Review of “The Little Stranger”

Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is called to Hundreds Hall to examine a young housemaid named Betty (Liv Hill). Betty isn’t sick, she doesn’t like Hundreds Hall. It is creepy and makes her feel uneasy. Hundreds Hall used to be a stately home but has fallen into disrepair over the years. Faraday’s mother used to be a servant at the home and he saw the home for the first time in 1917. Now 1947, Faraday is a doctor in his home town and still remembers the wonders of seeing Hundreds Hall. Living in the home is Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling), her son Roderick Ayres (Will Poulter) and daughter Caroline Ayres (Ruth Wilson). The family has hit hard times and they cannot keep a staff on hand to maintain the home. There are issues among the family members as well. Roderick suffered severe burns during the war and is also showing signs of what we now call post traumatic stress disorder. He is depressed and drinking excessively. He’s in control of the family’s business but spends his days drinking and aimlessly shuffling papers. Dr. Faraday wants to try an experimental electrical treatment on Roderick’s scarred and twisted legs to relieve some of his pain. Faraday has ulterior motives: He is attracted to Caroline and is obsessed with Hundreds Hall. As Faraday spends more time at the home, odd events occur: The friendly family dog attacks a child’s face, Roderick sets his room on fire and is sent to an asylum and scratches appear in various places around the house. Sometimes it is just squiggles, but the squiggles soon become letters spelling out “Suki,” the nickname of Mrs. Ayres first child Susan that died back in 1917. More odd events occur, some of them more terrifying than others. Has the family just hit a patch of bad luck or is the angry spirit of Suki haunting the formerly stately home.

“The Little Stranger” is sold in the trailer as a tense horror movie. It isn’t. It is something far scarier: An examination of class and socio-economic upheaval in post-war Britain. A description like that would send most people screaming and running away from the theater. It isn’t quite the college mid-20th Century advanced European economics class I’ve made it sound like, but the movie is taxing. It requires a degree of patience to watch the story of class distinctions, manners and quiet, smoldering passion that eventually leads to a few mildly stressful scenes that are horror-adjacent. Still, I enjoyed “The Little Stranger” for how the characters seem to be one way but mutate into something almost unrecognizable.

The performances are a large part of what makes “The Little Stranger” so interesting to watch. Domhnall Gleeson’s Dr. Faraday is a coiled spring. We don’t see it at first and just marvel at his rigid posture and the plumb-line straight part in his hair. He walks with as little unnecessary motion as possible. This really pops out when you see him walking next to Ruth Wilson’s Caroline Ayres. She walks like a workman carrying a heavy load while he walks as if there’s a board strapped to his back.

That rigidity carries over into his emotions. Dr. Faraday is always in control. Happy, sad, angry, elated and disappointed all look roughly the same on Faraday’s face. There is a hint late in the film that his control has been beaten into him. We also see there’s a smoldering pit of rage hiding under that polished and practiced veneer of calm.

Gleeson is divine as Dr. Faraday. His performance is so subtle you don’t notice the small changes in the character that build up as the story progresses. It’s a marvelous bit of misdirection as we consider Faraday to be like a knight in shining armor coming to save this family from whatever demon is attacking them as the film begins. Soon some tarnish begins to show on that shiny armor and by the end we aren’t sure that the demon isn’t the one making a house call. It is a brilliantly measured and controlled performance that sneaks up on the audience.

Ruth Wilson portrays Caroline as the kind of woman we hear about in World War II documentaries that served during the war in a traditionally male role (whether in the military or the private sector) then had to resume a more accepted female role after the war. While she gave up her military commission to come home and help care for the injured Roderick, Caroline is still a strong and independent woman. Wilson shines in the role of a woman putting her own wants and needs on hold while she handles most of the household duties and helps care for her injured brother. Caroline’s desire to break free from the shackles of her responsibilities is always bubbling just under the surface and Wilson expresses the character’s feelings of stress beautifully. One brief scene has Caroline and Faraday kissing in the car parked in the woods near Hundreds Hall. Their mutual passion burns up the screen, but Caroline cannot let herself feel joy or pleasure and stops the encounter. The aggression and lust of this scene is palpable to a surprising degree as it is in such contrast to the repressive manners on display earlier. Both Wilson and Gleeson bared the souls of their characters in this scene and it is a turning point in the film.

The horror of the movie doesn’t have much to do with a possibly malevolent spirit in Hundreds Hall: It is the rigidity of the English class system and the erosion of its control and power. Dr. Faraday comes from common folk that worked hard to give him an education to become a physician. While he has the potential to become one of the upper-crust financially, he will never really BE one of them and he gets constant reminders to stay in his place. The knowledge he will never be considered an equal galls Faraday to no end and explains his obsession with Hundreds Hall and the Ayres when he gets an opportunity to be among them regularly. Flashbacks to his one childhood encounter with the home and family play a big part in telling the story and in explaining Faraday’s fixation.

