Our House


Something dark awaits at the bottom of the stairs.

(2018) Horror (IFC Midnight) Thomas Mann, Xavier de Guzman, Nicola Peltz, Percy Hynes White, Allison Hossack, Carlyn Burchell, Christine Horne, John Ralston, Lucius Hoyos, Robert B. Kennedy, Marcia Bennett, Aaron Hale, Kate Moyer, Stefanie Nakamura, Neil Whitely, Evan Marsh, Ryan Wilson, Jennifer Nichols. Directed by Anthony Scott Burns

 

The world is full of doors. Some are open, others are closed to us. Some of them should stay that way and others are downright dangerous to open even the tiniest of cracks.

Ethan (Mann) is a brilliant engineer/physicist who shares the dream of Nicola Tesla to make electricity wireless, available cheaply for anyone. He knows an invention like this could be his ticket to the good life; although he and his parents (Ralston, Hossack) are pretty well-off. Ethan’s studies make him essentially an empty chair in the house; his mom and dad (and brother Matt (White) and sister Becca (Moyer), a brooding teen and adorable moppet) wish he was home more often.

But Ethan is obsessed with his work and during a rare family gathering he cuts out early with his girlfriend Hannah (Peltz) to work on his creation in the deserted AI lab – except he’s not really supposed to be there. Things don’t go well at the lab – he doesn’t have enough power to make the device work – and ends up overloading the system and causing a campus-wide outage.

Things go from bad to worse when a call from home reveals that his parents have died in a car crash, leaving him to raise his two siblings alone. Three months later he has quit school and a promising future to work in a local electronics store. That doesn’t mean he’s given up on his project which he continues to work on in his spare time.

But his project has some unexpected side effects; it turns out that what he’s doing is amplifying the paranormal energy in the house, making it possible for the dead to communicate with the living and even materialize. The more power that Ethan draws with the help of a friendly neighbor (Kennedy) who works at the local power company (and whose wife recently committed suicide) the closer the spirits of his parents come to fully materializing. That would be good for Matt and Becca but extraordinarily bad as the range is beginning to widen and there are spirits who aren’t nearly as benevolent residing in the house.

There are some classic Spielberg-like qualities to the film; the close-knit suburban neighborhood, the family without parents, the bittersweet tone and the young genius. However, this isn’t yo Daddy’s Spielberg; this is something else. As with films like The Conjuring series, Although this doesn’t have the budget or the publicity push of those films, it actually does a pretty solid job of building up the tension slowly before going into overdrive at the end.

The juvenile leads have to carry the movie and they do a pretty good job overall. Poor Katie Moyer is given a pretty cliché sensitive little girl role who is the first to start sensing the return of her parents, who sleeps in her big brother’s room and is seemingly the most torn up over the loss of her parents. In fact, all of the young juveniles handle the difficult emotion of grief surprisingly well.

The special effects are pretty slim pickings but that’s okay; the filmmakers get a lot out of a little. There does appear to have been some post-production controversy; the director of photography pulled his name from the credits and the electropop duo Electric Youth withdrew their score after changes were made during Post and released the music on the soundtrack to a lost movie.

However to be honest I was surprised to find out about those issues well after I saw the movie. When I was watching it I didn’t get a sense that the movie was jumbled the way you normally do when producers or a distributor get involved in the creative process. The movie held its cohesion pretty well and the build up to an explosive climax was right on the money. I found it to be a truly effective horror film that while not quite as good as Hereditary was right up there in the same tax bracket.

REASONS TO GO: The suspense builds slowly but the ending is intense. Haunted house films are particularly well-done these days; this one is among the best. The scares are unrelenting. There is some good real-world content as well.
REASONS TO STAY: Becca is a little bit too cliché the sensitive little girl.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, a little bit of suggestive content, some terror and child peril and some disturbing horrific images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was significantly altered during post-production; even the titled was changed from Breathing.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews: Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Babadook
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story

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Deck the Halls


A Christmas guilty pleasure.

A Christmas guilty pleasure.

(2006) Holiday Comedy (20th Century Fox) Danny DeVito, Matthew Broderick, Kristin Davis, Kristin Chenoweth, Alia Shawkat, Dylan Blue, Kelly Aldridge, Sabrina Aldridge, Jorge Garcia, Fred Armisen, Gillian Vigman, Ryan Devlin, Sean O’Bryan, SuChin Pak, Jackie Burroughs, Garry Chalk, Nicola Peltz, Zak Santiago, Jill Morrison, Brenda M. Crichlow, Eliza Norbury. Directed by John Whitesell

The Holly and the Quill

There comes a time in all our lives when we laugh at something we know we shouldn’t laugh at. We know it’s wrong, we know we shouldn’t do it but we still do it anyway. When it happens in a movie, we call it a “guilty pleasure.”

