I thought for The Captain’s Super-Special Horror Month I would do something a bit different! This month, Amazon Studios teamed up with Blumhouse to release 4 new horror films directly to Amazon Prime, and I am going to be reviewing all four this month!
Black Box (2020) – Film Review
Logline: After losing his wife and his memory in a car accident, a single father undergoes an agonizing experimental treatment that causes him to question who he really is.
Starring: Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine
In this feature, we meet a man named Nolan who is suffering from a Traumatic Brain Injury after a horrific car accident. Nolan has trouble remembering simple tasks, dates, names, and more, though he is trying his best. When he forgets his daughter at school, for the third time in a row, her teacher threatens to call social services if it happens again. So, in a desperate attempt to keep custody of his daughter, Nolan agrees to undergo an experimental treatment run by a shady doctor named Lillian (Phylicia Rashad).
As you can guess, things do not go well, and soon Nolan is experiencing hallucinations, nightmares, horrendous visions, and warped memories from his past, all leading him to question his own sanity and the true motives of this new doctor.
I have to admit something before we really get into the review: you see, when I watched the trailer for Black Box, I immediately thought of one of my favorite Black Mirror episodes, Play Test, starring Wyatt Russell. Play Test is about a happy-go-lucky American traveler who signs up for an odd job to test out an augmented reality video game. However, he soon finds himself trapped in a virtual haunted house, which may be more real, and more deadly, than he was led to believe…
I think the comparisons are easily made here, as both have a virtual reality of some sort that our lead character has his consciousness uploaded into by a shady corporation with their own ulterior motives and, of course, our hero experiences all sorts of mental, emotional, and, eventually, physical torment while in the digital space.
That said, I did try to go into this film with an open mind and no preconceived notions about what this film was or could be. So, what did I think?
The Themes: I really liked how the story played with the idea of memories and that what is real to you is partially just what you remember, even if you remember it incorrectly. For example, the fact that we see all of these pictures of Nolan and his Wife (who died in the car accident) and everyone tells us that they were the perfect couple, but as Nolan starts to remember more and more, he begins to question if they were ever really happy in the first place.
The Acting – The film is also very well-shot, and extremely well-acted, especially by Mamoudou Athie, an actor I had not seen before, though he is in the upcoming Jurassic World: Dominion, and has been in blockbusters like The Circle, and Underwater, so he is certainly an actor to watch.
I also really liked the little girl who played Nolan’s daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine), and the actor who played Nolan’s best friend, an actor named Tosin Morohunfola.
What Needed Work
The Horror: I was somewhat disappointed by the horror in this horror story, as the plot revolved around manipulations of the mind which could be horrifying, if done correctly.
I also think there was a missed opportunity to play with the idea that maybe Nolan was actually dead, similar to Jacob’s Ladder (1990) and that this was his purgatory. Now, I’m not saying that Black Box should have chosen this direction as the final reveal, but with the multiple lines of dialogue that state Nolan was technically brain-dead after his car accident and that everyone was surprised that he recovered at all, I felt like they could have gone in a different direction than what the filmmakers ultimately chose.
Finally, the device that Nolan is hooked up to doesn’t seem terrifying at all. Now, that may be a strange note, but I think the filmmakers could have really elevated the medical horror here by making the machine that Nolan must use for his “sessions” of memory recovery more disturbing. If it were some rusted, twisted relic of a bygone era in medicine, the scenes in which Nolan has to get ready to go into his virtual reality would make the audience squirm, and we would certainly understand Nolan’s trepidation at trying the therapy.
The Twist: I didn’t buy the “twist” for several reasons, but mostly because I didn’t feel that we, as an audience, were given enough information to figure it out beforehand, or at least enough information to not feel like this surprise came out of nowhere.
A good “twist” should be a natural continuation, often a conclusion, of narrative elements set up previously in the script, not a “Gotcha!” moment that is pulled out of nowhere for a brief, unfair shock. I feel that this “twist”, though it comes in the middle of the film, does not work for me. It may have worked better as the ending of an episode of Black Mirror, but for a full feature length contained feature film this direction was a bit disappointing.
No spoilers, but the film tries to borrow certain elements from a much better relatively recent horror picture (to name it would be too close to spoiler territory, but those who watch this film will immediately know which other project I am referencing) to a much lesser extent and with a far weaker impact.
The “reveal” is also narratively problematic, as it tries to shoehorn in some pathos for a character who is not a good person, who we would not like under any other circumstances, and whom we have never really met or set up before this moment. The choice really drags the film down, and erases everything and everyone we previously cared about, which leaves us in a sort of weird story-limbo.
The Ending – We have seen this exact ending done several times before, with a literal battle between good and evil taking place in the character’s subconscious. Not only has it been done frequently in other, better films, but the filmmakers don’t choose to do anything exciting with the visuals in this scene which was a huge missed opportunity, especially given that Black Box was a Blumhouse and Amazon co-production, so the budget was likely not an issue.
Ultimately, I would hesitate to even place this film in the “horror” category, as there is very little in the way of actual horror in this film, despite the Promise of the Premise. Not a bad film, but nothing that really stands out or leaves a lasting impression, especially for those looking for something spooky to watch this Halloween.
My rating: 5/10
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The Lie (2020) – Film Review
Logline: A father and daughter are on their way to dance camp when they spot the girl’s best friend on the side of the road. When they stop to offer the friend a ride, their good intentions soon result in terrible consequences.
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Mireille Enos, Joey King
Our story starts with Kayla (Joey King) being taken to a ballet camp against her will by her father (Peter Sarsgaard). On the way, they run across one of Kayla’s friends, Brit, who is waiting at the bus stop for a ride to the same ballet camp that Kayla is attending.
Kayla insists that they give Brit a ride, so Jay reluctantly picks up Brit.
We quickly see why Jay was so reluctant, as the tension in the car starts to rise as soon as Brit gets in. Brit begins to flirt with Jay, much to Kayla’s disgust, then insults Kayla when Kayla tries to break it up. Eventually, Jay stops the car for a quick bathroom break and the girls head off into the snow-covered forest.
When they are gone for a suspiciously long time, Jay goes to check on them and discovers something horrifying: Kayla is alone on a bridge, crying, and claims to have pushed Brit to her death in the freezing water below.
After Jay gets a nearly-catatonic Kayla back to the car, he decides that they need to tell someone, so the two go to see Kayla’s mother, Rebecca (Mireille Enos) who Jay is separated from, and try to tell her the truth.
But the truth is a funny thing, and both Kayla and Jay struggle to reveal the horrible reality of their situation to Rebecca. Eventually, Rebecca does discover what happened, and then our plot really kicks into gear. Rebecca is a trial lawyer, so she knows that Kayla is in a very bad situation: she fought with Brit, she pushed Brit to her death, and then Kayla and Jay left the scene of a crime.
Which then leads to the question: what does the family do next?
Like many of the great psychological thrillers that have come before, The Lie is about flawed people in an impossible situation and is as much a character study of parents on the edge, as it is a tense thriller where everyone lies until the truth itself becomes murky and muddled.
This is the perfect psychological thriller setup: a murdered girl, everyone is a suspect, no one is telling the truth, and everyone reacts in a way that, while you may not agree with or support, at least you can understand.
So, ultimately, what worked about this project and what could have used some improvement?
The Acting – Mireille Enos was fantastic in the criminally underappreciated series The Killing (2011), which both she and co-star Joel Kinnaman deserved much more awards-recognition for, and this film is no exception. Mireille Enos once again proves that she can handle anything a script throws at her, and that she deserves a spot on the A-list.
Actress Joey King, who some may know from the much-talked about (though not always in a positive way) The Kissing Booth 1 + 2, also gives a very interesting and vulnerable performance as the daughter with many dark secrets. The day after Kayla murders Brit, Joey King bounces around, acting like nothing happened, which is a very creepy choice and sent chills down my spine. And her final scene is both heartbreaking and disturbing all at once.
Finally, Peter Sarsgaard nails the burn-out, balding father who gets in way over his head. He reminds me of David Harbour with his growl, his scruffy beard, and his bloodshot eyes. Sarsgaard’s laid-back attitude, rage-induced outbursts, and greasy hair provides a nice foil to Mireille Enos’ straight-edged, workaholic mother character.
The Dilemma – The concept of “Is A Parent’s Love Unconditional?” is a fascinating one, and one that this film does a good job of exploring. That said, I do wish we had a bit more time in the setup to really get to know these characters before everything goes wrong.
I would certainly recommend screenwriters and filmmakers watch this film and consider how you might have written this story. What would you have done differently? Would you have changed anything? If so, what?
What Needed Work
Sam – Cas Anvar plays Sam, Brit’s dad, who begins to harass our main family when his daughter goes missing. Now, I understand this character’s purpose, and I know that the writers were just trying to raise the stakes and tension in the story, but it felt forced.
From what we know, Sam is a drunk and a deadbeat dad who Brit has run away from multiple times, and who may have even hit her on occasion. The fact that he suddenly becomes a super-dad who is worried about his daughter seems strange and felt forced, especially as Brit had only been missing a few hours, at least when he first drops in on Rebecca. Add to that the fact that Brit has run away from home multiple times, and Sam’s actions seem strange and forced.
Now, to be fair, Rebecca and Jay do blatantly lie to Sam, and act very shady, but Sam jumps to a lot of conclusions with no evidence and it felt like a stretch.
More Forward Movement – There is a point about halfway through the film where things stop moving forward. By that I mean there is very little happening, as the characters just wait for the inevitable consequences of their actions. I understand that the filmmakers were trying to give us human moments and were building the unease in the home, but when the story starts with a really intense and shocking moment, then slows down so suddenly, it is jarring.
A way the filmmakers could have fixed this is by introducing a ticking clock of some sort. Perhaps Rebecca and Jay know that Brit’s body will be found in just a few hours / days, or perhaps school is starting again soon, and Rebecca and Jay don’t trust Kayla to keep quiet about the murder.
The Twist – I really enjoyed the final twist. It’s a real gut-punch, and is very nihilistic and bleak, which makes it a perfect way to end the film. I actually didn’t see this coming, but I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from this film in terms of a resolution, so I was very pleasantly surprised.
Overall, I really enjoyed this one. It is not necessarily a fun watch, as The Lie is immensely bleak, but it is a well-acted, high-concept piece. Horror-fans be warned, though, much like Black Box, this film is not really a horror, but more of a psychological thriller.
My rating: 8/10
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