Anna (2019)

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‘Leon: The Professional’ director Luc Besson hasn’t come up with something good since the first 20 minutes of ‘Lucy’, will another film with a four lettered name in the title be the return to form he needs or should ‘Anna’ be sent to the gulag?

At a Moscow market, Anna (Sasha Luss) is picked up by a model scout and jets off to Paris. Though it soon becomes clear she’s working for the KGB and under tutorage from Olga (Helen Mirren) she racks up the kills, but this grabs the attention of CIA agent Leonard (Cillian Murphy) and Anna is stuck in the middle of two opposing sides.

A film with a strong female lead is thankfully becoming more the norm but there’s something about this film; which stars a strong and combat ready woman, that doesn’t feel like it would be empowering. Luc Besson instead hands his film a near constant male gaze with Anna serving kicks and spills but also serving as a figure to be gawped at. The skills of this Russian pro are evident but you can’t help but feel they’re overshadowed by the fact she’s dressed up and mostly down to flaunt flesh and look sexy whilst dispatching numerous henchmen.

If ‘Anna’ had been released 15 years ago, then 2004 audiences would likely be more receptive. It would be a better, more explosive spy flick but as it is, here in 2019, the movie sits like off-brand vodka. It’s a film with nothing original; there’s nothing in her take-downs or style that we haven’t seen before, even with the sleek Vogue gloss mirroring her modelling looks, this story is less than fresh.

An early restaurant brawl does neatly showcase Sasha Luss as a capable and kick-ass lead and it is the point in the film where you sort of feel the narrative and action is getting into its groove. That thought is short lived however, as it soon reverts back to fairly lame spy thriller tropes and generally it screams like Besson thinks his script is cleverer than it is; the annoying time jumps and twists are not anything to write home about. Only an INXS song injects a lively section of energy and their bop punctuates through a ridiculous but enjoyable montage.

Luss does grace the screen with a believable strength and she proves to be a model, not just with killer heels but killer moves too. The coldness to her expression is very Russian and there’s no denying she’s cool and hot but not even her convincing whip-smart assassin tricks, proven further in an embassy escape, can save this film from being cheesy and only mildly entertaining.

Dodgy Russian accents, overly sexualised visuals and a run of the mill screenplay make this a tepid watch, one that keeps Besson on trend of producing poor movies and at this point his EuropaCorp brand should be re-titled You’reOverCorp.

4.5/10

 

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Ma (2019)

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There’s ridiculous and then there’s ‘Ma’; a new feature from the Blumhouse brand. Sometimes loco is enjoyable but in the case of this horror, it never reaches the entertaining heights the premise deserves.

New to a town in Ohio is Maggie (Diana Silvers) who winds up with the popular gang. Due to their youthful age, they need an adult to buy them alcohol and in walks Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) who is more than happy to help and way too eager to please by offering the school kids a party set-up in her basement but her obsession grows, leading Maggie down a dangerous path.

Tate Taylor who directs this barmy film has some thriller know-how in his back pocket as he was the man in charge of Emily Blunt-led ‘The Girl on the Train’. However, the good handling of thriller tones in the first two acts of ‘Ma’ are totally undone by an absolutely bonkers third act. Even though the plot and dialogue within the first hour can be dumb and less than engaging, there is a credible amount of taut tension but it speedily unravels by the finale.

The basement gatherings are frequent and are an excuse to load the cinema speakers with party tracks and ply the screen with typical teen drinking and revelry but they are fairly tiresome and the only celebratory aspect of these home parties is Octavia Spencer busting moves and cavorting with high school adolescents which suitably builds up the air of unease.

Spencer is a sensational actress and has won or been nominated for many supporting roles; so it’s great to see her stride out of the sidelines and be front and centre. She definitely doesn’t waste her spotlight moment, taking a gigantic bite of the role and slathering on layers of sinister chills to the character. The mumsy costume of Sue Ann; what with the animal patterned tops, her knitwear and then her veterinary position all do wonders in setting up a lovely, cosy American Mom which makes her descent into crazed anger all the more batty to watch.

The plot is silly which is sad, because if tackled well this could have been a dumb yet really creepy horror outing. Instead it doesn’t work as a so-bad-its-good film but feels rather hollow and shuttles into an insane third act. Not even the flashbacks help round out the story or justify Sue Ann’s choices, in fact all they do is provide a cliched attempt to deepen the lead character but it’s misplaced and does very little to have you sympathise with her.

‘Ma’ is very, very B-movie material featuring a crew of students that are neither interesting or quirky enough to like or root for. It’s a silly narrative with a fairly strong suspenseful start which crashes and burns into a fiery end. Only worth the watch for Spencer lapping up the screen-time and enjoying every second.

4.5/10

Greta (2019)

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A dangerous game of cat and mouse plays out in this thriller film from Irish director Neil Jordan. As writer and director, does he reach into his bag of tricks and pull out a taut, psychological treat or a cheap dud that should be left on the subway?

