Revenge of the Nerd: The Gift on Netflix Instant

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It’s rare that a bleak film with a loud, direct and ominously bating title can deliver a satisfying reveal to its nominal mystery. The Box, for exampledespite an intriguing trailer featuring a sinister Frank Langellaended up just being an ultimately empty, scatterbrained mess that signaled the end of Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly’s career. For further examples of ticking-package duds, see It Comes at Night and the Season 1 finale of The Killing (a show I otherwise loved—#holderisms).

Collage courtesy of Dreg StudioOn the flip side, there are the other punchy, promising titles that deliver in spades. The Vanishing (AKA Spoorloosthe original Dutch version), The Guest, The Game and Sleep Tight come to mind. And then there’s Joel Edgerton’s crafty and warped 2015 directorial debut The Gifta complete package that unravels almost as loudly and chillingly as a young Brad Pitt staring into a cardboard box in a desolate field.

I’m not going to get too in-depth plot-wise, as this film relies on a maelstrom of twists and turns. But as to the bare bones, The Gift opens by introducing us to married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), as they relocate from Chicago to the California area where Simon grew up. While the upwardly mobile pair are out doing a little Bed, Bath & Beyond-ing for their new luxury abode, they run into an old classmate of Simon’sa socially awkward fella named Gordo (Edgerton), who dresses and does his hair like he can’t decide whether he’s George Michael or a used car salesman.

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“You gotta have… gifts, gifts, a-gifts!”

Needless to say, Gordo enters their life and starts bringing them… gifts. And herein lies the beginning of a very awkward and mysterious friendship.

One of the main things that makes this tension-riddled flick work is an unexpected turn from Jason Bateman. It’s not that he does anything mind-blowing here, but for once in his career, he doesn’t seem to be playing Jason Bateman. The familiarand, to be fair, reliably funnyMichael Bluth iteration that seemingly appears in every Bateman flick is cast aside for a guy who is less in Bateman’s go-to rational-smartass-good-guy mold. (I’d argue that he didn’t even veer far from this mold in the grimness of Ozark’s first season). Point being that in a film that depends on the unexpected, the casting of an actor we thought we knew playing a guy we clearly don’t is a strong touch.
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Then there’s Rebecca Hall, who, as a compassionate and conflicted recovering addict, reminds us that Rebecca Hall is just a classically good actress who will only enhance a tantalizingly bleak screenplay (see: The Town, The Awakening). And finally there’s Edgerton as Gordoa character I really want to talk about but really shouldn’t for the sake of your viewing experience. But hot shit does our man Gordo deliver one helluva sinister piece of dialogue in one of the film’s climactic scenes. Hell, it’s almost Cranston-esque!

There’s nothing special about Edgerton’s minimalist camerawork here, but there’s also nothing distracting about it. And sure, you can say you saw the ending coming five or ten minutes out. But the mystery certainly builds well leading up to that pointand the reveal is a gut punch you won’t soon forget.  While this is a mystery-suspense drama, it’s also one that should translate very well to fans of horror and dark thrillers. I’ll leave a large stamp of approval at that, and simply urge you to go in blind.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDB: 7.1

-Sam Adams

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Psycho killer, ¿que es eso?: Sleep Tight is a Spanish bedtime story from hell

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Sleep Tight (Mientras Duermes) tells the story of a chronically miserable psychopath whose only cure for mitigating his unhappiness is inflicting despair upon the lives of others. After watching this film, I began to wonder if its director didn’t have a similar predilection toward his audience.

Said director is Jaume Balagueró, the man behind one of the all-time best found-footage horror films (REC) and its sequel, REC2. Here, Balagueró has headier ambitions than a straight-up horror-and-gore frightfest. While billed as a horror-thriller, Sleep Tight is more an ominous narrative wound around one man’s psychopathic existentialism and moral degeneration.

Still, situational hallmarks of the REC franchise are apparent, as the near entirety of this film takes place within the confines of a live-in hotel building (with all other scenes taking place in other indoor locations). The intention here seems to be one of focusing on an interior life and sense of unforgiving claustrophobia. Or perhaps Balagueró is just cinematically agoraphobic.

Manuela Velasco in Rec

In Rec, Manuela Velasco plays a reporter working on a series called “While You’re Sleeping”—further proof that Jaume Balagueró is fixated on fucked up shit happening … while people are sleeping.

As Sleep Tight opens, we are introduced via monologue to César, a balding, fortysomething manager of a live-in hotel who seems to be teetering on the brink of suicide. “Happy. That’s exactly my problem. That I can’t be happy. I never have been. Not even when good things happen to me. You can’t imagine what it means to wake up every day with no motivation. The effort it takes me to find a reason, just one, to not let it all go to hell. And believe me, I give it my best shot. My very best. Every day of my life.”

Sounds like ol’ Cesar could just use a lounge chair, a shrink and a healthy dose of Prozac, no? But as the film unwinds, it gets clear the issue is more psycopathy rooted in sadism than a simple case of the blues.

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“You mad, bro?”

Cesar’s descent into the treachery that fortifies his emptiness begins somewhat innocently. He feeds a neighbor-lady’s dog food that makes it sick (psychos always gotta start with the fuckin’ pooches…). He frames a co-worker he dislikes to get him fired. And he goes to his mute, invalid mother for confessionals about his dastardly deeds, just to revel in the horror on her face.

But these are all just side items on Cesar’s main menuone which involves dismantling the psyche of Clara (Marta Etura), a beautiful, happy-go-lucky female resident at his hotel. To avoid giving anything away, let’s just say that he unleashes a series of attacks on her that channel the Plagues of Egypt. Chloroform is also involved.

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Marta Etura as Clara, who has very little chance of sleeping tight.

Sleep Tight is a tightly wound exercise in psychological horror and tension. It’s well-paced, genuinely distressing, and includes a terrific performance from Spanish actor Luis Tosar as the demented Cesar. Still, something is off here.

My main issue with the film is that, as creepily compelling as Tosar’s performance is, Cesar’s character lacks a backstory. Perhaps the main point of understanding psychopathy is that it lacks rationale. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for Balagueró and screenwriter Alberto Marini not at least attempting to delve further into the enigma that is Cesar. Apart from the fact that he’s unhappy, sadistic and gets fired often, we don’t really know much about the guy. In other words, he’s a pretty unremarkable, garden-variety psychopath.

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“I don’t normally torment tenants, but when I do… eh, it’s actually pretty run-of-the-mill.”

There’s also a stylistic issue that seems a bit tone-deaf here. The heinousness of Cesar is celebrated by a soundtrack that turns to upbeat gleefulness when he’s at his worst. It’s unclear if Balagueró is trying to vilify his audience for their voyeurism a la Funny Games, or if it’s simply dark humor poorly misplaced.

I should also note that unless you’re fluent in Spanish, the dialogue can be a bit hard to follow at times, as subtitle work here lags several seconds behind (at least on Amazon at the time of this post). Not a fault of the film, obviouslyjust a heads-up for the viewer.

Complaints aside, Sleep Tight definitely does the trick if you’re in for a bleak, suspense psychopath flick. And its twist-ending is demonically pitch perfect. The main letdown is that much like its main character, Sleep Tight is just a few creative strokes away from completion.

IMDb: 7.2
GRADE: B / B+

-Sam Adams