I found the story and the performances interesting. That said, the pace of “The Little Stranger” is glacially slow. The story starts out as more of a domestic drama with small events happening every so often; but there isn’t much to quicken the pulse and raise goosebumps. The few moments of fear and tension are most charitably described as mild. The ending is unsatisfying as it doesn’t answer any questions about what happened. While that isn’t as damning as it sounds, the ending left a bad taste in my mouth as I wanted to know something concrete about what happened. Perhaps the ending is purposefully left ambiguous to allow the viewer to come to their own conclusions; but I would have preferred definitive closure.

“The Little Stranger” is rated R for some disturbing bloody images. The face of the little girl mauled by the dog is never seen clearly but the injury is very bloody. As a warning to anyone sensitive to such things, the dog is put to sleep as a result and it is sad to watch. The aftermath of a suicide using broken glass to slash wrists is shown. Foul language is scattered and mild.

After I left the movie I wondered if there wasn’t a ghost at all. Was someone in the house responsible for all the bad things happening to the Ayres family? I had a suspect I thought was the culprit but after some consideration it was clear this person wasn’t responsible. That’s part of the reason I think “The Little Stranger” is a movie you should see. It had me thinking after I left the theater. As much as I love a good superhero, sci-fi and action film, I rarely give even the really great ones much of a thought after I walk back out into the sunshine (I normally see a matinee). This film has been on my mind off and on since it ended. While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, “The Little Stranger” is an interesting look at a time before I was born and a culture struggling to maintain a grip on power. There also may or may not be a ghost child trying to subtly kill everyone.

“The Little Stranger” gets three stars out of five.

This week has action, faith and horror for you to choose from. I’ll be seeing and reviewing one of the following:

God Bless the Broken Road—

The Nun—


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Review of “American Made”

It’s the late 1970’s and Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is a pilot for Trans World Airlines. He’s bored by the daily grind of flying from one city to the next so he likes to pull stunts that shake up the passengers and his co-pilot. One day while laid over in yet another city and another hotel, Barry is approached by Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) with an opportunity: Own your own business and fly reconnaissance missions in Central America for the CIA. Seal’s photos are appreciated by Schafer and his bosses and they decide to add runs to Nicaragua for Seal to give Manuel Noriega payoffs in exchange for his intelligence on communist rebels. Seal’s flights in and out of Central America attract the attention of a cocaine smuggling cartel that includes Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia). The cartel wants Seal to fly their product into America on his return trips. In exchange they will pay him enormous sums of cash. The CIA turns a blind eye to Seal’s work for the cartel but the Drug Enforcement Agency tries to shut him down so Schafer moves Seal, his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and their kids to a small town in Arkansas. There they set Seal up with his own airport and thousands of acres of undeveloped land surrounding it. Soon the CIA wants Seal to ferry Contras into the US for training and transporting thousands of guns for their insurrection against the communist government of Nicaragua. Barry Seal is playing both sides in a dangerous, high stakes game that could lead to a great deal of death and destruction. If only he had listened to Nancy Reagan and just said “No!”

“American Made” follows the adventures of Barry Seal and his dealings with the CIA, a major drug cartel and the Contras of Nicaragua. It is a story of patriotism, capitalism and the fight against communism. It’s a story of hubris and well-informed stupidity. It is also a study in not learning from history and being doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. In other words, “American Made” is about what’s going on right now. It is an entertaining movie that takes a true story and almost makes you hope Barry Seal somehow gets away with everything he’s doing and lives happily ever after with his wife and kids under a new identity in a small town staying under the radar. Sadly, real life rarely works out fairly.

I really enjoyed “American Made” and the performance of Tom Cruise as the devil-may-care Barry Seal. This is the kind of role Cruise can sink his teeth into; creating a nuanced and complicated character that is able to ride the line between hero and villain. Nothing Seal does after about the first five minutes of the movie is remotely legal, even if he is doing it for the US government; but Cruise makes Seal such a likable rogue you can’t help but hope he succeeds (check Wikipedia to find out how things turned out for Seal). Unlike the character he played in “The Mummy,” Cruise is able to find the right balance of caring husband/father and gun/drug-running scumbag. He’s the kind of guy you’d like to have a few beers with and be enthralled by his stories. You’d never know if he was lying to you but Seal (as played by Cruise) is so charming and entertaining you wouldn’t care. Barry Seal is probably Cruise’ best performance in the last 20 years.

