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 Frighteners


Michael J. Fox doesn't like getting pushed around.

Michael J. Fox doesn’t like getting pushed around.

(1996) Horror Comedy (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey, Dee Wallace-Stone, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe, R. Lee Ermey, Julianna McCarthy, Troy Evans, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Angela Bloomfield, Desmond Kelly, Jonathan Blick, Todd Rippon, John Sumner, Jim McLarty, Anthony Ray Parker, Melanie Lynskey. Directed by Peter Jackson

Six Days of Darkness 2014

Special gifts generally turn out to be curses more than gifts. People who are different are regarded with suspicion and sometimes out-and-out hostility. On top of that, those who can see dead people are being hounded by the dead to take care of unfinished business with the living. It’s enough to make a would-be ghostbuster  pound his head against a tombstone.

Frank Bannister (Fox) hangs out at cemeteries. Not because he’s fond of graveyards but it’s a good way to drum up business; to discover who has had someone dearly departed and then allow their loved ones to communicate or avoid said lately deceased. The Sheriff (Evans) tolerates Frank to a certain degree although he doesn’t approve. That’s because he knows that Frank has been through a lot; namely, a car accident in which his wife Debbie (Bloomfield) was killed. There were whispers that if may not have been an accident and Frank’s career as an architect came to an end, as did construction on the house he had designed and was building for his wife.

Some see Frank as a charlatan who manufactures “hauntings” and then charges exorbitant rates to “cleanse” them but nobody can prove it. In fact, Frank is a con man who manufactures the hauntings – through the use of three ghosts. You see, ever since the car wreck, Frank can see dead people. His friends Cyrus (McBride), a disco apparition from the ’70s complete with magnificent ‘fro, nerdish Stuart (Fyfe) and The Judge (Astin), a decomposing gunslinger from the Old West lift things around and make people (who can’t see them) think there’s a poltergeist about. Frank steps in with fake instruments and a squirt gun full of “holy” water and cleanses the house. It’s not an honest living, but it’s a living nonetheless. He manages to meet Dr. Lucy Lynskey (Alvarado) when her oafish husband (Dobson) dies of a heart attack.

In fact the people of Fairwater have been dropping like flies lately, all with massive heart attacks. Frank witnesses one and realizes that a supernatural entity in a grim reaper cloak has latched itself to the town and he’s the only one who can stop it. Can he protect the comely widow whom he has begun to get sweet on, avoid the manic obsessive FBI Agent Milton Dammers (Combs) and save the town?

This was one of Jackson’s last movies before embarking on the massive Lord of the Rings project; prior to this he had made movies for the New Zealand market including the Oscar-nominated Heavenly Creatures and the over-the-top Bad Taste. It was not a box office success, mainly because it was something of a compromise of sorts and not quite as anarchic and gore-drenched as earlier horror projects. It was also criticized for being a bit of a mish mash of other movies kind of lumped together.

Nevertheless, it’s still a romp. Fox shows why he was such a terrific leading man, completely charismatic and likable even as he was a bit of a cynic. He also showed some real vulnerability, something he didn’t necessarily do often in previous roles. It remains in my mind one of his best performances ever on big screen or small. There’s also an eclectic supporting cast, every one of whom does decent work here at worst.

There is a bit of a Ghostbusters vibe as well as a kind of tongue-in-cheek Beetlejuice feel (the movie shares composer Danny Elfman with the Tim Burton classic). There are also bits of The Shining and Poltergeist woven in with a bit of Scooby Doo and Re-Animator in there for good measure.

The ghost effects are definitely a bit dated but still effective. There are some other creature and practical effects that are definitely retro but work well even now, nearly 20 years after the fact. In fact, this is one of my favorite horror comedies of all time, right up there with the ‘busters and Beetlejuice as far as I’m concerned. The villains are very villainous (Busey as a serial killer is a natural), the heroes are not-quite-competent but always plucky, the romantic interest beautiful in an Andie MacDowell kind of way and the scares are masterful occasionally, although Jackson has a tendency to go for the laugh as much as the scare. This may not be the greatest thing since sliced bread but it’s a great pop up some microwave popcorn, gather the family round the couch and put this on the TV at Halloween kind of movie. And isn’t that worth something?

WHY RENT THIS: Fun as all get out. Fox is a hoot. Definitely an irreverent vibe. A few genuine scares.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Leans more to the comedy side.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, lots of horrific images and comic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox repeatedly blew his lines by referring to Astin’s character as “Doc,” his Back to the Future partner-in-crime. He broke his foot during filming, delaying production for about a week. This would be his last leading role in a film as the long shoot in New Zealand caused him a good deal of homesickness and he resolved to stay on the small screen, accepting a role in Spin City shortly thereafter.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Generally most major releases come with a making-of documentary which generally run in the 20-30 minute range. The one here is over three hours long and gets into details rarely gone into in home videos, including a read-through of the script at Jackson’s home.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $29.4M on a $26M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (stream/rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (buy/rent), Target Ticket (buy/rent)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2014 concludes!

R.I.P.D.


Gunfight at the OK Corral

Gunfight at the OK Corral

(2013) Supernatural Comedy (Universal) Ryan Reynolds, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon, Mary-Louise Parker, Stephanie Szostak, Robert Knepper, James Hong, Marisa Miller, Mike O’Malley, Devin Ratray, Larry Joe Campbell, Michael Coons, Christina Everett, Michael Tow, Lonnie Farmer, Piper Mackenzie Harris, Ben Sloane, Catherine Kresge. Directed by Robert Schwentke

Just because we’re dead doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules. When you die, you depart this mortal coil and drift skyward into the next realm where you will be judged and your final destination assigned. A lucky – or unlucky, depending on how you look at it – few are yanked out of line because they have certain skills. They become part of an elite law-keeping force – the Rest in Peace Department.

Nick Walker (Reynolds) is a Boston cop and up until now, a good one. He and his partner Bobby Hayes (Bacon) stumbled onto some gold during a routine drug bust and now are keeping the stuff out of evidence. Nick, who wants to build a better life for his wife Julia (Szostak), is having second thoughts however. He just can’t bring himself to be a dirty cop. Bobby has no problem with it however and just to show Nick what a good sport he is about it he shoots him in the face.

Nick’s trip to judgment is interrupted (as you might guess from the first paragraph) and is yanked into a sterile-looking office where a bored-looking functionary named Proctor (Parker) basically tells him what’s what and offers Nick a 100-year contract with the R.I.P.D. Or, of course, he can go ahead and face judgment.

Nick isn’t quite ready for that so he accepts and is assigned to Raycephus Pulsipher (Bridges), better known as Ray – a cantankerous Wild West sort that would have been played (or at least voiced) by Slim Pickens a few decades back. Ray’s none too happy about having a partner – particularly a green-behind-the ears (literally) rookie. However, he shows him the ropes albeit reluctantly.

The job of the R.I.P.D. is to locate souls who had somehow stayed on Earth after death and bring ’em back for judgment. Apparently earth and death don’t mix and the souls begin to rot, developing a stank (as Roy puts it) that can be noticed by electronic glitches, unusual amounts of rust, rot, mildew and dead plants and of course human-looking people who when confronted with cumin suddenly transform into fleshy, putrescent masses of rot that have superhuman strength, can bound about like a kangaroo on steroids and generally wreak havoc. These rotting souls, which are called Deados, need to be kept from human attention in order to keep the universe in balance. Oh, and R.I.P.D. officers on Earth don’t look like their earthly selves; Nick appears to be an elderly Asian man (Hong) and Roy a smoking hot underwear model (Miller, who happens to be a smoking hot underwear model).

In a case of cosmic serendipity that only a Hollywood screenwriter could hatch, Nick’s first case involves a Deado named Stanley Nawlicki (Knepper) who – wonder of wonders! – has pieces of gold just like the ones Nick was keeping. That leads him to investigate his old partner who he still has some unfinished business with which leads to a conspiracy to turn the one-way portal to the afterlife into a two-way street using an ancient artifact (there are always ancient artifacts in these stories) called the Staff of Jericho which if activated will literally create Hell on Earth as the Dead overwhelm the living. Or it could just be this week’s episode of The Walking Dead.

Based on the 2001 Dark Horse comic of the same name, R.I.P.D. has a clever title and a not-bad premise to work with. Schwentke provides some pretty cool visuals, from the Men in Black-esque headquarters to the Ghostbusters-esque monsters. But therein is the rub – the visuals, while cool in and of themselves, remind you of something else. I don’t have a problem with borrowing – even borrowing liberally – from other visual looks but I don’t recall anything in the movie that looked especially unique.

Reynolds has gotten a lot of flack lately for his appearances in subpar movies (much as Ben Affleck did a few years back) which I think is patently unfair – Reynolds is charming and appealing but his character doesn’t really play to those strengths. Here he’s kind of grim and obsessive and that really isn’t his forte; when Reynolds is at his best he’s a bit of a smartass, like his work as Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (and when is his Deadpool movie coming out 20th Century Fox executives? We’re waiting!). Had his role been a lot lighter, the movie would have been better. Instead, he’s essentially a straight man for Jeff Bridges.

And there’s no shame in that. Bridges is a terrific actor and he hams it up here for all its worth, which is considerable. He goes on and on about having a coyote gnaw on his bones after his demise which gets a bit tiresome but then his character is supposed to be tiresome. Kevin Bacon knows how to be a smooth, vicious baddie and he pulls it off here.

The worst crime this movie commits though is a lack of energy. There’s no sense of fun here, like the cast and crew were performing a chore rather than having a good time. This is the kind of movie that should be made with a twinkle in the eye and a sly wink to the audience but you don’t get that sense here. The elements are all there for a really good summer movie but the whole doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. It’s not as bad as the critics say it is – but it isn’t as good as it could have been either.

