Archive for the ‘ Suspense ’ Category

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1

From the end of the first Hunger Games movie, we knew that there was an inevitable way for it to end. There is going to be a revolution. The government — here called “The Capitol” — is evil and repressive, and you can’t let them maintain power forever, can you? So, here we have Mockingjay, which was a single book that has been split into two films, because Harry Potter and Twilight proved that you can make a lot of money doing that, even if you don’t necessarily get good movies. There is no better way to prove that Hollywood is a business, not a way to make good art, than looking at how it splits up films like this.

The story, this time out, focuses almost solely on Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who now lives with her family underground in District 13, somewhere we previously believed had long been destroyed. After the events at the end of the last film, District 12 has been bombed to smithereens, so 13 was the only safe place to survive. Of course, its mayor, Coin (Julianne Moore), and the returning Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) have plans for her. They’re going to use Katniss as a way to further inspire revolution.

Katniss isn’t entirely on-board, especially when she sees Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on the television sets, saying exactly the opposite. But she’s coerced, and then the rest of the film is about her trying to convince the other districts, through a series of propaganda, to fight back against the Capitol. That’s about it. There’s about 45 minutes of story stretched into two hours in Mockingjay — Part 1.

Now, there is at least a small arc to the plot, and it does have a beginning and a conclusion, but the fact of the matter is that this is half of a movie whose content and pacing has been slowed down in order to make you wait another year and spend another $12 in order to view it. There isn’t a lot here, and after you watch it, you find yourself still waiting for the inevitable revolution. Not much of consequence happens in Mockingjay — Part 1, especially when compared to the previous Hunger Games installments.

That doesn’t mean it’s boring. Watching Katniss wander around bombed-out locales or delivering inspirational speeches isn’t going to be dull, especially with how invested you presumably are by this point in the franchise. But it does feel thin, and it’s not likely to bring about the same level of emotions that earlier films. One scene has Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, relegated to a very background role) asking the characters what moments were Katniss’ most inspirational. If audiences are polled with the same question, none of them are going to be from this movie.

Fans hoping for a lot of action will be disappointed. There’s one bombing scene that’s kind of exciting, but that’s about it. A raid happens late in the proceedings, but it’s terribly dull, especially in comparison to how much potential it had. And that’s it. Mostly, we’re talking about revolution, how horrible the government is, and how Peeta must be being controlled, because how could he say things like “a war will result in mutual annihilation,” even though that could be a very likely result?

Because Mockingjay — Part 1 focuses primarily on Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence is front and center. She seemed more awkward this time around. Part of that is intentional — her character isn’t entirely sure how to be a revelatory leader — but even in other scenes, like quiet talks with her close friends, something seemed off. It’s her worst Hunger Games performance, anyway. Everyone else, even those who had primary roles in earlier films, are very much in the supporting cast here. Elizabeth Banks returns for a few scenes, Woody Harrelson hangs around for a bit, Josh Hutcherson appears mostly on TV, and Liam Hemsworth … should stop being in movies. The trio of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, and Jeffrey Wright provide reliable “good” cast members, while Donald Sutherland and Stanley Tucci are about the only evil Capitol members we get to see.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 is easily the weakest of the Hunger Games movies, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s got about 45 minutes of plot stretched out to two hours, which means it’s slow-paced and not a whole lot of consequence happens. It’s all building up to the next installment, which means that it’s a must-watch for anyone planning to see how this series ends. It’s full of politically fueled speeches and people looking somber, all while stuck underground waiting for the real action to start. The penultimate Hunger Games suffers from the problems most of these “Part 1″ films have, but that also means that the series’ finale is likely to be great. Here’s hoping.

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Captain Phillips

Based on the real-life story recounted in his own book, Captain Phillips tells the tale of a group of Somali pirates who hijacked a cargo ship and eventually took the eponymous Captain Richard Phillips (portrayed by Tom Hanks) captive in an attempt to make some quick money. Regardless of how true-to-life this retelling is, the film is intense and powerful, and it contains two of the better performances of the year. It gets a touch repetitive in its final third, but for the most part, Captain Phillips is a very thrilling experience. It’s also a little scary, given that this event did happen.

The film begins as a normal couple of days for Richard Phillips. He says goodbye to his wife (Catherine Keener), meets his crew, gets aboard his ship, and learns the route they’re to take. They have to sail close to Somalia, where pirate activity is relatively common. He has his crew instigate a drill designed to ward off pirates. Directly after this, two blips appear on the radar. They are being chased. They are not faster. They are going to be attacked.

