New Releases for the Week of January 18, 2019


GLASS

(Blumhouse/Universal) Samuel L Jackson, Bruce Willis, James McAvoy, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Luke Kirby. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Three men have been committed to a mental institution because they think they have super powers. A dedicated shrink thinks she can cure these men of their delusions but when it turns out that they really do have super powers and that one of them is an evil mastermind who wants to see a whole lot of people get killed, the party gets real.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, video featurettes and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, 4DX, DBOX, Dolby, IMAX, RPX, XD
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for violence including some bloody images, thematic elements, and language)

Burning

(Well Go USA) Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun, Soo-kyung Kim. Two former neighbors bump into each other quite accidentally while one is making a delivery. The woman asks the delivery man to watch her cat while she’s on a trip to Africa. When she returns, she introduces him to a man she’s met who turns out to have some interesting hobbies.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG (for thematic elements, some peril and language)

Canal Street

(Smith Global Media) Bryshere Y. Gray, Mykelti Williamson, Mekhi Phifer, Lance Reddick. A father and son on Chicago’s South Side are facing long odds when the teen is accused of murdering a white classmate. The fight will bring the two closer together through their faith in God.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including some bloody images, drug use and teen partying)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

All These Small Moments
Buffalo Boys
Aurora
Dragon Ball Super: Broly
Parkland: Inside Building 12
Shoplifters

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

Cold War
Dragon Ball Super: Broly
The Heiresses
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

The Brawler
Dragon Ball Super: Broly
Ente Ummante Peru
The Last Man
The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Aurora
Dragon Ball Super: Broly

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Cold War
Glass

FILM FESTIVALS TAKING PLACE IN FLORIDA:

Saint Augustine Film Festival, St. Augustine

Split


James McAvoy is having a ball.

James McAvoy is having a ball.

(2016) Thriller (Blumhouse/Universal) James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Izzie Leigh Coffey, Brad William Henke, Sebastian Arcelus, Neal Huff, Ukee Washington, Ann Wood, Robert Michael Kelly, M. Night Shyamalan, Rosemary Howard, Jerome Gallman, Lyne Renee, Kate Jacoby, Peter Patrikios, Kash Goins, Julie Potter. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

 

The human mind is a marvelous thing but also a dangerous thing. When you scratch the veneer, you never know what you’re going to find. Sometimes what you find can be absolutely horrifying.

Three young girls – haughty Claire (Richardson), sycophantic Marcia (Sula) and outsider Casey (Taylor-Joy) – are kidnapped in broad daylight from a birthday party at a mall in suburban Philadelphia. They are rendered unconscious with a kind of spray chloroform and brought to a dungeon by Kevin (McAvoy), a seemingly mild-mannered young man.

Except it’s not just Kevin; there are a lot of different personalities jockeying for position “in the light” (i.e. the dominant personality allowed to show their face to the light) including prim and proper Miss Patricia, scheming manipulative Dennis, foppish Bradley, and 9-year-old child Hedwig. All are completely unique and some are more dangerous than others.

Kevin is under the care of a psychiatrist (Buckley) who specializes in Dissociative Identity Disorder, what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder or good ol’ schizophrenia. Kevin has 23 such personalities rummaging around his head and a 24th getting ready to emerge with the ominous name of The Beast who has special plans for the young girls.

There have been some who have called for a boycott of the movie for it’s portrayal of DID patients which is, to say the least, far from realistic. I find that kind of disingenuous since nobody in their right mind would think of this movie as a scientifically accurate portrayal of a very real psychiatric issue – it certainly isn’t meant to be that any more than The Incredible Hulk is meant to be a realistic presentation of radiation poisoning. It’s a case of agenda-pushing politically correct sorts with sticks lodged firmly and deeply up their anal cavities trying to inflict their world view on the rest of us. Sometimes a movie is only after being a good time; lighten the hell up already.

