Wish Upon (2017)


Love at first sight.

(2017) Horror (Broad Green) Joey King, Ryan Phillippe, Ki Hong Lee, Mitchell Slaggert, Shannon Purser, Sydney Park, Elisabeth Röhm, Josephine Langford, Alexander Nunez, Daniela Barbosa, Kevin Hanchard, Sherilyn Fenn, Raegan Revord, Alice Lee, Victor Sutton, Albert Chung, Michelle Alexander, Natalie Prinzen-Klages, Nora Prinzen-Klages. Directed by John R. Leonetti

Who hasn’t ever dreamed of having an Aladdin’s lamp, granting us wishes that would make our lives better? Most of us have those dreams without remembering that these stories generally have things turn out much worse for the heroes than they anticipated.

Claire Shannon (King) has had a rougher life than most. As a young girl (Revord) she witnessed her mother (Röhm) hang herself in the attic. The event so traumatized her that she never rode her little pink bike again, leaving it where she left it that horrible day to rust in the weeds. Her father (Phillippe) has a bit of a screw loose; he’s a dumpster diver and a hoarder. At school, Claire is an outsider bullied by Darcie Chapman (Langford) and the other popular kids. She hangs around fellow outsiders June (Purser) and Meredith (Park).

One day her father finds an old Chinese music box in the trash near some sort of Chinese temple and decides to make a gift of it to his daughter. At first it seems harmless enough but that day had been particularly horrible for Claire in regards to the bullying and she exclaims impulsively “I wish Darcie Chapman would just rot!” Not an unheard of sentiment for a high school teen but in this case Darcie develops a severe case of necrotizing fasciitis, meaning she is literally rotting. On the negative side, Claire’s beloved dog is attacked and eaten by feral rats.

After a couple of other wishes come true, Claire puts two and two together and realizes the music box is somehow granting her wishes. It takes her a little bit longer to add the third “two” and realize that for each wish granted, someone close to her dies and for the most part in an inventively gruesome way. She enlists her token Chinese friend Ryan (K.H. Lee) and his cousin Gina (A. Lee) to help translate the characters on the music box and what they discover is unsettling. It seems that Claire only gets seven wishes and once she uses them all, the diabolical music box will claim her soul. The terrifying thing is that she’s already used up five wishes and the now not-quite-right in the head Claire seems perfectly willing to use her other two up…

A lot of different movies have utilized the MacGuffin of a wish-granting device with varying degrees of success. Most of them are influenced to varying degrees by the short story “The Monkey’s Paw” which really is the standard setter for the perils of granting wishes. Most of us have seen at least a few of them, enough to know that wishes rarely turn out the way we expect them to. That’s at least the life lesson that the original author wished to impart.

Whoever wrote this movie probably should have taken that to heart. There are some interesting elements here, like the rather convoluted (in a good way) death scenes which brings an overall Final Destination vibe which is, in my opinion, a good thing since I have always found those movies clever in a morbid kind of way. In other words, my kind of movie.

King is at least age-appropriate for the casting (she was 16 years old during filming) but is hung out to dry by the writing, which really makes her character hard to relate to. I do get that the music box is somehow influencing Claire to use its powers but that isn’t made as clear as it could be other than her Gollum-like “Mine! MINE!” sequence when Ryan tries to convince her not to use the box again. King seems to have a good deal of talent but her character is just so selfish and unlikable that even by the film’s end as a viewer I really found myself taken out of the film, thinking “well she deserved what she got.”

The death scenes and the music box itself are pretty nifty, I admit and are the film’s saving graces. They are plenty clever and the music box, which becomes more shiny and new with each use (another little detail I admired) plays some pretty eerie music and the movement of the device is well-done so kudos to whoever constructed the music box itself.

The rest of the supporting cast is essentially pretty meh, although Phillippe as usual is the consummate professional, giving an effort to go above and beyond playing a role that frankly is a bit different than we are used to seeing from him. His performance here reminds me that we don’t see him in important roles as much as we should.

