This week’s biggest release may be Zack Snyder’s Netflix zombie flick, but last week did feature a couple of other notable streaming releases, and this week has a few more. This set of write-ups includes an action-thriller 90s throwback, a convoluted suspense story, a ghostly slasher picture, an Australian murder mystery, a slasher film with modern motivations, and a horror-tinged update of a supernatural wish-granter. The following features reviews for Those Who Wish Me Dead, The Woman in the Window, Séance, The Dry, The Retreat, and The Djinn.
The Setup: A smokejumper (Angelina Jolie) and a traumatized boy (Finn Little) fight for their lives as two relentless assassins (Aiden Gillen and Nicholas Hoult) pursue them through a raging fire in the Montana wilderness.
Review: Doing less doesn’t always mean doing better, but Those Who Wish Me Dead essentially works as a survival thriller throwback to adult 90s action films that wear their R-rating proudly, without pushing into excess. Taylor Sheridan, who found plenty of acclaim thanks to his scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water, once again finds himself in the director’s chair, following Wind River, bringing little beyond machismo as high stakes. Given the premise and tone, that seems like enough.
While Jolie receives top-billing as is in fine form as Hannah Faber, a tough but psychologically wounded smokejumper, this is really more of an ensemble film. Or maybe it just feels that way, as Jon Bernthal and Medina Senghore have a significant amount of screentime fending off the would-be assassins as well, and their characters are just as interesting as the main players. Regardless, we spend a lot of time with various characters stuck in a forest full of deadly possibilities.
For the most part, Sherdian has nothing to really add to the genre. However, he delivers a level of brutal efficiency that is only somewhat balanced by the near comedic ineptitude of the assassins who are both lacking in any morals, as well as the two most unlucky heavies to have found themselves in a forest, up against seemingly minor threats. Not that the film needs to wink, but there’s a level of self-seriousness that ultimately holds Those Who Wish Me Dead back from being a more remarkable accomplishment. With that in mind, it’s worth fanning the flames of praise a bit, as this solid cast does what’s need to deliver an entertaining enough thriller.
Where To Watch: Now available in theaters and streaming on HBO Max.
The Setup: An agoraphobic woman (Amy Adams) living alone in her New York City brownstone begins spying on her new neighbors, only to witness a disturbing act of violence.
Review: What happened here? Even if the source material (a best-selling airport novel by A.J. Finn) received poor reviews, surely the likes of Adams, director Joe Wright, acclaimed writer Tracy Letts, and co-stars Gary Oldman, Anthony Mackie, Wyatt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, and Julianne Moore could deliver something worthwhile? Going a step further, even if the story is compromised in its DNA, surely this crew could band together to make entertaining trash… Sadly, that was not the case, as The Woman in the Window makes a solid argument for being a low point for all involved.
Chasing after a Hitchcockian feel in its brightest of dreams, the effort here feels on the level of a direct-to-video/Netflix effort fit for a Baldwin not named Alec. It’s not without qualities that could have amounted to more. Wright, a director whose efforts I look forward to, mainly because of his visual ingenuity, at least found a nice brownstone to film in (or recreate). It’s just a shame nothing is exciting about the location presented on screen. Not helping is the mismanaged story with characters making one terrible decision after another, with the film doing everything it can to feel like it’s keeping the audience guessing. Instead, the film may as well be called Gaslight: The Movie as far as the way dialogue stacks up as a means to discredit characters at all times.
The cast is no help. Adams is one of the best performers currently working, and yet she’s given all the wrong directions as far as locking into this character. Excuses are made (her character drinks and pops pills), but it’s all played so big and broad. Speaking of which, Wright called in a favor from a sleepwalking Oldman, who won an Oscar for their previous collaboration. The rest of the cast are operating at various forms of “the check cleared.” Really, studio obligation or not, this total misfire of a film is only intriguing in the sense that another cut of this film existed before reshoots took place. Allegedly the film was too confusing at press screenings. I’m just confused as to how this entry in cinema exists.
Where To Watch: Now available on Netflix.
The Setup: Camille Meadows (Suki Waterhouse) is the new girl at the prestigious Edelvine Academy for Girls. She was admitted following the death of a student, who may have died due to a late-night ritual calling forth a spirit with unfinished business.
Review: Separated from his frequent partner, director Adam Wingard, writer/director Simon Barrett goes it on his own for this semi-snarky horror film that toes the line between being a supernatural thriller and a fairly standard slasher flick. It doesn’t really match up to ways he subverted expectations with You’re Next and The Guest; however, Séance at least seems to be aware of how small scale it is. It’s just a shame the cast is only able to muster up so much charisma.
I can see a better film getting more out of the lead character. As it stands, Waterhouse is attempting to bring a half-detached sensibility to imbue her lead role with an off-kilter personality called for by the intended tone of the film, only to instead come off as too passive until the plot dictates a need to push forward. The rest of the cast fails to create any standout elements, with a little simple deduction allowing any horror aficionado to figure out what’s going on.
Of course, the journey can still be enjoyable, and I did get a kick out of the film’s attempt to play into being a couple kinds of horror films (and even dabbles with Giallo). The setting is also appropriately moody, with some kill sequences that do enough. Still, Séance isn’t much of a film to pack on the excess. Even with the opportunity to go further with embracing certain kinds of content, it feels like it’s too protective of going to certain extremes in favor of building up to one key moment. For a film like this, it is better not to hold off too much, but it almost gets there as a lean effort.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters, on digital, and On Demand May 21, 2021.
The Setup: Federal Agent Aaron Falk (Eric Bana) returns to his drought-stricken Australian hometown to attend a tragic funeral. However, his return opens a decades-old wound – the unsolved death of a teenage girl the town believes him to have been involved with.
Review: Now this is a solid detective story. Rather than complicating the plot with too many lingering threads, The Dry takes a very character-centric approach to the proceedings, offering Bana another chance to show off what a reliable actor he has continued to be. Quietly thrilling, confident in its presentation, and providing just enough depth for each of the main players involved, writer/director Robert Connolly has done well by Jane Harper’s novel.
Not to harp too much on a location foreign enough for me, but given all of the generic American thrillers I see (many of which are filmed in Vancouver or Eastern Europe), it is also refreshing to see Connolly use the Australian planes to his advantage. Combining the story of a small town with secrets with a dusty, remote setting shot in widescreen allows for a compelling feature that may not do much more than present a straightforward mystery but does bring in some emotional complexity.
The cast is a big help. Bana shines in the ways he can transfer his introspective energy to the camera. Keir O’Donnell shines in a supporting role as a younger police officer that quickly comes to admire Bana’s Falk. The rest of the cast is a mix of character actors and figures that feel just right for the film’s setting. And then there are all the flashbacks to Falk as a younger man (complete with a great casting choice in Joe Klocek as a young Bana). Delivering these dual narratives allows the film a steady throughline to keep us involved. Plus, the conclusion hits the right notes to provide satisfying answers, making for a good movie all around.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters, on digital, and On Demand May 21, 2021.
The Setup: Renee (Tommie-Amber Pirie) and Valerie (Sarah Allen), a couple at a crossroads in their relationship, leave the city to spend the week at a remote cabin with friends for a pre-wedding retreat, only to end up fighting for their lives when a group of militant hunters tries to murder them.
Review: The Retreat is a mixed bag of a film mainly because of how empty that bag ends up being. It is competently made, with two solid lead performances and villains who are certainly heinous. However, the film doesn’t amount to much more than what can be seen on the poster. The film certainly has an eye on pushing a clear and positive progressive agenda, but there’s no real thematic depth to pitting the clearly good characters against the clearly evil ones. Still, there’s solid tension where it counts.
I tend to enjoy minimalism, and whether or not there’s a relatability factor that just wasn’t hitting me, this film may have had one story it wanted to tell linearly, but I couldn’t help but feel it was too bare of a feature, with no real surprises in store to help pick things up. We learn what’s necessary to understand, and while the notion of building up to the extreme bigots to get their fully deserved comeuppance is satisfying, writer Alyson Richards and director Pat Mills don’t seem to have much else on their minds.
It’s one step ahead of something like Open Water, I suppose (because why not reference a 15+-year-old shark movie). Stripping away the high concept, that was a film about two people discussing their precarious situation. This film features a similar amount of discussions concerning many different things, while the story’s direction has no real dimension beyond the inevitable conclusion. But, again, the horror-themed tension is handled well enough. The violence is quite bloody. The scares work when they need to, even if there’s never much of a subversion. Even the conclusion feels like a bit of a shrug. The Retreat doesn’t quite stumble, but it never really rubs up against any boundaries either.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters and On Demand May 21, 2021.
The Setup: A mute boy (Ezra Dewey) becomes trapped in his apartment with a sinister monster after making a wish to fulfill his heart’s greatest desire.
Review: Imagine Aladdin, but set in 1989, and the genie isn’t playful. Instead, you have a boy trapped in his home, with this genie acting like a homicidal maniac with occasional handicaps. I don’t ever want to have a friend like them. However, I do want to see filmmakers doing the best with a limited budget and one location. I’ve written a lot about minimalism this week. The Djinn is a solid example of how a film can deliver despite having very little to work with.
Seriously, this is a movie set in an apartment. While it does lose a bit of steam towards the end of the second act (of an 82-minute film), there’s still plenty of creativity on display. There’s also enough in the way of makeup and visual effects to deliver on a solid movie monster, and a fine central performance from Dewey, given that he cannot speak. This may be a thin film (even the central dilemma involving the boy’s deceased mother is pretty straightforward), but The Djinn is lean and effective in the right kind of ways.
Plus, the film is spooky enough for what it is. While rated R, I could see this working as a gateway horror film for younger audiences. It never insults one’s intelligence, has enough craft on display to work as a fine calling card for writers/directors David Charbonier and Justin Powell, and even finds a way to play on the “be careful what you wish for” mantra that’s been seen many times before. As a little horror movie, it clicked well enough.
Where To Watch: Now available in theaters, on digital, and On Demand.