Shyamalan who started out as a golden boy after his first couple of movies fell out of favor with both critics and fans alike and after a couple of really awful movies (I’m talking about you, After Earth and The Last Airbender) rebounded in 2015 with The Visit which was the highest-grossing horror film of that year. Judging on its performance so far, Split has a good shot at equaling that accomplishment.

One of Shyamalan’s strengths has always been his ability to tell a story well. It is when he drifts away from that strength and tries to be either too complicated or too cute that he gets into trouble. His last two movies have been more economical not only in terms of budget but also in terms of story; there is little or no fat on the bones of either film and as a result the movies feel more taut and involving.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have an actor deliver an exceptional performance and McAvoy does as Kevin. It’s hard to imagine but Joaquin Phoenix was originally cast in the role but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts; I don’t think the movie lost a thing for the change. In fact, I think Phoenix might have been less effective in the role, as good an actor as he is. McAvoy doesn’t oversell the various personalities and uses a lot of subtle facial expressions to convey his characters. There is a little CGI help, particularly near the end of the movie (which is not coincidentally the weakest part of the movie) but otherwise it’s all McAvoy and hopefully it will help him garner some meatier roles in the future.

The supporting performances are adequate but frankly the three captives have little depth to them (which is more a function of the writing than the performances) although Taylor-Joy continues to develop as one of the most exciting up-and-coming actresses in Hollywood right now. Buckley hams it up a little bit as the scientist too blinded by her research to see the real danger that is developing right in front of her very eyes. Like McAvoy, she seems to be having a grand old time making the film and it shows. In fact, I get the sense that Shyamalan himself seemed more confident and while he did express that this was one of his most challenging shoots ever, there is an element of fun throughout with some appropriately placed humor.

Some are calling this his comeback film but I am still a bit on the fence about that. Certainly he is on the right path but this doesn’t compare with his best two films, both made at the beginning of his career. While the post-credits scene absolutely floored me and left me leaving the theater with a huge grin on my face (and sets up a sequel that is sure to happen), the movie drags a bit particularly in the middle and the final sequence when The Beast makes his appearance is a bit of a letdown in many ways.

Still this is in the upper echelon of Shyamalan’s filmography and that’s a good thing. While he has been disappointing of late, his last two movies are showing a return to form and leaves me hopeful that we will soon be seeing movies on the level of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Now that would be truly a Hollywood miracle.

REASONS TO GO: The tone is nicely taut and suspenseful. McAvoy gives a very strong performance. The twist in the post-credits scene is absolutely wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The girls are in general pretty much without personality. The film drags a bit in the middle. The Beast is a little bit of a letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, thematic content that may be squirm-inducing for some, a bit of foul language and some behavior that is suggestive of pedophilia.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fifth film directed by Shyamalan to gross more than $100 million at the box office.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Psycho
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Book of Love

The Happening (2008)


Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and Ashlyn Sanchez find out that it's Taco Tuesday in the craft services truck.

Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and Ashlyn Sanchez find out that it’s Taco Tuesday in the craft services truck.

(2008) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, Spencer Breslin, Robert Bailey Jr., Alan Ruck, Frank Collison, Jeremy Strong, Victoria Clark, M. Night Shyamalan, Alison Folland, Kristen Connolly, Cornell Womack, Curtis McClarin, Robert Lenzi, Derege Harding, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

 

It’s just an ordinary day in Central Park. People are jogging, people are walking their dogs. Two friends are sitting on a bench and reading a book, talking to each other.. A cold wind blows. The chatter and noise of the park dies down to a whisper. It’s as if the whole world is holding its breath, waiting for something terrible to happen. Then, something terrible does.

In Philadelphia, the horrified teachers at Philadelphia High, including popular science teacher Elliott Moore (Wahlberg) and his friend and peer Julian (Leguizamo) are informed that there has been a new terrorist attack on New York. This time, it was an airborne gas that was fatal within seconds. To be on the safe side, the principal (Ruck) orders the kids sent home. Julian is nervous; big cities are targets and he thinks it’ll be safer to join his mother on her farm in Harrisburg. He invites Elliott and his wife Alma (Deschanel) to come with them. Disquieted, Elliott accepts.

However, all is not perfectly well between Elliott and Alma. A distance has grown between them, built wider by all the things said and unsaid. Alma has been getting calls from Joey (Shyamalan), a co-worker who she went out for a meal with once but who almost certainly wants to take things farther. Alma is confused and adrift, not sure what she wants. However, she knows one thing; she doesn’t want to stay in Philadelphia with terrorists shooting lethal gasses in major metropolitan centers.

Elliott and Alma meet Julian and his daughter Jess (Sanchez) in the train station. Julian’s wife will be late arriving and will take the next train. Julian can’t help but notice the tension between Alma and Elliott and stumbles into it somewhat. Still, the train leaves the station and for the moment, there are larger concerns. Then, as the train travels through the Pennsylvania countryside, those passengers with cell phones begin to get horrifying news. There have been more attacks, in Boston and in Philadelphia. Alarmed, Julian calls his wife, and is relieved to hear she’s caught a bus to Princeton, NJ and will try to meet them in Harrisburg as soon as she can arrange transportation.

Not too long afterwards, the train chugs to a halt and all the passengers are told to disembark. Why is the train stopping, Elliott asks a conductor. We’ve lost contact he replies. With who, says Elliott. Everyone says the conductor in a low voice. As the passengers gather in a small town diner, the true horror of the situation begins to unfold. Not only are big cities being targeted but small towns are starting to see outbreaks of the contagion as well. So many, in fact, that it looks increasingly that this is less the work of terrorists but some other force at work, something even more unsettling. Now, with the countryside becoming increasingly lethal, Elliott must find a way to get his group to safety before the toxins do their deadly work on them.

Wahlberg by this point in his career had settled into a niche, playing much the same character in movie after movie. However, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing since I happened to like the character he played. Heck, a lot of movie stars – Cary Grant, John Wayne, Gregory Peck – all could get busted for the same crime when it comes right down to it. Wahlberg is more than adequate as the lead. Deschanel, who was at the time becoming one of my favorite actresses which she remains to this day, is given a somewhat fragile character to work with. At times, she does a real good job with it, but at others I think some of the nuances are just missed a bit. It is Buckley, as a somewhat curmudgeonly hermit of teetering mental stability, who steals the show in the few scenes that she has. This is not the Betty Buckley of Cats or even less so, Eight is Enough in any way shape or form.

Some of the best scares in the movie come as a result of the sound crew. As bodies fall from a high rise and hit the ground, the sickening thuds make the scene all the more eerie. Composer James Newton Howard uses his music to ratchet up the tension nicely. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto beautifully photographs the Pennsylvania countryside, even as something sinister is at work.

The middle third drags a bit and the last third completely loses cohesion, including an ending which is simply facepalm-worthy that has such a flat tone that the viewer leaves feeling curiously unfulfilled, like he needs to watch another movie to get their movie fix. The nature of the Happening is revealed far too early on. Some of the characters do incomprehensible things, which jar the viewer out of the world the filmmakers have created.

The first third of this movie is as excellent as anything Shyamalan has done, which may not be saying much for some, given how at this point in the game his reputation was rapidly eroding. At the time, I found that given the state of world events, the concept of The Happening was extremely timely. There are some genuine scares here, and some scenes that are genuinely disturbing. Think of this as An Inconvenient Truth done in Shyamalan style. Better still best not think of Shyamalan at all. This is very much a formulaic movie for Shyamalan, with lead characters struggling with personal issues while confronting a menace very much bigger than they are able to imagine. I had to this point been a fan of his work, but like many others left the theater disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: The tech crew helps create some impressive scares. The first third of the movie is some of Shyamalan’s best work ever.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle third loses momentum and drags along. The final third is an absolute train wreck.
FAMILY MATTERS: There are some very graphic scenes of violence, and most youngsters are going to be on a one-way trip to Nightmare City after seeing this.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first R-rated film by Shyamalan and was shot completely in sequence.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: An interview with Betty Buckley, a featurette on the porch sequence and a gag reel highlight the DVD edition. The Blu-Ray edition allows you to view the film in BonusView mode which flashes trivia factoids onscreen and incorporates the deleted footage into the finished film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $163.4M on a $48M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outbreak
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Shallows

The Visit


There's something a little bit off about Nana.

There’s something a little bit off about Nana.

(2015) Suspense (Universal) Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deana Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Samuel Stricklen, Patch Darragh, Jorge Cordova, Steve Annan, Benjamin Kanes, Ocean James, Seamus Moroney, Brian Gildea, Richard Barlow, Dave Jia, Gabrielle Pentalow, Michelle Rose Domb, Shelby Lackman, Erica Lynne Arden. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

For any kid, a visit to the grandparents is something magical. Grandparents, after all, tend to be the ones who spoil the kids, treat them like royalty, allow them to do things their parents would never let them do (and ironically, that the grandparents never let their parents do when they were kids). What kid wouldn’t want to spend a week with their grandparents?

Becca (DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Oxenbould) are about to head to rural Pennsylvania to visit their Nana (Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (McRobbie). The older couple is estranged from their mother (Hahn) who was dating someone they didn’t approve of; they had a big fight and mom did something so awful that she can’t bring herself to tell her daughter what it was. Becca hopes that she can make a documentary  (because, every kid in a horror film wants to be an auteur) about the visit so she can capture her mom’s parents forgiving their child on tape and healing the rift between them.

At first, it seems an ideal visit; it’s winter and snow covers the farm that they live on, but Nana is making all sorts of cookies and baked goods it seems hourly and Pop-Pop is full of bonhomie and charm. The kids are a little taken aback by a few rules – not to leave their room after 9:30pm or to ever go into the basement because of a mold problem but these seem harmless enough.

Then the two older people start acting…a little off. Pop-Pop seems disturbingly paranoid and Nana seems to absolutely go bonkers after dark. Becca and Tyler capture it all on tape. Mom, who has gone on a cruise with her boyfriend (Cordoba) is skeptical. It soon becomes apparent to the kids that there is something very wrong going on in Pennsylvania and that there may be no going home for them – ever.

Director M. Night Shyamalan has had a very public career, becoming a wunderkind right out of the box with a pair of really well-made movies. The next two weren’t quite as good and since then he’s been on a terrible streak of movies that are, to be generous, mediocre at best and downright awful at worst. The good news is that this is his best effort in nearly a decade. The bad news is that isn’t saying very much.

Shyamalan uses the found footage conceit which has gotten pretty old and stale at this point. To his credit, he does as good a job as anyone has lately, but he also violates a lot of the tropes of the sub-genre, adding in graphics and dissolves which kind of spoil the illusion of watching raw footage from essentially home movies. I have to say that I think it was a tactical error to do this in found footage format; the movie might have been stronger had he simply told the story using conventional means.

Shyamalan has had a history of finding talented juvenile actors and extracting terrific performances from them; DeJonge is the latest in that string. Yes, she can be too chipper and too annoying, but then again when you consider the age of her character that’s not out of step with how young teen and preteen girls behave. She’s just so, Oh my God!

Oxenbould isn’t half bad either, although his character who is gregarious, outgoing and a little bit too smug for his own good can be grating from time to time, particularly when he starts to rap. Misogyny isn’t cute even when it’s coming out of the mouth of a 12-year-old and some of the lyrics are borderline in that regard. It may be authentic, but ending each rap with a reference to a fairly unflattering portrayal of women is something I could have done without.

Tyler is something of comic relief here and he does it pretty well. I liked the business of him deciding to clean up his language by using female pop singers names in place of expletives, like shouting “Sara McLaughlin!” when he stubs a toe, or “Shakira!” instead of a word for excrement. It’s a cute idea and I have to admit I chuckled at it but again, seems to reflect a fairly low opinion of women.

Shyamalan excels at making the audience feel a little off-balance and while the twist ending here (you know there had to be one) isn’t on par with some of his others, it is at least a decent one. There are a few plot holes – early on Shyamalan makes it clear that there’s no cell phone service at the farmhouse and yet the kids are able to get on a laptop and use Skype. Where’s the Wi-Fi coming from? Perhaps the aliens from Signs are providing it.

Nonetheless, this is a pretty taut suspense movie that has elements of horror in it and makes for solid entertainment. Fans of Shyamalan will welcome this return to form while those who take great delight in trolling the man may be disappointed that he didn’t serve up another helping of turkey. Think of this as kind of a pre-Halloween thriller and don’t pay too much attention to the man behind the curtain; hopefully this will signal that Shyamalan is back on track and ready to fulfill the promise that he exhibited nearly 20 years ago.

REASONS TO GO: Decently tense.
REASONS TO STAY: Quasi-found footage getting old hat.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing thematic material and child peril, some nudity, plenty of violence and terror and brief foul language, not to mention gratuitous rapping.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the movie was Sundowning.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Demon Seed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mission to Lars

New Releases for the Week of September 11, 2015


The VisitTHE VISIT

(Universal) Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Patch Darragh. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

A brother and sister go to rural Pennsylvania to visit their grandparents. At first things are pretty much as you might expect; and older couple happy to see their grandkids but the longer they stay, the stranger the behavior of the elderly people begins to seem. Soon they realize that something sinister is going on and their chances of getting home alive are worsening but they can’t get their mom to believe them.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard  (Opens Thursday)
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity and for brief language)

90 Minutes in Heaven

(Goldwyn) Kate Bosworth, Hayden Christensen, Dwight Yoakam, Rhoda Griffis. A man in a car accident is declared dead and left under a tarp before being transported to a hospital. He experiences heaven until a pastor’s prayers bring him back to the living. Now in excruciating pain, he fights to regain some kind of normalcy while pining for what waited for him in heaven. Eventually he wrote a book on his experiences which became a New York Times bestseller.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Faith-Based Drama
Now Playing: Amstar Lake Mary, AMC Altamonte Mall, AMC Downtown Disney, AMC West Oaks, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Epic Theaters of Clermont, Regal Oviedo Marketplace, Regal The Loop, Regal Waterford Lakes, Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13  (for brief violence)

The Challenger

(Fox Searchlight) Michael Clarke Duncan, S. Epatha Merkerson, Kent Moran, Justin Hartley. An ex-boxer trying to make it as an auto mechanic is simply not making ends meet. When he and his adopted mother are evicted, he is forced back into the one thing that he’s been struggling against – boxing. With the help of a legendary trainer, he will do whatever it takes to keep he and his adopted mom off of the streets. This is the late Michael Clarke Duncan’s last film.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Sports Drama
Now Playing: Regal Waterford Lakes
Rating: PG-13 (for some sports violence)

Cop Car

(Focus World) Kevin Bacon, Camryn Manheim, Shea Whigham, Kyra Sedgwick. Two young boys discover what seems to be an abandoned police vehicle in a secluded glade and decide to take it for a joy ride. This incurs the wrath of a brutal county sheriff and leads to disastrous consequences.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language, violence and brief drug use)

Learning to Drive

(Broad Green) Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Grace Gummer, Jake Weber. A high-powered and self-obsessed New York book editor undergoing a divorce decides to become more self-sufficient. She signs up to take driving lessons so that she can visit her daughter in college in Vermont. Her instructor is Darwan, an extremely conscientious teacher and his patience inspires her to open up with him about her deeper problems. In turn, her volatile feelings about her disintegrating marriage bring out some feelings in him about his own impending nuptials.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: R (for language and sexual content)

Meru

(Music Box)  Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer. Among mountain climbers, Conrad Anker is a legend. It is also considered that the Himalayan peak Meru is virtually unclimbable, towering 21,000 feet into the sky with the final portion being a unique shark’s fin formation that is nearly vertical and requires a different set of climbing skills than the first portion of the mountain, requiring an entirely different set of gear, all of which has to be lugged up the mountain. Anker and his team undergo the harshest conditions that mother nature has to offer, heartbreaking defeats and terrible tragedies just to make yet another assault on Meru. But can anyone climb the unclimbable mountain?

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater
Rating: R (for language)

The Perfect Guy

(Screen Gems) Michael Ealy, Sanaa Lathan, Morris Chestnut, Charles S. Dutton. After a painful breakup with her boyfriend, a beautiful young professional woman meets a handsome and charming stranger. At first he seems like a gift from heaven, but when her ex-boyfriend re-enters the picture and tries to win her back, the perfect guy suddenly changes into someone she doesn’t know – and someone completely terrifying.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, featurettes, a promo and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard (opens Thursday)
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release
Rating: PG-13 (for violence, menace, sexuality and brief strong language)

After Earth


Jaden Smith tries to escape a herd of angry  film critics.

Jaden Smith tries to escape a herd of angry film critics.

(2013) Science Fiction (Columbia) Will Smith, Jaden Smith, Sophie Okonedo, Zoe Kravitz, Glenn Morshower, Kristofer Hivju, Sacha Dhawan, Chris Geere, Diego Klattenhoff, David Denman, Lincoln Lewis, Jaden Martin, Sincere L. Bobb, Monika Jolly, Demetrice Jackson, Joe Farina, Albert Valladares, Jim Gunter, Tiffany E. Green. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

A friend of mine – who happens to be a big movie buff – posted on his Facebook page that he overheard during a trailer for After Earth at a different movie some people re-christen the movie Afterbirth. I chastised him at the time, saying something about judging a movie before you’d seen it (which seems to be an Internet hobby for many these days). We went back and forth over all the red flags he’d seen in the trailer that were making him uneasy about the movie. We left it with that he has no plans to see it unless he hears from friends he trusts that the movie is worth checking out. I think it’s safe to say that he’ll probably not be coming to the multiplex for this one.

The movie takes place over 1,000 years in the future. The human race has abandoned Earth after polluting it into essentially an uninhabitable wasteland. We eventually made our way to a planet called Nova Prime which sadly already had their own inhabitants who didn’t take kindly to our incursion. They genetically engineered a creature called an Ursa which was all razor sharp pincers and teeth which hunted based on smell. It literally was attracted to its prey by fear.

General Cypher Raige (Will Smith) found a way to mask his fear, rendering him invisible to the Ursa, allowing him and other Rangers (the military force of the human race) to essentially end the threat of the creatures. However it came at a high cost – while Cypher was away on duty, an Ursa invaded his home killing his daughter Senshi (Kravitz) in front of his young son Kitai (Martin).

Five years after that tragedy, a 14-year-old Kitai (Jaden Smith) is trying out for the Rangers. While great in the classroom, he has a tendency to fall apart in the field, haunted by the death of his sister. Commander Velan (Morshower) tells him as gently as possible that he has failed his application into the Rangers. Kitai is mortified; his father is due home that evening and will not be pleased at all.

His mother Faia (Okonedo) urges Cypher to bond with his son who is desperate to please him. Cypher, knowing that he hasn’t been the presence in his son’s life that he needs to be, takes him along on an off-world mission transporting an Ursa to a research station on a distant moon. Instead, the ship runs into a freak meteor storm and is forced to crash land where it all started – on Earth. As the ship goes down it breaks in two.

Cypher breaks both his legs seriously in the crash and he and Kitai are the only survivors in the front section of the ship. The distress beacon is also damaged beyond repair but there is another one in the tail section. The trouble is it’s 100 km (about 62 miles) away through hostile territory. The planet you see isn’t so thrilled about what the humans did to it and all life has evolved to kill humans. We are no longer used to the atmosphere so a liquid must be consumed every 24 hours to help us breathe. The planet is prone to violent temperature swings. And the captive Ursa has gotten loose and is sure to be after the creature it was bred to kill – a fearful human an there’s nobody more fearful than Kitai. Still, Kitai must overcome his fear and reach the beacon or both he and his dad will be toast.

The studio was very cagey about marketing the film. Director Shyamalan, whose name has appeared in the title of his last few films, was absent from all marketing materials – even the trailers. I can kind of understand why. Shyamalan, who had become an acclaimed director based on The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable had fallen on a series of bombs that have turned his name into box office poison which is kind of a shame – he’s a very talented director with a great visual sense who had for whatever reason become something of an Internet Kryptonite when it came to movies. The fanboys loathe him  and so the studio felt that the movie would be unfairly judged if Shyamalan’s name was attached to it (a fear that I think was justified). By emphasizing the presence of the father and son duo of Will and Jaden Smith the studio thought they’d attract an audience.

Unfortunately, the movie really isn’t very good. The story is interesting, and there’s a compelling message of mastering your fear and learning to balance your emotions. There are also some pretty amazing visuals that will keep your eyes happy.

There are also some questionable decisions, like the odd accent that the people of the future affect (was that really necessary to anything?) to some of the lapses in logic that dot the film (why would a planet evolve to kill a species that has been gone for a millennium, and why would a race that could develop a hand-held beacon not make it go off automatically in a crash, or at least allow the crew to deploy it manually before the crash). Those are kind of bothersome.

Will Smith, the loving dad, really sets this movie up to be Jaden’s film. I can’t really blame the proud papa; his son has shown some promise in his brief acting career but I think he expected a little too much from him here. Quite frankly, his son’s performance is disappointing. Part of it is that odd accent that makes him sound a bit goofy, and the script also calls upon Kitai to freak out with great regularity which makes the character generally unlikable, which doesn’t do Jaden any favors. The fact is however that the emotional outbursts that Kitai has are never very believable; Jaden just ratchets up the volume and that’s supposed to convince us of his rage and frustration. His brow is crinkled up through much of the film, making him look like he’s about to cry which also sends a subliminal message to the audience that this boy isn’t ready for this.

I feel bad having to say these things because as a critic, you really don’t want to rank on a young actor who may not have the coping skills necessary to deal with criticism but I think that at the end of the day my readers deserve to know what to expect when they see the film. Frankly, had Cypher been alone and had to make the journey himself it might have been a more riveting film but of course that would have upended much of the film’s message – but it would have made for a better movie

REASONS TO GO: Some amazing visuals.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit muddled. Logical lapses. Jayden Smith’s performance is excruciating.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence of the sci-fi variety as well as a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first time in 20 years that Shyamalan has accepted a project based on a screenplay that was written by someone else.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 11% positive reviews. Metacritic: 33/100; the reviews have been for the most part scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oblivion

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Spy Next Door

Devil


Devil

Joe Cobden admires the CGI buildings he can't see.

(Universal) Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Matt Craven, Jacob Vargas, Joshua Peace, Caroline Dhavernas, Joe Cobden, Zoie Palmer, Vincent Laresca.  Directed by John Erick Dowdle

There are those that believe human beings are not basically evil; our evil comes from the choices we make. If that is the case, then the devil resides in our decisions.

It seems like an ordinary day, as five people board an elevator in a Philadelphia high-rise; Sarah (Novakovic), an attractive young woman; Ben (Woodbine), a new temp working as a security guard on just his second day on the job; Vince (Arend), a slimy mattress salesman; Mrs. Tonjanovich (O’Hara), a matronly elderly woman and Tony (Marshall-Green), a former Marine just back from Afghanistan.

They’re on the express elevator but partway up the elevator comes to a bumpy and startling halt. Nothing terribly unusual about that, but what is strange about it is that every circuit appears to point to the elevator being perfectly fine. It should be traveling up and down the shaft instead of being stuck there, halfway between here and there. Two security guards, Lustig (Craven) and Ramirez (Vargas) are monitoring the situation via closed circuit cameras, but another strange thing – the audio is only working one way. The trapped people in the elevator can hear the security guards just fine, but the guards cannot hear them.

At first it seems just a minor inconvenience, but a time drags on and the building engineer (Cobden) can’t get the elevator to budge with no explanation as to why the elevator is stuck in the first place, the lights flicker out. When they come back on, Sarah is bleeding from a fairly impressive wound in the middle of her back that look uncomfortably like something bit her. Realizing that the wound was no accident, the guards call the police.

Conveniently enough, the police are already there; Detective Bowden (Messina) and his partner Detective Markowitz (Peace) were there investigating a suicide from the very same building. They try to reassure the increasingly panicked passengers (what doesn’t help matters is that Ben is claustrophobic, and Vince is something of an asshole), but the lights flicker out once again. When they come back on, one of the passengers is dead. It becomes apparent to everyone that something sinister is going on and as the body count piles up both inside the elevator and out, Ramirez realizes that one of the passengers is not who they seem to be and that what was happening in the elevator may be far worse than anyone realizes.

Director Dowdle (and his brother Drew, who co-produces his film) is an up and coming star in the horror genre, with Quarantine and the criminally under-appreciated The Poughkeepsie Tapes to his credit. This one is the most high-profile release yet, and he shows some real talent.

Most of the murders take place in complete darkness, allowing the imaginations of the audience to work for them. Dowdle relies on mood and tension to create the horror; while the supernatural element is certainly in the forefront, there aren’t as many special effects needed and in fact, there are really very few shots that make use of special effects (in something of an irony, there are more SFX shots establishing the cityscape than there are of the horrific).

Messina makes for a decent enough hero, a tormented man who is grieving an intolerable loss and whose back story is woven inexlorably into the fabric of the film. The cast is largely unknown and solid in their roles, with an occasional lapse into overacting from time to time.

Part of the film’s problem is the over-reliance on the voice-over narration to advance the plot. Ramirez, the film’s narrator, bases the events on a story his grandmother told him. As the movie progresses, the narration tends to mostly emphasize how each event being seen onscreen relates to a specific element to the story Ramirez’ grandmother told him. After awhile, it seems a lazy way to tell the story; in fact, the Ramirez character mostly exists to narrate and occasionally react with superstitious fear. For my two cents worth, I think the movie would have worked better without it.

That said, I must applaud Dowdle’s use of sound and darkness to deliver the scares. It’s very effective, especially in a large theater with a grand sound system that surrounds the viewer. I jumped several times during the movie and Da Queen, who is not fond of horror films, not only had a death grip on my hand during much of the movie but about pulled my arm out of the socket putting it between her and the screen, as if something were going to leap out and she would be protected by whatever it was devouring my arm first.

This is a solid horror movie with some pretty slick scares. I suspect that the connection with M. Night Shyamalan might hurt the movie, which is a crying shame. While I agree that Shyamalan of late has delivered some fairly mediocre films, there has been a backlash against him amongst internet fanboys who find it fashionable to flame the Pennsylvania-based director unmercifully. Unfortunately, very few of those who dictate opinion on the net actually take the time to base their opinions on the actual movie; it’s far more important for them to appear hip and funny.

That’s the crap part of net film review; the tendency for critics to go for the one-line zinger over genuine examination of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. This is far from being a classic of the horror genre, but it isn’t a complete waste of time either. Those who like a good scare flick will be well-served to check this out.

REASONS TO GO: The movie makes great use of darkness and sound to play head games with the audience. Some genuinely powerful scares and a nifty concept make this worth your while.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie relies far too much on voice-over narration to tell you what’s going on and the Ramirez character seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing images, as well as some frightening images and sounds. Keep the kids at home for this one although the movie is suitable for older teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie in a projected series of films that director M. Night Shyamalan will produce and conceptualize, but not direct. During the opening credit, the Night Chronicles logo morphs into the number one.

HOME OR THEATER: Quite frankly, the movie needs the big sound system to make some of the scares work properly, even though the movie is mostly set in an elevator.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist