REVIEW: Truth or Dare

Everyone is familiar with the old trope of going out with your friends on a Friday night, settling into theater seats with some popcorn or soda, and watching a scary movie. Like Michael Jackson in the “Thriller” music video. Even if you’re not that much into horror yourself, you’ve likely seen this image before. The movie might not necessarily be good, but for many people, it’s still an idea of a fun night.

Truth or Dare is a great type of movie for this. It’s surprising and scary, shallow enough to make fun of but still deep enough to be genuinely clever. The film tells the story of Olivia (Lucy Hale, Pretty Little Liars), a kind and charitable girl who is enticed into joining a spring break trip to Mexico by her best friend, Markie (Violett Beane, The Flash). While they’re there, they end up getting roped by a stranger into a game of Truth or Dare. When they return to school, they find that the game is possessed with a demon that has followed them back, and now they must take turns being forced to play with the demon. If they answer untruthfully, fail to complete a dare, or refuse altogether, they will be killed.

In a lot of ways, this movie follows a typical, formulaic scary-movie structure. Without naming names, many of the friends are picked off one by one in a series of violent deaths that each manage to be shocking, despite the often-predictable nature of the movie. Olivia and Markie, the main characters—each a “Final Girl” in her own way—eventually end up returning to the Mexican mission where they initially played the game in an effort to set everything straight. When people are possessed temporarily by the demon, their faces take on smiles with a freakish Uncanny Valley quality, which is genuinely disturbing to see.

Additionally, many of the characters fall into convenient and general archetypes, particularly when it comes to the side character friends. Ronnie (Sam Lerner) is an insensitive jerk nobody really wants around. Penelope (Sophia Ali) is an alcoholic. Brad (Hayden Szeto) is the perfect son who’s hiding the fact that he’s gay from his police officer father—who, incidentally, manages to crop up out of nowhere at even the most random and improbable places and times. Each character has one defining feature about them. Only with Olivia, Markie, and Lucas (Markie’s boyfriend and Olivia’s crush, played by Tyler Posey), do these features begin to expand into truly fascinating character arcs.

At the center of the movie is the friendship between Olivia and Markie, established at the very beginning. The repeated line, “Between you and the world, I choose you,” is crucial, as over the course of the movie this friendship is tested in ways that range from trivial to terminal. The audience is coaxed into caring about each of them. Markie is grieving the death of her father, who took his own life, and even at the times when the story seems to flirt with turning her into an antagonist, it is always easy to sympathize with her point of view. Hale and Beane have tangible, believable chemistry, and one finds oneself rooting just as much for them to stay friends as for them to make it out of everything alive.

In many ways, Truth or Dare can be said to be another drop in the bucket of predictable, college-student-focused, slasher horror movies. But the characters are real enough (and the performances strong enough) that it’s still engaging, and it is truly clever in a lot of ways, featuring some major plot twists—again, some of them easily foreseeable, but some still totally out of the blue. It’s not the type of movie you’d root for at the Oscars, but it is the type of movie that will show you a good time if you’re just in the mood to buckle down with some friends and enjoy some good, old-fashioned scares. Truth or Dare is currently showing at multiple local theaters, including the Quality 16 and Rave Cinemas.

REVIEW: A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place is built off of a premise that makes itself known even in the title: The world is quiet. Anyone who makes a sound places themselves in immediate peril of being violently destroyed by any one of a group of sound-hypersensitive monsters that have taken over the country, and possibly the world as well. The idea of a movie in which the characters cannot speak is an interesting concept, and a particularly inviting one for the horror genre, in which so much can be drawn from jump scares and loud noises.

Indeed, A Quiet Place makes plenty of use of these. In this way, the movie benefits from the rules it sets for itself, because in a world of so much silence, each jump scare is that much more arresting. There are other common horror elements at play in this movie, from the horrifying images of the monsters themselves to some of the concepts on the screen, like when the children (Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe) nearly drown in a silo and are unable to scream out for help.

But what ultimately makes this story so frightening is the devotion that everyone in the family feels toward everyone else. John Krasinski, who directed, co-wrote and co-starred in the movie, has said in interviews that he wanted the primary focus of A Quiet Place to be the family’s love and dedication, and he absolutely succeeded. He and Emily Blunt, his wife in real life, star as a husband and wife, Lee and Evelyn respectfully, who will do anything to keep their children safe in this dystopian world. Their love for the children is palpable, and small gestures and acts throughout the movie, like Evelyn’s attempts to teach her children reading and math, bring the audience closer into their minds and make it easier to sympathize with them. Which is, after all, the primary objective of so many horror movies, and for good reason: If the audience can come to sympathize with the main characters, then the concern for their safety will be that much more impactful and close, because it will feel similar to a concern for the safety of the self.

Beyond its success within the horror genre, though, the film is fascinating in and of itself, in large part because it isn’t afraid to break its own rules. Or rather, it follows its own rules, but it explores them in so much depth that the viewers are allowed to view them both from within and from without.

The main one, of course, is the principle of silence. The characters are unable to speak out loud, so they communicate through pantomiming, mouthing, and sign language. However, early on in the movie, Lee takes his son Marcus to a river, where the two of them are able to speak out loud for the first time in the film. The way Lee explains it, talking is loud, but the river is louder, which means it drowns out any sound of them being there, and they are safe for the time being. While this does seem to invite some more questions—namely, if talking by the river is safe, why doesn’t the family just move to the river?—it is also a crafty early indication that the film is ready to get creative.

“Creative” is probably the best overall way to describe this movie. Bolstered by strong performances by all four of its lead actors, A Quiet Place, while unconcerned with background information (How did things come to be this way? What was this family like before all of this?), is a skillful look into the strained, meticulous process of preserving love in the face of the apocalypse. A Quiet Place is currently showing at local theaters around Ann Arbor, including the Quality 16 and Rave Cinemas.

PREVIEW: A Quiet Place

Recently, The Michigan Daily did an interview with John Krasinski, the director, co-writer and star of A Quiet Place. Krasinski first came into the public eye for his starring role as Jim Halpert on the American version of The Office, and it has been captivating to watch him branch out into more dramatic territory in the years since the show ended. In the interview, he talked about his goals for A Quiet Place, and the conscious decisions he had to make regarding sound and music, since the characters in the movie can’t make a sound without being attacked by violent creatures.

As someone who loves the horror genre, I’m incredibly excited to see the approach that this new film will take, and how it will use the lack of sound as an advantage rather than a detriment. It should also be interesting to see how the real-life chemistry between Krasinski and Emily Blunt (Sicario), his co-star and wife, plays into the movie and translates onto the big screen. A Quiet Place is currently showing at various theaters around Ann Arbor, including Rave Cinemas, Emagine Saline and the Quality 16.

PREVIEW: Truth or Dare

Truth or Dare is a horror movie about a game. The premise of a thrilling or suspenseful movie being built around a sleepover game isn’t a new one; we’ve seen it done before, in movies as recent as 2014’s Ouija and 2016’s Nerve (which actually used the same truth-or-dare premise, albeit in a much more techno, futuristic setting). Maybe the deal is that we get a new one every two years, and in 2020, we’ll get a scary movie revolving around “Two Truths and a Lie” or “Never Have I Ever”.

Truth or Dare looks like a standard slasher horror movie, the kind with a bunch of teenage friends getting picked off until it all comes down to one Final Girl. While it doesn’t appear to add any promising innovations or creative new spins to the genre, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it’s just fun to go out with your friends on a weekend night and see a horror movie, even if you’re not sure what to expect from it. The movie looks entertaining, and hopefully it will be able to bring some old tropes into fresh territory in its execution. Truth or Dare is currently showing in several local theaters, including Quality 16 and Rave Cinemas.

REVIEW: Darkest Hour

The Oscars happened this past Sunday, prompting, as always, a great deal of praise, backlash, and warring responses. People have celebrated Jordan Peele’s screenwriting win for Get Out and argued Guillermo del Toro’s victories, with The Shape of Water taking Best Director and Best Picture. One of the most controversial wins seems to have been Best Actor, which was awarded to Gary Oldman of Darkest Hour.

Darkest Hour chronicles Winston Churchill during his appointment to, and very early days in, the position of Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. During these early days, fellow politicians are relentlessly pressuring him to attempt to negotiate a peace treaty with Adolf Hitler, whose control is rapidly spreading across all of Western Europe. Churchill refuses to consider the idea of a peaceful resolution; in one particularly impactful and memorable scene, he shouts, “You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth!”

The main plot that rides along with the conflict of the film is that of Dunkirk and Calais, where the last of the British army has been trapped by rapidly advancing German forces. This is interesting given that the movie Dunkirk was also released last year, which focuses entirely on the battles being waged while the high-tension conversations of Darkest Hour were taking place. Darkest Hour doesn’t entirely measure up to that level of excitement, for understandable reasons, but it does include quite a lot of impassioned arguing, quotable speeches, and shouting within small rooms. In other words, it’s true to form: It’s about Churchill.

The best thing about the film is probably Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill. He looks just like him (a feat which earned the film an Oscar win for Best Makeup and Hairstyling), and he offers what many have agreed to be one of the most convincing portrayals of his career. There are many conflicting sides to Churchill — he could be courteous and caring, but he could also be brusque and abrasive. During one memorable scene from the movie, Churchill is dining with King George VI, who tells him that many people — including the King himself — find him intimidating. Churchill seems surprised, but it’s not hard to see why people would be intimidating — as George points out, one can never be sure how Churchill will react to anything. Whether or not he deserved the Oscar for it (my opinion is no, but only because Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out was also in the running), Oldman is wildly impressive and convincing throughout.

The film has a few weak points, mostly in terms of its inclusion of women. The poster for the movie features two female characters — Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James as Clementine Churchill and Elizabeth Layton, respectfully — which seems promising at first glance. However, this proves to be somewhat misleading. Thomas and James offer very strong performances, but they aren’t given very much screen time to work with, and they seem somewhat incidental to the plot, especially in comparison with the many male characters.

Ultimately, the film is indeed a very strong period drama, and it succeeds in its twin missions of documenting an important moment in history and elucidating some of the mysterious facets of Churchill’s character. Given the immense strength of so many other films released last year, I personally think it lacks some originality in comparison. However, viewed independently, it is a strong piece of film and an enlightening character study of one of the major figures of the twentieth century.

PREVIEW: Darkest Hour

The Oscars are almost upon us, and all the buzz surrounding recent movies is finally going to come to a head. Lady Bird turned heads last fall for its run as the best-reviewed film ever on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has proved both stunningly unexpected and stunningly controversial; and Call Me By Your Name has received praise for its intimate presentation of a 1980s gay romance in Italy.

One of the few Big Picture nominees that I actually haven’t heard that much about, surprisingly, is Darkest HourDarkest Hour stars Gary Oldman — a longtime seasoned actor, who may be recently remembered for his role as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter franchise — as Winston Churchill during his early days as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. It promises to resemble both a character study of Churchill himself as well as a document of many of the political conversations behind World War II and the spread of Nazi Germany. This will be an interesting angle because one of the other big films this year, Dunkirk, portrays the other side of those conversations: the actual military conflict.

Darkest Hour looks to be a serious and impressive political drama, and I look forward to seeing whether it will live up to its peers. It is currently showing at the Quality 16 in Ann Arbor.