Dr. Steve Finch (Broderick) is a mild-mannered optometrist in one of those picture postcard perfect Massachusetts towns that looks like it sprung fully formed from a Currier and Ives print. He’s also the Christmas guy around town, the one who decorates his home tastefully but noticeably, the guy who’s in charge of the Christmas pageant, the one who buys his family matching ugly Christmas sweaters. His children Madison (Shawkat) and Carter (Blue) are somewhat disinterested in their father’s regimented, traditional Christmas that allows no deviation from the norm. Although his wife Kelly (Davis) wishes that her husband was less rigid, she tolerates the situation because being obsessed with Christmas is way better than being obsessed with Internet porn, right?

Then across the street moves in used car salesman Buddy Hall (DeVito) with his…ummmm, statuesque wife Tia (Chenoweth)  and his buxom blonde twin daughters Ashley (K. Aldridge) and Emily (S. Aldridge). Buddy is going through an epic midlife crisis. He has never really attained any sort of real success and is living in a house he really can’t afford. The neighborly Finches invite his family over for dinner and Buddy’s inferiority complex is deepened when he discovers that the satellite locating website MyEarth (which is Google Earth without paying Google the big bucks for using their name) shows his neighbor’s house just fine but his is too small to be seen from space. Then it hits him – what if he put up a Christmas display so bright that it can be seen from space?

This puts Buddy in a frenzy of light buying and Christmas pageantry which doesn’t sit well with Dr. Steve who is threatened by a usurper for his title of the Christmas guy around town. He sets off to sabotage Buddy’s efforts which he sees as garish and lurid. The two begin a series of escalating pranks on one another, culminating in both their wives taking their children out of the house and staying elsewhere, leaving the two obsessed Christmas porn lovers to duke it out between themselves. Will Buddy win and get his wish to be noticed, to accomplish something monumental? Or will Steve win and get his wish for a traditional Christmas?

Critics savaged the movie when it came out and in a lot of ways I can’t really blame them. The humor often falls flat and is generally crude, the script preposterous, the plot outlandish and the acting mainly phoned in. Broderick, whose character is covered at one point with camel spit and sheep doo-doo from a living nativity that Buddy throws up, was heard to mutter on the set “I’ve hit rock bottom” on a regular basis and DeVito literally flew in on the days he was scheduled to shoot, acted his scenes and left without interacting with any of the cast. Supposedly everyone on set was fully aware they were cooking up a turkey.

And yet…and yet…I still find myself strangely drawn to the movie. In some demented way, it appeals to me. I think deep down it is supposed to be a commentary on how we’ve warped Christmas in this country with rampant consumerism and a terminally competitive attitude towards showing how much Christmas spirit we have (We’ve got spirit – yes we do! We’ve got spirit – how ’bout YOU?!?) particularly in decorating our homes. Not that saying we’ve lost our way in terms of the season is anything new or earth-shattering – Miracle on 34th Street was making the same point 59 years earlier – but it’s a point that bears repeating.

Chenoweth, one of Broadway’s brightest stars and who always impresses when she gets a movie to work on, is one of the highlights. She’s the blonde bimbo who turns out to be a bit smarter than anyone gives her credit for, seeing her husband for what he is and loving him anyway although when his excesses threaten the family stability, she exhibits a lot more strength than you’d imagine she has. Maybe I have a critic-crush on the woman, but she’d make reading the phone book an interesting movie.

I mentioned the humor earlier but I neglected to mention how mean-spirited it is. For example, Buddy and Steve are watching the Christmas pageant and a trio of scantily dressed young women come out and do a provocative dance. Both men cheer and call out “Who’s your daddy?!” repeatedly until the girls turn around – and it’s their daughters. They run to the nearest Catholic church and wash out their eyes with Holy Water. That doesn’t sound like it should be appealing but remember how I mentioned laughing at things you shouldn’t? There ya go.

Sure, the ending is a bit treacly and has that timeless Christmas movie trope of healing all wounds with the singing of carols but somehow those things still work even though you know they’re coming. I guess I’m just a sucker for Christmas spirit, neighbors looking out for each other and Currier and Ives New England villages. Here in Florida, Christmas is a whole different thing where we get milder weather (although we can get heatwaves from time to time) and almost never see any snowfall. My wife longs for a White Christmas which is something I haven’t experienced since I was a little boy in Connecticut which was so long ago that dinosaurs roamed the Earth back then. Okay, not really but you get the (snow) drift.