Domhnall Gleeson is also terrific as CIA operative Monty Schafer. A brilliant combination of best friend, kindly mentor and threatening bureaucrat, Gleeson gives Schafer just the right mix to make him interesting to watch since you are never quite sure which side of his personality will show up. Gleeson is woefully underused in the role. While it would have never happened in real life it would have been great to see Schafer join Seal on a trip to Nicaragua and experience life in the field for once.

While “American Made” is extremely entertaining the story is also ultimately infuriating. Knowing how things turn out for the CIA operation and the eventual creation of the Iran/Contra plan that tainted President Reagan’s legacy and wound up exposing the extent of the intelligence agency’s involvement in drug running, money laundering and arms dealing, watching it all unfold onscreen and seeing how there were numerous opportunities to stop it makes you wonder just how smart the people running the darker corners of the government are. It reminds me of the new PBS documentary on the Vietnam War from Ken Burns. In the second episode there are at least two, possibly three, opportunities for America to pull out of Vietnam; but the fear of Communism and the desire of President Kennedy to get reelected proved to be more powerful than common sense. While I’m no student of history, there are probably more examples of obvious signs that should have been heeded to prevent catastrophe and failure that were ignored. Apparently tunnel vision is a very real and dangerous thing.

“American Made” is rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity. The nudity consists mostly of women in lingerie and Tom Cruise’ bare backside he flashes at his family as a joke. We see a couple of sex scenes but they are very mild and brief. Foul language is common throughout the film.

On numerous occasions I have referred to Tom Cruise as a “tool” for his behavior on the Today Show towards Matt Lauer and his association with the Church of Scientology and I maintain that opinion; however, I am also of the opinion that, if given the right role, Cruise is one of the best actors in the world. In “American Made,” Cruise is in the right role. While Barry Seal may have been a dumpy man way in over his head, Cruise makes him a charismatic rebel that almost pulls off a masterful plan to get rich beyond anyone’s dreams. It may be a perversion of the American Dream but Seal, as played by Cruise, makes it look attainable and worth the risk.

“American Made” gets five stars.

A long-gestating sequel, a high-altitude adventure and animated juvenile equines debut on screens this week. I’ll see and review one of the following:

Blade Runner 2049—

The Mountain Between Us—

My Little Pony—

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Review of “Ex Machina”

Several luminaries, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, have recently warned against the development of artificial intelligence. Hawking even going so far as to warn it could begin the end of the human race. Despite these dire predictions, researchers continue to explore the frontier of creating a machine that can think or, as the Merriam Webster dictionary defines it: a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers. In science fiction films, the definition of artificial intelligence, or AI as it’s commonly referred to, is expanded to include the notion that the machine is in fact alive, self-aware and capable of all human behaviors including evil. Adding the evil element is crucial to use AI as the main driving force of a story. In “Ex Machina,” the AI is incased in a synthetic brain and housed in an android that could be considered very attractive, even sexy; but as the old saying reminds us, you can’t judge a book by its cover.

Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) writes code at Bluebook, the top search engine in the world. Bluebook’s billionaire creator and owner Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) is conducting a lottery amongst his employees with the winner getting to spend a week with Bateman at his secret compound. Caleb wins and soon finds himself in a helicopter flying to his eccentric boss’ home. Inaccessible by any other means, Caleb is left by the chopper and must walk along a river to a sleek home that can only be accessed by a security key card which is made for him at the entrance. Walking in, Caleb finds Bateman working out with a heavy bag. The two exchange small talk but it is stilted and uncomfortable. Bateman encourages Caleb to relax and consider this as two buddies hanging out at a really cool house for the week. Bateman tells Caleb the reason he’s there is to perform a Turing test on a new artificial intelligence program Bateman has created. The Turing test is designed to determine if a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior is equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. The next morning, Caleb is surprised when an Asian woman walks into his room and delivers his breakfast. Bateman says her name is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and that she doesn’t understand any English. It’s a way to maintain security as Bateman’s home is also a research facility. Other than Kyoko, they are alone. Caleb is put in a room with a glass wall that looks into a larger suite of rooms. Soon Ava (Alicia Vikander) walks into view, sees Caleb and approaches. Ava is an android housing Bateman’s artificial intelligence. Her face is the only part of Ava that has skin. The rest of her body appears to be a metal case and transparent areas where you can see her inner workings. Ava is curious about this new person, only the second she’s ever met. Caleb is amazed at her grasp of language and her ability to learn. Caleb and Bateman discuss his impressions of Ava and Bateman shows a propensity for megalomania as he turns something Caleb said into implying Bateman is a god. The next day as Caleb and Ava are talking, the power goes out and the facility goes to emergency batteries. The outage also knocks out all the security cameras and microphones recording their interactions. Ava warns Caleb not to believe anything Nathan says. Confused, Caleb doesn’t report what Ava said to Bateman. Over the course of their talks, Ava puts on clothes and a wig to appear more human and Caleb begins to feel pity for the android that is locked away from a world about which she is so curious.

“Ex Machina” is a subtle tale of life, love, loneliness, deception, ego and what exactly it means to be alive. The U.K. film written and directed by Alex Garland is a quietly riveting tale. It is accessible sci-fi that asks hard questions and offers no easy answers. It is the kind of movie audiences will either love or hate but won’t be able to walk away from without having a strong opinion either way.

Aside from the somewhat creepy performance of Oscar Isaac, the standout role here is Alicia Vikander’s Ava. Vikander doesn’t do the expected stilted, emotionless performance that is the standard interpretation of artificial lifeforms. Ava is slightly emotional. You can see it in her face as Caleb describes the loss of his parents in a car crash when he was a teenager. The mixture of pity and concern on Ava’s face was a surprise as one might expect an unchanging expression from an android. Instead, Ava gives a minimal indication of anguish. It is enough to get the point across but not so much as one would expect from a person. Ava is in the wasteland between humanity and machinery. Vikander’s performance is a tour de force of subtlety. It is a subtlety the audience believes as Ava is an unknown that could behave in a million different ways from overly emotional to completely blank. Since Ava is an AI, perhaps she would misinterpret what was expected of her reaction. Vikander and director Garland play this scene and many others perfectly with a “less-is-more” philosophy. They let Gleeson and Isaac handle the big emotions while Vikander has the harder job of showing what a new consciousness would do. Ava’s movements, accented with quiet, slightly mechanical-sounding effects, are also measured and economical. There are times when Ava is shown lying down, curled up in a fetal position. In looking back, I now wonder why? Ava doesn’t sleep and can’t tire in the traditional sense so why is she lying down? Is it an effort to show us just how human she is? Is it motivated by Ava’s desires to be accepted as human so she does the things humans do? The fact I am asking these questions a full day after seeing the film speaks to the impact of the story.

Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson are fantastic as Bateman and Caleb. Their initial uncomfortable interactions give way to an uneasy friendship which slowly dissolves. Isaac plays Bateman as someone who is constantly on the line between normal, average person and complete psychopath. Isaac turns Bateman on a dime, making a simple discussion into an uncomfortable showdown. Bateman always seems to have other motives behind his actions and Isaac is able to show the audience that he’s scheming without making it obvious. Bateman is not a mustache-twirling villain, he’s much more dangerous. Gleeson plays Caleb as a goldfish thrown into Bateman’s shark tank; but Caleb soon learns to have as dangerous a bite as his boss. Gleeson has Caleb wear his heart on his sleeve when it comes to Ava. It is a quick trip from considering her a science project to a person in trouble that needs his help. The cat-and-mouse game between Bateman and Caleb is just as interesting as the Ava storyline.

Ava’s look is as much a character as Ava herself. The mixture of metallic frame, transparent limbs, skull and midsection and a lifelike face make it nearly impossible to take your eyes from her. The effect is mechanical and futuristic without being so completely alien as to make Ava distracting. Her face, often shown in close up during her conversations with Caleb, is her only normal-looking human feature; yet it’s enough for the audience to quickly join Caleb in thinking of her as a person. There are other moments in the film without spoiling anything that show just how different a creature she is. All of the visual effects in the film are flawless.

“Ex Machina” is rated R for graphic nudity, language, sexual references and some violence. There are several times we see fully nude women. There is a brief scene where a character describes how it’s possible to have sex with Ava and that she would enjoy it. The violence comes at the end of the film. I don’t want to spoil anything but I will say it is brief and rather graphic. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

After Star Wars came out back in the late 70’s, science fiction enjoyed a brief renaissance. Sadly, many of these films were merely repackaged plots from westerns and other genres that were now set in space. Many studios thought if their films had spaceships and ray guns they would make money. They were wrong as they didn’t try to make the stories they were telling compelling enough for the public to part with their cash. That has always been the problem with science fiction: If you peel away the special effects is there a story worth telling and being seen by an audience? Often the answer is no; however, “Ex Machina” is compelling and asks the kinds of questions that may need answers in the next 50 years. In the meantime, go see the movie.

“Ex Machina” gets five stars.

After all the hype and publicity it’s finally here: “Avengers: Age of Ultron” hits theatres this week as the only wide release. Normally I don’t say which film I’m going to review next; however, I don’t see any point in being coy when one of the most anticipated movies in the last 20 years is opening. So, next week you can be assured of what I’ll be reviewing. Here’s the latest trailer:

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