Tag Archives: Horror

Bones and All

26 Nov

Searching for where she belongs consumes this cannibal teen

By Tom Meek Friday, November 25, 2022

Not really the kind of movie to see after a Thanksgiving Day feast, or even after the leftovers. No, “Bones and All,” the latest from director Luca Guadagnino (“Suspiria,” “A Bigger Splash”) is not for the meek, squeamish or recently well fed, as its subject matter are the folk known as “eaters,” aka cannibals, and it is, at times, quite gory. (There’s a degree of perversity at play here, as Guadagnino’s career-cementing “Call Me by Your Name” in 2017 starred Armie Hammer, who in the years following would be brought up on sexual abuse allegations that included purported cannibalistic yens.)

Based on the novel by Camille DeAngelis, the film begins innocently enough with 18-year-old Maren (Taylor Russell) hanging out with friend as a slumber party. It’s all what normal girls in nightgowns eating junk food and talking about crushes do, until Maren playful nips one of her cohort’s fingers. It’s no big thing until the third or forth nip, when she tries to bite the whole thing off. Friends intercede and Maren sprints off home, where she and her father (André Holland) pack up and depart to a new whereabouts with new aliases. Dad seems to be a champion of his daughter, but shortly thereafter, Maren is on her own with a tape from her father that she plays now and then, through which we learn about her past misdeeds (babysitters fare poorly in the film). Troubled by her condition, which appears to be genetic, Maren decides to find her mother, whom she never really knew. The quest takes her from northern Maryland to Minnesota, with a lot of lessons and feasting along the way.

The setting is the early 1980s, when it was impossible to find a flesh-eaters chat group online – but that’s okay, because these special folk can smell each other. As Maren waits for a bus along the way, a daffy, dapper guy named Sully (Mark Rylance, creepy in a limited role) strolls up and, in an avuncular, Southern twang, tells her he could smell her a mile away and asks her to a house down the way for a bite. Maren naturally is reluctant, and she’s apprehensive as Sully chats away while dressing Cornish game hens. Is this the nourishment he was talking about? Nope. Turns out the house belongs to an elderly woman who’s fallen and can’t get up, and Sully’s waiting for the right moment to feed – just at the moment she dies, because warm food is what’s most desired by the cannibals among us. If the eaters could place an order via Grubhub, the delivery time would most certainly be too long.

Maren moves on from Sully and partners up with a rangy lad named Lee (Timothée Chalamet, who became an A-lister with Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name”) whose methods are more straightforward and seem to benefit society at large – who’s going to miss a convenience story bully? On their meander to Minnesota they swing through Kentucky to give Lee’s 16-year-old sister driving lessons. It’s a strange sojourn, with the pair living on the fringe as vagabond outsiders. They bond, but not really romantically, and encounter other eaters along the way. As you can expect, Sully makes a return appearance, which unfortunately is one of the film’s least credible yarns.

Russell, so good in Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves” (2019) grows as as performer, conveying Maren’s inner turmoil with a nuanced physicality. Chalamet’s laconic Lee comes off as a vulnerable, reflective soul while emanating an aura of quiet lethality. The film is also bolstered by indelible turns by Chloë Sevigny, David Gordon Green (yup, the director of “Joe” and the recent, unbearable “Halloween” series reboot) and Michael Stuhlbarg in small parts, but to say more about the what and why would be to ruin the film.

I can say that there will be times when the eaters feed that you may need to look away or thorough split fingers – and even then will hear the ripping and groans of satiation. It’s not cartoonish like some zombie flicks, but visceral, grim and disturbingly real, like Claire Denis’ “Trouble Every Day” (2001) and Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” (2016). “Bones and All” is definitely not a movie for a family, but it about family, roots and tradition, no matter how troubling that tradition may be.

