Archive for the ‘ Suspense ’ Category

The Boy Next Door

To call The Boy Next Door an “erotic thriller” does a disservice to eroticism and thrillers. And probably quotation marks, somehow. This is a dull movie featuring a terrible lead performance that looks cheap and doesn’t for a second raise its level of suspense to a point where one can avoid yawning throughout its entire running time. It’s a poor-man’s version of 1996’s Fear, and Fear was already more or less a poor-man’s version of this story.

Jennifer Lopez stars as Claire Peterson, a high school literature teacher. She’s in the midst of a potential divorce from Garrett (John Corbett), and has a teenage son, Kevin (Ian Nelson). One day, a neighbor’s great-nephew, Noah (Ryan Guzman), moves in next door. He’s kind and really good with handiwork. He fixes her garage. He befriends Kevin almost instantly, despite them being a couple of years apart in age. One night, while Kevin and Garrett are out on a camping trip, Noah comes over. He seduces Claire. The next morning, Claire tells him that it was a mistake. As it turns out, Noah’s not exactly the most stable person in the world. So begins a middling stalker story.

And it’s very middling. It tries to slowly build up tension and atmosphere, which is at least something, but it does it so poorly that it’s more likely to bore people before the point at which it starts to get “exciting.” And about the only exciting point is literally the last scene, and it’s a scene you’ve probably seen hundreds of times before. People are tied up, the bad guy is going to kill them, but of course at least one of the knots isn’t perfect, or something.

If you’re here for eroticism, you’re at the wrong movie. Wait for Fifty Shades of Grey. There are two sex scenes in the film, and only one of them wants to be “sexy.” It really isn’t. It’s filmed with lots of close-ups, and lacks passion and interest. The second one is meant to be “creepy,” but it also fails at that. Almost every time The Boy Next Door wants to be something, it struggles to succeed. It’s so incredibly bland at every turn.

It’s actually quite difficult to hate The Boy Next Door because of how bland it is. There isn’t anything to like, that’s for sure, but it’s so dull and uninteresting that it can’t stir up any sort of emotions at all. You watch it, you stare at a screen for 90 minutes, and then you stop watching it and you’ve successfully killed 90 minutes, but gained absolutely nothing in the process. Still, it won’t anger or offend, so if you want the least interesting movie to watch, then I guess you could see this one.

I suppose that the film’s amateurish feel is one that you could begin to hate, but after a while it’s hard to continue caring. One scene has such horrible post-dubbing that you’d think it was a film made by high school students, and it’s a shame because that scene almost gets interesting right afterward, except you’re taken out by the poor dubbing that the scene loses any impact. The cinematography is ugly and makes the film look cheap, too (which it was; it only cost $4 million). And don’t get me started on its ham-fisted ancient Greek metaphors, which are thrown in so heavy-handedly that you wonder if it was written by someone for whom subtlety is a lost art. Or by someone who’s never written a screenplay before — which is actually the case, as the film’s writer, Barbara Curry, makes her screenwriting debut here.

And then there’s the acting/casting. Ryan Guzman looks closer to 30 than 20, and for some reason he’s continually paired on-screen with Ian Nelson, who actually is somewhat close to his character’s age. Neither actor is good. Jennifer Lopez, for whom many people will pay the ticket price, might have turned in a career-worst performance, which makes sense until you learn she was one of the film’s producers. One would think she would care more. Everyone else is expendable and won’t leave an impression.

The Boy Next Door does not deliver on any of its promises. It’s not erotic and it’s not thrilling. It won’t make your heart beat any faster. It won’t excite. About all that it will do is remind you that actors who are approaching 30 should not play teenagers, and that Jennifer Lopez is a much better actress than she shows in this film. Oh, and that poor cinematography and post-production work can take you out of a film, further ruining any impact it might have had. The Boy Next Door is bland and difficult to hate because it doesn’t really do anything worth talking about, but it’s not worth the 90 minutes it takes to watch. It’s a poor-man’s Fear, and that’s saying something.

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Blackhat

I suppose I should give credit to Blackhat for not making its hacking scenes unbearably poor. I mean, maybe coders and real-life hackers will see them as silly and not at all how it works in reality, but at least to the average viewer, the hacking sequences seem at least kind of what hacking scenes might look like. That’s something that the movies can often get wrong, and at least Blackhat doesn’t get it horribly wrong.

Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing in Blackhat that’s worth even a little bit of praise. The rest of it is simplistic, predictable, uninspired, and for some inexplicable reason runs for 130+ minutes. If this movie was edited down to 90 minutes it might be tolerable; as it is, it’s almost unbearable. It’s not ambitious enough, and while it takes on a subject that might actually make you think about the potential being there for this to happen in the real world, it doesn’t do anything well enough to make it feel real, or make you care that it could be real.

