The Legend of Hell House


What a lovely evening for a haunting.

What a lovely evening for a haunting.

(1973) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox) Roddy McDowell, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Roland Culver, Peter Bowles, Michael Gough. Directed by John Hough

Six Days of Darkness 2014

There are things we can explain and things we can’t. Some of it is simply our knowledge hasn’t expanded enough to come up with a rational explanation; it’s just a matter of our knowledge catching up with the phenomenon. In other cases, it is simply so far out of the realm of our understanding that we may never be able to figure it out.

What happens after we die, for example. There are those who believe that our consciousness simply ends, evaporates as our body shuts down. We enter an endless sleep, oblivion. Others say there is a heaven and a hell and that what we do in this life determines where we go in the next. There are still others who believe that we die and are reborn in an endless cycle of attempting to achieve enlightenment. And there are those who say that most of us just hang around here as spiritual beings.

There are skeptics though. The Belasco House in England is considered the “Mt. Everest” of haunted houses; in fact, the last team to seriously study the goings on in the house died terribly with only one survivor left to tell the tale.

The Belasco House was once the residence of one Emrick Belasco (Gough), a physically imposing sort who threw lavish parties in the 1920s. For the last of them, he shuttered all the windows and barred all the doors; in the morning, every guest was dead and Emrick Belasco was nowhere to be found. Soon afterwards, the house got its evil reputation.

Now, yet another mysterious millionaire (Culver) has enlisted noted physicist Dr. Barrett (Revill) to do a scientific study on the phenomena going on in the house. He’s bringing with him a spiritual medium named Florence Tanner (Franklin), reportedly one of the best there is. He’s also bringing with him his own wife Ann (Hunnicutt) and the only survivor of the previous expedition, Ben Fischer (McDowell), a powerful psychic in his own right. Now he’s a broken man, terrified of this place but motivated by the reward if he should be successful at surviving another attempt. He has erected psychic walls to protect himself but those are under constant assault once they arrive at the foreboding mansion.

At first there isn’t a lot going on, just some disquieting feelings which are mainly exacerbated by Ben’s resigned paranoia. Dr. Barrett, a pragmatic man, doesn’t believe in religion or supernatural phenomena although he is soon presented with events even he can’t explain away – furniture moving of its own accord, the manifestation of ectoplasm during a séance, and the erotic possession of his wife. Dr. Barrett scoffs at Tanner’s religious faith and the two get into heated arguments. His explanation is that there is unfocused electromagnetic energy in the house which he has built a machine to eradicate.

Tanner for her part believes that the house isn’t haunted by multiple spirits as has long been supposed but in fact by just one – Belasco’s tormented son Daniel. She sets out to prove it, opening her to unprecedented danger and putting the entire team at risk. Not everyone will walk out of Belasco House intact.

This is based on a Richard Matheson novel, and Matheson himself wrote the screenplay. Matheson is best known for his work on The Twilight Zone and for writing the books that such films as I Am Legend are based on. That book was set in New England but the action was moved to England so that the production could happen there. Therefore we get a happy fusion of New England gothic horror and old England supernatural horror. The two make an excellent mix.

There isn’t much graphic nudity despite the era in which nudity was far more common than it is now; the sexuality here is of a much more subtle, erotic nature. The subtext of fear of female sexuality comes out strongly as the two men in the movie seemingly reject the erotic advances of the women. It is the women who display the aggressive sexuality here. Something to think about as women’s liberation was making itself known at the time.

Strong performances abound here from all four of the four leads, all four veteran performers by that time. McDowell was strong here as the twitchy, nervous and clearly terrified Ben Fischer but it is he who has the final confrontation with the presence infesting the house and it is he who stands up to it. I’ve always been a fan of the actor ever since I was a kid and saw him in such movies as Planet of the Apes, Class of 84, The Last of Sheila and Fright Night. It was in this one that I found him to be at his best, albeit in a sanitized suitable for television viewing. And for those who have read the book by the way, they’ll know that the sex and violence is far more extreme on the printed page. Hough and Matheson were going for a far more atmospheric production and they certainly succeeded.

This is as atmospheric a horror film as you’re likely to ever see. From the muted electronic score to the fog-shrouded exterior shots, the movie chills you to the bone from the get go as indistinct figures walk from the car to the front door of the mansion. I think few films have used silence to their advantage as effectively as this one, as loud noises interrupt the quiet and put the viewer’s nerves on edge. This is gloom personified and for those who like their horror movies creepy and unsettling, they’ll be in heaven here.

This is a movie from a different era. Those who effects-laden need roller coaster rides with a digital signature, undoubtedly you’ll find this boring and tedious. The action doesn’t really gather steam until the final ten minutes and even then it is tame by modern standards. The attitudes towards women are also a bit on the Mad Men side, although none of the women here are victims really. Still, this is the kind of movie that will make you jump right out of your skin. It is one of my all-time favorite horror movies and you will either love it or hate it depending on how patient a movie viewer you are. You already know which side of that separation I stand on.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendously atmospheric and sexy. Fine performances by main leads.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some scenes of terror and supernatural violence, plenty of sexuality and some rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tales of Belasco’s debauchery and evil were loosely based on the notorious exploits of occultist Aleister Crowley.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes a 30-minute interview with the director.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting (1999)
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Three!

The Good Lie


The importance of family is universal.