Barbarian

11 Sep

Good scares about an Airbnb worth bad reviews

By Tom Meek Friday, September 9, 2022

“Barbarian” is an innovative shot of horror from writer-director Zach Cregger (“The Whitest Kids U’Know”) that plays gleefully with tropes and viewer expectations. It’s impressively crafted and makes for a riveting and genuinely chilling edge-of-your-seat experience. The setup’s pretty basic: Tess (Georgina Campbell) is in Detroit for an interview to be an assistant to a documentary filmmaker who champions social causes and the arts. In the middle of a major thunderstorm, Tess rolls up to the cute little house she’s rented on Airbnb and finds it already occupied by a dude named Keith (Bill Skarsgård). What to do? Keith’s a little sketchy, but on invite Tess comes in so she can get out of the rain and call the owner. Natch, there’s no answer and no response to email. Keith offers to take the couch, and Tess agrees reluctantly to stay. After Keith lets on he’s seen the director’s films, the two end up bonding over a bottle of wine. You feel certain there’s something devious and dark something going on, but Tess gets through the night and to the interview. What’s troubling in the morning, however, is the realization that the house is the only maintained residence on the street – as far as the eye can see, there’s nothing but dilapidated, bombed-out shacks, husks of Reagan’s 1980s economic boom. When Tess returns to the house, circumstance has her venture down into the basement where Cregger, like Ti West in “X” last year (and likely too with the film’s follow-up, “Pearl,” opening next weekend), pays homage to the classic gore-ror of the 1970s from Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven and more while employing some crafty bait-and-switch and breaking new ground.

It’s hard to say more about “Barbarian” – the curious title reflects the street name, Barbar – without ruining the film’s deftly ingrained, devilish wit. Strange as it may sound, there’s a #MeToo subplot about an L.A. actor (Justin Long, the Mac guy) whose career goes down the toilet and a flashback to Barber Street during the prosperous 1980s. The performances by relative newcomer Campbell and Skarsgard (Pennywise in the recent “It” films) are nuanced, robust and deep in character. “Barbarian” is not quite on par with Jordan Peele’s acerbic social redirect “Get Out” (2017), but it’s in the ballpark’s parking lot. Speaking of Peele and his latest, “Nope,” that’s the exact word in the exact context Peele intended that falls from Tess’ mouth when she discovers an antechamber. Since the films were released in the same year, it’s hard to imagine Cregger playing on it; the serendipitous prospect is equally as neat. For all its little dekes and tweaks on old tricks, “Barbarian” falls more and more toward the pedestrian as it ties up loose ends and subplots. It’s still a taut, worthy ride and one that should allow Cregger, whose directorial CV is slim, to come back with more. 

Nope

24 Jul

‘Nope’: A hell of a weird ride on the horse ranch

By Tom Meek, Friday, July 22, 2022

Jordan Peele’s third horror installment would make a good double bill with Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” (2019), as both take place in dusty Western shanty towns north of L.A. with ties to the film industry. Good portions of Tarantino’s “Once,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a 1950s western TV actor whose glory days are behind him, are situated in a Hollywood stage strip town and the Spahn Ranch where followers of Charles Manson have set up camp. In Peele’s “Nope” – the terse title a take on audiences reaction to horror films when a potential victim does something unwise – nearly all the action takes place at the Haywood’s Hollywood Horses ranch and neighboring Wild West theme park, Jupiter’s Claim.

Peele is one to settle into the everyday and root audiences so deeply in his characters that when things go bump in the night, it takes a little while to catch onto the oddities. The same is true here; the atmospheric buildup is masterful. Though I hate to say it, I’m not sure the payoff is as worthy as his first two efforts, “Get Out” (2017) and “Us” (2019). We catch up with Pa Haywood (David Keith, in it far too little) and his son OJ (Daniel Kaluuya, working with Peele again after “Get Out”) moseying around their vast, barren ranch when what seems like bullets start to pepper the area around them. Is there a sniper in the hills? Nope, just a freak aviation mishap that takes Pa’s life – or so that’s what the authorities say happened. Strapped for cash and unable to keep the biz clicking like Pa, OJ sells some of his horses to that Wild West show run by former child TV star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun, “Minari”). One night OJ and his fiery kid sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) witness cultlike gatherings at Jupiter’s Claim and freaky stuff starts to happen. The electricity goes out, horses go wild, there’s an upward vortex scouring the valley, and something dark and big streaks through the sky.

Sensing something otherworldly and wanting cash, Emerald and OJ decide to capture the phenomenon on film so they can score their “Oprah moment.” Part of the plan leads them to Best Buy knockoff where they reluctantly enlist the resident Geek Squad dude named Angel Torres (a bleach-blond-streaked Brandon Perea) to set up security cams to capture the phenom. Angel’s a bit of a UFO nerd to boot, and looking at early footage notices a cloud that hasn’t moved in days, hmmmm. When the entity dampens electricity by battery or otherwise, the trio turn to veteran Hollywood cinematographer Antlers Holst (character actor Michael Wincott, whose gravelly voice is an attraction in its own right) and his old-school, crank-operated cam.

The rise to the crest is slow and steady, and a great character study with some super neat backstories, but once we get to the what and why of the goings-on at Jupiter’s Claim, “Nope” shifts gears and becomes something akin to a Spielberg alien encounter flick – “War of the Worlds” (2005) or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977). Some of the bait and switch in trying to ferret out the entity also has some of the seagoing fun of “Jaws” (1975), with players at different posts reacting to unfolding events differently, though given the dusty, spare terrain it reminds me more of the quirky 1990s cult hit “Tremors.”

Some of the basic rules about encountering the visitor don’t always hold true; OJ learns that if you avoid eye contact and look down, you’re in a safe place. It works for him, but not so much for others. The film’s told in chapters, mostly with names of animals the Haywoods train or the TV-family-adopted chimp Gordy, from one of the hit shows Jupe was part of as a boy. It’s a dark, alluring chapter that has little to do with what’s going on in the present, but a phenomenal – and let me add, grim – segment, worthy perhaps of a bigger piece on its own. Then there’s the Haywoods’ history: The first moving picture shot by Eadweard Muybridge, a clip called “The Horse in Motion” from 1878, featured a black jockey riding a lithe, muscular stallion, which Emerald proudly tells prospective employers was their great, great-grandad.

As far as sociopolitical commentary goes, there’s nothing as prominent here as in “Get Out.” Perhaps a comment about territoriality and land rights, or inciting an entity that holds lethal authority? More so “Nope” is a solid summer pleaser, a sci-fi thriller with some very deep characters, incredible performances – the laconic Kaluuya does so much with those eyes, and Palmer is just a firecracker in every scene – and a thinking person’s pacing. It isn’t perfect, but it powers through with an ensemble performance that’s near unbeatable. 

The Black Phone

24 Jun

The Black Phone’: Its ’70s retro trappings aside, supernatural-tinged thriller might not grab you

By Tom Meek Thursday, June 23, 2022

“The Black Phone” is a neat dial-back to the indelible sound and style of the 1970s, but as a quirky bit of horror it’s all posture without much bite. Director Scott Derrickson, who helmed Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” (2016) and exited this year’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” during pre-production, adapted a short story by Joe Hill (son of horror-meister Stephen King) as a straight-ahead BTK creepshow with co-writer C. Robert Cargill. There’s few red herrings or inventive twists, and very little character development. The film’s shining asset, aside from the allure of the era and devil mask worn by the central boogeyman, is the strong performances by its young cast members, namely Mason Thames and Madeleine McGraw as an imperiled brother and sister.

We embed with Finney (Thames) in late-1970s Denver, where several kids have gone missing, black balloons left each time as the perp’s signature. Gwen (McGraw) has visions of the kidnappings and post-abduction torture, but parents and friends at school move around as if there’s no peril on the streets. Finney’s more concerned about the bullies who often corner him at school, but he’s got king ruffian Robin (Miguel Cazarez Mora) watching out for him, because Finney’s good at math and helps Robin with schoolwork – until he’s “grabbed,” as the John Wayne Gacy of Denver is a devil-masked magician known as The Grabber, played by a hardly recognizable Ethan Hawke (“First Reformed,” “Boyhood”). Finney awakes in a “Saw”-like basement dungeon where there’s nothing but a mattress and the disconnected device of the title hanging alone on a scummy wall. The Grabber pops in every now and then to menace Finney, and the phone begins to ring. On the other end are previous victims, who also appear as bloody apparitions to give Finney clues and hints as how to survive The Grabber’s games, and possibly escape. Some of the advice is odd: to break into the back of a freezer that’s locked on the other side, or stuff the phone receiver with dirt to give it “heft” as a weapon. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see an old rotary phone in action again; but do 6 ounces of soil add lethal mass?

More perplexing is The Grabber’s brother, Max (James Ransone), who is unaware of his sibling’s misdeeds but for some reason has launched an amateur investigation into the disappearances and who The Grabber might be. Then there’s Finney and Gwen’s dad (Jeremey Davies, “Spanking the Monkey”), an odd olio of inconsistent parts. Initially he lands as alcoholic trailer trash trying to beat the visions out of Gwen (ma had the gift too, and it led to her death) in the name of Jesus, but later assumes the mantle of concerned, caring father. It doesn’t click, and I’m not sure Davies or Derrickson ever really had a sense as to how to play it. The Grabber too – the whys and whats never get meted out. It’s a huge hole that makes the film almost pointless. The saving grace is the chemistry between Thames and McGraw as siblings struggling with the loss of their mother and their father’s addiction and intermittent cruelties. Much is asked of Thames, and he delivers. Comparisons to “Stranger Things” are expected considering the adolescent focus, eerie dangers lurking just beyond eyeshot and that hip, retro throwback to an era of fond (or not so fond) notoriety. It’s fair, but know that Hill’s short take was woven a decade before the hit Netflix series began streaming.

Crimes of the Future

3 Jun

‘Crimes of the Future’: Familiar themes are fuel for more delicious creepiness from Cronenberg

By Tom Meek Thursday, June 2, 2022

It’s been eight years since David Cronenberg last made a movie. That film, “Map to the Stars” (2014) and his previous effort “Cosmopolis” (2012) were decidedly un-Cronenberg-esque, not that the director hadn’t stepped away from his psycho-horror roots before (“M. Butterfly,” “Naked Lunch” and “A Dangerous Method” among the many). The good news for Cronenberg purists – those who admire “The Fly” (1986) and “Dead Ringers” (1988) but burn for “Scanners” (1981), “Videodrome” (1983) and “Rabid” (1977) – is that “Crimes of the Future” marks a devilish return to the director’s fetish-fueled eroticization of gore and body mutilation. “Dead Ringers” and “Videodrome” stand at the head of that list, but more visceral and perhaps even more erotic than “Dead Ringers,” if that’s even possible, is Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel “Crash” (1996) about ecstasy seekers who literally get off on others’ mangled flesh and scars from willfully triggered automobile collisions. If the title piques your Cronenberg sensibilities, it was the title of his lightly regarded feature from 1970; while it has some thematic overlap, it’s not the same movie.

“Crimes” lands us in dystopian near future, when people grow new organs inside their bodies as a hobby. Pain is no longer an impediment and surgery, we’re told, “is the new sex.” The film centers on Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen, Cronenberg’s go-to collaborator, their best and finest being the 2005 crime drama “A History of Violence”), a renowned performance artist whose jam is growing radical organs in his abdomen and having his amour, Caprice (Léa Seydoux, dour and stunning), remove them onstage for an intimate underground audience to ooh and aah over. In context and theme the film weaves together Cronenberg signatures almost as if it is a farewell celebration of sorts: There’s that noted sexualized fetish frenzy from “Crash,” the notion of “the new flesh” from “Videodrome” and even an internal organ beauty pageant, something that was touched upon in “Dead Ringers.” Of all Cronenberg’s varied works, however, “Crimes” is most akin to “eXistenZ” (1999) with its array of skeletal, buglike animatronic devices that perform surgery and cocoon Saul at night to help nurture his new organs into being. Those sets and designs were eerie and surreal back in 1999 but now feel a bit dated and gimmicky, if not hokey. That said, the concept of evolution police and a national registry of new organs (they’re tattooed and tagged) intrigues, as well as the sub-race of what we might call mutants who can, with organ manipulation, consume plastics and other industrial waste – a handy parlor trick that doesn’t get explored enough in the context of plastic atolls or climate change.

The driving force of “Crimes” is Mortensen’s weary yet soulful performer, pasty, wan, vampirelike and forever in a cloak like a grand wizard. There’s a heaviness he bears from a clear physical and emotional toll. He’s a man on edge and asked much of by many; those at the registry (a breathy Kristen Stewart and an excellent snappy, nerdy Don McKellar) who fawn over his work and want more (even to be part of his show), the police (Welket Bungué) who want to put a lid on radical organ generation, and the leader of those plastic-consuming rebels (Scott Speedman) who wants Saul to feature the body of his murdered son in one of his pieces. What Saul wants is unclear, though you can feel his camaraderie and passion with Caprice. In one of the more arresting  scenes, after having old-school sex with her, Saul brushes the act off as something of a burden and blessedly archaic, which is the true crime of Cronenberg’s future vision. 

X

18 Mar

The golden age of porn meets up, violently, with the original era of the slasher flick

By Tom Meek Thursday, March 17, 2022

Filmmaker Ti West (“The Innkeepers”), part of a mumblecore/mumblegore pack with Joe Swanberg (“Drinking Buddies”) and Adam Wingard (“You’re Next”), goes solo with this homage to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” – the 1974 original, not the slack update available now on Netflix. The setup in “X,” which takes place in the 1970s and is shot in grainy era style by West and longtime cinematog collaborator Elliot Rockett, is simple: A bunch of young adult filmmakers see the lucrative advent of the home video market on the horizon and rent a ramshackle lodge on a farm to make their own porn opus, “The Farmer’s Daughters.” The cheeky film-within-a-film pays its own homage, this time to flicks featuring Marilyn Chambers and her golden-age-of-porn contemporaries. Of course the old couple they rent the space from aren’t in on the whats and whys, and like “Deep Water,” that Adrian Lyne project appearing on Hulu this week, sex without full consensual buy-in by all parties has deadly ramifications.

In sync with “Fresh,” another recent Hulu release, “X” is something of a cinematic double clutch, two movies fused into one. In “Fresh” we go from rom-com to horror flick halfway in, which is where the credits roll. Here we amble along with the raucous lo-fi porno filmmaking fun until Pearl (the name of the actress under the mound of latex shall remain unnamed), the elderly woman who owns the property, catches a glimmer of an athletic sex scene from outside a window. Despite the preacher perpetually barking about morality on her TV up in the main house, the peep does not educe anger but instead incites lust. It’s also here that Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), the girlfriend of the film’s camera operator (Owen Campbell) who fills in on sound boom duty,  decides she too wants to get in front of the camera for a rigorous romp with the film’s lead (Kid Cudi, “The Harder They Fall”), much to the chagrin of her beau. “It’s just business,” quips the film’s producer, Wayne (Martin Henderson, a dead ringer for Matthew McConaughey in form, inflection and demeanor), something he knows something about – his girlfriend Maxine (Mia Goth, “High Life” and “Suspiria”) is one of the two daughters (Brittany Snow, sassy and excellent, is the other) who hook up with a strapping passerby (Cudi). Before any division can work its way through the crew, one of them goes missing. There’s some devious, decaying funk down in the basement of the main house and the seniors, well into their age-spotted 80s (it’s 1979, and he served in World War I), aren’t quite as feeble as their creaky, hobbled lopes initially indicate; and you know that big gator down in the pond is going to have something to say at some point.

The concept of creepy elders orchestrating dirty deeds is nothing new – just see M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit” (2015). It’s an effective genre changeup, but it’s still genre and the part of the film where the pitch and degree of awe start to ebb. After first blood is spilled you know it’s a domino chain to the bloody end, and there’s little Q as to who the sole survivor will be. West, clearly enraptured by his characters and the setting, filmed a prequel about Pearl simultaneously and seeds the workings for a sequel as well. The real wonderment of the film, beyond the stellar performances, lie in the framing and editing. Also, interestingly enough, the small town in Texas isn’t even in the Americas, it was shot in New Zealand.

Nightmare Alley

18 Dec

‘Nightmare Alley’: Escaping from the carnival into noir with a savage Cooper and Blanchett

By Tom Meek Thursday, December 16, 2021

Guillermo del Toro dusts off Edmund Goulding’s 1947 B-tier noir starring Tyrone Power and gives it a lush polish with rich reds and a house-of-horrors ambiance. There’s a sense of wonderment in there too, but that’s mostly reined in by the constraints of the noir form and the seediness of carny life. Set in the mid-1930s, “Nightmare Alley” is a scrumptious, set piece-driven experience to drink in, which should be no surprise given de Toro’s penchant for opulent dial backs such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) or “The Shape of Water” (2017). The film’s blessed with one heck of a cast to boot. The twisted yarn, based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, focuses on Stan (Bradley Cooper), a mysterious drifter who becomes a carnival hand with a traveling operation. After capturing the show’s escaped geek – a wild man whom we do get to witness biting the heads off chickens – Stan gets an elevation of sorts from the show’s owner (Willem Dafoe) and cozies up to Zeena (Toni Collette), a clairvoyant, and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), bedding the former and lifting the tricks of the trade from the latter before endearing himself to the show’s demure ingenue, Molly (Rooney Mara).

It turns out Stan’s not quite that quiet, earnest guy we first meet, but a man hot with ambition and devilish drive to get what he wants. It also turns out that “Nightmare Alley” is something of a double-shift narrative. The first half is something of a Horatio Alger story fused with Tod Browning’s creepy 1932 tale, “Freaks.” (Here, along with a geek roaming the tents and cages there’s a pickled baby and cyclops boy, and Ron Perlman as the strong man). After Stan takes leave of the carnival and becomes a mentalist performing in swank nightclubs, the film moves into full-on noir mode when he meets his match in the femme fatale form of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a socialite and psychiatrist. She’s onto him, and he’s intoxicated by her social stature and overpowering sense of confidence. There’s an air of feral sexuality whenever the two jockey for an edge. Soon the target becomes Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a wealthy power broker in Ritter’s sphere, and “Nightmare Alley” turns into a succession of confidence games with a few dark and deadly secrets tumbling out along the way. As good as Blanchett and Bradley are and are together (Flick alert: Cooper is a raucous treat as Jon Peters in the upcoming “Licorice Pizza,” and Blanchett gives another great micro turn in the end-of-the-world satire, “Don’t Look Up” streaming as of Dec. 24 on Netflix), their chemistry gets diluted by plot machinations and the restrictions of the genre. There’s just not enough emotionally at stake; it’s great pomp, sans the punch. It still works, mind you, but as a viewer you sail through the film enamored with the filmmaking and performances without being pulled in by flaws, desires and dreams.

A Quiet Place Part II

31 May

‘A Quiet Place Part II’: After an explosive start, back to a world of even more menacing silence

By Tom MeekFriday, May 28, 2021

Maybe the long-delayed release of John Krasinski’s sequel to his surprise 2018 horror flick hit “A Quiet Place” wasn’t such a bad thing (but yes, Covid, terrible). It gave us more time to distance ourselves from the novelty of human-mauling aliens who can home in on a target only by sound. They were formidable and terrifying then, and are again. “A Quiet Place Part II” opens before the last film did, giving us the cataclysmic landing of the aliens – an ominous, fiery streak across the sky before the first batlike incarnation with a maw full of needlelike teeth chows down on the first denizen of a sleepy upstate enclave. We see familiar faces (Krasinski’s dad, Emily Blunt’s mom and Millicent Simmonds’ daughter) hurrying for shelter and an existence in total silence – one branch crack or a sudden sneeze and you could be lunchmeat.

“Part II” is just as taut and lean as its predecessor. It covers a lot of ground in 90-plus minutes. After a sudden alien invasion that triggers the fall of civilization as we know it, we jump forward to Day 474 since that fireball hit as the Abbotts, or what’s left of them – Evelyn (Blunt), her children Regan (Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), and a newborn baby – are still holed up in an old farmstead. At night, they send up a fire signal that is eventually answered. From there, as in most post-apocalyptic films in which death can strike from a dozen angles, it becomes the duplicitous agendas of lawless people that becomes as lethal as the voracious raptors that lurk, waiting for a too-loud footfall to be an impromptu dinner bell.

There are some nice new additions here: Cillian Murphy as Abbott family friend Emmett (we catch him at a Little League game in that preamble), a grizzled, hirsute loner who’s lost much, and Djimon Hounsou as a fierce father and one of the rare bastions of human compassion. In this chapter too, the kids move to the fore, undertaking quests and protector roles that ease the burden on mom some. The film splits into multiple threads, and a few feel unnecessary, but Krasinski and his team of editors keep it tight and adrenaline-pumping. In a world where silence is more than golden, it’s the only means of life,  big roles are played by elements such as a bear trap, a first-aid kit just out of reach, a vial of much needed antibiotics and a safe room that needs to be opened every five minutes to avoid oxygen starvation. Water and boats do too, but to tell you much more would be to ruin the fun. Simmonds, so good in the last film, again makes the case for future work; and of course Murphy, with those liquid blue eyes piercing through the dirt streaks and matted hair, brings a conflicted soulfulness to his grieving father. As the film ends you know for sure there’s a “Part III” coming. You can almost see it opening with Day 500

Army of the Dead

17 May

‘Army of the Dead’: We’re off to a Las Vegas heist, but technically it’s impossible to make a killing

By Tom Meek Thursday, May 13, 2021

Netflix's 'Army of the Dead' will make you root for the zombies. Their  lines are better.

Zach Snyder, the man behind the cinematic resurrection of Superman and the launch of the “Justice League” franchise, cut his teeth on zombie fare with the 2004 remake of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead.” One of the eye-popping twists in that update was that the undead weren’t your typical shamblers – they could move at superhuman speed, and had agility and much greater strength than the sagging bags of carrion in films that came before. In his new “Army of the Dead,” Snyder delves back into that bag of tricks, and in the process turns the Vegas strip into a hive of hidden horrors akin to the hellacious labyrinths plumbed in the “Resident Evil” series.

The film opens with a military convoy taking an asset to a secret location in the Nevada desert. As happenstance and an act of fellatio have it, the package – an alien-zombie incarnation that seems like an escapee from John Carpenter’s 2001 “Ghosts of Mars” – gets loose and turns Sin City into a zombie colony. Though it’s walled off by the U.S. Army, efforts to clean and reclaim the Strip fail and nuking it gets a stamp of approval. In that week before the drop, a wealthy mogul named Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada) approaches former military ops hero Ward (Dave Bautista), now slinging burgers, to assemble a team for a mission to fetch $200 million sitting in a vault that only Tanaka has the blueprints for. Ward is doubly invested in the grab and go, as his daughter, Kate (Ella Purnell), is working at a camp outside Vegas where people assumed to be infected live in military-monitored migrant camps. 

From there “Army of the Dead” proceeds in a pretty straight-up fashion: Navigate the flesh-chomping hordes, a zombified Siegfried & Roy tiger and the zombie king (that alien) and his queen, get the cash, grab Kate and chopper out before the area becomes a mushroom cloud. Kinda like a video game, and likewise solid if predictable genre fun. 

Of the colorful recruits, the standouts are mostly Omari Hardwick (“Sorry to Bother You”) as the heady Vanderohe and Tig Notaro, bringing a dash of Jane Lynch comedic relief to the mayhem as the capable chopper pilot. The film’s best parts are that opening scene and the elongated credit sequence chronicling the fall of Vegas as a quirky cover version of “Viva Las Vegas” plays. I’m not sure if Snyder was reaching for something deeper with a zombie king and queen and the seeming foundation of a zombie civilization – they do seem to communicate and have lawful order. It adds a dash of intrigue and of course allows for the assemblage of the entity of the title. In it all, you know there’s a few hidden agendas (think “Alien”) and aptly at one point, The Cranberries’ “Zombie” rolls; it feels like a too obvious choice, like “Viva Las Vegas,” but they both fit poetically as flesh is ripped from bone by tenacious cannibalistic maws.

The Rental

28 Jul

‘The Rental’: You know party’s going to go bad, but this horror thriller does it in the best way

By Tom Meek

The house in the woods or remote enclave has long been a ripe setting for horror and home invasion fare. Wes Craven’s brilliant and brutal “The Last House on the Left” (1972) and Polanski’s unheralded “Cul-de-sac” (1966) defined and seeded the genre; those that came after have checked in with mixed results, with most failing to live up – but that’s understandable, right? Dave Franco (brother of James) makes his directorial debut with “The Rental,” a polished yet pat psychodrama that turns full horror thriller by the end and even dips its toe into more culty genre.

The setup’s familiar: Four toothsome young adults on the threshold of a more settled life (marriage and kids) brew up something of a last fling getaway in a modernistic spread abutting the sea-splashed cliffs of Northern California. Charlie (Dan Stevens, “Downton Abbey” and “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga”), a tech entrepreneur who is rocking and raking it in, is newly married to Michelle (Alison Brie, “Mad Men”). Along for the fun is Charlie’s fun-loving but bad luck brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White) and his girlfriend Mina (Sheila Vand), who’s a close collaborator (perhaps too close?) of Charlie’s at the tech firm. The unique and relevant twist (the script is by Franco and mumblecore/mumblegore stalwart Joe Swanberg) is that Mina, who’s Middle Eastern, is denied the rental that “white guy” Charlie scores 20 minutes later. Charges of racism fill the drive up and the caretaker of the estate Taylor (Toby Huss) appears to something of a rube you’d peg for a Trumpster. It doesn’t help that he admits to partaking of the bottle liberally. To veiled charges thrown by Mina, he seems genuinely clueless, and we do get early peeks at the house from the point of view of someone outside spying in. Is it Taylor, Jason, Freddy or some other malcontent with malicious intent?

That brooding unhappiness gets swept aside with a few hits of ecstasy and a lot of “babe” this and that. The lot’s a fairly generic bunch, and you can’t wait for whatever it is lurking in the woods to emerge and chop of few of them up. It doesn’t happen right away; the initial ill deeds spew from within the four. The dog (a cute French bulldog), who according to the rules of the house should not be there, goes missing, and then they discover video cams in the bathrooms – an Airbnb nightmare, but they can’t go to the cops because of their own transgression. And yes, a body turns up and the four must decide how to play it out. They don’t choose wisely.

How it all wraps up is orchestrated smartly by Franco and Swanberg with a lot of help from the misty, lush cinematography by Christian Sprenger and a mood-setting score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. The running length of just under 90 minutes is a win, too, and Franco and Swanberg hit the final bend deciding not to revel in gore so much as provocation, leaving enough teasingly unanswered that you want the film to go on. I can’t imagine there’s a world without “The Rental 2” and maybe more. There’s nothing too deep here, just parts of other works stitched together for lean, mean effect.