Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Sound of Freedom

It's always complicated when a work's value expected to be judged on more standards than entertainment and artistry. This movie is activism; made to shine a harsh light on the realities of child sex trafficking. I think that's a good goal, but good motivation doesn't ensure quality of the product, and I want to judge movies on artistic scales, not moral ones.

So I'm conflicted. Some was really good. And some felt more like a sermon than art.

And with that reservation, I went into this movie already closed off to it. Whether that's fair or not, that's the lens through which I write this. Aware that the goal was raised awareness and not entertainment, I found the opening scenes exploitative and uncomfortable in ways that made me angry at the movie itself, for showing young kids in sexualized situations. That's what the movie wanted; to make me angry, not to entertain. But the story, viewed outside of the movie's framing of it, isn't just about horrors and evil in the world, but about hope, and justice, and the good that fights that evil. 

I'm not usually one for true stories but this ticks the right boxes to work for me. It features a regular guy, just doing his job to the best of his ability—but far beyond what's expected of him, or what others in his position would have done. The plot is self-contained enough that it has a clear point where the goal is accomplished, and all the right places for the ups and downs, tension and release that storytelling is—but the feeling the movie evokes conflicts with all that. It shows but doesn't embody what's on paper. It effectively made me feel sick. It effectively built tension. But then when the goal was accomplished, there was no emotional effectiveness. No release. No relief. Did they mean for those moments to carry catharsis? Or was the lack an intentional choice? 

I enjoyed seeing Jim Caviezel again. I wish they'd found a more creative way of showing Tim's deeper emotions than having him monologue while misty-eyed, though.

Filmmaking 101 says that your opening shot and your closing shot are mirrors of one another. Viewing them side by side, you should be able to see what changed over the course of the story. So, Sound of Freedom opens with the little girl who is will be kidnapped, sitting on her bed, alone in a dim room, playing a drum. And in the ending, after she's rescued, she's in the same room, on the same bed, with the same lighting, playing the same drum. Except... what? There is only one change. And if you're paying attention maybe you're thinking, "she's not alone in the final shot. She's saved and restored to her family, so they're there, gathered around her and they're all happy and free." Nice idea. But no. She's alone at the end, too. The only change is that the camera pans inward at the opening, and outward at the end. And for some reason I can't move past that.

There's a lot of things I could spend time here going over. Things like writing, and performances, and production quality—but all that's sticking with me is this irresolvable question. Why? Why didn't they show her with her family at the end? Why did they make the ending just as bleak as the beginning if the story was supposed to be uplifting? And the only thing I can think of is that they thought if they made the conclusion too happy—if they released their audience and gave them their reward of catharsis—that wouldn't spark as much real-world change as they wanted, because the audience would have a sense of resolution as they left the theater. So they didn't. 

Even the tender moments have this underlying ominous dread. It's just so relentlessly heavy.

They left it focused on the darkness, even though hope was right there on the page, bleeding over from the true story in real life. The reward was there for the taking, but they sacrificed it on moral grounds. For a call to action. And no matter what good intentions they had behind that, I can't like it. It was good in a filmmaking sense. The cast was good. The characters were great. It forced me into the world it built, and it successfully accomplished its goal. But I hated watching it.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One

Fortunately, I can still say I don't hate any of the Mission: Impossible movies, and say that there's a certain amount of merit to all of them. Unfortunately, Dead Reckoning's merit isn't as prominent as the series has achieved; and more unfortunately, it doesn't have the fallback that Mission: Impossible 2 takes advantage of, where you can call the melodramatic silliness "fun" (if so inclined) and "different" (to point out that the movie certainly does try its own thing.)

It's nice when a movie can slip and still be enjoyable. But right now, a movie that doesn't slip at all is worth its weight in gold.

Dead Reckoning. Part one. One complement I can get out of the way is, even though it's a "Part One," it doesn't leave us hanging as far as feeling like we've seen a complete movie. We know there's more to see, but the movie does fulfill everything it sets out to accomplish. Director Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise have now done three of these movies together, and it's unlikely they'd take an obvious misstep. No; instead, what they should have been worried about was that the groove they established in the series with Rogue Nation would too quickly become a rut. Fallout didn't pack the thematic/character punch that Rogue Nation did, but the stunts and visual entertainment was so stunning that I was willing to brush it off as a natural ebb and flow of quality. The next movie would right it.

