The Discovery


Robert Redford’s let his hair go.

(2017) Sci-Fi Drama (Netflix) Robert Redford, Jason Segel, Rooney Mara, Riley Keough, Jesse Plemmons, Mary Steenburgen, Ron Canada, Brian McCarthy, Connor Ratliff, MJ Karmi, Kimleigh Smith, Willie Carpenter, Wendy Makkena, Adam Morrison Khaykin, Paul Bellefeuille, Richard O’Rourke, Rosemary Howard, Lindsay Schnebly, Sigrid Lium, Ally Looney. Directed by Charlie McDowell

 

What lies beyond death has been a central mystery in human existence. Religions have been formed around what happens to our consciousness after our bodies die. It is something that both fascinates and terrifies us. Is there an afterlife? Or do we just stop existing, our consciousness switched off like a light bulb that’s burned out?

Dr. Thomas Harbor (Redford) has discovered the answer to that question – there is an afterlife. He’s proven it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Today, he’s granting his first interview since the discovery that has changed mankind profoundly. The interviewer (Steenburgen) has a difficult task on her hands; what do you ask someone who has essentially thrown the entire outlook on existence into disarray? Well, as it turns out, not much.

After the shocking turn of events that took place during that interview, Dr. Harbor has retreated to a remote island in New England where he is continuing his research, as well as taking in a sort of cult of people who have attempted suicide and loved ones of those who have successfully killed themselves. You see, in the wake of the discovery, the suicide rate has jumped dramatically; millions of people have taken their own lives and one would imagine Dr. Harbor feels some responsibility in this.

In the meantime, two people ride a deserted ferry headed for the island. One is Will (Segel), the neurologist son of Dr. Harbor who has been estranged from his father. The other is a platinum blonde named Isla (Mara). The two exchange acerbic japes and Isla seems to delight in taking Will down a peg or three. They get off the ferry, expecting never to see each other again. Of course, we all know that’s not going to happen.

It turns out that Dr. Harbor has invented a machine that will allow us to go to the other side and then return – with video, no less. But what is the nature of the afterlife? Is it reincarnation, or a more Judeo-Christian version of heaven? Or is it something totally different? Whatever it is, the machine may hold the key to a lot of questions that are plaguing Will about Isla, whom he has fallen deeply in love with.

The premise is fascinating; what would happen to society if we knew that there was life after the body died. The filmmakers could have focused on how society reacts; would there be mass suicides? Would people be eager to move on to the next life, being dissatisfied with this one? Would society become more kindly if people realized their actions in this life affected their standing in the next? There are all sorts of ways this movie could have gone.

Instead, the filmmakers decided to look at a specific family – coincidentally that of the person who discovered the irrefutable evidence of life after death – and turn the movie into something of a romantic thriller. I can understand why the filmmakers would want to leave the nature of the afterlife vague but we’re left to explore Will’s daddy issues and Isla’s guilt rather than explore the bigger picture. In short, a great premise is used as a springboard into a fairly pedestrian thriller.

That doesn’t mean those in front of the camera are to blame. Redford remains one of the most magnetic screen personalities in the history of film. Even at his age, he owns the screen whenever he’s on it. This is a little different than the roles he’s played; Dr. Harbor is a bit vain, brilliant and arrogant but also possessed somewhat of tunnel vision regarding his discovery. Although he doesn’t admit to responsibility for the suicides, he certainly feels somewhat responsible for them.

Mara, an actress who is always interesting, shines in a role that plays to her strengths. The acid-tongued Isla is maybe the most fascinating character in the movie and one of the better-developed. The sad thing is that her chemistry with Segel, who has shown himself to be adept with dramatic roles, is virtually zero. Segel’s Will is so white bread and homogenous that it might lead you to want to munch on a ghost pepper just to get some taste.

I know that the filmmakers are going for a thinking person’s genre film and there have been a lot of good ones lately. Sadly, this doesn’t quite reach the heights it aspires to, sabotaging itself by taking safe roads when they would have benefited from riskier choices. The movie could have been an interesting jumping off point for discussion on the afterlife and philosophy, but loses momentum after the first five minutes which, to be fair, are about the best first five minutes of a movie I’ve seen in a long time.

REASONS TO GO: Redford remains a magnetic screen presence even now. Isla’s acerbic demeanor is perfect for Mara.
REASONS TO STAY: A very interesting concept is squandered.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sharp-eyed viewers might recognize the chateau-style mansion that is used as Dr. Harbor’s compound as the same house that was used for the exteriors of Collinwood, the mansion in the seminal horror soap opera Dark Shadows back in the 60s.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brainstorm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hare Krishna!

Donald Cried


Donald gets in Peter's face.

Donald gets in Peter’s face.

(2016) Dramedy (Electric Chinoland) Kristopher Avedesian, Jesse Wakeman, Louisa Krause, Ted Arcidi, Kate Fitzgerald, Shawn Contois, Donny Fite, Patrick Languzzi, Jeremy Furtado, Robby Morse Levy, Peter Lewis Walsh, Tyrone Alcorn, Alexander Cook, Tom Kilgallen, Kyle Espeleta, Nick Reiss, Matthew Barletta, Allie Marshall, Ariana DeFusco. Directed by Kris Avedesian

Florida Film Festival 2016

We’ve all had that friend; the one who isn’t really a bad person but they just try too hard and end up causing all sorts of awkward moments. We roll our eyes at their approach and often these are the ones who have a really hard time growing up past a certain time in their lives.

Peter Latang (Wakeman) has returned to the Rhode Island town he grew up in and left 20 years ago to settle the affairs of his grandmother, who raised him after his parents died. Peter isn’t all that eager to be there, and true to form things start going wrong right away when he loses his wallet on the bus he took from Manhattan (where he works in the financial industry) to Rhode Island. The realtor who is putting grandma’s house on the market is comely Kristin (Krause) who seems to remember Peter fondly although he doesn’t have a clue who she is.

Without transportation and without cash, Peter is forced to suck up his pride and walk across the street to see his best friend in high school, Donald Treebeck (Avedesian). Donald is a bearded man-child who worshiped the ground Peter walked on back in the day and is absolutely thrilled that the two are reunited. Peter is clearly uncomfortable but he’s in a bind and Donald is essentially his only way out, so he reluctantly agrees to spend time with his old friend.

Thus begins a journey to old haunts, old friends and old flames as Donald, who clearly has absolutely no filter, puts Peter in one uncomfortable predicament after another. It soon becomes evident that Donald has endured bullying, distance and rejection far beyond perhaps what he deserves. Sure he’s stuck doing the same old things that he did in high school; listening to heavy metal, smoking pot, getting into mischief but when push comes to shove he’s there.

Soon it becomes evident that Donald isn’t the misfit we mistook him for at first, nor is Peter the stable, successful guy he makes himself out to be. The bonds of friendship were always tenuous on one side of this equation, but there is no doubt that both men are going to need to rise above their own limitations if they are to grow as people and the one more capable of it just might surprise you.

As I watched this at the press preview, I have to admit that at first I wasn’t terribly impressed. The movie seemed to be rife with indie cliches, The situations were so awkward as to be annoying to watch; it seemed like I as doomed to be spending an hour and a half with one of those annoying guys who I went out of my way to avoid spending time with.

Then a funny thing started happening. I started getting into it. And the more I found out about Donald and Peter, the more interested I became. I found suddenly that rather than Peter being the guy I wanted to spend time with, it was Donald. Sure, he’s a bit of a screw-up and a stoner and prone to inopportune behavior, but there was so much more to him than met the eye. He’d been given a role to play; not one he particularly wanted, but it was his and he contented himself with playing it as best he could. Most of us don’t have that sense of grace.

Peter on the other hand, becomes less of a stand-up guy the longer the movie goes on. You begin to understand that he’s a self-centered jerk and always has been. The more you watch him, the more you think back to the early part of the movie and realize that you really hadn’t noticed what a dick he was being. That’s masterful acting but it’s also masterful writing and direction.

In fact, I find that even after the movie was finished, I was getting more into it and the more I thought about it, the more I like it which likely means by Independence day I’ll likely have this in my top ten of the year. Or maybe it will plateau right around where it is now. Still, this is a fascinating study in human relationships and how we interpret them. They’re not always the way they seem to be on the surface. In fact, they rarely are.

REASONS TO GO: A lovely bittersweet vibe. Grows on you more after you’ve seen it.
REASONS TO STAY: A couple of indie cliches here and there. Takes awhile to get its footing.
FAMILY VALUES: Among other things, nudity, profanity, some drug use and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was originally made as a short and was then expanded into a feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabriel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)


Abandon all hope.

Abandon all hope.

(2010) Horror (FilmDistrict) Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson, Garry McDonald, Alan Dale, Julia Blake, Bruce Gleeson, Edwina Richard, Carolyn Shakespeare-Allen, David Tocci, Lance Drisdale, Nicholas Bell, Libby Gott, James Mackay, Emilia Burns, Trudy Hellier, Terry Kenwick, Guillermo del Toro, Dylan Young (voice), Lisa N. Edwards, Kim Ross. Directed by Troy Nixey

Occasionally as children we see a movie that moves us in such a way that it inspires us to take our lives in a direction that might seem unexpected upon the surface. For Mexican horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, that movie was the 1973 TV scarefest Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark in which a troubled young woman moves in a creepy old house and begins to hear voices, see figures scurrying in the shadows and can’t get anyone to believe her that there are creatures living in the house. He was so taken by this movie that he resolved to make these sorts of movies when he grew up. Once he became an in-demand director, remaking the movie that started it all for him became a priority.

Strangely, when the opportunity came to make the movie, he didn’t direct it. Instead, he turned the reigns over to second-time director Nixey. Del Toro also changed the young woman into a little girl and set her and her family loose in a crazy creepy Australian mansion.

Little Sally Hurst (Madison) is shuttled by her somewhat distant mother to live with her father, Alex (Pearce) who is in the midst of renovating a sprawling Rhode Island mansion for a client which would then be sold at an immense profit. Sally is sullen and not at all happy about things, particularly since Alex is completely absorbed by the project which if he can’t pull off would mean financial ruin. It is then his girlfriend Kim (Holmes) who spends the most time with Sally. Sally, who doesn’t like Kim, makes her dissatisfaction known.

Unknown to all three of them, renowned wildlife painter Emerson Blackwood (McDonald) disappeared from the house years earlier. When Sally discovers a hidden ash pit in the basement, she releases a tribe of fairy creatures who turn out to be quite malevolent. They torment Sally and when she tries to explain that the awful things going on to her father, he doesn’t believe her. At first, neither does Kim; in fact, the only person who does is the caretaker, Harris (Thompson) who only wants the three of them to leave.

Eventually the creatures make their hideous plans known to Sally and despite the disbelief of her father, she manages to get Kim to come around. However, can they stand up against a race of creatures that is immeasurably old and have all of time on their side?

Del Toro has a history of putting children in the lead of his horror movies (The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth) and so it’s no surprise that he does so again here. It’s quite natural for adults to disbelieve the wild stories children sometimes tell. However, it then becomes harder to put children in jeopardy, particularly in an American major studio production. Studios are a bit squeamish about that, Jurassic Park notwithstanding. For the most part, we never get a sense that Sally is in any real danger; the creatures, which look like Gollum with anorexia, aren’t really all that scary.

The movie was slapped with an R rating, precisely because the child had the appearance of being endangered but don’t let that fool you; this is definitely more of a PG-13 experience. Pearce and Holmes do a decent job, but they’re not really the focus here; Sally is and while Bailee Madison is a competent child actor, she never really was one that I cared for too much. She’s always seemed a bit insufferable in her performances and Sally certainly is that.

Nixey and del Toro are experts at creating a mood and with the marvelous location and truly creep-worthy sets definitely accomplish the task but again, the lack of feeling of imminent jeopardy kind of wastes all that effort. This is one of those movies that’s all atmosphere and essentially no payoff. It’s surprising because normally del Toro is such a reliable writer. Maybe if he’d made this one independently in Mexico, this might have been a better film. Or maybe if he left the lead character as a troubled young woman instead of a grumpy little girl. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly praiseworthy either.

WHY RENT THIS: Definitely the right location for a haunted house movie. Solid performances by Pearce and Holmes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Converting Sally to a child was a tactical error. Lacks a sense of dread or jeopardy.
FAMILY VALUES: Horror violence and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the TV movie that this is based on, Sally was the name of Alex’s wife, not daughter. Here, Alex’s girlfriend is named Kim – and Sally was played by Kim Darby in the original.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gallery of concept art here.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.0M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Killer

The Conjuring


Even illumination via match is better than stumbling around in the dark.

Even illumination via match is better than stumbling around in the dark.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (New Line) Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston, Joey King, Shanley Caswell, Haley McFarland, Mackenzie Foy, Kyla Deaver, Sterling Jerins, Shannon Kook, John Brotherton, Morganna Bridgers, Zach Pappas, Amy Tipton, Joseph Bishara, Ashley White, Rose Bechtel, Desi Domo. Directed by James Wan

Six Days of Darkness 2014

There are things we know, things we can guess at and things we don’t have a clue about. If the sum total of all that can be known is represented by a volume of War and Peace the collective human knowledge to this point would fit in the first letter on the front cover of the book. Things we don’t know much about – the paranormal – we tend to disbelieve. If it can’t be proven scientifically, the rationale goes, then it isn’t real. Poppycock. Balderdash! All that it means is that we don’t have the wherewithal to prove it at the moment. Our scientific understanding of the paranormal hasn’t reached a point where we can do much more than rule out the mundane. The fact of the matter is, there have been plenty of phenomena captured either anecdotally or on video and for us to say that there’s no such thing as the paranormal is a bit arrogant at best.

One of the first paranormal investigative teams were the Warrens, Ed (Wilson) and Lorraine (Farmiga). Lorraine, a clairvoyant and Ed, who tends to be the more pragmatic of the pair, make a pretty good team. They tell people going in that nearly all of the cases they consult on end up having a non-spiritual explanation. There are the few though that do – and often those cases involve some kind of entity. Something malevolent. Something not human.

The Perron family, on the other hand, are salt of the earth sorts. They’ve just moved into a Rhode Island farmhouse that has enough room for the seven of them – trucker husband Roger (Livingston), his wife Carol (Taylor) and daughters Nancy (McFarland), Christine (King), Cindy (Foy), April (Deaver) and Andrea (Caswell). However, it soon becomes evident that the family isn’t the only tenant of the farmhouse. Things are going bump in the night (more like BANG!), there are disembodied voices of children, things are misplaced and moved at random and the dog refuses to go inside the house. As Roger is frequently away for work Carol is left to protect her daughters and she is beginning to suspect that is something she’ll be unable to do. Desperate, she contacts the Warrens.

At first Ed isn’t very enthusiastic about taking on a new case. In a recent case, Lorraine was endangered and ended up suffering injury and he is very concerned for her well-being. However, even he can’t deny that the Perron family is in grave danger and he and Lorraine just can’t turn their backs on them.

Their investigation leads them to the conclusion that this is not explainable by conventional means; there is a malevolent spirit in the house, that of an accused witch named Bathsheba Sherman who had died by her own hand in the house centuries before. She doesn’t take kindly to strangers in her domicile and she means to get them out by any means necessary.

This is the movie that spun off the recent hit Annabelle and the doll figures in the action in a pre-credits sequence and then later on near the climax of the film. However, she definitely takes a back seat in the movie to the Warrens themselves (although she decidedly makes an impression). Wilson, who has worked with Wan in the Insidious movies is excellent here – Wan seems to bring out the best in him. His chemistry with Farmiga is wonderful; they are completely believable as a married couple. In fact, both married couples have good chemistry. The casting in this movie is impeccable.

Let’s be frank; this movie is as scary as any that has come out in the last few years, maybe the scariest. Wan does this wonderfully, establishing the ordinary and building slowly to the terrifying. He does it in a very matter-of-fact way without resorting to a lot of CGI (most of the effects here are practical). A children’s game of hide and clap turns into something menacing as phantom arms come out of an armoire or a basement to lead players astray. All of this leads to one of the best climaxes in a horror movie that I’ve seen in ages.

If you haven’t seen this one yet, this should be a priority especially during the Halloween season. With a spin-off already under its belt and a sequel on the way, the success of the movie financially is equaled by its success cinematically. While critics tend to give short shrift to horror movies in general, this is the sort of ride that fans tend to love – and make converts out of non-fans. You can add this to your list of horror classics, folks.

WHY RENT THIS: Scary as all get out. Great chemistry between Wilson and Farmiga as well as with Livingston and Taylor. Sets up ordinary and builds nicely.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A raft of 70s-set horror films lately.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of disturbing violence and scenes of intense terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is the third-highest box office opening weekend for an R-rated horror film, behind only Paranormal Activity 3 and Hannibal.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes both on the real life Warrens and the real life Perrons. The surviving Perrons and Lorraine Warren are all interviewed for the disc.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $318M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon (purchase only), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Amityville Horror
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Five!