Writer/director Jordan Peele keeps his head in the clouds for Nope (B), a genre-defying paranormal action drama sure to raise eyebrows and conversations. Expertly shot and imaginatively conceived, it maintains its slow boil mystery into a fierce final act. Playing with conventions about the extent to which individuals will go to leave a legacy or even how far a filmmaker will endeavor to present a spectacle, Peele skillfully slides into a very intellectual mode for most of the film’s duration even though his film can be simultaneously enjoyed as simply a supernatural adventure. Keke Palmer and Daniel Kaluuya are engaging as siblings who uncover something afoot on their Hollywood horse ranch, and Brandon Perea is trippy fun as their technical accomplice. Steven Yeun successfully fronts a fascinating subplot about an entertainment property in an alternative universe, sometimes more compelling than the primary plot. It’s a delight to watch the cunning gamesmanship of the ensemble in advancing the story, and Peele again earns his place among visionary moviemakers even as he confounds expectations a bit.
Director Steven Soderbergh puts the WTF in WFH in his minor key paranoid thriller Kimi (C). Stepping into the Rear Window/Blow Out role as the protagonist who unwittingly uncovers a crime, a winning Zoë Kravitz is a homebound but electric-blue hair sporting computer analyst who works in an overly appointed Seattle apartment correcting voice assistant command results for a pre-IPO tech startup and discovers a snippet with a twist. The film takes place in a somewhat modern day metropolis with pandemic and political undertones, but Kravitz’s character is also agoraphobic, so there are double the reasons for her character to not want to leave home despite an ultimate wild goose chase of requirements to solve the central conundrum. The plot gets increasingly lively but can’t mask its status as a running retread. Soderbergh appears to be saying something about the human disconnects of a technically tethered world, but mainly his creation here is an under-baked trifle with an appealing central performance and a few cool suspense sequences. Even lesser Soderbergh contains some winning shots and ideas, but this one simply sneaks into the slipstream of mediocrity.
You may want to cover your eyes and frankly shut down all of your senses for Sandra Bullock’s overhyped dystopian suspense film playing exclusively on Netflix. Susanne Bier’s Bird Box (C) follows Bullock’s heroine who, along with a pair of precious children, embarks on an adventure through the woods and down a river blindfolded to avoid supernatural entities which cause people who lock eyes with them to take their own lives. Bullock and co-star Trevante Rhodes acquit themselves pretty well in the acting department, while a supporting cast including John Malkovich overplay wildly underwritten roles. The action and effects are quite average, and the end result is not worth all the fuss. It’s mostly a wobbly endeavor and a far cry from the similarly themed A Quiet Place, one of 2018’s best movies.
Ari Aster’s suspense drama Hereditary (B+) is a stunner, upending many expectations of typical horror movies for something even more raw: delving into the experience of losing loved ones, exploring compartmentalization of pain and unearthing abnormalities lurking in one’s family tree. The film deserves comparisons with The Shining and The Exorcist and showcases a master performance by Toni Collette as the troubled mother of two (Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff, really effective). Gabriel Byrne is ho-hum as the family dad (someone needed to be the straight man, I suppose), and Ann Dowd is superb as a neighbor in grief. The film is a slow-burn downer of the first order but splendidly cinematic, and it builds to quite a crescendo. The production values, from art direction to music, build a brooding mood. The film relies heavily on Collette to sell some far-fetched sequences of spiritualism and to take her character way out on a limb. She delivers in spades. From the first moments set in miniature dollhouses to an epic denouement, the film gets bigger in its ambitions. Fans of the original Friday the 13th may even find echoes in its origin story. This is recommended for aficionados of great drama, and I hope horror fans will like it too.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick protégé Trey Edward Shults, It Comes at Night (B+) is a superb psychological horror film that wrings generous art house thrills out of a straightforward apocalyptic premise. A couple and their son (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) have secluded themselves in a country home as a contagious disease plagues the outside world, and they are faced with a cat and mouse dilemma when visited by another couple and their son (Christopher Abbott, Riley Keough and Griffin Robert Faulkner) who may or may not be safe or worth harboring. Edgerton and Abbott are fabulous foils, one the rule-abiding master of an elaborate isolated house and the other the scallywag with a backstory. The casting is creative and unexpected: Abbott is wonderful, and the acting is great all around. Shults makes the most of a fairly low-budget bare-bones production space to stage his wicked one-upmanship. He is imaginative in what he doesn’t show the audience and teases with darkness as an effective canvas for scares in the first act before introducing a more conventional narrative. Hardcore horror fans may be let down by the lack of gore and by the calculated pace, but this summer film-goer was delighted at the effective storytelling on display.
Despite being imminently topical as a meditation on privacy in the age of social media, James Ponsoldt’s The Circle (C-) manages to misfire in its major story arch, acting choices, thematic intensity and ultimate resolution. Emma Watson bears the burden of an underwritten role as the protagonist who joins an all-encompassing social networking company that takes an increasing interest in her personal life regardless of moral implications. Tom Hanks phones in a role as the is-he-smug-or-isn’t-he? company visionary. None of the actors in the ensemble is immune to the film’s deadly direction and trite dialogue. The film’s far-fetched plot points are made even more preposterous by their gaping holes. At least two incidents of miscasting lead to less than satisfying dramatic results and at utter lack of suspense. This movie is a major missed opportunity to connect and contemplate with the world of the here and now.
Book blogger Ashley Williams reviews the novel and the film, and we do a joint Q&A here on The Book Fetish blog.
Prepare your senses for the clock-woke orange pulp confection of audacious moviemaking to hit a nerve in some time. Funnyman-turned-first-time-director Jordan Peele’s psychological thriller Get Out (A-) is a suspenseful and lively tale of a twentysomething black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) visiting the suburban family of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams), and the maiden voyage is a mindbender. Let’s just say that after the home tour, the events that follow will leave you guessing about a whole lot more than who’s coming to dinner. From the spot-on casting of Williams’ ultra-progressive parents to the sustained sense of dread around the townspeople and groundskeepers, Peele depicts the mounting terror that may be afoot in the neighborly facade. It’s like Shining-era Stanley Kubrick got an all-out David Lynching. Themes about the appropriation of race and culture are seamlessly marinated into a savory stew of a storyline; and the acting, music, sounds and setting all work in harmony to incredible effect. Catherine Keener is a standout as a therapist with unconventional hypnotic techniques, brilliantly rendered. As a horror film, it’s less gory and more allegory. But it’s edge of your seat material and sure to be the conversation starter of the year!
It’s not completely clear what the ultimate Cloverfield continuity encompasses, but producer J.J. Abrams’ answer to an anthology series a la Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories or Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story started with a 2008 found footage Godzilla thriller and in 2016 features a completely different set of characters and a storyline which may or may not occupy that same cinematic universe. Dan Trachtenberg’s eerie and suspenseful 10 Cloverfield Lane (B+) centers on a compelling performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead held captive in a doomsday bunker by John Goodman in a sublimely creepy role with comic relief from John Gallagher, Jr., who is either a fellow captive or conspirator. Themes of gamesmanship are explored as the three characters play each other and confound audience expectations. There may or may not be a zombie apocalypse, alien invasion or full-out war breaking out beyond the survivalist lair. Trachtenberg succeeds in crafting a tense and taut succession of action set pieces within a confined space and with old-fashioned tools and techniques and a propulsive throwback score. He earns his scares and wins hearts with spot-on performances. The acting, especially by Winstead, is uniformly outstanding; and the thrills compound in the final act. You don’t need to know a thing going in, and don’t expect to know it all coming out; but this film is a rollicking good time. The rest is classified.
Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (B) is a highly suspenseful Australian-Canadian psychological horror film focused on Essie Davis in a terrific performance as a grieving single mom and superb child actor Noah Wiseman as her disturbed boy. When they discover a children’s book about a maniacal madman who is trying to infiltrate their home, the mother and son must summon all in their power to preserve whatever sanity is left in their domestic life. Music and sound effects augment this classic tale of home and hero possession, and it almost fully delivers on the promise of its premise. It’s creepy, deeply relatable and a great example of how time-honored horror tools and solid acting can pack a paranoid punch.
The eager but naïve FBI agent played by Jodie Foster and the imprisoned cannibal played by Anthony Hopkins are the serial killer tracking duo for the ages in Jonathan Demme’s riveting thriller The Silence of the Lambs (A+). Exploring the deepest reaches of the human psyche with crackling dialogue, impeccable acting and edge-of-your-seat thrills, this is a master class of trying to figure out motivations before a killer or even a fellow hunter makes the next move. Demme intentionally shoots Foster’s character in a way that juxtaposes her as different in world of male-dominated law enforcement officials and female victims, allowing her to hold steady as an amazing protagonist even as vicious villains try to get in her head. Hopkins’ role as Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter is one of the great onscreen roles and fascinating in his every sequence.