Archive for the ‘thriller’ category

Force of Nature

July 5, 2020

force-of-nature-mel-gibson-movie-1590049016Its critical reputation as a racist thriller is a little overstated, but Force of Nature is still ten pounds of ass in a five-pound bag. This is a movie whose handling of a major character’s death is so feeble — a twitching eyelid visible to the camera — we expect the supposed corpse to pop up later on, perhaps to save a loved one at the last minute. That’s about the only cliché we’re spared in a film wherein even the bad guy comments on the clichés. Filmed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Force of Nature unfolds during a hurricane, though it doesn’t actually need to; the hurricane really only explains why two cops show up at an apartment building to evacuate some recalcitrant tenants, only to be caught in the middle of an art heist by some armed and deadly robbers led by a guy calling himself John the Baptist.

I would like to welcome the Peruvian actor Stephanie Cayo to English-speaking films. She plays Jess, a cop trying to make a name on the San Juan force. Cayo looks all the better next to the essenceless Emile Hirsch as her cop partner, the burned-out, lackadaisical Cardillo. These two go to the apartment building and try to extricate an old German man and a retired, sickly cop, played by Mel Gibson, whose very presence in a film at this point would attract hostile skepticism no matter what the film is. Gibson is (or has been; he seems to have behaved in recent years, from what we’ve heard anyway) a terrible person, but he still has the spark of a true movie star, and so does Stephanie Cayo; their brief scenes together illustrate what this bland movie could have been.

Force of Nature would like to be the sort of invincible thriller, like Die Hard, whose every odd bit of business pays off later. I have to wonder if the screenwriter, Cory Miller, wrote this whole thing around a scene involving the bad guy, who dons a police uniform in order to get away, and something behind a multi-locked door in someone’s apartment. There’s a whole scene dealing with meat and a guy buying all of it at the supermarket, and a bit of planted information that you definitely don’t want to enter that locked room if you’re wearing a cop outfit, and so when John the Baptist forces Cardillo to swap clothes with him, all the pieces fall into place but seem stupid anyway — and then the movie cuts away before we can see the one hilariously brutal thing we’ve been spending half the idiotic film waiting to see.

Director Michael Polish started off in the late ‘90s as a Sundance-blessed indie director, but now he seems to make films just to cast his wife, Kate Bosworth — this is their fourth film together, and probably their worst. Bosworth plays Gibson’s daughter, who is also a doctor, and who can also hold her breath long enough to get her and a wounded man out of a submerged room. (We never see them find their way out; she turns up fine later, like almost everyone else, and fairly chipper despite what we’ve seen her go through.) Force of Nature’s mixed review of the thin blue line — cops may be mean and corrupt but still get the brutal job done — is accidentally poorly-timed at this cultural/political moment, but it’s no more consciously racist than a hundred action thrillers from the ‘80s. It’s meant, I think, to be a throwback to those films, and to an era where Mel Gibson was still on top, but it lacks the snap and pizzazz to close the deal. It may speak well of Michael Polish’s character that he tries to make a retro, obliviously racist thriller and fails. But the failure still reads to us as a wasted hour and a half.

The Invisible Man (2020)

June 28, 2020

mossinvisibleman Catching up: Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, I can’t help feeling, was robbed of its shot at becoming a word-of-mouth blockbuster thriller that makes audiences scream happily. (As it is, the film, whose release was stunted by COVID-19 and the closure of movie theaters, still managed to scare up a decent amount via streaming and at drive-ins.) The Invisible Man is tethered to its strong lead performance — it’s probably unthinkable without Elisabeth Moss — and it’s a bit mechanical in the way that thrillers great or small can be. But I would be dishonest if I said it didn’t make me flinch and gasp. No doubt about it: the movie works. And it works on a nasty personal level; it exploits our awareness that women are gaslighted by abusive men all the time, to perpetuate and add to the abuse.

Moss is Cecilia, stuck in a suffocating relationship with wealthy scientist Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). She plots her escape, spirited away by her sister (Harriet Dyer) and delivered to the safe home of her childhood friend James (Aldis Hodge), also a cop. The distraught Adrian kills himself, or so he wants the world to think. In reality, he’s using his beefed-up invisibility suit — he’s some sort of optics genius — to stalk Cecilia and ruin her life bit by bit. Nobody, of course, will believe Cecilia — not her sister, not James or his college-bound daughter, whose tuition Cecilia is paying for out of the money Adrian willed to her. We recognize fairly quickly that Adrian is contriving to alienate Cecilia from everyone else so that he can control her, in ways obvious and not so obvious.