REASONS TO GO: Clever premise. Bacon and Bridges do some fine work.

REASONS TO STAY: Feels flat. Derivative.

FAMILY VALUES:  A lot of violence, much of it of the Looney Tunes variety. Some sexuality and a bit of language (including some suggestive dialogue).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the fourth film based on a comic book that Ryan Reynolds has appeared in to date.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 25/100; the reviews were dreadful, coming as a surprise to no one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Fruitvale Station

The Sixth Sense


This is what people look like when they see dead people.

This is what people look like when they see dead people.

(1999) Supernatural Drama (Hollywood) Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, Haley Joel Osment, Olivia Williams, Trevor Morgan, Donnie Wahlberg, Peter Tambakis, Jeffrey Zubernis, Bruce Norris, Glenn Fitzgerald, Mischa Barton, Angelica Torn, Lisa Summerour, Firdous Bamji, Samia Shoaib, Hayden Saunier, Janis Dardaris, Sarah Ripard. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

People who see a lot of movies, like I do, are like chocoholics in a candy store – after a while, it all tastes the same. Then again, once in a while something comes along that surprises you, makes you remember what it is you love about chocolate – or movies – in the first place.

The Sixth Sense is such a movie. The marketing campaign was ingenious. It was really meant to set your expectations to a certain level and it did so very effectively. Ho hum, another fright flick in a summer that saw Deep Blue Sea and The Haunting ad inconsistium. Stars Bruce Willis, you say? The Man With the Iron Smirk never seemed to get tired of playing the Bruno character he invented in Moonlighting and hadn’t varied the character much up to the time this came out.

He plays Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a psychiatrist (haven’t we seen this one before?) for children who as the movie starts is celebrating a mayoral award for his sterling service to the community. Unfortunately, his celebration is ruined by a former patient (Wahlberg) with a chip on his shoulder and, more importantly, a gun in his hand. Faster than you can say “plot complication” Willis is lying on his back, wondering what hit him. It turns out it was a bullet, which can really ruin a nice evening.

Time passes as it often does in grade-B thrillers and eventually Dr. Crowe is back at work, trying to reach a child who is taunted by his classmates, who suffers from extreme panic attacks and Hides A Deep Dark Secret and yes, there always is one in grade-B thrillers.

At first reluctant to share it with the kindly doctor after a particularly hideous episode at a party (and a few very spooky encounters beforehand), he finally confesses what’s on his mind: little Cole Sear (Osment) can see dead people, and not just ANY dead people – he sees really grisly ghosts who’d met gruesome fates. As the encounters become more and more chilling, the at-first skeptical psychiatrist comes to believe that there may be more than just your garden variety psychosis at work here.

The plot description hardly does the flick justice. It reads like a Direct-to-Home Video turkey just waiting to be plucked. But an astonishingly good performance by Willis (who carries his wounds not so much in the body but in his eyes) and the once-in-a-decade plot twist that will leave you literally gasping in your seat, wondering why the heck you didn’t spot it coming. You will want to see the movie AGAIN so that you can see it from a fresh perspective. Well, that makes it first-rate in my book. And lest we forget, Osment turned in one of the best performances ever by a juvenile actor. Although his juvenile career was brief, Osment is still one of the standards we judge preteen actors by.

Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan proved himself an exciting new talent, able to tell a story simply without resorting to cheap clichés or lavish effects, creating a wonderfully tense environment that sucks the viewer in without asking him to leave their brain in the popcorn bucket. Although there are some genuinely gruesome moments, and more than a few leap-out-of-your-seat-and-scream-out-loud shocks, The Sixth Sense never sinks to excess, becoming in effect a poster child for less-is-more. Unfortunately, he didn’t take the lessons to heart; his movies since then have become exercises in excess. His star has fallen so completely that his most recent movie, After Earthhis name wasn’t use in the promotion of the film at all for fear it would keep audiences away.

In an era of much-ballyhooed, effects-laden disappointments, it’s comforting to know that the two best movies of that summer, The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense met with a great deal of commercial success as well. They remain even now, nearly 15 years after their theatrical release beacons of hope that a new breed of horror movies that are intellectual instead of (or at least as well as) visceral may be on the way to multiplexes that are still cluttered with too many movies about teens making bad choices.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing twist that sets the standard for plot twists. Terrific performances from Willis and Osment. Subtly creepy without resorting to over-the-top effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The twist is so good that most people will assume you’ve seen it and tell you what it is.

FAMILY MATTERS: A fair amount of violence and gore. Some very disturbing images and situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The movie opened on director M. Night Shyamalan’s birthday.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: On the original DVD release, there was a short super-8 horror movie Shyamalan made as a teen (which sadly wasn’t included on the Blu-Ray or Vista edition DVD), plus interviews with audience members who’d just seen the movie, as well as a featurette on the rules and clues that signified the supernatural elements. A Vista edition DVD also added a featurette on paranormal investigations as well as a look at the storyboard process. All of the above (other than the super-8 footage) are also available on the Blu-Ray release.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $672M on a $40M budget; this was a massive blockbuster by any standards.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Poltergeist

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: The Big Bang

Beneath the Darkness


You never know when Dennis Quaid might sneak up behind you.

