by Philip Price
Eli Roth’s “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” despite being a straight-up kids movie with a release date in the dead of September, was one of my most anticipated films of the fall if not of the entire year. Despite the obvious warning signs though, I think it’s actually pretty easy to see why this was the case. First, there is Jack Black who has done well to understand the current phase of his career; with last year's “Jumanji” sequel as well as “Goosebumps” he is slowly establishing himself as the guy that will be fondly remembered by the tweens and younger teens of the current generation as that funny guy who was in all of their favorite movies. Better even, when those same kids get older they can go back and discover more of Black's rather impressive collection of work. Another encouraging factor going in was the fact this was a kid’s movie with Cate freakin' Blanchett in it. Now, Blanchett has been doing more work in more commercially viable popcorn flicks as of late with the last ‘Thor’ film and “Ocean's 8,” but it seemed it would take a really great script or great character to really entice an actor of her caliber. Blanchett certainly seems to be having a great time exploring the genre, but unfortunately, she doesn’t have nearly as much to do as one would expect sans the excellent bickering back and forth between her and Black. This cast, this genre, this time of year...what more could there be that might help propel this project to the heights it seemed so obviously destined to reach? I say this somewhat ironically as it seems most critics and audiences didn't expect much from another kid-centric Black film-especially one based on a children's book from the seventies and especially not one directed by the guy who made 2018's “Death Wish,” but alas...here we are. As someone who has always adored Black's range and versatility there was this sense of optimism and support, but the point of concern was always Roth. Roth is a director raised on the Amblin films that are very clearly an inspiration for his “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” but unfortunately Roth's homage to spooky if not exactly scary kids fare doesn't pass that test of being a magical film about magical people. The finished product can certainly be endearing for long stretches, but the big picture never gels and is more a hodge-podge of several different "chosen one" archetypes than it is a single, focused, satisfying narrative. And though “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” proved to be more disappointing than hoped for it’s not impossible to see how the film might become more appealing over time-especially to the generation that will grow up on it.
Based on John Bellairs' 1973 novel of the same name, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” follows the recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) who is sent to Michigan in the fall of 1955 to live with his estranged as well as outright strange, uncle Jonathan (Black). Lewis quickly discovers his uncle is a warlock AKA a boy witch and that his uncle's quirky neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett), is a witch in her own right. Further, Lewis discovers both are guarding secrets concerning the house Jonathan has just invited young Lewis to live in with him. Much to Jonathan's surprise, Lewis is something of a bookworm and a rather engaging child who is more than thrilled to enter this world of magic and sorcery where. Lewis begins to learn from his uncle as well as Ms. Zimmerman and the trio form something of a comfortable family unit. As Lewis learns the ins and outs of magic spells and ancient curses he also has to balance this peculiar existence with trying to fit in at a new school and make friends. Class president and all-around popular kid, Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic), quickly takes to being kind to the admittedly odd Lewis, but it's easy for everyone but Lewis to see Tarby has ulterior motives. And though Jonathan and Ms. Zimmerman seem to be enjoying their time with Lewis, teaching him their ways as well as poker while keeping him on a steady diet of cookies there is the ever-lurking evil of the hidden clock in the house's walls that seems to be counting down to something, but to what-neither can figure out. Besides the whole orphan deal, this is where the tropes really begin to pile-up as Jonathan possesses a book of spells that is off-limits to Lewis (his one and only rule in the house), but in order to prove he's cool and convince Tarby magic is in fact real Lewis goes to the lengths of stealing the forbidden book and bringing an evil wizard named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) back to life. As these things go, Izard has a history with Jonathan along with an evil plan that may or may not, but obviously does deal with the magical clock hidden within the walls of the house, counting down to whatever it might be that is certainly anything but good. And so, Lewis, his uncle Jonathan, and Ms. Zimmerman must find the clock before it's too late, but must each overcome their own insecurities and histories along the way.
The fact Eli Roth was taking a spin with a different target audience was always the main concern here, as I said before. Sure, it may have been more a point of intrigue than an outright curiosity given we've seen the guy can make a solid horror flick, but the test was going to be if he could manage those same tendencies adjusted for a younger crowd. And just to clarify, in case you're unsure-yes, that would be the Eli Roth who made “Cabin Fever,” both ‘Hostel’ movies, and who starred in “Inglorious Basterds” as "The Bear Jew"...yeah, remember that scene? Needless to say, my hope was that with Roth's sensibilities, if he was able to balance them well, he would be able to keep the film appropriately scary while injecting an underlying quality of sincere terror. Point being, this had all the ingredients of a movie aimed at kids that also seemed as if it could become a Halloween staple, but while Roth certainly pushes the envelope in terms of content a PG audience can handle the movie itself never manages to find its groove well enough to hammer any of these scares home. One of the biggest identifiers of those eighties Amblin movies was that, as children who might relate, the characters and their environment would become so ingrained in the viewers that watching the movie would feel akin to traveling somewhere that felt like a home away from home. The story would become so familiar, the characters so reliable, and the jokes would forever remain funny to the point the movie became this safe haven of sorts and while this may become true of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” over time or with repeated viewings what came to be the biggest mark against the film after a first, initial viewing is the fact its atmosphere possessed no such welcoming signs. This isn't because it doesn't try-Roth and his practical set designers do well to create this period in 1955 that is adorned with magical oddities and big, ornate houses on abandoned, leaf-covered streets, but while the physical representations of this atmosphere are available in plain sight Roth doesn't meld these sets with the narrative in a strong enough way that they come to mean anything more than where the action takes place. As it is, the action could have taken place anywhere, but what the audience needed was for the action to take place in this titular house because it couldn't possibly take place anywhere else. Unfortunately, as the story never comes to be conveyed in any clear or resonant way the place in which it all occurs remains just as much a mystery as well.
Not being able to replicate this sense of familiarity or pose this sense of cautionary greetings to this world deliver some hard strikes against “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” but while Roth is unable to ever make his movie feel as if it really gets going or give it the real jump start it needs one might hope that given the talent he has employed they could make up for the director's shortcomings. As is shown on the screen though, both Black and Blanchett aren't given enough character to play with to create something that is either wholly endearing or even memorable. Both actors certainly do what they can with the material (Bellairs novel was adapted by Eric Kripke, a veteran of TV writing, but who only has a couple of feature credits to his name), but while uncle Jonathan has peculiarities galore and while Black plays up each of them as much as he can more times than not the character feels as if he exists solely to deliver a punchline that allows Roth to cut to his next scene rather than a core character who has a dog in the fight. It should be Jonathan who has the biggest dog in the fight though, given his history with Izard, our main antagonist, but rather than delving into the past relationship between Jonathan and Izard and how the turn to dark magic came for one and not the other Roth decides to gloss over much of this fertile drama for quick flashbacks that blame it on WWII and a demon in the woods offering a reprieve from such horrors while tempting Izard with a bigger solution. This more serves to justify Izard's actions rather than his entire change in character, but “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” doesn't give much credence to such thoughts and instead turns its focus on young Lewis who is obviously brought into the fold at the time he is for reasons beyond anyone's control and to the grievance of Jonathan and Ms. Zimmerman who likely hoped for a more logical way to deal with their clock problem. While it's clear Lewis is being set-up and then groomed to be this "chosen one" that rescues everyone from the antithesis of the pure-intentioned warlock he's becoming it's never really clear why this is the case outside of the fact he's Jonathan's nephew. What actually makes Lewis so special? There is no connective string, no throughline theme, no epiphany that the characters come to that brings a clarity to them or the audience. Instead, Roth simply hits the beats of the genre in a competent enough fashion that the viewer understands the good guys win and the bad guys lost. This might have sufficed for any other straight-up kids movie released in the dead of September, but there is so much obvious potential here it's a shame a more adept director with a clearer vision wasn't able to welcome audiences into this house with a clock in its walls.
by Philip Price
10. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
This sequel, said to be the second film in a planned five-film franchise, picks up where the first film concluded by following-up the reveal that Colin Farrell's Percival Graves was actually the powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald as played by Johnny Depp. The titular Grindelwald was captured by the Magical Congress of the United States of America with the help of our hero, Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander, but Grindelwald has since escaped custody and set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda to raise pure-blood wizards to rule over all non-magical beings. With ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald,’ returning director David Yates (who also helmed the fifth, sixth, and both parts of the seventh ‘Harry Potter’ films) and sole screenwriter and creator of this wizarding world, J.K. Rowling, we pick-up with a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) as he enlists former student Scamander to help thwart Grindelwald’s plans unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Premieres: 11/16
9. Holmes and Watson
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly re-team for the first time in over a decade for a humorous take on Arthur Conan Doyle's classic mysteries featuring Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. With Ferrell as Holmes and Reilly as Watson, the two will surely provide plenty of laughs given the simple fact they are hilarious together, but while we are just over three months away from the release date there has been no trailer and hardly a peep of a poster. While the combo of Ferrell ad Reilly is enough to have me excited the other drawback to the film outside of the fact Sony seems to be hiding it for some reason is the fact this is the first time the duo won't be joined by writer/director Adam McKay (‘Talladega Nights,’ “Step Brothers”). Instead, writer/director Etan Cohen is behind this collaboration and while Cohen has solid writing credits such as “Tropic Thunder” and “Men in Black 3” his directorial debut was the underwhelming Ferrell/Kevin Hart-starrer “Get Hard.” That said, Cohen didn't write that flick, but has taken double duty on “Holmes and Watson” as he is the sole screenwriter as well as being at the helm. Though I can't help but be excited by the pairing let's hope Cohen rewards my optimism. Premieres: 12/21
This titled exactly-the-same, 40-year-later sequel is said to pick up in real time after the events of the first film, disregarding all subsequent films, and follows the residents of Haddonfield on another horrifying Halloween night as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode faces her greatest fears when Michael Myers escapes the asylum where he’s been locked up since his first killing spree. Naturally, Strode has attempted to move on with her life and seemingly has as this movie will feature Judy Greer as Laurie's daughter, Karen, as well as Andi Matichak as her granddaughter. Where the narrative will go outside the "one final confrontation" remains to be seen, but given the screenplay was penned by new franchise director David Gordon Green (“Stronger”) along with Danny McBride (yes, that Danny McBride) there is a fair amount of curiosity here as well. There will undoubtedly be a lot of influence from the original film at play here and I'm anxious to see how Green decided to balance that with his and McBride's interpretation. Premieres: 10/19
Though this is Paul Dano's directorial debut this thing wreaks of awards season fodder as it is set in the ‘60s, is a family drama, and stars the likes Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. While all of this may contribute to some audiences being immensely drawn to the material with the grounded, cold reality of the story (the film is based on Richard Ford's 1990 novel of the same name) no doubt being a detractor for others I have to say I'm all in for this one. Gyllenhaal is one of the most exciting and intriguing actors working today; even when his projects seem typical or predictable a la last year's “Stronger” they still turn out more effective and his performances more compelling than anticipated. Wildlife premiered at Sundance earlier this year and has slowly been gaining steam ever since with much of the praise being heaped upon Carey Mulligan's performance as a woman whose marriage is falling apart and who, in the midst of dealing with this and raising her teenage son (Ed Oxenbould) finds another, older man. Premieres: 10/19
6. Bohemian Rhapsody
The feature film version of Queen's story has had a hell of a development history as well as multiple production troubles most of which derive from original director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”) being fired from the gig due to tensions with his star, Rami Malek, and his apparent lack of regard for punctuality. “Eddie the Eagle” director Dexter Fletcher was brought into complete the film, but it has since been finalized that Singer will in fact be the credited director on the picture. It's been a weird road, no doubt, and as much as I would have loved to have seen the Freddie Mercury-centric film that Sacha Baron Cohen wanted to make “Bohemian Rhapsody” will have to do. I'm all in on any kind of music biopic, that's a given, but I have to wonder how much of this will indeed be focused on Mercury and how much of it will put equal stock in the remaining band members given they were seemingly given their way when Cohen stepped away from the project. Regardless, what comes to pass-whether it be a masterpiece, or a dumpster fire-is certain to hold a fair amount of intrigue through its release. Premieres: 11/2
I've been more of a fan of the DCEU (or whatever it's being referred to as now) than I haven't as I thoroughly relished in the behemoths that were “Man of Steel” and “Batman V. Superman,” as well as appreciating the ambition with which “Wonder Woman” tried to rise above its required standards, but once the studio started over-meddling such as was the case with both “Suicide Squad” and last fall's “Justice League” it became apparent there was no real direction the studio had in mind or were dedicated to other than turning a profit and catering to whatever it seemed fans wanted in order to accomplish that. If one thing is for sure though, it's that nothing is for sure-not even Batman, apparently. What has worked for Marvel Studios was never and is never going to work for the DCEU. Marvel has its brand and has defined that brand-what Warner Bros. and DC need to figure out is what their brand is and how they want to define it. With “Aquaman,” it seems they might be attempting to course-correct in the best way they know how as things certainly seem to be lighter and brighter in James Wan's (“Furious 7”) take on the character, but per the first trailer for the film this solo outing is more in line with “Wonder Woman” than anything else they've produced which makes sense, but here's to hoping Jason Momoa has the charisma if not the zeitgeist his super friend had leading into the release of his movie. Premieres: 12/21
4. If Beale Street Could Talk
James Baldwin’s 1974 novel is a love story set in Harlem in the early 1970's and follows Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne). Fonny and Tish are in love with this beauty providing some layer of protection from the harsh reality of their family lives as well as the outside world. That is, until Fonny is falsely accused of rape. This follow-up to Best Picture-winner “Moonlight” and sophomore effort from Barry Jenkins is sure to make waves this fall given it is the first time any Baldwin work has been adapted into an English-language film; something that Jenkins has acknowledged was difficult. The film's first trailer features stunning imagery via cinematographer James Laxton that is largely effective as it is clear Jenkins is going for the emotional gut-punch to reel you in as his characters look directly into the camera, the expressions on their faces conveying a multitude of thoughts and feelings while their lips quiver as if on the edge of letting it all come out, with the camera cutting to black just before they have a chance to do so. Needless to say, my anticipation for this new work from Jenkins is obviously through the roof. Premieres: 11/30
3. First Man
Damien Chazelle follows up his Best Directing win for “La La Land” with a film based on James R. Hansen's book that chronicles the story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong between the years of 1961 and 1969. Re-teaming with Ryan Gosling who fills the role of Armstrong along with Emmy-winning “The Crown” actress Claire Foy playing Armstrong’s wife, Janet the remainder of the cast is filled out with the likes of Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Patrick Fugit, Ciaran Hinds, Ethan Embry, Shea Whigham, Corey Stoll, and Pablo Schreiber with Chazelle is working from an adapted screenplay by Oscar-winning “Spotlight” and “The Post” co-writer Josh Singer. So, it's not hard to see why “First Man” is one of the more anticipated features of the fall and a likely front-runner for many of this year's biggest awards if the film turns out to be as good as any one of its credentials would suggest. Like Hansen's book the film is said to be a visceral, first-person account that explores the sacrifices and cost of one of the most dangerous missions in history which, given we all know what happens, feels like the way to go. I can't wait. Premieres: 10/12
The latest from director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and follow-up to his Best Picture-winner is major. Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Jon Bernthal, Michelle Rodriguez, Carrie Coon, André Holland, Jacki Weaver, Viola Davis and Liam Neeson make-up what might be the best and biggest cast of the year in a story based on the 1983 ITV series of the same name. The screenplay was written by McQueen and “Gone Girl” and “Sharp Objects” scribe Gillian Flynn which only adds more reason to be excited about the movie to a movie that already has plenty of reasons to be excited about it. What might be most interesting about the film though, is that while this certainly looks like an epic crime drama it isn't necessarily another heavy drama by way of McQueen's previous features. The film chronicles four widows, including Davis, Rodriguez, Debicki and Cynthia Erivo, of four deceased armed robbers who were killed in a failed heist attempt and whose wives must step up to finish the job and settle their husband's debts. Premieres: 11/16
1. A Star is Born
If you looked at my Top 10 of 2017 article, then you'll know I'm a big Lady Gaga fan and so it goes without saying that I'm fairly excited to see her big screen debut in a feature especially when that feature is the third remake of the 1937 film of the same name. “A Star is Born” was first re-made in 1954 starring Judy Garland and James Mason and then again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. This latest incarnation of the story deals in a country star helping a young singer find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral. This will not only mark Gaga's AKA Stefani Germanotta's feature debut in a starring role though, but it will also serve as her co-star, Bradley Cooper's, directorial debut. The screenplay has been reformatted for what I'm presuming is a modern day if not just a slightly different take on the material. If Cooper's particular brand of passion and commitment bleed into his filmmaking as much as it typically does his performance work I can only imagine the heights this one might reach. Premieres: 10/5
by Philip Price
I was born in 1987 or the same year the original “Predator” was released. One might think this means something more or that it's led to some long-standing connection I feel with that John McTiernan movie, but it doesn't and hasn't. I say this more to point out I was too far behind to now have any nostalgic or appropriated affection for that movie. In fact, I've only seen “Predator” once before in preparation for the 2010 re-boot, “Predators,” and while the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick certainly makes for an enjoyable enough action movie it certainly didn't hit me the same way in 2010 as it likely did those who were in their late-teens to early-20s in 1987. For me, it was fine, goofy fun and very much a product of the time in which it was made. And while 2018's “The Predator” will rank miles below that original for those who adore it and place it on this pedestal of action perfection, which I admittedly can't dispute given the credentials of my birth, “The Predator” is also perfectly OK. There is a lot going on and it wants to do more than its hour and forty-seven minute runtime dares to contain, but at the heart of the issues with the film is the fact the movie itself doesn't seem to know what its heart really wants. Does this mean there is nothing beating within the core of this movie? Does it mean there's no pulse? Not necessarily. There is so much going on that it kind of creates the illusion of this pounding sense of energy and tension, but energy doesn't always equal an understanding or coherence. There are numerous players playing different games, following several different arcs, but none of them thread together to form a satisfying whole despite countless efforts to present a facade that it does in fact do so. “The Predator” puts on that it knows what it is but taking in the execution presented it seems the movie only has ideas of what it wants to be. Writer/director Shane Black knows he wants to make a bloody, irreverent, and fun action movie but for one reason or another everything Black throws at the audience feels like both disparate and sometimes desperate attempts to play to what the masses want never landing a single of the many things as well as he's proven he could have.
A lot of this has to do with the fact the story is too convoluted. It's trying too hard to bring weight to something that never needed to carry any. That original film succeeded in large part at the time of release due to its simplicity and the pure thrill of actors like Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers strutting their stuff; there wasn't much to it, but what was there was maximized to full effect. With “The Predator,” Black has attempted to both pay homage and create something more ambitious. “The Predator” wants to feel bigger in both scope and in intelligence, but by going into so much detail concerning who these "predators" really are, what their mission is, and what role they might play in the larger galaxy-essentially lifting the curtain on the titular creatures’ schemes-it by default removes the simplicity that made the original so enjoyable. Now, I don't much remember 1990's “Predator 2” (which I also watched in preparation for the 2010 flick) and I can remember “Predators” being another largely entertaining action thriller if not being completely memorable, but at least that movie kept the kinship with the original intact. In trying to both pay homage and top that original Black has thrown in all the bells and whistles, all the plot twists, and every kind of hilarious, quirky, badass character he could come up with to create what is more or less an overcrowded buffet of different smells and flavors where much of what is on display has gone bad. That isn't to say “The Predator” isn't an entertaining movie and doesn't feature some solid moments, some good moments even, some genuinely funny moments, and some genuine chemistry between the large cast, but you would certainly never call it a good movie. In short, it's a fine enough movie made by talented people that is trying to be intentionally schlocky but isn't smart enough in its execution to pull it off and thus ends up actually being cheap and inferior.
Black, who is known for having appeared in and done punch-ups to the original Predator script, has gone on to have a well-renowned career as a screenwriter penning hits like “Lethal Weapon,” “Last Action Hero” and “Long Kiss Goodnight” and then after the turn of the millennium going on to direct the likes of cult hits such as “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “The Nice Guys” as well as dipping his toes in the world of Marvel Studios by co-writing and directing “Iron Man 3.” So, while Black has been in the industry for over thirty years this is only the fourth film he's directed (and the third of which that doesn't deal with a huge machine that would have made the movie with or without his voice). What is strange about Black's choice to take on another attempt at re-booting the ‘Predator’ franchise though, was that given his history with the original one would imagine “The Predator” would be something akin to wish fulfillment. And whether it has to do with studio meddling or simply Black's decision on how to approach the franchise the final product results in all the elements coming together in such inadequate fashion that none of it works to the advantage of the story. And so, while the screenplay certainly suffers from being overstuffed and not really settling on a throughline tone what feels weaker on the whole is that of the actual direction. There is a complete lack of any sense of artistry on display. Frankly, the movie is kind of ugly and this is especially true when it comes to the visual effects. First and foremost-and this may be somewhat blasphemous considering there are many who consider the character design of the titular antagonist to be something of an ideal villain-but considering when I was born and the decade I grew up in the Predators themselves have always kind of looked like (and “The Predator” puts a real emphasis on this) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with teeth. I mean, obviously I get it, these creatures are meant to be stealthy, intimidating, scary, super-soldiers, but I'd be lying if I said that every time the practical suit was used that it looked badass in its hearkening back to the original. There are moments where one can easily acknowledge it's a guy in a suit and just have to laugh at how it looks when this poor guy is having to run as fast as he can across a rooftop in this no doubt insanely restrictive costume that has no way of not looking silly. On the other side of the coin, when the movie shows the creature in its "invisible mode" or doing stunts too difficult for the guy in the mask to accomplish the visual effects look cheap and false more often than not-which isn't great when you have a couple of fully-CG predator dogs playing key roles in your movie.
This is all to say there is no real sense of legitimacy to either side of the large effect that is the main character and that certainly detracts from the overall experience. This also extends to the spaceships that get a fair amount of screen time here as many times they look like miniatures against computer painted backdrops. There is a degree to which this seems intentional as one can see where Black is trying to wink and nod at where the franchise began and where it came from and there are other, frequent nods, in the movie-making as Black executes certain moments as if it were '87 and he was making this movie, but while this is fun in individual moments the movie as a whole doesn't play to the style in which these moments are executed well enough for general audiences to know or understand what is being done meaning it just comes off as cheap. The score is also intentionally reminiscent of eighties action movies, but when every time you see young Jacob Tremblay on screen playing this kid with Asperger's and the music automatically swells every time he goes through something stressful or anxiety-inducing one can't help but to feel this false sense of empathy rather than viewing it as cute by virtue of nostalgia. While Black is undoubtedly a talented screenwriter and a capable director if not a well-rounded filmmaker he falters for the first time here in that his movie only feels interested in the character dynamics whereas the massive amounts of action sequences throughout are each so messy and relentlessly edited to the point it's difficult to comprehend how and why certain actions even happen that none of it gels. There are a lot of logic jumps in these action sequences to say the least and as a result it largely feels slapped together and completely haphazard. Where the action comes up short though, the movie luckily thrives on the chemistry between the characters and the scenes where they are able to play off one another and within this franchise world shine the brightest even if this world doesn't construct as good a movie as maybe not the franchise itself would, but certainly the creative force behind it-would suggest.
Speaking of the characters, the story is centered on Boyd Holbrook's Quinn McKenna. Holbrook, who doesn't necessarily have a face that stands out in a crowd, overcame his lack of a distinct look with his performance in the last Wolverine movie as he was able to manifest this memorable character that the audience felt threatened by despite being years younger and not nearly as jaded as the hero of the piece. With expectations in place, I was intrigued as to how the actor might play the flip side of that role. The fact he kind of looks like your run of the mill white dude who fits the bill of effective military personnel works more against the actor here though as the character has plenty of interesting factors, but doesn't do a whole lot with them outside of show how effective his military training has made him in killing people while being surrounded by a heard of other, more interesting people any one of which could have just as easily been the lead. It feels as if Black was really close to making Olivia Munn's Casey Bracket the protagonist as she is something of a co-lead with Holbrook. Bracket is a biologist recruited by Sterling K. Brown's Will Traeger, a federal agent who works and has worked in the field of alien life for some time. In what is one of the few, genuine pleasures “The Predator” offers we have Brown's over-the-top performance as the typically serious actor hams it up in every scene in which he appears and seems to be loving every minute of it. Brown plays this character one would normally expect to be super professional and super by the book as the most irreverent guy in the room that laughs off the fact that even though by nature these creatures aren't technically "predators" that name sounds cooler and so that's what they're going with. It's really fun to watch Brown in this kind of role but having known McKenna's original team came into contact with this alien life form he brings in McKenna for questioning and Bracket to assist in identifying what this predator's original intent might have been as it's acknowledged this isn't the first time they've made contact. As these things go, the "predator" escapes and leaves mountains of bloodshed in its wake. Bracket is one of the few survivors and is dedicated to tracking the alien down for means of study and research while McKenna has been assigned to a unit of misfits that includes Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), Coyle (Keegan Michael-Key), Baxley (Thomas Jane), Nettles (Augusto Aguilera), and Lynch (Alfie Allen) whose issues range from self-destructive behavior to addiction. Worlds collide given McKenna wants to track the alien down and kill it for having killed his friends with the catch being McKenna came into possession of some of the alien's gear upon initial contact and shipped it to his home so as to be able to prove he wasn't losing his mind, but it quickly becomes apparent the creature wants his stuff back and tracks it to McKenna's home where his wife, Emily (Yvonne Strahovski), and son, Rory (Tremblay), reside.
And that's just the basic outline of the plot, so one can see how things might become unnecessarily difficult to follow. This lack of simplicity ultimately detracting from the stronger elements. The camaraderie between McKenna and his gang of misfits and all of the distinct personalities that reside within that and in turn, the friendship they form with Bracket who compliments this rag tag group of guys really well with a different, but not opposite kind of energy is where the movie is at home and if it were to have made these dynamics more of a focal point with brief encounters with the monster sprinkled throughout it might have made it easier to forgive some of the films greater transgressions. It probably would have worked better as a whole. It's in the scenes where these players get to have fun and show off these distinct personalities that play up the outlandishness of the situation that are the most effective; they're the ones that make it feel as if Black actually had a hand in crafting this movie whereas the actions sequences more often than not feel as if they were shot by the second unit without having much input from Black leaving the two biggest pieces of this puzzle to not complement one another in any way. If nothing else though, it's clear Munn's Bracket was meant to be an MIB, so if that crossover doesn't happen “The Predator” will feel like even more of a missed opportunity than it already does.
by Philip Price
“The Nun” is the third in a line of spin-offs prompted by the success of James Wan's 2013 throwback horror flick, “The Conjuring,” which itself spawned a sequel in 2016. In between and since those films we have also received the likes of “Annabelle” and “Annabelle: Creation” neither of which I've had the privilege of viewing, but from what I hear I'm really (not) missing out. Of course, I didn't see “Insidious: The Last Key” either, so it seems there is something about these spin-offs of Wan initiated franchises that tend to either push me away or leave me feeling so uninterested I could care less whether I consume them or not (which is saying a lot for a guy who feels the needs to see and assess as many new releases as he can each year). While both ‘Conjuring’ films had their merits and were, at the very least, well-constructed, the spin-offs featuring that demon-laden doll have had a go of one being bashed as outright terrible and the other being hailed as an effective genre exercise. Unfortunately, if the consensus is true, then “The Nun” as written by ‘Conjuring’-verse veteran Gary Dauberman (who, funnily enough, had nothing to do with either of the ‘Conjuring’ films, but was one of the credited screenwriters on last year's IT, so I'll give him that) falls into the former category joining 2014's “Annabelle” as more an opportunity for revenue than a true creative endeavor. Dauberman wrote both “Annabelle” and last year's “Annabelle: Creation” though and so maybe, as much as we like to believe story is the most important thing, when it comes to the horror genre it is more about the way in which these ghost stories are constructed and conveyed that matters just a little bit more. “Annabelle” was directed by first time feature director and former cinematographer John R. Leonetti whereas ‘Creation’ was directed by “Lights Out” filmmaker David F. Sandberg who was recognized for a short film he made then adapted into a feature. This is all to say that Sandberg likely has an inherent eye and skill for directing whereas Leonetti may have seen countless director's work over the years but might not be able on his own to build a cohesive product having to manage several departments at once. This brings us to Corin Hardy who shares more in common with Sandberg in terms of experience and perspective, but whose film shares more in common with what Leonetti apparently crafted. Meaning, “The Nun” is a fine example of throwing shit against a wall for an hour and a half to see what sticks and then moving on leaving a mess in the wake of whoever must come behind it and clean-up. I feel bad for whoever makes “The Nun: Final Vows.”
Set in 1952 in Romania the film's opening sequence glimpses two nuns in a remote Monastery dealing with our titular evil spirit, but why and to what extent we're not yet sure. It is in this opening sequence we get a taste for the type of scares Hardy and his team will attempt to implement throughout the course of the film those being the types of scares that deal more in jumps and gags rather than atmosphere despite the fact Hardy has copious opportunities to capitalize on the atmosphere given the fact he's working in a near-deserted Monastery in ‘50s-era Romania! Still, we see this evil being/witch/demon-whatever you want to call it-dressed up in its full nun garb wondering the halls and essentially forcing a young nun who holds a relic that will most definitely come to play a more vital role in the movie out a window and into committing an apparent suicide. It is not until days later the young nun is discovered still hanging from the balcony by a local farmer, Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet offering some much needed if not oddly placed comic relief), who was appointed to make deliveries to the Monastery. It's almost as if the place, which is noted as the real-life Cârța Monastery in the Țara Făgărașului region of southern Transylvania in Romania, doesn't actually exist as the Convent has kept to themselves and kept quiet for so many years and distanced themselves so much from the community just outside their walls it almost begs the question of why does it actually exist? Why does this movie exist? Anyway-upon hearing about the death of the nun, the Vatican appoints "Miracle Investigator" Father Burke (Demián Bichir) to follow-up on the activities at Cârța as well as advising that he pair with young novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga) as they trust her background might assist the priest in his search for answers around what is happening at the Cârța Monastery. Once Burke and Irene arrive in Romania they quickly befriend Frenchie and convince him to show them the way to the Monastery. It is at this point (which is maybe 20 minutes into the movie) the narrative more or less grinds to a halt and things go more into jump scare mode than that of furthering a story or deepening the myth or substance of a particular character. There are hardly characters to root for as they become more of pawns in a haunted house maze of scares that only come to devise a problem they need to find a solution to after the movie has seemingly run out of ideas for what incarnation of a nun could be hiding around the next corner.
There's just not much here. What we have is a collection of everything anyone who's ever seen a handful of scary movies could imagine putting into their own horror flick strung together by a shoestring plot and barely-there characters. Even the characters designed specifically to spout exposition have very little to say or add to the conversation because while we get the gist of what they're supposed to be doing we 1) don't care about them and are given little reason to invest in their plight and 2) the point of their being at this Monastery and what is meant to be accomplished other than investigating the reasons this nun may have committed a mortal sin are so abstract that there is nothing to cling to. Nothing to root us in the mystery at hand. There's nothing to propel the story forward because the film only has so much story at its core that it has to withhold the brunt of it for the third act so that they might be perpetuated as "reveals" when in reality they are simply the necessary facts of a thin story. When a plot twist is something that simply helps one to understand the scenario of our protagonists rather than upending the expectations of that scenario it can hardly be called a twist at all much less a plot, but that is what “The Nun” attempts to pull off by distracting the audience with all of those aforementioned takes on the jump scare in place of actual story and character work. And I'm not someone who comes down on the jump scare just because it's a cheap and easy way to frighten people while rarely providing any substance to the character or furthering the story-I can appreciate a good jump scare from time to time (there's a solid one in the trailer for this movie, even), but when your movie relies solely on cheap tactics as a way of diverting the audience's attention away from the fact your film has nothing interesting to say and even less interesting ways in which to say what is already minimal it's difficult to give any aspect of the movie a pass. We go to the movies to be entertained, naturally, but we remember the movies that have something interesting to say and convey such thoughts in charismatic and engaging fashions. “The Nun” has almost none of these elements going for it as what occurs instead in this long parade of individual scenes that build to nothing cohesive and create nothing of significance is a mix of muddled attempts at gothic horror based on Catholic lore executed not with the subtleties of the atmosphere or history of as much in mind, but with the abrasive attack on all of the senses that feel as cold and empty as the Cârța Monastery turns out to be.
So, what-if anything-does “The Nun” have to offer? Is there anything? It's a difficult question to come up with an answer to, but what is maybe the strongest element of the film is that of Abel Korzeniowski's score which, coincidentally, seems to be the only facet of this dumpster fire that "gets" what the movie should have been or at least aimed to be. Korzeniowski's accompanying music is big in the vein of something like a silent movie where the hits of character introductions or actions are as dramatic as the entrances or actions themselves. This could be interpreted as meaning that Korzeniowski was told the film would be going for a certain kind of tone and that he then matched that tone with what he thought would be the right kind of music to heighten such a mood even more, but when paired with the final cut of the film the shots that work best in association with Hardy's images are those big, sweeping location shots as they feel grand in and of themselves, but when paired with the large clashes of strings or repeated hits of brass the scenes elicit a certain kind of on-the-nose, but self-aware feeling that had “The Nun” stuck to a single tone it might have at least felt cohesive even if its narrative never was. There were many times throughout the film that I had the thought of how awesome certain things must have looked on set and how exhilarating it must have been to the point that everyone in the cast and crew probably perceived that they were making what would be a really scary movie; whether it be the faceless nuns skulking around the hallways in their full robes, the frozen icicle nun that comes back to life, or the full-on Valak-possessed nun (Bonnie Aarons) that unleashes her wrath upon all who enter this particular Convent there is an element to the character design that is generally terrifying and every now and then Hardy will compose a shot that takes advantage of these designs-making the figures more of omniscient presences who seem to be everywhere and nowhere all at once-rather than utilizing them solely to make us jump back in our seats. There are certain aesthetics to the film that are pleasing is what I'm trying to get to, but it's everything they try to do within and around this pleasing aesthetics that falls flat. Sure, the setting of this in the ‘50s not being taken advantage of as much as it should have been is discouraging and while the disconnect with the story detracts even from being able to appreciate the locations and set designs the fact the titular antagonist does in fact look as creepy as she should is...something. How this antagonist is ultimately conveyed in such an unfulfilling manner though make it difficult to see “The Nun” in any kind of favorable light.
by Philip Price
Be warned: the opening moments of co-writer and director Aneesh Chaganty's “Searching” is comparable to the opening of Disney and Pixar's “UP” and if you haven't seen “UP” you should probably do that, but if you have you'll understand the monumental comparison this is and what it undoubtedly implies in terms of the powerful nature this movie sets itself up to deliver right out of the gate. In this opening montage Chaganty along with co-writer Sev Ohanian as well as their editors, Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, swiftly establish who our characters are and where they've come from so that the viewer is keenly aware of the point each character is at in their lives as well as providing an equal balance of clues and intrigue as to what headspace these characters might be wading through as the film then delves into the current predicament the movie will chronicle. “Searching” is ultimately about relationships, the toll that grief, sorrow, and shame can take on certain dynamics as well as how different people deal with and react to such emotions. Moreover, “Searching” filters this exploration of dealing in such emotions through the guise of the ever-evolving technology of our modern world; commenting on the highs and lows of documenting our every move. Naturally, it's nice to be able to capture so much of our everyday lives and share achievements and moments with those we both count as friends and those we'd just kind of like to show-off in front of, but there's also that drawback of constantly having something to post or log in the simple fact that some memories are best forgotten while others we may eventually prefer to not be reminded of. Of course, Facebook hardly lets one forget anything these days and thus is the genius of Chaganty's film as it places the audience firmly within the perspective of John Cho's David Kim not through who he is or the circumstances of his life necessarily, but through how he conducts himself online and how his documentation of life events is likely akin to any given audience members. In the aforementioned opening montage, we see David go through the joys of fatherhood, the love of a genuine marriage, and the heartbreak of a tragic loss all through the (Microsoft) window(s) frame of social media, Skype, and of other means of chronicling our day to day integrate themselves as such painting a more and more fully realized picture by the time we're up to present day. This technique is efficient in establishing a set of characters and circumstances for which we become invested, that we care about, that we're curious about, and ultimately somewhat concerned about even before the main narrative kicks in all due solely to this opening montage that hooks us line and sinker. In short, it's a prime example of expert craftsmanship.
It should also be noted that this is Chaganty's first feature film to have directed after a series of shorts. This is stated up front due to the fact “Searching” is largely a work of exceptional craft to the point one would imagine the individual pulling the strings would have some experience doing so making the fact the film is such an accomplishment of journey over destination and more importantly, the "how" of that journey, even more impressive. After establishing the ground rules in that rule-breaking and much discussed opening montage though, Chaganty delves immediately into the current dynamic between David and his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La). It is immediately apparent that the father/daughter relationship has become somewhat strained in the wake of David's wife and Margot's mom having passed away as David can't seem to handle any memory or mention of his late wife while where Margot falls in terms of mentality is mostly left up for question in the first act. We see what is almost too generic of an interaction between dad and daughter that deals in David reminding Margot to take out the trash and Margot being short with her father about being sorry, about likely having bombed a final, and about being in a study group at a friend's house that is likely to go late. It's intentionally generic though as David and Margot are clearly too afraid to engage with one another beyond any surface-level conversations. Little does David know that beyond this brief interaction on this random Thursday evening he won't be able to contact or speak with his daughter again despite Margot attempting two audio and one FaceTime call in the middle of the night. Now, there is some flaw in the logic that David would go to sleep without first confirming his 16-year-old daughter is home safe and in bed, but David is walking that thin line in trying to be the parent he knows Margot needs while giving her the space she desires. Still, I had something of a hard time swallowing this leap as the father of a 3-year-old little girl myself, but one of the cases in point in “Searching” is how quick commentators are to judge and I certainly don't want to act like I understand what it would be like to be in David's shoes. I don't want to. Margot goes missing and a local investigation is opened with Detective Vick (Debra Messing), a well-renowned and respected part of the community, taking lead on the case. But as Vick is unable to turn up a single lead that feels credible to David and who he believes his Margot was David decides to search the one place where all of today's secrets are kept: his daughter's laptop.
In a film full of inventiveness and refreshing approaches to what might otherwise be rote procedural tropes what is maybe the most stunning aspect is Cho's performance. It is a one-man show. It's rather incredible Cho is even able to convey as much as he's required to due to the fact much of the time we see him it is through the same lens in which we would see someone when talking on FaceTime i.e. in extreme, often unflattering close-ups. This is made even more incredible by the fact that his character is just as influenced by the actions we see him taking on his desktop. We are watching this man's brain deduce context clues and put things together that result in the unfolding of his thought process via where he takes the mouse on the desktop that fills the movie screen. It's incredibly effective as we, the viewer, are compounding familiar landscapes with this guy, this widower, who we already feel a great amount of sympathy for. We're initially unaware how long it's been since the loss of David's wife, Pamela (Sara Sohn), and so this makes it difficult to gauge exactly where David might be in the grieving process with the present dynamic between him and Margot only shedding a limited amount of light on this. The detail paid to how David exchanges texts and what he wants to say versus what he actually ends up sending down to the inclusion of initially going with an exclamation point only to trade it for a calmer-seeming period is as constructive to outlining Cho's character as Cho's living and breathing performance is, but the trick is that these actions and temperaments defined by David's online actions have to match with what we see presented in Cho's performance. That Cho, who a certain generation will know from a series of stoner comedies and another will remember as part of the re-booted “Star Trek” ensemble, is able to indeed match his performance pitch to this separate dimension of his character that he has no influence over is rather spectacular. It kind of defines the guy as a force to be reckoned with, honestly. Cho must convey this disposition of a guy who otherwise has his stuff together, but is experiencing whirlwind stages of confusion, of coming to terms with the fact Margot may not be who he thought she was and going from confused to worried to anxious to pure panic and shock all in the breadth of single scenes and sometimes even single shots. It's even more critical that this gamut of emotions Cho must go through lands effectively due to the movie largely being told from his perspective and not only being told through David's perspective, but being experienced through his single perspective as well. We are there with him when certain revelations come to light; there is no seeing a reaction because the audience is made to feel as if this is an interaction. That is, until it isn't, for which the movie then loses some of its steam as a result.
Ultimately, what “Searching” presents is a gimmick through which to tell a standard procedural, but gimmick is kind of a dirty word as, for the entirety of the first act and the majority of the middle section of the film, what “Searching” is doing never feels contrived solely to attract attention. Rather, as it is initially presented “Searching” feels like the logical next step: a movie for a modern audience as what we see on the big screen is much of what we see on our own screens every day. This kind of relatability, of familiarity adds a layer of tension that can't be anticipated, but it is when Chaganty and Ohanian are forced to shift the gimmick to match the scope of their story so that it remains competent is when it becomes less of a personal experience and more of a spectator sport as much of how they adapt to this change in scope is by communicating developments through local news anchors. This leads to one of the few drawbacks of the gimmick at play as the film does eventually reach this point where, to tell the whole of the story, Chaganty can't solely stay on David's desktop and only allow the audience to be privy to the conversations he's having or the investigating he's doing. In doing this and in showing the local news coverage the script also begins to get a little more loose with utilizing sites that are no doubt real or have counterparts in the real world that function in the same way, but that in the context of the film feel more shoe-horned in for plot functionality than they do the likes of Instagram, Tumblr, and YouCast which all feel inherent to the 16-year-old world Margot exists within. That these elements are introduced into the plot solely for the reasons the filmmaker needed an avenue on which to prop up his gimmick and reach the desired conclusion doesn't destroy the dramatic weight of the conclusion, but it does diminish a journey that has felt rather special up until that point. That also isn't to say the conclusion isn't thrilling or nail-biting, because it does satisfy and feel plausible even if one can feel the narrative getting away from Chaganty and Ohanian as the resolution comes quickly and in a fashion that suggests it might not hold up as tightly as need be on repeat viewings. Again this is all in contrast to the first half of the film where Chaganty is able to balance everything on a computer screen that typically feels hectic and hurried to somehow leveraging it in a way that “Searching” has this tempered pacing that in turn contradicts the presumption the movie will feel the same way it does to navigate a computer or to be a parent which is by and large stressful. The key to the gimmick or technique though, is in how it conveys everything that builds and unfolds in a way that is accurate, honest, and scary-which is why it's more successful than not.