Movie Review ~ Awake

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a sudden global event wipes out all electronics and takes away humankind’s ability to sleep, chaos quickly begins to consume the world. Only Jill, an ex-soldier with a troubled past, may hold the key to a cure in the form of her own daughter.

Stars: Gina Rodriguez, Ariana Greenblatt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances Fisher, Barry Pepper, Gil Bellows, Shamier Anderson

Director: Mark Raso

Rated: NR

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Blame Sandra Bullock and that darn Bird Box but ever since the 2018 film premiered on Netflix and created a massive amount of publicity for the streaming service, a number of imitators centered on a massive world event have tried to capture that film’s same energy.  It’s not that the original movie was all that special, but it hit at just the precise moment when audiences needed that particular kind of escapist entertainment and didn’t mind some of its sillier plot mechanics.  The point was, it was led by an A-list, Oscar-winning actress who may have brought people in initially, but who eventually stuck around for the effective scares.  Any attempt to duplicate that would be a bit pointless…but oh did people try.

At first glance, you may look at the new Netflix film Awake and chalk it up to another Bird Box wannabe, but any doubt of its intentions wears off within the first few minutes and you realize this is no mere imitation but a different kind of beast with its own plan of attack.  Like Bird Box, it can’t quite figure out how to untangle itself from third act problems and takes a bit of a nosedive just when it should be accelerating to the finish line. Up until that point, it’s a breathless thriller that succeeds on the merit of the performances and the skill of the filmmaking.

Recovering veteran and single mom Jill (Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire, an excellent actress that always seems to be one role shy of truly breaking through) is putting her life back together working as a security guard for a government run psychiatric unit while repairing the fractured relationship with her two children.  While she occasionally lifts unused pills from her job so she can sell them in order to make ends meet, she’s largely on the level, which is beginning to earn back trust from her former mother-in-law (Frances Fisher, Titanic) and daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblat, A Bad Moms Christmas), though her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos, What If) remains wary that his mom has truly turned over a new leaf.

After a solar flare creates an enormous electromagnetic pulse, wiping out all electronic devices and means of transportation, at first the family believes they need to just wait out this incredible inconvenience.  However, soon it becomes apparent that the unexplained phenomena triggered something else within the human race, rendering them unable to sleep.  Returning to her workplace, Jill finds the unit in chaos and her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) scrambling to relocate their operation to The Hub, a secret facility where they can study what has happened and, using a mysterious woman who has been able to fall asleep, figure out a way to fix it. 

What Jill fails to tell them is that Matilda can also sleep, something her mother-in-law has already figured out and told their local pastor (Barry Pepper, Crawl) who, in turn, has told his congregation.  Already whipped into a frenzy due to their lack of sleep, the prospect of having one in their midst that might hold the key to getting back their slumber becomes too much for them and violence erupts.  That’s about where Awake reaches the first of its numerous points of no return and as an audience member you’re going to have to either love it or leave it as Jill and her family go on the run from all kinds of sundry sorts over the next 90 minutes. Encountering car thieves (two different sets of them!), a highway full of nude cultists, and, in one of the film’s eeriest looking moments, a small town with streets full of wandering prison inmates in orange jumpsuits, there’s danger down every highway for this household. 

It’s a lot to handle, but Canadian director Mark Raso (who wrote the film along with his brother Joseph) keeps the pieces moving in a rather orderly fashion the majority of the time.  Raso isn’t above putting young Matilda in as much danger as possible but managing to do it in a way that has a sort of cinematic thrill to it.  That sounds weird. Let me explain. There’s a scene where Jill, Matilda, Noah, and a passenger who I won’t reveal are all in a car and attacked from the outside. In one camera move (or meant to look like one) we are inside the car, front and center, for the attack and it feels real and raw.  All this intensity works up unto a point near the end and that’s when Awake veers off course into territory that’s more messy than structured.  The final act may be a letdown after such a promising start, but it doesn’t completely overshadow the skill in which Raso constructs the setup.

Rumors abound that a Bird Box 2 is happening sometime in the future but until then we are going to have to be satisfied with films that run a similar route to that earlier movie.  Awake is one of the better Netflix films to arrive and wholly worth keeping your eyes open for. I don’t believe the Rasos intended to create a film to outpace the popular Netflix film Bird Box, but they’ve wound up with one that could easily be mentioned in the same breath and draw some favorable comparisons. 

Movie Review ~ The Woman in the Window (2021)

1


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.

31 Days to Scare ~ Possessor Uncut

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An elite, corporate assassin uses brain-implant technology takes control of other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets.

Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton, Rossif Sutherland, Sean Bean

Director: Brandon Cronenberg

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Anytime someone decides to call themselves a fan of something, it often comes with some kind unspoken limit to how far they are willing to go to show their appreciation.  I mean, it’s natural for a music lover to say they love The Rolling Stones, but would you camp out for two days in the rain for only the chance to buy tickets to a sold-out concert of theirs?  Or do you want that new iPhone that goes on sale at 3:30am so badly that you’ll set your alarm for 3:25 so you’re up and ready to purchase?  For horror films and the viewers that can’t get enough frights, there’s a similar line in the sand that many won’t cross, a personal run for the hills boundary it’s just too nightmarish to pass.

For me, the “body horror” genre is one that makes me squirm like no other and for the uninitiated it is defined as the intentional showcase of graphic or psychologically disturbing violations of the human body.  It’s sometimes referred to more crudely as “torture porn” when applied to the less sophisticated entries that have been produced within the last decade; think grotesque films like The Human Centipede or the disturbingly misogynistic Hostel series.  That’s a huge step down from its origins in Canadian cinema and director David Cronenberg.  It was his landmark films Rabid, Shivers, and even his 80s remake of The Fly that gave the body horror genre a gross but good reputation.

In the new film Possessor Uncut, a torch has been passed in this icky subgenre and in a sort of Shakespearean twist, the mantle has gone from father to son.  Directed by Brandon Cronenberg, the Canadian production has the same look, feel, energy, and shock of the work of his father and while you can spot the influences of his famous lineage throughout the intense film you also see a filmmaker with his own vocabulary coming forth.  I’d heard the buzz about this film long before it ever crossed my screening doorstep and it truly worried me.  The gore and extreme nature sounded like a true test of will and though these type of early reactions often prove to be exaggerations of overly excitable first-lookers, for once they weren’t too far off the mark.  This is a horrifying experience that infiltrates your nervous system for days after…but it’s also a real thrill; the kind of elegant top shelf genre picture that gives you exactly what it promises and says “You asked for it”.

In the not too distant future, a cutting edge tech company has found a unique method of assassination they sell to the highest bidder, or whatever conglomeration they might be able to use later to their advantage.  There is now a way for trained killers to plug into the brains of host subjects that have intimate access to those targeted for death and use them to carry out the evil deed.  The host is often self-terminated, the real killers final act before unplugging in their sleek lab offices miles away,  leaving no way to trace the vicious act back to anyone – the perfect set-up.  It’s a relatively simple one, too, and Cronenberg doesn’t spend a huge amount of time trying to explain the science behind it, preferring to let the audience piece the process together for themselves based off of what we learn from Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight) as she debriefs star assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) after the film’s shocking opening.

It’s obvious from the start that while the method to this madness seems smooth on paper, the mental and physical toll it takes to come back from each job blurs the lines of reality more and more with each task completed.  Tasya is estranged from her husband (Rossif Sutherland, A Call to Spy) and child and her visit to them early on is one of strained awkwardness, you almost get the sense that at this point she’s more comfortable in someone else’s skin than her own.  She’s also been straying from her normal routine when working as her host, becoming more interested in her victims and taking liberties with her directives on the best way to quickly eliminate her target. 

Ignoring the warning signs that she may be maxxed out and despite the protestations of a concerned Girder, Tasya jumps into another job, this time taking over the body of a man (Christopher Abbott, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) who is set to marry the daughter (Tuppence Middleton, Fisherman’s Friends) of a wealthy CEO (Sean Bean, The Martian).  With three days to carry out her mission, the job seems to be going as planned…until she’s unable to maintain the balance between her host personality and her own, both of which are strong-willed and fighting for survival.  This leads to a sinewy split between the two and devastating consequences for anyone that gets close to either.

In a number of violent films, you look back in retrospect and see that they aren’t as violent or gore-filled as you remember, it’s just the suggestion of it all that led your mind to fill in the blanks for you.  In Possessor Uncut (a curious name change from its original plain ‘ole Possessor, likely as it’s being released without a rating to avoid that dreaded NC-17), there’s no punches pulled and you not only see every brutal stab, slice, crack, and rip…you feel it.  The camera lingers on these moments, almost daring you to turn away and while it’s an endurance test to be sure (those with a fear of seeing teeth knocked out…you’ve been warned) it’s strangely not as horrific as it might be made out to be.  Remember, this is coming from the critic that normally recoils from this type of stuff.  I had to look away a few times, no question, but I think I had built it up to be far worse than it ends up being.

I’m hoping others give it that same chance too because there are some deeply good performances on top of Cronenberg’s inventive work as a director on display.  Riseborough continues to be an actress that pushes herself with each role, unafraid to go to ugly places or change her appearance with each new part,  She’s actually absent for a good chunk of the film when she’s inhabiting Abbott but her presence seems to always haunt the scenes she isn’t there for.  In many ways, she reminds me of Leigh’s work throughout the years (no shocker that Leigh has worked with David Cronenberg before in the semi-similar but not as intense, eXistenZ, from 1999) and Leigh seems to have found a kindred spirit with Riseborough.  Their scenes together are low-key but pulsating with energy.  Abbott has to do a lot of bold things here a number of actors in his generation wouldn’t get near, he carries it off well, understanding the difference between his body being possessed (which it isn’t) and controlled (which it is) and that helps the audience along with buying into the far-out concept.

I don’t often encourage people to watch the trailer for a film because they are so spoiler-y but the first trailer for Possessor Uncut is pretty good about giving you a decent idea of what you’re in for. If you think you can handle it…go for it. I can’t imagine seeing this on the big screen, honestly, the visuals would be just too overwhelming but for a late night viewing at home where you have the freedom to hide under the blanket, Possessor Uncut will work like a charm.  Even though it’s drenched it blood and body parts, it’s a classy affair with the son of a renowned horror director ably stepping forward into the spotlight in a major way.

Movie Review ~ Annihilation

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny

Director: Alex Garland

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Until last week when Black Panther was released, movie going in 2018 was lacking any real spark. There were some nice family films (Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit) and the final nail in the Fifty Shades coffin (Fifty Shades Freed) but January was mostly a chance for audiences to catch up on the awards favorites they missed during the holidays. With the arrival and phenomenal success of Black Panther and now Annihilation (not to mention the upcoming Red Sparrow), I’m wondering if we’re moving into a nice groove where entertaining, hyper-intelligent films designed to challenge audiences get their day in the sun.

I’ll say right off the bat that Annihilation is going to divide a lot of people. Your mileage may vary at how much the movie speaks to you or if it even works at all in your mind, but I found it to be a dazzling bit of sci-fi that gets pretty close to becoming a modern genre classic. Based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, it’s hard to classify, let alone describe, what goes on in Annihilation but my advice is to go in as blind as possible. My review of the teaser trailer was the last bit of footage I saw before the screening I attended and I’m positive that added to my overall enjoyment of the film.

Director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) adapted VanderMeer’s book with a bit of a loose interpretation of the set-up. I confess I only got halfway through the short tome before the movie screened but what’s onscreen clearly doesn’t follow VanderMeer’s cagey narrative. There are some facts that remain. Three years after a comet crashes into a lighthouse on the Florida coastline, the smartest minds in the world can’t figure out why a strange amorphous cloud has started to slowly envelop the surrounding land known as Area X. Dubbed The Shimmer due to its transparent yet colorful form, people may enter The Shimmer but they mysteriously never return…until now.

Mourning the loss of her husband who disappeared on a military mission nearly a year ago, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman, Jackie) is dumbfounded when he returns without fanfare not remembering where he’s been or how he got there. Something’s not right, though. Kane (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) looks the same and while Lena can’t put her finger on it is clear something’s off in her husband. How Lena winds up at Area X and enters The Shimmer is best left for you to discover but know that it’s important to pay attention to Garland’s informative but tricky script.

Accompanied in her journey by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight), Anya (Gina Rodriguez, Deepwater Horizon), Josie (Tessa Thompson, Creed), and Cass (Tuva Novotny, Eat Pray Love), Lena is plunged into an upside down world of mutated life that holds unseen dangers. With several detours into dreams it becomes harder to tell what is real and what The Shimmer is conjuring up to confuse the women, but the end goal is never clear and absolutely not foreshadowed. It’s refreshing to find a film that doesn’t let you get too far ahead of the plot and allows you a fair amount of surprise along the way.

The experience of watching Annihilation is harrowing, with Garland revealing only the bare minimum of information and allowing careful viewers to pick up his not very generous hints at the end game. We get time to know the women, which makes it all the more difficult to endure along with them the hell they go through the deeper they get inside The Shimmer. There are several terrifying sequences that give way to profound sadness, cinematic kicks to the stomach after the film has already delivered a debilitating punch to the throat.

I can’t imagine another actress taking on Portman’s role. The Oscar winner is notoriously choosy about projects and while at the outset I scratched my head at the thought of Portman as an ex-military biologist hauling her gun around a deadly jungle, she more than justifies her place at the top of the cast list. Leigh is another actress with curious but not universally loved gifts but I was taken by her quirky approach to the role of a psychologist possibly harboring a dark secret. Her voice is pitched higher than normal but that same dour expression is classic Leigh. Rodriguez may have won acclaim in her comedic role on television’s Jane the Virgin but she makes a compelling case for her star continuing to rise as a tough medic slowly unraveling in this new world. Thompson’s role is the most difficult for viewers to navigate because it’s so esoteric but it’s Novotny that leaves a lasting impact thanks to her delicately nuanced performance.

Garland hasn’t shied away from the darkness in his sci-fi tales before (he also penned the screenplays for Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and the traumatizing Never Let Me Go) but he’s gone to an even darker place here. Gorgeously shot by Rob Hardy (Endless Love) and featuring an omnipresent creepy score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, the film easily manages to land its ending, which is largely without dialogue and surprisingly sustained suspense. You may walk out of Annihilation or you may crawl…either way, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

31 Days to Scare ~ Eyes of a Stranger

The Facts:

Synopsis: A reporter suspects a creepy neighbor, who lives in the high-rise building across from hers, is a serial killer terrorizing the Miami area.

Stars: Lauren Tewes, Jennifer Jason Leigh, John DiSanti, Peter DuPre, Gwen Lewis, Kitty Lunn

Director: Ken Wiederhorn

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: This is a movie with a serious case of bad taste. It’s true that many similar early ‘80s slasher films had elements that called into question the morality of the filmmakers but Eyes of Stranger is a particularly good case study in just how far the limits of sleaze can be pushed. While it is better made than its modest budget would suggest and has one or two genuine ‘jump’ moments, the heart of the movie is so lurid and black that I’d question anyone that would recommend it without a major ‘buyer beware’ warning before doing so.

Eyes of a Stranger went into production just as the original Friday the 13th became a huge hit. Made by the same production company and featuring gore effects created by Tom Savini (often called the Father of Jason for the work he did on Friday the 13th and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), it was after the cameras were already rolling that more sex and blood were added, much to the dismay of several people involved. You can easily spot what’s been goosed up, mostly all of the elements that pander to the young audiences that were clamoring for more guts and gore.

A serial killer is on the prowl in Miami and an ambitious news reporter (Lauren Tewes, famous for her voyages on TV’s Love Boat) grows more fascinated with the case. We know she’s ambitious because she regularly interrupts the news anchor live on air to editorialize the lack of attention being paid by the police force. Living with her blind, deaf, and mute sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight, in her first major role) in a fancy tower apartment, she’s guilt-ridden over an event from her childhood that resulted in her sister’s current condition. It’s this guilt that screenwriter Ron Kurz (Friday the 13th Part 2) uses to provide rationale for the reporter to be so gung-ho in tracking down the killer. It’s not a bad set-up, if I’m being honest, but it’s in the execution (pardon the pun) that the film becomes pretty icky.

Director Ken Wiederhorn doesn’t shy away from the scuzzier elements of the killer (John DiSanti) who likes to terrorize his victims with threating phone calls before he rapes and murders them. Decapitations, throat slashing, stabbings, it’s all part of his oeuvre yet there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why he’s doing what he’s doing. A mindless maniac disguised as a schlubby loner, he strikes out with women so therefore he strikes back at them.

Several of these stalk-and-stabs are well staged and Savini’s effects are nearly too realistic, there were a few moments I got a good jolt or had to look away from the flowing blood. Still, by the time DiSanti is ripping Leigh’s shirt off and exposing her breasts while he tries to kill her I just felt like I needed a Silkwood shower to wash off the thick layer of grime the movie leaves on you. While it’s nice (and rare for the time) to have two female leads in a film like this and not to have at least one of the lead protagonists be a total dimwit, Tewes and Leigh don’t have any real sisterly bond going. It’s clear which of the two would have a lasting career.

I’ve seen a lot of these films over the years and it’s not hard to spot right away how effective they’ll be. I could see that Eyes of a Stranger was going to be a better-than-average entry in terms of production values but wasn’t expecting to find it so garish at the same time. It’s one of the few films from this era that I could see possibly getting a remake, should the right writer/director come along that can smooth out some of the rougher patches and expand more on the scary sequences that leave a lasting impression.

31 Days to Scare ~ Annihilation (Teaser Trailer)

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Release Date:  February 23, 2018

Thoughts:  Here’s another interesting project to look forward to in 2018.  Oscar winner Natalie Portman  (Jackie) stars in this adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, the first in a trilogy.  Portman has had some high highs and low lows in the years since she won her Oscar for Black Swan but add director Alex Garlad (Ex Machina) in the mix and I’m officially intrigued to see how this one plays out.  Paramount seems to have thrown a bunch of money at Garland, though in the past he’s been known to do a whole lot with very little.  This first look at Annihilation is a nice teaser trailer that hints at some of the horrors that await Portman and her crew sent to investigate an abandoned zone disconnected from civilization known as Area X.  Co-starring Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Tessa Thompson (Creed), and Gina Rodriguez (Deepwater Horizon), all eyes will be on this one to see if VanderMeer’s two other novels will get a similar Hollywood shine.

31 Days to Scare ~ Single White Female

cjlrozlvaaiwrnb

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman advertising for a new roommate finds that something very strange is going on with the tenant who decides to move in

Stars: Bridget Fonda, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Steven Weber, Peter Friedman, Stephen Tobolowsky

Director: Barbet Schroeder

Rated: R

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Ahhhh!  It’s movies like Single White Female that make me pine for a revival of the early ‘90s psycho thrillers!  It seemed that two decades ago not a week would go by without the release of another movie about a crazed boyfriend/girlfriend/co-worker/stranger terrorizing some poor unfortunate soul.  Giving birth to an endless trail of sleaze films (and sequels!) these potboilers were slickly produced and often featured top notch actors and directors pushing themselves out of their comfortable blockbuster zone.  Most of these movies are forgotten now, deemed cliché relics of a more exploitative time. Every so often, though, a film like Single White Female earns its place at the top of the heap.

Adapted by Don Roos from the novel SWF Seeks Same by John Lutz and efficiently directed by Barbet Schroeder (coming off of an Oscar nomination for directing Reversal of Fortune in 1990), the movie dives headfirst into its tale of software designer Allison Jones (Bridget Fonda) who winds up with the roommate from hell.  Needing the extra money to make the rent in her spacious New York loft (the place would rent now for thousands of dollars a month) and having recently broken up with her philandering boyfriend Sam (Steven Weber), she posts an ad that attracts a variety of eccentrics.  Arriving at a time when Allison is emotionally fragile, mousy waif Hedra Carlson (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight) quickly earns her trust and the keys to the apartment.

At first Hedy and Allie get along swimmingly, but when Sam re-enters the picture Hedy feels like she’s losing her best friend and living situation and she’ll do practically anything to stay where she is.  Next thing you know, Hedy cuts and dyes her hair to match Allie and starts wearing her clothes and that’s when the real weirdness begins…along with the murders.

The film has some interesting blunt obstacles to overcome, not the least of which is Hedy’s inherent oddball-ness from the get-go.  She preys on Allie’s need for companionship, a need that blinds her to the danger Hedy poses to far more than her security deposit.  Leigh brings some extraordinary depth to the role and moves the character from being not just a lunatic but a deeply wounded soul that lashes out when her happiness is threatened.  It’s a layered performance that matches well with Fonda’s sharp edged Allie.  Allie isn’t the sweetest soul either and there’s a little bit of a popular high school cheerleader rooming with the poor misfit outcast vibe to it all.  Makes me miss Fonda’s presence in Hollywood where she’s been sadly absent since 2002.

The film isn’t perfect, failing to explain any of the life that happens outside the walls of the apartment and not doing much in the way of etching out the male roles like Stephen Tobolowsky’s lecherous client of Allie’s and Peter Friedman (Side Effects) as an upstairs neighbor.  Feeling like a play at times, the concentrated claustrophobia of the historic building (beautifully filmed by Luciano Tovoli who did wonders with Suspiria) can be a bit suffocating at times but works in the films favor when it approaches its cat and mouse chase climax.

Aside from some guffaw inducing computer software graphics, Single White Female plays quite well in this age of advanced communication and connection.  It’s always a risk to live with a roommate you don’t know…but at least know you can Facebook stalk them or pull up their criminal history with the touch of a button.  Back in 1992, you had to go with your gut and in 2016 my gut still tells me to watch this thriller every few years.

The Silver Bullet ~ Morgan

morgan

Synopsis: A corporate risk-management consultant has to decide and determine whether or not to terminate an artificial being’s life that was made in a laboratory environment.

Release Date: September 2, 2016

Thoughts: Though I feel like I’ve seen this overall plot before (as recently as 2015’s Ex Machina), Morgan has a lot of positives going for it. It wasn’t made for much but it looks nice and expensive, it has a cast blooming with both interesting actresses on the rise (Kate Mara, Iron Man 2, and Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch, and Rose Leslie, Honeymoon) as well as veteran character actors (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight; Paul Giamatti, San Andreas).  It’s also produced by Ridley Scott (The Martian)…but then again his son did direct it so I’m sure he’s wearing his producer hat while drinking out of his Best Dad Ever mug.  The last Scott offspring that directed a movie was Jordan and she gave us the underrated gem Cracks so here’s hoping an eye for unsettling films runs in the family.

Movie Review ~ The Hateful Eight

4

hateful_eight_ver10

The Facts:

Synopsis: In post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunters try to find shelter during a blizzard but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. Will they survive?

Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Walton Goggins, Channing Tatum

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 187 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s hard to believe that as prolific as Quentin Tarantino has become, The Hateful Eight is only the eighth feature film released by the man with the manic energy and mad love for all things cinema.  Starting off strong with Reservoir Dogs in 1992 before hitting the mega big time with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, Tarantino has developed a definite style that he can reign in when he wants or let loose in most outrageous ways.

Last represented in 2013 with Django Unchained (which netted him his second Oscar for Best Screenplay), The Hateful Eight almost never saw the light of day as early script leaks frustrated the director.  Thankfully, Tarantino’s got good friends and they encouraged him not to be deterred by internet trolls and make the film as he intended.  Tweaking his script and gathering a most impressive line-up of stars, Tarantino has another winner on his hands and one that shows both sides of his cinematic calling card.

In a bloody mash-up of Agatha Christie mysteries and the snowy sci-fi classic The Thing, The Hateful Eight takes place primarily on one set, a haberdashery where strangers gather to wait out a blistering blizzard…but one (or more) of them aren’t who they claim to be.  Tarantino has crafted another memorable set of characters from bounty hunters John Ruth (Kurt Russell, Furious 7) and Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson, RoboCop) to retired General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern, Nebraska) to newly minted sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins, American Ultra).  Ruth has chained himself to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Spectacular Now), a wanted woman that faces the hangman’s noose once they arrive in Red Rock, Wyoming.  Also factoring into the mix is aloof gunsman Joe Gage (Michael Madsen, Die Another Day), Bob (Demian Bichir, A Better Life), and Oswaldo (Tim Roth, Selma).

How these people end up in the haberdashery are told through a framing device that divides the film into a half dozen or so sections.  Each section arrives via a title card that announces the chapter and gives the audience a clue as to what’s coming up.  This being Tarantino, he’s not afraid to go a little out of order so he can keep the mystery hidden a little longer.

For a film taking place in largely one location, it never feels stagey or cagey.  Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson (an Oscar winner for Hugo) make the small outpost look massive, the perfect place for a killer to hide out.  The performances are typically larger than life, with Russell going full John Wayne on his line readings and Jackson being…well…Jackson.  Goggins is an actor I can usually take or leave (mostly leave) but his goofy look and delivery mesh nicely with Madsen’s cool gunslinger and Bichir’s man of few words Mexican.  There’s a lot of buzz around Leigh’s performance and with good reason, the actress has several dynamite scenes that you’ll have to wait some time for…but when they arrive they’re the stuff Oscar nominations are made of.

Tarantino and The Weinstein Company are taking a unique approach to its release of The Hateful Eight.  Tarantino filmed the movie in “glorious 70MM” and several cities are playing host to a Road Show version of the film, complete with an overture and intermission.  If you can find this version, make sure to catch it because it gives you a full movie-going experience, recapturing the way movies were released back in the heyday of moviemaking that Tarantino pines so longingly for.  It’s also an opportunity to hear the great Ennio Morricone’s haunting score during the overture.  It’s crazy Morricone has never won an Oscar and his work here might finally right that wrong (though he’ll have stiff competition from John Williams with Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

At 187 minutes the movie is a commitment and I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t get a little snoozy during the first half.  It feels as long as it is…but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  When it does let loose, it becomes a graphic cornucopia of blood and brain matter and one character ends the film covered head to toe in gore.  The wait for this is most certainly worth it, especially when the strings are being pulled by so many talented contributors.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Hateful Eight

hateful_eight_ver2

Synopsis: In post-Civil War Wyoming, bounty hunters try to find shelter during a blizzard but get involved in a plot of betrayal and deception. Will they survive?

Release Date:  December 25, 2015

Thoughts: It’s still hard to believe that Quentin Tarantino has only directed eight feature films (I not counting the outings where he did additional filming or directed as part of an anthology)…but it’s impressive that each one has been a not-so minor classic.  Anyone that has an appreciation for film should also have an appreciation for what Tarantino (Django Unchained) does, cinematically, with each of his films.  From the cast to the score to the script to the production design to the cinematography, Tarantino shows time and time again in each and every frame that he celebrates film through and through.  True, his proclivity for extreme subjects doesn’t leave him open to be fully embraced by audiences with quieter tastes, but his fans (myself included) always look forward to his next endeavor.

The Hateful Eight is one to get excited about.  Filled with a stable of Tarantino favorites (and a few that you can’t believe have never worked with him before) and made in “glorious 70MM” this western drama takes place primarily on one set over one night…a bold move to make from an already bold director.  This first teaser is a sight to behold, it gets the juices flowing and gives me faith that I can make it through another busy holiday schedule if this is going to be my reward.  Can’t wait.