This leads to a solid chunk of time where Phillips attempts to outsmart and outmaneuver the pirates. He is successful … once, but soon after the pirates are back and even more determined to get on-board. If you heard the real story, you’ll know that they do board the ship and eventually take Phillips hostage in a lifeboat. Everything up to this point is extremely tense. Nail-biting tense. The entire crew is at risk, and while the pirates seem to have respect for Phillips, his life is also constantly put at risk.

All of this works very well. The pacing is tight, what we see on-screen is tense, and there’s an ever-present danger. It’s all new and stressful, and there’s little repetition. One wrong move could lead to the death of all of our good characters. This all comes apart once the pirates are on the lifeboat with Phillips as their hostage. For this setup to work properly we have to be fully invested in Phillips — as he’s now the only “good guy” who is in any danger whatsoever — and also believe that any wrong move he makes could mean his death.

I suppose part of the problem comes from the fact that this is based on a true story, and knowing the outcome ensures that some of the tension the film wants to generate is more than likely going to fall flat. It takes a great film to pull you in even thought you know what’s going to happen, and Captain Phillips isn’t quite good enough to do that. Even ignoring that, though, this final section is repetitive and doesn’t attempt to generate the same type of suspense that the earlier portion does.

What this final portion does allow for is a couple of great exchanges between Phillips and the pirates, who are led by Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Abdi is a revelation here. This was his first film role — and his first real acting role, actually — and he not only stands toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks but actually outshines him in some scenes. His incredible performance coupled with an intelligent screenplay by Billy Ray makes the character deeper and more sympathetic than he should be. Abdi captures and commands the screen.

Still, what’s supposed to be an emotionally powerful and thrilling conclusion just doesn’t work all that well, and given that a good third of the film — at least; I might be underestimating how much time this part takes up — is set in this lifeboat, the film can’t be called an unequivocal success. It works because its first two thirds are so good and because Hanks and Abdi are fantastic. As a thriller, it can’t keep the level of suspense it establishes at the beginning. It loses steam and never recaptures its earlier success.

The film does justice to the story of Captain Richard Phillips. That’s what its main purpose is and it succeed at this. It gives us an almost documentary-like look into the situation that happened in 2009. It feels real, and it will give you a new-found respect for the people who have to take ships anywhere close to pirate territory. Some stories don’t conclude as nicely as this one.

Captain Phillips was directed by Paul Greengrass, who most people will know from the second and third Bourne movies. The shaky-cam is present here, although it’s not nearly as bad and it helps makes you feel like you’re at sea. It’s initially distracting, in part because there’s no action right at the beginning, but you get used to it and it does help with the immersion. Greengrass makes the whole film feel incredibly authentic, which is one of its best strengths. You feel as if you’re watching an actual pirate hijacking.

While it doesn’t sustain a great amount of suspense for its entirety, Captain Phillips is a mostly successful retelling of a real-life Somali pirate hijacking that took place in 2009. It gets a bit dull and repetitive once the action transitions to the lifeboat, but the entire production feels very real and you will remain focused on the screen thanks to the fantastic work of Tom Hanks and newcomer Barkhad Abdi. Captain Phillips is worth seeing, but don’t expect a thrilling conclusion.

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Ouija

I think I’m going to need someone to explain this one to me. A Ouija board is a board game made by Hasbro which allows you to “contact the dead,” even if, you know, that’s not really a thing you can do. So, now there’s a movie, based on the toy, that shows the toy opening up a portal to allow a spirit into our world which brutally murders the participants in the game. Boy, that sure does sound like good marketing. I guess maybe there could be an inherent thrill in something like that … but I don’t buy it.

Anyway, Ouija is horror movie about a Ouija board that allows a ghost/spirit/demon/something into the human world and kills the people who played the board game, because it’s bored. Or angry. Or something else. It’s explained in the movie but I had already very much lost interest. The point is, it’s evil, our teenage protagonists are good, and they’re the only ones who can stop it, because of reasons. You’ve seen this type of movie before. The teenagers are cannon fodder, the “main” one is really the only one who might be able to save the day, and it’s all very boring and uneventful.

Oh, right, the plot also has the characters trying to figure out why one of their friends killed herself. Because she did that, despite seemingly mostly normal. It must’ve been the ghost/spirit/demon! Our “main” is Laine (Olivia Cooke), as she was the deceased’s best friend. There are four or five others who also have names but I don’t remember them and they don’t matter. Their personalities are all identical and they’re mostly her to be picked off by the enemy, anyway.

The plot would be fine if the film was packed with scares, but Ouija is probably one of the tamest and least scary horror movies I’ve ever been subjected to. It has a couple of jump scares — none of which achieve the desired effect — but has no clue what to do when it comes to building atmosphere, ramping up tension and suspense, or basically anything that has to do with being a good horror movie. A real-life guinea pig is scarier, if only because it’ll run away from you or try to bite you. Ouija certainly won’t bite, nor will it make you feel the need to run away.

