The title of The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018) could also work as its central premise. It definitely features a house, a house that most certainly has a clock in its walls. You can’t get more straightforward than that. Written by Erick Kripke (adapting the novel by John Bellairs) and directed by Eli Roth – yes, the same Eli Roth of Cabin Fever (2002) and Hostel (2005) fame – this comedic fantasy has a lot of things going for it: good set design and costume work, an intriguing mystery that has some tangible stakes, strong performances by Jack Black and Cate Blanchett, and an aura of danger that we don’t normally see in modern family adventures. But it also showcases some pretty immature humor that even adolescents wouldn’t find funny.
For much of the run time I was pretty engaged with the narrative. Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is a young, bookish kid who recently lost his parents. He’s an outsider at school, thought of as weird or strange. Lewis moves in with his Uncle Jonathan (Black) and his friend Florence (Blanchett) in a house that looks more like a museum for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Almost immediately, Lewis suspects things are not as they seem in his new home. There are clocks everywhere, there are loads of old memorabilia and bric-a-bracs, and all the odd furniture and portraits seem to change from one day to the next. Soon enough, Lewis discovers that his uncle is an actual wizard and Florence a witch, with the house being a living, breathing creature.
The true accomplishment of the film is in the costume design and art direction. The house is made to look like an elaborately decorated haunted house you would see during Halloween. The wallpaper and tapestries are bathed in dark colors, the library is filled with books that look like they are a century old, and if you make a wrong turn or open a certain door, you may find yourself in a secret passageway or hidden room. It’s a lovely set to look at, and I only wish Roth had spent a little more time letting the camera soak in all of the visual details.
Jack Black and Cate Blanchett surprisingly work well together as an odd couple. Early exposition explains that their relationship is not based on romance, but more on mutual understanding and empathy. Oh, they may crack jokes at each other’s expense, but they are there for each other through thick and thin. With her purple outfits and silver hair, Blanchett’s Florence looks like a proper taskmaster. But behind her outer shell lies tragedy and heartbreak, leading to her reluctance in practicing witchcraft. As Jonathan, Black’s costume and make up calls to mind a latter day Orson Welles – which isn’t much of a stretch given that Welles himself had an interest in magic. Jonathan looks like a showman who hasn’t come to the reality that his best days may be behind him; he moves and acts as though he has another trick waiting up his sleeve.
The “clock” element involves Jonathan’s former partner, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), the former owner of the house – also a wizard – who died under, shall we say, “dubious” circumstances. Before his death, Isaac used his magic to hide a special clock somewhere within the walls of the house. Ever since they moved in, both Jonathan and Florence – who can hear the clock ticking – have been on a constant search for it to no avail. Isaac, the clock, the house, and the relationship between Lewis, Jonathan, and Florence all come to a head when dark magic comes into play, putting everyone’s lives at risk. Don’t you hate it when that happens?
The plot moves as a nice pace, juggling between Lewis’ life at school and at home with efficient balance. We get an understanding of how his discovery of his family’s special gifts and his wish to feel accepted by other kids might cause him to make unwise decisions. The banter between Jonathan and Florence make for some of the bigger laughs, and I appreciated how the production didn’t shy away from making the threats feels perilous. Youngsters (maybe 8 or younger) might find some of the sequences a little too intense.
There are two glaring issues going on here. The first is the lead character. This has more to do with Roth’s direction as opposed to Owen Vaccaro’s acting. Roth does not pull a great performance out of Vaccaro. Lewis is the lynchpin for the entire story, and yet every word he says and every gesture he makes feels forced and over the top. The more pressing problem is Roth’s insistence for juvenile humor. I highly doubt Bellairs’ book contained a running poop joke that was not funny the first time we come across it let alone the third or fourth time. Nor do I suspect that he contained a scene where a character gets morphed into a creature that is beyond grotesque (I’ll save the details for your own sake, dear reader). And if the book did have these bits, then Roth was not wise enough to cut them out. It’s as though he can’t help himself – for all the good we get, he has to add a touch of excrement just for his own personal amusement.
But even with those flaws, The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018) was a pretty enjoyable ride from start to finish. I’m not going to say it’ll be a classic or even have the kind of cult following that something like Hocus Pocus (1993) has, but I think anyone who gives this a shot could be pleasantly surprised.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls - Official Trailer 2 - YouTube
Monster movies are fun. And there’s no doubt that the creature design from the original Predator film from 1987 is one of the great makeup jobs in film. H.R Giger‘s creature design for Alien is still superior, but the look of that “One ugly mother” F-er from the Arnold Schwarzenegger hit did capture the imagination of the audience. But let’s also be frank, time has not been kind to the Predator films. The muscly, very sweaty and macho original is still the best of the series. But even that movie is very guilty of dating itself quite badly. It’s filled with so much posturing testosterone and 80’s action movie tropes that it looks quite silly in modern times. It’s a joy to watch, but so very much part of the Rambo era. Meanwhile the rest of the series proves the law of diminishing returns. Predator 2 has aged horribly. Full of racial stereotyping, ham handed action clichés, and Gary Busey, the only real highlight was the hint at the end that it shared a universe with the Alien franchise. And the less said about the AVP: Alien vs. Predator movies the better. So, it is a relief to report that the newest entry is the best acted and maybe the best film in the series at least since the original. It’s not flawless or a classic, but The Predator is an entertaining action movie.
Our story begins with Boyd Holbrook as Quinn Mckenna, a mercenary on a rescue mission in a Mexican jungle. His operation is interrupted by the crash landing of the titular monster’s spaceship whose occupant proceeds to slaughter most everyone around. Quinn is able to retrieve the Predator’s mask and mails it back to his house without anyone knowing so he has tangible proof before government types cover it up. When it arrives his Savant-esque son, who is under the care of his estranged wife, discovers the mask and unlocks it’s secrets. Quinn is then scooped up by authorities to be committed to a facility since he keeps bringing up alien attacks. Meanwhile, Olivia Munn‘s character is a doctor recruited by a secret agency lead by an egomaniacal character played by Sterling K. Brown. The doctor is shown that this group has the captured alien and are studying his belongings. They are keeping him sedated, but of course the Predator ends up escaping and wholesale mayhem in the facility ensues.
This is happening while Quinn is thrust with a colorful group of military vets with various degrees of mental problems. This group of 5 includes a guy with Tourette’s played by Thomas Jane, a smart-ass jokester played by Keegan-Michael Key, and a formerly suicidal vet played by Trevante Rhodes. En route to the hospital, their bus trip is derailed by the escape of The Predator. So they band together with Munn’s character as kind of a Dirty Half-Dozen to fight the alien invasion and to save the boy before The Predator tries to retrieve his lost technology. Spines are ripped out, explosions occur, guns are fired, and a good time is had by all.
Shane Black directed and co-wrote this movie with the cult favorite Fred Dekker. The dialogue is the best thing about this movie. This film has a great sense of humor about itself. Whether it’s the recurring joke about how calling it a Predator is technically a misnomer since it actually hunts for sport or how virtually every character is allowed to be smart enough to call each other out when they are full of crap, snappy rapport is the movie’s greatest asset. Black has come full circle here. He was played the smart aleck in the first movie (as well as being that creature’s first victim from that group) and now he gets to put his trademark banter into these character’s mouths. Also, this is definitely the best cast any of these movies have seen. Even in an elevated B-movie like this, it really does help to have on-screen talent that you care to watch.
The biggest drawback here is, it’s just not scary. Action packed, yes. But not scary. At least this is an R rated entry instead of the PG-13 nonsense they’ve tried to pull in the past a couple of times. This monster needs to be ruthless and violent. And he is here. Folks get decapitated. People lose limbs and get holes blown in them. Good stuff. It’s fun mayhem if not particularly original.
(Also to note, Shane Black’s signature move of referencing Christmas is ignored this time around though part of it is set during Halloween, so he’s expanding his holiday calendar)
The Predator is fun. Off screen it’s been courted by controversy surrounding a supporting actor who Olivia Munn called out for being a convicted sex-offender and the subsequent fallout from that. For the record, she was right to make it public and it’s lame that most of the production is having trouble supporting her. But there is no remnant of that actor in the finished film. What we do have is kind of silly, violent, funny fun.
The Predator | Final Trailer [HD] | 20th Century FOX - YouTube
The trailer might tout it as being “from the darker side of director Paul Feig,” (Bridesmaids, The Heat) but rest assured, A Simple Favor is packed to the gills with laughs amidst all the luridness. Based on Darcey Bell‘s 2017 trashy beach read of the same name, Favor offers another opportunity for Feig to showcase a host of talented women front and center and then letting them go wild.
Anna Kendrick is the appropriately named Stephanie Smothers, an over-achieving mommy vlogger whose fuddy duddy wholesomeness makes the other parents of her son’s school cringe in morbid fascination and disgust. Her son’s friendship with another student leads to the introduction of Emily (Blake Lively), a no-nonsense PR magnate with wicked fashion sense (think 21st century Annie Hall) and attitude to spare. Bookish Stephanie is smitten and they’re soon arranging near-daily, martini-soaked play dates. This provides Stephanie a sexy glimpse of Emily’s relationship with husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians‘ burgeoning superstar Henry Golding), a once-famous novelist. They’re a stunning couple who still make out like teenagers in a secluded parking lot.
The titular favor comes about when an apparent work emergency prompts Emily to ask Stephanie to come over and watch her son for a few hours. When a few hours turns into a few days, Stephanie, alongside a skeptical Sean, puts on her amateur detective cap and launches a crusade to track Emily down, much of it documented on her soon-to-go-mega-viral vlog (people love a good mystery, after all.)
