Mother’s Day (2010)


Mother always knows best, especially when she's packing heat.

Mother always knows best, especially when she’s packing heat.

(2010) Suspense (Anchor Bay) Jaimie King, Patrick Flueger, Rebecca De Mornay, Warren Kole, Deborah Ann Woll, Matt O’Leary, Briana Evigan, Frank Grillo, Lisa Marcos, Lyriq Bent, Tony Nappo, Kandyse McClure, Jessie Rusu, Shawn Ashmore, Vicki Rice, Alexa Vega, Jason Wishnowski, J. LaRose, Jennifer Hupe, A.J. Cook. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

There are few bonds quite like the one between a mother and her sons. Especially when the mom is psychotic as all get out.

A group of bank robbing brothers (and sister) bungle a job and one, young Johnny (O’Leary) is shot in the stomach. They try to make it to their Mother’s house but are dismayed to find that she no longer lives there. The couple that bought the house – Beth (King) and Daniel (Grillo) apparently bought it at a foreclosure sale. It’s Daniel’s birthday and they have a bunch of friends over to celebrate – Treshawn (Bent) and his wife Gina (McClure), George (Ashmore) and his girlfriend Melissa (Rusu), Dave (Nappo) and his girlfriend Annette (Evigan) and Julie (Marcos), Beth’s best friend and a colleague of Daniel’s.

Trigger-happy Addley (Kole) and vicious Ike (Flueger) call their sister Lydia (Woll) who tells them that she and her mom now live in a trailer after the house was foreclosed on. Lydia brings Mother (De Mornay) over and they get George, a doctor, to try and help Johnny. Mother also discovers the interesting fact that the boys have been sending money to her old address – money that she hasn’t received.

From that point her demeanor changes from courteous and kind to vicious and cruel as she and her boys torture the hostages in order to find the money. The boys are going to need about ten grand to get to Canada and that kind of money just doesn’t grow on trees. As the night goes later and a tornado warning sounds, the hostages begin to bicker and fight amongst themselves and as Mother grows more impatient, the violence escalates.

This is a loose remake of a Charles Kaufman movie from the 80s about which Roger Ebert famously said “The question of why anyone of any age would possibly want to see this movie remains without an answer.” Like the remake, there was a certain mean-spirited attitude in the original (in which the hostages were all women). There are rape scenes in both movies (more graphic in the first) and redemption through violence in both.

The similarities end there however. This one has  much better acting than the first, which while a flop at its release has a kind of cult status among horror fans. This one didn’t exactly do blazing box office either which of course leads to the question why was it made at all.

De Mornay, a much-underrated actress who rarely gets the kind of parts she deserves but delivers each time she does, makes a fine villain. She’s never over-the-top with her character’s psychosis but instead keeps it low-key, making it all the more terrifying when she blows her cool. Most of the others in the movie do pretty well too.

The biggest problem was that once the set-up is complete it turn into a torture fest in which we are made to watch just how cruel these characters could be to each other, and while the original had just three victims involved, this one has eight and there really isn’t enough time for us to get to care about any of them. Most of the characters in this movie exist only to have bad things happen to them. The writers really should have cut out all but three or four of them and focused on them. The whole tornado subplot doesn’t work logically; they’d have been better off using a hurricane as a threat because that would have fit the story’s needs better.

Bousman, who has directed movies in the Saw franchise is  capable enough but here there are some continuity errors that frankly should never happen with a cast and crew of this quality. Quite frankly, while there might have been opportunity for an interesting movie about what it would take to force normal people into barbarity and how far a son would go for his mother, the filmmakers instead prefer to take the low road and just go for shock and gore. For me personally, I need a little bit more to keep my attention. There are, I’m sure, plenty of folk who are fine with just that – I’m just saying for myself it’s not enough.

WHY RENT THIS: De Mornay delivers.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really never goes anywhere new. Distracting continuity errors.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, much of it gory as well as some depictions of torture. There is also plenty of cursing and some very sexual content

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the filming of a scene in which the criminals had their guns out, police mistook the actors for participants in a bank robbery nearby and held the cast at gunpoint until the situation was cleared up.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $862,769 on an $11M production budget; after several delays and studio switches, the film got an excuse-me theatrical release and quietly (and quickly) went to home video.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny Games (2006)

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Grown Ups 2

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

Meskada


It's the sweet tender moments that make life bearable.

