The Ritual (2017)


These are the manly rituals of remembrance.

(2017) Horror (eOne/Netflix) Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Matthew Needham, Jacob James Beswick, Maria Erwolter, Hilary Reeves, Peter Liddell, Francesca Mula, Kerri McLean, Gheorghe Mezei, Adriana Macsut, Constantin Liviu Codrea, Zane Jarcu. Directed by David Bruckner

 

There is nothing quite like a hike in the woods to get you connected with the planet and with your friends. There are those who relish it more than others; some prefer more urbanized pursuits. But the one thing that most people agree on – particularly when it comes to horror movies – is that short cuts rarely end well.

Five college buddies are at the pub trying to figure out where they’re going to go on their bro vacation. They are of an age where they’re getting too old for Ibiza and too young (barely) for brunch but Vegas remains an attractive option. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes the group of five and now they are a group of four. In honor of their fallen comrade, the surviving four – whiny Dom (Troughton), guilt-ridden Luke (Spall), Alpha male Hutch (James-Collier) and the “takes the piss” guy Phil (Ali) – head out on a hiking trail in Northern Sweden headed for a lodge which is supposed to be really, really cool.

Along the way, one of them twists his ankle and rather than continue on the trail or head back, the five do the horror film-stupid act of taking a short cut through the woods because we know that a walk through dark and scary woods is a far easier task than following a clear, well-marked and well-maintained trail, right? All in all, with decision making skills like that, they’d have been better off going to Las Vegas. All they’d have lost was money.

They end up lost and stranded in the woods in the balmy Swedish weather (read as “lots of rain and fog”). Soon creepy things start to happen; they find eviscerated animals hanging from trees and strange symbols carved into the wood. They hole up in an abandoned house (which Phil wryly proclaims “This is clearly the house we will all be murdered in”) with a strange straw figure on a kind of altar. No wonder each of them have terrible nightmares that night and at least one of them ends up naked in a supplicating position at the altar.

Unnerved the quartet tries to find their way back to Swedish civilization but what they don’t know is that they are running headlong into the clutches of a rural cult – and the dark thing that the cult fears and worships. Daylight can’t come fast enough.

This British film was snapped up by Netflix and well they should. This is arguably one of the best horror films since The Babadook in my opinion. It has a lost in the woods Blair Witch Project vibe (albeit without the found footage) combined with a Wicker Man cult creepiness. In fact, Bruckner does a great job with the creepy tone which continues to grow more and more unnerving as the film progresses.

The movie does start rather slowly with one scene of shocking brutal violence breaking up the monotony but it turns out to be very okay; this is a slow builder and a fast burner of a movie. By the time the second half of the film rolls around you realize you’re on a roller coaster both emotional and metaphorical as the scares and chills come at you without any let-up.

The monster in the film isn’t revealed until near the very end (mostly you see it as trees swaying and unearthly howls) and it’s certainly worth the wait. It’s not in the film very long in terms of screen time but it casts a giant shadow the whole way and it also has the power to send the characters hallucinations involving their worst fears and greatest guilt. It is particularly effective on Luke who blames himself for what happened to one of their number, not because he’s directly responsible but because he failed to help when his hour of need arose.

The movie is all about guilt and redemption and that may be a bit too cerebral for horror film fans who only care about the visceral (and there’s nothing wrong with either of those types of horror by the way). There is some scenes of gore but we don’t see bodies actually being ripped wide open by the monster which might be the movie’s only real failing.

The Ritual played the Toronto Film Festival in 2017 and has gotten some really good critical notices particularly in its native UK. Here in the States, it is available now on Netflix and worth getting the service for all by itself. This is one of the best Netflix original movies to date for the service and an early entry for the best horror film of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The monster, when finally revealed, is really nifty. The last half of the film is a roller coaster ride. The creepy factor gets higher and higher as the film goes along.
REASONS TO STAY: The film starts off rather slowly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, violence (some of it graphic and brutal), some grisly images as well as scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers of the film is Andy Serkis although he doesn’t appear in the film as either an actor or a motion capture specialist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rituals
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Devil’s Gate

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The Mummy (2017)


Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis are up in the air waiting on the future of the Dark Universe.

