Milton’s Secret


The young and the old share a moment.

The young and the old share a moment.

(2015) Drama (Momentum) Michelle Rodriguez, Mia Kirshner, Donald Sutherland, William Anscough, David Sutcliffe, Ella Ballentine, Percy Hynes White, Stephen Huszar, Hays Wellford, Jessica Greco, Jaeden Noel, Auden Larratt, Milo Larratt, Nidal Kabboul. Directed by Barnet Bain

 

As adults, we spend too much time worrying. Worrying about what the future holds; the unknown terrifies us. That can lead us to dwelling in the past, when things were simpler, brighter, better. The sunlit, dappled memories of yesterday make an easier place to live than the harsh, dark and frightening future. So few of us live in the here and now.

At least that’s what Canadian/German life coach, philosopher and self-help guru Eckhart Tolle opines. He’s written bestselling books like The Power of Now and A New Earth but has also gone after the hearts and minds of children with the illustrated kids book Milton’s Secret, adapted here into a movie by Bain.

Milton Adams (Anscough) is eleven with his 12th birthday looming and the poor guy is a bundle of nerves. The economic downturn has affected both his parents; his mom (Kirshner), a real estate agent, has trouble finding qualified buyers when she can find buyers at all while his dad (Sutcliffe), a stockbroker, tries to reassure her that things are going to be okay when the market continues to provide losses month after month.

On top of it all, he’s getting bullied by Carter (White), a neighbor who himself is being bullied by his dad (Huszar) a former football player who is taking out his own frustrations on his kid. Milton’s best friend Tim (Wellford) is too scared of Carter to do anything to help and sometimes it seems that only his teacher Ms. Ferguson (Rodriguez) has any inkling of helping, but even she is locked in to a Parent’s Night presentation when all the kids will be reading speeches based on a subject of their choosing and yeah, that’s got Milton stressed as well. Plus, you know, he’s named Milton.

Into the chaos comes Grandpa Howard (Sutherland), a combat veteran who has found a kind of Zen inner peace. He’s the prototypical wacky grandpa, drinking a seaweed herbal tea that tastes like “serenity,” working on restoring the garden the Adams family has neglected, and dating his Zoomba instructor for which his daughter chides him. Grandpa has ideas about living in the present, while Milton is resorting to alchemy to try and turn base materials into gold to relieve the financial pressure. Can Grandpa help Milton escape Planet Fear?

One gets the sense that Tolle lives in a bit of a bubble. How many kids of eleven have any kind of inkling about alchemy, not to mention who are attempting to practice it? Tolle, who co-wrote the screenplay, doesn’t seem to have a sense that he hangs out with a lot of kids. Milton, Tim and Milton’s crush Anna (Ballentine) are far too precocious; we only get one scene in which Milton is playing videogames and none of the kids in the movie seem to be engaged in any sort of play. I agree that kids are far more aware of the environment around them than Hollywood (and consequently adults) gives them credit for, but kids are also all about impulse gratification. Milton is far too serious and far too un-self-centered to really be relatable as an 11-year-old circa 2016.

Sutherland is marvelous as always; he’s a welcome presence with a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile that brightens up the screen, but he’s given ponderous platitudes to offer rather than genuine wisdom. I get that every movie has something it wants to get across and Tolle’s philosophy of putting oneself completely in the now is not a bad message to send, but it seems that we’re getting battered over the head with it somewhat. A little more subtlety would have been welcome.

Still, I liked the movie overall. You get a sense of the realities of financial pressures and how they affect every member of the family; the tensions between Milton’s mom and dad are handled realistically with their attempts to mute their arguments failing while their precocious son tries to hear what his parents are fighting about. You also get that sense of small town life where there isn’t a whole lot to do, which is why kids (and their parents) seem to be glued to their smart phones.

There’s a whole lot of Donovan on the soundtrack and fans of the 60s folk-rocker will be appreciative of that. For my money, his music is used effectively without being too overwhelming. Some purists may grouse that there isn’t very much contemporary music on the soundtrack, but that’s a refreshing change as I see it – or hear it, in this instance.

Certainly the movie isn’t perfect but it’s solid. It is based on a children’s book, but I’m not sure that I would call this a children’s movie although there is that Afterschool Special feel of an issue being addressed and solutions found. In some ways, the movie is a little bit too pat in that department. People under financial strain aren’t going to be happy unless that financial strain is removed and I don’t care what kinds of self-help techniques are employed. Yet I found myself liking the movie despite the flaws or maybe because of some of them. Anscough at least knows how to look and act stressed out which adds to the authenticity of the film. Maybe some of the issues depicted here may be a little too close to home for those still feeling the pressure of trying to make ends meet in a world where that is becoming increasingly more difficult to do so. On the other hand, life is far too short to spend it worrying about what might happen.

