Review: ‘The Vast of Night,’ starring Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer and Bruce Davis

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick in “The Vast of Night” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“The Vast of Night”

Directed by Andrew Patterson

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 1950s in fictional Cayuga, New Mexico, the sci-fi drama “The Vast of Night” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two young people unexpectedly find out about mysterious UFO occurrences that appear to involve massive government conspiracies and cover-ups.

Culture Audience: “The Vast of Night” will appeal mostly to people who like movies that explore issues about life in outer space and what the U.S. government knows about it.

Sierra McCormick in “The Vast of Night” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

People who don’t know anything about “The Vast of Night” before seeing this sci-fi drama will get some pretty obvious clues within the first 20 minutes of this slow-burn-to-intensity film that’s clearly been inspired by “The Twilight Zone.” Taking place in the 1950s, the movie is set entirely during one night in the fictional city of Cayuga, New Mexico, where some of the people have reported unidentified flying objects (UFOs) in the sky during a night with a full moon.

There have also been some strange interruptions in the electrical lighting in certain buildings. “The Vast of Night”—directed by Andrew Patterson and written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger—takes a while to get the action going, but the last third of the film is worth sticking around for, as the movie deliberately builds up to a suspenseful pace.

The city of Cayuga in this movie at first appears to be the type of tranquil, middle-class suburb where the majority of the city residents will turn up for a Cayuga High School basketball game as a major social event. That’s what is going on in the beginning of the film, as viewers are introduced to Everett Sloan (played by Jake Horowitz), a radio DJ who goes by the on-air name “The Maverick” when he works at the local station.

Everett, who appears to be in his late teens or early 20s, has in his possession a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder, which was a fancy new technology invention at the time. He’s making the rounds at the school’s gym during the pre-game practice to test out the recorder, which he plans to use to record the basketball game. Everett interviews people in the gym because he’s an aspiring investigative news journalist, but there’s also a sense that he wants to show off this recorder too.

Everett’s activity is briefly interrupted when he’s asked to help out some school administrators who have reported an electrical power problem in the room where the generators are stored. Apparently, the lights have been blinking off and on in certain parts of the school, and they don’t want any of these problems during the basketball game.

When Everett arrives, he finds out that there was an identity mix-up, and they wanted to send for a guy named Emmett (the school’s electrician), not Everett. The administrators mention that the electrical glitches are probably because of a small animal, such as a mouse or squirrel. As the movie continues, it seems like the only purpose of this scene is to establish that the town is having some unexplained electrical problems.

One of the people whom Everett encounters when he’s showing off his tape recorder is 16-year-old Fay Crocker (played by Sierra McCormick), who’s fascinated and a little intimidated by this new technology. Fay and Everett aren’t close friends, and he treats her like an older brother who doesn’t want his younger sister tagging along. But tag along she does, as Sierra and Everett make their way into the school’s parking lot, where several families are in their cars, waiting to be let in for the basketball game. Everett goes from car to car to further test his new tape recorder.

Although the dialogue in “The Vast of Night” is spoken with a rapid-fire pace (in the manner of that many American sci-fi/thriller films did back in the 1950s), the story unfolds in a leisurely manner in the beginning of the film. Not much happens in the first third of the movie, in order to create an atmosphere that this is supposed to be just a regular night in Cayuga, where the biggest thing going on is the basketball game.

Sierra and Everett aren’t staying at the basketball game because they have to work elsewhere. Everett is headed to the radio station, where he has a live broadcast for his music/talk show. Sierra is scheduled to work a shift alone as the city’s telephone switchboard operator.

Before they walk to their respective workplaces, Sierra and Everett have a lively discussion about some of the future technology that’s she’s read about in magazines like Modern Mechanics. She tells Everett that by the year 2000, there will be vacuum-tube transportation that can travel at incredible speed; phones that will look like tiny TVs; and lifelong telephone numbers as IDs that will be assigned to babies at birth, with the numbers disconnected upon death. Everett tells Sierra: “I believe the train tubes in the highways, but the tiny TV phones—that’s cuckoo.” (It’s the screenwriters’ obvious inside joke, since smartphones now exist.)

As soon as Sierra begins her switchboard operator shift, a few strange things start happening. She gets a call where all she hears is a repeated clicking-echo type of noise and nothing else. Then another call comes in, with a terrified woman saying that there appears to be a tornado coming toward her. A barking dog can be heard in the background, and then the caller is suddenly disconnected.

A concerned Sierra then calls a neighbor named Ethel to check on Sierra’s  pre-school-age sister Ethel and the babysitter Maddie, who are both home alone at Sierra’s house. Sierra has been listening to Everett’s radio show while she works. She hears the strange clicking sound at the beginning of the show’s news broadcast, so she calls Everett to ask him if heard this strange noise too.

Everett didn’t hear it, but Sierra hooks him up to the phone line where he can hear it, and he records the noise. They both decide that Everett should play the noise on the air and ask listeners to call in and say if they recognize what this mysterious sound is.

A retired military man who identifies himself by the name Billy (played by Bruce Davis, in a voice role only) then calls in, and begins to tell a story live on the air. This story takes Everett and Sierra down a path of trying to uncover a mystery. Everett also gets a call from an elderly shut-in named Mabel Blanche (played by Gail Cronauer), who also has some information that’s part of the mystery, as the movie accelerates to a breakneck speed with a heart-pounding conclusion.

“The Vast of Night” uses a visual device of framing the story as if it’s an episode of a fictional show called “Paradox Theater” (an obvious nod to “The Twilight Zone”), by having some scenes open with the action playing out on a  tiny, 1950s-style black-and-white TV.  The movie’s cinematography by Miguel Ioann Littin Menz is infused with a lot of sepia tones that were common in movies of the 1950s, when color technology in films was still fairly new. And “The Vast of Night” also takes an unconventional approach by having the screen go completely dark during some suspenseful moments (one “blackout” scene lasts for about five minutes), which might give the viewers the impression that something is wrong with the screen or the movie’s playback.

Avid sci-fi fans will also notice some Easter eggs in “The Vast of Night,” such as Cayuga is the name of “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling’s Cayuga Productions. And the radio station that Everett works at is WOTW, which is an acronym for “War of the Worlds,” even though radio and TV stations west of the Mississippi River are supposed to have call letters that start with the letter K.

The only real flaw of “The Vast of Night” (and it’s a fairly minor one) is that the movie never really feels like it takes place in New Mexico, because “The Vast of Night” was actually filmed in Texas with a cast of mostly Texans and Oklahomans who keep their heavy Southern accents in the film. It’s kind of distracting for the cast to have the wrong accents, but this discrepancy in regional accents doesn’t take away too much from this engaging story. “The Vast of Night” might not be completely original in its subject matter, and the acting is good (not great), but the way the story is told with some unique touches should please die-hard sci-fi fans.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “The Vast of Night” on May 29, 2020.

Review: ‘Vivarium,’ starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Eisenberg, Côme Thiry and Imogen Poots in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)

“Vivarium”

Directed by Lorcan Finnegan 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the sci-fi thriller “Vivarium” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An unmarried couple who live together go to a mysterious housing development to look for a new home and find out that they can’t leave.

Culture Audience: “Vivarium” will appeal mostly to people who like unsettling suspense stories with a sci-fi angle.

Senan Jennings in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)

“Vivarium” is a somewhat haunting sci-fi thriller that’s meant to give people the creeps and/or anxiety throughout the entire film. The movie—directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley—is actually a very simple story that gets drawn out over approximately 97 minutes. The middle of the film has a very sluggish pace, but there’s enough of the story to keep people interested to find out what happens in the end.

In the beginning of “Vivarium,” there are startling images of hungry baby birds in nests, demanding to be fed by their parents. It’s a metaphor for what happens later in the story, which takes place in present-day England. Gemma Pierce (played by Imogen Poots) is a teacher at a primary school (which is called elementary school in the United States) to children who look about 5 or 6 years old. After school lets out for the day, one of the girl students finds two baby birds stomped to death near a tree in the school front lawn.

It’s here that viewers first see Gemma’s live-in American boyfriend Tom (played by Jesse Eisenberg), who climbs down from a ladder placed near the tree where the birds were found. It’s not made clear what Tom does for a living, but since this is one of the movie’s few scenes that’s set in the “outside world,” one can assume he works as a handyman at the school.

Tom and Gemma are looking for a house and they have an appointment at a real-estate company that wants to show them a new housing development in the area. When they arrive at the office, Gemma and Tom are greeted by a very creepy real-estate agent named Martin (played by Jonathan Aris), who has the kind of unblinking, crazy-eyed look that would make most people feel very uncomfortable. There’s something “off” about his mannerisms too: His smile is too fake, his way of talking seems unnatural, and at one point in the conversation, he mimics what Gemma says, almost as if he’s mocking her.

Tom senses that something isn’t quite right about Martin, and so Tom is a little reluctant to go any further in the inquiry about the house. However, Gemma (in an effort to be polite) indicates that she still wants to see the property. Against his better judgment (and since they arrived in the same car), Tom agrees to go with Gemma to get a tour of the house. They follow Martin (who drives in a separate car) to see the house where they might live.

The housing development is named Yonder, which Martin describes as “both tranquil and practical.” And it’s definitely a Stepford-type environment. All of the development’s green two-story houses and yards are identical to each other. Somehow, Tom and Gemma don’t notice that there is no one outside on the streets of this large neighborhood. It’s a major red flag of what’s to come.

Unfortunately, probably because of this film’s low budget, all of the exterior shots of the housing development looks very CGI fake. Once the characters are in the mysterious Yonder environment, it’s very obvious where the “green screen” is whenever there are scenes that are supposed to take place outside.

During a brief tour of the house, which has the number 9 as its address, Martin  abruptly leaves Tom and Gemma at the house without a goodbye or any explanation. Gemma and Tom are ready to just write it off as a weird experience, so they get in their car to leave. But every time they try to find their way out of Yonder, they come right back to the house where they were. The bird’s eye view of the Yonder housing development also looks very CGI fake, like a video game.

