GOD’S COUNTRY (2022) – Powerful Drama Uses Subtlety to Ratchet Up Tension

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GOD’S COUNTRY (2022) is a slow-burn thriller that grows stronger the longer it goes on, using subtlety to ratchet up the tension the way other lesser-made movies use violence to do the same. As such, it’s a refreshing and resounding drama that packs a punch from start to finish.

What GOD’S COUNTRY has to say, that racial disparities and violence against women continue to be unchanged is disturbing, mostly because it is hard to argue that the movie is wrong.

Figuratively, the film plays out like a western of old, only the protagonist is a woman of color, alone on the prairie, dealing with bad men with guns, pushed to the limit, until she has to stoop to their level, like a classic gunfighter of yesteryear, and beat the villains at their own game. But GOD’S COUNTRY isn’t a “western,” nor an action movie, but a drama about a college professor dealing with both subtle racism and in-your-face violence.

It’s a masterful story and movie well worth the price of a movie ticket.

GOD’S COUNTRY takes place in beautiful western Montana, “God’s country,” where college professor Sandra (Thandiwe Newton) has recently moved from New Orleans, and with the passing of her mother, she is grieving. She lives alone with her dog in a farmhouse with stunning mountains and wilderness all around her. One morning after her morning jog, she finds a red pickup truck parked in her driveway. Her employer and dean at the college Arthur (Kai Lennox) tells her not to worry about it, that it probably just belongs to some hunters, and they never bother anyone.

But Sandra takes offense to their parking on her property, and when the truck is parked there again, she leaves a note asking for them not to park on her property. But they ignore her request, even after she speaks to them in person, and when they shoot an arrow into her front door, she calls the police. Acting sheriff Wolf (Jeremy Bobb) tries to tell Sandra that things are different in Montana than in New Orleans, and that most of the time, these issues are solved not by calling the police, but by the folks themselves. But Sandra says she feels threatened, and so against his better judgment Wolf agrees to talk to the two men. Sandra insists on going with him, which doesn’t make the situation any easier.

They meet the first man Nathan (Joris Jarsky) at his job, and he takes offense at Sandra being there with Wolf, and he worries that Wolf’s presence there in the store will cost him his job, which Wolf assures him it will not. Nathan reluctantly agrees not to park in Sandra’s driveway anymore. But when they visit the second man, Samuel (Jefferson White), the more unpredictable of the two, at his place of work, cutting down pine trees, they find themselves in the forest suddenly surrounded by hostile men wielding chainsaws, in one of the movie’s most riveting scenes, men who refuse to listen to Wolf, because, as we find out, the former sheriff is on a leave of absence for shooting and killing one of the men’s brothers, and so they do not trust the police at all. It’s Sandra who steps up and offers her sympathy and condolences to the men and gets them to agree that the man who shot the brother is not there with them, and so she convinces them to let her, and Wolf walk away, no harm, no foul. It’s here where Wolf recognizes that Sandra wasn’t a college professor back in New Orleans.

And later over a conversation at a party hosted by Arthur, Wolf learns that his suspicions are correct, that Sandra was a cop back in New Orleans. And in one of the movie’s best scenes, Wolf asks Sandra why she left the force, and he guesses that she shot someone in the line of duty, to which she replies, that’s the worst thing you can think of? When she goes on to tell him that the reason she left was because of what happened after Hurricane Katrina, how the authorities and the system failed her people, and her mother specifically, it’s a powerhouse moment, where the audience feels as dumbfounded and as foolish as Wolf, who offers a weak “I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” which causes Sandra to walk away.

The tension rises when Sandra begins to follow Nathan and Samuel to learn more about them, and they view this as an escalation, and the acts of violence against her grow more serious. Meanwhile, Sandra grows more frustrated at her job when Arthur fails to include a person of color for an open professorship. Things build to an explosive climax, and as I said, this one gets better as it goes along.

There’s a lot to like about GOD’S COUNTRY. Director Julian Higgins continually inserts brief snippets of close-ups of items inside Sandra’s home, soaking in pouring rain, giving the audience a sense of foreboding that something awful is yet to come. The entire film is beautifully shot in western Montana, and this natural scenery is at odds with the humans who inhabit it. The film’s title GOD’S COUNTRY has multiple meanings here. The literal, the setting, but it also refers to the recurrent theme of useless faith. Sandra’s mother put her faith in God yet was left to fend for herself in the hurricane in New Orleans. It also speaks to what God’s country ultimately is in the United States, a flawed unfair system that hides behind the notion of God while it does whatever the heck it wants.

Thandiwe Newton, who stars in the TV series WESTWORLD (2016-2022), plays Sandra as a sad, cautious, and ultimately fed-up woman who is sick and tired of being bullied by the folks around her. She comes off to the casual viewer as being somewhat of a pain in the backside, and early on in the movie the audience tends to agree more with her levelheaded boss Arthur, and the two hunters don’t at first seem all that unreasonable. But Sandra asked them not to park in her driveway, and they refused. That in and of itself needed to change, and when it doesn’t, the audience’s view on Sandra changes. It doesn’t matter that she might seem annoying, those guys should one, be off her property, and two, should leave her alone, and when they don’t, that’s when the problems get worse.

Jeremy Bobb as acting-sheriff Wolf is convincing as the laid-back country police officer who became a cop because his high school coach was also a cop, and he figured it was a worthwhile profession.

Kai Lennox is excellent as dean Arthur, the man who seems fair minded at first, but the more we learn about him, the more we realize he’s not as progressive as he says he is. The scene where Sandra has had enough and tells him to f*ck off, is one where the audience feels the same exact way.

Jefferson White is sufficiently slimy as the unhinged hunter Samuel, but Joris Jansky is even better as his buddy Nathan. In another of the film’s many powerful sequences, the scene where Sandra follows Nathan into a church is a perfect microcosm for the story this movie tells. When Nathan sees Sandra, he tells her she has to leave, but when she sees his mother playing the organ, she tells him that her mother also used to play the organ at church, and she also tells him that her mother has just recently died. The two converse quietly in the back of the church, on their mothers, and on faith, and they seem to gain an understanding of each other and bond, but moments later, he tells her in a harsh and threatening manner, that she has to leave the church now!

That’s what happens in God’s country.

The screenplay by director Higgins and Shaye Ogbonna is a real strength. It makes its points without hitting you over the head with them. It uses subtlety to great effect. When Arthur’s young secretary confides in Sandra and tells her that Arthur sexually assaulted her, when she gives the details, it at first sounds so harmless— in other words, it’s not a blatant rape or grope, but it is a massage, and the film gets you to realize, of course this isn’t harmless!

The film’s ending, in which Sandra realizes there is only one way to finally stop these men, which comes after they have inflicted great harm to her, hearkens back to the classic westerns of old. In a way, this seems disappointing, that this is the best we have as an answer. But that is what the film is ultimately saying, that as much as we want change, nothing is changing.

It’s a somber message, but it all works.

GOD’S COUNTRY is well-made drama that speaks volumes as to what life is really like in this nation some people call God’s country.

I give it three stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

DON’T WORRY DARLING (2022) – Utopian Thriller’s Reveal a Disappointment

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If you’re going to make a science fiction thriller with an anticipated “big reveal,” you’d best keep the “big” in the reveal.

DON’T WORRY DARLING (2022), a new quasi-science fiction thriller, fails to do this. It has a reveal all right, but it ain’t big! The only thing big about it is, it’s a big letdown!

DON’T WORRY DARLING takes place in the 1950s in an idyllic closed community located somewhere in beautiful sunny California, where the young husbands of the families who reside there all work for an ultra-modern, yet mysterious company run by the eccentric Frank (Chris Pine). It’s mysterious because no one seems to know exactly what the company does, as the husbands never talk about their work, and the wives don’t seem to care. They’re all wealthy and happy in their utopian community.

The story focuses on one couple in particular, Alice Chambers (Florence Pugh) and her husband Jack (Harry Styles). They are the perfect couple, and life has never been better, until one of the wives and one of Alice’s best friends, Margaret (Kiki Layne) begins to act strangely and make unexpected accusations against the company, saying it took her son away from her. Her behavior is dismissed by Frank as delusions after the traumatic experience of losing her son in an accident out in the desert, an area the wives are told not to visit because of the hazardous materials there. But when Alice witnesses Margaret commit suicide, and when she is later told that Margaret is fine and is recuperating at the hospital, she pushes back against being told she only imagined she saw Margaret take her own life.

More strange occurrences ensue, and Alice realizes that this utopian community isn’t as it seems. There is something else going on. And the rest of the movie follows Alice as she tries to figure out what is really going on, while everyone else, including Frank and her own husband Jack, fights back against her, telling her that she is unfortunately dealing with her own delusions since she too ventured into the desert and was affected by the “hazardous materials.”

This all leads up to the anticipated “big reveal,” which as I said, isn’t all that big. Nor is it terribly new or exciting.

But before the reveal, the film has a lot of good things going for it.

Things get off to a lively start with some energetic and creative direction by director Olivia Wilde, who also plays one of the wives in the movie, Bunny. The cinematography is bright and cheery, and the homes, cars, costumes, music, and characters all capture the 1950s perfectly in an opening montage that has this film hopping in its first few minutes. The setting and the characters are established with gusto.

The performances are very good. Florence Pugh, who has never looked better, by the way, is perfect as the fully content stay-at-home wife Alice, until she begins to doubt that she is living in a utopia, and that something far more sinister is going on. The one knock here is we’ve seen Pugh play this type of role before, specifically in MIDSOMMAR (2019). Not a big deal, but as good as Pugh is here, it wasn’t quite as fresh as some of her other performances. Still, she’s a wonderful actor, who I first noticed in the wrestling movie FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY (2019), and who has since wowed me in the aforementioned MIDSOMMAR, in LITTLE WOMEN (2019), and in Marvel’s BLACK WIDOW (2021).

Harry Styles as Alice’s husband Jack is convincingly loving and supportive, until the plot takes a different direction, and his character takes on a ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) vibe, as he plots against his wife.

It was fun to see Chris Pine cast against type as the villain here, Frank, the man who coolly and confidently seems to have an answer for everything. Frank is super annoying, and he gets under your skin. Pine’s performance might be the best in the movie.

Timothy Simons makes for a dubious doctor who works for the company, Dr. Collins, whose stoic demeanor irritates as he counters Alice’s emotional accusations with calm comments to the contrary. And director Olivia Wilde is effective as Bunny, a housewife who seems to be one of the most loyal to the needs of the company.

The screenplay by Katie Silberman, based on a story by Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke, presents an interesting premise but then doesn’t deliver on that premise. From the get-go, the audience knows there’s going to be a twist, a reveal, as it’s pretty darn clear that this utopian society isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. And so, it’s not a surprise when that reveal happens, but worse, the reveal itself is something we’ve seen before, and this take on it is nothing new.

On a metaphorical level, the story tackles the issue of the husband who stomps on his wife’s autonomy, which is the most interesting theme the film has to offer, but it’s handled in such a superficial way that it really doesn’t resonate.

And while the characters are generally interesting, and the two leads Alice and Jack likeable, no one really drives this movie. Pine’s Frank is the most effective character in the film, but he’s the elusive villain, and so the bulk of the movie isn’t built on him.

So while DON’T WORRY DARLING starts off well, it actually slows down and becomes rather dull long before the disappointing reveal.

Director Olivia Wilde does a decent job here, but I prefer her previous directorial effort, the sharp and funny BOOKSMART (2019).

DON’T WORRY DARLING has some creative direction, and a couple of strong acting performances by Florence Pugh and Chris Pine, but none of it is enough to overcome its dull reveal or sluggish second half pace.

Don’t worry about missing this one.

I give it two stars.

—END—

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

BARBARIAN (2022) – Horror Movie Dragged Down by Strange Plot Structure, Far-Fetched Menace

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Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to think otherwise, a movie is just plain stupid.

This is one of those times.

BARBARIAN (2022), a new horror movie by first time director/writer Zach Cregger, who’s known mostly as an actor, is getting lots of buzz and love from fans and critics alike, and I have to admit, I’m scratching my head over all the excitement.

BARBARIAN opens well with a promising premise when Tess (Georgina Campbell) who is in Detroit for a job interview arrives at the Airbnb house she’s renting to find out that someone else is already there, and that someone is Keith (Bill Skarsgard), and he’s there because the rental was accidentally double-booked. Not knowing what else to do, Keith tries to be the gentleman and invites Tess to spend the night, promising to sleep on the couch, and that she can have the bedroom. Tess hesitates at first but eventually agrees, which sets up some nice early tension as Keith while certainly doing his best to seem friendly, does have that Norman Bates vibe about him, and so, the audience, like Tess, isn’t exactly sure what to make of him.

Later, things grow creepier when Tess discovers a hidden room in the basement as well as a series of very scary looking underground tunnels. When she tells Keith, he wants to investigate for himself, and when he doesn’t come back upstairs, Tess decides to go looking for him. When she hears him crying out for help….

…the film makes a dramatic shift from dark underground tunnels in a rundown neighborhood of Detroit to sunny California where we meet an actor named AJ (Justin Long) who’s flying high until he learns that his co-star on a new TV show that is about to launch has just accused him of sexual assault and rape. His life is suddenly turned upside down, and his assets are about to be liquidated as he will be spending lots of money on legal fees, and his job options in light of the accusations against him come to a screeching halt. He decides to sell some of his properties, some of which are located in Detroit, and he goes there to check them out before he sells them.

Yup, it turns out that AJ owns the house in which Tess and Keith were staying. When he gets there, he finds their stuff, but the house is empty, and so he believes he has squatters, but then, he hears noises coming from the basement…

There’s more, which I won’t go into here.

BARBARIAN has a strange story structure, and even stranger characters, which all add up to a mess of a movie that I’m guessing is receiving praise for its combination of violent scenes and some semblance of social commentary. But none of it worked for me.

The first third of the movie did work. I really enjoyed Georgina Campbell’s performance as Tess, and I bought into her plight of being stuck in a crappy situation, having to stay in a house with a man she didn’t know at all. Likewise, I enjoyed Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Keith. He possessed just the right balance of nice guy vs. too nice to keep the audience guessing as to which one he really was. And of course, his recent performance as Pennywise in the two IT movies tilted opinion towards the latter, that maybe there was something secretly sinister about him.

All of this worked well, and both Campbell and Skarsgard shared good chemistry together, so the start of this one was firing on all cylinders, and once Tess discovers the shadowy underground rooms and tunnels, the film really does enter some frightening territory.

But then just when the story is about to go to some very dark places, the action cuts away to the sunny west coast and the character of AJ, who at first seems to be providing comedic relief, and Justin Long is more than up to the task of generating some laughs. The scene where he takes a tape measure to the underground tunnels, trying to measure the square footage for financial purposes, had some folks in the theater laughing out loud. But the more we learn about AJ, the more we realize he’s an arrogant creep, most likely guilty of the rape he’s been accused of.

And he becomes a central character.

Now, and this is where the social commentary comes in, the film makes it known that he is a creep, and the commentary seems to be that this kind of person doesn’t even seem to realize the harm they are doing. Somehow, I didn’t really find this point all that interesting. I mean, so what, and who cares?

Then there’s more back story, as there’s a flashback to the 1980s where we learn about the original owner of the home, and we see how all this stuff started, as the guy is a genuine monster.

And lastly, there’s the main threat in this film, which is a being that seems to be there only as reason to give the story a menace. I thought this whole story and explanation was ludicrous, ridiculous, and without merit. The point seems to be there are some men who are monsters. True. And the “creature” here is the result of these male monsters’ actions. It’s a simple point, dragged out to create a supposed novel menace which in reality is a far-fetched plot point.

I also found the violent scenes of murder in this one to be all rather disappointing. They’re way over the top— arms being torn off, for instance— and they are not scary. In fact, other than a creepy first third, the rest of the movie in terms of scares falls way flat.

The scariest part of BARBARIAN is its setting. The underground room and tunnels are disturbing. What happens inside them is not.

And while critics and some fans are loving it, I know I’m not alone in my opinion that this one just didn’t work, as I saw it in a fairly crowded theater, and most of the folks on their way out were either shaking their heads or saying out loud, “That was stupid!”

The film’s title is most likely a play on words, as the house in the film is located on Barbary Street, while several characters in this movie act like barbarians.

Some are calling BARBARIAN one of the best horror movies of the year.

I completely disagree. For me, BARBARIAN is one of the worst horror movies of the year.

Conan the Barbarian would not approve.

I give it one star.

—END—

EMILY THE CRIMINAL (2022) – Aubrey Plaza Shines in Riveting New Thriller

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When the criminals treat you better than the employers, you know there’s something wrong.

I mean, if you’re going to work your fingers to the bone and get paid bare minimum, with no rights as an employee, why not work for the criminals who are paying you lots of money and are being more up front and honest with you than people in the workplace?

That’s the premise behind EMILY THE CRIMINAL (2022), a new thriller starring Aubrey Plaza about a young woman who is struggling to make ends meet who turns to crime when she is finally fed up with it all.

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) works long hours for a food delivery service and spends her days delivering and serving food to various clients. She is saddled with student debt that she cannot pay off… we witness one phone conversation where she learns that her recent payment only covered the accrued interest and not the principal of the loan…. and her efforts to find a better paying job continually fall short. She has a criminal record, for one incident of aggravated assault, and this hinders her job search. In one interview, the interviewer tells her he hasn’t read the record yet and asks her to explain it, and when she gives an alternate account, he reveals he has read it, which she sees, and rightly so, as an act of deception.

When she interviews for an upscale design position, she learns it’s actually an unpaid internship. And when her current boss changes her hours without warning, she complains, but he tells her there’s no union, no place to file grievances, so either work or leave.

All of this is why when a co-worker gives her a phone number and tells her to call it because it’s a gig that will pay her $200, she does it. After calling the number, she meets Youcef (Theo Rossi) who explains to her and the others who have also showed up that day that they will all make $200 cash, but that they will be doing something illegal. It turns out it’s a “dummy shopper” scheme where they use stolen credit card numbers to buy goods, in this case a flat screen TV, which they then turn over to Youcef who will then turn around and sell the TVs to make more money. Emily agrees, it goes well, and Youcef tells her there is another job if she’s interested, but the stakes are higher, but it will also pay $2,000.

After some soul searching, Emily decides to do the job, and even though it is more dangerous, she gets the money, and soon after decides to go all in with Youcef and continue this life of crime.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL is a well-made, smart and ultimately enjoyable thriller that I liked a lot. Its story works, like most good stories do, because it is based on truth. Employers often do treat workers terribly, prospective employers are sometimes less than honest in interviews, and there are lots of places that believe unpaid internships are real jobs. If you have spent time struggling to find work, especially work that pays well, you know this is the case. I certainly do.

Emily is an artist who loves to paint, but she can’t even think about doing what she loves because her life is a grind where she’s working only to pay bills and her student loans, and in spite of long hours, she’s failing at both. And so, it makes perfect sense for Emily when she discovers the illegal dummy shopper scheme, that she’s not going to say no. She’s desperate. And when she takes things to the next level, the audience understands her decision, because they understand her motives. She just wants to live her life. And capitalism just isn’t giving her a fair shake at the opportunities.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL features a terrific performance by Aubrey Plaza in the lead role. Plaza has been around for a while, and I have not seen a lot of her work, but she’s riveting here. She plays Emily as tough as nails, someone who is sick and tired of being pushed around, and when she decides to push back, it’s something to watch. Plaza of course played April on the TV show PARKS AND RECREATION (2009-2015) and she also starred in the TV show LEGION (2017-2019). She also starred in the remake CHILD’S PLAY (2019), which I liked, and she was in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010) as well.

Theo Rossi, who has also been in a ton of stuff, plays Youcef, who in spite of seeming cold and detached at first, shows more honesty in his dealings with Emily than most of the traditional employers she has dealt with. He also has a soft side, and as the story goes along, he and Emily grow closer. Rossi nails the role, which was much more satisfying than his recent comedic turn in ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021). Rossi played the villain, Shades, in the Netflix Marvel TV show LUKE CAGE (2016-2018), and he was memorable as Juice on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY (2008-2014).

Jonathan Avigdori makes for a nice villain, playing Youcef’s cousin Khalil, who is much more heavy-handed than Youcef, and who also doesn’t like Emily all that much.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL was written and directed by John Patton Ford, and it’s his first feature film credit. I loved the script, as it both tells a riveting story based on truth, and also creates a captivating character in Emily. You’ll root for Emily the same way you rooted for Bryan Cranston’s Walter White in BREAKING BAD (2008-2013).

There are some intense scenes here, like Emily’s attempt to steal an expensive car, and the sequence where a couple breaks into her apartment to turn the tables on her and rob her.

EMILY THE CRIMINAL is a satisfying small market movie that is more enjoyable and refreshing than many of the bigger budget movies in release today.

Definitely check this one out.

It would be a crime to miss it.

—END—

BEAST (2022) – Idris Elba Anchors Solid African Adventure

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For an actor as talented and as popular as Idris Elba, he sure has made his share of bad movies.

And based on the trailers for his latest, BEAST (2022), a tale where he plays a dad protecting his two daughters from a menacing lion in the wilds of Africa, I expected this one to be added to that list. The good news is BEAST is not a bad movie.

Not at all.

BEAST opens in Africa, where we see a bunch of poachers killing a pride of lions, but the male lion gets away and moments later returns to attack and kill the poachers who had remained in search of him. So, right off the bat, we learn that this isn’t just some random hungry lion, but rather, an animal with an agenda. He’s out for revenge, against the poachers or any other human who gets in his way!

Cue Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) and his two teenage daughters Meredith (Iyana Halley) and Norah (Leah Jeffries) who arrive in Africa from the U.S. to reconnect after the death of Nate’s wife and the girls’ mother. Nate and his wife had been separated, and while separated, she had died from cancer. Meredith blames her dad for not being there for their mother while she was sick, and the guilt is something Nate carries with him deeply. He never intended not to be there for his wife, and he wants to make amends now by being there for his daughters. His wife was born in Africa, hence the trip, to reconnect with her roots.

They are greeted by Martin Battles (Sharlto Copley), Nate’s good friend and uncle to his daughters. Martin is the man who introduced Nate to his wife, and so they all share a special connection. Martin spends his days helping the authorities keep the poachers away from the animals. When he takes Nate and his daughters out for a ride through the wilds of Africa, they unfortunately cross paths with the vengeful lion from the movie’s opening, an animal with only one goal in mind: kill every human it comes in contact with.

And that’s the set up for the rest of the movie, as it pits Elba’s Dr. Nate Samuels against the vicious lion, as Nate vows never again to let his daughters down.

As premises go, the one in BEAST isn’t bad, but it’s not great either. The reason it works however is the material is handled well by everyone involved.

The screenplay by Ryan Engle, based on a story by Jaime Primak Sullivan, rises above the material mostly because the dialogue is excellent, and it gets the dynamic between Nate and his daughters right. They act like real people, and when you put real people in danger, you have an exciting movie. There is just so much stress in the conversations between Nate and his daughters, and all of it comes off as real. It also helps that both Meredith and Norah have distinctive personalities. There’s one scene where Nate tells his daughters to stay behind while he goes up ahead to see what’s going on, and when Martin tells him to run, and he turns to say the same to the girls, he sees that Norah is missing, and he asks Meredith where she is, and she says she was there minute ago. As Nate desperately searches for his youngest daughter, he says to Meredith, “You had one job!” In this one moment, you have genuine father/daughter angst plus the suspense of the rogue lion closing in on them.

Engle co-wrote the screenplay to RAMPAGE (2018), a very different “attacking animal” movie, as that film, which told the story of a giant ape and some other giant monsters, was based on the popular video game and was high camp and was a perfect vehicle for Dwayne Johnson. Engle also wrote a pair of Liam Neeson action thrillers, THE COMMUTER (2018) and NON-STOP (2014), both of which were formulaic but ultimately worked because they were Liam Neeson action thrillers! I liked these movies, and BEAST is not only on par with them, but it’s probably the best of the lot for creating realistic believable characters.

Director Baltasar Kormakur also does a nice job here. First and foremost, the lion scenes are intense, better than I expected. Sure, it’s CGI, but it looks really good. The best part is the lion moves with a speed and a ferocity that is quite scary. There are these quick bursts of insane aggressive energy which jostle the audience. Even though the final outcome of this movie is never in question, the lion sequences where he constantly attacks Nate and his daughters are quite suspenseful.

And of course, the film takes place in the wilds of Africa, which is a plus. I believe it was movie critic Gene Siskel who once said when he was reviewing the Sidney Pollack film OUT OF AFRICA (1985), a love story starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford which took place in Africa, that any movie which was set in Africa would be improved just by the scenery and setting alone. He wasn’t wrong.

But I didn’t go to see BEAST because of its African scenery or its marauding lion. I went to see it because of Idris Elba. As I said, he’s a terrific actor, and I’m a big fan. And yes, he has made his share of bad movies…. NO GOOD DEED (2014) and THE DARK TOWER (2017) come to mind…. but the thing about Elba is, regardless of the movie, he always delivers a top performance and often lifts up lesser movies by his performance alone. And when he’s in a movie that really works, like THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021) for example, the results are usually outstanding.

Elba is terrific here in the lead role as Dr. Nate Samuels, a man who is guilt-ridden over the death of his wife, since he wasn’t there for her, and who is hell-bent on protecting his daughters from the menacing lion. He’s also believable in the physical aspects of the role, having to go toe to toe— or is it claw to claw?— with the lion, even if towards the end some of the sequences do border on the far-fetched. The other neat thing about his character is at first his daughters seem to have lost a lot of respect for him, and later, when his skills as a doctor become so important to their survival, and they witness this, it makes for some noteworthy moments.

Of course, the gold standard for Elba fans remains his work on the superior TV show LUTHER (2010-2019). And for years now, Elba’s name has been floated as possibly being the next James Bond, and even though the producers of that series are supposedly seriously interested in him for the role, he’s on record this year as saying he’s not interested in Bond, so it sounds like that’s not going to happen. Which is too bad. He’d be really good.

Both Iyana Halley as Meredith and Leah Jeffries as Norah bring their characters to life, and they represent a complicated family dynamic that only ads to the tension in the film. They are both fiercely independent characters, and for example, at one point when Nate tells them to say inside the vehicle, Meredith believes otherwise and doesn’t listen to her father. What makes this moment and these characters work is that she’s not wrong, She sets out to do something she believes she can do, and she does it.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen Sharlto Copley in a movie, and he’s fine here in a supporting role as family friend and guide Martin Battles. Back in his heyday, Copley was playing major roles in some pretty big science fiction movies, as the soft-spoken hero in DISTRICT 9 (2009) and as the violent and vicious villain in ELYSIUM (2013).

BEAST was better than I expected. It’s a well-written movie that creates believable characters and puts them in danger. For the most part, it keeps things realistic, although things do grow more far-fetched towards the end, and its ending does strain credibility. I think most people would be dead when put in similar predicaments. Elba’s Nate pretty much challenges the lion to a hand-to-hand combat battle. Yeah. That’s the one part of the movie that— yeah.

But the rest is all very good. You have an exciting story throughout, amazing African scenery, and yet another worthy performance by Idris Elba anchoring the whole thing.

BEAST is a genuine popcorn movie that provides solid summertime entertainment.

Give it a roar!

—END—

NOPE (2022) – Jordan Peele’s Latest Labors as It Tries Too Hard to be Clever

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Sometimes movies try too hard to be clever.

NOPE (2022), the latest genre movie by Jordan Peele, the man who brought us GET OUT (2017) and US (2019), goes out of its way to be puzzling and thought-provoking, but this creative zeal often gets in the way of its storytelling, to the point where its narrative never really flows, instead laboring from start to finish as it works through an otherwise interesting story.

In NOPE, OJ Haywood (Daniel Kaluuya) and his sister Emerald (Keke Palmer) operate a ranch in California where they train horses to appear in movies and television, so right off the bat you have an interesting premise just with the main characters’ occupation, as this isn’t something we see in movies all that often. OJ hasn’t been right since the tragic death of his father Otis (Keith David), who was killed in a bizarre accident when he was struck by random debris which fell from a passing plane. But OJ was there that day, and he never saw a passing plane in the sky, although there was thick cloud cover and some strange noises overhead.

Soon OJ is hearing and seeing strange things through the clouds which seem to always permeate the sky above their farmhouse. When computer geek Angel Torres (Brandon Perea) arrives to help them set up surveillance cameras, he joins them on their quest to find out what is going on in the sky above their home. And when OJ gets a closer look at the phenomenon, he tells his sister that it didn’t move like a ship, implying that while it seems to be a UFO, it might be something different…

And that’s the premise of NOPE, as the main characters try to unravel the mystery in the skies above their home.

As stories go, I liked the one told in NOPE, but as I said, the way Jordan Peele tells it comes across as more labored than polished. Peele obviously chose to tell the story in this way to be more creative and innovative. Scenes often end in the middle, effectively teasing the audience, not letting them know answers and information needed to figure things out. The movie also opens bizarrely, with a scene from a cancelled sitcom after a tragedy struck.

We find out later that former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) who runs a western show not far from OJ’s ranch, was on the set of that sitcom when the tragedy ensued, something that scarred him greatly. Ricky’s story ties in directly with the main one in the movie because he too has seen the strange phenomenon in the sky, but his take on it is different from OJ’s, and a lot of his interpretation is based on his childhood trauma. So, it all connects. Eventually.

As does the plot point about OJ’s relationship with his horses. Everything that happens in this story is there for a reason. I don’t have a problem with that. But the convoluted way Peele goes about telling his story gets in the way of effective storytelling, and as a result, I had a difficult time warming up to this one.

It also gets in the way of the characterizations. No one in this movie really comes to life, in spite of some nifty acting performances.

Daniel Kaluuya, who won the Oscar last year for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021), and who was also nominated for Best Actor for his work in GET OUT, is a terrific actor, and his talents are on full display here in NOPE. He plays OJ as a brooding, grieving son who is not yet over the death of his father. He’s also the strong, silent type, and barely says much of anything throughout the movie. OJ’s personality reflects the feel of the entire movie: quiet, brooding, and not that exciting.

Keke Palmer as OJ’s sister Emerald is the opposite of her brother, as she is lively, outspoken, and anything but introspective.

I also enjoyed Steven Yeun’s performance as Ricky, the former child actor now running a family friendly western show in the middle of California nowhere. Yeun is very good in a role that at first seems tangent to everything else that is going on in the movie, but when the big reveal is made near the end, it makes sense at that moment how his story ties into the main one. Yeun, who played Glenn on THE WALKING DEAD (2010-2020) was also nominated for an Oscar last year for Best Actor in MINARI (2020).

It was fun to see Keith David for a couple of seconds (should have been more!) as OJ’s dad Otis. David has enjoyed a long career going all the way back to his performance as Childs in John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

Brandon Perea as geek Angel Torres primarily provides the comic relief throughout the movie, and Michael Wincott plays a dedicated cameraman who agrees to help them film what’s going on in the skies above their home to give them proof, in a role that should have been much more interesting than it ultimately was. While Wincott is fine, the writing is not.

Jordan Peele wrote the screenplay, and with the exception of OJ, the characters in this one do not come to life. Michael Wincott’s cameraman character, specifically, is left dangling in the wind. He comes in and does his thing, yet we know nothing about him. The other characters are shallow as well.

While the story is clever and creative, and the reveal is satisfying, the execution here is not. Peele seems to have decided that he wanted to make this movie feel like a puzzle, something for audiences to think on and figure out, and for the most part, that’s what NOPE is. But it gets in the way of the narrative, and it reminded me of a work in progress, where another draft of the screenplay was needed, one where things would be polished, to hammer points home and make sure the story works, because ultimately, it doesn’t work completely. Why not? The number one reason is there’s little or no emotional connection with the characters.

I liked NOPE better than Peele’s previous outing, US, which I didn’t like at all, but I still strongly prefer GET OUT to this latest outing by Peele.

It has its moments. Like one where OJ is terrified of something he’s seeing, and he turns away shaking his head muttering, “Nope!” which was a genuine laugh-out-loud moment, as well as a light bulb moment for the meaning of the title, and there are flashes of genuine suspense and intrigue, but more often than not, there are long periods of labored exposition and scenes that end before they should to keep audiences guessing, but when you do this too much, audiences lose interest in guessing.

I liked the reveal, but after this, the third act of the film continues to drudge through a long climax which strangely was the least exciting part of the movie, mostly because we were watching superficial characters deal with a somewhat interesting but never horrifying threat.

In its defense, NOPE has a worthwhile theme, and the story it tells is actually a good one, but the way it tells it doesn’t do it any favors. Simply put, it can’t get out of its own way.

I liked NOPE, but I didn’t love it.

It’s thought-provoking science fiction. It’s a fairly creepy horror tale. But is it an engrossing movie that I am going to want to watch over and over again?

In a word:

Nope.

—END—

THE GRAY MAN (2022) – Emphasis on Action over Story Hinders Netflix Pairing of Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans

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Too much action. Not enough story.

That’s how I felt after watching THE GRAY MAN (2022), a new action thriller from Netflix, which is also playing in theaters. In spite of an impressive cast and a pair of talented directors, at the end of the day, this one was all about the action, which admittedly was very good, but in terms of story, sadly, there simply wasn’t much there.

In THE GRAY MAN, a shadowy CIA assassin known as Six (Ryan Gosling), uncovers a plot by his superiors Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page) and Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick) to assassinate a fellow agent who had learned of their illegal activities, and once Six learns this information, he also becomes a target. To take down Six, Carmichael hires their most ruthless and unpredictable assassin, Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) who immediately abducts Six’s former handler FItzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) and his young daughter Claire (Julia Butters) for leverage.

Six ends up teaming with fellow agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) who is also targeted by Carmichael and Lloyd, who seem to want to take out every other CIA assassin on the planet. And that’s it for plot, as the rest of the movie is simply a set up for one action scene after another as Lloyd and Six go after each other. And it’s not a very original plot either, as it’s right out of a Jason Bourne movie.

THE GRAY MAN was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the guys who directed AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018), AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), and CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVL WAR (2016). They know how to make blockbuster action movies. The action sequences in THE GRAY MAN are excellent, and I’m not going to lie, I had fun watching them, but without an exciting story or fun characters, the action scenes on their own weren’t enough for me to really enjoy this movie.

There’s an exciting sequence on a plane, which hearkens back to two old James Bond movies, THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987) when Six is tangling with assassins on the plane which has a big hole in it, and MOONRAKER (1979) when Six falls out of the plane without a parachute and then fights a bad guy in midair, two sequences which were both done better in those aforementioned James Bond movies. There are slick car chases, lots of loud shoot-outs and explosions, and some nifty hand-to-hand combat scenes, all professionally executed, but without a story or memorable characters, none of them truly resonate.

Joe Russo wrote the screenplay, along with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, and all three of these guys have lots of screenwriting credits, but it didn’t really help them here. The plot, as I said, is right out of a Jason Bourne movie, and the characters are cardboard and dull, with the exception of Chris Evans’ character, Lloyd.

I’m a fan of the work of Ryan Gosling, and he’s enjoyable here as Six, and he’s also believable in the role of super assassin. But, Six is kind of a one note character, and ultimately, he doesn’t really give Gosling a lot to do other than to look unstoppable and heroic. And he is heroic. Unlike Jason Bourne, who in spite of always wanting to clear his name, still operated with a sense of uncertainty and explosiveness about him, Six is a good guy to his core, which kinda makes him boring.

Chris Evans has more fun and more success playing against type as the over-the-top villain, Lloyd Hansen. This guy is not Captain America! He’s the complete opposite of Six in that he is all villain. Strangely, at the end of the day, he’s also on the boring side. And that’s because even though this movie is called THE GRAY MAN, neither main character has gray areas, and that’s just not that interesting. Characters with more balance in general are more captivating. So, it’s kinda sorta fun watching Evans ham it up as a bad guy, but it’s not completely satisfying because it turns out Lloyd is nothing more than a glorified assh*le.

I’m also a huge fan of the work of Ana de Armas, and her performance as super tough assassin Dani was probably my favorite of the movie. She just starred in the latest James Bond movie NO TIME TO DIE (2021), a film I enjoyed much more than THE GRAY MAN, but it was a very small role, and basically, she just got to strut her stuff in one brief sequence. She’s in THE GRAY MAN a whole lot more, and the movie is that much better for it. She’s believable in her action scenes, and unlike Gosling or Evans, she holds back on letting us know who Dani is exactly, and if there’s one character in the movie with a gray area, it’s Dani.

THE GRAY MAN reunites Ana de Armas with Ryan Gosling, as the two co-starred in BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and they work well together, as in both movies they generated some decent on-screen chemistry.

Rege-Jean Page and Jessica Henwick are okay as the main villains in the movie who are constantly pulling strings behind the scenes, but neither of them is terribly exciting. Neither is Billy Bob Thornton as Six’s former handler Fitzroy. It’s a rather thankless role without any depth.

I did enjoy the work of Dhanush, who plays yet another super assassin Avik San who’s called in late in the game to take down Six. Avik, in his brief time on screen, benefits from some gray areas in his personality. If only the two leads had benefitted from the same.

Also in the cast are Alfre Woodard as another CIA handler, an unrecognizable Wagner Moura as a shady character who provides new identities, and in a blink-if-you miss him cameo, Shea Whigham plays Six’s abusive father in a flashback. This is the third movie in as many weeks in which the plot involved an abusive dad, following WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022) and THE BLACK PHONE (2022). It’s also the third time that Wagner Moura has co-starred with Ana de Armas, as they previously starred together in SERGIO (2020) and WASP NETWORK (2019).

THE GRAY MAN was okay. With its talented cast, directors, and writers, it should have been better. And while I enjoyed its action scenes, even those weren’t fantastic. Another recent Netflix actioner EXTRACTION (2020) starring Chris Hemsworth had superior action sequences. But what ultimately drags THE GRAY MAN down is its unoriginal blah story, and characters who in spite of the film’s title, just don’t possess many gray areas.

All action and no plot make THE GRAY MAN a dull man.

—END—

WATCHER (2022) – Thriller Speaks to Women’s Fears and Frustrations at Being Stalked

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The best part about WATCHER (2022) is that it speaks to the vulnerabilities and frustrations women face when speaking out about being stalked, as here even the main character’s husband struggles to believe her fears are real.

The worst part is its story is told at such a dreadfully slow pace that it is difficult to get through, and it withholds any real shock until the final few minutes of the movie.

WATCHER, which premiered in theaters in June and is now available to rent or buy on Prime Video, tells the story of Julia (Maika Monroe), an American woman who relocates with her husband Francis (Karl Glusman) to Romania, as his job gives him the opportunity to return to his native country. Not knowing the language, Julia finds herself isolated and alone while Francis works long hours at the office, and she soon notices in the window of an apartment across from theirs the figure of a man who seems to be watching her. While she’s out and about in the city, she notices a man (Burn Gorman) following her, and she believes it’s the same man in the window.

Further complicating matters is the fact that there is a serial killer at large who decapitates his female victims. Julia tells Francis about the man, and they call the police, and the officer investigates and basically tells the man to stop watching Julia through the window. But Julia continues to see him, and she decides to be proactive and starts following him to learn more about his identity. Eventually he calls the police on her, and when the police show up at their door, Francis begins to believe that his wife is getting carried away with things that aren’t real. But Julia persists in believing that the man is following her, and her frustrations grow when her husband pretty much stops believing her.

The audience most likely stops believing her as well, as the film offers very little evidence to support that her fears are real. But just before the end credits roll, the film takes a shocking turn, and the final few minutes of this one, by far the very best part of this movie, go for the throat and really deliver a horrifying crushing conclusion.

That being said, while I really liked the ending, WATCHER is the type of movie with its long-drawn-out scenes of Julia alone roaming around Bucharest looking over her shoulder that I don’t generally enjoy, as for the bulk of the story not a lot happens. We mostly watch Julia exist alone as her fears ramp up that she’s being stalked by a serial killer. This doesn’t translate to easy viewing, even for a movie that’s only 91 minutes long. So, I have to admit that for a lot of this movie I was bored.

But director Chloe Okuno succeeds on two fronts. One, we really feel the same sense of isolation which Julia feels living in a foreign country not knowing the language and having a husband who works all the time. Most of the movie features scenes of Julia alone and struggling to adapt. And two, as I mentioned earlier, Okuno captures that sense of frustration for women who struggle to be believed when they report their fears of being stalked. At one point Francis makes a joke to his co-workers at Julia’s expense, in Romanian, but Julia gets the gist of it and storms away. And as the movie shows, the price for not being believed is often deadly.

Maika Monroe, with her fashionable haircut and clothes, looks more mature than the younger lead character she played a few years back in the superior horror movie IT FOLLOWS (2014), and she gives a performance that is equally as effective. She plays Julia as a character who is not overwhelmed by her isolation and who takes proactive steps to fit in, but the longer the stranger watches and follows her without anyone intervening to stop him, the more unraveled she eventually becomes. Even so, she remains steadfast and strong to the last. It’s a really good performance.

I also enjoyed Karl Glusman as Julia’s husband Francis. He’s just the right balance of concerned loving husband with the “I have to work, and I don’t know what else to do to help you” attitude to make him seem very real. He never deviates into a complete jerk which would have made him cliche.

And Burn Gorman is sufficiently creepy as the silent man who watches Julia, pretty much saying nothing until late in the movie, and even then, even as he is proclaiming his innocence, he still exudes weirdness.

Director Chloe Okuno wrote the screenplay based on a prior screenplay by Zack Ford, and it features realistic dialogue and characterizations, as well as a story that ultimately works, even though it takes its time getting to anything worthy of this movie being called a thriller. It’s a slow burn ride for sure.

However, the ending is really, really good! Shocking is the best word for it.

But because of its snail-like pacing, taken as a whole, WATCHER is a mixed bag. Intellectually, I liked its story and what it had to say about women needing to be believed and taken seriously from the get-go, but emotionally the film is lacking until its powerful final few minutes.

And the voyeurism theme is downplayed here. Even though the film is entitled WATCHER and does feature someone watching Julia inside her apartment, this plot point is minimal, and the story is more about the fear Julia feels from being followed on the streets of Bucharest. The film THE VOYEURS (2021) starring Sydney Sweeney did a better job overall dealing with the theme of voyeurism, although its plot eventually goes down a ridiculous path leading to a rather dumb disappointing ending, whereas WATCHER remains low-key throughout and then goes for the jugular in the final few minutes of the movie. The ending to WATCHER is its best part.

I imagine women will appreciate WATCHER more than men, as they can more easily relate to the fears Julia experiences throughout the story. However, regardless of gender, if you can stick with it and get through the slow burn pace, you’ll come face to face with quite the lurid ending.

—END—

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022) – Big Screen Adaptation of Popular Novel Superficial but Satisfying

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (2022), the big screen adaptation of the immensely popular novel of the same name by Delia Owens, probably will not satisfy fans of the novel since its screenplay by Lucy Alibar is superficial at best, but it still manages to tell a compelling narrative in spite of a pace better suited for a sultry summer North Carolina afternoon.

It also features a terrific performance by Daisy Edgar-Jones in the lead role.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING opens in 1969 North Carolina where a young woman Kya Clark (Daisy Edgar-Jones) is accused of murdering the man she was seeing, the former high school star quarterback Chase Andrews (Harris Dickinson). Kya is known in town as the Marsh Girl, because she has lived her whole life alone in a house on the marshes. The townsfolk think she’s weird, and rumors about her have run rampant. The bottom line, however, is that few in town have ever given her the time of day.

When the gentle kindly attorney Tom Milton (David Strathairn) steps up to defend Kya, she tells him her story, which we learn in flashbacks, and the movie plays out in this way, jumping back and forth between Kya’s past and her present trial for murder. We learn that Kya grew up in the swamps with her abusive father (Garret Dillahunt) after her mother and older sisters and brother fled the home. Kya remained, and when eventually her father leaves as well, she takes to surviving on her own.

Her only friends in town are the black owners of the local store, Jumpin’ (Sterling Macer, Jr.) and Mabel (Michael Hyatt), and a boy her own age named Tate. As the years go by and Kya and Tate (Taylor John Smith) grow up, they fall in love and become best friends until Tate has to leave for college, but he promises he will come back to see Kya, but he never does, tearing a new hole in Kya’s heart. She then meets Chase, whose attempts to date her she rebuffs, but he’s persistent, and eventually she gives in and starts to see him, not knowing that he is being less than honest with her about his intentions.

And that’s the story told in WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, with the climax being will Kya be found innocent or guilty, and what will then happen to the mysterious young woman known as the Marsh Girl?

I didn’t really have high expectations for WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, so maybe that’s why I kinda enjoyed it.

The best part by far is the lead performance by Daisy Edgar Jones. She captures the innocence and wildness of Kya while giving her both the toughness and intellectual curiosity needed to nail the role. She’s in nearly the entire movie, and she’s good enough to carry this film on her shoulders.

Jones receives fine support from veteran actor David Strathairn as sympathetic and very astute attorney Tom Milton. He makes Milton a very likeable character, and an attorney who would have been right at home in an old episode of LAW AND ORDER. Strathairn has been in a ton of movies over the years, going way, way back to films like THE RIVER WILD (1994), and we saw him last year in NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021). He also has been stuck playing a boring military character, Admiral William Stenz in the meh Godzilla reboots, GODZILLA (2014) and GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019).

I also really enjoyed Sterling Macer, Jr. and Michael Hyatt as the shop owners who in their own way become surrogate parents for Kya, always looking after her and caring for her. They show their frustration with their own situation, being black in rural North Carolina in the 1960s, knowing that they were limited in how they could help Kya, and understanding that it would have been best for them not to be involved with her at all.

Both Taylor John Smith as Tate and Harris Dickinson as Chase are okay. They’re not terribly exciting or interesting and are about as intriguing as a slice of white bread, but maybe that’s the point. Taylor John Smith reminded me a little bit of a young Paul Rudd.

The screenplay by Lucy Alibar as I said is a bit superficial and really plays out like someone trying to summarize a longer and deeper novel. Lots of points are made, none of them all that deeply, but that being said, Alibar does succeed in fleshing out Kya’s character at least, and combined with the wonderful acting of Daisy Edgar-Jones creates a memorable character. The dialogue is also decent. The trial scenes aren’t that exciting, however, and seem like they belong in an old TV movie.

Director Olivia Newman captures the North Carolina scenery and gives this film a lazy, hot humid summer feel. Unfortunately, that also goes for the pacing as well, which is slow and lethargic. The film is two hours and five minutes, and at times feels longer. It really isn’t much of a thriller, and the emphasis here is instead on romance. That being said, while the weather may be steamy, the romances are not. This is definitely a PG-13 love story, not an R rated one, and the film suffers for it, because it comes off like an adult tale tailored for younger audiences.

Newman does create some memorable scenes, however. Some of the best sequences involve Kya’s interactions with Jumpin’ and Mabel, with one of the best late in the film when a bruised and battered Kya visits an emotional Jumpin’ who tells her how much he and Mabel truly care for her.

Taken as a whole, WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING is a satisfying and generally moving drama about a young woman who lived an extraordinary life alone in the swamps of North Carolina, and who had to fend for herself to survive both the hardships of nature and the ways of men. Accused of murder, her life becomes front and center for all in town to see, and the story becomes less about her innocence or guilt, and more about who she is and why she has to do what she does.

In the hazy lazy days of summer, watching WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING in an air-conditioned theater might be just the ticket to pass a sweltering afternoon.

—END—

THE BLACK PHONE (2022) – Horror Movie Based on Joe Hill’s Short Story Among Best Horror of the Year

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I’m ba–ack!

Yes, I’m happy to say that for the first time since pre-Covid days, since April 2020, I finally returned to the movie theater! While I continued to review movies at home over the various streaming services, it just wasn’t the same. I can’t tell you how good it felt to watch a movie on the big screen again! Actually, I can tell you: it felt friggin good!

And I chose a pretty good movie to see as well, because THE BLACK PHONE (2022) is one of the best horror movies I’ve seen this year.

Mind you, I haven’t seen a whole lot of horror movies this year. But still!

THE BLACK PHONE takes place in 1978 and is the story of a serial killer known as The Grabber who drives a black van and snatches children off the streets. Finney (Mason Thames) and his younger sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) go about their business as best they can, dealing with school and bullies and their alcoholic single dad who can’t get over the death of their mom, and they try not to think much about The Grabber, but things change when one of Finney’s best friends becomes the killer’s latest victim.

Gwen, who like her mother before her, has dreams which sometimes are vision of real things, sees black balloons in one of her dreams about one of the missing children, and when the police catch wind of this, they are intrigued because it’s a detail from the abductions that was never leaked to the public, and so they want to know who told her that. In one of the movie’s livelier scenes, Gwen tells the police it was only a dream and pushes back against their suspicions that she, a young girl, may have inside information about the abductions. She does tell them that she sometimes sees things in her dreams that prove to be real.

And when Finney becomes the next victim of The Grabber, Gwen tries to force herself to dream about him, but that’s not how things work. Finney, now a prisoner, finds himself locked in a basement room with only a mattress and a disconnected black phone, with little hope of escaping the weird Grabber (Ethan Hawke) who speaks to him from behind various eerie and chilling masks. But when the disconnected phone rings, and Finney answers it, he hears the voice of one of the Grabber’s victims. Through the black phone, Finney hears from all of the Grabber’s victims, each with veiled advice on how he can possibly escape.

THE BLACK PHONE was directed by Scott Derrickson, a talented director whose previous horror movies include THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (2005), SINISTER (2012), and DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014). These are all pretty decent horror movies, with SINISTER probably being his best-known horror flick, but his work here on THE BLACK PHONE is by far his best.

First off, he captures the look and feel of 1978 perfectly, and I should know, as in 1978 I was about the same age as main character Finney. There’s even a scene where Finney and Gwen are home watching the TV show EMERGENCY!, which was the show back then for kids and teens of a certain age. But Derrickson does more than just capture the period. He’s made a movie that is actually scary, which is a rare thing these days. It’s scary because he does a great job with the characters, making Finney and Gwen two young characters you really care about. He does it without jump scares or gratuitous violence and gore. And he does it through compelling storytelling.

Of course, he’s working with superior source material, as the screenplay by Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill was based on the short story of the same name by Joe Hill, who’s a terrific writer. Cargill also wrote SINISTER, as well as the first DOCTOR STRANGE (2016) movie, which Derrickson also directed.

The story here combines the lurid tale of a creepy serial killer of children, with the supernatural goings-on of both Gwen’s dreams and the black phone itself, along with the raw unpleasantness of life for these kids even without The Grabber in their neighborhood, as Finney’s and Gwen’s dad is not only drinking all the time but he’s also abusive. And the story takes the time to even explain their dad’s abusiveness— not to excuse it away— but to show why, that is he is stuck in grief over his wife’s suicide, who took her own life when the voices inside her head became uncontrollable, which is why he is merciless towards Gwen when she speaks of her dreams because he doesn’t want the same thing to happen to his daughter. It’s all superior storytelling.

The casting is also a strength.

The two child leads are fantastic. Mason Thames is perfect as Finney, the kid who can’t stand up for himself yet possesses strength he didn’t know he had, strength he will need when he fights for his life against The Grabber. And Madeleine McGraw is equally as good as Gwen. She has some of the best scenes in the movie, when she shows off her fiery personality, like when she comes to the rescue of her brother when he’s being beat up by bullies. But her best moment is one of the most emotional moments of the entire movie, the scene where her dad uses a whip on her in retaliation for the police having visited him at work with questions about her dreams. The emotions she brings out in this scene are way above what you would expect in a horror movie.

And Ethan Hawke is completely creepy and sinister as The Grabber. And he performs without really showing his face, not until the end, and that’s because he’s always wearing a mask, or a variation of the same mask.

Actually, the argument can be made that the true star of this movie is the mask created by horror icon Tom Savini. It is creepy!!!

Getting back to Ethan Hawke for a moment, what makes his performance so unsettling is he doesn’t play The Grabber like some ultimate evil monster or some vicious mindless killer, but instead he plays him with a sense of comical absurdity. With the mask and make-up, he’s almost Joker-like. There was also something in Hawke’s cadence and delivery that made me think of Michael McKean.

Scott Derrickson also frames several scenes to perfection. The scene where Finney is warned not to take the bait and exit through the unlocked door because it’s a trap set by The Grabber, and in the next shot we see the shirtless masked Grabber sitting with a whip in hand just waiting for Finney to walk by him is shiver-inducing. There are several scenes like this.

I also enjoyed THE BLACK PHONE more than HORNS (2013), the film version of Joe Hill’s novel. While I liked that movie, it didn’t completely work for me. But THE BLACK PHONE does. It’s my favorite film version so far of a Joe Hill story, who as I said is an exceptional horror writer. And for those of you who don’t know, not that it matters, but he’s also the son of Stephen King.

THE BLACK PHONE is on par with my other favorite horror movie so far this year, X (2022), but I think I was even more impressed with THE BLACK PHONE because it’s scarier, and it scares without using as much blood and gore as was found in X.

If you like to be scared, you’ll love THE BLACK PHONE. Not only is it frightening, but it scares on multiple levels: serial killer, supernatural, and real-life.

I’d say more, but… there’s a phone ringing on the wall behind me that I have to answer.

Hey, there wasn’t a phone there, before.

—END—