Tag: thriller

Welcome Home


Welcome Home (2018)
★ / ★★★★

About fifteen minutes into George Ratliff’s wan suspense-thriller “Welcome Home,” one cannot help but wonder why the filmmakers felt the need to tell this particular story. With its familiar plot involving an American couple vacationing in a foreign countryside and coming across a creepy neighbor coupled with an execution so lacking in energy and urgency that by the time we hit the hour mark it is still laying out exposition, the entire work is an exercise in pointlessness. There are images paraded on screen, but the work fails to go anywhere genuinely interesting.

The couple is played by Aaron Paul and Emily Ratajkowski; although they are attractive together and apart, there is a desperate lack of chemistry between them. This is problematic because Bryan and Cassie are shown in various states of undress and having sex from what it feels like every other scene—as if the material were a cheap erotic thriller—we remain unconvinced of their hunger for one another’s flesh. It isn’t the least bit titillating. And when the central drama between the characters is introduced, the reason why Cassie and Bryan decide to rent a vacation home in the country of romance, it comes across so bland, superficial, and recycled one grows curious of writer David Levinson’s inspirations. Did he have any?

The strange neighbor is not written to have enough cunningness to him. He lacks flavor and danger. Riccardo Scamarcio possesses the ability to balance charm and mischief, but his Federico is reduced to behavior: he finds sexual gratification in spying on the couple, establishing a rapport with them—especially with guilt-ridden and vulnerable Cassie—by being of use like cooking meals, and stalking them around the village. But we never discover what makes him the perfect antagonist against those he terrorizes. And because he is not particularly strong, or smart, or unhinged, he does not feel at all formidable. He is simply there to cause tension because no other character can be pit against Bryan, Cassie, or both. It feels forced.

There are beautiful shots of country home’s exteriors: verdant grass swaying with the wind, the sunset’s ability to underscore the geometry of cobblestone paths, the white wine-colored open sky that promises endless summer. These are worthy of being posted on Instragram. But inside the home there is conflict, distrust, anger, regret.

Bryan and Cassie are unsure whether they have a future together; their bodies are as close as can be but their spirits are miles apart. Is the relationship even worth salvaging? Had the writer focused on our obsession to create a picture of perfection for the world to see, the standard story might have had a chance to stand out and feel relevant today.

Instead, “Welcome Home” feels like a sham—a movie so uninspired that instead of taking risks, like striving to make a compelling or haunting statement about broken relationships, it would rather pile on clichés on top of an already bland premise. By the end of the story, we have two dead bodies and yet we are not moved or surprised by the plot developments. Even its major twist lacks special punch.

Fractured


Fractured (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Is there something deeply sinister going on in the country hospital or is the man who claims that his wife and daughter had been kidnapped by the hospital staff simply exhibiting psychosis? Brad Anderson’s “Fractured” offers a familiar premise and is almost immediately elevated by a sympathetic lead performance. But with an ending so uninspired, maddening, and predictable, one is left to wonder whether the journey is worth it by the time end credits appear.

The picture’s strongest quality is its patient build-up. As it lays down the foundation of Ray’s relationship with his wife and young daughter, we empathize with the man who feels that his family is slipping away. He is desperate to keep things together since a prior loss of a loved one continues to haunt him. Ray, played with convincing vulnerability and desperation by Sam Worthington, is a former alcoholic. We meet him having an argument with Joanne (Lily Rabe) in the car while on their way back home from Thanksgiving celebration. Worthington and Rabe share solid chemistry as a married couple on the verge of divorce. Words are used like daggers but the moments of silence, too, are just as sharp. The opening scene, rooted in drama, hints at a better than average thriller.

From the way scenes are shot, especially once the family of three set foot at the questionable hospital, viewers are jolted into paying attention. Notice the fond use of close-ups. Nearly every hospital staff encountered is a source of suspicion, from clerks at the front desk who must deal with patients who are tired of waiting, security personnel who walk down the halls with pride, to doctors who come across little too friendly. The camera is used as a magnifying glass to reveal possible secrets. Are they all in on it? Only a few of them? Is there something going on in the first place? Nearly each face is memorable and so there is a good possibility we will meet them again under a more confrontational context. No one enjoys being accused as a liar.

The work introduces the possibility that Ray might be an unreliable protagonist. This is when the film falters because it falls into the usual trappings of fast cuts, hallucinatory and discombobulated imagery, and irksome sound effects. There is an elegant way to create a character we are supposed to distrust without using cheap and tired tricks from terrible movies.

It requires, for instance, an astute screenplay so in love with dialogue and of the human condition that it becomes a challenge to discern among truth, lies, and half-truths. For a movie in which the lead character is deathly afraid to lose his family, reductive dialogue becomes more prevalent the deeper we get into the story. More interested in delivering immediate sensations, it might have elevated the work had a more cerebral approach been chosen from time to time. In thrillers, tricks must be changed once in a while or else their effects may likely suffer from diminishing returns—as they do here.

The ending did not work for me at all—nor so I think would it work for anybody who possesses more than three brain cells. I got the impression that screenwriter Alan B. McElroy wishes so badly to deliver a twist or haunting ending that it does not matter whether it actually fits the story being told. Due to the nature of the denouement, no catharsis that feels exactly right is provided. The payoff is unsatisfying. We feel cheated of our time.

First Kill


First Kill (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

A father’s (Hayden Christensen) solution to his son (Ty Shelton) getting bullied is to take him hunting, but when the two witness a corrupt cop shooting a bank robber (Gethin Anthony) because the latter refuses to simply hand over the money, Will and Danny find themselves targets of deceitful law enforcements. The occasionally engaging action-thriller “First Kill” offers one prolonged but entertaining chase scene in the woods and one shootout sequence in which those involved never seem to run out of bullets. Everything else around it is busy work that leads up to an expected conclusion. However, there are bits of humor sprinkled about that hint at an edgier screenplay, one longing to be more self-aware of conventions—had screenwriter Nick Gordon been more ambitious—regarding cops, robbers, and the unlucky regular folks who happen to get caught in the middle of the crossfire. It has the potential to turn into a more potent action film with a heart. It proves capable when a boy and a thief make a genuine connection concerning what it takes to stand up against bullies. Directed by Steven C. Miller.

The Domestics


The Domestics (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

There are far too many suspense-thrillers with rather neat premises but ending up sputtering about halfway through. I think it is because screenwriters get so distracted by the shiny new ideas that they end up neglecting to explore them in meaningful ways. And so when the novelty wears off, the work lacks a reason to exist. A twisted road trip picture, for instance, is reduced to yet another shoot ‘em up. “The Domestics,” written and directed by Mike P. Nelson, is guilty of this significant shortcoming.

The U.S. government’s black poison has killed most of the American population. No reason is provided why this was sanctioned, nor is the material required to do so. The survivors, those resistant to the toxic substance, have been divided into two major factions: those who joined a gang—which is divided further based on their moral codes (or lack thereof)—and the so-called Domestics—people who scrape by every day without group affiliation. Married couple Mark (Tyler Hoechlin) and Nina (Kate Bosworth) belong in the latter category who decide to make their way to Milwaukee after Nina’s parents cease to communicate via radio. As expected, the spouses encounter various gangs who wish to imprison, torture, or… play with them.

The co-leads do a serviceable job in their respective roles, but the screenplay fails to make them equally interesting. Mark is strong, creative, and vigilant—clearly equipped with survival instinct. On the other hand, Nina is in this constant state of sadness. During the majority of the picture, she is nearly useless, a major liability. I found it to be painfully cliché when the character so suddenly becomes a warrior during the final twenty minutes. The pivot is ineffective because neither character is given enough specific details so that any change that may occur later is thoroughly convincing.

Instead, more effort is put into the action sequences—where the gun is pointed, whose brains are being blown out, blood spatters on walls, sharp objects going though flesh. Notice the manic nature of the editing during these scenes. The violence, while cringe-inducing in a good way, is consistently at the forefront yet there is minimal social commentary in whatever is going on. After all, strong post-apocalyptic films tend to be about something else entirely, from the rousing “Mad Max” films, darkly comic “Delicatesen,” insightful “Children of Men,” down to poetic dirges like “The Road.”

There is a hint, I suppose, of friction between the protagonists. Before the toxins were released, Nina and Mark were on the process of getting a divorce. But the details are both superficial and laughable. Listen to this: Nina confesses to a fellow survivor (Jacinte Blankenship) that they used to be so crazy for each other. She especially swooned at the fact that Mark would leave her cute and romantic notes at home or at work. Eventually, however, the gesture stopped. I couldn’t help roll my eyes and stifle a laugh during this would-be vulnerable moment. Did she really expect such flirtation and playfulness to last for the rest of their marriage? Is she really this short-sighted and shallow? Of course passion wanes. What matters is what you do about it as a couple when it does.

“The Domestics” is not without potential to become a solid thriller. I enjoyed that each gang has a specific personality. The leaders may not have memorable faces, but their monstrous behaviors linger in the mind. Had the screenplay undergone further editing by focusing on the overall message they wish to portray, followed by strong, detailed, and surprising characterizations, it would have felt refresher, more urgent, more relevant in our modern times of politically divided America.

Blood Money


Blood Money (2017)
★ / ★★★★

There are not enough plot twists in Lucky McKee’s “Blood Money” to justify having to endure extremely irritating characters who come across four bags full of money, each containing two million dollars, while hiking in the wilderness. In the middle of it, I found myself rooting for the white collar villain, an embezzler, a man named Miller played with cool by John Cusack, because then the movie would have been over. Despite a running time of less than ninety minutes, the material is so generic, it feels closer to two hours.

Attempts at character development inspire epic eye rolls. Notice how it tells rather than shows. Three college friends—Victor (Ellar Coltrane), Lynn (Willa Fitzgerald), and Jeff (Jacob Artist)—sit around a campfire spewing expository dialogue that details their histories, current thoughts, and hopes for the future. None of the dialogue rings true; it is so superficial—like one feeling jealous that his former girlfriend is now with the other guy—that the whole charade feels like a teen soap opera. It does not help that not one of the performers is particularly compelling to watch or listen to. The awful dialogue is worsened by the constant, interminable whining. If I were around that campfire, I would have called it an early night by pretending to be unwell because staying would actually make me feel unwell. It is unbelievable that the trio have convinced themselves to remain friends with one another. Every one of them is vile. Maybe that is their commonality, their sick bond.

The manner in which the sound is put together is most irritating. Of particular struggle is when actors speak their lines while standing next to a river. Dialogue is barely audible. It is worsened by the fact that the score is almost always present during these exchanges. So no matter how passionate or angry a person becomes during an increasingly complex task of towing four heavy bags full of cash across a forest, the experience—their suffering, our catharsis—is muffled. At one point I wondered if it was the director’s intention to make a bad movie because some mistakes are so elementary. It is like reading an essay plagued with spelling errors.

Chase scenes are standard and edited haphazardly. It does not even bother to stop once in a while to show us the beauty or danger of the setting. It feels like amateur hour when at times you feel as though could take any old camera and capture more effective shots of predator attempting to catch its prey. Cue close-ups of performers not looking remotely tired, let alone breaking a sweat, for supposedly sprinting about half a mile. Time and again the picture fails to establish elements that make up a convincing survival thriller.

“Blood Money” is a near complete waste of time, but there is one fresh quirk about it. Miller does not wish to kill those who stumbled upon his money. He asks for them to simply hand the bags over. It is the students’ greed, one of them in particular, that allows an awkward situation to snowball. There is minimal entertainment to be had here despite the numerous unintentional humor. We should be laughing at their stupidity, but we are reminded time and again that the filmmakers do not even bother to make a passable movie.

Rust Creek


Rust Creek (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

The backwoods suspense-thriller “Rust Creek,” written by Julie Lipson and directed by Jen McGowan, is clearly inspired by noir pictures of early Coen Brothers, but the overall experience is less than satisfying due to its tonal shifts, particularly in the middle of the picture when our heroine, Sawyer (Hermione Corfield), is rescued by a man named Lowell (Jay Paulson) whose job is to cook meth for the very same people that Sawyer is running away from. While the relationship between Sawyer and Lowell is intriguing and the actors manage to sell how their characters regard one another over time, there is not enough excitement in the main narrative surrounding two rednecks (Micah Hauptman, Daniel R. Hill) whose goal is to kill the college girl who escaped from their initial assault.

Sawyer is a believable character who is strong and tough without the material constantly dangling these elements in front of the audience. I think it helps that Corfield chooses to internalize nearly everything that happens to Sawyer instead of going for the more overt emotions—like screaming, shouting, and crying—in order to earn our sympathy. I felt as though she trusts the writing and direction to punch through the expected chases and left turns that come with the genre. And yet, when necessary, there is a softness to Sawyer. Her surprising connection to an unexpected ally, Lowell, is fresh: I cannot remember a hillbilly in another thriller who is actually smart and shown to have deep thoughts.

