Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)


Abandon all hope.

Abandon all hope.

(2010) Horror (FilmDistrict) Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson, Garry McDonald, Alan Dale, Julia Blake, Bruce Gleeson, Edwina Richard, Carolyn Shakespeare-Allen, David Tocci, Lance Drisdale, Nicholas Bell, Libby Gott, James Mackay, Emilia Burns, Trudy Hellier, Terry Kenwick, Guillermo del Toro, Dylan Young (voice), Lisa N. Edwards, Kim Ross. Directed by Troy Nixey

Occasionally as children we see a movie that moves us in such a way that it inspires us to take our lives in a direction that might seem unexpected upon the surface. For Mexican horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, that movie was the 1973 TV scarefest Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark in which a troubled young woman moves in a creepy old house and begins to hear voices, see figures scurrying in the shadows and can’t get anyone to believe her that there are creatures living in the house. He was so taken by this movie that he resolved to make these sorts of movies when he grew up. Once he became an in-demand director, remaking the movie that started it all for him became a priority.

Strangely, when the opportunity came to make the movie, he didn’t direct it. Instead, he turned the reigns over to second-time director Nixey. Del Toro also changed the young woman into a little girl and set her and her family loose in a crazy creepy Australian mansion.

Little Sally Hurst (Madison) is shuttled by her somewhat distant mother to live with her father, Alex (Pearce) who is in the midst of renovating a sprawling Rhode Island mansion for a client which would then be sold at an immense profit. Sally is sullen and not at all happy about things, particularly since Alex is completely absorbed by the project which if he can’t pull off would mean financial ruin. It is then his girlfriend Kim (Holmes) who spends the most time with Sally. Sally, who doesn’t like Kim, makes her dissatisfaction known.

Unknown to all three of them, renowned wildlife painter Emerson Blackwood (McDonald) disappeared from the house years earlier. When Sally discovers a hidden ash pit in the basement, she releases a tribe of fairy creatures who turn out to be quite malevolent. They torment Sally and when she tries to explain that the awful things going on to her father, he doesn’t believe her. At first, neither does Kim; in fact, the only person who does is the caretaker, Harris (Thompson) who only wants the three of them to leave.

Eventually the creatures make their hideous plans known to Sally and despite the disbelief of her father, she manages to get Kim to come around. However, can they stand up against a race of creatures that is immeasurably old and have all of time on their side?

Del Toro has a history of putting children in the lead of his horror movies (The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth) and so it’s no surprise that he does so again here. It’s quite natural for adults to disbelieve the wild stories children sometimes tell. However, it then becomes harder to put children in jeopardy, particularly in an American major studio production. Studios are a bit squeamish about that, Jurassic Park notwithstanding. For the most part, we never get a sense that Sally is in any real danger; the creatures, which look like Gollum with anorexia, aren’t really all that scary.

The movie was slapped with an R rating, precisely because the child had the appearance of being endangered but don’t let that fool you; this is definitely more of a PG-13 experience. Pearce and Holmes do a decent job, but they’re not really the focus here; Sally is and while Bailee Madison is a competent child actor, she never really was one that I cared for too much. She’s always seemed a bit insufferable in her performances and Sally certainly is that.

Nixey and del Toro are experts at creating a mood and with the marvelous location and truly creep-worthy sets definitely accomplish the task but again, the lack of feeling of imminent jeopardy kind of wastes all that effort. This is one of those movies that’s all atmosphere and essentially no payoff. It’s surprising because normally del Toro is such a reliable writer. Maybe if he’d made this one independently in Mexico, this might have been a better film. Or maybe if he left the lead character as a troubled young woman instead of a grumpy little girl. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly praiseworthy either.

WHY RENT THIS: Definitely the right location for a haunted house movie. Solid performances by Pearce and Holmes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Converting Sally to a child was a tactical error. Lacks a sense of dread or jeopardy.
FAMILY VALUES: Horror violence and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the TV movie that this is based on, Sally was the name of Alex’s wife, not daughter. Here, Alex’s girlfriend is named Kim – and Sally was played by Kim Darby in the original.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gallery of concept art here.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.0M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Killer

Entourage


Rollin' with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

Rollin’ with E, Vinnie, Drama and Turtle.

(2015) Comedy  (Warner Brothers) Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Jeremy Piven, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Perrey Reeves, Rex Lee, Debi Mazar, Rhys Coiro, Constance Zimmer, Haley Joel Osment, Billy Bob Thornton, Ronda Rousey, Emily Ratajkowski, Scott Mescudi, Alan Dale, Piers Morgan, Nina Agdal. Directed by Doug Ellin

Hollywood is as much a state of mind as it is a place on Earth. You can drive to it but you can never really achieve it; that is, unless you’re one of the lucky, magical few who make it in that town. And when you make it, so do those you brought up with you.

Vincent Chase (Grenier) is a movie star who is celebrating his divorce (or rather, his annulment) after nine days of wedded bliss on a yacht off of Ibiza. His boyhood chums – Eric (Connolly) who has been Vincent’s manager since his younger days; Johnny Drama (Dillon), his older brother whose stunning lack of success in becoming an actor is probably rooted in the fact that he can’t act for squat – and Turtle (Ferrara), Vinnie’s driver who just recently hit it big in a vodka line with Mark Cuban – are joining Vincent to drink away their sorrows, or whatever it is they’re drinking away.

Ari Gold (Piven), Vincent’s long time agent, has retired to Italy with his wife (Reeves) but at the behest of studio CEO John Ellis (Dale) has taken over the studio as production chief. His first order of business is to get Vincent locked into a new movie that looks like it could possibly become a smash hit – Hyde, a techno-retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic .

When the movie runs into some financial issues and needs a few extra mill to finish up, Ari is forced to go to the money for the film – Texas rancher Larsen McCredle (Thornton) who sends his son Travis (Osment) to Hollywood to find out why more money is needed and whether or not the money already invested has been well-spent.

In the meantime, Vincent’s boys are having their own problems. Eric’s ex-wife Sloan (Chriqui) is about to have their baby and is willing to give their relationship another chance. However, perpetual nice-guy Eric has a relationship going with Dana (Zimmer) which might get in the way. Turtle is trying to get in good with MMA superstar Ronda Rousey (herself) who may nor may not be amenable to the idea, and Johnny Drama may have found the role that may finally turn his career around. The trouble is, it’s in his brother’s movie and Travis, the affable but dopey Texan, wants to cut him out of the film. And Vincent’s relationship with gorgeous starlet Emily Ratajkowski (herself) may complicate things more than either of them can imagine.

This takes place right after the HBO series ended its run four years ago after an impressive seven years on the cable network and is awash in celebrity cameos. So many that they are often of the blink and you missed them kind, like a venal encounter between Ari and Liam Neeson. Some of the cameos, like Rousey and Ratajkowski, are much more substantial and integral to the plot.

The good news is that if you didn’t watch the HBO series, you can still enjoy the movie – which is a fear I think may have kept some people away from theaters. Fans of the series will get a lot more of what they want; the teenage boy fantasy of endless parties, endless money and endless women, all of whom are SoCal gorgeous. Of course, there’s plenty of digs at the shallow Hollywood society, from the drug dealers to the studio heads to the creative sorts. Everyone has an angle, or so Entourage would have you believe, other than the innocents from Queens who stuck with their guy through hard times and are there with him to enjoy his success.

The humor here is crude and profane, and those offended by such things are going to have plenty of reasons to stay away. However, there are a lot of good reasons to go see this, in no small part thanks to Piven who made Gold an iconic character on HBO and shows that Ari, despite anger management courses and therapy, still rages with the best of them. Also of note is Osment, who after a successful child acting career has simply developed into a fine actor and shows some fine comic timing here; hopefully roles like this will help him garner more parts in a town which may have pigeonholed him into seeing dead people.

I don’t know that there was a demand to see Entourage again; while the creators were hoping that this would spawn a trilogy of big screen installments, the reality is that the show had something of a cult status at best and probably didn’t have enough of a core rabid fan audience to make those plans ill-advised. However, the movie that resulted was entertaining enough and even if you’re not counting cameos – which would be a fun drinking game when it makes it to home video – there’s plenty to make it worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: Ari Gold, man; Ari Gold. Osment shows some real comic chops.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many cameos spoil the broth. Maybe excessively crude.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of profanity, nudity and sexual references, and a little bit of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character Turtle is based on Mark Wahlberg’s real life assistant Donnie “Donkey” Carroll, who passed away at age 39 on December 18, 2005 from an asthma attack.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 39% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Spy

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Harrison Ford tries to get away from Shia LaBeouf who is convinced he’s Marlon Brando.

(2008) Adventure (Paramount) Harrison Ford, Shia LaBeouf, Cate Blanchett, Ray Winstone, Karen Allen, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Igor Jijikine, Alan Dale, Joel Stoffer, Neil Flynn, VJ Foster, Sasha Spielberg, John Valera, Ernie Reyes Jr. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

It only took 19 years but Indiana Jones did return to the big screen. Fans have been eagerly waiting the fourth installment of the series ever since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wrapped but was their patience rewarded with a movie worthy of the scruffy fedora and bullwhip?

It is the 1950s and the Cold War is raging full-bore. At a secret army base in the Southwest, a group of men dressed as U.S. Soldiers take over, led by an ice-cold femme fatale Soviet named Irina Spalko (Blanchett). With her are captured American agents Mac McHale (Winstone) and the legendary archaeologist Indiana Jones (Ford).

She is after a strange artifact Jones had dug up years earlier – a crystal skull, one of only 13 in the world. The Soviets are after it with the idea of using it for mind control. Indy of course wants to prevent this from occurring. He makes a game attempt to steal the Skull but Irina and her cohorts are too well-armed, too well-organized and too many for Jones to make a clean getaway – plus there is the little matter of a double agent.

Indy manages to escape from the Soviets by the skin of his teeth. When he returns home, he is accused by the FBI of being a double agent. He is allowed to go free because nothing can be decisively proven, but he is forced to go on an indefinite leave of absence from his job at Marshall University (to avoid being fired) because of the incident.

At a train station, Indy is stopped by Mutt Williams (LaBeouf), a greaser who tells him that Indy’s old colleague Professor Oxley (Hurt) had been kidnapped after discovering a crystal skull in Peru.  He also gives Indy a letter from his (Mutt’s) mom, also held captive, that contains a riddle written by Oxley in an ancient Incan language.

After being chased by Soviet agents, Indy realizes that this might be the clue he needs to recover the Skull from Irina and maybe just save the world again, so he goes down to Peru to find the Skull. Also hot on its trail is Irina and she’s holding both Oxley and Mutt’s mom hostage. But when Indy goes to rescue them, he discovers to his shock that Mutt’s mom is Marion Ravenwood (Allen) – his old flame. Now it becomes a race between Indy and the Soviets to find the secret of the Crystal Skulls with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

This was one of the most highly-anticipated movies of recent years and in some ways it was a victim of its own expectations. I don’t think anyone seriously thought that the newest Indy would be at the same level as Raiders of the Lost Ark but at the same time there was hope it might at least be better than the last one.

I think that for the most part it was perceived as a disappointment and I recall being disappointed at the time it came out. Coming back at the movie from a fresh perspective some four years after it was released, I have to say that it’s much better than I remember it being. Some of the stunts, like the swordfight on the moving jeeps, are among the best of the series.

There’s also some cringe-inducing moments, such as when Indy survives a nuclear warhead test by hiding inside a lead-lined refrigerator. That one stretched incredulity to the breaking point. Still, by comparison this movie holds up well compared to the others despite the differences in style (more of a ’50s B-movie than a ’30s serial) and tone.

Ford steps back into the role of Indiana Jones without missing a beat and even 20 years later still has the physicality to do many of his own stunts. One casualty of the years is his chemistry with Karen Allen which I never thought was particularly strong in the first place, but they seem awkward together here, like a couple of people who had a fling years ago but have both moved on.

Worse yet is LaBeouf. He was the object of most of the complaints for those who criticized the movie and I do understand some of those issues – he feels out of place here. I think it’s because he’s trying too hard to do a Marlon Brando impression from The Wild One and it just seems silly. I don’t know that I would have cast LaBeouf as Indy’s son – but then who do you cast in a role like that? At least he has some understanding of big action films from the Transformers series.

Better though is Blanchett who as Irina makes up the best villain of the series, better than Mola Ram even. While Ram was evil and had the ability to pull your heart from your chest, he wasn’t a physical presence. Blanchett can shoot, kick, fight, swordfight and is at least as brilliant as Dr. Jones. She is a formidable opponent.

I think if you take this at face value there are some radical differences from the original trilogy, but then you have to expect that since everyone involved has gotten older. There’s more CGI here but it’s used really, really well. In fact from a technical standpoint this is one of the better movies of the last five years. It also adequately captures the spirit of the Indiana Jones movies – the wisecracking, the insane action – but doesn’t regurgitate it. It’s not a classic like the first and third movies are but it is certainly a solid movie I can easily recommend to just about anyone.

WHY RENT THIS: Again, it’s Indiana Jones. Blanchett makes an excellent villain. Fine turns by Hurt, Broadbent and Winstone.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: LaBeouf seems a bit out of place here. Chemistry between Ford and Allen not as strong. Concept somewhat weak as Indiana Jones films go.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some Indiana Jones-style violence and a few scary images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Indiana Jones series was always intended to be five films; however after Last Crusade Spielberg felt that he’ d reached a logical end to the series with the iconic final shot. However, after his son asked when the final two films would be made, Spielberg once again became interested. After Ford stated in a 2006 interview that if the movie wasn’t made by 2008, there would not be a fourth film in the series, Spielberg began fast-tracking the development of the script. 

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the history of the real crystal skulls as well as a fairly fascinating but ultimately incomplete story of the movie’s 14 year trek to the big screen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $786.6M on a $185M production budget; despite being a critical failure the movie is considered to be a big financial hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paul

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Lovely Molly

Priest


Priest

Amtrack announces new economy seating for those unwilling to pay full fare.

(2011) Sci-Fi Horror (Screen Gems) Paul Bettany, Karl Urban, Maggie Q, Cam Gigandet, Lily Collins, Steven Moyer, Brad Dourif, Christopher Plummer, Alan Dale, Madchen Amick, Dave Florek, Joel Polinsky, Josh Wingate. Directed by Scott Stewart

Conscience can be a tricky thing. We are often called to do what our conscience demands and that can be at odds with what those around us say is right. The person following their conscience is either a hero or a sociopath, depending on your point of view.

The world is at peace. The great Vampire War is at last over, thanks to the Church and its warrior Priests. The surviving vamps and their human familiars have been exiled to heavily guarded reservations, their great hives deserted. The Church is in charge de facto, making productivity and work an article of faith. There is no need of the Priests any longer.

That is, until one such Priest (Bettany) gets a visit from Sheriff Hicks (Gigandet) from the frontier outpost near where the Priest’s brother Owen Pace (Moyer) was working at reclaiming the desert and making it fertile again. He and his family were attacked by vampires, the first such attack in ages. His sister-in-law Shannon (Amick) died in the attack and their daughter Lucy (Collins) kidnapped. The Priest asks permission to leave the city and deal with this but Monsignor Orelas (Plummer) forbids it. The Church’s authority and ultimate control derives from the population believing they’re safe from the vampire threat. Should the Priest leave it could erode the Church’s mandate.

Nonetheless the Priest leaves, travelling to the Outpost on one of the Church’s high tech motorcycles. He arrives to find his brother on death’s door, begging the Priest to rescue Lucy. The Priest hangs around long enough to bury his brother, then takes off with the Sheriff, who is sweet on Lucy, to find the missing girl.

In the meantime, Monsignor Orelas has assigned the Priest’s former crew including a Priestess (Q) who may have a case of hero worship evolving into romantic feelings for him, to find the Priest and bring him back dead or alive. The Priest heads to a nearby reservation to find the vampires missing and guards dead. Only a few familiar and weaker vampires remain. The remaining vamps attack at nightfall and the Priest dispatches them but it’s obvious something very sinister is afoot.

The Priestess catches up with the Priest and Sheriff in an abandoned hive but they are all surprised to find a Hive Guardian – a kind of vampire-infected dog – still guarding the Hive. The Priestess confesses that she’s not there to take the Priest back but to join him instead. The trio discovers that the Hive was recently populated and signs point to a train that is headed into a nearby town.

Behind all the chaos is Black Hat (Urban), a former priest infected by the vampires. He kidnapped Lucy mainly to draw out the Priest – the Black Hat blames Priest for his fall from humanity. The two are going to go mano a vampo before the end, the train headed on a collision course for the unsuspecting city and the corrupt church that rules it.

Stewart’s last movie was Legion and that was another CGI-heavy movie with spiritual overtones that starred Bettany. There the similarities end – in fact, this film has more in common with the John Wayne classic The Searchers (whose plot it pilfered virtually verbatim) than with his last picture. Stewart has a tremendous visual sense; the cityscape is dreary, visually influenced by Blade Runner with its dreary aesthetic. Outside the city are gigantic statues a la Lord of the Rings. The outer frontier is barren wastelands straight out of the westerns of John Ford with a little bit of Mad Max thrown in.

Bettany goes the Clint Eastwood – what is it about would-be action stars that they think they have to grunt their lines through a larynx as squinted as their eyes – route and is at least credible, although I don’t think Vin Diesel or Jason Statham have anything to worry about for now. Maggie Q has a pretty decent action pedigree of her own and while she’s no Michelle Yeoh, she holds her own.

Karl Urban is one of those actors that doesn’t come to mind when thinking of great character actors, but when you think about his most recent performances you realize you can’t think of a bad one. This isn’t one of his finest moments but it still resonates; even the campy one where he conducts the invisible orchestra as his vampires wipe out a town; like most of the best moments in the movie, it’s seen on the trailer.

There are some pretty nice action sequences, particularly the fight in the hive and the climactic battle aboard a moving train. Unfortunately, the movie is played so flat it actually lacks energy; you walk out of it feeling curiously numb, as if you’d just taken a sedative. That’s not a feeling you want to leave an action movie with.

There’s enough to give the movie a bit of a recommendation, but not to urge you to go out of your way to seek it out. The visuals are great and although Bettany’s Eastwood impression doesn’t do the movie any favors, he is at least visually a presence. There is far worse out there and probably much worse to come. There is also much better out there and certainly much better to come.

REASONS TO GO: Some very nicely realized action sequences. Art direction is magnificent; the setting is imposing and combines the Wild West and science fiction genres nicely

REASONS TO STAY: Bettany’s channeling of Eastwood is distracting. For all the grand settings the film is curiously passionless.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images as well as some scenes of violence and ghoulishness.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gerard Butler was originally cast in the lead role.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the grand vistas are more effective on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Something Borrowed