Mara

By Jason Sawyer – Jan. 7, 2019

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIX
Released Sep. 7, 2018
Rated R – 1hr 38min
Directed by Clive Tonge
Starring Olga Kurylenko, Craig Conway, Javier Botet, Rosie Fellner


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When criminal psychologist Kate Fuller (Kurylenko) is brought on to investigate an alleged murder, she’ll find herself in the path of ancient demon Mara (Botet), who strickens her victims with sleep paralysis before marking them for death.


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Mara tries its best to be a supernatural chiller of the Blumhouse variety with strong Asian horror overtones, but it might succeed in delivering more unintentional laughs than legitimate scares.


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Narrative: This is where Mara goes all kinds of wrong. Whether it was from a lazily written script or one that was hacked into bits of garbage after the fact, the film trudges along at a laborious pace, ticking off boxes on the ghost curse checklist until it’s time to go home. It occasionally twitches with the promise that it will be something more than simply asleep at the switch, but then, it quickly fades back to its ponderous slog. Despite being frustratingly predictable, I do need to put a point back in the till for the motivation behind the titular antagonist – it’s a fairly clever concept (at least initially – until it has something to do with bad fish. I’m not joking.) It’s telegraphed in a manner that allows the viewer to reach the conclusion before our hero does (except for the fish, which is definitely a curveball), but it’s a good idea all the same.

Acting: Mara seems like it was an absolute chore to make for everyone behind the camera, but the ones in front of it at least put forth an attempt to salvage the effort, even when they’re given hilariously clunky dialogue to work with. The film keeps trying to insert emotionally wrought material, generally with weepy monologues that are earnestly delivered, yet the tone and atmosphere don’t accomodate these moments – they’re just shoehorned in wherever. In one, Kurylenko’s character is visiting the woman who she has had committed for her husband’s murder (wrongfully) and, when the woman wants nothing to do with her, she decides this is the best time to share her tragic backstory. I understand that this is for the benefit of the audience and not the falsely accused woman, but it certainly doesn’t feel like an authentic scenario. Yet, when this dramatically charged scene ends with the woman shouting “I TOLD YOU!!! MY HUSBAND WAS KILLED BY A SLEEP DEMON!!!”, I was howling with laughter. This isn’t the only scene derailed in such a manner, and as such, I refuse to hold the cast accountable for this mess. They earned their paychecks.


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I know what you mean, Olga. This hasn’t been easy for me either.


Direction: This is Clive Tonge’s feature debut, and if I were to wager a bet, his uninspired paint-by-numbers work here has something to do with the stable of 14 producers holding the reins. It’s competently made, if not totally lacking in a singular definitive flash of personal style. Mara could have been directed by an AI uploaded with every similar movie ever committed to film, yet its finished product may have been more daring.

Horror Elements: To cast famed creature actor Javier Botet as the ghoulish villain and waste him is representative of the squandered opportunities throughout. Presented with little flair, the demon Mara just isn’t scary. The lights go low and in she shuffles, wheezing and rolling her wrists, presumably as warm-up exercises for some high-impact strangling. That, or she’s silhouetted behind a sheet, as curse ghosts are prone to do. Appearance-wise, she’s a mere echo of some of Botet’s other well-known monsters, like Mama or ‘Patient Zero’ from [Rec]. It’s like Samara from The Ring was put through the taffy puller from Willy Wonka, given emphysema, and set in super slo-mo. Elsewhere, aside from a couple more notable moments, the rest is corpses with bloodshot eyes and hysterical screaming. There was what could have been a really squeamish scene, where a character lops off one of their own eyelids, but the punch is pulled – the movie plays it safe at pretty much every opportunity.


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Actual line of dialogue from the movie: “I’m a scientist. I deal with facts and logic – not this.”


Sound: For the score, the spooky bits are your very standard spooky bits, which should come as no surprise at this point. However, at the moments that are intended to be emotionally heavy, the music kicks into overdrive, drenching the scene in swelling strings and an operatic choir, as if we’re watching a classical tragedy. It’s too much. Also, the demon Mara is very crunchy when she walks – another common affliction of curse ghosts.

