Insidious: The Last Key


Someone needs a manicure badly.

(2018) Horror (Blumhouse/Universal) Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Bruce Davison, Aleque Reid, Ava Kolker, Pierce Pope, Javier Botet, Marcus Henderson, Amanda Jaros, Judith Drake, Hana Hayes, Thomas Robie, Josh Wingate, Danielle Kennedy, Melanie Gaydos, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins, Rose Byrne. Directed by Adam Robitel

 

Horror franchises can be very lucrative indeed for a studio. Look at the Friday the 13th franchise for Paramount, the Paranormal Activity franchise for the same studio and the Nightmare on Elm Street and the Conjuring universe for New Line. It’s hard to know where Lionsgate would be had it not for the money generated by the Saw franchise years ago.

Insidious has been part of a renaissance of horror franchises that have taken hold of studio imaginations. For the most part these horror franchises are very cheap to produce and can generate tens and even hundreds of millions of box office profits when all is said and done. They may not be prestige projects or win many awards – or even gain much critical respect – but they are vital to a studio’s bottom line. Insidious has for the most part (especially in the second two of the four chapters to date) followed the story of Elise Rainier, a psychic who is able to communicate with the dead and sometimes venture into a dimension she calls The Further in which the living and the dead can sometimes interact – although it is the supernatural who reign there.

Like the previous installment, this is a prequel. Elise Rainier (Shaye) is at home when she gets a call from a potential client in a small New Mexico town. When she hears the address, immediately it becomes obvious that she is terrified as she abruptly declines to take the job and hangs up.

That’s because the address is her own childhood home, now occupied by a lone man named Ted Garza (Acevedo). As a child (Kolker) and as a teen (Hayes) as her abilities were manifesting themselves, she was tortured by the souls of those who had died in the nearby prison where her abusive father (Stewart) works. He not only doesn’t believe in the supernatural, he thinks his daughter is crazy and whenever she confesses that she has witnessed something supernatural, she is beaten with a cane.

Eventually she runs off leaving her brother Christian to survive alone with his dad but not before she unknowingly allows a terrible entity into this world which ends up killing her loving and supportive mother (Ferrer). Troubled not only by the memories of the abuse she suffered but also haunted by the guilt over her mother’s death, she realizes she can’t find peace until she faces her own demons – literally. So with her assistants Specs (Whannell, who directed the last one) and Tucker (Sampson), she goes to Five Keys to do battle with evil.

There she’ll meet her now-grown brother (Davison) who hasn’t yet forgiven her for abandoning him, and his daughters Imogen (Gerard) and Melissa (Locke) who are both fetching which attracts the attention of Specs and Tucker but also Elise realizes that one of them may have inherited the gift/curse that she possesses.

Elise is one of the most admirable horror heroines ever created. Generally most horror franchises are about the monster and rarely is there a single hero that runs through the series. Insidious is the reverse of that (as is, to be fair, The Conjuring) but in the case of Elise, she is not a young person; Shaye is a rare hero of a certain age group (let’s call it AARP-friendly) who appeals to young people as well as others. She is grandmotherly at times but she kicks spiritual booty when she needs to. There has never been a heroine quite like her and in this film Shaye is at her absolute best.

In fact it’s safe to say that the acting is pretty solid all around. Sure, the two nieces are pretty much interchangeable and Whannell and Sampson occasionally try a little too hard for comedy relief but Davison is a savvy pro who compliments Shaye nicely and Ferrer does a bang-up job as the ill-fated mom. Acevedo also gets kudos for taking a character who has some depth and translating it into performance.

The Insidious series has never been gore-heavy and also quite frankly not really overloaded with scares as well, which makes it a target for some derision in horror fanboy circles. I’ve always appreciated that the scares in the first three movies are well-earned and if there are occasionally an over-reliance on jump scares (or startle scares as I like to call them) when they do go out to get you they generally succeed.

The one thing that keeps this from a higher score in my book is the ending; the final confrontation is a big letdown and is that unusual situation where it should have  gone on longer, even though because this is a prequel you pretty much know the outcome because…well, certain characters HAVE to survive or else the continuity is completely shot to hell. Of course, one of these days a franchise picture is going to shock the living daylights out of us by killing a character who is shown to have survived in one of the earlier films. Perhaps that will cause a paradox that will bring the whole universe to an end – or perhaps just a portion of it, like all politicians. That would be worth it, I’m sure we can all agree.

REASONS TO GO: This could be the best performance by Shaye in the series. In general, the acting is better than the average horror film.
REASONS TO STAY: This installment is a little bit less scary than other films in the franchise. The final confrontation between Elise and the demon is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing thematic content and imagery, horror violence, scenes of terror and occasional profanity. There are also a couple of scenes of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is meant to conclude the prequel series for the franchise, leading to sequels that may or may not continue the character of Elise Rainier.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Annabelle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Downsizing

Advertisements

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo)


Detective Dee don't need no steenkeen captions!

Detective Dee don’t need no steenkeen captions!

(2010) Adventure (Indomina) Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Chao Deng, Jean-Michel Casanova, Yan Qin, Jinshan Liu, Aaron Shang, Deshun Wang, Lu Yao, Jialu Zhang, Yonggang Huang, Richard Ng, Teddy Robin, Xiao Chen. Directed by Tsui Hark

One of the things I most like about Tsui Hark’s films is that often they contain everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes, that too) – adventure, outrageous plots, lush settings, fantasy, action, a kind of Peckinpah-ish loner hero, breathtaking martial arts and beautiful heroines. They don’t always make sense to Western eyes (and I suspect quite a few Eastern ones) but they are always pure entertainment. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed.

In seventh century China, the coronation for Empress Wu Zetian (C. Lau) approaches. She will be the first female empress in the history of China, so it’s a pretty big deal – and not everyone is happy about it. To placate her opponents (and perhaps as a monument to her own ego which was said to be considerable) she builds a gigantic Buddha statue with her own face. During an inspection, one of the architects bursts into flames unaccountably and perishes.

Police officer Pei Donglai (Deng) investigates, his suspicions turning to the surviving builder Shatuo (Leung) who lost a hand while imprisoned for taking part in a rebellion eight years prior. When Pei’s superior bursts into flame in front of the empress with Shatuo nowhere nearby, the empress consults the Chaplain, who communicates through a magic stag. The stag informs her that she needs to release Detective Dee (A. Lau) from prison, where he has been languishing in prison for leading the rebellion Shatuo was also jailed because of, for the past eight years.

The empress sends her attendant Shangguan Jing’er (Li) to fetch Dee from prison but shortly after leaving they are attacked by assassins. Later, while staying at an inn, she attempts to seduce Dee on the orders of the Empress but their coitus is interruptus, once again by assassins. Some guys just can’t catch a break.

When Dee sees a bird struck by one of the assassins arrows burst into flame when it comes into contact with sunlight, he examines the arrows and discovers they are coated in an unknown poison that does that very thing. After some research, he discovers that the poison is the extract of a rare fire beetle that was once used for medicinal purposes.

That sets Dee and his associates Jing’er and Pei – neither one of which he fully trusts – into a web of corruption, deceit and murder with the very throne of China at stake. The further Dee investigates, the fewer people he can trust and when he finally discovers the spider at the center of the web he will not just be fighting for his own life but the lives of thousands.

Like many Tsui Hark films (which include such Hong Kong classics as Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story) this has a mish-mash of genres that go flying at you like a storm of shuriken in a samurai movie. This isn’t as frenetically paced as some of his other films but when the action sequences come they come straight for your throat.

Andy Lau, one of the most popular action heroes in China, is at the core of this movie and he carries it with a mixture of CSI and wu xiu moves. Dee is a combination of Wong Kar Fei (a legendary Chinese martial artist) and Sherlock Holmes, his powers of deduction proving to be as formidable as his martial arts moves. Lau makes both sides of the character blend together and be believable – as believable as lead characters in a Tsui Hark movie get at any rate.

Carina Lau (no relation that I’m aware of) is positively regal as the empress, giving her a Queen Victoria-like “We are NOT amused” mien but with an exceedingly clever and politically savvy mind below the pomp and circumstance. She is quite capable of anything and could well be a terrible tyrant that will ruin China for centuries to come.  Lau carries off the part nicely, all the more impressive as this is her first feature role in four years.

There is a lot of CGI – a lot – and not all of it is top of the line which can be irritating to audiences used to much more of a blend between the real and the digital. The practical sets are magnificent however and breathtaking at times. While for the most part the film moves along, it also drags occasionally and might have benefitted from some further trimming although to be fair American audiences tend to be less patient with longer films than audiences elsewhere in the world.

This is entertainment with a capital E and most people except for real movie buffs don’t know a thing about it or Tsui Hark. While this isn’t his best work ever, it is certainly very representative of his style and you could do worse than using it as a starting point. Certainly if you’re looking for something different but not necessarily requiring a lot of brain power to enjoy this would be right up your alley. Give it a try – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Andy Lau is at his best, bringing gravitas and kickass martial arts moves. Carina Lau is regal. Production values are something truly to behold.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: CGI is weak in places. Could have been trimmed about 20 minutes off of the film and still have been okay.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and plenty of martial arts and fantasy violence, with some hints of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Detective Dee is based on a real Chinese folk hero, Di Renjie who lived during the Tang dynasty (approximately the 7th century) who became popularized in the West in a series of novels by Robert van Gulik where he was known as Judge Dee.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $51.7M on a $20M production budget; this was a huge hit in China and elsewhere in Asia.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cast a Deadly Spell

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Zero Dark Thirty

Les Miserables (2012)


Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman face off.

Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman face off.

(2012) Musical (Universal) Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson, Michael Jibson, Isabelle Allen, Charlotte Spencer. Directed by Tom Hooper

As a nation we love musicals. There’s something about the scope of them, the music, the spectacle that we just connect with. We love seeing them on Broadway but we also love seeing them in the movie theater. However, not all musicals translate well to the big screen.

Most folks are aware that this is based on the classic 1862 Victor Hugo novel and was adapted for the French stage by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil and later for English audiences at the West End by lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. It was a big hit on the Broadway stage in the 80s and won eight Tony awards in 1987.

The film production was taken up by Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) and boasts an all-star cast. The story concerns Jean Valjean (Jackman), arrested for stealing bread and serving a 19-year sentence for daring to feed his starving family. Released, he seems destined for a life of further crime as nobody will hire him since his papers identify him as a dangerous ex-convict. But an act of charity by the Bishop of Digne (Wilkinson) turns his outlook around. He realizes that in order to become the good man he once was, he must break parole and begin fresh.

That puts the obsessive Inspector Javert (Crowe) on his tail. Javert looks at the law as something of black and white, with those who commit crimes as criminals who can never change their natures. He sees Valjean as nothing more than a common criminal whose lot in life is to steal.

Valjean becomes a successful mill owner and becomes mayor of a small French provincial town. One of his employees is Fantine (Hathaway), a beautiful woman who rejects the advances of the lecherous Foreman (Jibson) and whose pay mostly goes to support her daughter Cosette (Allen) who is being looked after by the innkeeper Thenardier (Cohen) and his wife (Carter). The other women of the factory, jealous of her looks, get wind of her daughter and this gives the Foreman an excuse to fire her.

Fantine becomes immediately destitute, selling her hair, her teeth and eventually, her sex. She gets very ill and Valjean witnesses a client threatening to beat her up after she fends off his unwelcome advances. He sees that she is taken to the hospital and promises to send for Cosette. However he has something else to worry about; it seems that Jean Valjean has been caught – at least, someone who has been accused of being him and it appears that someone else will be going back to jail in his stead. This would appear to be the perfect solution but Valjean’s conscience can’t allow it so he goes to the trial and confesses. He leaves to go clear up his affairs, intending to surrender himself to Javert but he witnesses Fantine’s death and goes to fetch Cosette who now has nobody. He knows only he can save her from a life of abuse and takes her away from the Thenardiers, paying them 1500 francs to do so. Valjean and Cosette barely escape Javert and make their way to Paris.

There once again Valjean becomes prosperous and Cosette, now a beautiful young woman (Seyfried) has attracted the eye of Marius (Redmayne), a fervent young revolutionary who is the son of a wealthy man. Cosette falls deeply for Marius but he and his fellow revolutionaries led by the charismatic Enjolras (Tveit). The coming battle looks to be a slaughter of the revolutionaries and Valjean, who realizes Javert has spotted him again, knows that fleeing Paris would be the sensible thing to do but it would break Cosette’s heart.

One of the advantages that a film has is that it can put a more three dimensional feel to the story. A play is limited to the area of the stage; film can go on location or create landscapes of its own. A good translation won’t feel staged or confined. Oddly, that happens a lot here despite the often epic vistas.

One of the big problems I’ve had with Les Mis all along (and I know that this is sacrilegious) is that it’s too ambitious. Nearly every line is sung to the point where you long for some dialogue (there are a few lines here and there but not much) and quite frankly, the music doesn’t hold up for an entire two and a half hour long movie. A good deal of it is mediocre although there are several songs that are amazing (“Who Am I” and “I Dreamed a Dream” among them). This is more of an opera than a musical in that sense.

The performances here are pretty strong. Hathaway has justly received notice as delivering an Oscar-worthy performance and it seems a lock that she’ll get a best supporting actress nomination and most likely the win. The tortured and abused Fantine is a role that demands a great deal of the actress playing her and certainly Hathaway gives it everything she’s got and more.

Jackman does a pretty fine job as well. This is one of his finest performances ever. Having started out as a song and dance man, he should be a slam dunk for this but a tiny little complaint – I think that the key is just about on the high end of his range. It would have behooved the music director to move it down a couple of keys so that they could have gotten a better benefit of Jackman’s vocals.

Crowe has a nice voice but he almost seems to be in a different movie. He’s extremely low-key and doesn’t really pull off the obsessive quality of Javert. He’s a little too stoic here and the part really calls for someone who unravels and that just isn’t Crowe. He does a decent enough job however. Cohen and Carter (which sounds a bit like the name of a law firm) do reasonably well as the comic relief.

This might have been an excellent movie had this not been a musical/opera hybrid. A little more dialogue would have made it more palatable. This is a very emotional movie that requires little manipulation to get your tear ducts working overtime. That it’s sad is a given; the title is, after all, “The Miserable.” But be that as it may, there are some fine performances, enough to recommend the film but don’t go in there expecting the movie of the year. It certainly isn’t that.

REASONS TO GO: Some really amazing performances, particularly from Hathaway and Jackman. Nice comic relief from Cohen and Carter.

REASONS TO STAY: Too much singing for music that doesn’t hold up throughout. A little stage-y in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a suggestion of sexuality, some violence and adult themes. This isn’t a Disney musical folks; there’s some real suffering going on here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Seyfried and Hathaway have sung with Jackman at the Academy Awards, although on separate occasions.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100. The reviews seem to be pretty mixed but leaning somewhat towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chicago

WEST END LOVERS: Many of the extras and small parts in the film are played by West End veterans, many of whom have appeared in the West End version of Les Mis.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT; Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away

Lebanon


Lebanon

The perfect addition to any floral arrangement - a tank.

(2009) War Drama (Sony Classics) Yoav Donat, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss, Dudu Tassa, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Ashraf Barhom, Fares Hannaya. Directed by Samuel Maoz

 

War is hell, and hell can be made of iron, oil and cigarette smoke. It can be the stink of perspiration brought on by being trapped in a metal box in desert heat, the acrid smell of gunfire and the horrifying smell of charred flesh. War is hell and you can bring that hell with you.

In the 1982 Israeli-Lebanon conflict, the crew of a single tank – the commander (Tiran), the gunner (Donat), the loader (Cohen) and the driver (Moshonov) are given orders to clear out a Lebanese village that the Israeli Air Force has bombed into next week. After the gunner makes a hash out of a shot, the repercussions of his failure reverberate throughout the entire film.

Mainly we are inside the tank and see only parts of the crew – a face, a leg, a torso – and other than a few scenes our world is theirs. We see through the eyes of their targeting scope, and what they see is grim indeed.

Director Maoz was 20 years old when that war broke out and he served in the war as part of a tank crew (in fact Shmuel, the name of the gunner on the tank in the movie, is Maoz’s nickname). The experiences that are shown here are not unlike the ones he experienced himself; the horrible burden of taking a human life, the terror at being in the center of a barrage of fire, the tension of being lost behind enemy lines.

There aren’t many characters beyond the ones in the tank. There’s an officer (Strauss) who may or may not know what he’s doing, an interrogator (Barhom) who will do or say whatever is necessary to make his charge talk, and a captive (Tassa) who is in mortal danger from the interrogator but could turn on all of them in the blink of an eye.

From the sense that the movie invokes many of the tensions and horrors that those who serve in war experience, it is successful. Unfortunately, the acting performances vary wildly from ice cold and hard to read to wildly over the top and not believable. Moaz had wanted the actors to experience their roles more than play them and in casting he went less for acting experience and more for wartime experience. That has its pros and cons, the con largely being that some of the performances were a little too uneven. I like what he was trying to do; I just don’t think he had the cast that pulled it off completely. However, some of the performances – particularly that of Donat, Moaz’s surrogate and in a very real sense the audience surrogate as well, and also of Tiran, the officer holding his crew together by his fingernails – were memorable.

Be warned; this is a dimly lit film because of its location. The production design of the tank is extremely impressive; the belly is filthy, with oil, water, blood, urine and whatever other fluids are nearby pooling in the bottom, discarded cigarette butts and other trash floating in the muck. We don’t always get to fully appreciate the look but we appreciate the feel of the tank because we’re as close as a movie audience can get to being in one. The tank rattles, shakes, burps, vibrates and lurches like a living drunkard. It throws the men inside it around and rattles them around until their teeth chatter like novelty items. There is nothing glamorous about being in a tank crew and Moaz conveys this with stark honesty.

The movie is described as Das Boot in a tank and that’s probably the best and most profound description you’re going to get. If you loved that movie, you’re going to enjoy this one. This one isn’t quite as good – there’s nobody in it quite as compelling as Jurgen Prochnow’s Capt. Willenbrock – but it does invoke the same feeling of being alone in a tin can in a dangerous place where death can come at any moment.

WHY RENT THIS: Claustrophobic and realistic.  The tension is at a very high level throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is rather weak in places.

FAMILY VALUES: Being a war movie, there is some bloody violence related to war, plenty of bad language including some sexual references and a bit of nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While most home video has a making-of featurette on the disc, this one is a cut above the rest as this film had a particularly arduous journey from conception to screen and more than being a back-patting lovefest as most making-of shorts are, this one is actually interesting.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking that the movie broke even at best during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll