‘Swallow’ Review: Haley Bennett is unforgettable in psychological thriller about a woman desperate for control

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

All it takes is some of the most anxiety-inducing click-clack-click of fingers typing on an iPhone that you’ll ever hear to empathize with the emotionally claustrophobic position of Haley Bennett’s Hunter in “Swallow.” She sports the hairdo and quiet presence of a housewife from the 1950s, but domestic surrender to her careless husband and in-laws isn’t the primary intention for director Carlo Mirabella-Davis—it’s the foundation for one of the more viscerally unsettling psychological thrillers that’s come about in recent years, an examination of how we cope with a loss of control and the hypnotic power objects can hold over us.

Despite his insistence otherwise, Hunter is more accessory than life partner to her husband, Richie (Austin Stonewell), who barely tends to acknowledge her existence except when he needs someone to blame for his wrinkled tie. There’s a pungent early air of foreboding in “Swallow,” as well as of imprisonment within the concrete-and-glass walls of a lake-side home. The location may be serene, but what goes on inside is Hunter’s quiet desperation for any semblance of control over her station.

The relationship feels downright abusive, and Bennett’s chillingly excellent performance as a woman shackled by judgement goes a long way toward making the viewer understand what she may be getting out of a habit that’s easy to imagine as horrific in any other context, and perhaps this one as well: Consuming small objects decidedly not made for consumption. After gulping down a marble, a tack or a battery, there’s a release that plays out on Bennett’s face. The shackles, it seems, are briefly loosened. Continue reading →

‘The Invisible Man’ Review: Unseen horrors in the #MeToo era

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

If H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel “The Invisible Man” imagines that the scariest thing is that which is unseen, Leigh Whannell’s new big-screen adaptation realizes the scariest force is that which is unseen and perhaps not even in front us—but internalized, agonized over and shaped into an object by which we are made to interrogate our sense of reality.

The legacy of Wells’s story through the decades has been diluted to the elevator pitch of its title, serving as the inspiration for many a film, most recently the simple-minded “Hollow Man” movies of the 2000s and, on a more elemental level, 2003’s “The League of Extraordinary Gentleman.” More often than not, foundation tends to be the whole story when it comes to invisible men on the screen. Whannell’s iteration, however, is savvy enough to know that while the implications of its title can make for inspired set pieces, it can also be stretched into something more resonant than a one-note story. That doctrine has produced a great movie that is smart, satisfying and totally subversive in its recalibration of a 19th-century story into a modernized parable for the #MeToo era. Continue reading →

‘Gretel & Hansel’ Review: There’s evil in the wood, but maybe something more, too

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

In virtually every respect, Osgood Perkins’s darkly atmospheric “Gretel & Hansel” could not be more different from the last major effort to borrow the Grimm Brothers’ mythic siblings for the big screen, Tommy Wirkola’s bombastic fantasy actioneer “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.” That movie – starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton as crossbow-toting heroes evoking the rock-em, sock-em spirit of “Van Helsing” more than a children-oriented tale of foreboding – was released just seven years ago, but “Gretel & Hansel” shows how seven years is more than enough for Hollywood’s creative minds to steer in entirely new directions, and for the industry to transition into new epochs.

The switcheroo of the title is the first sign of a new interpretation of the 200-year-old Grimm story, and it bears out in a visually-stunning, ideologically-enticing fairy tale that echoes a feminine spirit without betraying its source material’s grim (pun fully intended) sensibilities. Bringing the focus back onto Hansel and Gretel as young children – though they’re not as naïve as we might expect – Perkins’s movie trades the leather-clad “Underworld” Effect for the quieter, creepier influences of latter-decade horror. It owes much to Robert Eggers, Luca Guadagnino and occasionally Yorgos Lanthimos as well, what with its entrenching visual style of dark shadows stabbed by neon and keen self-awareness about the magnitude of folklore. Continue reading →

‘Underwater’ Review: So-so aquatic disaster flick is a true January doldrums release

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

 

The lights start their ominous flickering early in “Underwater,” and – as suggested by the movie’s 90-minute runtime – the bursting walls of a claustrophobic ocean-drilling facility follows shortly after, sending Kristen Stewart scurrying for her life through flooded corridors in horrifically dark ocean depths just as we’ve settled into our seats.

There’s no mistaking the caliber of B-movie rush that director William Eubank’s aquatic disaster-sci-fi-horror-drama (got all that?) is shooting for, and in certain moments the director of 2014’s “The Signal” even finds them—frantic brushes with shadowed deep-sea monsters are balanced by excessively melodramatic attempts to make characters feel like more than the tropes that they are, all in the name of cinema that seeks to be more viscerally enthralling than thematically engaging.

You’ll know exactly what you’re getting into if you buy a ticket to “Underwater,” to the point where you can make a game out of it. Bring along your Bingo cards filled with the requisite clichés; the movie is sure to hit most of them! Foreboding mechanical creaks and organic groans haunting our protagonists; an iron-voiced captain/commander who won’t survive, but won’t go down without a fight; the fleeting moments of wonder at how exorbitantly huge the movie is willing to all-too-briefly go in its climax, as if suddenly thinking itself unworthy of such immense, Lovecraftian scale. “Underwater” is the kind of movie that wouldn’t have made sense coming out anytime other than mid-January—we’ve seen all the major Oscar contenders by this point, but I suppose it’s nice to have something new to take in while getting through this dead zone and to the actual ceremony. Continue reading →

‘In Fabric’ Review: Covens, rituals and murder—but make it fashion

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

 

The first thing you notice in Peter Strickland’s “In Fabric” are the synthesizers. It’s impossible not to—the hypnotic, brazen, constantly-droning score from German alternative group Cavern of Anti-Matter makes the music of “Stranger Things” feel tame in comparison. Once the credits roll two hours later, however, the synths are far from the most evil element of Strickland’s viciously bizarre horror movie, in which consumption is the all-powerful curse of capitalism literalized in bloody, discordant ways.

Undercurrents of eroticism and sinister intention dominate the socially abrasive world of Strickland’s film (an A24 joint if there ever was one), making it easy to be on the side of the middle-aged Sheila (played by the English actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste, whose work in 1996’s “Secrets & Lies” garnered her an Oscar nomination) as she searches for a second shot at love. Meanwhile, her son’s friend/artistic model/sexual partner (a vampiric Gwendoline Christie, making me curious why she isn’t being cast in projects left and right) practically moves into their home, and the managers at the bank where she works humiliate her daily, to cartoonish levels. Continue reading →

‘Doctor Sleep’ Review: Mike Flanagan’s ‘Shining’ sequel reconciles Kubrick with King to adequate effect

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here.

 

Even before considering anything that happens in the actual movie, Mike Flanagan’s “Doctor Sleep” – the latest Stephen King adaptation from the burgeoning horror filmmaker – is a fascinating specimen. It’s obvious why; TV spots have been well-seasoned by audio and visual cues from 1980’s “The Shining” – a genre cornerstone infamously dismissed by Stephen King, beloved by seemingly everybody else and the story which “Doctor Sleep” continues – as Flanagan’s film wears its calling card on its sleeve, as well as its dubious nature.

Much like Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049,” the mere existence of “Doctor Sleep” calls into question its intentions and loyalties, even as Disney’s shameless, financially-driven IP-mining goes unquestioned. “Doctor Sleep,” more than any “Avengers” or Joker origin story, begs the question, even if it doesn’t mean to: What responsibility, if any, do movies have to what’s come before? Most of the time, even asking that says more about our belief that stories belong to us – and only us – than the stories themselves. Though, in the case of “Doctor Sleep,” it’s a more nuanced question, thanks to the legacy of “The Shining” that is as robust a mythology as that of the Overlook Hotel itself.

That “Doctor Sleep” would rather all that nonsense not be where the conversation about it starts speaks volumes. With varying degrees of expectation on its shoulders, Flanagan’s movie is an often-riveting, deeply contemplative genre offering almost completely of its own creation, expanding the (admittedly scant) lore of “The Shining” without leaning on it…too much. Die-hards will probably label it a triumph that the movie doesn’t do anything to renege on what makes Kubrick’s movie so good, but “Doctor Sleep” also exhibits enough devotion to its themes of withholding and confronting trauma that the fact it isn’t all that capital-S Scary doesn’t really matter. Continue reading →

How ‘It Chapter Two’ robs book-readers of Stephen King’s bittersweet finale

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR “IT CHAPTER TWO” AND STEPHEN KING’S NOVEL FOLLOW. 

No one who’s read the behemoth that is Stephen King’s “It” was fooling themselves that Andy Muschietti’s 21st-century duology would have been completely faithful in its translation to the big screen. Fully fleshing out the Loser’s Club’s friendships and King’s trademark themes of childhood innocence lost is one thing; imbuing visual language into the cosmic origins of the extra-terrestrial being that is Pennywise and his eternal battle with a space turtle who vomited the universe is another ask altogether.

2017’s “It” realized this to a successful degree, subtly drawing on the aspects of King’s novel that would best cater to the attentive contours of mainstream horror audiences – the omnipresence of evil in Derry’s history, the emotional anchor of the young Losers, a malevolent force that could shapeshift into our worst fears – while mostly leaving to the page the bits that were too eccentric and narratively ambiguous for a studio movie to try to recreate. This is a buzzy Warner Bros. production, after all. Not an A24 joint. Continue reading →

‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ Review: Del Toroian story is a devastating, creepy blend of dark fairy tale and real-world violence

This review was first published on KENS5.com, and can be viewed here. 

 

In “Tigers Are Not Afraid” – the 2017 movie from Mexican filmmaker Issa López that is small on budget, high on craft and just now hitting screens in the U.S., including a limited run in San Antonio this weekend – grown-ups are nowhere to be found.

Kids live and scavenge on their own, settle into makeshift homes on rooftops, and journey through urban underworlds. It could almost be a utopia of sorts, an anti-Neverland that has traded jungles for graffiti’d buildings that look like they were previously targeted by bombs, forming an empty Mexican ghost town with a desolateness so stark it’s almost post-apocalyptic.

But López instead manifests that youthful isolation in heartbreak, in longing, in the very real effects that the Mexican drug war has had on families…and on tearing them apart. Since 2006, the movie lets us know early on, tens of thousands have disappeared or been killed in the country.
Their children, we learn, practically go uncounted for. Continue reading →

“Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” Review: Some ghoulish fun with enticing ideas

From its opening moments, “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” takes the nightmarish bluntness of its title – also the name of the yestercentury horror anthology series that inspired it – to heart, painting with broody aesthetics a late-1960s suburbia ripe for treachery, murder and spooky goings-on. Much in the vein of Guillermo del Toro, that master of the macabre and dark fantasy here lending his post-Oscar victory hand as producer, it’s a touch of the supernatural that brings the terror lurking underneath beds and in the twistedly imaginative minds of young children to the fore.

I didn’t have the experience of staying up all night fervid and sweaty after reading the novelettes the movie is based on, but judging from the legacy of a series that managed to puncture pop culture in a slightly darker vein than “Goosebumps,” this André Øvredal-directed adaptation is a more or less faithful recreation of its more intimate brushes with terror, of the isolation in anticipating some neglected evil incarnate that has its sights set on you and only you (the familiar concept of “It Follows” may owe something to Alvin Schwartz’s imagination). Early on in “Scary Stories,” however, these frights – appropriate as a supposed gateway horror for younger audiences, but it’s not like many of them won’t also be absorbing the upcoming, much more sinister “IT” sequel – barely function beyond the borders that contain them in specific scenes. Continue reading →

Review: Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” is madness served with a side of sunshine

I don’t remember the last time I’ve felt so guiltily vindicated by a movie as with the final act of Ari Aster’s sun-bleached, dread-dripping “Midsommar,” a film that bears its blood weight in flower petals and doesn’t leave you forlorn so much as utterly disarmed.

I should have expected as much. After the writer-director burst into our consciousness with last year’s swervingly subversive “Hereditary,” I should have remembered that the best method of preparation for his follow-up, by comparison a movie whose terror comes from a much more personal place, would probably be not trying to prepare for it at all.

This time around, Aster’s destination is completely, and masochistically, at odds with his methodology, a project with so much tonal juxtaposition that it’s a bit of a miracle it ends up working as well as it does, even if it takes some time adjusting to its contours.“Midsommar” is a movie about inevitability, the not-so-sweet period of denial about eventual loss and refusing to anticipate its arrival; the feeling we’ve all had that we’ll do anything to stave off an apocalypse – be it death or breakup or the execution of insidious acts – before the worst kind of realization sets in that you can’t even delay it a moment. Continue reading →