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.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Thirteen Lives

Ron Howard and true-life stories are a match made in heaven. Instead of reshaping the true and the real into fiction while adapting it to the innately fictional medium of film, Howard takes stories like this one—where a soccer team from Thailand gets trapped miles inside a cave when an unexpected rainstorm causes it to flood—and showcases what is already astonishing about the true story. 

As a rule, I don't care for movie based on true stories. Ron Howard overcomes that rule.

He changes as little as he can. He doesn't push fake emotions. He doesn't add drama to the situation. He finds the subtle drama in the true moments and points a camera at it—highlighting the right moments in the right order to bring out the natural story arc and themes that are already there. And he hires actors who can show that nuance in a casual and honest way—like Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell, playing two British rescue divers who fly in to lend a hand. Later they recruit Joel Edgerton, and Tom Bateman, and together they make an unfathomable plan to swim the boys out before monsoon season floods the entire cave.

My memory of when this happened in real life is brief. I heard they were trapped, and that people were working to get them out. Then a few weeks later I heard they'd been rescued, and I wondered why it took so long. Now, to see exactly how impossible the situation really was, and how great a feat it was that they all survived, how hard everyone worked, even the entire concept of how they were rescued—it completely blew my mind. I was still reeling from the fact that each day of swimming to the boys and back was a 12-hour dive when they threw out the rescue plan as the only and best option, and I still can't quite wrap my mind around everything it entailed.

There were many instances that made me protest aloud because of how crazy it all sounded.

People who are capable and willing to do difficult things astonish me. And I guess that's a universal thing. We have stories with heroes in fiction who do the impossible for a noble cause all the time. Superheroes, though, have superpowers. The men who swam hours and hours through muddy water in narrow tunnels just to have a chance at saving a few people they never knew—they were normal human beings. They simply had the drive, the skills, and the will to put themselves at risk for a good result. They did a job, and they looked at it as a job. And the movie understands that. It doesn't make them out as superheroes. It shows their weakness, and the mundane aspects of their humanity, and then it shows them do heroic things—impossible things—and then (and this is what I loved most about the movie) it shows how their experience affects them. 

The part that hit me the hardest was the first day they bring some of the boys out. The volunteers rush in and haul each kid away, leaving the diver alone and watching them go. Each actor they show do this has an incredible look on their face that tells of the physical and emotional gauntlet they had just come through, though they remained professional and stoic during the task. It absolutely broke my heart, and I love it because it wasn't shoved at me. Or slammed over my head. I just saw it. I know it was intentional, but the reservation of those moments is remarkable. Shown at a distance; not lingered on too long; or punctuated by overwrought music. You could almost think you're seeing something you're not meant to see. 

What must it be like, to volunteer your skills, your time, and your very person to become the difference between life and death for another human?

Any director can have style and flair, but it takes a master to create art that leaves no fingerprints. Howard's hand is invisible in this film, yet we still see what he's pointing to. Through his deft and discreet craftmanship, and cast full of equally dedicated performances, we get a beautifully nuanced glimpse of real-life heroes, and from the comfort of our homes, experience the mountain of hardships they willingly faced down for the chance to achieve something good. I'm grateful for men like that, and for the artists who, through their invisibility, make them visible.