Less interesting are the cops in charge of investigating the missing woman. Sheriff O’Doyle (Sean O’Bryan) appears to be extremely sharp when introduced but progressively gets dumber as the film goes on. Deputy Katz (Jeremy Glazer), a wide-eyed rookie with enthusiasm to spare, too, is promising initially. I believe the reason why they get less interesting over time is the plot requires them to not know as much as the audience in order to delay the action. Because if they were as knowledgeable as us, the movie would have been over thirty minutes earlier. I wished the no-nonsense Commander Slattery (John Marshall Jones) took over the case completely because his presence is so strong, he is not required to say a word to command the room.

The extended chase scenes are realistic, horrific, and beautiful. Overhead shots of injured Sawyer really capture the fact that our protagonist does not have a chance in those woods. By showing the massiveness of what’s around her, she looks so small and insignificant. She may scream and cry out for help but there is no one there to listen except the birds. Time is also against her since she is bleeding out. And because she is disabled, even climbing a small hill, for instance, becomes a challenge. Notice McGowan’s control of the camera as she forces us to view the action through Sawyer’s perspective. When she is down on the ground, the camera is limited to a certain height or angle, especially if there is no hope of achieving a certain goal.

Clearly, thought and effort are present in “Rust Creek” and that is why I am giving the film a marginal recommendation. However, it would have been a far more potent survival thriller had the noir elements been sharpened. When tension cuts like a scalpel, you know you are sitting through a first-rate thriller.

Don’t Let Go


Don’t Let Go (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

God answered Detective Jack Radcliff’s prayers. Having wished that his family’s murder be undone, Jack (David Oyelowo) receives a phone call from his niece, Ashley (Storm Reid), despite the fact that she was one of the three (Brian Tyree Henry, Shinelle Azoroh) who perished in what appeared to be a home invasion. Jack, somehow in active communication with Ashley three days before her death via phone, figures he is given a chance to discover the identity, or identities, of those responsible and put a stop to them. He assumes that should he succeed, Ashley’s life, and possibly her family’s lives, would be spared.

During the first thirty minutes “Don’t Let Go,” written and directed by Jacob Aaron Estes, has the makings of an engaging thriller. From the moment it begins there is a foreboding feeling that something will go horribly awry and yet when it is time to face exactly what it is we expect, we cannot help but feel disturbed anyway. Notice the patience in direction and control of the camera as the detective examines his brother’s home and the bloody corpses that lay before him. We feel we are in that space, breathing the air of those no longer alive. But despite the horror that transpired in that house, there is no protracted screaming, yelling or crying. The stillness of the camera suggests that the filmmaker wants us to have enough time to imagine what might have occurred. We are placed in the shoes of a detective the moment we enter the murder house.

But the work does not function on a high level on a consistent basis. The tricks, particularly as we are shown what occurs between the past and the present in “real” time, get old eventually. I think the problem, for the most part, is a lack of rules. It is difficult to make a convincing time travel movie, let alone a genuinely entertaining one filled with creativity and enthusiasm. Precise rules must be created, enacted, and followed—which this film proves to have trouble with. For instance, it does not tell or show us how many chances Jack has to get the answer right and solve the murders. Why should we care when Jack has a hundred lives and therefore a hundred chances? If he has only one chance, that is an entirely different scenario. Thus, knowing he could only fail so many times is directly correlated to the plot’s tension.

The solution is predictable, not at all a challenge for those well-versed in mysteries. That is one thing. The villain’s, or villains’, motivation is another. It is so generic that it conflicts—rather than complements—with the plot’s rather fantastic premise. Take away the time travel element and what remains is just another wan thriller set in Los Angeles. What makes the picture special then is a gimmick—one executed with mediocrity. And that is a big problem. The third act is mainly composed of especially boring, uninspired trivialities. It is a drag to the finish line.

The heart of the picture is the relationship between Jack and Ashley. Oyelowo and Reid share a warm chemistry that is immediately believable. He encourages her optimism, sense of humor, and artistry. She considers him more as a big brother than an uncle. Having shown us the depth of their connection, we understand why Ashley’s death is so heartbreaking for Jack that he would be willing to grab onto a shot at redemption. But the work is a thriller first and foremost. Dramatic elements must be supported by a thorough and well-written screenplay. The twisty turns certainly demand it.