Made for relative couch change ($7 million), The Invisible Man doesn’t indulge in an abundance of special effects, like Hollow Man or even Memoirs of an Invisible Man. There’s a scene where Elisabeth Moss is held aloft by her invisible attacker that might’ve been better conceived, and her subsequent being tossed around the room is needlessly crude; what was needed, I think, was a way to take us intimately inside her experience, to be worthy of the quieter, more dread-ridden moments. That writer-director Whannell actually has some integrity to betray, by way of the more flamboyant clashes, speaks well of the rest of the movie: it earns its Big Moments but doesn’t really need them. Most of the terror here works on dark, elemental levels — someone is after me but nobody will help me. Some of the emotional work, with Moss’s performance gaining power as Cecilia becomes more frightened and frustrated, is first-rate and lifts the thrills considerably.

Some of this description, of course, may read a bit stiffly because I’m trying to write around the twists. I can say that The Invisible Man has its technical ducks in a row, with Stefan Duscio’s sleek photography consorting well with Benjamin Wallfisch’s richly ominous score (though I wish Wallfisch hadn’t leaned so much on the deep rattling honking he used on Blade Runner 2049 at times it reminded me of the punitively ghastly score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for the repugnant Gone Girl). This is the sort of suavely composed thriller that would’ve been not only a big hit but a water-cooler topic in a better time. The premise may be techno-pulp, but most of the movie stays with Cecilia’s choking feelings of helplessness. You may wonder what she could possibly do against her torturer.

In its last act, The Invisible Man almost lost me. It gets too plotty, introducing elements that seem to add little but padding, not to mention impatience on our part. The nobody-will-believe-me theme gets a vigorous workout, but all it leads to is gunfire and a shit-ton of “wait a minute” incidents. How convenient, for instance, that someone who has been careful to isolate and delegitimize Cecilia should leave so many people around to support her side of the story. The climax is enjoyable in an empty, guilty way, like a candy bar. But Elisabeth Moss shepherds us through it all; she stays connected to the basic nightmare of a woman with a bad ex-boyfriend in a perfect position to make her life hell. Cecilia’s ultimate act is, as written, something of a betrayal of her character, but the way Moss plays it — as the only act left to Cecilia — it isn’t. The Invisible Man is a reminder of how high a conventional thriller can be lifted with the right star, whose performance, like Betty Gilpin’s in The Hunt, deserves better than cruel fate allowed.

The Hunt

June 21, 2020

thehuntAlmost every character in The Hunt is crap. The exceptions are a skittish private-jet attendant and “Snowball” (Betty Gilpin), so nicknamed by the rich elites who are hunting her. The Hunt has had a long and winding road to distribution. First slated for release last September, it ran afoul of commentators who, of course, had not seen it; their objection was to the premise, wherein wealthy leftists kidnap and hunt “deplorables” — Trump supporters — for sport. (As it is, the movie finally limped into theaters in March, just in time for COVID-19 to shut theaters down. It hit VOD a week later, and now is finally on DVD.) There’s more to the film than that — but not much more, disappointingly. It’s a sleek, short, well-wrought horror-thriller with buckets of gore, and a sharp performance by Betty Gilpin that deserved far more notice.

“Snowball,” or Crystal, has been chosen along with eleven others to be the prey while well-armed, somewhat trained richies play predator. Crystal turns out to be a smart cookie who fought in Afghanistan, and as such has a much better chance of survival than her fellow captives. Is she a deplorable? Maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? I don’t think so. The Hunt is better than The Oath, a dark comedy from 2018 that probed the current political bifurcation (I couldn’t get through that one), but it’s really a defense-and-retreat thriller first and political commentary a distant second. Almost everyone is an easy stereotype of virtue-signalling lefties or cap-wearing, bigoted righties. Crystal, the exception, is so shrewd about defense and retreat that the director, Craig Zobel, and writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof seem to have given her a sneak peek at the script.

In short, the movie is on nobody’s side except Crystal’s, and Gilpin rises to the occasion. Crystal keeps wanting a cigarette and never gets one; if she ever did, she’d be a perfect John Carpenter hero, someone of few words and hard action. Gilpin scarcely smiles, except ruefully, mordantly. She gives Crystal a certain southern-style wit, and she doesn’t ask to be liked. She gives us, against all odds in a taut but gimmicky thriller, a true feminist hero, and one notable thing Zobel does right is that he never tells us where Crystal does stand politically. We get to know all we need to know about her. She feels real to us. The other characters, not so much — particularly Hilary Swank as the HBIC of the elite hunters, pompously kept offscreen or with her back to us for half the movie. Swank does what she can with Andrea, a CEO with her own vengeful agenda, but Andrea isn’t really credible as a person. Whoever trained Swank and Gilpin for their king-hell battle royale in Andrea’s tasteful rented kitchen can take a bow, though.

The Hunt is weakest when it dips its toe in the waters of satire; the characters are simply too sketchy and rudimentary. It can’t touch the Clinton-era satires The Last Supper (1995) or Citizen Ruth (1996), which succeeded for reasons other than being on “the correct side.” Nowadays, those films (especially Citizen Ruth, which boasted its own great performance via Laura Dern) would be knocked on Film Twitter for both-sides-ism — or no-sides-ism, which amounts to the same thing. The Hunt would like to be a throwback to those small but thorny films, but its expertise lies with staging violence (some of the actors you expect to be around for at least a few reels are gorily dispatched early on) and with giving Betty Gilpin the breathing room to create, in the midst of this crisp but callow cartoon, a real human being.

Peeping Tom

May 3, 2020

peeping tom Perhaps the most shocking thing about Michael Powell’s notorious Peeping Tom, sixty years now after its premiere in England, is that it looks respectable and classical and almost sedate — until it doesn’t. The movie genuinely appalled critics of its day, who must have assumed they were getting a delectable, harmless thriller from the director who, solo or with Emeric Pressburger, had presented many of England’s most prestigious films. (Critics already knew pretty much what to expect when Alfred Hitchcock unveiled his near-contemporaneous Psycho.) But no. Peeping Tom, written by Leo Marks, may look and play “normal” but is drenched with the flop sweat of sexual mania. I think if it had been made by anyone else, possibly in America, in the poverty-row style of something like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, it might still have kicked up a fuss, but not as much rage.

Peeping Tom turned out to be part of a wave of thrillers in the ‘60s, including the better-known Psycho but also movies like William Castle’s Homicidal, that focused on a killer’s psychological damage inflicted by cruel parents. Here, our subject is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), who acts as a focus puller on movies and takes naughty photos for a local bookshop. He also has an elaborate fetish involving women looking frightened. He films them at the moment they realize they’re going to die, and he adds a vicious touch that should remain unspoiled for newcomers to the movie, though the most horrifying moment in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 Strange Days owes most of its punch to it.

Mark has been doing his thing unimpeded for a while now — in the opening scene, he disposes of a prostitute, who screams in her room though nobody cares enough to look in until he is long gone — but when he meets Helen (Anna Massey), a tenant in the building Mark inherited from his father, his thing deflates a bit. He shows the kindly Helen footage his demented shrink father (Powell himself) shot of himself tormenting the young Mark at night. She feels for him, and part of him responds to her sympathy. He promises he will never photograph her. He seems to want to cordon his psychosis off from her, but we and he know that’s not going to work. He has a run-in with Helen’s blind mother (Maxine Audley), who senses what he is but can’t do much about it. Helen, who has just turned 21, may be falling for Mark precisely because of his pain.

I imagine part of the vehemence of the response to the film was due to Powell’s pre-punk indifference to what his more monocle-dropping viewers would think. For instance, Powell takes Moira Shearer, beloved star of his The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman, and contrives an undignified fate for her comparable to Janet Leigh’s. Yet always, the filmmaking is smooth, assured, suffused with cinematographer Otto Heller’s sumptuous palette. Powell shows us pretty pictures but uses them to lure us into a dark, seedy alley where two-quid whores loiter and warped men get them alone. It’s a classic bait and switch, and the trope of the voyeuristic beast locked in the city with his own misery until a beauty comes along may have informed Taxi Driver, directed by Martin Scorsese, whose reverence for Powell almost matched his reverence for Christ.

We also sniff a Scorsesean element in the finale: a beauty cannot redeem the monster; only submission to the same treatment he has given his victims might do that. Roger Ebert mused that Peeping Tom’s real crime in the eyes of its early haters was that it implicates the viewer — it uses its own medium to wrench us into complicity with a killer. It wasn’t the first film to pull this rug, but it did it with such blunt-force trauma that it has been called the first slasher film. I don’t know about that; proto-slasher, maybe, or even proto-giallo — it predated Mario Bava’s seminal The Girl Who Knew Too Much by three years. In any event, Peeping Tom survived its initial shower of spit and rotten tomatoes — largely due to Scorsese, who spent some artistic capital to restore and re-release it in 1979 — to become a feverish cult object among horror acolytes and classic film buffs alike.

Parasite

January 5, 2020

parasitefilm It’s clear pretty early on that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite — which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes and may yet claim more trophies this awards season — isn’t meant to be taken literally. Taken seriously, yes, but not literally. The narrative has many, many moving parts, but the parts are also combustible, and they’re all arranged to detonate on cue for maximum damage. Bong makes you feel as though you’d damn well better catch every little detail, every flourish and filigree, because it’s all inexorably marching towards something. But that destination can’t be guessed at or controlled — it’s chaotic and brutal, and only retrospectively makes sense.

Parasite is yet another movie that demands to be evoked, not described (as a plot synopsis would just ruin the experience). Put simply, it’s the story of two families. One family, just scraping by, lives cramped together in a “semi-basement” apartment of the sort common in urban Korea. The other family is wealthy, and one of their bedrooms would probably take up as much space as the poorer family’s entire living area. Each family is perfectly nuclear — man, woman, boy, girl — and the son from the poor family gets himself hired to tutor the daughter from the rich family. And it doesn’t stop there; in short order, each member of the poor family ends up working for the rich family, none of whom realize their new employees are all related.

Okay, that’s a little far-fetched. It’s also narratively convenient; some of it depends on just the right character hearing just the right bit of information. But the point Bong wants us to get is how the families respond to each opening. Nitpick Parasite if you must, but you’ll be watching a different movie from the one Bong has made. The actual movie underneath all the ornate plot scaffolding has a lot of questions, some of which it can’t answer, though art isn’t built to answer questions but to pose them. Bong asks, first and foremost, what prosperity is built on, and how far down the hierarchy goes (not how far up). You may feel the boot of the oppressor on your neck, but are you also oppressing someone just by virtue of what you have and what they don’t? You may not intend to oppress, but in truth, few actively seek to do so — the ones who have more, and who oppress more, just benefit from a certain moral laxity, a willingness to tune out the screams and wails coming from below. In our culture of late, we have discussed white privilege, and how it doesn’t mean a white person’s life is easy in every way, just that it’s easier in every way than a comparable person of color’s life is. And there are privileges among the less privileged, too: a hetero African-American man enjoys freedoms that a gay African-American woman does not. And both have it easier than a disabled African-American does. They share one aspect of experience, blackness, but in other respects are not alike.

So that’s what Parasite is about, but it’s also about the duelling production designs of the poor family’s packed but lived-in pad and the rich family’s expansive but sparse rooms, including a vast living room whose vast window looks out onto a vast backyard, where the climax unfolds in such an abrupt series of feints and jabs that we may want to stop the film and go back — we don’t feel ready for it, even though we know we’re on an accelerating ride into the inferno. One action during the climax isn’t readable at first glance because, in the moment, we see the father of the poor family the way the father of the rich family sees him: not as a father but as a driver. But then we say, No, he’s a father, and what he does makes some sort of sense.

Parasite will drive the literal-minded around the bend, because its events pile up and sometimes recall the ruthless structure of a sitcom, or a slamming-door farce like Noises Off. Much is made of the smell of the underclass, or the rich little boy’s American Indian fantasies into which the grown men of both families are conscripted, or water as a harbinger of disaster and forestalled revelation. The movie is also a lot of smooth fun to watch, Bong being an entertainer above most else. Parasite flips through about ten different genres and takes the best bits of each; it feels like a relaxing buffet that expresses and sparks a love of cinema. Some of the suspense and incidents rubbed me the wrong way while I was watching, but in memory they gain stature and gravitas. Finally, it stakes its claim as a Juvenalian satire in which products are more than once praised because “we ordered it from America,” but we Americans probably shouldn’t take that as a compliment.

The Kitchen

November 17, 2019

kitchen Based glancingly on a mediocre comic book, The Kitchen is the middle panel in an accidental sisters-are-doin’-crime-for-themselves trilogy, bracketed by two better-received films — Steve McQueen’s Widows, from last year, and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, from this past September. Nobody, I think, will advance the argument that The Kitchen is the neglected masterpiece of the trio, but I would like to recommend it anyway; its pleasures are piecemeal, having more to do with acting firepower than with the unconvincing quilt of clichés that calls itself a story. The narrative glides by, and writer/director Andrea Berloff doesn’t seem very concerned with the moral import and emotional costs of it all, but the cast is.

