Papillon (2017)


A couple of cons on the beach.

(2017) Drama (Bleecker StreetCharlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Eve Hewson, Yorick van Wageningen, Roland Møller, Andre Flynn, Antonio de la Cruz, Michael Adams, Louisa Pili, Brian Vernel, Mark Phelan, Luke Peros, Joel Basman, Nenad Herakovic, Michael Socha, Lorena Andrea, Poppy Mehendra, Demetri Goritsas, Juan-Leonardo Solari, Veronica Quilligan, Mirjana Novak. Directed by Michael Noer

The purported autobiography of French safecracker Henri Charriére was notable for its gritty adventure tone that made the man, who was nicknamed Papillon after the tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, an almost heroic figure. It was also notable for a laissez-faire attitude towards the facts; much of what Charriére described either didn’t happen to him or didn’t happen at all.

That didn’t stop a classic 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman from garnering acclaim and affection. This remake takes a grittier tone than the original; in many ways, the brutality of the French penal system is sanitized for audiences of that era. Here, we see bloody beatings, prison sexual assaults and people being gutted for the money they swallowed to help them survive prison.

Wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, Charriére (Hunnam) is sentenced to life in the French penal colony in Guiana. Once there, he meets wealthy forger Louis Dega (Malek) and takes on the role of his protector, mainly to utilize the cash he brought in to finance his escape attempts to get back to his girlfriend (Hewson) and live the life the two of them dreamed of. Standing in the way is a brutal warden (van Wageningen) and deadly terrain.

It’s not a fair comparison to pit Hunnam and Malek up against McQueen and Hoffman, although Malek does an outstanding job and Hunnam a credible one. The friendship that develops between the two in the original becomes less conspicuous in the remake and the chemistry between Malek and Hunnam is less scintillating than that of McQueen and Hoffman.

As adventure tales go, this isn’t a bad one although I found it to be a bit of a drag near the middle and by the end, I was checking my watch. Definitely, of the two, I would strongly recommend the 1973 version which is a triumph of the human spirit but if you’re unwilling to check that one out, this isn’t a bad version of the story. It’s just not as good as the movie it is based on.

REASONS TO SEE: Very gritty and realistic.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t hold a candle to the original.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence including some bloody images, brief nudity, profanity and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set in French Guiana (on the Northeast coast of South America), the entire movie was filmed in Europe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Escape
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
A Simple Favor

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)


Hercule Poirot is on the job!

(2017) Mystery (20th Century Fox) Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzan, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Phil Dunster, Miranda Raison, Rami Nasr, Hayat Kamille, Michael Rouse, Hadley Fraser, Kathryn Wilder. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

 

Train travel has a certain romance to it. Strangers trapped in a metal tube, rumbling across the countryside. Anything can happen; anything at all.

Many might be familiar with the classic Agatha Christie novel, one of the most famous mysteries ever written. Some might be familiar with the even more classic 1974 movie based on it which starred such legends as Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Richard Widmark. This new remake stars Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney in the original) who is returning to England following a grueling series of cases leading to a successful resolution in Istanbul – not Constantinople.

Taking the Orient Express back home, he is approached by Ratchett (Depp) who is looking for protection after receiving some threatening letters. Poirot, exhausted, turns down the case. The next morning, Ratchett turns up dead. The train is stuck after an avalanche buries the tracks. As crews arrive to dig the tracks out so the train might continue, Poirot must solve the case quickly but there are a number of suspects – everyone in the Calais coach had opportunity and some even had motive. Soon it becomes apparent that the murder has links to a famous unsolved crime of years past.

The Sidney Lumet-directed 1974 version to which this will inevitably be compared was a light-hearted romp with a Poirot who was quirky but undoubtedly a genius. This Poirot is more tortured than quirky, a man who realizes his own obsession with perfection will leave him perpetually disappointed in life and of course he is. This is a different Poirot than any we’ve ever seen onscreen, whether David Suchet of the excellent BBC series or Peter Ustinov of several all-star Christie cinematic adaptations which followed the success of Murder on the Orient Express. The tone here is certainly darker than we’re used to seeing from a Christie adaptation.

Michelle Pfeiffer turns in an extraordinary performance as the predatory divorcee Mrs. Hubbard, portrayed by Bacall back in 1974. While Bacall was loud-mouthed and brassy, Pfeiffer is intense and smart. Once again the characters are very different although there are some recognizable similarities. Pfeiffer twenty years ago was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood which she remains; that beauty often overshadowed her acting talent which is considerable. Although not in the league of Meryl Streep (who is in a league of her own), she is one of the four or five best American actresses working in film today.

Most of the rest of the cast do at least adequate jobs. Depp is as restrained as he’s been in a decade, playing Ratchett as a thug more so than Widmark did in the same role. Dame Judi Dench is, well, Judi Dench. She brings dignity and a regal air to the role of Princess Dragomiroff. Penélope Cruz has a thanklessly un-glamorous role that she makes her own.

I should mention the cinematography. The 1974 film primarily took place aboard the train. Certainly the Orient Express is the star and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos takes great pains to present her from every angle conceivable. Occasionally he goes a bit overboard – an overhead shot in one of the train’s cars gives us an uncomfortably long view of the tops of the actors heads – but he also manages to make the snowy Yugoslavian countryside look positively idyllic.

Let me be plain; this film is not as good as the 1974 version and I don’t think Branagh had any illusions that it ever could be. However, it is different than that 1974 version and one that is just as valid. You may not love this film in the same way that you loved the original but there is a good chance you’ll at least respect it. You may even want to see it more than once.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of the 1974 version will find the approach here very different. Branagh and Pfeiffer are outstanding. The cinematography is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The tone here is much darker than the 1974 version. This isn’t nearly as good as the original which it will inevitably be compared to. You don’t get as good a sense of the era it is supposed to be set in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as violent thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The song played over the closing credits was sung by Michelle Pfeiffer and the lyrics written by Branagh.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death on the Nile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonder

The Beguiled (2017)


Melancholia through sepia gauze.

(2017) Thriller (Focus) Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard, Wayne Pére, Matt Story, Joel Albin, Eric Ian. Directed by Sofia Coppola

 

It is in some ways a triumph of atmosphere over substance. This remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood film – one of two he made with Don Siegel that year (the other was Dirty Harry) which was in turn based on a novel by a fella named Thomas Cullinan comes at the story from a female perspective, something Hollywood sorely needs these days.

During the Civil War, an isolated girl’s school in Virginia (which is unconvincingly played by Louisiana here) tries to maintain gentility and grace in a rapidly deteriorating situation. The slaves have “run off” and so the girls are given chores to do. Food is becoming harder to come by and one of the younger residents, Miss Amy (Laurence) stumbles upon a wounded Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Farrell). Although headmistress Miss Martha (Kidman) considers turning him in to the Confederate Army, she chooses to hide his presence while he’s recuperating as it is the “Christian thing to do.” The opportunistic McBurney recognizes a sweet deal and sets about exerting control over the girls using his own charm and sexuality to pit them against each other, particularly the lonely schoolmarm Miss Edwina (Dunst) and the sexually charged Miss Alicia (Fanning). As you can guess from the trailers, it doesn’t end well for the male of the species.

Coppola is known for her slow pacing in her films and in this case the pace matches the setting; dripping in Spanish moss, you can feel the heat rising from the ground right through to the dresses of the ladies, all of whom sweat profusely – excuse me, glow. It is clearly a Deep South environment; I wonder why Coppola didn’t just bite the bullet and call it Louisiana as that would have made more sense but I digress.

In some ways the tone works but in others it works against the film. At times the story moves so slowly that one can be forgiven for checking their watch. It’s not that the film is boring precisely but it could have used some energy; Da Queen characterized the movie as “a bit flat” and she’s not wrong. Still, you can’t help but be brought into the organic lull that Coppola creates.

Farrell is one of the best scoundrels in Hollywood and he takes it to a new level here. Kidman is still as ethereal a beauty as has ever appeared onscreen but she is also a much more talented actress than she is often given credit for; she is solid here and her sponge bathing scene with an unconscious Farrell is one of the most erotic scenes you’re likely to see in a mainstream movie this year. Dunst, playing a repressed and lonely spinster elevates her game as well.

The movie was a box office failure although critics praised the movie generally, which is not an unusual thing. I thought the film was a fascinating study of sexual politics and of feminine strength, a near polar-opposite of the 1971 version and, I understand, the novel although I confess I haven’t read it. This is one of Coppola’s best works and it bears looking into especially if you are a fan of thought-provoking films.

REASONS TO GO: The movie does a fine job of creating the feel of the Civil War-era South. The film serves as an interesting examination on sexual politics.
REASONS TO STAY: At points the sedate pace makes the film feel flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farrell and Kidman can also be seen together in The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which along with this film won awards at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Keeping Room
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Baby Driver

The True Memoirs of an International Assassin


Kevin James, badass!

Kevin James, badass!

(2016) Action Comedy (Netflix) Kevin James, Andy Garcia, Zulay Henao, Kim Coates, Ron Rifkin, Maurice Compte, Rob Riggle, Leonard Earl Howze, Yul Vazquez, Andrew Howard, P.J. Byrne, Kelen Coleman, Jeff Chase, Katie Couric, G-Rod, Daniel Zacapa, Al Hamacher, Jordi Caballero, Lauren Shaw, Emilie Ullerup. Directed by Jeff Wadlow

 

Some things in life are less likely than others; Donald Trump having an extramarital affair, for example – with Rosie O’Donnell. Or PETA opening up a barbecue restaurant.

Right up there with those is Kevin James morphing into an action hero, although he has done a few action films in his time. The portly sitcom star is actually fairly fit for a man his size, but he certainly doesn’t fit the mold of a classic action hero.

Still, he has a very likable screen persona and plenty of charisma on both the big screen and small. He hasn’t always gotten great movies and good roles but he has always been a trooper and does his best even when the material is less than scintillating. Here he plays Sam Larson, a cubicle cowboy who dreams of being a bestselling author, but unlike most of us with such ambitions he’s actually doing something about it. He’s writing a James Bond-meets-Die Hard spy story in which the hero, Mason Carver a.k.a. The Ghost is his own alter ego. Sometimes when Sam gets stuck for inspiration, Mason Carver and the other characters in the scene stand around, twiddling their thumbs and waiting expectantly for direction – which may be a metaphor for what the actors in this film were doing.

His energetic and somewhat conniving E-Publisher (Coleman) thinks she’s got a winner on her hands when he submits the manuscript and promises not to change a word. In fact, she doesn’t – she adds one to the title though, changing The Memoirs of an International Assassin to The True Memoirs of an International Assassin and marketing it as biographical.

This infuriates not only Sam but his buddy Amos (Rifkin) who has been advising him on some of the finer points of international espionage and had urged him not to print certain aspects of Mason Carver’s exploits. During an interview with Katie Couric (herself) on Yahoo, Sam gets cold feet and runs out of the studio – and straight into the arms of kidnappers who turn out to be agents of El Toro (Garcia), a Venezuelan revolutionary. He wants the Venezuelan president (Coates) dead, and essentially tells Sam – who he believes is really The Ghost – that if the president isn’t murdered, Sam will be.

Of course, Sam gets arrested and brought before the President who also believes Sam is The Ghost – and urges him to kill drug kingpin Anton Masovich (Howard) who then kidnaps Sam and suggests he murders El Toro. Maybe Sam should just nuke Venezuela and be done with it, no? Well, that wouldn’t make for a very long movie so Sam, with the help of comely DEA agent Rosa Bolivar (Henao) he figures out a way to get out of this with his skin more or less intact but not everything here is on the up and up.

Incomprehensibly, this script ended up on the Black List of unproduced screenplays a couple of years ago, which leads me to believe that either this was extensively rewritten or the standards for quality of Black List screenplays has taken a serious hit. The plot is pretty pedestrian and has been done before and better in other films; in fact, this feels throughout like you’re watching a sitcom in which the Fonz plays an international spy. Or Ray Romano. Or Doug Heffernan (James’ character in King of Queens) for that matter.

The movie also suffers from really poor CGI throughout, from the explosion to the blood splatters. It all looks fake. To make matters worse, there are several running jokes – like various characters musing “Maybe he really is The Ghost” about Sam, or in the third act for some incomprehensible reason the filmmakers chose to pepper the soundtrack with Spanish language version of pop hits from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Once or twice is okay but it was a good five or six occasions. Brevity is the soul of wit; repetition doesn’t make a joke any funnier in general. Just sayin’.

Don’t get me wrong – there is some entertainment value here but it’s mainly due to James’ work. And let’s face it; compared to the Adam Sandler comedies that Netflix has released thus far, this is Mel Brooks-level work (and believe it or not, Sandler’s production company Happy Madison had nothing to do with this which was surprising to me considering how close Sandler and James are). Still, this is little more than a 90 minute time-killer that will have little more value than that to you. Me, I’d recommend that you wait for a movie that is more worthy of Mr. James’ talents.

REASONS TO GO: Kevin James is always engaging and likable.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a sitcom-like feel to this and some of the running jokes are pretty damn annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is a remake of the 1973 French action film Le Magnifique.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Passengers

The Magnificent Seven (2016)


Don't ever mess with Denzel.

Don’t ever mess with Denzel.

(2016) Western (MGM/Columbia) Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Hailey Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer, Jonathan Joss, Cam Gigandet, Emil Beheshti, Mark Ashworth, Billy Slaughter, Dodge Prince, Matthew Posey, Dane Rhodes, Jody Mullins, Carrie Lazar. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

We often feel helpless about things. Those in power have too much money, too much power, too many guns. They have control over everything and we basically just have to take it and as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder to exist while those who are in charge seem to have it easier and easier, and do more injustice to us with impunity. In a situation like that, who are you gonna call?

In the town of Rose Creek, it’s easy to recognize who is oppressing them; it’s Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), a ruthless industrialist who runs the gold mine outside of town. He has bought and paid for the Sheriff (Rhodes) and treats his miners like slaves. Now he’s turned his sights to the town which he wants to destroy so he can further mine gold deposits he thinks might be there. He is trying to intimidate them into leaving – and it’s largely working, but some of the townspeople are willing to stay and fight. Those must be taught a lesson and that lesson ends with Matthew Cullen (Bomer), a good-hearted farmer, gunned down in front of the church which is also burned out.

His widow, Emma Cullen (Bennett) then goes in search of a gunman who can bring her if not justice at least vengeance. She finds Sam Chisolm (Washington), a duly licensed officer of the court from Wichita, Kansas – or a bounty hunter, which is what he really is. When Emma explains what’s happening in Rose Creek, at first he’s reluctant to get involved – until he finds out who is doing unto the good citizens of Rose Creek. Then he’s ready to take on an army.

He’ll need some tough characters to take on the murderous mercenaries that Bogue has hired. First up is gambler Josh Faraday (Pratt) who essentially owes Chisolm for getting his horse out of hock. After that came sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke) and his associate Billy Rocks (Lee), an immigrant from Asia and an expert with knives. Then there’s the Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and the Comanche brave Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Finally there’s Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), a legendary trapper.

It is seven hard men against an army. When they ride into town, they take Bogue’s men by surprise and take over the town but they know that Bogue, who is in Sacramento at the time, will be back with many, many more men. They train the townspeople to defend themselves and they also liberate the miners who also will make their stand there. But how can they, when the bad guys are so many, so much better armed and so much more experienced at fighting?

This is of course a remake of the classic John Sturges western of 1960 which in itself was a remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic Seven Samurai. Fuqua, who directed Washington to an Oscar in Training Day, is a big fan of Westerns in general and The Magnificent Seven was always one of his favorites. Feeling that the themes of tyranny and terrorism were even more apt today than they were in 1960, he took on the daunting task of remaking an iconic Western which in many ways made the career of Steve McQueen (in the Josh Faraday role).

The cast here is pretty top notch. Washington is at the top of his game, channeling Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper. Few actors in Hollywood today can play a badass as effectively as Washington can; despite the 70s porn star mustache, he is intimidating and tough as nails. He also looks pretty freaking good for a man in his 60s.

Pratt like Washington is an enormous star and here he brings his trademark irreverence to the role, making Josh Faraday not just comic relief (which he is occasionally) but a badass in his own right. This role isn’t going to advance his career any further but it isn’t going to knock it backwards either. Pratt has a tendency to play the same role over and over again recently and this is more of the same.

Hawke has a good turn as the sharpshooter whose Civil War experiences haunts him and has made him reluctant to take up the rifle again. For my money though, one of the performances you’ll remember is D’Onofrio, whose high squeaky voice doesn’t sound remotely like what we’re used to from him, but plays Horne honestly and with relative dignity. He just about steals the movie.

Fuqua gets points for casting ethnic actors into the proper roles; a Hispanic actor plays the Mexican, a Korean actor the Asian and an Inuit actor the Native American. There isn’t really any mention of racial prejudices which in that era were prevalent and extreme; few white people would have sought or accepted help from an African American, even if they were desperate, nor would they have looked to Mexican or Native help as well – most white settlers considered all three ethnic groups subhuman. I like the diversity of the cast, but I do think that ethnicity should have been addressed at least somewhat.

The final confrontation between Bogue and his men and the townspeople takes up the bulk of the movie and is epic in scope. There’s some decent fight choreography here and while it doesn’t up the ante in action scenes, it at least distinguishes itself as well staged and exciting. The gunfight is everything you’d want from a climactic battle, so kudos for that.

I don’t think anyone can reasonably expect this movie to be replacing the original in the hearts and minds. I’m pretty sure that isn’t why Fuqua made it. Unfortunately, it will be held up against the original – whether Seven Samurai or the 1960 version – and it will come up short against both of those. However, taken on its own merits it’s not that bad but to be honest not that bad doesn’t measure up when it comes to two classic predecessors.

REASONS TO GO: Washington and Pratt are huge stars. D’Onofrio turns in one of his most interesting performances in years.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing is really added to the source material here. The racism of the era is glossed over.
FAMILY VALUES: As with most westerns, there’s plenty of rootin’, tootin’ and shootin’. There’s also a bit of foul language and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be the final score by Oscar winning composer James Horner as he passed away June 22, 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Blue Jay

Point Break (2015)


Attack of the flying squirrels.

Attack of the flying squirrels.

(2015) Action (Warner Brothers) Edgar Ramirez, Luke Bracey, Ray Winstone, Teresa Palmer, Matias Varela, Clemens Schick, Tobias Santelmann, Max Thieriot, Delroy Lindo, Nikolai Kinski, Judah Lewis, Glynis Barber, Steve Toussaint, James Le Gros, Bojesse Christopher, Ronak Patani, Eddie Santiago Jordan, Patrick Dewayne, Seumas F. Sargent, Senta Dorothea Kirschner. Directed by Ericson Core

In 1991, Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze toplined one of the most iconic action films of that decade – Point Break – and now, two decades later, a remake is in theaters. I suppose that was inevitable. In the spirit of “bigger better more,” the Ex-Presidents are now not merely surfers but extreme athletes and world class ones at that.

Johnny Utah (Bracey) is an FBI agent. He wasn’t always one. Seven years ago, he was a YouTube warrior who wanted nothing more than to film extreme motocross stunts that would get him hits on the venerable Internet video channel, but something goes wrong and a friend winds up paying the ultimate price for Johnny’s hubris. Now, he is looking at a daring diamond robbery in which the thieves escape via parachute. Later, they grab some currency from a plane, drop the bills into an impoverished Mexican village and escape via a daring sky dive into a gigantic cave. Utah, being from that world, deduces that the criminals are trying to complete the Ozaki 8, a list of extremely demanding tasks meant to test the limits of the human spirit while at the same time honoring the forces of nature.

When Johnny finds out that there are ginormous waves occurring in the Atlantic, he is certain that the thieves will be there. He is dispatched to the scene under the wing of Agent Pappas (Winstone) from the UK office. He sees a whole flotilla of ships in the region with thrillseekers attempting to surf the waves that are the size of five story buildings. Johnny was never quite as skilled a surfer as others and when he attempts to surf one of the waves, he ends up going to the bottom, only to be rescued by Bodhi (Ramirez), who takes him to a huge yacht owned by Pascal al Fariq (Kinski), one of those insanely wealthy people who have more money than they know what to do with – so they get other people to tell them what to do with it.

As Johnny gets to know Bodhi and his crew, including Grommet (Varela), Roach (Schick), Chowder (Santelmann) and the lovely Samsara (Palmer), he knows he’s found his thieves but he has to prove it. Going against orders, he infiltrates the group and goes with them to ski down insane mountain ranges and put on flysuits to jump off of mountains. Eventually he earns their trust – well, at least the trust of Bodhi and Samsara, the latter of whom he ends up in bed with – but by this time he has begun to change his mind about their motivations and perhaps sympathize with them. So when push comes to shove, which side will Johnny end up on?

This is very much a Keanu Reeves movie without the benefit of Keanu Reeves in it. As Johnny Utah, Bracey resembles Heath Ledger facially but resembles a young Reeves in line delivery and not in a good way. He’s a bit wooden and stiff in his performance. I’m not sure whether that has to do with the writing or Bracey’s ability as an actor. Hopefully it’s not the latter.

The writing is a definite problem. This is the most bro-tastic movie you’ll see, unless the threatened Bill and Ted sequel comes together. You will never hear the word “brother” used so much in a single movie that doesn’t have two males with the same mother in it. It’s definitely a film loaded with testosterone and bro-bonding and bro-mancing is the order of the day here.

I can handle that but dumb is not as easy to dismiss. The plot grows more and more preposterous as the movie goes on and one begins to see through the Bodhi character as a selfish jerk spouting off New Age aphorisms; why would anyone in their right mind follow a guy like him? He talks about giving back to the poor while murdering middle class police officers and endangering innocents all to attain his personal goal. Of course, this is a different time now and people do worship at the altar of the almighty mirror but I didn’t get that feeling from the original film.

Let’s face it; the 1991 film had something in spades that this movie has little of – fun. The original was an entertaining ride. While the stunts here are impressive – and they are impressive – there’s no soul to them. There’s nothing here that makes me feel like I’m having a good time and why on earth would you go to a movie where you weren’t having one?

REASONS TO GO: Nice stunt sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Dumb and dumber. Too much bro-ism. Ham-fisted acting. Wastes great locations.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and language, some stupid ideas that nobody should remotely try to imitate, a little bit of sex and a little bit of drugs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film Teresa Palmer acted in after giving birth to her son, coincidentally named Bohdi.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 8% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Mavericks
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Joy

Poltergeist (2015)


A show of hands.

A show of hands.

(2015) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox/MGM) Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt, Kennedi Clements, Kyle Catlett, Saxon Sharbino, Jared Harris, Jane Adams, Susan Heyward, Nicholas Braun, Karen Ivany, Patrick Garrow, Doug MacLeod, Eve Crawford, L.A. Lopes, Soma Bhatia, John Stoneham Jr., Kathryn Greenwood, Molly Kidder. Directed by Gil Kenan

Remaking a movie is a tricky thing, especially when it comes to horror movies. The trick is to stay true to the original material while making it fresh and original enough that fans of the original feel like they’re seeing something new as opposed to a shot-by-shot rip-off. Add to the mix that it is an iconic film like the 1982 haunted house classic Poltergeist, which was originally directed by Tobe (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) Hooper and produced and co-written by Steven Spielberg and you’ve got yourself a tall order.

Taller still because most of your target audience will have seen the original except for maybe a few disdainful Millennials who don’t watch “old” movies, and yet it is that crowd who may enjoy this movie the most as they will see it without the baggage that the rest of us take into the multiplex with us. It is hard not to compare the movie to its source material, and yet it is at the same time somewhat unfair until you remember that the filmmakers knew what they were getting themselves into.

Many of the original elements remain; a modern family in a modern suburban home (in this case, in Illinois) that has a bit of a history, beset by paranormal activity of increasing malevolence. A little girl disappears and can be heard from the television set. Paranormal researchers who are blown away by the level of phenomena they witness. A psychic who may well be the only hope to get the little girl back.

Gil Kenan was a pretty odd choice to direct this; he has mostly directed family-oriented fare like the Oscar-nominated Monster House and the kid-centric fantasy City of Ember. The original Poltergeist had kids in it of course, but the focus was on the parents, Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams. Kenan chooses to make the middle child, Griffin (Catlett) the focus and to enhance his character with all sorts of neuroses and anxieties. The kid needs some Valium, or at least some therapy which his mother actually vocalizes at one point. Having a kid who jumps at every bump in the night in a house that is haunted by angry spirits seems a little cruel.

Rockwell and DeWitt, who play the parents, are underwritten compared to their two youngest, Catlett and Clements (the Heather O’Rourke of this movie). There are tantalizing bits of business; DeWitt’s character is a writer working on a book, but we never see her even attempting to write. Rockwell’s character has been laid off from John Deere and at one point there’s an indication that he has a drinking problem, but that’s never explored. They seem to be good parents and decent people but we don’t really get to know them very much.

Rockwell in many ways carries the movie; he’s a rock-solid actor who can be as likable as anyone in Hollywood, although he tends to portray characters with a collection of tics and quirks that are largely absent here. In the one scene that he and DeWitt get to show some intimacy (before kiddus interruptus, something every parent is familiar with) they display genuine chemistry together but for the most part they are reduced to reacting to one scare or another. DeWitt is likewise a terrific actress who is in my opinion somewhat underrated. Once again, she doesn’t really get to show what she can do in a role that is more cliche than character.

Harris and Adams play the psychic and the paranormal researcher respectively and unlike the original they have a past. Harris in particularly with his Irish accent is entertaining, which considering he has to fill the late Zelda Rubenstein’s shoes is a considerable achievement. Mostly, though, they – like the parents – are second bananas to the kids and the CGI.

There are some decent enough scares here, a few of them telegraphed by the trailer but they don’t come close to living up to the original. See, I’m doing it too – and everyone involved had to know that there was no way in figurative and literal Hell that this was going to live up to the original, right? Which begs the question; why remake this at all?

I’m not saying that there isn’t a way that a remake of Poltergeist couldn’t be a terrific film on its own merits or even live up to the original, but this one flatly doesn’t. The pacing is weak, the scares aren’t as scary and it simply isn’t a thrill ride like the first one was. There are certainly some things that are worthwhile about the film; they modernize it nicely although I suspect that will date the movie somewhat in years to come. Some of the CGI effects are nifty. The adult cast is solid; I sympathize with Rockwell, Harris, Adams and DeWitt who give it a good college try, but making a family friendly film out of a horror classic which seems to be what the studio and the filmmakers were shooting for is a half-baked idea at best. This is one movie that should have been one of those Cedar Point roller coasters that turn you upside down and backwards and dropped us down insane hills and into dark tunnels; instead, we got a kiddie coaster.

REASONS TO GO: Sam Rockwell is solid. Some good scares.
REASONS TO STAY: Haunted by the original. Relies too much on Clements and Catlett.
FAMILY VALUES: A bunch of frightening images and scary moments, some foul language and a sexually suggestive scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harris and Adams previously starred together in the 1998 indie film Happiness.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING; 6/10
NEXT: Lawless

My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009)


Candy is dandy.

Candy is dandy.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Jensen Ackles, Jaime King, Kerr Smith, Betsey Rue, Edi Gathegi, Tom Atkins, Kevin Tighe, Megan Boone, Karen Baum, Joy de la Paz, Marc Macaulay, Todd Farmer, Jeff Hochendoner, Bingo O’Malley, Liam Rhodes, Michael Roberts McKee, Andrew Larson, Jarrod DiGiorgi, Richard John Walters, Selene Luna, Annie Kitral, Brandi Engel. Directed by Patrick Lussier

Six Days of Darkness 2014

The thing about doing remakes of other movies is that the screenwriter has to walk a very fine line. The movie has to follow the story of the original enough so that it is recognizable, yet it has to have its own character and flavor, differing enough to offer viewers familiar with the original a surprise. Otherwise, why bother?

This remake of a 1981 cult favorite during the golden age of slasher movies begins with a cave-in caused by Tom Hanniger (Ackles), the young son of the mine owner. Not on purpose mind you – just inexperience. Five miners are buried beneath the rubble but by the time they dig them out, only one has survived – Harry Warden (Walters) who owes his survival to killing off the other four so that they don’t take up his air. Even so, it takes so long to dig down that Harry is in a coma for a year. When he wakes up, he walks out of the hospital, dons his mining clothes and proceeds to kill 22 people with his pickaxe before being shot dead by then-Sheriff Burke (Atkins).

Flash forward a couple of decades. The town of Harmony is preparing for a Valentine’s Day dance, the first one since Harry Warden had his little tantrum. Tom Hanniger, who had left down not long after the murders, has returned to sell off the family mine. He isn’t greeted particularly warmly except by his high school sweetheart Sarah (King) who is now married to his friend Axel Palmer (Smith) who happens to be the current sheriff. Axel is probably the least happy guy to see Tom particularly since there’s some evidence that Sarah is still sweet on him. Of course, the fact that he’s been cheating with Megan (Boone), Sarah’s employee, for years doesn’t seem to bother him any.

What does bother him is that the murders have started up again by a guy in an old fashioned miners suit complete with gas mask, a fact that doesn’t seem to dissuade the horny teenagers in town to head over to the closed mine post-dance for a little nookie. Some things never change.

There are plenty of red herrings here as to who the identity of the killer is although the filmmakers are certainly pushing a supernatural angle. What’s worrisome is that the filmmakers cheat a little bit – major bits of business take place offscreen and things that are shown onscreen turn out to be lies. I get it that the filmmakers want to make the identity of the killer a surprise when the reveal comes but for one thing any halfway experienced horror film fan will be able to figure it out pretty quickly and for another thing when you do find out who it is you’re going to feel a little cheated, something you don’t want your audience to feel.

Another thing you don’t want your audience to feel is bored. During the first 15 minutes, the carnage moves at a breakneck pace but afterwards slows into a hodgepodge of flashback and exposition with the terror scenes spaced out in ten to fifteen minute intervals. Once you establish a pace, it’s a bad idea to slow it down. Better to build towards it gradually than gradually come down from a peak. You don’t want your audience feeling that they’ve seen the best of the movie less than half an hour in.

There are some great 3D effects here (the for-purchase DVD comes with glasses, although of course you need a 3D television set to play them), some of the best in fact of the modern 3D era. Eyeballs and jawbones fly at the audience and pickaxes come through the screen so jarringly that you will jump out of your seat.

There is a great sequence at the local no-tell motel in which town skank Irene (Rue) fresh from a rendezvous with her trucker boyfriend is chased out of her motel room stark naked after said boyfriend is skewered. She tries to get help which only succeeds in getting another trucker punctured but let’s just say that the sequence moves into overdrive from that point.

Lussier, who has a long history as both an editor (for the Scream series) as well as a director (for such films as Dracula 2000 and Drive Angry), has some punch in terms of technique but he is betrayed by clunk dialogue and some incongruous situations, not to mention the aforementioned cheats. It definitely is a throwback to the slasher films of yore given the amount of gore and nudity, so there is that bit of nostalgia involved. Unfortunately, too many flaws sabotage what could have been a truly excellent remake that might well have exceeded the original otherwise.

WHY RENT THIS: The first portion of the movie is a great roller coaster ride. Great use of 3D.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bogs down in flashback and exposition during the second half.  Cheats when it comes to keeping the identity of the killer a surprise.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal violence and gore, graphic nudity and explicit sexuality, foul language, gruesome images…this is horror movies the way they used to make ’em.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first two characters to die in the movie are named Jason and Michael in direct reference to the Halloween and Friday the 13th characters. Like the characters, they don’t have any lines and both men die in ways that recall the trademarks of the characters they are referencing.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and a featurette on the practical make-up effects.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $100.7M on a $15M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Know What You Did Last Summer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

13


This is one gun club you don't want to be a member of.

This is one gun club you don’t want to be a member of.

(2009) Action (Anchor Bay) Jason Statham, Sam Riley, Alice Barrett Mitchell, Gaby Hoffman, Mickey Rourke, Stephen Beach, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Michael Shannon, Michael Berry Jr., Ray Winstone, Alexander Skarsgard, Starla Benford, Mike D’Onofrio, Daisy Tahan, Carlos Reig-Plaza, Forrest Griffin, Ed Bergtold, John Hoffman, David Zayas, Ben Gazzara, 50 Cent, Ashlie Atkinson. Directed by Gela Babluani

Some movies shouldn’t be remade by Hollywood. Not because the original is perfect as it was, but because there is a misunderstanding by Hollywood sorts of why the movie worked in the first place. That gets clouded when the director of the original also directs the remake.

13 Tzameti is not the perfect movie but it is a very good one. A French production set in France and in Georgia (the Russian one), it tells its story in black and white, lending a gritty quality that is largely absent here. While the story is nearly identical here, it is more fleshed out not only in backstory but also in palette – this movie is in color, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Vince Ferro (Riley) is a down on his luck laborer with a good heart. He is desperately in need of money – a lot of it – but the prospects of that are slim given his skill sets in life. While doing a job, one of the residents of the home he’s working in dies of a drug overdose. He overhears talk that the dead man was going to start a job that paid extraordinarily well. There are instructions for the job in an envelope which Vince, figuring the deceased wouldn’t need anymore, takes for himself.

 

He ends up taking a train to Chicago and is driven from there to a secluded dilapidated house where he is ordered to strip. His boot heels are cut off as the organizers look for electronic devices. To Vince’s horror, he is issued a gun and a single bullet, and a shirt with the number 13 on it. Other men, with other numbers on their shirts are also issued the same. They are made to stand in a circle and to load the gun with the bullet. The participants then spin the chambers until they are told to stop. They all aim the gun at the head of the man ahead of them. When a light bulb goes on, the master of ceremonies (Shannon) tells them, they are to pull the trigger. Those that don’t will be shot. Ferro is reluctant but knowing he will be killed for certain if he doesn’t, he participates.

Survivors of the first round will be issued two bullets in the second and those that survive the second round will be issued three bullets in the third round. At that point there are only five participants left, including Ferro. Two of the five are selected for a final duel – Ferro and Ronald Lynn Bagges (Winstone).

All this is done for the entertainment of a group of wealthy men, who bet heavily on the outcome of each round. Each of the participants has a wealthy sponsor, in Ferro’s case an elderly man (Gazzara) and in Bagges’ case his own brother Jasper (Statham). Should Ferro survive he will get a healthy payday, one that will allow him to live in luxury the rest of his life. But the odds are long, a dogged police detective (Zayas) is getting closer to busting the game and even if Ferro wins he will have to be on his toes to escape both the vengeful Jasper and the cops.

 

The newer movie is much more detailed than the first which took place more in the immediate moment which added to the overall tension. Here we get more of the backstory to the various characters, both the participants in the game and the rich men betting on it. It also must be said that in some ways this is a better looking movie, although in the end result I don’t think that the gloss did the film any favors. The original succeeded largely because of its grim noir-ish look and because we are so locked into the horror of the situation we don’t have time to think of anything else.

Certainly the acting is better here and there’s something to be said for that. However, with all the added backstory the movie tends to take detours that we really don’t want to be on. While the suspense is still relatively high, it still doesn’t compete with the first movie in that department.

So it’s safe to say that this is one of those movies that is a lot better if you see it before seeing the movie it’s based on. If you see 13 Tzameti first this will suffer a great deal by comparison. In that sense, maybe having the same director worked against this film; he was given a bigger budget and name actors like Statham, Rourke and Winstone. Of course he’d want to make a bigger movie. However in this case, bigger isn’t better.

WHY RENT THIS: Gut-wrenching suspense. Makes a nice companion piece to the original.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t always hold up to the original. Meanders a bit. Needs more grit and less gloss.

FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly disturbing violence, a bit of foul language and some brief drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ray Liotta was originally cast in the part of Detective Mullane but had to bow out due to a scheduling conflict; David Zayas ended up in the role.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Surviving the Game

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Beowulf

The Housemaid (Hanyo) (2010)


Beauty can be deadly.

Beauty can be deadly.

(2010) Thriller (IFC) Do-yeon Jeon, Jung-Jae Lee, Yeo-jeong Yoon, Woo Seo, Ji-Young Park, Seo-Hyeon Ahn, Jeong-min Hwang, So-ri Moon, Jin-ah Kim, Tae-back Chae, Shin-hwan Jeon, Sang-min Noh, Soon-kyu Jang, Yong-jae Cho, Hyun-Kyung Lim, Keum-yun Lee, Ji-sun Kim, Song-yi Han, Ju-sun Park, Sun-hye Yoon, Ha-young Seo. Directed by Sang-soo Im

This is described as a remake of a classic 1960 Korean thriller but there are enough differences to classify it as only a loose remake. Still, this stands on its own two feet quite nicely.

Eun-yi (Jeon) is hired as a housemaid for wealthy Hae-ra (W. Seo) who is very pregnant with twins. Eun-yi’s primary responsibility is to be a nanny for her daughter Nami (Ahn) but Byung-sik (Y. Yoon), the maid who has been with the family the longest, isn’t particularly happy to see her. Hoon (Lee), the man of the house, is ice-cold and like his wife a bit arrogant.

At first things run smoothly but eventually Hoon takes a liking to Eun-yi and begins flirting with her. The flirting turns into something else and before too long, Byung-sik witnesses Hoon and Eun-yi doing the horizontal lambada. And yes, no self-respecting wealthy Korean businessman would even think of using a rubber so Eun-yi soon finds herself in a family way.

By now Hae-ra’s mother (J-y. Park) gets wind of what’s happening – well, Byung-sik tells her. This just won’t do. It is her daughter who is supposed to be in the lap of luxury, not this upstart. Mommy the monster decides to take matters into her own hands and soon things spiral way out of control.

The original 1960 version was about the emergence of the Korean middle class and how those in the poverty class reacted to them. In that film, the maid was a little nuts and was the one who seduced the husband, not vice versa. Here, we’re seeing the results of Korean prosperity and how it has affected the upper classes and their relationship with those lower on the economic ladder. It’s not a pretty picture.

Jeon is a beautiful woman and is given a role which would be challenging for any actress, but gives us a fine performance. The issue here is not with her acting but how her character is written; at first she is the very model of a Korean servant, obedient and submissive but she changes. Not that people don’t change in a subservient position, but it is…let’s just say it’s quite the change and leave it at that. Park also does a convincing job as the conniving mother-in-law.

The movie is mostly set in the expansive mansion – estate would be more like it – of Hoon and his family but throughout it is shot beautifully, the setting bringing suspense when it needs to but at all times reminding us of the luxury of the privileged class.

Nearly everyone in this movie is devious and back-stabbing at one time or another – even the kid. It’s really hard to connect to a movie when you have nobody to connect with. Notwithstanding, this is a fascinating look at Asian class warfare in a situation Hitchcock would have understood and approved of.

WHY RENT THIS: Stylishly shot. An interesting look at Korean class values.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hard to identify with anyone in this movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Sexuality, nudity and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The chandelier in the main hall is a copy of the Young-whan Bae sculpture Song of Dionysus and is made up of broken shards of wine and soju bottles.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.8M on an unreported production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hand That Rocks the Cradle

FINAL RATING; 7/10

NEXT: Jersey Boys