A review of “Hush” (2016)

I feel like I should have enjoyed “Hush” (2016) more than I did.  It isn’t a bad movie — it’s well made, and it stars Kate Siegel, who this year’s exceptional “The Haunting of Hill House” has led me to really like as an actress.  (Siegel also co-wrote the film with director Mike Flanagan, who is her husband and who was also the writer and director of “Hill House.”)  Siegel is again quite good, and their collaboration here results in a competent, serious horror-drama with no glaring flaws.

Yet my mind wandered.  Even if there was nothing seriously wrong with “Hush,” it didn’t much distinguish itself.  Just about everything you watch here is a standard stalker-vs.-lone-woman scary movie, with little in the way of twists or unexpected plot developments.

Yes, the difference here is that the protagonist is deaf and mute, and is therefore less able to defend herself — but Siegel and Flanagan don’t capitalize on that much in conceiving this story.  By the end of the film, I didn’t get the sense that the character’s disability even affected the course of the story very much.  Events would have unfolded more or less the same way if she hadn’t had this disability.  (Or am I missing something?)  I also get the sense that the protagonist being an author was supposed to affect her choices and strategies in trying to survive, but that didn’t come across consistently or well.  (And it results in “tricking” the viewer at one juncture in a way I didn’t like.)

I can’t actually recommend “Hush” to others because it didn’t thrill me.  But I can’t objectively say that it’s a bad movie.  So I figure I’ll rate it here a 7 out of 10.

A few random observations:

  • Siegel is a talented performer.  I predict she’s going to go on to great things.  Don’t let my lukewarm response to this film dissuade you from catching her elsewhere — especially in “The Haunting of Hill House.”
  • The story’s antagonist is fairly generic; he appears to be simply be a random serial killer in the script, and we get hardly a hint about his motivations.  But John Gallagher Jr. breathes plenty of life into him with a disturbingly authentic, naturalistic performance.  He’s also a very good actor.
  • I saw a plot twist coming that didn’t actually occur, and I wonder if what I saw was a vestige of an earlier version of this movie’s script.  (And it isn’t a spoiler if it didn’t happen.)  During a stalk-and-talk scene in which the bad guy taunts his victim, he inexplicably addresses Siegel’s character as “Squish.”  That sounds like a pet name that parent would give to a very young child.  The twist I predicted was this — Gallagher’s character was not a serial killer who selected his victims at random, but a long lost, homicidal brother who was then parodying the parent by invoking the pet name.  He was motivated by pathological jealousy after growing up with his disabled sister, who he felt monopolized his parents’ attention and sympathies.
  • We learn from dialogue that the protagonist became deaf and mute after contracting meningitis when she was a child.  I knew that meningitis could make a person deaf (or blind).  But … also mute?  Why am I skeptical about that?  Wouldn’t that only happen if someone became deaf when he or she was a baby — so that the disease could delay key early childhood language-acquisition processes?  I have no idea why I am so hung up on this minor bit of exposition.  Maybe watching so many zombie or plague movies has made me a stickler for the way diseases are portrayed in a horror story.

 

hush-movie-poster

A short review of “Patient Zero” (2018)

I’d be lying to you if I told you that “Patient Zero” (2018) is an especially good movie.  It isn’t.  It plays a lot like the classic “28 Days Later” (2002) would play if it were produced by the SyFy Channel, and by that I mean it generally is a poorly written, low-budget cheese-fest.  (This is one of those movies where even the score was kinda bad.)  Still, there were some hints of greatness hidden within this lackluster zombie movie — enough to save it from being a complete failure — and I would reluctantly rate it a 5 out of 10.  (Most other reviewers are not even that kind.)

First, it has some fine performers. These include two “Game of Thrones” actors who are always fun to watch — the mesmerizing Natalie Dormer and the consistently likable John Bradley.  (The latter seems to specialize in winning audiences over as the “hero’s-affable-friend” role.)  “Doctor Who” fans will of course recognize Matt Smith in the lead role.  But by far and away, they’re overshadowed by a fantastic performance by Stanley Tucci as the zombies’ surprisingly eloquent leader.  (More on that in a moment.)  Tucci is truly a great actor and he makes a perfectly menacing bad guy; his voice, diction and line delivery are goddam perfect.  His talent for voicing a magnetic, highly intelligent antagonist reminds me of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal of Negan on “The Walking Dead,” or one of the better “big bads” seen on “24” (2001 – 2014).

Second, there are some really clever ideas hiding under this thin, hasty script.  (I strongly get the sense that “Patient Zero” was a rush job for screenwriter Mike Le and director Vincent Newman.)  The hyper-kinetic zombies here are afflicted with “super-rabies” and are reminiscent of their ilk from “28 Days Later.”  But there is a truly intriguing plot conceit — their roars and screams are perfectly intelligible to Smith’s protagonist.  He speaks their “language” because he’s infected, but also mysteriously asymptomatic.  When he interrogates the zombies for the military, their interaction is filmed as normal dialogue (creating the opportunity for Tucci’s terrific turn here).  Then things get even more interesting when it’s demonstrated that the ostensibly mindless zombies are quite proficient at planning an attack.

I … might be treating this movie a bit charitably simply because I liked some of its ingredients.  Again, I don’t actually recommend it.  But your mileage may vary.

 

17YBhcjXvv5BFz433OcF1UqcGzd

A short review of “Bird Box” (2018)

Netflix’ “Bird Box” generally pleases — I’d rate it an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a creative and effective apocalyptic horror film.  A few reviewers call it a “high-concept” horror movie because of its MacGuffin — an invasion of otherworldly beings causes anyone who looks at them to hallucinate and become suicidally depressed.  (A handful of survivors escape the chaotic mass suicides because they are lucky enough not to lay eyes on the mysterious, mind-bending creatures which can become images of their victims’ worst fears.)

It’s a hell of a setup — it reminds many people of this year’s “A Quiet Place” and 2008’s unfairly maligned “The Happening.”  (Hey, I really liked that movie.)  For some reason, “Bird Box” reminded me of the 1985 “The Twilight Zone” episode, “Need to Know.”  (It’s a great ep.)  And the plot device pays off — “Bird Box” is genuinely unsettling, and the whole story comes across as a blackly inventive end-of-the-world tale.

Sandra Bullock is good here; supporting actors Sarah Paulson and John Malkovich are even better. (Malkovich is mesmerizing whenever he plays an intense or unpleasant character.)

The film suffers somewhat from puzzling pacing problems — sometimes the story appears to be unfolding too quickly, but by the end of the two-hour movie, it feels too long.  “Bird Box” was adapted from a structured 2014 novel by Josh Malerman; I strongly get the sense that it tries to squeeze too much of its source material into a the running time for a movie.  I honestly think I would have enjoyed it much more if its frightening plot device and interesting, well-played characters were explored in a mini-series.

There’s another disappointment too — we learn very little about the story’s antagonists, beyond one character’s hypothesis that they’re archetypal punishing figures from a number of the world’s religions.  I wanted to know more.

 

Bird_Box_poster

A review of Season 1 of “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018)

Ghosts seldom scare me, because I’m never 100 percent clear on what sort of threat they present to the protagonists of a horror film or TV show.  They’re not like zombies, vampires, werewolves or serial killers, all of which will do predictably horrible things to their victims.

Can ghosts … kill you?  Injure you?  That usually doesn’t make sense, given their non-corporeal nature.  Can they … scare you to death?  How would that work?  Would they cause a heart attack?  Or drive you mad?  That’s fine, I suppose, but here they’ve taken a back seat to the demons of horror films since 1973’s “The Exorcist” spawned a sub-genre with far more frightening supernatural baddies.  Are ghosts supposed to inspire existential dread, by reminding the viewers of their own mortality?  For me, that backfires — their existence would strongly suggest the existence of an afterlife, which would be paradoxically reassuring.

It’s therefore a testament to the quality of Netflix’ “The Haunting of Hill House” (2018) that it’s frequently so scary, even to me.  We find out in the first episode that its ghosts indeed do more than frighten the story’s protagonists, but it’s the show’s writing, directing and acting that make it so memorable.  It’s an a superb viewing experience, and I’d rate it a 10 out of 10.

