All is True


Will Shakespeare and his wife Anne share a tender moment.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Sony Classics) Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder, Jack Colgrave Hirst, Eleanor de Rohan, Gerard Horan, Lydia Wilson, Jimmy Yuill, Michael Rouse, Harry Lister Smith, Hadley Fraser, Sam Ellis, Kate Tydman, Phil Dunster, Doug Colling, Freya Durkan, Flora Easton, Matt Jessup, Sabi Perez, Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

William Shakespeare is possibly the most famous writer who ever lived but even given that remarkably little is known about his personal life. What is known for sure is that in 1613, following a performance of Henry VIII in which a prop cannon misfired, setting fire to the Globe Theater and burning it to the ground, William Shakespeare left London for good and returned home to Stratford-Upon-Avon, never to write again. It is also known this was 17 years after his only son Hamnet (Ellis) died tragically at the age of eleven.

=Kenneth Branagh is widely known to be one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the modern era, having brought the Bard to the screen in such films as Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It and Hamlet. For someone who so clearly loves the work of Shakespeare, it musts be tantalizing to say the least to speculate about his life. Why did he stop writing in 1613? What was his life like in Stratford after his retirement?

Branagh plays the Bard which must have been both daunting and deliciously illicit (sort of like doing an impression of a favorite teacher) pottering about the garden of his Stratford home where he means to create a memorial garden for his son. The return home has brought him no peace; he continues to mourn for a son he never really knew (Shakespeare spent most of his time in London and rarely visited home) 17 years after the fact. His sharp-tongued wife Anne (Dench), many years his senior (actually merely eight years in reality) has relegated him to the second-best bed in the house, refusing to sleep with a husband who is more a stranger than a spouse. His older daughter Susannah (Wilson) is married to a rigid Puritan physician (Fraser).

His younger daughter Judith (Wilder), Hamnet’s twin, shows nothing but contempt for her father and wishes fervently he had stayed in London. Raised by her mother, she seems as strong-willed and as iron-tongued as Anne. Shakespeare is haunted by the ghost of Hamnet and by his own failings as a father and a husband while coping with the fame that refuses to leave him alone.

The story is largely fiction although the salient facts are there; Shakespeare’s retirement in 1613, the death of his son, the loss of the Globe Theater in a catastrophic fire. The rest is invention by Branagh and writer Ben Elton. Serious Shakespearean scholars will probably raise an eyebrow or two at the creative licenses taken here but for most of us, it’s all good.

In many ways Branagh was born to play Shakespeare and he captures the wit and humanity that the writer displayed in his work. Surely this is the Shakespeare we all imagined he’d be: distracted, unable to cope with the tragedies in his life, largely lost without the outlet of writing. Branagh also makes his Will Shakespeare a product of his times; a bit misogynistic – unable to grasp the concept that the true inheritor of his talents might have been Judith, the distaff twin of Hamnet upon whom he place all his hopes of having a successor – and prone to being a bit self-absorbed. Branagh humanizes the Bard and makes him relatable.

Dench, as always, rises to the occasion, making Anne Hathaway Shakespeare a reflection of herself and the kind of wife you’d figure Shakespeare would have. She holds her own with Branagh – or rather, he with her – and the two are electric whenever appearing as a couple onscreen. Some of the most entertaining scenes in the movie are the two sparring with one another.

Cinematographer Zac Nicholson makes this a very pretty film to watch, from the recreations of Elizabethan England to the lovely bucolic English countryside which continues today to be a charming film locale. Nicholson relies on backlighting to create spectacular images of Shakespeare in Country. It’s a beautiful looking film which is never a bad thing.

There is a melancholic atmosphere here which is at times laid on a bit too thickly; Shakespeare is certainly in mourning for his son but for also the Globe and in many ways, for himself. The humor isn’t especially over-the-top and has a gentle touch (for the most part) although at times the acid tongue of Anne Hathaway gibes rise to some really potent zingers. While the dialogue can get a bit overindulgent at times (and there are an awful lot of Shakespearean references that are going to go over the average audience member’s head) there is nonetheless a charm here that made this one of my favorite films at the recent Florida Film Festival. I’m looking forward to seeing it again at it’s upcoming Enzian run.

REASONS TO SEE: Branagh and Dench deliver wonderful performances. The cinematography is stunning. The humor is nice and gentle. The story is oddly affecting.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue is a bit dense in places.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic elements are adult, some sexual references and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Ben Elton was also one of the main writers on the Blackadder series, which frequently spoofed Shakespeare’s plays.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews: Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shakespeare in Love
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Ode to Joy

The Nun (2018)


When staying in a haunted abbey it is advisable to frequently check and see what’s behind you.