But it didn't. And, I'm sorry to say, the action element has dropped off now, too. First, thematically, the movie is about the kind of honorable duty involved in taking a job in a secret agency that will disavow you the second you get into trouble—while sending you off to get in trouble as your job. Ethan and Co. meet up with and befriend Hayley Atwell as Grace, a highly skilled thief, and through friendship and loyalty, tempt her over to the good side. The idea is nice. "If you're going to risk your life for something, risk it for your friends and the good of the world." But while that's a simplistic enough idea, it still doesn't come through the plot so much as it is told to us (and Grace) outright through dialogue. And in so doing, it's implied that every MIF agent used to do high-skill illegal activities, got caught for it, and joined the MIF after a subsequent offer. 

Little comedy is attempted in favor of drama—which fails to land, and yet is so benign that it neither moved nor irritated me.

This series has undone the choices of past movies before, but this, I'd call ret-conning. And unnecessary. It's a small thing, maybe, and ignorable. But I like the characters here, and find the implications annoyingly simplistic, verging on outright stupidity. Anyone who's seen M:I3 knows newbie Benji lacked the constitution for illegal activity! And from the start Ethan has always been the boy scout type. It's just doesn't ring true, and you don't need them all to be ex-criminals to make joining the IMF "the right choice." In fact, it lessens Grace's character, who was unique for being a lone wolf and amoral. If all of them made the switch, why should we wonder whether she will or not? So, if the plot had been constructed to better show Grace's conversion, they could've stayed away from that regrettable "backstory." 

But the plot has its own issues to deal with in a less than ideal manner. It's crafted more to implement action set pieces and struggles to find a dynamic way toward the goal. It's a McGuffin plot, which, I admit, I don't mind at all. The action was my favorite parts, but there's no denying it's a step down from the feats this series has pulled off in the past. Tom Cruise does his thing and hurls himself off a cliff on a motorcycle, but what isn't in-camera looks faker than I've ever seen M:I look. The "ramp" he takes the motorcycle off for one; and the set piece of the falling train also has some digital elements that dampen the relentless thrill that scene is meant to impart. A few liberties with physics are taken (which must be bad if I notice it!) and a handful of other head-scratching choices. 

It's like joining the M:I movies is the movie star version of going to summer camp or something. Try something new; get out of your comfort zone for a while. (I dunno, I never went to a summer camp.)

At home, when senseless things happen in silly movies and people ask why, I like to jokingly point out that the movie needed them to so the next thing could happen. Unfortunately, that thought occurred to me a few too many times here, too. It's just not inspired; the creative juices didn't flow, and so now the story doesn't either. As a whole, it's a mess, but in small bites of compartmentalized sequences, it can be fun. Ethan and Grace's car chase sticks out as a highlight because it does what I've come to like uniquely about McQuarrie's installments: playing action and character interaction off each other. Atwell pairs well with Cruise and seems game with the stunts. And while the car chase they tag team in gets a little Buster Keaton, that's part of the charm for me. 

I could happily see a movie every three years that is exactly that—fun, sometimes silly action performed in-camera by characters who are saving the world because their friends live in it. But that's not to say there isn't better and worse ways to do it. Dead Reckoning isn't the worst ever, but there's nothing better about it, either.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Back to the Future

"Marty! You gotta come back with me!" "Where?"

The 80's were a great time for movies. But as far as 80's movies that fall solidly under the category of "Fun" and follow a teenaged lead, it's hard to find something truly remarkable. Movies like The Last Starfighter or Adventures in Babysitting may have a winning concept or teen appeal, but then the plots seem to spin their wheels for an hour or so without going anywhere, while the runtime is filled with character antics that grate on your nerves, fluffy, nonstarter side plots, and boring car chases. John Hughes had unique characters and romance, but what about adventure? Danger? High stakes? Back to the Future ticks every box. And it fulfills each category better than its competitors often can even fill one. 

It's easy for me to take things about it for granted. Like Marty, to start. He was established in my brain as that archetype from childhood. 80's teen. Main character. Running around, getting in and out of trouble for our enjoyment. He's the standard I hold others of the kind up to—and yet I've barely considered that's what I'm doing because I knew who and what Marty was before I knew how to define it. He seems so simple and straightforward; but watching this movie and paying attention to his characterization, it's astonishing how many moments are made to serve him. It's a plot movie. Marty is made to have an every-kid feel on purpose. But he's still so established. His life, personal dreams, girlfriend, that almost have no relevance to the time-traveling adventure. And yet, if he were never in a band, we'd never have the show-stopping Johnny B. Goode performance. And that's the best dang scene in the whole movie!

Then give it all to Michael J. Fox to play and I have to check my taking-things-for-granted tendency again. To me, they're one and the same person. And even if Fox is essentially playing himself, his balance of traits is calculated. He's goofy. But, pretty cool, actually. Charming, but with an accidental feel. He can win a beautiful girl, but he hangs out with an eccentric inventor. He's not the popular guy in school, but neither does he have to deal with bullies—unless you count the principal! We easily believe both his dumb, bumbling reactions to events, and his ability to jump into action with confident competence. The likes of Tom Holland have probably lost long hours of sleep over this characterization and how balanced and blended it all is. I think Fox has a lot to do with it. But also the writing can't be ignored. It gives him so much to work with for such a tonally light character. 

And all that being said, my favorite character has long been Crispin Glover's George McFly. What's a transformation! What awful oily hair! What sincere, aching blue eyes! Watching Marty work to gift his parents with a happier, more fulfilled life has always been the highlight of the movie for me. The time travel is the fun part—that allows us to go through the extreme ups and downs of the family drama. George and Lorraine both seem hopeless losers, but all that can turn around in one immaculately set-up, powerful moment—and then seal it with a song, a kiss, and a song—as only a true 80's movie can. After how beautifully and satisfyingly that thread concludes, I often forget that Marty still has to, you know, get back to the future and all that.

The movie really has to go to work on the third act wrapping up because of how many threads it has going. And having each one conclude in ways you don't quite expect (but that make perfect sense because the set-up was there but not projected) really makes the whole last third of the movie feel like a rollercoaster of thrills and heartwarming victory—where the highs are high and the lows are high, too. Even when we're finally allowed to settle, after all the good news is out, it's not long before they're off again, promising more and more in the next movie. Even if you don't go right into the sequel (which I rarely do) the euphoric feeling sticks. How do they do it? How do they make every subplot feel vital—and each payoff feel inevitable and also like beating the odds?

Such an interesting love story because it's not about who loves who, will-they-won't-they, but it comes from a very honest perspective: "These two HAVE to end up together. Here's how." 

All I can figure is that when every detail and facet of your story is important and useful and built upon each other, it hides which ones will be used for the next payoff. Or maybe it's all so extraordinarily entertaining that you look past the moments of set up. Because even if they weren't used to set something up, they were still good moments that elevate, deepen, and give momentum to the story. Not a second wasted. Not a moment falling short. All as a fun 80's scifi teen adventure, with all the life-or-death situations, romance, and chase sequences you could ask for. That, and Doc's wide-eyed crazy expressions, too. I love this movie; and that's one thing about it I could never take for granted.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

The Banshees of Inisherin


Ireland, 1923. As a Civil War takes place on the mainland, a smaller Civil War begins on the secluded island of Inisherin—between two friends. Pádraic and Colm. Former friends now—Colm decides he doesn't want to be Pádraic's friend anymore, and though the squabble may sound like the petty whims of a five-year old, Colm takes his decision seriously. Very seriously. And Pádraic is left to wonder what went wrong.

Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh

McDonagh is one of those directors with a small but incredibly rich filmography. He's made three other feature films besides this one, and each is brimming with a je ne sais quoi that I can only call his "style." All directors have a style, some easier to spot, and some easier to describe. McDonagh's is easy to spot—his movies are dark comedies and involve bizarrely bold plot and character choices—but almost impossible to describe when it comes to the sense he evokes. For me, anyway, which is probably why he interests me so much. I often find myself returning to movies where I felt like I understood it, but then can't prove it to myself in words. I keep coming back until I can. And if I continue this trend, I'll be revisiting The Banshees of Inisherin soon.

It's a more complicated case than McDonagh's previous films though. Putting aside my comprehension skills, I didn't enjoy The Banshees of Inisherin as much as I have his other work. There were sections of the movie that felt like a bad dream, or a horror movie that I wasn't expecting to be a horror movie. There was a terrifying feeling of dread—which I have to admit is a great compliment to the craft and creativity here—that I didn't know what would happen. That doesn't sound scary, typed out. But imagine the most extreme, unnerving feeling of the unknown. Walking through pitch black in your house, thinking you know where you are, but doubting. And then that doubt coming true. That's how parts of this movie felt. And I didn't like it. 

Great location. Wild, beautiful, and haunting. Very appropriate.

From an artistic standpoint, that can't really be anything but a compliment. But I can't judge movies on objective artistry alone, because how a story moves me is important to defining its quality. Yes, this story moved me; but often in a negative way. I felt a lot of emptiness, a lot of sadness, and hopelessness. And as I write this I think back and I think there was supposed to be hope. And certainly there was meaning. And maybe if I just watch it again knowing what is going to happen will allow me to feel those positive elements better, and understand the hope of the story in my heart, not just my head. Maybe, maybe, maybe. 

What I know is objectively great, and what brought out the entertainment of the piece for me was the writing and the acting. There are individual scenes in this movie that achieve a sort of storytelling version of laminar flow—unbroken surface, everything in perfect alignment with everything else, everything working toward the same clear goal. McDonagh's writing skills are masterful, both in characterization, and in dialogue that is like eating an entire platter of a delicacy. Most good movies have one or two bites of such precise work; here they can occur one scene after the other, until it's rare to find a moment that isn't uniquely captivating. 

McDonagh is one of few directors who allow Farrell to be Irish, and it brings out wonderful facets of personality.

The cast falls into this aforementioned laminar flow without disrupting anything, and bring their characters to full, colorful life. Absolute masterclass performances for characterization and brilliant, unforgettable line delivery. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson's easy chemistry is good to watch, and both also give tight, complex performances. Farrell carries the film though, and makes the plot's strange twists and turns feel plausible, bringing out the dark comedy tone. Without him hitting the right notes, this story easily could have felt downright unredeemable. He holds the line between the sincere and the absurd. Smaller standouts are Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan in supporting roles. I especially loved Condon because her character reflected my feelings in witnessing the story unfold.

Of them all, I was rooting for her the most. And, I think that was intentional. I think Martin McDonagh made me think and feel everything that he intended to. And that deserves accolades. I respect it. And yet, I can't shake the feeling that there's something wrong here. Whether it be some misstep of reason which means the truth of the story is a mistake, or whether it's simply a distaste for the way the truth is exposed—either way, I think it's best if this review goes unresolved. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Avatar: The Way of Water


It's been years since the original Avatar, and same goes for Jake Sully, who's formed a family and a comfortable way of life with the Na'vi. But the sky people return (surprise surprise) and a few of them are out for revenge (dun dun duun). The Avatar sequels were announced once the novelty of the original had worn off, when it was cool to trash James Cameron's space fantasy world. But this "unasked for" sequel has value which only its creator could have dreamed up—which is why it's good that he's the one telling this story and not your average cynical nitpicking filmgoer... like me.

There's nothing quite like a filmmaker who's excited about his own work.

The word that first comes to mind as I think about The Way of Water as a whole is "romantic." That might give the wrong idea, but it's the only word I have. James Cameron jumps back into the world of his own making, gushing—like a kid with a crush—hurrying to catch us up of the Sully family's life so he can bring them into a new sandbox to explore. He dutifully exposits about the status quo and sets up new characters, but despite the movie's 3-hour runtime, we get into the plot fast. He doesn't want to tell us any more than necessary, he wants to show us. To dig into the clay and sculpt and create. He has a storyteller's sensibilities and gleeful care for his story, and that excitement rubs off into every inch of the work.

That's why it's the first half of the second act that shines so well. This is the part we're all here for—the exploring of the world and culture of Pandora. It's especially fun because it focuses on the Sully kids character-wise. We get to know the second oldest, Lo'ak, as he befriends an outcast whale-like creature, and the older girl, Kiri, who's the adopted offspring of Sigourney Weaver's Avatar from the first movie. They don't explain exactly what happened there, leaving a little mystery to reveal in later sequels. She's a young teen, played by Sigourney Weaver, sulky insecure childishness and all. It must have been great fun for her. The magic of motion capture. The other new character standout for me was Spider—one of few exclusively human characters in the movie. He's a kid who "went native" and is always interacting with mo-cap characters—who are designed to be bigger than him. Another logistical and performance challenge. 

I don't care, I'll always enjoy the "making friends with animals" trope.

Despite the technology, the most impressive part for me is the worldbuilding. It reminds me of the little worlds I'd construct in my head as a child in a very specific way that I can't quite articulate. Contributing to the sense of romance? At any rate, the worldbuilding works so well because it's part of the story, not just the place in which the story takes place. Underwater exploration is accompanied with the Sully kids dipping their toes into the social hierarchy of their new peers and discovering their unique strengths. And Lo'ak's whale friend is not only vital to the plot, but serves as a character foil for him, and is introduced through a thrilling underwater attack sequence from what must be Pandora's only non-pacifist creature. At every turn, Cameron rewards our patience in sitting through 3 hours of his imagination brought to life, by using that imagination, and his skills as a filmmaker, to entertain us in return.

Even when the stakes rise and the third act rolls around, the imagination doesn't quell, and the inevitable sea battle had all the built-up character, stakes, and creative set-pieces in play to keep me from checking out as I so often do when a film's final battle starts up. Then things quiet and culminate in a more emotional, dramatic climax, which serves the theme over the movie's gleeful penchant for CGI explosions. I might say I'm surprised—that the movie won me over fast and never lost me to the end—but it's more that I'm relieved. More than relief even, it's rewarding my hope. I knew James Cameron was a filmmaker of the classic breed, but so many of his ilk have traded in their creative passion for an agenda. But no. He made a movie, and told a story. And he hits the beats of his medium with care and craftsmanship, not as a checklist around which to structure a pandering sermon.

This movie is proof then, that storytelling and movies aren't dead.

As time passes, the refreshed novelty may fade again, and I may come to see more of the flaws—which do exist here. Some was too melodramatically silly even for me to take seriously. But for me, Avatar has never been about being flawless, or high art. That's not what's valuable about it. Take away the motion-capture, the CGI, the blue people on an alien planet, and you have a simple story. The first one was about a broken man finding his place in the world. This one's about a father trying to keep his family together. Jake's world shrinks, but becomes more personal, and so feels huge. This sequel is rare in that way—it doesn't retread old ground. It adds to what came before. Not ignoring it. Not retconning it. Genuinely building onto it. Complementing it, and growing deeper. The original Avatar increases in value because of it, rather than being thrown aside to make way for the new. And room for further expansion sits out there, waiting.

I don't know where on Pandora James Cameron will go and explore next, but as long as he's in love with his world, I will be too. I can't help it. His reliable craftmanship, high imagination, and creative romance sweeps me up into the fantasy every time.

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

It's always nice to see a good lead role come around for a talented character actor to take, but it's more than Lesley Manville's winning turn as the larger-than-life title character that makes this twee Paris adventure worth the admiration.

Adapted from the book by Paul Gallico.

Mrs. Harris is a war widow and cleaning lady. She has a slightly sad and woefully average existence, and sentimental, hopeful side that's too big for her circumstances. She decides she wants to go to Paris and buy a Christian Dior dress. She thinks it's meant to be. And maybe it is—her faith is rewarded with some good financial luck, and off she goes. Of course, it's not going to be so easy as to plop down some cash and grab a dress—but neither is it going to be so hard as to not be a fun and airy ride. 

The balance between difficulties that arise and their sometimes magical solutions is what made this movie work as a whole for me. I'm not the biggest fan of twee entertainment simply because there never seems to be real stakes and all the conflict is simple misunderstandings. Pack on top of that characters who only exist to live out the wish fulfillment plot, and the affair turns boring fast. Mrs. Harris skips over that. First of all, she herself is an interesting and three-dimensional character. The people she meets are also more complex than "good guy" or "bad guy" and the movie takes turns in developing them, too. And while some conflict is resolved through luck or "magic" here, that does have a thematic reason, not just resolving things because they need to be resolved. 

Great romantic subplot. But I'll get to that later...

I suppose it is very twee to say that things work out for Mrs. Harris because she's a kind and giving person who reaps as she sows. There is truth in that, but in real life perhaps not quite so overt. At any rate it satisfied both my taste for cozy entertainment, and my critical eye against lazy plotting. Lesley Manville shines in the role, big, warm, and delightful, and could have held my attention alone. She is joined, though, by a large and fleshed-out supporting cast. From her best friend, and her clients at home, to the Marquis in Paris who befriends her, to the dressmakers and models, right down to the politely nervous Air Force officer who brings her one of her bits of luck.

