Category: Reviews in Short

The Night House

 

As I watch most modern horror movies, I activate my mental timer. How long before this film falls apart? Right off the bat? In the middle? Not until the end? I’m counting because almost all of them go bad, eventually.

There is good news about The Night House, starring Rebecca Hall as a widowed woman who experiences ghostly phenomena at her lake house. The story doesn’t collapse until the final act. Most of the film is creepy and — miracle of miracles — does not insult the intelligence. Also, Hall is quite good as the prickly, plucky widow enduring grief and strange visions.

The bad news is that the film’s denouement, praised or soft-pedaled by many critics, is annoying claptrap. It’s kitchen-sink nonsense in which the viewer is forced to reach his or her own conclusion. Was it ghosts? An alternate universe? A serial killer? Occult forces? All of the above?

I call the ending a cop-out. Or “nothing” much. Release: 2021 Grade: B-

 

**

 

Death on the Nile

 

This follow-up to Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express has a bigger budget and a longer run-time than its predecessor. Not a good thing, on either count.

Apparently, most of the budget went to special effects, rather than actual location filming in Egypt. Again, not a good thing. The movie often drags. Need I mention that’s not a good thing?

Branagh again plays Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, this time charged with solving murders on a steamer in the Nile near Egypt’s famed, ancient landmarks. But Branagh sacrifices something that exists in earlier screen versions of the Christie novel — a sense of fun — in service of a more somber tone and a modern obligation to address racism, sexism, classism, and any other “isms” I might be forgetting. Release: 2022 Grade: B-

 

Armie Hammer, left, with Gal Gadot and her ribs (sorry)

 

**

 

A Quiet Place Part II

 

You sit down to watch a horror movie. The director wants to scare you. You know he wants to scare you. The director knows that you know that he wants to scare you. All this knowledge … and yet he still manages to scare you. That’s the sign of a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.

A Quiet Place Part II is that rarest of sequels, a follow-up that’s just as good as the original. Dad is dead in this one, so it’s up to Emily Blunt and her brood to battle the aliens. It’s just a continuation of the first movie, but who cares when it’s done this well? Release: 2021  Grade: B+

 

**

 

Scream

 

The good news: The “meta” aspect of the Scream franchise hasn’t grown stale in this fifth installment of the series. Also, it’s still amusing when the filmmakers wink at us by anticipating, and then subverting, our expectations. (There’s someone behind the refrigerator door! No, there isn’t! Yes, there is!)

The bad news: The actual killings and plots have gone stale. They simply aren’t very original or scary. Release: 2022 Grade: C+

 

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The Rental

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Director Dave Franco’s The Rental is a flawed movie. It’s a “slow-burn” thriller, and slow-burn is often code for “boring until something finally happens.” The plot is predictable and the last act, in which something finally does happen, is not particularly original.

But all of that is nitpicking. The Rental, in which two couples encounter terror at a beach house, is more than anything else skillfully done. The “slow” scenes are absorbing, seductive, and creepy. There is at least one truly scary bit.

There’s a reason that suspense films — unlike, say, romantic comedies or many dramas — are considered a director’s medium. The acting and story can be serviceable, but if the movie works, it’s because the dude behind the camera knew what he was doing. Release: 2020  Grade: B+

 

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Nightmare Alley

 

Critics love movies like this one because they check so many boxes: impressive cinematography, big stars, somber tone, striking art direction, etc.

Let me add a few boxes of my own: Nightmare Alley is too long, there are very few, if any, relatable characters, and did I mention that it’s too damn long?

That’s a bit harsh. As always in any Guillermo del Toro film, the visuals are gorgeous. The subject matter does require a serious tone. And yet ….

I kept comparing the movie to Double Indemnity, another noir about a doomed con man (in Alley, the grifter is played by Bradley Cooper). Fred MacMurray’s insurance agent in Indemnity had a more wrenching downfall because — until he fell into the clutches of femme fatale Barbara Stanwyck — he was an average Joe. He was relatable. Cooper’s con artist is a bad egg from the start, so it’s hard to much care when things go sour for him. Release: 2021 Grade: B

 

**

 

Werewolves Within

 

A small group of local yokels are trapped in a snowbound country inn — and one of them is a surreptitious werewolf. What’s not to like about that setup?