(2018) Horror (New Line) Demián Bichir, Taissa Farmiga, Jonas Bloquet, Bonnie Aarons, Ingrid Bisu, Charlotte Hope, Sandra Teles, August Maturo, Jack Falk, Lynnette Gaza, Ani Sava, Michael Smiley, Gabrielle Downey, David Horovitch, Tudor Munteanu, Lili Bordán, Scarlett Hicks, Izzie Coffey, Jared Morgan, Laur Dragan, Eugeniu Cozma, Manuela Clucur, Beatrice Peter, Ana Udrolu. Directed by Corin Hardy

This is the fifth film in the Conjuring universe to date. In it we explore the origins of the demonic nun first seen in The Conjuring 2. Is her story worth exploring further?

At a remote Romanian abbey a young nun is found hanging from the front facade by local villager and supplier Frenchie (Bloquet). Word gets back to the Vatican where Father Burke (Bichir) is assigned to investigate with novitiate Sister Irene (Farmiga) sent to accompany him. Father Burke has a bit of a past; during an exorcism that he performed a child (Maturo/Falk) died and he has been haunted by the memory ever since.

When they get to the village near the Abbey where Frenchie lives, they discover that the villagers have a healthy fear of the Abbey which is rumored to contain a terrible evil. Frenchie takes the to the abbey where the Mother Superior (Gaza) informs them that the nuns are in the midst of their vow of silence for the night and they can’t be interviewed until the following day. The two clerics will have to stay the night.

Of course during the night both of them are beset by nightmarish visions and Frenchie has issues of his own getting back home. The next day Sister Irene talks to some cooperative nuns but discovers that they have been tasked to hold back the evil entity dwelling below the abbey with the power of constant prayer and Father Burke has a close encounter with Daniel and being buried alive. There is most definitely an evil presence at the Abbey – and it will be up to Father Burke, Sister Irene and Frenchie to vanquish it before it escapes to cause all sorts of havoc in the rest of the world.

Hardy uses his Romanian locations to their full potential. Rarely have I seen a horror movie that exudes such palpable menace. You’re on edge from the moment that we arrive in Romania which is what you want from a horror movie. Unfortunately, you want a bit more as well and the promise of the genuinely creepy castle where this was filmed isn’t taken advantage of.

Hardy relies far too much on jump scares which, to be fair, is a trademark of the franchise overall but the effectiveness of those scares is diluted the more that they are used. While the make-up for the demonic nun is genuinely impressive, for the most part she just leaps out of the shadows with an accompanying WHOOM! on the soundtrack. In that sense what could have been a great character is reduced to a Halloween novelty device that you find in neighborhood homes that like to decorate for the holiday.

Thankfully, Farmiga, Bloquet and particularly Bichir didn’t get the memo that the movie wasn’t up to par with the other films. They all turn in solid performances with Bichir once again proving that he is perhaps the most underutilized actor in Hollywood. It makes me wonder if he wasn’t Hispanic he would be getting more high-profile roles. As it is he makes the most out of the roles he does get and he is nearly as memorable as the background here.

This ends up being a bit of a disappointment. Demonic nuns are always an extremely scary creature and there has yet to be a movie that I’ve seen that really makes full use of them, although I’m sure there are some out there that must. The franchise has been to this point pretty impressive in terms of the quality of the individual films but it has been slipping as of late. There are at least three new movies in the Conjuring universe in the pipeline and hopefully they will turn the quality factor around but if they continue to be as mediocre as this perhaps it just might be time to give the franchise a rest.

REASONS TO GO: The Romanian locations are truly creepy. Bichir is outstanding while Bloquet and Farmiga both give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many jump scares. The horror intensity is lacking from the other films in the franchise.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of terror and disturbing images, violence and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Taissa Farmiga who plays Sister Irene is the younger sister of Vera, who plays Lorraine Warren in the original The Conjuring. It is not known whether the two characters are related.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/31/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 26% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Church
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Weed the People

Our House


Something dark awaits at the bottom of the stairs.

(2018) Horror (IFC Midnight) Thomas Mann, Xavier de Guzman, Nicola Peltz, Percy Hynes White, Allison Hossack, Carlyn Burchell, Christine Horne, John Ralston, Lucius Hoyos, Robert B. Kennedy, Marcia Bennett, Aaron Hale, Kate Moyer, Stefanie Nakamura, Neil Whitely, Evan Marsh, Ryan Wilson, Jennifer Nichols. Directed by Anthony Scott Burns

 

The world is full of doors. Some are open, others are closed to us. Some of them should stay that way and others are downright dangerous to open even the tiniest of cracks.

Ethan (Mann) is a brilliant engineer/physicist who shares the dream of Nicola Tesla to make electricity wireless, available cheaply for anyone. He knows an invention like this could be his ticket to the good life; although he and his parents (Ralston, Hossack) are pretty well-off. Ethan’s studies make him essentially an empty chair in the house; his mom and dad (and brother Matt (White) and sister Becca (Moyer), a brooding teen and adorable moppet) wish he was home more often.

But Ethan is obsessed with his work and during a rare family gathering he cuts out early with his girlfriend Hannah (Peltz) to work on his creation in the deserted AI lab – except he’s not really supposed to be there. Things don’t go well at the lab – he doesn’t have enough power to make the device work – and ends up overloading the system and causing a campus-wide outage.

Things go from bad to worse when a call from home reveals that his parents have died in a car crash, leaving him to raise his two siblings alone. Three months later he has quit school and a promising future to work in a local electronics store. That doesn’t mean he’s given up on his project which he continues to work on in his spare time.

But his project has some unexpected side effects; it turns out that what he’s doing is amplifying the paranormal energy in the house, making it possible for the dead to communicate with the living and even materialize. The more power that Ethan draws with the help of a friendly neighbor (Kennedy) who works at the local power company (and whose wife recently committed suicide) the closer the spirits of his parents come to fully materializing. That would be good for Matt and Becca but extraordinarily bad as the range is beginning to widen and there are spirits who aren’t nearly as benevolent residing in the house.

There are some classic Spielberg-like qualities to the film; the close-knit suburban neighborhood, the family without parents, the bittersweet tone and the young genius. However, this isn’t yo Daddy’s Spielberg; this is something else. As with films like The Conjuring series, Although this doesn’t have the budget or the publicity push of those films, it actually does a pretty solid job of building up the tension slowly before going into overdrive at the end.

The juvenile leads have to carry the movie and they do a pretty good job overall. Poor Katie Moyer is given a pretty cliché sensitive little girl role who is the first to start sensing the return of her parents, who sleeps in her big brother’s room and is seemingly the most torn up over the loss of her parents. In fact, all of the young juveniles handle the difficult emotion of grief surprisingly well.

The special effects are pretty slim pickings but that’s okay; the filmmakers get a lot out of a little. There does appear to have been some post-production controversy; the director of photography pulled his name from the credits and the electropop duo Electric Youth withdrew their score after changes were made during Post and released the music on the soundtrack to a lost movie.

However to be honest I was surprised to find out about those issues well after I saw the movie. When I was watching it I didn’t get a sense that the movie was jumbled the way you normally do when producers or a distributor get involved in the creative process. The movie held its cohesion pretty well and the build up to an explosive climax was right on the money. I found it to be a truly effective horror film that while not quite as good as Hereditary was right up there in the same tax bracket.

REASONS TO GO: The suspense builds slowly but the ending is intense. Haunted house films are particularly well-done these days; this one is among the best. The scares are unrelenting. There is some good real-world content as well.
REASONS TO STAY: Becca is a little bit too cliché the sensitive little girl.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a little bit of suggestive content, some terror and child peril and some disturbing horrific images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was significantly altered during post-production; even the titled was changed from Breathing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews: Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Babadook
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story

Poltergeist (1982)


You can never get a-head with a skeleton crew.

You can never get a-head with a skeleton crew.

(1982) Supernatural Horror (MGM) Jobeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubenstein, Beatrice Straight, James Karen, Martin Casella, Richard Lawson, Dirk Blocker, Allan Graf, Lou Perry, Michael McManus, Virginia Kiser, Joseph R. Walsh, Noel Conlon, Helen Baron. Directed by Tobe Hooper

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Our home is our castle; it is our safe place, somewhere we escape to from the cares and troubles of the world. We are protected by our walls, our windows, our doors. Those we love the most are there with us. Our home is our security.

Steven Freeling (Nelson) has a suburban castle, brand spanking new in the center of a spiffy new development. He sells property in the neighborhood and is responsible for most of his neighbors having the lovely new homes they all have. His family includes wife Diane (Williams), son Robbie (Robins), daughter Carol Anne (O’Rourke) and teen Dana (Dunne) from his first marriage. Life is sunny and perfect.

Then odd things start to happen. Chairs are found stacked by themselves. Carol Anne hears strange voices coming from the TV set. Toys begin to move from themselves. They see strange lights and hear strange noises. Unable to account for any of these phenomena, they consult Dr. Lesh (Straight), a renowned parapsychologist and she concludes that their home may be haunted by a poltergeist. When tests confirm a malevolent presence (to put it mildly), things begin to go from bad to worse – and even worse still, Carol Anne disappears.

Desperate, they bring in Tangina Barrons (Rubenstein), a powerful psychic and medium, to help them get their daughter back. She detects a horrifying presence, something malevolent and deceitful who is using Carol Anne to control all the other spirits locally. Getting Carol Anne back however won’t be the end of the affair.

This was a collaboration between Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Steven Spielberg and two more diverse styles I don’t think you could find. There has been a great deal of controversy over the years regarding Spielberg’s role in the movie. He is listed as a co-writer and producer but many have said that he did many things a director might do and that he was on set all but three days of the shooting schedule. Certainly there are many of Spielberg’s touches here; the quiet suburban setting, the family in crisis pulling together, the escalating supernatural crisis. However, even today it remains unclear just how much creative contribution Spielberg made to the film. Keep in mind he was filming E.T.: The Extraterrestrial as filming was wrapping on Poltergeist. Some of the scenes though are very definitely NOT Spielberg-like.

Nelson used his performance here as a springboard to a pretty satisfying career that has shown a great deal of range, from his sitcom work in Parenthood to dramatic roles in movies like The Company Men. His solid performance as the dad here – a dad who is not the perfect sitcom dad but for all his faults and blemishes still cares deeply about his family and would put himself in harm’s way for them – changed the way dads were portrayed in the movies. Nelson also gets to utter one of my all-time favorite lines in the movies: “He won’t take go to hell for an answer (so) I’m gonna give him directions.”

Rubenstein also made a memorable appearance and while her career was cut short by her untimely death six years ago, she will always be remembered for her absolutely mesmerizing performance here. There’s no doubt who steals the show here and even while O’Rourke was incredibly cute, she didn’t stand a chance against the hurricane force of Rubenstein’s personality.

The movie set horror tropes on their ears. Rather than the haunted house being a spooky old mansion, it was a suburban split level of the type that many people who flocked to see the film back in 1982 lived in. That brought the horror home for many; they could see spider demons in front of their master bedroom; skeletons emerging from their swimming pool and their dining room chairs stacked on their dining room table. It could happen to anyone and that’s what makes it truly terrifying.

The effects here are not groundbreaking and most of the time practical effects were used, sometimes in some quite clever ways. There really aren’t a ton of special effects here in any case; it is the unknown that scares us most and Hooper/Spielberg wisely left the best scares to our imaginations.

There’s nothing scarier than death and this is all about what happens to us after we die. Sure, atheists probably think all this is nonsense but no more so than a bratty teenage boy on some backwater desert planet being the savior of the universe. It’s all a matter of how you look at things. Hardly anybody wants to die, but nobody wants their afterlife to be worse than their life. Poltergeist taps into that fear, the fear of death and brings it right into our living rooms. What could be scarier than that?

WHY RENT THIS: It’s one of the scariest movies ever made. Relocating a haunted house flick to a suburban environment had never been done before. Nelson and Rubenstein give career-making performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some people have issues with kids in peril.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images and scenes of terror. There’s also a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zelda Rubenstein was a medium and a psychic in real life before becoming an actress.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 25th anniversary DVD edition has a 2-part documentary on poltergeists. The Blu-Ray includes that and a digibook that includes essays, trivia, production notes, photos and cast and crew bios.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, Google Play, HBO Go, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $121.7M on a $10.7M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Dressmaker

Ghost Team


Things are looking up for the Ghost Team.

Things are looking up for the Ghost Team.

(2016) Horror Comedy (The Orchard) Jon Heder, David Krumholtz, Justin Long, Melonie Diaz, Amy Sedaris, Paul W. Downs, Tom Schiller, Joel Marsh Garland, Doug Drucker, Rob DeRosa, Martin Barabas, Clem McIntosh, Shane Velez, Vincenzo Vaccaro, Veronika Dash. Directed by Oliver Irving

 

For the most part, we’re all fascinated by the paranormal. Who doesn’t want to see proof of life after we pass on? The existence of ghosts certainly is one of those things that have fascinated us for centuries, and yet for the most part, ghosts still remain essentially mythical figures. That doesn’t mean we haven’t stopped searching for definitive proof of their existence.

Plenty of television programs have documented the search of paranormal investigation teams. One of the most well-known is Ghost Getters which copy store clerk Louis (Heder) watches religiously. When the team puts out the call for a new member, Louis is psyched to apply, but he wants to stand out – by conducting his own investigation.

It’s hard to do when one’s day is mostly spent printing Lost Dog fliers. However when a curmudgeonly old man looking to get some laminated No Trespassing signs printed up lets slip that the barn on his property is “probably haunted,” Louis realizes this is the break he’s been waiting for. He ropes in his sad-sack best friend Stan (Krumholtz) who was left at the altar and thinks the only explanation for it was that his bride-to-be was kidnapped by aliens. They need a computer whiz and happen to know one who works at Micro World, Zak (Downs). When a late night run to “borrow” some equipment from Micro World ends up in a confrontation with gung-ho security guard Ross (Long), the team has their security chief. They enlist phony baloney TV psychic Victoria (Sedaris) and to round out the team, Ellie (Diaz) who works as a beautician in the shop next door to Louis and whose job is to….well, crap, I’m not really sure.

The intrepid erstwhile paranormal investigators who have christened themselves the Ghost Team head out to the barn to conduct their audition but when they arrive, they realize they’ve stumbled onto something that they simply weren’t prepared for. Will the Ghost Team’s first case also be their last?

The field of paranormal investigation shows has been ripe for a comedy to be based on it (although some would say that the original Ghostbusters was kind of a preemptive strike in that general direction). Certainly the movie takes aim at shows like SyFy’s venerable Ghost Hunters, which the fictional Ghost Getters is essentially based on as are many other like-minded shows all over cable television.

But sadly, the movie devolves into a kind of live action Scooby Doo minus the talking dog although it does have a van not unlike the Mystery Machine. How it does that I will not tell you, but suffice to say that those who grew up on that show will undoubtedly make that connection. I don’t have an objection per se only that the tonal shift doesn’t work here; they needed a better transition.

Heder has always been a bit too laid-back for my taste as an actor but the more he moves away from his Napoleon Dynamite past the better I like him and this is certainly a step in that direction. Like most of the characters here, Louis isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but he certainly means well and that’s the kind of thing that’s right in Heder’s wheelhouse. He gets some superb support from Sedaris as the fake psychic who can’t believe that anybody buys her particular brand of B.S. and Diaz as an atypical damsel in distress. Long is terribly miscast as a security guy who seems to be suffering from Roid Rage.

Inexplicably, the movie uses Gary Wright’s 70s synthpop hit “Dream Weaver” to almost annoying extent. It was one of my favorite songs growing up but let’s face it; it’s not the kind of song you need to hear more than once on any movie soundtrack. The most genuinely scary moment in the film is when the Ghost Team sings along to the music.

And therein lies the rub; for a horror film, there aren’t any scares; for a comedy there aren’t many laughs. It tries to be both and ends up being neither. Part of the problem is that the writer doesn’t appear to be sure just what he wants this movie to be and what it ends up feeling like is a bunch of zombies wandering around aimlessly, calling pathetically for brains and this is not a movie that has (or should have) a lot of them. All the right ingredients are here for a good little film, but sadly, it ends up tasting rather bland.

REASONS TO GO: A cross between Ghost Hunters and Scooby-Doo. Heder is at his most likable here.
REASONS TO STAY: Official overuse of Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” on the soundtrack. It gets overly juvenile in places. The action sequences are unconvincing. There aren’t enough laughs.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some sexual references and some drug material as well.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was available for streaming free on Google Play before it’s limited theatrical run. It will continue on Google until the end of August after which it will be available on other streaming sites.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Google Play
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Team One
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Star Trek Beyond

Ghostbusters (2016)


Uncorking the genii.

Uncorking the genii.

(2016) Horror Comedy (Columbia) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Zach Woods, Ed Begley Jr., Charles Dance, Karan Soni, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Nate Corddry, Ozzy Osbourne, Andy Garcia, Annie Potts, Cecily Strong, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Al Roker, Susan Park, Katie Dippold. Directed by Paul Feig

 

I have to make a confession; I was not pleased about the prospects of an all-female Ghostbusters team at first; for one thing, it seemed kind of gimmicky to me, a means of establishing a bit of notoriety before the movie opened. The more I thought about it though, I figured I was just using that as an excuse; I was being a sexist so as a critic I swallowed my pride, sucked it up and tried to look at the movie as objectively as I could.

That’s not to say that it’s possible; like millions of others, the original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorite films. When you take on a remake of a classic that is so beloved, comparisons between that film and yours are going to be inevitable. Surely Paul Feig had to know that. But I don’t think he expected the venom that would be directed at his choice to change the gender the team; fanboys absolutely lost their minds, some going so far as to claim that it “ruined their childhoods” which is generally an indication that their childhoods probably should be ruined, if that was all it took.

The storyline here is pretty similar to the original; a trio of scientists – Erin Gilbert (Wiig), a physicist; Abby Yates (McCarthy) a paranormal investigator, and Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), an engineer – are brought together to investigate a haunting. Erin and Abby had once co-authored a book – Ghost from Our Past – but had a falling out. Erin was trying to distance herself from those days and when the book shows up on Amazon just as she’s about to become tenured at Columbia University, she and Abby are brought together. Eventually, Abby agrees to pull the book from Amazon on the condition that Erin allows them to investigate a paranormal activity at a local mansion that had been brought to Erin’s attention by the home’s curator (Begley).

When their investigation is successful beyond their wildest dreams, they enlist Abby’s new partner Jillian who is like a kid in a toy store on Christmas morning – she has all sorts of devices to try out, including a proton pack and a ghost capturing device. With Erin cashiered from Columbia who has found out about her somewhat unorthodox beliefs in the supernatural, the three decide to start up a ghost investigation business. During an investigation into a New York subway, they are assisted by Patty Tolan (Jones), an MTA employee with an encyclopedic knowledge of New York City history, particularly the haunted kind. She joins the team as the fourth Ghostbuster (as they are now called, much to Erin’s annoyance).

They hire a receptionist to handle the calls which turns out to be Kevin (Hemsworth), a male model who gets the job because he dampens Erin’s panties more than anything – he proves to be an utter imbecile and not much use at all answering the phone. As they investigate, they discover that someone has been creating gateways allowing the ghosts to come into New York. That someone is uber-nerd Rowan North (Casey) who has some very unpleasant plans for a world that has rejected him and ignored him. When someone plans a paranormal apocalypse, who ya gonna call?

The special effects are spectacular here, which is definitely an unexpected plus – Feig has never really worked an effects-heavy film before but he does a fine job here with the CGI. It’s impressive without being overwhelming. The cinematography is gorgeous and most of the technical end of the movie is soundly executed. I also think that his casting is spot-on – on paper.

Unfortunately, on celluloid is where I have the issues. The chemistry between the team just isn’t as strong as it was for Murray, Aykroyd, Hudson (who all have cameos) and the late Harold Ramis, whose son appears in a brief cameo and who also appears as a bust outside of Erin’s office at Columbia. McKinnon is a little too over the top at times as is Jones who’s shrieking is almost anachronistic, sounding uncomfortably like depictions of African-American characters in horror comedies from say 50-75 years ago.

Wiig and McCarthy are both strong comic actresses who have given terrific performances in other movies, but they are both overly bland here. McCarthy is strangely subdued; I sometimes complain about her characterization in other comedic roles but I would have welcomed more of that energy she brought to those roles here. Wiig is generally an extremely understated performer and was completely miscast; they needed someone who had a little more of a presence. This may surprise some, but I think Leslie Jones might have been better suited for the role of the physicist/doubter, Kate McKinnon better as Abby, Melissa McCarthy more fun as Patty and maybe a different actress – Amy Schumer for example – as Jillian. But still, just reshuffling the roles might not have helped; the ladies just don’t seem as comfortable around each other as they should be.

Despite all of the issues I have with the team, the script isn’t half-bad and there are some very funny moments. The cameos are welcome, but also serve to remind us of how much better the original was than the remake and Feig might have been better advised to leave them out, particularly since he chose to do a reboot rather than a sequel, which I think might have been a better move. Still, one has to give him points for trying, but trying doesn’t save a movie that’s just average.

REASONS TO GO: The effects are impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: It simply doesn’t hold up to the original.
FAMILY VALUES: Some somewhat rude humor and a bit of supernatural action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The book Ghost from Our Past supposedly co-written by lead characters Erin and Abby, is really for sale on Amazon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Haunted House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Legend of Tarzan

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

Crimson Peak


Exploring Allerdale Hall can be hazardous to one's health.

Exploring Allerdale Hall can be hazardous to one’s health.

(2015) Gothic Horror (Universal) Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts, Alec Stockwell, Brigitte Robinson, Gillian Ferrier, Tamara Hope, Kimberly-Sue Murray, Sofia Wells, Peter Spence, Bill Lake, Jim Watson, Joanna Douglas. Directed by Guillermo del Toro

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Some see ghosts as echoes of memories; people who left behind some of themselves when they die. Others see it as a transitory period between this life and the next. Regardless of how you see ghosts, they can be terrifying.

Edith Cushing (Wasikowska) – likely named for the veteran Hammer horror star Peter Cushing – knows all about ghosts. As a child, the specter of her recently deceased mother came to her to warn her “Beware of the crimson peak.” Clearly a message from your dead mother is one that will stay with you for your entire life.

She lives in Buffalo at the turn of the 20th century with her industrialist father (Beaver). She has aspirations to be a writer, sort of a distaff Edgar Allan Poe and she has no time for men, although ophthalmologist Dr. Alan McMichael (Hunnam) would love to catch her eye.

However, her eye is caught by Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston), a down-on-his-luck baronet who has come to Buffalo with his sister Lucille (Chastain) to convince her father to fund the construction of his experimental mining machine which he is using to mine a rare ore that exists on his estate. Her father is suspicious and hires a detective (Gorman) to check out the siblings.

However, despite her father’s misgivings, Edith falls deeply in love with the handsome young noble and eventually marries him, leaving Buffalo for his crumbling estate in Cumberland and by crumbling we mean it; the roof has a gigantic hole, letting the weather in. Red clay seeps up through the floorboards and walls, looking uncannily like blood. Electricity works intermittently so candle power and fireplaces provide heat and light. Edith is warned not to go below the main level as it is dangerous. And to make matters worse, she almost immediately begins seeing ghosts, angry ones which reflect her relationship with Lucille which is cold at best and hostile at worst.

The ghosts that Edith is seeing aren’t even the worst thing; she begins to suspect that her new husband and sister-in-law are not whom they seem to be. Her investigations further exacerbate her doubts and she soon realizes that if she can’t unravel the secrets of Allerdale Hall, she might just become a ghost herself and I can’t think of any hell worse than spending eternity in Allerdale Hall.

Del Toro has been one of the fan favorites of horror since beginning his career with movies like Cronos, Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone and of course the Hellboy movies. This is something of a passion project for him, one that has been in gestation for years. It is a grand vista that he has painted with, one not unlike that which he created in Pan’s Labyrinth. Allerdale Hall is a magnificent set, as Gothic a look as ever brought to the silver screen. It is a place made for ghosts and ghost stories.

Del Toro has assembled a stellar cast but curiously, two of the main performances leave something to be desired. Wasikowska who can be compelling underplays her role to the point of somnolence while Chastain, one of the best young actresses in Hollywood is shrill and overplays her role in an eyebrow-arching silent film villainess portrayal that seems archaic to my 21st century sensibilities.

The story is straight out of the annals of Shelley and Poe – A.O. Scott of the New York Times correctly described it as “Henry James …filtered through the lurid sensibilities of Mario Bava –  overset with a deep melancholy that pervades every nook and cranny of Allerdale Hall, stained red with the clay that is everywhere, even coloring the snow crimson. Ghosts creep and crawl, their eyes black and empty as the night, their mouths open in tortured expressions of sorrow. A florid description yes, but the movie lends itself to such language.

Some have complained that this isn’t strictly speaking a horror film and I can see their point although I disagree with it. There are plenty of images that will haunt your nightmares but there are certainly elements of Hitchcockian suspense, particularly in the tale of the Sharpe siblings who could easily have been characters in a black and white opus of the Master in the 1930s. While this is set in an earlier period, there is definitely a tension throughout that Hitchcock would have appreciated.

Not everyone likes this movie; some have felt misled by the marketing which emphasizes the horror aspects (in fact the movie was completed in January but held back because Universal wanted it to be their tentpole Halloween release). This is definitely not like modern horror movies which emphasize murder and mayhem and depends largely on atmosphere; those who don’t appreciate old school horror had best give this one a miss. However, if you’re like me and love those brooding old haunted mansions full of things that go bump in the night, this is right up your alley.

REASONS TO GO: Gothic atmosphere. Some genuinely creepy disturbing images. Great set design.
REASONS TO STAY: Wasikowska a bit bland. Chastain a bit over-the-top.
FAMILY VALUES: Bloody violence, gruesome images, scenes of terror, some sexual content and a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kingston, Ontario doubled for Buffalo in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rose Red
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

Sinister 2


Bughuul reminds us there's no talking in the theater or else he sends these kids after you.

Bughuul reminds us there’s no talking in the theater or else he sends these kids after you.

(2015) Horror (Gramercy) James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Tate Ellington, John Beasley, Lucas Jade Zumarin, Jaden Klein, Laila Haley, Caden M. Fritz, Olivia Rainey, Nicholas King, Michael B. Woods, Tory O. Davis, Howie Johnson, Grace Holuby, John Francis Mountain, Nicole Santini. Directed by Ciarán Foy

There are monsters in this world; people who beat their wives, their children. People who create an atmosphere of fear, all so they can feel like a big man. One can run away from monsters like that; but then there’s no running away from the demons that follow you.

Courtney Collins (Sossamon) has separated from her husband with the intention of divorcing him. He is an abusive, evil man who has turned her twin sons Dylan (R.D. Sloan) and Zach (D. Sloan) into a terrified, nightmare-ridden boy (the former) and a mean, spiteful kid (the latter). She has found an old farmhouse with a de-consecrated church in the yard.

What she doesn’t know is that the house was the scene of a horrible crime in which an entire family was slaughtered – chained to the church floor and eaten alive by rats – with the young son missing. Investigating the crime is a Detective (Ransone) who was once a Deputy investigating a similar crime in the first Sinister. It weighs heavily on his mind that he couldn’t save his friend Ellison Oswalt and his family from the same fate; in fact, he was accused and later acquitted of the heinous crime, although he lost his job over it.

Now he has made it his mission to stop the demon Bughuul who is responsible for these murders. Bughuul, through the lost children he abducts, influences a child in a family moving into the home where one of these murders occurs to become his minion; when the family moves out, the child films the gruesome murders he commits. Afterwards, Bughuul takes his soul to join his legion of lost children.

Now the kids are after Dylan, showing him the murder films which stop the nightmares. The Detective is unnerved to find people living in the house – he’d been told it was vacant and had plans to burn it to the ground, stopping the demon’s reign of terror. He grows attracted to Courtney and the feeling is mutual. But with her ex Clinton (Coco) hot on her trail and hell bent on taking the kids back home with him, with no judge or law enforcement official in rural Indiana willing to stand up to the wealthy Clinton, Courtney is caught between hell and a hard place – literally.

Although a sequel pretty much to the first Sinister, this has little in common with the first film. No Ethan Hawke, for one thing – Sossamon is the biggest name in the cast which helps keep the costs low and the profit margin high. Scott Derrickson, who directed the original, is still on board as co-writer and producer but it is Irish director Foy, who has a nifty thriller called The Citadel to his credit, in the chair here.

The first film was incredibly creepy; the atmosphere was much more intense than it is here. There is more a Children of the Corn vibe which is said to be on purpose; Foy had wanted the film to be a tribute to the Stephen King story which spawned a plethora of cinematic stinkers – and has a lot in common thematically with both of the Sinister films. While some might find the homespun Indiana cornfield look frightening, it doesn’t quite do it for me personally.

Ransone does, though. Moving from a background comedy relief character to genuine horror hero, we get the kind of hero we can all get behind; he’s not brawny or a particularly good fighter (he gets beaten up at least twice during the film) but he is smart and sympathetic. He’s a nice guy whom we fear is going to finish last.

The movie’s subtext having to do with abusive husbands/fathers is welcome. Often the physical abuse is given as a reason as why abused kids turn into psychotic serial killers but here it is shown as terrifying as anything the demon can conjure up; there’s a scene where the Collins family is having dinner and Clinton eats first while the others sit in frightened silence, awaiting the signal that they can eat. It’s as stark and scary a scene in any horror movie this year. Sadly, none of the Bughuul stuff can equal it.

Part of the problem is that the kid actors in the movie who take up most of the screen time range from adequate to hard to watch. A movie like this by necessity requires a good number of child actors and that’s a double edged sword; if you can get good ones, it ratchets up the fear factor. If not, it can make your film look amateurish. It doesn’t quite sink to that level, but it certainly isn’t elevated by the performances of the children. And that’s not a knock on the kids, mind you – I don’t think it’s for lack of effort on their part, but they do have an awful lot of burden on their shoulders and that might be a little too much to ask of them.

Another issue I had with the movie is the various snuff films. The death scenes are so elaborate that to a large extent they aren’t believable. Sure, the kids are being helped by a demonic presence but it doesn’t feel like a kid could come up with these complex killing methods, ranging from putting a family on crucifixes and burning them alive to hanging them upside down above a swamp where alligators take their heads off. Gruesome fun to be sure, but not believable gruesome fun.

Even despite the deficiencies this ends up with a slightly higher rating than the first Sinister, largely because the ending of the first one was such a stinker. The ending here is a lot better; and while Bughuul is not the terrifying monster that maybe this franchise needs, the movie is scary enough in a white bread kind of way that it makes the movie worth checking out.

REASONS TO GO: Fairly creepy. Ransone steps up nicely. Like the inclusion of the abusive father.
REASONS TO STAY: Children of the Corn vibe doesn’t work. The filmed death scenes too elaborate. Overreliance on kid actors.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, much of it gruesome; bloody and disturbing images, and some fairly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only returning characters from the first film are Bughuul himself and the Detective, who in the first film was Deputy So & So (he never gets a name); here he is Detective So & So.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Insidious
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mistress America

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