‘Widows’ is a Fiery Thriller and Not Just Another Heist Movie

Widows movie poster

It’s always cool when a filmmaker sneaks something up on you when you least expect it. On the surface, “Widows” looks like an average heist movie to where I went in thinking it would be another “Ocean’s Eleven,” but I can assure you this is not the case (and we did already have “Ocean’s 8” earlier this year). While this film provides audiences with the requisite action and violence, it cannot be boiled down into one sentence as it deals with themes of class divisions, political corruption and of the lengths many will go to just to make ends meet. What results is a hell of a thriller, and it’s a timely one as the struggles these characters face is all too real in this day and age.

“Widows” starts off with an introduction to the wives before they lose their spouses. Veronica (Viola Davis) shares an especially passionate kiss with her husband Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson), Linda Perelli (Michelle Rodriguez) haggles with Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) over money she needs for her clothing store, Alice Gunner (Elizabeth Debicki) cannot hide the black eye her abusive husband Florek (Jon Bernthal) gave her, and Amanda Nunn (Carrie Coon) is busy with her newborn baby as her significant other Jimmy (Coburn Goss) darts out the door. These scenes are interspersed with these men pulling off a robbery which goes horribly awry and results in their fiery deaths. The editing by Joe Walker is one of the best I have seen in any 2018 movie as he interweaves the different vignettes in a way which feels especially powerful.

From there, the four women attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives as reality comes down hard on them in ways they are not prepared for. Things are especially precarious for Veronica when she is visited by crime boss and aspiring politician Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who informs her Harry robbed $2 million dollars from him, and this money was lost in the fire. Jamal demands Veronica pay back this debt sooner rather than later, and the way he holds her dog during this scene will have pet owners gripping their armrests. Following this, Veronica gets together with the other widows to carry out a robbery which will net them the money they need to pay off said debt, and we watch as they take matters into their own hands in a way they never have previously.

I have a confession to make; this is the first movie by filmmaker Steve McQueen I have watched. McQueen has previously given us “Hunger,” “Shame” and “12 Years a Slave” which won the Oscar for Best Picture a couple of years ago. I certainly need to catch up on his work as his flair for filmmaking is clearly on display in “Widows.” Some of the long shots he pulls off here are amazing as the actors are forced to maintain an intensity which is not always easy to do in front of a camera, and it results in highly suspenseful and shocking moments which had the audience I saw it with gasping audibly.

At the center of “Widows” is Viola Davis who has long since proven to be a force of nature. Ever since I first saw her in “Doubt,” she has proven to be a no-nonsense actress and her performances are never less than stunning. As Veronica, she provides the story’s center of gravity as she forces the other women to join with her in a mission no one can easily prepare for, and she does this even as her heart is shattered by a grief she cannot keep inside forever. Even in moments where she doesn’t say a word, Davis makes us see what is going on in her mind without having to spell it out for us. Watching her here, I was reminded of the lethal presence she gave off in the disastrous “Suicide Squad” and of how she would have made a better Joker than Jared Leto.

One actress who really needs to be singled out, however, is Elizabeth Debicki. As Alice, she takes her character from being an abusive pawn for her husband and her equally nasty mother Agnieska (a wickedly good Jacki Weaver) to becoming a person who finds the strength and self-confidence which has eluded her for far too long. She makes Alice’s transition both natural and subtle to where she inhabits the character to where you can never take your eyes off of her.

McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn of “Gone Girl” fame adapted this movie from the British miniseries of the same name, one which I’m fairly certain my parents have seen. In this movie’s 129-minute running time, they manage to fit in so many different layers to where “Widows” feels much longer than it already is, but I never lost interest in what unfolded. We get a strong sense of the desperate lives each character leads as they live in a world where no superhero can save them. The two have also moved the story from England to Chicago and, as David Mamet once said, “In Chicago, we love our crooks!”

An interesting subplot which emerges in “Widows” involves a political campaign between Jamal Manning and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), for alderman of a South Side precinct. We already got a glimpse of Jamal’s criminal activities, but Jack is not free of corruption himself. Even worse, his father Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall, great as always) does nothing to hide his racist attitudes and believes this office is theirs by blood regardless of what the voters end up saying. Farrell is terrific as Jack in showing the shadowy corners he is forced to navigate through in politics. It’s a position he doesn’t want to be in, but he is stuck in the shadow of his incumbent father who is not about to see his son lose the election, and he proves to be as morally compromised, if not more so, as his political adversary.

This also leads to a brilliant scene as McQueen follows Jack as he gets into a car with his associate, and the camera stays outside as we watch them travel from the poor neighborhood he is campaigning in over to the affluent neighborhood where he lives. Is there another scene in a 2018 movie which shows the disparity between the haves and have nots without the use of words? If there is, I haven’t seen it.

Michelle Rodriguez remains as badass as ever, and its great fun watching her hold her own opposite Davis. Cynthia Erivo, who showed us what a great voice she has in “Bad Times as the El Royale,” is furiously good as Belle, a babysitter and beautician constantly running off to the next paying gig as her desperation to keep her head above water keeps her apart from her daughter. And Daniel Kaluuya, who had scored one hell of a breakthrough with “Get Out,” is a devilish delight as Jatemme Manning, a cold as ice psychopath who doesn’t think twice about ending someone’s life, and his presence is enough to frighten the most jaded of filmgoers.

Does “Widows” have plot holes? Perhaps, but I was too caught in the story and performances to really give them any notice. Any questions this movie proved to be refrigerator questions. As for the meaning of that, look to Alfred Hitchcock. This is a thriller which digs deep into the lives of those undone by history and inequity, and it’s hard not to root for them as they take matters into their own hands in a desperate attempt to reach for the life they dreamed of but which is cruelly denied to them. It is full of surprises, many of which I did not seem coming, and McQueen holds us in his cinematic grip from start to finish.

Another thing to take into account about “Widows” is how it deals with the five stages of grief. Getting through them is never easy, but you knew this already. Seeing these characters struggle with their individual grief is not something which draws attention to itself right away, but the ending, which features a character breaking out into a smile she worked hard to get to, shows how one can get to the other side and move on. You could say this only happens in the movies, but this one does not take place in the land of superheroes and comic books. Reality can be harsh, and “Widows” never lets you forget that.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Equalizer’ Reminds Us Never to Mess with Denzel Washington

The Equalizer movie poster

When actors get to a certain point, they find themselves playing older men with a violent past which they have long since renounced, but we know they will jump back into action when the occasion arises. Whether it’s Liam Neeson in “Taken,” Sean Penn in “The Gunman,” Keanu Reeves in “John Wick” or even Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven,” these characters end up falling back into their violent ways as life has left them little else to fall back on. A song by Eminem, “Guts Over Fear,” spells this out perfectly:

“It’s too late to start over. This is the only thing I know.”

This is certainly the case for Robert McCall, the main character of “The Equalizer” which was a popular show from the 1980’s. Now Denzel Washington makes this character his own in this cinematic adaptation which shows McCall leading a decent life at a Home Depot-like store named Home Mart where he befriends its many employees, and who spends his time outside work at his bare apartment or at the local diner reading a book. But a look into his eyes tells of a dark past he would rather not tell you about, and we all know this past is going to come roaring back.

This dark past comes to the surface when Alina (Chloe Grace Moretz), a teenage prostitute McCall becomes friendly with, ends up in the hospital after a severe beating. Seeing the damage done to her, McCall goes to the Russian mobsters who employed her to beg for her freedom. Even after he presents them with an envelope filled with over nine thousand dollars in cash, they are quick to dismiss him as just some old guy who is way past his prime. Unlike the “John Wick” movies where the villains react in embarrassment upon realizing who they inadvertently pissed off, the antagonists of “The Equalizer” have yet to realize how brutal McCall as they believe youth counts for more than age. By the time they come to see their mistake, the chance to make an apology is quickly rendered moot. Just ask the man whom McCall forcefully shoves a corkscrew under his chin to where you can see it inside his mouth.

Of course, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and McCall’s actions have infuriated the Russian Mafia to where they send out theiir chief enforcer Nicolai Itchenko (Marton Csokas) to deal with the situation. It is important to note one of the books McCall reads is Ernest Hemmingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” which is about an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles to catch a giant marlin out in the Gulf Stream. As the book begins, the fisherman has been unable to catch a fish for over 80 days, and “The Equalizer” starts with McCall leading a peaceful life which suggests he has not beaten the crap out of anyone for a long, long time. But we all know a giant marlin of sorts will be thrown into his path, and we are left wondering just how badly his antagonists will get their due justice.

There is no denying Washington is one of the best film actors ever, and “The Equalizer” could not have come to him at a better time. His career has lasted for several decades, and he has surpassed the point where he has nothing else left to prove. Washington was 59 when he played Robert McCall, and helps him give the character more gravitas as he now has the face of a man who has seen more than any person should in life. All he has to do is give off a look with his eyes or speak words with his still smooth voice to let us know he means business. And when he starts the timer on his watch of his, we know things are about to get nasty.

Watching “The Equalizer” reminded me of “The Gunman” which starred Sean Penn as a former special forces officer and mercenary whom we see at points apologizing to others for being so good at killing people, a skill he wishes he was never taught. Penn is another one of our finest actors, but his performance was laughable as his character displayed himself in a way which felt insulting to our intelligence. Washington, however, does not make this same mistake in playing McCall. There’s a scene in which he admits he has done things he is not proud of and that he gave up on doing them out of respect for his late wife, but a look into his eyes is enough to tell us he is not about to apologize for who he is and that he accepted this part of himself a long time ago.

“The Equalizer” also allows Washington to reteam with his “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua, and this continues to be a match made in cinematic heaven. Let’s be honest, the plot of this movie is formulaic and hits all the notes we expect it to hit throughout, and we have a good idea of how things will turn out to where expect this to be a run of the mill action thriller. As long as it delivers the goods, this is enough.

Still, both Washington and Fuqua, along with screenwriter Richard Wenk, add their little touches to the material to where “The Equalizer” proves to be anything but average. Washington sells himself easily in this role, but he also adds a strong humanity to the character as we watch him help his friend Ralph (Johnny Skourtis) pass the security guard exam and keep a fellow employee calm while she is being robbed at gunpoint. Washington makes McCall a wonderfully rounded character in a way which could have come off as inescapably cheesy in the hands of another actor.

While Nicolai Itchenko comes off as just another overconfident gangster, let alone a Russian gangster, Fuqua gives Csokas some strong moments where a look at his tattoo-covered body reveals a man who has long since been rendered into a cold-hearted bastard to where any sense of empathy within him no longer exists. Csokas also has a scene where he stares off with Washington in the same way Al Pacino and Robert De Niro did in “Heat” as their characters try to figure the other one out, and he shows how deep Nicolai’s psychosis stretches in a way we do not often see in the typical action extravaganza.

Other actors make a sizable impact in their small roles, and it reinforces the saying of how there are no small roles, only small actors. David Harbour, before he became famous on “Stranger Things,” plays a corrupt cop whom McCall gives a chance to do the right thing in a coldly calculated way. Harbour makes the most of his moment opposite Washington when he yells out how life has given little in the way of choices to where he survives the only way he knows how. Sure, it may seem like a cliched moment, but Harbour sells it for all it is worth to where you cannot dismiss his performance as you walk out of the theater.

You even have Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo, two actors you can always depend on, showing up as Brian and Susan Plummer, a married couple and former CIA employees who were instrumental in McCall’s life and remain there for him in the aftermath of the tragedy he has suffered. Leo in particular brings a strong dramatic energy to her few scenes as she makes us see how Susan sympathizes with McCall’s situation to where she understands him in a way few others can or are willing to.

What I admired about Fuqua’s direction is that he has succeeded in making a slow burn thriller and not an action movie which hits the ground running like most do these days. Fuqua takes his time and is not quick to reveal everything about McCall to where the mystery of this man empowers the ultra-violent scenes to where we are constantly left on edge. When it comes to the movie’s climax at Home Mart, Fuqua keeps us as off-guard as the bad guys to where we cannot help but feel we are in their shoes as McCall takes them out with cruel precision. Ever since “Training Day,” this filmmaker has proven to be excellent at making action set pieces feel more visceral than they usually do, and he gets away with moving the story at a pace that seems unthinkable in today’s cinematic world which overflows with superheroes and comic book characters.

I’m not sure where I would place “The Equalizer” in the pantheon of Washington’s and Fuqua’s careers. It may not be among their best works, but it shows the care and intelligence they are willing to put into a typical genre film to where we got more out of the final product than we expect. I never did get the watch the television show which had Edward Woodward starring as Robert McCall, but I think it is safe to say Washington and Fuqua have taken this story and its main character and have safely made them their own.

* * * out of * * * *

‘The Thing’ Prequel Should Have Been a Sequel

The Thing 2011 poster

It says a lot about John Carpenter’s “The Thing” that it could generate a prequel almost 20 years after its release. A critical and commercial failure back in 1982, it has since been justly reappraised as a true horror classic and remains Carpenter’s masterpiece. It proved even more terrifying than “Halloween,” and it also holds a special place on my list of my top ten favorite movies of all time. These days, it is even more frightening as the scenario it presents feels all too possible.

Now we have Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s “The Thing,” a prequel to Carpenter’s movie which explores the events leading up to it. Remember the Norwegian camp Kurt Russell and Richard Dysart visited which had been completely burned down? Now we get to see how it got laid waste by both the thing and the humans. But therein lies the problem; knowing the events precede those of the 1982 movie and who survives, much of the potential suspense and tension gets drowned out almost immediately.

Frankly, I would much rather see a sequel to Carpenter’s “The Thing” instead of this. His film was very effective because we never had a clear idea of who to trust. But in Heijningen’s film, we know the characters on display will eventually bite the dust, and it becomes a question of when these characters turn into the thing. After a while, it becomes more shocking when a character dies but doesn’t turn into a gooey alien. What spoils it even more is we know of at least one character who will survive what happens very early on, and all we can do is wait impatiently for him to get on the helicopter with his rifle and take shots at the wolf.

Heijningen is respectful of Carpenter’s movie and pays homage to it throughout, but I kept wondering if this was a remake instead of a prequel. Various scenes are clear imitations of the 1982 movie’s most classic moments, and I wish he had worked harder at distinguishing the prequel from it instead of just presenting us with something way too similar. He does wring some suspense and strong tension at different points, and his unique take on the blood test scene is very clever, but he is unable to sustain the tension which made Carpenter’s movie so utterly terrifying.

The special effects are very good, but they pale in comparison to the genius of Rob Bottin. Audiences are always quick to tell when CGI effects are overused. As for the performances, they are generally good even though the characters could have come out of any monster movie.

The best performance comes from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as paleontologist Kate Lloyd. Such a terrific presence in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and “Live Free or Die Hard,” she holds our attention throughout and is one of the best reasons to see this prequel. While Lloyd is predictably inspired by Ellen Ripley from “Aliens,” Winstead makes the character her own and more than just another tough chick which movies like these typically rely on.

“The Thing” prequel is not terrible, but it will be of interest more to those who haven’t seen the 1982 film which itself was a remake and made back in a time when remakes were rare and actually worth watching. This particular version of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” feels like a lost opportunity, and it gets caught in the prequel trap of busily matching everything up to the film it leads into. It really sucks when you can see a movie’s ending long in advance. I did however admire the ambiguous ending shown before the end credits as it leaves you wondering if the alien really infected one of the last characters standing. Not knowing is always more unnerving than knowing, and at least the director got this right.

* * ½ out of * * * *

Warren Beatty Searches for the Truth in ‘The Parallax View’

The Parallax View movie poster

par·al·lax

–noun

  1. The apparent displacement of an observed object due to a change in the position of the observer.
  2. Astronomy. The apparent angular displacement of a celestial body due to its being observed from the surface instead of from the center of the earth (diurnal parallax or geocentric parallax) or due to its being observed from the earth instead of from the sun (annual parallax or heliocentric parallax). Compare parallactic ellipse.
  3. The difference between the view of an object as seen through the picture-taking lens of a camera and the view as seen through a separate viewfinder.
  4. An apparent change in the position of cross hairs as viewed through a telescope, when the focusing is imperfect.

American Psychological Association (APA):

parallax. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved March 04, 2008, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/parallax

I always wondered what the word parallax meant, let alone in relation to this movie. This would have come in handy during those damn SAT’s I took so many years ago. It would have brought my scores up a bit. As for what my scores were…Well, you can just figure it out on your own.

The Parallax View” is a thriller from 1974 directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring Warren Beatty. I saw it as a double feature with another Pakula thriller, “Klute.” I even remember my mom asking me to record this particular movie on the family VCR back in the 1980’s. I did succeed in getting the whole movie on tape as opposed to all those car races my dad and my brother asked me to record for them from time to time. Anyway, it’s a good thing I didn’t see this movie right away when I recorded it for my mom. They probably edited it down and cut all the good parts out.

The movie starts with an assassination of an assassination of a U.S. Senator on the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington. The movie then jumps ahead three years later to see the far-reaching circumstances this assassination has on those closely involved in it. Warren Beatty plays Joseph Frady, a reporter eager to get at the truth surrounding the assassination, and to find out why so many who were in the vicinity of the assassination have been dying. Many have been reported as dying from an embolism of some kind, but there are too many coincidences between all those dead which makes it impossible to believe they simply just died. Beatty’s character may not be able to prove it, but they were murdered. But by whom?

The movie opens with Frady getting a visit from a female friend who is convinced she will be murdered. She comes up with newspaper clippings of others present at the senator’s murder and how they died. But Frady dismisses her concerns as mere superstition, and that she cannot possibly be in danger. A couple of minutes later, we see her in the morgue, dead from an apparent overdose. This gets Frady up and running to finding out the truth as to why these people are being killed off. This drives his boss Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn) to a lot of anxiety and irritation as he cannot get himself to believe all that is going on. Meanwhile, Frady risks life and limb literally to discover the truth behind everything. But like everything else, the truth will have a big cost.

Turns out all roads lead to The Parallax Corporation, a business which hires highly anti-social people and trains them to be assassins, and their targets usually tend to be politicians and government figures that stand in the way of making policy or a good profit. The movie escalates the tension to a high level as Beatty’s character puts himself in the most dangerous of positions. One of the most tension filled scenes comes when he realizes one of the Parallax assassins has put a bomb on board a plane with yet another politician, and Beatty boards the plane in an effort to find a way to get everyone off the plane before it detonates.

What I have come to discover about the late Alan J. Pakula is how he brought a lot of intelligence and reality to the movies he made, and there was never anything overly exaggerated in his direction. This seemed to ground the majority of his films in a world so real to where they come across as highly subversive. There is no hyper kinetic editing here, nor is there an overpowering score or adrenaline inducing sound effects. There is only the state of the world and of what’s really happening around us instead of what we are led to believe.

This movie is now over thirty years old, and yet its themes are not out of place in today’s society. The scenario of one man against the system, or of a person getting to the truth regardless of the consequences has been done over and over again. We have had “Michael Clayton” which starred George Clooney as a fixer at a law firm who suddenly develops a crisis of conscience that forces him to go against all the corruption which has engulfed the later part of his life. It’s thrillers like “The Parallax View” which gave movies like “Michael Clayton” a reason for being.

Beatty is perfectly cast here as this downtrodden reporter who is eager to not be as selfish as he has been for most of his life. The movie does not ride on his good looks to sell itself, but on the intelligence of Beatty’s performance as well of those around him. If you can’t believe Beatty in this role, then the movie is not going to work. I’m not sure of how many people today can recognize what a great actor Beatty can be if you give him the right material.

These days, we know that our government and the corporations are up to something which goes completely against what we were originally taught to believe in. What’s scary is when “The Parallax View” was first released, nothing much was different. It just keeps going on and on, and it’s almost like we are in denial about it. The question is, can we get at the truth of the matter and prove it to everyone who bothers to listen? Furthermore, can we do it in a way which doesn’t suck us into a trap that makes us look like a bad person to the rest of the world? This movie seems to say this is not really possible, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, and we can’t simply give up.

“The Parallax View” is an excellent thriller which is definitely worth a watch. Coming out of one of the truly golden ages of cinema, the 1970’s, it is an underrated work which didn’t get the same-sized audience of Pakula’s other movies like “All the President’s Men.” If you like his work as a director, you should check this out.

Just remember, the truth is out there…

* * * ½ out of * * * *

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)

tattoo Final 27x40.indd

You look at her from a distance, and all you see is just another punk chick who’s nothing but trouble; born under a bad sign. You’d figure she’s pierced her body in lord only knows how many different places, and the mascara applied to her eyes might make you see her as an intimidating threat. Not once does she try to adjust her antisocial behavior or clothing attire in the workplace, and this is a sign of how unwilling she is to compromise her learned set of values.

But once you get to know her, you will find Lisbeth Salander is not your average punk rock girl. In fact, she’s a brilliant hacker and researcher who knows more about yourself than you could possibly realize. Bo Diddley was right when he said you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. I mean you could, but she would just kick your ass because a rough upbringing has more than prepared her for the harsh reality of life.

Lisbeth Salander is the heroine of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” a brilliant mystery/thriller based on the best-selling novel by the late Stieg Larsson. Many have said Noomi Rapace gives a star making performance as Lisbeth, and nothing could be more true. She finds the heart of this incredibly intelligent yet mysterious character whose past is hinted at but never explained until the end, but we come to get enough of a glimpse which helps us understand where she is coming from. Lisbeth sets the bar high in terms of compelling characters (and not just females) you can find in movies from any country.

Right from the start, this film absorbs us in its compelling mystery involving the case of a missing girl which has remained unsolved for 40 years. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), the publisher of Millennium Magazine, is coming off of a trial where he was wrongfully disgraced, and soon after he is hired by rich man Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) who wants him to look into the disappearance of his great-niece Harriet who was last seen years ago when she was only 16. Henrik believes Harriet was murdered by someone in his family, and it’s a very dysfunctional family filled with those who will fight one other for the whole inheritance without a single thought for anyone else.

Please believe me when I say “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” puts so many American movies of this genre to utter shame. Seriously, many of the mystery thrillers I have seen in the past few years are full of plot holes Michael Bay could lead both Autobots and Decepticons through no matter how enormous they are. Instead of being enthralled, we come out of them feeling like they are average at best, but they do allow us to feel smarter than the filmmakers since we spotted all their foolish mistakes.

Compared to all those wannabes, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has a very well-constructed plot to where if it is at all flawed, we certainly don’t realize it because we are too caught up with what’s unfolding onscreen. But where this movie truly succeeds is as a character piece in how deeply it involves us in the lives of two very different people. The two main characters are well developed and are very complex, something I always look forward to seeing. Lisbeth is a wounded person, damaged by life, and the trust she puts in others is exceedingly rare. These two end up coming together as Lisbeth has been hacking into Mikael’s computer as part of his case, and she ends up giving him some clues which have eluded him. While she is hesitant to get involved with Mikael professionally or emotionally, he points out how she contacted him in a way that is easy to track.

Lisbeth and Mikael are indeed an odd couple, and yet perfectly matched to work on the coldest of cases. They are also coming together at a time where they are in a very isolated state, having been largely misunderstood by just about everyone around them. While many view them negatively, they come to see one another as who they really are. The more they work together, the more they gain each other’s trust. In the large scheme of things, these are two people who do not let others define them.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was directed by Niels Arden Oplev, a three-time award-winning director from Denmark. He deserves a lot of credit for keeping us deeply involved in a movie that could have easily overstayed its welcome. Not once did I find myself getting bored or restless while watching it. Oplev balances out the story and the acting to where they are on equal footing and never upstaged by style. Never does he indulge in quirky camera angles or other visual elements which would have taken away from this movie. Some directors just love to show off instead of just trusting what is there, and Oplev has clearly laid his complete trust in the story and the actors cast.

Noomi Rapace brings a powerful life force to Lisbeth Salander, a character destined to become as iconic as Clarice Starling from “The Silence of the Lambs.” Beneath her hard exterior is a person whose trust in others is practically non-existent for reasons which eventually become clear. Rapace more than succeeds in making Lisbeth tough as well as sympathetic. Her performance could easily have been a caricature, but she proves to be far too good of an actress to allow this to happen.

Michael Nyqvist does excellent work as Mikael Blomkvist, showing his strong resolve and utter frustration without ever going overboard in his performance. When he is first shown to the audience, it is as a man who has just been found guilty. We don’t know why at first, so we can only assume he had it coming or perhaps he was framed. We see him walking down the street when his picture comes up on television, pretty much defining him in the eyes of those who do not know him personally. But Nyqvist invests his character with a strong moral code which he never surrenders even when it seems smart for him to do so. We sympathize with Mikael as it always seems the wealthiest of people are more than willing to smash down the individual, especially when said individual is correct in what he or she discovers about them. The truth always seems to come at a heavy price.

Peter Andersson doesn’t even try to hide the hideous slime that consumes his utterly immoral character of Bjurman, a sexually abusive bastard who takes advantage of Lisbeth in the worst way possible. Even worse, he is her new legal guardian who takes charge of her trust fund after her original guardian suffers a stroke. Not to worry though, the pain Bjurman inflicts on Lisbeth comes back at him in a most vicious way, showing us once again what you see on the surface does not even begin to tell you the whole story.

Two sequels based on Stieg Larsson’s follow up novels have already been made, and I eagerly await the opportunity to see them on the big screen. They will have a tough act to follow after “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but with Rapace and Nyqvist reprising their roles, they will continue one of the more interesting and unusual partnerships you can hope to find in cinematic history.

It will be interesting to see who will be the next idiotic human being who foolishly thinks they have complete control over Lisbeth. Even more interesting will be in what way Lisbeth lets said person know just how wrong they are. Pray for whoever it is.

* * * * out of * * * *

Altered Minds

altered-minds-poster

On the surface, “Altered Minds” looks like your typical “Sixth Sense” psychological thriller as the characters struggle to get to the truth of what’s terrifying them so deeply, but this description doesn’t do it justice. What we have instead is a deeply thought out and well-constructed thriller which features a strong ensemble of actors and, like the films of Alfred Hitchcock, keeps you wondering and guessing all the way to the very end.

“Altered Minds” opens up on a family reunion which takes place in a town just as cold and frozen over as the one Ang Lee took us to in “The Ice Storm.” However, it turns out we are guests at a funeral of sorts as it is the birthday of Dr. Nathaniel Shellner (Judd Hirsch), and most likely his last as he is suffering through the merciless disease that is lung cancer. Nathaniel was once a celebrated psychiatrist who won a Nobel Prize for his work in treating refugees from war zones who have been afflicted by PTSD. He is surrounded by his loving wife Lillian (Caroline Lagerfelt), his biological son Leonard (Joseph Lyle Taylor) and his two adopted children, Harry (C.S. Lee) and Julie (Jaime Ray Newman).

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The only one late to the party is Nathaniel’s third adopted child, Tommy (Ryan O’Nan), a horror novelist who is busy looking for an urn containing the remains of the family dog. But when Tommy finally arrives, there comes to be more on his mind as he accuses his father of performing cruel psychological experiments on him and the other family members. What started out as a loving family reunion soon turns into an occasion where bitter resentments and long lost memories arise to where they can be ignored no longer.

The first thing I want to mention about “Altered Minds” is how good the acting is. We’ve known Judd Hirsch for years as an actor who has played endearing characters in “Ordinary People” and “Independence Day,” not to mention his appearances on the television series “Taxi” and “Dear John.” The role of Dr. Nathaniel Shellner is one he could easily have turned into a two-dimensional adult character, but Hirsch reminds us of what a talented actor he is by making him much more. Throughout this movie, he keeps us guessing as to what’s going on in his mind and presents a humane front as he declares he wants nothing but the best for his children. Some actors would be happy to spell everything out for the audience, but Hirsch is far more interested in giving us a well-rounded character, flaws and all, who keeps you wondering if he has a dark side. How dare anyone forget how great an actor he is.

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I was also impressed with Ryan O’Nan’s performance as Tommy as he manages to find a balance between appearing insane and being more aware of the reality of things than the others are. Like Hirsch, O’Nan keeps you on edge throughout as he makes Tommy an enigmatic character who may or may not be crazy. His performance helps add to the tension inherent in the story, and he makes everything seem just as unnerving as the movie’s potent and unsettling sound design.

Caroline Lagerfelt is a wonderful presence and plays every scene she’s in just right. C.S. Lee, best known for his work on “Dexter,” gives certain scenes a raw emotional power which is hard to look away from. Jamie Ray Newman makes Julie a wonderfully independent character the others would be smart to rely on when things don’t go their way. Joseph Lyle Taylor is at times a little stiff as Leonard, but he still does solid work in making the character appear more complex than he appears at first.

“Altered Minds” was written and directed by Michael Z. Wechsler, and he said the movie arose from obsessions he could never stop thinking about. Its story definitely has a personal vibe to it, and it does feels like his version of a Stephen King novel. Writing and directing a thriller is always tricky because audiences constantly second guess every move filmmakers make as they are eager to stay one step ahead of the action, and one wrong and foolish step could easily destroy the whole picture. Wechsler, however, keeps us hooked all the way to the end, and it’s hard not to feel as obsessed as the characters are in uncovering any secrets which have been left in the dark for far too long.

It’s also impressive to see what Wechsler was able to accomplish with such a low budget and a very short shooting schedule. A lot of independent movies these days are given ridiculously little time to be made in, and you have to be a bit forgiving if certain elements don’t fall into place because any good movie, let alone any good performance, needs time to be developed to its potential. Many filmmakers these days, however, can only work with the time they are given, and it’s not always enough. Regardless, Wechsler in the time he had managed to put together a very effective thriller which is chilling in its presentation and filled with terrific performances.

There are a lot of movies flying under the radar these days, but “’Altered Minds” is one deserving of your attention. That’s especially the case for you film buffs who like any kind of movie which is especially unnerving and deeply suspenseful. It is written and directed by a filmmaker who sidesteps the easy traps of the genre and delivers us something which keeps us on edge from start to finish. It also allows Judd Hirsch to give one of his best performances in years, and that should be more than enough of a reason to give it a look.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

The Guest

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I went into “The Guest” knowing almost nothing about it. I was expecting something very artistic and the kind of movie Hollywood studios wouldn’t have the guts to finance these days, but what I got instead was the kind of thriller similar to those from the 1980’s like “The Hitcher.” I kept wondering why the Sundance Next Festival would allow something so formulaic to play at this festival, but when the filmmakers came out after a screening to talk about “The Guest,” it then became clear it was actually meant to be an homage to those thrillers we all grew up on. As a result, I quickly saw the movie in a different light.

But even before this revelation, I had to admit “The Guest” is a thriller which packs a mighty punch and left me on the edge of my seat throughout. It grabs you by the throat and holds you tightly within its grasp, and a lot of that is due to the infinitely charismatic performance by Dan Stevens who portrays the guest of the movie’s title.

“The Guest” starts off with an introduction to the Peterson family who are still grieving over the loss of Caleb who was killed in Afghanistan. Then a man knocks at their door and politely introduces himself as David (Dan Stevens), a friend of Caleb’s from the military, and he is here to fulfill a promise to his fallen comrade. David tells Laura (Sheila Kelley) and her husband Spencer (Leland Orser) he has no wish to overstay his welcome, but they become insistent he stay at their house to where he quickly becomes the best houseguest anyone could ever hope to have as he helps out wherever and whenever he can. But just as in life, we can’t help but think no one can be this nice without being somewhat psychotic.

Some of “The Guest’s” best moments come when David looks out for the Peterson children, Anna (Maika Monroe) and Luke (Brendan Meyer). Luke is having some major problems at school as he is the target of bullies who beat him up at any given opportunity. Now I have seen this scenario played out in many movies, and it used to tug at my emotions in a very strong way. But watching it in “The Guest” gave me that primal beat up the bullies feeling I haven’t felt in the longest time. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see David is going to give these jerks a taste of their own medicine, and watching him do so is a perverse thrill.

Anna is less quick to warm up to David even after he goes out of his way to get a keg of beer for her high school friends. From the start she is suspicious of who he really is, and those suspicions are confirmed when a number of strange events start happening around town. Of course, her dad can’t see him doing anything bad and chides his daughter for even thinking such a thing. After all these years, teenagers are still forced to deal with their parents’ hypocrisy, and that’s even with actors like Leland Orser playing the father.

As you can see, “The Guest” travels down the road of familiar genre conventions and delivers them to the audience in a way which feels both potent and fresh. The violence in the movie is more brutal than in others I’ve seen recently, and there are several scenes which shocked me I haven’t been shocked in a while. No character is on safe ground here, and anyone is expendable in a way those actors in “The Expendables” movies ever are. At the same time, the movie has a sharp sense of humor which shows just how much fun its filmmakers were having with the material.

“The Guest” comes to us from director Adam Wingard and writer Simon Barrett, the same two who gave us “You’re Next.” I came out of this movie wondering if they had as much playing around with the slasher genre in “You’re Next” as they did with the thriller genre here. Having interviewed them both the following day for the website We Got This Covered, I can tell you they absolutely did as they talked about combining elements from “The Terminator” and John Carpenter’s “Halloween” to make this movie a reality.

Furthermore, “The Guest” comes equipped with a terrific electronic score courtesy of Steve Moore which recalls the great 80’s electronic film scores like Mark Isham’s “The Hitcher” and the “Halloween” scores of John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, particularly the one they did for “Halloween III: Season of the Witch.” Anyone who knows me best knows how much of a sucker I am for this kind of movie music, and I was digging’ Moore’s score right from the first note as it adds the ominous atmosphere we will be venturing through when David makes his entrance into town.

Seriously, this movie really does belong to Stevens who is best known for playing Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” the TV show everyone seems to be watching except me. He exudes endless charisma and makes you believe how lethal David can be when you look right into those beautifully steely eyes of his. I’m not kidding when I say he has a stare which can cut through you with a laser from a mile away. Stevens also infuses a number of his scenes with a twisted sense of humor, and this is especially the case when he coolly manipulates Luke’s principal to where he realizes suspending this young man from school might actually be hazardous to his health.

“The Guest” falters a little towards the end as the filmmakers get too enamored of the foolishness of their character’s decisions. It also has one of those horror movie endings which imply how evil can never die, and it feels a little soft compared to what we have seen in other films of its ilk. At the same time, it could mean that Wingard and Barrett will reteam for “The Guest 2,” and it would be fun to see how they would play around with the conventions of a sequel.

Seriously, “No Good Deed” could only dream of being as thrilling as this movie, and it starred Idris Elba for crying out loud. “The Guest” gleefully plays around with all the things we remember from the ultra-violent movies from our past, and I found myself enjoying it a lot even as things got increasingly nasty. Just when I thought I knew how this movie would play out, it quickly shifted gears and took me for a loop.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to buy this movie’s soundtrack.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Here Comes The New ‘Blair Witch,’ Same As The Old ‘Blair Witch’

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While watching “Blair Witch,” I kept hearing these lines of dialogue between Richard Attenborough and Jeff Goldblum from “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” in my head:

“Don’t worry, I’m not making the same mistakes again.”

“No, you’re making all new ones.”

This particular “Blair Witch” movie came out of nowhere as it was filmed in secret under the title “The Woods,” but over this past summer it was revealed to actually be a direct sequel to “The Blair Witch Project.” With a couple of talented filmmakers at the helm and a cast of unknown actors in front of the camera(s), this third “Blair Witch” movie showed a lot of promise as the memories of watching the original all those years ago remain very vivid to me. But what we end up with here has me paraphrasing the lyrics of a song by The Who: Here comes the new Blair Witch, same as the old Blair Witch.

The movie opens up on James Donoghue (James Allen McCune), the brother of Heather Donoghue, viewing some grainy footage which leads him to believe his sister might still be alive. As a result, he forms an expedition to venture into the Black Hills woods in Burkittsville, Maryland to search for her, and he is joined by Lisa Arlington (Callie Hernandez), an aspiring film student who wants to make a documentary on James’ search, and their friends Peter (Brandon Scott) and Ashley (Corbin Reid). Also along for the ride are Talia (Valorie Curry) and Lane (Wes Robinson), local residents responsible for uploading the grainy footage James watched and who have forever been interested in the legend of the Blair Witch as they do not live far from the events of the original movie.

Once these characters leave their cars behind, we are pretty confident they will never be seen again. Still, we are intrigued at the possibility of James meeting up with Heather as her body, nor Michael’s or Joshua’s, was never found. As expected, this expedition starts with everyone having fun by the campfire, but we all know what will happen from there. Once again, Goldblum’s dialogue from “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” was playing loudly in my head:

“Oh, yeah. Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming.”

If there’s anything different about this “Blair Witch” movie, it is the technology. Whereas the trio from the original had video and film cameras at their disposal, these characters have GPS, walkie talkies, digital and DAT cameras, cell phones and a drone which can give them a wider view of the woods. But of course, they are in an area where their cell phones don’t get very good, if any, reception. As for the rest of their gear, it will only do them so much good as they venture deeper into the woods. I mean, we all know what curiosity did to the cat, right?

The beauty of “The Blair Witch Project” was that it never felt like a movie. Instead, it felt more like a unique experience we were not used to having. We were there in the woods with the characters as their situation became increasingly perilous and more terrifying as time went on. Unlike most horror movies, we were not inflicted with cheap scares every five minutes. We were creeped out by the ambiguity of the situation as our imagination ran riot over the things we could not see. This is not to mention the movie’s brilliant marketing campaign which included the fake documentary “Curse of the Blair Witch” and missing photos of the three filmmakers posted at theaters. I’m surprised the studio didn’t put their faces on milk cartons as well.

But “Blair Witch” is unable to match the original’s “you are there” feeling, and I could not escape the fact that I was watching a horror movie. Furthermore, it was a weak horror movie which takes us down a road we have traveled far too often. This time the filmmakers resort to jump scares, and only a few of them work. Also, the characters here are stereotypical ones we usually expect to see in movies like these, and they are none too bright to put it mildly. Then again, horror movies usually thrive on stupid characters because otherwise nothing interesting would ever happen. One character pleads for everyone to head back home, but no one is about to. Just as when Jon Voight suggested to Burt Reynolds in “Deliverance” that they go back home and play golf, we are presented with good advice which is not taken.

After a time, it felt like I was watching a mashup of a “Blair Witch” and a “Paranormal Activity” movie as the soundtrack gets overtaken by dark ominous sound and tents start flying up in the air which has our intrepid characters running for their lives while filming the action any which way they can. I mean heaven forbid they don’t get anything on camera because otherwise there would be no movie.

Let’s face it folks, the found footage genre has long since been beaten to death. It thrived for a time after “The Blair Witch Project,” and it was reignited to very terrifying effect with “Paranormal Activity” and a few of its sequel. But like anything Hollywood gets its hands on, it has been beaten to death to where we are left with diminishing returns in the form of “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” and “The Hollows.” There’s nothing new to be found in this genre with “Blair Witch.” Nothing.

When Artisan Entertainment, which later became Lionsgate, decided to make “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2,” they hired “Paradise Lost” director Joe Berlinger to co-write and direct it. What resulted was a mess of a movie with bad acting and a poorly conceived story. Either that, or Artisan kept messing around with the movie and recut it behind Berlinger’s back as he has constantly accused them of doing.

This time around, they hired Adam Wingard to direct and Simon Barrett to write this movie, and this had me believing audiences were in for a treat. This is the same duo who gave us the black comedy slasher “You’re Next” and the highly underrated action thriller “The Guest.” Both movies show how familiar they were with the genres they cheerfully exploited, and they succeeded in bringing a freshness to those genres which appeared to have long since reached their peak. With them behind the camera(s) for “Blair Witch,” I felt they could bring something unique and fresh to the found footage genre, but even they can’t help but fall back on tried and true tricks, many of which we can see coming from a mile away.

For what it’s worth, Wingard and Barrett do give us a thrilling climax as the characters run through that creepy house we remember from the original, and we keep guessing as to how long they can last before they are pulled away with only their cameras left behind, recording the floor from an obtuse angle. But this sequence is not enough to save the movie, and what we are left with is, if you’ll excuse the expression, the same old shit.

The directors of the original, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, had often talked about doing a prequel which would show how the legend of the Blair Witch came about. That would be an interesting movie to see. Or perhaps we could get one where we see things from the point of view of the Blair Witch herself as she toys with the foolish humans by scaring them silly before eventually doing them in. One thing is for sure; unlike Donald Trump supporters, she does not discriminate.

* * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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Daniel Radcliffe goes undercover in ‘Imperium’ trailer

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Lionsgate Premiere has released the first trailer for their upcoming thriller “Imperium.” It tells the tale of an idealistic FBI agent (is there any other kind?) assigned to go undercover and infiltrate a radical right-wing terrorist group that is in the process of creating a dirty bomb to set off in a public place. The trailer makes the movie look like something along the lines of “The Departed” or perhaps even “Reservoir Dogs” as those two featured characters who went deep undercover into the criminal lairs of others and almost lose themselves in the process. It is said to have been “inspired by real events,” and it’s a relief to see that phrase instead of “based on a true story.”

But even though “Imperium” looks like an average thriller on the basis of what we see in the trailer, it does have one major selling point: Daniel Radcliffe. While we will always recognize him as Harry Potter, Radcliffe has long since proven there is so much more to him than J.K. Rowling’s infinitely popular character. Ever since “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2,” he has portrayed a variety of characters that include Allen Ginsberg in “Kill Your Darlings,” Ig Perrish in “Horns,” a conniving individual in “Now You See Me 2,” and a corpse in “Swiss Army Man.” His role as FBI agent Nate Foster in “Imperium” is the kind we have not seen him play before, and that makes what we see in this trailer especially interesting. While the story is a familiar one, it will be fascinating to see what he does here. And perhaps this movie will shed more light on the fact that right wing and Neo-Nazi terrorists represent a bigger threat to the United States than foreign terrorists do.

Also starring in “Imperium” is Toni Collette who plays Angela Zampino, Nate’s superior officer who will help him with his infiltration into this terrorist group. Nate complains throughout the trailer of how he is in over his head, but Radcliffe shows him to be a dedicated agent who will see the job through even if he comes out of it a completely different person. But it also shows how others will be infinitely suspicious of his intentions from one moment to the next.

”Imperium” marks the feature film directorial debut of Daniel Ragussis, and it is set to open in theaters and On Demand August 19, 2016. By the way, imperium is a Latin word which translates roughly as power to command. Check out the trailer below!

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.