The Gift (2015)


Rebecca Hall investigates.

Rebecca Hall investigates.

(2015) Thriller (STX) Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Phillipps, Adam Lazarre-White, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce, Mirrah Foulkes, Nash Edgerton, David Denman, Kate Aselton, David Joseph Craig, Susan May Pratt, P.J. Byrne, Felicity Price, Melinda Allen, Jyothsna Venkatesh, Laura Drake Mancini, DaNae West, Stacey Bender, Beth Crudele. Directed by Joel Edgerton

The past has a way of rearing its head, ugly or not, when we least expect it. Sometimes it can be a song or a scent that brings it flooding back, or a chance meeting in a retail store. We are tied to our past as surely as we are tired to our choices.

Things are looking good for Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall). They are happily married, Simon recently got a major promotion (and is closing in on another) and they’ve just purchased a beautiful home with amazing views from floor-to-ceiling glass windows. What those in thrillers fail to appreciate is that glass is two-way – you can look out of it sure, but so can others look in.

While shopping for furnishings the couple run into Gordo (Edgerton), a sad-sack sort that was a classmate of Simon’s in high school. Simon can barely remember him, and Robyn takes pity on him; he seems a nice enough guy if a bit socially awkward. She invites him to dinner.

When Gordo starts leaving little gifts; a bottle of wine, glass cleaner, Koi carp for their pond, at first it seems like a nice gesture but it begins to get a little creepy. Then there are intimations of some sort of incident in the past between Gordo and Simon that was less than savory. Robyn also has her own skeletons; a miscarriage sent her spiraling into depression and drug abuse. She has gotten better lately but Simon still worries about it.

Then again, Simon seems to have issues of his own. The more we get to know these people, the less we actually do, all of which descends to an inevitable confrontation which leads to a shocking revelation.

This is Edgerton’s first feature as a director and if this is any indication, he has a bright future ahead of him in that regard. The pacing here is damn near perfect, neither too hurried but definitely moves along at a good clip. The result is we’re constantly on the edge of our seats without feeling like we’re missing anything.

Edgerton as a writer is also amazing; all of the main characters are nicely developed and are allowed to be imperfect. The twist at the end is brilliant and shocking, a rare thing these days when we think we just can’t be shocked. This is proof that not only can we be, but we can be surprised as well. A good movie buff appreciates that more than you can imagine.

Bateman gets a rare serious role and plays it very nicely, never overplaying the dramatic aspects (which some comic actors tend to do) but not underplaying it either. He uses his nice guy persona as a bit of a tool, allowing us to settle in to a particular viewpoint of who the character is, then slowly tears down that viewpoint as the character turns out to be something different. It shows Bateman to be an actor of enormous range; I wouldn’t be surprised to see higher-profile dramatic roles coming his way because of his performance here.

Edgerton has long been someone that “everyone” knows can act, but hasn’t really ascended into the Hollywood elite yet. There’s a good chance he will now, showing himself to be a massive talent behind the camera, but a great one in front of the camera as well. Like Bateman, he uses his edgy persona to his advantage to create certain expectations for the audience and then slowly strips them away. I’ve always liked Edgerton as an actor; now I like him even more.

Hall’s character is more brittle and fragile, and in some ways more colorless. She is just beginning to get it together after essentially a breakdown but the goings on here put her back teetering on the edge. Hall doesn’t really hit it out of the park like her colleagues do, but she turns in a solid performance that is bound to get her some notice from casting agents.

The creepy factor is extra high here as we watch the events unfold. Certainly the tension through the last third of the movie is high, but this isn’t a roller coaster ride so much as a dark ride in a boat through some really terrible scenes. This movie has been pretty much universally praised and for good reason; don’t read that as being excessive however – this isn’t an essential movie, just a really well-crafted thriller that is well worth your while. And that is essential enough.

REASONS TO GO: Effectively creepy. Nice twist. Good casting.
REASONS TO STAY: The camera is a bit static. Hall’s character is a bit bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of foul language and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because he wanted to focus on directing, Edgerton filmed all of his own scenes two weeks into shooting and had them completed in seven days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Ricki and the Flash

Drag Me to Hell


Drag Me to Hell

This isn't exactly the girl-on-girl action I had in mind.

(Universal) Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Jessica Lucas, David Paymer, Dileep Rao, Adriana Barraza, Chelcie Ross, Reggie Lee. Directed by Sam Raimi

Director Sam Raimi made his bones, so to speak, in the horror genre. His Evil Dead trilogy still remains today a classic of the genre, hallmarks of Raimi’s patented horror-with-laughs style. After doing Army of Darkness, the last of the trilogy, Raimi moved on to doing the Spider-Man movies as well as a couple of other non-horror movies, but the genre has never been far from his heart – his Ghost House Pictures production shingle has been responsible for such fare as The Messengers, 30 Days of Night and The Grudge trilogy.

Now he makes his return to the genre as a director with this nifty little film. Christine Brown (Lohman), a sweet, mousy blonde, is gunning for a promotion at the bank where she works. If it were given on competence alone, she’d be a lock but the slimy, smarmy Stu Rubin (Lee) is undercutting her and looks to have the promotion sewn up. Her boss, Mr. Jacks (Paymer) tells her that she needs to be making tougher decisions.

She puts this into practice when Mrs. Ganush (Raver) comes to her desk, begging for an extension on the third mortgage for her house. Christine is inclined to give it to her – she doesn’t have the stomach for throwing an old woman out into the street – but she reeeally wants that promotion so she turns her down, even when Mrs. Ganush gets down on her knees.

Christine has forgotten one of the basic rules of horror movies – never humiliate a gypsy. Has she learned nothing from Stephen King? Apparently not, so she reaps the consequences and hideous they are. Mrs. Ganush levels a curse on her that gives her three days before a demon drags her soul straight to H-E-double hockey sticks.

Before she gets there, however, she will go through all manner of being terrorized and grossed out, having all sorts of bodily fluids vomited onto her by the demonic Mrs. Ganush and her minions. Her incredulous boyfriend Clay Dalton (Long) thinks she’s out of her mind at first, but is supportive nonetheless – and as unexplainable things begin to pile up he too becomes a believer, sorta kinda.

She’s not alone in her fight, however; Indian spiritualist Rham Jas (Rao) helps her figure out what’s going on, and takes her to see legitimate psychic Shaun San Dena (Barraza) who fought one of these curses once before and lost, so is eager to redeem herself. It won’t be easy though, and with every possibility exhausted, there remains one last desperate hope for Christine, one that involves doing something terrible.

Most horror movies these days are either remakes of iconic franchises from the ‘70s and ‘80s, remakes of far superior Asian films, or the kind of torture porn of the Saw and Hostel series. It’s refreshing to see a good horror movie that has some great scares to it, a reasonably original premise and is a great ride to boot. Raimi hasn’t forgotten his skills as a genre director and has added to it the experience of making big-budget mega-effects driven movies, which help him increase the scope of his vision here.

Lohman has had something of a checkered career as an actress, but here she nails it. Her character doesn’t necessarily lack a moral compass in that she knows the right thing to do; she just doesn’t have the backbone to follow it. That makes her far more human than either a complete saint or an utter bitch might in that role.

Raver makes this a career highlight reel; she is astonishing as the old woman and after a career of soap operas and TV show guest appearances, she gets the kind of role finally that really lets her cut loose, even if you can barely recognize her under all the make-up. She takes a standard gypsy character and turns her into one of the most frightening movie characters of the last decade; it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they bring her back to curse other people in sequels to this if Raimi decides to make one.

While the rest of the cast is solid, kudos should be directed at Rao who turns his charlatan psychic which was meant to serve as a plot explainer into an integral part of the movie’s success. It’s not strictly comic relief, but suffice to work that he works similarly to what the Suresh character does in the “Heroes” TV show.

There are plenty of scares here and not all of them are the artificially manufactured kind, either – you know, the ones with the jumpy soundtrack, loud crashing noises and cats jumping out of dark spaces. Nope, this is a movie where the scares are earned, and the laughs that follow them legitimate. While the movie didn’t do gangbusters at the box office (only raking in $40 million domestically), it was so cheaply produced that it turned a tidy profit so the powers that be at Universal may be amenable to sequels, even though the movie doesn’t really seem to promise one.

For my part, I’ve found the American horror movie in something of a rut in the 21st century for all the reasons outlined above. While some terrific horror movies have come from places like Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and England, there have been very few to come from the States and there is something galling about that. Fortunately here comes Sam Raimi to deliver a movie that shows you why few movies can scare the bejeezus from you like an American horror movie can.

WHY RENT THIS: This might just be the best horror movie so far of the 21st century. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Christine is so ditzy and spineless at times it’s hard to really feel sympathy for her. The ending was a bit of a disappointment.

FAMILY VALUES: This is plenty scary, gang. Seriously, unless your kids don’t ever have nightmares, think twice about letting them see this – some of the imagery is really, really intense.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie directed by Sam Raimi in which actor Bruce Campbell didn’t appear (he was busy with his television show “Burn Notice”).  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While the DVD and Blu-Ray covers trumpet that this is an unrated version, the difference between this and the theatrical release is a single scene; the unrated version is actually nine seconds shorter in total than the theatrical version. 

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Charlie St. Cloud