Films I Neglected To Review: A Few Fine (And Not-So-Fine) Messes As the moody supernatural thrille

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/12/19 02:41:23

Please enjoy short reviews of "Beyond the Night," "Destroyer," "Pledge," "Replicas" and "Stan & Ollie."

As the moody supernatural thriller ''Beyond the Night'' opens, soldier Ray (Zane Holtz) is sent home from Afghanistan after his wife is killed in a traffic accident in order to care for their five-year-old son, Lawrence (Azhy Robertson). At loose ends and with no idea of what else to do, he decides to take them back to the rural Pennsylvania town where he grew up and where his family still resides. The shift into full-time parent mode is difficult enough as is but becomes exponentially more so when Lawrence starts talking with a strange familiarity about the town, a place he has never visited before. More troubling, he begins talking about July Rain, the teenaged daughter of the local crime boss, Bernie (Chance Kelly), who disappeared without a trace five years earlier and who is now treated like a dirty little secret by the rest of the town. After checking him out, a child psychologist (Enid Graham) becomes convinced that Lawrence is actually the reincarnated spirit of July. Naturally, Ray and his cop sister, Caroline (Tammy Blanchard), think that is nuts but Bernie, who is still wracked with grief over the disappearance of his daughter and anger over how the town just swept her under the rug, is far more convinced and will go to great lengths to get Lawrence to tell him who is responsible for her death in order to mete out his form of justice.

Anyone going into ''Beyond the Night'' looking for major shocks or massive gore will no doubt come away from it feeling disappointed because writer-director Jason Noto is going for a quieter and more atmospheric feel that will remind some viewers of episodes of ''The Twilight Zone'' or some of Stephen King's stories abut the weird goings-on in the town of Castle Rock. While the approach is preferable to having things jump out of the shadows every few minutes, the deliberate pacing does cause things to bog down a bit at times. There is also a certain lack of narrative drive since it is pretty obvious early on who the person responsible for July's disappearance is. And yet, the film is fairly effective for the most part--Noto handles the material with a good sense of style and gets some nice performances from the cast. ''Beyond the Night'' is no classic by any means but it gets the job done in a clean and efficient manner and those in the mood for some low-key spookiness that avoids being either too gory or too stupid are advised to give it a chance.

The notion of Nicole Kidman teaming up with highly underrated director Karyn Kusama to make a sprawling and ambitious L.A.-based crime thriller is so undeniably promising that it may take viewers a little while to realize just how far the resulting film, ''Destroyer,'' has missed all of its possible marks. In it, Kidman plays Erin Bell, a burned-out detective who suffered a nervous collapse years ago when a long-term undercover assignment she took part in went sideways, leading to the death of her partner (Sebastian Stan) and sending her into a downward spiral that has left her with a major drinking problem, a rebellious teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) and a job that she is barely holding onto by a thread. As the film opens, she comes across a crime scene, looks at the unknown victim and the dye-stained $100 bill next to him and mutters something about someone named Silas. While her colleagues dismiss her findings as drunk talk, it is clear that Silas (Toby Kebbel) is someone from her past connected with her past tragedy and she elects to single-handedly bring him to justice by any means. As her pursuit goes on, the film introduces a second storyline in which we see the details of that earlier assignment and gradually discover what went wrong and understand what is driving Erin to continue her pursuit of the deeply dangerous Silas, even at the risk of her own life.

This sounds intriguing enough in theory but in practice, ''Destroyer'' just never comes together into a satisfying whole. The chief problem is the script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredini, a work that is clearly aiming for the kind of epic grandeur of something along the lines of Michael Mann's classic ''Heat'' but which is way too muddled and cluttered to pull it off—while it has a few good individual scenes (the best probably being the one in which Erin confronts an upscale sleazebag played by Bradley Whitford), the jumping back and forth in time has a tendency to kill whatever forward momentum the narrative has at any given time. Likewise, Kusama stages some effective action sequences as well but she is also unable to make much of the confused screenplay from which she is working. The most disappointing aspect of the film, strangely enough, is the performance by Kidman--normally one of the better and more inventive actresses of our time, her work here is unusually one-note and unconvincing in both her older and younger stages, upstaged in both cases by the array of prosthetics, make-up and digital touch-ups that have been deployed in lieu of any dramatic shadings. ''Destroyer'' may not be the worst of this year's lineup of would-be Oscar bait but in terms of the film that it could have been considering the talent involved, it has to go down as one of the most disappointing of the bunch.

Combine the opening scenes of ''Animal House'' and the closing scenes of ''Hostel'' and you have ''Pledge,'' an unusually nasty piece of work in which the usual unpleasantness of a fraternity rush period is given an additional homicidal touch. Here, three campus outcasts--obnoxious proto-nerd David (Zack Weiner, who also wrote the screenplay), quietly cynical Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) and overweight Justin (Zachery Byrd)--are being cruelly rejected by one frat house after another when a beautiful co-ed approaches them about coming to a party at a fraternity located way off-campus. It sounds like a prank--even the guys admit that beforehand--but when they arrive, it is filled with the best, brightest and most beautiful of people who welcome them with open arms and offers to pledge. However, the good time turns sour as the various tasks they are forced to perform grow exponentially nasty and they come to realize that they are not the ones who are actually pledging, turning the night into an extended and gruesome battle between those willing to do anything to prove that they belong and those willing to do anything just to survive the night. On the surface, the film may sound like little more than another exercise in torture porn and while it doesn't quite slip the bonds of that least appealing of cinematic subgenres, it is at least a little more interesting than most films of its ilk--the heroes are a little more likable (save for the spectacularly obnoxious David) than usual, giving the proceedings a little more rooting interest than usual and director Daniel Robbins lays it all out in an efficient manner that, at only 77 minutes, doesn’t overstay its welcome. ''Pledge'' isn't great but it knows how to work viewers over without forcing them to wallow in complete depravity and it leaves you curious to see what Robbins and Weiner come up with next.

Keanu Reeves has appeared in any number of techno-thrillers throughout his long and surprisingly durable career but it will only take viewers a few minutes to realize that his latest venture into the genre, ''Replicas,'' tips much closer to the ''Johnny Mnemonic'' end of the spectrum than ''The Matrix'' or even its sequels. In it, he plays the latest in a long line of movie scientists who find themselves tampering in God lo-mein, this time as one who is working on a program to transfer the consciousnesses of the recently deceased into robots. Alas, said consciousnesses don’t take too well to waking up in tin cans and the program is in danger of being shut down by the money men. To make things worse, his weekend getaway with his loving wife (Alice Eve) and family gets off to a rocky start when they are in a car crash in which he is the only survivor. Lucky for him, he just happens to have a colleague (Thomas Middleditch) who has some expertise in cloning and they both work for a company that seemingly doesn’t notice when the two steal millions of dollars of expensive equipment to set it up in Keanu's garage as part of a plan to extract the memories from the corpses, grow clones for all of them (well, one needs to be sacrificed due to a lack of tanks) and insert said memories into said hosts. In news that may not come as a surprise to many of you, complications abound, ranging from mundane details like the need to contact school to excuse to excuse the absence of the kids you are currently growing in a tank to the true nature of the highly secretive biomedical firm that our hero is working for and the designs they may have on his work.

Essentially yet another variation of the Frankenstein mythos, albeit with the kind of tacky-looking technological spin that makes it seem more like a relic from the Nineties than anything truly cutting-edge, ''Replicas'' is a very dumb thriller that has deluded itself into thinking that it is a lot smarter than it actually is. It presumably wants to you to contemplate the ethics of cloning and technology but most people will be too distracted by the gaping plot holes and the increasingly risible attempts to explain them away to notice--the final scenes here are so ridiculous that they come close to making the equally loony climax of ''Escape Room'' seem practically plausible by comparison. In addition, there are so many seemingly unintentionally hilarious moments (such as Keanu trying to maintain his family’s online profiles) and lines of dialogue (''I didn’t violate all of the laws of nature just to lose you again!'') that are so ridiculous that you begin to get the sensation that Chad St. John's screenplay was originally designed to be a comedy along the lines of an inverse ''Multiplicity.'' While some actors might have elected to lean in to the ludicrousness, Reeves goes the other way by tearing into his part with an odd combination of frenzied intensity and laid-back cool that never works for a second, though I guess he deserves a nod of some sort for fully committing to the nuttiness around him. Like the creations at its center, ''Replicas' may look and sound like something we have known and loved before but the end result is little more than an empty simulacrum that probably should have stayed in the garage.

''Stan & Ollie'' is a quiet and curious little film that finds Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly stepping into the ill-fitting shoes, trousers and hats of the legendary comedy duo of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Although enormously popular performers throughout the world at their peak, this film takes place many years later in the early Fifties as the aging pair arrive in the United Kingdom for a tour that is meant to drum up interest in a new film project for them, a comedic spin on the Robin Hood story. Things do not get off to an especially auspicious start--the accommodations are as cheap as can be and the shabby theaters they have been relegated to are only half-filled with people who are somewhat startled that they are still even alive--but their sheer professionalism and crack comedic timing are still there and business begins to pick up as the tour progresses. Off the stage, things between the two are somewhat rockier as it becomes clear that the proposed movie project is never going to happen (not a great loss, considering the rehashed nature of the material from it we see) and that there are still lingering resentments between the two stemming from an incident years earlier when Laurel, who generated most of their material, was fired by producer Hal Roach (a move that essentially ended their reign as box-office champions and led to them doing cut-rate films for producers who gave them a little more money but zero artistic freedom) and the contractually bound Hardy went on to do a movie with comedian Harry Langdon before retiring to his partner. Add in financial pressures, health issues and the arrival of their spouses (Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson) and both the tour and their partnership find themselves on the verge of implosion.

I have absolutely no idea how a film like ''Stan & Ollie'' might possibly play to viewers with little to no knowledge about the life and work of Laurel & Hardy but those with some working knowledge of the team will find much to appreciate here. While some of the story points may be a bit on the factually dubious side (although there were rumors of the duo possibly doing a Robin Hood-related project, it was several years before the events depicted here), director Jon S. Baird and screenwriter Jeff Pope have an undeniable affection for the duo and have crafted a narrative that imagines their off-stage relationship in interesting ways that do not stray tar afield from what we do know about them. The performances by Coogan and Reilly (the latter under plenty of makeup and padding) are both quite good as well--they expertly mimic the duo’s legendary crack comic timing while recreating some of their famous bits (a recreation of the dance scene from ''Way Out West'' (1938) during the prologue is especially impressive) and at the same time convincingly suggest the kind of up-and-down relationship they have had over the years. The film doesn't go for big melodramatic moments (even the big confrontation between the two is staged in such a way so that bystanders are half-convinced that it is just another bit) and pulls off its biggest emotional beats in the same way that the boys got their biggest laughs--by basing them more on character than on empty mechanics. ''Stan & Ollie'' is a modest film with modest charms and if it isn't quite the soup-to-nuts biopic that they deserve, it is still a pretty good film nevertheless and, perhaps more importantly, should hopefully inspire some people to look back upon their still-impressive oeuvre and discover what all the fuss was about for themselves.

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