Hulu review: John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” (2018)

First, Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927) popularized talkies. Then, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) distorted a single recorded word of dialogue just enough to influence the remainder of the narrative.

Next, A Quiet Place omitted spoken lines altogether for a mainstream, feature-length release, and the findings of this experiment are some of the most radical in the renaissance following the release of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014).

If you don’t know what to watch next, John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) is available to stream on Hulu. The postapocalyptic science fiction horror thriller was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Sound Editing.

Krasinski also co-wrote, co-produced, and co-starred in the production.

Lee Abbott (Krasinski) and his pregnant wife, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), along with their children, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe), are living in a world where almost all life has been hunted into extinction by alien creatures attacking anything which makes noise.

Fortunately for them, Regan is deaf, so the family knows American Sign Language and can communicate with each other in silence.

When one of the monsters kills the Abbotts’ youngest child, Beau (Cade Woodward), the rest of the family resolves to fight for themselves and one another.

Krasinski and Blunt are married with children off-screen, and so the filmmaker directs out of himself as well as his leading lady thoroughly personal performances, characterizing a husband, wife, father, and mother desperate to protect their home.

Simmonds is also deaf in real life, marking a sensitive casting choice for the disabled community. Rather than functioning as a handicap to overcome, Regan’s disability empowers her to survive.

What’s more, Krasinski’s directorial debut is a masterwork of its genre. Post-James Wan’s Saw (2004), jump scares have proven themselves to be most powerful when the sudden sound is paired with a horrifying image, instead of something cheaper and more mundane.

The hushed diegesis lends itself to effective jump scares like a dream (or a nightmare).

As progressive as the picture is with its positive, diverse (though not altogether intersectional) representation, and as much as it gets right about the scary movie formula, it is problematically regressive with what many critics interpret to be pro-life, pro-gun, conservative themes.

Some have even gone so far as to dismiss it as the antithesis to Jordan Peele’s social horror masterpiece, Get Out (2017).

Indeed, Evelyn still decides to give birth in spite of the mortal danger it poses to herself, and, by extension, her children.

While Lee’s altruistic parenting is good parenting, intentionalism is a critical fallacy, and it is irrelevant that Krasinski cites Get Out as a source of inspiration.

Art belongs not to the creator, but to the consumer, and one hopes Krasinski will learn throughout his promising career to handle his sociopolitical subtext with greater care.

A Quiet Place is important, effectual, “pure” cinema (according to the Hitchcockian school of thought), speaking to us with no words at all.

Hulu review: Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade” (1996)

It gives this critic pause when a director writes and stars in their own work. Cinema is a collaborative medium between diverse photographic, musical, and dramatic artists synthesizing their respective talents into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

A temptation factors into the equation for filmmakers to indulge in narcissistic wish fulfillment when they emulate Orson Welles and presume themselves to be better actors and screenwriters than, well, actors and screenwriters.

Keeping all that in mind, how does Billy Bob Thornton fare?

If you don’t know what to watch next, Thornton’s Sling Blade (1996) is available to stream on Hulu. It is an adaptation of George Hickenlooper’s short film, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade (1994), which Thornton also scripted and performed in.

The drama picture snagged Thornton an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, in addition to a nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Thornton plays Karl Childers, an intellectually disabled Arkansas man who is released from the state mental hospital after killing his mother and her lover when he was twelve years old with a sling blade.

He lands a job at a repair shop in his rural hometown, where he befriends Frank Wheatley (Lucas Black), a boy the same age as he was at the time he committed double homicide.

Karl becomes an eyewitness to the abusive relationship between Frank’s mother, Linda (Natalie Canerday) and her boyfriend, Doyle Hargraves (Dwight Yoakam).

Thornton’s writing Oscar is well-merited, for his dialogue characterizes the cast who deliver the lines with as much life as it does the setting in which they stage themselves, and his narrative galvanizes the Faulknerian tone behind his Southern Gothic mood.

Thornton’s acting is no less forceful. Karl Childers is an ambitious, uncomplimentary performance, demanding of Thornton not only to change the way he looks and speaks, but also to invest in this unlikely hero a sympathy which conflicts against the violent crime he’s guilty of.

And he directs a powerhouse out of Yoakam as well, though for as loathsome a villain as you are like to see on the screen.

But as intense as these portrayals are, there’s a reason Thornton’s direction wasn’t up for an award. His final cut is a reel of “master shots,” with entire scenes taking place in a single frame so nothing can be edited out.

To direct is human. To edit is divine.