So there it is, a purposely vague retelling of the movie’s events. For the second half of my review I shall do my damndest to convince you why it’s worth your time while attempting to avoid tipping my hat to its sultry smorgasbord of twists and turns..
Let’s start with the stellar supporting cast. Andrew Rannells (Girls) shines in his too-few scenes as a hilariously judgmental PTA dad, and is even given his own hero scene towards the film’s climax. We also get a standout single scene with Jean Smart as Emily’s boozy mother, who spills a few secrets of her own and sets Stephanie on her path.
When asked for my thoughts upon leaving the screening, I boiled it down to “Gone Girl with jokes.” I haven’t read Darcey Bell’s book from which this is adapted, but its tricky narrative and oodles upon oodles of psych-outs and reversals owes much to Gillian Flynn‘s potboiler, with a little The Girl On The Train thrown in for good measure.
Even when you think the movie has just about exhausted its reveals, they continue to pile up like cop cars in The Blues Brothers. By the third act you’re about worn out of this, and when you start to pull at the film’s numerous threads, it begins to fray under scrutiny. The cutting barbs and hilarious asides we’re given so much of in the first half slow their rolls to make room for sometimes clunky exposition and explanations. Still, though, the dynamic of Kendrick and Lively is not to be denied and Feig has managed to craft another firecracker here.
A Simple Favor (2018 Movie) Official Trailer – Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding - YouTube
White Boy Rick (2018) has the look and feel of a film that has something interesting to say. But once we dig beneath the surface – beneath the believable aesthetics and convincing performances – we find an empty center. I’m sure the writers (Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, Noah Miller) and director (Yann Demange) set out with a specific goal in mind, whether it be 1980s drug culture, the inequalities and hardships suffered by those of lower economic standing, or maybe the corruption of our justice system. But somewhere along the way these themes fade out of focus, leaving us wondering what exactly we’re supposed to take away from what we’ve just seen.
A major issue is that the narrative is ambivalent toward everyone involved. We’re dropped into the mean streets of Detroit. This is deep in the lifestyle of the 80s, where Reagan era politics, the “Just Say No” war on drugs, and an emphasis on extravagance fueled people’s greed for excess. This caused many to delve into crime, especially in the drug trade. Some may argue that people turn to crime because that is the only option they have to get out of poverty, and that point is valid. But the issue with this story is that no one we run across are all that likable or empathetic. There’s not much for us to attach to on an emotional level. Why should we be concerned about these characters if we’re given very little to understand who they are?
It’s certainly not with our main character, Rick (Richie Merritt). Rick is a 15 year old high school drop out, whose father Rick Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) straps together money by illegally selling firearms out of the trunk of his car. His sister (Bel Powley) is a runaway drug addict. He lives across the street from his grandparents (Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie), who spend most of their time swearing at each other or are on the verge of swearing at each other. Rick dreams of having a better life, and he finds an opportunity by ingratiating himself in the local drug scene. He builds ties with dealers (which the film strangely portrays as nearly all black Americans) and thus gains the nickname “White Boy Rick.” He learns the trade quickly and efficiently, and is so good at it that it draws the attention of Rory Cochrane and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s FBI agents.
On paper, this is a fascinating story – a fifteen year old kid experiencing both the highs and lows of selling drugs. But the writing and direction paint Rick without enough nuance for us to gravitate toward him. Why should we care about a person who willingly commits crime? The film argues that what Rick did was nonviolent, but attention is never paid to the countless lives that were destroyed from him selling drugs on the street. Rick loves his sister and worries about her addiction, but did it ever cross his mind that her problem came because of a business he works in? She very well could have used the drugs that he sold. One moment Rick is a savvy businessman who convinces his dad that he knows the game and can make it work for them, but then turns around a fires his gun in public, putting people at risk. It’s a strange imbalance that Demange and the rest of the production never really gets a good handle on. Are we supposed to root for Rick or be repulsed by him? What made Goodfellas (1990) a classic is that Martin Scorsese understood that this environment was not a healthy one, despite all the glamour and money. I’m not so sure White Boy Rick has that same laser sharp clarity.
On a visual level, the filmmakers capture Detroit as a seedy, wet, and cold place. Demange does have a strong sense of mood, and displays a world filled with anxiety and dread. These characters have to think about where they’re going to get their next meal, how they’re going to pay their bills, who’s going to be betrayed by a friend, or if the police are just outside their door ready to break in. These elements set the stage for some fine performances all around. Bel Powley does good work as Rick’s strung out sister. It is not easy playing a person who is always walking a tightrope, ready to fall off at any moment, but Powley is up to the task and does the job well. And McConaughey steals every scene he’s in as the mustachioed, mullet wearing elder Rick. The relationship between father and son is the best thing we get, and McConaughey is able to play his character with various degrees of buffoonery, slick salesmanship, and as a caring parent. All his character wants to do is open a video store, even if it means selling guns to do it.
