REVIEW: “A Classic Horror Story” (2021)

The vaguely titled “A Classic Horror Story” is an Italian horror film recently released on Netflix from the directing duo of Roberto De Feo and Paolo Strippoli. It highlights one of the streaming platform’s most welcomed strengths – its embrace of international cinema which includes a plethora of movies from nearly every genre and from all across the globe. Of course not every movie is five-star classic (not even closer really), but they give subscribers a chance to sample the many flavors of filmmaking from around the world.

When it comes to “A Classic Horror Story”, the title pretty much tips us off that this isn’t a movie striving for originality. It’s not reinventing the wheel or introducing anything new to the horror genre. In fact it proudly shows off its influences which include “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Cabin in the Woods”, and even a touch of “Midsommar”. That’s really nothing new especially for the horror genre where movies borrow from other movies all the time. Here the filmmakers put it out there in the title card so we know exactly what to expect. Or do we?

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Its story begins in a roadside diner where a young woman named Elisa (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz) is having second thoughts about going through with a scheduled abortion. She’s on her way to her parents house in Calabria and is waiting on her ride-share carpool to pick her up. An old RV finally pulls in driven and owned by the chatty Fabrizio (Francesco Russo), an aspiring filmmaker who is recording the trip for his travel blog. They’re joined by the obligatory jerk Mark (Will Merrick) and his girlfriend Sofia (Yuliia Sobol) who are on their way to a wedding. Also Riccardo (Peppino Mazzotta), a moody doctor with some hefty family drama back home.

The five set off through the winding Italian hills. But everything goes south when the RV slams into the tree knocking them all unconscious. When they finally come to, Mark’s leg is busted up and (more shockingly) instead of being near the road the RV is sitting in the middle of a large open field deep in the woods. And that sets up the next hour-plus that purposely leans into more horror tropes than I can number. There’s a dense eerie forest, the RV won’t start and there’s no cell phone service, there are macabre cult markings, and what’s the deal with this bizarrely shaped cabin?

While none of those things will be new to fans of the genre, De Feo and Strippoli meld them together pretty well. There’s even a little meta commentary that lands better than it should. They also add some impressive visual touches seen mostly in the lighting, some crafty uses of perspective, and some creative camera movements. We end up with a good-looking movie made with a hint of Hooper, a touch of Barker, even a dash of Shyamalan. But it borrows from/pays homage to A LOT of other films – so many that it’s hard to root out this movie’s own identity. The familiarity doesn’t kill our fun, but it does lessen the impact. “A Classic Horror Story” is streaming now on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Annette” (2021)

The eccentric and experimental style of Leos Carax was an interesting choice to open this year’s Cannes Film Festival. But it also made sense. His out-of-competition film “Annette” had already screened for some critics which generated a healthy amount of buzz. In addition to a small but vocal following, the movie also brought two with it big international stars, Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. Toss in the film’s uniquely offbeat European flavor and Cannes suddenly sounds like the perfect place to open.

Carax’s last film was the audacious but maddening “Holy Motors”, a movie that still defies definition (though many have tried and made compelling cases for it). “Annette” is somewhat similar. You could call it a dark avant-garde musical fantasy. You could also call it a 140-minute study of self-loathing and self-destruction. You might even be able to stretch it into a searing deconstruction of celebrity relationships. Whatever you want to call it, Carax teams with the equally unconventional Sparks brothers to create something as polarizing as it is creative; something equally enchanting and perplexing.

Co-written by Carax and the Sparks siblings (aka Russell and Ron Mael), “Annette” has a strange Hollywood allure while still very much feeling like an art house oddity. This interesting but not always co-equal synergy is encapsulated best in the movie’s opening – a catchy musical number featuring Carax, the Maels and the film’s cast. The song “So May We Start?” begins in a recording studio before spilling out into the LA night. Through one long continuous take, the group saunters along for a couple of city blocks, singing the bars with a casual and carefree spirit. That’s about as playful and lighthearted as “Annette” gets.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

From there the movie slides into the peculiar rhythms of its narrative. This strangely structured collage of sequences and lyrics tells the story (with varying degrees of success) of Henry and Ann. Played with an elegant touch by Cotillard, Ann is an opera singer with a beautiful soprano voice that fills seats and captivates audiences. While Carax’s representation of opera isn’t the most flattering, he portrays Ann as genuinely talented; a rising star who is beloved by the public and the obsessed press.

Contrast that with Driver’s miserable and insecure Henry. He’s a comedian (although not a very good one) with his own stage show that taps him as “The Ape of God”. His act sees him moping around in a green bath robe and house slippers engaging the audience with his nihilistic musings and gloomy self-analysis. When we first meet Henry his show is a moderate success. But while Ann’s career is blooming, his is slowly withering. Her shows are steadily selling out while his are being cancelled.

Ann and Henry’s relationship exists from the outset and we’re given practically nothing about what brought the two together. In Henry’s routine bouts with self-doubt, he’s constantly asking himself (in song) “what does she see in me?” It’s a good question, not because there is something glaringly undesirable about Henry. But because we know little to nothing about their history together. Even more, we never really get to hear or feel much from Ann’s perspective. One of the biggest frustrations with the film is that Ann is often a blank slate. We know she loves Henry but we don’t know why. We know something drew her to him but we don’t know what. In many ways she just exists as a piece of Henry’s story. Cotillard is terrific, but her character begs for more depth.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The two eventually marry and have a daughter, a creepy wooden marionette they name Annette. But as Henry’s career crumbles, he finds himself succumbing to jealousy, arrogance and self-pity. Soon the character is careening down some dark and unpredictable paths which Carax emphasizes both narratively and visually. And it all unfolds through a little speech but mostly singing. Not through what you would consider full songs (with a few exceptions). More so lines of dialogue sung instead of spoken. And too often the tunes are nothing more that one line repeated over and over again. I mean you can only hear “We love each other so much” so much.

Where Cotillard’s approach is delicate and graceful, Driver fearlessly attacks the material, swallowing up every scene with his physicality and intensity. His lone struggle is his singing. It only took one scene in “Marriage Story” to show the world he could sing. But here he struggles at times to get in tune with the Mael brothers’ weird musical arrangements which leads to moments that distract more than they immerse. But those aren’t Driver’s fault and as a whole his performance is astounding. The always welcomed Simon Helberg pops up playing a self-deprecating accompanist, but it’s deep into the movie before he’s given anything to do.

The last act of the film vacillates between something magical and utter absurdity as Annette’s role broadens. It does end with a powerful final exchange that I won’t dare spoil, but that ends things on a strong foot. It’s the kind of finish the movie desperately needed and a kind of scene the movie could use more of. As it stands “Annette” is a mixed bag with too much artistry to dismiss and too many flaws to overlook. Adam Driver is a force and while it’s hard to say he “saves” the movie, he certainly keeps it afloat. The film’s musical component is far less impressive. Other than the opening ditty you’ll be hard-pressed to find another song that will stick with you, much less one you’ll want to listen to over and over again. Perhaps the filmmakers aren’t interested in selling soundtracks, but when the music is so central to the film’s language, you tend to expect something a little more memorable. “Annette” opens in select theaters August 6th before streaming on Amazon Prime August 20th.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Awake” (2021)

Gina Rodriguez gets a hefty lead role in the newly streaming Netflix film “Awake”, a sci-fi action-thriller built around a weirdly intriguing premise. The movie is directed by Mark Raso from a screenplay he wrote with his brother Joseph. Raso’s previous film was 2017’s road-trip drama “Kodachrome”, also for Netflix. “Awake” is a much different animal – a movie that seems to have some big ideas and plenty of genre ambition. But it’s so scattered and lacking much-needed detail that it’s impossible to fully buy into the world the movie creates.

Rodriguez gives it her all playing Jill, a former soldier and a single mother with a troubled past. Like so much of “Awake”, most of Jill’s history is skimmed over and barely touched on leaving us with a fairly incomplete image of who she is. We know her husband is dead. We know that her mother-in-law (Frances Fisher) has custody of her two kids, the younger dinosaur-loving Matilda (Ariana Greenblatt) and her disgruntled estranged oldest Noah (Lucius Hoyos). And when we first meet Jill we see her smuggling pills out of a university lab where she works as a security guard and then selling them to street dealers.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The movie loads Jill up with all of that baggage in the first ten minutes and then forgets it the rest of way. Instead she becomes a mother protecting her children after a mysterious event plunges the world into chaos. Essentially something similar to a massive EMP knocks out power across the globe – electricity, automobiles, computers, basically anything with electronics is shut down. It also takes away people’s ability to sleep, something the movie never comes close to explaining in a sufficient way. But obviously it’s bad news. “Without sleep your mind will bend and bend until it breaks”.

Jennifer Jason Leigh pops up as Dr. Murphy, a psychiatrist and a sleep deprivation expert who got Jill the job at the university and now wants her to come help at a remote facility nicknamed “the Hub”. There Murphy and a team of doctors are studying the only known person who can still sleep. What they don’t know is that young Matilda can also sleep. Refusing to let her daughter become a lab rat, Jill flees with her children into the crumbling society encountering a number of increasingly desperate (and in most cases hostile) people groups along the way. Mad scientists, a nudist cult, grubby backwoods rednecks, a so-warped-it’s-silly version of evangelical churchgoers – just some of the threats Raso throws at this family of three.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

If you try hard enough you can find the occasional thematic morsel to chew on. What happens when morality gives way to despair? How far is too far in the world of medicine and science? Stuff like that. But by the end I wasn’t convinced the movie had much interest in wrestling with anything weighty. Instead it all unwinds in a violent finale that has to be a lot more unsettling on paper than on screen. And the long-awaited “explanation” turns out to be no real explanation at all. Bummer.

“Awake” constantly teases us with its interesting ideas and you stick with it even through the rough patches in hopes of a satisfying payoff. Unfortunately the payoff never comes. It’s as if the Raso brothers came up with a cool and compelling story concept but were unsure how to tell it. So we get an intriguing mess that hopes viewers are interested enough to stay with it but not interested enough to want answers to the most basic questions. Oh, and the head-scratching gaps in logic, some cringy attempts at little girl humor, and the frustrating plot-holes don’t really help. “Awake” premieres today (June 9th) on Netflix (www.netflix/awake).

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Athlete A” (2020)

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Last year as my first few batches of awards season screeners started arriving they included several movies that had slipped by me during the year. One was “Athlete A”, a Netflix documentary chronicling the the sex abuse scandal that rocked the United States Gymnastics national team. It turned out to be one of the better documentaries from a year full of really good ones.

“Athlete A” comes from the co-directing duo of Bonni Cohen and John Shenk. They not only detail the timeline of the abuse specifically from the once esteemed Dr. Larry Nassar, but they show the dedicated work of the Indianapolis Star’s investigative team in uncovering this appalling scandal. And in a day when the media is under such intense scrutiny, much of it justified, it’s a testament to the value of true investigative journalism in unearthing corruption and in this case sickening abuse.

The film allows plenty of time for the voices of Nassar’s victims, now adult women, who bravely bring the story’s sobering reality into focus. Nassar was the highly respected team doctor for the national team who shrouded his sexual abuse of young gymnasts under the guise of medical procedures. After allegations were made against him by Maggie Nichols the US Gymnastic officials remained silent attempting to minimize the damage. For 15 full months after the allegation, Nassar was allowed to continue treating and abusing young girls before action was finally taken against him.

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Image Courtesy of Netflix

In addition to speaking with the victims and their families, Cohen and Shenk speak to the journalists who investigated and eventually rooted out the story. Not only did they uncover Nassar’s abuse but also the negligence of the USA Gymnastics officials in protecting their girls and taking their abuse claims to the authorities. We also hear from attorneys who prosecuted Nassar’s case and we get to see those powerful courtroom images of the victims bravely coming forward to face their abuser. I remember those clips from news broadcasts and they still pack the same emotional punch today.

“Athlete A” is a pretty standard documentary in terms of style and structure, but it makes up for it where it really counts. Cohen and Shenk get us close to the victims and their pain, follows the determined journalists, and pulls no punches when it comes to the perpetrators. Along the way they take much needed jabs at the ‘win at all costs’ mentality that permeates so many youth sports especially in America. “We love winners in this country.” They reveal how the lines between tough coaching and abuse are blurred and how easy we’ll turn a blind eye when our team is winning. Those are the harmful mindsets that can allow things like this to take place. “Athlete A” is streaming now on Netflix.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “A Quiet Place Part II” (2021)

A lot of people were caught off-guard by 2018’s terrific “A Quiet Place”. Director, co-writer, and star John Krasinski not only put together one of the best horror movies in recent years, but he made a touching family story that really hit this father-of-two right in the feels. The modestly budgeted chiller was both a hit with critics and a box office smash for Paramount. And while a sequel wasn’t originally planned, the first film’s success eventually led to Krasinski putting ideas together for a follow-up. Soon he was hired to both write and direct the film.

“A Quiet Place Part II” is a sequel in the literal sense but it’s more of a direct continuation of the first film. It takes no time for Krasinski to pull his audience right back into his tense and terrifying world. And while it lacks the intimacy of its predecessor, the story’s chief focus remains on the tight-knit Abbott family. Emily Blunt returns as Evelyn who’s still reeling from the death of her husband Lee (Krasinski’s character) yet is determined to protect her kids at any cost. Millicent Simmonds is back as Evelyn’s deaf daughter Regan and Noah Jupe reprises his role as her son Marcus.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The film opens with a fantastic flashback sequence showing the day that the blind but hyper-sound-sensitive alien creatures first arrived and began savagely attacking humanity. Krasinski wisely doesn’t get bogged down in the details, instead showing the chaos that follows from the terrified Abbott family’s perspective. The sequence makes for a perfect reintroduction to the characters. And the impeccable mix of camerawork, sound design, and editing create the kind of nail-biting tension that will run throughout the film’s taut 97-minute runtime.

After the title card we move ahead 474 days to the scene that ended the first film. Evelyn, the resilient Regan, the timid younger Marcus, and newborn baby leave their farm after taking out the creatures who killed the family’s patriarch Lee. With the house in shambles the remaining Abbotts are forced to relocate, hoping to find other survivors who can take them in. After several miles of walking they run into an old friend of Lee’s named Emmett (Cillian Murphy) who’s holed up in a rusted-out steel mill. Emmett isn’t keen to help them at first, having lost his own family and essentially given up hope. He’s a tragic character and a nice fit with the story.

One of the things I love most is that Lee’s death hasn’t been forgotten. In fact it’s woven into much of this film. It’s seen most in Regan who becomes more and more like her father as the story progresses. She has his smarts, stubbornness, and ingenuity. It’s how she learned that pairing her cochlear implant with a portable guitar amp can emit a high-frequency screech that hurts the creatures. And it’s what drives her (against her mother’s wishes) to venture off on her own to try and reach the source of a radio signal that she can use to broadcast the screech to other survivors. Simmonds is a star, deaf from birth but using her impairment as a strength. She’s very much a co-lead, full of grit and determination. It’s such a good performance.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

For the most part the action plays out on two fronts (and for a brief time three). Evelyn stays at the steel mill to protect Marcus and the baby while Emmett is convinced to go out and find Regan who is on her own in a perilous world filled with dangers of both the alien and human kind. A couple of cheap jump scares aside, Krasinski’s smart and effective ‘less-is-more’ approach allows us to watch, anticipate, and experience ourselves. And clever touches such as utilizing silence to unsettle his audience is a big reason why Krasinski can still wring a steady stream of edge-of-your-seat suspense out of his simple yet gripping premise.