I would say that overall the movie is pretty much just average. It’s neither bad nor good which isn’t going to win it a lot of people seeking it out when it becomes more generally available. I know I’m damning the film with faint praise but I really can’t do otherwise. It’s definitely another case of a good concept squandered by a derivative plot and weak character development.

REASONS TO GO: The wish box sequences are pretty nifty. Phillippe is actually pretty decent in an unusual role for him.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is extremely derivative. King doesn’t distinguish herself in the lead role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and disturbing images, adult thematic elements and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie borrows elements from the W.W. Jacobs short story “The Monkey’s Paw.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wishmaster
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
More Six Days of Darkness

The Belko Experiment


Things are getting a little heated back at the office.

(2016) Horror (BH Tilt/High Top/Orion) John Gallagher Jr., Adria Arjona, Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeoman, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, Josh Brener, David Dastmalchian, David Del Rio, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Rusty Schwimmer, Gail Bean, James Earl, Abraham Benrubi, Valentine Miele, Steven Blackehart, Benjamin Byron Davis, Silvia de Dios. Directed by Greg McLean

 

There’s no doubt that the corporate environment in 2017 is as cutthroat as it’s ever been. Ambitious office drones plot their way to promotions that bring them out of the environment of living paycheck to paycheck and into management where they can make some real money; others plot to preserve their place in the pecking order. Either way, the office is no place for the faint of heart.

Belko Corporation is described as a non-profit that helps large companies recruit American workers to South American locations. They have a large tower located outside of Bogota, Colombia – well outside of Bogota. Mike Milch (Gallagher) is a fairly humdrum middle management type who is involved in a clandestine romance with co-worker Leandra Florez (Arjona) as that sort of thing is discouraged by Belko, who somewhat appropriately incorporate the figure of an eye into their corporate logo. It is not stretching things to say that most of the people who work in the building have no clue what they do for the company.

One unremarkable morning Mike drives into work to discover an increased security presence and that all the local Colombian workers are being turned away from work. He thinks nothing of it – until a disembodied voice comes on the PA system to announce that the 80 or so workers remaining in the building must select two among their number to murder – or else double that number would be selected at random. Everyone thinks it’s a practical joke in poor taste – until the heads of four people suddenly explode.

At first believing the carnage to be the work of a random sniper, there is panic as people try to get under cover. That’s when large blowtorch-proof metal doors and shutters encase the building in a steel cocoon. There is no leaving and as the voice informs them that they’ll need to find 20 workers to dispatch to the choir invisible or once again double that number would be random victims.

Quickly the social order begins to devolve. The company’s COO Barry Norris (Goldwyn) tries to preach calm and order until he becomes convinced that the only way to buy time is to do what the voice commands, especially when it becomes apparent that every move they make is being observed (remember the eye?) by the disembodied voice. Joining him are a number of management types who want to maintain control of the situation, including Wendell Dukes (McGinley), the kind of manager nobody ever wants to work under. Mike is trying to keep from having anyone die but his voice is not getting heard in the increasing panic. Before too long things fall completely apart and everyone starts looking out for their own ass if they are to survive the worst workday ever.

The movie was penned by current fan favorite James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) as a bit of a passion project but it has languished on the shelf while Gunn has been shepherding the two Marvel space operas to money-printing status. He left the property however in the capable hands of Aussie director McLean (Wolf Creek) who does a yeoman job bringing the script to life.

Most of the actors are better known by face than by name and while there is a black comedy element to the proceedings it never gets to the point of silliness which often happens with horror comedies. Of course, this is as allegorical as it gets to what corporate culture has become in terms of treating employees as disposable resources in which salary and benefits are necessary evils and when the need for those workers dissipates, so do the workers.

Rooker, who has become one of Gunn’s go-to guys, excels as a building engineer as does Goldwyn as a boss who is friendly and supportive on the outside but loses any semblance of concern for his employees when the rubber hits the road. Gallagher and Arjona are okay in the lead roles but aren’t particularly memorable. James’ brother Sean is memorable as a stoner and Schwimmer as the office mother hen is strong.

There are a lot of heads exploding here (having to do with a tracking chip that American workers receive in countries where kidnappings are common) and many gruesome deaths by axe to the face or stapler to the skull. I might have wished for a little more variety to the murders – I would imagine in an office environment there would be plenty of supplies that could do some real damage. A little more imagination in this department would have been welcome. It also should be said that those sensitive to gore and carnage will likely have a rough time with The Belko Experiment.

The movie loses momentum in the second half which is basically a survivalist epic and the denouement is a bit disappointing although there are some pop culture references of the blink and you’ll miss them variety that add some richness to the last moments of the movie. I was hoping for a little bit more from the film but to be honest it is solidly entertaining and horror fans looking for something a little bit different could do a lot worse than to look in this direction.

REASONS TO GO: The film is clever, particularly in the first half. Some fine actors turn in strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The gore might be a little bit too extreme for some. The film loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: Oh my, there’s plenty of gore and violence, profanity, some drug use and brief sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Gunn was originally set to direct this from his own screenplay but felt that the violence was not what he needed in his life as he was going through a painful divorce, plus he was also hard at work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle Royale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: New Chefs on the Block

Trick ‘r Treat


Four princesses discuss the Halloween tradition of slutty costumes.

Four princesses discuss the Halloween tradition of slutty costumes.

(2007) Horror (Warner Brothers) Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb, Quinn Lord, Rochelle Aytes, Lauren Lee Smith, Monica Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Samm Todd, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Gerald Paetz, Connor Levins, Patrick Gilmore, T-Roy Kozuki, Britt McKillipp, Brett Kelly, Isabelle Deluce, Alberto Ghisi, Barbara Kottmeier, Laura Mennell, Amy Esterle. Directed by Michael Dougherty

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Halloween has become a revered American holiday with many traditions and tales. Some are more or less universal (at least here in America) and some are regional but all are important as part of the holiday that signals the approaching end of the year and the beginning of the holiday season.

This anthology sat on the shelf at Warners for two years before getting an excuse me release and heading straight to the purgatory of home video. Usually that’s what happens to movies that are just plain lousy. Was that the case here?

Trick ‘r Treat is an anthology horror movie in the tradition of Tales of the Crypt with interconnected stories all connected by a diminutive linking device. The movie opens with a young couple, Henry (Penikett) who loves Halloween and Emma (Bibb) who clearly doesn’t returning home after a Halloween party. Emma’s distaste for the Halloween ends up having some fairly nasty consequences for her.

Their neighbor Steven Wilkins (Baker) the high school principal, catches a young teen stealing candy from his yard which leads to a lecture – and the revelation of the principal’s dark secret which doesn’t turn out so well for the teen. It does however lead to an interesting jack-o-lantern carving session with his boy Billy (Levins). Then we move on to four teens – who had visited the Wilkins home earlier – who head out to the local quarry where according to local legend a school bus full of mentally and emotionally challenged kids were driven into the lake by the school bus driver while chained to their seats and drowned – supposedly at the behest of their ashamed parents. As one of the teens – bullied Rhonda (Todd) – discovers, some urban legends should remain just that.

Another quartet of teens including virtuous Laurie (Paquin) go to the town’s annual Halloween party on the square, hoping to find Laurie’s “first.” However, it’s not the “first” you’re probably thinking of. Finally, the town curmudgeon (Cox) who hates Halloween with an absolute passion finds that one little trick or treater named Sam (Lord) in a filthy pair of orange pajama footies with a burlap sack wrapped around his head will give him a Halloween he will never forget.

All of the stories are connected together mainly by Sam who appears in one way or another in each one. Some of the connections are a bit of a stretch but by the end of the movie it all makes sense. A tip of the hat for the writing which is rock solid.

There is a pretty decent cast here with several veterans like Cox, Paquin, Bibb and Baker who have turned in a number of solid performances over the years and all are just as solid here. Most of the supporting cast is more or less unknown but there aren’t any false notes in the acting which is impressive. Todd as a matter of fact distinguishes herself as the put-upon teen who ends up in an urban legend of her own.

The stories themselves aren’t particularly gory or innovative but they get the job done. While modern horror movies tend to rely on gore and/or special effects, these are more story-driven and in some ways are throwbacks. For old school horror fans, this should be welcome news as this really is the kind of horror that isn’t done very often these days – although in the last 18 months or so I’ve noticed that there has been more of a movement in that direction with certain individual tales in anthologies and a movie or two.

Throughout the movie we do see children and teens put in jeopardy – while the latter is no biggie as far as Hollywood is concerned, the former is a major no-no and was likely the reason the movie stayed shelved so long. The major studios are a bit squeamish about children in jeopardy, Jurassic Park notwithstanding, especially when said children are not only in peril but don’t always survive. For horror fans, that’s a big deal as we usually see kids saved in unrealistic ways or have movies watered down so the kids can survive. It’s refreshing to see that taboo bridged somewhat.

So this is one of those movies that didn’t get the release it was expected to receive nor the attention it deserved (although critics generally praised it). The horror film fan community however is well aware of the movie and has generally embraced it – so much so that a sequel has been planned (although not yet come to fruition). In any case, if you’re looking for a hidden gem to watch this Halloween, here is one for your consideration.

WHY RENT THIS: Really good scares coupled with genuinely funny moments. Pretty solid cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kids in peril may be too uncomfortable for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and some gore, some sexuality and nudity and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sam takes his name from Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An animated short prequel detailing the story of the demonic Sam is included on all editions, while the Blu-Ray also has a short history of the holiday and a look at the special effects used in the school bus scene.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Creepshow
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

5 Flights Up


All they want is a room with a view.

All they want is a room with a view.

(2014) Dramedy (Focus) Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, Alysia Reiner, Carrie Preston, Sterling Jerins, Cynthia Nixon, Claire van den Broom, Korey Jackson, Josh Pais, Maddie Corman, Miriam Shor, Nadia Gan, Katrina E. Perkins, Joanna Adler, Hannah Dunne, Liza J. Bennett, Jackie Hoffman, Marcia DeBonis, Jimmy Palumbo, Jordan Baker, Maury Ginsberg, Grace Rex. Directed by Richard Loncraine

What makes a house – or an apartment – a home? It isn’t the things that you’ve accumulated over the years, although that’s a part of it. It isn’t the location, although that’s a part of it too. It’s mainly the people that live in it and the memories you make together.

Alex (Freeman) and Ruth (Keaton) Carver have lived in the same Brooklyn fifth-floor walk-up for the 40 years of their marriage. Now Alex, a moderately successful painter, and Ruth, a retired teacher, are both getting on in years and that five flights of stairs is likely to only get harder on them. They’ve decided to sell and find themselves an apartment that at least has an elevator for them.

Lily (Nixon), their high-strung niece who is also a realtor, is getting them ready for their open house. The neighborhood they live in has undergone gentrification and Lily is confident that they can get north of a million for the apartment. Alex is unsure about this move; he is fully aware that they’re unlikely to get an apartment that has the same charm as the one they own and certainly none of the memories. Ruth realizes this too, but she tends to be more optimistic that they’ll find a new place to fall in love with.

But there are some complications. Their beloved dog Dorothy has gotten to be very sick and requires an expensive operation. The open house itself, which brings quirky and shark-like New Yorkers to the apartment to try and snatch up the property before someone else can, is hindered by an ongoing news story about the driver of a fuel tanker abandoned on the Williamsburg Bridge who may or may not be a terrorist. The media being what it is these days opts for the former.

Alex’s misgivings grow as they find an apartment in Manhattan that they both like, which sounds a little strange. Sure it’s a nice apartment. Sure it’s got an elevator. But can it be a home? Doesn’t sound so strange now, eh?

Loncraine, who has produced some pretty solid romantic comedies and feel-good movies on his resume (Wimbledon, My One and Only) continues to mine that territory here. Much of the movie’s success resides in its casting; Keaton and Freeman both banter with each other so well and show each other the kind of affection that only couples that have been married for decades can really get right that it’s hard to believe the two haven’t been a married couple for as long as Alex and Ruth have been. The two are both such screen pros in any case that they know how to work well with just about anyone, and here they both make each other shine.

This is a very New York-centric movie and New Yorkers are going to get it more readily than those who live outside the Big Apple. For them, the soaring cost of housing is of no great surprise; the rest of us might be nonplussed at what a million dollar listing is in Brooklyn. Then again, if I had to walk up five flights of stairs every time I came home, I’d either be a lot thinner than I am now or dead of a heart attack.

There is also a whole lot of dialogue about open houses, listings, market values and real estate in general. Fortunately, great actors like Freeman and Keaton can make even that dry kind of conversation sparkle, but only so much. The movie could have focused less on the sale of the house and more on how the concept of that sale was affecting Ruth and Alex, although they do spend a fair amount of time on that.

Clearly this is a paean to the dwelling. Not as a physical space mind you, but as a concept and more importantly, as an emotional touchstone. Using flashbacks to act as memories that were on the minds of the couple (played as newlyweds by van der Bloom and Jackson who channel Keaton and Freeman respectively very satisfactorily) enhances the idea of residence being more than four walls but a place where memories reside as well as people. Long after the physical layout is forgotten, the memories of a lazy Sunday afternoon, a rainy day movie, or a Christmas morning will linger in the heart and mind.

Loncraine has crafted a winner of a movie that sadly got shuffled off to the side during the onslaught of early summer blockbusters. I think that the suits at Focus felt that the material would appeal only to older audiences and in that sense they’d be correct, but I think that that same demographic that made The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a hit could have made this one a hit too. In any case, this is definitely a feel-good movie that left me with the warm fuzzies and is going to appeal to anyone who has ever lived in a home that they’ve loved. Although it got anemic box office during its limited theatrical run, I think that viewing this at home is the best possible place to see it.

WHY RENT THIS: Wonderfully effective performances by Freeman and Keaton. A celebration of home and hearth. A slice of New York life.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little more real estate chatter than I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: A smattering of curse words here and there, and some artistic nude images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the open house sequence, the book that Alex is trying to read in the corner is A War Against Truth by Paul William Roberts.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1M on an unreported production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: On Golden Pond
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Southpaw

3 Days to Kill


Kevin Costner isn't going to let anyone stop his career re-invention.

Kevin Costner isn’t going to let anyone stop his career re-invention.

(2014) Thriller (Relativity) Kevin Costner, Amber Heard, Hailee Steinfeld, Connie Nielsen, Tomas Lemarquis, Richard Sammel, Marc Andreoni, Bruno Ricci, Jonas Bloquet, Eriq Ebouaney, Joakhim Sigue, Alison Valence, Big John, Michael Vander-Meiren, Paolo Calia, Eric Naggar, Alexis Jacquin, Frederick Malahieude, Patty Hannock, Marie Guillard, Mai Anh Le. Directed by McG

The ties that bind are often stretched, if not severed, by the needs of our careers. Success requires a certain amount of attention that is usually stolen from that which we turn on our homes and families. It is from there that we rob Peter to pay Paul.

Ethan Renner (Costner) has been living that life longer than he can count. It has cost him his wife Christine (Nielsen) and his daughter Zoe (Steinfeld) who live in Paris and rarely speak to him and find no real reason to seek that kind of thing out. Of course, Ethan has a somewhat unusual career – he’s an assassin for the United States government.

He has been sent to take out the Albino (Lemarquis), the right hand of a German arms dealer nicknamed the Wolf (Sammel). However, the meticulously set up hit goes sideway when the Albino recognizes one of the agents (Le), dispatching her in a particularly gruesome fashion. Ethan himself gives chase and has the Albino in his sights but collapses, nose bleeding and barely able to breathe. He manages to put a bullet in the leg of the Albino before passing out.

It turns out that Ethan isn’t well at all. He has a brain tumor that has spread into his lungs because, you know, the brain and the lungs are connected. He doesn’t have much time left to him; a few months at most. Faced with his own mortality, Ethan decides that killing for his country doesn’t have the same appeal and decides to spend what time he has left reconnecting with his wife and daughter.

While he tells his wife about his condition, he keeps that information from his daughter. Zoe is a typical teenage girl; sneaks out to go party with friends, check. Underage drinking, check. Argues with her mom like cats and dogs, check. Dresses inappropriately, check. Subject to wild mood swings that defy logic and reason, check. Yup, typical teenager girl.

Ethan is doing his best but it’s not a smooth integration into their lives. However, when Vivi Delay (Heard), a fellow assassin, shows up with an offer of an experimental drug that might give him a significantly longer life span in exchange for finishing his job and taking out the Wolf and the Albino, he leaps at the chance. He goes after the Albino’s driver Mitat (Andreoni) and finds him to be a family man who commiserates with Ethan’s dilemma with Zoe.  Through the hapless Mitat Ethan looks to work his way up the chain until he gets his man.

Unfortunately, the miracle cure has a few side effects that always seem to rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune moments. Ethan, who’d distanced himself from his own family so that the ugliness of his job doesn’t touch them, finds that they are being drawn in anyway. The whole point of taking this cure was so that he could have more time with Christine and Zoe but it only takes one well-placed bullet from one of the Wolf’s men. A bullet through the brain still has no cure.

This is fairly pedestrian espionage stuff. We’ve seen similar things with Jackie Chan, Vin Diesel and the Rock in the lead and with similarly mixed results. Costner isn’t really known for being an action star, although he has done a few films in his career that have required that element and to be honest, he can be quite good in that kind of role.

In fact, Costner is really the best thing this movie has going for it. He’s likable and down to earth, so we get a spy/killer who isn’t suave, who isn’t refined but is kind of rough around the edges. He’s had to reinvent his career to a certain extent, becoming more of a character actor as of late rather than a leading man but make no mistake, he’s still one of the most likable leading men in Hollywood history and he remains so here. His relationship with Steinfeld as Zoe is one of the movie’s high points – it’s genuine and most parents of once and present teenagers will tell you holds some of the same ups and downs that real life parents of teens are all-too-familiar with.

Heard is a terrific actress who is thrown into a part that is just misconceived from the get-go. She appears periodically in different wigs and looking like she just got off the runway at Milan, chain-smoking with a sardonic grin and far too young to be a master spy yet here she is. In fact, she oozes competence so much that one wonders that with her skills why does she need Ethan at all (the answer is that Ethan is the only one who’s actually seen the Wolf and might recognize him). Still, while I get the sense she had fun with the role, it’s just so badly laid out that it becomes distracting for all the wrong reasons.

The hallmark of a Luc Besson movie is well-done action sequences and there are several here that will keep action fans if not happy, at least not walking out of the theater. There’s nothing here that’s overly imaginative or challenging but it at least is professionally done so there is entertainment value throughout. The Wolf and the Albino, while having nifty monikers, lack any sort of menace. They both scowl a lot and other than the one scene where the Albino executes a female agent, you don’t get a sense that they pose any threat to Ethan or anyone else in the movie. They’re more or less just goals for Ethan to achieve and it’s more of a game of hide and seek rather than spy versus spy.

REASONS TO GO: Costner and Steinfeld are solid. Some decent action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Heard fares poorly. Villains not menacing enough.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action, a bit of sexuality and a fair amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming in Belgrade, Costner was given an audience with Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Paris With Love

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Non-Stop

Devil


Devil

Joe Cobden admires the CGI buildings he can't see.

(Universal) Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Matt Craven, Jacob Vargas, Joshua Peace, Caroline Dhavernas, Joe Cobden, Zoie Palmer, Vincent Laresca.  Directed by John Erick Dowdle

There are those that believe human beings are not basically evil; our evil comes from the choices we make. If that is the case, then the devil resides in our decisions.

It seems like an ordinary day, as five people board an elevator in a Philadelphia high-rise; Sarah (Novakovic), an attractive young woman; Ben (Woodbine), a new temp working as a security guard on just his second day on the job; Vince (Arend), a slimy mattress salesman; Mrs. Tonjanovich (O’Hara), a matronly elderly woman and Tony (Marshall-Green), a former Marine just back from Afghanistan.

They’re on the express elevator but partway up the elevator comes to a bumpy and startling halt. Nothing terribly unusual about that, but what is strange about it is that every circuit appears to point to the elevator being perfectly fine. It should be traveling up and down the shaft instead of being stuck there, halfway between here and there. Two security guards, Lustig (Craven) and Ramirez (Vargas) are monitoring the situation via closed circuit cameras, but another strange thing – the audio is only working one way. The trapped people in the elevator can hear the security guards just fine, but the guards cannot hear them.

At first it seems just a minor inconvenience, but a time drags on and the building engineer (Cobden) can’t get the elevator to budge with no explanation as to why the elevator is stuck in the first place, the lights flicker out. When they come back on, Sarah is bleeding from a fairly impressive wound in the middle of her back that look uncomfortably like something bit her. Realizing that the wound was no accident, the guards call the police.

Conveniently enough, the police are already there; Detective Bowden (Messina) and his partner Detective Markowitz (Peace) were there investigating a suicide from the very same building. They try to reassure the increasingly panicked passengers (what doesn’t help matters is that Ben is claustrophobic, and Vince is something of an asshole), but the lights flicker out once again. When they come back on, one of the passengers is dead. It becomes apparent to everyone that something sinister is going on and as the body count piles up both inside the elevator and out, Ramirez realizes that one of the passengers is not who they seem to be and that what was happening in the elevator may be far worse than anyone realizes.

Director Dowdle (and his brother Drew, who co-produces his film) is an up and coming star in the horror genre, with Quarantine and the criminally under-appreciated The Poughkeepsie Tapes to his credit. This one is the most high-profile release yet, and he shows some real talent.

Most of the murders take place in complete darkness, allowing the imaginations of the audience to work for them. Dowdle relies on mood and tension to create the horror; while the supernatural element is certainly in the forefront, there aren’t as many special effects needed and in fact, there are really very few shots that make use of special effects (in something of an irony, there are more SFX shots establishing the cityscape than there are of the horrific).

Messina makes for a decent enough hero, a tormented man who is grieving an intolerable loss and whose back story is woven inexlorably into the fabric of the film. The cast is largely unknown and solid in their roles, with an occasional lapse into overacting from time to time.

Part of the film’s problem is the over-reliance on the voice-over narration to advance the plot. Ramirez, the film’s narrator, bases the events on a story his grandmother told him. As the movie progresses, the narration tends to mostly emphasize how each event being seen onscreen relates to a specific element to the story Ramirez’ grandmother told him. After awhile, it seems a lazy way to tell the story; in fact, the Ramirez character mostly exists to narrate and occasionally react with superstitious fear. For my two cents worth, I think the movie would have worked better without it.

That said, I must applaud Dowdle’s use of sound and darkness to deliver the scares. It’s very effective, especially in a large theater with a grand sound system that surrounds the viewer. I jumped several times during the movie and Da Queen, who is not fond of horror films, not only had a death grip on my hand during much of the movie but about pulled my arm out of the socket putting it between her and the screen, as if something were going to leap out and she would be protected by whatever it was devouring my arm first.

This is a solid horror movie with some pretty slick scares. I suspect that the connection with M. Night Shyamalan might hurt the movie, which is a crying shame. While I agree that Shyamalan of late has delivered some fairly mediocre films, there has been a backlash against him amongst internet fanboys who find it fashionable to flame the Pennsylvania-based director unmercifully. Unfortunately, very few of those who dictate opinion on the net actually take the time to base their opinions on the actual movie; it’s far more important for them to appear hip and funny.

That’s the crap part of net film review; the tendency for critics to go for the one-line zinger over genuine examination of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. This is far from being a classic of the horror genre, but it isn’t a complete waste of time either. Those who like a good scare flick will be well-served to check this out.

REASONS TO GO: The movie makes great use of darkness and sound to play head games with the audience. Some genuinely powerful scares and a nifty concept make this worth your while.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie relies far too much on voice-over narration to tell you what’s going on and the Ramirez character seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images, as well as some frightening images and sounds. Keep the kids at home for this one although the movie is suitable for older teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in a projected series of films that director M. Night Shyamalan will produce and conceptualize, but not direct. During the opening credit, the Night Chronicles logo morphs into the number one.

HOME OR THEATER: Quite frankly, the movie needs the big sound system to make some of the scares work properly, even though the movie is mostly set in an elevator.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist