Greta (2019)

Greta (2019)

Greta. Directed by: Neil Jordan. Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, Isabelle Huppert, Maika Monroe. Runtime: 1h 38 min. Released: March 1, 2019.

Greta benefits most from very strong performances by stars Chloë Grace Moretz and French acting legend Isabelle Huppert. Frances McCullen (Moretz), a waitress in New York City, finds a purse on a subway train one day and returns it to the owner, a lonely piano teacher and widow, the titular Greta (Huppert). They start a friendship from there as Greta Hideg’s deadly agenda is slowly revealed.

I think the most interesting thing about Greta is that, while it’s a stalker story, it sets itself apart in a few ways. A large amount of stalker stories are sexual in nature. Here, it’s more of a mother-daughter obsession. Greta’s lost her daughter and Frances has lost her mom, so Greta gets it in her mind that it’s a natural fit. Frances also says at one point that “I’m like chewing gum, I tend to stick around.” It’s a defining piece of dialogue in their relationship because Greta takes it seriously.

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Isabelle Huppert in Greta. (IMDb)

The characters are also well-written, from Frances’ general naivety to Greta’s loneliness and manipulation. Frances also has a roommate, Erica Penn, played well by Maika Monroe. My main complaint with Greta is the pacing is slow, making it feel longer because of it and it’s only 98 minutes long. Frances trying to figure out what Greta wants with her is an intriguing road to follow.

I liked that this film also took a less traditional approach to the stalker story in structure, as well, as the film’s second half has a slower pace in limited settings. The writing by Neil Jordan and Ray Wright is strong enough, and it features good foreshadowing in some scenes. The last 20 minutes or so are rewarding, and the strong acting keeps things interesting. Moretz captures the anxiety of the situation well, as does Monroe, and Huppert looks like she’s having a blast playing this batshit crazy character.

Score: 63/100

In the Shadow of the Moon (2019)

In the Shadow of the Moon (2019)

Directed by: Jim Mickle. Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Cleopatra Coleman, Michael C. Hall. Runtime: 1h 55 min. Released: September 27, 2019.

This film contains spoilers. 

Netflix’s In the Shadow of the Moon is a film has ambition that threatens to knock it down, but its originality keeps it standing for the most part. Boyd Holbrook plays Thomas “Locke” Lockhart, a Philadelphia officer who develops a lifelong obsession to track down a mysterious serial killer (Cleopatra Coleman) whose crimes defy explanation as she resurfaces every nine years.

The character work in this film is strong, as Locke’s wife gives birth the same night a serial killer surfaces and multiple people in Philadelphia die mysteriously of brain hemorrhages and their necks are branded with a three-pronged mark. That night lives in Locke’s memory and then he becomes more obsessed nine years later when she returns for reasons that become clear later.

The film starts in 1988 and goes forward nine years each time, so this spans several decades. Boyd Holbrook gives a memorable turn as Locke. He shows the effect his obsession has on him over the years as it affects his life and career. It’s just interesting what one night can do to a man. He also tries to care for his daughter Amy (Quincy Kirkwood as a child; Sarah Dugdale as an adult) but is literally unable to as the years pass because this obsession is eating him alive. I thought Locke was fascinating.

Bokeem Woodbine is also good as Locke’s partner Maddox. He doesn’t have much to do because it’s Locke’s show, but they are a good pair. Cleopatra Coleman is memorable as the mysterious killer as we try to understand her motives. She’s in a hood for most of the film and shows acting chops when she’s given the chance. The other actor of note in this is Michael C. Hall (TV’s Dexter). The character’s fine, he’s Locke’s brother-in-law, Detective Holt, and he’s a bit of a dickhead who goes against Locke at every turn. His Southern accent is also a strange creative choice, as it’s set in Philadelphia (though, it’s really filmed in Toronto).

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Cleopatra Coleman in In the Shadow of the Moon (IMDb).

The story is intriguing, too. I love the first 18 years of the film and its set-up when people start dying randomly. The detective work and police work in the first 30 minutes is also great as everything in this opening worked for me. I honestly thought it would be the next great detective film looking for a killer whose crimes make little sense. The crimes do make little sense but we get answers by the end of it all. The detective work is consistently there but it eventually becomes more about Locke’s obsession than detective work, but it’s still interesting watching this all unfold.

After the one-hour mark, the film starts to get into the high-concept part of its story. Writers Gregory Weidman and Geoffrey Tock tip their hand too much in one of the years where it becomes clearer how she’s doing the crimes and coming back every so often but finding out the “why” is still enjoyable.

One reason I didn’t love the second half as much is it’s because it’s not as enjoyable watching his life unravel, because he’s likable. The ending is satisfying because of the different turns it takes as Locke learns her motives, and the voice-over narration wraps it up in a tidy bow. I like it because it feels unique and it blends strong detective work and enough science fiction to make it accessible for both genres.

Score: 70/100

Quick review: Annabelle Comes Home (2019)

Quick review: Annabelle Comes Home (2019)
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Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife and Mckenna Grace in Annabelle Comes Home. (IMDb)

Directed by: Gary Dauberman. Starring: Vera Farmiga, Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman. Runtime: 1h 46 min. Released: June 26, 2019.

Annabelle Comes Home is a solid film that in terms of quality is much better than 2014’s Annabelle but not as consistently good as Annabelle: Creation. That’s mostly because of a first hour that is just dull. It opens with Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren picking up the titular Annabelle doll, stopping in a graveyard (in the single best scene of the first hour) and then bringing it back home. Soon, they go on vacation for most of the film and leave their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) with her babysitter Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman). Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) comes over soon and she causes the conflict of the film.

Daniela’s not the smartest character in the world as she has heard what the Warren’s do for a living. In fact, everyone at school has heard what Judy’s parents do for a living so she becomes a social pariah. Anyway, Daniela explores the Warren’s “museum” where they store their cursed objects and Daniela takes Annabelle out of her box, puts her back and forgets to lock the door. Then, all hell breaks loose. It’s a horror movie decision if I’ve ever seen one, but Gary Dauberman writes it in such a way where her motives are understandable as she wants to contact her dead father.

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Katie Sarife in Annabelle Comes Home (IMDb).

Madison Iseman is fine as Mary Ellen, though she doesn’t have that much to do. Mckenna Grace is strong as Judy and I like the idea that she has some of Lorraine’s medium skillset. The cast is charming, but not a lot happens in the first hour, as the film sets everything up and throws in a couple tense scenes. It’s mostly Annabelle taunting them but around the one-hour mark, she makes Hell break loose.

When Daniela goes back into the Lorraine’s museum to return the key, the horror becomes relentless and it’s a really fun final 40 minutes. The double-whammy of Mary Ellen’s scene with the ferryman (a memorable side character akin to The Crooked Man in The Conjuring 2) that transitions directly into a light carousel scene in Judy’s room is a great stretch of horror. The different spirits and creatures that haunt them are creative and them trying to get Annabelle back in her glass case is exciting, and it’s a second half that saves that truly saves the film.

Score: 63/100

In The Tall Grass (2019)

In The Tall Grass (2019)
In the Tall Grass poster
IMDb

Directed by: Vincenzo Natali. Starting: Laysla de Oliveira, Avery Whitted, Harrison Gilbertson. Runtime: 1h, 41 min. Released: October 4, 2019.

Based on the novella by Stephen King and his son Joe Hill, In the Tall Grass does not overcome a complicated story. The set-up is simple enough. A pregnant Becky (Laysla de Oliveira) and her brother Cal (Avery Whitted) are on their way to San Diego. When they pass through an anonymous rural area in Kansas (actually filmed in Toronto), a little boy named Tobin (Will Bouie Jr.) calls for help from a tall field of grass.

Like many horror stories, this is born from a “What if?” What if a kid shouts for help from the depths of some very tall grass and claims he can’t get out? Unfortunately for Becky and Cal, they decide to help and soon find there’s no way out.

The film’s similar to The Blair Witch Project in the way that characters lose all sense of direction. Characters could hear someone else right next to them, and then all of the sudden it sounds like they’re on the other side of the field. Coming with losing sense of direction, also comes the sense of time being lost. There’s a sense of it being a time loop occasionally, but it’s more-so blurring past and present while in the field. This is really what allows the film to be confusing.

The only rule the grass has is that if something dies, the grass doesn’t move it around. Otherwise, it has no rules. It throws the timeline of events out of whack constantly, so it’s tough to follow. The film starts with Tobin calling Becky and Cal into the field. They try to find him and get lost, and the initial exploration of the grass has fine tension. Things get interesting when ex-boyfriend Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) comes looking for Becky.

He finds their car beside a Church across the street from the grass and goes into the grass looking for them. I thought Travis would get lost and someone would look for him, and then someone would come looking for that person… It would be like a chain of people looking for people in this field. What happens in the film is more creative, surely, but also more confusing.

This film has the weirdest patch of grass in the world, though. In the centre of it, there’s a large rock that Ross Humboldt (Patrick Wilson), Tobin’s father, claims that if you touch it, you’ll know everything the tall grass knows. Since this field is across the street from that Church, it’s really like a worship rock. The film has religious undercurrents through it, where some aspects feel inspired by the Bible.

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Laysla de Oliveira and Avery Whitted in In the Tall Grass (IMDb).

Compared to Stephen King’s other works, this feels like Children of the Corn and Pet Sematary in the way that there is sacred ground and everything seems to be reborn here when it becomes part of the Earth, which is an intriguing idea.

The characters themselves aren’t intriguing. Becky is fine and I like her character growth. Cal can be annoying. Tobin is just a kid trying to get out of the tall grass. There’s some okay character tension between Cal and Travis but it’s rather weak drama. Travis tries to make up for past mistakes with Becky, which is noble, I suppose.

The film’s horror is very much about the unknown, and the grass makes me think twice about going into random fields or corn mazes, or anywhere I can’t see five feet in front of me. The film has a cabin fever vibe as the characters start to get stressed out by their surroundings. The giant worship rock also brings an “absolute power corrupts absolutely” theme.

There are some strong horror scenes, like one 10-second part I played back a couple times because the visual is just gnarly, but the film is hurt by nonsensical storytelling. I got antsy for them to escape the grass. Not because I cared, because I wanted this to be over. I will say, though, that the production value is strong and the settings of the film are nice, and Craig Wrobleski’s cinematography makes the grass a character in its own right.

Some of the horror is the grass slowly, menacingly billowing in the wind. We got enough of that in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. Yet, In the Tall Grass does not have nearly the same amount of entertainment value, and feels a lot of its pacing feels like watching grass grow.

Score: 50/100

The Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man posterDirected by: Leigh Whannell. Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge. Runtime: 2h 4 min. Released: February 28, 2020. Seen in IMAX.

I could be cheeky, say this is an amazing film, and say I wrote the rest of this review in invisible ink and just skip to the perfect score. But I won’t be that guy because I want to tell you how great this film is.

Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) escapes an abusive relationship with her boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and learns that Adrian has killed himself. He’s left her $5 million, but she soon believes this is a hoax when she is hunted by someone no one else can see.

The Invisible Man hooks from its opening frame, not because of tension, but because of creativity. Waves splash over rocks to reveal the title of the film, invisible titles shown only because the water reveals them. Then, the film does hook because of tension.

Cecilia is sneaking out of Adrian’s home in the middle of the night, and there is fear in every step that he might wake up. It’s edge-of-your-seat suspense from the get-go because what it would mean for Cecilia if he wakes. The stakes are set from the start – and I felt immediately sympathetic of Cecilia.

The paranoia that comes in the coming days is pristine, too, and writer/director Leigh Whannell portrays that so well. Whannell has been a voice in horror since 2004, working with James Wan on Saw and Insidious (he wrote all four Insidious films and directed Insidious: Chapter 3). James Wan is arguably a household name, and I think The Invisible Man will bring Whannell household name recognition because it is a masterful film.

It’s an important film, too, especially for the #MeToo Movement as it depicts how much abusive relationships stay with women for the rest of their lives. Even when the hauntings aren’t present, Cecilia’s on edge. She’s scared of Adrian finding her. Adrian needs to die for her to feel somewhat calm – but we soon see she doesn’t even trust that. The film’s a metaphor for that abuse following her. There’s an anxiety that makes this film very real and the characters very real, as well.

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Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man. (IMDb)

Whannell’s writing also portrays victims being isolated from loved ones and gaslighting. Cecilia questions her own sanity throughout and at times we do, too, but it’s hard to doubt this when we see what we see. Could her stalker really be invisible? Of course, the characters won’t believe someone who says she’s being stalked by her dead ex-boyfriend who is invisible, who she’s convinced he could do it because he is brilliant. Some scenes where characters try to convince her that there’s nothing there or nothing to worry about capture gaslighting perfectly.

Elisabeth Moss is a force as this character. I sympathized with her from the beginning as she quietly escapes, especially because of the fear in her eyes. She captures the paranoia and anxiety so well, and the best stretch of her performance is when she’s trying to figure out if she’s crazy or sane. The desperation feels real when she pleads the people around her to believe her, and the lengths she goes to maintain that last bit of sanity is a compelling balancing act. She is compelling to watch, playing the emotional scenes well, too, and this performance will stick with me.

As for horror, The Invisible Man is edge-of-your-seat horror at its finest. It relies on the atmosphere and paranoia of the situation, filled with voyeuristic camera angles of the characters where the invisible perpetrator could be watching from. I found myself studying the frames of the film, trying to see if I can see anything moving around. The film is a lot about looking for things that just aren’t there.

Whannell’s an expert at building the tension, and his jump scares have merit and never feel lazy. That’s what I’m always paying attention to in horror, scares that feel appropriate for the pacing and story, and not just scares for the sake of it. Every scare is deserved, and none are wasted. As far as the remake part of this goes, I haven’t seen the 1933 The Invisible Man. I’d have a hard time imagining myself enjoy it more than Whannell’s vision of this because the level of tension here is exactly why I love horror.

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Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man. (IMDb)

The effects in the film also look very realistic, and they’re better knowing this film is made for $7 million. The angles and choreography for how the characters interact with the Invisible Man look convincing on-screen. Whannell’s unique style in 2018’s Upgrade appears present here in those invisible scenes, especially with Stefan Duscio as cinematographer. The way they show a person’s head being smashed into a window and the camera following the action feels very much like Upgrade. The cinematography is excellent here, and so is the score by Benjamin Wallfisch.

I knew going into this film I’d enjoy it, but it’s surprising how truly great it is. 2020 would have to be a good year for movies for this to fall out of my top 10. It has the psychological horror that I just love, with a great story and great performance to boot (as well as good supporting performances by Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid and Harriet Dyer).

I was on the edge of my seat throughout, especially during a sequence that begins in an attic. It’s perfectly paced and an excellent film that will make me paranoid while I’m trying to sleep. This is the type of film that keeps me up. This time, I’ll just hear a noise and look around, but of course no one’s there, because they’re invisible. I don’t mind that paranoia for a film this great.

Score: 100/100

The Wedding Guest (2019)

The Wedding Guest (2019)
The Wedding Guest
IMDb

Directed by: Michael Winterbottom. Starring: Dev Patel, Radhika Apte, Jim Sarbh. Released: March 8, 2019. Runtime: 1h 36 min

The Wedding Guest, directed by Michael Winterbottom, is billed as a thriller. Sure, there are some thriller elements, but that is just felt in a few select scenes.

It starts out more like a mystery. Jay (Dev Patel) is a British Muslim man who rents two cars, purchases guns and duct tape and travels to a city in Pakistan. We do not know a thing about him, and at this point we don’t even know his name. We just know he does not speak Punjabi.

When he gets to his destination, he kidnaps a woman, Samira (Radhika Apte), who wants to escape an arranged marriage. This aspect is spoiled in the trailer (so I’ll spoil it here). A friend from college, Deepesh (Jim Sarbh), wants to save her and pays Jay to kidnap her.

Samira is fine but we never really get to know other than she’s searching for forbidden love and gets close to it. Her wanting out of the arranged marriage is what sparks the premise, and the using that culturally relevant topic is an intriguing concept for a film, but the thin story never rises above that. The film also does not delve deep enough into Samira’s character.

They just remain mysterious. Authorities look for Samira, but Jay and Samira never have to deal with them as they go from city to city using fake aliases, fake I.D.’s and fake passports. Jay and Samira only know that her disappearance is a point of interest in the English papers in India and Pakistan.

As Samira herself puts it, India is a perfect country to run away in because there are “one thousand million people living their own lives.” This idea lends itself to the anonymity of the characters themselves. We never really know the characters, despite spending about 90 minutes with them.

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Dev Patel in The Wedding Guest (IMDb)

The characters are not compelling, either. They’re portrayed well by Patel and Apte, and I’d like to see more of her. However, they stay too mysterious throughout to have any strong development. We just know Jay is in it for the money and Samira is a wild card. The film’s predictable regarding how their characters grow together, but it’s unpredictable in story.

Unpredictability is a good thing, but in this case the story is hard to predict because it’s so thin. It’s a girl wanting to escape an arranged marriage and that’s it… There’s some intriguing developments thrown in to hold attention, but then it just falls back into a dull, but comfortable, pace. This just feels more consistently like a dull drama than thriller or mystery.

The strong acting will try to convince viewers there’s a soul, heart, emotion or any semblance of a story here. They’re really quite good so I bought into their chemistry of having to trust each other in this strange scenario, but the dialogue is so boring and the story so pointless they could never fully sell it.

Score: 50/100

Hold the Dark (2018)

Hold the Dark (2018)
Hold the Dark poster
IMDb

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

When the Bough Breaks (2016)

When the Bough Breaks (2016)
When the Bough Breaks
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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)

Phoenix Forgotten (2017)
Phoenix Forgotten poster
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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)

Ghost in the Shell (2017)
Ghost in the Shell - poster
Source

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.

Ghost - ScarJo
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