Pop Aye


Never get between a man and his elephant.

(2017) Drama (Kino Lorber) Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Chaiwat Khumdee, Naronng Pongpab, Yukontorn Sukkijja. Directed by Kirsten Tan

Sometimes we get feelings in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, feelings we just can’t ignore. They become the elephant in the room, that feeling like we don’t fit in any longer or never fit in, that life has somehow managed to pass us by. Sometimes it takes a desperate action to get our lives back in order.

Thana (Warakulnukroh) is an architect who no longer feels at home in the firm he helped put on the map. Once a brilliant, bright shining future, he designed Gardenia Square, a shopping center which is now slated for demolition a mere twenty years after it was built. The son of his former boss now runs things and has replaced most of the architects with younger men who look at Thana as something of a dinosaur whose only use is to provide files.

Things are bad at home as well. His wife Bo (Sirikul) no longer seems attracted to Thana – and to be fair, his attempts at seduction are mostly awkward. Bo lives to shop and while her husband was a well-respected architect, there were plenty of things to buy. These days she knows she’s married to a man widely regarded as a fool and their marriage is a shell that isn’t going to last much longer. She seems shallow when we first meat her but as the movie goes on we see that there are heretofore hidden depths that explain her actions somewhat.

One day in the streets of Bangkok Thana spies an elephant (Bong) who he believes to be the elephant that he once had as a boy in the village of Loei, some 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Nicknamed Popeye after a favorite cartoon of his as a youth (he trained the elephant to do the “toot toot” at the end of the “I’m Popeye the sailor man” theme), the elephant is mostly a means of making a quick buck for the mahout that owns him. Wanting more for his beloved elephant, Thana buys him on the spot and tries to bring him home but Bo is not having it.

Instead, Thana who has grown tired and disillusioned with city life decides to return to Loei where Thana’s Uncle Peak (Pongpab) will care for the creature. He and Popeye begin a journey from the bustling city of Bangkok into rural Thailand where they will meet a bevy of eccentric characters, including a transgender woman named Jenny (Sukkijja) who Thana treats with some compassion and who eventually gets a chance to return the favor, Dee (Khumdee), a gregarious homeless man living in an abandoned gas station who knows that his days are numbered but only regrets having left the love of his life whom he wishes to connect with one last time and a pair of officious police officers who are trying to move Thana and Popeye to the police station for “violating urban tidiness” even though the cops encounter the two on a road in the middle of nowhere.

All of these encounters serve to help Thana grow into a different man, one at peace with the disappointments of his life. While it may be true, as Thomas Hardy once put it, that you can never go home again, Thana finds out the secret to life; home is where you are at.

Tan was born in Singapore and has lived in a variety of places including Thailand where she worked as a t-shirt vendor on the streets of Bangkok. Now based in New York after attending the Tisch School of Visual Arts, she has made several impressive shorts. This is her feature-length film debut and it is a strong one. The movie has a gentle kind of surrealism to it that makes of unusual situations a kind of normality that makes them more palatable to the viewer. There is a sense of humor throughout but it is a gentle one, more of a chuckle than a guffaw at the ridiculousness of life.

The cast is mainly unprofessional but they do a fair enough job in conveying the various eccentricities of the various characters involved.  Warakulnukroh, a former progressive rock musician, manages to convey the puzzlement of Thana as he moves through a life that has left him behind. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to adjust very much; he seems to be fairly bothered by the situation but doesn’t seem too motivated to change things until Popeye shows up. Khumdee also has some quiet moments that are compelling in his all-too-brief appearance here.

Most important here is the elephant and he is more expressive than a lot of human actors I’ve seen. I’ve never had the privilege of looking directly into the eyes of an elephant but there is a wisdom and sadness locked in those pachyderm eyes, an emotion that conveys empathy for the plight of Thana and by extension, himself. In many ways, Popeye is our avatar, marching slowly and resolutely towards an end that is pre-ordained but not necessarily without surprise. It is indeed the journey and not the destination since we’re all headed the same way anyway.

The movie is pretty slow-paced and might have benefited from some shorter more concise scenes particularly in the middle third. Keep in mind that an elephant never gets anywhere from anywhere else quickly so your best bet is to sit back and just enjoy the ride and that’s really good advice for watching any movie like Pop Aye. Allow it to wash over you and immerse you in its gently skewed universe. The ending is a little unexpected which is most appreciated, and you never really know what’s around the next bend in the road. All good journeys are like that.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a low-key sense of humor. The elephant is a keeper.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a touch too long and may be too slow-paced for some viewers. Some characters just fade from the movie without explanation.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tan won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first filmmaker from Singapore to win an award at the prestigious event.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walkabout
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Don’t Feel at Home In this World Anymore

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The Book of Love


Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen's hair.

Jason Sudeikis reacts to Mary Steenburgen’s hair.

(2016) Dramedy (Freestyle/Electric) Jason Sudeikis, Maisie Williams, Mary Steenburgen, Jessica Biel, Paul Reiser, Orlando Jones, Bryan Batt, Jason Warner Smith, Cailey Fleming, Richard Robichaux, Jon Arthur, Russ Russo, Christopher Gehrman, Natalie Mejer, Madeleine Woolner, Alicia Davis Johnson, George Wilson, Ian Belgard, Parker Hankins, Sheldon Frett, Damekia Dowl. Directed by Bill Purple

 

As our journey through life continues most of the people we meet have little or negligible impact on who we become. However, there are those we encounter who become indelible stamps on our personalities, people who leave not just a mark but a book. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we find more than one of those.

Henry (Sudeikis) is the proverbial mild-mannered architect. A decent enough guy, he goes through life largely ignored and content to be that way. However, his lovely wife Penny (Biel) has enough personality for the both of them. She urges him to “Be Bold” when he leaves for work in the morning and throws out his penny loafers in order to dress him in garish purple running shoes to an important business presentation. Gotta admire her chutzpah, no?

It is sadly the brightest lights that often burn the shortest and a car accident claims the life of Penny and her unborn child. Henry is devastated and his semi-understanding boss (Reiser, who not that long ago could have played guys like Henry with his eyes closed) tells him to take some time. Henry uses that time to befriend a street urchin named Mollie (Williams) whose life ambition is to build a raft to sail out to the Atlantic on an intrepid journey not unlike that of Thor Heyerdahl (a real guy – look him up). Henry realizes that he can build a better raft for her and offers his services and his backyard after he accidentally burns down the work shed she was living in and her abusive uncle (Smith) throws her onto the street.

With the help of Dumbass (Jones) – don’t ask – and the barely comprehensible Pascal (Robichaux) who were in the process of performing renovations on Henry’s house when Penny died, the intrepid quartet actually look like they might pull it off. However Henry’s overbearing mother-in-law (Steenburgen) is on his back about the final disposition of Penny’s remains, his boss is on his back about coming back to work and Millie’s abusive uncle is trying to find her after he finds out he won’t be getting the money that supporting her brought in if he doesn’t bring her back to his house. Not to mention that there are no guarantees the raft will even float.

Much of this film is about loss and letting go. Sudeikis spends most of the movie looking soulful and bereaved and he’s not bad at it. Williams, who plays the plucky Stark sister on Game of Thrones (in other words not Samsa) looks to be a real find, despite her somewhat deplorable Cajun accent.  She is one of those actresses who has a boatload of talent but might not get the parts because she isn’t what you’d call “glamorous.” Hopefully she will nab some parts that will make Hollywood sit up and take notice.

Sudeikis is generally known for his nice guy comic roles but this one is a bit more dramatic for him. He’s also a bit uneven in his performance but shows plenty of potential for tackling roles of this nature. Hopefully he’ll get better dialogue than this when he does.

The characters are a bit cliché here, like the upbeat offbeat leading ladies. I didn’t even know there was a generic critical term for them but there is – Manic Pixie Dream Girls. I saw it used in a couple of reviews now. I guess it’s as accurate as any but it is a bit snarky. Still, the characters – like much of the plot – aren’t terribly realistic. In fact, one of the movie’s big failings is Purple’s penchant for implausible plot points and coincidences and the movies emotional manipulation. Critics just hate hate hate having their emotions manipulated but a good cathartic cry when well-earned is good for the soul. Even a critic’s soul, assuming they have one.

REASONS TO GO: Maisie Williams delivers a strong performance and Jason Sudeikis is always charming.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is manipulative (critics are going to hate it) and implausible.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use, a little bit of violence and some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Justin Timberlake has written the score for.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: An Unfinished Life
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Paterson

The Disappointments Room


Kate Beckinsale reflects.

Kate Beckinsale reflects.

(2016) Supernatural Thriller (Rogue/Relativity) Kate Beckinsale, Mel Raido, Lucas Till, Gerald McRaney, Michael Landes, Celia Weston, Michaela Conlin, Charles Carroll, Duncan Joiner, Ella Jones, Marcia de Rousse, Jennifer Leigh Mann, Melissa Eastwood, Robert McRary, Chris Matheny, Mike Bizon, Peabody Southwell, Steve Stamey, Robert Caponi, Rebecca Kerns. Directed by D.J. Caruso

 

When you move someplace new, exploring your new digs is half the fun, especially if it’s one of those wonderful old houses with long corridors and lots of doors. However, it is wise to remember that in some old houses, some doors shouldn’t be opened.

Dana (Beckinsale) and David (Raido) have just moved into one such house. They’re trying to pick up the pieces after the untimely death of an infant daughter. Dana, in particular, is a bit of a mess but David figures that having her redesign her new home (she is an architect, after all) might help take her mind off of things and lift her out of her doldrums.

But then she finds a door to a room in the attic that doesn’t appear on the floor plans, which is kind of bizarre because the room has a distinctive round window that can be seen clearly from the yard. But, okay – she is almost obsessed about opening the door and eventually she finds the key. The room has scratch marks, a drain and some disturbing looking stains that might be blood.

She begins to have visions of an intimidating man in black who turns out to be Judge Blacker (McRaney), a previous owner, and his vicious looking dog. Disturbed by the visions, she looks into the room and discovers that it was what was called a “Disappointments Room” where the wealthy would lock up their children who had mental issues or physical deformities (and sometimes their wives too – yes, disappointments rooms were a thing). When she is trapped in the hidden room for what seems like hours, she is mystified to discover she was only gone a few short minutes. Her sanity begins to take a tumble.

Not making matters much better is a hunky contractor (Till) who seems more interested in flirting with her than in actually getting the roof fixed nor a poorly timed dinner party when a drunken Dana pops her cork and has an epic meltdown. But the question is whether or not the house is truly haunted – or if Dana is descending into madness.

Caruso has a track record of both terrific suspense movies and also some fine action films but this is one that isn’t going to be front and center on his resume. The movie feels like it went off the rails near the end of the film, having either been rewritten from the original script by actor Wentworth Miller (who doesn’t appear in the film, alas) or was edited by someone at the studio’s nephew who turns out to be completely psychotic.

But the rest of the movie does a good job of building the “is she or isn’t she” suspense and Beckinsale was born for this kind of role, where she has to play things high strung. She’s a marvelous actor, horribly underrated who has a history of excellent but overlooked performances in genre films. She’s starting to branch out lately (Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship is one such) and hopefully she’ll start to see roles that will attract more notice. Here she really holds the movie together almost by herself, but as I said the movie spirals into the toilet bowl of doom through no fault of her own.

The problem here is that that the movie kind of loses its inertia and at the end goes for cliches and easy scares rather than taking the ball it had been carrying all game long and running for the touchdown with it. And yes, that’s an intentional mixed metaphor; that perfectly explains how the movie felt to me.

This was a victim of the Relativity Media bankruptcy; it was in limbo for more than a year while the company sorted through its financial issues. It was actually supposed to open in November but for some reason the company pulled Before I Sleep from the schedule with less than two weeks to go and inserted this into the slot, shuttling it into theaters without any sort of promotional support whatsoever. Predictably, it died a quiet and painful death at the box office. It didn’t help matters that the movie is mediocre at best, but it seems sad that this is going to be a pretty decent performance by Beckinsale that will largely go unseen. That’s the big disappointment here.

REASONS TO GO: Beckinsale elevates the movie as she usually does.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is often confusing and disjointed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence (some of it bloody), some disturbing images, a bit of foul language and a couple of scenes of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The house used for the main location shooting was the Adamsleigh estate in the Sedgefield Country Club outside Greensboro, North Carolina. The home was built in 1930.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Husband
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Sully

High-Rise (2015)


An open house you may not want to attend.

An open house you may not want to attend.

(2015) Thriller (Magnet) Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Peter Ferdinando, Sienna Guillory, Reece Shearsmith, Enzo Cilenti, Augustus Prew, Dan Renton Skinner, Stacy Martin, Tony Way, Leila Mimmack, Bill Paterson, Louis Suc, Neil Maskell, Alexandra Weaver, Julia Deakin, Victoria Wicks. Directed by Ben Wheatley

Florida Film Festival 2016

It is part of human nature to divide people into class by their wealth; the upper classes – the haves – all the way down to the lower classes – the have-nots – and in between. Some places, class distinctions are much more concrete than others; the British have made an art form of it.

Set in 1975, this film based on a J.G. Ballard novel posits something that back in that time was only beginning to catch on as an idea but is more prevalent today – the lifestyle apartments. You know the kind; the ones that have shopping and sometimes even office space in the same building, allowing those that live there to need never venture beyond the walls of their high rise. This particular one sits just outside of London.

The middle class inhabit the lower floors with few amenities; the further up you go, the more amenities there are (gymnasium, swimming pool and so on) and of course the wealthier the resident. On the very top floor is Royal (Irons), the reclusive architect of the whole she-bang and his shrewish wife Ann (Hawes). Their luxury penthouse includes an outdoor garden where there is enough room for Ann to ride a horse and Royal to work on the other four towers of the five he has planned.

Into this environment comes Dr. Robert Laing (Hiddleston), a physiologist who is single and immediately catches the eye of Charlotte (Miller), the resident nymph who raises her son Toby (Suc) on her own as a single mom, who catches the good Doctor sunbathing nude. She invites him to a party where he meets Wilder (Evans), a dissatisfied television news reader who has the hots for Charlotte and a little bit too high of an opinion of himself.

The building is brand new and starkly furnished in the style of the time, but cracks begin to show in the facade. Electrical outages at first affect the lower floors before spreading and ending up in a complete blackout. The store where all groceries are bought fails to get resupplied and eventually panicked residents ransack it.

The social order breaks down quickly as the haves and have-nots arrange themselves into violent tribes. The women begin to gravitate towards men who can protect them from the violence and chaos going on in the building. The upper classes gravitate towards Royal as a leader (as he is the wealthiest) while the lower classes choose Wilder because of his fearlessness. Before long, civilization is a distant memory.

Ballard’s allegorical commentary on how thin the veneer of civilized behavior is was controversial in its time, although given recent events one can’t help but wonder if he erred on the side of caution. It also isn’t a particularly lightbulb-glowing concept, that the classes don’t like each other much. In some ways, the point was made better and earlier by Jonathan Swift in his A Modest Proposal which suggests that with overpopulation and food shortages inevitably befalling any civilized nation that the wealthy should look to eating the poor. And you thought Ballard was cynical!

Hiddleston has been coming on lately as a legitimate leading man presence. He has a bit of an edge compared to guys like, say, Matt Damon; I think of him as more of a ‘70s archetype for a leading man, which makes him perfectly cast here. Initially, he’s got a bit of a shy and reclusive nature, which might be what draws the ladies to him (including Wilder’s very pregnant wife Helen (Moss) with whom he has a dalliance late in the film) although it might be more due to the fact that he’s got crazy good looks. I know at least a few ladies who have him on their list of five (five men they get to do anytime, anywhere even if they are married). He’s also a hell of an actor and we watch his descent into obsessive insanity, although he never quite hits bottom. While Hiddleston is known for his villains at present, I would imagine leading roles in big-budget franchise films are just around the corner for him.

I was a teen in the era that is depicted here and there’s a bit of a shock in seeing how many people smoked (according to iMDB there are people smoking in 80% of the film) including pregnant woman. There was also rampant sexuality going on, including a crapload of extramarital affairs and plenty of drug use. All of which is captured here, which while I found unsurprising, still seemed jarring when given today’s mores. Still, I ended up feeling a bit grimy just watching it.

Likewise there are things that sort of rock the logic meter to its core. For instance, why don’t people just LEAVE? After all, the chaos is limited to this one building; if the situation became that out of control, wouldn’t you just walk out the door and be done with it? Also, why doesn’t the grocery store get restocked? That’s never addressed.

I think a lot of how you’re going to digest this movie is going to depend on your own social situation. People who are wealthy and/or conservative are going to identify with the upper class tribe; those who are working class and/or liberal might well identify with the lower class tribe, although the latter were guilty of some unspeakable acts which might give you a hint as to where Ballard’s own sympathies lie (or at least the filmmakers; I haven’t read the source novel yet). Quite frankly, from what I’ve read the jury is out as far as opinions regarding the book’s sympathies.

Similarly, the movie is polarizing – people either love it or hate it. I wanted to like it more than I did, but like Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, watching any five minutes of this film will convince you that it is brilliant but watching the whole of it will not – he called it the best disappointing film you’ll watch this year and in that he is absolutely correct.

REASONS TO GO: Class warfare for dummies. Hiddleston shows some star power.
REASONS TO STAY: Logical holes abound. Makes you feel like a full ashtray has been dumped on your head.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some fairly disturbing stuff here; violence, rape, graphic nudity, sexual content, drug use, foul language and a partridge in a pear tree.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Author J.G. Ballard published the novel this is based on in 1975, the same year that ABBA’s “S.O.S.” was released (the song was covered by two different artists on the soundtrack).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

Gods of Egypt


Choke like an Egyptian.

Choke like an Egyptian.

(2016) Swords and Sandals Fantasy (Summit) Gerard Butler, Nikolaj Koster-Waldau, Brenton Thwaites, Courtney Eaton, Elodie Yung, Bryan Brown, Rachel Blake, Emma Booth, Chadwick Boseman, Rufus Sewell, Alexander England, Goran D. Kleut, Yaya Deng, Geoffrey Rush, Abbey Lee, Kenneth Ransom, Bruce Spence, Robyn Nevin. Directed by Alex Proyas

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What power, dare I say, is more absolute than that of a god? And if that’s the case, does that not make gods the most corrupt of all creatures?

Ancient Egypt had it’s share of Gods and at one time, they not only walked among men but they ruled as well. Osiris (Brown) who rules the Valley of the Nile is getting ready to pass the crown on to his son, Horus (Koster-Waldau). Attending the festivities are Bek (Thwaites), a thief and a bit of a con artist and his girlfriend Zaya (Eaton), a beautiful young lady with an eye for beautiful things.

Also attending is Set (Butler), the brother of Osiris who rules the desert. Having a kingdom of scorpions and sand to rule hasn’t exactly put him in the best of moods and being a treacherous sort, he takes the opportunity to seize power from his brother, murdering him in the process. He also fights Horus and defeats him, plucking out his eyes in the process.

This sets up a despotic rule in which Set enslaves most of the population of Egypt to build obelisks, towers and temples – to Set including one tower that rises higher than any in tribute to Ra (Rush), the sun god more powerful than any other and the father to Set and the late Osiris. Oh, and did I mention that the gods bleed molten gold? Not so much an important plot point as an interesting factoid, that.

In any case, with the architect Urshu (Sewell) designing these monuments to human misery and enslaving Zaya as his personal assistant, Zaya convinces Bek that the only way to alleviate the suffering is to get Horus back in the game and she happens to know where his eyes – well, one of them anyway – is being kept. Bek being the master thief that he is retrieves it but at a terrible cost.

Now with an emotional stake in the game, Bek delivers the eye to Horus in a temple way out in the middle of the desert. At first Horus is none to keen on involving himself in the affairs of humans but he does have a strong streak of vengeance. With the aid of Hathor (Yung), the goddess of love who happens to be Horus’ lover and Thoth (Boseman), the arrogant god of intelligence, Horus and Bek must divine a way to defeat the evil Set and set things right in Egypt but Set has some allies and monsters to throw against the small band of rebels.

This CGI-laden effects fest is directed by Proyas, who has in the past done some memorable work (The Crow, Dark City). He has shown himself to have an imaginative visual sense and that comes out in spades here. What he didn’t have was an adequate budget or a satisfactory script.

The CGI here is for the most part lame and there is nothing that can kill a movie more easily than bad CGI. It mostly looks shoddy and unrealistic, from the elephants hauling stone to the building sites that look like they came from a videogame twenty years ago, to vistas of cities that look like they came from websites ten years ago. I don’t know if the sheer amount of computer images overwhelmed the effects houses that the filmmakers contracted, or if they gave them unrealistic deadlines – or if they simply contracted cheaper effects houses that didn’t have the capabilities to pull off the work (most likely explanation). Whatever the cause, I was constantly pulled out of the movie because the effects were noticeably bad.

The script also has a lot of lapses of logic and is riddled with cliches. If you’re going to do an epic like this, the least you can do is at least try not to cobble together a story that steals elements from other movies, including some that aren’t very good. At times, it seemed like the story existed to show off the visual effects – and we all know how those turned out. And what’s the deal with making the gods slightly taller than the humans (by two to three feet)? It’s distracting and unnecessary. Horus looks like Plastic Man upon occasion; all he needed was the goggles.

At least Butler and Koster-Waldau acquit themselves as well as can be expected; both are dynamic actors who can at least command the attention of the audience. Rush provides some needed gravitas, although quite frankly one gets the sense that he also found the script ridiculous and made an effort to get this over with as quickly as possible. I imagine he won’t be including his work here on any audition tapes.

I will give credit where credit is due; as much bashing of the visuals as I’ve done, some of the visuals have some imagination to them which I can only assume come from Proyas as he has a history of such things. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of that to overcome the fact that this movie looks bad and tells its story badly. Only the charisma of the antagonists really saves this movie from being completely unwatchable which hopefully will translate to better movies for the both of them.

REASONS TO GO: Butler and Koster-Waldau make fine antagonists. Some imaginative visuals.
REASONS TO STAY: El Crappo CGI. Incoherent script lacks imagination.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of sexuality and plenty of fantasy violence and action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Proyas himself is Egyptian, born of Greek parents in the city of Alexandria.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 23/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Immortals
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Boom Bust Boom

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

San Andreas


Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People's Elbow.

Either The Rock is striking a heroic pose or he accidentally gave this girl The People’s Elbow.

(2015) Disaster  (New Line) Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandria Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue, Colton Haynes, Todd Williams, Matt Gerald, Alec Utgoff, Marissa Neitling, Morgan Griffin, Breanne Hill, Laurence Coy, Fiona Press, Dennis Coard, Simone Kessell. Directed by Brad Peyton

When the earth starts to shake and buildings begin to fall, who are you gonna call? Dwayne Johnson! When the fault cracks in two which the tsunami rolls into, who’ll see you through? Dwayne Johnson!

Disaster movies were a thing of the 70s for a short while, all-star casts of big stars put at risk by natural or man-made disasters. Irwin Allen was the king of these films, and things like The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno were big box office champs back in the day. These days, most of those disaster effects are done on computers which you’d think would save money in the budget for amazing casts but here in this 21st century disaster movie, after legitimate stars Johnson and Giamatti as well as next-tier stars Gugino, Daddario, Panjabi and Gruffudd, things get a little thin. Where’s William Holden when you really need him?

Ray (Johnson) is a LAFD rescue helicopter pilot whose devotion to his job increased exponentially when one of his daughters drowned during a rafting trip and he was unable to save her. His remaining daughter Blake (Daddario) adores daddy, but he emotionally shut down after the tragedy and after trying and trying his wife Emma (Gugino) is now his ex-wife and is moving into the palatial mansion of architect Daniel Reddick (Gruffudd) who seems like a genuinely nice guy. When a massive earthquake in Nevada ruptures the Hoover Dam, forcing an all hands on deck call to any rescue helicopter pilots in the neighborhood, Ray has to cancel on a planned road trip to take his baby girl to college. She instead hitches a ride to San Francisco with Daniel. And Emma takes a lunch with his bitchy sister (Minogue).

That’s when Big One #2 hits, in Los Angeles. Ray is forced to save his own wife from a collapsing high rise and when they realize that Big One #3 is going to hit San Francisco at any moment – thanks to earthquake predicting software developed by Dr. Lawrence (Giamatti) whose partner (Lee) was buried alive in the Hoover Dam thing. Now Ray and Emma are heading up to San Francisco to rescue Blake who has been abandoned by the as-it-turns-out cowardly Daniel and has hooked up with a lovestruck Brit named Ben (Johnstone-Burt) and his precocious little brother Ollie (Parkinson).

The effects-heavy San Andreas features lots of buildings and other structures collapsing, people crushed by fallen masonry, a tsunami that takes down the Golden Gate Bridge and Ray driving anything that isn’t nailed down be it on land, in the air or at sea. There’s plenty of shark jumping and WTF moments that will turn your brain into peanut butter if you think about it too hard. My advice is, just don’t think about it and go with the flow.

Other than the adequate and occasionally delightful effects, the big draw here is Johnson. He’s not the most accomplished actor on any given set, but he doesn’t need to be, particularly on movies like this. He gets by on his irresistible charm, his rippling biceps and his genuine heart. You can’t help but like the guy no matter who he’s playing; it will be interesting to see what he does with a villain role in the upcoming comic book hero movie Shazam. Here even at the movie’s most godawful plot moments, he rescues it just by being himself.

Writer Carlton Cuse (Lost) doesn’t deliver his best work here which is kind of a shame; I would have loved to see his ability to draw up fascinating characters in impossible situations transplanted here, but the movie is just so engaging in terms of effects and disaster goodness that it’s hard to really fault Cuse for not bringing on the A game here. This isn’t going to break box office records, nor is it going to redefine the summer blockbuster. While it could have used a more judicious hand in the editing room – dodging falling buildings repetitively gets pretty old after awhile – it nonetheless accomplishes what most of us are looking for this time of year which is a fun ride at the movie theater.

REASONS TO GO: Dwayne Johnson saves the day. Fun summer entertainment.
REASONS TO STAY: Paint-by-numbers plot. Probably a good half hour too long.
FAMILY VALUES: Intense action, disaster mayhem and a few choice curse words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Riddick’s San Francisco headquarters is actually the Bank of America building, the same building (enhanced with optical effects) that was used for the 1974 disaster classic The Towering Inferno.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Earthquake
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Peace, Love and Misunderstanding