Ouija only runs for 89 minutes but feels far longer. Here’s just a taste at the snail-like pacing with which it presents itself: It takes over 30 minutes for our group of teens to actually sit down and use the Ouija board. What happens during that time? Some moping, some pointless dialogue, and not a single moment that could even remotely be misconstrued as “scary.” That’s a third of the running time, folks.

I can’t think of a single good moment in Ouija. Not one. Maybe the credits? Do they count? How many of you actually sit through the entire credits when watching a movie? I’d guess less than 5%. Maybe not even that high, unless of course it’s a Marvel movie, at which point you’ll turn to your friend or your cellphone until the post-credits scene shows up. Well, Ouija doesn’t have one of those, although it does end in a way that leaves it open for a sequel. If Hollywood has any shame, that will never come to pass.

The acting is terrible, too, although I’m guessing that had more to do with the script and direction than the talent involved. The dialogue they’ve been given is laughably bad, and when your characters have no defining personality traits, it’s kind of hard for the actors to get invested in them, especially since most of them exist to be target practice for the villain anyway. It’s just all bad, read. There’s nothing good about Ouija.

Ouija is a terrible horror movie. It doesn’t do a single thing right, is a downright bore for most of its running time, and is also an advertisement for a Hasbro board game, even if it does confusingly represent the board as something that might eventually get you killed. Its filmmakers apparently have no concept of what makes a horror movie scary, as there’s no attempt to generate an atmosphere or suspense, and even the few jump scares fail to startle, much less frighten. The actors are bad, the dialogue is awful, and there isn’t a single reason to watch this horrible movie.

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Interstellar

Prior to Interstellar, director Christopher Nolan was 8/8 in terms of making good movies. Sure, some of them weren’t great, but they were all good and all worth watching. After Interstellar, he’s 9/9, although he hasn’t added another great film to his filmography. He has another good one — one that’s worth seeing someday, but not one you need to rush out to see as soon as possible. It’s got a lot of problems keeps in from being fantastic, but also has enough positives to merit the investment of time required to see it.

That’s a lot of time, by the way. Interstellar runs for 169 minutes, which is about 40 minutes too long, in all honesty. There are sections of the film that could be trimmed and at least one character who could be completely excised. None of Interstellar is boring, mind, if only because it’s such a beautiful film that your eyes are always going to be treated to something, but it does begin to feel long at times, and ultimately would have been helped by some tighter editing.

The film is about the survival of the human race. Set in the near future, our home planet is slowly killing off our race. Dust storms are killing off all of our crops, and the oxygen levels are slowly dissipating. In a generation or two, there will be nobody left. Our lead is Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former NASA pilot, who has resorted to farming after, you know, the collapse of society as we knew it. But, after a “ghost” gives him coordinates to a secret NASA facility, he’s offered the chance to go into space and try to discover a new livable planet.

Yes, that does indeed feel like it escalated quickly. It doesn’t when you watch the film, as it takes something like a half hour or so to get to this point. Then we have to listen to scientists expound the hows and the whys of this process. We might finally get to space an hour into Interstellar. That’s when the film really picks up. It becomes visually stunning, and the importance of this mission is really hammered home. Time is played with, there may or may not be “beings” watching these events unfold, there are a couple of (easily predictable) twists, and — can I just reinforce how beautiful this movie is?

Cooper is joined on this mission by Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway), Romilly (David Gyasi), Doyle (Wes Bentley), and two robots voiced by Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart. This is mostly McConaughey’s movie, though. In space, we rarely focus on anyone but him, so it’s up to him to carry much of the dramatic weight. He seems much less in awe of the visuals than we are, which breaks the illusion a little bit. Otherwise, though, McConaughey turns in a very human performance.

This is important, because — outside of the main “save our species” plot, the film is about humans in all their glory and all their flaws, and it’s up to, well, just a select group of individuals to do this; McConaughey is chief among them and bears much of the brunt of this chore. He’s helped out by Jessica Chastain, who helps keep us up to date with what’s happening on earth, and often gets some emotional moments of her own.

Interstellar sometimes hopes to hit emotional highs and lows and it just can’t quite get there. One has to wonder if this is the fault of Christopher Nolan, whose films often ignore human emotions altogether to focus on the task at hand. He did direct and co-write the script, and some of the plot just doesn’t play to his strengths as a filmmaker. And when so much of the film — particularly late into the picture — is driven by emotions, it needs to be on-key, and it often just can’t quite get there.