Thornton’s notorious anal-retentiveness cramps the pacing at times, for modern audiences most of all, who are seasoned consumers of media propelled along by myriad cuts.

All in all, Thornton is an exception to the rule of self-obsessed authorship, and Sling Blade is an exceptional movie.

Hulu review: FX’s “American Horror Story” (2011-)

Too bad Ryan Murphy’s ambition outweighs his talent.

If you don’t know what to watch next, FX’s American Horror Story (2011-) is available to stream on Hulu, and, for the first four seasons, at least, it’s worth your time.

Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy’s ongoing collection of miniseries has won two Primetime Emmy Awards for Jessica Lange, one for Kathy Bates, and one for James Cromwell.

The anthology horror series weaves a different narrative each season, with different characters in different settings. Sometimes, the same actors reappear to play different parts.

At its finest, the limited series make for the most literate fans of the genre a meal of allusions to and interpretations of every variety of horror, from the supernatural to the psychological, from the darkly comedic to the blackly dramatic, from science fiction to the Gothic.

And it starts off on the right foot. The first season, American Horror Story: Murder House, appropriates the trope of the dysfunctional family moving into a haunted house and adapts it to the television medium.

The result is the most refreshing contemporary take on this classic cliché you could ever hope to see, with the long-form storytelling of Golden Age TV generating suspense through binge-worthy cliffhangers as well as developing the performances with epic detail.

American Horror Story: Asylum would be the greatest season, if not for the absurd alien abduction subplot.

Still, what it gets right outweighs what it gets wrong by a wide margin, and it is more re-watchable than the best season.

American Horror Story: Cult features some of the most quotable dialogue, yet, somehow, some of the weakest writing. As Misty Day (Lily Rabe) raises the dead, she lowers the dramatic stakes.

Why kill off a character if they’re just going to be resurrected later?

What’s more, the big reveal is not foreshadowed enough, which is narratively dishonest. The most efficacious twists land not only because they surprise us, but also because they play by the rules of the world-building.

Still, there is a campy pleasure in watching A-listers like Lange, Bates, and Angela Bassett smoke, drink, and dress to kill.

If Coven is the most overrated season, then American Horror Story: Freak Show is the most underrated, narrowly outperforming Asylum. It evokes a depressive mood, but because of the power of its tone.

The unsavory realism of its mise-en-scène makes it the most difficult season to watch, but the most “horrifying” horror is that which is experienced in our world, and for that reason, Freak Show is the masterpiece of American Horror Story.

The beginning of the end is American Horror Story: Hotel. It would benefit from a more ambiguous answer to the “Hotel Hell” mythos à la Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of The Shining by Stephen King.

Instead, Hotel throws everything but the kitchen sink at the audience – ghosts, vampires, serial killers – and none of it sticks.

It’s an exercise in futility to identify what Hotel is even about, which theme pulls the incohesive plot threads together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts. For all its overcrowding, Hotel does nothing fresh with its glut of material.

But Hotel is far more watchable than American Horror Story: Roanoke. An incomprehensible, uninspired bore, Roanoke is the worst season of American Horror Story, with unmemorable characters and an uninteresting premise.

The “haunted house” formula had already been visited, and better, in Murder House, and the “found footage” gimmick, while a novel homage, fails to grasp what makes found footage work in the first place, which is a cast of unknowns who may or may not have actually disappeared.

Cuba Gooding, Junior, is hardly “unknown.”

American Horror Story: Cult was almost the comeback the show needed, but it is bookended by a poor premiere and an even worse finale.

After the cringeworthy opening episode, wherein Murphy uses his characters as mouthpieces for his own social commentary in the form of hashtag soundbites and “GIFable” moments, Cult surprises with some of the strongest hours in the series.

In fact, they were some of the most important episodes on TV at the time, critiquing the Trump Administration through a realistic “cult” allegory resonating with the same horrifying verisimilitude as Freak Show.

Unfortunately, for its third act, cult leader Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) suffers an unintelligible character assassination as the showrunners disembark on a bizarre “mad with power” arc that provokes rather than enlightens.

American Horror Story: Apocalypse, the crossover between Murder House and Cult, marks an improvement above Hotel, Roanoke, and Cult, but when an anthology has nothing new to say, then it has lost its voice.

The forthcoming American Horror Story: 1984 has an abysmally low bar to clear ahead of it, but, then again, so did Roanoke.

Starting American Horror Story from the beginning, you will find yourself addicted to a sinfully gaudy universe that you will mourn over by the time you reach the end, but the lower the crash, the higher the peak.

Hulu review: Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” (2017)

A film that receives both boos and a standing ovation during its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, is a film that demands to be seen.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (2017) is available to stream on Hulu. Sixty-nine percent of the reviews aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes for the psychological horror film are positive, but audiences polled through CinemaScore graded it with an “F.”

Its opening weekend marked the worst debut for a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle in which she earned top billing.

A plot synopsis is not easy for a reviewer to put down in words. Suffice to say, the movie opens with an unnamed poet (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Lawrence) living in an idyllic country home evocative of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical realism.

When a man (Ed Harris) and a woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) come to stay as guests at their house, this paradise begins to fall apart.

Although not a narratively straightforward picture, mother! is an exercise in production value.

The performances of its four decorated stars are dramatic tours-de-force, and Matthew Libatique’s kinetic cinematography externalizes the surreal panic characterizing Lawrence’s titular “mother.”

Whispering alongside them is Johann Johannsson and Craig Henighan’s atmospheric sound design, echoing with the breathy non-diegesis of Aronofsky’s own Black Swan (2010) like chills running down your spine, and creaking with all the dread of the poet’s house.

The trailer misrepresents mother! as an homage to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which arguably answers for much of the popular disappointment in the final product.

Indeed, the text can be interpreted as an allegory for Biblical creation, or the artistic process, or sociopolitical and environmental decay (or all three.. or something else).

It is an experimental release marketed as a mainstream scary movie about creepy neighbors, and it fails to meet its own expectations.

But even in its true, arthouse context, mother! can be self-indulgent and pretentious. Some of its metaphors are heavy-handed, and others try too hard to be “ambiguous,” instead coming off as “half-baked.”

The filmmaker wrote the screenplay in five days, and it shows. At its stylized, dreamlike best, that’s a compliment. At its forced, incomprehensible worst, it’s not.

Whether it gets you to cheer or jeer, mother! is sure to be unlike any other film you’ll ever see.

Hulu review: Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya” (2017)

She was loved for a minute. Then, she was hated. Now, she’s just a punchline.

If you don’t know what to watch next, Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya (2017) is available to stream on Hulu.

The biographical black comedy was nominated for three Academy Awards, and Allison Janney won Best Supporting Actress for her performance as LaVona Golden, the abusive stage mother of infamous Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Best Actress nominee Margot Robbie).

The film details Harding’s life and career, centering around her connection to the 1994 attack on rival athlete Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver).

It is framed as a mockumentary, with contradictory interviews from Harding and her abusive ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), casting them both as unreliable narrators. Footage plays over the end credits of the historical interviews these are transcripted from.

Such ambiguity opens up Harding’s tale to popular interpretation arguably for the first time since her self-proclaimed “bodyguard,” Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), hired Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) to bludgeon Kerrigan’s kneecap with a police baton.

As a result, this narrative condemns the court of public opinion that was already looking for a reason to convict Harding, the champion representing the United States at the international games with a “white trash” reputation.

Rightfully, Tatiana S. Riegel was nominated alongside Robbie and Janney for her editing. Her work is reminiscent of Thelma Schoonmaker’s Oscar-nominated cut of Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990).

The energetically stylized composition is replete with fourth-wall breaks, hysterically juxtaposed cuts, and computer-imaged tracking-shot montages dollying through time with the same flow as one of Harding’s skating routines.

When paired with music supervisor Susan Jacobs’s classic rock soundtrack, the electricity between sight and sound sparks in us the forgotten inspiration audiences felt watching Harding skate, back when she was known for her talent and not for Nancy Kerrigan.

As darkly humorous as the picture’s voice is, it is sensitive with its themes of poverty and domestic abuse.

Harding is a tragic, sympathetic figure whose onscreen persona subscribes to the age-old psyche of the unloved child who grows up to marry an equally brutal spouse because it’s all she’s ever known about love, and so seeks the adoration and devotion of strangers across the globe.

The cast of characters deny accusations against themselves while lobbing new ones at each other, and the conflicting voiceover narrations and exaggerated editing make it clear what we see is not an objective story, but the subjective telling of it.

All that being said, the movie begs the question: is Harding so desperately addicted to her own fame that she’ll mastermind a violent criminal conspiracy to protect it?

As with the rumors and biases surrounding the media coverage of the Kerrigan incident, it is a mystery everyone solves differently.

But knowing what contemporary viewers perceive of its titular antihero, I, Tonya introduces us first not to the woman who was loved, but to the woman who’s “just a punchline,” before she tells us her side of the moment she became “hated.”

And by the end, you may find yourself “loving” her more than you thought possible.