Charlie Says (2018)


Charlie says “kill the rich.”

(2018) True Life Drama (IFC) Hannah Murray, Suki Waterhouse, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Matt Smith, Grace Van Dien, Merritt Wever, Annabeth Gish, Chace Crawford, Bridger Zadina, Lindsay Farris, Kimmy Shields, Kayli Carter, India Ennenga, Matt Riedy, Tracy Perez, Sol Rodriguez, Dayle McLeod, Julia Schlaepfer, Bryan Adrian, Cameron Gellman, James Trevena-Brown, Jackie Joyner. Directed by Mary Harron

 

Perhaps one of the most notorious crimes in American history is the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson family cult in August, 1969. It was all the more horrifying because several of the perpetrators were young women who by all accounts sweet-natured, good-hearted girls before they met Manson. How they journeyed from that background to become vicious mass murderers has always been a subject of speculation.

Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) takes on the task of looking at three of the most notorious women – Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Murray), Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkle (Bacon) and Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Rendón) – three years after the crimes were committed and after they’d been sentenced to death, a sentence which was commuted to life imprisonment after California abolished the death penalty in 1972.

Mostly we see this through Van Houten’s eyes; how she was brought over to the cult by her friends Krenwinkle and Bobby Beausoleil (Gellman) and how she eventually fell under the spell of the charismatic wannabe rock star Charlie Manson (Smith). Charlie gave them purpose and in the era of free love, all the love they wanted. In return, he told them what to think, how to act and who to have sex with. He often exhorted them to “kill their egos,” erasing their sense of self. Under his tutelage, they became blank slates willing to love him, screw him, die for him and kill for him.

While in prison graduate student Karlene Faith (Wever) is assigned to teach the girls while they are being held separate from the rest of the general population at the California Correctional Institute for Women. Karlene is disturbed by the extent the women have been brainwashed (they still believe that Manson was an absolute God three years into their prison sentence) and hopes to bring them out of his control by using feminist theory. Of course, once that is accomplished the ladies will have to deal with the horror of what they have done.

The film doesn’t really cover any ground we haven’t been over before – anyone who saw the landmark television miniseries Helter Skelter will be more than familiar with the story. However, this is the first time we’ve seen the story through the eyes of the Manson women. Van Houten of the three makes a memorable impression but then that was the primary subject of Faith’s book on which the movie is partially based (several other sources were also used). It helps that Murray captures the innocence, longing and naivete of Van Houten; she becomes a sympathetic character, a victim of Manson before the murders even occurred.

Matt Smith, the former Doctor Who, is magnificent as Manson. In what I believe to be the best portrayal of the late cult leader since Steve Railsback in the Helter Skelter miniseries in 1971. Smith shows a man becoming more paranoid and vicious as his delusions become more pronounced. The hippie movement was meant to be one of peace and love; Manson was the dark distorted reflection of that ethic. It served to terrify middle America and cast a pall on what the young people of the time were trying to accomplish. I lived in the San Fernando Valley in 1969 not all that far from Spahn Ranch where the Manson Family was headquartered; I remember the era well.

While the murders aren’t the centerpiece of the film, they are shown in some graphic detail. This may be off-putting for those who are sensitive or squeamish. The movie is creepy from the beginning but the longer it goes, the creepier it gets. It does show how even decent, ordinary human beings can be changed into homicidal monsters. It is not comforting to know that it could happen to any one of us given the wrong circumstances.

There are some great period songs on the soundtrack and a nice recreation of Spahn Ranch (the real one burned to the ground in 1975 and is part of a state park now with nary a sign the Family was ever there). I don’t know that the world needed another movie about the Manson family – and apparently the murders play an important role in Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – but certainly it is interesting to see things from the viewpoint of the women who were in on crimes that were so mindblowingly awful that most of us couldn’t possibly conceive of them, let alone carry them out. This is truly a chilling film.

REASONS TO SEE: The longer it goes, the creepier it gets. Smith makes the best Manson since Steve Railsback. The soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be a little too lurid for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, drug use, violence, sex and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The songs performed by Smith as Charles Manson in the film were actually written by Manson himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Helter Skelter
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
All is True

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Before I Wake


Kate Bosworth knows why the butterflies fly.

(2016) Horror (Netflix) Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Topher Bousquet, Dash Mihok, Jay Karnes, Lance E. Nichols, Antonio Romero, Kyla Deaver, Hunter Wenzel, Scottie Thompson, Jason Alan Smith, Michael Polish, Brett Luciana Murray, Natalie Roers, Erika Hoveland, Avis-Marie Barnes, Courtney Bell. Directed by Mike Flanagan

 

Dangerous and even deadly children have long been a horror trope. There is something about angelic little moppets who gleefully cause mayhem and murder that is absolutely horrifying, reflecting our own fears of being bad parents or of being vulnerable to our kids.

Jessie (Bosworth) and Mark (Jane) have been through the worst nightmare any parent can conceive; their son Sean (Romero) died tragically in a bathtub drowning incident. Jessie is no longer able to conceive and there is an empty space in their lives that two years after the accident they are ready to fill with Cody (Tremblay) who has a tragic history of his own. The couple adopts him and their case worker Natalie (Gish) thinks that these two will give Cody a loving home. And they do for awhile.

They soon discover that Cody has a mysterious power, one that has caused him to be abandoned by would-be foster parents. His dreams become tangible. At first it is beautiful as colorful butterfly with internal lights flit about their house. Then, however, it becomes clear that Cody’s nightmares are also punching into the real world and his nightmares can kill people.

Flanagan is considered one of the most promising young horror directors at the moment for good reason. He’s had a string of movies that have been at least a cut above most films of the genre. This one, caught in the morass that was Relativity in 2015 (when the movie was originally supposed to be released) and 2016 has finally seen the light of day thanks to Netflix. Was this worth the wait?

Yes and no. The movie has some incredible visuals, from th butterflies of light to the terrifying Canker Man (Bousquet). It also has a strong performance from Jane who is superb and likable as Mark although his hair choice has to be questioned; his Fabio locks aren’t quite right for the character. However, Bosworth is dreadfully miscast as the heroine. She is pretty like a porcelain doll and she just looks out of place in the movie. To make matters worse, Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard inexplicably make her exploit the young boy’s powers which really made me feel uncomfortable. To be fair, critics have pretty much universally praised her performance so take my criticism with a grain of salt; sometimes even a good performance doesn’t connect with everyone.

Tremblay, who went on to an Oscar nomination for Room is a bit wooden here but also to be fair he was about seven or eight years old when he filmed this. The concept though is pretty original and for the most part Flanagan gets it right until the ending which is a bit lame. This won’t go down as one of his better films but those who follow his career definitely should see it and those who like films like The Babadook will probably enjoy this one as well.

REASONS TO GO: A terrific premise with some nifty visuals. Thomas Jane is extremely likable.
REASONS TO STAY: Kate Bosworth isn’t convincing enough as a horror heroine. The ending is lame.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of terror and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally going to be distributed theatrically by Relativity but their financial woes led to a constant shifting of release dates and finally the film was sold to Netflix where it was quietly released more than two years after the original premiere date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dreamscape
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Big Take

The Chaperone


Ariel Winter tells Triple H to suck it.

Ariel Winter tells Triple H to suck it.

(2009) Action Comedy (Goldwyn/WWE) Paul Levesque, Ariel Winter, Annabeth Gish, Kevin Corrigan, José Zúňiga, Kevin Rankin, Enrico Colantoni, Yeardley Smith, Ashley Taylor, Israel Broussard, Darren O’Hare, Lucy Webb, Jake Austin Walker, Cullen Chaffin, Taylor Faye Ruffin, Conner Ann Waterman, James DuMont, Nick Gomez, J.D. Evermore, George Wilson, Kate Adair. Directed by Stephen Herek

Prison can do two things to a person; it can make them even darker, finding more reason to hate society in general, or it can make one long to turn over a new leaf and become a better person. Ray Bradstone (Levesque, better known as WWE wrestler Triple H) has opted for the latter course. One of the best getaway drivers in the business, he wants to make amends to his ex-wife Lynne (Gish) and be a better father to his teenage daughter Sally (Winter). However, when he is released from prison and visits his former family’s home, he is essentially sent packing – neither one wants anything to do with him.

Unable to find work, Ray is in desperate mode when approached by Philip Larue (Corrigan), the leader of the bank-robbing crew Ray used to work for. He agrees to drive one last time but changes his mind at the last minute. This leads to problems for the heist, which Larue blames Ray for. In order to get away, Ray agrees to act as a chaperone for his daughter’s high school field trip to New Orleans, unknowingly taking the loot for the gang along with him. This as you might imagine doesn’t sit well with Larue and in short order they are after the kids and Ray and the ex-con knows that his daughter’s only chance to make it out is for him to take on his ex-gang, but the odds are most definitely against him.

At the end of the last decade, the World Wrestling Federation wanted to expand its brand and determined that a good way to do that was to put its wrestlers in films. Some of them got exposure (The Marine) while others sank without a trace. That initiative continues today, albeit in a much reduced form. While the WWE hasn’t turned out any new actors the caliber of Dwayne Johnson, they have plenty of performers with natural screen charisma.

Paul “Triple H” Levesque is one of those. He certainly shows a good deal of promise in his performance here. While he is something of a raw talent and in need of polish, he has flashes of charm and plenty of presence onscreen. Unfortunately, his natural gifts are given a Russian leg sweep by a script that lacks any sort of inspiration whatsoever. Nearly everything in the movie is by-the-numbers, giving the audience little reason to be invested in the characters or the action.

Even the action sequences are uninspiring. The villains don’t ever feel more than mildly threatening; in the ring Triple H could flex one bicep and they’d head for the hills. And in all honesty, most of the kids here are annoying enough that you wish the villains were better shots. The critics hated this movie, although not as much as the audience which stayed away in droves. It’s likely made at least some of its losses back in home video; I honestly think that while this isn’t great entertainment, it’s at least decent enough and no worse than some of the things that were box office blockbusters. It’s certainly one of those “no harm in taking a look” movies worth checking out if you’re bored.

WHY RENT THIS: Levesque has some genuine charm. New Orleans setting is cool.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cliche-ridden. Virtually no depth.
FAMILY VALUES: There is action violence, some rude humor and a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Ray is breaking up a fight at the school, one of the boys in the scene is wearing a “Lemmy” t-shirt. Lemmy Kilmister is the lead singer of Motörhead, the band that plays the ring entrance song for Triple H.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a surprising number of features considering that this is an independently made feature that bombed at the box office. There’s a blooper real, a music video by Ariel Winter, a look at the kids in the film as well as a featurette on the dinosaur exhibit, a video diary by Winter and a photo gallery.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14,400 on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix. Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kindergarten Cop
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Chalet Girl

Texas Killing Fields


Jeffrey Dean Morgan lectures Sam Worthington on the virtues of unshaven sexiness.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan lectures Sam Worthington on the virtues of unshaven sexiness.

(2011) True Crime (Anchor Bay) Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Stephen Graham, Annabeth Gish, Sheryl Lee, Corie Berkemeyer, Becky Fly, James Hebert, Joe Chrest, Kerry Cahill. Directed by Ami Canaan Mann

Some places are just bad. You can feel the malevolence when you walk into them. They seem to attract tragedy and trouble. The fields outside Texas City are like that. Half-swamp, they have periodically been a dumping place for bodies, particularly those of young females, over the years. The place has attracted a myriad of serial killers – and yes, this isn’t the movie. This is real.

In the movie however, we’re focusing on one killer but more to the point, to the cops chasing him. Det. Brian Heigh (Morgan) is a transplant from New York City. He’s a tough guy sure, but he has a tender side and the sight of a murdered girl on the pavement near the killing fields is enough to make him pray for her soul over her body.

His partner Mike Souder (Worthington) is a bit more cynical. A native of the Texas City area, he’s a fine detective but his personal life is all messed up. His ex-wife Pam (Chastain) works for a different law enforcement agency; it is in her purview that the fields fall whereas Mike and Brian are Texas City policemen. Mike is somewhat bitter about the break-up and wants nothing to do with Pam, even when it becomes clear that their investigation would benefit from working together.

Into this mix comes Little Ann Sliger (Moretz) – and yes, that’s her name, Little Ann. She’s a teen whose mother Lucie (Lee) is a drug addict whose parenting skills could use some work. Little Ann is the poster child for “at-risk.” Lucie is more interested in getting laid and getting high than getting Little Ann seen to, and consequently she’s getting into some increasingly serious trouble. Naturally Brian becomes protective of the young girl who is tough on the outside but tender on the inside – just like him. Brian’s wife Gwen (Gish) is less enchanted with the idea but keeps her peace.

As bodies begin to mount up, the suspicion begins to point to a local pimp, a malevolent thug and a kind of simple moron who can’t get away from trouble. All three are moving towards different conclusions but the one at the center of the murders is not one to let a cop get too close – and the collision course between pursued and pursuer is drawing near.

While this is said to be based on fact, there really is little more true here than that the killing fields near Texas City have become a notorious dumping ground for bodies of people from all over the I-45 corridor between Houston and Galveston. The script was written by a former DEA agent and has the kind of authenticity that can only come from someone who has lived the life and not just written about it.

If the directorial style looks familiar, it should. Mann is the daughter of Michael Mann who has made a career of some really good police procedurals including the Miami Vice series and movie as well as Collateral and Thief among others. She emulates her father’s style quite nicely, carrying a nice visual sense with a penchant for darkness and neon. Danny Boyle was once attached to this project but turned it down, saying that the script was so dark it would never get made. He went on to direct Slumdog Millionaire instead so I guess he made the right call seeing as he won the Oscar for it and all.

Morgan pulls out all the stops and delivers an impressive performance. His character is contradictory but not outside the realm of reason. He actually makes a pretty satisfactory partner for Worthington who does his best work here since The Debt. Mike’s got some issues of his own and certainly his scenes with his ex are some of the most incendiary of the movie.

What doesn’t work here is that the movie is so damn predictable. It starts out with the police procedural thing going on and any veteran watchers of Law and Order: SVU and CSI are going to have no trouble predicting what’s going to happen next. The last third is more or less a TV mystery movie with slightly rougher language and just as predictable.

There is a good movie here, although disappointingly enough, it’s not this one. In fact, this one’s just decent, memorable for Morgan and Worthington but little else. Chastain, who went on to greater heights, is also worth admiring here and Moretz acquits herself honorably as well (and ten points to anyone who can recognize Lee by face as the most famous corpse on TV nearly 20 years ago). However, you’ve seen this movie before unless of course you don’t watch a lot of these sorts of movies. Then and only then will it all seem new to you.

WHY RENT THIS: Morgan and Worthington make a good team, with Morgan particularly effective.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little anti-climactic. Relies too much on police procedural cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: As you would imagine there’s some violence, some sexual innuendo and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Worthington and Chastain previously teamed up in The Debt.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $957,240 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this was not a money maker.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Onion Field

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Holy Motors

The Celestine Prophecy


The Celestine Prophecy

Coincidentally, they've walked out to a vista of where they're supposed to go.

(RAM Entertainment) Matthew Settle, Thomas Kretschmann, Annabeth Gish, Sarah Wayne Callies, Hector Elizondo, Joaquim de Almeida, Jurgen Prochnow, John Aylward. Directed by Armand Mastroianni

Sometimes a work of literature can become a phenomenon; not because it is especially well-written but because people are searching for answers and they tend to go a little gaga when they think they’ve found a few.

John (Settle) is a high school history teacher whose services are no longer required. Adrift and somewhat at a crossroads in his life, he meets up with an old flame who conveniently flits into town (you’ll notice a lot of these conveniences in the film) to tell him about an exciting discovery in Peru of eight scrolls that have been dated 500 years before Christ, and each containing a singular insight that when taken as a whole will open a pathway to a new spiritual revelation. On something of a whim, John books passage on a flight to Peru after seeing a brochure for Peru arrive in the mail. Out flits his old flame, not to return.

In flits a historian, Dobson (Aylward) who sits alongside John on board the flight. Not only is he aware of the scrolls, he has been assisting with their translation and interpretation. It is he who dated the scrolls (although he did have them home before curfew). He also warns John that not everyone is eager to see the contents of the scrolls revealed to the world.

Before he can even say “See what I mean?” John witnesses the abduction of a priest whom he had been sent to connect with in order to see the scrolls. Strangely, it appears to be the police doing the abducting and when Dobson shows up, he gets taken too. Out flits Dobson from the movie.

John is saved by Wil (Kretschmann) who conveniently enough is one of the acolytes working on the scrolls and had arrived too late to help Father Jose or Dobson but he manages to bring John to their commune/resort/enclave/whatever. There he meets Marjorie (Callies) who at first recoils from John’s controlling energy (John has no game when it comes to the ladies) but eventually teaches him to share energy which is apparently better than sex.

However, the government forces marshaled by Cardinal Sebastian (Elizondo) and the mercenary Jensen (Prochnow) decide to take on the Celestines head-on and raid the ranch/commune/resort/enclave/center/whatever. Things look bad for the Celestines but they are rescued by the timely appearance of local rebels who could care less about them but who keep the government troops busy enough for them to get away and get on with their real business of finding the ninth scroll, which is the key and which apparently John is the key to acquiring. Ain’t that a coincidence? In ny case, out flit the rebels and in flits a headache.

Back in the 90s this was a huge bestselling novel for James Redfield. Several studio offers were made to convert the  property into a major motion picture, but Redfield turned down all of them, wanting to maintain intellectual and artistic control. Perhaps he should have taken one of them.

This is a mess from beginning to end. It’s really hard to know where to start, whether it is the new age hokum that is continually being spouted until you want to shove a bowl of granola up someone’s rectum or the wooden acting that keeps the energy of the film muted,. No, I think it was the overreliance on coincidence as a plot device and the way the characters keep commenting that these “coincidences” prove that something is meant to be. Actually, it’s just bad writing.

I tried plowing through the novel back in the day but finally gave up when I realized that for my admittedly dull sensibilities was neither entertaining nor enlightening and I feel the same way about the movie. Nothing in it really works, although if you’re a fan of the book you’ll appreciate how faithful the movie is to the novel, which is apparently what Redfield was after. He got his wish, but unfortunately what he didn’t get was a good movie and that’s no coincidence.

WHY RENT THIS: A fairly faithful adaptation of the novel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Stiff and clumsily directed which is appropriate considering the stiff and wooden acting in the movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild violence but not enough to make me hesitate to allow most kids to watch.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Redfield had initially self-published the book and sold 100,000 copies out of the back of his truck before Warner Books agreed to publish it; the book went on to become one of the best-selling novels of all time. The author decided to take a similar approach to the film and self-financed it as well as writing the screenplay himself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $903,680 on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Broken Embraces