The Legend of King Solomon


The 70s called; they want their animation back.

(2017) Animated Feature (The Orchard) Starring the voices of Oded Menashe, Ori Pfeffer, Hana Laslo, Ori Laizerouvich, Nitzan Sitzer, Albert Cohen, Eden Har’el. Directed by Albert Hanan Kaminski

 

King Solomon has over the centuries come to symbolize wisdom. However, even the wisest of men were once the most foolish of teens, and getting over ourselves is a hefty dose of what growing up is all about.

Solomon (Menashe) has only recently ascended to the throne of Jerusalem, once held by his father King David. Solomon’s best friend is a fox named Toby (Laizerouvich) whose speech only Solomon can understand. Bilquis (uncredited), the beautiful but somewhat shallow Queen of Sheba has come to Jerusalem ostensibly to marry Solomon. The teen king, chafing in the shadow of his more noteworthy father, needs to find a way to impress the beautiful Queen.

When Hadad (Sitzer), a man whose city was leveled by David comes before Solomon to reclaim his family ring, Solomon arrogantly refuses. In retribution, Hadad frees Asmodeus, one of the most powerful of demons. Seeking to impress Bilquis, Solomon captures the demon and against all advice brings it into the city of Jerusalem where it escapes and enslaves the citizens of Jerusalem, then throws Solomon high into the air. Solomon should have been killed but he and Toby are rescued by a giant eagle who informs him that the only way to defeat Asmodeus is by the use of the Stone Worm, a powerful talisman hidden in the ancient city of Petra.

Solomon, disguising himself as an impoverished beggar so as not to attract attention to himself, gains entry to the city and finds work as a dishwasher working for the Princess Na’ama (Har’el) who finds out his true identity and determines to help the young king. Chased by Hadad and by the enslaved soldiers of Jerusalem as well as Na’ama’s angry father, Solomon must redeem himself and take back his city or lose everything that his father built.

This is definitely a children’s movie. The appeal is mainly going to be for little ones; we’ve got sassy talking animals, love stories on the level of a six-year-old’s crush on a seven-year-old and humor that consists mainly of pratfalls. With the cutesy talking animals and the dialogue that distinctly talks down to the audience, one gets the sense that the writers thought their target audience is much younger than it really is; either that or they don’t hang out with many seven-year-olds.

Although the subject is Biblical, the movie isn’t preachy in the same way it might be if a evangelical Christian group might have made it. This is mostly meant to be a fun look at a Biblical figure who really hasn’t gotten a whole lot of love from Hollywood despite being one of the best-known figures from the history of Israel. It surprises me frankly that there have been more movies about Achilles than there have been about King Solomon. I guess that being a mighty warrior is sexier than being a mighty thinker.

The music, much of it based on folk song forms of the region, is actually quite nice. The really glaring thing about the film though is the animation. Unlike most animated films these days, it’s 2D and it looks like something Don Bluth might have done – that’s not a knock, by the way. The backgrounds are nicely textured but the animators don’t really succeed in giving their creation life. There’s no soul here and for the most part it feels like something that was done not so much out of a passion for the story but because someone was footing the bill.

Parents who are strong in faith, both Christian and Jewish (and I suspect some Muslims as well) will probably delight in this. Those who aren’t religious should be aware that this isn’t a movie that’s trying to indoctrinate anybody; Solomon comes off as human and even though there are demons present there aren’t hosts of angels or any wise old priests telling him to put his faith in God. I just wish the animation was better and that the writers had given the young audience a little more credit.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the songs are pretty nice.
REASONS TO STAY: It feels like a bad attempt to mimic a Disney animated movie from the 70s. The humor is pretty dumb.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Legend of King Solomon is the first Israeli full-length animated feature that is intended for children.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Davey and Goliath
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
The Bleeding Edge

Insidious: The Last Key


Someone needs a manicure badly.

(2018) Horror (Blumhouse/Universal) Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Bruce Davison, Aleque Reid, Ava Kolker, Pierce Pope, Javier Botet, Marcus Henderson, Amanda Jaros, Judith Drake, Hana Hayes, Thomas Robie, Josh Wingate, Danielle Kennedy, Melanie Gaydos, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins, Rose Byrne. Directed by Adam Robitel

 

Horror franchises can be very lucrative indeed for a studio. Look at the Friday the 13th franchise for Paramount, the Paranormal Activity franchise for the same studio and the Nightmare on Elm Street and the Conjuring universe for New Line. It’s hard to know where Lionsgate would be had it not for the money generated by the Saw franchise years ago.

Insidious has been part of a renaissance of horror franchises that have taken hold of studio imaginations. For the most part these horror franchises are very cheap to produce and can generate tens and even hundreds of millions of box office profits when all is said and done. They may not be prestige projects or win many awards – or even gain much critical respect – but they are vital to a studio’s bottom line. Insidious has for the most part (especially in the second two of the four chapters to date) followed the story of Elise Rainier, a psychic who is able to communicate with the dead and sometimes venture into a dimension she calls The Further in which the living and the dead can sometimes interact – although it is the supernatural who reign there.