Waitress Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz) is living with her friend Erica (Maika Monroe) in Tribeca, New York and is currently dealing with the tragic fact her mother recently passed away. On a trip home from work, Frances spots an abandoned handbag on the Metro and returns it to its’ owner, Greta (Isabelle Huppert), a kind gesture she’ll quickly regret when this woman clings on and develops a worrying obsession with her.

‘Greta’ does have some striking pangs of unease that shine through, but sadly they don’t manage to torch away the mishandled attempts at twisty tension. It’s a movie which grows more and more ridiculous and the screenplay, from Jordan and Ray Wright is one which seems to spill over with silliness and what could have been an unsettling, dark comment on manic infatuation instead becomes a piece of work which tries too hard.

Javier Navarrete’s score is a large reason this film comes across as extremely extra; a millennial term I never expected to use in a review but one that perfectly embodies the psychotic antics of Greta and similarly the OTT beats within the plot, which are punctuated with way too much aural attack. The harsh strings and bursts of loud sound make the film feel increasingly and comically melodramatic.

There are saving graces to be had, most of which can be found in the calms before the storms. These quieter moments are captivating and not only fill you with a prickling dread but give clues to how good the film could have been if it stayed on this more subtle course. The fear of the unknown ad the unrelenting stalker-nature of Greta raise the hairs on the back of your neck and Huppert is an exceptional presence of creepiness.

‘Greta’ has good-to-great flashes where you can share Frances’ escalating paranoia but the suspense is overdosed with jittery and heightened nonsense one too many times.

6/10

Pet Sematary (2019)

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Stephen King’s ‘It’ was a box office smash and with Chapter 2 around the corner, his back catalogue is being mined for further cinematic attraction. This time we enter the land of the living dead, for a second go-around with ‘Pet Sematary’; an original came out in 1989. Thirty years between the two and this one has you calling out for it to be lowered in an unmarked grave.

Louis (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) have moved from Boston to a small town in Maine in the hope of slowing down a bit and having more time with their son and daughter. However, their new property means they own a huge amount of land, some of which is used as a local cemetery for pets and a place behind this could spell reanimated trouble for the family.

Jeff Buhler’s screenplay leaves you with so many why questions; not because the film is cleverly subjective, posing you thoughts about what can be taken away from it personally, but because the script is far from tightly written and chucks up numerous fur-balls of dumb oversights. A large portion of Buhler’s adaptation makes no sense and/or provide whopping plot holes to dive into.

I have no doubt that the authors work goes into way more depth and broaches the gritty context of our mortality with better attack, but in terms of the movie it winds up skirting around deep issues and tosses in jump scares and many, many predictable story beats. A hissing cat with matted fur and creepy kids are always going to be horrifying images but that does not mean you can constantly rely on that to pray you’re a solid horror film; you must contain a burrowing sense of something extra below the surface, which the film has to begin with, but swiftly loses.

A birthday scene outside their new abode is well executed and certainly grips you with shocking tension, even if it’s overladen with slow-motion. There are also some neat early discussions about death and the afterlife which shine like rare beacons in a film that is otherwise a faulty bulb in need of a burial.

It’s irritating because what it has to say and tries to say about grief are meaty talking points but this is never rounded out to become a compelling, and engaging movie about that subject matter. The fear of dying is replaced by misty woods, masked children and a tribal land that could easily fit into the bleak, dull world of ‘The Nun’. Instead of being a serious topic with scary aspects it becomes an increasingly laughable, mildly serviceable horror flick.

Some people may find the whole thing nightmarish and lap it up like a feline to milk but the majority of it for me and especially the final five to ten minutes were presented in an unintentionally hilarious manner. ‘Pet Sematary‘ is more like kitty litter than frightening catnip to lose yourself to.

5/10

Us (2019)

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‘Get Out’ saw Jordan Peele step onto the movie scene in the most exciting way. ‘Us’ might not be as strong a movie as his 2017 debut but it still confirms him as a necessary cinematic voice and exceptional visionary.

Holidaying to a beach house are the Wilson family and whilst dad Gabriel (Winston Duke) hopes to revel in the fun of summer, his wife Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is concerned about the location due to a dark moment from her childhood. One night, Adelaide, Gabriel and their two children are terrorised by a sinister family who look just like them.

What Peele does so well is devise really interesting takes on genre movies. Horror can be a cheap, stale affair laden with jump-scares but with the racial and political angle skewed throughout ‘Get Out’ and now with this fear of what lies beneath our very own skin taken to extreme measures, Peele solidifies himself as an intelligent creator to keep an eye on and anticipate his next step.

It isn’t solely his idea that works but the content of his dreams; the mixture of suspense, blood-curdling unease and comedy throughout ‘Us’ is a perfect recipe, so it’s a fine shame that the entire film isn’t as impeccable a prescription. Around 30 minutes before the end, the movie starts losing its way mostly because it’s like Peele has mishandled his grasp of the pacing and his twinning horror takes over. It’s as the fearsome folk in red are explained more in somewhat patronising terms that Peele’s second feature grows less focused and tries shovelling a lot in; so much so that however enjoyable the end product is, ‘Us’ is a movie that 100% calls for repeat viewings because not all of it can be delightfully discerned in one sitting.

On the plus side, it is a horror film with chills ringing out from it’s very heart. The atmosphere on the most part is suitably creepy and the house invasion portion is a masterclass in building and then sustaining tension. The family (who don’t wield the golden scissors) possess a wonderful dynamic, their banter, kill list arguments, ups and downs and car journeys truly make you buy into their unit then you have each of their nightmarish reflections, who are not just guaranteed 2019 Halloween costumes but spine-tingling comments on the nature of doppelgangers and our inner evil.

Nyong’o is divine as the matriarch of the family, she is categorically untouchable as a performer through the film; with both sides of the Adelaide coin being flipped wonderfully. If horror were more recognised by the Academy, Lupita Nyong’o would be a shoe-in for a golden nomination because her performance draws you in like some hypnotic trance and you can’t look away from the screen as both versions of her absolutely dominate.

If it wasn’t for the last stages spewing over into something that expands too much and weakens the stone-hard grip on the Wilson quad, then ‘Us’ would no doubt have been a favourite film of mine for years to come, though as it stands, it’s still a delectable horror with chilling music, well-scripted thrills and comedy.

7.5/10

Escape Room (2019)

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Escape rooms as a concept are quite the mind-bending rage at the moment; the excitement of something different that both tests your brains and your friendships is a successful business model so surely this cinematic outing could gleefully mould the idea into a intelligent horror? Well not quite, however silly and fun it sometimes is.

Introverted student Zoey (Taylor Russell) is told to do something scary for once and along with five other people, she is sent a mysterious puzzle box which invites them all to take on a new, immersive escape room where the winner can gain $1 million. However things won’t be plain sailing as they realise the game has been tailored to kill them if they can’t get out.

From the outset this is a dumb flick, who would go to an escape room where the winner gets a cash prize? The whole point of them is that they are a team game so it already sounds like a dangerous scheme and generally speaking the story doesn’t get much smoother. The rules of this deadly game change at will which is a frustrating tact and as a games master myself; where I get to witness everyday folk do well, only to go and ruin their chances by making stupid choices as the stress of the 60 minutes whittles away, this film has many convenient points where characters just happen to work out stuff, even though all of them bar one have never played a room before and their panic levels are much higher than found in the place where I work. Obviously it’s a movie but don’t make their leaps to solving problems so sudden and uninspired.

It’s almost like ‘Escape Room’ views itself as smarter than it really is, it’s falls way short of the devilishly clever film it could have been. Mostly, this is a dumb narrative with a group of strangers missing any real pulls of tension which could help throw the audience into the game some more. The connection they have is more like some predictable, half-arsed writing decision and a lot of the film is a fun, yet stupid ride which isn’t majorly thrilling.

In terms of a series of distracting events, this is a great movie. There’s no doubt that the entertainment factor is there and though it is clearly a less than thought through screenplay feeling majorly like ‘Saw’ and ‘The Belko Experiment’, the actors get their teeth into the roles and convince us enough that the tests they’re facing are worthy of our time. The production design must also be praised as this Minos company has an epic scale and each nightmarish new room ups the threat, be it an upside down bar or a freezing cold landscape the look of this film is especially cool.

‘Escape Room’ never goes above and beyond the premise that was so ripe for the taking and it has a ridiculous conclusion but there are enough fairly neat puzzles and bursts of suspense to keep this from being a dud.

5.5/10

Destroyer (2019)

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Harsh and never letting up, ‘Destroyer’ is a ferociously tough thriller; one which certainly leaves you close to stunned silence as the credits materialise.

After receiving a tainted $100 note, detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) believes something from her past has come back. Years ago, she and Chris (Sebastian Stan) infiltrated a gang and their leader could have returned. By any means she can, Bell hopes to get to the man behind it all and close a dark chapter in her life.

Karyn Kusama who previously directed the chillingly great ‘The Invitation’ is behind this near masterful work. The way she ensures that her cast and the story keep on track as this rough and rasping crime which you can’t look away from are fantastic. The story she’s working with is just as merciless. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have, apart from the aforementioned horror film, written a run of mostly comedy duds, this is by and large a soar to excellence. The story is cleverly wound and the way the narrative flits back and forth between past and present draws you in.

Julie Kirkwood’s cinematography is as blistering as the unfiltered heat of the California sun, soaking almost every frame of the film. You can really feel the yellow stained edgy nature of this thriller set in the aptly named Golden State. On top of the great visuals is some brooding music from Theodore Shapiro, whose score crackles with a sharp intensity amplifying the tension of the gritty world of which Erin traipses through.

There is a mother/daughter relationship which does seem like a detracting factor at first but it becomes an all encompassing touch of heart straining to reach through the blood, murkiness and nastiness that the central detective has been a part of for too long. Kidman portrays Erin searching amongst the grime of her past with a sensational presence. It’s a peak performance from the actor who embodies the worn off duty cop with sun-bleached skin, frayed hair and sunken eyes from the make-up department complimenting the fascinating turn from Kidman.

Opening and closing on Erin Bell’s eyes, this movie sees us looking at what is mostly a bleary environment for her nowadays, the why to this becomes clearer and all the more haunting as the film develops. An uneasy watch but a great one.

7.5/10