Movie Review ~ The Secrets We Keep


The Facts
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Synopsis: In post-World War II America, a woman, rebuilding her life in the suburbs with her husband, kidnaps her neighbor and seeks vengeance for the heinous war crimes she believes he committed against her.

Stars: Noomi Rapace, Joel Kinnaman, Chris Messina, Amy Seimetz, Jackson Dean Vincent, Madison Paige Jones, Jeff Pope, David Maldonado, Ed Amatrudo, Ritchie Montgomery

Director: Yuval Adler

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  In 1990, playwright Ariel Dorfman wrote a charged play titled Death and The Maiden which centered on a former political prisoner that has started a new life with her husband in a remote part of the world.  Though it’s been years since her torture and rape at the hands of brutal guards, she remains haunted by her memories. When she believes she has run into one of her former captors by chance, she kidnaps him and enacts revenge…even though she isn’t totally sure he is the man who assaulted her those many years ago.  The play was a hit in London and Broadway before being turned into a 1994 movie from Roman Polanski starring Sigourney Weaver.

I was reminded of Death and the Maiden often while watching the new drama The Secrets We Keep because it shares many plot points with Dorfman’s earlier work.  Though it strays from the 1990 piece is several key areas, it almost feels like a slinky remake, albeit with less of a politicized edge than Dorfman implied and Polanski capitalized on.  Director and co-screenwriter Yuval Adler and his screenwriter collaborator Ryan Covington actually wind up treading on a lot of familiar ground here, producing a film that has a meaningful message at its core but is hampered by a clumsy delivery system.  Instead of truly delving into the dark areas it hints at, it opts to keep the night light on and avoid confronting anything seriously horrific.

Adler sets the film in 1959 anytown USA where housewife Maja (Noomi Rapace, Dead Man Down) lives with her doctor husband Lewis (Chris Messina, Live by Night) and son Patrick (Jackson Dean Vincent).  Their idyllic, post WWII town is thriving with a local refinery in full bore and an influx of returning veterans expanding their families.  The film has barely caught its breath when Maja hears a familiar whistle while lounging in the park with her son and follows the sound to a man that stirs a repressed memory.  A Romanian, Maja’s family was slaughtered by the Nazis and she was raped, along with her sister, by a gang of soldiers before escaping…the survivors guilt she harbors has been crippling and it all returns with that one whistle.

Convinced she has found one of the men that committed that heinous crime against her, she quickly puts together a plan to kidnap him and force him into confessing.  Turns out, Maja is quite resourceful and nabbing the unsuspecting man (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop) and getting him set-up in her basement isn’t all that difficult…but getting him to admit who he is will be.  With Lewis involved and her desperation to get the truth becoming more important than ever, Maja will resort to anything to uncover the truth.  Yet the question lingers, has Maja accused the wrong man?  Hints at psychiatric trauma and recent therapeutic sessions suggest there’s maybe a reason to doubt her recall of the events or call into question her judgement where her family is concerned.

Though the film is filled with numerous moments of supposed tension hinging on the discovery of a man trapped in the basement of this otherwise picturesque couple, I was surprised at how little energy the movie spends to create any kind of spark in anyone or anything.  There’s this general somber tone throughout and a drained-out color scheme that makes everything feel it’s either just coming back to life or about to take its last breath.  Rapace in particular looks so suspicious, you’d think she was hiding an entire football team and their grandmothers in her basement…she always looks rattled.  When she befriends the wife of the man (played by She Dies Tomorrow director Amy Seimetz with the kind of interesting mystery the entire film needed  more of) I kept waiting for the wife to ask her to blink twice if she needed help at home.

While the production design is solid and the costumes are more than just your usual pencil skits and trousers look, everything else just seems to tow the line…and that’s too bad because there’s an important story here waiting to be told.  Messina seems to be the one that’s hopped on the right train and knows where he’s headed and Kinnaman does too, for a bit, until the character has a shift that doesn’t get to be explored fully.  I always want to like Rapace more in films but possibly with the exception of 2012’s Prometheus she’s just never been as good or well represented as she was in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films in Sweden that made her famous.  While she’s well suited for the role, it ultimately proves to be another wrong fit for the actress.

The atrocious crimes committed by German Nazis against Jews and other marginalized Europeans during WWII have been explored and exploited by the entertainment industry for years by now.  It’s gotten to the point that the horrific rapes and murders depicted in the flashbacks seen in The Secrets We Keep are easy to chalk up alongside everyday crimes we’ve been desensitized to by the television and movies we watch.  I say that not to condemn the filmmakers of this film or any other with similar themes but to put into perspective how commonplace the acts portrayed within seem to have become…and make sure we never truly forget the real lives that were affected.  That’s one key area where the film succeeds, in detailing how this trauma can infest your entire life and the lives of others if not dealt with.

Movie Review ~ She Dies Tomorrow


The Facts
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Synopsis: A woman’s conviction that she will die tomorrow spreads like a contagion through a town.

Stars: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Katie Aselton, Chris Messina, Tunde Adebimpe, Jennifer Kim, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Michelle Rodriguez, Josh Lucas, Adam Wingard

Director: Amy Seimetz

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  In theater, there are a number of urban legends about productions or performances that were so bad the audience began to turn on the actors onstage.  There is the long-held rumor (that I don’t quite believe) of the matinee crowd attempting to sing above Sheena Easton in a Broadway production of Man of La Mancha to overcome her off key warbling.  The granddaddy of them all, though, is the tale meant to send a shiver down the spine of every theater nerd that dared overact and provide hearty laughter to everyone else.  Yes, it’s the one revolving around a troupe’s noble effort in a staging of The Diary of Anne Frank that had such poor acting it had one fed-up patron proclaim loudly “They’re in the attic!!!”

I couldn’t help but think of that particular anecdote shortly after She Dies Tomorrow began…because it’s around that time I blurted out “Is it tomorrow yet?” and then spent the next 75 minutes waiting for that moment to arrive.  Though it boasts a nifty poster and an appealing premise that appears tailor-made to the self-contained uncertainty we find ourselves living in, this incessantly grating bit of delirium shouldn’t have waited to put anyone (least of all us , the viewers) out of its misery.  Thus, it ends up being exactly the kind of messy dreck that gives indie films good street cred by those that seek out obscure titles to fawn over but is a complete dud for anyone else.

Though she’s recently moved into a new apartment and appears to have a semblance of a decent life, Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil, You’re Next) thinks she’s going to die tomorrow.  That’s it…that’s basically the entire premise of the movie that gets repeated over and over again within actress turned writer/director Amy Seimetz’s (2019’s Pet Sematary) languid script.  Actually, there’s a supposed bit of intrigue as to how Amy’s belief of her impending doom infects everyone she comes in contact with and how they in turn spread that paranoia onward.  Her friend (Jane Adams, Poltergeist, a kooky bright spot at times) passes it to her brother (Chris Messina, Cake), his wife (Kate Aselton, Bombshell), and their friends (Tunde Adebimpe, Marriage Story and Jennifer Kim, Spider-Man: Homecoming) before handing it over to a few other familiar faces that must have owed Seimetz a favor.  How this extended circle deals copes with their purported demise runs the gamut from the cruel to the criminal — not the kind of material that’s exciting to watch or that gives the usually talented performers much to work with.

It all comes back to Amy, though, and while Seimetz attempts to give an origin story to the fear that drives Amy to panic it’s covered in so much heavy-handed missteps in eye-crossing cinematography drowned out by an often ear-plugging score that you can barely pay attention.  So whatever larger message Seimetz is trying to convey gets lost amidst a clamor of her own making.  The same goes for the performances which range from the zombified (Sheil) to the whacked-out (Michelle Rodriguez, Widows) and in the end it’s Adams who likely comes out the best because the entire utterly bizarre film plays right into her wheelhouse of strange characters moving through this earthly plane.  Reportedly Seimetz used her salary from Pet Sematary to fund this picture and you wonder if the money wouldn’t have been better spent on an actual cemetery for pets instead of this eye-rolling folderol.

I can already see this being heralded a triumph by those bored on the straight-forward offerings available these past few months, but I saw no real artistry on display, unfortunately.  I felt like I should have responded differently but whatever takeaway I was meant to be left with vanishes among the punishing noise.  Even looking at the movie as metaphor for anxiety or grappling with the inner monologue of one’s own mortality lets the film off a hook it deserves to be hitched to.  So it’s not as if the intent wasn’t clear…it’s the execution that left me completely at odds with nearly everything else the film brought to the table, rendering it unwatchable in my book.  Its impenetrable notions of gloom and doom may send you scrambling toward your cure-all for the blues but it makes you wonder…when life is already so tenuous, why add more inexplicable horror to your plate if you don’t have to?  She Dies Tomorrow but pick something else today.

Movie Review ~ Pet Sematary (2019)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Dr. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, relocate from Boston to rural Maine with their two young children. The couple soon discover a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near their new home.

Stars: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Obssa Ahmed

Directors: Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Normally, I’m not a fan of remakes of originals that were just fine to begin with. Stephen King’s 1989 adaption of his own novel Pet Sematary was a solid horror film that has held up quite well over the past thirty years. Sure, it’s low tech and some of the performances delve into out-of-place hysterics at times but it was largely a successful effort and often spoken of highly as one of the better King adaptations that have made it to the big screen.

Yet I wasn’t that mad at the fact that the source material was going to get another treatment…and I actually thought it was long overdue. After a lackluster sequel that failed to move the series forward in any compelling way, the property just sort of sat there on the shelf for the ensuing years. I’ve always considered the book and its concept to be one that would lend itself well to multiple sequels and creative approaches yet no one had bothered to take another crack at it. As the original film approached it’s 30th anniversary, Paramount decided to dig up their former horror hit and handed it over to three guys that have been making a name for themselves in the scare business.

The new film has a screenplay written by Jeff Buhler who already had The Prodigy in 2019 and will pen upcoming remakes of Jacob’s Ladder and The Grudge, and was directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer who gave us the underrated horror gem Starry Eyes. Having these three give King’s tale of a city family that moves to the country and experiences the dangerous power of a nearby burial ground seemed like an on the money choice and with stars like Jason Clarke (The Aftermath) and John Lithgow (Pitch Perfect 3) on board this remake was elevated up a few notches from being just a shameless cash-in.

The Creed family has uprooted their life and moved to a small town in Maine so Louis (Clarke) can be a big fish in a small pond as the doctor at a local university. Like the first film, his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz, You’re Next) doesn’t seem to have much of a life of her own outside of taking care of their two young children so while Louis goes to work Rachel begins the process of setting her family up in their new house. Friendly neighbor Jud (Lithgow) catches young Ellie (Jeté Laurence) exploring in the woods and shows her the pet sematary on their property where children come to bury their pets. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis is driven to make an unholy choice involving the pet sematary that has deadly repercussions for everyone.

While the film largely falls into the remake category, with names and situations that echo what we’ve read/seen before, certain elements of the plot have been reimagined and not all of them work as well as they should. If you’ve seen the previews you’re likely aware of the one big change from the book/original film and that choice is, in hindsight, a smart one considering what it allows the filmmakers to do with the final 1/3 of the movie. What I didn’t care for, actually, was that last act when it became less of a slow-burn horror movie and more of a cheap scare machine which undercut some of the strong structure that was built up early on.

Another strange thing about this film is that Buhler’s script is overly talky. In most cases, having some extra character development in a movie designed to provide maximum scare time would be welcome but there seemed to be an endless series of scenes with Louis and Rachel talking in their bedroom. Feeling like low-grade Cassavetes, their marital squabbles and differences of opinion in how much they share with their children about death starts to feel intrusive to the frights. After a while, you begin to wish the bad thing that is coming will just happen so they’ll have something else to talk about.

Clarke, as usual, makes for a reliable leading man and the conflict Louis experiences sits well with him. No one plays tragically at odds with oneself quite like Clarke can. Like the movie, he starts to veer off course near the end but he holds on longer than the film does. I’ve not seen Seimetz in a lot of things but she brought a nice layer to Rachel that wasn’t present in the previous film. The subplot concerning her guilt over an incident from her childhood involving her dying sister isn’t as scary as the 1989 version because its less subtle but she navigates some jarring pseudo-scares quite well. The Jud character was always the most memorable in these films and while Lithgow is no Fred Gwynne, his wind-beaten face and growly voice convinced me right off the bat he was the right guy for the role. The trickiest part in the film is taken on by Laurence as the Creed’s daughter who has to play a whole range of emotions – for a young performer tasked with the film’s most important material she is a strong presence.

As they demonstrated in Starry Eyes, Kölsch & Widmyer know how to slowly turn up the heat on their movie pot and allow it to boil over at just the right time. Here, though, the pot stays on the fire just a hair too long, that is the difference between a remake that sticks its landing, and one that bites off more than it can chew. (I’m trying to jam pack this with metaphors today, clearly). The ending of the film doesn’t measure up and just gets too bizarre to the point where the audience laughs in all the right places but more than a few unintentional passages as well.

I feel like we’re going to be seeing more of these remakes of popular films over the next few years and if they turn out like Pet Sematary I won’t be totally disappointed. There’s some thought that went into this one and more than few examples of creativity on display that are worth noting from directors that are continuing to hone their craft. Showing a bit more appreciation for narrative follow-through and arriving at an ending that satisfies is what was missing.

31 Days to Scare ~ Pet Sematary (2019) – Trailer

Synopsis: Behind a young family’s home in Maine is a terrible secret that holds the power of life after death. When tragedy strikes, the threat of that power soon becomes undeniable.

Release Date:  April 19, 2019

Thoughts: Remakes are a tricky thing and often I feel like to remake an already established film isn’t really worth the time or money.  Why go back and revisit something that still holds up?  Sure, movies like Oceans 11 and even last year’s re-do of Stephen King’s IT improved upon their originals but what about the Carrie remake or any of the sanitized updates to horror films like Prom Night or When a Stranger Calls?  Tough stuff.

So here we are now looking down the barrel of a Pet Sematary remake and I’m conflicted.  The original 1989 film retains much of the same scares and thrills as it did when first released but this look at the 2019 version has arrived and I’m not inclined to claw at the walls in frustration.  I really enjoyed directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer previous film Starry Eyes and star Jason Clarke (All I See Is You) seems a good choice for the lead.  I just hope they can exercise some restraint and give us a spooky tale and not go into excess.  Don’t want audiences leaving the theater thinking that sometimes un-remade is better.

Make sure to check out my review of Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary, the documentary on the making of the first film.

The Silver Bullet ~ Alien: Covenant

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Synopsis: The crew of the colony ship Covenant discover what they think is an uncharted paradise, but it is actually a dark, dangerous world, whose sole inhabitant is the synthetic David, survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition.

Release Date:  May 19, 2017

Thoughts: Anticipation was high back in 2012 when director Ridley Scott’s mysterious Prometheus arrived veiled in secrecy.  Was it a prequel to Alien or wasn’t it?  Early previews gave few clues and neither Scott nor 20th Century Fox did much to fill in the blanks.  Prometheus sharply divided audiences and critics, some appreciating that Scott reached further back than mere prequel territory while others loathed it with a vitriol usually reserved for a Transformers sequel.  Personally, I loved it and saw it several times on the big screen; it’s cliffhanger ending only made me more curious about what would happen next.  The answer comes next May with Alien: Covenant and this first look is a neat (if overly gory/spoiler-y) intro to a film that looks very different than its predecessor.  Perhaps Scott (The Martian) and screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall, Spectre, Hugo) are trying to please the fans and detractors of Prometheus at the same time.  Riding that fine line would be good, I just hope they don’t overcompensate and make a faded copy of the original entry.  Aside from Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and Noomi Rapace (Dead Man Down) returning in their roles, star Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) certainly is going full-on Ellen Ripley and I’m interested (and a little nervous) to see how actors like Danny McBride (This Is the End) and the recently added James Franco (Sausage Party) figure into the mix. It’s worth noting that Alien: Covenant was originally intended for a release in October 2017.  It was then moved up to August before settling into a prime summer release date in May.  That’s a very good sign of a studio confident they have something big…let’s hope so.

Movie Review ~ You’re Next

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When the Davison family comes under attack during their wedding anniversary getaway, the gang of mysterious killers soon learns that one of victims harbors a secret talent for fighting back.

Stars: Sharni Vinson, AJ Bowen, Nick Tucci, Wendy Glenn, Joe Swanberg, Rob Moran, Barbara Crampton, Maragaret Laney, Amy Seimetz, Ti West, Larry Fessenden, Lane Hughes, L.C. Holt, Simon Barrett, Calvin Reeder

Director: Adam Wingard

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Oh I really wanted to like this movie a lot more.  Believe me.  We all know how the ever-lovin’ hype-machine can set the bar so high that not even an Olympic long jump champion could fly over it.  Unfortunately that’s what happened with my viewing of You’re Next, a film I probably would have rated higher had I not gone into it having read so many articles claiming it’s the Next Big Thing in horror.

Completed in 2011 but getting its debut now, you’d think that the movie had some sort of black mark with its overly long time on the shelf.  Well, it turns out that it was actually a smart move to hold the film back until now because back in 2011 audiences were still saturated with slasher films of decreasing quality and increasing stupidity.  Really starting with 2012’s Cabin in the Woods, the horror genre has undergone a slight maturity because viewers are demanding something a little bit more than just gobs of blood and guts.

Though the 2013 remake of Evil Dead and May’s The Purge did respectable business there wasn’t anything spectacular on the horror front until July’s The Conjuring.  Arguably one of the best horror films of the last decade, the haunted house fright flick laid its claim to scariest film of the year and no matter how good You’re Next was it was always going to have to settle for at least second place.

Yet You’re Next and The Conjuring couldn’t be more different in their methods.  Where The Conjuring earned its R rating without any blood, foul language, or nudity, You’re Next gleefully bathes in the sinewy awfulness of its R by serving up death at its most painful.  Stabbings, bashings, and more throat slashing than I could stomach (slit throats have always spooked me), and one truly original death by household appliance are all on display…You’re Next doesn’t let anyone die easily.

All this would be an hour and a half of twisted terror…had it not been for the fact that the movie is nearly equal parts black comedy as it is gory horror.  Comedy isn’t anywhere in the preview for the film and I have to say I was disappointed in how much the movie struggled with its teeter-totter balancing act between laughs and screams.  That’s not to say the movie can’t have its cake and chop it to bits too…but the comedy element was treated in the marketing materials like a dirty secret.  Had the movie marketed its winking aspirations to be a next level Scream, I think I would have been more prepared for the final product.

As it is, you never really know if director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett are really accomplishing what they set out to do.  Are we supposed to be siding with the various members of an average family as they battle vicious masked killers that come a-callin’ just as they are sitting down for an anniversary dinner?  Or are we meant to root for the killers to snuff out several family members with personalities no one will miss.  Though the bitter comedy bits do land successfully, they feel out of place with the rest of the slicing and dicing.

Also out of place is a lumpy stew of actors cast in roles that they don’t seem to fully be right for.  Though 80’s scream queen Barbara Crampton looks great for her age, I never once bought that she was the mother of these adult kids…but it’s not like Crampton goes to great acting lengths to do her character any favors either.  It’s fun to see various members of the next wave of horror directors pop up in bit parts with The Innkeepers director Ti West getting right to the, um, point of his cameo.

It’s the one outsider (of the family and the creative collective that sit in front of and behind the camera) that makes the most impact.  Australian Sharni Vinson (Bait) bides her time on the sidelines until she’s called up to the plate as a survivalist that gives the killers a taste of their own medicine.  Though the film creaks as it winds down with several interesting twists that surround a Home Alone-type booby trap ending, Vinson is an appealing presence throughout.

I think I’d like You’re Next more on a second viewing and if I’m being honest I liked the film more as I let it sink in.  Maybe it’s not the movie I wanted it to be but there’s more than a dose of cleverness going on here and at least it’s not another endless sequel made as a quick cash grab for its studio.  It’s probably more effective to be seen in the security of your own home…though you’ll probably check that the doors and windows are locked one extra time before you turn out the light.

The Silver Bullet ~ You’re Next

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Synopsis: When the Davison family comes under attack during their wedding anniversary getaway, the gang of mysterious killers soon learns that one of victims harbors a secret talent for fighting back.

Release Date: August 23, 2013 

Thoughts: If the advance buzz is to be believed, You’re Next is one damn good horror film.  Now, I always try to take that kind of praise with a grain of salt because one person’s Cabin in the Woods could be another person’s The Apparition.  Still, the slick and scary new trailer for the horror film releasing this August gave me more than a few chills.  The home invasion genre has been done well recently (2008’s The Strangers) but it seems there’s more terror to mine from a fear we all have about our general safety while at home.  Director Wingard and several of the cast/crew were also involved with the underrated gore-fest V/H/S in 2012 and if that film is any indication, You’re Next will be a twisted throat-grabber aimed to produce maximum screams.