You never know when Dennis Quaid might sneak up behind you.

(2011) Horror (Image) Dennis Quaid, Aimee Teegarden, Tony Oller, Devon Werkheiser, Brett Cullen, Stephen Lunsford, Dahlia Weingort, Conrad Gonzales, Wilbur Penn, Amber Bartlett, Sydney Barrosse, David Christopher, Gabriel Folse, Melody Chase, Cameron Banfield, Richard Dillard, Timothy Fall, Cheryl Chin, Paige Creswell. Directed by Martin Guigui

 

When someone close to us dies, we handle our grief in different ways. Some of us go a little crazy, hallucinating or turning to unhealthy ways of dealing with our grief. Some of us go a lot crazy. Some of us never recover.

Travis (Oller) is still grieving the loss of his sister a few years earlier. People look at him suspiciously because he claimed that he saw her ghost after her death. In this small Texas town that is tantamount to painting yourself blue and wearing a petunia on your head. It’s just not acceptable behavior.

He and classmates Abby (Teegarden) and Brian (Lunsford) are passing by the mortuary when they spy the silhouette of mortician Ely (Quaid), once a football hero which in a small Texas town is a big deal, dancing with a mysterious figure. Ely lives alone, his wife dead several years – so who is he dancing with?  We’ll go with what I’m sure is your first answer – a ghost. What, you thought he was dating? Not that kind of movie, bub.

So of course they report their sighting and of course nobody believe them. Who knew, right? So in true Scooby-Do fashion the kids decide to investigate the sighting themselves. Ruh roh Shaggy! That’s a bad idea and it gets one of them killed as it turns out that Ely is, well, a little unhinged.

Now Ely’s got his sights set on the two remaining Scooby gang kids and things don’t look too promising for their potential college careers. After all, they’re being chased by a maniac and nobody believes that they’re even in trouble. All the Scooby snacks in the world aren’t going to get them out of this pickle gang – until the great unmasking at the end. “Norman BATES!?!” “Yeah, and I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids!”

All kidding aside, this is the kind of thriller that my buddies and I used to make fun of in college. A plot so hoary and ludicrous that even Ed Wood might have thought twice about using it. A mortuary that makes the Psycho house look like a Disney park. Performances from most of the cast (some of whom are much better than they show they are here) that have all the energy and passion of someone reading a molecular chemistry textbook out loud.

The saving grace is Dennis Quaid. Criminally underrated as an actor pretty much his entire career, his grin is infectious but here it’s terrifying, in fact downright diabolical. With a role like this one, all any actor can really do is just cut loose and not worry about embarrassing themselves and so Quaid does some pretty manly scenery-chewing. Is it over the top? Hell yes, but who cares? It’s at least entertaining.

WHY RENT THIS: Dennis Quaid is hyeah.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bland, tired plot. Rest of cast seems to have no energy.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Berman’s previous documentary was about big band leader Artie Shaw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $9,600 on a $7M production budget; wasn’t even close to making back its costs.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Wild Girl Waltz

Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg)


Ghosts in the Hermitage.

Ghosts in the Hermitage.

(2002) Historical Fantasy (Wellspring) Leonid Mozgovoy, Sergei Dontsov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Mikhail Piotrovsky, David Giorgobiani, Maksim Sergeyev, Natalya Nikulenko, Aleksandr Chaban, Vladimir Baranov, Anna Aleksakhina, Lev Yeliseyev, Oleg Khmelnitsky, Alla Ospienko, Artyom Strelnikov, Tamara Kurenkova, Svetlana Gaytan. Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov

Russian Ark was filmed in the famed Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, which the tsars called home from the time of Peter the Great until the Russian Revolution of 1917. It was also produced in one long shot, a la Hitchcock’s Rope and as viewers travel the corridors among the magnificent artworks of the Hermitage, they meet figures from history who lived and worked there.

The story concerns an unseen narrator (Mozgovoy) who is referred to in the credits as “The Spy.” He wakes up after an accident of some sort and finds himself on the grounds of the Hermitage. He enters the palace with a group of revelers, and discovers that the year is 1814. He turns a corner and comes face to face with Peter the Great (Sergeyev). How can that be?

And so it goes, traveling through the passageways, not in one time or another but phasing out, not unlike Billy Pilgrim of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, although writer/director/producer Sokurov integrates this much more smoothly into his storyline than Vonnegut did.

The Spy is joined by a 19th century French nobleman, the Marquis de Custine (Dontsov) who has sharp opinions on Russia and the Russian court, where he was stationed at length during his career. The womanizing Marquis helps the Spy navigate the hallways, past beautiful paintings (some of which are explored at length), through sumptuous balls and court functions, through intrigue and, occasionally, tragedy. This leads to a revelation as to what they are doing there; keep the title in mind at all times.

It’s an ambitious project, with a cast of more than two thousand actors, with only a small portion of them credited, and three orchestras supplying background music.  Part of the movie’s problem is its subject. The Hermitage is a natural venue for a movie, but it is a curse as well; you want to linger among the vast hallways, galleries and salons, examine the artwork. Of course, if the filmmakers were to do that, you’d have a 100-hour long movie.

Likewise, some of the characters that pass through the movie are fascinating, such as Catherine the Great (Kuznetsova), for whom Sokurov obviously held a great deal of affection. In her prime, she is a natural force, a storm that sweeps the Russian landscape and changes it forever. In the twilight of her life, she is a doughty old woman, trudging like a bulldog through the snow of the grounds, unmindful of obstacle or anything else, her steely gaze straight ahead. It’s truly a charming portrayal.

At what point does a concept become a gimmick? The single shot idea could certainly degenerate into gimmickry; even Hitchcock had trouble with it, but it works here. The overall effect is of walking the halls of the Hermitage yourself, making the camera your ultimate point of view. Although the time changes are sometimes dizzying (you move from an elegant modern-day art gallery to a badly damaged room during the siege of Leningrad during World War II in one sequence) and disorienting, it also creates susceptibility in the viewer, for you literally don’t know what’s coming next or whom – or when – you’ll encounter.

Being of Russian heritage myself (my mother’s family hailed from the Ukraine), I found Russian Ark’s commentary on Russian life not always flattering, but always honest and completely scintillating. There is a Russian stoicism permeating the film; life happens and the filmmaker seems to shrug at tragedy and death with a “what can you do” kind of fatalism.

It was not so long before this was made that these guys were an evil empire, but the Russian people have had to overcome a great deal of hardship during those transitional years in shrugging off the communist government they’d pioneered. I don’t think Russian Ark could have been made in quite the same way under the communist regime, but it is hopeful that Russians are embracing their history – warts and all – instead of sweeping the unfavorable bits under the rug.

Russian Ark is a visually stunning, compelling film that takes us through Russian history and art, two areas largely unknown in this country. Even without the spectacle, it’s worth seeing just for the opportunity to learn a little more about that enigmatic country. You should seek this out – it is one of the best movies of the last decade and remains to this day one of the highest grossing Russian-made films in the United States.

WHY RENT THIS: The magnificent artwork and corridors of the Hermitage. Novel concept. Epic sweep of Russian history.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: A few eerie moments.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The entire film was shot in one continuous shot which was choreographed and pre-planned to the very last detail. What you see is the third take – there were two flubbed attempts that thankfully occurred in the first ten minutes. Oh, and the Marquis de Custine was an actual historical figure.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a 48 minute documentary feature on the history of the Hermitage, as well as 43 minute making-of featurette that details all of the issues and preplanning of this massive undertaken, which included three different orchestras, almost 2000 actors and 33 different rooms of the museum all filmed in one continuous shot.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.7M on an unknown production budget; despite the epic scope of the film, I believe that it was profitable in the end.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: This is like nothing else that’s come before or since.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: My Country, My Country

 

Intermedio


While they're both pretty in pink, Molly Ringwald they're not.

While they’re both pretty in pink, Molly Ringwald they’re not.

(2005) Horror (The Asylum) Edward Furlong, Steve Railsback, Cerina Vincent, Amber Benson, Callard Harris, Paul Cram, Alejandro Samaniego, Dean Arevalo, Eric Castelton, Josef Geiger, Richard Miranda, Michael Latt, Serina Latt, Adam Gobble. Directed by Andrew Lauer

We all want to have some sort of control over our own lives. However, it is the things that we cannot control that eludes us and drives us crazy. The things we cannot explain, most of all – how can we control what we don’t understand?

Malik (Furlong) and his ex-girlfriend Gen (Vincent), her friend Barbie (Benson) who incongruously wears a t-shirt that says “Kari” and her other friend Wes (Harris) decide to take a weekend trip to a ghost town. Now this wouldn’t be bad in and of itself but they make a stop at an abandoned mining operation with miles of tunnels that are said to stretch to the Mexican border. Even though Gen and Malik’s fathers both disappeared in those self-same tunnels, the four decide to climb down and take a look for themselves. Poor decision making at its finest.

Once there they run into a couple of drug dealers – Jorge (Samaniego) and Al (Arevalo) with their mute tag-along teen friend Zee (Cram) – hauling in some contraband from Mexico. The armed dealers force the other four to accompany them. This makes no sense whatsoever – why not just shoot them and be done with it? – but fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, they are attacked by vicious ghosts. Or spirits. Or specters. Or whatever you want to call them.

This leads to much screaming, lots of running and some pretty nifty deaths. There seems to be no way out of this maze of tunnels. The criminals and the criminally stupid must join forces to survive but there are some questions to be answered – what are these ghosts and why are they so angry? Who is the mysterious old man (Railsback) and what does he have to do with any of this? And why doesn’t Zee have anything to say?

The Asylum is known for low-budget direct-to-video horror films that often crop up on premium cable movie channels and like many low-budget direct-to-video horror film studios runs the gamut in terms of quality. Certainly the special effects are none-too-special here, a combination of practical effects and CGI that aren’t terrifying at all.

Furlong, who once played John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day has had a checkered career since then that has been plagued by substance abuse and legal issues stemming from domestic abuse cases. He is reasonably talented, particularly when it comes to playing characters with a dark disposition as he does here. I do hope he figures things out and gets his life in order; he’s had a rough life from day one and deserves a little happiness.

Benson, one of the mainstays of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series is reasonably hot although Vincent isn’t hard on the eyes at all herself and essentially, they both are playing generic scream queens (heroine and victim of course). They mostly have to run through dusty tunnels and swear a lot – and I do mean a lot. People offended by bad language will feel their eardrums bursting into flames here.

I like the premise quite a bit and there was a worthwhile horror film to be made here but it’s a victim of lazy writing and a budget that didn’t match their ambitions. Horror movies get a bad rap sometimes for these same reasons; they can’t help the latter so much but the former they certainly can. Cranking out gore for gore’s sake doesn’t a good horror movie make. I hope sometime that producers of the genre will realize that a horror movie is like any other movie in that if you want to make a good movie, you need interesting characters and well-thought out plots. Just throwing a bunch of generic horror film characters into a standard situation – or even a nifty idea – doesn’t really do anything for anybody. This isn’t a total waste of time and energy (I’m an Amber Benson fan admittedly) but it could have used a bit of care and love in pre-production before any film was actually shot.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice concept.  Benson is memorable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Poorly shot and so murky in places you can’t tell what’s going on. Sound cuts out at one point. Cheesy CGI.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and gore and a surfeit of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Barbie is on crutches in the movie due to an injury actress Amber Benson suffered prior to filming.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: From Dusk Til Dawn

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: District B-13: Ultimatum

The Gravedancers


Dental hygiene isn't always the key to a happy life.

Dental hygiene isn’t always the key to a happy life.

(2006) Horror (Lionsgate/After Dark) Dominic Purcell, Josie Maran, Claire Kramer, Marcus Thomas, Tcheky Karyo, Meaghan Perry, Martha Holland, Oakley Stevenson, Samantha Twyford MacIvor, Jack Mulcahy, Jim McKeny, Geneva E. Avarett-Short, Bob McHone, Tina Murphy. Directed by Mike Mendez

We all do some pretty dumb things when we’re drunk. We say the wrong things to the wrong people, we pick fights, we sleep with people we shouldn’t have – there are very few of us who don’t have some sordid tale of something we did while we were drunk that we later came to regret. I’m pretty certain, however, that nobody has a tale quite like this one.

Harris McKay (Purcell) is back in his hometown for a funeral. His college buddy Chad bit the big one in a car accident and so there’s a reunion of sorts between friends Sid Vance (Thomas) and sultry Kira Hayden (Maran) with whom Harris had a fling with back in the day. The problem is Harris is married now and his wife Allison (Kramer) doesn’t get along well with Kira.

Allison heads back to the hotel room and leaves the three musketeers to get rip-roarin’ drunk. They make their way to a cemetery (as drunks often do) and find a mysterious black envelope with a poem written on a note inside it. Sid reads the poem which indicates that they should celebrate life by dancing on the graves of the dead, which they proceed to do in short order, which Sid punctuates by urinating on a headstone while Kira and Harris make out a little.

They all go back to their lives but something’s wrong. Harris and Allison hear mysterious sounds, and see odd things in the corner of their eye. Over the next few days these happenings get more frequent and more menacing. Sid tells of small fires cropping up at various times and places. Allison thinks it’s Kira trying to get back together with Harris. Harris and Allison go to confront Kira only to find her house a mess and Kira badly hurt, covered with bruises and bite marks and having been sexually assaulted.

They come to the realization that something is happening beyond their understanding or ability to contain, so they do what I’m sure thee and me would do next – they contact a paranormal investigator in the form of Vincent Cochet (Karyo) and his lovely assistant Frances Culpepper (Perry). They determine that the trio set off a curse with their actions and got three vengeful ghosts after them – a child arsonist, an axe murderer and a serial rapist and murderer. Not three haunts I’d want after me for sure.

Worse yet, they have until the next full moon before the wraiths kill the lot of ’em. The only way out of it appears to be to disinter the bodies and re-bury them, thus breaking the curse (don’t ask me how). Trouble is, one of the group has their own hidden agenda and is willing to risk the lives of the whole group to achieve it.

Mendez, the auteur of this finer-than-average horror flick, previously directed The Convent which was another mighty fine horror film. Here you have a movie that’s not blazing new trails, taking bits of Poltergeist here and bits of The Haunting of Hill House there. That’s ok – Mendez puts it all together in a nice appetizing whole, much like making a terrific casserole out of leftovers. That can be as good as gourmet sometimes.