Werewolves is silly and predictable and yes, you’ve seen it all before, but in the hands of director Josh Ruben, it feels fresh and fun. Release: 2021 Grade: B+

 

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Ingrid Goes West

 

Aubrey Plaza plays dour and damaged Ingrid, a loser from Pennsylvania who moves west to stalk her idol, an Instagram “influencer” named Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen). Ingrid uses deceit to successfully penetrate Taylor’s inner circle, and hilarity results. Uh, not really.

Ingrid Goes West aspires to be All About Eve for the social-media generation, but there’s a crucial difference. In Eve, the characters were snakes — but snakes with charm and wit. In Ingrid, the characters are snakes, but shallow and witless.

Only in the third act does the movie come to life, when Ingrid sheds her creepy stalker persona and reveals herself to be a genuine human being. Release: 2017  Grade: B

 

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Two

 

A man and a woman, strangers to each other, awaken naked in a bed and discover they have been surgically sewn together at the abdomen. Who would do this to them, and why?

From its synopsis, I expected Spain’s Two to be cheap exploitation, inspired by the cult success of The Human Centipede. But I was mistaken; the movie is neither cheap nor exploitative. Rather than Centipede, the movie it most resembles is Brian De Palma’s Sisters, steeped in psychological horror. At a brisk 71 minutes, the film nevertheless leaves a lasting impression. Release: 2021 Grade: A-

 

 

For those of you intrigued by Two for its more prurient elements — such as naked actress Marina Gatell, 42 — check out 2009’s Little Ashes, below. From her full-frontal shots in Two to her fairly graphic backside exposure in Little Ashes, Gatell clearly places a lot of trust in her directors.

 

Above, Gatell braves cold weather in Two

 

Above and below, Gatell braves the camera’s lens in Little Ashes

 

**

 

Photocopier

 

Such a difficult movie to review. Technically, it’s top-notch. The acting is uniformly excellent, and the direction is flawless, at times even inspired. And yet — to this American — the film’s premise is patently absurd. Or is it?

Shenina Cinnamon plays an Indonesian girl (“Sur”) who, after attending a celebratory party with a group of artists, wakes up the following day and learns that someone took “selfies” of her during the night and posted the embarrassing pictures online.

The movie then becomes a mystery/thriller, with Sur enlisting the aid of anyone she can to find out who did this to her. Her quest makes for compelling drama.

And yet … the selfies are not nudes, nor are they particularly salacious — to my Western eyes. Apparently, in Indonesia relatively tame images are enough to ruin careers and irreparably harm reputations.

One more quibble: I thought the ending was overly artsy and pretentious. At least to my Western eyes. Release: 2021 Grade: B+

 

*

 

 

Unlike starlets from the West, whose social media posts might make Hugh Hefner blush, Indonesian actress Shenina Cinnamon’s posts are indicative of a conservative (repressive?) culture. The pictures above and below are about as provocative as you will find on Cinnamon’s Instagram page.

 

 

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Promising Young Woman

 

The main reason to watch Promising Young Woman is Carey Mulligan, who shines as a damaged woman who goes to the dark side to avenge a friend’s gang rape and subsequent suicide. It’s a good film, but not a great one, I think because it tries too hard to juggle a serious topic with a desire to entertain. The muddled result is thought-provoking drama — but not too thought-provoking. Because, you know, that might be a downer. Release: 2020  Grade: B+

 

**

 

Nobody

 

With Nobody, Bob Odenkirk joins Liam Neeson and Keanu Reeves in the trendy late-career transition to that most unlikely of genres: the middle-aged man as action hero. Odenkirk plays a seemingly harmless everyman who, following a home-invasion that threatens his wife and kids, returns to his not-so-harmless roots.

What sinks the movie is its discordant tone. It begins like a Falling Down for a new generation, with Odenkirk in Michael Douglas’s role as the American white man who finds himself on the downswing of societal change. But once the big secret is revealed, Nobody goes from “take this serious” drama to a procession of violent, cartoonish set pieces — “hey, we’re just having fun here!”

Although a sequel is clearly on the minds of everyone involved with Nobody, I can only hope that Odenkirk finds something more suited to his talents. Something like Better Call Saul, maybe? Release: 2021  Grade: B

 

**

 

Insomnia

 

I liked the 2002 American remake of this movie, which starred Al Pacino as a cop with a checkered past who hunts a killer while battling his own demons — and a relentless midnight sun. I also enjoyed the original, with Stellan Skarsgard as the troubled cop, although the locale in the first film is northern Norway, not Alaska.

I guess a viewer’s preference might depend on which performance most intrigues: Skarsgard’s cold-as-ice inspector, or Pacino’s more emotional cop on the edge. I’ll give the nod to Norway’s version, if only because it came first. Release: 1997  Grade: B+

 

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Searching

 

I was wary of Searching because it’s a gimmick movie. Like Unfriended and films of that ilk, the entire story is told from the perspective of a screen — computer screen, cell-phone screen, security footage, you name it. I’m not a fan of the screencast genre because, among other annoyances, I find myself triggered to “interact.” I feel like I should be clicking on buttons or highlighting text. Too much work.

But like the much-maligned found-footage genre, if the screenplay is clever and the direction is skilled, screencast movies can work. Searching succeeds because the gimmick never becomes outlandish, and the script contains several surprises and one nice twist.

Oh yeah, the plot: A widower undergoes every parent’s nightmare when his teenage daughter goes missing. Then he undergoes every technophobe’s nightmare: enduring all those screens to retrace her steps.  Release: 2018  Grade: B+

 

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The Trip

 

I’m not normally a fan of gross-out humor, which is too often witless and juvenile. And I’m not attracted to gore, which I find a bore. So why am I recommending Norway’s The Trip, which is loaded with gross-outs and gore? Because when done right it can be funny, and The Trip is a black comedy that made me LOL — an event so rare for me that when it does happen, I simply must praise the film.

Noomi Rapace and Aksel Hennie play a married couple who are ostensibly taking a relaxing holiday trip to their lakeside cabin. But peace and prosperity are not in their cards. The plot starts out like The War of the Roses, but then … shit happens. Literally. To say more would be a spoiler, so I’ll shut up now. Release: 2021 Grade: B+

 

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The Voyeurs

 

Here’s the thing about stupid erotic thrillers: If the movie can manage to keep me entertained, I am willing to forgive any number of gaping plot holes, ridiculous twists, and bad acting. So long as the filmmakers don’t take their movie too seriously, neither will I.

Amazon’s The Voyeurs is certainly guilty of the three cinematic sins listed above, but I kept watching for several reasons: 1)  I’m a sucker for movies that take their inspiration from Hitchcock and De Palma, and Voyeurs, in which our heroes make the mistake of spying on their sexy, intriguing neighbors, does exactly that. 2)  The twist ending is unbelievable, sure, but rather than try to hide that unfortunate fact, Voyeurs embraces it. 3)  Star Sydney Sweeney (pictured above), totally unconvincing as a respected optometrist, is utterly convincing as a woman with spectacular boobs.

And Ben Hardy, as the charismatic villain, proves that at least one member of the cast can act.  Release: 2021 Grade: B-

 

Natasha Liu Bordizzo, left, also gets naked.

 

**

 

The Vast of Night

 

Don’t go into The Vast of Night expecting Spielbergian spectacle, a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Do go in expecting — dare I say it? — a more realistic depiction of what a visit from space aliens might be like, should the creatures decide to drop in on a small New Mexico town in the late 1950s. Simple, straightforward, and above all, atmospheric as hell, this little film is a creepy gem. Release: 2019 Grade: A-

 

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

 

I had low expectations for this Hollywood-machine product. Big budget, special effects, and movie stars slumming for large paychecks, I assumed. Well, what a pleasant surprise: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is no cinematic masterpiece, but it is clever and often laugh-out-loud funny.

Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan and Jack Black play teens who, thanks to a magical video game, find themselves transported into a deadly race in the heart of a jungle — and into the bodies of adult avatars. (In one case, this means a teen girl inhabiting the body of a portly middle-aged male.) It’s all very silly, sure, but it’s also fast-paced and crowd-pleasing. The only drawback is a villain who is generic and bland. Release: 2017 Grade: B+

 

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