The Discovery


Robert Redford’s let his hair go.

(2017) Sci-Fi Drama (Netflix) Robert Redford, Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Riley Keough, Jesse Plemmons, Mary Steenburgen, Ron Canada, Brian McCarthy, Connor Ratliff, MJ Karmi, Kimleigh Smith, Willie Carpenter, Wendy Makkena, Adam Morrison Khaykin, Paul Bellefeuille, Richard O’Rourke, Rosemary Howard, Lindsay Schnebly, Sigrid Lium, Ally Looney. Directed by Charlie McDowell

 

What lies beyond death has been a central mystery in human existence. Religions have been formed around what happens to our consciousness after our bodies die. It is something that both fascinates and terrifies us. Is there an afterlife? Or do we just stop existing, our consciousness switched off like a light bulb that’s burned out?

Dr. Thomas Harbor (Redford) has discovered the answer to that question – there is an afterlife. He’s proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Today, he’s granting his first interview since the discovery that has changed mankind profoundly. The interviewer (Steenburgen) has a difficult task on her hands; what do you ask someone who has essentially thrown the entire outlook on existence into disarray? Well, as it turns out, not much.

After the shocking turn of events that took place during that interview, Dr. Harbor has retreated to a remote island in New England where he is continuing his research, as well as taking in a sort of cult of people who have attempted suicide and loved ones of those who have successfully killed themselves. You see, in the wake of the discovery, the suicide rate has jumped dramatically; millions of people have taken their own lives and one would imagine Dr. Harbor feels some responsibility in this.

In the meantime, two people ride a deserted ferry headed for the island. One is Will (Segel), the neurologist son of Dr. Harbor who has been estranged from his father. The other is a platinum blonde named Isla (Mara). The two exchange acerbic japes and Isla seems to delight in taking Will down a peg or three. They get off the ferry, expecting never to see each other again. Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen.

It turns out that Dr. Harbor has invented a machine that will allow us to go to the other side and then return – with video, no less. But what is the nature of the afterlife? Is it reincarnation, or a more Judeo-Christian version of heaven? Or is it something totally different? Whatever it is, the machine may hold the key to a lot of questions that are plaguing Will about Isla, whom he has fallen deeply in love with.

The premise is fascinating; what would happen to society if we knew that there was life after the body died. The filmmakers could have focused on how society reacts; would there be mass suicides? Would people be eager to move on to the next life, being dissatisfied with this one? Would society become more kindly if people realized their actions in this life affected their standing in the next? There are all sorts of ways this movie could have gone.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to look at a specific family – coincidentally that of the person who discovered the irrefutable evidence of life after death – and turn the movie into something of a romantic thriller. I can understand why the filmmakers would want to leave the nature of the afterlife vague but we’re left to explore Will’s daddy issues and Isla’s guilt rather than explore the bigger picture. In short, a great premise is used as a springboard into a fairly pedestrian thriller.

That doesn’t mean those in front of the camera are to blame. Redford remains one of the most magnetic screen personalities in the history of film. Even at his age, he owns the screen whenever he’s on it. This is a little different than the roles he’s played; Dr. Harbor is a bit vain, brilliant and arrogant but also possessed somewhat of tunnel vision regarding his discovery. Although he doesn’t admit to responsibility for the suicides, he certainly feels somewhat responsible for them.

Mara, an actress who is always interesting, shines in a role that plays to her strengths. The acid-tongued Isla is maybe the most fascinating character in the movie and one of the better-developed. The sad thing is that her chemistry with Segel, who has shown himself to be adept with dramatic roles, is virtually zero. Segel’s Will is so white bread and homogenous that it might lead you to want to munch on a ghost pepper just to get some taste.

I know that the filmmakers are going for a thinking person’s genre film and there have been a lot of good ones lately. Sadly, this doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to, sabotaging itself by taking safe roads when they would have benefited from riskier choices. The movie could have been an interesting jumping off point for discussion on the afterlife and philosophy, but loses momentum after the first five minutes which, to be fair, are about the best first five minutes of a movie I’ve seen in a long time.

REASONS TO GO: Redford remains a magnetic screen presence even now. Isla’s acerbic demeanor is perfect for Mara.
REASONS TO STAY: A very interesting concept is squandered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharp-eyed viewers might recognize the chateau-style mansion that is used as Dr. Harbor’s compound as the same house that was used for the exteriors of Collinwood, the mansion in the seminal horror soap opera Dark Shadows back in the 60s.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brainstorm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hare Krishna!

The Light Between Oceans


Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

Alicia Vikander may look content but Michael Fassbender sees trouble on the horizon.

(2016) Drama (DreamWorks/Touchstone) Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger, Jane Menelaus, Garry McDonald, Anthony Hayes, Benedict Hardie, Emily Barclay, Bryan Brown, Stephen Ure, Peter McCauley, Leon Ford, Jonathan Wagstaff, Gerald Bryan, Elizabeth Hawthorne. Directed by Derek Cianfrance

 

Bad choices are part of human nature. We all make them but sometimes those choices are so monstrous, so heinous that even though we convince ourselves that we’re doing it for the right reasons, we cannot escape the fact that we’ve done something horribly wrong.

Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) is a veteran of World War I who witnessed many horrors in the trenches. He’s returned home to Australia to find some kind of peace but the press of people – even in the Australia of 1918 – is too much for him. He applies for and receives a position as a lighthouse keeper on a remote island off the coast of Tasmania.

The opening was there because the loneliness of the post had unhinged Sherbourne’s predecessor but the harsh weather, dull routine and meticulous nature of the job appeal to Sherbourne and he isn’t bothered by the isolation. That changes when on a visit to town he meets the daughter of the local schoolmaster, Isabel Graysmark (Vikander). She’s lively, vivacious and is completely smitten by the taciturn, wounded Sherbourne. The two correspond and eventually, marry and she moves to the island with him.

As young couples will, the two try to get pregnant but this proves to be difficult. A series of miscarriages turns a happy marriage into a relationship with a terrible cloud hanging over it. Isabel is beset by depression and Tom doesn’t know what to do to help – until they spot a dinghy floating onto the beach. In it there is a dead man and a living baby.

Tom is anxious to report the incident and get the authorities involved but Isabel is desperate. She needs that baby and she figures she’s as good as anyone to raise it. She convinces Tom to keep the child and bury the body without telling a soul. As far as the mainland knew, Isabel was pregnant (she’d just had another miscarriage when the dinghy floated ashore). Nobody questioned that the baby was hers.

Four years later Lucy (Clery) (as the baby was named) Tom and Isabel are a happy family. They visit Lucy’s grandparents when Tom spies a woman putting flowers on a grave. This turns out to be Hannah Roennfeldt (Weisz), the wife of a German national who had rowed out in a dinghy along with their baby daughter and disappeared. After a search, it was presumed the dinghy sank and both her husband and daughter had drowned. Tom realizes that this woman, whose life has been utterly destroyed, is the true mother of Lucy and guilt begins to eat away at him. This leads him to do something that will bring his happiness to a standstill and change the lives of everyone involved forever.

Cianfrance has proven himself a master of creating moods and displaying emotion-wrought images. He has come up with another film that is emotionally charged and beautiful to look at. He has assembled a plum cast for this and it pays off; Fassbender and Vikander make a terrific couple and the chemistry between them is undeniable (shortly after filming completed the two announced they were a real-life couple as well). They also have some fine support from the mostly Australian cast (and Bryan Brown makes a sadly too-rare appearance as Hannah’s rich father) as well.

The story itself has a great deal of power to it as an examination of how guilt affects us and how good people can make horribly bad decisions but there are times the movie gets a bit too over-the-top sugary sweet. Some actions and decisions defy logic and realism. Granted this takes place in a very different era but even so, it seems that a few well-chosen words would have certainly made more of a difference and spared the Sherbourne family a good deal of agony.

Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz have all flirted with Oscar with both of the women having won statuettes of their own. The acting in the movie is sound. The cinematography is breathtaking. Those two elements alone make this one of the standouts of a very disappointing summer, quality-wise. Don’t expect to see a lot of love for this one come Oscar-time, but Cianfrance is likely headed in that general direction already.

REASONS TO GO: Fassbender and Vikander have plenty of chemistry and both deliver sterling performances. The cinematography is out of this world.
REASONS TO STAY: It does get treacly in places.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of sexuality and plenty of adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Both Fassbender and Vikander have played androids in high-profile films; Fassbender in Prometheus and Vikander in Ex-Machina.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/27/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Keep the Light
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: For the Love of Spock

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death


Phoebe Fox out for a brisk walk in the woods.

Phoebe Fox out for a brisk walk in the woods.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Relativity) Phoebe Fox, Helen McCrory, Oaklee Pendergast, Jeremy Irvine, Pip Pierce, Jude Wright, Amelia Crouch, Adrian Rawlins, Amelia Pidgeon, Casper Allpress, Ned Dennehy, Mary Roscoe, Merryn Pearse, Leanne Best, Eve Pearce, David Norfolk, Chris Cowlin, Julie Vollono, Hayley Joanne Bacon. Directed by Tom Harper

There’s kind of an unwritten law that sequels to horror movies tend to be less scary and of a lower quality than the originals. Hammer Films, the classic British horror factory however has been the exception to that rule for the most part, churning out Dracula and Frankenstein sequels that are just as good if not better than the originals. Would that record hold in the latest incarnation of the studio?

Taking place 40 years after the original Woman in Black with the Second World War in full bloom with the London Blitz in particular at its height. With the constant nightly bombing, the decision was made to evacuate as many children as possible out to the country and a group of school children with their principal  Jean Hogg (McCrory) herding them much like a shepherdess if given an unruly mob of sheep and one of her teachers, Eve Parkins (Fox) to assist.

There is another Nazi raid the night before they are to leave and a direct hit to a nearby house leaves young Edward (Pendergast) an orphan. Rendered mute by the experience, he resorts to making sinister drawings which in turn draw out the cruelty of some children, the sympathy of others with the impatient and imperious Jean leaning towards the suck-it-up school of grief counseling. She is married to a Brigadier General, after all.

Of course with shortages in places  in safe places to stay, this particular group is sent to Eel Marsh House, home of the Woman in Black (Best) who still rages and haunts there after her son was taken away from her forcibly and later drowned. Now, she seems to be enraged at the children in the charge of Ms. Hogg and Ms. Parkins, although Edward seems to be a favored target and Eve’s own maternal instincts are flaring up like the hair on a dog’s back. However, Eve has secrets that have drawn the Woman in Black to her.

I have to say that the first film had much more atmosphere and better scares than this one, which has some good ones but not nearly as many. Whereas the first film was generally dark and gloomy, this one is brighter although just as fog-shrouded with the occasional rainstorm. Odie Henderson of RogerEbert.com suggested that the film would have been better off had it been filmed in black and white and I can’t say I disagree with him. In fact, it would have been a capital idea.

Whereas the first film had Daniel Radcliffe turning in a solid performance, the cast of lesser known Brits (at least in this country) do workman like jobs, although McCrory some might remember from the Harry Potter series (like Radcliffe) has some moments and Jeremy Irvine, who plays a dashing English pilot with secrets of his own, has others. Another thing missing from the first is the village of the suspicious people which has been changed to one single demented resident (Dennehy). Doesn’t quite feel the same.

Maternal guilt is a big theme here, particularly Eve’s and it is an interesting twist of normal horror conventions that the children are a means to an end – that end being punishing Eve. However, rather than further exploring that theme, the filmmakers are content to replay the same flashback over and over again, trying to be cryptic I suppose but only a dimwit would fail to realize that the dreams are about a traumatic experience in Eve’s life and why the Woman in Black is drawn to it. Perhaps showing how the event effected Eve’s life and brought her to her teaching position may have been a better use of the filmmaker’s efforts rather than replaying the same scene over and over again. That’s just lazy filmmaking.

This isn’t a bad film at all, although true horror fans might find it a bit lean on scares and atmosphere. However, the film is reasonably well-made and has enough going for it that I can give it a mild recommendation which for films released this time of the year is like gold.

REASONS TO GO: Some great views of misty marshes. Explores maternal guilt. Some effective scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Not enough of those effective scares. Lacks a truly creepy or scary mood. Performances are merely adequate.
FAMILY VALUES: There are definitely some frightening images, as well as kids in peril. Not a lot of gore or foul language, some of the thematic elements are on the adult side.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first sequel to be produced by Hammer Studios since 1974, although none of the events of the first film is referred to in this one, nor do any cast members return.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 22% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Hell House
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Unbroken

The Woman in Black


The Woman in Black

Daniel Radcliffe discovers that black is the new acccccck!!!!!

(2012) Supernatural Horror (CBS) Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Liz White, Janet McTeer, Alisa Khazanova, Tim McMullan, Roger Allam, David Burke, Shaun Dooley, Mary Stockley, Cathy Sara, David Burke, Victor McGuire, Jessica Raine, Sophie Stuckey. Directed by James Watkins

 

Rage and insanity don’t mix well. Give someone already unbalanced a reason to hate and the consequences can be dire indeed.

Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe) is a man who doesn’t smile very much. His wife (Stuckey) died in childbirth four years earlier and he’d been in a funk ever since. Mr. Bentley (Allam), Arthur’s boss at the law firm that he works at, makes no bones about it; he needs to turn things around immediately and this next assignment will be his last if he doesn’t get it right.

This assignment is to go to a far-off village on England’s coastal marshland to sort through the papers of a recently deceased client. It will mean leaving his four-year-old son with the nanny (Raine) but he must do what he must do – there are already overdue bills he must attend to.

When he reaches the town he is met there with suspicious and downright hostile town folk with the exception of Sam Daily (Hinds) who is the richest man in town and offers Arthur a ride to the town’s only inn. As it is pouring down cats and dogs Arthur is only too happy to accept.

At the end the innkeeper (Dooley) denies he has a reservation and is eager to throw him out into the pouring rain but his wife (Stockley) is kinder, putting him up in the attic…the same attic from where her three children leaped to their deaths not long ago.

Few will take him to Eel Marsh House, the home where his client lived and died….and where a mountain of papers await him. And there are good reasons for it as well. For one, it sits on an island that can only be reached via causeway, a causeway that floods when the tide is in. Second, the house is overgrown, musty and spooky – the nearly perfect haunted house.

And like most perfect haunted houses, it comes with a ghost, a mysterious woman in black. She’s not Casper the Friendly Ghost though; when people see her, children in the village die. This explains their hostility towards him.

But why is she killing innocents? Why would she possibly want the children to die? Arthur has a personal stake in finding the answers; his own son is coming to town in just a few days for a visit and could be the next victim of the Woman in Black.

Watkins creates a really strange vibe here, kind of a cross between Jane Eyre and The Haunting. There’s a gothic element that comes out rather nicely. This is based on a novel by Sue Mills and was made into a British telefilm in 1989.

Radcliffe is making his first post-Potter appearance here and it is a very different role for him. The general complaint is that at 22, he seems a little old to be playing a widower and the father of a 4-year-old, but in the era that is depicted here they married younger. He does very well as a man who has been devastated and not quite recovered. As you might imagine a man in his situation would, Arthur is emotionally tight-lipped and Radcliffe captures that nicely.

Hinds is one of the more underrated character actors out there and he’s in top form here. McTeer, who plays his wife, is an outstanding actress who is up for an Oscar for Albert Nobbs and she has a juicy role as a woman who has been driven around the bend by the death of her child.

The atmosphere here is genuinely spooky which is all-important for a haunted house ghost story. The scares when they come are legitimately nightmare-inducing and may not be for the more sensitive Potter fans in the household who will surely be going out to see this in droves the first weekend.

Some of the story bogged down in places and to be honest, there is no new ground broken here. There are the old hoary horror clichés of the paranoid townspeople and the family graveyard where the spectres hang out but they don’t detract from what is a classic story told in an effective manner. I liked the ending which was a bit different – think Gladiator. I myself am fond of the haunted house movie and can’t get enough of them when they’re good, and The Woman in Black is most assuredly a good one. Well worth your time if you, like me, love a good scare

REASONS TO GO: Very atmospheric. Radcliffe acquits himself well. Some genuinely awesome scares. The ending works well.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit muddled in places story-wise A few horror clichés worked their way in.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, a little bit of violence and a few pretty good shock scares.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Adrian Rawlins, who played Harry Potter’s dad James Potter in the movie series, played the same role Daniel Radcliffe is playing here in the 1989 version of the movie.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Others

RURAL ENGLAND LOVERS: Some beautiful shots of the misty English countryside and the bucolic villages therein.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Ondine

The Fog (2005)


The Fog

Driving Miss Daisy, this ain't!

(2005) Supernatural Horror (Columbia) Tom Welling, Maggie Grace, Selma Blair, DeRay Davis, Rade Serbedzjia, Kenneth Welsh, Adrian Hough, Sara Botsford, Matthew Currie Holmes. Directed by Rupert Wainwright

One of the most underrated of John Carpenter’s movies was his follow-up to Halloween, 1980’s The Fog. Although there were cheesy elements to it (heck, that wasn’t uncommon for any horror film of the era), it still was a genuine creepfest and still gives me the chills whenever I watch it even now, a quarter of a century later.

When they announced the remake of it, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic. I’ve found most of the horror movie remakes of classic ’70s and ’80s scare flicks to be uneven at best – few have really done little more than to update the stories for a more modern audience. I didn’t hold out hope for much better from this.

Antonio Island is celebrating the centennial of their founding, but there is a terrible secret harbored by the remote Northern California seaport and it is born on the fog. Nick Castle (Welling), a charter fishing boat operator, has to put up with a ne’er do well first mate named Spooner (Davis) and a boat that has seen better days. Still, they manage to make ends meet, but while on a charter their anchor dredges something up from the bottom – artifacts of a bygone age that have been at rest for a hundred years.

Back on shore, Nick is surprised to encounter an old flame, Elizabeth Williams (Grace) walking to town from the pier. She had left suddenly five years ago without really resolving things between them, and he had been hurt by it. He was just now beginning to get involved with the pretty single mom DJ Stevie Wayne (Blair) but now he is torn.

In the meantime, Spooner has taken out Nick’s boat to party with a couple of bikini clad girls and Nick’s cousin Sean (Holmes). But a heavy fogbank is headed their way unbeknownst to them, and moving against the wind. Before you can say “bad things are going to happen,” bad things happen.

Spooner survives the mayhem, but is considered primo suspect number one for the murder of the other three. His story is completely whacko about ghost ships and fog banks, so his friend Nick goes out to find out what’s going on. He and Elizabeth discover a startling truth – that the town was founded on blood money stolen from a colony of lepers who were then burned alive on the ship that they thought was going to take them to a new home. That kind of thing can piss a ghost off.

The effects are much more sophisticated than in the original fog, but then again they don’t use nearly as many effects as you would think they might, director Wainwright wisely allowing the natural setting of the fog-shrouded town to create an atmosphere of creepiness that carries the film. The problem is that the characters are a bit faceless. Welling is a good-looking lead, but he doesn’t really carry the film like you think he might. He does better in his role as Clark Kent in “Smallville,” but here he seems a little bit passionless.

Grace and Blair are both lovely to look at, but Grace is given not a lot of character by the script; she exists mainly to move the plot along. Blair has a bit more to chew on as a character, and takes advantage of it. I’ve always wondered why we don’t see more of her in the movies – she was certainly marvelous in Hellboy.

There are a lot of plot holes in the script – for example, they clearly state that they are celebrating the hundred year anniversary of the town’s founding, and they clearly link the founding of the town to the nefarious acts with the lepers, but they also clearly state that those events took place in 1871 and it is even more clear that the movie is set in contemporary times, not in 1971 which would be accurate. Whoops.

Still, despite all that, I liked the movie, I liked the atmosphere that was created, I liked Blair and I really liked the climax of the movie. It’s certainly far from perfect, but it’s a nice evening’s entertainment, particularly if it’s a dark and stormy evening. 

WHY RENT THIS: Atmospheric to the max. Blair is a particularly good performer and easy on the eyes, as is Grace.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Weilling is unaccountably bland. Cheese factor a little high for modern horror fans.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, a little sensuality and enough bad language to be…bad.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debra Hill, the co-writer of the original movie and given a producer’s credit here, died shortly before filming began.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a nice feature on the special effects which show how good-looking effects can be accomplished on a tight budget.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $46.2M on an $18M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Country Strong