REVIEW: “Bird Box”

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Arguably the weirdest titled movie of 2018 has debuted on Netflix and with quite a bit of attention. According to the streaming giant “Bird Box” has been watched by 45 million accounts making it the “best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film.” Skeptics notwithstanding, those are pretty impressive numbers especially for a usually tight-lipped company.

“Bird Box” is a genre stew featuring slices of horror, psychological drama, science-fiction, and end-of-the-world thrillers. It’s based on Josh Malerman’s 2014 debut novel of the same name and adapted to screen by Oscar nominated screenwriter Eric Heisserer (“Arrival”). Danish director Susanne Bier is tasked with corralling it all together and she manages it with a satisfying effectiveness.

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The film opens with a mother named Malorie (Sandra Bullock) giving strict instructions to two children as they prep for a dangerous trek up a river. The three blindfold themselves before feeling their way to a fiberglass rowboat. After a few more pointed warnings they begin the treacherous journey upstream.

Flashback to five years earlier. A terrifying unknown presence surfaces causing anyone who lays eyes on it to suddenly kill themselves. Malorie, now pregnant and a soon to be single mother, finds herself holed up in a house with an assortment of strangers all trying to make sense of the rampant death and chaos.

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“Bird Box” bounces back-and-forth between the present day river scenes and the flashbacks which reveal what led Malorie to that point. Most of that time is spent in the house where survivors battle fear and uncertainty as supplies begin to run out and new survivors show up. A talent-rich supporting cast fill out the group. There’s Tom (Trevante Rhodes), Douglas (John Malkovich), Cheryl (Jackie Weaver), Olympia (Danielle Macdonald), and Charlie (Lil Rey Howery) among others.

Parenting is a central theme and we see it from both literal and metaphorical angles. When it works it’s mostly due to a stellar performance from Bullock who hasn’t lost a step and shows she can still navigate an intense range of emotions. But it’s not always easy to keep the theme in focus especially when the film stumbles into some familiar genre trappings. There is clearly a thematic throughline, but you never lose sight that this is very much a genre(s) movie.

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The film’s opening 20 minutes are its best, introducing its terrifying unseen threat that is undeniably menacing yet intentionally undefined. It turns society upside-down much like the killer first scenes of 2013’s “World War Z” yet on a smaller scale. Bier builds plenty of suspense and then carries it over to the film’s more character-focused house segment. Some of the characters work better than others. Rhodes is a standout. Malkovich is very John Malkovich-like. Weaver is sadly lost in the crowd.

“Bird Box” runs the gambit from riveting to predictable to kinda silly. At the same time it’s never boring and the performances are always worth watching. The convergence of survival and motherhood within such a sinister setting is a cool concept and Bullock wonderfully fleshes it out for us. She’s the movie’s backbone and even when the story sputters at times she puts it on her back and carries it to finish line.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

“Stoker” – 4 STARS

STOKER POSTERThere are two things that you’ll instantly notice when watching “Stoker”. First, it’s clear that director Park Chan-wook is a true visionary. Second, there is something seriously not right in the Stoker household. “Stoker” is a twisted psychological thriller oozing with Hitchcockian influence and mixed with traces of classic horror. There’s a good reason for that. The script was written by Wentworth Miller (yes, the guy from “Prison Break”) who stated that he used Hitchcock’s classic thriller “Shadow of a Doubt” to help frame his story. But this isn’t a mere carbon copy. He takes things in a much darker direction which helps this movie stand on its own two feet.

Chan-wook is best known for his “Vengeance” trilogy and for “Oldboy” which is currently being remade by Spike Lee. “Stoker” marks his English-language debut and his fingerprints are all over this film. He takes Miller’s script and instantly incorporates his signature style which works to create a specific mood and tone throughout the picture. And if you’re familiar with his other work you know his films often incorporate uneasiness and brutality. Both are present here as well.

The story centers around young India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska). Her life is dealt a terrible blow when her father Richard is killed in a tragic car accident on her 18th birthday. India was very close with her father, something that can’t be said about her relationship with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). The two have a strained relationship resulting from Evelyn’s emotional instability and her jealousy of India’s affection for her father. After the funeral, both meet Richard’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) who has been traveling abroad for years. Evelyn takes to him instantly but India doesn’t trust him. He has the charm and good looks but there’s something unnerving about this guy.

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Uncle Charlie volunteers to move in to help the family out. Evelyn is thrilled which does more to strain her relationship with India. The story unfolds and we quickly sense Charlie is up to no good. But there’s a lot more going on than anyone realizes. Most of the film deals with the tension between India and her Uncle. Her suspicions of Charlie are valid but neither she or the audience can figure the guy out. But it’s not as if she’s completely stable. She’s a very dark and brooding recluse. She lives in her own little world which is made clear by a couple of scenes that take place at her high school. The contrast between home and away is profound. Her nature and Charlie’s creepiness make for some good, eerie conversations between the two. But there’s also an undeniable psychosexual tension that permeates each scene. It’s a key part of the movie’s overall weirdness that sometimes has you squirming in your seat.

Wasikowska is an young actress that I’ve always been impressed with. She gives another solid performance here although the material doesn’t require much in terms of range. Throughout the entire film she maintains the same blank expression regardless of what’s happening. It’s nothing that allows her to flex her acting muscle yet it’s strikingly appropriate for this story. I also thought Kidman was really good. She takes on a smaller role, but her strong performance brings more to her character than you might expect. But for me Matthew Goode is the real standout. From his first appearance in the cemetery overlooking his brother’s funeral service, Goode maintains an eerie presence. He slithers around the Stoker’s secluded two-story estate channeling his best Joseph Cotton from “Shadow of a Doubt”. I loved what Goode did with the role and for me he helped give the movie the creepy intensity it was shooting for.

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But I think my favorite thing about “Stoker” was the undeniable style of Park Chan-wook. I loved what he was doing with his camera and I never grew tired of his perspectives. There’s such artistry at work as he uses strategic close ups, moving cameras, and specific framings of shots. Chan-Wook also left indelible images carved into my mind. He gives the film a real horror movie feel with chilling shots of things like a crawling spider, a hair on a bar of soap, or a pencil sharpener. He also gives the movie heightened senses particularly in the area of sound. It may be voices, buzzing house flies, or even the crumbling of a boiled egg’s shell. All of this contributes to letting us know everything’s wrong in their world. I mean even the end credits are backwards and scroll down instead of up.

All of the amazing visuals and strong acting really worked for me. But some will assuredly be turned off by the movie’s bloody and violent final act. In a way I can understand why but not necessary due to the blood. I’m just not sure that the ending works that well storywise. That aside, “Stoker” is a strong film, dark and unsettling but still wickedly entertaining. It’s most certainly not a film for everyone. But it should be seen even if only for Goode’s devilishly good performance and the stylistic visionary direction. Lucky for me, I found there to be more to like than just that.