This might not be your cup of cocoa and I respect that but if you’re looking for guilty pleasure Christmas entertainment, you can do much worse (Santa Claus vs. the Martians anyone?) and you might, like I did, get suckered in by the sticky sweet ending. Christmas can do funny things to a person.

WHY RENT THIS: A primer in tacky Christmas displays. Chenoweth is always a pleasure.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Disagreeable leads. Mean-spirited.
FAMILY VALUES: Some crude humor and brief bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The production used LED lights on the house that allowed programmable effects and was installed by Color Kinetics of Boston. The nodes used just 7,150 watts of energy or the equivalent of four hair-dryers, and 126 amps which is the average for 1 1/3 homes.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a blooper reel as well as interviews with young actor Dylan Blue. Featurettes on filming a Christmas movie in July, the design of Buddy’s Christmas light display and the building of the house sets are also included.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.2M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (streaming only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jingle All the Way
FINAL RATING: 6/10 (Talk about a Christmas gift…)
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill concludes

Transformers: Age of Extinction


Never mess with Mark Wahlberg's car.

Never mess with Mark Wahlberg’s car.

(2014) Science Fiction (DreamWorks) Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Titus Welliver, Sophia Myles, Bingbing Li, T.J. Miller, James Bachman, Thomas Lennon, Charles Parnell, Erika Fong, Mike Collins, Geng Han, Zou Shiming, Richard Riehle, Peter Cullen (voice), Patrick Bristow, Cleo King, Jessica Gomes, Melanie Specht, Abigail Klein. Directed by Michael Bay

After the Transformers trilogy had come to an end, the thought was that the series would continue with an all-new cast and a new director. Well, only half of that equation turned out to come true – but could Bay sustain the same popcorn momentum he had delivered with the first trilogy?

Five years after the events of Transformers: Dark of the Moon devastated Chicago, the CIA has a special task force led by the overly macho James Savoy (Welliver) hunting down what Decepticons are left. Except there are none left and now he is hunting Autobots, with the full blessing of his CIA liaison Harold Attinger (Grammer). Seems a pretty harsh way to treat the guys who basically saved our bacon in Chicago.

Meanwhile, out in Texas, would-be inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is basically at the end of his financial rope. Eking out a living repairing electronic devices, most of his inventions are a circuit shy of a load. With his hottie daughter Tessa (Peltz) ready to go to college and in need of pants that aren’t Daisy Dukes (who wears short shorts? Tessa do!) not to mention in a date-free state until she graduates from high school, Cade is fending off real estate agents who are ready to sell his home out from under him and pretty much behind on every bill he can be behind in. Oddly enough for a Texan, he doesn’t seem to be blaming Obama for his situation.

While a movie theater owner has him repairing some vintage projectors, he discovers an old beat-up truck – not a pick-up but a semi – he gleefully figures he can scrap the thing for parts and make enough to get his daughter a down payment on her college tuition, but as he and his buddy Lucas (Miller) find out, this is not an ordinary truck. Being that this is a Transformers movie, you know what it is. In fact, it’s not even just any Autobot – it’s Optimus Prime (Cullen) himself.

Once the government figures out that this is Optimus himself, Attinger sends out Savoy with his strike team’s secret weapon – a mechanical creature named Lockdown who is a bounty hunter with a particular yen to capture Optimus Prime and bring him back to the Creators of the Autobots and Decepticons to become slave labor for them once again. And the rest of the Autobots will be broken down and melted, their metal – called Transformium – some of which remains on Earth in small amounts – used to create a new mechanical race that is under human control, specifically under the control of billionaire industrialist Joshua Joyce (Tucci).

This pits the few remaining Autobots – including Bumblebee, Hound, Drift and Ratchet – against the might of the American government, the new automaton named Galvatron who turns out to have the mechanical DNA of a familiar foe, and the might of Lockdown with his advanced weapons and his space ship. However, they will find new allies from the distant past in an ancient place.

The movie rips across Texas, Chicago, Beijing and Hong Kong and levels a lot of real estate in the process which is pretty much par for the course when it comes to this franchise. As the second half of the movie ensues, the human actors are less participants than dodgers of falling masonry and their dialogue is mostly cries of “OPTIMUS!” and “Look out!” or things along those lines. Other than the voices of Optimus and Galvatron, not one actor returns from the previous trilogy. This has been characterized as a reboot but it isn’t really but a continuation along the same road with different actors.

Wahlberg is the movie’s secret weapon; he makes a much better hero than Shia LaBeouf did as the neurotic Sam Witwicky. My complaint is that they make Wahlberg something of a clownish inventor and then once they get out of Texas, there’s almost none of his skills utilized as an inventor. He may as well have been a car mechanic or an X-ray technician or a data entry clerk. We spend a good deal of time in the first third of the movie establishing Cade as a hapless inventor whose inventions generally don’t work and then they do nothing with it the rest of the way. It’s a waste of the filmmakers time as well as the audience. I call it “wasted exposition.”

The action sequences, particularly the robot CGI are the best yet. We see much more detail on the Autobots and their foes, and they look banged up like ‘bots that have been in a good deal of battle. Those, like my son, who are all about robots battling will be very happy because there is a lot of that here. And yes, there are Dinobots as well – which is bound to put old fans of the original series in a happy place.

The movie is nearly three hours long and feels it. Some movies go that long and you barely notice and are sad when the movie finally ends; this one has you checking your watch at the two hour mark. Easily a good 45 minutes of the movie could have been trimmed without hurting the movie overly much. Plus there is a kind of sameness here – if you’ve seen the first three movies, nothing here should be overly surprising to you. Nothing really surpasses the battle of Chicago from Dark of the Moon either.

So while this still remains a summer popcorn movie, it isn’t as good as the last one in the series to my mind. I was pretty numb by the end of the movie rather than exhilarated. This is said to be the first of a new trilogy with Wahlberg in the lead but frankly, I’d be just as happy if the franchise called it a day after this one.

REASONS TO GO: Some pretty nifty action sequences. Wahlberg an improvement over Shia LaBeouf.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long – like waaaaay overly long. Lacks energy. Story not particularly much of a change from other installments in the series.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and violence, occasionally foul language (but not too foul) and some sexual innuendo,

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bay was originally planning to pass on the franchise to another director and remain on in only a producer’s capacity. After visiting the Transformers attraction at Universal Studios Hollywood however, after seeing the enthusiastic long lines for the attraction he came to the realization that he wasn’t quite done with the series yet and elected to remain on for the fourth film with an entirely new cast.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battleship

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: How to Train Your Dragon 2

New Releases for the Week of June 27, 2014


Transformers: Age of ExtinctionTRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

(Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz, Stanley Tucci, Jack Reynor, Kelsey Grammer, Sophia Myles, Li Bingbing, Robert Foxworth, John Goodman, Ken Watanabe. Directed by Michael Bay

With Chicago laid waste but humanity safe for now, the Transformers have become persona non grata as the picking up of pieces commences. However, a new and ancient threat has the Earth set right in its crosshairs and Optimus Prime must turn to a new set of humans if this threat is to be defeated – if it can be defeated at all.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, promos and B-roll video here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D (opens Thursday)

Genre: Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, language and brief innuendo)

Ek Villain

(Balaji) Sidharth Malhotra, Ritesh Deshmukh, Shraddha Kapoor, Aamna Sharif. After his lover is brutally murdered by a serial killer, a man decides to take the law into his own hands and bring the murderer to justice. As he chases down his nemesis, the lines between good and evil begin to blur and melt into one another until it is impossible to tell light from darkness.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood/Action

Rating: NR

Obvious Child

(A24) Jenny Slate, David Cross, Gaby Hoffman, Richard Kind. A young woman struggles to make it as a stand-up comic, working a day job to make ends meet. Things however go horribly wrong as she loses her day job, gets dumped by her boyfriend and discovers she is pregnant. Happy Valentine’s Day indeed. She will use her ability to find humor in any situation as the courage that she uses to get up on stage will now be necessary to help her make it in real life. This played the most recent Florida Film Festival and was one that I’m looking forward to seeing.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for language and sexual content)

Eye of the Hurricane


 

Eye of the Hurricane

Grant Collins' Popeye impression never fails to get a laugh.

(2012) Drama (EntertainmentOne) Melanie Lynskey, Brian Doyle-Murray, Nicola Peltz, Campbell Scott, Jose Zuniga, Gregory Cruz, Grant Collins, Wendi Motte, Joyce Guy, Colin Ford, Eddie Bowz, Andrew Wilson Williams, Ben Sabet, Christopher James Forrest, Julie Ann Dinneweth. Directed by Jesse Wolfe

 

What happens during a natural disaster is sometimes not nearly as devastating as what happens in its aftermath. Sometimes the worst part of picking up the pieces is realizing that the pieces will never be reassembled in quite the same way ever again.

A small town in Florida has been hit by a devastating hurricane and stands in ruins. Electricity and water are out and most of the residents live in a tent city. Amelia Kyte (Lynskey) is in a state of shock; her husband, who flies a hurricane hunter for the Air Force, hasn’t returned and she holds vigil at the local base (which itself was severely damaged in the storm) until she gets some news, which isn’t forthcoming. In fact, she isn’t even allowed on the base nor will anyone in charge talk to her about the fate of her husband, or whether he is alive or dead or even missing.

She is far too involved in her own grief to pay much attention to her children; 16-year-old Renee (Peltz) who is forced to fill out forms and watch out for her little brother, 9-year-old Homer (Collins) who lost his eye in the storm. Homer is sure that if they find the missing eye that it can be put back in his head no harm no foul. To this end he enlists Abby Nelson (Motte), his best friend and maybe the toughest girl in town.

A local fisherman, Bill Folsom (Scott), is trying to extract his boat out of the water where it is blocking the ramp, irking other fishermen who know that the ramp is needed for the crane they’ve hired to pull their own boats out of the water as well. Bill is sweet on Amelia and has been for a long time. He keeps watch on Homer as much as he can, but has a tendency to do and say the wrong thing – like telling Homer tales about the Seminole (Cruz), a local figure reputed to have magical powers. Eventually, Homer gets it into his head that the Seminole might be able to use his magic to help find Homer’s eye.

Bill is trying to work some magic of his own, spending nights and what’s left of his cash to repair Amelia’s house and making it livable again so that maybe he could move in there with her sometime down the line. In the meantime, Renee has fallen for a married relief worker (Zuniga) and is frustrated and fed off with her mom who is completely self-absorbed. By the time word finally comes through and Amelia re-joins the land of the living, it may well be too late to repair the rift that has grown between her and her daughter – or to save her son, whose own obsession has led him to attempt something incredibly dangerous.

I really wanted to like this movie; the premise is intriguing and there are some solid performers in the cast. Unfortunately, there are also a whole lot of logical lapses. For one thing, no military base – even one that’s compromised as this one was – is going to allow the wife of one of their own to sit outside their gates wondering if her husband is dead or alive. They would at least give her some information and if not, assign someone to help her family out. They wouldn’t just leave her hanging like that.

And FEMA be damned, the Red Cross wouldn’t have one or two case workers to handle a tent city like that. A place like that would be swarming with personnel and there’d be evidence of electrical workers trying to restore power. Here the town is left pretty much left forgotten and yet it’s possible to drive to Miami where there are lights, bars that are open and serving beer to minors. I’m not sure if the filmmakers knew the legal drinking age here is 21, but they depict beer being served to people clearly identified as 16 years old without being carded. No bar is going to risk their liquor license like that.

Those are just the few off the top of my head but you get the drift. Little things like that annoy me, I have to admit. What’s worse is that the juvenile actors cast in the parts of Abby and Homer don’t come off as being real kids. That might be because the parts weren’t written that way, but they act more like kids on a TV show rather than kids who have been through a major disaster and in Homer’s case, have been injured to the tune of a lost eye. While I can see Homer’s obsession with recovering that eye and of boredom and lack of supervision causing them to get into trouble, there are times that Homer just is too much like Bobby Hill in “King of the Hill;” a little bit too snarky. Same goes for Abby; she was acting like a kid out of a Tyler Perry movie.

The sad thing there’s really a movie here. Scott, Lynskey, Zuniga and Peltz all deliver solid performances and while Lynskey’s Amelia was annoying early on as you got to know the situation her motivations became pretty clear and suddenly she was a bit more sympathetic.

It’s really hard sometimes to critique efforts like this; for one thing, we’re not talking big budget Hollywood productions here and I know that the filmmakers want to tell the story the best way they can. Unfortunately, I can’t in all conscience say that I liked this movie and I can’t for the same reason recommend it without a whole lot of caveats.

REASONS TO GO: Scott, Lynskey, Peltz and Zuniga do well.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many lapses in logic. Juvenile actors too inconsistent.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there and some implied sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted on March 15 at the Omaha Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trouble the Water

SWAMP BOAT LOVERS: There are several different types of boats regularly used in Florida swamps and the Everglades on display here, from rowboats to skiffs to power boats.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Girl Model