TL;DR: Mara brought together all the components necessary to make a solid supernatural horror movie and then did nothing interesting with them, even dipping its toe in unintentional comedy territory. It had a budget, so it can’t play the ‘scrappy indie production’ card, nor was it intended to be bad, like anything from the last 5 years with the word ‘Shark’ in the title. It’s a pure misfire, but it’s still a coherent movie with glimpses of a higher quality within it. There’s way worse out there, but this is still firmly mediocre in relation.

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Bird Box

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 28, 2018

STREAMING BANNER 2
NETFLIX
Released Dec. 21, 2018
Rated R – 2hr 4min
Directed by Susanne Bier
Starring Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Sarah Paulson


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Pregnant Malorie (Bullock) and her sister Jessica (Paulson) are at the hospital for Malorie’s doctor appointment when chaos breaks out – a mysterious entity begins attacking people that, if seen, causes instant and often suicidal psychosis. Malorie, after losing Jessica to the malevolent force, finds refuge in a house with other survivors, including war veteran Tom (Rhodes) and cantankerous lawyer Douglas (Malkovich). Flash forward five years and Malorie and her two children, Boy and Girl, are making a treacherous and virtually impossible journey to possible sanctuary 20 miles down a river blindfolded.


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Bird Box is a timeline-jumping post-apocalyptic survival horror-drama. It jumps frequently between its present narrative on the river and its flashback narrative as to how the main protagonist and her children wound up on this journey. The focus is largely on story and characters above all else.


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When I say it jumps frequently, I mean that it jumps so often that Bird Box seems more like a collection of related short films than it does a fully cohesive movie. While all of its components are of a top-shelf theatrical quality, its distinctly episodic nature is an odd choice of presentation. This was developed and produced specifically for Netflix, as opposed to being an acquisition, and it’s another one of their big swings for the fences in their bid to compete with traditional distribution models. It leads me to wonder if the company hasn’t developed their own unique formula for how a film should be structured based upon their perception of what their subscribers enjoy – and what many subscribers enjoy is binge watching television. That’s what Bird Box is – a binge watch in fast-motion.


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I know that new Robin Hood movie was bad, but I don’t know if it was necessarily soul-shattering.


There’s something like 15 principal roles in this film and Sandra Bullock is in about 95% of the scenes, so that’s a lot of people to put in orbit around the lead in a two-hour runtime. I even lost track of one character, so it was somewhat jarring when they suddenly re-appeared and did a thing. In fact, the constant ping-ponging back and forth between two different narratives – each with drastically different settings and dramatic stakes along with their own sets of supporting characters – couldn’t have been anything but jarring with such a high-concept story in play. It’s exceedingly easy throughout to forget that this is, essentially, a horror movie because the constant shifts and toggles allow for no atmosphere or tension to develop. That is, outside of the opening 20 minutes which had me mentally clearing a spot on my Top 10 of ’18 List for Bird Box – the mess hits in the fan in rather spectacular fashion, so the mysterious antagonists are well-established here. There’s no doubts as to the danger they pose.


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Wonder why it’s called Bird Box like I did? That’s because there is a literal box of birds in it. These are the birds that will eventually be shoved inside of it.


So, over-stuffed story and off-putting presentation aside, the film is interesting. Much has been made of its conceptual similarities to A Quiet Place, but apart from being based around apocalypses caused by enigmatic creatures that have a sensory mode of attack and having some underlying theme about parental responsibility, they are two very different movies. Even if the correlation seems too much, Bird Box is based on a 5-year-old novel, so it wins the ‘First!’ game anyway. That aside, with a cast like this, an expectation for strong performances is the default, and Bullock & Co. do not disappoint. She and Malkovich, in particular, exhibit effortless command of the screen at this point in their careers and Trevante Rhodes is quickly rising in that regard as well. Along with Sarah Paulson, the movie shines when Bullock is sharing scenes with one of them, but it also expedites the speed at which many other supporting characters vanish into the scenery. It again raises the question as to why so much energy was expended on such a sprawling cast and their development, so even in praise, the lack of narrative focus rises to the surface.

Complaints aside, Bird Box is certainly worth watching, even if its horror elements take a far back seat to many other elements. It plays like a much-better realized attempt at M. Night Shymalan’s misfire The Happening, and that’s actually not a bad thing to be. It is, however, one of those ‘not the sum of its parts’ efforts, where all of its quality components are not put together in a way that capitalizes on their full value. (And seriously – the kids’ names are Boy and Girl? I get the lack of attachment vibe being attempted, but it’s exactly as silly as it sounds when she’s shouting for them on the river. It’s needlessly ridiculous.)

