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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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.

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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

Phoenix Forgotten (2017)

Released: April 21, 2017. Directed by: Justin Barber. Starring: Florence Hartigan, Luke Spencer Roberts, Chelsea Lopez. Runtime: 1h27 min. 

Phoenix Forgotten is like one of those films that come out of nowhere, but this is because of a quiet marketing campaign. It tries to replicate the success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, and it’s disappointingly mediocre (especially with the involvement of Ridley Scott’s production company Scott Free Productions).

Integrated at the centre of the story is the Phoenix Lights, a triangular light formation that was seen from Phoenix, Arizona in March 1997. It’s never been explained, and is the most famous so-called UFO sighting in the world.

The fictional story comes with three teens – Josh Bishop (Luke Spencer Roberts), Ashley Foster (Chelsea Lopez), and Mark Abrams (Justin Matthews) – who disappeared without a trace investigating the Phoenix Lights. 20 years later in 2017, Josh Bishop’s sister Sophie (Florence Hartigan), 26, is investigating the disappearance. She discusses it with her own parents and Ashley’s parents as she makes a documentary.

It’s interesting learning about the Phoenix Lights. It’s famous, but I never heard about it, so it’s intriguing. I thought it was just making a generic UFO sighting and developing mythology; instead, it interestingly blends some truth with a lot of fiction, and the unexplained phenomena has some intrigue. That’s what makes some of the first hour interesting.

The story doesn’t flow well as it skips between Sophie making a documentary in 2017 about the disappearance, and back to Josh and Ashley making a documentary about the Phoenix Lights in 1997 (Josh was an aspiring director, so he filmed everything). It thereby mixes some docu-drama with found footage.

Sophie mostly just talks to her parents and other experts who give lots of speculation. They say forgettable stuff, and there are so many boring interview subjects that I found myself forgetting who was who. It’s interesting how Sophie’s parents were affected after Josh has been missing for 20 years with no closure. It’s heartbreaking, but besides them, the emotional connection is non-existent; as the characters are one-dimensional.

Phoenix ForgottenJosh is single-minded and becomes obsessed when he gets an idea in his head. I liked seeing in his room that he was sci-fi enthusiast with X-Files and Alien posters all over his room. Ashley’s more interesting, since she’s open-minded and interviews well as an aspiring journalist. One interview features local astronomers talking about how they think the lights were flares.

Mark just feels like he’s kind-of there, since he has a car. He’s a friend but he’s almost has no dimension. The little-known actors aren’t memorable, but they do serviceable jobs. Chelsea Lopez as Ashley brings some charm.

The cinematography is stronger in Sophie’s documentary, but her film is way less interesting. Her documentary feels distinctly incomplete even when she has a chance to make an ending, and the film doesn’t execute.

It’s also silly that she waits 20 years to investigate the disappearance, and like the documentary, this feels like it’s made a few years too late, especially after the release of The Phoenix Incident in 2015 (a docu-drama about the real-life disappearances). It’s especially late since Adam Wingard released Blair Witch last year, and this is essentially a carbon copy of The Blair Witch Project mixed with a some of The X-Files.

The film’s a puzzle as they try to explain what happened to these 17-year-olds. The mystery’s never been solved because they stopped filming at one point. It’s the one video that promises something happening, as most of the videos are uneventful. Sometimes they investigate the Lights, but other times they just go for a hike hoping something will happen.

The videos are amateurishly shot and Josh annoyingly can never keep the camera on the action, and it’s hard to see what’s going on. The camera’s consistently shaky, but the visual effects are cool when we see it long enough. The filmmakers make it look like the videos were filmed in 1997. It has a VHS quality, and it adds realism.

The horror relies on psychological aspects of paranoia, lots of bright lights and loud noises instead of jump scares, which makes it refreshing. In that way, it does something different from most found-footage films, and part of the reason why I’m giving it a passing score.

The tension is palpable because of chilling sound design. It feels more like freaky, sci-fi scares than anything and when I’m talking about horror, it’s only existent in the film’s final 15-20 minutes when we get the last piece of the puzzle. It’s a good finale.

The first hour has 15 minutes of interesting material, but it’s boring and not scary. Since only a fraction of this is thrilling, it doesn’t work as a feature film. It would be better as a 30-minute segment in an anthology franchise like V/H/S because there’s not enough material here, and Josh’s sister making a documentary in the present day often feels like filler. Director Justin Barber fleshes it out to about 80 minutes and it doesn’t feel like a well-rounded feature. The last piece of the puzzle is the only good part. Otherwise, Phoenix Forgotten is already fading from my memory.

