Hold the Dark (2018)

Released: September 28, 2018. Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier. Starring: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, James Badge Dale. Runtime: 2h 5 min.

After the death of three children suspected to be killed by wolves, wolf expert Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) is hired by Medora Sloane (Riley Keogh), the mother of the latest missing boy to track her son down in the Alaskan wilderness, or at the very least kill for the wolves for vengeance.

In “Hold the Dark,” Core takes the job to try and help find the boy and give a family closure. He understands and respects nature, and he’s remorseful about hunting and killing a wolf and writing about it. Medora wants the wolf to suffer. To that, Russell replies: “Natural order doesn’t want revenge.”

As for everyone else, revenge is on all their minds. The only one who wants that more than Medora is her husband Vernon, played with a menacing calm by Alexander Skarsgård. It’s the kind-of blankness that’s unpredictable – he could be emotionally vulnerable one minute, and then just relentless the next. He’s introduced in a memorable fashion on his tour in Iraq (the film is set in 2004).

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Jeffrey Wright in “Hold the Dark” (IMDb).

I thought this might be something like Joe Carnahan’s “The Grey” but don’t make that same mistake of thinking that. This is a genre-bending piece in a league of its own in terms of uniqueness. The only real similarities there are the wolves and the frozen tundra, and James Badge Dale. Here, he plays Donald Marium, a city cop in the town of Emery that’s close to Keelut, the small village where the disappearances occurred. He’s like the face for the mainland, and the people in Keelut like to be left alone. Medora thinks of Keelut as truly Alaska, as she says about Anchorage “that city is not Alaska.” Vernon’s friend named Cheeon (Julian Black Antelope) is one of the most memorable characters here as someone with a dislike for outsiders.

The mystery of the film is capable, and twists in the first act really made the screenplay unpredictable. Frankly, some of this was hard to think of what direction it was going in because some of it just went way over my head. Macon Blair’s writing is smart, but the characters are so complex it’s hard to fully understand their psyches and their darkness. But they help paint a cool look at human nature. They are intriguing characters that deal with their grief in their own unique, intense ways, but I had more questions than answers by the end of it all.

The story didn’t completely work for me, but the cinematography (by Magnus Nordenof Jønck) looked great and the performances from everyone are truly top-tier, especially from Jefferey Wright, who captures his character’s loneliness and remorse well.

No matter how strange or bizarre the film becomes, it’s grounded in realism. That’s something I love about Jeremy Saulnier’s style. His films always feature violence that’s brutal and raw (at least with “Blue Ruin” and “Green Room”) – and with William Girardi’s dark source material, he has a lot to work with in terms of violence. A mid-film set piece is the film’s best scene, and the carnage in it is bonkers. This is my least favourite film by Saulnier – but that’s not a bad thing.

Score: 65/100

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Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth Grade. Released: August 3, 2018. Directed by: Bo Burnham. Starring: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson. Runtime: 1h 33 min.

I like Bo Burnham, he’s funny. He got his start on YouTube in 2006 posting funny songs from his bedroom (like “New Math,” which makes math fun). He helped me with fractions with lyrics like “having sex is like doing fractions; it’s improper for the larger one to be on top.”

It’s 10 years later and he’s made something universal with his directorial debut Eighth Grade, a film that’s been helping me through an anxious time – which is way more important than fractions. The film stars a delightfully awkward and convincing Elsie Fisher as Kayla Day, an eighth grader just trying to survive her last week of middle school.

Kayla’s an average eighth grader, and you’ll likely see a lot of yourself in her. Every time she sends a cringe-y text or tries to be nice to people who want literally nothing to do with her, you’ll want to stop her. (I still wish someone would stop me from sending a bad text half the time).

I saw myself in Kayla, especially her anxiety of worrying what people will think of her as she goes to a popular kid’s pool party. She describes anxiety as the “butterflies you get while waiting in line for a rollercoaster;” but that’s how she feels when she isn’t doing anything. A character named Olivia (Emily Robinson) helps Kayla through some of these moments, and these scenes are charming.