(2017) Horror (Universal) Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari, Simon Atherton, Stephen Thompson, James Arama, Matthew Wilkas, Sohm Kapila, Sean Cameron Mitchell, Rez Kempton, Erol Ismail, Selva Rasalingam, Shanina Shaik, Javier Botet, Hadrian Howard, Dylan Smith, Parker Sawyers, Bella Georgiou. Directed by Alex Kurtzman

 

Given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a license to print money for Disney, it’s no wonder that shared universes are all the rage in Hollywood. A shared universe differs from a franchise in that whereas franchise films feature the same characters appearing in different films that are literal sequels, a shared universe has different characters appearing in different films that share a common background and often different characters appear in the films of other characters.

Universal has decided to throw their hat into the ring with the Dark Universe, a shared cinematic universe featuring their classic monsters which if you ask me is a tip-top idea; back in the heyday of Universal monster movies, the studio made big bucks when they would have films with three or four of their monsters sharing screen time in the same movie so in a way they have already done the shared universe thing. Can they it work in the 21st century?

Nick Morton (Cruise) is a U.S. Army officer who moonlights as a soldier of fortune “liberating” ancient artifacts from the various countries he serves in and selling them on the black market. Nick is not so much amoral as he is self-serving and his sidekick Vail (Johnson) knows it. When they are ambushed by insurgents during a long reconnaissance in Iraq, Nick calls in an airstrike which in turn reveals an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Nick’s superior Colonel Greenway (Vance) enlists archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Wallis) to examine the tomb which she reports is more like a prison. Nick discovers a sarcophagus inside a pool of mercury and raises it. With the insurgents returning, Greenway orders the sarcophagus put on an army transport plane and sent to England for further study.

What Nick doesn’t know is that the tomb is that of Ahmanet (Boutella), an ambitious Egyptian princess in line for the throne until one of Pharaoh’s concubines gives birth to a son. Knowing this will relegate her to the sidelines, she slaughters her entire family and prepares her lover to be sacrificed so that the spirit of the evil god Set can take over his body but the pharaoh’s guards discover what she is up to and for her awful crimes she is sentenced to be mummified alive.

What Nick also doesn’t know is that his pal Vail has been bitten by a camel spider which was controlled by the evil princess and is now controlled by Ahmanet. On board the transport he goes on a rampage in an effort to free the mummy but is killed; Ahmanet instead sends a massive flock of crows to bring the plane down. Nick at the last moment puts a parachute on Jennifer and sends her out the door. He is apparently killed in the plane crash.

The thing is, he’s not quite dead yet. He wakes up and nobody is more mystified than he as to why he’s still alive. However, Vail’s ghost informs him (in a conceit right out of American Werewolf in London) that Nick has been marked by Ahmanet to be the new vessel for Set, completing her bargain with the god and giving her unlimited power on Earth. However, in order to do that she’s is going to have to find two relics – a ruby and a dagger – that are hidden in England.

Nick finds out that Jennifer is an employee of a company called Prodigium which was created to fight supernatural enemies on Earth by a man named Henry Jekyll (Crowe), a brilliant scientist who harbors a secret that pretty much everybody knows he won’t be able to Hyde. Stopping Ahmanet is job one at the moment. However, Ahmanet has been busy. She’s been regenerating by feeding on the living and her powers to control the dead are growing. Nick knows he can run but he can’t hide – he and Ahmanet have a psychic connection now. How do you fight against a monster that has virtually unlimited power?

Most people are going to compare this to the 1999 version of The Mummy. Do yourself a favor and don’t, as hard as it is not to have that film in your head when watching this one. The Brendan Fraser version is a rollicking roller coaster ride that is sheer entertainment from beginning to end. This one is far more ponderous. Kurtzman, a veteran writer, has penned some big movies for some big franchises and who has been placed in creative control of the Dark Universe. He’s indulging in some world building here and that might be understandable but the problem is that he’s really cramming way too much into a single movie. Things get convoluted and while the Prodigium stuff is fascinating, the ancient Egyptian backstory is not. This feels less fun and more of a chore to get through so that the other movies can come along and fit in to the sandbox Kurtzman and his fellow writers are constructing. That’s not how you want to feel coming out of a big summer tentpole movie, particularly one in which you want to establish a billion dollar franchise. This has the feel of a movie-by-committee.

Cruise is beginning to show some signs of middle age but he still has the smile wattage and the screen presence to pull this off. Crowe makes Jekyll an enigma who you want to learn more about; both of these performances bode well for future ventures. Boutella also makes a pretty decent movie monster. She’s sexy AND scary, a nice combination. Wallis is less memorable although I think that’s more a function of the writing and less of her performance.

The CGI is less than sparkling; it’s not that it is out and out bad, it’s just not exciting. These days the CGI has to dazzle to a certain degree and here it merely fills in the gaps. I will say that the plane crash sequence here is flat-out amazing; it’s truly the highlight of the film and is a scene I wouldn’t mind seeing again. Not enough to want to buy the movie though.

Kurtzman is packing too many elements in here. We see bits of Indiana Jones, of the aforementioned American Werewolf and even Aliens. The whole movie feels ponderous and derivative where it should be fun and exciting, or at least scary as hell. The movie ends up being not so much boring as unimaginative and lacking in any reason to want to see the scheduled follow-up Bride of Frankenstein (which has since been yanked from the Universal release schedule – something tells me some major re-tooling is underway). When you’re trying to establish a new cinematic universe, that’s the opposite of the effect you want your movie to have on your audience.

REASONS TO GO: The character of Henry Jekyll and the Prodigium backstory have potential.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many elements borrowed liberally from much better films make this less of a thrill ride than the 1999 version.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, action and scary images; there’s also a smattering of sexually suggestive material including some brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With this film and his starring role in American Made, this is the first time since 2012 that Cruise has starred in more than one film in the same calendar year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Loving Vincent

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword


Pulling the sword from the stone was easy; uniting the kingdom was hard.

(2017) Fantasy Action (Warner Brothers) Charlie Hunnam, Jude Law, Eric Bana, Djimon Hounsou, Astrid Bergés-Frisbey, Aidan Gillen, Freddie Fox, Craig McGinlay, Tom Wu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Neil Maskell, Annabelle Wallis, Geoff Bell, Poppy Delevingne, Millie Brady, Nicola Wren, Wil Coban, Bleu Landau, Jacqui Ainsley, Lorraine Bruce, Georgina Campbell. Directed by Guy Ritchie

 

One of the most enduring legends in Western European history is that of King Arthur. Loosely based on an actual Anglican King shortly after the fall of Rome, he has become associated with all that is good about English royalty; a fair and just ruler, a mighty warrior and a man wise enough to know his own failings, his court at Camelot is widely characterized bittersweetly as a brief and shining moment in history.

King Uther Pendragon (Bana) of England is by all accounts a good and just king but he is overthrown by his ambitious brother Vortigen (Law) who is aided by demonic black magic. Uther is killed but his little son Arthur is saved and whisked off into obscurity. As Vortigen rules with cruelty and fear, Arthur grows up in the streets of London, raised by prostitutes and becoming a petty crime lord and pimp. Vortigen has become increasingly paranoid due to a prophecy that says he will be killed by the true king and his throne taken. There is a sword called Excalibur buried deep in the rock near the king’s castle and by legend only the true king can pull it from its sheath. All men in the kingdom of a certain age are required to have a try at pulling it but only Arthur succeeds.

Rescued by Bedivere (Hounsou), one of his father’s last remaining knights, and a beautiful Mage (Bergés-Frisbey) Arthur undergoes intensive training on how to fight. Arthur is reluctant to help – he wants no part of the sword or the responsibility of kingship but as his friends are attacked and imperiled, Arthur soon realizes that he cannot avoid his destiny. Accepting the power of the sword, he proves to be a nearly unbeatable warrior but Vortigen is vicious and ends up capturing the Mage and the son of one of Arthur’s best friends who has been killed by Vortigen personally. Ordered to surrender or watch his friends be executed, Arthur must become the King he was meant to be if he is to save his friends – and England.

This is certainly not your father’s Arthur. Reimagined by Ritchie who has previously messed with Sherlock Holmes – another British icon – the film is effects-heavy and somewhat darker than Mallory’s better-known version of the English hero. There are some fairly impressive creature effects here although nothing particularly groundbreaking. There are a few liberties taken with the plot – there is an obviously Asian martial arts instructor at Camelot centuries before Marco Polo opened up trade relations. That’s a big whoopsie.

The film is mostly grey in hue which gives a kind of dreary atmosphere. It doesn’t help matters that the battle sequences are mostly shot with handheld cameras which while giving a sense of the chaos of battle also give the audience vertigo. I’ll never understand why directors think that’s artistic; it’s just freaking annoying.

Hunnam has been given some high-profile roles over the past few years and I think he shows his potential most here. He’s not really your typical action hero and that’s a good thing but it can make things a little tough on directors who aren’t used to a screen presence like his. Not every director knows what to do with him. Ritchie does,, however, and that bodes well for Hunnam’s future.

Law has had a good career and does exceptionally well here as the villain. He’s played villainous roles before and seems well-suited to them; as Vortigen he’s as vile a villain as can be which makes for good cinema. A great hero requires a great villain, after all. Sadly Law is sabotaged by a script in which the plot meanders and is often disjointed and confusing. Despite the spectacle and despite some well-staged action sequences, I found some of the film boring which is a cardinal sin for action films.

This was meant to be the first episode in a new shared cinematic universe which was slated for at least six films. The film bombed at the box office so it seems unlikely short of a miraculous life on VOD and home video that the series will continue. There were to be installments concentrating on other Arthurian heroes such as Merlin, Guinevere and Lancelot – none of whom appear in this film – but that ambitious plan seems to be moot at this point. The thing about cinematic universes is that in order for people to want to see the other films in the series they’re first going to have to be wowed and excited by the first film and that simply doesn’t happen here. There are some good cinematic ideas and Law is a terrific villain but there just isn’t enough to make anyone eagerly anticipate the next film in the series.

REASONS TO GO: Hunnam acquits himself with more confidence here. Law makes for a hiss-worthy villain.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is extremely disjointed. The film suffers from an excess of shaky-cam in the battle sequences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is bloodshed and violence, some sexually suggestive material and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hunnam was introduced to the Arthurian legend by the John Boorman film Excalibur,  a movie he has watched repeatedly over the years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Arthur (2004)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Wakefield

Apocalypto


These fellas want to talk to the critics about the negative reviews.

These fellas want to talk to the critics about the negative reviews.

(2006) Adventure (Touchstone) Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Amilcar Ramirez, Israel Contreras, Israel Rios, Isabel Diaz, Espiridion Acosta Cache, Mayra Serbulo, Iazua Larios, Lorena Hernandez, Itandehui Gutierrez, Sayuri Gutierrez, Hiram Soto, Jose Suarez, Raoul Trujillo, Gerardo Taracena. Directed by Mel Gibson

Hey, does anybody remember when Mel Gibson was one of the pre-eminent directors in Hollywood? When Braveheart won Oscars and he was the sexiest man alive and the darling of talk shows? I can’t think of a single actor who fell as far as Gibson did through mostly his own doing. Lindsay Lohan comes to mind but even her fall was less spectacular because she never achieved the heights that Gibson did in his heyday.

On the heels of his unexpected hit Passion of the Christ which was the first film to show Hollywood the box office power of the Christian audiences and essentially gave birth to a whole new subgenre – the Christian-funded and directed films which are largely promoted through churches and group sales, Gibson turned his attention to ancient Mesoamerica. This movie, with dialogue entirely in native languages (ancient Mayan although how accurate the language is can only be verified by scholars; I don’t remember any objecting at the time this came out) is supposedly taken from portions of the Popol Vuh, an 18th century collection of ancient Mayan myths and oral histories written down by a Spanish Dominican priest and was acted largely by a cast of locals.

Jaguar Paw (Youngblood) lives in a quiet village on the modern Yucatan peninsula with his pregnant wife and child. He is young, handsome and as the son of the tribal chief already starting to gain the respect of the tribe. While on a hunting expedition he and his friends come upon an unfamiliar tribe who ask politely for passage through their territory; their own homeland was overrun by a vicious tribe of Mayans and they are refugees trying to find a new place to settle down.

Jaguar Paw is disquieted by this and his misgivings turn out to be merited; the same vicious tribe attacks his own tribe. Jaguar Paw, already a bit paranoid, manages to secret his wife and child in a deep pit where they can’t be seen by the invaders. The rest of the tribe are raped, gutted or captured to be taken to the Mayan city to be sacrificed. Jaguar Paw knows that he has to somehow get away and make his way back to the now-deserted village or else his wife and child will surely starve to death.

Gibson is no stranger to violence and cruelty in his movies. Even his more mainstream films can show some fairly extreme brutality and this film may be the most violent in his filmography. There are hearts ripped out of chests, jaguars ripping faces off, arrows protruding into basically anywhere on the body an arrow can protrude from, people eviscerated with dull blades…the list goes on. Some critics took issue with this at the time, pointing out that the Mayan culture was also responsible for advances in mathematics and astronomy. The American South also had some of the finest writers and musicians of the 19th century but oddly enough nobody bitched about 12 Years a Slave failing to portray that part of Southern culture nor did it need to. It always blows my mind when critics miss the point so badly. I certainly disagree with the critics who said that the final images gave them a sense of relief. From my take, it was more a sense of foreboding.

Then again, Gibson was already under fire about his drunken anti-Semitic remarks for the first time, an incident that occurred while the film was in production which undoubtedly soured a number of critics on the film. Not that I agree with Gibson’s point of view in that regard, but part of what we’re supposed to do as critics is separate the work from the worker, the art from the artist. My opinions of Mel Gibson the human being shouldn’t inform my opinions of the films he directs. Braveheart is still a terrific movie. The Lethal Weapon series is still entertaining.

This is a gorgeous looking film (if you overlook all the blood and gore) and Rudy Youngblood in the heroic lead is astonishing. I thought that he had all the screen charisma needed to become a huge star but sadly that didn’t happen, or at least not yet and not here. Looking at his performance now, he captures the feeling of a smart hunter, one who operates more on instinct than intellect and one who knows the jungle and its dangers intimately. He is out of place in the city of the Mayans and the escape sequence is nothing short of thrilling.

As someone who loves history I have to applaud Gibson’s willingness to tackle an era and a place not often explored in the movies. I wish that other films since then went back to the ancient Mayan civilization and looked at it from different perspectives but to date that hasn’t really happened much. Hopefully some filmmaker with little regard for Hollywood’s restraints will go that road someday.

I have mentioned the violence and the gore several times and I will admit that as time goes by in the film you get kind of numb to it and those who are sensitive (if they last that long) may find the blood and guts wearying after awhile. However, I have to also point out that these things are part of the story and necessary to the point Gibson is trying to make. It isn’t necessarily a pleasant one and the brutality certainly gets your attention.

I think that this is a brilliant, underrated film. If you can get past Gibson’s sins as a person and simply look at the movie as if it were directed by someone else, you may find yourself appreciating the artistry and the independence from the Hollywood mainstream. This isn’t like any movie the major studios have produced before or since and likely ever again. This is one of those movies that may take a little bit of getting used to but it is worth the investment.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully photographed. Exhilarating action scenes. A look at a time and place rarely seen in American cinemas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The violence and sadism wears on you.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some very graphic violence as well as some pretty disturbing images; not for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The digital special effects crew playfully added a single frame of Waldo from Where’s Waldo? lying on the pile of dead bodies.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $120.7M on a $40M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Road to El Dorado

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Inside Llewyn Davis

Blood Creek (Town Creek)


Michael Fassbender just loves his new skin treatment.

Michael Fassbender just loves his new skin treatment.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Henry Cavill, Dominic Purcell, Michael Fassbender, Emma Booth, Rainer Winkelvoss, Laszlo Matray, Joy McBrinn, Shea Whigham, Tony Barger, Douglas Roger, Michael Ntumba, Razvan Oprea, Ana Popescu, Florin Piersic Jr., Gerald McSorley, Vlad Voda, Albert Gherasim, Wentworth Miller, Lynn Collins.  Directed by Joel Schumacher

Some horror movies one must admire for their ambition but criticize for their execution. Some are just the opposite. Most fall in between.

In West Virginia circa 1936 a family of German émigrés working on a farm receive a letter asking them to host a German occultist doing research on a Viking runestone that they found in their barn. As they are barely making ends meet in the Depression-era rural South, the $150 a month they would receive for hosting the professor would be a Godsend.

At first Dr, Richard Wirth (Fassbender) seems like a harmless academic but soon it becomes clear that Dr. Wirth has a far more sinister motive in mind. The family is forced to set a spell trapping Wirth in their barn and the family is also caught up in the spell, not becoming immortal as Wirth did but certainly not aging normally.

Cut to modern times. Farmer Evan Marshall (Cavill) receives a visit one night from his brother Victor (Purcell). This wouldn’t ordinarily arouse comment except that Victor has been missing for months and when he shows up he is hideously scarred and looks like a cross between one of the Deliverance hillbillies and Frankenstein’s monster. He ropes Evan into taking him back to the farm where he had been held captive and getting his revenge on the family that kept him there.

You can guess which farm and which family he’s talking about. What you couldn’t guess – or maybe you could if you’ve seen a lot of horror movies – is that Wirth has mutated into a kind of Nazi vampire zombie master with terrifying powers. Although the comely farmer’s daughter Liese (Booth) tries to persuade Evan that they’re actually the good guys keeping the monster at Bay for well over three quarters of a century, Victor is having none of it with predictable consequences.

Lionsgate had at one time in the studio’s history released a glut of horror movies onto the market and in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st century began to be a little pickier about what they put their distribution behind. Therefore nifty little movies like this and Midnight Meat Train got microscopic releases, in Blood Creek‘s case a mere 25 theaters nationwide, mostly of the dollar variety.

I think this deserved better. Certainly it’s flawed but there are some pretty nifty elements that I’d certainly recommend. For one thing Fassbender, on the eve of his breakthrough as an actor, makes a thoroughly compelling and hissable villain. Cavill and Purcell both did competent jobs as the heroic leads and while Booth wasn’t given a whole lot to do is at least easy to look at.

There is an awful lot of hand-held camera work in the movie to its own detriment. At times it’s really difficult to make out what’s going on and some important plot elements become confusing and for those of us who are sensitive to shaky cam, the movie can be painful at times. While the movie builds up to its conclusion well, the actual ending is a bit of a letdown.

But then again as much as I would have liked more spectacle, you (and I as well) have to realize that this is a pretty low-budget affair – how tight a budget do you have to have when West Virginia is too expensive a location to shoot in? For the record, Romania stands in for West Virginia which makes perfect sense and quite frankly, it looks a lot of the West Virginia I’ve seen on the Internet.

Anyway, as low budget horror movies go this isn’t half bad. There are some genuine scares, plenty of gore and some nifty ideas. There are also some lapses in logic which is often a bugaboo in horror movies. If you like a good scare and want to try something out you haven’t seen before, you could certainly do worse than this. Not a hidden gem so much as a surprisingly good but flawed grindhouse flick.

WHY RENT THIS: Really nice concept. Fassbender rocks the villain. Smartly paced.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overuse of hand-held “shaky” cams. Ending lacked punch.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and gore as well as some pretty crude language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesse Metcalf was originally set to star but had to drop out of the production for undisclosed reasons. Cavill was brought in to take the lead role.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dead Snow

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl


Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate's life for me!

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate’s life for me!

(2003) Adventure (Disney) Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush, Keira Knightley, Jack Davenport, Jonathan Pryce, Kevin McNally, Mackenzie Crook, Damian O’Hare, Lee Arenberg, Zoe Saldana, Angus Barnett, Giles New, Vanessa Branch Directed by Gore Verbinski

I didn’t do handsprings when Disney said it was making this movie based on its popular ride, which happens to be one of my personal favorites. After all Country Bears left a stench so thick in theaters the year previous that some exhibitors were forced to fumigate.

However, someone at Mouse House got the brilliant idea to turn over the movie to überproducer Jerry Bruckheimer, who in turn had the brilliant idea to hand the directing reins to Gore Verbinski, who directed The Ring and Mouse Hunt but more importantly, was responsible for the invention of the Budweiser Frogs. Finally, Verbinski had the even more brilliant idea of casting Johnny Depp as one of the nefarious pirates. The result is one of the best adventure movies of recent years.

Will Turner (Bloom), an apprentice blacksmith and sword maker in the Caribbean colony of Port Royal, is in love with Elizabeth, the governor’s daughter (Knightley). Her somewhat bumbling father (Pryce) has made a far better match for her, betrothing her to a dashing naval commander (Davenport). Will takes solace in capturing a cunning pirate named Jack Sparrow (Depp), late of the infamous Black Pearl, who is scheming to retake the ship and crew — who left him marooned on an uninhabited isle.

Unlike Gilligan, Sparrow escapes and makes his way to Port Royal, only to be thrown in the hoosegow and sentenced to be hanged. His sentence is interrupted by the Black Pearl itself, with its new commander, the bloodthirsty Barbossa (Rush), which storms Port Royal, wreaking great destruction and mayhem. The plucky Elizabeth is taken, no doubt to be ransomed back to her wealthy father. The British navy makes a cursory search for her, but knows a ransom will have to be paid.

Turner takes matters into his own hands, breaking Sparrow out of jail and enlisting his help save his ladylove. Sparrow is to get his old ship back in the process. Sparrow agrees, and the two sail off headed for the lair of the Black Pearl. To this point, it’s pretty much a routine pirate movie.

Now is where the movie really gets interesting. It turns out that Barbossa and his crew have no intention of ransoming the girl back. They are under a terrible curse, one laid on them by angry Aztec gods for having stolen sacred gold. The crew have become the living dead, whose condition is revealed by moonlight. They are invulnerable and immortal, but unable to partake in the pleasures of the flesh that their wealth would buy them. Desperate to become human again, they need to reassemble the entire Aztec treasure and sacrifice an innocent human to placate the gods.

Elizabeth has the last ingot, and she makes a nifty innocent sacrifice. Turner takes great exception to that plan.

This is the kind of movie for which summers were made. Beautifully filmed, wonderfully acted and a nifty storyline to boot, with plenty of eye candy to satiate even the most jaded moviegoer.

Depp, in particular, is absolutely out of this world. He seems to be half drunk all the time, and all drunk half the time, but his charade of inebriation hides a keen mind and a terrifying tactician. With an airy wave of his hand, Depp tosses off bon mots like Dean Martin, but when the scene calls for swordplay, he is unusually graceful and adept.

Of course, Bloom can handle a sword himself, as he has shown in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He makes a compelling romantic lead, but is simply blown out of the water by Depp. Knightley is lustrous, yet retains enough spunk to make her character interesting. In fact, all of the major and minor characters here are interesting; they seem to fall in the Disney family ethos, but have edges rough enough to make them appealing to a more mature crowd.

Rush is absolutely delicious as a film villain, as he was in Mystery Men. He’s completely terrific here. Verbinski has a wonderful sense of scope, and the look is as epic as any pirate movie from Hollywood’s heyday. He throws in wonderful visuals of cursed pirates that owe only their concepts to the Disney ride, enough so that one can recognize them in the movie, but definitely much farther developed than the more primitive animatronics of the theme park attraction.

Pirate movies haven’t been much in vogue of late, but this one will change all that. This is much fun for the entire family, and a movie you are sure to want to own so you can enjoy the ride over and over again. Michael Jackson must have eaten his own liver back then – he famously constructed a copy of the ride that inspired the movie on his Neverland ranch for quite the pretty penny. He could have waited and bought the DVD instead.

WHY RENT THIS: Depp creates an iconic character. Great story and an awesome curse. Wonderful effects and just enough comic relief to keep the movie balanced without degenerating into parody.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: An unreasonable fear of pirates…

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a bit of cartoon-ish violence and a few disturbing images that the very small might be frightened by. However for most kids this is pure Disney fun, particularly your overactive little boys.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The ship used to play the HMS Interceptor is a real, working sailing vessel. It is the Lady Washington and serves as the tall ship ambassador for the State of Washington. It was also the same ship used in the holodeck sequence of Star Trek: Generations in the opening sequence where Picard performs the wedding ceremony for Troi and Riker.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD-ROM feature (remember them) on the original DVD release includes the ability to “pirate” up a personal photo (you can do that now with an app on the average smart phone). There are also production diaries, a blooper reel and a featurette on the Disneyland ride. The featurette on the sequence in which the moonlight first reveals the true aspect of the pirates is superior to others in the same ilk.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $654.3M on a $140M production budget. The movie was an international blockbuster and started up a multi-billion dollar franchise for Disney which is rumored to be actively looking to get a fifth film in the series going as of this writing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain Blood

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Beautiful Creatures

Drive Angry


Drive Angry

Nicolas Cage can remember when it was his career that was on fire.

(2011) Supernatural Action (Summit) Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Billy Burke, David Morse, Todd Farmer, Christa Campbell, Charlotte Ross, Tom Atkins, Katy Mixon, Jack McGee. Directed by Patrick Lussier

It is said that a man will walk through the fires of Hell for his daughter. For some that’s more literally true than for others.

John Milton (Cage) has been away for a very long time. You might think he’s been in prison and he has, after a fashion; y’see, Milton’s been dead for several years – in the biggest, nastiest, prison of them all, Hell.

But he’s out now, walking the Earth from a place where you don’t exactly get paroled for good behavior. He’s a man on a mission; as it turns out, his daughter has been murdered by a charismatic cult leader going by the name of Jonah King (Burke) and not merely murdered, but butchered. To make things worse, her infant daughter (Milton’s granddaughter) has been kidnapped by King, earmarked for human sacrifice that will bring about a new world order – Hell on Earth.

Chasing him is the Accountant (Fichtner), an urbane demon who never gets ruffled but is someone you definitely do NOT want to mess with, as well as the police, as personified by the brutal Cap (Atkins). Assisting him is Piper (Heard), a waitress at a diner who Milton saves from being beaten up by her boyfriend (Farmer, who co-wrote the movie incidentally), and Webster (Morse), a former compadre of Milton’s.

Piper and Milton drive through the south, chasing the cult and trying to retrieve the baby before the full moon. Hell is walking the Earth and things are going to get strange before all is said and done.

Director Lussier has been impressive in some of the opportunities he’s had; this is very much a tribute to a variety of different grindhouse genres. Quentin Tarantino would have a field day with this kind of thing; in many ways, his Deathproof has the same pedigree as this does, which owes a little more to Race with the Devil in many ways with its satanic cult overtones.

Nicolas Cage has had a really bad run in terms of box office. The one-time Oscar winner and A-lister has taken on enough B movie projects to become in danger of becoming the next Steven Seagal. Milton is not really given much of a personality and Cage doesn’t really supply him one. He talks in a laconic monotone and doesn’t show very much anger or desperation. Maybe it’s because he’s dead, but he doesn’t seem to have much passion about…well, much of anything. The title of the film may be Drive Angry but Drive Irritated might have been more suitable to the tone as Cage projected it.

The movie is carried to a very large extent by Amber Heard. She kicks ass, but not in an unrealistic way; she gets beaten up early on but she takes no crap from anybody. The fact that she looks awesome in her Daisy Dukes (yeah, there are all sorts of references like that here) doesn’t hurt. She isn’t so much a damsel in distress, even though there’s a little bit of that here.

Fichtner, who’s created a nice niche for himself as a bureaucratic corporate sort, takes that role and plays it to the “nth” degree here, only with a certain amount of a sly wink. He has a good time with the role, giving it the right amount of attitude to make it memorable. I found myself looking forward to Fichtner’s screen time more than Cage’s.

Burke, best known for his work in the Twilight series, channels both Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin as the cult leader. It’s not amazing work, but solid enough; fortunately Cage doesn’t provide enough fireworks to make their showdown more meaningful.

However, there is plenty of bang for your buck here. Plenty of things get blown up, lots of jiggling boobs (including a great scene when Cage is having sex with a barmaid (Ross) when his hotel room is attacked by a horde of farm tool-wielding cultists, Cage starts shooting at his attackers, all the while remaining inside his partner even when one hits him with a taser, giving the lady a good shaking) and enough bullets flying to make an NRA highlight reel.

This movie is essentially mindless fun. If you try to think about what the plot means too much, your head might just spontaneously combust. However, it’s fine grindhouse entertainment that stands proudly alongside the best of that genre from the 70s and 80s.

REASONS TO GO: Mindless entertainment, lots of things blow up and lots of sex and violence.

REASONS TO STAY: Little plot, zero plausibility and Nicolas Cage is strangely flat.

FAMILY VALUES: Hmmm, where to begin? There’s violence, sex, nudity, rough language and disturbing images. There’s also baby sacrificing going on but that’s a whole other ball of wax.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the film, Milton drives a 1964 Buick Riviera, 1969 Dodge Charger and a 1971 Chevy Chevelle.

HOME OR THEATER: I know I’m in the minority here but I think this is one that should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days