The cast roundly shines — but especially Carla Gugino and Timothy Hutton (even if his performance was a little understated).  Catherine Parker is deliciously evil in a supporting role as the house’s most outwardly vicious spirit.  The best performance, for me, however, was the young Victoria Pedretti as the traumatized Nell — she was goddam amazing, and deserves an Emmy nomination.

Mike Flanagan’s directing was perfect — his use of long angles and colors to make lavish interiors disorienting reminded me of Stanley Kubrick’s similar sensory trickery in “The Shining” (1980).  Michael Fimognari’s cinematography was beautiful.  Even the makeup effects were damned good.  (Nothing beats Greg Nicotero’s work in “The Walking Dead” universe, but the work here is sometimes horrifying.)

I’m not the only one who loved this show either.  It is broadly praised in online horror fan circles (though I’d recommend avoiding most of those for spoilers).  I haven’t read Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel that is its source material, but a bibliophile who I trust assured me that the show is even better.

Sure, there were some things that didn’t work for me.  “The Haunting of Hill House” actually does take a while to get where it’s going; it favors in-depth, flashback-heavy character development over advancing its plot, in much the same manner as “Lost” (2004 – 2010) once did.  And some viewers might feel the same frustration here as they would for that show.

Its story and supernatural adversaries are also distinctly Gothic.  (Your mileage may vary as to what’s a comfortably familiar trope and what’s an archaic cliche.  I myself was more interested the more modern and three-dimensional interpretation of ghost characters seen in 1999’s “The Sixth Sense.”)  I’d even go so far as the say that the first ghost that we see in any detail is actually disappointing — the otherworldly figure connected with the bowler hat felt too cartoonish for me, like something we’d see on Walt Disney World’s “The Haunted Mansion” ride.  (Trust me, they get more intimidating after that.)

Give this show a chance — and stay with it if you think it’s too slow, or if you find its characters a little unlikable at first.  You’ll be glad you did.

Weird world: if the diffident, sometimes off-putting character of Steven looks familiar to you, it might be because that’s none other than Michiel Huisman, who plays the charismatic Daario on “Game of Thrones.”

 

HauntingHillHouse-tp0004c_Double_Gate_Cover_houseback

A short review of “Bad Samaritan” (2018)

As I believe I may have mentioned, I have a love-hate relationship with David Tennant’s onscreen performances.  I find him inexplicably, positively grating whenever he plays a protagonist.  (See 2011’s “Fright Might” remake, or his cringe-inducing stint as “Doctor Who.”)  But it seems to me that the man is absolutely fantastic when he plays a bad guy.  (See his frightening and hilarious role as Kilgrave the first season of “Jessica Jones” in 2015.)

“Bad Samaritan” (2018) thankfully presents us with the latter Tennant.  He musters an intensity with his eyes and his voice that are incongruous counterpoints to his innocent-looking face, and this makes him a damned good antagonist in a thriller.  (He is a highly organized, sociopathic kidnapper in this film.  I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler, as all of the film’s marketing make it clear.)  He’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch — and listen to.

With that said, “Bad Samaritan” is an average movie — not altogether bad, but not awesomely good, either.  (I suppose I’d rate it a 7 out of 10.)  It benefits a lot from another very good actor in Robert Sheehan as its anti-heroic young protagonist.  (The plot setup here is interesting — a mild-mannered burglar discovers a psychopath’s captive while in his house, then struggles with how he can help the terrified victim of a far worse criminal than he is.)  The movie’s biggest sin seems to be that it borrows heavily from comparable genre-defining works from the likes of Thomas Harris and James Patterson.  But it’s still an enjoyable enough movie in its own right.

There’s someone else here that’s great fun to watch too — Kerry Condon as the kidnapee.  Her voice is amazing, and she’s a superb actress; I think she’s strong enough to carry another movie like this.  I just knew she looked familiar … it turns out she played Clara, the really weird woman that Rick found in the woods during Season 3 of “The Walking Dead.”  (He asks her the show’s signature “three questions.”)

She is also to voice of F.R.I.D.A.Y., Tony Stark’s on-board A.I. in several of Marvel’s “Avengers” movies.  Didn’t see that one coming.  Weird world.

 

bad_samaritan_ver2_xlg

A very short review of Episode 1 of “Who Is America?” (2018)

So I just managed to catch the first episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?” (2018), and it was predictably jaw-dropping.  (I recently ran a couple of clips here at the blog that Showtime had released concurrently with the show’s July 15th premiere.)  I’d rate the first episode a perfect 10 for being both hilarious and an absolutely biting half hour of … prank comedy?  Subversive documentary?  Performance art?  I think any of those labels might apply in varying degrees, depending on how you view Cohen’s work.  It’s wacky stuff.

I opine that Cohen is a creative genius.  We can all debate the ethics of the imposter interviews that are his trademark (and there were a couple of moments during 2006’s “Borat” that made even me squirm).   But nobody can deny that the man is exceptionally good at what he does.  And I don’t think that his success derives from the false personas he adopts when sitting down with political figures.  (There are several new ones that he’s created for the show.)  They are funny by themselves, but not hilarious, and countless comedians can perform a character.  (One of Cohen’s creations, the “Finnish Youtuber,” even reminds me a little of Dana Carvey.)

Cohen has something more.  If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s a skill set that matches closely with that of any standard con-artist, allowing him to gain his interviewees’ trust to an extreme degree.   I’m willing to bet that he works hard at building rapport with his subjects long before the cameras start rolling, and that the feckless nature of his false identities further puts them at ease.

Anyway, Episode 1 features interviews with Bernie Sanders and Trent Lott.  A clip from the Sanders segment is below.  He acquits himself far better than other participants, although I also think Cohen went far easier on him.  (There isn’t actually a joke at Sanders’ expense; it’s really just Cohen’s character clowning.)  The humiliating interview with disgraced Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn’t appear until Episode 4, but I just had to include it here.

This is utterly bizarre, utterly funny stuff.  I highly recommend it.

 

 

 

 

A review of “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) is indeed a worthy sequel, even if it cannot equal Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 original film.  (And this is absolutely understandable — I opine that Scott’s dour, challenging “Blade Runner” is arguably the greatest movie of all time.)  Some of it worked, and some of it didn’t — but I sufficiently enjoyed this movie to rate it a 9 out of 10.

There is a lot going on here in terms of plot.  I won’t be specific about what I liked and what I didn’t like, because I want to avoid spoilers.  (There are definitely some surprise plot developments, and this is a relatively recent film that fans have waited no fewer than 35 years to see.)  But I’m happy to report that “Blade Runner 2049” satisfies by being a direct and logical follow-up in terms of character, plot and setting.

I do think that this would be a stronger standalone story if it had included the material that was relegated to the online short films that serve as its companions.  (You can find all three of them at Open Culture right here.)  The first one, “Black Out 2022,” is probably necessary to understanding the feature film’s story and ought to be required viewing.

The visuals were vivid and arresting, the action sequences were generally satisfying, and the acting across the board was quite good.  Harrison Ford was predictably perfect.  Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks are suitably intense and make terrific bad guys.  (I’ve always loved Leto’s work — even his criminally underappreciated, spot-on interpretation of DC Comics’ “The Joker.”)  And Carla Juri nearly steals the entire movie with her mesmerizing performance in a supporting role.

What I liked best about “Blade Runner 2049” was how surprisingly well it captured the … vibe, I guess, of the first film — its existential angst and the surprising tragic nobility of its characters.  Simply put, this film got the feeling right.  For me, this was best evidenced by a poetic subplot between the characters played by Ryan Gosling and Ana de Armas.  It’s great dystopian science fiction — a fusion of troubling futurism and genuine human emotion.  And the mood was greatly enhanced by an evocative score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch.

There are were a couple of things that I didn’t like — they were plot points that I won’t detail here.  The pacing also felt too slow, at times.  (This is a long movie, at two hours and 44 minutes.)  And the the climactic fight scene felt just a bit claustrophobic and awkwardly executed.  (It’s a far cry from the epic feel of the original’s rainswept rooftop confrontation.)

I’d still cheerfully recommend “Blade Runner 2049” to fans of Scott’s film.  I’d caution them to sit down with it with as few expectations as possible, though, and to just enjoy this second chapter on its own merits.  It’s mostly great stuff.

 

pri_50481883