★★ / ★★★★
The first kill in director David Gordon Green’s “Halloween” left a strong impression on me. It isn’t because the kill cannot be seen from a mile away nor is it due to the brutality of it. It is because the type of murder victim is new. It shows that not even children are safe from Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney, Nick Castle), the boogeyman known as The Shape who went on a killing spree in Haddonfield, Illinois in 1978.
In the original, not one child is harmed physically. They could have been but we get the impression that it is the killer’s choice not to. And so perhaps it is a part of Michael’s behavioral profile given that he himself was only a child when he committed his first murder. The restraint gave depth to the character. Here, once the victim’s final breath is released, I caught myself feeling excited at the prospect of a back-to-basics slasher flick. Notice the kill is without blood. No weapon is used. It is over just as soon as it began. There is a ruthless efficiency to it. However, I regret to report it does not live up to its potential.
If anybody could have successfully put “Halloween” back to its original form, it ought to have been Green. With impressive movies like “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow,” “Snow Angels,” and “Joe” under his belt, he has shown that he has the ability to strip his stories of plot complications and focus solely on the human drama. Now, that may sound strange given that a horror film is in question, but since the plot of this picture revolves around how Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has dealt—or not dealt—with the trauma of her encounter with Michael forty years ago, the screenplay demands that it has a thorough understanding of human psychology, particularly how a traumatic event can not only alter but actually shape a person’s life. It is clear Curtis could have done more with the character had the screenplay given her more of a challenge.
While some effort is made, it is all so… ostentatious. We observe Laurie shoot a number of guns, wield hunting knives, and stroll across her panic room. The script makes a big deal of Laurie’s broken relationships with her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak) because the former’s intense preparations—just in case Michael escapes the mental facility and returns to Haddonfield—have taken over her life. Nearly all of it comes across rather superficial, tacked on, unnecessary. Greer is not fit for the role while Matichak does not command a strong enough presence to be memorable. Subpar performances aside, these characters are so underwritten, I did not care whether they would or could survive the night. A part of me actually wanted them to get killed because they felt more like decorations rather than natural extensions of our iconic survivor.
In the middle of it, I wondered if it would have been the braver choice to make a horror film with a running time of only fifty minutes to an hour. Instead of plot or character contrivances, the focus is on the meeting of predator and prey—only we do not know which is which any longer since forty years have passed. After all, it is the filmmakers’ decision to ignore all sequels. It is only appropriate to just go for the jugular, so to speak.
Green’s interpretation of “Halloween” is surprisingly loud given that he excels in the quiet. I’m not simply referring to the school dance scenes or guns being used excessively. (Do not get me started on the generous use of score—especially during the most inappropriate times.) I also refer to the images. There is excessive display of gore and sharp weapons piercing through body parts. There is even a man whose head is split open and we see it front and center. There are moments when violence is implied, but these are few and far between.
There are those who are quick to say that this is pretty much a remake of the original. I think these individuals are not observant enough. While Carpenter’s 1978 classic is more interested in building suspense and breaking it at the perfect moment, Green’s attempt leans toward evoking thrills through homage. Carpenter employs light and shadows to imply violence while Green hoses us down with gore. And that makes a whole world of difference.
Lodgers, The (2017)
★ / ★★★★
Gothic horror film “The Lodgers” is a massive disappointment because its look and setting is spot-on, but the screenplay is far from imaginative. It tells the story of twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) who find themselves trapped in an estate that their family has owned for two centuries. They must abide three rules: be in their bedrooms before midnight, never allow a stranger to pass through the front door, and never separate. Breaking rules would result in punishment delivered by malevolent beings that live under the floorboards. The picture has the makings of a dark fairy tale we can bite into during a stormy night, but the final product is soporifically generic.
Rachel and Edward’s place of living is beautiful despite the fact that it is in a state of dereliction. The ceilings are high and moldy, creepy paintings are bathed in shadows, uninhabited bedrooms tell a story simply by showing us the colors of bedsheets and ornaments resting on dressers. Even the unkempt grounds are interesting to look at, particularly the lake that Rachel frequents so she can have some peace to read and get lost in worlds other than her own. We realize immediately that there is something wrong with this body of water given that the girl occasionally encounters terrifying visions involving her parents who committed suicide.
Although capably performed by Vega and Millner, Rachel and Edward are not interesting together or apart. Perhaps it is because the screenplay attempts so hard to keep the secret involving their pasts that eventually it becomes glaringly obvious; we see so-called twists coming from a mile away and so tension fails to accumulate in a way that is natural or believable. It might have been more effective had such secrets been revealed early on, possibly via narration prior to the opening credits, so that we could have a chance to focus on circumstances that would allow the pair to be free of the curse instead of simply waiting for the enigma to be revealed. Here is a horror film without much suspense.
A more interesting relationship involves Rachel and Sean (Eugene Simon), a young man sent home from war because he had lost his leg. Rachel yearns for freedom so badly that we wonder whether she genuinely feels romantically interested him or whether he is simply a tool that will help her reach her endgame. Still, what they come to share is severely underdeveloped and so there is no emotional payoff during the climax: all visual effects and underwater sequences that are pretty to look at but they fail to make any sort of sense.
“The Lodgers,” written by David Turpin and directed by Brian O’Malley, offers eye-catching costumes and set decorations, but it lacks what really matters—a reason to engage the viewers emotionally and psychologically. What results is a horror film that attempts to be spooky but ending up rather vague and unsatisfying. In the middle of it, I wondered how it might have been different had the likes of Peter Jackson, Alfonso Cuarón, or J.A. Bayona been at the helm. Because these three writer-directors know how to turn horror and fantasy elements into something more substantial than simply relying on big reveals.
Jeepers Creepers 3 (2017)
★ / ★★★★
It takes a special courage to allow a horror story to unfold during daylight, but “Jeepers Creepers 3,” written and directed by Victor Salva, offers nothing but one disappointment after another. Just when you think it cannot possibly get any worse, it dares to hit a new low on the very next scene, stupidity of poorly developed characters hand in hand with terrible acting that gives even the worst daytime soaps a run for their money. The worst offender, however, is the lack of craft in a genre that demands it. It reeks from a lack of imagination.
Those familiar with the series are now aware of how The Creeper (Jonathan Break) looks like and what it is capable of. And so for the sequel to be even marginally entertaining, it must introduce new dimensions to the character. It is not enough to rely on lingering shots of its monstrous face, to show its ancient wings, and to exercise its ability to wield various weapons. To the script’s credit, it introduces the idea of The Creepers hand that had fallen off twenty-three years ago (it comes out to feed every twenty-three years for twenty-three days before it goes on hibernation) having the ability to pass on its memories to those who dare to hold hands with it, but this potentially interesting avenue is not explored in any way. In fact, it is used to deliver cheap, evanescent jolts. Not once did I jump out of my seat.
The story is saddled by multiple subplots that we know must converge eventually. The problem, however, is that not one of them is interesting. The cops (Stan Shaw, Brandon Smith) yell at each other a lot—which I suppose is the actors’ attempt to establish a sense of urgency. A teenage boy (Chester Rushing) attempts to be there emotionally for his crush (Gabrielle Haugh) whose grandmother (Meg Foster) is unable to pay off their debts—which I suppose is the cute or heartwarming bit, but it is simply coma-inducing. The increasingly erratic grandmother still sees the ghost of her deceased son (Jordan Salloum) who was killed by The Creeper—which I suppose is meant to communicate the tragedy that The Creeper leaves in its wake. Every one of these is handled with a sledgehammer, leaving no room for insight or subtlety. Their deaths could not come soon enough.
Special and visual effects come across as cheap-looking. It is astounding that the effects in “Jeepers Creepers” back in 2001 are far more effective for two reasons. First, the original takes place during mid- to late afternoon till the evening and so many details are hidden in shadows. During some scenes, we are actually motivated to squint just so we can see the more grizzly details in a tunnel, an underground cavern, or an old factory. Second, first film is actually interested in building suspense. And so when stakes are high, we are invested emotionally rather than noticing whether images are practical or made using a computer. This film is plagued by unnecessarily ostentatious visual displays, like trucks being thrown around as if the material were an action film. Do not get me started on the characters’ reliance on using guns to kill the creature—which had been proven not to work time and again.
These are only some of the severe miscalculations to be found in “Jeepers Creepers 3,” a mind-numbingly bad horror picture. Not even watching it during a stormy night with all the lights off and excellent surround sound could turn this mess into anything remotely salvageable. Avoid it at all cost.
Hot Summer Nights (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Those looking for plot in “Hot Summer Nights,” written and directed by Elijah Bynum, are certain to find it—and, much to their dismay, it is as generic as tap water: a teenager is sent to Cape Cod for the summer and learns to sell drugs—first to fit in, then for the money, and, finally, just because he realizes he is good at it. Drugs becomes a part of who he is—at least for the time being. When the picture gets it right, it is an amusing and alluring visual experience. I admired that it is able to transport us into the early ‘90s when nearly everything—from fashion, local lingo, to family values—is in a state of transition. At the same time, however, when the material gets it wrong, it is nearly unbearable—its third act particularly painful, contrived, in its heavy-handedness of fate and self-fulfilling prophecies.
Bynum’s use of the camera is eye-catching because he knows his subjects are physically beautiful and so he is not afraid to admire them. Notice how the camera is fond of close-ups, the manner in which it lingers on the hooded eyes of Timothée Chalamet and Maika Monroe as their characters, Daniel and McKayla, attempt to figure out the depth of their seemingly effortless magnetism. The performers’ chemistry is strong despite the fact that their characters are not particularly well-written. For instance, Daniel is initially interesting because he is still mourning his father’s death but his mother decides to send him away anyway in order to push him to get over his depression. His sadness and feelings of uselessness are then rerouted when drugs enter the equation. Suddenly, he is high and feels useful for being of service.
The picture captures what summer is about when one is young and the future feels like thousands of years away. I enjoyed the little details like socially inept boys admiring popular girls from afar, rumors entertained while being in a bubble, lovebirds sharing a lollipop, the type of cars older boys with certain reputations tend to drive, milkshakes, the subdued excitement of visiting a carnival that has been in town for a while, fireworks on the Fourth of July. It is also a nice touch to include a boy’s enthusiastic narration—a figure whom we come to meet only toward the very end of the story. These beautiful and extraneous details need not be shown or highlighted and yet somehow, collectively, they elevate the experience.
But coming-of-age stories are almost always required to paint rich interior lives of its subjects. While Daniel and McKayla get plenty of screen time, it can be argued that the more interesting relationship is not a romantic one. McKayla and Hunter (Alex Roe) are estranged siblings whose connection is destroyed by drugs. The material touches upon how selling drugs can be an addiction in itself but this fascinating angle is never explored—unfortunate because it is directly tied to our protagonist, Daniel, gambling his future for immediate gratification. He gets into a business partnership with none other than Hunter, the highly protective brother who is capable of sending someone to the hospital with his bare hands.
“Hot Summer Nights” does not end strong. It is so cliché to set the climax during a Category 4 hurricane. During my boredom, I imagined an alternate timeline where Daniel’s story ends in a quiet but still melancholy way. The thing about summers—as wonderful or as horrible as they are—is that we know all of it has to come to an end eventually. And so why not choose to tell a fresher avenue to reach the final destination? Must a storm to be employed to underline the tragedy of the story? Must it end on a tragic note at all just because the story involves dealing drugs? The melodrama is unnecessary.
★ / ★★★★
“Feral” is the type of movie in which a person is attacked a few feet away from the campsite, screaming howls of pain from being bit and torn into, and yet, miraculously, no one hears a sound. In another scenario, a woman bashes in an assailant’s head with a baseball bat and yet—another miracle—no blood spatter can be found on her clothes, her face, her hair. The film is a series of nonsensical situations: instead of a horrific time, it offers a horrible time.
The would-be horror of reanimated corpses following a virus transmission is written by Mark H. Young and Adam Frazier, directed by the former, both seemingly unaware of the conventions of the sub-genre they wish to tackle or contribute toward. In fact, I felt no passion put into their work. I felt as though they created the film for the sake of making it. It is never scary, suspenseful, or thrilling. Gruesome images are simply there to take up space.
There just isn’t enough smarts or creativity. For instance, once a camper is separated from the pack, it is highly likely that he or she will be dead in a matter of seconds. The established pattern prevents viewers from connecting to the characters, and it does not help that the writing treats the subjects merely as food to be eaten by so-called Ferals. It begs the question of why we are following this particular group. What makes them special?
Notice the filmmakers’ choices from behind the camera. It has a fondness for employing annoying closeups despite the fact that the actors hired for the job are not the most subtle in expressing a multitude of emotions. When the living humans and the undead end up in the same room, the camera is placed in an awkward position—sometimes from an angle where it is difficult to appreciate the intensity of the confrontation. I got the feeling that the director has played one too many bad horror video games and not seen enough classic creature-features that underline the terror of the situation despite shoddy costumes or cosmetics.
This is not to imply that the film offers a subpar look when it comes to its monsters. In fact, the makeup department has done a good job in making the Ferals look convincing. Because these creatures are inactive during daylight, I enjoyed it when the remaining survivors would lift their former friends’ eyelids and we see alligator-looking eyes. Still, despite the admirable cosmetics, a lot of work needed to be done when it came to the movement of the creatures. In one scene, they move like dogs… but in another, they move like monkeys. It is bizarre, laughable, and insulting at the same time.
Most unbearable is the fact that five of the six campers graduated from medical school and yet the first time they see an injured person or a dead body, they freak out as if they had never seen, let alone touched, someone who was bleeding or dying. Once again, our minds go back to the writing—its superficiality, its laziness, its tendency to introduce ideas but not exploring any one of them. The script should not have been brought to life when it was dead in the water. It needed major revisions, but somehow—another miracle—it got made.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Although Amanda Sthers’ razor-sharp comedy-of-manners “Madame” unfolds within the household of a wealthy family, it is effective as a social commentary when it comes to how we see and therefore treat people in uniform who hold jobs that are typically considered as common or lowly. Some may reduce the plot to a lite Cinderella story, but it so much smarter, more efficient, certainly more savage, than mainstream comedies.
In this case, the focus is on how a maid, required by her employer to pretend as a posh friend due to a mix-up in the number of guests to attend the dinner party, is utilized as an object to be displayed when the upper-crust company arrive. She is expected to be radiant, classy, sophisticated, and quiet—traits that poor or working-class people simply do not possess, at least according the family she works for. They may not say it, but their behavior communicates exactly what and how they feel toward the person who is more or less invisible until she does something even slightly wrong.
Rossy de Palma is one of the few performers who disarms me simply by looking at her. Not considered to possess a typical beauty, she has proven in previous roles that she has mastered how to utilize her strong and unique features. In this film, she softens them in order to acquire the viewers’ empathy without necessarily feeling sorry for her. For instance, look closely during the dinner sequence. Even when she is surrounded by a crowd in the middle of conversations, all she has to do is turn to her face in profile relative to the camera and our eyes go directly toward her. When she bulges her eyes a little, we know exactly what she’s thinking. When she is eating soup and looking down, she remains in character; we feel how uncomfortable and awkward Maria feels, how ashamed she is for being at that table as her employer discharges pointed looks at her for stealing the spotlight. Note the way she handles the utensils. Clearly, the ballet is being performed by a consummate actor.
But the picture is not just about the maid. It is also about the woman who is baffled for realizing she is jealous of her own maid. Collette plays Anne as a shrew, but her portrayal inspires a certain sadness despite the character’s extremely disgusting behavior. I admired that the screenplay touches upon a few reasons why this woman feels the need to control—even those that shouldn’t be controlled. de Palma and Collette share great chemistry in which the reaction is almost always cold and unforgiving. We wonder about their history, particularly how Maria could have endured working for Anne for a decade.
I imagine many viewers are likely to be put off by the ending. For me, however, it is most appropriate because it works a barometer on how optimistic or pessimistic we are about how life tends to unfold. I enjoyed that the final few minutes turns its attention on the viewer rather than the characters. Yes, we wonder what will happen next. But how we feel about what might happen next holds more significance. We walk away with a strong impression.
Private Life (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
A subtle and thematically complex comedy-drama, Tamara Jenkins’ “Private Life” is the kind of picture that offers an honest look at how it might be like to face hardships of trying to get pregnant when a couple is on the verge of infertility. Deeply humanistic at its core, it is amazing how one scene can start off quite funny but readily able to turn quite sad within a beat or two, only to end up lighthearted again when, for example, someone makes an awkward remark in order to alleviate the tension of a situation. Because of its ability to draw us in emotionally, often playing with our own emotions in regards to what the couple deserves versus reality and probability, the personal story in front of us is wildly entertaining, led by performers who are able to communicate plenty without saying a word.
The central couple is Rachel and Richard, played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, both in their forties, who have, for years, been on an obsessive quest to have a baby. It appears they have tried nearly everything: fertility treatments, in vitro fertilization, adoption… some of them more than once. These cost a lot of money and all have led to failure thus far.
Hahn and Giamatti are at the top of their game when the couple, finally, expresses their frustrations with one another. For instance, in a more dramatic confrontation, their younger selves are brought up, how one’s career-driven mindset has allowed time to pass and overlook an aspect of life that they now consider to be important. In a more comedic moment, on the other hand, Richard’s single testicle is referenced. There is an amusing bit about soda machines and what happens when it doesn’t quite function as it should. This captures the material’s interest in showing the lighter and darker sides of the couple’s conception troubles.
I admired that the film is not afraid to show cabinets full of drugs, routine injections, how it hurts, puncture marks on skin—even its color—after repeated shots, the waiting room and the lack of joy in there, how it can be an impersonal experience when meeting with a doctor, how patients are sometimes treated like cattle. I loved that the images are not like in more commercial films where everyone is smiling or peppy during an appointment. People look tired, frustrated, like they just want to get the whole thing over with. Should one look closely enough, it is these bits of reality that set this comedy-drama apart from its contemporaries.
There are truly heartbreaking moments because the central couple is good, generally happy, and have shown, through their interactions with Sadie (Kayli Carter), Richard’s niece who has recently dropped out of college (she claims the university has allowed her to complete her degree while in absentia—is that a thing?), that they are partners capable of raising a happy child in a happy home. They don’t deserve the misfortunes and sometimes downright cruelty of some individuals they became involved with. But then again, that’s life. Sometimes things just don’t work out. We cannot help but remain hopeful, however. It is because the screenplay welcomes us to recognize bits of ourselves in Rachel and Richard.
“Private Life” is for an empathetic audience. Here is a film that tasks us to watch closely as the couple reaches the end of their rope of trying to have kid. It is fascinating to watch unfold not because there are plenty of life-altering events but exactly because the subjects have reached a plateau. I think the writer-director wishes to communicate that there is beauty in the every day. The final scene is fitting in that it dares to measure, or simply just remind us, how we perceive life thus far.
Railway Man, The (2013)
★★ / ★★★★
Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), a railway enthusiast, meets Patti (Nicole Kidman), a nurse, during a train ride from Southampton to Glasgow. Though she is curious about him, clearly very intelligent and good-hearted, Eric appears to be more interested in his timetable than he is about her. His goal is to go around the country to collect railway memorabilia. The two strangers will come to get married eventually, but Patti is unaware of Eric’s experiences in Kanchanaburi—a town in Thailand where British soldiers were tortured, beaten, and abused by the Japanese Imperial Army’s military police during World War II.
“The Railway Man,” directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, is quite small in scope and almost devoid of emotional hyperbole by choice which gives it a slight edge against similar movies that are based on real experiences during wartime. But the picture is not skillfully helmed in that the setup and conclusion are too simplistic and abrupt. Such qualities are not appropriate in a story like this because trauma is all about details—specifics that we may or may not want to look into or think about for too long but we are fascinated by them nonetheless. Generalizations prevent the picture from offering something truly special.
To make the past more interesting than the present is an appropriate move. Because the film’s core is defined by what has happened to Eric in the 1940s, it is only right that we are jolted into paying close attention once the present folds into the grim past. Young Eric is played by Jeremy Irvine beautifully. I was impressed because I believed that, despite the different eras, younger Eric and older Eric is one person. It helps that Irvine has chosen to adopt some of Firth’s signature mannerisms—attributes that the latter seems unable to shed in every role, no matter how good he is. Though he is less experienced than Firth, that makes Irvine not only aware but very smart because he ends up using his co-star’s quirks to his advantage.
Kidman and Firth do share a good level of chemistry, especially when their characters first meet on the train, but a lot of their scenes come off repetitive. Though Kidman does a solid job portraying a woman who is deeply concerned about her husband’s psychological state and well-being, she is not given very much to do other than to look sad. To me, her expressions essentially range from seeing her puppy being stolen and there is nothing she can do about it to seeing her puppy getting kicked in the gut. Kidman has always been that performer who can pull off a silent sadness but still being very beautiful. It is always nice to watch an actor performing on the inside rather than relying on behavior to create a semblance of believability.
It is disappointing that the film does not spend enough time in showing Eric’s relationship with his comrades. Because of this, the young British soldiers around him are rather interchangeable. When a name is mentioned, I found myself having no idea which person is being referred to so I relied on a particular character reacting and missing, for a second or two, the deeper details of the drama. Distractions weaken the power of the film significantly because the tone and pacing are understated to such an extent that any interruption in the delicate balance comes off very noticeable and off-putting.
Based on the screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, “The Railway Man” is not that impressive from a storytelling standpoint even though the story it wishes to tell is worth hearing. Many people tend to find it difficult to draw the line between the two which is understandable but never excusable.
Apartment, The (1960)
★★★ / ★★★★
Determined to become an executive in the insurance company he works for, Bud (Jack Lemmon) provides a special service to his married superiors (Ray Walston, David Lewis, Wilard Waterman, David White): whenever they have a dame, Bud pencils them into his planner and lends his apartment in the Upper West Side. When one of the directors, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), learns about it, it appears to be the perfect opportunity for Bud to grab the promotion he has been waiting for. The catch: The woman that Mr. Sheldrake is seeing happens to be the elevator operator named Fran (Shirley MacLaine) that Bud has had his eyes on.
Sharply written with a true understanding of how real people might feel given a particular difficult situation, “The Apartment,” based on the screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, is a comedy-drama for those looking for depth along with laughs. It treats jokes and punchlines as a punctuation point rather than an unending parade of awkward or embarrassing situations. As a result, audiences are given time to really consider and assess a situation from everyone’s point of view. Yes, even Mr. Sheldrake, a man who has a lot to lose given that he is married and has children.
Lemmon and MacLaine share joyous chemistry, but the material tends to place their characters in different wavelengths. The more things do not work out in their favor, whether it be situational or psychological, the more intensely we wish for Bud and Fran to get together in the end. But the picture is clearly not about that. It is about decisions—lending the apartment to men who consider an individual to be only as good as the last favor is able to provide, entertaining a man’s attention who one suspects may not be a good fit for her, the decision to stay (or not stay) when a person is in dire need of help. Choices drive to picture forward and it is in their mistakes that we are drawn toward.
The picture is shot beautifully in black and white. I relished the interior shots of the protagonist’s apartment. It is nice and cozy yet it is lonely, despite its many visitors, because the person who owns it tends to think of something or someone else when he is left by himself. Lemmon is able to reach a balance between timid and alluring—Bud is a nice guy but he is not the most exciting. So, even though we may think that he and Fran are a good match, it is understandable why Fran may not be drawn to him at first.
Also, I liked looking at the workplace. The many rows of busy worker bees with their papers and typewriters make it look like a very successful insurance company. Thus, we understand why Bud wishes to climb the corporate ladder. Many of us can relate to that feeling of wanting to be successful by being a part of something. Upon looking closely, Bud wants to become one of the executives not because of the money. He wants to be one of the guys. Notice the vast personality difference between him and his superiors.
Directed by Billy Wilder, “The Apartment” could have just been about getting the girl against all odds. In many comedies these days, it really is that simplistic—and boring. Here, we are challenged a little bit. At one point, I asked myself if Bud and Fran would ever be on the same page—that maybe the two of them overcoming that challenge is beyond the scope of the picture, that maybe they need to learn a bit of self-respect first before really loving another. And I was all right with that. It was then that I knew I was watching something worthwhile.
★ / ★★★★
As the minutes trickle away, especially after the murder of interest, it begins to feel blatantly obvious that the material does not know where to go. At times it appears as though “Gemini,” written and directed by Aaron Katz, wishes to be a film noir. When it no longer feels like wearing this suit, it goes for a standard murder mystery. And all the while it wishes to make a statement about Los Angeles and its celebrity culture: the agents, assistants, superfans, paparazzi, and those involved in making movies; it is a mess and by the end, the viewer no longer cares about the answers it provides—probably because those experienced with mysteries have long figured out its endgame.
The assistant who investigates her client’s murder, an actress (Zoë Kravitz) whose career is currently red hot, is played by Lola Kirke, sporting a mannequin-like facial expression almost throughout the entire picture. To me, she delivers an interesting performance because it appears as though Jill is sleepwalking after the trauma of coming across her friend’s corpse. But the screenplay fails to give an intriguing performance any support. Naturally, the assistant is the number one suspect from the perspective of a detective (John Cho) who is assigned to the case.
There is a mechanical pattern to its attempts to increase the tension: Jill enters a hotel room, a house, or a place of business—basically any place where she shouldn’t be—because she is following a lead. The threat is almost always someone potentially finding out about what she is up to. What if the killer is the person whom she least suspects and he or she happens to be nearby? The formula exasperates rather than entertains the viewer because there is no variation in the expected beats. With a running time of less than ninety minutes, breezy for a mystery-thriller, it still drags.
Notice how the dialogue sounds so overwritten. When there is conflict between two characters, one of them suddenly begins to sound like the writer typing the dialogue and trying to make exchanges sound intense instead of actually being in the moment and embracing its messy intensity. And because we notice that the character and the words he employs does not sound like himself within moments of great friction, we are taken out of the moment. Thus, the drama comes across as false and occasionally laughable.
It is clear that the picture’s strength is its visuals. There are moments, especially scenes that unfold at night, when Los Angeles looks like an underworld of darkness and neon lights. Perhaps the only element missing is an eighties soundtrack. But kaleidoscopic visuals do not make an intriguing or ingenious mystery. The writer-director must have a screenplay so sharp that by its opening scenes its claws have us by the throat and never let up. There is no surprise to be had here, just a whole lot of boredom.
Ghost Stories (2017)
★ / ★★★★
British horror anthology “Ghost Stories,” written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, attempts to deliver a spooky time by minimizing special and visual effects and underlining aptly executed light and shadow, creepy interiors, a slow but calculated pacing, and performances that draw the viewers in. However, the material fizzles out way too soon; by the final twenty minutes, it has nothing to hold onto but a series of clichés often found in awful horror films. What results is an experience that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.
Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman), debunker of the paranormal, is given a manila envelope that contains three enigmatic cases, unsolved by Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), a former supernatural investigator that Goodman looked up to during his formative years. The opening segment is strong and so it builds anticipation for what is about to come. Key, I think, is Nyman’s portrayal of a man of evidence and science. Although an academic, Goodman is not the scholastic and inaccessible type. Instead, he is played with a simplicity, an ordinariness—an important trait because people must open up to him to reveal their terrifying encounters.
The only worthwhile of the bunch is Tony Matthews’ story (Paul Whitehouse). The former night watchman in an abandoned correctional facility is driven to alcoholism by not only a mysterious encounter but also by life’s unfortunate turn of events. The flashback to Tony’s final night in the former psychiatric hospital is effectively executed, particularly in the rising action involving a ghost that wishes to play with him—which begins with the unplugging of cords that supply electricity to his office. Anybody who has worked in a building by himself can relate to the sudden chill of hearing a noise from a corner, or upstairs, or a room right next door… when nobody is supposed to be there to make a sound. In my case, I used to work in a modest museum and at times I would hear a noise, like creaking floorboards, from the supply storage upstairs. (“The building is old,” I told myself.)
Curious but never reaching its full potential is the story of Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther), a young man who comes from a household of controlling parents. The opening few minutes is bizarre and intriguing. It gives the impression that nothing is as it seems inside the house, from the eerie photographs to the manner in which the parents simply stand next to each other in the kitchen without sharing a word. Simon’s story does not involve the house but rather an encounter in the dark woods. This is when the picture begins to fall apart. Cosmetics and costumes are employed in a jarring way, never scary but occasionally silly. This serves as precedent for the final case—which had the potential to be a standout.
I am not surprised that Martin Freeman decided to play the role of Mike Priddle, case number three, a man, like the two subjects before him, whose life had been upended by an unexplained phenomenon. What separates Mike’s story from the other three, however, is the specificity of the possible haunting: the baby’s room. You see, the doctors advised that he go home while his pregnant wife stays in the hospital for further observation. As expected, Freeman’s performance is the strongest, delivering a wealth of emotions every time he speaks. So it is most unfortunate that his storyline is the shortest and far undercooked. While Tony and Simon’s stories are given time to build, Mike’s story is rushed in order to make room for Goodman’s story.
The film might have been stronger had we remained to know little about Goodman’s background—even though he is the eyes from which we look through during the course of the interviews. To me, Goodman’s childhood story is junk for the most part because it serves only to deliver an ineffective, unbelievable, and unearned twist ending. After all, the best horror stories retain a mystery about them. This one makes the crucial mistake of attempting to explain everything.