REASONS TO GO: A slice of small town life. There are some lessons to be had here about living in the moment.
REASONS TO STAY: This film is infected with precocious child disease with a side order of sitcom problem solving syndrome.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief foul language and some thematic issues involving bullying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Peter Fonda was originally cast as Grandpa Howard but was replaced by Donald Sutherland.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bully
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Morgan

Advertisements

The Jungle Book (2016)


Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

Audiences are going ape for The Jungle Book.

(2016) Family (Disney) Neel Sethi, Bill Murray (voice), Ben Kingsley (voice), Idris Elba (voice), Lupita Nyong’o (voice), Scarlett Johansson (voice), Giancarlo Esposito (voice), Christopher Walken (voice), Garry Shandling (voice), Brighton Rose (voice), Emjay Anthony (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Russell Peters (voice), Sam Raimi (voice), Ritesh Rajan, Sara Arrington (voice). Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is rightly considered a children’s classic. The Disney animated version, while not near the top of their list, is at least considered one of the better animated films of its era, complete with a passel of Sherman brothers tunes that continue to be quoted by Disney in their theme parks and commercials.

A live action version continues Disney’s string of live action features based on their animated films and in many ways this is the most challenging project yet. Director Favreau, who is best known for the first two Iron Man films, was an inspired choice to direct this, having done family films as well as big special effects extravaganzas as well.

Mowgli (Sethi) is a young human child raised by wolves after the death of his father (Rajan). Alpha male Akela (Esposito) and his noble wife Raksha (Nyong’o) take on the responsibility of raising the boy as a wolf. Try as he might to fit in, Mowgli has just two legs and no claws to speak of. However he is a cheerful boy and an inventive thinker. Panther Bagheera (Kingsley) is also nearby, making sure that Mowgli is raised right.

Also nearby, unfortunately, is Shere Khan (Elba), a disfigured tiger whose burns had been received at the hands of Mowgli’s dad before the big cat sent him on his way to meet his maker. When Shere Khan finds out that Mowgli is about, he blows a gasket. No human will live safely in his forest while he lives, and Shere Khan sets out to eliminate Mowgli from the board.

Akela and Bagheera agree that Mowgli must leave the pack, despite the laws of the pack that seem to indicate that the pack is stronger together rather than splitting up. Bagheera tries to escort Mowgli to the safety of the human village but Shere Khan finds out and Mowgli and Bagheera are separated. Mowgli is found by Baloo ((Murray), a happy-go-lucky bear who finds a stroke of good luck when Mowgli, ever-inventive, figures out a way for Baloo to get the honeycombs that are high on the top of a mountain that Baloo is unable to reach. Even in this idyllic interlude, the jungle isn’t safe; not only is the tiger after Mowgli but so is King Louie (Walken), the clever but crazed leader of the apes who has an eye on the secret of fire which only Mowgli can unravel as well as Kaa (Johansson), a seductive serpent whose only concern is making Mowgli her lunch.

Sethi is the only onscreen actor who gets any significant time; all the other animal characters and indeed the jungle setting itself is all digitally created. It’s an impressive technical achievement, achieving a photorealistic jungle as well as the animals within it. The computer animators achieve actual personalities in the anthropomorphic subjects, with Baloo’s happy-go-lucky bear augmented by Murray’s acerbic wit; Bagheera’s sleek black form is bolstered with his expressions of annoyance and occasional contentment. It is somewhat ironic that only Mowgli himself is poorly drawn as a character.

It’s not that Sethi is a bad actor – far from it. He shows some real athleticism in his role, but the dialogue for him is a little one-note and Sethi doesn’t vary much in his line reading. Like some child actors, he comes off as a little too sure of himself and perhaps Mowgli’s wolf upbringing might explain this, but Mowgli comes off as almost arrogant to the point of Trumpness.

The voice actors all do wonderful work, particularly Murray and Kingsley, but Johansson, Nyong’o and Walken also distinguish themselves. Favreau is inventive in the way he uses tracking shots and flashbacks, and the movie is never visually boring.

The animated edition is where most of the cues for this movie arise, but there are also other elements from other movies, some surprising. There are nods to Apocalypse Now, for example, when King Louie reveals himself. The appearance of three songs from the original movie is all welcome and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Christopher Walken warbling “Wanna Be Like You.”

This is some of the best family entertainment you’re going to find in a year that’s shaping up to offer some truly interesting family films that this critic is eager to check out. That’s good news as there has been a bit of a dry spell when it’s come to high quality family entertainment. This one is going to make it into the video library for a lot of kids who will be demanding it from parents who won’t mind giving in. Definitely one of the best family films in years.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing animal effects look completely real. A classic honored with a terrific rendition. Nice little shout-outs to the animated version.
REASONS TO STAY: While Sethi is less annoying then he might have been, he was occasionally a bit overly smug for my taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence here as well as a child in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first Disney version of The Jungle Book in which Bagheera and Shere Khan fight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tarzan
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Honeyglue

Krampus


Krampus asks Krista Stadler if she knows a good manicurist.

Krampus asks Krista Stadler if she knows a good manicurist.

(2015) Horror Comedy (Universal/Legendary) Adam Scott, Toni Collette, David Koechner, Allison Tolman, Conchata Ferrell, Emjay Anthony, Stefania LaVie Owen, Maverick Flack, Luke Hawker, Gideon Emery (voice), Lolo Owen, Queenie Samuel, Leith Towers, Mark Atkin, Gareth Ruck, Trevor Bau, Felicity Hamill, Kelly Lily Marie, Ivy George, Sophie Gannon. Directed by Michael Dougherty

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family which can be a double-edge sword. Most of us love nearly all of our families, but there’s always that one uncle or cousin or aunt that drive us straight to the liquor cabinet. Sometimes, we’re the ones that drive our families there.

For Tom (Scott) and Sarah Engel (Collette), there are plenty of cabinets for that bus ride. The two are having a bit of a tough go; Tom is a workaholic dad who has been drifting away from his wife, who is a bit tightly wound to put it charitably. Neither one seem to notice that their son Max (Anthony) is having a hard time with believing in the Big Fat Man. Only Omi Engel (Stadler), Tom’s mother who speaks mostly German, seems to have bonded with the young boy. Teen daughter Beth (S.L. Owen) is more focused on her boyfriend Derek (Towers).

Making the mix even more volatile is the arrival of Sarah’s sister Linda (Tolman) and her Tea Party/NRA husband Howard (Koechner) and his bullying brood of Stevie (L. Owen) and Jordan (Samuel) as well as overeating Howard Jr. (Flack) and worst of all, abrasive Aunt Dorothy (Ferrell) whom Sarah would most fervently wish back to Oz.

After a dinner in which the tension around the table boils over, Max has had enough. He tears up his letter to Santa, which brings a strange and extreme weather front to town, snowing everyone in. However, that’s not the worst of it; the family is being stalked by Krampus (Hawker, voiced by Emery), a German folk tale who is a little more real than you might think. He’s after the naughty and the nice, and he has a bunch of minions, ranging from a serpentine Jack-in-the-Box monster to maniacal gingerbread men to a vicious angel and homicidal toys, to do his dirty work. A lump of coal simply won’t do when you’re Krampus.

This is a fun mix of terror and laughter which since the studio didn’t do press screenings and most of the press it has received is mostly negative actually surprised me. Of course, Dougherty directed the much underrated Trick ‘r Treat and that should have alerted me to the fact that this was a lot more than a cookie cutter holiday horror flick. Krampus is certainly far from that.

Part of what makes this better is that Scott and Collette make very relatable characters; in particular Scott is likable as all get out. You get the sense that he’s trying to be a great father and a good husband, but the responsibilities are just weighing him down. Similarly, Collette’s Sarah is going all out to make it a memorable Christmas, but is met with either indifference or intense criticism and she’s at her breaking point. Few actresses in Hollywood can play high-strung without getting shrill, but Collette manages that, skirting Bette Davis territory without entering it.

Most of the other characters are holiday comedy tropes; the drunken aunt with the foul mouth who essentially doesn’t give a fart about the kids, the horndog boyfriend, the naive daughter who doesn’t get that the boyfriend only wants to get into her panties, the overbearing oafish uncle, the henpecked aunt, the nightmarish cousins who could every one of them use a good kick in the most painful of places. Koechner, Ferrell and Tolman all do credible job but have little to hang their craft on.

Dougherty does a real good job balancing the humor and the gore – in fact, the gore is kept to a minimum, relying more on the creatures (mostly CGI) for the scares. Krampus himself is a woodcut come to life, looking terrifying and had I seen something of that as a child, my bladder control would have been shot for life. However, not all of the creatures fare as well, some being resolutely non-scary and others are too obviously CGI. The snake-like Jack-in-the-Box was the one that was the least successful, but the gingerbread men are absolutely non-threatening.

It must be said that the ending was a little bit convoluted and while I give Dougherty props for at least going a bit out of the box for it, I did find it unsatisfying and disappointing compare to the rest of the film, taking the rating down a notch in the process. Still in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this as entertainment and while this is no Bad Santa, it is definitely solid filmmaking that re-confirms Dougherty as a talented filmmaker who has bigger and better things in store for the moviegoing public. Certainly he’s the most promising horror film auteur you’ve never heard of, which is something of a shame because I find his movies as entertaining as anything else that is coming out in the genre over the past five years or so. Hopefully that will change after this one.

REASONS TO GO: Funny and/or scary when it needs to be. Scott and Collette are solid.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending’s a disappointment. Some of the creatures miss the mark.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images, horror violence, foul language and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The bell ornaments that Krampus hands out say Gruss vom Krampus which translated means “Greetings from Krampus.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill continues!

Air


No matter how much Djimon Hounsou tries to bluster, Norman Reedus just can't reveal any The Walking Dead spoilers for next season.

No matter how much Djimon Hounsou tries to bluster, Norman Reedus just can’t reveal any The Walking Dead spoilers for next season.

(2015) Science Fiction (Vertical/Stage 6) Djimon Hounsou, Norman Reedus, Sandrine Holt, David Nykl, Michael Hogan, Peter Benson, Steve Burgess, Paula Lindberg. Directed by Christian Cantamessa

The Hollies famously did a song called “All I Need is the Air That I Breathe” that in a just world, would have been part of the soundtrack to this movie. Indeed, air is a requisite of life. What happens when there isn’t enough to go around?

That’s just what the situation is after chemical warfare rendered the atmosphere unfit to breathe. With the human race in mortal peril, the powers that be hastily converted old nuclear missile silos into makeshift shelters, in which suspended animation chambers were installed. Into these chambers went the best and the brightest, scientists of all disciplines, medical professionals, agriculturalists, philosophers, maybe an artist or two – everyone you would need to re-establish civilization once the air was breathable again. Movie reviewers need not apply.

There are also a pair of maintenance men making sure that everything works. The trouble is, there isn’t enough breathable air to allow them full-time coverage, so the two men also sleep in their suspended animation chambers, awakened only once every six months and then only for two hours at a time before heading back into their sleep chambers.

The technology is decidedly low tech – the silo had been abandoned since the 80s and there are things like dot matrix printers and DOS-like screens of green scrolling text. Evidently there wasn’t enough time to drop by Best Buy and pick up a couple of laptops. Pretty much what you’d expect from government work.

The two techs, Bauer (Reedus) and Cartwright (Hounsou) are beginning to get a little buggy; Cartwright is having conversations with his wife Abby (Holt) who is one of the sleepers in the chambers that he is protecting, while Bauer is watching re-runs of athletic events long in the past. However, the unexpected occurs; an earthquake triggers a fire in Bauer’s suspended animation chamber, rendering it unusable. Attempts to rig up a spare chamber end up nearly killing Bauer until Cartwright belatedly rescues him. Spare parts will have to be found and the only way to find them is to check a neighboring silo, which will require Cartwright to get into an environmental suit, traverse a labyrinth of tunnels until reaching the other facility.

However, both men have begun to become suspicious of one another as well as whether the mission they are charged with is even possible – or worth the cost. Suspicion breeds fear which in turn breeds paranoia; not something healthy when you have only one other human on the entire planet to communicate with.

I like the premise a lot, although there have been similar stories with different twists (disease, radioactive fallout etc.) in the concept. While some critics have been getting their panties in a bunch over the obsolete tech, it does make perfect sense up to a point. One huffy writer took umbrage that there wasn’t even a smart phone to be seen, which you would assume just about everyone had but one brief scene near the end indicates that the war was a lot more than chemical.

Reedus has become something of a cultural icon as Daryl from The Walking Dead and while this is a much different role than Daryl, some of the basic characteristics are there; Bauer has a kind of homespun outlook on life and he’s a bit easily hot under the collar although I suspect that if I was a technician fixing obsolete machinery so that hundreds of others could survive when the atmosphere became breathable again I would probably be a bit crabby my own self.

Hounsou is one of those actors who lends credibility and gravitas to every movie he participates in; here, his character is a bit more vulnerable than the ones he usually plays. Often Hounsou plays physically intimidating characters but not so much here; he’s a big man but he badly misses his wife and is lonely as can be as a result. While this isn’t Oscar bait by any stretch of the imagination, it does remind us that Hounsou has a depth and range greater than the roles he’s usually asked to take.

The set design is industrial, with pipes and knobs and wheels and metal tables and chairs. Everything looks like it came out of a manufacturing facility circa 1988 which is what I think the producers were going for. This is low tech sci-fi and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all.

That said, there are plenty of movies with post-apocalyptic settings and there are a few cliches about them that are repeated here, from the failing machinery to the paranoia among survivors. The pace is pretty slow, particularly early on and the action never really generates a lot of tension. Plus there are a few logical holes that don’t make sense; there is a medical bay full of medications that, given that the process apparently is expected to take decades, would certainly expire long before they are needed. Also, how do the crew members eat? Won’t the food have spoiled before long?

Of course, questions like that aren’t meant to be answered or, I suppose, even asked. Game performances by two likable actors are the centerpiece of this science fiction thriller, and if you don’t mind sci-fi that has no gleaming machinery, super high-tech gadgets, monsters or alien vistas, you certainly might enjoy this. Although there are monsters – the kind we keep inside us, and the alien vista is of a world that in our folly we destroyed ourselves. Caveat Emptor.

REASONS TO GO: Really cool premise. Reedus and Hounsou are both fun to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a bit. Doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a few disturbing images, some sexual references and a bit of cursing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first theatrical feature to be produced by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Infini
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Band’s Visit

The Lazarus Effect


Olivia gets a little Wilde.

Olivia gets a little Wilde.

(2015) Horror (Relativity) Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, Donald Glover, Ray Wise, Scott Sheldon, Emily Kelavos, James Earl, Amy Aquino, Sean T. Krishnan, Ator Tamras, Liisa Cohen, Jennifer Floyd, Bruno Gunn, Scott L. Treiger. Directed by David Gelb

There was a horror movie back in the 60s that was somewhat ironically titled Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. In the decades since, we have learned that adults pretty much shouldn’t either.

Zoe (Wilde) and Frank (Duplass) are young doctors in love. Well, actually they’re more like medical researchers than actual MDs but you get my drift. Along with young researchers Clay (Peters) and Niko (Glover) they have created a formula that, with judiciously applied electricity (shades of Frankenstein) can extend the life of the dying, allowing doctors more time to repair what is killing the patient and saving lives. They bring in a comely videographer named Eva (Bolger) to document their impending breakthrough.

Except it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. Instead, it revives a dead dog. Brings it right back to life, and even cures the cataracts which were the cause that the dog’s owner had their pet put down for in the first place. Cause to celebrate, no?

Well, not quite yet. For one thing, the dog is moody, refuses to eat or drink and is mostly lethargic except for bouts of absolute mother humping menace that have the researchers freaked out, particularly the e-Cig puffing Clay who is normally the prankster of the bunch. He’s a little freaked out by the pooch who certainly looks to have a bit of the devil in him.

Well, their research also has the effect on the marketplace as well. The small pharmaceutical company which underwrote their research at the university has been gobbled up by a bigger one who really want their Lazarus formula. The smarmy CEO (Wise) shows up to collect it, which because Frank, the author of the grant proposal, didn’t read the fine print on the contract, is entitled to lock, stock and barrel, although the comely videographer manages to spirit Fido away before the vivisectionists get hold of him.

Frank is quite properly cheesed off about the whole situation and in a fit of pique, decides to recreate the experiment while their equipment is still in the lab. So late one dark and stormy night – well, it’s a night anyway – they sneak into the lab and attempt to revive one last frozen but dead dog.

But something goes horribly wrong and if you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly what it is and without going into too much detail, they are forced to conduct human experiments a little sooner than they had intended to. However, what they don’t realize is that the Lazarus formula plucks the soul right out of the afterlife and if that afterlife happened to be Hell, then the thing that comes back isn’t quite human and isn’t quite happy about it. A childhood trauma becomes the basis of a hell all of the team is going to go through, alive or not and before the night is over there will be a lot more bodies available to use the Lazarus serum on.

This is a short but sweet little thriller clocking in at well less than 90 minutes which is a good thing because I don’t think the story could have sustained a whole lot of extraneous business. Most of the action takes place at the lab (although a few scenes take place in the lobby of the building, in the office of the dean and in the apartment that Zoe and Frank share) which may be the most underlit medical lab in the history of college research facilities. You half expect the Boogie Man to reside here on a permanent basis.

Duplass, who has become something of an indie film darling for the movies he’s co-directed with his brother Jay (Baghead, The Puffy Chair) as well as his television work on The League and more recently the HBO series Togetherness. He’s actually pretty charismatic as an actor and he works really well with Wilde, who has been on the verge of breakout stardom for awhile now. In a lot of ways it’s frustrating to watch Wilde who is so very good in most everything she does and she’s just so close to making the next level but the right role to put her over that hump eludes her. This isn’t the movie that will do it, although she is very, very good in it.

The movie was made for next to nothing and relies more on practical effects than on CGI for the cool factor. Horror fans are going to find this a bit light on scares, although there are a couple of good ones. What is to be commended is that there is a great deal more character development than is typical for low-budget horror movies. What is to be condemned is that the film’s plot relies overly much on smart people – these folks are educated after all – doing dumb things. Even the scientifically challenged like myself could have told Frank and Zoe that their bright idea of recreating the experiment so that they could prove that the research was theirs would end badly.

There’s stuff here to like, but there is also a lot of stuff here to not. My big problem is that the atmosphere of fear that is vital to any horror film just isn’t pervasive enough. I can forgive a movie that starts slowly and builds to a roller coaster of a climax, but The Lazarus Effect is more of a kiddy coaster that could have used a few inversions and taller lift hills to give its audience a better ride.

REASONS TO GO: Duplass and Wilde make an attractive pair. Does a whole lot with a little.
REASONS TO STAY: Smart people doing stupid things. Not as scary as I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: Gruesome subject matter, intense horror violence, some sexual references and a surprisingly small amount of merely mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was actually filmed in 2013 and was scheduled to be released by Lionsgate. However, internal management changes at the studio led to the movie being shelved for a year and a half with Lionsgate selling the U.S. distribution rights to Relativity although they did retain the overseas rights.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flatliners
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Home of the Brave

Maps to the Stars


Mia Wasikowska communes with the grime.

Mia Wasikowska communes with the grime.

(2015) Thriller (Focus) Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, Klara Glasco, Dawn Greenhaigh, Jonathan Watton, Jennifer Gibson, Gord Rand, Justin Kelly, Niamh Wilson, Clara Pasieka, Emilia McCarthy, Allegra Fulton, Dominic Ricci, Jayne Heitmeier, Carrie Fisher, Amanda Brugel. Directed by David Cronenberg

Hollywood is a seductive cocktail. You can hear it whispering “Drink me” in a throaty voice, promising fame, wealth, glamour and the opportunity to be beloved by minions. What you don’t hear it whisper is that it rarely bestows those things on anyone and when it does, the cost is unbearably high.

On a bus to Hollywood there is a young woman named Agatha (Wasikowska). She is, we find out later, hideously burned, wearing gloves and a body stocking to hide them, as well as long bangs to hide those on her face. She is coming at the behest of Carrie Fisher (whom she met on Twitter), she says (and it turns out to be true) to help her co-author a novel or maybe a project for HBO. She also has a bit of an obsession for the actress Clarice Taggart (Gadon), a beautiful and troubled soul who died tragically young in a house fire.

As it turns out, Clarice was the mother of Havana Segrand (Moore) who has had a lengthy career as an actress. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the good fortune to die young and beautiful in a fire and as she is getting older she is getting more and more invisible to casting agents. She is desperate to get a role in the remake of her mother’s most famous movie, Strange Waters  – and not just any role but the role her mother played. Alas, it seems destined for a younger actress named Azita Wachtel (Heitmeier). Nevertheless, Havana needs a new assistant and her close friend Carrie Fisher is happy to recommend the newcomer Agatha for the job.

Havana sees pop culture psychotherapist and self-help guru Dr. Stanford Weiss (Cusack) to help her deal with her mommy issues, which are severe. Havana has claimed to have been abused physically and sexually by her mom, a charge her mom vehemently denies – or rather the ghost of her mom who haunts Havana.

Dr. Weiss has issues of his own. His young son Benjie (Bird) is a child star whose career took a tumble when he went to rehab. Now clean and sober, he’s making a sequel to his best-known role, Bad News Babysitter with another young actor who seems to be stealing all the scenes, which irritates Benjie no end. Of course, everything irritates Benjie no end and he is bringing cruelty and all-around dickishness to a new art form. His mother Christina (Williams) is wrapped around his little finger but she’s been through a lot; a fire caused by Benjie’s sister took the life of a younger brother and caused the sister to be locked away in a mental institution.

As events begin to shift and roil, with Agatha striking up a relationship with a limo driver (Pattinson) who yearns to be an actor/writer and tragic circumstances awarding the coveted role to Havana, the tenuous connections between all these characters become much clearer and darker as things begin to move towards a horrifying conclusion. But then again, this is Hollywood, baby.

Cronenberg has had a career that is iconoclastic. While his output has been uneven, his films are generally interesting even if they haven’t always succeeded in resonating with audiences. This particular movie is as dark as they come with a cast of characters that is unlikable from top to bottom; from the self-centered therapist to the narcissistic child actor to the troubled assistant to the egotistic actress, this is the nightmare Hollywood in which self-serving lies are a kind of currency and kindness a mark of weakness – unless done very visibly in order to garner favorable publicity.

Moore, who recently was awarded the Oscar for her work in Still Alice is definitely on a role; she could easily have been nominated for this performance as well and may well have had the studio elected to release this last year. It may well be too early in the year for Academy voters to remember her work come the fall when ballots are mailed out but she deserves to have her name written down on at least a few of them.

Most of the rest of the cast does solid work as well, although special note should be made of Bird who is not well-known yet but may well be after his performance here. He makes Draco Malfoy look like a sweetheart, and made the character’s nastiness so palpable that Da Queen wanted to kick him in the genitals several times. My lovely wife doesn’t like spoiled brats overly much, particularly of the Hollywood sort.

There are a good number of insider references and those who are fascinated by that kind of thing will be in hog heaven here. However, this isn’t a movie that is going to have mass appeal; things get more and more twisted and perverse as the movie goes on with a dog getting shot (usually a deal killer for me) and even worse as things spiral towards their conclusion.

Cronenberg has always worked outside the Hollywood system which is a little bit easier when you’re Canadian (this movie marks the first time he’s even shot in the United States in a career approaching 50 years and that only for essentially a week) and this isn’t likely to get him any new invitations to parties, not that he would accept any. I will say that as bleak a characterization of Hollywood life as this is (and there is some truth to it), the reality is not quite so extreme as reality often is. There are plenty of people in Hollywood who are genuine and kind but that kind of thing is less interesting; we’d rather see the rich and famous be absolute bastards because it makes us feel better about ourselves, as in “they got rich and famous but they had to sell their souls to get it which I’m not willing to do, hence the reason I’m not rich and famous.”

This isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. There are plenty who will be put off by the pervasive self-worship and the skewed outlook on life by those who live the Hollywood dream. There’s nothing wholesome about it. However, I will point out that the trailers imply that this is something of a horror movie; yes there are apparitions and horrible things happen but this isn’t a horror movie per se, so be aware of that going in.

This isn’t Cronenberg’s best film, nor is it his most typical but this is a very good piece of filmmaking indeed. I was really drawn in, wondering what was going to happen next and that’s all you can ask of any movie. It may not have been a pleasant experience (and those looking for one can always go see McFarland) but it was an edifying one and that gets points in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Searing performances by Moore and Bird. Lots of Hollywood insider goodness. Some moments of genuine pathos and genuine hilarity.
REASONS TO STAY: Dark, dark, dark. Intrinsically shallow with characters you’re not going to like very much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some unsettling violence and bloody images, graphic nudity, sexuality, foul language and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore and Wasikowska previously appeared together in The Kids Are All Right in which they played mother-daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Day of the Locust
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Leviathan

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


Martin Freeman mulls "His Precious".

Martin Freeman mulls “His Precious”.

(2014) Fantasy (New Line/MGM) Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Aidan Turner, Jed Brophy, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, Richard Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter, Dean O’Gorman, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Sylvester McCoy, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice), Billy Connolly, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage. Directed by Peter Jackson

Since I read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein as a boy, I was hooked not only on Middle Earth but on fantasy films in general. From Tolkein, I went on to read the works of Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, Terry Brooks, Melanie Rawn, Piers Anthony, David Eddings, Raymond Feist and many others. I became an avid Dungeons and Dragons player in college. In short, I became a fantasy nerd.

When Peter Jackson did the Lord of the Rings trilogy I was in fantasy nerd heaven. All three of the movies were standout films, epic in scope and yet humanized by Frodo and Sam who ironically weren’t human but Hobbits. I looked forward to the new Hobbit trilogy eagerly.

The first two movies I enjoyed but less than the LOTR films; the third one I enjoyed less than the first two. Essentially what happens here is that the Dwarves led by their new King Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) have taken Erebor back and the dragon Smaug (Cumberbatch) has gone on a rampage, taking out Laketown with fire and destruction. At last Bard (Evans) the Archer with most of the city fleeing for their lives takes out Smaug.

However, the damage has been done. His town is no longer habitable and his people are refugees. They’ll need assistance in rebuilding their lives, and so Bard approaches Thorin to get a share of the mountain’s treasure which Thorin had promised, but Thorin – now mad with greed – refuses and turns his back on them. He also refuses to return to Elven King Thranduil (Pace) artifacts which belonged to him. With little choice, a battle looms between the three armies.

This is where Gandalf (McKellan), who has been a prisoner of the Necromancer (Cumberbatch again) until rescued by Galadriel (Blanchett), Elrond (Weaving) and Saruman (Lee), arrives to warn all the parties that a massive orc army is approaching. When it arrives, the dwarves are in for the fight of their lives, even aided by Dain (Connolly) a cousin of Thorin’s. When a fifth army arrives from an Orc stronghold, it appears that the Elven, Dwarven and Human armies may be annihilated. However, the courage of a special Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Freeman) may be the turning point for the entire affair.

Lots of fans have groused at the adding of new material that wasn’t in the original source material in the first place, particularly of Tauriel (Lilly) an Elf created by the filmmakers to have a romance with Kili (Turner). I can only say that while much of the material served to pad out the book which would have never supported three films on its own that for the most part enhances the original material somewhat. I blow hot and cold myself on the matter but it is at least interesting to see Jackson’s take on the background of the book although I still wish that he’d found some way to shoehorn Beorn into the movies. C’est la cinema.

The biggest gripe I have with the movie and the reason why I have given it the lowest rating I have given any of the Middle Earth films is that it is mainly one long battle scene. Everything in the movie is either battle or leading up to it, beginning with the fight with Smaug at the beginning, Thorin’s battle with his own morality and of course the major battle scene that concludes the film which lasts not quite an hour. Sure, there was an extensive battle sequence at the conclusion of the first trilogy, but that film also had the quest of Frodo and Sam interweaving in to relieve the nonstop clanking of swords.

That said, the CGI effects continue to impress, particularly at the increased frame rate and in IMAX 3D which as I’ve said before, is a rare upcharge that’s actually worth it. Also worth it are the performances of Armitage, who is plagued by demons of greed and at last realizes that he is not that guy, and Freeman who is the heart of the Hobbit and at last demonstrates it. At times throughout the series we have seen that there is more to Bilbo than what we see on the surface and never more than in this film. Freeman is a superb actor – those who saw his performance in the Fargo mini-series earlier this year will agree. He is finally coming into his own after years of being stuck in character actor purgatory. I look forward to seeing him continue to get expanded roles in important projects.

While the movie goes full circle in linking to the original trilogy with some off-hand remarks and essentially reuniting Gandalf and Bilbo as the preparations for the party that began The Fellowship of the Ring are underway, in many ways the links to that trilogy are more assumed than anything else. I would have wished for a little tighter of a bond between the two trilogies.

This will be Jackson’s last foray into Middle Earth and in that sense, we do get some closure, saying goodbye to a film series that will always remain close to my heart as a fan and as a critic. It is not the best movie to go out on and really shows quite graphically how the decision to make three movies out of The Hobbit was not a good artistic decision although it must be said it was a sound financial one as the second trilogy will have generated close to three billion dollars U.S. in box office by the time all is said and done.

Still in all, the movie is sufficiently entertaining to be worth seeing if just for the special effects, although those who didn’t care for the first two films in the trilogy or for fantasy in general will continue to dislike this trilogy. For the rest of us, it is a bittersweet occasion as I will miss our trips to Middle Earth and the company of hobbits, elves, dwarves and wizards.

REASONS TO GO: A pretty solid farewell to Middle Earth. Freeman and Armitage do solid work. Terrific effects.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much battle which gets numbing after awhile. Lacks relief from the constant battle scenes.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence mainly of the fantasy warfare sort, some scary monsters and other frightening images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lee Pace, who plays the father of Orlando Bloom in the film, is actually two years younger than Bloom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Into the Woods