It’s the sweet tender moments that make life bearable.

(2010) Mystery (Red Flag) Nick Stahl, Rachel Nichols, Kellan Lutz, Norman Reedus, Jonathan Tucker, Grace Gummer, Laura Benanti, James McCaffrey, Michael Cerveris, David Aaron Baker, Michael Sirow, Kerry Bishe, Rebecca Henderson, Kathy Searle, Charlie Tahan, Max Antisell, J.D. Rosen, Johnny Hopkins, Rachel Heller. Directed by Josh Sternfeld

In 21st century America, the difference between haves and have-nots is like night and day. In rural Meskada county in the Appalachians, the difference is even greater.

Noah Cordin (Stahl) is a cop in upscale Hilliard. The people who live there are the well-to-do of the county. Noah himself hails from Caswell, the proverbial other side of the tracks. Blue collar and proud of it, Caswell has been hard hit by the recession; work is hard to come by although trouble is not.

During a home burglary in Hilliard, a young boy is killed. The boy’s mother, Alison Connor (Benanti), sits on the county planning commission and she is putting a whole load of pressure on Noah and his partner Leslie Spencer (Nichols) to crack the case quickly and bring her son’s killer to justice. The school of thought is that the killer must hail from Caswell and signs are definitely pointing in that direction.

In truth, the killer does hail from Caswell – a couple of low-life losers named Eddie (Lutz) and Shane (Tucker) did the robbery. They didn’t intend to kill the boy, it was just a wrong-place-wrong-time kind of thing. The case soon pits town against town and Noah is forced to call into question his own loyalties – to the place he came from, or the place he’s making a life in.

This is a movie that had enormous potential – a nice socio-economic premise wrapped in a murder mystery (although it’s not much of a mystery – for whatever reason the filmmakers decided to let us in on the identity of the killers from the get-go so any tension was blown right out of the water). Given the current political climate that has our country increasingly turning into class warfare, there is a certain amount of resonance in the idea.

Unfortunately it isn’t executed as well as it might be. Sternfeld has assembled a pretty impressive cast, many of them unknowns or barely-knowns when it was filmed but were shortly to gain prominence in their craft. Stahl is probably the best-known in the cast at the time of filming although Reedus, who played Noah’s roommate who briefly comes under suspicion for the crime and knows a lot more than he lets on, has probably surpassed him due to his involvement in Walking Dead – and not undeservedly so as Reedus is a big reason for that show’s popularity.

The cast does a fine job but the framework they’re in is almost damaged. The editing is almost choppy, as if someone had gouged out great hunks of celluloid with an Exacto knife. It feels like there are some important expository scenes missing and some of that exposition is done rather clumsily with one character basically saying “tell me about so and so” and another dutifully doing so. There is a certain artlessness here that can be charming in certain films but here it feels like I’m watching a rough cut rather than a finished product.

However, it must be said that the rough cut I watched was better than a lot of finished products. Stahl is one of those actors who seems to never fail to give an outstanding performance but never seems to get a role that will really get him the notice he deserves. Noah’s anguish is palpable as he knows what desperation can drive people to but observes the ugly side of privilege as well. Along with Stahl and Reedus, Gummer as Eddie’s barmaid/girlfriend, Nichols and Kerry Bishe as Noah’s wife all do some fine work.

I’m not sure what happened here. It’s possible the filmmakers wanted deliberately to create a movie in which the audience was put off-balance but it’s also possible that budget constraints reared their ugly head. Sternfeld’s only other directing job thus far was Winter Solstice, a very strong and moving film.  He can and has done better than this.

I’m all for leaving an audience to fill in the blanks off a basic framework, but that framework needs to at least support some meat on its bones. I shouldn’t leave a movie wondering what I missed, at least in terms of the information I’m being given to reach whatever conclusions that might be had. I liked some of the things that Meskada did and I liked a lot of the things that it attempted to do – I just wish I’d liked the movie overall just a bit more.

WHY RENT THIS: Pretty good cast, many of whom were largely unknown at the time of filming.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing and choppy, as if large scenes were cut or went unfilmed.

FAMILY VALUES: Bad language and violence and plenty of both, with a scene of sexuality thrown in for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sternfeld teaches filmmaking at the NYU Film School and Tisch School of the Arts.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lantana

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Much Ado About Nothing

The Bleeding House


 

The Bleeding House

This isn’t the Fuller Brush man.

(2011) Horror (Tribeca) Alexandra Chando, Patrick Breen, Betsy Aidem, Charlie Hewson, Nina Lisandrello, Richard Bekin, Henderson Wade, Court Young, Victoria Dalpe. Directed by Phillip Gelatt

 

Your sins will generally find you out, and karma can come in an ice cream suit. Yeah, you’ve heard it before. Most of us do what we have to do to survive and occasionally we dodge what we perceive to be a bullet; but sometimes that lands us into a far worse situation.

The Smiths live on the outside of town, isolated and generally left to themselves. They are not really welcome in town; there was a fire which killed a family in town that the Smiths were pretty much credited with setting. However the father, Matt (Bekin) who is a crack lawyer, got his wife Marilyn (Aidem) off for the crime – she was the one accused. Ever since, the Smiths have been social pariahs.

Daughter Gloria (Chando) doesn’t really care. She’s a bit on the off side, prone to pinning insects to her wall and also to fits of rage. Quentin (Hewson) is the normal one in the family – the young son who yearns to leave this house and live somewhere where nobody knows who his family is or what they are accused of doing. His girlfriend Lynne (Lisandrello) urges him to leave and he finally, now that he’s turned 18, has the gumption to do just that.

Into this unnerving and volatile mix comes Nick (Breen), a sweet-talking stranger of excessive politeness wearing a white suit that Tom Wolfe might have owned. His car has broken down and a mechanic won’t be available until the morning. Would it be possible for him to spend the night as temperatures are expected to go down below freezing that evening? Matt is reluctant but Marilyn sees this as an opportunity to have an act of charity change the opinion of the townspeople regarding the Smiths. As Matt has just recently lost the position of running a high-profile case that would have turned around the family’s ailing fortunes, every bit of positive spin on the family is needed.

Of course, horror film veterans will know that Nick isn’t who he claims to be and that what happened the night of the fire is far different than what anybody in town has realized. The sins of the family are about to come to roost and who will be left standing at the end is anybody’s guess.

There is an air of Southern gothic here (although I think the film is set in the Northeast) mostly provided by Breen, who oozes silky, snaky charm. The theme of Biblical retribution adds to that feel, although the rest of the cast wisely stays away from acting in that style, a juxtaposition that adds to the movie’s allure.

Horror fans may find the movie a bit slow-moving, particularly in terms of the murders but fear not – when they do come, they are gruesome if not inventive. Gelatt prefers to let you know what’s coming and allows his characters to be aware that they are about to die. It adds to the psychological torture of the victims and of course that is transferred to the audience who squirm in their seats either hoping that the victims will get away or for certain sorts to hope that the murderer finishes the deeds.

There really isn’t much that is going to surprise veteran horror fans, which goes in the negative column; the secret that the Smiths are hiding isn’t really hard to figure out although there are some nice touches, such as Marilyn cutting the meat for the family (including the stranger Nick) because the knives are locked away where a certain member of the family can’t get at them (no points if you figure out which one).

While the story isn’t particularly new or told in a fashion that is fresh, it’s still a pretty fair tale and given how Breen carries the movie with slick Southern charm, you’ll be hooked in unless, of course, horror isn’t to your taste. If it is, this is one of those movies that kind of fell by the wayside that didn’t get the press coverage or fanboy love that it might have deserved. If you’re looking for something you didn’t see in the theaters to rent one dark night, this one might just be the movie you’re looking for.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-made and tautly paced. Breen is deliciously malevolent. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Plot points are telegraphed more than a little bit. Payoff twist is nice but not really surprising.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of graphic violence, a few bad words and some disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chando was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for Best Younger Actress for her work in “As the World Turns.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Septien

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Drillbit Taylor


Drillbit Taylor

It's Owen Wilson vs. the world.

(Paramount) Owen Wilson, Leslie Mann, Danny McBride, Josh Peck, David Dorfman, Alex Frost, Troy Gentile, Nate Hartley, Stephen Root, Lisa Lampanelli, David Koechner. Directed by Steve Brill

Sometimes standing up for yourself is a lot harder than it looks. Once in awhile, in order to stand up you need someone there to help you get off your knees.

Skinny Wade (Hartley), portly Ryan (Gentile) and nerdy Emmett (Dorfman) are all being picked on by a school bully, Filkins (Frost) who is psychotic enough to give Freddie Krueger nightmares. Despite their best efforts the hazing continues so they do what any sensible children of rich parents do; place an advertisement for a bodyguard.

They have to wade through a list of candidates that range from the unsuitable to the downright bizarre before they get the right guy. Who they get is Drillbit Taylor (Wilson), a homeless ex-Army ranger who has something of a Zen style of self-defense and for someone who is supposed to be lethal is awfully laid-back. After his attempts to instruct them in self-defense go hideously wrong, he decides that he needs to take a more direct hand in their protection; by taking a position as a substitute teacher in their school.

Things go really well for awhile, with Drillbit striking up a romance with comely English teacher Lisa (Mann) and the boys finally getting some relief from the constant harassment. Unfortunately, Drillbit’s secret comes out – he’s not discharged Army, he’s a deserter – and that his homeless buddies, led by Don (McBride) see his arrangement as more or less an invitation to rob the homes of his “clients.”

Humiliated and disgraced, Drillbit gets ready to leave for Canada, something that he’s always wanted to do but never been able to afford to. However, his charges are now back in miserable Hell, getting seriously beaten at every turn. Will he turn his back on them and run, as he’s always done? Or will he stand up for his new friends? Better still, will they stand up for themselves?

This is yet another comedy from the factory that is Judd Apatow, who produced this; his buddy, Seth Rogen co-wrote it. Usually you expect an Apatow movie to veer off course into something original but that really didn’t happen here.

Instead you have a bit of a mess. The jokes aren’t really funny although in all honesty, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of humor to be had in kids getting bullied. What saves this movie from complete and abject suckiness is Owen Wilson. He’s one of the most dependable comic actors working today, and even though he’s been in a lot of turkeys lately, he is usually the best thing in them and that is no less true here. He’s totally miscast – can you imagine Owen Wilson kicking anybody’s ass? – but he manages to infuse the part with his laidback charm, enough so that you are thoroughly engaged by his character even if you don’t quite believe him.

The three juvenile leads are more or less cheap-ass knockoffs from Superbad nearly down to a “T” (Rogen also co-wrote that movie) which may or may not have been intentional. Personally, I can’t say for sure. They are decent in this movie, but they don’t really stand out.

I can’t really say why I didn’t like this movie – oh wait, sure I can. For one thing, the jokes didn’t really work for me. For another, I didn’t connect with most of the characters the way I wanted to. Even Drillbit Taylor, the lead role, in the end fell kind of flat for me. The movie’s pretty disingenuous – there’s nothing particularly threatening about it – but a good comedy needs a little bit of edge, and this just doesn’t have a single one. In fact, it’s like a big ol’ beach ball on a beach full of razors; you just know the outcome isn’t going to be very pleasant for the beach ball.

WHY RENT THIS: Wilson has a certain off-beat charm to him and the movie is generally harmless.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An attempt to make a John Hughes-style movie falls flat and it isn’t really funny enough for modern comedy audiences.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some crude jokes (mostly sexual) and some fairly raw depictions of bullying, as well as a bit of partial nudity. Okay for older teens but I’d hesitate before letting the younger kids watch this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A friend of Apatow’s gave him an unfinished script treatment by the late John Hughes which Apatow gave to writers Seth Rogen and Kristofor Brown to build a script off of.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Funny People