The cast is mostly not well known although Purcell and Karyo have been around. Karyo provides a certain amount of comic relief and Purcell, who has done well in ensemble roles and shows signs of being a pretty good leading man, is palatable here. In fact, most of the acting is pretty solid, a bit better than you’d find in the average horror film.

The special effects are for the most part pretty cool until they get a bit over-the-top in the final reel. In fact, the whole ending is a bit…much. The director on the commentary mentioned they wanted the last part of the movie to be like the big drop on a roller coaster – you’re never sure when it’s coming or how it’s going to hit you but when it arrives it’s still fun. I can agree with that in theory but here they just get ludicrous on you which is a bit sad. A little more imagination with the final real might have made this a bit better. As it is, it’s a much better than average genre film you might have overlooked as it came out in a group of seven other films of differing quality. Scare film fans should check this out; unless you are thoroughly jaded, you won’t be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Balls-out scary in places. Decent performances and effects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not too many surprises. Ending is a little much.

FAMILY VALUES: The imagery here is graphic and horrifying. There’s plenty of supernatural violence and some sexuality (a rape is implied) as well as a smattering of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was released as part of the first After Dark Horrorfest: 8 Films to Die For film festival in major markets in 2006.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Parental Guidance

Scrooged


Tiny bubbles...

Tiny bubbles…

(1988) Comedy (Paramount) Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Michael J. Pollard, Alfre Woodard, Nicholas Phillips, Mabel King, Jamie Farr, Robert Goulet, John Houseman, Buddy Hackett, Lee Majors, Brian Doyle-Murray. Directed by Richard Donner

 The Holly and the Quill

Some Christmas tales are so timeless, so meaningful that they can survive being twisted, pulled, yanked out of shape and modified into something quite different and still be meaningful and timeless.

Frank Cross (Murray) is the programming VP at the IBS network and he’s the youngest in the industry. He’s the golden boy, the one who has the eye of network head Preston Rhinelander (Mitchum). It’s Christmastime and Cross has an ace up his sleeve for the Yule season – a live broadcast of Scrooge from various locations, with Buddy Hackett as Scrooge, John Houseman narrating and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. God bless us, every one.

The people who work around Frank could use all the blessings they can manage. Frank is a world-class a-hole with a mean streak wider than the Long Island Expressway. This live show is crucial to his career; if it succeeds he is on the fast track to Rhinelander’s job. If it fails, he’s on the fast track to unemployment, where he has already put nebbish assistant Eliot Loudermilk (Goldthwait). He tries to keep his long-suffering assistant Grace Cooley (Woodard) working late, preventing her from taking her mute son Calvin (Phillips) to a needed doctor’s appointment.

But if you think Frank is callous in his professional life, you should see his personal life. He spurns his brother Earl’s (Doyle-Murray) invitation to dinner. He is as alone as alone can be. That wasn’t always the case. He was once deeply in love with the pretty community activist Claire Phillips (Allen) but that was from a long time ago. He’s barely thought about her over the years…well, that’s what he’d have you think anyway.

Frank is on a one-way trip to the hot seat but there are those who think he has something inside him worth saving – one being his mentor Lew Hayward (Forsythe), who pays Frank a visit on Christmas eve to try and reason with him. Never mind that Lew’s been dead for years; he’s really got Frank’s best interests at heart. He sure doesn’t want his protégé to end up like him – a rotting corpse doomed to walk the earth for eternity. To help the reluctant Frank along, Lew’s sending three ghosts to show him the way – the Ghost of Christmas Past (Johansen), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Kane) and…you get the picture.

This was a much ballyhooed remake of the Dickens classic that Murray, who had last tasted success with Ghostbusters four years earlier, had his imprint all over. SNL compatriots Michael O’Donoghue and Mitch Glaser co-wrote it and many of Murray’s cronies from SNL and from his other movies, as well as all of his brothers, were in the film. The film is very much set around Murray and his style of humor, so if you don’t like him much you’re not going to find a lot of reasons to see the film.

Still, if you do like him, this is one of his most iconic performances, one that will live with most of his classic performances in Stripes and the aforementioned Ghostbusters. The movie didn’t resonate with the critics very much – at the movie’s conclusion, Murray delivers a speech about the true meaning of Christmas which some felt was treacly and not heartfelt (although I beg to differ).

The ghosts are all amazing and fun, particularly Kane who beats the snot out of Murray (in one scene she pulled his lip so hard that filming had to be halted for several days while he recovered). The special effects are fun and if they are a little dated by modern standards (the movie will turn 25 next year) they still hold up pretty well.

The movie remains if not a Christmas classic at least a Christmas perennial. It runs regularly on cable this time of year and is easily available on streaming or for rent. It is perhaps less serious than most other Christmas movies but it has edgier laughs and that’s certainly worth something.

WHY RENT THIS: Kane, Forsythe and Johansen make some terrific ghosts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems like an overly long SNL skit at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few scary images and some bad language. A little rude humor to tide you over as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Tiny Tim-like character Calvin Cooley was named for former President Calvin Coolidge who was known for being taciturn.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.3M on an unknown production budget; in its time the movie was a big box office disappointment.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fred Claus

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill continues!

ParaNorman


ParaNorman

Norman has a different kind of homework.

(2012) Animated Feature (Focus) Starring the voices of Kodi Smit-McPhee, Casey Affleck, Tempestt Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, Jodelle Ferland, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick, Leslie Mann, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Elaine Stritch, Tucker Albrizzi, Jeff Garlin. Directed by Sam Fell and Chris Butler

 

There are those who believe that death brings peace, at long last, for the living. Of course, given what life is like why on earth – or beyond it – should we expect that? Why wouldn’t the afterlife be just as bothersome and as annoying as life is?

For Norman (Smit-McPhee) the current life is plenty bothersome and annoying. He is the weird kid, picked on by bullies like Alvin (Mintz-Plasse), his own exasperated sister Courtney (Kendrick), his mom (Mann) who doesn’t really understand him but tries to, and his dad (Garlin) who doesn’t even try.

See, Norman lives in a New England village called Blithe Hollow (a combination of Blithe Spirits and Sleepy Hollow  – not the first nod to both the film and literature of the spooky) which is famous for executing a witch 300 years earlier. Norman also happens to see dead people. And talk to them. And they, for their part, talk back. In fact, Norman has more friends among the dead than he does the living. His only corporeal friend is Neil (Albrizzi), a rotund but indefatigably cheerful kid who accepts things more or less at face value.

The witch, you see, had managed just before dying to affix a pretty awful curse on the town that had been stemmed off by members of Norman’s family. The latest in the line, an uncle (Goodman) has a bum ticker and is trying to transfer his knowledge to Norman but doesn’t quite make it to the big day. That’s ok; he can talk to Norman anyway.

Norman is tasked with reading from a sacred book in a certain spot. The problem is, Norman doesn’t understand what he’s reading and why it will save the town from being beset by the walking dead. He will have to link up with unlikely allies and fight against some unlikely opponents if he is to save Blithe Hollow from an army (all right, seven) of zombies.

The animation studio that gave us Coraline give us another horror-themed stop-motion animated feature that is as much for adults as it is for kids. Talk about finding your own niche. Still, if you can’t be Aardman (and how many studios really can be) this is a good place to be. Stop motion has an inherent 3D feel to it; there is depth to the faces here, from bags under the eyes of some of the characters to zits to sallow, sunken cheekbones. The movie itself is pretty dark in tone (most of it takes place at dusk or after dark) so the 3D doesn’t help it from that standpoint; still it looks pretty nifty as animated 3D features go.

The voice casting is on the quirky side. McPhee-Smit is best known for the downer action film The Road as well as the winter vampire remake Let Me In. In many ways, he had to carry a good deal of the latter film; he has to do it here vocally and does a pretty fine job of it. He has some pretty good chemistry with Mintz-Plasse and Albrizzi which helps a whole lot.

The writing is clever and lovers of horror films both classic and modern will get a kick out of the many, many references here. Whether it’s Norman being startled by a figure on his front lawn wearing a Jason-like goalie mask only to have it turn out to be Neil who calls out “Wanna play some hockey?” or nods to ghostly thrillers like The Sixth Sense and The Frighteners. However, there were some kids at the screening we went to who were clearly too young to really get the playful tone of the film. Wise parents should exercise caution before taking their kids as some of the situations and imagery is genuinely terrifying.

Still, there are some strong anti-bullying and acceptance of diversity messages here that will resonate with older kids. While the theatrical run is nearly done, this feels like it will be a Halloween kids classic that certainly out-charms and out-smarts fare like the Scooby-Doo movies and more classic TV kidfilms like Monster Mash. There is plenty of heart here and some surprisingly funny moments like Norman’s late grandmother (Stritch) who complains that the afterlife sucks because there is no cable. Having been in some pretty rustic places in the past couple of weeks, I can certainly relate.

REASONS TO GO: Clever and genuine. Lots of homages but doesn’t date itself.

REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes a little too cute for its own good…and a little too terrifying to really nail that core audience it wants.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the imagery is a bit too frightening for the very little. Some of the humor is a little crude as well; in fact, you might want to skip this if your kids are in single digits.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although none of the cursed zombies are referred to by name (except for Judge Hopkins), they all were given names; Eben Hardwick, Thaddeus Blackton, Lemuel Spalding, Amelia Wilcot, Goodie Temper and Wile London.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are pretty darn good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Nightmare Before Christmas

JOHN CARPENTER LOVERS: While there are several classic horror films referred to throughout the script either directly or indirectly, the ringtone on Norman’s phone is the iconic theme from Carpenter’s Halloween.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Premium Rush