Every cozy adventure needs romance. And no, Mrs. Harris isn't too old for it herself, but a young couple in a movie like this will never be a waste, and in this case, they were my favorite aspect of all. Natasha, model, enormously pretty and face of Dior, who doesn't want the limelight or the job of entertaining top clients. And André, Dior's mild-mannered accountant. It is very much a side plot, but hits every note of the romantic arc with perfect ease simply by setting up the characters the right way. It is brief, and familiar, but full of strong moments that pushed all the right romantic buttons. And I rarely mention something like this, but it's vastly important here, and the best aspect along with Lesley Manville and the two adorable French lovebirds. Costumes. 

I feel like such a girl, but it's true. The costumes were practically a character themselves.

It's a movie about buying a Dior dress, after all. The scene that shows the collection is pivotal, and for more reason than that Mrs. Harris picks out the dress she wants. We get to see it all, as if we're invited to pick our favorites as well. As a girl, it worked on me. Even as a girl who likes story and character more than pretty costumes. The pretty costumes got to me. They were great. Vital. And extended beyond the Dior collection, too. Everyone is dressed with expert attention all the time, fitting and enhancing their character. It's the focus of the movie, which I might raise an eyebrow at in other circumstances, but here it bolsters the production quality, and doesn't get in the way of character or story either. An ideal balance.

So maybe it's not my typical kind of movie in theory—but it turns out that any story can be well-made, hit satisfying beats with well-developed characters, and make itself worth its existence as more than eye candy. Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is an all-around treat. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

The Black Phone


After dodging the bullet that was Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, writer/director Scott Derrickson returned to doing his own thing his own way, and that's what The Black Phone is. A horror movie; with dark lighting and his signature uncomfortable tone. It plays out like a writing exercise for practicing setup and payoff, and I fully approve.

Adapted by Derrickson and Robert Cargill from a short story by Joe Hill.

The plot is set in the 70's, in an anywhere town with anybody families, where a pedophile serial killer is on the loose—Ethan Hawke, taking his usual charm and twisting it to creepy effect. 13-year-old Finney (Mason Thames), and his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw) see the missing posters, hear the news, and see empty seats appear in the school classrooms, but no one really knows what to do about it. Gwen has dreams where she can see the kidnapped kids, and she thinks they may be clues sent to her from Jesus, but their dad (Jeremy Davies, a great role for him, though not heavily featured) doesn't want her turning out like their mom who thought she was psychic but was really just crazy. He forbids her from talking about the dreams.

But then, Finney gets taken. In the basement of the Grabber's house is a phone with the cord cut. Sometimes it still rings, though. And when Finney answers it, the disembodied spirits of the Grabber's victims give him advice on how to survive; and how to escape. Each time he tries a plan and it fails, another kid calls with another plan. On the outside, Gwen dreams clues as to his whereabouts, and a detective, believing in her abilities, helps her search. You can see where this is going. It builds, and builds, and builds, and we wait for the inevitable showdown. It's simple; basic, even. And I suppose that might be a criticism in some eyes, but not to me. 

I think the best, most thrilling horror movies are the simple ones. Simple can be hard to pull off.

It impresses me when a movie shows me what it's doing and yet I'm still anxiously hoping I haven't been tricked when those last twists and turns come down the pike. We're made to think we are in the know about everything, but we aren't really—and once we're wrong once, then comes the thrill of worry that we're wrong about everything. Derrickson isn't making high art here, but he has respect for his craft and knows what's winning about his genre. So he packs his work full of horror thrills. Extreme situations, menacing villains, dread, suspense; the dark, twisted implications left just unsaid, weak protagonists who find strength, and even casual musings on spiritual elements.

The only thing that's "missing" is gore, or reveling in violence, and that makes me like it even more. It may not be high art but it's tasteful. And thoughtful. You get the sense that it spurs from the uncomfortable fears and nightmares of its creators, rather than a lazy penchant for jump-scares and splashing blood. The supernatural brings a handful of frightening moments, but unlike most supernatural horror, the supernatural here is a force for good. Gwen's down-to-earth faith in Jesus is mixed in and at home with the more typical supernatural horror elements of ghosts and psychicism. 

If you like to mull over on movies, this one isn't lacking there either, though it doesn't demand it

What underlying beliefs or fears inspired the plot can be interesting, but the main appeal lies, simply, in the plot itself. It's sharp structure, classic themes, efficient pacing, and ever-patient planning. Plus characters to root for, be sad for, see change, or just plain despise—all packed together in a premise and tone that unnerves, unsettles, and thrills. The performances are roundly good, and the production quality high, but the strength of writing is what brings the winning concept home. The Black Phone is a simple, focused effort of pure entertainment.