And that right there is at the heart of White Boy Rick. It’s a film about contradictions, where we’re asked to attach to characters that do really bad things. In the end, we’re given the obligatory title cards explaining what happened to everyone (this is apparently based on a true story). The argument is made that Rick was a victim of circumstance and of an unjust system, but the film we just saw showed him making poor choices that could have only lead to one place. He played with fire and got burned, badly.
It appears the “Conjuring Cinematic Universe” continues to grow.
The Nun (2018) is the latest spin off of the horror franchise that started with The Conjuring (2013). After the success of that film and its sequel, we got Annabelle (2014) and Annabelle: Creation (2017), which charted the spooky doll that was featured in the original entry. This latest installment digs into the backstory of the “Demon Nun,” a ghost creature that made an appearance in The Conjuring 2 (2016). I guess if you play a monster or evil spirit in one of these pictures, there’s a good chance the filmmakers will “conjure” up your own story. Sorry for the lame joke, but it was too obvious not to go there.
This time, we are taken back into the 1950s. If we are to list these films in chronological order, this one takes place first in the timeline. We’re brought all the way to Romania, where a priest named Father Burke (Demián Bichir) and a nun in training, Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, younger sister of Vera) are ordered by the Vatican to investigate a mysterious case. A fellow Sister has committed suicide in an isolated abbey in one of the Romanian towns, and it’s up to Father Burke and Sister Irene to investigate why. Of course, given that we know what kind of movie this is, we can safely assume there’s a malevolent cause behind it. Their investigation connects them with a French-Canadian traveler named Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), who first reported the suicide.
In terms of production value, The Nun has a lot going for it. Jennifer Spence’s production design and the art direction by Adrian Curelea and Vraciu Eduard Daniel cast the look and feel with old school, traditional decorations. The abbey is depicted as an ancient castle on the verge of collapse, with corridors littered with old furniture, dimly lit candles, and spider webs. Take a wrong turn and you might find yourself entering a hidden passageway or maybe even a dungeon. Nearby is a graveyard where all the tombstones and crosses are coming up from the ground in disjointed angles, and the surrounding trees have branches that twist and turn with wicked effect. Everywhere you go, whether inside or outside, a looming fog seems to follow. The sets, costumes, and makeup call to mind classic horror movies – something you would see from the Universal Monster series, or maybe even Hammer and Giallo films. The biggest accomplishment the film has is in its aesthetics.
But despite how good looking this world is; it’s betrayed by the writing and direction. Corin Hardy’s direction and Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography captures the visuals in ugly, muddled darkness. There is barely any color outside of deep blacks and dirty grays. The picture is so dark that it nearly masks how good the production values were. The camera never allows us to sit back and take in the environments, it’s too eager to move on to the next jump scare. Gary Dauberman’s screenplay never digs deeper into these characters. Father Burke and Sister Irene are painted with very light brushstrokes. We’re told that Father Burke has a haunted past, but the writing never elaborates on the tragedy for us to understand who he is. Sister Irene is even more of a blank slate. We learn that she has not yet taken her vows to become an official nun, but we don’t get a good grasp as to why. Nor do we understand why the Vatican would send a trainee into a case that is obviously a bigger responsibility than she’s prepared for. I mean, if Father Burke – an experienced priest who’s had run ins with evil spirits before – can’t handle this situation well, what’s to make us believe that Sister Irene would?
I hate to sound like a broken record, but jump scares do very little to produce true terror. “The Nun” (played by Bonnie Aarons) looks creepy. With decaying skin and glowing yellow eyes, The Nun has a great look as a horror movie monster. It’s too bad that she’s relegated to nothing more than a jump scare mechanic. Very little effort is made in creating tension or suspense. Instead, the filmmakers opt for the easy way out: making a scene completely quiet and then shocking us with a scary looking image accompanied by a loud, booming sound effect. Sure, this will startle some, but the execution has no lasting effect. None of the scare tactics sends chills down our spine or makes us look over our shoulders when we walk out of the theater.
It also doesn’t help that these characters are dumb beyond all imagination. Father Burke and Sister Irene look like well-educated people that would inhabit common sense, but as soon as they arrive at the abbey they become clichés. If they hear a strange noise, they actually move toward the sound to find out what it is. When signs point to danger, they approach it instead of running away. At one point, they come across some old books that clearly look demonic, and yet they decide to scoop them up in hopes of gathering more clues. Frenchie appears to be the only level headed character we have, who hilariously points out how unwise their actions are.
The Nun wastes the efforts put into the set design and art direction with a lackluster story and substandard scare scenes. We’ve seen this kind of thing over and over again, to the point where we can guess what’s going to pop out from the side of the screen before it happens. How good is a horror movie if you already know what’s coming? The horror genre has a ton of great pictures, I’m afraid this one is going to get buried beneath the pack.
Peppermint (2018) wastes too much time focusing on undeveloped characters and not enough time on what we came see: Jennifer Garner kicking ass and taking names. It’s billed as a revenge/action picture, and in certain cases it is. But writer Chad St. John and director Pierre Morel sinks the narrative with storylines that go nowhere, characterizations that are generalized at best, and a severe lack of exciting action scenes that the whole experience seems to drag by at a snail’s pace. The idea behind the story has potential, but the execution never takes advantage of it.
That’s not due to the lead performance, though. Garner digs in and gives a committed turn as Riley North, a mild mannered wife and mother whose whole life comes crashing down when her family is killed in a drug cartel drive by shooting. When a corrupt justice system lets the criminals go free, Riley takes it upon herself to inflict her own version of violent justice. Garner goes full tilt as Riley, pushing the envelope both emotionally and physically. When she’s tasked to perform a dramatic scene, she goes as big and as broad as possible. When she has to pull off physical feats such as getting into a brawl or shootout, she handles herself like a trained mercenary. Garner shines in the physical aspect of the part. In one action scene, she hops over a counter to take out a bad guy and she performs it with relative ease. It makes me wonder why filmmakers haven’t incorporated her more into action roles (other than Alias or Daredevil); she’s more than capable of the job.
But her efforts are betrayed by a narrative that falls far beneath her. The writing stumbles over itself, explaining how Riley goes from a suburban mom to brutal killer by skipping over the details. Riley disappears for five years to prepare herself to become a vigilante. All we learn about this time span is that she went overseas to train, and we’re given a brief YouTube video of her participating in MMA fights. These bits are skimmed over so quickly that it’s nearly an afterthought. If that weren’t enough, the worst aspect of her development is the revelation that she has anti-psychotic and anti-depression medication. This is a terrible character detail because it removes accountability from her. Instead of being a woman who was wronged, takes matters into her own hands, and deals with the consequences of those decisions, the writing and directing basically removes that from her, saying that everything she does could very well be the result of a mental instability. In the other words: don’t get upset over what she does, she’s crazy!
All of that could have been forgiven if the action in Peppermint was satisfying. Instead, the action is surprisingly minimal. There are only a few action scenes in total, and none of them leave a lasting impression. To make up for this, Morel and St. John stuff the plot with supporting characters that have nothing interesting to say or do. John Ortiz and John Gallagher Jr. appear as detectives assigned to track Riley down, although their contribution usually involves Ortiz’s character telling Gallagher to be careful before following a lead, with Gallagher ignoring that advice anyway. The members of the cartel are a mix of Mexican and Hispanic stereotypes, with Juan Pablo Raba playing the central antagonist as nothing more than a cold-blooded villain. The majority of the film has these two groups – cops and criminals – both trying to deal with Riley’s increasing path of destruction.
Slow motion is the enemy of good action. When done poorly, slow motion takes us out of the moment, calling attention to the filmmaker’s presence. We want to be in the midst of the mayhem as though we are a part of it in real time. Whenever slow motion occurs we’re stripped of that immersive feeling. Nearly all of the action scenes incorporate slow motion, preventing momentum from ever building up. In a sequence when Riley infiltrates a warehouse full of bad guys, Morel has the camera constantly slow time down, draining the scene from any excitement. When Riley jumps from one platform down to another, the slow motion makes the shot look anything but lifelike.
The editing shifts into a nauseating, vomit-inducing jumble of light and sound during Riley’s frequent flashbacks. Whenever Riley thinks back on the loved ones she’s lost, the editing bombards us with rapid fire images. This happens a lot. It’s as though Morel and his team want to hammer in Riley’s motivation just to make sure we don’t forget. Yes, we get that Riley has been pushed over the edge because of what happened to her family. Yes, we understand that they are constantly on her mind and that the thought of them causes her to act irrationally. The fact that we have to see her thoughts over and over again almost feels like the film is being condescending to us as viewers – as though we’re not smart enough to get it.
Jennifer Garner is the saving grace of Peppermint, but even her performance isn’t enough to prevent this from being a “here today, gone tomorrow” kind of film. Revenge stories have been around since the dawn of storytelling. What does this film have to offer outside of others in the same genre? The answer is: nothing.
Peppermint | Official Trailer | Now In Theaters - YouTube
I’m going to meander a bit before I get to my review of Björn Runge’s new film The Wife. The source material for this film is a novel by Meg Wolitzer, who is one of my favorite contemporary writers. I don’t usually care for literary fiction, but I find her books to be well written, brimming with interesting ideas, and often focused on things besides unhappy families. (It’s the focus on familial misery that really turns me off modern literary fiction. I have my own horrible family of origin; I don’t need to read other folks’ rehashing of their parental issues.) Wolitzer is often categorized as “women’s” fiction instead of literary, and I can only think that’s because she’s a woman writing about women, and that combination cannot possibly produce great literature. Women’s lives are too small and trivial to be of interest to the intelligent man. And while more and more women are receiving accolades and awards, they still have to push hard to get out of the chick lit section of the bookstore unless they are writing genre fiction.
The Wife stars Glenn Close as Joan Castleman, the spouse of lauded writer Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce). He’s just been informed he’s won the Nobel Prize for literature, and he, his wife, and their son David (Max Irons) travel to Sweden for the ceremony. Joan is happy for Joe, but the increased attention on him means that she is also in the spotlight more than she is comfortable with. She is a private person who gave up her own writing aspirations to support her husband and mother his children. In one scene, she takes to heart the advice given by a female writer, played delightfully by Elizabeth McGovern; it’s a constant uphill and fruitless battle to get men to read her work, and it’s not worth it. While Joan needs to travel with her husband to make sure he takes his pills and get to his appointments on time, she seems to find the whole thing a bit tiresome. Her feelings regarding the prize are further complicated when her husband’s would-be biographer Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) invites her for a drink. She accepts, even though Joe has made it clear he will not cooperate with Bone in any way, and whiles away an afternoon gently flirting with Bone and doing her best to dodge his questions. She ends the conversation when he intimates to her that he suspects Joe has a secret even more disastrous to his public image than the multitude of affairs he has engaged in over the years. The possibility of this secret becoming known forces Joan to contemplate her life and what place her marriage will take in it going forward.
Glenn Close is phenomenal in this, as is Jonathan Pryce – although Close has the much better role. Joan is smart, quietly forceful, and inscrutable in keeping her secrets. It is this amazing performance that makes this film so enjoyable to watch, but also hurts it because nothing else is as good as her. The film is interspersed with flashbacks to Joe and Joan’s early life together, and those scenes just aren’t as strong as the contemporary ones. The woman who plays the younger version of Joan, Annie Starke, is Close’s real life daughter and she credibly plays the part, but the younger versions of Joe and Joan just aren’t given much to do. We are meant to see the origins of their relationship and understand why Joan has consistently sacrificed to further Joe’s career, but the audience sees nothing in Joe that appears to deserve that kind of devotion.
Joe is a problem. He’s beautifully played by Pryce, but there’s nothing in the writing to indicate that he is anything but a giant man baby. He was Joan’s writing professor in college, and not only cheats on and leaves his wife for her, but abandons his first child when ending his marriage. And once he has Joan, he cannot remain faithful. But yet, through many different types of betrayals, she not only stays with him, but fights hard to preserve his legacy. She is the power behind the throne – at one point referring to herself as a kingmaker – but never lets herself take any of the credit. And for what? Joe? Really? I don’t believe it. The Wife is definitely worth watching, but I found it deeply frustrating in the end. Close gives a nuanced performance, but it’s not enough to support an entire film.
Searching (2018) is the latest entry into a growing category of films that takes place entirely on screens. A story is told as though we are looking at a computer monitor, cell phone, or TV screen. Information is given to us through text messages, FaceTime, YouTube videos, archived photos, and websites. It’s a unique approach, representative of a 21st century way of living, where we are constantly reliant on technology and in our ability to connect to other people online. We’ve seen this done previously in The Den (2013) and Unfriended (2014), to varying degrees of success. Searching is the best version of this style so far, making a case for it being a legitimate form of storytelling.
Aneesh Chaganty makes his feature length debut as director and co-writer (with Sev Ohanian) and the result is an engrossing, tension filled mystery. It’s been argued that one of the least interesting things a movie can do is show people looking at a computer screen, but when Chaganty and Ohanian places us the audience into the eyes of that character, we’re suddenly thrust into their situation like an accomplice. For their debut, Chaganty and Ohanian inject a level of intelligence and heart into the screenplay that many lesser filmmakers would fail to do. They realize that relying on the gimmick of the style is not enough to keep us engaged. There is a strong emotional undercurrent that enriches the material. When the suspense starts to escalate, it hits all the harder because Chaganty and Ohanian took the time to set up the stakes.
The narrative works because it’s also anchored by a superb lead performance. John Cho has been a working actor for years and yet still remains somewhat underappreciated. In Searching, we witness him really get a chance to flex his acting muscles, showcasing a wide range of emotional states: from happy, to mournful, to angry, funny, and desperate. His face is shown the most, often in extreme close up, but Cho has the charisma and acting ability to keep us glued in. He plays David Kim, a widower trying to raise his daughter Margo (Michelle La) as best as he can after the loss of his wife. David and Margo’s relationship is often relegated to text messages, as she is currently a high school student dealing with college applications, study groups, and being a normal teenage kid. One night Margo doesn’t come home from a late night study session, and as David’s texts and calls go unanswered, he comes to the awful realization that all parents fear: his child has gone missing.
And thus David enters a long and complex investigation where he uses all forms of technology to trace Margo’s whereabouts. It’s here where the production really shines. The way information is presented to us is constantly inventive. Chaganty and Ohanian don’t settle on having characters simply tell us what’s going on through expository dialogue – they use creative methods to get the point across. We learn about David’s history with his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) through archived videos taken at various points of their marriage, painting a portrait of their lives through time, eventually giving birth to and raising Margo. David’s attempt to trace what happened to Margo is expertly done, weaving his way through different websites, GPS location spots and even going so far as interviewing her classmates, detailing her movements without ever being convoluted. David joins forces with Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) – assigned to handle the ground operation – and the way they uncover clues together keeps us on edge.
The writing is smart and sleek, keeping us guessing the entire way through. One of the great joys of watching a film is not expecting what will happen next, and Chaganty and Ohanian do a fantastic job of keeping the mystery covered all the way up to the closing scenes. Red herrings are everywhere but the plot structure is tight – everything is appropriately placed and nothing feels loose or unattended for. When revelations are made, they strike us like a ton of bricks, but they don’t come about arbitrarily. Every detail has a purpose, and when certain elements are called back upon, it changes our understanding of the story in refreshing ways.
But this isn’t simply a dour, sobering tale. Chaganty and Ohanian allow moments of levity, and the comedic aspects are quite funny. The writing and directing, along with Cho’s performance, fully embraces David as a “Dad” – somewhat disconnected with the trends of Margot’s generation. David’s way of spending quality time with his kid is by watching The Voice and a lot of his early frustrations involve Margo forgetting to do her chores. When someone tells him that his daughter uses the website Tumblr, David looks it up by researching the word “Tumbler.” Watching David try to work his way through a live stream website was hilarious, even though he is tech savvy we can see that he’s slowly becoming detached from what’s trendy now. All these bits come as a welcome respite from the seriousness of the main plot.
The last act of Searching is arguably the least convincing. In stories such as this, sometimes the questions are more fascinating then the answers. When the truth is finally uncovered, it doesn’t have the satisfying feeling compared to how tense the lead up to it was. And sadly, the narrative stumbles at the finish line, spelling everything out like the interrogation scene in Psycho (1960). But the craft, and more importantly, the emotional work that was put into this film was so well done that the weakness of the third act can be forgiven. This is a tremendous debut from Chaganty, Ohanian, and their team. They took the act of looking at a screen and turned it into a first rate thriller for the modern age.
SEARCHING - Official Trailer 2 (Editorial) - YouTube
Not every Science Fiction movie has to be a monumentally Earth shaking affair with all of humanity on the line. And not every movie has to be a tent pole to a multipart franchise that sprouts 14 sequels, 2 spinoffs, 3 prequels, and a TV show. Sometimes it’s nice to see an original property featuring a plot, that while not completely original, is something new. Using Sci-Fi as a framework on which to hang a compelling story about brothers reconnecting and familial issues is a nice change of pace. The new movie Kin does just that.
Newcomer Myles Truitt stars as Eli, the adopted son of hard ass older father and widower Hal as played by Dennis Quaid. Hal is tough on his son because the world is a tough place. But mainly he’s trying to make up for mistakes he felt he made with his older son Jimmy (Jack Reynor) who is just getting out of jail after a 6-year sentence for robbery. Hal thinks Jimmy is no good and begrudgingly lets him stay in his home when he is first released.
Meanwhile Eli, while exploring an abandoned building in the neighborhood, discovers a futuristic weapon. He doesn’t know how it works or what it does, but it acts like a rifle of some kind. He smuggles it home secretly. But quickly a couple of armored aliens are on the trail of the missing weapon.
While this is happening, Jimmy finds that he owes a large sum of money to a grungy gangster played by James Franco. A gang kept him safe in jail and Jimmy owes for it. As expected, Jimmy gets on the wrong side of the gangster, a tragedy ensues, he scoops up Eli, and goes on the run. He lies to his little brother about the reasons for the trip. Eli brings some clothes and the weapon along as they head out West. So both the gangsters and the aliens are on the hunt for these brothers.
This movie is smart enough to at least mildly point out the parallels in one scene when Eli is playing a Terminator video game. No, this isn’t the most original plot. But it’s compelling to watch these estranged brothers reconnect and bond. Reynor and Truitt are a likeable pair. The one frustrating bit is that the older sibling makes such colossally stupid decisions. It’s how he got thrown in jail in the first place. But he keeps making bad decisions all throughout the film. They are on the run, so keeping a low profile would be important. But instead he drags his 14 year old brother into a strip club, makes a scene, starts a fight, and ends up forgetting a bag of money he’s stolen. At least this encounter earns them an ally in a stripper played by Zoë Kravitz. She’s a likable presence who decides to run away with them. But just when you’d think they would catch a clue, they decide to stage a robbery to get the missing money back. This older brother is so frustratingly dumb that you want to scream at the screen.
There are many stretches where the alien weapon subplot takes a backseat to the family drama. It’s an interesting choice in that we end up caring about these people. There is one tragic moment early on which should have had more impact than it does, but the road movie aspect of the brothers joking around is quite charming. The final act involves a showdown with both the gangsters and the aliens. Needless to say some stuff goes down.
Kin is a surprising movie in that it’s not what you would expect. It’s more polished than an indie road movie. And yet it’s slightly rougher than a typical Hollywood Science Fiction action movie. Directors Jonathan Baker and Josh Baker adapted this from a short film they created previously. Maybe these brothers are working out some of their own sibling issues on film. And that’s great. Write what you know and make it personal. At least the audience ends up caring about what happens.
Myles Truitt is a compelling young actor who is likely to have more good work ahead of him. He’s a sympathetic kid for whom you root. He combines innocence and emotions in a believable way. Meanwhile the film itself is a modest yet polished genre story. Not great, but solidly good. Worth a watch.
KIN (2018 Movie) Official Trailer - Dennis Quaid, Zoë Kravitz - YouTube
Adolf Eichmann was one of Hitler’s top Nazi officers. He was a chief architect of the “Final Solution,” better known as the Holocaust, resulting in the deaths of six million people. Eichmann oversaw the operations of the concentration camps and helped organize the death trains that herded people (mostly Jews) to the slaughter. Obvious to say that Eichmann was a major contributor to one of the most horrific crimes against humanity in recorded history. At the close of the WWII, Eichmann was able to escape Allied capture and relocated to Argentina where he would live in hiding for years – until his presence was discovered by Israeli secret agents, who attempted to apprehend him and deliver him to Israeli to face trial.
That is where Operation Finale (2018) comes into play. Written by Matthew Orton and directed by Chris Weitz, the story follows a group of Mossad agents as they work to confirm Eichmann’s identity (here played by Ben Kingsley) and detain him. But the mission isn’t as simple as it seems. The team must work in secrecy – if the Argentine government discovers their plot, officials may try to block the extradition. There’s the logistical issue of getting transportation, as problems with securing air travel may force them to wait longer than need be. There’s the problem with the team members themselves. Each of them would be much happier killing Eichmann straight away, but they are under strict orders to bring him back alive. Even more problematic: they must get Eichmann to sign a document that is basically a confession, giving them the legal right to transfer him out of the country. That bit won’t be easy to get, needless to say.
This synopsis alone is enough to make for an efficient historical thriller, and for the early stages, it is. There’s a growing sense of uneasiness as the agents make their way closer and closer to Eichmann. They use secret gadgets and hidden cameras to track Eichmann’s movements, and the way they communicate information to their superiors happen quickly and efficiently. The tension is escalated due to the emotional factor involved. Each agent was affected by what happened during the war, and that motivation makes this particular task more than just a job. One of the more sobering scenes has each of them counting the friends and family members they’ve lost, like a depressing game of one-upsmanship.
Amongst them is Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac). Malkin is our lead protagonist, a Jew who made it his personal mission to track down as many Nazi officials as he can and bring them to justice. But Malkin is also depicted as angry and unhinged. He’s haunted by the memory of a family member he lost, and that causes him to be involved in an early accident that gains him an unfavorable reputation. It’s that reason that almost prevents him from being assigned the Eichmann mission.
Operation Finale starts off well enough introducing our major characters and setting the stakes. We suspect that it will work similarly to other historical thrillers like Argo (2012) or Munich (2005). There’s a sleekness to the aesthetics, in the props used and costumes worn. Everything looks and sounds accurate to the period. However, when we enter the second act the narrative comes to a screeching halt. The suspense generated in the first act dissipates as Eichmann is eventually captured and brought to a safe house to await transportation to Israel. This is where the meat of the story takes place. Instead of an espionage tale, we are brought into a psychological war between Malkin, who acts out of emotion instead of logic, and Eichmann, who uses his intelligence and cunning to find a weakness in his captors and to exploit it.
This development has potential. Some of the greatest movies of all time were centered on two figures matching wits against each other; one classic example being The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Both Oscar Isaac and Ben Kingsley are exceptional actors, and both bring a level of gravitas with their respective parts. However, the writing lets them down with dialogue that isn’t sharp enough or as memorable as it needs to be. The conversations between Malkin and Eichmann only skim the surface of who they are, never really digging for a deeper revelation. Yes, we learn about those that Malkin has lost, but they exist like an apparition. We never get a sense of who they were or what they meant to him outside of some longing glances. Kingsley can be a charming actor when given the right material, but as Eichmann he’s forced to play a character as nothing more than evil incarnate. There’s a late scene where Eichmann tries to manipulate Malkin’s vulnerabilities and the execution made him look like a mustache-twirling villain. Maybe that’s the problem with playing a Nazi: it’s difficult to find something charming in a character that is so ruthlessly diabolical.
Operation Finale closes with the trope of showing the real life figures and describing what happened to them after the events of the film. That’s a bit indicative of the piece as a whole. It looks good, has a strong cast, and is based on a true story. It has all the ingredients necessary for a critically acclaimed work, and yet we walk away feeling like this is more of the same. This is an important story that should be told, but I don’t think this is the essential version of it.