The importance of family is universal.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Reese Witherspoon, Corey Stoll, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Kuoth Wiel, Femi Oguns, Sarah Baker, Lindsey Garrett, Peterdeng Mongok, Okwar Jale, Thon Kueth, Deng Ajuet, Keji Jale, David Madingi, Kon Akuoe Auok, Sibusisi Moyo, Elikana Jale, Afemo Omilami, Michael Cole, Brian Kurlander. Directed by Philippe Falardeau

From 1983 to 2005, the Second Sudanese Civil War was one of the longest wars of its kind on record, and one of the most lethal wars in modern history. Nearly two million people died as a direct result of the war or from the famine and disease that followed it. Four million people were displaced, many more than once. Atrocities were committed by both sides, the government forces and the rebels alike. Many children were forced to serve as soldiers.

During the fighting, entire villages were wiped out and that’s what happened to Mamere (Mongok), Theo (O. Jale), Abital (K. Jale) and their brothers. They tried to make it out to Ethiopia on foot but the fighting was so intense they were forced to find a refugee camp in Kenya, a trip of nearly one thousand miles. Not all of the kids would make it to the Kakuma Refugee Camp. Theo, in fact, would sacrifice himself when soldiers see Mamere. They take Theo, allowing the other kids who now included Jeremiah (Kueth) to escape and make it to Kakuma.

There they waited for thirteen years, hoping and praying to be allowed to emigrate to the United States. Now grown, Mamere (Oceng) has become an assistant to Dr. Monyang (Omilami) and dreams of going to medical school. Jeremiah (Duany), a devout Christian, leads religious services in the camp. Paul (Jal) who they also picked up along the way, is thoroughly traumatized but all three of them fiercely protect their sister Abital (Wiel).

Then, the good news comes and they are allowed to fly to the States but once there they are in for a shock. For one thing, a bureaucratic INS regulation forces the family to be separated with Abital going to Boston with a foster family there and the boys sent to Kansas City to find work. They are met at the airport by Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), a spirited woman whose life is a bit of a mess, who is supposed to assist them with finding jobs – the charity worker Pamela (Baker) having been unable to pick them up.

It becomes clear that neither the agency nor the charity are prepared for these lost boys who have lived in a village their entire lives and do not know what a telephone is as Carrie discovers when she tries to call them. They have no concept of privacy or understanding of technology. The culture shock is overwhelming, but what is beating them down most is the separation from their sister. Although Carrie’s boss Jack (Stoll) warns her not to get involved, she can’t help but want to help them and so begins an odyssey to reunite a shattered family.

While the story itself is fiction, it is nonetheless based on actual events. The actors playing the refugees are Sudanese Lost Boys themselves, which adds a certain level of poignancy to the film; just try to make it through the end credits with a dry eye. A couple of them were child soldiers as well. With the exception of Duany who previously appeared in I Heart Huckabees they aren’t professional actors. You’d never know it from watching this.

Some might get the impression that this is a starring vehicle for Witherspoon but that would be incorrect. She has an important supporting role but it is the Sudanese actors who are the leads here. This is their story; Carrie just plays a part in it. Witherspoon, a fine actress, does a great job in a most decidedly un-glamorous role but she doesn’t appear in the film until nearly half an hour in. If you’re planning on seeing the film just to see her, you are in for a disappointment.

In many ways while we were heaping mea culpas on ourselves for ignoring the Rwandan genocide we were ignoring the carnage going on in the Sudan at the same time. Many people are unaware of the Sudanese Lost Boys or how they have integrated into our society. Some have returned to the South Sudan to help rebuild it now that the war has ended and some have even become part of the government of that new nation (following the Civil War the Sudan split into South Sudan and Sudan, with the latter  retaining its Muslim culture and the former its East African identity. This movie at least serves to illustrate their plight making it important for that reason alone.

Fortunately, it also happens to be a really good movie. Sure, it does drag a little bit in the middle as they first come to the United States and Falardeau inserts maybe more humor in their fish out of water situation than was necessary; we get the point that there was a culture shock. Nonetheless, this is a moving experience that will leave you feeling empathy for these kids who saw things children should never see and made choices nobody should have to make.

Frankly, I’m astonished that it hasn’t gotten any sort of push from the studio – it certainly will contend for top ten movies of the year with me but most folks, even some movie buffs, haven’t heard of this movie which received a pretty cursory release. Not that Warners should feel like they had to give it a wider release because of the subject matter but I think had this made more screens more moviegoers might have found this film, which deserves a much larger audience than it has gotten so far. I hope at least a few of you are motivated to go check this extraordinary film out. It deserves your support.

REASONS TO GO: Important subject matter. Affecting performances by the largely Sudanese cast. Witherspoon and Stoll are both impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes the fish out of water element. Lags a bit in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: At times the themes can be rather intense. There’s some violence (although little blood) and occasional rough language. There is also a scene or two of drug use..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Falardeau came to prominence with an Oscar nomination for Monsieur Lazhar in 2012.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hotel Rwanda
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Hank and Asha

Pompeii


Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland's imperial ass.

Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland’s imperial ass.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (TriStar) Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Jessica Lucas, Sasha Roiz, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham, Dylan Schombing, Rebecca Eady, Maxime Savana, Ron Kennell, Tom Bishop Sr., Jean-Francois Lachapelle, Jean Frenette, Dalmar Abuzeid, Melantha Blackthorne. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

There’s an old saying that “man proposes, God disposes” and if by God you mean a volcano then you have a point. The best-laid plans of mice and men do not stand well before an erupting Mt. Vesuvius.

Milo (Harrington) is a gladiator. He wasn’t always a gladiator – as a young boy (Schombing), he was the only survivor of a Celtic Horse Clan that was wiped out in rebellion against Rome by the Centurion Corvus (Sutherland) and his right hand swordsman Proculus (Roiz).  He only survived by playing dead but not before witnessing the butchering of his mother (Eady) and father (Lachapelle). He was discovered by slavers and trained as a gladiator.

As a gladiator in the British isles he soon became known for his speed and his skills and as a young man was virtually unbeatable. Recognizing that he was far too skilled for the hinterlands, it was decided that Milo be taken to Pompeii to see how he fares. Pompeii is just a hop, skip and a jump from the big time in Rome.

Pompeii, a seaside resort town, is having some issues of its own. Much of it is dilapidated and aging and leading citizen Severus (Harris) is eager to rebuild much of it, attracting more tourism. In particular the arena is obsolete and cannot accommodate the extremely popular chariot races, so his grand plan includes the construction of a new arena. He is hopeful that the new emperor will invest but instead he gets Corvus.

Corvus however has an agenda of his own and it involves Severus’ daughter Cassia (Browning). She had spent a year in Rome but sickened by the corruption she saw there, had returned home to her father and mother Aurelia (Moss). However, her principle reason for leaving had been the dogged and unwanted pursuit by Corvus who now means to use her as leverage against her father.

In the meantime however a chance roadside meeting had led Cassia and Milo to meet. Sparks flew immediately, an event not unnoticed by Ariadne (Lucas), Cassia’s servant. However, Milo has more to worry about – he is set to meet Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a champion gladiator who needs one more win to earn his freedom. The two end up respecting one another and becoming unlikely allies. However, Vesuvius is rumbling, the clock is ticking and all Hell is about to be unleashed on the city that sleeps at its base.

Anderson is no stranger to effects movies with budgets that are far from extravagant as a veteran of the Resident Evil series. Like several of those movies, the CGI run hot and cold with in the case of Pompeii some of the green screen effects of the city stretching off in the distance and the mountain rising ominously in the distance look exactly like green screen effects. Nonetheless during the sequences in which the mountain is erupting in full fury and visiting its wrath upon the city below, the effects can be breathtaking – at times it seems like the ash floating down from the sky are going to nestle into your lap. Although I saw the standard version, friends and colleagues who have seen the 3D version have asserted that it is one of the best in that department.

Harrington, best known as the Stark bastard Jon Snow in the Game of Thrones HBO series, bulked up considerably for the role and while not having a whole lot of dialogue (Milo is depicted as being a brooding, unfriendly sort), nonetheless shows great promise as at least an action film leading man and maybe for other types of roles in the future as well. However, the wispy facial hair has to go – it makes him look like a high school junior.

The doe-eyed Browning never really seems to grasp what her character is supposed to be; at times she is a strong, Roman-style feminist who has more cojones than her milksop father. At other times she is a helpless damsel in distress. I don’t think this is a particular problem with Browning so much as a problem with the writing. I suspect that the character would have been strong throughout but the powers that be might have taken a hand in it.

Sutherland chews the scenery as the corrupt and vicious Corvus but has a good time doing it (although I can’t help thinking what Jack Bauer would have done in a season of 24 set in Pompeii). Yeah, he’s over-the-top but why the hell not? The whole city is about to be buried under tons of lava and ash after all so why not make a mark while there’s still a mark to be made. His arrogant patrician muscle Proculus, portrayed by Roiz who some may know better as Grimm‘s Captain Renard makes an ideal foil. Finally Akinnuoye-Agbaje is fine in what is essentially the same role played by Djimon Hounsou in Gladiator which is a much superior film.

Much of the reason this doesn’t measure up is that the story is so ludicrous and takes liberties with simple common sense. Why would anyone want to piss off a trained killer as happens repeatedly throughout the film? Historical evidence shows us that ancient Romans tread carefully around gladiators simply because as slaves who had only death to look forward to they had nothing to lose if they killed a tormentor. Quite the opposite, gladiators were treated with respect and honor.

Still, if one forgives the movie its pedestrian and predictable plot, the effects and action are certainly worthwhile. It’s the portions in between these action and special effects sequences that are often excruciating and leave one longing for a pyroclastic cloud  to come your way.

REASONS TO GO: Harrington a promising leading man. Some nifty disaster effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Hokey story. Some of the green screen effects are pretty poor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Gladiator battle-type violence, some of it bloody as well as disaster-related action – people getting crushed by falling masonry and so on. There is also some implied sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrington underwent a regimen to attain the absolutely ripped body of Milo by going on a 3000 calorie diet for five weeks in what he called his “bulking” regimen. He cut back on this and went on a four week “cutting” regimen with intense training. During this time he went to the gym three times a day six days a week, developing body dysmorphia – extreme anxiety about the appearance of one’s body – forcing his trainer to step in and reign in the regimen. However, Harrington was very pleased with the overall results and proclaimed himself in the best shape of his life.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Volcano

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Past

The Killing Jar


Michael Madsen is tired of being mistaken for Tom Sizemore.

Michael Madsen is tired of being mistaken for Tom Sizemore.

(2010) Suspense (New Films International) Michael Madsen, Harold Perrineau, Amber Benson, Danny Trejo, Jake Busey, Kevin Gage, Lew Temple, Lindsey Axelsson, Talan Torriero, Patrick Durham, Jonathan Sachar, Emily Catherine Young, Mark H. Young (voice), Todd Davis. Directed by Mark Young

There is something intimate about a late night diner. Few customers, each with their own story, their own drama, their own tragedy. Why are they there? For some, it’s just a way station, a temporary stop on the journey between here and there. Others have nowhere else to go. A few, a very few, are waiting for something…anything.

This diner in particular is in the middle of nowhere special. The cook, Jimmy (Trejo) isn’t cooking food to write home about but it ain’t bad either. The waitress Noreen (Benson) probably deserves better than this but still here she is, just trying to make ends meet and not always succeeding. Lonnie (Temple) is a cop who stops here regularly; there aren’t many dining choices late at night in this small town. Billy (Torriero) and Starr (Axelsson) are eloping; they’re excited and in love, but also hungry. There’s also Smith (Perrineau), a salesman heading out into his territory to ply his trade, stopping for a quick meal before finding some place to hole up for the night. Then there’s Hank (Gage) whose story nobody really knows.

On the radio is fearful news; a family one county over has been massacred. Everyone’s a bit uneasy over this; that’s not the sort of thing that happens in a place like this. Then Doe (Madsen) comes in. He’s twitchy, dressed in black leather and angry that he can’t get the steak he wants. Noreen, thinking he might be the miscreant responsible for the multiple murder, spills coffee on him. After she discusses her suspicions with Lonnie (who is skeptical) and Hank (who thinks she might be onto something), Lonnie attempts to question Doe who proves uncooperative. The radio report had specified that the killer had gotten away in a black truck; it becomes clear that Doe is driving a red one. Lonnie apologizes, Doe pays and walks out.

But not for long. He comes back in with a shotgun and handgun and takes the room hostage. Turns out that he’s a veteran and he is fed up. When Greene (Busey) comes in, he’s also taken hostage but it turns out that Greene is involved with that massacre – and that the real killer was supposed to meet him there for payment. Doe isn’t the killer. That means that someone in that diner is and is even more dangerous than the guy with the guns. Things have gone from bad to worse.

This is in my mind a pretty decent premise. It isn’t necessarily a new one, but the claustrophobic environment of the diner, knowing that the people herein are locked up with at least two killers makes for a pretty tense situation. Sadly, Young doesn’t really make the most of it. The dialogue ranges from unnecessary to downright cringeworthy. The movie comes off as too talky which in a movie like this is a bad thing. Dialogue is necessary for a movie like this to be successful.

It doesn’t help that for the most part the actors here seem disinterested in what’s going on other than Madsen, Perrineau and Trejo, but Madsen in particular shines. His intensity as an actor is tailor-made for a role like this and he executes it to perfection. Perrineau and Trejo are both terrific character actors and they at least make an effort to appear like they’re invested. Benson, who has shown some real talent in previous roles, phones this one in.

That’s sad because this is a situation tailor-made for indie budgets. Under a surer, firmer hand this might have been a pretty decent thriller. Unfortunately, it’s a suspense movie that lacks suspense although it gets points for a whopper of a twist ending that I appreciated. Still, even with that the film’s deficiencies are such that I can’t recommend it other than with faint praise. Be warned.

WHY RENT THIS: Madsen is always intense. Interesting premise with a nice twist at the end.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Does nothing with the good ideas it does have. Lacks tension.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some of it fairly bloody with a goodly amount of rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the radio announcer is director Young.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Suspect Zero

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

NEXT: About Time

Red State


What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

What Pastor Abin Cooper REALLY wants to be is Vulcan.

(2011) Horror (SModcast) Melissa Leo, Kyle Gallner, Michael Angarano, Michael Parks, Ralph Garman, Kerry Bishe, Jennifer Schwalbach, Stephen Root, John Goodman, James Parks, Molly Livingston, Catherine McCord, Alexa Nikolas, Ronnie Connell, Haley Ramm, Nicholas Braun, Cooper Thornton, Kevin Pollak, John Lacy, Anna Gunn, Kaylee DeFer. Directed by Kevin Smith

Life is full of it’s real horrors. Both conservative and liberal alike are outraged and disgusted by the antics of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church whose fundamentalist Christian zealotry borders on the batshit crazy. More accurately, is full on over the border and deep in crazy territory. You have to wonder what goes on in a congregation like that.

Travis (Angarano), Billy-Ray (Braun) and Jared (Gallner) are three horny high school buddies who answer a Craigslist ad from an older woman (Leo) who wants to have sex with three guys at once. They drive to her trailer where she serves them some beer before the festivities begin – except the festivities never begin since the beer is drugged and the boys pass out.

When they awaken they are in the church of Pastor Abin Cooper (M. Parks) who makes Fred Phelps look like a Girl Scout. They are treated to one of his fire-breathing sermons of hating sin and hating the sinners, ranting against the evils of homosexuality, adultery and premarital sex. Basically, against anything fun I suppose.

When a gay teen who was similarly entrapped is executed while immobilized and tied to a cross with saran wrap, the three boys realize they are in mortal danger. Travis is being bound to the cross when a deputy rolls up looking for the boys car which had sideswiped the Sheriff’s car while the Sheriff (Root) was parked on the side of the road having sex with his partner. Billy-Ray is able to free himself and manages to escape into the armory where he gets into a shoot-out with Caleb (Garman). This attracts attention of the deputy who calls in the shots fired to the Sheriff, who in turn calls in the ATF in the form of Agent Keenan (Goodman).

Soon the compound is surrounded and a standoff of Branch Davidian proportions; the well-armed zealots facing off against the might of a government which wants the situation ended without any surviving witnesses. Horny teenage boys, take note.

This is very much unlike any other Kevin Smith film; while there are humorous elements here it is most definitely not a comedy. This was also distributed in a unique way – for the most part, Smith took the film on tour with Q&A sessions following the screenings. There was also a one-day screening of the film just prior to its VOD and home video releases.

Smith is a well-known fan of genre films and while he doesn’t have the encyclopedic knowledge of B-movies like a Quentin Tarantino I do believe his affection for horror, action and comic book genres is just as passionate. He has tackled religious themes before in Dogma albeit in a much more satirical vein. He also is one of the finest writers in the business in my opinion with dialogue that is second to none in making onscreen characters talk like people you’d run into at the grocery store. Believe me, that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds.

The part of Pastor Abin Cooper was written specifically for Michael Parks and he delivers a blistering performance that will chill you to the bone and stay with you for a long while afterwards. His delivery is so smooth and so gentle that you are almost fooled into buying his message which you come to realize is absolutely whacko.

Goodman is solid as usual as the government stormtrooper who is tasked with bringing a situation that has spiraled wildly out of control back in control and who has no problems with carrying out orders that to you and me might seem immoral. In many ways, Cooper and Keenan are opposite ends of the same coin.

There is plenty of violence here and while I would hesitate to label it strictly as a horror film mainly because the gore and level of terror isn’t in line with, say, a Hostel movie. As thrillers go however, it is on the gruesome side. To my mind the movie winds up being somewhere in the middle – call it throrror. The overall tone is pretty bleak so be aware of that and the body count is high; if you like to play the game of “who’s still standing at the end credits” chances are you’re gonna be wrong. Some main characters barely make the second act and some surprising characters are still around when the dust settles.

There is a lot of things going on here of a topical nature, dealing with religious fanaticism, government overkill and homophobia which makes for entertaining viewing. However, the movie lacks a strong center – Gallner as Jared kind of assumes that role by default but is never really fleshed out enough to get the audience intrigued. Still, it IS Kevin Smith and the guy can write so there is entertainment value here. Hell, ALL of his movies have entertainment value (except for maybe Cop Out) of at least some degree. Still, one wonders what direction he is going to head in next – genial raconteur or all-out revenge film slasher found footage supernatural thriller.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrifying portrayal of religious fanaticism. Very topical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too tame to be good horror, too bloody to be a thriller.

FAMILY VALUES: The content here is awfully disturbing and violent with plenty of foul language and sexuality. There’s also a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Abin Cooper was named after Abin Sur from the Green Lantern comic book series.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an informative interview with Michael Parks, a Q&A session with Smith from Sundance and a making-of feature which includes the Westboro Baptist Church’s reaction to the film and finally a series of Smith podcasts recorded while the film was shot, in post-production and finally in theaters.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on a $4M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Children of the Corn

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Blackfish

The Searchers (1956)


The greatest Western ever made.

The greatest Western ever made.

(1956) Western (Warner Brothers) John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Ward Bond, Vera Miles, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Harry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Hank Worden, Beulah Archuletta, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan, Pippa Scott, Pat Wayne, Lana Wood, Ruth Clifford, Danny Borzage. Directed by John Ford

The American Experience

The Western is an American archetype, carrying values that are uniquely American – the rugged individualist who solves his own problems, the romance of desolation and a code of honesty and integrity. Whether or not these remain American values in practice are certainly subject to debate but few film genres sum up the American psyche as the Western does.

If the Western is quintessentially American, then so to must director John Ford and actor John Wayne and thus their greatest collaboration, the 1956 epic The Searchers must be as well. It begins when Ethan Edwards (Wayne) returns home to Texas after serving in the Confederacy during the Civil War; it’s three years since the war ended for the rest of the country but not for Ethan who has been up to no good since then, but he is welcomed home with open arms by his brother Aaron (Coy), Aaron’s wife Martha (Jordan) and their daughters Lucy (Scott) and Debbie (Wood).

When the sheriff and town parson Sam Clayton (Bond) drops by to see about putting together a posse to round up some cattle rustlers, Ethan goes with along with Martin (Hunter), a young man who was rescued by Ethan as a baby and given to his brother to raise. However, Ethan doesn’t like Martin much – Martin’s 1/8 Comanche and that’s 1/4 too much for Ethan.

When they discover the cattle slaughtered, they realize it was just a ruse and ride hard back to the homestead. There they find the Edwards place burned to the ground, Aaron and Martha dead and their daughters taken. Ethan vows to find the girls and Martin insists on going with him, even though Ethan doesn’t want him around. Brad Jorgensen (Carey) also goes with as he is the boyfriend of Lucy.

That search will go on for five long years and not everybody will come back who sets out on it. Martin will discover that Ethan means to put a bullet in the head of white girl who has been despoiled by a Comanche buck and aims to stop him, even though it may cost him the love of Laurie Jorgensen (Miles) who has been waiting for Martin patiently. When they finally discover that Debbie is in the hands of the vicious Chief Scar (Brandon), it will lead to an epic confrontation.

There is a great deal to love about this movie. Shot mainly in Ford’s beloved Monument Valley in Utah (doubling for Texas), the vistas here are breathtaking. Ford was fond of shots that featured vast wide angles with human subjects tiny within the frame and some of his best are found here. Wayne himself believed this to be his finest performance (and named one of his own sons Ethan after the character he played) which considering how amazing he did a Rooster Cogburn in True Grit is quite a compliment and to be honest, it’s hard to disagree with the Duke on this.

One thing that must be brought up when discussing this movie is the charges that have been leveled against it as racist against the Native American. Certainly Ethan’s viewpoint is racist; he hates all Indians and he’s not too fond of other non-whites either. He is very much an anti-hero, a model for characters that would come into popularity about 15 years later. He is also a product of his times – not just the historical post-Civil War context but also when the film was made. It was the heyday of the Western and even though film Westerns were on the decline largely due to their popularity on TV (why go pay to see a great Western when you could watch a good one for free at home) the Native Americans were generic villains, very much like Nazis in war movies. They weren’t really seen as people, just whooping savages to be shot off their horses by brave America soldiers and cowboys. Rarely were they given any sort of voice in movies and more rarely still, any dignity. While I can’t say I agree with Ethan’s hatreds and racism, I can at least dismiss them as the issues of a character, not the actor playing him nor the director filming him. Wayne was a lot of things, not all of them pleasant but he was not a racist. Ford also was a particularly tolerant man considering the era in which he lived and worked.

The plot is complex and Ethan isn’t terribly likable – this is a character Wayne didn’t usually play. There is something that is grand and epic about The Searchers. You realize you are watching something that is a lot more than the sum of its parts. It shows both the beauty of America – the natural beauty and also the beauty of that American spirit that never gives up. – and the ugliness in the way the Natives were treated.

One of the things that makes America great is its willingness to let show its flaws and warts and discuss them. We may not always do the right thing as a country but we certainly at least try to correct our mistakes. Like anything human however it takes time and will to make these changes happen. These days the movies have a different attitude towards Native culture than films from the 1950s did and in some small way The Searchers helped open up that dialogue, particularly in how the film ends. There are few films as American as this one – and few that sum up all the contradictions of our society as well as this. It’s a must-see for anyone who wants to gain insight into the American experience.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best movies ever made. Tremendous influence on modern movies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Definitely a film of its era. Shows some racism and misogynistic tendencies.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some scenes of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Buddy Holly saw the movie several times during the summer of 1956; he loved it so much that he took a phrase Ethan used repeatedly and turned it into one of his most beloved hit songs: “That’ll Be the Day.”

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette worth noting; a series of interviews with legendary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and John Milius discussing how The Searchers influenced them as directors, as well as some vintage promotional clips and an introduction by Patrick Wayne, son of John who had a small role as a bumbling cavalry officer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.8M (first run receipts only) on a $3.75M production budget; the film made back its budget and became profitable after second and third runs, home video and television sales..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Missing

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Sleepy Hollow

G.I. Joe: Retaliation


OK, Snake Eyes looks really cool, I'll give you that.

OK, Snake Eyes looks really cool, I’ll give you that.

(2013) Action (Paramount) Dwayne Johnson, Jonathan Pryce, Byung-hun Lee, Elodie Yung, Ray Stevenson, D.J. Cotrona, Adrianne Palicki, Channing Tatum, Ray Park, Luke Bracey, Walton Goggins, Arnold Vosloo, Joseph Mazzello, RZA, James Carville, Bruce Willis, Joe Chrest, Tiffany Lonsdale. Directed by Jon M. Chu

When you make a movie about an action figure, the basic problem is that action figures are made of plastic and have no real personality. Movies that stick too close to the canon can sometimes run the risk of following suit.

The Joes – America’s elite fighting force, commanded by Duke (Tatum) and his sidekick Roadblock (Johnson) have infiltrated North Korea and are now heading for sunny Pakistan to secure their nuclear arsenal after their President was assassinated. Unfortunately, the person they should have been worrying about was our President (Pryce) who has been kidnapped and replaced by Zartan (Vosloo), one of Cobra Commander’s (Bracey) top henchmen. He has framed the Joes for the deed.

Now reduced to Roadblock, Lady Jaye (Palicki) and Flint (Cotrona), the remaining Joes soon become aware that Cobra Commander – who has been broken out of maximum security prison by rent-a-ninja Storm Shadow (Lee) and the half-crazy Firefly (Stevenson) who likes to use tiny little explosive firefly robots to do his dirty work. Now the United States is the de facto territory of Cobra and he has a nifty little weapon called Zeus – with all the firepower of a nuclear weapon and none of the fallout. Sort of like the “tastes great, less filling” of modern weapons of mass destruction.

They need to figure out a way to foil the nefarious plan of world domination. They’ll need all hands on deck to do it – including the enigmatic Snake Eyes (Park), trainee Jinx (Yung) and the guy who started it all, General Joe Colton (Willis), the original G.I. Joe.

The first movie in the series, G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra was considered a misfire. Chu and the studio wanted to take the franchise in another decision – one not so much more gritty than more realistic. The performance-enhancing suits of the first movie are gone and while there are a few gadgets here and there, for the most part this is more stunt-oriented and battle oriented using weapons that are more or less familiar. Sure there are still comic book elements to the movie but then you don’t see an action movie for realistic behavior. There’s a superhuman element to the action hero that is just a teensy bit shy of spandex and a cape.

So is this version better than what they came up with for the first movie? Yes and no. Most of the cast from the first is gone with only Snake Eyes, Duke, Storm Shadow, Zartan and the President returning to the sequel. Adding Johnson is usually a big plus but for once his larger-than-life charisma is pretty much absent which is surprising and disappointing. I don’t know if he was just going through the motions on purpose but it sure seemed to me like he was. In either case this was one of the least successful performances of his career which is bad news since he’s expected to carry the film on his broad shoulders. In his defense, he isn’t given a whole lot to work with.

Also in his defense, the rest of the cast isn’t much better with the exception of Willis, who is nicely understated as Joe and Park, who is completely mute as Snake Eyes. Most of the rest is chest-thumping posturing with a loud rock soundtrack which really was already dated in the 80s when the heyday for chest-thumping action films was.

Even in that situation a movie like this can be saved with eye-popping special effects and/or jaw-dropping stunts. While the effects and stunts are more than adequate, they aren’t quite spectacular enough to overcome the film’s deficiencies.

REASONS TO GO: The Rock is charming as always. Some great martial arts scenes.

REASONS TO STAY: No character development AT ALL. Uninspiring.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s all sorts of violence from martial arts one on ones to battle sequences to gun fights – and a bit of sensuality and mildly bad language too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally scheduled for release on June 29, 2012 but Paramount delayed the film for a year to what they claimed initially was to add 3D effects but later the real reason turned out that they wanted to add more scenes with Tatum in the film as he had become a big star in the meantime and getting him to do reshoots required a long wait.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the critics have, as expected, not warmed to the movie.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battleship

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Your Sister’s Sister and the beginning of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!

The Pianist (2002)


Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

(2002) True Wartime Drama (Focus) Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Jessica Kate Meyer, Julia Rayner, Joachim Paul Assbock, Roy Smiles, Daniel Caltagirone, John Bennett, Cyril Shaps, Andrew Tiernan, Nina Franoszek. Directed by Roman Polanski

Survival is relative. There are ordinary survival stories; making it through the work week, for example. We all make compromises, do what we must to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our backs. We relate to the extraordinary survival situations — such as the Holocaust — because of the little things we ourselves do to survive.

Pianist Wladislaw Szpilman (Brody) in pre-war Warsaw has a bright future; already a world-famous concert pianist, he is young, handsome, talented and outgoing. The world is his oyster.

Unfortunately, this oyster is tainted. Nazi Germany takes over Poland so quickly that Szpilman, busy in the studio for the past week and out of touch, has not read the papers and is so completely unaware that his country has been invaded that he doesn’t understand when he hears explosions and sees flying glass at the studio.

The situation deteriorates. As the rights of Jews become more and more restricted, eventually they are herded into the small area that would come to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The horrific becomes the everyday. People starve to death in the streets. Jews are pulled aside by Nazi officers at random and shot like animals. Then, the Ghetto is cleared, and things become even worse.

Through it all, Szpilman does what he must in order to survive. Relying mostly on the kindness of friends and admirers, he hides out after escaping the train to the death camps, and witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, the brutal Nazi suppression and eventually, the end of the war. Szpilman is not a fighter, although he wants to be more heroic. His bravery does not come in physical courage, fighting a ruthless enemy. His bravery is internal, facing starvation, loneliness and death. Throughout, the hope that he will again someday play his piano in front of a packed concert hall sustains him.

There have been many movies depicting the horrors of the Holocaust. Although Szpilman is Jewish, this is not a Jewish story per se. Whether or not Szpilman is a devout man or not is never explored. This is one man’s story in a world gone completely insane. It is his muse more than his God that sustains Wladislaw Szpilman, and with everything taken away from him – his family, his friends, his home, his career – his muse cannot be, and that is where the triumph and the spirit of this movie lies.

Brody won an Oscar for his performance here, as did director Roman Polanski, himself a Polish Holocaust survivor. Brody’s Academy Award is richly deserved; his performance is subtle, nuanced and rarely out of control. There are many wonderful moments, most accomplished when Brody is alone without another actor to play off of, a notoriously difficult achievement. I will always remember the scene in which Szpilman is hiding in an apartment in which there is a piano, which he dares not play for fear he will be discovered. But play it he does, his hands several inches above the keys, playing music only Szpilman can hear, and by the expression of satisfaction on his face, it is enough. Kretschmann also is noteworthy for playing a sympathetic German officer.

The Pianist is wrenching at times in its unflinching look at the horrors of everyday life in occupied Poland, so the squeamish may want to have their finger on the fast-forward button. However, the triumphant story of a man defying impossible odds, and Brody’s classic performance make this a must-see on home video.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-winning performance for the ages by Brody. Inspiring and uplifting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The brutality and horror of the Nazi reign is depicted without blinking so this may be upsetting to the sensitive sorts.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence and occasional bad language, but the images of death and torture may be too much for some.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Brody is the youngest actor to date to win the Oscar – he was 29 at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an excellent feature on the real Szpilman with interviews with him and Polanski describing their own experiences during the occupation.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $120.1M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Bullet to the Head

Ong Bak 2: The Beginning


Ong Bak 2: The Beginning

The reason elephants never forget – elephant school!

(2008) Action (Magnet) Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree, Sarunyu Wongkrachang, Nirut Sirichanya, Santisuk Phromsiri, Primorata Dejudom, Phetthai Wongkamlao, Pattama Panthong, Suppakorn Kitsuwan, Natdhanal Kongthong, Prarinya Karmkeaw. Directed by Tony Jaa

 

Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord. Apparently the word didn’t make it to Tony Jaa’s neck of the woods. Vengeance is most definitely his.

This is mostly sort of kind of a prequel to his international hit Ong Bak which introduced Jaa, a muay thai champion to the world. Here he also assumes the director’s chair and sets the action 600 years in the past. Tien (Jaa) is the young son of Lord Sihadencho (Phromsiri), ruler of an outlying province. Tien is impetuous and unruly; he wants very badly to be trained in martial arts but his father insists on giving him dance lessons, much to Tien’s chagrin.

Mysterious assassins, sent by Lord Rajasena (Wongkrachang), massacre the family of Sihadencho, with Tien the lone survivor. His troubles are far from over; he is captured by slave traders who tire of his non-cooperation and throw him unarmed into a pit with a gigantic crocodile. Right about then a bandit gang, the Pha Beek Khrut, attacks the village where the slave traders are headquartered and the leader of the Pha Beek Khrut, Chernang (Chatree) tosses a knife to young Tien and tells him his fate is in his own hands. When Tien proves victorious, Chernang takes young Tien under his wing and gives him the martial arts training he’s so long desired.

Soon Tien is fully trained with weapons and hand-to-hand combat both and has become a formidable warrior, likely the best in all Thailand. The time is right to claim vengeance, going after the slave traders first and then Lord Rajasena himself by posing as a dancer during a celebration. However, Lord Rajasena is no fool and has protections in place that even Tien will be hard-pressed to breach, but Tien expects that. What he doesn’t expect is betrayal from very close at hand.

This is kind of a mess. While the first Ong Bak is action packed beginning to end, this one is less so; the story is disjointed and confusing and there really is nothing linking it to the first movie whatsoever (although the third movie in the trilogy serves that purpose). At times you almost want to tear out your hair and just throw the disc through the nearest window.

The good news is that the best thing about the first film is still here and that’s Jaa’s amazing muay thai moves. The climactic battle scene is as good a martial arts sequence as I’ve seen in any film and would be worth the rental all by itself.

Jaa has plenty of charisma which transcends language; he’s an appealing character who could follow Jet Li into the mainstream Hollywood spotlight. My problem is that I didn’t really feel his rage; considering all that he went through that’s key to the movie, giving the audience a surrogate for their own outrage. Jaa doesn’t get mad so much as he gets even; part of it is that getting even isn’t really enough.

I read another review in which the reviewer suggested turning off the sound and subtitles and just watching it as a martial arts exhibition and that’s not a bad idea. I’m not sure if the screenwriting was not up to par, or if Jaa’s inexperience as a director was the culprit, or if the many production problems got the best of the filmmakers or maybe if it’s just a cultural thing. At the end of the day this just isn’t a very good movie unless you happen to like martial arts so much you don’t care if the story makes sense. In that case, this is for you.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing muay thai sequences and beautiful cinematography of sweeping Thai vistas.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Confusing and incomprehensible; ending is abrupt and jarring.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots and lots of martial arts violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jaa left the production for two months while financing for the film was in flux.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.9M on an unreported production budget; undoubtedly this made good money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Protector

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Ong Bak 3

Centurion


 

Centurion

Michael Fassbender runs for the nearest X-Men movie.

(2010) Swords and Sandals (Magnet) Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, David Morrissey, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, JJ Field, Liam Cunningham, Imogen Poots, Andreas Wisniewski, Paul Freeman, Ulrich Thomsen, Rachael Stirling, Eoin Macken. Directed by Neil Marshall

War can be boiled down to a basic truth – one group, who want the other to leave, against the second group, who only want to go home. I suppose a lot of wars would end with much less bloodshed if the second group just did what the first wanted – and what they wanted to do anyway.

Quintus Dias (Fassbender) is a centurion of the Roman army (which means he commands 100 men) who survives a massacre in Caledonia (ancient Scotland) where the Picts hold sway. He joins up with the Ninth Legion, commanded by General Titus Virilus (West). Virilus is the commanding officer that Quintus always wanted to have. Brave, bold and every inch a Roman.

But as things will sometimes do even in the best-led of armies, things go wrong. The Ninth is ambushed by the clever Picts who kill the bulk of the army and capture Virilus. Quintus knows his duty is to rescue his commanding officer and his friend but with only a handful of soldiers whose devotion to duty varies wildly from man to man to battle an entire army of vicious Picts, the prospects are grim.

Still, Quintus has to try but in the end the existence of their merry little band is discovered and the Picts send out Etain (Kurylenko), a beautiful, mute and remorseless hunter who hates everything Roman and for good reason. When the remaining Romans take refuge in the home of Arianne (Poots), a healer, things fall in place for a showdown. Will the Romans make it back to Roman lines, or will they fall alone and forgotten in a cold, harsh place far from home?

This could well be seen as an allegory for all war. Put U.S. Soldiers in Iraq, or Russian soldiers in Afghanistan, or French soldiers in Russia and it’s all interchangeable. Neil Marshall, who was responsible for one of the better horror movies of recent years with The Descent has a penchant for realistic looking gore, and his fight scenes show people getting hacked to death and it’s not pretty.

Although there are way too many shots of CGI blood jetting into the snow like a gruesome fountain – the practical blood seems far more realistic – there is a beauty to the bright red of the blood on the white and grey dismal landscape of the Inverness Mountains. There is a stark beauty to the movie that captures how those Romans must have felt – they may as well have been on the moon, so alien was the landscape to them.

Fassbender made this just as he was starting to get some key roles (to this point he was best known for Hunger and for his brief but memorable turn in Inglourious Basterds) and this was certainly a warning shot across the bow that here was a talent to be reckoned with. This is his movie to carry (although initially it doesn’t seem to be) and he does so quite nicely. He shows some charisma and acting skills; you can see why men would follow Quintus into battle.

Kurylenko was best known for her stint as a Bond girl in Quantum of Solace but she’s totally badass here. She kicks a lot of ass and because her character is mute, her ferocity is mainly in her body language and her eyes. Another reviewer compared her character with Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor as far as ass-kicking women go and he was right on the money. Etain is nobody to be trifled with.

I like that Marshall tried to make this as historically accurate as possible. What I don’t like is that the CGI was disappointing, and that there were scenes that simply didn’t work very well. The thing I liked the least was that after Quintus and Virilus the Romans were really indistinguishable from one another and all kind of blended together, making them all spear fodder and really giving the viewer no reason to identify with them or feel any connection with. That hurts the film overall in my opinion.

I’m a sucker for a good swords and sandals movie and this one is pretty solid, even if it isn’t as spectacular as something like, say, 300. Fassbender gives a good performance and even if it is essentially one gigantic chase sequence, it still gives you a little insight into the soldiers and what they’re fighting for. That’s an insight that serves military sorts from any era.

WHY RENT THIS: Fairly realistic from a historical point of view. One of the first instances where Fassbender shows his leading man potential. Kurylenko makes a formidable opponent.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is uneven in quality. CGI battle sequences are unconvincing. Most of the rest of the cast are made up of characters we’re unable to even tell apart.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly gruesome violence and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although it is thought that the Picts wore no clothing, the harsh condition on the location shoot made the filmmakers give in to necessity and design warm clothing for the actors to wear on the shoot.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on a $12M production budget; unfortunately this was a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Eagle

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Life