If someone were to ask me whether or not Interstellar was worth watching, I would say that it was. I would preface that answer by saying that it’s too long and that it often attempted to be an emotional roller coaster that wound up being more like a carousel. There are still highs and lows, but they’re more predictable and less intense. Still, it has a few really good performances — that make it far more watchable than it would be with lesser actors — and it looks beautiful from start to finish.

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Deadfall

A casino is robbed. The two men who rob it, along with one’s sister, are fleeing the scene. The driver, whose name is so unimportant you’re not going to remember it, winds up dying when their car crashes. The remaining two are the siblings, Addison (Eric Bana), who performed the robbery, and Liza (Olivia Wilde), who was eye candy. The police don’t know about Liza, so Addison suggests they split up. They’ll meet near the Canadian border, cross, and be home free. He will call her tonight; if he doesn’t, he’s been killed.

From here, the film branches out and follows not only these two people in separate stories, but also a former boxer who has just been released from prison, Jay (Charlie Hunnam), and a trooper who is continually put down by her Sheriff of a father, Hannah (Kate Mara), who essentially acts as a plot device to drive Addison from one location to another at one specific point in the film. Jay and Liza soon team up, meaning we only have to go back and forth between three stories, not four.

It’s kind of interesting how each of these stories takes a very different direction. Addison’s story is about a killer on the run who also might have a heart, even though he’s very deadly. It’s about him and nobody else. Liza and Jay engage in something of a romance. Hannah meets everyone in the small town and sometimes thinks about trying to find Addison — whose identity is unknown to the police; they just know somebody has robbed a casino and killed an officer of the law — before being told she can’t because she’s a woman.

Deadfall takes place in the winter, right around Thanksgiving. Of course it has to climax at a family home for Thanksgiving dinner. Part of the fun of the film is trying to figure out exactly how each of these characters is going to make it to the house that belongs to Jay’s parents (Kris Kristofferson and Sissy Spacek). we know Jay’s headed there now that he’s out of prison, and Liza is using Jay for a ride, but how will Addison and Hannah arrive? And who will get there first?

This is a movie that is bookended by a couple of great moments but most of its middle is surprisingly mundane. The opening couple of scenes, when the only characters we’ve met are Addison, Liza, and Unknown Driver #617, make for great suspense. We don’t know anything about them other than they’ve robbed a casino. They now have to survive in a harsh winter environment and somehow make it to Canada. The sequences at the end, at the family house, are funny and full of suspense. Addison isn’t a conventional criminal.

But Deadfall’s second act? It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and the mystery of the characters at the beginning loses its luster once we learn about the leads. The characters aren’t interesting in their own right, and they don’t become so as the film progresses. When we knew little about them, they were; we wanted to find out who they were, where they came from, and why they do what they do. Once we learn all of this, we find out that some things are better left masked in shadow.

This is supposed to be a thriller, one kind of resembling neo-noir, but there aren’t many surprises or even a whole lot of thrills to be had. There’s an action scene and the few scenes at the end are kind of fun, but apart from them we just get to sit through a mostly dull film that you’ve probably seen before. There’s a reason that Deadfall’s theatrical release consists of a few smaller cinemas and a VOD release. It’s not good, interesting, or different enough to warrant a trip to the cinema. It’s barely worth a late-night rental when you need to kill 90 minutes because you can’t sleep.

In fact, if you can’t sleep, Deadfall just mig– I’m sorry, that’s too easy. I’m not doing it. That would likely be the type of joke that the writers of Deadfall might try to slip in, but not me. I’m all class.

Oh, who am I kidding? Deadfall can help you get to sleep. There, I said it. Just turn the brightness down on your television, because the snow-covered scenery, wonderfully shot, is bright and might risk keeping you awake. Speaking of snow, has nobody in this film heard of wearing gloves? I swear, only the troopers wear them, even though everyone’s always cold.

This is a B-movie with a pretty good cast, even though this isn’t an actor’s dream job. They all get to don Southern-ish accents — the film takes place in Michigan, which doesn’t really explain the accents, but whatever — except for Kate Mara who perhaps already paid that penance in Shooter (more fun than this). Eric Bana’s killer is interesting and enjoyable, Olivia Wilde’s femme fatale is … not really a femme fatale, but oh well, and Charlie Hunnam is lifeless as a former boxer.

Deafall is a mediocre movie bookended by a couple of great moments and containing a pretty solid cast with which the filmmakers do little. It’s atmospheric — the snow, I’m led to believe, is real — and shot well, but the plot isn’t anything new and the characters grow progressively less interesting as the film moves along. It’s not thrilling and it’s not engaging. It belongs on VOD.

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