Movie Review ~ Awake

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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 ~ Endings, Beginnings


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Los Angeles woman unlocks the secrets to her life after meeting two handsome best friends at a party.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Jamie Dornan, Sebastian Stan, Wendie Malick, Matthew Gray Gubler, Lindsay Sloane, Ben Esler, Shamier Anderson, Kyra Sedgwick

Director: Drake Doremus

Rated: NR

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  When I was growing up, if I disappointed them the most crushing thing my parents could say to me was “We love you, we just don’t like you right now.”  Even though it still reaffirmed that they cared for me (and my parents were awesome and endlessly supportive through my many flights of fancy) and highlighted that my actions had an impact on how people perceived me, losing that bit of luster even for a moment was heartbreaking.  While movie characters aren’t quite on the same level as letting down your family, I found that phrase popping up often while watching Endings, Beginnings.  I truly like most of the actors in the film, I just didn’t like any of their characters.

It’s the story of Daphne (Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars), a California artist moving back into the pool house of her sister and brother-in-law after breaking up with her latest boyfriend.  You get the sense she made the decision to end things but is already having second thoughts because she can’t quite get him (or a hazy encounter with another unidentified man) out of her mind for much of the film.  Deciding to go cold turkey on men and alcohol for six months, she looks for work but finds it hard to stay away from her vices for long.

That’s when she meets two men in quick succession.  Jack (Jamie Dornan, Fifty Shades Freed) is a slick success story that charms the side of Daphne that craves stability while the handsomely rumpled Frank (Sebastain Stan, I, Tonya) meets her needs for satisfying love without deeper emotion.  Both, on their own, might not be all that she is looking for but together they provide a yin and yang that leaves her feeling whole.  Writer/director Drake Doremus (Like, Crazy, Equals) gives this modern love triangle a few sharp edges but the crux of the decisions Daphne has to make tend toward the soap operatic the more involved she gets with both men.

For a time, Endings, Beginnings creates a dreamy mood that invites you into Daphne’s world and that’s due in large part to Woodley’s charisma which continues to shine through.  Though she’s never been as good as she was in her star-making turn in 2011’s The Descendants (WHY didn’t she get an Oscar nomination, I ask you?), she has a good showing here even making the semi-improvised dialogue not sound like remnants from an acting class exercise.  The longer the movie goes on, though, the less you relate to the character because she stops being somebody real and morphs into a creation that could only happen in the movies.

As the men in her life, Dornan and Stan provide at least some interesting stakes for her to gamble on, even if they seem to exist only to get her to hop off the wagon of no men and no drinking.  That they actively push her to drink and don’t always respect her boundaries is a little off-putting, to be honest, and feels just a tad antiquated in a film as modern as this purports to be.  In small supporting turns (too small for my taste), Wendie Malick (Scrooged) has a few nice scenes as Daphne’s mom and the always reliable Kyra Sedgwick (Man on a Ledge) shows up as a friend in Daphne’s weekly art clutch.  I’m so used to seeing Malick playing vamp-y women that it was a nice change of pace to find her so restrained and while Sedgwick’s character seems designed only to spout sage advice and then disappear, at least she breaks up the monotony of scenes with Daphne and her men.

One more thing before I go.  I don’t know why I noticed this but the amount of smoking in this movie was absolutely obscene.  I’ve never mentioned this in any review before because it hasn’t been something that’s caught my eye but I swear I could smell smoke emanating from the screen at times because there are so many cigarettes consumed ad nauseam by Daphne, Jack, and Frank.  It’s used so much, I half expected it to be a plot device later in the movie…spoiler alert…it’s not.  I guess I just find it surprising that a filmmaker in 2020 would choose to feature this vice so prominently when it isn’t essential to any character or plot element.

For Woodley’s performance, I would give this a cautious recommendation with the caveat that the film gets markedly weaker as it goes along before completely disintegrating.  Here’s hoping Woodley gets another chance soon to play a mature character like this and can sink her teeth into a script that meets her step for step – she’s obviously willing to go the distance in her performance.  Now let’s get her something solid to work with.