Movie Review ~ Profile

The Facts:

Synopsis: An undercover British journalist infiltrates the online propaganda channels of the so-called Islamic State, only to be sucked in by her recruiter.

Stars: Valene Kane, Shazad Latif, Christine Adams, Amir Rahimzadeh, Morgan Watkins

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Above all else, I’m grateful that Profile has come along now because it forced me to find the actual word to describe the unique way it is presented to viewers.  That would be Screenlife.  In a nutshell, Screenlife is the format of a movie (or TV show) where everything you see happens on a “screen”.  That could be a computer, iPad, iPhone, or other electronic devices that can be displayed across one ‘desktop’.   So, whatever you are watching it on becomes the entire “world” of the piece.  The first movie I can remember seeing this in was 2014’s Unfriended and what I assumed would be a tiresome gimmick wound up being the baseline for a solid thriller, made even scarier if you sat close enough in a theater so the screen took up your entire field of vision.  I repeated the same experience with the far underappreciated Searching from 2018 and 2020’s Host (filmed mid-pandemic) was a clever mash-up of haunted Zoom-meeting and Screenlife terror.

Now along comes Profile and again I was hesitant to embrace this schtick again, wondering how far the concept could be taken before it became stale.  Shot in nine days back in 2018 and appearing in several festivals in the same year, it’s admittedly odd that it’s taken so long for Profile to come out.  By now, it almost feels like a period piece because so much of the conflict described has changed and the recruitment procedures have gone further underground.  Would there be room for another Screenlife entry that didn’t have a supernatural angle but still dealt with horror of a more real-world kind?  More importantly, is this the kind of film an audience just getting back to movie theaters would want to line up for a ticket to?

Based on French journalist Anna Érelle’s non-fiction book In the Skin of a Jihadist: Inside Islamic State’s Recruitment Networks, Profile sticks close to Érelle’s account of how she pretended online to be a teenager who recently converted to Islam, creating fake Facebook profiles in an attempt to lure members of ISIS to her.  All of this began as a story for a news magazine about a teenager from Belgium that went missing and was thought to have flown to Syria to join ISIS after being recruited and then sold to sex traffickers.  Eventually connecting with a man in Syria, Érelle (a pseudonym, by the way) quickly found herself in over her head and while she escaped any imminent danger, a bounty was put on her life and she must live in anonymity for fear of repercussions for her reporting.  Scary stuff.

The screenwriters of Profile do some decent work fictionalizing the story to alter things just enough, not only to separate their story from Érelle’s but also to amp up the tension that will add to the experience.  Instead of Anna we have Amy (Valene Kane, Victor Frankenstein) a UK journalist freelancing for The Guardian who wants to do a story about ISIS recruitment of British females. She’s finally convinced her wary boss (Christine Adams, Batman Begins) to let her pose as a teenager on Facebook where a number of girls find the men that will bring them over to Syria with promises of marriage and prosperity.  Armed with a new identity, Melody Nelson, and continuing to read up on Islamic culture, Amy goes fishing in a lake of darkness and catches a whopper that she isn’t prepared for.

Abu Bilel Al-Britani (Shazad Latif, The Commuter) shows interest right away and before long the two of them are Skyping (with a Muslim co-worker of Amy’s standing by for guidance) and getting to know one another.  Amy, quick on the keyboard, is able to divert Bilel’s attention when he asks questions she isn’t prepared for or wants to see her personal screen filled with “Amy” folders and pictures of her and her boyfriend.  As the conversations continue, they grow more personal and lines get blurred, calling into question the ethos of journalistic integrity and what Amy is willing to do for her story.  Each new piece of information from Bilel could be another story she can write so why not get everything she can? Is she willing to go the distance (literally) to gain that knowledge?

For a time, this back and forth feels like a vice grip that director Timur Bekmambetov (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is turning tighter and tighter, daring the audience to stay with Amy’s story as she falls deeper into a pit of her own making.  Quick glimpses of ISIS recruitment videos (including some well-known brutal beheading videos that stop short of anything major) are meant to rattle and achieve their goal quickly and then ease off.  This technique works on a nice clip to a certain point until we see Amy making one too many errant mistakes, both as a person and a professional journalist.  Plenty of characters in horror movies act like dingbats and we write them off as expendable sacks of blood but there’s something different about this reality-based approach that doesn’t allow us to afford Amy that same grace.  She should know better, and it becomes a question of her overall intelligence after a while. 

At first, I thought it was perhaps due to Kane’s waif-ish presence that feels so flimsy you believe a strong cough might send her shooting backward through a window.  It might play well as Melody when pretending to be subservient for Bilel but it’s there as Amy, too.  Even the usually obnoxious millennials in Unfriended and its solid sequel (which just so happen to be produced by Bekmambetov) come off as more grounded than Amy.  That also stymies the relationship being built with Latif’s character who at times feels like the most appealing person in the entire film.  Apparently unburdened by the approach to the filmmaking, Latif is often required to be in motion when speaking but he never drops his character and stays laser focused.  It’s an intense performance that the movie benefits immensely from.

Of all the Screenlife films so far, Profile is the least engaging.  Part of that is the run time which in no way needs to be 105 minutes and another factor is that its entire plot feels ever-so-slightly like old news.  The energy level can’t help but run low after a time and with less characters to juggle, there’s fewer people to care about or be interested in.  I wouldn’t say it’s something to skip because if you ever watch how these films are made you can appreciate the work that goes into it and I do think it hits each of its beats when and how it is supposed to. It just doesn’t hit them with as much clarity as it could have. 

Movie Review ~ The Djinn

The Facts

Synopsis: A mute boy is trapped in his apartment with a sinister monster when he makes a wish to fulfill his heart’s greatest desire.

Stars: Ezra Dewey, Rob Brownstein, Tevy Poe, John Erickson, Donald Pitts, Jilbert Daniel

Director: David Charbonier & Justin Powell

Rated: R

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  I’ll level with you.  There have been nights when I’ve been woken up by a noise and I’m convinced there is some sort of supernatural creature in my house.  Forget excusing it away as a creaky board or a moaning pipe, and don’t even think of chalking it up to the dozens of scary films I’ve watched in the span of a few months.  No, it’s definitely something terrifying that’s come to prey upon me and like a good would-be victim I silently get out of bed, grab the nearest object I can use as a weapon (often a book to hurl) and start to slowly explore every nook and crook of my dwelling until I’m convinced everything is safe and secure.  After climbing back into bed and before drifting off to sleep there have been times I’ll think, “Oh man, I’m so glad no one was filming me foolishly sneaking around my own house.”

That’s the story that kept following me around during the 82 long minutes I spent trapped into the confines of The Djinn, a plodding horror film that features a young mute boy who does exactly what I just described.  Only in a much smaller space.  For a lot longer.  Don’t get me wrong, unlike my nighttime adventures that come up with nothing to report, the youngster that carries the entire film on his constantly terrified shoulders is rewarded for his efforts with several nasty scares that are alarming mostly for the screeching music or blaring sound effect that accompanies their appearance.  That might be enough to satiate viewers that feed off of these perfunctory jolts, though around the sixty-minute mark they began to simply serve as unappreciated wake-up alarms for me just as I was about to doze off.

Nighttime radio host Michael Jacobs (Rob Brownstein, Argo) and his silent son Dylan (Ezra Dewey) have moved into a new apartment not long after a tragedy took their wife and mother away.  Though he still sees his mother Michelle (Tevy Poe) in haunting flashbacks, without a voice to reach out in his dreams, Dylan can’t connect with her to obtain any sense of closure.  With dad working an overnight double, Dylan continues to unpack and discovers items left by the previous tenant, including a book with information on spells and, more specifically, the Wish of Desire.  Of course, there are warnings tied to the spell and caveats as to how the wish is actually granted, but the pre-teen can’t resist performing a ritual (in American Sign Language, a clever touch) to ask for his voice back. 

At first, it appears the rite has failed, and Dylan goes on with his evening dejected but lying in bed later he has one of those moments I mentioned in the beginning.  A strange noise rouses him and when he goes to seek out its source the book of spells reveals its true intentions, billowing out a black smoke that harbors The Djinn, a figure from Arabic folklore that acts a type of genie but not one that wants to see the person that rubbed the lamp get healthy, wealthy, and wise.  No, this is an evil power that Dylan is now trapped in the tiny apartment with and must outmaneuver for the next hour.  If he can avoid being caught by The Djinn and perform the end of the ritual, his wish will be granted.  As The Djinn attempts to trick him by taking on different forms and curtailing his escape plans, Dylan tries to outwit an unmatched foe and fight for his soul as the time ticks away.

Writer/directors David Charbonier & Justin Powell have set their film in 1989 for some odd reason, perhaps it was to remove the advances in technology or excuse some of the drab furnishings of the seriously grandmumsy apartment the Jacobs family now calls home.  Though it gives credence to a pulsating score of synths and original music from composter Matthew James, it becomes one of several details that feel like a retro grasp to achieve purpose instead of necessity.  Even with a handful of admittedly frightening visuals punctuated by skin-crawling creepies that are borrowed almost totally from other films (Insidious comes to mind), The Djinn works overtime to maintain its mood but it’s like trying to keep a balloon at bay with just your pinky. 

It takes a strong actor to hold our attention for a long while and while Dewey isn’t bad by any stretch, he runs into trouble with overcompensating for a lack of a speaking voice by turning up the volume on everything else.  The eyes get big, the facial expressions elongate wider, the silent scream goes on for longer than necessary. It’s all just a little over the top and spills into silly rather than scary.  There’s also a total lack of any kind of bond between father and son which becomes an important piece of the puzzle – hard to accomplish on these short shoots, I know, but the absence of any kind of warmth is off-putting.

Last summer, IFC Midnight kicked off a great run right around this time with their release of The Wretched, becoming one of the first studios to find their groove in the madness around the pandemic.  I can see where their acquisition of The Djinn was done with similar thoughts in mind for a tiered release, but it falls far below the high bar they’ve set over the past twelve months.  There have been numerous movies made about Djinns or Djinn-esque set-ups (let’s not forget the heinous Wish Upon) and few have found the path to popularity.  Don’t count on this lugubrious effort to change that.

Movie Review ~ High Ground

The Facts:  

Synopsis: In a bid to save the last of his family, a young Aboriginal man, teams up with an ex-soldier to track down the most dangerous warrior in the Territory, his uncle. 

Stars:  Simon Baker, Jacob Junior Nayinggul, Callan Mulvey, Caren Pistorius, Jack Thompson, Witiyana Marika, Aaron Pedersen, Ryan Corr, Esmerelda Marimowa

Director: Stephen Maxwell Johnson 

Rated: NR 

Running Length: 104 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review: Part of the perks of exposure to so many films is that you are often afforded the opportunity to see a movie that might not have otherwise caught your attention.  Maybe it’s from a fledgling studio that happened to land the right PR firm who represents the perfect studio, or it could be the star is someone you’ve liked before in other work and are curious to see if they can deliver again.  More often than not, simply the premise is enough to draw you in, suggesting a film offering an experience that will be different than what you’d normally encounter.  You can toss the dice and lose, like I did recently with the muddy and ruddy dialogue free pig doc Gunda or you might be a high roller and find a diamond in the rough title like High Ground.

Equal parts western (by way of the Outback in the 1930’s), revenge thriller, and history lesson, High Ground is based on true events that took place during a bleak period in Australia’s history wherein the government brutally strong-armed their colonization the indigenous Aboriginal people.  It’s through one of these real-life stories that director Stephen Maxwell Johnson and screenwriter Chris Anastassiades take their cues, largely based on years of information they gathered from Aboriginal elders.  Though white, the men have sought (and evidently received) approval from the heads within the native population to tell the story from the Aboriginal point of view.  Along with cultural consultant Witiyana Marika, a respected voice from the Yolngu community in the Northern Territory, High Ground is the fruit of a lengthy labor of love.

Beginning with a prologue that introduces young Gutjuk (Guruwuk Mununggurr) and his tribe, the gentle opening features glorious images of an untouched landscape and the people that called it home.  Headed up by Dharrpa (Marika), members of his tribe include Gutjuk’s father and uncle both of whom are feeling responsible for educating the young boy in the ways of contributing to his community.  Tranquility is shortlived, however, when a routine security check-in by police sent by the government turns into a massacre that decimates most of the tribe, including Gutjuk’s father. 

One member of the police that didn’t participate in this bloodshed is Travis (Simon Baker, The Devil Wears Prada) a man that seems to have his morals about him.  Actively defending Dharrpa’s tribe by shooting back at his own squad, Travis is ostracized for his actions while Gutjuk is taken in by a weak-willed missionary also present at the attack and his kindly sister Claire (Caren Pistorius, Mortal Engines).  Flash forward twelve years and Gutjuk is a young man (played by Jacob Junior Nayinggul) still living with Claire in a Christian mission outpost on the edge of colonized land.  A wave of attacks on the residents of land formerly occupied by the native Aboriginal people initiated by Baywarra (Sean Mununggurr), Dharrpa’s son, is sending fear through the dry country and a grizzled police chief (Jack Thompson, The Great Gatsby) calls in an old friend, Travis, to stop the incendiary force before it is too late.

When Travis arrives at the mission, he recognizes the boy he saved all those years ago and remembers the connection he has to Dharrpa and, by proxy, Baywarra.  Using Gutjuk’s skills as a tracker to lead him to his target, Travis is once again placed in a position of choosing between his own ethics and the law of the land.  Unbeknownst to Travis and fearing such a quandary of conscience in his hunter for hire, the police chief sends another two men to trail Travis and Gutjuk as a safety precaution.  Led by Travis’ best frenemy Eddy (Callan Mulvey, Shadow in the Cloud) the back-up duo becomes yet another of the harsh elements for Travis and Gutjuk to face as they make their way back to the location where they first met a decade earlier where a reckoning is set to occur.

To their extreme credit, Johnson and Anastassiades don’t sugarcoat the violence inflicted on the indigenous people during this unfathomable time.  I think filmmakers not intimately acquainted with the people that were affected by and have felt the generation repercussions of the events that transpired like what High Ground depicts would have shied away from showing some of the atrocities.  If anything, Johnson lingers on the bloody aftermath of death and innocent lives being lost.  It’s not exploitative but rather eye-opening.  That the film can slip in so many of the horrifying historical details, many of which viewers will likely not be aware of to their full extent, while maintaining audience engagement is rather astounding.

The casting of real tribespeople and many newcomers also aids in an authenticity that never could have been achieved if High Ground was made anywhere but on the land it depicts.  Even if not the most proficient of actors from a technical standpoint, it’s hard to deny the power of the performances.  Give me an actor like Esmerelda Marimowa (as Gulwirri, one of the few females in the film but delivering some of the most unforgettable scenes) over most of the Supporting Actress nominees at the Independent Spirit Awards this year.  All the Bad White Men in the movie are appropriately Bad and White but Thompson is especially good at being a real racist devil.  I’ve always liked Baker and he’s very good in the movie, as is Pistorius (thankfully free from Unhinged, that horrifying Russell Crowe movie I’d just as soon forget) but both are millimeters from White Savior territory, so much so that I feel even praising their roles too much would push them over the edge.  Besides, it’s Navinggul’s movie to walk away with, which he does with ease.  An actor that has a mystery to him, he’s able to invite you to inch forward in your seat and be far more interested in what he’s doing than anyone else on screen.  It’s perfect for the character and signals a true star in the making.

Beautiful cinematography and a sparse soundtrack that is primarily made up of ambient sound compliment the overall tone Johnson was going for with High Ground.  I had no idea what to expect when heading in (I didn’t watch the preview and I’d suggest you don’t either) so had the good fortune of watching with no preconceived notions of what High Ground should be.  It plateaus near the ¾ mark and doesn’t quite dislodge itself in either direction before the end but that’s no matter, the height it has reached is good enough to easily recommend you give this kangaroo western a shot.  You may learn something.

Movie Review ~ Spiral: From the Book of Saw

The Facts:

Synopsis: Working in the shadow of an esteemed police veteran, brash Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks and his rookie partner take charge of a grisly investigation into murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past.

Stars: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Morgan David Jones, Frank Licari, Zoie Palmer

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Sure, I’ve seen all of the films in the Saw series but with that particular franchise, it truly is a case where the old saying is true: when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.  Though I enjoyed the original film from 2004 for its brazen methods of going all-out in its gory violence and clever narrative construction, the subsequent sequels were each like a new dub of the previous copy taken from an existing VHS master.  Each new entry got more and more distorted, the plots more convoluted, the acting less convincing, and the overall threads that tied the series together started to grow threadbare and snap.  By the time Saw: The Final Chapter sliced through theaters in 2010 (in 3D, natch), the viscous well had long since dried up.  When Jigsaw, a feeble attempt to shock the series back to life in 2017 during the swell of reboots failed to wake the dead, it seemed as if the plug had officially been pulled on the Saw franchise.

What happened next was a surprise to many.  Shortly after Jigsaw’s disappointing debut, Lionsgate found out they had a Saw fan in comedian Chris Rock and it just so happened the star was looking to get into the horror business.  Accepting Rock’s offer to provide a treatment to take the franchise on a new path, the studio lined up Saw II, III, and IV’s Darren Lynn Bousman (Mother’s Day) to direct and hired Piranha 3DD writers Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger to flesh out Rock’s original storyline into the full feature length version that became known as Sprial.  Tacking From the Book of Saw onto the title to fully tie the new film to the existing world confirmed Spiral would be related to the original eight films and not a reboot, and suddenly the internet was abuzz wondering how Rock and newly announced co-star Samuel L. Jackson would work their way into the Saw universe.

Delayed from it’s October 2020 release due to the pandemic, Lionsgate opted to hold off on letting their twisted game out of the bag until now and it’s good they did because the Saw films are always something of an event to see on the big screen. (Note: I say that with full acknowledgement of the hypocrisy of my watching it via a screening link at home.)  Now, audiences would be forced to witness some of the series most gruesome death devices going full bore and wouldn’t be able to simply leave the room like they could if they viewed it from the safety of their living room.  Spiral was promised to be a film that was more of a mystery than the ghastly Grand Guignol torture nastiness the previous eight films had begun to wallow in.  What a bummer to report that it’s more than a little disappointing to see before the title card is even shown a man forced to choose between ripping out his own tongue or death by subway train.

Labeled a rat by his colleagues after testifying against his crooked partner, Detective Zeke Banks (Rock, The Witches) is going through a divorce and has a strained relationship with his father (Jackson, Shaft), a former police captain of his division.  Assigned by his ball-busting captain (Marisol Nichols, Scream 2) to mentor rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella, The Internship) their first case is a doozy: identifying a homeless man run over by a train using only the bloody pieces that were salvageable.  Having seen the prologue, we know these fleshy bits used to be someone quite different and the two detectives will soon receive their first clue from a creepy killer in a pig mask that will point them in the right direction. 

Once Banks and Schenk discover the man was a cop that Banks knew well, the dominos start to fall rapidly as other members from their precinct start to die in all sorts of terrible manners.  Could this be the workings of another disciple of the long-dead killer Jigsaw or is there a copycat using the murderers methods as a cover to enact their deadly game of revenge?  With clues pointing to suspects that wind up mincemeat, Banks is left to read between the lines and remember the past if he’s to save himself and his loved ones from a killer’s deadly plans for the future. 

Had Stolberg and Goldfinger’s script stuck to the mystery angle, Spiral could have been an interesting film that benefitted from its ham-fisted bit of social commentary it clumsily thumbtacks on at the end. (Oh, it’s so stagnant you’ll groan.)  I get the feeling Rock’s original idea was far less grandiose than what Spiral turned out to be and it took the extra attention of the writers (and maybe Bousman) to make this new film fit more into the lore of the Saw films.  How else could you explain some of the random shifts in tone from detective story to the grisly reveling in brutalization?  With the previous movies, this was expected because past the second sequel they truly had no central story that made them a mystery worth solving.  Bringing in Bousman also accounts for the movie having the look of a Saw film as well, with the jittery camera angles and overall grimy feel that permeated the vibe of earlier entries…there’s little to set this one apart from the others.  Bringing someone new in, like Universal did with the 2018 Halloween, would have been an inspired choice, though Bousman is no slough as a filmmaker.

It also just has to be said that for as brilliant a comedian as Rock is and as gifted a performer he is onstage, an actor he is most definitely not.  Rock’s performance is possibly the biggest problem with the film, aside from its profound reliance on useless profanity (and this is coming from someone with a sailor’s vocabulary), and in scene after scene he drags every other actor down just as they are trying to bring him up.  Not even Jackson can rescue Rock from himself, mostly because for all the attention his casting received, Jackson is barely in the movie.   The character is just unpleasant.  In the process of creating a new direction for the series, did no one remember to think up a leading man that audiences would enjoy as well? 

Even the solution to Spiral is met with sort of a indifference and the typical zip-zap-here-are-the-closing-credits wrap-up.  As much as the star, filmmakers, and studio touted Spiral as being different than what has come before, it is shockingly stuck in the past and falls into the same trap as the later sequels when the franchise was already on tenuous ground.  I expected a great deal more from all involved and if it’s true like one character says everything is in a spiral and comes back around, I’m hoping the next film really does return to what captured our attention back in 2004 when the game being played required more brains than…well, literal brains.

Movie Review ~ The Woman in the Window (2021)

The Facts

Synopsis: An agoraphobic woman living alone in New York begins spying on her new neighbors only to witness a disturbing act of violence.

Stars: Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Anthony Mackie, Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fred Hechinger, Wyatt Russell

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Once upon a time, the big screen adaptation of a best-selling suspense novel would have been cause for some semblance of celebration.  Bringing to life characters readers had only imagined and finding the right way to recreate the puzzle the author had designed might be a challenge but when everything lined up perfectly the result was a surefire blockbuster that left fans of the novel happy and movie studios flush with cash.  Saturation of the market over the past decade has led to novels being written like adaptations of movie scripts…almost like the writers were already imagining the hefty checks they’d receive for selling the rights to the film versions.  So, while we’d get the rare winner like David Fincher’s sleek take on Gillian Flynn’s unstoppable hit Gone Girl and, to a lesser extent, an effectively serviceable read on Paula Hawkins The Girl on the Train two years later, the number of page to screen adaptations was on the decline.

While it wasn’t ever going to change the dial significantly on this downward trend, 20th Century Fox’s release of A.J. Finn’s megahit novel The Woman in the Window at least represented a rarefied bit of sophistication in a genre that wasn’t always known for its refinement.  Helmed by Joe Wright, a director with a fine track record for telling visually appealing films that had a deeply rooted emotional core and adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts (who also appears in the film), no stranger himself to adapting work for other mediums, the film seemed like it had prestige in its very building blocks.  Add in a coveted cast with a combined total of 14 Oscar nominations between them and you can see why initial buzz had this, like Gone Girl, on many an early shortlist as potential awards candy upon its release. 

Then the problems began.

First, and this was going on even before the film got off the ground, author A.J. Finn was revealed to be a pseudonym for Dan Mallory, an executive editor at publisher William Morrow and Company who published the novel.  Mallory’s shady past came to light in a earth scorching article published in the New Yorker which detailed how he very likely lied, cheated, and schemed his way through his educational upbringing and career to date.  That this was reignited during the film’s production did no favors for it’s promotional promises.  Then early test screenings received poor scores leading to reshoots and rewrites, which isn’t uncommon, but the poisonous word spread fast that the movie was in trouble. 

Caught in the crosshairs of the Fox/Disney merger, the finished film languished in limbo until Disney sold it off to Netflix who adios-ed a theatrical release because of the pandemic and is now releasing it a full year after its originally announced date.  Adding unspoken insult to injury, the cast and production team are doing no press for the film…making it look like no one has any confidence in it.   Really, who can blame them?  The past year the film has been made a mockery of by gossip hungry columnists, bloggers, and podcasters and the punchline of many jokes at its expense.  The movie and its actors have been set-up to fail, and I’d say that many of those reviewing the film are going in prepared to dislike it and ravage it just because it’s an easy target. 

I’m happy to spoil their fun and report that The Woman in the Window isn’t anywhere as bad as we’ve been led to believe nor is it even a minor misstep compared to some of the dreck major studios still put out and screen a number of times before opening wide.  A film lost in the shuffle of studios in flux and the victim of negative press because of its author, the tumble it has taken shouldn’t be a signifier of the quality of the effort of those involved.  It may take a while for the cord to be pulled tight for viewers, but once Wright (Anna Karenina) and Letts (Lady Bird) stop trying to find a way to emulate Finn’s inner monologue narrative of the leading lady and start bringing their own strengths to their responsibilities, the movie truly takes off with a bang.

Agoraphobic child psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams, American Hustle) doesn’t have much to do but wander around her spacious NY brownstone in between getting blackout drunk on glasses of wine and watching film noir.  Separated from her husband and her child because of a trauma that slowly comes into focus, her fear of leaving the house has gotten so bad she can’t even take one step out of her front door without passing out from anxiety.  One of her comforts is keeping track of the goings-on in the neighborhood and its her luck the house across the street has a new family that will soon become a major part of her life. 

She first meets Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger, News of the World) when he comes to drop off a housewarming gift and shortly thereafter meets his mother (Julianne Moore, Still Alice).  When Alastair Russell (Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour) pays her a visit, his greeting is chillier which might explain why Anna sees the family fighting later and then a scream in the night followed by what looks like Ethan’s mother covered in blood.  Calling the police (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk) to investigate turns up nothing suspicious in the house but a different woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) claiming to be Alastair’s wife.  Convinced of what she saw and determined to prove the Russell’s are hiding something, Anna does what she can from the confines of her house to find out what happened to the woman she met days earlier.  However, with her new neighbors on to her snooping, a basement tenant (Wyatt Russell, Overlord) with a violent past, and secrets of her own that may implicate more than we’re aware of initially, is there any one person we can honestly trust?

Fans of the book will be pleased with the way Letts brought Finn’s book to life, tightening up some of the crinkly edges of his storytelling and removing complexities that made an already hard to swallow situation that much more far-fetched.  It’s still achingly reminiscent of third-rate Hitchcock (take a shot every time you think of Vertigo or Rear Window…and for that matter drink a whole whiskey highball for the film’s outright duplication of 1995’s excellent CopyCat) but considering how chintzy it could have been in less assured hands, this comes off as far classier than it has any right to be. 

Speaking of (W)right, credit goes to the director for elevating the film with his eye for detail and willingness to take chances on some striking visuals that leave an impression.  No spoilers but at one point Anna sees something inside the brownstone that shouldn’t be there, and it’s so beautifully shot that you forget for a moment you’re watching a thriller.  In the same breath, I’ll say there’s also an icky bit of cheek-y gruesomeness that was so shocking I gasped…and not one of those quick whisps of air kind of gasps but the type you hear when you’ve been underwater for three minutes and just reached the surface.

Did anyone come out of Hillbilly Elegy looking as bad as Adams?  Say what you will about the source material, some of director Ron Howard’s choices, and a few of the supporting performances, but for an established actress like Adams to turn in such a tacky routine was incredibly disappointing.  In all honesty, The Woman in the Window doesn’t start out great for her either and I began to wonder if Adams hadn’t lost a little of that luster that made her so appealing when she burst onto the scene.  I don’t know if it was because later in the film is where the reshoots happened or what, but the latter half of the movie is when Adams appears to not be taking the role to the mat like it’s her Oscar bid for the year.  This is not an awards type of film and by the time they got to reshoots I think she knew it…so she’s much more game to lean into the Olivia de Havilland/Barbara Stanwyck type of character this is modeled after.  Having the most fun of everyone is Moore, kicking up her heels and really enjoying the free spirit of her character – it’s the most relaxed the actress has been in a long while and it was fun to watch.  Not having any fun?  Oldman, white-haired, crazy-eyed, and wild-voiced, his performance looks cobbled together from all of his bad takes.

Is The Woman in the Window in the same league as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, two other novels turned films with leading characters that are unreliable in their narration and unlikable at times?  For my money, I’d put this on the level of The Girl on the Train as an adaptation that has come to the screen with promise that is mostly fulfilled.  It’s a better adaptation than The Girl on the Train was, that’s for sure, and to equate the movie with the failings of its author is wrongheaded.  The mystery at its core is kept decently secure until the finale and while you won’t be biting your nails with suspense throughout, it builds to a proper climax that proved satisfying.  Released as part of Netflix’s summer movie season, it’s a solid selection for a weekend viewing – especially considering many would have paid more than the price of a monthly subscription to the service to see it in theaters anyway.

Movie Review ~ Those Who Wish Me Dead

The Facts

Synopsis: A smoke jumper and a 12-year-old boy fight for their lives as two assassins pursue them through the Montana wilderness while a forest fire threatens to consume them all.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, Finn Little, Aidan Gillen, Medina Senghore, Tyler Perry, Jake Weber, Jon Bernthal

Director: Taylor Sheridan

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Back in the days of “Old Hollywood”, stars would do most anything to get onto the lot for a big studio, a role in coveted film, or to work with the best directors.  Just look at all the ballyhoo actresses went through to try to nab the part of Scarlett O’Hara in 1939’s Gone with The Wind?  Documentaries, movies, and even plays have been fashioned around that race for the role.  With the antiquated studio system getting the heave-ho decades ago and stars working as free agents, they were given more autonomy to take command of their own careers and that’s when the real ‘movie stars’ emerged.  That’s why it’s often true now that getting a star to board your film sometimes means that the film itself has to bend to their needs and not the other way around. 

Take Those Who Wish Me Dead as the latest example.  One only has to read the plot summary of author Michael Koryta’s 2014 book to glean that the part Angelina Jolie is playing in the big screen adaptation premiering in theaters and HBOMax isn’t the lead as originally written by the author.  As Hannah, a grief-stricken smokejumper assigned to a lone fire tower outpost after a bad decision in the middle of an already unpredictable fire resulted in civilian casualties, Jolie is a natural fit for the role but would have seemed like too big of a star to be playing a supporting character (i.e. second fiddle) to the main cast members. 

That’s where Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) comes in.  Purportedly brought in to rewrite the script submitted by Koryta and Charles Leavitt (In the Heart of the Sea), he took such a shine to the story and the character of Hannah in particular that when the original director stepped down, he asked Warner Brothers if he could stick around and direct the film too.  Promising to get Jolie (Maleficent) for the role, Sheridan was granted the chance to direct only his second studio feature (after 2017’s Wind River, though it may seem like he’s directed more after writing the screenplay for 2015’s Sicario, it’s 2018’s sequel, and most recently Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse).  While the script retains the basic ideas found in Koryta’s best-selling novel, Sheridan has largely shifted its focus of characters, jettisoning lengthy plot fabrications that added time and winds up delivering a taut thriller in the process.

Realizing his life and the life of his son Connor is in danger because of what he knows and has shared with the D.A. of Florida who was recently murdered, a widower (Jake Weber, Midway) flees with Connor to the only place he can think of that would be safe, the survival school of his friends Ethan and Allison Sawyer (Jon Berenthal, The Accountant, & Medina Senghore).  Unbeknownst to him, sibling assassins Patrick (Nicholas Hoult, Tolkien) and Jack (Aiden Gillen, Bohemian Rhapsody) Blackwell are already in pursuit and one step ahead of them.  When Connor (Finn Little, 2067) escapes a backroads ambush, he disappears into the forest and runs into Hannah who, displaced from her fire tower because of a lighting strike, is having a bad day herself.

With the brothers tasked with finding the boy that was given critical and damning info by his dad, a forensic accountant that uncovered some shady business dealings, it becomes a race to keep Connor away from the Blackwell Brothers while avoiding a large forest fire they started to smoke out the young witness and his protector.  Needing to overcome her own fears of failure in her recent past, Hannah eschews taking on a total motherly role for Connor and opts instead to treat him like one of her young recruits, pushing him forward as a way to make sure he remains safe in the face of danger.

In moving Jolie’s character to the front of the line, Sheridan does sacrifice some of the business Koryta had involving Connor and the Sawyers…but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have anything to do, either.  Senghore in particular is a real find in one of her first major movie roles and by the time you are biting your nails for her character your remember how well Sheridan has written for strong female characters in the past…though he could do to include a few more here and there.  What Sheridan doesn’t do as well in Those Who Wish Me Dead is fill in the character details as richly as he has in the past.  There’s obviously some deeper and darker things going on in Hannah’s life and connections she has to a few of the men in her squad (not to mention Ethan, Jolie and Bernthal share an excellent scene early on in the film that makes even more sense later) but save for showing viewers her penchant for risk-taking by zoom-zooming in the flatbed of a truck down a highway and then opening up a parachute, the character development is lacking in a lot of places.

The good news is that Sheridan has assembled a fine cast that mostly make it over these hurdles with ease.  Jolie’s gamine gait can easily clear unevenly written parts, so she’s taken care of but Hoult and Gillen struggle with defining the Blackwell’s as more than just rote killers.  From what I gather, the brothers were the true stars of the original novel (so much so that family members turned up in unrelated novels by Koryta in the future) but the chemistry between the two men is off.  Heck, I didn’t even know they were brothers until I read the press materials.  Holding much of the movie on his young shoulders, Little acquits himself nicely as a boy that’s seen too much and will pay the ultimate price unless he gets some immediate help.

Running a short 100 minutes, I appreciate that Sheridan kept this running at breakneck speed and think it’s fine how it is but wonder at the same time if Those Who Wish Me Dead might have also benefited from a little extra in its midsection.  The opening has a lot of ground to cover and we all know diving right in is always advisable to grab your audience from moment one and as you approach a finale you should never let the ending dip in energy.  I’d have been OK with having a few more breaths to take around the halfway mark and I think audiences who are enjoying the film will too.  This is above average popcorn entertainment that strikes the right balance in having a movie star paired with the right script/director.

Movie Review ~ Oxygen

The Facts

Synopsis: A woman wakes in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there, and must find a way out before running out of air.

Stars: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi, Marc Saez

Director: Alexandre Aja

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  They say with age comes maturity and that goes double for the film industry.  When French director Alexandre Aja started out in the early part of the new millennium, he hit the ground running with intense fare like 2003’s cult favorite High Tension.  Testing the resolve of his audiences (at least in the U.S.) by refusing to shy away from blood, gore, guts, and other things that make us wimpy Americans cringe, Aja became the go-to guy if you needed your film to push the limits of the R-rating and, at times, good taste.  His remake of The Hills Have Eyes gave some polish to Wes Craven’s grubby bare-bones original and how can we forget some of the visuals brought forth in 2008’s Mirrors (another remake, this time of a Korean film) and 2010’s 3D everything but the kitchen sink update of Piranha?

The old Aja was on display in 2019’s downright terrifying alligator flick Crawl, but something felt different in his approach to what could have been a chomp ‘em and leave ‘em box office gobbler.  Even though he was working with a film shot almost entirely on a soundstage that relied heavily on CGI effects to create its big nasty reptiles, there was a much clearer focus on atmosphere and thrills instead of the pure bloodlust that had fueled Aja’s productions for nearly two decades.  With the pandemic holding up plans for Aja’s big screen handling of the popular manga Space Adventure Cobra, there was an interesting opportunity for the director to step in on a project that had been drifting around for some time.

Originally set-up around Tinsel Town back in 2017 as O2 and set to star Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway, the actress never got around to making Oxygen and was replaced by Noomi Rapace (The Secrets We Keep) and a director who Aja had served as a producer for in past projects.  With its small set-up making it easy to film amidst restrictions implemented during the COVID lockdown, Aja took over as director and brought in Mélanie Laurent as a substitute for Rapace who remained as an Executive Producer.  Filming in July 2020 as Oxygen (or, Oxygène, s’il vous plaît)  the movie was snapped up by Netflix and became one of the streaming services initial offerings in its summer series of weekly film releases.

As the film opens, a woman (Laurent, Enemy) struggles to free herself from a strange cocoon in a darkened chamber.  She’s flat on her back and hooked up to a number of devices within this chamber with only a sentient operating system named M.I.L.O (Medical Interface Liaison Operator) to provide stilted answers to her questions.  It’s not that he’s being evasive (or is he?) but she’s just not asking the correct questions to discover not just where she is but who she is.  With no memory of her name or how long she’s been in what she learns is a cryogenic pod designed for hyper sleep (one that was decommissioned years earlier) she has to get M.I.L.O. to give her information that will help reconstruct the path to her imprisonment.  She can call out to law enforcement but without a name or location they are unable to come to investigate, let alone believe her in the first place. 

Representing another significant step forward for Aja, Oxygen might not ultimately score high on points in the originality department, but it does accomplish some respectable milestones along the way by keeping audiences engaged in the plight of our leading lady as she desperately tries to uncover her identity and how she came to be in her current situation.  I wasn’t sure at first the concept would be able to cover the full run time without cheating in some way and breaking free at some point to explore outside the pod.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the entirety of Aja’s film takes place within the cryogenic pod; instead of that feeling oppressive it winds up adding a degree of energy to the action and Laurent’s performance as her O2 levels decrease and she realizes time is running out.

A mid-point twist is the boost of energy that winds up carrying Christie LeBlanc’s script through to the end and it’s a nice little rug pull that shouldn’t be all that surprising if you were paying close attention from the beginning.  I wasn’t keeping as close of an eye as I usually do so I missed some obvious signs.  Twist or not, there are ample opportunities for Aja to show how much he’s grown-up since those High Tension days of gruesome ugliness.  Now, Aja seems entirely comfortable withholding some of the more squirm-inducing elements for when viewers are already a bit on the run, getting great mileage out of several sharp objects seen as benign medical tools making precise contact with skin.

There’s likely not a lot of replay value to be found in Oxygen once you’ve breathed it in but Laurent’s performance is so good, as is Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace) as the HAL 2000-ish voice of  M.I.L.O., that it’s entirely worth catching at least once.  The bonus is that you’ll see a director genre fans have long admired continuing to find sophistication in his work without losing the pointy edge that made him such a household name in the community to begin with.

Movie Review ~ Initiation

The Facts:

Synopsis: Whiton University unravels the night a star-athlete is murdered, kicking off a spree of social media slayings that force students to uncover the truth behind the school’s hidden secrets and the horrifying meaning of an exclamation point.

Stars: Lindsay LaVanchy, Jon Huertas, Isabella Gomez, Froy Gutierrez, Gattlin Griffith, Patrick Walker, Bart Johnson, Shireen Lai, Kent Faulcon, Yancy Butler, Lochlyn Munro

Director: John Berado

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Not for lack of labored trying, but it seemed like the old-fashioned slasher film had truly kicked the bucket.  Sure, studios could gussy up a subpar effort with all the fancy marketing they wanted and produce a slick trailer to make their hokey low budget cash grab appear to be a terrifying classic in the making, but once the butts were in the seats it didn’t take audiences long to realize they’d been duped.  Having been burned one too many times, horror fans stopped taking the bait and when the money pool dried up, so did the clamor for more slice and dice copycats of far more prestigious films from the heyday of the genre. 

I’d certainly found myself five minutes into what I honestly believed would be at least a decent time waster only to discover I was watching yet another uninspired rehash of the same old schtick.  Of course, there have been exceptions over the last few years like the excellent Haunt which did frightening wonders with a small budget and the surprisingly scary The Rental from, of all people, Dave Franco.  Even an ultra-low budget entry like The Last Laugh managed to drum up creativity by harkening back to useful giallo tricks of the trade.  That being said, the slasher genre and their central task of uncovering the identity of a masked killer had largely been pushed to the side in favor of supernatural and creature features to elicit shrieks.

My initial instinct when Initiation arrived in my inbox was to resist the urge to get too excited.  Wasn’t I just setting myself up for another round of disappointment thinking this film shot in three weeks could possibly break a long streak of losers?  The whole “killer on a college campus” bit wasn’t anything revelatory (take Happy Birthday to Me, Urban Legend, Scream 2, The House on Sorority Row, and even the unrelated The Initiation from 1984 to name a few), the movie would need to have some heft to it in order to muscle its way past already established properties.

If puny dreck like March’s Dreamcatcher and last year’s Backwoods are noodle limbed attempts to put their stamp on the slasher genre, then Initiation is the Arnold Schwarzenegger, or better yet, the Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2.  What we have here is an intelligent, well-made, perfectly decently acted return to what makes these types of film so much fun in the first place…the mystery of it all.  Everyone’s a suspect up until they meet a gory demise, and even if you’ll likely be able to spot whodunit and unravel some motive long before they are uncovered, it won’t matter much on account of the other elements coalescing so nicely.  The most exciting part of it all is that it’s done without it seeming labored, like it was a joyless chore to imbue a modern slasher suspense with the structure of old-fashioned plot devices.

Take, for instance, the opening of the film which finds the fraternities and sororities at Whiton University getting ready for a big bash at the most popular frat house on campus.  Obviously, the frat guys and sorority girls are going to be a bunch of duuuuuudes and bimbos ready to be picked off, right?  Well, you’d be half right because the sorority sisters are more responsible than we’ve seen onscreen lately, actively watching out for one another, and steering clear of any drink they didn’t pour themselves.  They’re aware of a nasty bit of social media tagging going on within the fraternity which assigns crude ratings based on their intimate encounters. And they’re not having any of it tonight.

At the party, head sister Ellery (Lindsay LaVanchy) loses track of one of her newest recruits but finds her in a room with her brother Wes (Froy Gutierrez) and some of his friends.  The girl is out of it but seems ok otherwise.  Still, of all people Ellery thinks Wes, an Olympic swimming hopeful, should know better.  Apparently, someone else thinks that too because the fallout from the events of the night turn deadly quickly when one of the partygoers is murdered in a most heinous fashion by a masked killer.  Police and campus security try to intervene but a plot for revenge has already been set into motion and it’s up to Ellery to find out who is slashing through her friends and stop them before they get to her.

If you groan when I say Initiation is a slasher film with a strong feminist slant then a) OMG, it’s 2021, get over it and b) don’t write this off because it has a point of view and sticks to it.  It’s not agenda pushing in the least but does have some aim in subverting what we know about these types of films.  Men are put into just as much jeopardy as women and, gasp, shown in vulnerable states of undress as well.  There’s not a fixated effort into forcing the issue but you don’t have to look very hard to see that’s what the filmmakers were going for.  At the same time, that doesn’t have any major impact to the bloody old school slashings that continue on for a number of unlucky souls.

Director John Beardo co-wrote the script with Brian Frager and star LaVanchy, another way the film kept our lead performer walking a similar but somewhat different path than the same old scream queen that has come before.  An active participant in uncovering clues on her own time (she’s a lab assistant on campus that uses her job to do some sleuthin’), the character is not afraid to be seen as smart, unapologetically say what she means, and yet she still winds up running for her life from a psychopath like they all do in these films. The rest of the cast turn in solid work, with Gattlin Griffith (Labor Day) appropriately sleazy as the dirtiest dog in the frat and a Shireen Lai as Ellery’s best gal pal who proves to be a welcome presence in some of the film’s more harrowing moments.

Above all else, Initiation delivers the goods on a consistent basis.  The action doesn’t seem to drag and Beardo and crew maintain a nice tone that doesn’t demean its characters or devolve into silly voids of laziness.  It also looks pretty snazzy too, with cinematographer Jonathan Pope utilizing interesting camera angles to heighten the tension with just a slight imbalance or flooding our view with the colorful lights at the early party that kicks off all the madness.  It’s just an all-around well planned and executed (pardon the pun) horror film made by people that knew what they were doing – and this is the reward.

Movie Review ~ The Water Man

The Facts:

Synopsis: A boy sets out on a quest to save his ill mother by searching for a mythic figure said to have magical healing powers.

Stars: David Oyelowo, Rosario Dawson, Lonnie Chavis, Amiah Miller, Alfred Molina, Maria Bello

Director: David Oyelowo

Rated: PG

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It wasn’t that long ago I was talking about actors trying their hand at directing and how some take their time to move behind the scenes.  Robin Wright made her feature film debut with the small indie Land which was practically a one-woman show and now there’s David Oyelowo arriving with his own directorial unveiling.  While both have had formidable careers throughout the past four decades (Wright is actually entering her fifth), it’s interesting to see them both challenging themselves on their first time up to bat in the big leagues with material that mines detailed and emotionally taxing ground. 

Thankfully, the skill that has assisted the likes of Oyelowo in his impressive list of credits makes him an ideal match for The Water Man, a coming-of-age family drama with a bit of folklore magic thrown in for good measure.  Working from an original script by Emily A. Needell (also making her full-length debut after several shorts she wrote/directed received some attention), Oyelowo calls in a few favors to gather a cast with some credibility and lucks out in finding that all-important unicorn in films centered on children: young actors that can actually act without coming off cloying or who grow to be intolerable by the end.

Young Gunner (the warm and winning Lonnie Chavis) has found an outlet for his artistic energy and a retreat from a darkness looming in his home within the comic books he has been creating. Unprepared to accept his young mother (Rosario Dawson, Trance) is terminally ill with leukemia and unable to discuss his feelings with his retired military father (Oyelowo, Chaos Walking) recently back from a long stretch overseas, Gunner fixates on a legend in his small town that has piqued his curiosity.  The tale of The Water Man that supposedly lives in the forest has been passed down through generations but while some elements have changed, one has not: The Water Man can cure disease and stave off death. 

Convinced finding The Water Man will be the solution his mother desperately needs, Gunner teams up with Jo (Amiah Miller, War for the Planet of the Apes), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who he’s heard has firsthand knowledge of the mysterious figure.  At first reluctant to do anything to help this younger kind, teenage Jo strikes a bargain with Gunner to bring him to the man he seeks.  As Jo and Gunner head into the woods and begin an adventure that will put them in the way of various outdoor elements and challenges they couldn’t imagine, Gunner’s dad works with the local sheriff (Maria Bello, Prisoners) and an unkempt town historian (Alfred Molina, The Devil Has a Name) to find the children before they run into danger.

Though The Water Man is being billed as a film for families, I would caution parents to give this one a second thought before showing this to young and/or impressionable children until you’re able to have a discussion with them about its themes.  Needell’s script has a sweet and subtle way of going about talking on tough topics like impending grief and loss but those are ideas which could be hard to grasp for children too young.  For everyone else, Oyelowo’s film winds up to be a film with real spirit and an amiable charm that casts a warm glow over its brief run time. 

It would have been great to see the film’s final act match the strength of what had come before but the magic of Needell’s script can only cast a spell for so long.  When it breaks, it tends to create a vacuum that a number of other pieces of The Water Man begin to get sucked away into.  Suddenly, the performances feel a little wooden and everyone is trying too had to make their final emotions count and that doesn’t jive with the laid-back style that came naturally in the previous 75 minutes.  It should be said that Oyelowo ends the film right where he should and follows it with a well-done end credits sequence over which a song written and sung by his honey-voiced wife plays.

Not the type of film that lingers long in the memory, mostly because nearly everything about it feels like standard storytelling, just done better than most, The Water Man is short enough to fill your cup but not quite to overflowing.  If anything, it demonstrates that Oyelowo has taken much of what he’s learned as a respected craftsman in his field and applied that to his work as a freshman director.  It can come off at times like an artist up to bat for the first time, but this is a solid double for those playing at home.

Movie Review ~ Above Suspicion

The Facts:  

Synopsis: A newly married FBI agent is assigned to an Appalachian mountain town in Kentucky and drawn into an illicit affair with an impoverished local woman who becomes his star informant. She sees in him her means of escape; instead, it’s a ticket to disaster for both of them.

Stars: Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Johnny Knoxville, Thora Birch, Sophie Lowe, Austin Hébert, Karl Glusman, Chris Mulkey, Omar Benson Miller, Kevin Dunn, Brian Lee Franklin 

Director: Phillip Noyce 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 104 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6/10) 

Review:  I’m the first to admit that it’s taken me a while to buy a ticket on the Emilia Clarke train.  I’m likely one of the last people to have avoided playing the Game of Thrones, I’ve yet to be completely won over by Clarke’s charms in films like Me Before You and Last Christmas, nor was I convinced she was destined to be an action heroine by Terminator: Genisys or Solo: A Star Wars Story.  I just wasn’t seeing a star there like most people did.  In the end, what I needed was a movie like Above Suspicion to turn my head and finally notice there was an actress with some depth there…and unfortunately this time she’s the best thing about the film. 

That’s partly due to strength of Clarke’s performance as Susan Smith which, through no fault of her own, winds up overshadowing everyone else in the film.  She sets a high bar for commitment: to the look, the accent, the demeanor, everything is considered and casts a believable picture of the local high-school dropout and sometime drug abuser.  Living in a cramped double wide with her drug dealing ex-husband (a bedraggled Johnny Knoxville, We Summon the Darkness) and a menagerie of rogue deplorables while raising their two children, Smith busies herself with small-time crimes like check fraud to help her stay afloat. Smith senses an opportunity for change when she hears new FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston, The Longest Ride) is working with the town’s law enforcement (Austin Hébert, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) to ferret out who has been robbing rural banks. 

Armed with firsthand knowledge of the culprit and not unwilling to give up names in exchange for payment, Smith’s informant relationship with Putnam escalates quickly to a physical level, even as she befriends his new wife Kathy (Sophie Lowe) at the same time.  However, once Agent Putnam has what he needs from Smith she becomes more of a liability than an asset and as her usefulness wanes, so does his interest in her on an intimate level.  With Putnam moving on and leaving Smith to deal with the fallout from the town who now views her as a snitch, she becomes desperate to either get her man back or make sure his success is short lived.

Little more than a juiced up made for television movie about the real-life scandal that rattled a small Kentucky town in 1988, Above Suspicion should work on screen as well as it does on the page.  Based on Joe Sharkey’s 1993 non-fiction book of the same name and adapted by Chris Gerolmo, who penned Mississippi Burning, it’s hard to fathom this tale of an FBI agent’s affair with his informant that led to murder could ever be called lackluster but absent in overall polish it certainly is.  Surprisingly, it’s directed by Phillip Noyce who is no slouch when it comes to putting together a crackerjack thriller with films like Dead Calm, Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, or heck, even the severely compromised 1993 Sharon Stone film Sliver to his credit.

The whole film feels flat and even though cinematographer Elliot Davis (Love the Coopers) captures some beautiful Appalachian scenery, he has a curious obsession with filming Clarke on a diagonal tilt and it doesn’t make the rest of the movie have any more depth to it.  It just makes you cock your head to one side in all of her close-ups.  Clarke is also underserved by Huston as her co-star, with the two exhibiting zero of the chemistry necessary to create the kind of heat that would convince us of the passion that burned hot but cooled dramatically once Putnam, a clear opportunist, saw something shinier ahead of him.  Huston plays the endgame at the outset, leaving little room for his characterization to grow having one foot out Smith’s door from the beginning. 

If there’s one actor that feels like a match for Clarke, it’s Lowe as Putnam’s short-suffering wife.  Not being married that long, Kathy Putnam already seems to understand that her husband is a flawed man who will need constant attention throughout their union.  Lowe brings a brittleness to the role that doesn’t stem from being a jilted wife but from being resentful of having to do all the hard work with her husband while Smith gets him for the fun parts.  Together, Clarke and Lowe share some excellent scenes that spark with the kind of liveliness the rest of the film really needed.  Popping up in a brief role, so brief I have to believe more of it was left on the cutting room floor, Thora Birch (Hocus Pocus) is Clarke’s bouffant-coiffed beautician sister that I wanted additional time with.  Sadly, the script favors more scenes between Putnam and Smith that just rehash the same arguments over and over again on why they can’t be together. Point taken, point made.

Originally intended for release in 2019, Above Suspicion fell victim to the delays of the pandemic and is flying below the radar into theaters before joining the other generic-named titles in the Redbox machines at your local gas station.  The entertainment value is marginal, and it’s mostly due to Clarke and some high production values that keep the film buoyed for most of it’s average running time.  Is it a total wash? No, nothing about tips the scales so much that I would say to skip it but thinking about how a tweak in the casting or even adjustments in performances could have helped up the ante just makes me wish I’d seen that better movie instead.