Bird Box gets a rating of
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A Quiet Place

By Jason Sawyer – Dec. 27, 2018

2018 – YEAR IN RETROSPECT review
Rated PG-13 – 1hr 30min
Languages: American Sign Language Directed by John Krasinski
Starring Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe


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It’s been nearly 15 months since the appearance of mysterious super-predatory creatures with hyper-sensitive hearing and human civilization has been reduced to the fringes of existence. It’s in this grim world that the Abbott family cling to survival in their isolated farmhouse, growing and scavenging what they can while remaining as silent as possible. All is not well, however, as mother Evelyn (Blunt) is very pregnant and expecting, father Lee (Krasinski) is distracted by the past, and teenage daughter Regan (Simmonds) is growing increasingly resentful over her fractured relationship with her dad. Throughout one fateful day, the family will learn how the best laid plans often go awry.


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A Quiet Place is a relentlessly suspenseful monster movie that makes inventive use of noise and silence to develop tension and invoke a sense of dread regarding its always-listening antagonists. The premise is furthered by the extensive use of subtitled sign language in place of spoken dialogue in most scenes, amplifying the authenticity of the threat faced by the characters.


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I highly doubt I was the only one who never suspected that Jim from The Office was a horror auteur in disguise. I looked through John Krasinski’s entire filmography and didn’t find a single thing that would indicate an interest in horror, let alone any talent involving it. I have no idea if he likes the genre or studied it or how he managed to pull this off, but A Quiet Place is a masterwork when it comes to generating suspense and nervous anticipation. Likewise, it’s also an expert demonstration in world-building – there’s great attention to detail throughout, from the prevalent use of sign language to the walking paths that require sanding to absorb the sound of footfalls to the use of lettuce leaves in place of plates to avoid any dangerous clinking noises.


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The studio vetoed the original working title – STFU, Kid


Those are just a few examples as to how much care has gone into cultivating the atmosphere that permeates A Quiet Place. One of the key questions with which I approach a horror film is ‘How good is it at being the kind of movie that it seemingly wants to be?’ This film’s answer to that line of inquiry places it quite easily as one of the best of the decade. Throw in some top-notch performances from the principal cast (I can’t recall Emily Blunt ever being mediocre in anything – she instantly elevates anything she’s involved in) and the movie only gets better. Ironically, the award-nominated musical score from composer and longtime Wes Craven collaborator Marco Beltrami acts as another element that is deftly used to emphasize the value of silence.

With all this praise, it would be fair to assume that I’m dropping the ‘Best of 2018’ accolade at the proverbial feet of A Quiet Place without any more debate, but let’s not be too hasty. It is, virtually without competition, the purest horror film of the year. When it comes to generating suspense and apprehension, the Argentine offering Terrified is probably the only one that can even hang with it. There is, however, more to horror than these most basic classical elements – there’s more advanced components like dread, devastation, disgust, and subversion to be considered. There’s also traditional narrative quality and thematic depth to be appreciated as well.


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“Seriously though, kid. STFU.”


It’s in those things that A Quiet Place doesn’t stand as tall. It pulls its punches – cutting away or flashing forward whenever matters promise to get too uncomfortable, but it never has any designs on being that kind of movie in the first place. Films that do and succeed tend to be more memorable for having done so – let’s not overlook the sheer audacity of The Exorcist having been released for Christmas 45 years ago, and it’s still being discussed prominently today. So, while A Quiet Place thrills in the moment, and has some touching and heart-warming things to say about family and parenthood along the way, it doesn’t leave the deepest impression once it’s over. There’s not much to think about afterward and the whole experience quickly begins to fade. Factor in the creature design and FX – which aren’t terrible, but aren’t great either – and the film is brought somewhat back down to earth.

While I can now confirm that A Quiet Place is one of the best of the year and very likely has a spot reserved in the decade’s top 25 by the grace of its amazing craftwork, it’s also an experience not unlike a great sugar rush. It’s terrific while it lasts, but doesn’t leave that much once it’s finished.

A Quiet Place gets a rating of
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