This circling around the neighborhood goes on for quite a bit, as Tom argues with Gemma, demands to do the driving, and then he gets “lost” too. Gemma and Tom soon find out that they have no cell phone service. And as it starts to get dark, the car runs out of gas. In a major plot hole, Gemma and Tom don’t even try to see if anyone else is home who can help. Not that it would matter, since the movie’s entire plot is about them being stuck in this neighborhood with no one to help them get out.

Exhausted by their strange ordeal, they have no choice but to spend the night at the house. The contents of the house’s refrigerator has just one item: a gift basket with a bottle of champagne and fruit (strawberries), which Gemma and Tom consume since they have nothing else to eat and drink. Tom remarks that the strawberries have no taste.

The next day, Tom has the idea that he and Gemma should follow the direction of the sun to find their way out. They spend most of the day doing just that, climbing over neighbors’ fences and trekking through the streets. But to no avail. As it gets dark, the only house that they see with its lights on is the same No. 9 house that they were at in the beginning.

Then another strange thing happens: A box of food and other house essentials has mysteriously been delivered at the front of the house. (There’s no sign of who delivered the box.) Out of desperation, Tom (who’s a smoker) decides to use one of his cigarettes to light the house on fire, to see if anyone will notice the fire and call for help. Tom and Gemma watch nearby as the house burns to the ground, before they fall asleep.

When they wake up, Gemma and Tom are covered in ash. And the house has mysteriously appeared again, completely intact, as if the fire never happened. And then they get another box delivered to them. And what’s in the box sets in motion the rest of what happens to Tom and Gemma in the story.

The box has a baby boy in it, with a message: “Raise the child and be released.” Given that Gemma and Tom are stuck in this weird limbo environment, they basically don’t have a choice but to raise the child. (Côme Thiry plays the child as a baby.) The movie then fast forwards to 98 days later, and the baby has grown into what looks like a human boy who’s about 7 or 8 years old (played by Senan Jennings), thereby making it very clear to viewers that whoever Tom and Gemma are raising is definitely not human.

Tom is extremely resentful of the child, who has a tendency to randomly scream at the top of his lungs until he gets something. He always screams this way when he wants food, which is a nod to the bird scene that was shown in the beginning of the movie. One of the creepiest aspects of “Viviarium” is that the child (who doesn’t have a name) mimics what Tom and Gemma say in their own voices. The boy has a normal child’s voice, but more often than not, the voice that comes out when he speaks is a male or female adult voice.

Tom is quick to lose his temper and, at times, he deliberately abuses the child through physical assault and later by locking him in the car and refusing to give him food. Tom also refuses to call the child “he” and instead calls the child “it.” Gemma doesn’t like taking care of the child either, but she’s more patient than Tom is. In a scene that sums up their feelings about their forced parenting of this odd creature, Tom and Gemma both show the child their middle fingers in anger, and the child does the same. 

The middle section of the film somewhat drags down the pace of the story. There are repetitive scenes of the boy doing things that irritate Tom and Gemma. Although Tom wants to try and get rid of the boy in some way, Gemma can’t bring herself to do it, not matter how much she detests taking care of the boy.

At this point in the story, Tom has a distraction to keep him out of the house for long periods of time. He’s discovered, by flicking a cigarette on the front lawn, that the cigarette has burned a mysterious circle on the grass, which exposes the dirt on the ground. Tom begins digging the dirt and hears menacing sounds underneath. Digging as far as he can into the ground then becomes Tom’s obsession and takes up a great deal of his (and this movie’s) time. In one scene, Gemma speculates that the hole that Tom is digging will lead to hell. Tom replies, “No, we’re already there.”

Meanwhile, the boy who lives with them has been fixating on watching something bizarre on the house’s TV: black-and-white color patterns that look like psychedelic cell mutations. And in the house, Gemma finds a book that has strange coding and illustrations which are clues to what is possibly going on and what kind of being that she and Tom are raising.

“Vivarium” is by no means on the level of a Christopher Nolan sci-fi movie. A Nolan film has layers and layers of deep meaning that viewers will contemplate long after the movie is over. The ending of “Vivarium” actually explains exactly why all of this is happening to Tom and Gemma. The explanation is kind of basic and actually not all that surprising.

And because so much of “Vivarium” is repetitive (Tom and Gemma’s stir-crazy angst is pretty much 90% of the movie), the movie probably would’ve been better as a short film. However, if you’re looking for a movie to pass the time and give you some suspenseful chills, “Vivarium” should do the trick. Just don’t expect anything close to a masterpiece.

Lionsgate and Saban Films released “Vivarium” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020. The film’s Blu-ray and DVD release is on May 12, 2020.

Review: ‘Bloodshot’ (2020), starring Vin Diesel

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Vin Diesel in “Bloodshot” (Photo by Graham Bartholomew)

“Bloodshot” (2020)

Directed by David S. F. Wilson

Culture Representation: Taking place in various cities around the world, the sci-fi/action flick “Bloodshot” has a racially diverse cast (white, black, Asian and Latino) and a story that revolves around a U.S. military soldier who’s brought back from the dead, as well as the current and former members of a secret high-tech organization that’s experimenting on him to make him into an easily manipulated killing machine.

Culture Clash: Certain characters in the story have ethical dilemmas about using technology to train assassins.

Culture Audience: “Bloodshot” will appeal primarily to fans of star Vin Diesel and the comic-book series on which the movie is based, but the movie’s formulaic tropes will have little interest to people who aren’t die-hard fans of action movies.

Guy Pearce and Vin Diesel in “Bloodshot” (Photo by Graham Bartholomew)

Vin Diesel is best known for starring in the wildly successful car-racing “Fast and Furious” franchise since 2001, when the first “The Fast and the Furious” movie made him famous. Ever since then, he’s starred in multiple action movies that were clearly made with the hopes that they too would become blockbuster franchises with a series of several movies, but none outside of “The Fast and the Furious” and “XXX” (pronounced “triple X”) has panned out to be that way.

The sci-fi/action flick “Bloodshot” (based on the Valiant Comics series) is another attempt by Diesel (who’s one of the movie’s producers) to try and create a movie-franchise vehicle for himself, and this attempt will also fail. Although “Bloodshot” is a passably enjoyable film, the movie doesn’t have the charisma to make it the type of film where audiences will demand any sequels. This personality deficit in the movie has largely do with the fact that Diesel is a very robotic actor, which is no surprise to anyone who’s seen most of his films.

“Bloodshot” begins with a montage of Diesel’s Ray Garrison character on active duty as a U.S. Marines soldier. He saves a man from a hostage situation and ends up at Ariano Air Force Base in Italy, where he gets praise for his rescue mission. All of this globetrotting away from home has put a strain on his marriage to his British wife Gina (played by Talulah Riley), who’s an action-flick cliché of being the hero’s modelesque love interest who (of course) gets half-naked in the movie. Gina comments to Ray about his soldier duties, “At some point, your body can’t do this forever,” in what is supposed to pass as deep, meaningful insight in her dialogue.

Sure enough, Ray does get killed. But how he gets killed might or might not have happened in the way people might think it happened, since the movie plays tricks on characters’ minds about what’s real and what isn’t. What does happen on screen is that Ray is ambushed and kidnapped by two men in his bathroom. The next thing Ray knows, he’s tied to a chair in a slaughterhouse, where he undergoes a brutal interrogation about information that he swears that he doesn’t know.

Ray’s tormenter/interrogator in this kidnapping is Martin Axe (played by Toby Kebbell), who’s clearly unhinged because he starts dancing to the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” before showing that Gina has been kidnapped and tied up too. And then Gina gets murdered in front of Ray.

As viewers soon see, the entire tragic scene was an elaborate virtual-reality manipulation that later will be used on Ray, who is dead in real life and being experimented on by a secret American high-tech organization called Rising Spirit Technologies (RST), led by the overly ambitious mad scientist Dr. Emil Harting (played by Guy Pearce). Harting wants to perfect a technology that can resurrect soldiers from the dead and train them to be assassins with superpowers. He plans to sell this technology to the highest bidder, and he expects to make billions. (This isn’t a spoiler, since this concept of reanimating Ray from the dead is in the movie’s trailer and it’s the origin story in the “Bloodshot” comics.)

Ray finds out that he’s been brought back from the dead when Harting shows Ray how he’s undergone a blood transfusion that has replaced his blood with a plasma-like liquid filled with molecular creatures that can quickly rebuild his body in any way after getting injuries or wounds, thereby making Ray virtually indestructible. (The visual effects for “Bloodshot” are actually quite good, but they won’t be winning any awards.)

Ray is the first person that RST has been able to bring back to life, according to what Harting says. Harting also says that no family members claimed Ray after Ray’s death, so that’s why Ray’s body ended up at RST. Ray’s memory has been erased, so he has no way to know if Harting is telling him the truth, and he’s trapped in the facility anyway. In order to ease Ray’s fears, Harting puts a positive spin on the situation by telling Ray that Ray now has a second chance at life. What he doesn’t tell Ray is that Ray is being used by RST to see if Ray can be turned into an easily programmable killing machine.

At RST, Ray meets three people who are also part of RST’s experiments: Katie, nicknamed KT (played by Eiza González), is someone whose respiratory system has been restored into something high-tech that can be controlled by Harting. Jimmy Dalton (played by Sam Heughan) is Harting’s most loyal foot soldier (literally), since his legs have been replaced by super-speedy mechanical limbs. Jimmy has other high-tech abilities that are revealed later in the story. Tibbs (played by Alex Hernandez), the quietest of the three, has ocular prosthetics that give him a superhuman ability to see.

What viewers see but what Ray doesn’t is that RST can create virtual worlds in Ray’s mind and erase his memories to start over and implant other ideas in his mind whenever they want. And what Harting wants to do in this phase of the experiment is to see if he can get Ray to complete a series of assassinations around the world, by tricking Ray into thinking that each of the men he assassinates is the same man who murdered Gina in front of Ray.

In order to do that, RST has to erase Ray’s memories every time he completes an assassination and start over by replacing Gina’s murder re-enactment with a different image of each man as the murderer, who will then be the target of Ray’s revenge assassination. And who are these men that Ray is supposed to kill? And why does Harting want them killed? Those details are revealed in the movie.

Meanwhile, KT gets a little closer to Ray, and there are hints that she’s attracted to him and wants a better life than the one she’s trapped in at RST. There’s also a fast-talking coding whiz named Wilfred Wigans (played by Lamorne Morris), a Brit who’s the comic relief in the movie. Wigans has a self-deprecating sense of humor that shows he’s aware that he’s a nerd who gets disrespected, but he’s determined to have the last laugh. Wigans is the only character in the movie who seems to have a personality that goes beyond two dimensions.

Most people who want to see “Bloodshot” will be interested in the action sequences. And some of these scenes are thrilling, particularly the movie’s best action scene, which takes place on a skyscraper. But the assassination scenes are very formulaic, especially since there are video games that have upped the ante and people’s expectations for this type of action.

In this age of Marvel Studios’ domination of superhero flicks, movie audiences are now expecting a lot more from superhero movies than what “Bloodshot” delivers, because the movie version of “Bloodshot” is a story that’s on the same quality level as a video game. “Bloodshot” director David S. F. Wilson (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Eric Heisserer) should have kept in mind while making this film that today’s movie audiences want genuine and relatable character development in superhero movies, not just impressive visual effects. Wilson, who makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Bloodshot,” has a visual-effects background in mostly video games, including several “Star Wars” video game titles.

As the ruthless and greedy Dr. Harting, Pearce does a reasonably good job with his character, but he’s already played a memorable mad scientist in a superhero movie before—Aldrich Killian in 2013’s “Iron Man 3.” Since “Iron Man 3” was a much better movie than “Bloodshot,” the latter movie seems like an inferior retread for Pearce, and the Harting character doesn’t have the wounded emotional depth that Killian had.

And in the role of KT, González does a serviceable performance that, quite frankly, could have been played by any number of actresses. Huegan’s soulless Jimmy Dalton character is strictly a one-dimensional role where he has single-minded loyalty to RST and some jealousy toward Ray, who’s being groomed as RST’s alpha male experiment. And as the quiet Tibbs, Hernandez doesn’t have much to do with this character, who’s basically there to just follow Jimmy’s lead.

In order for a superhero movie to go from a one-picture deal to a series franchise, audiences have to want to come back for more because of the personalities of the main characters. In that respect, “Bloodshot” falls woefully short, because as the center of the story and as the titular superhero, Diesel’s acting is almost as artificially lifeless as Ray Garrison/Bloodshot.

Columbia Pictures released “Bloodshot” in U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020. 

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has moved up the digital and VOD release of “Bloodshot” to March 24, 2020.

Review: ‘Horse Girl,’ starring Alison Brie

February 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Alison Brie in "Horse Girl"
Alison Brie in “Horse Girl” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Horse Girl”

Directed by Jeff Baena

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi drama “Horse Girl” (which has almost nothing to do with horses) has a predominantly white cast of characters representing the middle class.

Culture Clash: When a seemingly normal woman tells people about why strange things are happening to her, they think she’s crazy. 

Culture Audience: “Horse Girl” will appeal primarily who audiences who prefer arthouse sci-fi films, but this movie can’t quite rise above its mediocrity and ultimately disappointing conclusion.

John Reynolds and Alison Brie in “Horse Girl” (Photo by Katrina Marcinowski)

Don’t be fooled by the title of the movie drama “Horse Girl,” because this isn’t a “National Velvet” type of story about a girl and her “best friend” horse who overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to win a race. Nor is this a non-sports horse movie about someone with a special talent to communicate with horses, such as “The Horse Whisperer.” In fact, after seeing “Horse Girl,” you might wonder what the word “horse” was doing in the title in the first place. There’s a horse in this movie, but it’s not central to the plot, and the horse is in this 104-minute film for no more than 15 minutes.

So, what is “Horse Girl” about anyway? It’s about a shy, neurotic woman named Sarah (played by Alison Brie, who co-wrote the “Horse Girl” screenplay with director Jeff Baena) who believes she’s discovered something horrible about her life, but everyone around her thinks she’s crazy. When viewers first see Sarah, she’s living a routine and boring life that consists of her working as a sales associate at a local arts-and-crafts store and then coming home at night to watch TV. Her favorite show is a paranormal drama series called “Purgatory,” which features detectives investigating strange crimes that might or might not have to do with vampires and the occult.

She also spends time at a ranch where the people there don’t look too happy to see her. There’s a horse at the ranch named Willow that Sarah is overly attached to, for reasons that are explained later in the story. From the way that Sarah acts around the horse and the teenage girl who gets to ride Willow, it would be easy to assume Sarah is either the owner of the horse or a horse trainer. But things aren’t always what they seem to be with Sarah.

In the film’s opening scene—which almost looks like a parody of the  prissy characters that the Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar”—Sarah and her co-worker Joan (played by Molly Shannon) commiserate over finding out what their heritage is through DNA test kits. Joan raves about getting her DNA test results, as if it’s the most exciting thing to happen to her all year. She urges Sarah to do a DNA test too, and Sarah says that she’ll think about it. Later in the movie, Joan surprises Sarah by giving her a DNA test kit for Sarah’s birthday, and Sarah does the test.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s home life is fairly lonely, even though she has a roommate. Sarah’s pretty and confident roommate Nikki (played by Debby Ryan) is the kind of woman who gives off the aura of someone who was probably a queen-bee cheerleader in high school. Nikki and her boyfriend Brian (played by Jake Picking) spend a lot of time at each other’s place. When they’re over at Nikki and Sarah’s apartment, they rarely spend time with Sarah.

You can tell that Nikki feels sorry for Sarah when Nikki suggests that Brian’s roommate Darren Colt (played by John Reynolds) come over sometime so they could double date. Sarah is reluctant and doesn’t show further enthusiasm about the “double date” idea, until Darren actually comes over with Nikki and Brian. Sarah and Darren feel an instant attraction to each other. And the fact that Darren is the name of the male lead chatacter in “Purgatory” makes it even better for Sarah, who blurts out this information to Darren.

It’s the first clue that something is really “off” with Sarah, but Darren brushes it off and thinks that Sarah is just nervous and awkward. During this house-party get-together, all four loosen up with alcohol, while the guys smoke some marijuana too. Everyone gets very intoxicated, which leads to Darren and Sarah dancing with no inhibitions with each other. After Darren leaves, Sarah vomits in the toilet.

The next day, Darren shows up at the apartment unexpectedly because he forgot to ask Sarah for her phone number. She gives him her number, and they start dating. Sarah gets an occasional nosebleed, but she doesn’t think much about it.

Meanwhile, Sarah goes to a home of a young female friend around her age to visit with her. The woman has difficulty walking, and her speaking skills also sound physically challenged. Who is this mysterious friend?

In a flashback, we see that she used to be a horse-riding pal of Sarah’s until a horrible accident left her impaired. Sarah was riding Willow at the time of the accident. Although it’s never shown or fully explained in the movie, that traumatic incident had something to do with why Sarah no longer owns Willow, but she keeps showing up at the ranch of Willow’s new owners, who can barely tolerate Sarah, since she acts like she’s still responsible for taking care of Willow.

What does that horse have to do with some of the twists and turns in the rest of the story? It’s enough to say that Sarah’s nosebleeds and her habit of sleepwalking have more to do with the story than the horse. Sarah’s sleepwalking starts to become very unsettling when things start happening, such as her stepfather’s car, which he’s let her borrow, ends up being towed because it was found in the middle of a street with a door open and the keys still in the ignition. (Paul Reiser plays Sarah’s stepfather Gary in what is essentially a cameo role.)

Sarah has no memory of driving the car there, and before she found out where the car was, she reported the car stolen. Viewers find out that Sarah’s mother had a history of depression and committed suicide years earlier. Sarah’s maternal grandmother (who looks just like Sarah in photos that are shown) also had a history of mental illness. Did Sarah inherit any of their mental problems? She seems terrified of that possibility.

One thing’s for sure: Sarah has a recurring dream that she’s lying face up in a completely white, clinical-looking room. She’s in the middle of two other people, who are also lying face up, but they appear to be asleep. One is a middle-aged man and the other is a woman who’s around Sarah’s age. Before anything happens next in the dream, Sarah wakes up.

One day, Sarah is shocked to see the man from her dream show up randomly in real life, when she sees him from a distance while she’s at her job. She follows him outside, and sees from the van that he’s driving that he works for a company called Santiguez Plumbing. She goes to his place of work and finds out that his name is Ron (played by John Ortiz), but he doesn’t know who Sarah is when Sarah asks if they’ve ever met before.  He also says he has no memory of having a dream similar to hers.

More strange things keep happening to Sarah. There are long, horizontal scrape marks on her apartment wall that have appeared with no explanation. Sarah also wakes up with mysterious bruises on her body. By this point in the movie, Sarah has gone from a passive, soft-spoken person to almost manic and hysterical when she starts to put together a theory of what’s happening to her. It’s a theory that won’t be revealed in this review (even though it’s revealed in the movie’s trailer), but it takes the story in a direction that’s completely different from how the movie began.

It’s enough to say that Sarah has a very public meltdown, and she ends up getting psychiatric help. She’s assigned to a counselor named Ethan (played by Jay Duplass) who remains sympathetic but highly skeptical, as Sarah explains to him what she thinks is happening to her. (Hint: It involves a conspiracy.) The problem with “Horse Girl” is that even with the sci-fi elements that come into play with this story, where people have to suspend a certain amount of disbelief, there are so many plot holes for Sarah’s conspiracy theory that even if the theory were true, it would be almost impossible for Sarah not to find out about certain actions a lot sooner than she does.

“Horse Girl” director Baena and Brie previously worked together when she co-starred in the 2017 offbeat comedy “The Little Hours,” which was about horny Catholic nuns who act on their lusty desires. That movie gave viewers the anticipation of wondering what’s going to happen next. “Horse Girl” doesn’t have quite the same ability to keep viewers compelled, because of its nonsensical storyline. The first half of “Horse Girl starts off fairly intriguing, but the last half is a lot like a slogging through mud.

Horse fans, you’ve been given fair warning. This movie is definitely not about horses. If you want to watch a conspiracy-theory movie with sci-fi gimmicks that have been done much better in other films, then feel free to waste about 104 minutes of your time to watch “Horse Girl.”

Netflix premiered “Horse Girl” on February 7, 2020.

 

 

Review: ‘Underwater,’ starring Kristen Stewart

January 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart in “Underwater”
Kristen Stewart in “Underwater” (Photo by Alan Markfield)

“Underwater”

Directed by William Eubank

Culture Representation: The movie’s characters are a predominately white, educated crew of underwater explorers (with one African American and one Asian) who are tasked with drilling for resources in the deep ocean when they come under attack and fight for their lives.

Culture Clash: Telling a story with an implied environmental message, “Underwater” shows what happens when deep-ocean creatures fight back against humans who plunder their territory.

Culture Audience: “Underwater” will primarily appeal to those looking for a suspenseful sci-fi/horror movie that won’t be considered a classic but will provide about 90 minutes of escapist entertainment.

Kristen Stewart in “Underwater” (Photo by Alan Markfield)

Kristen Stewart: action hero? Taking massive cues from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in “Alien,” Stewart goes from brainy, introspective crew member to kick-ass warrior, as she takes on deep-sea monsters in the sci-fi/horror film “Underwater.” After starring in the 2019 comedy reboot fiasco of Columbia Pictures’ “Charlie’s Angels,” Stewart (who’s been making mostly arty indie films for the past several years) has taken another step into major-studio action fare—but in 20th Century Fox’s “Underwater,” she’s going for scares instead of laughs.

During the opening credits of “Underwater,” there are flashes of media headlines and news reports about unconfirmed sightings of mysterious creatures in the deep ocean. According to the headlines, a major corporation named Kepler has been mining the deep oceans for resources, and hasn’t been giving full explanations for why employees have apparently disappeared from the underwater drilling sites. These elaborate, high-tech facilities (which are seven miles below the ocean surface) look like a cross between a factory, a spaceship and an underground bunker. They’re so high-tech that the Kepler workers living in these facilities for weeks or months at a time don’t need to wear oxygen masks or submarine suits when they’re in the building.

Within the first five minutes of the film, we’re barely introduced to Stewart’s mechanical/electrical engineer character Norah Price (who looks pensive as she brushes her teeth, muses about her isolation in a voiceover, and thinks about her broken love affair with her former fiancé) when the facility is hit with a massive explosion that kills many people in the crew and destroys the emergency equipment. Six of the surviving crew members, including Norah, find each other and agree to a desperate plan to walk across the ocean floor to an abandoned facility named Roebuck, in the hopes that Roebuck’s emergency equipment still works so they can escape or call for help.

The other five crew members are crew captain Lucien (played by Vincent Cassel), a take-charge Frenchman who has a 14-year-old daughter waiting for him at home; marine biology student Emily (played by Jessica Henwick), an inquisitive type who scares easily; operations expert Smith (played by John Gallagher Jr.), who’s in a romantic relationship with Emily; systems manager Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), a solid guy who has a dorky side; and wisecracking Paul (played by T.J. Miller, who can’t seem to break out of his typecast as a supporting character who’s socially awkward and talks too much). They soon find out what caused the explosion (Hint: It wasn’t faulty equipment.)

Because the frantic action begins so early in the film, the “Underwater” screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad doesn’t leave much room for character development. The actors do the best that they can with the generic characters and mostly forgettable dialogue that were written for them. The movie’s biggest asset, under the choppy direction of William Eubank, is the way it ramps up suspense, even if there are glaring plot holes the size of the ocean where these crew members are trapped. The visual effects for the sea monsters also achieve their intended impact, but the creatures’ very existence in the ocean (much like Godzilla) requires a huge suspension of disbelief. And cinematographer Bojan Bazelli serves up some compelling shots that might give some people the feelings of dizziness or claustrophobia if the movie is watched on a big screen.

However, the “Underwater” filmmakers don’t want viewers of this movie to think too hard, because then you’ll start to ask questions that unravel the plot, such as: “How could creatures of this size and quantity escape detection for so long?” Even if one company tried to cover up the existence of these monsters, their impact on the environment would be noticed already by too many marine biologists and people who work directly in the ocean. Monsters in outer space make more sense if they’re supposed to be undetected by humans on Earth. And at least in the world of Godzilla, millions of people in that world know that Godzilla is a creature that lives in the ocean. In “Underwater,” these monsters are a total surprise to the unlucky crew members who encounter them.

Just like a lot of movies whose plot is driven by suspense, “Underwater” also has a “race against time” element because (of course) the survivors are running out of oxygen. But this plot device is conveniently ignored when these so-called trained underwater professionals waste a lot of oxygen by talking too much. Paul, the annoying motormouth, is the chief culprit. In order to enjoy this movie, you can’t pay attention to the screenplay’s inconsistencies in how their underwater suits are supposed to work.

And since this is a horror movie, not everyone is going to get out alive. But there will be moments of further disbelief when certain characters go through things that would kill someone in real life, and then they survive, and you’re left wondering, “How are they still alive…and with their hair still neatly in place?” And—this is no joke—you can see freshly applied beauty makeup on one of the actresses’ faces after her character has supposedly gone through underwater hell. There must be some industrial-quality waterproof lipstick they have in that underwater bunker. There’s also a small stuffed animal that gets carried around as a good luck charm that somehow doesn’t get lost or destroyed during all the mayhem. “Underwater” is not a movie made for people who pay attention to these kinds of details.

“Underwater” is certainly not the worst horror film of 2020, and the movie’s ending should be commended for not being a total cliché. However, if you want a horror flick with memorable characters and a solid plot, then you’ll have to look elsewhere.

20th Century Fox released “Underwater” in U.S. cinemas on January 10, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘See You Yesterday’

May 5, 2019

by Carla Hay

Eden Duncan-Smith and Danté Crichlow in “See You Yesterday” (Photo by Linda Kallerus/Netflix)

“See You Yesterday”

Directed by Stefon Bristol

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on May 3, 2019.

“Back to the Future” meets “Black Lives Matter” could be a superficial way to describe “See You Yesterday,” a time-traveling drama about a teenage girl who goes back in time to prevent the police-shooting death of her older brother. But “See You Yesterday” is not a “Back to the Future” ripoff—it’s a compelling social commentary seen through the eyes of intelligent African American teenagers who are the central characters in the movie.

“See You Yesterday,” the first feature film from Spike Lee protégé Stefon Bristol, is a longer version of Bristol’s short film of the same name, and the movie has the same two lead actors from the short film. Eden Duncan-Smith is Claudette “CJ” Walker and Danté Crichlow is Sebastian Thomas, CJ’s best friend—two high-school students who live in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush neighborhood in New York City. Both teens are aspiring scientists who have been working on a time-traveling machine that can be worn in a backpack. CJ is the type of student who likes to read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” in class, and she’s essentially the brains behind the time machine.

As with most scientific experiments, things are done with trial and error. The movie begins with CJ and Sebastian’s botched attempts to get the time-traveling invention to work. It’s only a matter of time before they broach the subject of time traveling with their science teacher Mr. Lockhart (played by “Back to the Future” star Michael J. Fox, in a brilliantly cast cameo), who tells them that if time travel were possible, it would be one of the greatest ethical conundrums that people would face, before declaring, “Time travel. Great Scott!” Fans of “Back to the Future” will get this inside joke. (In a Q&A after one of the Tribeca Film Festival screenings of “See You Yesterday,” Bristol said that Fox agreed to be in the movie after Bristol wrote him a letter, and Fox hadn’t even seen the script yet. Before filming was set to begin, Fox broke his hand, but they were able to reschedule filming for Fox several weeks later after he recovered from his injury.)

On their fourth attempt at time travel, CJ and Sebastian succeed on June 29, 2019, and go back in time and then back to the present day. The date that they begin to time travel is significant because of what will happen less than a month later. For now, the two budding scientists decide to keep their time-traveling secret to themselves.

Being a science nerd in tough East Flatbush isn’t easy. CJ and Sebastian constantly have to dodge the crime and street fights that plague their neighborhood. Her 19-year-old older brother Calvin (played by Brian Bradley, also known as Astro or Stro) is a bit of a rebel, but he’s very protective of CJ.  She is also dealing with moving on from ex-boyfriend Jared (played by Rayshawn Richardson), a bully who flaunts his new girlfriend in front of CJ. It’s clear that when Jared and CJ were together, he did not treat her well, and their relationship ended badly. But Jared keeps doing things to irritate CJ, so it isn’t long before big brother Calvin gets involved. When police arrive, an unarmed Calvin reaches for his cell phone, and gets shot to death by a cop. The date is July 14, 2019.

After going through this devastating loss, CJ comes up with the idea to go back in time to prevent Calvin from dying. Sebastian is extremely reluctant at first, but he goes along with the plan when he sees that there’s no talking CJ out of it. What happens next in the movie can’t be described without giving away spoilers, but it’s enough to say that “See You Yesterday”—like other stories about time travel—does treat the issue of changing the past in order to alter the future as a serious ethical dilemma that can have unexpected consequences. The movie also has a message that unnecessary police brutality is not going away anytime soon.

Bristol, who co-wrote the screenplay with Frederica Bailey, authentically captures modern-day Brooklyn, with the young characters talking like how real teenagers would talk, including a fair amount of cursing. If you watch “See You Yesterday” closely, there’s also a scene in the movie that’s a nod to Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” It’s refreshing that the inventor of the time machine in this story is a teenager, because an adult would be more likely to seek fame, riches and/or glory from such an invention, whereas a teenager would be more likely to keep it a secret from adults. Above all, “See You Yesterday” shows people, no matter what their age, that life is not about changing the past but how we move forward.

Netflix will premiere “See You Yesterday” on May 17, 2019.