The plot begins when a power plant being hacked into and being overloaded. This is in China. An attempt is made to do the same in America, but was unsuccessful. So, the two countries team up in order to take down the man behind it. Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), speaks both languages, so he heads up the Chinese side. America is represented by Carol Barrett (Viola Davis). The code the hacker is using was created by Chen and his MIT roommate, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), who is currently serving 15 years for causing millions of damages to banks by, you guessed it, hacking into their systems. Of course, Chen decides to bring in Hathaway in order to figure out a way to get the criminal, with promises of freedom if he’s caught.

What this essentially becomes is a spy movie. Not a good one, either. We monitor the bad guys, then there’s a shootout, then we move onto another bad guy or group of bad guys. Another shootout, and we move on again. Most of the time, we’re watching bad guys or looking at computer screens. The brief shootouts — that’s really the only action Blackhat has — aren’t particularly involving or entertaining.

It’s aimless. There’s a big subplot involving Hathaway and Chen’s sister (Wei Tang) that takes up so much time and is just so stupid. They instantly fall in love and then … nothing much happens. Wei Tang hangs around and some decisions are made because of their romance, but it’s just so stupid and pointless, existing in an attempt to bring some pathos to both characters but failing to do that at a fundamental level.

Actually, a lot of the movie is like that. It wants to be smart, but it’s stupid. It wants us to care, but we’re unable. It tries to thrill, but we’re bored. It doesn’t even look particularly good! And this is a Michael Mann movie! He’s a director who’s done some of the best action ever. What went wrong? How did he make something so bad that it’s getting dumped by the studio in mid-January in hope that the weak competition will help it turn a profit? I’d really like to know the answer to that question.

Chris Hemsworth is the “good” Hemsworth brother, but he’s not particularly good in the role. I don’t know how he would be, though; his character’s written poorly. He’s supposed to be really smart, but rarely demonstrates this. But he worked out a lot in prison, so he has Hemsworth’s physique. Meanwhile, everyone else in the cast is more or less just along for the ride. Leehom Wang, Wei Tang, Viola Davis — they don’t really play characters here; they play accessories to Hemsworth who get to be in the movie until their jobs are fulfilled and they can exit.

About as exciting as watching me type up this review would be — although slightly more violent, probably — Blackhat is a film that fails at every turn. It wants to make us care about what happens, but can’t. It wants to thrill us by taking us into the world of cyberterrorism, but is often so stupid and predictable that it can’t succeed. It tacks on a horrible romantic subplot and plays for about 40 minutes too long. Blackhat is a dud.

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Taken 3

If all action movies were made like Taken 3, I’d have to stop watching action movies. This is easily the low point of the franchise, and if it does wind up being the concluding chapter, it’s a poor way to go out. At one point, Liam Neeson said he wasn’t going to reprise his role as Bryan Mills, but a large paycheck managed to bring him back. He should have stuck to his guns, as Taken 3 is a disappointing mark on his resume.

Set a couple of years after the last film — which, if you don’t remember, was completely forgettable and basically doesn’t matter — Taken 3 follows Bryan Mills, a former government operative, as he tries to find out who killed his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), for which he is framed. So, he’s on the run from the cops, led by Inspector Dotzler (Forest Whitaker), and also some Russian guys. Also in the picture: his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), and Lenore’s new husband, Stuart (Dougray Sctott). Mills gets to do his action-hero stuff in order to try to figure out who ordered his ex-wife’s murder and framed him.

Unfortunately, “action-hero stuff” consists primarily of driving around. It seems that Liam Neeson is finally starting to show his age. Neeson seemed stiff, and in many of the more intense action scenes, a combination of shaky-cam, rapid-fire editing, and shots from behind try to mask the fact that Neeson isn’t the one doing these things. An early chase scene is particularly bad for this. After that scene, Neeson is mostly just seen driving around or trying to find clues; he only has to get truly physical again near the end.

What action we get — mostly chase scenes — is all PG-13 and bloodless. That matters to some people. Some of the more “gruesome” moments are cut or panned away from before we see anything, which is of greater concern to me. The shaky-cam and editing that involves a cut approximately every half second also disguises the action. It’s hard to follow who’s doing what to whom, and for most of the time it’s even harder to care.

That’s kind of the problem with a third installment. We’ve seen what Bryan Mills can do at this point. We know he’s not to be taken lightly, and now he’s out for vengeance. The villain — who is seen in the film’s first scene and then not until about 30 minutes remain in the picture — hasn’t been escalated at all. He’s not scarier or more ruthless; in fact, his beef with Mills seems more superficial than malicious. Can you already guess whether or not he manages to stop them? Of course you can.

There’s also about one plot twist too many. The plot is straightforward and so basic for most of the running time that you wonder how the filmmakers managed to stretch it out to almost take up two hours, and then when it looks like it’s about to wind down, we get a twist so that we can have one more poorly shot chase scene. You’re ready for the film to end about an hour in, and after it looks like it’s going to end 30 minutes past that point, we find out we’ve actually got another 20 minutes to go. It’s torturous.

Liam Neeson is about the only thing that’s any good in Taken 3, and like Harrison Ford in the fourth Indiana Jones movie, it feels like he’s noticeably absent from some of the more important scenes. Instead, we get to watch — through poor cinematography and choppy editing — Liam Neeson-looking stunt doubles do lots of the work. Neeson is intimidating in the segments when he has to be, and is a reliable lead, but it’s distracting to see the filmmakers try to hide the fact that he’s not doing much of the action.

Taken 3 is low point of the franchise and just a bad action movie in general. It’s shot poorly, edited without a care in the world — except to disguise how terribly it’s shot and how little of the action star Liam Neeson is actually doing — and has a story that’s too simple to justify the amount of time it takes to tell, complete with a third-act twist that only serves to extend the running time, something I can’t imagine anyone would want. This is a boring action movie that only exists because the producers thought they could milk some more money from the franchise. Hopefully this is it.

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88

I don’t know what it is about the number 88 in movies. Maybe it’s because 88 Minutes sticks in my mind so much that I feel it’s more prevalent than it actually is — and that’s only because 88 Minutes was so atrociously bad — but I feel like it’s a pretty common number. I mean, there’s even a distribution studio for cult movies called “88 Films.” There must be something about it. Regardless, there’s now a movie simply called 88, and it’s an action-thriller-mystery movie.

It stars Katharine Isabelle as Gwen/Flamingo. Text at the beginning of the film tells us that 1 in 2000 people, at some point in their lives, undergo a “fugue state” event, which has them act completely outside themselves and with little-to-no memory before the event, and also failing to remember what happened while in a fugue state. “Flamingo” is Gwen while in a fugue state. The film jumps back and forth between Gwen after the fugue state and Flamingo right at the start of it. The only thing we know is that, eventually, both of them want a man named Cyrus dead.

The mystery aspect of the film comes from a bunch of different sources. What triggered the fugue state? Why does Gwen have a gun, and why are the police chasing her? Who really killed Gwen’s boyfriend. What is Cyrus’ (Christopher Lloyd) role in all of this? Who are all the secondary characters? There’s a lot to figure out and the film’s only going to reveal it all at the end, even if an observant viewer is likely going to figure it all out well before then. 88 isn’t as mysterious as it wishes it was. That doesn’t make it unenjoyable.

In fact, there are lots of parts of 88 that are lots of fun. All of the Flamingo sequences put Isabelle in a mode in which she cares about nothing, and it’s lots of fun to watch her deadpan her way through that. As Gwen, she’s often hysterical, at least at the beginning, but soon enough acts more normal, and even starts to channel her Flamingo side. The dual role flip-flops every few minutes in order to keep things fresh, although in doing so it feels the need to remind us what events brought us to this point in time. And it does this each time. We get a brief flashback each time we flip between them, as if our memory only goes back a couple of minutes.

It shows a lack of confidence in the audience from our director, April Mullen (who also has a brief role in the film). This technique winds up becoming annoying and not particularly helpful, since we can remember more than a few minutes, as it turns out, and it’s not likely you’re going to forget what brought a certain character to where she is now. There are other flashbacks that are deliberately confusing scattered throughout as both Gwen and Flamingo try to figure out what went on earlier as the other “character.”

Eventually, the film gets a touch repetitive, the charm wears off, and the conclusion is cleared up. For all its mystery, the story is actually pretty simple, and even if you don’t figure it out before 88 ends, you’re likely going to look back and think “well, that was basic.” That’s fine, as it’ll hook you in the moment for most of its running time, but it doesn’t give a strong lasting impression, nor will it warrant multiple watches.

88 doesn’t have the most well-known cast, but its actors are good and some of them are names you might recognize. As our lead, Katharine Isabelle is a joy to watch in her dual roles, getting to play both the tough side and the sensitive side to her characters. Christopher Lloyd is surprisingly menacing as Cyrus. Michael Ironside is in the film as a Sheriff in a couple of scenes. Hey, remember Jesse McCartney? He’s in this movie! Tim Doiron, who wrote the screenplay, gets to act as an energetic sidekick to the deadpan Flamingo.

Is 88 a fun time? For the most part, sure. A lot of that success rides on how captivating Katharine Isabelle is in her dual roles, while flipping back and forth between them with great frequency helps keep things fresh, even if the mini-flashbacks we get each time aren’t helpful and are annoying. The central mysteries aren’t too difficult to figure out, and the story’s unlikely to hold your attention on multiple viewings, but in the moment, 88 is fun enough to warrant its brief (88 — ha! — minutes) running time.

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Escape Plan

Imagine having a job which involves spending much of your adult life in a prison. “No big deal,” you think. “Lots of prison guards, doctors, etc. all do that.” Okay, but what if you were locked in a cell and treated like a prisoner? Now I’ve got your interest, don’t I? That’s the profession of Escape Plan’s protagonist, Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone). He tests the security systems of prisons all around America. He waits and studies and then tries to break out of them. That is his job. That can’t be fun.

The payoff is very good, however, and he seems to enjoy it enough. He’s made enough money to retire, and judging by his age, likely should. One day, an FBI Agent tells him she wants him to test a new, off-grid, prison system — one that has been designed to be impenetrable. Perhaps Ray enjoys challenges. Despite the job breaking all protocols — his team can’t know where he is, for example — he accepts it. I’m not sure if the term “one last job” is ever used but it might as well be. He’s not going to be able to escape from this one.

Or, at least, that’s the hope of the warden, Hobbes (Jim Caviezel), who explains that nobody will ever break out and that he has no knowledge of the safety code Ray was supposedly given. Ray has been buried, he claims. Someone wants him here for real. He’s going to find out who that was and kill him or her. Inside, he meets Emil Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who is played by an actor who, like the character of Ray, has made enough money to retire and probably should, given his age. I’m so, so, so funny. Laugh. Please.

From here, the rest of the film follows a simple process. Ray and Emil team up to try to figure out (1) where they are, exactly, and (2) how to escape. Prison break movies aren’t that common nowadays, and while this one is unlikely to ignite any new ones, it’s kind of fun to see these two actors team up for more than a cameo while “acting” in a generic and predictable movie with absolutely no pretense of being something more than a trashy B-movie.

Escape Plan is moderately successful if you watch it with big nostalgia glasses which have been turned up to 10. If you’re one of the people who giggled with glee upon seeing Stallone and Schwarzenegger on-screen together in the Expendables franchise, then this is the movie for you. A real team-up film between these actors probably would have made a lot more sense in the 1980s — a time period that contained films from which this one draws inspiration — but for some people a “better now than never” approach will satisfy.

I struggle to recommend it to anyone who isn’t longing for the days of old, or to people who aren’t a big fan of either actor. It’s a mediocre, predictable, and overly long (115 minutes), and after the initial awe wears off, it becomes grating. The cheesy one-liners, the silliness, the completely wasted villain whose motivation is as basic as they come, story “twists” that you’ll see scenes in advance, and an actual lack of action is too much for nostalgia to overcome. Or, at least, I couldn’t get much joy from Escape Plan.

Some of the problem also comes from the movie’s tone, which is surprisingly serious. You know that these actors are too old for this, and I figure so do they. But the screenplay doesn’t, so everything — even with the one-liners — isn’t self-aware in the least. It’s all dark and grim, not at all funny, and little attempt is made to draw attention to the ridiculousness of this whole idea. There are a couple of jokes but nowhere near enough of them.

There are also distracting members of the supporting cast. The focus is clearly supposed to be on the two elderly leads, but then someone like Sam Neill shows up to draw our attention and remind us what actual acting looks like — that might be why they stand out so much. Even Jim Caviezel, playing the warden, has this happen to him. He’s the primary villain but he mostly just gets to sit around, nowhere near the leads, and talk in a monotonous voice. Vincent D’Onofrio, Amy Ryan, Vinnie Jones, and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson are all victims of this — to varying degrees, as ordered here.

There is little to recommend when it comes to Escape Plan. It’s a serious prison break movie that probably should have been tonally more of a lark. Its stars struggle to carry the movie, and this is made even more apparent by distracting supporting cast members, and there’s surprisingly little action or thrills for a prison break movie. Any attempt to generate suspense and tension falls flat. This is a dull experience that reminds us why both stars are on the downside of their careers. If they showed this movie to actual inmates, the inmates would likely request that it be turned off. Solitary confinement would be a better use of their time.

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