Movie Review ~ The Lodge


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A soon-to-be-stepmom is snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote winter cabin. Isolated and alone, strange and frightening events threaten to summon psychological demons from her strict religious childhood.

Stars: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone

Director: Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Living in the Midwest, we take the cold and the snow very seriously.  When the temps drop and the white stuff piles up, there’s nothing more we love doing that hunkering down indoors and waiting for summer to arrive, all the while hoping the cabin fever keeps its distance.  So you’d understand why, for me, when a movie like The Lodge comes around it doesn’t spark the same kind of instant fear that someone in, say, Malibu might have if they could think of nothing so horrible as to be stuck in a wintery retreat cut off from the outside world with malevolent forces at work.  That being said, I’m always up for a spooky little horror yarn from an independent distributor and this one was arriving with a sharp snare drum of good buzz so I made sure to bundle up and see it at a recent screening at my local Alamo Drafthouse.

Usually, you can take the pull quotes from the marketing materials with a large grain of thick kosher salt because the studio is looking for the lines from advance reviews that will catch the greatest amount of attention.  Why call a movie “scary” when you can call it “the scariest movie I’ve seen in ages!”?  Thankfully, those smart folks at Neon aren’t out to overshoot things and have found a good one to describe this new horror film from Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz: “Scary as Hell” and for once they aren’t too far away from spot-on.  This is a taut, largely unpredictable film that refuses to be put into a box early on and manages to maintain its mood and suspense far longer than it ought to.

Now, it’s going to be harder than usual to discuss this without giving away some semblance of spoilers because the set-up has some spoiler-ish elements but know that I’m weighing what I’m revealing against your overall experience.  Read on if you will – or if you truly don’t want to know anything that stop right now and come back and read this as you’re warming up after the movie.

For Aidan (Jaeden Martell, Midnight Special) and Mia (Lia McHugh, Hot Summer Nights) the holidays aren’t going to be the same as they were last year.  Their parents have split up and while their emotional fragile mom Laura (Alicia Silverstone, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) works out her own issues they are spending more time with their dad, Richard (Richard Armitage, Into the Storm) and his new girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough, Mad Max: Fury Road).  As is the case with many children of divorced parents, the teens aren’t taking too well to dad’s new squeeze and it doesn’t make things better when he invites her along to their family cabin weekend for the Christmas holiday.

On the surface, Grace seems like she should be a good fit with the family.  Though maybe slightly too young to be both in a new relationship with Richard and a possible future stepmother, she bares a striking resemblance to Laura and that only adds fuel to the fire of Aidan and Mia’s dislike for her.  When Richard leaves for a planned weekend back in the cities for work, he leaves Grace alone with the children and that’s when things start to get…weird.  You see, Grace was the only surviving member of a mysterious doomsday cult and her sanity begins to teeter on the edge when unexplained things start to occur.  Is it the children playing a practical joke, have shadowy figures from her past come back to continue their work, or is Grace simply losing her mind and imagining it all?

There was a Q&A after the movie with the directors and they seemed to revel in the fact that this movie is as twisted as it is.  Going off of their previous film, 2014’s Goodnight Mommy, I definitely see why they would have been drawn to this as their follow-up because there are similar themes of children acting as possible manipulators on fragile adults and how their games can turn deadly.  What’s so intriguing about The Lodge is the way it builds its central mystery with such care that the solution could have been any number of outcomes.  I honestly had it in my mind it was going in one direction and had the scenes/dialogue to back-it up…only to have the directors pull the rug out from under me with another twist I didn’t see coming.

All the twists in the world wouldn’t have meant a hill of beans if they didn’t have a cast that was able to convince you to go in the wrong direction over and over again.  Martell and McHugh have tricky, tricky roles and for reasons that I can’t divulge will only say that what they are asked to do is pretty remarkable right up until the credits run.  I’m so glad to see Silverstone continue to take on challenging roles that couldn’t be further away from her Clueless days and while Armitage likely has the least interesting part of all, he manages to keep you wondering what he’s up to when he vanishes for long stretches of time. The film belongs to Keough, though, and her gradual descent into a calculated madness is well thought out and benefits from Fiala and Franz shooting the film in chronological order.  That allows Keough to chart her breakdown convincingly; giving her room to find the little ways her resolve begins to crack along the way.

For most of these types of movies, once the Big Twist has been revealed the rest of the run time gets a little tiresome as audience members just wait for all the edges to be rounded off.  In The Lodge, Fiala and Franz make good use of what comes after to instill even more disturbing outcomes, serving up real time consequences that are tough to watch.  You can tell Fiala and Franz have affinity for their characters in the way they see them through to the finish line, but that doesn’t mean they let them off easily.  This one earns its stripes as a solid horror film but also benefits from strong film making at its core.

Movie Review ~ The Night Clerk


The Facts
:

Synopsis: While on duty, a young, socially challenged hotel clerk witnesses a murder in one of the rooms but his suspicious actions land him as the lead detective’s number one suspect

Stars: Tye Sheridan, Ana de Armas, Helen Hunt, John Leguizamo, Johnathon Schaech, Jacque Gray

Director: Michael Cristofer

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  As a lifelong fan of all things mystery and thriller, I’ve come to know my way around a whodunit.  At first, being able to decipher the plot twists and guess the solution early on in a film was frustrating because I felt I was somehow being let down by the movie not playing its cards closer to the chest.  I wanted to have to work to figure it out – that’s the fun of it all, right?  Well, as I kept watching over time I found that it became more interesting to see what else the film was offering up even if it couldn’t keep its secrets safe until that final reel.  Often, I’d wind up appreciating performances more when I saw how they lined up with where the outcome was heading and that showed signs not of a weak script but a well-thought out one.

I mention this at the beginning of my review for The Night Clerk because the murder mystery plot that writer/director Michael Cristofer uses is well-worn and easy to solve almost from the top.  I wouldn’t dare spoil it but Cristofer has not built this tale on a series of complex plot machinations and, y’know, I think that helps the movie at the end of the day because it allows for more interesting moments to emerge.  Though working with a tiny budget that doesn’t call for much in the way of sets or location shooting, Cristofer has assembled an appealing cast that approaches the material as a drama first, a mystery second.

Working the late shift for a modest hotel chain, Bart Bromley (Tye Sheridan, Mud) is trying his best to overcome his socially awkward ways.  Clearly on the spectrum but high functioning and living in the basement of his mother’s house, Bart has taken to hiding video cameras in the hotel rooms but not for the reasons you may think.  Instead of being a peeping Tom, Bart observes the way the guests interact and models his speech patterns and conversation starters off of the topics he overhears.  While he still eats the meals his mother prepares alone in the basement as she dines solo upstairs longing for her son to sit with her, you can tell he’s trying to forge some kind of connection that makes sense to him.

Thriving off his routine, Bart’s precision and order is upended after a guest is murdered while he watches remotely, unable to help, on his video monitors.  He’s haunted by the event but unable to say anything to his mother (Helen Hunt, The Sessions) or the cop assigned to the case (John Leguizamo, American Ultra) who can tell Bart knows more than he’s letting on and is further perplexed by Bart’s over-interest in the homicide.  Complicating things further is another guest at the hotel, a mysterious beauty (Ana de Armas, Knives Out) that seems to understand and accept Bart more than others.  Is she the kind soul he’s been waiting for, or is there another plot underway that’s tied back to the earlier murder?

Surprisingly, the murder plotline and everyone associated with it (including Johnathon Schaech’s hammy overacting as a grieving widower) becomes the least interesting part of Cristofer’s film once de Armas arrives.  As Andrea, at first you wonder if she’s just a figment of Bart’s imagination until you realize that isn’t the kind of movie Cristofer is trying to make.  The enigmatic figure struts into Bart’s life late at night and captivates him for all the right reasons.  Sure she’s beautiful but she also appears to be a genuine person and the scenes Sheridan and de Armas share are quite good and interesting to watch.  It’s always a gamble when someone without autism takes on a character on the spectrum but Sheridan doesn’t make Bart a jumble of tics and clichés.  He slightly overdoes it at times but for the most part, it’s an admirable take on the challenge.

Running a trim 90 minutes, the interludes with Sheridan and de Armas can’t carry the entire running length and when Cristofer attempts to pull a series of last minute twists it starts to fall apart a bit because he’s tugging at too many strings all at once.  I would have been more interested in this one if it was just a drama about two people that found each other in an unlikely situation and managed to develop something interesting out of it.  Introducing some seedier elements cheapens that special relationship Sheridan and de Armas create but it doesn’t take away from it fully.  Worth checking this one out if you can catch it on your streaming service.

Movie Review ~ The Assistant


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A searing look at a day in the life of an assistant to a powerful executive as she grows increasingly aware of the insidious abuse that threatens every aspect of her position.

Stars: Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen, Kristine Froseth, Makenzie Leigh, Noah Robbins, Dagmara Domińczyk, Purva Bedi

Director: Kitty Green

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: A film like The Assistant was bound to arrive eventually.  Ever since the Harvey Weinstein scandal brought to light the unspoken predatory behavior beyond Hollywood’s closed doors there have been countless news articles, think pieces, and non-fiction works that have gone deep into how things got as bad as they did.  Yet for as many of these real-life dealings in sensational exposés there was going to come a time when a fictionalized account would make it way to screens and I was bracing for a squirm-inducing bit of discomfort.  The trailer for The Assistant is cut to look like a razor sharp thriller and even the log-line promises “a searing look” at a day in the life of our titular character.

So…why isn’t The Assistant more affecting or more substantive?  Writer/director Kitty Green certainly has decent designs on her compact story told over the course of one seemingly ordinary day but whatever she’s trying to say about the current state of the Time’s Up or #MeToo movement gets lost in muddled delivery.  It’s never clear if this is an indictment on the industry at large or intended to cast a withering look on those that see troubling things happen but refuse to say anything.  Instead of being a modest yet compelling voice that adds to the proposed change the industry needs, The Assistant winds up becoming a frustrating part of the problem with its resolute adherence to staid storytelling.

Jane (Julia Garner, Grandma) works for a high-profile movie exec at an unnamed studio and seems to have gotten used to her surroundings.  She arrives before dawn and sets up for the day; organizing schedules, preparing coffee, and steeling herself for her boisterous male peers that routinely slough off the more mundane tasks to her plate.  We never see the boss, only hearing his muffled bark on the phone or through walls when he’s berating his staff but his presence hangs over the office like a dark cloud.  Aside from the occasional celebratory (Patrick Wilson pops in playing himself and seeing that his wife Dagmara Domińczyk has a smaller role you wonder if they aren’t friends of the production), a parade of women flow through the doors during business hours, with no one batting an eye if some of the more exotic beauties leave slightly disheveled, unable to make eye contact on their way out.

When a pretty but clearly unqualified girl fresh off the turnip truck shows up saying she’s been hired by the boss as a new assistant to work alongside Jane, Jane’s reaction and next steps are startling for two reasons.  The first is that she recognizes just how little importance is placed on the work she’s currently doing and it’s somehow only dawning on her now that hard work in the industry only gets you so far.  The real lesson, and best sequence of the movie, is a scene between Jane and an HR leader (Matthew Macfadyen, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms) who she has turned to with her concerns.  Garner and Macfadyen both play the dynamics of this conversation well and it takes you in directions you may not initially guess.  Green’s script may not give Garner the kind of speech you want her to have but there’s something telling in what’s not being said between the two characters.

If only the rest of The Assistant had been as finely tuned as this one scene, it may have amounted to more than a small distraction that further illustrates that men in power routinely abuse their position.  I wish Green had gone further in the forum she was given and had been able to create some more depth in the other secondary characters that fill out the rest of the cast.  Aside from Garner and Macfadyen, everyone else seems to be barely etched and, consequently, played without much grounding.  There’s something to the structure Green has created but it’s in the building of the finished product where things just fall flat.