Just in time for the holidays: A critical review of “Hold the Dark” (2018)

Well, we began the year with a round of Netflix reviews (sort of), so we might as well end it with one more. Besides, we just hit the longest night of the year and Christmas, and New Years is on the way. What better way to spend it than with wolves of the two and four-legged variety?

A woman in a very, very remote Alaskan town (Riley Keough) writes to naturalist Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright), requesting that he track down the wolf that killed her son. Despite being an author rather than a hunter, Core hops on a plane and heads up. Unsurprisingly, he starts uncovering some dark secrets from the get go. The woman’s husband (Alexander Skarsgard) is also in town, recently returned home from military duty in Afghanistan. When he learns of the fate of his son, he goes on a rampage, and Core is caught tracking a different kind of predator.

“Hold the Dark” is based on a novel, and it shows. The film is leisurely with its pace and with its various epiphanies. While it’s slow to get off the ground, once it does, it tends to move–a battle between rural police and a lone shooter with a chain gun stands out as a tense and intense sequence–but even then it’s with more of a sense of dream-like wonder and fascination than sense of urgency.

The narrative also skips around a little bit, as if the screenplay has been reformatted from chapters; it was adapted by Macon Blair, who has worked with director Jeremy Saulnier a number of times as an actor, although perhaps the film’s pace owes more to editor Julia Bloch, who has a very interesting resume.

Director Jeremy Saulnier has helmed a couple of thrillers I’ve meant to see and a couple of episodes of “True Detective” I have seen, so he gets a pass; the cinematography, by one Magnus Nordenhof Jonck, perfectly pairs the relentless mood with nature-documentary prettiness.

The actors are a little less successful with this approach. Wright, who has the most to do as a truly literate hero, gets stuck playing a grumpy grandpa for most of the film. Well, maybe he is a grumpy grandpa by now. He does do it well. But just about everyone else in the cast is left playing characters that feel oddly shallow–but perhaps they’re less shallow than they are symbolic, like bullet points on a list of required ingredients for an alchemical equation.

“Dark” is a little esoteric–convoluted might be the right word–but there’s always something going on onscreen, so viewers shouldn’t get bored trying to figure out what’s going on off screen. The photography is as majestic and temperate as an iceberg, and both the script and the shots are layered with enough cryptic symbols to make Carl Jung choke on a pretzel. It’s the kind of film that rewards re-watching, assuming you want to re-watch something so downbeat. Whatever holding the dark means to you, this film has it covered.

Ultimately, “Hold the Dark” is obscure, bleak and cold as a wolf’s teat. It’s a little long on time and short on diversity of mood, but its constant atmosphere manages to be ominous, oppressive and chillingly beautiful. If that’s not a metaphor for the holidays, I don’t know what is.

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Frozen in place: A critical review of “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” (2015)

It’s Christmastime, when most horror fans start turning to chilly films and wintry fair like “The Shining,” “The Thing” and “Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The One with Mickey Rooney.” Of course, not all of us are that classically oriented. Some of us must always stay behind. There are those of us who brave “The Blackcoat’s Daughter.”

A bunch of girls who all dress like pilgrims at a Catholic school in New England are supposed to be going home for a February break. However, Rose (Lucy Boynton) and Kat (Kiernan Shipka) find themselves slightly stranded. Kat suspects her parents have been killed in a car crash; Rose has lied to her parents about the vacation dates so she can figure out her suspected pregnancy. Neither is going home right away.

As the girls figure out their respective situations, Rose casually suggests that the skeleton crew of remaining school nuns are secretly devil worshipers. But when she starts to see some strange things in the boiler room downstairs, she actually starts to wonder what is going on when the school is supposed to be shut. Off campus, a young woman (Emma Roberts) has apparently escaped from a mental facility, and she’s making her way to Bramford, the same school town where Rose and Kat are stuck.

“Blackcoat” starts off strong. The cast is good. Roberts in particular does not disappoint, suggesting psychological depth with every furtive glance. She finds an appropriate foil in James Remar, playing a seemingly sweet man who offers to give her a ride into town. Whenever the two interact, the tension is clear.

The photography–the cinematographer was Julie Kirkwood–is intelligent and atmospheric. Lingering shots of table settings and snowy school grounds, as well as kitchen utensils and bloody walls, suggest the contrast between polite social manners and harsh reality. The subject of that photography–a basically abandoned school, isolated physically and psychically by winter weather–is likewise like crack to me. The problem is that there is never any kind of payoff.

The writer-director is Oz Perkins, the son of Anthony “I was in the best horror movie ever” Perkins, but then again, he also did “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House,” another slow burning atmospheric horror film, which I’ve seen once and remember little of. Perkins is obviously someone who obviously knows what a good horror film looks like. He knows the aforementioned “Shining,” as well as “Rosemary’s Baby.” The problem is, he seems to have trouble with what a good horror film is supposed to do.

Throughout my viewing of “Blackcoat,” I was always struggling to understand what was going on. I don’t think its because the film was unclear. I think it’s because I didn’t care. There was a distinct disconnect between me and the action onscreen. When it looked like it was thrilling, even when it was beautifully presented, I felt no connection to what I saw. As fascinating as the images were, I was not fascinated with them beyond the level of art school composition.

The movie looks good, but good looks can only take you so far in life. You need personality too, and that is where “Blackcoat” is really lacking. Even at the end, once its mechanics had been revealed, it didn’t feel like the film had gone anywhere because I, as a viewer, hadn’t been taken anywhere.

“Blackcoat” is a film about tension that rises and rises and then falls backwards rather than forwards. Perhaps it would have been better in a different medium. In a painting, its frozen atmosphere and slow burning psychological suggestion would have been something interesting to ponder over. As a movie, it simply refuses to move.

Is it in my head? Critical reviews of “Homecoming” and “Maniac” (2018)

Pioneering psychologist Carl Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to refer to two or more physical and psychic phenomena that coincide in a meaningful way. The meaning could be intimate or cosmic, and it is, perhaps, intriguingly related to observer paradox. Either way, it’s a fascinating concept, and it’s a fancy way of saying I just finished watching two TV shows the other day that seemed weirdly similar.

A little overly intellectual for an into, but I thought it was funny. It may even be appropriate.

There is some interesting overlap between Amazon’s “Homecoming” and Netflix’s “Maniac.” Both deal with that ever popular yet intangible realm of the mind. Both are at least wary of psychiatric drugs. Both ask what constitutes healing. Both are willing to question reality.

Neither is original–“Homecoming” is based on a podcast and “Maniac” on a Norwegian TV series–and both are 10 episodes long but only feature one director–respectively Sam Esmail and Cary Joji Fukunaga (both of whom, for what it’s worth, were born in 1977). To see differences, we have to dive into the shows a little deeper.

“Homecoming” tells two parallel stories. In one, Heidi Bergman is an enthusiastic caseworker at the Homecoming Transitional Support Center, a secretive government facility in Florida designed to with PTSD return to civilian life. In the other, Heidi Bergman is a bitter waitress at a restaurant, who is approached one day by an investigator from the Department of Defense following up a complaint about the Homecoming facility four years later.

As each story evolves, both the audience and Bergman learn piece by piece just what was going on at Homecoming, and how the past and the future are terribly related.

Like Esmail’s delightfully trippy “Mr. Robot,” “Homecoming” is a thriller with healthy doses of government cover up and corporate conspiracy. It’s also well paced, handsomely photographed and brilliantly played. Julia Roberts is rightly touted for her small screen debut, but Bobby Cannavale is also great as her slimy supervisor, Shea Whigam is perfectly cast as the thoughtful, dogged investigator and Stephan James instantly believable as an increasingly uncertain young vet.

The decision to photograph the 2018 sequences in one format and the 2022 in a different one is convenient for piecing the story together, but I’m not sure if it was supposed to be innovative. I suppose one could find it irritating; I found it largely irrelevant.

Despite that one avant-garde affectation, “Homecoming” is intriguingly old fashioned. The series has been called Hitchcockian, and that’s due to more than its theme of an ordinary person caught in extraordinary circumstances. The camera movement is worthy of the director, and the soundtrack is not someone ripping off the likes of Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone–it actually is Hermann, Morricone and more. The series takes all its musical cues from “Vertigo,” “The Thing” and a host of other classic thrillers.

Netflix’s “Maniac” tells about 37 parallel stories, give or take a tale. They mostly originate from the minds of neurotic Annie Landsberg and psychotic Owen Milgrim, who attempt to escape their personal problems by partaking in a medical trial for a drug that will allegedly make therapy obsolete. The trial involves a succession of pills and sessions with GRTA, an intelligent computer, resulting in hallucinatory dreams that are individualized for each patient to work through their issues.

The problem is–go figure–the experiment is falling apart behind the scenes, and the researchers in charge are scrambling to ensure the survival of their project, as well as their patients, while still pleasing their investors. Despite all that, or perhaps happening on a plane utterly removed from it, Annie and Owen keep crossing the barriers between their dreams and finding each other over and over again. Is it magical or mundane? And does it make any difference?

While “Homecoming” teases out its twists and turns, it is basically accessible. “Maniac” is not. The series operates on the level of metaphor as often–if not more often–than it does on the level of anything like reality. It moves from an alternate reality cyberpunk New York to the worlds of 1980s crime thrillers, 1930s old dark house movies and more, each setting dripping with psychoanalytical significance.

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone as the two leads have to pull off a variety of characters in each setting, and they do so amazingly well, Stone in particular. A mop wigged Justin Theroux and chain smoking Sonoya Mizuno are also standouts as the hot and cold controllers of the experiment, and Sally Field has fun as the literal and figurative mother of the project.

“Maniac’s” design, photography and set pieces are excellent, and its indie inspired score by Dan Romer is sometimes quite striking, but what really makes the series stand out is its wicked, madcap sense of humor. Between bathtubs full of intestines, bulletproof fur coats and open mouth kisses for mom, very little is sacred in this series.

So which to recommend? At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong with either show. Both are intelligent, attractive and artistically satisfying. The main difference, deeper even than a preference for conspiracies or metaphysics, is what you want from your streaming experience. If you want a well made and timely thriller, try “Homecoming.” If you’re interested in a cult classic in the making, watch “Maniac.”