These messages are what make Eighth Grade‘s story timeless for any viewer, as Kayla’s anxiety and doubts can happen at any point in your life. Because of this, it’s not a film you just watch; it’s one that you experience and remember (even as adult viewers, since we’ve gone through eighth grade too).

Bo Burnham was always a clever guy, but here he shows great understanding of adolescence and the current generation growing up. Eighth Grade is personal, intimate, and so good. Kayla doing YouTube videos feels a lot like how Burnham himself started out – and sprinkling her videos throughout the film as narration is smart storytelling. Elsie Fisher as his star was also great casting, because she’s so convincingly awkward during her YouTube videos, giving life advice to people like her, advice which she tries to use for herself. Her character is relatable, and Fisher herself is very charming.

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Director Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher (IMDb).

Kayla looks like an average teenager, complete with acne and everything. And that’s so refreshing. Fisher becomes Kayla; it’s heartbreaking, heartwarming, and often just crushingly awkward watching her navigate middle school’s struggles and life’s ups and downs – especially romance. It’s entertaining when she sees the object of her affections, Aiden (Luke Prael), and Enya’s “Sail Away” plays on the soundtrack.

Her supportive father is also such an amazing character, played memorably by Josh Hamilton. He’s trying his best…even if Kayla wants nothing more than to listen to music rather than listen to him.

The trend of great father monologues (like in Call Me By Your Name and Lady Bird) continues with “Eighth Grade.” It’s another great moment; and when I’m bawling in the theatre I always wonder how they deliver the lines without crying. I can barely get through an argument without crying. Kudos to you, Josh Hamilton.

Kudos to everyone, really, and especially Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher. Burnham makes the ordinary feel so entertaining. There’s a full range of characters, so even if you don’t relate to Kayla’s specific situation, you’ll likely relate to someone else. I’m a lot like Kayla and I’ve been like Gabe (Jake Ryan, playing an equally awkward youth who tries to befriend Kayla) multiple times in my life. Burnham writes a solid film and as an all-around full view of Kayla’s world and immerses us completely in it.

Score: 90/100

This review originally appeared on The Movie Buff.

47 Meters Down (2017)

47 Meters Down posterReleased: June 23, 2017. Directed by: Johannes Roberts. Starring: Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Matthew Modine. Runtime: 1h 29 min.

Two sisters, Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) go to Mexico for a vacation and after meeting a pair of locals, they’re told about going underwater in a cage where they can go face-to-face with 25-foot-great white sharks.

They do just that but when they’re in the water, the boat’s mechanism that holds the cage breaks and the sisters plummet 47 meters down to the ocean’s surface. There, their oxygen starts to run out and sharks circle nearby, and their fight for survival begins.

I watched this when it came out in theatres in June 2017 and I liked it. On second watch, it doesn’t hold up. The characters aren’t interesting. Lisa initially was going on this vacation with her boyfriend Stuart, but he broke up with her because she’s boring. Honestly, I can’t blame the guy.

That’s how Kate gets Lisa in the cage, telling her that she isn’t a boring person if she’s in a shark cage. When Lisa’s anxious the day of, Kate says she won’t make Stuart jealous if she waits in the bathroom.

Lisa’s anxious for good reason. The cage looks rusty and she has no scuba diving experience, so when Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine) tells her about her gear, it’s like a foreign language. Before they go down, he tells them, “once you’re down there, you’re not gonna want to come back up.” False, because Lisa wants to come up immediately.

Taylor’s talent is puns – as he named his boat the Sea Esta. Taylor’s mostly a voice presence through the film as Kate repeatedly swims higher to communicate with Taylor, since their cage is out of range for radio contact.

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Claire Holt and Mandy Moore in 47 Meters Down. (IMDb)

Kate is the brave character here as Lisa spends most of the time panicking and telling us how scared she is. I’d be the same way – but you wouldn’t find me in a shark cage. The sisterly chemistry is good and the two leads are charming as thinly written characters. It’s nice watching Lisa overcome her fears in some moments on her fight to be less boring.

Johannes Roberts writes (with Ernest Riera) and directs the film. He delivers strong tension and some thrilling sequences, especially while in the open water. He captures the fear of the characters well in simple scenes of tension like the mechanism that holds the cage breaking. His writing’s also smart and the film is best when the characters are forced outside of the cage. The third act is a lot of fun, too. The ending might frustrate some, but it’s consistent with the story.

Enough about the humans. The sharks usually look fine, but late in the film when we get better looks at the shark, the fact that this was initially meant to be straight-to-DVD explains the quality of the subpar visual effects.

But it just doesn’t serve the film well, as some visual effects shots are so brief it’s hard to tell what happens. The dark cinematography underwater doesn’t help that either, which is a shame because they spend a lot of time underwater. That’s a big thing with 47 Meters Down – it’s good for a straight-to-DVD film as it was produced (on a budget of $5.5 million), but mediocre as a theatrical release.

Score: 65/100

Jaws 2 (1978)

Released: June 16, 1978. Directed by: Jeannot Szwarc. Starring: Roy Schneider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton. Runtime: 1h 56 min.

The greatness that is the original Jaws is a tough act to follow. Jaws 2 is easily the best of all of the sequels, but it’s not an impressive feat. This takes place four years after the original film as a new shark terrorizes Amity Island and Chief Brody (Roy Schneider) again protects the citizens. This time, the citizens he’s protecting aren’t interesting. The only ones you might care about are Chief Brody’s sons Mike (Mark Gruner) and Sean (Marc Gilpin). Even then, I didn’t care much.

Half of Mike’s friends look the same and have little characterization – I thought of two characters as Sideburns Nerd and No Sideburns Nerd – and the only one of the teens that’s easy enough to differentiate is his buddy Andy (Gary Springer), the closest thing to the movie’s comic relief. Mike also gets set up with someone’s cousin named Jackie (Donna Wilkes). But I didn’t care about this romance stuff or their teenage shenanigans, I just wanted sharks.

There’s an argument that this film just makes it more about the shark rather than establishing secondary characters, so that’s kind-of fine because even if it did give the characters more to work with, I don’t think I would have been interested in them anyway. They’re just so dry.

Jaws 2 in reviewThe writing’s not great, either. There’s a moment where one of the teens is parasailing and the shark stalks underneath. I was getting annoyed waiting for the shark to eat him. The character turned out to be Mike and since the film didn’t establish that well, I ended up being annoyed by the scene rather than feeling the suspense that should have been there if we knew it was Mike.

Roy Schneider doesn’t look interested as Chief Brody this time, but that’s probably because he just didn’t want to do this film. He’s a great character in the first film, but he’s my least favourite of the three main characters – out of Chief Brody, Robert Shaw’s Quint and Richard Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper – if I had to choose. Brody’s wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) returns for this film and is a good support system, but this time Brody doesn’t have anyone he can banter or play off of, which worked so well in the first film.

I like the scene seeing what the events of the first film did to him as a person when he thought he saw a shark in the water – when it was just a sea of bluefish – and he causes a huge scene. It’s believable and is what makes some of the first half like The Chief Who Cried Shark. Though, it feels more like a tool for characters just not to trust his judgment instead of fully diving into the fears he still feels because of his encounter. He warns everyone including the mayor (Murray Hamilton), who like the first film, doesn’t listen.

It goes through the motions and most of the first half bored me. There was just nowhere near the same amount of suspense. That has to do with the writing – but the score by John Williams still rocks during the shark attacks. There’s just a lot of waiting between shark attacks in the film’s first half and I was waiting the whole time for consistent shark action. I finally got that in the film’s third act – which is decent fun – but this is so boring I just wasn’t interested by that point.

Score: 40/100

Jaws (1975)

Released: June 20, 1975. Directed by: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss. Runtime: 2h 4 min.

I’ve only seen Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece “Jaws” three times. The first time I watched it was when I was 11 years old at school, weirdly enough. The next time was in August 2012 when I was 17.

For some reason I keep waiting six years between watches as I just watched it again the other day, but with each new viewing – I still feel the suspense, like the suspense of fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) simply catching something on his hook.

I still feel the thrill of John Williams’ score as we see the shark’s underwater point of view before it attacks. As our fear of the unknown, and the ocean, builds throughout the film, it makes the big reveal of the shark that much more effective.

The film starts with such a memorable beginning of a young woman being killed by a shark while skinny dipping on Amity Island, a New England tourist town.

Despite suggestions that it’s a shark attack from Chief Martin Brody (Roy Schneider), the town’s mayor (Murray Hamilton) doesn’t want to shut down the beach because it’s the Fourth of July.

He doesn’t want a panic on his hands and he doesn’t want to lose money because of this. It has dire consequences. When the Great White shark continues to terrorize the town’s waters, the police chief, marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and ship captain Quint take the fight to it.

One of my favourite things about “Jaws” is that it is so well-paced. The second half of the film is the actual hunt and it doesn’t feel like an hour at all. This is helped by, of course, the film’s tension and its non-stop thrills.

Jaws in reviewwwI just love how the trio think they’re being the hunters going out to take down the shark and then it turns the tables on them.

Also helping the pacing is the great acting and chemistry between the three main characters, which makes their banter so natural. I always forget how funny Richard Dreyfuss is as Matt Hooper and the scene on the boat with him and Quint comparing their scars is great. Quint’s monologue about the USS Indianapolis is so compelling. He’s such a character and the songs he sings are amusing.

Chief Brody isn’t as funny as the other two, but he’s perfectly developed as someone who feels guilty about the deaths by the shark even though the fault is really on the Mayor for not shutting down the beach.

I know I’m probably not saying anything new about the film, but it’s because it’s just so great. The film’s shark attacks are just so brutal and they still make me have second thoughts of going into the ocean but it’s why it’s still so effective 43 years later.

Score: 100/100

Adrift (2018)

Adrift. Released: June 1, 2018. Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur. Starring: Shailene Woodley, Sam Claflin, the Ocean. Runtime: 1h 36 min.

“Adrift” is a lost-at-sea survival drama based on a true story, a welcome change of pace of summer survival movies after survival against sharks the past two summers (“The Shallows” and “47 Meters Down” respectively).

Characters still fight for survival, but a shark isn’t an obstacle. Instead, Tami Oldham (Shailene Woodley, also producing) and Richard Sharp (Sam Claflin) deal with the aftermath of being caught in a Category 4 hurricane.

We’re put into the story right when Tami wakes up after the hurricane. The screenplay takes us between survival drama and romance as we’re told their story through flashbacks. The jumps back in time sometimes span multiple scenes, and as the film advances there are shorter scenes as the timeline catches up to the present, where Tami and Richard are “adrift” in the Pacific Ocean.

The transitions are creative. There’s a scene where Tami sails Richard’s sailboat, the Mayaluga, for the first time and she shouts in excitement. It’s a moment of euphoria that switches to distress as it slams forward in time as Tami shouts for Richard, unable to find him. The story structure helps for pacing. Though, it takes a while for the hurricane scene to actually happen –it’s great when it comes, especially because of the immersive sound design.

The constant switch between the two genres helps it feel diverse, as too many consecutive scenes of the survival portion and it starts to feel flat. The scenes of romance between the two adventurous characters is also nice because Woodley and Claflin have a nice chemistry. There a lot of sweet flashback scenes, and there are also pretty moments on the boat before all hell breaks loose.

We don’t get to know a lot about Tami before she sets sail other than she and Richard like sailing, she’s traveling the world and is a free spirit who doesn’t want to go home. Shailene Woodley’s consistently good and that’s no different here. She plays romantic very well and makes those scenes feel sincere. After the hurricane hits, we learn the character’s resourceful and it’s great watching Woodley get into the psyche of survival. She plays the moments of strength, as well as heartbreaking moments of vulnerability, really well.

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Sam Claflin and Shailene Woodley in Adrift. (IMDB)

Sam Claflin is good, too, but he has so much more to do during the romantic part of the film and doesn’t do much during the survival because of his injuries. His performance will frequently be an afterthought to Woodley.

There are a few surprises in the story, which is nice, and while it sometimes feels derivative of other survival movies, it’s very much fueled by the strong connection between the characters. It’s a faithfully adapted screenplay written by twin screenwriters Aaron and Jordan Kendall (part of the writing team on Pixar’s “Moana”), who wrote it with Woodley in mind to star. Writer David Branson Smith (“Ingrid Goes West”) also joined as a writer later.

The film’s directed by Baltasar Kormákur, returning to the survival genre after 2015’s “Everest,” and it’s a good return to the genre. He gets great performances from his primary cast, and there aren’t many other principal cast members to direct. The only ones important to the story include an older couple, Peter (Jeffrey Thomas) and Christine (Elizabeth Hawthorne). They give Tami and Richard $10,000 to sail their yacht back to California, and are the reason why the couple cross paths with the hurricane.

Partly due to the lack of supporting cast, Kormákur easily makes the Ocean feel like the film’s third star. This is also assisted by the amazing cinematography by Oscar winner Robert Richardson (“Hugo,” “The Aviator”, “JFK”) who captures the scope of the direness of the characters’ situation. He makes every scene look beautiful, and that more than makes up for where the film lacks in non-stop tension.

Score: 75/100

When the Bough Breaks (2016)

Released: September 9, 2016. Directed by: Jon Cassar. Starring: Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Jaz Sinclair. Runtime: 1h 47 min. 

When the Bough Breaks, Screen Gems’ third September thriller with stalker, manages to be almost memorable because it’s so awful and such a poorly executed Fatal Attraction knockoff.

John and Laura Taylor (Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall) have realized they can’t have a baby after Laura’s had three miscarriages, so they decide to hire a surrogate mother. They find the seemingly perfect candidate in Anna Walsh (Jaz Sinclair). After moving into their guest house, she eventually becomes obsessed with John and interferes with his personal and professional life.

She asks inappropriate questions but of course, John doesn’t say anything. This whole situation could be avoided if he would just tell Laura that Anna’s being a creep and trying to seduce him. It becomes a stranger situation because she has their baby in utero and it threatens to become a hostage situation – legally, it’s her baby – so that’s a way it offers a fresh turn on the Fatal Attraction plot. Unfortunately, that’s where any originality begins and ends.

You’ve seen every twist and turn before and it unfolds in an unsurprising way. The writing’s basic from first-time writer Jack Olsen. Morris Chestnut’s John is an ambitious lawyer who loves his wife and doesn’t want to cheat. Hall’s Laura is a traveling chef or something, and she really wants to start a family. The two stars try their best in one-dimensional roles, and they deserve better.

Jaz Sinclair is the nutty Anna and she’s given the most to work with as the over-the-top stalker. She’s whiny and bratty, and Sinclair plays the bratty side believably but it’s unintentionally hilarious when tries to be totally crazy.

Jaz Sinclair, Morris Chestnut

Jaz Sinclair and Morris Chestnut in When the Bough Breaks. (Source)

She’s silliest and most over-the-top hilarious when she screams and flails her hands in a fit in her car, which makes her looks like a pre-teen brat throwing a temper tantrum. The tantrum could be a clip from the MTV show My Super Sweet 16 because the birthday girl didn’t get the car they wanted.

The performance is not good. When she’s told to be innocent, she just smiles excessively and is annoyingly cutesy. At one point she watches John and Laura kissing, and it’s creepy and robotic –  it’s like she doesn’t quite know what they’re doing. It’s awkward.

In all fairness, the character’s just awful. There is a gem of a scene under the dreck where Anna sings “Rock-a-bye-Baby” in the bathtub. She attempts to be menacing (it doesn’t work), as she cuts her leg with a razor blade. Its presence is so random that it enters unintentional hilarity, and the scene only seems to serve to establish where the film gets its name. It really is unfortunate director Jon Cassar just didn’t make this a stalker comedy.

It’s baffling this is billed as a horror film, because there’s nothing scary about it and the writing and Cassar aren’t able to conjure up any kind-of suspense. Its PG-13 rating also makes it incredibly tame. Nudity is avoided when John watches a video of Anna on his computer and before she can disrobe, he hastily shuts his laptop in the nick of time. No nudity, no gore, no scares: No entertainment.

Score: 25/100