Arcadian a relatable dystopian drama, Sting a fun sci-fi throwback, but Greatest Hits tries too hard

Intimacy the key to Arcadian's success

Director Benjamin Brewer and writer Michael Nilon cover familiar ground in Arcadian, a dystopian drama that focuses on one family's efforts to survive against insurmountable odds. John Krasinski's A Quiet Place will likely come to mind often, yet Brewer finds a unique approach to hook us, doing a fine job building suspense throughout while introducing moral conundrums along the way which have no easy answers.

Nilon keeps things purposely vague at the start. We're not quite sure what year it is and there's never an explanation as to what's truly gone awry, though the environment being ruined is mentioned throughout as being the cause of the tumult. Paul (Nicholas Cage) is strict that his sons, Joseph (Jaeden Martell) and Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins), adhere to his rules regarding when they are supposed to be indoors. Violent, nocturnal creatures emerge from the ground once the sun goes down and he requires them to be home. However, Thomas has been pushing the limits, cutting it close again and again, spending as much time as he can at a neighboring farm, where a young lady his age (Sadie Soverall) lives. Of course, when young love is involved, reason goes out the door. One evening Thomas doesn't return home, forcing Paul to go search for him and leaving Joseph to fend for himself. Chaos and tragedy ensue.

Initially, Brewer effectively employs a less-is-more approach where the subterranean creatures are concerned. Glimpses are caught, shadows are used to suggest their appearance and ominous sound effects employed to establish these beings are not to be trifled with. However, as more is revealed, we come to see and understand the threat they pose. The result is underwhelming, to say the least. Appearing to be composed of leftover parts from a variety of movie monsters, they come off as comical and annoying rather than monstrous.

As I said, there's a sense of familiarity to the film, yet what makes it worthwhile is the intimacy Brewer and his cast establish. Using a handheld camera early on, the director captures father and sons in their most private moments – saying grace before a meal, Paul watching his boys play a game of chess, amazed at the men they are becoming – allowing the viewer to empathize and connect with them in a subtle, powerful way. At its core, Arcadian is about a family in crisis, its youngest members forced to choose between adhering to the teachings of their father or striking out on their own. It's a relatable situation many have contended with, whether there are monsters lurking in the dark or not. In theaters.

Sting's narrative web cast too wide

There's a lot of fun to be had with Kiah Roache-Turner's Sting, a wannabe throwback to the sci-fi flicks of the 1950s revolving around an alien spider that grows at an alarmingly fast rate. Charlotte (Alyla Browne) has been dealing with a great many changes in her life. The 12-year-old still hasn't gotten over her father having left her and her mother (Penelope Mitchell), and is still keeping her new stepfather, Ethan (Ryan Corr), at arm's length. The fact the newlyweds have welcomed a newborn into the family certainly hasn't helped her sense of alienation. It's no surprise then that she's in need of a friend and takes notice of a rather unique arachnid that she finds in her room. Keeping it in a jar and feeding it insects, she becomes alarmed by how quickly it's growing. What she doesn't realize is how smart this thing from another world is and that it has to ability to unscrew the lid of the jar it's contained in. Soon, Sting – the name Charlotte has given her new friend – escapes into the duct system of the building to hunt.

The relationship between Charlotte and Ethan is the focal point of the non-arachnid subplot, and while it's needed to give the story substance, it manages to weigh it down as well. The girl is a prodigy, the creator of a unique comic book heroine, while her stepfather just happens to be an illustrator charged with bringing these adventures to four-color life. The scenes between them discussing their collaboration are effective but go on too long, as do other moments dealing with the tension between them.

Scenes involving the small cast of characters don't drag too much but their placement within the script proves detrimental. Having introduced the threat, far too much time is spent dealing with interactions among the tenants that ultimately mean nothing. Once the spider is loose, we need to see it do what it does, not prolong the suspense to the point of tedium. That being said, the monster effects are quite good, a combination of practical effects and computer graphic wizardry. Anyone with arachnophobia will be well advised to stay away. Also adding to the fun is Jermaine Fowler as an unfortunate exterminator who finds himself in way over his head.

In the end, Sting proves to be a mixed bag. Its initial sense of fun fades, only recurring sporadically, while some lapses in logic during the third act undercut the narrative's credibility at critical moments. Still, the spider is cool and Browne channeling her inner Sigourney Weaver to become a pint-sized Ripley tracking down the web-spinning threat is a hoot. In theaters.

Obvious Hits tries too hard to please

I don't mind a movie that starts in the middle and then explains itself as it goes. Some feel the use of flashbacks are a lazy, manipulative device but if the ultimate revelation in question is clever, I don't mind being at sea a bit. This is the approach writer/director Ned Benson takes with The Greatest Hits, a time travel, rom-com hybrid that lacks the charm or imagination necessary to make such a combination work. With nary a likable character in sight, this tedious 94-minute exercise struggles to create a sense of magic, laboring without success throughout to engage the audience.

Harriet (Lucy Boynton) is a young woman whose life is disarray. Two years ago, the love of her life, Max (David Corenswet), was killed in a car accident, an incident that resulted in her suffering a traumatic cranial injury. On meds and attending grief therapy sessions she refuses to participate in, she wanders through life, her headphones always on to prevent hearing certain songs which prompt intense memories of when she and Max first heard the tune in question. However, when this happens, she's convinced she's traveling back through time and is desperate to find the song that will transport her to the moment when she can alter fate and save her lost love's life.

The question as to if she is actually time-tripping or if these moments are a result of her injury is an open-ended one that's answered far too quickly. Had this been extended throughout, Hits might have been an intriguing examination of grief and psychosis. As it is, this is just an excuse for some modest special effects sequences used to ratchet the story back to various points on Harriet and Max's timeline. It's a premise with potential but it all comes off as forced and obvious, it being readily apparent that Benson's intent is to make the viewer shed a tear or three. Being emotionally manipulated at the movies is one of the reasons we go, but when a filmmaker is as blatant as the director is here, it shatters the implicit suspension of disbelief.

The introduction of a new love interest in the person of David (Justin H. Min), a young man struggling with the deaths of his parents, fails to give the movie the spark it desperately needs, though his story is intriguing. There's no chemistry between Boynton and Min, nor between her and Corenswet either, for that matter. The actors do what they can but there's no shaking the feeling that they are simply going through the motions, their performances lacking energy or urgency, which is reflected in Benson's lax pacing. Hits ends up being a film that's perpetually out of tune. Streaming on Hulu.

Chuck Koplinski

Writing for Illinois Times since 1998, Chuck Koplinski is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He appears on WCIA-TV twice a week to review current releases and, no matter what anyone says, thinks Tom Cruise's version of The Mummy...

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