Tag Archives: Netflix

Cargo

Rating: 3 out of 5 (good)

Synopsis: Cargo follows Andy (Martin Freeman), wife Kay (Susie Porter) and infant daughter Rosie surviving in the Australian outback after an unknown zombie epidemic has ravaged Australia and the world beyond.

Since 28 Days Later, the un-dead have become the overused staple of popular culture, shambling into video games, film and television. To Cargo’s credit, the film is a refreshing tonic for the tired genre through a minimal focus on the zombies themselves. Cargo’s world is a quiet apocalypse focusing on people instead of the disaster, bringing the viewer back home to the cornerstones of our lives obscured by everyday stability; of our need for love and family and our sacrifices for both these things.  The two central characters of Cargo, Andy and aborigine teenager Thoomi (Simone Landers) are driven by family in different directions, with one trying to secure their family’s future and the other recapturing their family’s past. Although Thoomi’s arc seems out of sync with protagonist Andy’s tale,  the pair blend well together as Cargo’s inclusion of Australian aborigines and subtle commentary on colonialism gives the film much of its charm.

Cargo’s marketing campaign divulges the film’s opening twist which leaves Andy widowed, infected and consequently tasked with finding a guardian for Rosie in this dark world. The revelation reduces Cargo’s first 30 minutes into contrived exposition  while Andy’s wife is a frustrating plot device. Cargo’s remarkable recovery stems from Martin Freeman as Andy and the convincingly strange characters populating Cargo’s Australian hinterland. From the crippled gas plant worker preparing his post apocalyptic empire to the local school teacher left scarred by a brain tumour, each character has a life omitted from the camera. The absence of detail makes these characters feel like the undefinable people we meet everyday. Yet in the absence of the everyday, the mystery these characters represent in Cargo also teases danger to Andy in a world where social norms are gone. Once cast together, Thoomi and Andy are an unlikely pairing who join together to survive but through each other accept the new world around them and what they must do to survive, leading to Cargo’s heart rendering conclusion.

What pervades the background of Cargo is its commentary on imperialism. The use by one character, called Vic, of Aboriginies as bait for zombies is reminiscent of the racism and land-grabbing of colonialism as he taunts them for taking his wells. By Cargo’s conclusion it is the Aborigines who now wait out the apocalypse, safe from the un-dead as though in the absence of modernity and technology, the land of Australia has reverted back to them.

Cargo is available now on Netflix.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below;

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Annihilation 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (good)

Director: Alex Garland

Cast: Natalie Portman, Benedict Wong,  Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson

Synopsis: U.S. army biologist Lena uncovers a deadly menace, her husband returns from the dead, and an expanding alien zone dubbed ‘the shimmer’ offers the only salvation for Lena’s returned but ailing husband. 

Visually striking, Annihilation has style but lacks originality. Adapted from the self-titled novel, Annihiliation’s bones originate in The Strugatsky Brothers’ ‘Roadside Picnic’. Both stories share an unknown alien zone and mysterious epicentre attracting the flawed and the outcast. Annihilation is an enjoyable but predictable two hour stint that retreads The Strutgatsky Brothers’ seminal novel. Annihilation has trappings of potential; the shimmer is an eloquently bleak depiction of a world devoid of man and the all-female expedition Lena joins hints at a deeper mystery. Yet Annihilation concedes uniqueness for comfort in its final act, peaked by an ambiguous ending that tramples over Lena’s arc. Worse still is that the shimmer is a strange plane, but its vibrancy denies Annihiliation of the insipid eerieness marking Roadside Picnic

Annihilation begins well: a slow-burn pace gradually introduces Lena, the shimmer and Lena’s crew, teasing out the audience’s intrigue. The all-female expedition accompanying Lena consists of brilliant actresses who match Natalie Portman. Tessa Thompson is the polar opposite of the brash Valkeryie she played in Thor: Ragnarok as introverted physicist Josie. Jennifer Jason Leigh is equally impressive as psychiatrist and mission administrator Dr. Ventress. Perceiving everything with detached indifference, Ventress is akin to an automaton, at times acting with bravery while her reactions can exude a menace matching ‘the shimmer’. Ventress’ ambivalent nature and Leigh’s performance steal the focus away from Natalie Portman’s Lena. Initially Lena is a decent protagonist, but the audience’s sympathy for her character is damaged by dream sequences that reveal her nastier side. Annihilation is indirectly narrated by Lena, who is shown in the future, having survived entering the shimmer. Lena’s confirmed existence before Annihilation even unfolds denies tangible investment into her character because no matter the bad things that befall her, the audience already knows that Lena’s fate is secure. The dreams negate Lena’s motivation for entering ‘the shimmer’, thereby flattening Lena’s character into something two-dimensional.  

Annihilation’s efforts to create complexity muddy aspects of the film which would have suited greater simplicity, such as Lena just being an easily relatable woman attempting to save her husband. The result is that Annihilation can feel too clever, with tid-bits sprinkled into the film with no explanation. Unlike Blade Runner whose twists and clues weave into the plot and hint at a deeper meaning, Annihilation is riddled with details left unanswered that feel like forgotten additions. Annihilation can be engrossing when it’s visual clues are developed but Alex Garland’s approach to them is scatter-brained. Annihilation’s plot is exacerbated by intermittently lazy writing. Key points are delivered by a supporting character just stating them in dialogue, with nothing appearing on screen to either convey or develop these ideas. The worst is when one of Lena’s crew simply states that every team member is flawed and then lists their problems. In the next hour nothing proves these flaws, none of the crew crack under the shimmer and turn to their demons for solace. 

There was an opportunity once the team entered the shimmer where Annihilation could have transcended into a great sci-fi film. Awaking in her tent Lena goes outside to find that everyone is unaware of  the past two weeks which have passed since crossing into the shimmer. In this scene, the shimmer was alive, a force that was toying with the team just like everyone else who had entered. Sadly this idea is never developed upon, with Annihilation relying on a few monsters and found footage instead of building up the shimmerThe film does scare but it never creates the haunting otherworldliness of Roadside Picnic.

Annihilation is still an enjoyable sci-fi flick, but in highsight it does not have the complexity that would make it eminently rewatchable like the genre’s greats. 

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Unsane

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (good)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Cast: Claire Foy, Juno Temple, Joshua Leonard, Jay Pharoah

Synopsis:  Shot on an iphone 7, Unsane is a low budget psychological thriller starring Claire Foy. Sawyer (Claire Foy) is rebuilding her life after being the victim of a stalker. Isolated in a new city,  Sawyer’s attempt to seek support results in her committal to a dubious psychiatric hospital where an old threat manifests itself.

Unsane’s occasional lapse into tediousness is far outweighed by a spectral shadow of tension and confinement. Soderbergh inverts Unsane’s low budget and the iphone’s limits into solid foundations for a taut thriller that Hitchcock fans will appreciate. Unsane is claustrophobic, trapping you in an 4:3 aspect ratio whose borders restrict as Sawyer is observed and confronted by others both real and imagined. At times watching Unsane is to see the world through a warped pinhole as Sawyer continues unaware of your presence. Although Unsane was shot on an iphone, the footage has been helped by aggressive editing and some decent extra equipment. Some of the simpler editing effects mingle well with the choice of camera. Sodium hues and cobalt tints swirl with the noise and grain picked up by the iphone, as though Sawyer is slipping in and out of reality. Possessing the weapon of the selfie generation, Soderbergh is not afraid of getting up close with the iphone, creating an uncomfortable proximity of detailed observation like the stalker Sawyer fears has returned.

For those who have not watched Netflix original The Crown, Unsane is a seminal introduction to Claire Foy. Affecting a flawless American accent for a British actress, Foy exudes a gnawing undertone of anxiety throughout the film. Even during Unsane’s lulls Sawyer grapples with an internal hysteria half hidden behind her shifting facade. Sawyer is unpredictable and clearly damaged, drawing out the mystery of whether she is lucid or insane. This tension exudes from Foy’s choice of small tells, perfectly picked up by Unsane’s 4:3 aspect ratio and close-up portrait shots. Foy’s performance is mirrored by Joshua Leonard as the hospital attendant who Sawyer claims to be her stalker ‘David Strine’.  Sawyer and ‘Strine’ are both similar yet opposing forces, characters who are clearly hiding something, and only in the second act does Soderbergh startlingly reveal who is right.  Alongside Leonard and Foy are Juno Temple and Jay Pharoah as fellow psychiatric patients. Known for his work on Saturday Night Live, Pharoah provides a nuanced comic relief but sadly Temple’s character, Violet, lingers in the background. Temple still captivates when present, seamlessly fitting into the eerie decrepitude of the  psychiatric hospital. Following Thor: Ragnorak, Matt Damon adds another surprise but welcome cameo later on.

Unsane sports a few plot holes and stalls while transitioning into the final act, but both faults are made up by Soderbergh’s direction and Foy’s delivery. Unsane released this Friday and is definitely for those looking for something different at the box office.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

You Were Never Really Here

Rating: 5 out of 5 (Classic)

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, John Doman

Synopsis: Adapted from the Jonathan Ames’ novel of the same name, traumatised combat veteran Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) trawls New York’s underbelly looking for young girls snatched into paedophile sex rings. Tasked with finding a senator’s daughter, Joe comes unstuck as a routine rescue spirals into something far worse.

 

This film is an unexpected gut punch, a visceral sting of sudden and stunningly powerful twists and events which leave you dazed and breathless. Knowing the context before watching You Were Never Really Here will provide little respite for the following 90 minutes. The film’s dark setting is a quagmire of quicksand as the plot plunges deeper into the darkness of mankind.

The thrall of You Were Never Really Here is due to what does and does not happen. From Man on Fire to the upcoming Sicario sequel, the Hollywood conveyor belt has issued reiterations of the urban western. Even if you have not spotted the overlaps, so many ‘hard-boiled’ thrillers centre around a grizzled cowboy in a dark world who finds redemption in a young daughter figure. Joe may be quiet and grizzled, but he is not the Gary Cooper type Tony Soprano used to lament over.  Joe’s demeanour belies a broken man whose life has been a march of pain through trauma which haunts him in jarring bursts like a looping record. Violence is prevalent but there are no slick action sequences or any ghoulish obsession with gore that marks Tarantino’s recent films. When it comes, violence is served in the Hitchcockian style, absently indirect. It happens beyond our vision while the worst acts are stumbled upon by Joe. Ramsay’s suggestive approach to these scenes are made more powerful by a tenderness that Joe sometimes exhibits, which I do not think a male director would ever consider. It was Joe’s empathy that I found the most disconcerting, especially when he lays down next to a dying man. Watching this film never feels comfortable, because nothing can be predicted and that is its power. When You Were Never Really Here ends there is no happiness, no catharsis in the manner we have come so expectant of.

Exiled from the real world and even himself, Joe is the ‘you’ in You Were Never Really Here, and it it Lynne Ramsay’s camera that tells this tale. The camera picks between bouts of seeing the world from Joe’s perspective to distanced shots of him amid New York. Joe’s flashbacks are incomplete frames and close cuts, while in the present the camera is either obscured or observing from afar as he brutally attacks anyone who crosses him. Close-ups, point of view shots, and wide frames are simple tools for the filmmaker, but Lynne Ramsay uses them masterfully to imprint her voice onto You Were Never Really Here. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood’s original score is in complete unison with Ramsay’s vision. Amid the madness and violence of You Were Never Really Here,  Greenwood’s songs can bring tears even at the darkest points.

For a film anchored around his performance, Joaquin Phoenix does not disappoint. In both his wardrobe and appearance he is Joe. Contrasting the chiselled mid-riffs we see litter the action genre, Phoenix has transformed himself into Joe but not as an attempt to help Men’s Health magazine sales. Phoenix looks strong, but like a man who once served in the army, carrying the extra weight of a someone who was once more active. Phoenix says little throughout the film, but his face exudes an unaware vulnerability that can’t be hidden by his straggled hair or limping gait. It is this visible pain that makes Joe such an interesting and sympathetic character, no matter what he does.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

Mute

Rating: 2 out of 5 (poor)

Director: Duncan Jones

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Justin Theroux, Paul Rudd, Robert Sheehan, Seyneb Saleh

Synopsis: In a near future Berlin, mute Amish man Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) lives unwittingly alongside the city’s underworld until his girlfriend Naadirah (Seyneb Saleh) disappears, sparking a desperate attempt to find his love.

Mute is best described as disappointingly confused. The film is addled by poor writing, mismatched performances and  inconsistent visuals. The film does have potential, and is largely saved by the middle act and a great turn from Paul Rudd as Bill Cactus. Unfortunately,  Mute is ensconced by a tedious first act and a protracted ending. Flashes of Duncan Jones’ brilliance flare in Mute’s immediate beginning, with Leo’s childhood creating intrigue while subtly establishing Neo-Berlin. The opening is followed by a boring twenty minutes of contrived romance and mystery exacerbated by poor audio that had me continuously adjusting my speakers.

For what is a science fiction thriller, Mute’s writing is poor. The build up of the central mystery in the film’s opening act is hampered by inaudible dialogue and the feigned chemistry between Leo and Naadirah. The few clues which string the tale along are indecipherable on the first viewing of Mute. The film’s revelations arrive as hollow tricks relying on past events shown through hazy flashbacks or not shown at all. Worse still is that some of Mute’s twists leave gaping holes in the plot’s logic. Many of Mute’s characters show a palpable effort by Michael Robert Johnson and Duncan Jones to write a verdant dystopia. Leo, Bill Cactus and his army buddy Duck (Justin Theroux) were opportunities to elaborate on this world and explore further themes due to their background. Taking Leo as the worst example, he is a disabled Amish man living in a futuristic metropolis. Yet Mute never explains why Leo has left the Amish community who shun modernity. Nor does Mute explore the theme of isolation which naturally surrounds Leo’s character, due to his disability and rejection of technology.

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Robert Sheehan as Luba 

Bill Cactus and Duck are the strongest characters in Mute and are matched by great performances from Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux respectively. An enigma surrounds Cactus and Duck’s relationship as they hint at a prior relationship while they both served as U.S. army surgeons in Afghanistan. Throughout Mute their relationship veers between animosity, love and enmity as the darker sides of both characters are revealed. Some bold choices are made around Duck’s character but it leads to unfitting and unnecessary events in Mute’s final act. Rudd shows his more serious acting chops in Mute, at times carrying whole scenes by himself. Hopefully Rudd will pursue similar roles in the future. Alexander Skarsgärd is initially clunky as Leo, acting as a gentle giant but later on both Skarsgärd and Leo become more engrossing. Robert Sheehan of Misfits fame is unrecognisable as bartender and gigolo Luba who both aids and hampers Leo in his search.

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Mute’s visual style does have speckles of originality

Visually, Mute is haphazard in quality and lacks any real soul, appearing to be a discount version of Blade Runner’s 2019 Los Angeles but set in Europe. Netflix probably did not have the same resources and talent which crafted Blade Runner 2049’s aesthetic last year. However, it is startling how poor some of Mute’s effects and designs are given that Netflix wants to ‘disrupt’ the film industry as I have discussed here. From the robotic stripper to the flying taxi zipping across Berlin, parts of Mute were of the same quality as early episodes of the rebooted Doctor Who back in 2008. Mute fortunately does have its moments of originality where Duncan Jones’ vision shines through. The criminal syndicate that Leo encounters in a restaurant was one of the more absorbing concepts in the film. Clint Mansell, who worked on Moon’s score, joins Duncan Jones again to make an excellent soundtrack that seamlessly coalesces with Mute’s later acts.

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Gunther, the three-fingered gangster

Watching Mute again after my first viewing, I realised that it would have been better as a Netflix original series. The slower pace and ample run-time of a television show would have allowed the plot to really breathe while drawing out the uniqueness of Berlin. If Netflix did turn Mute into a series, the potential for something unique is there, such when a three-fingered gangster is reading his ‘Captain Berlin’ comic while a man is being tortured.In these moments, Mute was alive and alluring, projecting a world I did not want to leave.

Sadly, Mute is a slog whose better parts will not be deemed by many viewers as worth the effort of watching the rest of the film.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

Wheelman

Film Score: 3 out of 5 (Good)

Synopsis: Indebted to Boston’s West End mob, wheelman (Frank Grillo) serves as a getaway driver until a job turns sour at the hands of a mysterious caller. A small budget film picked up by Netflix, Wheelman carves a space for itself in a genre overshadowed by Drive, Baby Driver and Thief.  The film’s speed turns Wheelman into a giddy joyride, glancing attention away from the plot’s pastiche of generic crime thriller tropes.

Written and directed by Jeremy Rush, Wheelman is a crime thriller which tinkers with the genre. The confined world of wheelman’s car permeates claustrophobia like Phone Booth, while the camera’s fixed presence in the car borrows from Locke. Yet Wheelman provides its own take on both of these ideas. In Locke, the story is one man and a telephone. The car is the conference room where Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) makes his calls. In Wheelman, the car is put to better use, becoming both a stage and a lens into the world. Characters enter the car, causing the world to feel more inhabited than Phone Booth. The presence of other characters creates some great moments as friend or foe sit beside wheelman in this cramped space. In the opening shot and later, outside events are framed behind the car’s front seats, adding a voyeuristic sense that you are in the back seat watching all unfold.

Visually, the camera’s constraints add realism to wheelman’s panicked dash around night-time Boston, while zoomed shots of the car flash with neon colours from the streets. Music is sparingly used in Wheelman, with silence or the car’s roaring engine filling the scene. However, the pulsing soundtrack by Brooke Blair and Will Blair ratchets up the tension in the right moments.

The plot follows what is expected from a crime thriller, but distinguishes itself through great performances and some clever tricks. The editing style is a rapid burst of quick shots across the car as though the camera, just like wheelman, is beginning to panic under pressure. A loop of calm jazz, better suited to a hotel elevator, constantly plays in the background when the mystery caller telephones wheelman, projecting the villain’s menace and dominance. Bank robber ‘mother fucker’ (Shea Whigman) and wheelman’s criminal associate Clay (Garret Dilahunt) both spend time in the car, providing humourous dialogue and extra tension during their appearances. Although the plot quickly becomes chaotic,  Wheelman slowly builds suspense through terse conversations with the mystery caller, causing me to jump back when bullets pop through the car windshield 30 minutes into the film.

Wheelman’s strength is Frank Grillo’s performance as the anonymous wheelman. Grillo’s rugged demeanour and animated toughness lends a credibility to the character, even when the plot predictably devolves into showing wheelman’s softer side. Having starred in The Purge sequels and been a brief character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Wheelman is Frank Grillo’s star vehicle.

For a film I downloaded on a whim for a long train ride, Wheelman was a pleasant surprise. I recommend it for anyone looking for a good, uncomplicated thriller to fill a lull in the weekend.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

1922

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Synopsis: Proud Nebraskan farmer Wilf James (Thomas Jane) is a man threatened by the modernity beyond his farm. When wife Arlette (Molly Parker) threatens to sell her share of the land and drag Wilf and their son Henry (Dylan Schmid) into the roaring 1920’s, Wilf murders her. Wilf’s sin taints him and everything he crosses as 1922 becomes a chilling ghost story.

October inaugurates my favourite time of year in England. A state of purgatory settles over the land, stalling the seasons between autumn and winter. Breath becomes visible and cold, tree trunks turn black from the rain and your day begins and ends in darkness. Surrounded by nature’s slow decay and enduring days that are never far from nightfall, it is easy to begin seeing specters reflected in window panes and faces lurking between branches. In 1922, Netflix has created a film befitting the Halloween season.

1922 harks back to the moral parable underneath the older style of ghost stories by M.R.  James and H.P. Lovecraft. I grew up on M.R. James’ cautionary tales of academics stumbling across hidden artifacts and whose curiosity incurs the wrath of supernatural forces. It is a style of story which seemed no longer wanted on the big screen or the small screen. Being a strange folk, we English used to tell ghost stories at Christmas Eve. The BBC upheld the tradition in the 1970’s and briefly in the 2000’s with A Ghost Story for Christmas. Yet like wraiths and ghouls, ghost stories vanished once again.  Hopefully, 1922 will mark a renaissance of ghost story adaptations based on crumbling morality and existential dread, rather than a paranormal sequence of jumps, bumps, and knocks on doors.

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Wilf, unable to escape his crimes

The slow canter of 1922’s plot renders the Jameses into a very human family. Wilf and Arlette are not simply a bickering couple but polar opposites trapped together. Strutting squarely across the land and tanned brown like a roasted turkey, Wilf embodies the land. Arlette, draped in a modern dress and sporting a flapper haircut, yearns to escape to the city. From the couple’s quiet staring contests, to the camera lurking behind Wilf’s shoulder when they talk, enmity oozes between the two characters. Shortly before the murder, Arlette drops her shield of bitterness and regrets her life choices which landed her with Wilf. Henry, like many children in a dysfunctional family is caught between husband and wife, with shot and counter-shot at the dinner table obscuring Henry against the outline of Wilf or Arlette. Once the deed is done, 1922 crumbles Wilf’s life away with dashes of dark humour nodding to his tragic fate while Thomas Jane’s narration prevents the plot from petering out.

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The unloving couple, Wilf and Arlette.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson’s short snaps of detail add a sense of brooding to 1922. Eyes wander between Wilf and Artlette as they talk or observe each other from afar. Objects and locations across the farm flash before the screen while Wilf diligently plans his wife’s execution like harvesting another bushel of the corn we see shadowed against the dawn. Richardson uses suggestion to convey a Hitchockian level of detail, with snippets of the house’s increasing dilapidation reflecting Wilf’s own mental strain and guilt. Overall 1922 is visually stunning. The plains of Nebraska are swathed in colour with pearl white banks of snow clashing against the crayola yellow of a neighbour’s house. The richness of Richardson’s work is complimented by the taught plucking of violin strings in Mike Patton’s score, which will prickle goosebumps as Wilf becomes haunted by his guilt and something else.

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A murder in the planning.

Having given a good performance in The Mist which I reviewed here, it is in Thomas Jane’s third appearance in a Stephen King film that he really shines. Affecting both the mannerisms and accent of a contemporary Nebraskan farmer, Jane is unrecognisable as Wilf. Jane speaks more through the roll of his green eyes than his lips like many hard men found on the plains. Despite all that Wilf does he remains a sympathetic character, a man who desperately clings to the life he knows, even when there is no reason to carry on. Again Jane’s narration of events helps to maintain sympathy as Wilf suffers a litany of misfortune. Molly Parker gives a great but sadly brief performance as Arlette. Following her work in 1922 and another Netflix production, Small Crimesshe will hopefully soon receive larger roles. Dylan Schmid is a delightful surprise as Henry James, balancing the conflict and guilt he feels over his mother’s death with the angst and rebelliousness of a young man.

For a spooky tale in time for Halloween, 1922 is a great addition to Netflix’s repertoire. Compared to Netflix’s previous adaptation of Gerald’s Game1922 does not scare as strongly but retains the eeriness of Stephen King’s stories.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

Gerald’s Game

Film Score: 3 out of 5 (Good)

Synopsis: Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, kind hearted Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino)  and her older husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), retreat to their isolated holiday home on the Alabama coast. A sudden heart attack leaves Gerald dead on the floor and Jessie cuffed to the bed with no escape.

Released nine months apart, Gerald’s Game and Split tread across the same tropes. There is the terror of dying trapped in a locked room with a monster prowling just beyond. Against such fatalistic backdrops, women confront and use their past trauma of abuse to become stronger. Split is a thriller with dashes of horror, while Gerald’s Game is a pure horror film that uses the simple scene of a single inescapable room. Gerald’s Game is scarier, but Split is the better film.

Trapped in her bedroom, it is the monsters Jessie conjures up which frighten the audience. Gerald soon rises from the tiled floor. Back from the dead and full of venom towards his wife, Gerald constantly criticises Jessie, goading her to give up and maliciously articulating her death. Yet Gerald is a mere imp compared to the ‘Moon Man’, a pale deformed wraith appearing in the dead of night. Personifying death, Carel Struycken is far from the gentle giant he plays in Twin Peaks. Struycken is a Nosferatu figure that caused me to stop the film repeatedly when his misshapen face emerged on the screen. Director Mike Flanagan uses the Moon Man to great effect. The monster appears like the twins from The Shining, sparsely present on the edges of the frame and far away down corridors until it finally invades the screen.

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 Channeling Stanley Kubrik, The Moon Man observes Jessie from down the corridor

The bravest, and most unnerving part of Gerald’s Game was its commitment to showing Jessie’s abuse as a child. Naturally, the scene of abuse is not outrightly explicit, but there pervades a disgustingly churning level of detail. Most films, Split included, build up to the abuse through suggestion and then cease. By committing to the scene, Gerald’s Game reinforces that these acts can unfortunately be committed by anyone, not simply the opportunistic stranger. The film also layers an inkling of mystery about who the abuser is, with Jessie obtusely referring to the perpetrator. Flashbacks to Jessie’s childhood maintain the ambiguity until it is too late. I am surprised that another scene in Gerald’s Game instead of the abuse has garnered public attention.

Overall, Gerald’s Game lets Carla Gugino shine. As an actress who I have often seen in minor roles and cameos, it is nice to see Gugino’s character change from a timid wife into a strong woman. Bruce Greenwood is good as the infuriating Gerald but Struycken is the stronger villain. A physical actor, Struckyen’s use of body language provides an ethereal sense of menace as he observes Jessie and waits to snatch her away.

Sadly, the ending sours Gerald’s Game. Continuing ten minutes after a fitting cliffhanger, the story delves into an epilogue that turns Gerald’s Game into a made for T.V8. film. Yet at other points Gerald’s Game has the feel of a television film. The humour, dark or otherwise, which I expect from Stephen King films flared intermittently, while both Gerald and Jessie were quite flat characters. Occasionally I was simply watching a bad situation suffered by another, rather than willing for Jessie to live.

The drawbacks of Gerald’s Game probably stem from the source material. Prolific authors do have hidden masterpieces but I was unaware of the Stephen King novel. Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard did their best adapting the story to film and watching Gerald’s Game on Netflix did hamper its delivery. Being a coward, I paused the film when the tension rose too much during my first viewing. My cowardliness does underline something ignored by Netflix, that the public still perceive the service as ersatz television. Despite watching on a laptop I still leave the room and return to films, Netflix originals or otherwise, like a television. Netflix’s approach to its original films does not help the public’s perception. Only Okja received an advertising campaign nearing the attention afforded to a film created by the traditional film companies. Instead Netflix originals appear on the site, just like another television series. If Netflix wants to ‘disrupt’ the film industry, it needs to treat its original films like films.

I will try not to pause next time.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Small Crimes: Review

Film Score: 3 out of 5 (Good)

Synopsis: Along the spectrum of small town crime thrillers, Small Crimes lays nestled between Blue Velvet and Blue Ruin. Disgraced ex-cop, Joe (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), returns to his hometown of Bradley County where only Joe himself is deluded by his gimmick of reformation. Joe’s past actions cause his present to become a litany of dire situations from which he tries to escape.

The name Small Crimes alludes to Joe’s delusion about what he really is. From the film’s beginning, Joe’s reformed persona is a facade as he brazenly displays his sobriety chip to the prison pastor. Despite returning to a town where he is reviled, Joe desperately clings to his act, scrambling to prepare excuses for family and victims alike.

Joe’s conflict with his duality, between the man he is and the man he claims to be, personifies Bradley County. Symbolised by the division of the local newspaper’s front page between the upcoming pumpkin festival and Joe’s release, Bradley is torn between its idealised image and its reality of vice and crime, as seen below. Every citizen in Bradley except Joe’s parents pretend to be someone else; from the reservist Scotty (Macon Blair) who spends his downtime in the local bar still dressed in his army uniform to the morally righteous D.A., Phil Coakley (Michael Kinney). The only person at ease with their duality is the ironically named Lieutenant Pleasant, Joe’s former partner who remains in the pay of the local crime family. Pleasant is played by Gary Cole with a refined humour oscillating between the dark and the mildly obscene that adds to his menace.

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The Newspaper of Bradley, caught between pumpkins and corrupt cops

Small Crimes’s exploration of the reality behind the American icon of the rural small town is a well tread trope beginning with Blue Velvet. The film’s uniqueness stems from its protagonist being a reluctant villain instead of a hero tackling the darkness within the town. Macon Blair, George Cole, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau imbibe Small Crimes with enough dark humour that the film never gags on its own tension.

Director Evan Katz has delivered a visually solid film with glitters of brilliance. Brief cuts to townsfolk, from a taxi driver’s glare or the librarian’s following eyes subtly denote Joe’s infamy. Little details are repeatedly focused upon like the blood stains on the pickup truck borrowed from Joe’s father. This consistently adds an observantly dark humour through image alone, similar to Blue Ruin and Green Room. The overlap between these two films is unsurprising given that Macon Blair who plays Scotty, and co-adapted Small Crimes from David Zeltserman’s novel, also starred in Blue Ruin and Green Room. The plot falls into an expected spiral but has enough originality and twists in Joe’s descent to be refreshing.

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Hatred, condensed into one look

The acting in Small Crimes is excellent. Similarities appear between Joe and Jaime Lannister, the role in Game of Thrones that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is famous for. Both characters involve an unhealthy degree of narcissism. However Jaime Lannister is a morally ambiguous anti-hero while Joe is a desperate man in denial about who he is. Despite Joe’s acts both past and present, he remained an understandable soul which is to the credit of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Molly Parker, of House of Cards fame, is Joe’s love interest, Charlotte. Parker depicts someone who is loving but through her dialogue and physical demeanour, Charlotte enigmatically infers that her past is equally as dark as Joe’s. I am excited to see Molly Parker’s performance in Netflix’s latest Stephen King adaptation, 1922

The true star of Small Crimes is Robert Forster as Joe Sr, a man whose rounded shoulders show the guilt he bears for what his son has become. Robert Forster breathes life into this honourable working class man trying to maintain peace between Joe Jr and Joe’s mother Irma (Jacki Weaver) who is fervently distrustful of her son. At a time where Al Pacino and Robert De Niro find themselves in comedic bits, it is good to see older stars receive genuine roles because acting is a skill that never stops maturing.

Small Crimes, currently available on Netflix, is a good independent film with solid performances and plenty of dark humour. I would recommend it to Cohen brothers fans and those looking for a decent Sunday film.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below;

 

The Mist (Black and White Director’s Cut)

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Synopsis: Based on the Stephen King novella of the same name, the town of Bridgton, Maine becomes shrouded in a deadly mist, teeming with creatures from the dark corners of another dimension.  Local painter, David Drayton (Thomas Jane), alongside his son, Billy (Nathan Gamble), and their neighbour, Brent Norton (Andre Braugher), become trapped along with many others in the local grocery store as the mist descends upon the town. Protected from the Lovecraftian horrors outside, the movie’s true monster becomes human nature once the vestiges of society melt away.

Despite being director Frank Darabont’s third adaptation of a Stephen King novel following The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, Dimension Films opposed releasing The Mist in black and white. Fortunately, Darabont was able to include his preferred black and white cut as an extra when The Mist was transferred to DVD. Having been in London last week, I stumbled across a showing of The Mist in black and white at the B.F.I. as part of its ongoing Stephen King season. Admittedly, I am not a horror fan by nature as stated in my review for IT, but Darabont’s past work persuaded me to watch the film.

The absence of colour exudes an unsettling sense of illusion, symbolising how the town is in limbo between established reality and a different dimension altogether. Drenched in black and white, the mist becomes alive, developing into a grainy wall like background noise in a bad photograph. The mist watches the trapped townsfolk through the plate glass storefront, as they too observe the fog keeping them captive. When the camera does stare into the mist, the film sheds away any sound, plunging you into an isolating snowdrift and trapping you with the townspeople.  The choice to remove colour nods to Darabont drawing from horror and sci-fi films he watched in the 1960s. The night scenes in particular mirror the eeriness of George. A. Romero’s Night of The Living Dead from 1968.

Watching The Mist in 2017, the film is an indirect prelude to Darabont’s work on The Walking Dead. Three actors in The Mist have major roles in The Walking Dead and both stories pit ordinary people against a ubiquitous and unknown apocalyptic event. Once disbelief and shock ebbs away the two stories are an account of human nature separated from the old world. Darabont split from AMC after The Walking Dead‘s first season, but in The Mist he perceives humanity’s base nature through a dark lens. Darabont’s views are personified by Ollie Weeks, the bespectacled and softly spoken assistant store manager portrayed by British actor Toby Jones. Jones has been a favourite of mine since playing a coroner in my childhood guilty pleasure, the television show Midsomer Murders. Weeks, appearing initially as a downtrodden and outright boring man changes character as The Mist progresses. He bravely aids David Drayton while cynically narrating about human weaknesses as others around them crumble.

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Toby Jones as unlikely hero Ollie Weeks on the left. To the right is Jeffrey DeMunn, better known as Dale in The Walking Dead, as local citizen Dan Miller.

Both Stephen King and Darabont understand that believable characters are a mix of good casting and great writing. That blend is evident in The Mist. Having never seen the film beforehand, it was surprising to recognise many of the actors from major films or television shows. The actors excel in roles reflecting the types of real people found in small communities, from the excessively proud mechanic Jim (William Sadler) to local eccentric Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden). The Mist often diverts away from David Drayton and observes other characters interacting with each other; humorously at first until their personalities divide reflecting the mounting division and savagery across the makeshift community. The only recent film to delve into the politics of crisis was Alien: Covenant, which did a comparable job of showing power shift between survivors. The Mist‘s account of human nature transforms the film into a supernatural equivalent of Lord of The Flies. The only flat character was the neighbour, Brent Norton, depicted by Andre Braugher, famous for his role as Captain Raymond Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It was disappointing to see Braugher’s clear acting prowess be undervalued yet again by  playing another straight character.

The creatures of The Mist do have a certain creepiness. The monochrome effect of the black and white cut makes the monsters appear like B Movie abominations, ready to lurch from the screen at you. The lack of colour does rejuvenate CGI animations that are now ten years old. Returning to the more recent Stephen King film IT, the personal difference between simple scares and real horror is when something leaves a deep seated unease after watching. The Mist sometimes scares but deeply disturbs by thrusting rational people into an unending and unwinnable disaster. The Mist’s proposition and its conclusion are rare in cinema, because even in apocalyptic films like Mad Max, goodness and hope prevails. The Mist follows The Road in battling against our human need for optimism by asking;

‘What could be done if the end truly means the end?’

The Mist hints at how deliciously darker The Walking Dead could have been under Darabont’s continued direction, but for his acrimonious split with AMC. In likelihood, The Walking Dead would have delved further into grittier overtones rather than becoming a sequence of similar obstacles with predictable outcomes.

Thomas Jane is in another adaptation of a Stephen King novella this year called 1922 which is being released on Netflix next month.

If you have yet to see The Mist, do watch it in black and white. If you have already seen it in colour, give the director’s cut a try. Unfortunately, no trailer exists for the black and white’s directors cut. Below is the standard trailer for The Mist, along with Frank Darabont’s introduction to the black and white version, which will hopefully persuade you to choose his cut over the colour version.

By Saul Shimmin

The Mist trailer:

 

Introduction to the black and white cut by Frank Darabont: