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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Tomorrowland


George Clooney has a chat with Brett Robertson over her TV viewing habits.

George Clooney has a chat with Brett Robertson over her TV viewing habits.

(2015) Science Fiction (Disney) George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Britt Robertson, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn, Keegan-Michael Key, Chris Bauer, Thomas Robinson, Pierce Gagnon, Matthew MacCaull, Judy Greer, Matthew Kevin Anderson, Michael Giacchino, D. Harlan Cutshall, Shiloh Nelson, Xantha Radley, David Nykl, Priya Rajratham. Directed by Brad Bird

The future is a subject that fascinates most of us. How we view the future tends to be a reflection of how we view the present; in the optimistic days of the early and mid-60s, the epoch of the New York World’s Fair, there was optimism. Things would get better and our ingenuity would get us there. The future was full of sleek buildings, mass transit via monorail, wondrous scientific advances, cities on the moon, flying cars, jetpacks and cheerful, smiling people without a care in the world. In short, a theme park.

These days the way we view the future is dark and hopeless. Inevitably in our view of the future civilization has collapsed, resources have been depleted and humanity is on the verge of extinction. There are no gleaming cities, no jetpacks, no cheerful, smiling people; just dirty, destitute denizens of a hardscrabble world desperate to survive in a world where survival on any given day is no picnic. Welcome to the 21st century, no?

In Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, yet another Disney film based on a theme park attraction – or, in this case, an entire themed zone within a theme park – there is a return to that bright shiny future but in this particular case, the future isn’t all that it used to be.

Meet Frank Walker (Robinson). He’s a brilliant kid living out in the sticks who dreams of jetpacks and shiny cities and heads over to the 1964 World’s Fair with stars in his eyes and a (nearly) working jetpack under his arm for a competition for inventors. His invention is rejected but a little girl named Athena (Cassidy) gives Walker a pin and tells him to follow her and her group. Walker follows them onto the It’s a Small World ride via which he is transported to an alternate dimension, one in which the future is now. He has arrived in Tomorrowland, a place where humanity’s most creative minds, most artistic souls and most brilliant scientists have gathered to create a Utopia. In short, not unlike the SyFy Channel’s Eureka.

Flash forward 50 years and over to Central Florida where Eddie Newton (McGraw), a NASA engineer, is given charge of dismantling the launch site for the Space Shuttle after which he’ll be out of a job. His spunky daughter Casey (Robertson), who has a brilliant intuitive mind and is able to figure out almost instantly “how things work,” has been repeatedly sabotaging his efforts. One of her attempts at sabotage gets her caught and lands her in jail. When she goes to collect her things, there’s a strange pin among them – one she didn’t have before. Whenever she touches it, she is transported to Tomorrowland, although it is more of an immersive hologram of Tomorrowland. And there’s a time limit on the pin’s battery, after which it  ceases working.

Casey is obsessed with finding Tomorrowland and her search takes her to the doorstep of Frank Walker (Clooney), now a grizzled old hermit whose house looks dilapidated yet is taking in more electrical current than Walt Disney World. It turns out that Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland, and that he harbors a terrifying secret; while in Tomorrowland he built a machine able to look into the future and to his horror, it showed that the end of the human race was approaching. And it appears that Casey may hold the key to stopping it, but they have to get to Tomorrowland to do it. And there are some killer robots who are dead set on making sure that doesn’t happen.

Bird has created a marvelous universe that is brilliant to watch. Sure, it’s a bit of a retro vision but he has managed to make it visually stunning, an extension of the future worlds we saw 50 years ago (that are supposed to be now) but modernizing them somewhat. Tomorrowland thus becomes believable, at least to 2015 eyes.

In a movie in which ideas and dreams are extolled, Bird has several of his own and they bear thinking about. For example, he posits that because we’re conditioned to think that the future is bleak and awful, that we are making it come to pass. It’s a concept not without merit. The news about our present is unrelentingly bleak, when you consider climate change, income inequality, peak oil, religious fanaticism, water and food shortages, overpopulation and all the other issues that are affecting our survival. Hollywood also tends to make big budget sci-fi movies about futures in which mankind is not prospering. Post-apocalyptic wastelands are easier and cheaper to create than futuristic utopias, after all.

The constant Disney references in the movie are probably delightful to most Disneyphiles, from visions of Space Mountain on the edge of the frame during a visit to Tomorrowland, to the It’s a Small World ride in 1964 – which was actually filmed at the attraction in Anaheim, which is much longer than the original which was in the Pepsi Pavilion and not its own stand-alone facility. However, I’m betting those of you who have ridden the attraction are now cursing me because they know they won’t be able to get the song out of their heads for hours. In any case, there are references to Disney movies, Disney theme parks and Disney memorabilia throughout the movie and while most of it is subtle, some of it is blatant enough that it makes one feel like one is experience a 2 1/2 hour advertisement for Disney. But that isn’t the movie’s deadliest sin.

What I object to most about Tomorrowland is that the filmmakers have dumbed it down to appeal to a younger audience. Gigantic leaps in logic and common sense abound here as we get to watch a kid save the world. I don’t object intrinsically to having a kid be smart, but smarter than everyone else? Wisdom comes with experience; it isn’t something we are born with, something movies aimed at kids conveniently tend to overlook in order to stroke the fantasies of kids in that they’re smarter than the adults around them, and more able. While thankfully most of the adults in the film aren’t portrayed as buffoons as they often are in kid-oriented films, not one of them seems to have any sort of optimism within them whatsoever which defies the odds. I think making this too kid-oriented was a tremendous error. Look at the facts; on those Disney attraction-based films that have been completely kid-oriented (i.e. The Haunted Mansion, Country Bears) the box office has been anemic. On those that have aimed to be entertaining to all audiences (i.e. the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise) the box office was through the roof. Not all of it was Johnny Depp, mateys; a lot of it had to do with that most adults won’t watch Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network or the Disney Channel for very long.

Clooney puts aside his suave sex symbol image and plays an unshaven, pessimistic sort who out-Get Off My Lawns Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. He doesn’t flash his trademark grin very often in the movie, but remains engaging and charismatic nonetheless. I can’t say the same for Robertson however. I get that her character is supposed to be optimistic to the point of mania but she comes off as cloying instead. Worse, she seems to be overacting throughout, using broad gestures and expressions where subtlety would have been more appreciated. The 24-year-old Robertson is playing a young girl in her mid-teens and I get that girls that age are generally more dramatically inclined and that playing it over-the-top is more realistic than subtlety but it takes me out of the movie as I am continually reminded that someone is acting here.

This will probably rank as one of the summer’s greater disappointments. I had high hopes for it and was hoping that perhaps a new franchise might be brewing. The movie is doing pretty well at the box office but given its monster budget will have a hard time recouping all of it at the rate it is going.. I think if Bird had taken a page from Gore Verbinski’s book and appealed less to the youngest moviegoing audience and more to a more mature audience, this could have been a huge hit; it does have some admirable ideas to think about and is visually impressive but at the end of the day the things in the film that are annoying trump the things in the movie that are worthwhile. A world of tears, indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Nifty eye candy (not Clooney). Some fairly complex themes.
REASONS TO STAY: Dumbed down. Robertson overacts.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language, sci-fi violence (robots beating each other up) and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Casey confronts the holographic dog early on in the film, her footprints form a Hidden Mickey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mom and Dad Save the World
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Top Spin

The Prestige


The Prestige

Hugh Jackman and Andy Serkis examine a field of light.

(Touchstone) Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansen, Piper Perabo, Andy Serkis, Rebecca Hall, David Bowie, Roger Rees, Samantha Mahurin, Jim Piddock, Mark Ryan, Jamie Harris, Christopher Neame, Ron Perkins, Ricky Jay.  Directed by Christopher Nolan.

A magic trick is much like a three-act play, with the initial explanatory portion (the pledge), the turn – what you might call the plot complication – and the payoff, which is called in the business the prestige. As wily old Cutter (Caine) says, “It isn’t enough to make something disappear. You have to make it come back.”

Magicians Alfred Borden (Bale) and Robert Angier (Jackman) are both learning the craft of magic from a veteran stage performer in London in the late 19th century. Robert is a married man, whose passion for Sarah (Hall) is matched only for his ambition to be in the limelight. Sarah is also part of the act, but she must often act as a sort of mediator between her husband and Borden, who have become fierce rivals. When one of the most dangerous tricks in the act goes terribly wrong, a distraught Robert blames Alfred for it.

Time passes and Alfred, a great natural magician with little talent for showmanship, is beginning to develop a reputation and a following. He meets Julia (Perabo) and eventually marries her. They have a daughter named Jess (Mahurin) and as Alfred gets more and more popular, he buys his bride a home. Then, one terrible night, Alfred is performing his bullet catch, his most dangerous stunt. A mysterious stranger comes out of the crowd to assist with the trick, and things go awry for Alfred, resulting in the loss of two fingers on his left hand. The mysterious stranger is revealed to be Angier.

As Bordens’ fortune sours, so Angier’s soars. With the assistance of Cutter, he puts together a show that has the potential to be the toast of London. Angier is an adequate magician but a tremendous showman, charismatic and handsome. With pretty assistant Olivia (Johansen) urging him on, he is on the brink of success – when a mysterious stranger who looks a lot like Borden causes another trick to go wrong, maiming an audience member in the process. Angier’s show is closed by the disgruntled theater owner.

When Borden returns with an astonishing trick that neither Angier nor Cutter can figure out, Angier does his best to replicate it, but his attempts are exposed to a bemused audience by Borden. Humiliated and furious, Angier leaves London to find out the secret of the trick. He sends Olivia to work for Borden as a spy and she manages to retrieve Borden’s diary. Scorned and feeling used, she leaves Angier for Borden, creating an untenable situation for Borden’s wife.

Cracking the diary’s cipher, Angier travels to America to meet with the great Nicola Tesla (Bowie) and his acerbic assistant Alley (Serkis) to try to replicate the device that he built for Borden. Despite Tesla’s warnings, Angier persists. Finally, Tesla reluctantly relents. From that moment on, the confrontation between the two rival magicians is inevitable and there is no doubt that tragedy is certain.

As much as being a movie about magic, this movie is about obsession and the cost it takes on those who are gripped by it. Director Nolan keeps things taut and simple. Although there is a bit of a twist that arrives near the end (which just keeps on twisting, don’t you know), the plot is elegant in its simplicity. As with his previous classic Memento, Nolan’s writing is so flawless that no event is wasted, and everything eventually makes sense in its own internal logic.

Bale and Jackman both deliver performances that keep you interested in their characters. Neither character is written as a hero nor a villain, but with shades of both in their personality, leaning towards the villain more in both men. It is hard to root for either one of the magicians as they do some Very Bad Things to each other, but the story is so interesting and the acting so powerful that you just want to see where the story takes them.

Inevitably, this will be compared to The Illusionist which was released at nearly the same time and features a similar turn-of-the-century European backdrop and a magician as a central character. With a larger budget, Nolan is more reliant on special effects than the other, which is a bit of a throwback in feel and in direction to silent movies. The Prestige is all modern, a big ole Hollywood blockbuster, make no mistake.

What makes the movie work is that the characters are so single minded on their quest that they have forgotten what their quest truly was. In the end, they are just flailing away at each other, motivated by hatred, greed and the baser parts of man’s nature. It is inevitable that men who fall from grace so completely will come to a bad end. It is not unlike watching an auto race and waiting for that crash. You know its coming; you just don’t know when it will come and how bad it will be when it gets there.

WHY RENT THIS: Nolan ratchets up the tension and Bale and Jackman do some fine movie star-style work. A fascinating look at the inner workings of a magician’s trade.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It is difficult to root for either of the leads, who behave very badly towards one another. The McGuffin of Tesla’s machine stretches the line of credibility a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very disturbing imagery and violence, but definitely fine for teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Christian Bale played DC Comics’ Batman; Hugh Jackman played Marvel Comics Wolverine; in the Amalgam series in which characters from both universes were merged, Wolverine and Batman were mixed to create the single character Dark Claw.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Nine