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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Séraphine


Séraphine went up a hill to paint a pail of water...

Séraphine went up a hill to paint a pail of water…

(2008) Biographical Drama (Music Box) Yolande Moreau, Ulrich Tukur, Anne Bennent, Geneviéve Mnich, Adélaide Leroux, Nico Rogner, Franҫoise Lebrun, Héléne Hardouin, Serge Lariviére, Léna Bréban, Sandrine Bodenes, Muriel Riou, Dominique Pozzetto, Josette Ménard, Xavier Pottier, Jean-Pascal Abribat, Anne Benoit. Directed by Martin Provost

 

This is a film about the French artist Séraphine Louis (Moreau), a doughty housekeeper by day who painted miraculous works of art by night. She believed herself to be instructed by angels to paint and she was indeed self-taught. Her work caught the eye of German art critic Wilhelm Uhde (Tukur) who had also discovered Rousseau; he helped bring her work into the public eye and sold some of her paintings but her delusions eventually caught up with her and she would pass away in a French asylum in 1942. The movie is mainly about the years in which most of her painting was done, and depicts little of her early years, showing instead her abject poverty and her connection to the trees and flowers.

Moreau is brilliant here; she is one of the greatest actresses to ever come out of Belgium and this is one of her best performances; the film is worth seeking out for that alone. It is also beautiful to look at as cinematographer Laurent Brunet uses Louis’ own work for inspiration, as well as capturing the bucolic village life of Senlis (where Louis lived most of her life) near Chantilly.

WHY RENT THIS: Moreau’s performance is breathtaking. The cinematography is beautiful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing is a bit slow-moving..
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won seven Césars at the 2008 César Awards (the French equivalent of the Oscar) including Best Film and Best Actress for Moreau.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a photo gallery of the real Séraphine Louis’ paintings.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9.2M on a $3.6M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon, Google Play, Hulu, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Begging Naked
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

Heaven is For Real


A little father and son talk.

A little father and son talk.

(2014) Faith (TriStar) Greg Kinnear, Kelly Reilly, Connor Corum, Marge Martindale, Thomas Haden Church, Lane Styles, Jacob Vargas, Thanya Romero, Danso Gordon, Rob Moran, Nancy Sorel, Darcy Fehr, Vivian Winther, Pete Hudson, Ursula Clark, Mike Mohrhardt, Bryan Clark, Randy Apostle, Julia Arkos, Candace Smith, Cruise Brown, Amber Lynn Partridge. Directed by Randall Wallace

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of organized religion or of faith-based movies. I have an aversion to being preached to. Not that I have an issue with people having faith or even religion – there are a lot of good things that organized religions do, but there are also some questionable things and I’m talking about all faiths here, not just one in particular. When someone tells me that there is only one way to get to heaven, I smell flim-flammery.

However, faith and religion are different things entirely. While religion tends to codify our faith, faith can exist without religion (but not vice versa). Religion helps those with faith understand just what it is they have faith in. However, when that faith is confronted with something that we can’t really explain, that faith is shaken to the core, severely tested. It all comes down to belief.

Todd Burpo (Kinnear) is a Wesleyan pastor in the small farming community of Imperial, Nebraska. Besides that, he repairs garage door openers, coaches wrestling and the local high school and is a volunteer fireman. If that wasn’t enough to fill up his day, he dotes on his four-year-old son Colton (Corum), his older sister Cassie (Styles) and his wife Sonja (Reilly) who also directs the music group at the church. If there ever was a Norman Rockwell life, Pastor Burpo was living it.

During a softball game, the pastor slides hard into third base and suffers a severe spiral fracture in his right leg, forcing him to the sidelines on all his endeavors for a few weeks. No sooner has he come back to work when he collapses on the altar during his sermon, felled by kidney stones. The medical bills begin to pile up and there isn’t enough money.

Things go from bad to worse. After a family trip to Denver, both Cassie and Colton come down with the flu. Cassie recovers but Colton doesn’t. He starts to get worse. His parents rush him to the hospital (which is a bit of a hike from Imperial) and once there, it is determined that Colton’s appendix had burst. He is rushed into surgery, but the outlook isn’t hopeful.

However, the little boy manages to pull through. Cue big sigh of relief from everyone involved. But then little Colton starts telling his Dad about his experience; how he found himself floating above the operating table and watching the doctors work on him. How he could see his mother calling friends on the phone and asking them to pray for him. How he saw his Dad in the chapel, yelling at God and venting. Todd is at first bemused by this; these types of experiences are not unheard of after all.

But then he tells his father that he actually visited heaven, and goes on to describe it. While he was there, he heard choirs of angels singing to him, giggling when young Colton asked if they could sing “We Will Rock You” by Queen (a Burpo family sing-along favorite). He also sees Jesus, riding on a horse that is all the colors of the rainbow. He sits in Jesus’ lap, and describes him as having blue/green eyes.

Todd passes this off as his son’s vivid imagination coupled with being surrounded with religious imagery all his life. Then Colton starts giving some details about people he meets in Heaven including a sister whom his mother had miscarried; neither Todd nor Sonja had told him anything about that incident. Todd’s faith is shaken to the core. How can he continue to be the effective pastor he has always been when he isn’t sure that his son has really had this experience he is so sure he’s had?

Wallace, who wrote Braveheart and directed such fine movies as The Man in the Iron Mask and Secretariat  makes some smart choices here. He allows viewers to make their own decisions as to whether Colton’s experience was legitimate and if he’d actually been to Heaven. His father believes it, that is for certain. Clearly, it’s not something that can be proven but it must be taken on faith.

That can be difficult. Church and Martindale play friends of the Burpos as well as members of the board of the church who have a difficult time in accepting Colton’s story (and both do bang-up jobs for the record), and worry about the effect that the growing media circus will have on their small town and their church. I found myself wondering why devout Christians would be anything but thrilled at “proof” that heaven is for real. I guess it’s as hard to see your beliefs proven to be true as it is to see them proven to be false.

Kinnear is the glue that holds the film together. He is rock solid, charismatic and crazy likable. We are reminded once again that he is one of those actors who should be an A-lister but for whatever reason has never gotten the role that pushes him over the top. Given the box office success of this film, we may finally get to see that happen.

As for the actor that played young Colton, I have to be honest although it doesn’t make me happy to do so – he is stiff and unnatural. I try to give leeway to young actors because it’s not fair to hold them to standards that you would hold an adult to. However, in this case because he’s so integral to the story and to the film, I would be amiss in not at least mentioning that you need to expect that his line readings can sometimes remind you that he is a kid reading words rather than a character saying them. There is a huge difference and it did for me at least take me out of the movie at times.

The movie and the book that it came from has sparked a certain amount of controversy. Some Christian publications have condemned the book for not having a Biblical version of Heaven – some film critics have panned the film for its depiction of billowing clouds, WASP-ish Jesus (although the painting of him that Colton identified as the Jesus he saw in heaven that was painted by a Serbian girl who had a similar experience looked distinctly Semitic to my eyes) and  angelic chorales was too over-the-top. I never realized that Heaven was such a controversial subject.

And of course, atheists and non-believers have been smug and snarky in their contempt for the film. It’s this kind of treatment that adds fuel for the Fox News assertion that there is a war on Christianity, albeit that on Fox News there’s always a war on something. People have the right to believe as they choose; just because you believe in one thing doesn’t make you automatically better than people who believe in another. Belief is not about being superior to everyone else; it’s about how you choose to live your life and what you choose to embrace as fact even if you cannot prove it as such.

Living in the Bible Belt gives me a certain perspective. Certainly most of the audience that is seeing this movie is Christian or leans that way. During many points in the film, there was audible sniffling and I’ll admit to getting misty-eyed myself. I suspect few atheists will go to see this and I can’t see a lot of non-Christians making the effort either. This is certainly aimed at one segment of the movie-going audience but it serves them well, yet for those who are less religious at least it treats the subject with respect and as I said earlier, allows us to reach our own conclusions.

I have my own conclusions and my own beliefs as to what happens after we die. The fact of the matter is, as Kinnear’s character says during the film quoting his grandfather, is that by the time we know for sure what does happen to us it’s too late to tell anybody about it. Maybe Colton actually did visit heaven; maybe it’s something that his mind did to help him cope with a crisis he couldn’t understand. We will never know for certain either way. Whichever explanation you choose to believe you have to take on faith. And that my friends is the crux of that human ability to accept things we cannot prove.

REASONS TO GO: Kinnear is solid. Raises some real questions about faith.

REASONS TO STAY: Gets preachy in places. Corum not the most natural of actors.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some medical situations involving a child as well as some thematic elements which small children may not understand or be disturbed about.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed mostly around Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five People You Meet in Heaven

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Love Me

Winter’s Tale


Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.

Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.

(2014) Romance (Warner Brothers) Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Will Smith, Mckayla Twiggs, Eva Marie Saint, Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Durand, Ripley Sobo, Graham Greene, Harriett D. Foy, Matt Bomer, Lucy Griffiths, Michael Patrick Crane, Brian Hutchison, Alan Doyle, Maurice Jones, Maggie Geha. Directed by Akiva Goldsman

It goes without saying that we don’t really understand how the universe REALLY works and we likely never will. Whether or not there’s an afterlife when we die or whether we just dissolve into oblivion is something we won’t find out until it’s our time to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Peter Lake (Farrell) is a thief and a good one indeed. He works for the Small Tails band, headed up by Pearly Soames (Crowe), a rough and tumble sort of fellow and they hold Manhattan in their thrall, circle 1912. However, Peter and Pearly have had a falling out, as it were and both being fine Irish gentlemen they mean to settle it the old fashioned way – by killing one another.

Peter knows that his opponent has the upper hand and it is only a matter of time before he is captured and killed. He needs to get out of New York but he needs to score enough cash to be able to survive. He doesn’t have much but he has a beautiful white horse that he found while being chased by Pearly and his thugs and that horse is absolutely special. In fact, it’s at the horse’s urging that Peter rob one final house, the house of New York Sun publisher Isaac Penn (Hurt).

The house appears to be deserted but it isn’t. Beverly Penn (Findlay), who suffers from terminal consumption, is home waiting to be well enough to head up to their lakeside country estate. Her fever is killing her and only cold weather can save her but soon even that won’t be enough. She interrupts Peter in his stealing and the two are instantly smitten with one another. Peter leaves, thinking that this house is a dead end for him literally but he can’t get the girl out of his head.

Neither can Pearly who has had a vision of a beautiful red headed woman. In fact, Pearly is a demon, one to keep souls from ascending to the heavens and becoming stars which is what happens when souls complete their work on Earth. Pearly means to shatter Peter by using the young Penn girl to do it and even if it breaks the rules as adjudicated by the Judge (Smith) he will get his vengeance. Peter will find a way to his destiny even if it takes a century.

This is based on the complex and what many considered to be unfilmable novel by Mark Halprin. I don’t know how closely this sticks to the book having not read it yet but judging from what I see here if the movie is any indication I can see where it got its reputation. The backstory is so complex and layered that the overall effect is that the movie becomes convoluted. While I kept up with the movie, I got the sense that there was a lot of things in the backstory that by necessity had to be glossed over and I was losing a good deal of the novel’s richness.

That isn’t the fault of the performers who are universally stellar. Farrell and Findlay make a fine on-screen couple while Crowe glowers with the best of them. Greene, Hurt, Smith and Saint all make what are essentially extended cameos and make the best of their abbreviated screen times. Connelly, as a modern reporter looking into what would be to anyone an astonishing story, is given little to do besides look concerned and bewildered.

Veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel beautifully captures New York City both old and new beneath a stark winter sky. This is a truly gorgeous looking film, and the story itself if you can follow it without getting completely lost is actually really affecting. Now some critics have been giving this a thrashing because they found it to be, as veteran Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers eloquently put it, to be preposterous twaddle. Now, I personally think this is unduly harsh. If you call the film preposterous twaddle, so too is the book on which it is based on and the Shakespeare play that inspired the book and while we’re at it, other literature and movies of a like nature, including Ladyhawke and The Princess Bride which are of a similar vein. From my point of view, we can all use a bit of preposterous twaddle every now and again. Keeps the soul honest.

This isn’t going to be making any ten-best lists at the year’s conclusion nor is it apparently going to be setting any box office records. This isn’t a good enough movie to get the kind of word-of-mouth that a movie needs to thrive these days, and let’s face it – romantic fantasies have a bit of an uphill climb because the audience that once craved them is now overserved with such tidbits as The Twilight Saga. However, I for one was enchanted by Winter’s Tale, flaws and all.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful story. Nice performances by most of the leads. Gorgeous cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat preposterous in places. A bit muddled.

FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find some violence and some sensuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rhythm and Hues, one of Hollywood’s top effects companies, went bankrupt while in post-production for this film; Framestore was hired to complete the work that Rhythm and Hues had begun.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Xanadu

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie

Legion


Legion

It's never a good idea to cross Paul Bettany.

(2010) Supernatural Horror (Screen Gems) Paul Bettany, Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, Jon Tenney, Charles S. Dutton, Lucas Black, Adrianne Palicki, Doug Jones, Kevin Durand, Kate Walsh, Willa Holland. Directed by Scott Stewart

Sometimes you have to wonder what God thinks of His creations when He considers war, terror, pollution, greed and all the myriad horrible things we do to one another. You have to wonder if at any point He is going to give up on us.

The angel Michael has pleaded the case of the humans, and failed. God has decided that the Flood was a warning not heeded; He wants the human race deleted. The angels will be His weapons of mass destruction.

Michael, however, disagrees with His decision. He believes that God has forgotten about such things as mercy, compassion and forgiveness in His zeal for retribution. It’s somehow comforting that God is actually a heartbroken teenager.

Michael decides to renounce his angelic status by amputating his wings and removing the collar which is, apparently, his halo. He makes a stop at the local gun store where he fills a bag full of automatic weapons and enough ammo to stave off Armageddon. Well, almost.

He steals a police car and heads out to an isolated diner in the middle of the desert. There works Charlie (Palicki), a waitress who happens to be pregnant. She works for Bob (Quaid) whose nephew Jeep (Black) is sweet on Charlie but is not the dad. So there works Percy (Dutton), a line cook with a caustic sense of humor.

Enjoying the cuisine is Kyle (Gibson), a badass from L.A.; the Anderson family – dad Howard (Tenney), wife Sandra (Walsh) and daughter Audrey (Holland) and an adorable old lady  Like adorable old ladies the world over, she notices Charlie’s pregnancy. Unlike most adorable old ladies, she turns into a spider-like demon with homicidal intent.

Into this situation comes Michael, who informs the suitably astonished diner denizens that Charlie’s baby isn’t just any old baby; it’s the savior of mankind whom God now wants to bump off. Why God needs an army of humans who have been changed by angels into demons to kill a single baby is something of a mystery – apparently God doesn’t like to get His hands dirty.

This leads to something of a Mexican standoff with the human race at stake. The odds are stacked against us – but that’s just the way we like it, right?

This is a plot of epic ineptitude. Very little of it makes organic sense and worse yet, it isn’t true to its own internal logic. That’s a deal killer most of the time in my book. The strange thing is, I actually liked this movie. Much more than I thought I was going to. There is actually some good stuff going on.

Bettany is an always-interesting actor who is always worth seeing even when he’s not at his best – as he is not at his best here. Still, he and Quaid who cuts loose with delicious scenery-chewing abandon make for good twin focuses for the film. While Palicki is a little bit bland for her role, Black does himself proud as the unrequited lover.

Part of the problem here is that Stewart seems undecided as to whether he wants to make a big action flick or a gruesome horror flick and winds up with kind of a mish mash that is neither. Also, much of the exposition is done by Bettany explaining things to his captive audience. Not only does this bring things to a grinding halt, it gets to be annoying.

I wish that Stewart spent more time doing the things that work best here. The horror scenes in particular are well done, such as the aforementioned adorable old lady spider demon, and later on, an elongated jaw ice cream man demon. The action sequences are pretty nice too, although a climactic battle between Michael and the Archangel Gabriel (Durand) is surprisingly unsatisfying.

Legion is the latest in a series of apocalyptic visions that don’t really turn out quite right. I like the idea of angels acting as exterminators, as perhaps sacrilegious as that is. Unfortunately, it was done better in The Prophecy – but it is done well enough here to earn a look.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice action scenes here. Bettany and Quaid pull the wagon nicely. Demon scenes are pretty awesome.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too talky for a horror/action movie. One gets the impression the filmmakers couldn’t decide between intellectual horror and visceral horror and wound up with neither.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of strong, brutal violence, some disturbing supernatural imagery and plenty of choice bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tattoos on Michael are in Enochian, supposedly the language of angels recorded by John Dee and Edward Kelly in the 16th century.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $67.9M on a $26M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Season of the Witch