Like the previous installment, this is a prequel. Elise Rainier (Shaye) is at home when she gets a call from a potential client in a small New Mexico town. When she hears the address, immediately it becomes obvious that she is terrified as she abruptly declines to take the job and hangs up.

That’s because the address is her own childhood home, now occupied by a lone man named Ted Garza (Acevedo). As a child (Kolker) and as a teen (Hayes) as her abilities were manifesting themselves, she was tortured by the souls of those who had died in the nearby prison where her abusive father (Stewart) works. He not only doesn’t believe in the supernatural, he thinks his daughter is crazy and whenever she confesses that she has witnessed something supernatural, she is beaten with a cane.

Eventually she runs off leaving her brother Christian to survive alone with his dad but not before she unknowingly allows a terrible entity into this world which ends up killing her loving and supportive mother (Ferrer). Troubled not only by the memories of the abuse she suffered but also haunted by the guilt over her mother’s death, she realizes she can’t find peace until she faces her own demons – literally. So with her assistants Specs (Whannell, who directed the last one) and Tucker (Sampson), she goes to Five Keys to do battle with evil.

There she’ll meet her now-grown brother (Davison) who hasn’t yet forgiven her for abandoning him, and his daughters Imogen (Gerard) and Melissa (Locke) who are both fetching which attracts the attention of Specs and Tucker but also Elise realizes that one of them may have inherited the gift/curse that she possesses.

Elise is one of the most admirable horror heroines ever created. Generally most horror franchises are about the monster and rarely is there a single hero that runs through the series. Insidious is the reverse of that (as is, to be fair, The Conjuring) but in the case of Elise, she is not a young person; Shaye is a rare hero of a certain age group (let’s call it AARP-friendly) who appeals to young people as well as others. She is grandmotherly at times but she kicks spiritual booty when she needs to. There has never been a heroine quite like her and in this film Shaye is at her absolute best.

In fact it’s safe to say that the acting is pretty solid all around. Sure, the two nieces are pretty much interchangeable and Whannell and Sampson occasionally try a little too hard for comedy relief but Davison is a savvy pro who compliments Shaye nicely and Ferrer does a bang-up job as the ill-fated mom. Acevedo also gets kudos for taking a character who has some depth and translating it into performance.

The Insidious series has never been gore-heavy and also quite frankly not really overloaded with scares as well, which makes it a target for some derision in horror fanboy circles. I’ve always appreciated that the scares in the first three movies are well-earned and if there are occasionally an over-reliance on jump scares (or startle scares as I like to call them) when they do go out to get you they generally succeed.

The one thing that keeps this from a higher score in my book is the ending; the final confrontation is a big letdown and is that unusual situation where it should have  gone on longer, even though because this is a prequel you pretty much know the outcome because…well, certain characters HAVE to survive or else the continuity is completely shot to hell. Of course, one of these days a franchise picture is going to shock the living daylights out of us by killing a character who is shown to have survived in one of the earlier films. Perhaps that will cause a paradox that will bring the whole universe to an end – or perhaps just a portion of it, like all politicians. That would be worth it, I’m sure we can all agree.

REASONS TO GO: This could be the best performance by Shaye in the series. In general, the acting is better than the average horror film.
REASONS TO STAY: This installment is a little bit less scary than other films in the franchise. The final confrontation between Elise and the demon is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing thematic content and imagery, horror violence, scenes of terror and occasional profanity. There are also a couple of scenes of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is meant to conclude the prequel series for the franchise, leading to sequels that may or may not continue the character of Elise Rainier.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Annabelle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Downsizing

Don’t Kill It


Dolph Lundgren casually gets ready for some non-lethal shooting.

Dolph Lundgren casually gets ready for some non-lethal shooting.

(2016) Horror Comedy (Archstone) Dolph Lundgren, Kristina Klebe, Michael Alan Milligan, Billy Slaughter, Aaron McPherson, Miles Doleac, Elissa Dowling, Sam Furman, Jasi Cotton Lanier, Tony Bentley, James Chalke, Michelle West, Tony Messenger, Toby Bronson, Randy Austin, Chaton Anderson, Milorad Djomlija, Thomas Owen, Kristin Samuelson. Directed by Mike Mendez

 

Demons are notoriously hard to kill. Oftentimes people don’t even believe they exist until it’s much too late and then the demon hunting shmoe sent out to kill the thing gets to say “I told you so.” Among the hardest demons to kill are those that jump from body to body however.

A small, picturesque town in Mississippi is battered by three triple homicides in less than a week. This kind of violent crime spike gets the attention of the FBI who sends Agent Evelyn Pierce (Klebe) who is from the area and was known locally as “Evil-Lyn” which is not a term she’s particularly fond of.

But also attracted to the carnage is Jebediah Woodley (Lundgren) who is – ahem – a demon hunter. Of course, announcing a profession like that meets with a lot of sniggers and of course a lot of incredulity but as the demon continues to pile up the body count, those who are possessed display pitch black eyes and a demonic scream that is unmistakably supernatural. Soon Pierce and the local police Chief Dunham (Bentley) are believers but Pastor Erikson (Chalke) thinks that the only thing demonic are the out-of-towners Woodley and Evelyn, who he has always distrusted.

As it turns out, the demon has a special attraction to Evelyn and the stakes get just a little bit higher but the FBI comes in at just the wrong moment and even worse, the vengeful and decidedly un-Christian Pastor has plans for Woodley and Evelyn that have nothing to do with charity.

This is actually not a bad little horror comedy. The sense of humor here is actually not so broad or over the top as to be cloying. Instead, it is almost subversive and while there is a whole lot of gore and not a whole lot of restraint, there is enough humor to lighten the mood without making the movie silly.

Now pushing 60, Lundgren has come a long way since Ivan Drago. He rarely gets a lot of dialogue (and he even quipped that he has more dialogue in this film than he has spoken over the past five years) and this is a performance that should change that perception that directors have of the man; I’ve actually begun to look forward to his appearances which I never would have thought would be a sentence that I’d actually utter considering some of the truly excruciating performances he’s given in some truly excruciating movies back in the 90s.

I mentioned gore and there’s plenty of it – none of it really groundbreaking but all of it perfectly placed to serve the story. Some might find some of it to be excessive but when you put it up against the horror films of the 70s and 80s it might even be considered a little tame. Sometimes it’s used for humorous effect but for the most part as I said it serves the story.

The story follows a fairly clichéd path but the conceit in which how the demon travels from body to body is clever and makes for a good story so you can overlook the clichés. Lundgren is engaging and funny and while the supporting cast is largely unknown, the performances are at least solid and never detract from the movie. I can understand why some might be reluctant to see this – horror comedies have a tendency to be too much one or the other and rarely are appealing as a complete film. This one is.

REASONS TO GO: The film possesses a subversive sense of humor. Dolph Lundgren has become a welcome addition to a film and whoever thought that would ever be a sentence? There are some nifty gore effects.
REASONS TO STAY: The story follows a cliché kind of path. The ending is a bit over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, profanity, some fairly gruesome gore, sexuality and a bit of nudity. There is also excessive vaping.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Once the production got the final green light, there were only 12 days of prep time before shooting started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shocker
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Love and Taxes

Kubo and the Two Strings


Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

Beetle, Kubo and Monkey on a quest for armor or at least an audience.

(2016) Animated Feature (Laika/Focus) Starring the voices of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, George Takei, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Brenda Vaccaro, Rooney Mara, Meyrick Murphy, Minae Noji, Alpha Takahashi, Laura Miro, Ken Takemoto, Luke Donaldson, Thomas Isao Morinaka, Zach Rice, Rachel Morihiro, Mariel Sheets. Directed by Travis Knight

 

We spend much of our time as adults trying to live up to what our parents wanted us to be, which is a harder trick than it sounds – particularly if your parents were taken from you at a young age. Indeed, we spend much of our lives trying to live up to our parents period. Some of us choose to divorce ourselves from those expectations but deep down, the desire is there.

Kubo (Parkinson), a one-eyed child, lives in a seaside town in Japan, a village that gave him and his mother Kameyo (Vaccaro) refuge when they floated in on a boat when Kubo was just a child. These days Kameyo is ill and Kubo supports them by telling stories, accompanied by his magic shamisen, a three-stringed Japanese musical instrument which causes pieces of paper in Kubo’s pack to be transformed into magical, living origami. He is beloved of the townspeople but there is an air of melancholy about Kubo – he misses the father he never knew, a great samurai warrior who had feuded with his mother’s two evil sisters (both voiced by Mara) and their father, the despotic Moon King (Fiennes).

When Kubo accidentally conjures up a demon and his mother disappears, he must go on a quest to recover his father’s armor, said to make the wearer invincible, and his sword which cannot be broken. He is accompanied by a monkey (Theron) who is more than what she seems, and a samurai that his been transformed into a Beetle (McConaughey) who is more brave than he is brilliant.

Together these three must face down terrifying monsters, insurmountable odds and a seemingly impossible quest. Their faith in each other is all that can get them through even as Kubo despairs of having a family ever again.

Laika, which has produced such gems as The Boxtrolls and Coraline, return for their fourth feature and as you might expect with that kind of pedigree it’s an impressive visual achievement. Melding CGI and the stop-motion animation for which Laika is justifiably famous for, the ancient Japan with all the mystery and magic the wizards at Laika can muster comes to vivid life. There will be lots of oohs and ahs when you get a load of this either on the big screen or at home.

Parkinson, who plays Rickon Stark on Game of Thrones, does some impressive work here, giving us a complete character who, unlikely other orphans in animated films, isn’t one-dimensional. Yes, there is grief for his parents but there is also a solid steel core of honor in him, inherited from his dad. He wants to do right and knows that he has inside him a special power that could well make everything right. However, he is fallible and sometimes does childish things, although never in an annoying way. Parkinson definitely makes the reading emotional without letting the emotions control the reading. It’s a good performance and bodes well for his future as an actor.

McConaughey has never done an animated feature before but his customary Texas drawl is absent here; you almost have to close your eyes and listen really carefully to know it’s him. Theron and McConaughey’s characters have some nice interplay and both do well with Parkinson. The voice work isn’t the issue here at all, and Takei lets fly a delicious “Oh, myyyyyy” early on in the film as an extra bonus attraction.

I do think the movie is a bit long; it drags somewhat during the middle and the epic fight sequences could have been trimmed a bit, although the one with the giant skeleton – c’est magnifique. And I like that while this resembles anime in construction, it’s an American take on the art form and quite frankly, it holds up nicely although it certainly won’t compare to classics like Akira, Grave of the Fireflies and most of Studio Ghibli’s work.

In a year of strong animated features in a summer where virtually everything else was disappointing, this stands out nicely as one of the best family films of the summer. I think it’s one of Laika’s most ambitious ideas in terms of story and visuals, but falls a little short of their best movies. For all that though, I think it’s clear that Laika is one of the top animated studios in the world, right up there with the aforementioned Ghibli, Pixar and maybe Illumination. It’s a good time to be a cartoon fan.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are incredible. A story that is simple yet mesmerizing.
REASONS TO STAY: The film could have used a little more editing.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the images here are scary, and there are scenes of peril and action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the directing debut of Laika CEO Travis Knight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Light Between Oceans

Keeper of Darkness (Tuo di qu mo ren)


Ghosts at the window.

Ghosts at the window.

(2015) Supernatural Horror (EDKO) Nick Cheung, Amber Kuo, Louis Cheung, Sisley Choi, Shi Yanneng, Philip Keung, Shawn Yue, Elena Kong, Jacky Cheung, Wai-Keung Lau, Lawrence Ng, Olivia Yan, Andrew Lau, Karena Lam, Angie Cheung. Directed by Nick Cheung

NYAFF

What lies in wait for us after we die is an utter mystery. Do we go to heaven or hell, or are we reincarnated? Do we simply cease to be or is there something else out there, some other existence for us? One thing’s for certain; life after life isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Wong Wing Fatt (N. Cheung) is an exorcist, but not the kind who dresses in vestments and engages in ancient Catholic rituals. He has “the third eye,” or the ability to see ghosts. He generally prefers to negotiate them out away from troubling the living, although sometimes he uses more violent means. When he’s not taking care of the dead, he’s part of a Hong Kong triad with a boss who gets little respect from the police. “I’m the biggest criminal in the district!” he complains to a disinterested beat cop who is hassling Fatt.

A video of one of the exorcisms Fatt performs gets the attention of tabloid journalist Ling (Choi) who contacts Chung (L. Cheung), the erstwhile assistant of Fatt who is, unfortunately for Ling, disinterested in an interview. Fatt is living in the same house where his mother (Lam) committed suicide and where years before a beautiful young mistress named Cherr (Kuo) did the same. Cherr, however, is more benevolent than Fatt’s mom who has stayed away from her son; Cherr, on the other hand, is in love with him and he with her. They both hope to be united in the next life.

But that is the least of Fatt’s problems. A vicious ghost named Hark (Yanneng) wants vengeance for the death of his wife and daughter and has been murdering charlatan psychics when he discovers they can’t give him what he wants. When he discovers that Fatt is the real deal, he gives him three days to kill the offending still-living man…or else Fatt and his pre-dead friends are all going to be joining the choir invisible.

Exorcism movies are far different in the East than they are here in the West. Generally in Hollywood and Europe, the Exorcism movies are wrapped up in Catholic ritual and tradition. In the East, often Buddhist principles of Exorcism are used in which exorcists physically battle demons with “spirit weapons” and spells. There is some of the latter here, but this is far different than any other exorcism movie I’ve ever seen so it gets props for that as well.

Nicky Cheung has made a reputation as being one of Hong Kong’s top action heroes of this decade, but as a director he has gone the supernatural route with both of his films and there’s literally no action scenes involving Fatt in the film, other than him getting tossed around like a rag doll by Hark. He has a great deal of screen magnetism and commands the attention of the viewer whenever he’s on, which is most of the film as he’s in nearly every scene. Amber Kuo, one of Asia’s most beautiful actresses, makes a perfect romantic foil for him.

The special effects are inconsistent at best. At times, Cheung makes a very atmospheric ghost tale; at other times, the CGI are quite frankly subpar. There is a scene in which Fatt goes over to the “other side” to confront Hark and there is a bit of an Inception feel to the look of the segment, but it looks like it came from a special effects house circa 1996. Even though it depicts someplace fantastic, it looks computer generated which takes you right out of the film.

The romantic relationship between Fatt and Cherr is at the center of the film, which may prove disappointing to horror buffs and action buffs alike. That romance, which can never truly be consummated, lends a melancholy air which actually fits nicely in the overall theme. Some critics and fans might complain, but I thought that while the romance did slow down the movie some, it was actually part of what made the movie so compelling.

There are lots of cameos from some of Hong Kong’s most recognizable stars and faces including one at the very end which brazenly sets up a sequel which quite frankly I wouldn’t mind seeing. This isn’t scary enough for most horror buffs, not enough action for most fans of that genre and the romance is less physical than those who like those sorts of movies. It was the combination of the three that intrigued me and delighted me about this movie. It’s possible it might get a U.S. release but if it does it will be a brief and limited one. Look for it on your favorite Asian movie DVD or streaming sites in the near future.

REASONS TO GO: The ghostly atmosphere is genuinely creepy. Cheung is an appealing hero. Interesting to see an Eastern take on exorcisms (i.e. non-Catholic).
REASONS TO STAY: The CGI is pretty poor. A fair amount of plot holes and occasional inappropriate humor mar the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gruesome images, some violence and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth time Clooney and Roberts have appeared in a film together.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Finding Dory

Insidious Chapter III


Insidious Chapter III

Stefanie Scott hears something that goes bump in the night

(2015) Horror (Gramercy) Dermot Mulroney, Stefanie Scott, Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Tate Berney, Michael Reid Mackay, Steve Coulter, Hayley Kiyoko, Corbett Tuck, Tom Fitzpatrick, Tom Gallop, Jeris Poindexter, Ele Keats, Phyllis Applegate, Phil Abrams, Erin Anderson, Amaris Davidson, Ashton Moio, Ruben Garfias, Fawn Irish. Directed by Leigh Whannell

When I heard they were going to make a third chapter in this series I have to admit i was skeptical at first. After all, the most interesting character had died in the first chapter and the second was far less credible than the first. There seemed to be nowhere for the series to go.

So when all else fails, try a prequel. In this case, we catch up with psychic Elise Rainier (Shaye) some years before she meets the Lambert family which would be a turning point in her life. She is terrified of the apparition of a bride in black (Fitzpatrick) who has promised to kill her one day. Because of it, she has given up doing readings.

A young teen named Quinn Brenner (Scott) hesitantly takes the bus to meet Elise, who at first wants nothing to do with her, but Quinn is so desperate to make contact with her mother (Keats) who passed away suddenly that Elise takes pity on her and tries her best to help Quinn out. We all know what is paved with the best of intentions.

Soon Quinn begins to see an old man who waves at her. She can’t quite make out his features but he creeps her out, to the point that she fails to get out of the way of a speeding truck and is gravely injured. She survives the accident but both of her legs are broken so she’s essentially bedridden once she gets home. Her dad Sean (Mulroney), already dealing with the loss of his wife as well as a son Alex (Berney) who is acting out not to mention trouble at work, does his best but he’s definitely overwhelmed. He doesn’t have much of a support system, other than a batty old woman (Applegate) and her husband (Poindexter).

Soon unsettling things begin to happen around Quinn, revolving around an old man wearing an old fashioned breathing apparatus (MacKay). Elise knows that there is an entity that wants to kill her out there but she can’t just abandon this young girl to a terrible fate. She decides to get involved, even as a couple of internet ghost busters named Specs (Whannell) and Tucker (Sampson) also get involved.

With Whannell taking the director’s chair, the movie moves at a different pace than the first two. It’s a bit more leisurely and some might find it a bit slow. However, I must admit that I have a fondness for horror movies that build up their scares and come by them honestly rather than the quick-paced throw everything but the kitchen sink at the screen style that a lot of popular horror movies have adopted.

There is a ton of background; we find out how Elise’s husband died and how The Further (the other dimension where the dead go) got its name, so fans of the series will enjoy that. The Lambert family makes a brief appearance (not onscreen) early on which semi-sets up the action of the first two chapters. So in short fans of the series will have a lot to keep them happy.

Mulroney as the overwhelmed dad and Shaye are both screen veterans and both know what to do up there. Mulroney is the sympathetic figure who turns into a tiger when he has to fight for his daughter’s life. Sean is initially an unbeliever in the supernatural but after an encounter with the demon he is gung ho “call in the parapsychologists!”

Shaye has made Elise a memorable character who is an unlikely heroine, but kicks supernatural bootie nonetheless. After three films doing the character, she’s really at home in Elise’s skin, which does only good things for the movie. Shaye is one of those character actresses whose face is more familiar than her name, but this is a role that shows she can actually carry a movie on her own.

The reason you go to a horror movie is to be scared however and there are a few really good ones here, at least one of them non-supernatural in nature. However, the movie relies too much on jump scares, which is more like being startled than truly scared. The problem with this is that these scares are done with quickly and you don’t get that atmosphere of terror that a good horror movie creates. While The Man Who Can’t Breathe is pretty scary (and the make-up effects are plenty creepy), he isn’t nearly as frightening as The Bride in Black or any number of horror movie monsters of recent or not-so-recent films.

For those horror fans who aren’t too discriminating or those who loved the first two chapters in the series, you’re likely to go see this anyway regardless of what I say (and in all likelihood have already seen it). Those who are on the fence and looking for something to send shivers up their spine in the summertime, this is pretty much adequate for the task. Those looking for a horror movie that is going to scare the Beejezus out of them should probably go rent The Babadook and see that again.

REASONS TO GO: Mulroney is solid and Shaye is terrific. Some pretty decent scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many jump scares and not enough legitimate ones. Seems to lack the momentum of the first two chapters.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of images that are disturbing and lots of jump scares. There’s also some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Whannell, who co-wrote the first two movies in the series and has been the writing partner for James Wan, who directed the first two movies, makes his directing debut here; Wan was unable to take the director’s chair due to his involvement with Furious 7; he does make a cameo appearance as a theater director early in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews.. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Exorcism of Emily Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Jurassic World

Sinister


Ethan Hawke sows his home movies on set.

Ethan Hawke sows his home movies on set.

(2012) Supernatural Horror (Summit) Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, James Ransone, Fred Dalton Thompson, Juliet Rylance, Michael Hall D’Addario, Clare Foley, Rob Riley, Tavis Smiley, Janet Zappala, Victoria Leigh, Cameron Ocasio, Ethan Haberfield, Danielle Kotch, Blake Mizrahi, Nick King, Lorraine Aceves, Rachel Konstantin. Directed by Scott Derrickson

Six Days of Darkness 2014

It isn’t hard to wonder why people do the things they do. Why they feel compelled not just to take life but to do so in particularly gruesome and sadistic ways. There really is no explanation for it. No earthly one, anyway.

Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) is a writer specializing in true crime. A decade previous, he wrote Kentucky Blood which not only chronicled a lurid murder in the Bluegrass State but also solved it, making the police of the area look awfully bad in the process. Since then, a string of failures has left his career disintegrating before his very eyes. He has moved his family from New York City to a house in Long Island which they aren’t too happy about.

They would be twice as upset if they knew that an entire family had been murdered there weeks before and that the youngest daughter of that family was missing. Ellison means to solve the murders and find the missing girl which he believes would be enough to make him famous again. However, first things first; he has to get his study set up and the family moved in.

While exploring the house, Ellison finds a box of super 8 films in the attic. They have innocuous titles such as Pool Party ’66, BBQ ’79 and Family Hanging Out ’11. However when Ellison views them to his horror they turn out to be footage of entire families getting murdered, including the one that had lived in the house.

He chooses not to tell the police about his find, mainly because the Sheriff (Thompson) takes a dim view of a writer who wrote such uncomplimentary things about the police. However, his nebbish Deputy (Ransone) has a major case of hero worship and agrees to help Ellison in exchange for being mentioned in the book as a researcher or something along those lines. It soon becomes clear that the apparently random murders are all connected – and that a mysterious figure identified as “Mr. Boogie” in childish drawings of the murders is the connecting thread.

In the meantime, the pressure is getting to Ellison and he’s begun drinking much to the chagrin of his wife (Rylance). After consulting with occult specialist Professor Jonas (D’Onofrio) Ellison is worried that his family has now become the targets of Mr. Boogie. Can he protect his family from something that he can’t understand?

A couple of years ago this one made some big waves in Hollywood for making big box office numbers on an indie-like production budget; in fact, the movie was initially shown at South by Southwest and was picked up there by Summit, an unusual move for a major. However it paid lots and lots of dividends.

Derrickson used this as a springboard to get the director’s chair for the upcoming Dr. Strange movie coming from Marvel in 2016. You can see why; he has a talent for painting a mood and making the most out of a small budget. Hopefully with a bigger budget like James Gunn before him he’ll turn it into a flat-out global blockbuster.

Hawke has always been consistently good, one of those steady actors who never turns in a bad performance. It is only recently that I’ve begun to think of him as an outstanding performer and this movie is one of the reasons why. Ellison is far from being likable. He’s self-centered and puts his career ahead of the well-being of his own family. However, in Hawke’s capable hands we still end up rooting for the character.

Like The Legend of Hell House this is much more of an atmospheric horror film than a visceral one. There isn’t a ton of gore but the creepy factor is off the charts. Much of the action takes place in Ellison’s office space which is cramped and shadowy. That gives the movie a nice claustrophobic feeling.

Sadly, the ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the movie and really makes for negative marks in the film’s overall rating. While the use of found footage is cleverly integrated into the movie, this feels a lot like V/H/S which used the same concept much more gracefully. Those who are looking for real scares there aren’t a lot of them and those mostly of the jump scare variety. The movie is spooky rather than scary which may not necessarily be what you’re looking for, although the horror wimps in your household looking to show some Halloween bravery may find it palatable. The demonic figure and the children may be nightmare-inducing for those sorts however.

I liked Sinister more than it probably deserved but I’m rating it lower than I’d like. I just can’t get past the ending I’m afraid. However if you don’t mind being disappointed at the end of the movie and you like your horror to be more creepy than crawly, this might be what you’re looking for.

WHY RENT THIS: Doesn’t overstate the gore. Relies on atmosphere and claustrophobia for scares. Hawke does some fine work here.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Ending is a bit of a letdown. More spooky than scary. Trope of found footage murder reels has been done before.
FAMILY VALUES:  Disturbing images of violence and terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer C. Robert Cargill came up with the idea after a nightmare he had following a viewing of The Ring. He also admits that the name of the lead character, Ellison Oswalt, comes from author Harlan Ellison and comedian Patton Oswalt.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: A couple of interesting featurettes; one on real life true crime authors, the other of experiences the crew had living in a house where a murder happened for real during filming.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $77.7M on a $3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Village of the Damned
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Four!

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

I, Frankenstein


Aaron Eckhart is pissed off that his agent let him sign up for this film.

Aaron Eckhart is pissed off that his agent let him sign up for this film.

(2014) Horror Fantasy (Lionsgate) Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovsky, Miranda Otto, Jai Courtney, Socratis Otto, Aden Young, Caitlin Stasey, Mahesh Jadu, Steve Mouzakis, Nicholas Bell, Deniz Akdeniz, Chris Pang, Kevin Grevioux, Bruce Spence, Virginie Le Brun, Penny Higgs, Goran Kleut, Yasca Sinigaglia, Nicole Downs, Angela Kennedy, Samantha Reed. Directed by Stuart Beattie

We are born and then we are created. We are all of us blank slates that are filled up by our experiences and our mentors, parents and friends. Of course if you don’t have the latter, you are left to interpret things on your own.

Victor Frankenstein (Young) had found the secret of creation, animating a sewn-together quilt of body parts and grafted skin. Part scientist and part madman, he had promised his creature (Eckhart) that he would one day animate a companion for him but later went back on his promise. In a fit of rage, the creature murdered Frankenstein’s wife (Le Brun) which completely unhinges his creator, who follows his creation up above the Arctic circle and promptly freezes to death. For reasons even he probably can’t understand, the creature carries the body back to the graveyard to bury his creator alongside his wife when the creature is attacked by demons. A pair of gargoyles witness the event in which the creature kills (and sends their spirits back to Hell) most of his attackers. Sounds plenty biblical to me.

They take him back (none too willingly) to a huge Notre Dame-like cathedral in some unnamed Eurocity where he is introduced to Leonore (Otto), Queen of the Gargoyles. She explains to the creature (whom she names Adam) that there is a war going on between the Demons of Hell and the Gargoyles who are the agents of Heaven (apparently the angels didn’t want to get their wings dirty) and that for whatever reason the demon Prince Naberius (Nighy) had chosen to involve Adam, he was nevertheless caught in the middle. However, Adam who is kind of pissed off at life in general (talk about someone who never asked to be born) chooses to turn his back, heading someplace where humans can’t find him. Or demons. Or gargoyles.

200 years pass and Adam, tired of being stalked by demons and still pissed off at life in general, decides to go on the offensive. Things haven’t changed much in gargoyle-land except that they are now willing to win by any means necessary and they don’t trust Adam much. Naberius, masquerading as a tech industrialist, has hired Dr. Terra (Strahovsky), a respected scientist, to help Naberius figure out a way to replicate Victor Frankenstein’s work. Of course, she doesn’t realize she’s working for a demon prince or she’d probably have asked for enough of a salary increase to afford a better apartment.

She’s able to re-animate rats but not humans yet; the reappearance of Adam and the existence of Victor Frankenstein’s journal in the possession of the gargoyles gives her a shot at actually reanimating human corpses. But what does Naberius want with reanimated corpses and how will that lead to the end of the world? And what will Adam, still pissed off at life in general, do about it – if anything?

Based on the Kevin Grevioux (who has a small role in the film) graphic novel, this has a lot of the same elements of the Underworld series; since some of the producer of that series are involved, it isn’t a stretch to figure out why the movie has much the same look as that hit movie franchise. Mainly set at night or at dusk, with palates of blue and grey predominant in the mix, the movie looks slick.

There is of course plenty of CGI gargoyles and demons to augment the slick look, with lots of digital flame and blue light to denote when a gargoyle or demon respectively bites the dust (the flames descend downward, the blue light ascends upward). The only thing missing is a black leather catsuit for Strahovsky.

Eckhart has been one of Hollywood’s most interesting leading men over the last decade but this is a definite misfire. His only expression is anger with a side trip into annoyed. He’s like the Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino only with a murderous glare and lots of scars. He’s still charismatic but we get no sense of his inner journey – he eventually decides to help (not much of a spoiler gang) but we never get a clear sense of why; for someone who just wants to be left alone he really sticks his nose in things.

Nighy is one of my favorite actors and he’s essentially entertaining in everything he does. He can be light and charming, or dark and menacing as he is here. He makes for a fine demon prince, urbane and charming on the surface but with a whole load of delicious evil below it. Something tells me that a movie about his character would have been much more fun. Strahovsky, best known as the love interest in the TV show Chuck, looks pretty good on the big screen. I think she’ll make the transition just fine if that’s where she wants to go. Sadly, all three of these fine actors deserved better (as does Miranda Otto as the wishy-washy gargoyle queen).

In movies like Legion and Max Payne we get a very similar background story with a very similar look to both movies, and this one doesn’t really distinguish itself from those other two (and a whole mess o’ B-movies with similar themes). While some of the effects are nice and the leading actors do their job, the dialogue can be cringeworthy and you get the sense that director Beattie – who has some pretty good movies to his credit – lost a whole lot of battles to the producers and/or studio. In any case, this is bound to be heading to home video pretty quickly and while I won’t say it’s a complete waste of your time, you might be better off waiting for it to be a cheaper ticket than the ten dollars plus for the 3D version that are out there now.

REASONS TO GO: Bill Nighy is always entertaining. Aaron Eckhart is a solid leading man. Some nice eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Plot is very much paint-by-numbers. All concept and no substance.

FAMILY VALUES:  Throughout the movie there’s plenty of action and violence although not much gore.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The monster was given the name Adam in Mary Shelley’s original novel. Few of the movies have utilized it but this one does.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 5% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Constantine

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Labor Day

47 Ronin


Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

Keanu Reeves keeps a sharp eye out for flying monkeys.

(2013) Martial Arts Fantasy (Universal) Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Ko Shibasaki, Min Tanaka, Jin Akanishi, Masayoshi Hanada, Hiroshi Sogabe, Takato Yonemoto, Hiroshi Yamada, Shu Nakajima, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Neil Fingleton, Natsuki Kunimoto, Togo Igawa, Tanroh Ishida, Yorick van Wageningen, Clyde Kusatsu, Haruka Abe. Directed by Carl Rinsch

There is honor and courage and then there are the ancient samurai of Japan. If we in the West think we know what those concepts are, think again. For that group of warriors, those weren’t just concepts – they were their way of life.

In feudal Japan, the kind and just Lord Asano (Tanaka) rules in a beautiful and bucolic province of Ako. He takes in a half-breed man named Kai (Reeves) who apparently escaped from the demon-infested forest as a boy, although his samurai urge him not to. His beautiful daughter Mika (Shibasaki) nurses him back to health and the two fall in love, although there is absolutely no future in it.

But not everyone is as honorable as Lord Asano. Lord Kira (Asano) desires the wealthy and plentiful lands ruled by Asano and determines to obtain them. With his devious partner, a shape-shifting witch (Kikuchi) who poses as one of his concubines, Kira hatches a plot to shame Lord Asano during a visit by the Shogun (Tagawa) which results in Asano’s ritual suicide. His samurai are released from service and declared to be Ronin, masterless samurai which is the equivalent of a mercenary in modern times although with much less respect. They are forbidden from seeking vengeance by order of the shogun. Kai is sold as a slave to the Dutch where he is made to fight in their bare knuckle brawls and Mika is betrothed to Kira whom she will marry after a one year mourning period for her father.

This is more than the leader of Asano’s samurai, Oishi (Sanada) can take. Even though he knows the consequences of his actions, he determines to re-assemble his men and add Kai, whom he had previously expressed disdain and loathing for, to take on overwhelming odds to exact justice for their Lord, but it’s not an easy matter. Kira’s palace is more of a fortress and the possibility of 47 men storming the castle and surviving is simply ludicrous, plus he is under the protection of a skilled and seductive witch but even if they are successful, the men know they will be under the sentence of death for defying the shogun’s orders. So what’s the use?

Well, according to the actual men who inspired this movie, plenty. If you take away the supernatural elements of this version of it, the basic events happened pretty much as shown – a Japanese feudal lord was betrayed by an ambitious and ruthless fellow lord, rendering his samurai as Ronin. They did defy the shogun’s order and behave as depicted. The results were surprisingly the same as well and they were led by a real life samurai named Oishi.

This was something of a surprising choice for a very big budget Hollywood movie. Why the writer and filmmakers determined to add the supernatural elements of the witch, the Lovecraftian samurai, and the demons in the forest is somewhat surprising; a smaller budget version with fewer special effects would have been a much more effective film in my view.

I won’t deny that some of the CGI are pretty spectacular and the attempts to give this a kind of epic scope of the sort that the legendary Akira Kurosawa used to routinely give his movies are pleasing to the eye. However, Kurosawa certainly would have rolled his eyes at the over-complexity of the plot.  and quite frankly the legendary director wasn’t much into fantasy although he wasn’t afraid to use elements of the supernatural in his films when they were required.

Rumor has it that the studio was overly involved in the making of the movie, demanding changes and leading to a delay of nearly a year for this movie to come out. There definitely is a feel here for too many cooks in the kitchen; the movie doesn’t have the feel and flow that you get with a steady, single hand in charge. Perhaps they needed someone more experienced than first-time director Rinsch for a movie of this scope and budget.

While Reeves is as usual somewhat stiff and wooden, we are treated to some of the finest actors in Japan at this time with the Oscar-nominated Kikuchi as the seductive and sly witch with the different-colored eyes (one brown, one blue) and the respected Sanada, a veteran of The Last Samurai lending gravitas to Oishi and Asano (The Wolverine) giving Kira a kind of sly wink to go along with his wickedness. Tanaka (The Twilight Samurai) as the kindly Lord Asano is also memorable.

While this is a good-looking movie that gives us the opportunity to watch quality performances by actors who don’t get as much exposure in the West as they deserve, there is simply too many flaws for me to give this a solid recommendation. See it more as a curiosity piece rather than as coherent cinema and as long as your expectations aren’t too high, you might even find reasons to enjoy this.

REASONS TO GO: Some fairly cool eye candy. Nice supporting performances from a great Japanese cast.

REASONS TO STAY: Overwrought plot. Needless elements of fantasy in one of Japan’s most iconic true stories. Something of a mess.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is quite a bit of martial arts action violence, some fairly disturbing images  as well as some thematic elements that might be above the heads of the very young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the seventh filmed version of the story although the first to come from Hollywood; in reality the 47 Ronin are revered in Japan for their honor and adherence to the Samurai code despite overwhelming odds.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 29/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Forbidden Kingdom

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Griff the Invisible