubby is having an affair.  She’s also not happy with her career.

In the midst of all this, she receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a novel he has written entitled Nocturnal Animals, which he has dedicated to her.  She starts reading it and is immediately captivated by the story, which we see unfold on screen.  A man Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter are driving along a lonely stretch of Texas highway when they cross paths with a carload of unsavory characters who force them off the road.

After a terse and very uncomfortable conversation, the three men, led by an aggressive sociocapth named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) abduct Tony’s wife and daughter.  What follows and what horrible things happen to Tony and his family make up the bulk of the novel.

To Susan, it’s clear that this novel is symbolic of what happened to Edward in their marriage, specifically what she did to Edward as she ended their marriage.  She begins to think back to that time, when she and Edward were married, and these scenes are shown via flashback.

There are three stories being told in NOCTURNAL ANIMALS:  Susan’s present day predicament, dealing with her crumbling marriage and unsatisfying art career, the novel, which tells the fictional story of Tony — by far the most compelling part of the movie—, and Susan’s looking back at her first marriage to Edward.

Does the telling of all three stories work?  Do they seamlessly make up one terrific movie?  Not exactly, because there are certainly flaws here.  But NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is such a creative ambitious movie it’s easy to look past them.

The acting is excellent.  I’m a huge fan of Amy Adams and she doesn’t disappoint here at all.  Susan is a terribly unhappy character, and Adams captures this sadness brilliantly.  The entire movie is steeped in sadness, all the way down to its final shot.

By the far, the best story in the movie is the fictional one told in Edward’s novel.  That story also features the best acting in the movie.  Jake Gyllenhaal is very good as tormented husband Tony, the fictional counterpart of Edward.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson knocks it out of the park as the unhinged Ray.  Even better than both these guys is Michael Shannon as rogue law man Bobby Andes, who makes it his mission to hunt down Ray and his friends and bring them to justice.

I found Shannon’s performance mesmerizing.  The best part is he lifts Bobby above the usual rogue law man character and makes him nuanced enough to stand on his own.  He really makes him a real person, which is pretty funny when you think about it, since Shannon is playing a fictional character in a novel!  His Bobby acts and looks like he walked off the set of another recent movie involving crime in Texas, HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), starring Jeff Bridges and Chris Pine, which came out earlier this year.

But the problem I had with this part of the movie is as good as it is, we know from the get-go that what we are watching is part of a fictional novel being read by Susan, and so while this is certainly creative, it also takes aways from the drama.  I was never as invested in these characters as I otherwise would have been, since I knew they weren’t real.

On the other hand, it’s clear that this story about Tony written by Edward is symbolic of what happened to his marriage with Susan, and how it impacted him.  As we see in the flashbacks, Susan ended their marriage in a truly horrible way.

It’s hinted at in the movie that Susan feels slightly threatened by the book, that she views its story as Edward seeking revenge against her.  I didn’t think this was played up enough in the movie.  I never got the sense Edward was a threatening person, nor did I feel Susan’s life was in danger because of him, which is too bad because this only would have added to the movie.

The ending to NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a bold one and no doubt will leave some viewers upset, but I really liked it.  A running theme in the movie is how weak Edward is supposed to be.  At first, Susan defends her husband, saying he’s not weak but simply sensitive, but later, she changes her tune and even she is calling him weak.  The ending is Edward’s way of answering that accusation.

I enjoyed Tom Ford’s direction here.  As I said, he crafts the film so both visually and thematically it gives you a lot to think about. Likewise, it’s an excellent script by Ford, based on a novel by Austin Wright.  It tells three stories, all of them multi-layered, and it’s ambitious in its execution, even though I don’t think it all worked .

Even so, most mainstream movies today don’t require much brainwork, so it’s always refreshing to come across one that does.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is not a perfect movie, and it’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser or the type of movie you want to see on a date.  But it is a thought-provoking creative exercise in movie-making that succeeds in telling a very sad story.

And it is sad, from beginning to end.  Relentlessly sad.  It also does a fine job capturing the pain and sadness that goes with divorce and its aftermath.

You may not think you like this one as you walk out the theater, but if you give it some thought, and let some of the scenes seep into your consciousness afterwards, and if you ponder what it all means, you’ll find the answers add up to a satisfying conclusion.

One thing is for certain.  NOCTURNAL ANIMALS will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.

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