Where the first film left the door open for a potential sequel, this film all but confirms there will be a third installment. Its abrupt ending leaves several glaring questions. It’s hardly a graceful finish and one of the only places where Krasinski doesn’t quite hit his mark. And as he broadens his world inevitable questions pop up, mostly about the creatures. One way he gets around it is by always seeing things from the family’s perspective. As their knowledge is limited, so is ours. But the former star of “The Office“ and real-life husband to Emily Blunt puts his money on the audience being onboard and along for the ride. And when that ride is this thrilling and the characters this appealing, those aforementioned questions become less and less significant. “A Quiet Place Part II” opens today (May 28th) in theaters.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Above Suspicion” (2021)

Emilia Clarke stores away her English accent (and Mother of Dragons renown) in the new movie “Above Suspicion”, a grimy southern noir from Australian director Phillip Noyce. The film was shot all the way back in 2016 but is just now finding its way to American screens. That type of hesitation doesn’t exactly exude studio confidence. While watching the film it’s pretty easy to detect the cause for concern. At the same time, the movie is kept afloat by its compelling lead and just enough surface-level treatment of its true story inspiration to keep things interesting.

“Above Suspicion” is based on Joe Shakey’s book of the same name, a non-fiction work that tells the tragic story of Susan Daniels Smith. I’ll stay away from detailing Smith’s story as doing so would leave no real reason (other than Clarke) to watch the movie. I say that because one of the film’s biggest issues is that it leaves too much meat on the bone. The movie we get seems content with touching on the high points of the story which are certainly worth covering. But Noyce never seems confident in his approach to the material and screenwriter Chris Gerolmo can’t make the story as compelling as it should be.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Clarke is the one real highlight here. She puts a nice accent onto dialogue that’s caught somewhere between authentic and full-blown Southern stereotype. Set in the Appalachian Mountain valley town of Pikeville, Kentucky in 1988, Clarke plays Susan Smith, a young mother whose life has been one bad beat after another. She’s always wanted to get out of Pikeville, yet she almost seems bound to the tragic hand she has been dealt. Instead she’s stuck living in a trailer park with her abusive ex-husband Cash (Johnny Knoxville). “There’s only two ways to make money in this town since the mine shut down,” she says at one point. “One is the funeral business and the other is selling drugs.” Cash is certainly no funeral director.

Stuck in a dead-end world of drugs and rural poverty, Susan sees a way out when ambitious clean-cut FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston) moves into town with his wife (Sophie Lowe) and their new baby. Hungry to climb his way up the Bureau’s ladder, Mark is there to track down a serial bank robber, something that would put a significant notch in his belt and get the attention he craves from his bosses.

When Susan and Mark eventually meet, he convinces her to become an informant. Professionally, their partnership proves fruitful for both of them. Mark gets closer to his big bust and Susan gets some much needed cash for every bit of information she provides. But then they cross the line and the two begin a steamy affair that quickly sours. Feeling he has too much at stake (professionally more so than at home), Mark decides to moves on. But Susan is having none of it which leads their story down a darker and more sordid path.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

As you can tell, there is plenty here for a good rural crime thriller especially with two capable leads like Clarke and Huston. Yet from start to finish, the movie remains as tepid as its generic title. It’s never boring. It simply fails to explore the human complexities that should be the centerpiece of a story like this. Even the film’s well-meaning style choices feel dated and unneeded. Susan’s narration, the drab color palette, the sweaty close-ups – none of it enhances the story or the characters in any meaningful way.

“Above Suspicion” has a story worthy of being told but it’s emphasis is too often on the wrong thing. It’s a shame because even amid the clichés and character types Emilia Clarke gives a strong performance that will probably go unseen by many. That’s because the film does little to stand out and set itself apart. And it isn’t helped by all the time spent sitting on the shelf and the almost non-existent promotion once it was finally set for release. Still, if you’re looking for something to watch at home you could do a lot worse, even though the film itself could have been a lot better. “Above Suspicion” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS