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Few filmmakers are as comfortable astride the line between the beautiful and the grotesque as Guillermo del Toro. The echoes of this affinity reverberate through much of his filmography, whether we’re talking about horror or sci-fi or fantasy – he finds ways to elevate genre filmmaking more cleanly and compellingly than any of his peers.

His latest offering is “Nightmare Alley,” a film whose script he also co-adapted alongside Kim Morgan from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name. While it doesn’t venture as far into the fantastical as much of his earlier work – the genre this time around is noir more than anything – he’s still able to find ways to explore that light/dark balance, albeit largely in an internal manner rather than externally.

Of course, it is also marked by del Toro’s typically lush visual stylings, an idiosyncratic and mesmerizing aesthetic that is evocative and haunting. While it does get a little mushy in terms of narrative, it also features an incredibly talented cast (including a few del Toro favorites). It is stark and bleak and beautiful, a thriller that revels in the moral and ethical shadows that it casts.

Published in Movies
Monday, 13 December 2021 13:50

No need to get close to ‘Encounter’

I’ve always loved paranoid thrillers. Movies where something sinister and paradigm-shattering is happening, but only a few people (or even just one person) know the truth? Yeah, I’m here for it.

Sure, we’re past the ‘70s-era heyday of such films, but that doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally get one now and then. And when these thrillers incorporate other genre elements, so much the better. Of course, all of this is predicated on the fact that the movie in question has to be, you know … good.

If it isn’t, well … that’s when you wind up with something like “Encounter.”

The film, directed by Michael Pearce from a script Pearce co-wrote with Joe Barton, is an attempt to recreate that paranoid thriller vibe within a science fiction framework. Now, that kind of genre melding has been done to great success in the past, but the truth is that this story never quite finds its footing, with an inconsistent connection to the relative reality of its premise that evokes more confusion than paranoia.

It’s too bad, because there does seem to be something here. And there’s a dynamite lead performance from Riz Ahmed. Unfortunately, that performance is largely wasted in service of a story that never quite adds up. One might argue that that narrative jumbling is a choice, but even if it is, it is a largely ineffectual one.

Published in Movies
Monday, 01 November 2021 14:50

About ‘Last Night in Soho’

Few active filmmakers are possessed of a style and sensibility that is specifically theirs. These filmmakers stamp their idiosyncratic signatures on their works in an undeniable manner; theirs are the movies that we watch and know instantly who made them. The Andersons – both Wes and Paul Thomas – are in that category, for instance. So too are the Coen brothers.

And Edgar Wright is definitely in that conversation.

The English auteur’s latest film is “Last Night in Soho,” a time travel horror thriller of sorts that is packed with the sort of vivid imagery and pop deep cuts in which he delights. We move back and forth between the present day and a neon-soaked ‘60s London, the color and lights serving only to deepen the shadows of a story whose details are ever-shifting.

Wright has never been one to flee from his influences; he’s unafraid to embrace and celebrate the pop culture sights, sounds and ideas that he loves. That said, “Last Night in Soho” – while undeniably and instantly identified as an Edgar Wright movie – might be the least overtly engaged in conversation with those influences. They’re there, but we’re much farther from the homage/pastiche vibe of, say, his Cornetto Trilogy.

It’s stylish. It’s creepy. And it’s very good.

Published in Movies

As a rule, I’m what you might call an omnivorous reader. My choices aren’t usually constrained by genre – I’ll read pretty much anything. That said, I do have certain types of book that I generally don’t pick up.

For instance, I don’t often get into jargon-heavy thrillers – the Tom Clancys and Clive Cusslers of the world. Just not my scene. I also tend to steer clear of fiction written by famous people who are not famous for being writers – I’ve been burned by too many vanity novels.

So the idea of a book that COMBINES those two things should be a hard no, right? Maybe so – but every rule has its exceptions.

“The Apollo Murders” (Mulholland Books, $28) is the fiction debut of decorated astronaut Chris Hadfield. It’s an alternate history of sorts, a reimagining of the Apollo 18 mission that is packed full of mystery and Cold War intrigue. It’s a new wrinkle to the space race in a world where it’s no longer about getting to space, but rather about controlling it.

Hadfield taps into his own experiences and vast knowledge base to craft a story that is absolutely overflowing with period-accurate detail while also offering up enough twists and turns to make for an engaging thriller. He blends real-life individuals with fictional creations to tell a tale rendered all the more compelling for its general plausibility.

Published in Tekk

Another week, another Netflix original.

While the streamer’s commitment to providing a steady supply of original content is admirable, the combination of constant churn and a vague sense of algorithmic generation, there’s no disputing that the level of quality is … uneven, to say the least, even if the quantity is largely delivered as promised.

Their latest entry is “Sweet Girl,” a revenge thriller starring Jason Momoa. This story of a man pursuing vengeance against the pharmaceutical company that he holds responsible for the death of his wife is your run-of-the-mill passable, largely forgettable action offering … right up until a late twist that turns the whole thing into something altogether more bonkers, altering not just the remainder of the film, but everything we’ve seen before.

Now, that’s not to say that this makes any of this what you’d call “good” – the film is too across-the-board workmanlike for that – but it certainly turns what initially seems like a time-filling watch into something you’ll at least remember beyond the end credits.

Published in Movies

Sometimes, you look at someone on screen and think “That person has it. They’re going to be a huge star.” There’s just an indefinable … something. Presence. Charisma. Whatever you want to call it.

That said, having “it” isn’t always enough.

Take the new Netflix thriller “Beckett,” for instance. John David Washington is an actor who has that something, that elusive star quality (even if he doesn’t always know how to properly wield it). But while that energy is certainly present in this film, it can’t make up for the thin narrative and assorted odd thematic and tonal choices scattered throughout. He’s able to keep the movie from being outright bad, but he can’t pull it up to the level of being good.

There’s a decent supporting cast, but they’re stuck in the slog as well, plodding their way through the unevenly paced proceedings. Everyone in the ensemble is doing what they can, but they’re ultimately undermined by Ferdinando Filomarino’s uninspired direction and Kevin Rice’s threadbare and derivative screenplay.

Published in Movies

I dig M. Night Shyamalan movies.

Not all of them – he’s definitely got a couple of real stinkers in there – but for the most part, I’ve liked the films that he’s made. Frankly, there’s something refreshing about the dude and his work; he is clearly someone who makes movies that he likes and doesn’t really worry all that much about anything else. And thanks to the ongoing cultural impact of “The Sixth Sense,” he has enough creative capital to keep doing what he does.

Plus, he’s kind of on a pretty good run.

Since his sort-of-comeback with 2015’s “The Visit,” Shyamalan has reinvigorated his career, putting the previous decade or so – in which he became something of a punchline – in the rearview. That film, plus the double dip of 2016’s excellent “Split” and 2019’s I-liked-it-more-than-many “Glass” along with his work on TV shows like “Wayward Pines” and “Servant,” have him back in the conversation, albeit not quite at his turn-of-the-century heights.

His latest is “Old.” It’s a bit of an outlier for him; he directed and wrote the screenplay, as per usual, but this time, it’s an adaptation – a French graphic novel titled “Sandcastle.” But it’s the sort of supernaturally-tinged story we’ve learned to expect from him, with the same brand of ludicrous/intriguing elevator pitch description.

To wit: What if people went to a beach that made them age their entire lives in just a few hours?

I know, I know – it sounds goofy. And I suppose it is. But it is also precisely the sort of premise with which a filmmaker like Shyamalan can have some fun. It’s not perfect – things get clunky here and there and there’s one particular plot development that is actively icky – but the things that Shyamalan does well, he does REALLY well … and they’re on display here.

Published in Movies

There’s something almost sad about watching a film’s ending set the table for a sequel that – if what you’ve just watched is any indication – almost certainly won’t wind up happening. You’ve sat through the 100ish minutes and are left to sympathize with the sure-to-be-dashed sequel dreams of the filmmakers before ultimately walking away and promptly forgetting about it.

However, “almost certainly” is not “certainly.” Know how I know? Because “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions” exists.

This sequel was transparently set up by the ending of 2019’s “Escape Room” (to the ultimate detriment of that film, to be honest); while the first installment didn’t really earn this continuation via quality, it was relatively successful at the box office – and money talks.

Director Adam Robitel is back for round two, as are a couple of the first film’s stars. But really, they could have simply brought everybody back and taken another go, because it’s largely more of the same.

An unnecessary sequel – fine. I get the desire to return to that well. However, if you’re going to make a sequel to a movie that itself was underwhelming, perhaps the right move is to make that sequel … better? Or at least different? Instead, this is basically a rehash; they’ve turned the dial up a little, but otherwise, it’s more of the same.

Published in Movies

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a genuine affection for old man action movies. There’s something so compelling about watching a creaky-kneed geriatric hobble his way across the screen, gratefully giving way to stunt performers when things get a little too active. I know that sounds derogatory (and maybe it is, a little) but that doesn’t change the fact that I for-real dig it.

Of course, the king of geriatric action (geriaction?) is my man Liam Neeson. His “Taken” franchise really kicked off the boom times of the subgenre, though I should note that I don’t count the aging action stars as part of it – your Schwarzeneggers, your Stallones, your Willises. And while Neeson’s definitely lost a step or two since that first “Taken” outing, he’s still out there getting after it (and getting those checks).

His latest foray into old man action is “The Ice Road,” a Netflix offering written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh. This time, Neeson plays an over-the-road truck driver who is pressed into service to save a bunch of trapped miners before it’s too late, only there are outside forces conspiring to stop him from doing that.

It’s the sort of paint-by-numbers action-thriller that makes up the entirety of Neeson’s workload these days – one that is decidedly lacking in both action and thrills. He does his gruff Everyman thing, trying to convey world-weariness even as his only clear motivation is cashing his check. It is purely disposable, a movie designed for folks of a certain age to fall asleep in front of.

Published in Movies

Baby horror has long been a vital subgenre beneath the horror umbrella. The possibilities that come with the fundamental mysteries of pregnancy and giving birth are myriad. You can do demonic possession or supernatural rituals or weird science, all with a body horror underpinning that comes part and parcel with the whole situation.

Of course, these movies aren’t always good.

Take “False Positive,” newly streaming on Hulu. I had high hopes for this one, honestly. Ilana Glazer stars and co-wrote the script with director John Lee. Both of them have some legitimately weird credits to their name. Throw in Justin Theroux and Pierce Brosnan as co-stars and you’ve got my attention.

Unfortunately, while the film starts with some real promise, it never quite gets to where we want it to be. Instead, it devolves into a muddled mishmash of dream sequences and “What is real?” psychodrama that never finds its footing after the strong start. Too many decisions make little or no sense; there’s never any sense behind why people are behaving the way that they are. We’re left with a confusing and ultimately unsatisfying film that never quite decides what it wants to be. Again, there are moments of strength, but not nearly enough of them.

Published in Movies
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