Score: 50/100

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Released: March 31, 2017. Directed by: Rupert Sanders. Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano. Runtime: 1h 47 min.

In a futuristic world that’s trying to advance technology even further, Hanka Robotics takes a woman horribly injured in a car crash and puts her consciousness into a cyber-enhanced body and call her Major (Scarlett Johansson). She becomes a cyborg cop working in Section 9’s anti-terrorist bureau, fighting the world’s most dangerous criminals.

First, it feels necessary to talk about the whitewashing controversy – which has been dogging Ghost in the Shell’s production since Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Major Mira Killian. I haven’t seen the original film, but Johansson’s casting affects some believability. Even if you can get past the controversy, it’s still not that enjoyable.

It’s nice to have a female-led blockbuster but Johansson’s stiff, bland and robotic. I know she’s all robot except for her brain, but it would be nice if the brain would give her human emotion or personality. Her brain makes her an imperfect soldier because at one point she disobeys orders to try to save some lives. The character’s compassionate in the scene, but her face doesn’t get the memo and she doesn’t emote compassion or make me believe it. Major’s a hard character but it’s Johansson’s first performance I don’t like, mostly because she’s bland and there’s little depth.

The martial arts part of her character is cool – though an explanation for her powers of invisibility would be nice. The invisibility makes action scenes great when she’s fighting and flipping a guy in shallow water. The splashing and choreography makes great eye candy, and the visuals are the film’s strongest aspect. There are other fun action scenes, so it’s a shame so many other aspects are bad.

The world created is fascinating. The norm is for everyone who has enough money to have cyber-work done to enhance their bodies – one character gets a new liver so he can drink more booze – and it’s so normal that people ask you on the street if you want an enhancement instead of drugs. The skyline – full of Geisha and koi fish, indicating most likely they’re in Japan – is interesting but giant holograms in the background are so distracting that a man going for a casual jog becomes a scene-stealer.

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Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell(Source)

The world is as creepy as it is cool. Being fully human is weird now, and there are creepy characters galore – especially ones with jagged teeth, and robotic Geishas are the source of nightmares when they open their faces. There’s other nightmarish imagery abound, and if the world feels creepy in live-action – I’m curious to watch the original to see how it’s portrayed in anime.

Batou (Pilou Asbaek), Major’s partner, has rather creepy eyes, but his character design is based on the source material. The supporting cast’s generally fine and Michael Pitt is strong as Kuze, though he sounds like Stephen Hawking’s computer voice malfunctioning. I like the supporting players more than Major and their personality make this more bearable.

Takeshi Kitano plays Daisuke Aramaki, the unit’s Chief, and it’s jarring that he’s the only one who speaks Japanese in the film. Everyone responds to him in English – but can apparently understand Japanese. Since everyone has robotic upgrades – you’d think a language component can be downloaded that let’s you speak Japanese. While it’s never crystal clear if this is set in Japan, but if it is, it’s especially strange that he’s the only person who speaks Japanese.

Some action scenes are memorable – notably the finale – but the only source of good entertainment is the film’s final 30 minutes when the story goes somewhere and we get answers for Major’s visions and glitches. It’s the only point where Major is almost interesting. I say almost because she’s just so dull that there’s an emotional wall that makes it difficult to become invested in her story.

The plot itself has some surprises but it rarely enthralls. The futuristic world’s interesting, but it’s even more fun to leave because it’s so bereft of passion.

Score: 40/100

 

April Fool’s Day (1986)

Released: March 28, 1986. Directed by: Fred Walton. Starring: Amy Steel, Deborah Foreman, Ken Olandt. Runtime: 1h 29min.

April Fool’s Day is a 1980’s slasher only notable for its ability to put a spin on a basic story.

Muffy (Deborah Foreman) has invited eight of her college friends to a weekend getaway on April Fool’s weekend to her family island. These people are kind-of weird in the first place to make April Fool’s Day a weekend celebration.

There are nine main characters for the getaway and that’s a lot of characters when the usual getaway vacation slasher has five or six characters so it doesn’t get crowded.

Kit (Amy Steel) is the main blonde goody-two-shoes character who wants to go to convent school and is dating Rob (Ken Olandt). Chaz (Clayton Rohner) carries around a camera a lot to videotape things for some reason and he’s with the blonde Nikki (Deborah Goodrich).

Skip (Griffin O’Neal) is simply characterized as Muffy’s cousin. Harvey (Jay Baker) is super preppy and wants to be called Hal but no one ever calls him that. There’s so much characterization to go around to everyone that a bookworm named Nan (Leah Pinsent) feels like a useless character, and the majority of them feel one-dimensional.

The comic relief comes from Thomas F. Wilson (Biff in the Back to the Future trilogy) who plays Arch, and he has some of the funniest moments as the ladies man. He’s the only actor I recognized in this. He and Deborah Foreman give the most memorable performances as Arch and Muffy, respectively.

The acting when they’re asked to be scared – mostly just Amy Steel and Ken Olandt – is bad, and Olandt’s screaming is almost annoying as the crickets that are constantly chirping. The general chemistry of the whole cast is good, and Chaz and Arch have some of the funniest moments together.

The comedy is better done than the horror itself – because it’s never actually scary, even as far as slasher films go. The setup at the beginning is good and some of the April Fool’s pranks are childish but most of them are funny.

When the killing begins, the fun stops because all of the kills actually suck because they show the bare minimum of the kills, removing a lot of the violence and it makes it really disappointing to me as a horror fan. Half of the kills literally happen off-screen and when someone wound up dead I wondered if I had missed something.

In that way it definitely sets itself apart from other slashers but it’s one of the reasons it’s not a good movie for horror fans, and a lot of it isn’t entertaining. When they don’t show the bit of what makes a horror movie successful – the kills – it feels a lot like when someone tells a story that ends with “you just had to be there.”

It’s a competent mystery because the story is developed somewhat well and there’s characters that just start acting strange.

It gears up to an interesting ending that filled in plot holes and some of the film’s major faults, and made it feel like an exercise in making an ending first and then just thinking up everything else in between. It makes it feel all a bit pointless.

It also would have been great if it were scary. April Fool’s Day is unique in the way that the comedy of the beginning is the best part even though it’s not billed as a comedy, and everything goes downhill when the killing comes, because that’s supposed to be the fun part of horror.

Score: 40/100

The Forest (2016)

Released: January 8, 2016. Directed by: Jason Zada. Starring: Natalie Dormer (times deux), Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa. Runtime: 1 hr 33 min.

The first wide release of 2016 came in horror film The Forest, also the first top billing role for Natalie Dormer (TV’s Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I).

The Brit is tasked with playing the roles of identical twin sisters. Sara stays home in America, while the other, edgier Dormer (Jess) goes to teach in Japan. When word travels to Sara that Jess went venturing into Japan’s infamous Suicide Forest, she travels to Japan to look for her.

The forest at hand is a real place – Aokigahara is its official name – which lies at the base of Mount Fuji. It’s been depicted a couple of times in film, like in SyFy Channel horror flick Grave Halloween and Gus Van Sant drama The Sea of Trees.

Dormer carries the film mildly well, but her range doesn’t make it feel like she’s convincingly creating two different, twin characters. There’s nothing that really seems to separate them – but that could also just be because of poor character development.

When Dormer’s Sara gets to Japan, she meets Aiden — portrayed by Taylor Kinney – a travel journalist who is going into the Suicide Forest for research. When he realizes he can make a good human interest story out of Sara searching for her sister, he invites her along. Guide Michi (Yukiyoshi Owaza) brings them into the forest, as he’s usually the one to go in during daylight to retrieve any deceased people.

The suicide forest might be the only interesting aspect about the film. The story itself is just wandering around the woods, deliriously searching for a point. When it seems like the story is straightening itself out and actually getting towards a satisfying climax, it turns in a new direction and just loses all sense it might have found.

Dormer’s Sara really isn’t all that interesting, either. Her dedication for her sister is nice but also blind and stupid in ways, insistent on staying in the woods overnight in case Jess returns to her tent. I mean, if she wanted to see her sister again, all she has to do is slap on some eyeliner and look at herself in the mirror. And if Jess would have stayed on the path, all might have been peachy.

The thought of the forest and its frightening intent should instil dread, but it doesn’t. There’s more a sense of psychological torment here and it’s an honest snooze. The premise really should work, but it just doesn’t. This might lie in its complete reliance on jump scares. It’s like the film broke a leg at the beginning and needed that as its crutch.

It really should have used its supernatural spin in a more convincing way. In folklore, no spirit truly dies in the forest and their spirits live on in the forest – and that’s why it’s creepy – but this concept wasn’t terrifying enough in the story.

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Natalie Dormer in The Forest (Source).

And supernatural horror is the Japanese horror specialty – so maybe this would be better in their hands. Maybe a remake will be in our good fortunes.

This American take is just drowned by a dreadful screenplay. It brings an intriguing story to a mainstream audience, but its execution fails it. It’s very well-filmed because of the lush landscapes, but really, even a snuff film is going to look beautiful if it’s shot in a forest like this.

It’s convincing that we’re watching them navigate through the Suicide Forest — though we’re just watching them go through a forest near Tara Mountain in Western Serbia.

It’s still very pretty, even when they had to film some of it in a former warehouse. That’s the magic of cinema, folks.

Score: 40/100

Risen (2016)

 

Released: February 19, 2016. Directed by Kevin Reynolds. Starring Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth. Runtime: 1hr 47 min.

Risen is a Biblical tale that, if you can forgive the wordplay, rarely rises to the occasion.

We all know the story of Christ in some shape or form. Appreciatively, the writers understand that and immediately start the storyline on the day of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion. It saves the runtime considerably and is because this version of the tale is told from the side of the Romans. It breathes a bit of fresh air into an ancient narrative.

The Roman is Clavius, played by Joseph Fiennes, who is a Tribune and the right-hand man to Peter Firth’s Pontius Pilate. He is tasked with finding out what happened to the body of the missing Jew that was just crucified three days ago. He is skeptical that the Jew simply rose from the dead, even though that’s what disciples tell him on the way to find the missing corpse.

It’s a bit of a journey of self-discovery for the Roman. But the character has little depth and the plot isn’t handled in an interesting manner. It is all about the manhunt and less about the miracles that Jesus performs.

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Joseph Fiennes as Clavius in Risen. (Source)

Heck, when he’s supposed to walk on water and give his disciples fish, he just shouts from the shore, “Check the right side!” and voila! There are fish. It’s like an uninspired budget cut or something. The other miracles aren’t special, either.

It feels as if Jesus takes a backseat to the film about His tale. This is mostly because we are delivered right into the narrative at the time of His crucifixion. He’s on a cross at the beginning, and then He comes back to life three days later. The bulk of the film is spent trying to find the dude and he disappears a lot, so his screen time is limited. But Cliff Curtis (TV’s Fear the Walking Dead) is effective as Him, all the same.

And in this version of the film he is not called Jesus, but Yeshua, apparently the name that He was called by friends. It doesn’t feel like they’re stripping at the identity, but it might be a bit of a change for those who aren’t familiar with the name.

On a side note, if I was crucified and then came back to life three days later, I’d take advantage and get revenge. Picture it: Jesus could be a man on a road to vengeance, looking to smite those who wronged Him. Instead of taking away leprosy, He can give it to those who crucified him. The Biblical thriller could be called Crossed. I’d watch it…

I am so going to Hell.

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Joseph Fiennes and Tom Felton in Risen. (Source)

There are a few good scenes throughout, especially one where the Disciples give the enemies the old slip-a-roo. That was an entrancing scene, well-directed by Kevin Reynolds, that was good enough to work as the climax.

But that, in itself, poses a problem of pacing and how the film felt like it could have ended at any point.

There are scenes that are supposed to be brimming with action, but really it isn’t written well enough to be great. The score is used as a crutch to breathe action into those scenes through music.

Performances redeem the film, even if a boring screenplay cannot. Fiennes offers a good performance as Clavius, even though the character is nothing special.

Tom Felton (Harry Potter) is strong as Clavius’ right-hand man, Lucius. Alas – Felton doesn’t seem able to shake the connection to his Malfoy roots, as the patriarchal Malfoy was named Lucius. And now he’s basically acting alongside Lord Voldemort’s brother.

What really works against Risen is its impassionate filmmaking. Nothing inspires awe and it all feels like it goes through the motions. It’s as if telling it from a non-believer’s perspective was its limited ceiling, omitting any relative emotion from the picture, save the last 20 minutes. There are stints that feel as flat as a pancake. Still: It’s better than Son of God, which has to count for something.

3 outta 5