Devil’s Gate (2017)


Bridget Regan is having a bad hair day.

(2017) Horror (IFC) Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Schull, Shawn Ashmore, Bridget Regan, Jonathan Frakes, Javier Botet, Spencer Drever, Adam Hurtig, Will Woytowich, Scott Johnson, Sarah Constible, Beverly Ndukwu, Jean-François Ferland, Jan Skene. Directed by Clay Staub

 

There’s something about creepy old farms that just seem to lend themselves to horror movies Old time farm implements like pitchforks, scythes and rakes become all the more sinister hanging in a barn when someone is being stalked by a creature or a serial killer. American Gothic has more than one subtext, after all.

A local farmer’s wife, Maria Pritchard (Regan) and her son Jonah (Drever) have disappeared and suspect number one is the husband, abusive but devout Jackson Pritchard (Ventimiglia). They’ve owned their piece of land in Devil’s Gate, North Dakota for generations and while Jackson awaits the arrival of angels to make his barren soil fertile the FBI in the person of Special Agent Daria Francis (Schull) to investigate the disappearance.

One wonders who called her in; it certainly wasn’t good ol’ boy Sheriff Gruenwell (Frakes) who not-so-subtly warns her to stay away from Pritchard; reluctantly, he allows Deputy Colt Salter (Ashmore) to accompany her. The Deputy warns the Special Agent that Jackson, whom he went to high school with, is a little bit twitchy and is known for his explosive temper. Still, nobody is prepared for the police cruiser they arrive on the farm in to be struck by numerous bolts of lightning. I mean, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, right?

Well, it does in Devil’s Lake and more to the point on the Pritchard place. Soon it becomes apparent that Jackson may not be as crazy as everyone thinks he is; there are most definitely some things lurking in his basement. There are also beings coming from the sky but they might not be the angels Jackson thinks they are.

The cast is pretty strong with some TV veterans as well as Ashmore who cut his teeth on the X-Men movies. Surprisingly, Ventimiglia chews the scenery more than I’ve ever seen him do before. He was such a compelling figure in Heroes but here he truly embraces the crazy. A fairly high percentage of his dialogue is shrieked rather than stated and when he’s quiet, it’s because he’s giving a menacing mumble. Beyond that, it’s great to see Frakes in a role that isn’t named Will Riker although it is a bit disturbing to realize that 31 years has passed since he originated that role in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the years are definitely taking their toll.

The actors for the most part do their jobs well but they aren’t given a whole lot to work with; the characters really aren’t developed much as writer-director Staub and his co-writer Peter Aperlo don’t give them much in the way of character development to hang their hats on. There are other compensations however; the creature effects are pretty damn good and reminiscent of the work of Guillermo del Toro. There’s also some nifty storm effects although they don’t really break any new ground there.

It’s not an entirely well-filmed movie though. The cinematography ranges from outdoor shots that are so overlit that they look like the sun’s exploding, or indoor shots that look like they were lit by candlelight. Less extremes on both ends would have been sincerely appreciated.

For the most part this is a fairly entertaining sci-fi/horror creature feature, set on a desolate farm in the middle of nowhere a la Texas Chainsaw Massacre loaded with traps a la Saw and some slimy monsters a la Pan’s Labyrinth. This isn’t a rocket science kind of movie but it is a decent enough thrill ride nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the special effects are pretty impressive. It is good to see Jonathan Frakes in a non-Star Trek role.
REASONS TO STAY: Ventimiglia is more than a little bit over-the-top. The cinematography is either virtually washed out or just  about too dark to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The town itself is fictional but there is a town in North Dakota called Devil’s Lake.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
For the Love of George

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Mao’s Last Dancer


It's a cultural phenomenon.

It’s a cultural phenomenon.

(2009) Biographical Drama (ATO) Chi Cao, Bruce Greenwood, Amanda Schull, Kyle MacLachlan, Joan Chen, Penne Hackforth-Jones, Chris Kirby, Suzie Steen, Madeleine Eastoe, Aden Young, Wen Bin Huang, Shu Guang Liang, Ye Wang, Neng Neng Zhiang, Wan Shi Xu, Shao Wei Yi, Jack Thompson, Nicholas Hammond, Hui Cong Zhan, Chengwu Guo. Directed by Bruce Beresford

Talent transcends politics. Hard work trumps propaganda. With the Winter Olympics of 2014 firmly underway we are treated to some of the finest athletes in the world doing their things which brings to mind the similarity between athletes and artists. The discipline it takes to attain the highest level of both can only be generated from within; what happens without is almost irrelevant.

Li Cunxin (Cao) is a young Chinese peasant boy (Huang) taken seemingly at random from an impoverished village to study dance during the Maoist era. He is brought to the Beijing Dance Academy where he is taught ballet techniques through brutal discipline and as a teen (Guo) becomes one of the leading lights at the studio.

Having performed to the highest standards in Beijing, he is sent on a student visa to the United States to dance with the Houston Ballet. Mainly a propaganda move to show Western audiences the superiority of Chinese techniques and dancers, the Ballet’s artistic director Ben Stevenson (Greenwood) is impressed by what he sees and the potential Li possesses.

Li himself is confused by the strange new world around him; it is much different than what the communist propagandists in China led him to believe it would be. For the first time he begins to doubt the wisdom of those who have been in charge of his life. He has found freedom and he is both amazed and overjoyed with it, but also a little bit afraid. To make matters “worse,” he has fallen in love with Elizabeth (Schull), a fellow dancer.

Ben, convinced his future is better in the West, implants the seed in Li’s head that leads to a seedling; when his three month visa is up, he determines to stay in the United States. Before he can be granted asylum, the Chinese government takes the extraordinary step of kidnapping him and imprisoning him in their consulate. Ben and Elizabeth hire lawyer Charles Foster (MacLachlan) to secure his release and have him stay where his heart lies.

Eventually, they succeed and Li is allowed to stay in America but Li knows the cost to his family will be high. The guilt of his act hangs over him and begins to affect his dancing. Will following his heart be worth the price he – and those he loves both in China and the United States – must pay?

Aussie director Beresford, best known for his Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy, takes a very low-key approach to the movie in terms of filmmaking (the story is another matter). The camera angles are fairly standard – Beresford is not out to prove anything about what an innovative director he is – and there is almost no computer assisted trickery. What you do have is a beautifully photographed movie about the human spirit that tries its best to be apolitical but doesn’t always succeed.

The ballet sequences are nothing short of amazing. Cao dances for the Birmingham Royal Ballet in England and his shortcomings as an actor are more than made up for by his strengths as a dancer. Schull also has experience as a dancer with the San Francisco Corps de Ballet and her duets with Cao are incendiary.

Cinematographer Peter James has a terrific eye for both the starkness of the Chinese village and the Dance Academy as well as the beauty of the dance. Yes, there are some scenes that are going to bring a tear to your eye – some perhaps unnecessarily so. Still, Li’s story is inspiring and it doesn’t have anything to do with politics – well, maybe a little – and everything to do with the human spirit and what it will overcome to achieve what it is meant to.

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous dance sequences. Beautifully photographed.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly manipulative in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and sensuality and one brief violent scene.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Li already knew Cao whose parents were his teachers at the Beijing Dance Academy; Cao was Li’s choice to play him in the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $22.3M on a $22.4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Farewell, My Concubine

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Septien