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

The Perfection (2019)

The Perfection (2019)

Directed by: Richard Shepard. Starring: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber. Runtime: 1h 30 min. Released: May 24, 2019.

Some spoilers follow.

When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) seeks out Elizabeth (Logan Browning), the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences. Y’know, I absolutely love movies with a twist.

But with The Perfection, there are about four or five twists sprinkled throughout the film. These are not small twists, either; they are twists that subvert expectations at every turn. I could barely figure out what film it’s trying to be, and when I thought I had figured it out, director Richard Shepard and co-writers Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder say “Psych!” and change the direction of the film. The changes feel organic to the story, however, and they are rarely frustrating.

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Allison Williams in The Perfection. (IMDb)

That’s what makes The Perfection one of the most unique horror films I’ve seen in awhile as it blends romance, a stalker movie, a virus film, as well as another genre which would border on spoiler. I’ll just say that some characters get their comeuppance and that aspect doesn’t work as well as the others. The third act twists are intriguing, but one aspect is a disturbing pillow to swallow. It’s the only direction of the film I don’t completely love as it becomes slightly too dark for even my tastes, and I think if it was handled in a different this would be in my Top 10 of 2019. (For reference point, this would probably still make my Top 30 out of 200 films.)

Allison Williams and Logan Brown are both great here. Williams plays so many layers convincingly that I swear after this and Get Out, I could never trust her. Steven Weber also turns in a memorable performance as the music teacher who thrives on perfection. It’s a film that is separated into distinct chapters and tones and they are balanced well. The Perfection is a wild, wild ride and it takes so many risks, even if they don’t all pay off. It also never feels like a gimmick where it’s only about its twists, because it gives thought to its characters. It has backbone and for a film that could be very standard, it takes an utterly crazy path, the road less traveled. It’s audacious to its last shot. Truly, the last note I wrote for this film in my notebook was: “Honestly, what the fuck?”

Score: 75/100

Contagion (2011), and my thoughts on the Coronavirus/COVID-19

Contagion (2011), and my thoughts on the Coronavirus/COVID-19

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh. Starring: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law. Runtime: 1h 46 min. Released: September 9, 2011.

Some spoilers follow.

During our Coronavirus pandemic, it seems like everyone is watching Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Last week I think this was at No. 35 on the Most Popular Movies IMDb chart and as of this writing (very early morning, March 21) it sits at No. 4 on that popular movie chart. This makes sense, because there’s no better way to make yourself more paranoid right now than watching Contagion.

The film itself is about a fast-spreading virus, the MEV-1, that escalates into a pandemic as the CDC works to find a cure. The spread of the disease is the most fascinating aspect in Contagion, originating in Hong Kong with Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) and escalating quickly from there when she returns home to Minnesota.

The way the virus spreads feels realistic and it’s interesting as it’s established what the “basic reproduction number” is and how quickly it will spread. It’s engaging to watch because of Soderbergh’s apt direction and I love his aesthetic in his own cinematography, as well.

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Kate Winslet in Contagion taking us through the “basic reproduction number.” (IMDb)

I’ve always found this a realistic, engaging drama/thriller. I haven’t watched this since 2015, but watching this during a pandemic, the paranoia hits differently. The mortality rate depicted in the film is 25-30 per cent, where 1 in 4 people will die from it, and according to an article on Business Insider and, I’m copying and pasting this part, “according to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, COVID-19’s mortality rate is probably around 1%, which is still about 10 times the flu’s.”

The pandemic depicted in Contagion is obviously more aggressive, but there are some eerie parallels to our real-life. It’s also impossible to watch this film and not spot the parallels to our life and this film. Even in the film’s tagline, “Don’t talk to anyone, don’t touch anyone,” feels like our world right now with social distancing.

In the film, the disease starts in a populous place like Hong Kong (Wuhan for Coronavirus), where tourists fly home, infect people at the airport, and then infect people back home as they go about their everyday life. The other big thing is the looting of supermarkets and stores. We’re not at the “looting” stage yet, but I think that all relates back to the panic buying of toilet paper of all things, and the bulk-buying of essentials that others need, too. And I’m sure if someone in real-life suggested there were a cure like in the movie (“forsythia” in Contagion), it could get a little crazy out there with people trying to get it.

Personally, I haven’t seen any of the “looting” but I’ve seen a lot of pictures online about empty grocery store shelves and the lineups getting into COSTCO, or people fighting over toilet paper. I mean, when I went to the grocery store around March 10, there was still toilet paper but less than there usually would be. I also haven’t been outside since March 15, before my province of Ontario declared a state of emergency, so I’m not sure what my local grocery store would look like right now.

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Jude Law wears a Hazmat suit going outside in Contagion. (IMDb)

As of this writing, Canada only has 1,087 cases, and I can only assume it will only get worse here. With some of what I’ve seen, especially the amount of new deaths everyday in Italy and the images of military trucks transporting coffins out of the area feels like it’s straight out of a horror movie. The aggressive way that’s spreading in Italy feels like Contagion, and the most unsettling scene in the film because of that is when a city runs out of body bags.

In our world right now, I think it’s the fear of the unknown of how long this virus will look a week from now or a month from now. When will be able to return to regular living? I go to the movie theatre once or twice a week, but how long will they be closed for? This is turning into a review of Contagion and my thoughts on the Coronavirus/COVID-19, but this is therapeutic sharing my thoughts on it, and also relating it back to Contagion, since I see the world through film.

Contagion could easily be an exaggerated docudrama. There are things here that feel “apocalyptic” that I don’t think COVID-19 will lead us into, but the fact that NHL, NBA and MLB have suspended their seasons and Las Vegas is shut down for 30 days is crazy. It feels different than anything I’ve lived through during my lifetime, especially H1N1 in 2009/2010. I was in high school then and surely did not miss any school because of it. I don’t know if the media is blowing it out of proportion – but when I see tweets of people losing their loved ones to it yet others are still out on spring break, it feels like this should really be taken seriously to “flatten the curve.”

Okay. I just have bad anxiety, depression and I can be a hypochondriac at times, so it’s just a freaky time. I’ll just talk Contagion now. I think it is at its most fascinating when it shows the spread of the disease. There’s one especially great scene when Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet), an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer, is trying to find out who Paltrow’s character has come in contact with and she calls someone who is sick on a city bus and tells him to get away from people. The shot of him touching everything is just effective.

The film is interesting when it brings Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law) into play, a blogger/journalist and conspiracy theorist who thinks that the virus is manufactured as a profiting scheme for drug companies, using his large platform to stir this fear.

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Matt Damon in Contagion. (IMDb)

At times this isn’t the best with creating well-rounded characters, and some feel more-so identifiable by the actor playing them than the character themselves, and this is very much the case with Laurence Fishburne as Dr. Ellis Cheever, who works for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). His development is the flattest of the ensemble. Other characters get sidelined, like Marion Cotillard as Dr. Leonora Orantes who is investigating how the disease started in Hong Kong and then totally gets sidelined for half the film for reasons that would spoil it.

Everyone plays their characters very well and the ensemble is impressive. The film is engaging throughout because it’s a fast-paced analysis of a viral outbreak, but for the human side it only shines in a couple moments. One such scene is between Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle), who is one of the players working to find a cure, and her father in a very sweet moment. I also liked Matt Damon’s character here, who is the husband of Beth Emhoff, who might as well as be Patient Zero. I think the first time I saw this film (in April 2012), the most surprising thing was Gwyneth Paltrow dying by the 8-minute mark. Once we see how aggressively this virus spreads, it isn’t that surprising, but as an audience member I felt the same way Damon’s Mitch Emhoff feels when he’s told his wife is dead because of the virus. “Right. I mean, so can I go talk to her?” he asks.

I think this is one of the best scenes in the film to show just how quickly it escalates. The fact that he loses his wife and then his stepson in a matter of 24 hours from this virus is so traumatic. There are ways his character could be fit into the story more – since he is immune, I think using his blood as a base for the cure would have given him more purpose – but the way his character plays out is believable. This is especially the case of how protective of he is of his daughter, Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron), and not letting her interact with other people because she’s the only thing he has left. There’s a heartbreaking moment near the end of the film when Mitch processes what’s happened.

The film’s ending is anti-climactic as it shows the origins of the virus in a fascinating scene, to where it all started. It’s anti-climactic in the way that the virus shows up, it gets cured, and life gets back to normal. Hopefully, that will be the case sooner than later with our Coronavirus.

Score: 75/100

The Hummingbird Project (2019)

The Hummingbird Project (2019)

The Hummingbird ProjectDirected by: Kim Nyugen. Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alexander Skarsgård, Salma Hayek. Runtime: 1h 51 min. Released: March 22, 2019.

Two high-frequency traders and brothers, Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (Alexander Skarsgård), go up against their old boss, Eva Torres (Salma Hayek) as they try to make millions in a fiber-optic deal. The film shows us how a few milliseconds can be the difference between being a millionaire or being irrelevant as the brothers try to build a fibre tunnel that would give them information on the stock market milliseconds before the rest of Wall Street. “It’s like getting the winning lottery numbers at the stock market before they’re drawn,” says Vincent.

The Hummingbird Project shows an intriguing but uneventful battle as the pair try to stay ahead of the market that can change at any moment. Kim Nyugen directs the film with such a precise style, and the attention to detail in his writing makes this feel like a true story. It isn’t, but the characters feel like they could be. It’s more impressive this is a fictional because this seems to be a hard concept to comprehend and Nyugen makes it accessible. The brothers are somewhat interesting as they think they’re David and will be getting ahead of the Goliath company, run by Hayek’s Torres, who has a stranglehold on the stock market.

Eisenberg plays his smooth-talking character well, he seems like a weasel with ulterior motives, but he’s the idea man and his problem solving makes people want to work with him. It’s an intriguing race for a millisecond and I love the inspiration for the title. Anton explains the concept to a bartender to make the concept more accessible, and says a millisecond is “one flap of a hummingbird’s wing.” It’s a compelling race. Hayek plays Torres well, and is bitter they leave her company because Anton’s so brilliant.

Skarsgård plays Anton well, as he spends most of the film obsessively trying to find that millisecond. He looks like Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder and does a dance like his in one of the film’s most exciting sequences. Watching Anton try and shave off the millisecond becomes uneventful after awhile, as the film doesn’t have enough substance to be a wholly compelling thriller. It works well as drama, so it’s weird it’s billed as a thriller on IMDb because it has many slow stretches.

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Jesse Eisenberg and Michael Mando in The Hummingbird Project. (IMDb)

The story’s intriguing and I think Vincent’s desperation to get this done so he can know victory. The finale of the film is good, with some fun moments and it finally feels eventful enough for a thriller. The drama almost always works, like the ethics of putting a line under Amish land when they do not want it. Eisenberg is solid as the character, especially when the stress of the situation brings him to a boiling point where he literally wants to take Goliath down because of how many times she’s undermined him.

He becomes like Gollum in his anger, saying, “I’m stuffing your mattress with money, you’re going to help me up there to tear down that tower.” The zoom on the second half of this line is absolute gold, too. If you like good drama and a strong performance from Eisenberg and are patient enough to wait for the thrills, The Hummingbird Project works because of its strong writing.

Score: 60/100

The Hunt (2020)

The Hunt (2020)

The Hunt posterDirected by: Craig Zobel. Starring: Betty Gilpin, Hilary Swank, Ike Barinholtz. Runtime: 1h 30 min. Released: March 13, 2020.

This review contains spoilers.

I was really looking forward to The Hunt when it was to be released last August before it was delayed because due to mass shootings. Now, when there’s reason to delay movies, the film sneaked into theatres for a week before the close of many all over because of COVID-19, and the film will be released On Demand tomorrow.

The reason it was delayed last August was because of its content. 12 Americans are kidnapped from all over and brought to a mansion in what appears to be rural Arkansas, as they wake up in a clearing and are hunted for sport by liberal elitists in The Hunt, also known as #ManorGate.

It’s called #ManorGate because there were rumours that wealthy liberals, who really appear to be social justice warriors who wouldn’t allow people of colour to be hunted because that’s too far, were hunting people for sport. The reasoning behind the Hunt is kind-of disappointing as it works into its commentary and satire.

I get the commentary and satire, though some of the political aspects would surely go over my head, but it’s not super effective. It’s written by Nick Cuse (TV’s Watchmen and TV’s The Leftovers) and Damon Lindelof (show runner for Watchmen and The Leftovers). Craig Zobel also directs it well (and he’s known for some directing work on Watchmen and The Leftovers so it’s a real reunion), and I am a fan of his film Compliance, one of those disturbing films that’s great but you never want to watch again. Zobel’s film here has more rewatchability.

The Hunt’s commentary doesn’t always work, much of it includes characters walking on eggshells afraid to offend anyone, but there are some strong moments. A great visual gag includes a tense moment of opening a crate, and a pig fitted with Shakespeare clothes jumps out. The film is usually more action than horror, but it’s solid. As for its commentary, I’m not sure what the film is exactly trying to say, other than that the jackrabbit always wins as Crystal (Betty Gilpin) tells in a dark story.

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Betty Gilpin in The Hunt (IMDb).

It is Gilpin’s performance that makes this fun, and some well-timed jokes, too. Gilpin embraces her character and shows she is completely within her element, and we learn throughout that Athena (Hilary Swank) has picked the wrong person to include in this Hunt. Without Gilpin, this wouldn’t be as enjoyable as it is. Most of the characters don’t pack much of a punch, but she does.

My main complaint is some of the Hunt participants that seem like they could be key players get killed off quickly and one is particularly disappointing, because I think seeing the character interact with Crystal would have been fun. It subverts expectations and establishes that there’s no central character, at least for the first 20 minutes. The first 20 minutes are fun, but it becomes a real blast when Gilpin comes into play, especially in the action scenes. I think this film works better as just a regular action movie than a commentary.

It’s also really entertaining seeing Ethan Suplee (I’m a fan since his Boy Meets World days) and he plays racist bigot very well (as he shows in his best known role in American History X). The film feels like Game of Thrones in how anyone could be killed at any moment in this kind-of film – so don’t get attached to your favourites (Crystal is the exception).

I enjoy these Battle Royale sort-of films with a high body count (WWE Studios’ The Condemned is a guilty pleasure for that reason), but keep in mind that, while this film manages to be memorable, there’s nothing new in this action thriller. As I’ve said before, Gilpin and the action make it worth the watch, but if you just wanted to watch (or re-watch) Battle Royale or even The Hunger Games again, I wouldn’t blame you. Still, if you want a good R-rated version of The Hunger Games, The Hunt entertains for 90 minutes.

Score: 70/100

Haunt (2019)

Haunt (2019)

Haunt posterDirected by: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods. Starring: Katie Stevens, Will Brittain, Andrew Caldwell. Released: September 13, 2019. Runtime: 1h 32 min.

In Haunt, a group of friends on Halloween night stumble upon an “extreme” haunted house that promises to feed into their darkest fears. The horror in Haunt is memorable as there are great scenes of tension and the set design is creative throughout the haunted house. There’s nothing quite as scary as a character looking down a hall with a series of mannequins covered with blankets and not knowing if one of those is a real person. Characters crawling through a claustrophobic tunnel and hearing noises is also intense.

Admittedly, the characters are cookie cutter but the main character Harper (Katie Stevens) has a strong backstory and we cheer for her. Stevens’ acting is also strong in a horror film I was surprised by. Nathan (Will Birttain) is fine as the main guy, but I truly couldn’t tell you anything about his character. Evan (Andrew Caldwell) brings the comedic relief. Otherwise, they’re disposable and the film knows it and takes advantage of that. The horror is well-executed throughout and well-written by writing team Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (A Quiet Place). They also direct.

The pacing is strong as after the characters find out that the haunted house is a little too real, the film is consistently action-packed and has a strong atmosphere and doesn’t have to lean on too many jump scares. There are jump scares, because it’s a film with a haunted house, but it never feels gimmicky. The film gives the immersive haunted house experience in the form of a horror film and it works. I liked it because I’m too much of a scaredy cat to enjoy haunted houses. My anxiety couldn’t take it, so it’s nice to visit a haunted house through this from the comfort of my own home where no one can jump out at me or hold me hostage.

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Terry Partyka in Haunt. (IMDb)

2018’s Hell Fest has a similar effect in providing a haunted house experience in a film, but its execution is weak. Haunt’s execution works very well, also utilizing a fear of the unknown. This unknown is the motives of those running the haunted house. We see their faces – and it’s quite intense when they unmask – but we never know their motives. That’s one complaint of mine, but it’s also understandable why it’s not explained.

There’s some fear in the fact that these are just people being so brutal to others for the sake of it, but I think for a film that doesn’t thrive on storyline or characters (besides the one strong central story of trauma), some motive would be nice here just for the sake of story. It’s realistic there’s no motive, however, because these maniacs aren’t the type to monologue of why they’re doing this or give tragic backstories.

That’s mostly because the pacing is so quick so there’s literally no time. They just kill remorselessly and go onto the next one. By the way, this is an Eli Roth film so of course it’s brutal. I do think not explaining the motives works for the film, as trying to develop its story more might have bogged it down. It’s a Halloween movie that thrives on its horror scenarios and just like haunted houses, it doesn’t need a story to scare the shit out of you.

Score: 75/100

Not a sponsor, but Haunt is available to watch on the streaming service Shudder.

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