The lowlife Hell’s Kitchen Irish mobster husbands of our heroines — Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss — are sent away in 1978 for armed robbery, leaving the women to fend for themselves. The head of the local mob, a glowering creep, refuses to allot the wives enough money to live on — protection money isn’t coming in. So the women take over collection, positioning themselves as reasonable and less toxically masculine alternatives. But as one of the goons eventually tells one of the women, “You’re worse than we ever were.”

Which is debatable, and a movie in which the women gain power because they’re outwardly nicer and retain power because they’re not actually all that nice inside would be interesting, but The Kitchen isn’t really that movie. All the routine rise-of-the-criminal scenes are there, the fanning out of dollar bills, the respect paid, the pivot towards legit community service, the casual and empowering finality of the bullet. But when it comes time to slog through the crime-does-not-pay sermon, the movie lacks conviction. It’s difficult to prompt the audience to root for the violent awakening and self-realization of an abused woman and then turn around and condemn that process.

The women are murkily written; only the acting brings some cold clarity. Melissa McCarthy’s Kathy protects her kids, Tiffany Haddish’s Ruby has been made ruthless by her hard life and abusive upbringing, and Elisabeth Moss’ Claire is a battered wife turned assassin. Kathy’s relative compassion comes from her relatively stable life; her jailbird hubby is no prize but not as bad as the others, and even her loving Irish dad is still around. There’s an idea here — take enough anchors of humanity away from a woman and you have yourself a very fearsome adversary — but it just sinks into the pudding along with anything else potentially interesting here. The Kitchen is a moderately competent crime flick and that’s all it is. Given the cast — and not just pained McCarthy, disdainful Haddish and born-again corpse-carving werewolf Moss — it could’ve been much sharper.

Yet a film fan shouldn’t go through life without seeing what the actors — also including Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Camp, and Margo Martindale in a ‘70s hairdo she clearly got from my grandmother — do with some of the whiskered situations. Bill Camp, for instance, gives us an Italian mobster so confident in his power he can afford to be pretty mild-mannered. Martindale functions as the sort of ogre the heroines are in danger of becoming, but she’s terrific at it, snapping out insults like firecrackers. There really isn’t a bummer in the cast, though I think Ruby calls for a brand of coldness that Haddish can’t persuasively convey — good news for her conscience (she may be too good-hearted to play anything different believably), bad news for Ruby, who too often reads as emotionally null. A character is taken out with an impersonal abruptness that sort of works as comeuppance but comes across as a betrayal of the character’s portrayer. We’ve followed the person through blood and triumph, and past a certain point the movie seems to lose interest in the person morally, and some other characters, too — they’re just damned to hell, I guess. But up until that point, there’s some painfully fine stuff.

Paradise Hills

November 3, 2019

paradisehillsEvery shot of Paradise Hills is otherworldly in its beauty. I’m not sure how it “reads” as a narrative, but as a visual work of art, a tone poem, and a riff on some familiar but evergreen themes it makes one stand and applaud. The 29-year-old director, Alice Waddington, hails from Spain and first made her mark with the eleven-minute short film Disco Inferno in 2016. The short is worth the 99-cent rental on Amazon; its story is a little baffling — it has to do with a “minion of hell,” dressed like a masked and sinuous spy out of Georges Franju’s Judex, trying to rescue an ingenue destined for demonic soul enslavement, or something — but it plays like a surreal silent film (except when it doesn’t), and it’s good preparation for the elliptical, allusive sights and sounds of Paradise Hills.

We wake up along with the confused Uma (Emma Roberts) in a remote island stronghold, a cross between a palace and a well-appointed girls’ prison. Young women, it seems, are sent here to be trained out of their troublesome quirks and habits. The society that produces these women — including Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), sent to become more skinny, and Yu (Awkwafina), sent to become less Awkwafina — is some sort of post-war Hunger Games dystopia/utopia, depending on whether you’re an Upper or a Lower (as in class). Uma wants out of the island paradise; she has a like-minded friend in pop star Amarna (Eiza González), who’s here apparently because she started making personal music frowned on by those in charge. Standing in her and everyone’s way is the Duchess (Milla Jovovich), whose habit of snipping thorns off rose stems is a bit too tidy a metaphor for her supervision of the girls’ re-education.

But honestly the plot (by Waddington and Sofía Cuenca, worked into a script by Nacho Villalongo and Brian DeLeeuw) is entirely irrelevant to the pleasures here. Paradise Hills is about creamy pink interiors and sun-dappled exteriors, all cloaking something immeasurably darker and uglier. It’s about the masochistic female fantasy of being persecuted for being oneself and shipped off to a strange place with other women, who together will rise as a sharp-toothed sisterhood against the oppressors. (There’s some of that, but not too much; as it is, the movie is never less exciting than when it tries to gin up excitement via chases, sneaking around, etc.) It’s also about loving ancient gothy films so much it hurts. It’s every bit as gleaming an act of cinema worship as Anna Biller’s odious The Love Witch, except that Waddington actually finds things to say about the things whose surfaces she and cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui photograph so indelibly. I can see Paradise Hills becoming a cult favorite among a certain type of dramatic teen — its sensibility is authentically female in every frame, asserting the power of its girls and women from the start, and denying that the structure of the patriarchy (and the women complicit in it, like the Duchess) has anything to offer them but chains. The movie doesn’t hate men, but it sure doesn’t have a lot of love for them either.

To which I say, good. A movie whose identification is completely with women and their experiences is particularly welcome now, not to politicize overly what should be a timeless empowerment fable and a grab bag of brightly-hued confections. The performances, I have to say, lean towards the artificial — common among directors with strongly visual instincts — save for Awkwafina, who is always radiantly, daffily herself, even in a more solemn context like this. But there’s literally always something great to look at; Waddington seems to have walked on set for each shot, tweaked the colors and decor 75%, and then called action. Most people will see Paradise Hills at home or even on their phone, not on the big shiny screen its visuals demand, and that’s a pity.

But the eye and the sensibility on view in Waddington’s work (I hope Disco Inferno comes as an extra on the eventual Paradise Hills Blu-ray) are not to be discounted. The movie is a glimmering calling card showing deep-dish promise; whoever scouted the amazing locations deserves a case of beer, and overall this is the most pictorially arresting sci-fi debut feature since Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. As for the animating story, I acknowledge that I’m not its ideal audience, though even some women, like Vulture’s Alison Willmore, have pooh-poohed it — “a dystopian princess fantasy,” she called it, with perhaps some unconscious racism under its hood. (Why isn’t Awkwafina the lead in this?) I am probably more forgiving and sentimental about the movie’s narrative and complaints than that. It works as a lavishly crafted daydream shading into nightmare. It started to lose me around the climax, but when it had me, it had me.

Crawl

September 29, 2019

crawl Acting in the roving-alligator thriller Crawl could not have been remotely fun. The poor leads — Kaya Scodelario and Barry Pepper as a daughter/father pair trapped in a flooded house along with several king-size gators — spend most of their screen time in a filthy, rusty, submerged crawlspace, and the atmosphere looks like a petri dish for tetanus, triple-E, you name it. Crawl is mercifully short at an hour and 27 minutes, but the cast and crew spent weeks in these conditions. Aside from the usual bugaboos about being devoured or drowning, the movie works our fears of the disgusting basement, where things are spawning and living without our knowledge and certainly without our consent. At least your basement doesn’t host gator hatchlings — unless, like the folks here, you live in Florida.

A Category 5 hurricane is screaming towards land, and our heroes — Scodelario as a driven varsity swimmer and Pepper as her tough but loving dad — reunite, along with the family dog, in a house soon battered by winds and menaced by rising water. (The levees are gonna break, too.) Aside from a couple of cops and a trio of dumb looters — all gator fodder — Crawl is a two-handed exercise, much like director Alexandre Aja’s international calling-card slasher film Haute Tension (High Tension). There’s surprisingly little art here, though, just pulpy jolts arriving on schedule. And we don’t feel nearly as much for the daughter or the father, however compellingly enacted, as we’re clearly meant to. This is Low Tension. We simply aren’t convinced that meaningful lives (other than the obvious snacks tossed to the gators to pass the time) are at stake, not even the dog’s.

That said, Crawl does pass muster as a minimalist B-movie with money and resources unavailable to its ancestors of the drive-in (Eaten Alive, Alligator, etc.). The alligators are just alligators — they don’t stand for anything, and they may as well be sharks or lions or zombies or werewolves. Aja uses close quarters and an external apocalypse to distill the story down to two people against — well, the elements, death, inner demons. The father is still nursing wounds from when his marriage fell apart after the two daughters grew up and moved away; the daughter puts eternal pressure on herself, straining to live up to Dad’s meant-to-be-inspiring assessment of her as an “apex predator” (like an alligator, natch). There’s a mother around somewhere, remarried, absent from view. A sister is glimpsed briefly via phone. The daughter has been made a swimmer so that she can swim fast and hold her breath, so as to outpace the gators and endure long periods underwater (if she were a couch potato and heavy smoker the movie would be even shorter). It’s all narratively a little convenient (the script is courtesy of brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, who perpetrated John Carpenter’s nadir The Ward).

But if you stop expecting Crawl to transcend its low goals as a beer-and-pizza Saturday-night rental, it’s a decent crappy time, if a little slick and soulless. The characters’ flaws add nothing to the stew; they’re just plot points. Aja falls into a repetitive dread-and-release pattern, but he’s awfully good at it. Crawl is empty but undeniably well-wrought. What it’s missing, for me, is the sticky-floor grindhouse vibe it could have had, given its Florida setting. (It was shot mostly on a massive soundstage in Serbia, and it feels like it.) Perhaps that vibe is gone forever; legitimately attained in the 20th century, it can only be imitated and paid tribute now. In years past this would’ve been a regional Z-budgeter filmed on Earl Owensby’s acres in North Carolina with Vic Morrow as the dad and Claudia Jennings as the daughter. Might’ve been more disreputable fun then, too. Crawl is fun once or twice removed.

Us

June 16, 2019

us Jordan Peele has proven himself one of the most fascinating writer-directors working today — not just in the horror genre, but in general. His presence behind the camera now guarantees my interest. Us, Peele’s mesmerizing, terrifying follow-up to his Oscar-winning hit Get Out, shows that the social-horror sensibility that animated that film was no fluke. This is, among other things, a thriller that (like last week’s The Perfection) is powered by surprise and its willingness to cross genre boundaries, so it’s another one whose plot is difficult to write about — though the plot isn’t the main reason Us gets under our skin, in any case. It’s the primal punch of the images and moods that the plot makes possible. For instance, how can I explain how hilarious and horrific the use of NWA’s “Fuck tha Police” is here? It’s a joke at the expense of Siri/Alexa-type virtual assistants, but it’s also a grim warning: For real, fuck the police, they’re not going to help you here, not in this weird new world informed as much by Hands Across America and Michael Jackson as by Kubrick’s The Shining.

Has Jordan Peele ever read the snippet that Harlan Ellison once published from his unproduced The Whimper of Whipped Dogs script? There’s an image near the beginning that makes me think he has — a girl drops her candy apple in the sand of a beach, where it sticks up as ominous night rain begins to patter onto it. I recalled Ellison’s image of a knife in the sand dappled by raindrops. Even if Peele wasn’t influenced by this specific bit, it seems clear that he’s drinking from the same intoxicating and frightening well of brutal visuals that filled/fueled Ellison’s imagination. Those visuals can help an artist try to make sense of violence, and in Us Peele summons hints and whispers of the uncanny in order to make sense of, and ultimately elicit sympathy for, its mostly inarticulate monsters.

The narrative begins simply, with a well-to-do family off to kick back in their summer house. Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), the mother/wife of the family, seems to be the main protagonist by virtue of her introduction in the opening extended flashback as a little girl. She is grown now, and a bit skittish due to her experience in a strange beach funhouse, but essentially normal. So are her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They all hang out at the Santa Cruz beach with their also-wealthy friends (Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker) and their twin teenage daughters, and the subtext of familial violence expressed in ironic jokes begins to surface. One night, the Wilsons are trying to relax back at their summer house, and a quartet of menacingly silent figures appear outside.

If Peele’s subversive narrative style has an Achilles’ heel, it’s that after Get Out we know to notice, and file away for future scrutiny, any number of visual, aural, or thematic Easter eggs. When a character turns up holding a sign referring to Jeremiah 11:11, and when another character not only notices that a clock reads 11:11 but calls attention to it, we know we’re meant to look up the Biblical quote on our phones in the parking lot after the movie. (Amusingly, when you google the line now, you get back a bunch of images from Us.) I’ll let you have fun with the passage, with its intimations of evil and the wrath of the Old Testament God, and what it could possibly have to do with a story that makes room for paper people chains, Minnie Riperton, rabbits, Lucas/Spielberg nods, and the discontents of what used to be called (and in the context of this movie is a perfectly appropriate descriptor) “the underclass.”

The wounded-seeming Nyong’o plays victim and victimizer with equal conviction and facility, and Winston Duke, whom I’d only seen before as the sardonic, intimidating warrior M’Baku in Black Panther, is something of a revelation here as the much less at-ease-with-violence Gabe, whom Peele almost seems to have molded in his literal image. (When Gabe is forced to grab a baseball bat and warn the interlopers away, Duke gives us the attitude with a subtle undercurrent of self-doubt.) There’s twinning all over the movie, including a real spider crawling out from underneath a toy spider, and there’s Elisabeth Moss at her stark raving scariest, staring in a mirror and rendering her face incarnadine in more ways than one (she seems ready for a David Lynch movie). The movie is spooky as hell, dealing hard and fast from a thick deck of symbolist cards, and ultimately Peele offers it as a suggestion to think about what society and prosperity are built on. It is brilliant and timely and more than a little insane in its everything-ties-together narrative sanity, which the movie also comments on. I have no idea where the actual hell Peele intends to go from here, but wherever it is, he has my eager permission to go there and report on his findings.

The Perfection

June 9, 2019

perfection Netflix’s new thriller The Perfection (with its impossible-to-remember title) relies on the type of screaming twists and turns on a dime that can stymie a reviewer. How can you talk about a movie like this to people who may not have seen it without nuking its surprises? You can’t, so I am obliged to sketch and suggest. The Perfection is about two cello prodigies, Charlotte (Allison Williams) and Lizzie (Logan Browning). The menacing artsiness and female trauma that inform the movie’s tone put it in the same small folder as Suspiria (either version) and Black Swan. It seems to switch not just gears but genres, several times. I would recommend going into it completely cold, and not even watching the trailer, which prankishly sets a viewer up to expect a vastly different film than it turns out to be.

What you get for your trouble is a handsomely photographed (by Vanja Černjul, who also shot Crazy Rich Asians), feverishly written (by director Richard Shepard with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) thriller that gets you hating one character, then another, then someone else, until finally balance is bloodily, poetically, and somewhat ludicrously restored. The Perfection is therefore not the nicest movie or experience. It exists to pull the rug out from under you, repeatedly, until you mistrust the rug and the floor under it. Is it pleasurable? Here and there. It’s more gripping than entertaining; it squeezes us, it pulls on the short hairs of our temples. It establishes and maintains control — bullying control. Like most thrillers great and poor, it essentially takes a rapist’s attitude toward the audience. It gets you alone and has its way with you.

The redeeming factor here is that, ultimately, The Perfection shakes out as a #MeToo revenge thriller. Its brutality and manipulations come to seem necessary in order to convey the wounding tone required to get us, in the end, on the side of victims who at first seem like aggressors. We may feel betrayed at certain points, but so have its characters. The movie also ladles equal amounts of beauty and rancid ugliness into its hermetic aesthetic, breaking away from that only during a cold roadside scene that packs the most painful violence, which comes to be seen as an act of mercy. The events leading up to the scene — like much else in the movie, and indeed in most thrillers — won’t stand up to harsh scrutiny. The plot depends on a hostile bus driver behaving as a character secretly wants him to. I imagine there’s a deleted scene involving the close study of bus routes so as to guarantee winding up in a desolate area.

The Perfection also contains the following: a tender same-sex lovemaking scene; a few lovely if stressful music performances; a performance by Steven Weber that confirms my longstanding suspicion that he’s aging into William Fichtner; a laughable flashback (or rewind, really) that explains how a cooking instrument comes into a character’s possession (almost as funny as the preceding scene in which the character just randomly seems to produce said instrument — the movie is firmly in the tradition of thrillers that can’t possibly take themselves seriously and don’t want us to, either); a bit that had me thinking we were in Romeo Is Bleeding territory and on the exit into Long Jeanne Silver turf; a quaint confidence in various medications to have exactly the effect on someone that one hopes they will have.

There’s more, but I grow tired of avoiding writing about the story. I can finish by praising the intense performances of Williams and Browning, or the way a cello performance that must proceed without error elicits more sympathetic wincing than does the sometimes graphic violence, or the film’s nearly Cronenbergian reliance on body horror and disfigurement. The Perfection is strongly made, scene for scene, and it ends on a note of serene unity of soul through music in the face of ghastly oppression. But I can’t say I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when it was done squeezing my soft bits. I won’t claim it doesn’t have the right to play with sensitive themes and elements to get its effects; I think, ultimately, it earns that right and shows itself to be compassionate. You do have to navigate a whole lot of bear traps to get there, though, and you may not agree that it’s worth the journey, with all its hurt and vomit and maggoty visions of sickness. I can raise a glass to the skill of all involved but I’m in no hurry to feel all those things, see all those things, again any time soon.