Tag Archives: thriller

Ad Astra

19 Sep

 

Image result for ad astra

The title of James Gray’s latest epic odyssey as translated from Latin simply means, “to the stars.” It’s a pretty highfalutin term for a film that’s fairly slack on the sci side of this sci-fi quest that takes us to the moon, the red planet and beyond. Its biggest boost is its star, Brad Pitt, coming in reentry-hot after an Oscar-worthy turn as a bum-around stuntman in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” He’s solid here as Major Roy McBride, a man with a low resting heartbeat and few emotional attachments. He’s distant from his wife (Liv Tyler) and has no kids, so he’s cool, calm and able to MacGyver his way out of any hairy situation no matter how impossible or far out in space.

The film begins with a bravura sequence (worthy of “First Man” comparisons) where, in the not too distant future, Roy is working on an antenna projecting up and out of earth’s atmosphere that gets struck by a rogue energy wave. The massive spire implodes, collapsing back to earth in a long, slow chain of events that call eerily to mind the 9/11 attacks. Roy, with some cool thinking, survives, but more than 40,000 people are killed by the surge from somewhere out in the galaxy.

The purpose of the tower, we’re told, is to communicate with other intelligent life, because humans cannot survive much longer on their own – the implications being that we’ve messed up the planet and are looking for someone to bail us out, though that’s never really articulated. If you’re thinking the Tower of Babel or “Contact” (1997) you’d be correct, but with the death toll from the wave and more on the way, phoning ET gets dropped as the surge and its source become job numero uno. Naturally the brass at Space Command (a branch of the military) pick Roy (can anyone ever pass over Brad Pitt?) for the need-to-know mission, and also, what’s that? Those in the know think the shockwaves are coming from Neptune, where some years earlier Roy’s father (Tommy Lee Jones) led a mission and may still be alive.

Yup, daddy issues run deep, but not with much emotional effect. The journey to Neptune is a damn fine amusement ride, beginning with the running of a gantlet of pirates on the dark side of the moon to the abandoned spaceship where a lab experiment has gone wildly amok and the penultimate stop, Mars, run by an effete with a mini-man bun and myriad agendas. But it’s there on Heinlein’s precious planet and beyond that the film begins to drift. The mission and the stunts lose their importance, the sense of urgency and peril get nipped, and all we’re left with is something of a stripped-down existential quest, a diet lite posturing of “Apocalypse Now” (1979) or “Interstellar” (2014) without a credible force (or fully baked cause) to reckon with (i.e., Brando’s Kurtz or Matt Damon’s rogue astronaut). All of a sudden, the slog to the outer limits feels all for naught. Also challenging to logic and scientific principal, these guys hop planets like catching the noon Greyhound to Penn Station. There’s no warp speed, wormhole or stasis sleep – in short, the sense of time and space feels distorted, if not ignored.

Gray, who cut his teeth with gritty crime thrillers such as “Little Odessa” (1994) and “We Own the Night” (2007), last turned in “The Lost City of Z” (2017), an account of British explorer Percy Fawcett’s quest to find signs of early civilization in the Amazon. That film, another journey into the vast unknown, feels like boilerplate for “Ad Astra.” It’d be fair to call it a Z-peat, but in the real-life account, Fawcett always seemed one fateful decision away from ruin. Here, Pitt’s Roy, while steeped in palpable, reflective soulfulness, is so can-do capable that Kryptonite has no shot of buckling a knee. Pitt, for better or for worse, has become something of an icon and a brand, like Tom Cruise (impossible to separate the celebrity from the performer) – and while that worked to everyone’s advantage (shirtless scene and all) in Tarantino’s Tinseltown fable, Gray never imbues his hero with enough vulnerability, or even a hint of it. “Ad Astra” is like a 5 Hour Energy drink: a sharp, pure blast of wow, until you come down and it leaves you empty and wanting.

Midsommar

5 Jul

‘Midsommar’: Hands-on anthropology studies reveal how dark it can get under midnight sun

Image result for midsommar

 

As a kid I went to this Danish town north of Los Angeles called Solvang where it was Christmas year-round and the waffles were extra large and strangely exotic, and everyone dressed like they were from “The Sound of Music.” I tell you this because Solvang reminds me so much of the Swedish commune where four Americans wind up for a nine-day fertility festival “Midsommar,” the thrilling new chiller from Ari Aster. Everything so old school Lapland you half expect to see the Ricola folk or Max Von Sydow among the elders welcoming the group.

Two of the four Americans dropping in – Josh (William Jackson Harper, TV’s “The Good Place”) and Christian (Jack Reynor, the poor person’s Chris Platt) – are anthropology grad students, and the midnight sun rites are fodder for their theses. It helps that stateside buddy Pelle (Vilhelm Blongren) is from the remote village that feels like pieces borrowed from the sets of M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village” and Robert Egger’s “The Witch” with a bit of Ikea retrofitting tossed in. Rounding out the U.S. crew is loudmouth Mark (Will Poulter, the dirty cop in Kathryn Bigelow’s “Detroit”) and Dani (Florence Pugh, “Lady Macbeth”), Christian’s girlfriend and a tag-along whom the other lads in the posse aren’t so keen about.

The film begins and ends with Dani. There’s a prolonged opening about her clinginess to Christian, her bipolar sister and a family tragedy that would send anyone to therapy in double time– a hauntingly fraught meander worthy of Paul Thomas Anderson. Once up in the Swedish enclave, Dani freaks out on organic hallucinogens, Pelle clearly has eyes for her and the age-old cult ordains her as the dark horse in the May Queen dance-off.

Early on in the anthropological exploration—which doesn’t feel so scientific or methodical—we get a glimmer into just how dark this eternal summer day can get. Once you’re 72 in the commune, you’re ready for renewal, which has something to do with a swan dive onto a stone pallet or a wedding reception line of celebrants wielding a medieval mallet. It’s not easy to drink in, but it’s when Aster – who played on audiences’ sense of comfort and composure with the equally grim “Hereditary” – lets us know shit just got real. The American scholars, as smart as the allegedly are, don’t take note of such omens, even as their ranks thin. But when things begin to feel a bit “Wicker Man” predictable, Aster focuses on the fractured dynamic between Christian and Dani, and the choices the characters make are telling.

The final scene, just as with the reveal of the fate of Dani’s family, is gorgeously framed and flawlessly choreographed. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, to be sure, but Aster has again put a new, gory bow on a genre we know too well. If you can make it to the end, you’ll walk out on edge and agape.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

29 May

‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’: Reunion time for earth-shaking titans, humans underfoot

Image result for godzilla king of the monsters

Who knew that “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” was a Boston movie? I won’t say how much it is, but I will say that the oldest ballpark in the country (RIP Bill Buckner) and that iconic high-rise so eloquently framed in a semi-famous short story by John Updike make it in there – and then some. The Japanese-launched franchise has matured to full CGI fury, improving on the effects in versions from 1998 and 2014 and certainly from its 1950s beginnings, when miniature models of Tokyo were stomped by a man in a rubber suit. (Let’s call those the MIRS years.)

The tagline is the same as in 1956, when American actor Raymond Burr (“Ironside”) lent his American mug to an early Japanese MIRS entry. Here, the film picks up five years from when “Godzilla” (2014) left off, namely the leveling of San Francisco, with all “titans” now neatly in hibernation. Some players from that chapter (Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe) reprise their roles as scientists, appearing before congress to try to derail plans to exterminate Godzilla and the other titans – while in hibernation, a cryptozoological agency known as Monarch has pretty much put all the beasts in an electronic lockdown. We also meet the Russells, a family of Monarch scientists fractured by the loss of their son in the stomping of San Fran. The father, Mark (Kyle Chandler, so good in “Manchester by the Sea” and “Zero Dark Thirty”), unable to cope with the grief, has gone off to film wolves in the wilds, while wife Emma (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown, from “Stranger Things”) are nestled in a forest abode near one such titan bunker where they witness the larval birth of Mothra.

Before the flaming pterodactyl Rodan and three-header King Ghidorah – aka Monster Zero – make it into the mix, of course we need some zany zealot to bring down the boom. In this case that’s a former British special ops officer played with charm and menace by Charles Dance, who has had an awakening of his own and sees the only way to right humankind’s environmental wrongs being to raise the titans and let them cull the population. Much philosophical talk is made early on about man being an infection, and the titans something like white blood cells to take care of it. Sure, okay, nothing new: The original Godzilla was an incarnation raised by man’s use of nukes and nuclear energy, so the themes imbued here by writer/director Michael Dougherty seem in line. And a little biorhythm device Emma has made (the thing everybody wants) has the monster-whispering effect that the two thumb-sized Japanese twins had in the old MIRS flicks.

But this is a big CGI flick, seen to good effect as Brazil gets bowled over by Rodan and Ghidorah (which, given all the talk of infections and viruses, sounds even more like an STD) gets awakened from his icy crib. Boston, home of the Russells, hosts a Godzilla-Ghidorah smackdown – and if some of those new high rises in the Seaport irk your aesthetic eye, here’s a shot at some virtual schadenfreude.

The film does what it needs to. The trio of lead actors manage to elicit enough emotion and Godzilla, a hero whose mission and morals are as straightforward as Clint Eastwood’s indelible “Man with No Name,” gets to don the superhero cape, if just for a small while. It’s bang-bang fun that clicks by with smart, rapid pacing, all the while reminding us of just how much a mess we’ve made of this planet.

High Life

15 Apr

‘High Life’: Sending convicts to a black hole, occupied by pursuits only sometimes solitary

 

Image result for high life  denis

Way up high, what’s that in the sky? Looks like a metal shipping container with rocket boosters glued on. A bit hokey indeed, but would you believe me if I told you “High Life” was the first English-language film from French auteur Claire Denis, and it’s a sci-fi adventure? Strange but true, though in fact there’s very little sci-fi-ish about the death-row deep-space mission that’s more about colliding personalities and strange sexual dances in dark places. Yes, in outer space no one can hear your orgasmic cries of ecstasy, but that’s mostly because they happen in a sealed box. (More on that later.)

The crew of that shipping container – the “7” – are all criminals (“scum, trash and refuse”), rocketing toward a black hole while radioing back to command their findings. Kind of. The one thing they do seem tasked with is the prospect of reproduction in outer space. The men must fill cups in a booth (it looks like a photo booth in a mall, but is not to be confused with the formerly mentioned “box”) and are given precious sleeping pills for their effort. The women are impregnated occasionally, but the birth of a child usually proves fatal for mother and infant. All this is orchestrated under the watchful and controlling eye of Dr. Dibs (the eternally eternal Juliette Binoche), who, in her tight nursing uniform, seems to be the closest thing to a commanding force aboard a ship with the feel of a basement boiler room or padded-cell dormitory. One crew member won’t share his seed, Monte (Robert Pattinson, who pleasingly keeps getting further away from his “Twilight” origins), and seems more in control of his own fate than others on the 7.

Given the lethality of childbirth and the fact that this is a crew of social marauders and murderers relegated to the deep, lawless abyss of space, what could go wrong? A primal carnage works its way through the 7 about midway through the film (as well as a realization that the narrative has been moving in time hops), with much of the violence meted out being raw retaliation, or the culmination of adamant disagreement. Folks aboard seem more interested in their two pounds of flesh and sleeping pills than any destination or technical issues that could imperil them. Of all the wacky internal violence, only one of the acts is sexual in nature – mostly because the 7 is equipped with a “fuck box,” a high-tech Shaker booth of sorts. We visit the Orgasmatron device only once, as our fair Dr. Dibs takes her turn. Inside there’s a well-endowed Sybian device, with trapeze handles to add you your bucking pleasure. Binoche, with a flowing, glorious mane of dark hair, is framed from her bare milky back, an image of Lady Godiva riding off into the dark night of endless pleasure.

Clearly Denis is operating under the creative influence of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1970s sci-fi classics, “Solaris” and “Stalker,” potent blends of psychological thriller and adventure into the unknown. There’s even the unmistakable image of a body floating in space eerily similar to Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) suspended in the cold dark outside the hull of a rebel cruiser in “The Last Jedi.”  It’s hard to imagine Denis borrowing from such commercial fare, but there it is. Overall, the unthinkable mix is a jumbled delight. Like Gaspar Noe’s “Climax,” this could have been set in any confined locale – a sealed tier in a parking garage, a cabin atop a snowbound mountain, an ocean liner stranded at sea or even a ginormous freight elevator during a power outage – and the result would be the same. Denis is one of the most maverick female filmmakers out there, in good company with Kathryn Bigelow, Lynn Ramsey and Debra Granik, and adds her hard feminist fingerprint to “High Life” as she has in great films such as “Trouble Every Day,” “Beau Travail” and “White Noise.” Her latest adventure  isn’t quite on par with those films (you can still catch several at the Brattle Theater as part of “The Good Works of Claire Denis” series) but it is a riveting psychological odyssey from launch to climatic nadir.

Hotel Mumbai

28 Mar

‘Hotel Mumbai’: Caught in a terrorist attack, relying on themselves, each other to survive

By Tom Meek

Image result for hotel mumbai movie

 

The other day I was talking with some folk about the dark comedic virtues of Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets,” which was made back in 1968 and clearly inspired by the Charles Whitman shooting spree of 1966. On that fateful Aug. 1, Whitman killed 16 people and shocked a nation that had never seen such carnage (now sadly common). It surfaced in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant antiwar film “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) when R. Lee Ermey’s indelible drill instructor extols the virtue of Whitman’s marksmanship, and two years ago, in the riveting, animated documentary “Tower,” which outlined law enforcement’s inability at the time to deal with such a threat quickly or effectively, resulting in the formation of SWAT and other tactical response units. There’s a similar case in “Hotel Mumbai,” a based-on-real-events drama revolving around a 2008 terrorist attack and ensuing siege at the world-renowned Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. As history and Anthony Maras’ feature debut has it, Mumbai, a city of more than 18 million people, essentially had no response to deal with a handful of well-coordinated extremists armed with assault weapons and a take-no-prisoners mandate.

The film’s a nail-biter, to be sure, and quite effectively paced. We get to know some of the potential victims and heroes intimately, the way we did in Paul Greengrass’ harrowing 9/11 saga, “United 93” (2006). Perhaps to give the film a more international appeal and a Western flavor, much of the action hangs on an American architect named David (Armie Hammer) and his Middle Eastern wife Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi). Early on, before the shit goes down, the couple joke that they should have left their newborn at home (to enjoy more romantic time together), and probably wish that were so during the attack; they spend much of the hours-long assault separated from the baby, who’s vaulted inside a palatial suite with a rightfully hysterical nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey). From the staff side, we imbed with Arjun (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”), a compassionate waitperson, and the strict but fearless head chef, Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher) who runs his kitchen like a military operation. Continue reading

Piercing

30 Jan

‘Piercing’: He only thinks he called in a victim, but she’s his adversary in a psychopathic game

 

Nicolas Pesce’s “Piercing” unfurls a wild psychosexual thriller rife with S&M depravity and bloody parlor games. It’ll likely be compared to the macabre works of Chan-wook Park (“Oldboy,” 2003) and Takashi Miike’s “Audition” (1999), and fairly so: Miike’s bloody mating game was based on a novel by Ryû Murakami, who is also behind the material in “Piercing,” though Pesce’s followup to his equally eerie debut, “The Eyes of My Mother” (2016), isn’t quite as visceral. “Piercing” is sleek and stylish, like its posh hotel setting, but the blood-soaked cat-and-mouse between the two mains lacks motive, and doesn’t quite resonate.

We begin with a father (Christopher Abbott) hovering over an infant with an icepick – yeah, the piercing here is not goth, but more aligned with Sharon Stone’s foxy femme fatale in “Basic Instinct.” “You know what we have to do, right?” the baby says, or at least it does in the father’s head, à la Son of Sam. Reed kisses his wife and child goodbye and sets off on a faux business trip to that swank hotel, where he arranges for a call girl and goes about the careful choreography of a murder, including the feature act with an icepick, hacking up the body and the tough task of severing the head – all with grim audio effects by Pesce as a prelude of what’s to come. Or maybe not.

The statuesque call girl, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska, from Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and Park’s “Stoker”) has a few skeletons in her closet as well. When Reed check on her in the cavernous bathroom, she’s piercing herself with a pair of scissors – plans upended. After a trip to the hospital, after Reed readjusts on the belief Jackie might offer herself up sacrificially, things flip and Reed finds himself bound and tied. Back and forth the evening goes, drugs, oozing open wounds and visions of past victims filling the frame. There’s a haunting zoom-in of someone in a gimp mask having sex with a gagged woman who, if not Reed’s wife (Laia Costa), is a dead ringer.

Wasikowska pulls off the role of Jackie convincingly, adding some demonic spin without going over the top. Abbott is weak tea by comparison, unable to match Wasikowska’s rising intensity; a bravura performance like Christian Bale’s in “American Psycho” (2000) is demanded here, but not delivered. It’s not all on Abbott’s shoulders, however; Reed is never fleshed out – we never really understand the need to bleed others, and those calls back home to discuss how the plan is coming along befuddle when they should beguile and revile. Still, scrumptious framing and intimate intrigue carry “Piercing” boldly forward, pick in hand drawing the viewer’s wincing eye.

Bird Box

22 Dec

‘Bird Box’: Talent stumbles down blind path with thriller that leaves bit too much unseen

 

Image result for bird box movie

Much will be made about the similarities between “Bird Box” and a “A Quiet Place,” which at once is understandable and also a complete crime. Sure, both take place in the wake of a near-future apocalyptic event – in “A Quiet Place,” sightless aliens who look like “Venom” extras are snapping up the last of humankind; in “Bird Box” it’s … well, you never really know what it is, and that’s the bulk of why the film never really takes hold, feeling ultimately like a cheap parlor trick. How can you have something wiping out humanity and not know what it is? An airborne virus, radioactive fallout or the sudden lack of oxygen – things we’re aware of, operating outside the purview of the eye, sure, but something that rattles forest shrubbery like a Bengal tiger, causing leaves to whip up, but is never seen? That’s not going to fly.

It’s actually floating that proves to be the final desperate measure as a mother and two children drift haplessly down a river, hoping for a new beginning yet never able to see around the bend. The other big surprise to “Bird Box” is the impressive throng of talent involved – and their inability to lift the project. The unexceptional script written by Eric Heisserer, a scribe who not too long ago adapted another slack sci-fi story (“Arrival”) into a sharp, thinking person’s flick, adheres hard to the flat source material by rocker-turned-novelist Josh Malerman. There’s plenty of gold in the mix too: Lead actress Sandra Bullock has an Academy Award to her credit, and director Susanne Bier also has Oscar pedigree from her 2010 Danish film “In a Better World.” What gives? For one, the producers probably held Heisserer to the best-selling book for fear they might disenfranchise their ready-made target audience. It doesn’t help that Bier shoots this in a way that feels more like a TV miniseries than a big-budget, two-hour, end-of-the-world burn. Continue reading