Friday, March 29, 2019

Big Ears: Despite adorable Dumbo, “Dumbo” never really takes flight

Dumbo (2019)
112 min.
Release Date: March 29, 2019 (Wide)

The Mouse House is leaving no stone unturned in reimagining every one of their animated properties, and 2019's succession begins with “Dumbo,” a live-action/CG-assisted remake of the 1941 Disney classic by director Tim Burton (2016's "Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children"). Dumbo—the big-eared elephant, that is—could fall firmly into Burton’s menagerie of lonely, misunderstood outcasts, and a circus of so-called freaks would be right at home in Burton Land, but aside from a few moments that showcase his signature style and weird, whimsical sensibilities, “Dumbo” curiously comes off as one of Burton’s most anonymous efforts. Where’s the joy and magic? In expanding upon the basic framework of the original film (both based on Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl’s book), screenwriter Ehren Kruger (2017’s “Ghost in the Shell”) and director Burton don’t really do much to make the film pop or make it their wondrous own. Unlike Dumbo, “Dumbo” isn’t anything more than fine, never really taking flight or engendering enough feeling to move one to tears.

Around the end of World War I, widowed veteran and former circus trick-rider Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) returns home, having lost his arm but reuniting with his children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins). The children have lost their mother to influenza but have made their own family within the Medici Brothers Circus. Circus ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) had to sell Holt’s horses while he was gone, so he puts Holt in charge of elephant maintenance. When a pregnant elephant, Mrs. Jumbo, gives birth, the baby elephant is derided for having floppy, oversized ears and then watches his protective mama being taken away from him. Milly and Joe take to the elephant immediately, particularly when they realize their new friend can levitate and eventually fly with the flap of his ears when a feather goes through his trunk. The news of the mockingly dubbed “Dumbo” gets around and in comes V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), a charismatic but slimy and opportunistic entrepreneur who wants to exploit the animal as the main attraction with Parisian trapeze artist Colette Merchant (Eva Green) at his cutting-edge theme park Dreamland. 

With expressive, soulful eyes, Dumbo is an impressively animated CG creation, making one believe an elephant can fly again, and as it should be, the adorable little pachyderm is worth caring about. Unfortunately, the script has to fill out a whole extra hour and doesn't know what to do with all of its boring, underwritten human characters. It also doesn’t help that the performances mostly register as either muted or broad. Colin Farrell has a low-key charm as Holt, and Eva Green (Burton’s latest muse) adds a little more spark as Colette. As science-minded Milly, newcomer Nico Parker has a sweet, graceful presence, not to mention a dead-ringer resemblance to her mother (Thandie Newton), that she completely outshines her forgettable co-star, Finley Hobbins, as brother Joe. As for Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito, there is the chance to see Bruce “Batman” Wayne and Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot in the same film again, only to have their heroic and villainous roles reversed. Beaming in from a livelier, cartoonish movie, Keaton revels in the hammy villainy here, but his V.A. Vandevere is a generically one-note mustache-twirler without any surprises; in fact, by selling tickets before even making sure his circus act with Dumbo and Colette will work, his Vandevere reminds of an early-20th-century Billy McFarland, the would-be mastermind behind Fyre Festival. Then there’s DeVito, who brings some zing to ringmaster Max Medici, but his shtick with his pet monkey is hardly amusing.

For large chunks of “Dumbo,” one forgets that Tim Burton is actually at the helm, until a nod to the original film's hallucinatory "Pink Elephants on Parade" scene serves as a reminder when Dumbo imagines pink soap bubbles morphing into elephants. Dumbo’s first flight in the circus ring in front of a crowd provides the one brief moment of wonder, and the first glimpse of Vandevere’s art-deco-styled Dreamland through the pearly gates like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory also catches the eye. Not much else in the workmanlike production really wows, though the technical efforts of Burton’s longtime collaborators, like production designer Rick Heinrichs, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and composer Danny Elfman, cannot be faulted. It should also be noted that an anachronistic cameo by a certain ring announcer is more jarring than clever and will surely fly over the heads of the young target audience. While the 1941 film told its beautifully simple yet big-hearted story in just a hair over an hour, this “Dumbo” feels joyless, needlessly protracted, and mechanically plotted when it could have pared down the excess of side players around Dumbo and concentrated on its core story about a put-upon boy, animal or not, finding courage to reunite with his mother. Somehow, this new version is just flat when our heart should be flying high with the little elephant that could.

Grade: C

Thursday, March 21, 2019

As Above, So Below: "Us" a tense, spectacularly weird, next-level work of twisted genius with plenty to discover and debate

Us (2019)
116 min.
Release Date: March 22, 2019 (Wide)

After writing and directing only his first feature that became a water-cooler hit and won him an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, is it premature to consider Jordan Peele a modern master of horror? Maybe not. Peele tore out of the gate with 2017’s inventively creepy, socially relevant “Get Out,” announcing himself as a clear, exciting voice that tucked sharp social commentary into the skin of a horror film. Despite the pressure to live up to that debut, the filmmaker sidesteps the sophomore slump with his second film “Us.” There will be the temptation to compare “Us” with “Get Out,” but it would be a complete disservice to both films since both have different stories to tell and different thematic aims. Like Peele’s first film, “Us” exists in a reality with a heightened, through-the-looking-glass skewed logic, and also like “Get Out,” “Us” works on two different levels: it’s a bold, entertaining horror film on the surface and it also has more on its mind with so many haunting, thoughtful secrets to unpack and chew on after letting it marinate in the mind.

Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex) are taking a vacation to Santa Cruz at their summer home. At first, Adelaide refuses to meet their friends, Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) and Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and their twin daughters Becca (Cali Sheldon) and Lindsey (Noelle Sheldon), at the beach because it reminds her of a childhood trauma in 1986 when she wandered off the boardwalk into a beachfront funhouse of mirrors. On their way there, strange coincidences begin to match up, giving Adelaide a sense of foreboding and concern, and then Jason temporarily goes missing. Later that night, as Adelaide is telling Gabe that she’s feeling unsafe like a dark cloud is hovering over her, Jason interrupts to tell them that a family is standing in their driveway. It’s a family, all in red jumpsuits, that looks exactly like the Wilsons. Who are they and what do they want?

Breathlessly tense, spectacularly weird, and metaphorically rich, “Us” is like experiencing a lucid nightmare, a next-level, wildly envisioned work of twisted genius. Following a 1986-set opening on the Santa Cruz boardwalk that shrewdly plays with expectations and dodges the crutch of employing a jump scare, the film immediately builds empathy around the Wilson family—here, the fact that the family we are following is African-American doesn’t seem to be a statement on race, just a welcome, revolutionary step in on-screen representation—and then boils over with dread on a personal, seemingly isolated scale. The supremely creepy home invasion is just the beginning, as writer-director Jordan Peele has a lot to say between the lines, exploring what it means to be human, the divide of America, the haves and the have-nots, and nature vs. nurture, while favoring ambiguity over cut-and-dried answers.

Lupita Nyong’o (2018’s “Black Panther”) is nothing short of astonishing in dual roles, blurring the line between protagonist and antagonist as the fiercely protective Adelaide and angry doppelgänger Red. Nyong’o is such an engaging and nuanced performer that the camera hangs on every emotion she palpably feels and every word she speaks. It seems like daunting work to play a tethered reflection of Adelaide's reflection as Red with changes that are both physical and vocal, but Nyong'o is tremendous in her commitment and versatility. Like Nyong’o, each cast member (not only in the Wilson family) gets to play a feral, malevolent double, and each of them are effective. Winston Duke (2018’s “Black Panther”) is likably goofy as Gabe, the corny dad who tries to be hip and keep up with the Tylers by buying a boat on the cheap. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex are terrific as teenage athlete Zora and pre-teen Jason, who get their moments to shine, particularly when they are quick to turn to violence and compare their death counts. Also worth mentioning: Elisabeth Moss (2015’s “Queen of Earth”) and Tim Heidecker (2018’s “Flower”) both make a major impression as bickering, afternoon-drinking, bitterly unhappy couple Kitty and Josh, particularly in one of the film’s most startling set-pieces.

Nervy, challenging, genuinely unsettling, and unexpectedly poignant, “Us” is a thinking-person’s horror film that respects the intelligence of both its characters and the audience. Jordan Peele is precise and deceptively multilayered in his construction, dealing out clues and totem imagery of rabbits, scissors, people linking hands for the noble failure of benefit campaign Hands Across America and the Biblical verse Jeremiah 11:11 before his grand reveals, and an expert of tone, slicing humor through the horror without ever taking a wrong step. Every facet of production is working on the highest level, Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography dynamic with a flair for measured pull-outs and a 360-degree pan, and Michael Abels’ score a chilling harbinger of menace, including a children's choir over drum beats and chimes lending serious “The Omen” vibes during the opening credits sequence. The uses of Luniz’s hip-hop hit “I Got 5 on It,” The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and NWA’s “Fuck the Police” are all memorable, too. The ultimate beauty of “Us” is that it is so dense with subtext and details, leaving plenty to discuss and debate voraciously. Inspiring so many interpretative What It All Means theories and rewarding viewers with new discoveries on repeat viewings, this is exactly the kind of ambitious, fascinating horror film that the world needs.

Grade: A -

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Apocalyptic Mixtape: "Starfish" a dreamy, intimate tone poem

Starfish (2019)
99 min.
Release Date: March 13, 2019 (Limited)

Loss, grief, and isolation can feel like the end of the world, and in “Starfish,” the end of the world is not just a metaphor. Without simplifying A.T. White’s writing-directing debut, the easiest way to describe the film is to imagine Netflix series “13 Reasons Why” as a surreal, meditative cosmic drama, à la Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” albeit with alien creatures and an indie-rock soundtrack. White (who also serves as his own editor, composer, and co-creature designer) intermittently provides a visual grandiosity usually reserved for big-budget sci-fi tentpoles, but what really works here is the forlorn intimacy and quietly affecting quality the film achieves. “Starfish” is more impressionistic than it is straightforward storytelling, not so much telling an A-to-B narrative as it is evoking a vivid feeling. As a dreamy, unhurriedly paced tone poem and a directorial calling card, it’s certainly unusual, ambitious, and deeply personal.

After the funeral of her best friend Grace (Christina Masterson) on New Year’s Eve, radio deejay Aubrey Parker (Virginia Gardner) is in such a state of devastation that she can't even find works. She walks back to Grace’s apartment, goes through her thrift-shop things and feeds her pet turtle and jellyfish, and then falls asleep. When Aubrey wakes up to a chill, she realizes there is no heat or electricity and that she could be the last one in the isolated, snow-capped town, ravaged by alien creatures. It’s the end of the world as Aubrey knows it, but with the help from a man’s voice over Grace’s CB radio, she finds a cassette tape labeled “THIS MIXTAPE WILL SAVE THE WORLD,” which is the first of seven that Grace has hidden around the town where the friends used to go. Venturing out, Aubrey assumes that she must follow her late friend’s clues in order to stop the signal transmission that has opened a door for these alien monsters to come to Earth and bring about an apocalypse. If Aubrey chooses to ignore it, will the world still exist?

Virginia Gardner (who made a memorable impression in 2018’s “Halloween”) pulls off emotionally honest work as Aubrey Parker, taking on the challenge of carrying the film on her own. Aubrey keeps seeing a man from her past, now with his face bloodied and hollowed-out, and herself on a beach at night, and her guilt becomes clearer as she goes deeper down the rabbit hole. Almost as abstract as a mind-bender by Shane Carruth but more emotional, “Starfish” marches to the beat of its own drummer with a poetic, elegiac visual language. The viewer must let most of what happens wash over them, like an anime sequence or a dip into meta territory when Aubrey wakes up on a movie set, spotting actress Virginia Gardner and director A.T. White. When Aubrey finally realizes the consequences, the film sneaks up on you and reaches a cumulative poignancy that’s fraught with a rush of melancholic emotion, cued to Sigur Rós’s ethereal, haunting ”Ekki múkk.” It’s important to rally behind first-time filmmakers with exciting voices, and A.T. White is bound to be heard.

Grade: B -

Step Up with LSD: "Climax" off-putting but intoxicating and unforgettable

Climax (2019)
95 min.
Release Date: March 1, 2019 (Limited) 

Not afraid of stirring up controversy, pushing limits, or daring audiences to walk out in disgust, iconoclastic writer-director Gaspar Noé (2015’s “Love”) runs with his artistic freedom, specializing in swirling, disorienting camerawork; graphic sex, violence and drug use; and just a general unsparing, rule-breaking danger. With his latest insane, French-and-proud-of-it provocation “Climax”—Noé’s fifth feature in twenty years—all those elements are here, plus the art of dance, and already baked into Noé’s adventurous modus operandi of filmmaking, so all naysayers need not apply. Inspiring ambivalence, “Climax” is alternately an anxiety-ridden endurance test and pure art-house cinema: it’s exasperating and off-putting, confrontational and self-indulgent, and daring and transfixing. There really is no way to passively watch a film like this, as Gaspar Noé might as well be saying, “You’ve seen nothing yet.”

It’s 1996 and a French dance troupe made up of twentysomethings from all over the world is about to tour America. They’ve been rehearsing for three days in a former boarding school and now they’re ready to imbibe and party after their last rehearsal. Choreographer Selva (Sofia Boutella) is flirting with “walking STD” dancer David (Romain Guillermic), who’s not done sleeping with all of the female dancers; Taylor (Taylor Kastle) does not approve of his sister Gazelle’s (Giselle Palmer) boyfriend Omar (Adrien Sissoko); lesbian lovers Psyche (Thea Carla Schott) and Ivana (Sharleen Temple) are having trouble in paradise; Lou (Souheila Yacoub) isn't drinking because she's pregnant yet hasn’t told anyone; and the creative leader, Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull), has her young son Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant) with her before putting him to bed. When Selva is the first to not feel well and then one of the dancers empties her bladder right on the dance floor, it seems someone has spiked the communal bowl of sangria with a potent batch of LSD, resulting in a violently paranoid mob mentality, guttural screaming and crying, and hedonistic-turned-bestial impulses that run rampant. 

“Climax” begins with a bird’s-eye view of a woman stumbling through a blanket of snow, until she collapses. She starts making a snow angel, blending the white snow with crimson red from her blood-covered body and then proceeding to scream and crawl. Presumably, this woman is the possible survivor of a harrowing situation, and then, like Gaspar Noé’s other works, the end credits roll as if we have already watched the film, coupled with a text reading that the film was based upon a true event in 1996. Then we are introduced to the many members—maybe twenty or so—of the dance troupe through a playback of their talking-head auditions on an old TV. Surrounding the boxy TV are books and VHS tapes of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession,” Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie,” and many more of Noé's influences. The first dance sequence, set to Cerrone's disco-electronic "Supernature" and mastered in a single take, is electrifying and and breathtakingly staged as the dancers krump, vogue, bone break and flex, and sensuously slide across the floor, and it will easily end up being one of the most rewatchable cinematic moments this year. Before the LSD kicks in, there’s a ten-odd-minute patience-test of the characters, usually two together in the frame, sharing petty gossip, making confessions, and crudely talking about sex, as if to get a sense of who these people are beyond their shared talent. As “Climax” pulses along without an escape, watching it is like being the only sober one at a party where everyone else is in an altered state; in a way, the film is not outwardly trippy as much as the viewer is a witness to everyone’s bad trip.

If nothing else, “Climax” is a technical wonder, with Gaspar Noé and cinematographer Benoît Debie’s (2013’s “Spring Breakers”) virtuoso collaboration of the always-moving camera assisting in sustaining an edgy mood through long takes and rave-like lighting. Apart from the masterful opening dance routine, there is a hypnotic overhead shot of a high-energy dance circle that slowly but surely takes a turn, some of the dancers getting more aggressive and three of them laying on the floor by the end, clearly feeling the early effects of the acid (followed by a thirty-minutes-in flash of the main credits). At a later point, once the madness has already struck, the camera flips on the floor as if the drugged-out dancers appear to be an orgy of intensely writhing and thrashing bodies on the ceiling. Improvising off a five-page treatment, the entire cast is fearlessly uninhibited and spontaneous, game to be placed through the wringer and take their minds and bodies to frenzied extremes. Sofia Boutella (2018’s “Hotel Artemis”), a former professional dancer, is the only recognizable face and the only working actor in the bunch, and she is captivating to watch with the willingness to dive into the physically and emotionally draining demands with a freakout involving her black tights.

While the easily offended and weak-stomached will find the film repellent and unwatchable, Gaspar Noé’s most fiercest defenders might even fool themselves into believing there is more here than a cruel, nihilistic, nightmarish experience. It’s hard to say what lives under the surface—text flashes on the screen, like “Life is a collective impossibility” and “Death is an extraordinary experience,” as if to lend meaning—and how much of Noé’s intoxicating high-wire artistry actually serves the storytelling and how much of it is just the ballsy auteur’s urge to shock and show off. Even at 95 minutes, “Climax” is a wildly challenging, often numbingly repetitive sit that overwhelms, mesmerizes, and intimidates. If it never quite achieves the emotional heartbreak as 2010’s mind-blowingly transcendent, legitimately great “Enter the Void,” there’s still no way to deny Noé’s berserk descent into hell and loss of control being effectively visceral and unforgettable. Indifference isn’t really an option for a dizzying, brain-melting sensory assault that is hard to endure but even harder to shake.

Grade: B -

Friday, March 8, 2019

Just a Girl with Fireball Fists: "Captain Marvel" a good start with Brie Larson owning title role

Captain Marvel (2019)
124 min.
Release Date: March 8, 2019 (Wide)

Since the DC Cinematic Universe scored with 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” Marvel Studios finally decided to play long-overdue catch-up with their bid to give a female superhero—Carol “Vers” Danvers—the chance to headline a solo origin story, so it’s impossible not to root for “Captain Marvel.” Beyond this being groundbreaking for Marvel, co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (2015’s “Mississippi Grind”), who co-wrote the script with Geneva Robertson-Dworet (2018’s “Tomb Raider”), get stuck with the setup phase, which they at least construct as an amnesiac mystery, and are obligated to fit their title character into the grander universe. Even as the twenty-first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it somehow feels more like a Phase One installment by not showcasing the best of which Marvel is capable, though it’s thankfully not as forgettable and underwhelming as 2010’s “Iron Man 2” and 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World.” “Captain Marvel” proves sturdily entertaining and empowering all the same, but the best is likely yet to come.

Plagued by strange dreams, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) still has no memory of her life before living on planet Hala, colonized by the Kree, but after being rescued from a crash, she has been mentored and groomed into a warrior by commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who calls her “Vers.” He urges Vers to fight without using her superpowered abilities, like blasting fireballs out of her fists, and Kree’s A.I. ruler Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening) tells her to control her emotions. During a mission with Yon-Rogg and Kree’s Starforce team, Vers is captured by the shape-shifting enemy Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), to read her mind and then escapes, hurtling towards Earth and landing inside a Blockbuster Video (the time period is 1995). To Vers, Earth is Planet C-53, and once she attracts the attention of a younger, pre-eyepatch-wearing Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Vers will discover how she started as an Air Force fighter pilot, and together, they will have to put an end to the intergalactic war and protect cosmic cube Tesseract.

Marvel has continued to hire exciting filmmakers to bring a signature style and really let their creative personalities shine through. With “Captain Marvel,” it should come as no surprise that co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s first giant, effects-driven tentpole shines the best during the quieter, human-centered scenes, like when Carol and Nick Fury banter or when Carol goes to Louisiana to visit best friend/co-pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Maria’s 11-year-old daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). After all, Boden and Fleck are known for indies, like 2010’s disarming gem “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” and have previously worked on a much smaller scale, so it is a bit disappointing that their action scenes aren’t as confidently helmed, often rendering them murky and choppily edited. There are rousing if not exactly memorable action set-pieces, and if there are any sequences that stand out, there is an entertaining double chase on a train between Carol and a Skrull, who keeps shape-shifting into different train passengers, as Fury and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) are chasing Carol below the train. 

Pay no attention to the misogynistic, “He-Man Woman Haters Club” trolls: the inestimable Brie Larson is well-cast and wonderful as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. Defining the role as well as Robert Downey Jr. did with Tony Stark, she has a plucky, no-nonsense but charismatic presence with a quip at the ready; sick of being told that she’s too emotional, Carol is an ass-kicker but also a peacemaker. The character doesn’t experience a conventional A-to-B growth, nor has she been written with many interesting flaws besides rebelliousness, but what she learns about herself is more of an internal arc, and the viewer discovers more about Carol at the same rate she begins to fill in the blanks of her past. Looking like he just wrapped “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” Samuel L. Jackson gets to be funny and loose, sharing a playful, snappy buddy-comedy chemistry, and shows a softer side when it comes to kitty cats. The most seamless effects work actually happens to be the “fountain of youth” digital trickery for Jackson’s Nick Fury, and Goose the cat is also a scene-stealer with a surprise that makes him more than just a furry feline. Lashana Lynch provides warmth and strength as Carol’s best friend Maria, and her reunion with Carol might make up the film’s most affecting moments and could have been deepened even more. Annette Bening and Jude Law certainly make do with their allegiance-shifting roles, but it is Ben Mendelsohn, who has played a number of baddies and brings unexpected shading and comic timing in his reptilian make-up to Skrull leader Talos that will surprise viewers to have their opinion of him change over the course of the film.

With such high expectations for Marvel to keep striving for more and hitting a successful stride, particularly with their “firsts” like 2014’s unapologetically goofy “Guardians of the Galaxy,” 2016’s visually exciting “Doctor Strange” and 2018’s culturally significant “Black Panther,” “Captain Marvel” is a good but unspectacular start. The incorporation of ’90s-era nostalgia does contribute to the fun without overdoing it, including references to dial-up Internet, payphones, pagers and tied-at-the-waist flannel shirts, and decade-specific tunes, like TLC’s “Waterfalls,” Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” and No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” which is prominently used. There’s also a very nice tribute to Stan Lee in the studio logo, as well as a requisite cameo that will make filmmaker Kevin Smith especially happy. If “Captain Marvel” rakes in the dough—and it will—it leaves room for improvement in a sequel now that the table has been set in introducing Carol Danvers. Whether going by Carol Danvers, Vers, or Captain Marvel, she is a welcome addition to the MCU and the Avengers, as she will make a formidable force against Thanos.

Grade: B -

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Not My Son: "Hole in the Ground" a well-acted, beautifully moody build-up with a letdown of a payoff

The Hole in the Ground (2019) 
90 min.
Release Date: February 26, 2019 (VOD); March 1, 2019 (Limited)

Director Lee Cronin’s feature debut “The Hole in the Ground,” a character-driven, Ireland-made horror piece he co-wrote with Stephen Shields, almost comes close to being on the level of previous bold horror-centric acquisitions from indie film distributor A24. While it feels cut from a more conventional cloth than other thematically similar films, particularly Leigh Janiak’s “Honeymoon” and even a little of Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook," it still wisely trusts in the emotional underpinning of a mother-son story that taps into the unnerving notion of a parent not always feeling like they recognize their child. “The Hole in the Ground” may not break much new ground, but it does kindle some eerie imagery and assured performances from its two actors.

Ready for a fresh start away from her abusive husband, young mother Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) makes the move with son Chris (James Quinn Markey) to a rural fixer-upper near a small Irish village. Her biggest concern is Chris adjusting to his new school and making friends. Soon after an encounter with a catatonic neighbor woman, Noreen Brady (Kati Outinen), standing in the middle of the road, Chris runs off into the woods, where Sarah finds a gigantic sinkhole. She finds her son and gets him back home safe and sound, but thereafter, something doesn’t seem quite right about Chris. When Sarah and Chris come across Noreen again, this time in front of their house, the old woman tells Sarah, “It’s not your boy,” and bashes her head into Chris’ passenger window. Chalking the incident up to Noreen’s mental illness, Sarah confides in Noreen’s husband, Des (James Cosmo), who lost his son, and sure enough, Chris’ new behavior—he is no longer petrified of spiders and he pours parmesan cheese on his spaghetti, even though he used to hate it—proves Sarah’s suspicions to be correct that the boy who answers to “Chris” is an imposter.

From the start, there is a sinister level of portent in the beautifully shot early frames of “The Hole in the Ground.” Chris’ reflection is distorted in a funhouse mirror (the first of a recurring motif) at a seemingly abandoned carnival with his mother, and then Stephen McKeon’s dread-inducing score kicks in before a topsy-turvy overhead shot of Sarah’s car traveling down a forest road to assure audiences this won’t be a sweet bedtime story. The film isn’t coy about its genre leanings, but there is a restraint and a measured pacing to how Lee Cronin lets his minimalist chiller unfold without any cheap scare tactics. It is strange that Sarah never seems to report the dangerous sinkhole or mention it to anyone, but at 90 minutes, the film is otherwise tightly constructed and looks and sounds terrific. 

Seána Kerslake is compelling as loving mother Sarah, who’s medicated and dips into a state of paranoia that the viewer isn’t sure what she’s seeing can be trusted. Newcomer James Quinn Markey solidly sells the personality of the real Chris, a normal child who likes playing a goofy-face game on the count of three with his mother but struggles making friends in a new school, and then capably turns on the creepy aloofness of a changeling. Even if the climax is a bit anticlimactic compared to the atmospheric build-up, “The Hole in the Ground” remains attentive to its characters and achieves a mood that is creepy, unsettling, if not exactly frightening, and finally open to ambiguity. It’s effective enough that one is excited to see what nightmarish scenario Lee Cronin cooks up next.

Grade: B -