John Wick: Chapter 2


Even John Wick’s dog looks badass.

(2017) Action (Summit) Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ian McShane, Ruby Rose, Common, Claudia Gerini, Lance Reddick, Laurence Fishburne, Tobias Segal, John Leguizamo, Bridget Moynahan, Thomas Sadoski, Erik Frandsen, David Patrick Kelly, Perry Yung, Franco Nero, Peter Serafinowicz, Peter Stormare, Vadim Kroll, Kelly Rae LeGault. Directed by Chad Stahelski

 

One of the better action films to come down the pike in recent years was John Wick. In it, a retired assassin un-retires himself when the son of a Russian mobster steals his car and kills his dog. Bad career move. Wick kills everyone associated with the dumbass Russian scion and adopts a new dog.

When the movie starts, Wick is going to retrieve his car from yet another Russian mobster (Stormare) and while all he wants is the car, of course the Russian mobster and his men try to take the master assassin down. Yet another bad career move. Even as the boss retells the story of how Wick once killed three men with a pencil (which we also saw in the last movie), Wick mows down every mobster who comes at him, wrecking the car he came to retrieve in the first place but the point is clear.

Wick returns home and puts all of his arsenal under concrete, apparently intending to retire again. However, he has a visitor – an Italian mobster this time named Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio). Wick owes Santino a favor and the guy intends to collect. It’s what’s called a marker and in the world that Wick lives in, these cannot be refused. Wick promptly refuses and Santino promptly blows up his house.

Deciding that discretion is the better part of valor, Wick decides to fulfill the marker anyway (now minus a house) and takes on the job of killing Santino’s sister Gianna (Gerini) who Santino’s dad made head of the mob after he retired – or in other words, passed on. This didn’t sit well with Santino so he figured that if his sister was out of the way, he could take his rightful place as head of the family.

That’s why Wick heads to Rome, visits a tailor who has a way with Kevlar as well as a sommelier who has a nose for fine German firearms and heads over to a rave cum orgy celebrating sister’s ascension to the head of family status at a Roman ruin – those decadent Italians – and takes her out. This doesn’t sit well with her bodyguard (Common) who now unemployed decides to make a point of expressing his displeasure to Wick. Mayhem ensues.

The plot is a little more labyrinthine than before and we get more background on the world of assassins. The Continental Hotel, neutral ground in the first movie, is apparently a chain and the managers (Ian McShane in New York, Franco Nero in Rome) enforce that neutrality vigorously. We get a sense of the complex support system for the killers and the fairly cut and dried rules governing their behavior. This is all to the good.

The production design is also highly stylized from the Hall of Mirrors-like museum display in Rome, the gaudily lit rave, some of the most stylishly lit catacombs I’ve ever seen, the genteel and urbane Hotels and of course Wick’s Fortress of Solitude before Santino blows it to smithereens.

Where the movie fails, curiously enough, is the action – the strength of the first film. Stahelski fails to maintain the interest of the viewer for the length of the movie which he was able to do in the first. Here, the sequences have the effect of numbing the viewer until you feel quite blasé about the whole thing. I didn’t think I could get jaded in an all-out action film like this, but I did.

I will admit my complaints about the film have not been echoed by other reviewers or by friends who have seen the sequel and proclaimed it better than the original. I disagree, respectfully but nonetheless firmly. While it gives us more plot and more insight into the world the first film created and inhabits it with interesting characters who are portrayed by some fine actors like Fishburne, McShane, Nero and Common, at the end of the day I wanted to be wowed by the action and I just wasn’t. This is reportedly intended to be the middle segment in a planned John Wick trilogy. I hope that the third movie will combine the best points of both movies and create an action movie for the ages. When you’re a movie critic, hope should spring eternal.

REASONS TO GO: The mythology started in the first film is fleshed out more in the second.
REASONS TO STAY: The action scenes become mind-numbing after awhile.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a stupid amount of violence, a fair amount of profanity and a scene with graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stahelski was Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix trilogy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Bill: Vol. 1
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Great Wall

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The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza)


Toni Servillo looks suave and debonair even when taking a break.

Toni Servillo looks suave and debonair even when taking a break.

(2013) Dramedy (Janus) Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi, Galatea Ranzi, Franco Graziosi, Giorgio Pasotti, Massimo Popolizio, Sonia Gessner, Anna Della Rosa, Luca Marinelli, Serena Grandi, Ivan Franek, Vernon Dobtcheff, Dario Cantarelli, Luciano Virgilio, Aldo Ralli, Giusi Merli, Giovanna Vignola, Anita Kravos, Roberto Herlitzka, Isabella Ferrari. Directed by Paolo Sorrentino

There are those who remember the films of the great Italian director Federico Fellini with great fondness. Others look back at his films with annoyance. Fellini wasn’t one to inspire insipid emotions; you either loved his work or you couldn’t stand it. There was no middle ground with him. There hasn’t been a filmmaker like him since and although there have been a few films that could be classified as Fellini-esque, there were none that anyone could really say “this could have been made by Fellini” of. Until now.

Like the film considered to be Fellini’s masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, this film is set in the upper class of Roman society, the wealthy who go to parties that border on the surreal. Middle aged men dance with younger women. Older women dance with younger men. In Rome, the Eternal City, the one thing that isn’t eternal is youth. Those who are losing it hold onto it with their fingernails.

Jep Gambardella (Servillo) is celebrating his 65th birthday and has become aware that his time ahead is growing much less than his time behind. At 26, he had written a novel, The Human Apparatus that established his reputation – but hadn’t written a novel since. He contented himself by being the King of the Roman High Life – the man whose appearance at a party would instantly make it a success. He supports himself by interviewing artistic sorts for his editor, a kindly and wise little person with blue hair. Jep is beginning to suspect he’s wasted his life and determines to stop doing things he doesn’t want to do.

He gets involved in a relationship with an aging stripper named Ramona (Ferilli) that to his surprise is more friendship than sexual – he has over the years had plenty of sexual adventures, including one with the melancholy Orietta (Ferrari). Much of this self-reflection is brought on by the revelation that a former lover has passed away. She’d left him unexpectedly and without explanation some 40 years earlier and married another man. After her death, her husband had found her diary and discovered to his shock that it was Jep who was the love of her life and that she considered him, the man she spent her entire life with, a pleasant companion.

That’s really all there is to plot. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I went into this movie expecting to hate it. I’d heard from friends and colleagues that the movie was at best a disappointment and at worst a pretentious mess. In fact, Da Queen did indeed wind up really loathing the movie but that wasn’t the experience that I had. Watching the movie, I was well aware of its faults – the movie is shamelessly pretentious in the sort of way that almost defiantly invites criticism. It is also way too long and the coda not worth the wait.

Still, I found the movie mesmerizing. In many ways, it’s a love letter to Rome itself – full of beauty that is unsurprising but with little hidden gems that only give access to those in the know. Sure the people depicted here are shallow with the delusion of being intellectual. Most of Jep’s circle is passing middle age into old age and they are going there kicking and screaming. They have all lived lives of hedonistic emptiness, going from party to gallery opening to art exhibition to dinner with little else in mind but to see and be seen.

The movie hits you with unexpected insights which caught me by surprise, much of which has to do with understanding how Romans view themselves and their place in the world. There is a world-weary melancholy to the movie which comes from being the heirs to an ancient empire that once stretched across the world but has changed and become secondary to superpowers like America and China. Jep’s self-awareness is critical to understanding the film; he is fully cognizant that he has lived an empty life and continues to live it. He knows that he has spent much of his time observing life rather than taking part in it. He has become insular, a man whose life revolves around the next party and whose reputation as a bon vivant is everything.

Near the end of the movie we are introduced to Santa (Merli), a 104-year-old nun who is while technically not a saint, referred to as such. She appears almost mummified, her jaw open wide in an expression you might find on the entombed but she has a gentle soul. In one of the movies best moments, a flock of migrating flamingos makes a stop on Jep’s portico following a dinner party he has thrown in her honor. Santa whispers with an expression of rapt joy that she knows the Christian names of each one of the birds. Then she blows a little puff of air and off fly the flamingos. Rome is ever a Catholic environment.

This is a movie of contradictions. Crazy pretentious but unexpectedly insightful. Beautifully photographed but with an eye to the ugliness of human nature. Artful yet crass. Serious yet with an absurd sense of humor. Spiritual but also hedonistic. Yes, I will admit that this is a movie that requires a good deal of effort to love. This isn’t a movie to be taken lightly nor is it as frivolous as it appears to be on the surface. It demands to be taken on its own terms and either you will or you won’t – that’s entirely up to you. If you do, however, you may well be rewarded with a glimpse inside the Roman soul that is rarely revealed to outsiders. In that sense, this is a masterpiece and there are those who agree plainly – it did beat out the incredible Danish movie The Hunt for the Best Foreign Film Oscar at the recent Academy Awards  Do I think it is a better movie than The Hunt? No, I can’t say that it is in all honesty but it is certainly a very, very good movie if you are willing to allow it to be.

REASONS TO GO: Moments of insight and thoughtfulness that sneak up on you. Gorgeous images and cinematography. If you love Fellini, this is for you.

REASONS TO STAY: Unabashedly pretentious. Far too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is graphic nudity and a good deal of sexuality and sensuality. There’s also some drug content and a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The performance artist in the film Talia Concept’s head-butting spectacle is a nod to real world performance artist Marina Abramovic.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: La Dolce Vita

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Our Film Library begins!

Pompeii


Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland's imperial ass.

Emily Browning mournfully checks out Kiefer Sutherland’s imperial ass.

(2014) Swords and Sandals (TriStar) Kit Harrington, Emily Browning, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kiefer Sutherland, Carrie-Anne Moss, Jared Harris, Jessica Lucas, Sasha Roiz, Joe Pingue, Currie Graham, Dylan Schombing, Rebecca Eady, Maxime Savana, Ron Kennell, Tom Bishop Sr., Jean-Francois Lachapelle, Jean Frenette, Dalmar Abuzeid, Melantha Blackthorne. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

There’s an old saying that “man proposes, God disposes” and if by God you mean a volcano then you have a point. The best-laid plans of mice and men do not stand well before an erupting Mt. Vesuvius.

Milo (Harrington) is a gladiator. He wasn’t always a gladiator – as a young boy (Schombing), he was the only survivor of a Celtic Horse Clan that was wiped out in rebellion against Rome by the Centurion Corvus (Sutherland) and his right hand swordsman Proculus (Roiz).  He only survived by playing dead but not before witnessing the butchering of his mother (Eady) and father (Lachapelle). He was discovered by slavers and trained as a gladiator.

As a gladiator in the British isles he soon became known for his speed and his skills and as a young man was virtually unbeatable. Recognizing that he was far too skilled for the hinterlands, it was decided that Milo be taken to Pompeii to see how he fares. Pompeii is just a hop, skip and a jump from the big time in Rome.

Pompeii, a seaside resort town, is having some issues of its own. Much of it is dilapidated and aging and leading citizen Severus (Harris) is eager to rebuild much of it, attracting more tourism. In particular the arena is obsolete and cannot accommodate the extremely popular chariot races, so his grand plan includes the construction of a new arena. He is hopeful that the new emperor will invest but instead he gets Corvus.

Corvus however has an agenda of his own and it involves Severus’ daughter Cassia (Browning). She had spent a year in Rome but sickened by the corruption she saw there, had returned home to her father and mother Aurelia (Moss). However, her principle reason for leaving had been the dogged and unwanted pursuit by Corvus who now means to use her as leverage against her father.

In the meantime however a chance roadside meeting had led Cassia and Milo to meet. Sparks flew immediately, an event not unnoticed by Ariadne (Lucas), Cassia’s servant. However, Milo has more to worry about – he is set to meet Atticus (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a champion gladiator who needs one more win to earn his freedom. The two end up respecting one another and becoming unlikely allies. However, Vesuvius is rumbling, the clock is ticking and all Hell is about to be unleashed on the city that sleeps at its base.

Anderson is no stranger to effects movies with budgets that are far from extravagant as a veteran of the Resident Evil series. Like several of those movies, the CGI run hot and cold with in the case of Pompeii some of the green screen effects of the city stretching off in the distance and the mountain rising ominously in the distance look exactly like green screen effects. Nonetheless during the sequences in which the mountain is erupting in full fury and visiting its wrath upon the city below, the effects can be breathtaking – at times it seems like the ash floating down from the sky are going to nestle into your lap. Although I saw the standard version, friends and colleagues who have seen the 3D version have asserted that it is one of the best in that department.

Harrington, best known as the Stark bastard Jon Snow in the Game of Thrones HBO series, bulked up considerably for the role and while not having a whole lot of dialogue (Milo is depicted as being a brooding, unfriendly sort), nonetheless shows great promise as at least an action film leading man and maybe for other types of roles in the future as well. However, the wispy facial hair has to go – it makes him look like a high school junior.

The doe-eyed Browning never really seems to grasp what her character is supposed to be; at times she is a strong, Roman-style feminist who has more cojones than her milksop father. At other times she is a helpless damsel in distress. I don’t think this is a particular problem with Browning so much as a problem with the writing. I suspect that the character would have been strong throughout but the powers that be might have taken a hand in it.

Sutherland chews the scenery as the corrupt and vicious Corvus but has a good time doing it (although I can’t help thinking what Jack Bauer would have done in a season of 24 set in Pompeii). Yeah, he’s over-the-top but why the hell not? The whole city is about to be buried under tons of lava and ash after all so why not make a mark while there’s still a mark to be made. His arrogant patrician muscle Proculus, portrayed by Roiz who some may know better as Grimm‘s Captain Renard makes an ideal foil. Finally Akinnuoye-Agbaje is fine in what is essentially the same role played by Djimon Hounsou in Gladiator which is a much superior film.

Much of the reason this doesn’t measure up is that the story is so ludicrous and takes liberties with simple common sense. Why would anyone want to piss off a trained killer as happens repeatedly throughout the film? Historical evidence shows us that ancient Romans tread carefully around gladiators simply because as slaves who had only death to look forward to they had nothing to lose if they killed a tormentor. Quite the opposite, gladiators were treated with respect and honor.

Still, if one forgives the movie its pedestrian and predictable plot, the effects and action are certainly worthwhile. It’s the portions in between these action and special effects sequences that are often excruciating and leave one longing for a pyroclastic cloud  to come your way.

REASONS TO GO: Harrington a promising leading man. Some nifty disaster effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Hokey story. Some of the green screen effects are pretty poor.

FAMILY VALUES:  Gladiator battle-type violence, some of it bloody as well as disaster-related action – people getting crushed by falling masonry and so on. There is also some implied sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrington underwent a regimen to attain the absolutely ripped body of Milo by going on a 3000 calorie diet for five weeks in what he called his “bulking” regimen. He cut back on this and went on a four week “cutting” regimen with intense training. During this time he went to the gym three times a day six days a week, developing body dysmorphia – extreme anxiety about the appearance of one’s body – forcing his trainer to step in and reign in the regimen. However, Harrington was very pleased with the overall results and proclaimed himself in the best shape of his life.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Volcano

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Past

The Salt of Life (Gianni e la donne)


The Salt of Life

Gianni di Gregorio points at what he wants most in life.

(2011) Comedy (Zeitgeist) Gianni di Gregorio, Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni, Alfonso Santagata, Elisabetta Piccolomini, Valeria Cavalli, Aylin Prandi, Kristina Cepraga, Michelangelo Ciminale, Teresa di Gregorio, Lilia Silvi, Gabriella Sborgi, Laura Squizzato, Silvia Squizzato. Directed by Gianni di Gregorio

 

When a certain age is reached, people tend to become invisible to the opposite sex – transparent, as one character ruefully comments in this Italian comedy. The tendency is for us to fight against this marginalization and assert our own sexual potency, particularly in the male of the species.

Gianni di Gregorio, who co-wrote and directed this as well as starred in it, has reached that age. He is a pleasant, willing sort who was forced, unwilling, into retirement years ago (although for what reason it is never said). His laid-back, low-key and giving nature are constantly taken advantage of by the women in his life, particularly his nonagenarian mother (Bendoni) who fritters away her life savings while her son scrapes by. She constantly calls her son to come visit her to basically wait on her hand and foot, while her caregiver Kristina (Cepraga) is given designer dresses and jewelry to wear.

Gianni’s wife (Piccolomini) is cordial towards him, although she does belittle him for having nothing to do. Her earnings and Gianni’s pension are barely enough to make ends meet. Still, they have a pretty comfortable lifestyle, although the two of them sleep in separate bedrooms and essentially lead separate lives. With them lives their daughter (Teresa de Gregorio), who is stressed with university exams, and her slacker boyfriend Michi (Ciminale) who seems to spend more time with Gianni than with his girlfriend.

Rome has always been filled with attractive women and Gianni is surrounded by them – besides Kristina there’s Gianni’s ex-girlfriend Valeria (Cavalli) who is newly available and seems to adore him, his neighbor Aylin (Prandi) who professes to be madly in love with him but that seems to be mainly because he is willing to walk her St. Bernard for her and run errands for her while she sleeps off a hangover from yet another night of partying. None of them seem to have much more than a playful flirtation in mind for him and he wonders if he missed out on the romance in life. This spirals him into a mild depression.

Gianni’s best friend and lawyer (Santagata) notices Gianni’s melancholy and advises him to take on a mistress. Gianni warms to the idea – even some of the most decrepit men in his neighborhood have one – and seems to fear the idea of becoming the lonely old man who walks his dog in a Trastevere park every day. But how to go about it?

This is not really a sequel to di Gregorio’s last film, Mid-August Lunch (which I saw at the 2010 Florida Film Festival and it wound up on my list of Ten Best Films that year) so much as it is a continuation. There are several of the same characters in that movie including Santagata and Gianni’s mom. It carries with it the same inner charm and sweetness that the first movie carried.

As in that movie, Gianni is something of a pushover, blandly murmuring “certainly, certainly” when asked to do something by the various women in the movie. Yet when he decides to do something it become woefully obvious he doesn’t have game by modern standards. He is courtly and charming but lacks passion and confidence, something most women look for. He is a hand kisser in an age of ass grabbers. He is so inept at wooing the women around him that one wonders how he got married and managed to sire a daughter.

Gianni has that woeful hangdog look, and his melancholy is palpable throughout the film. He  is aware of the bags under his eyes and although not an un-handsome man, he is no Giancarlo Giannini. In many ways, he is the man most women like to affectionately complain about – somewhat befuddled, a little inept and lost without the women in his life.

The sun-dappled streets of Trastevere are charming and alluring in their own way. Even though Gianni isn’t in the best of financial shape, he still leads an enviable lifestyle; eating well, drinking often and not having to go to work every day. Still, there’s something missing for him, something that leads him to stray onto trails he doesn’t know and isn’t sure where they’re going to lead him.

It seems odd to root for someone to cheat on their wives but it is important to remember that mistresses occupy a different place in Italian culture than in our own. Not that it’s accepted so much as politely ignored. Here, it’s a major no-no so American audiences might have trouble getting behind Gianni’s quest.

Still, this is delightful, laid-back, charming and laugh-out-loud funny. Di Gregorio makes the difficult art of comedy seem effortless, and that’s the mark of a real master. In a landscape littered by raunchy comedies by Judd Apatow and his wanna-bes, this is a refreshing change. Not that I don’t enjoy Apatow’s films or raunchy comedies in general but it’s nice to have variety and isn’t that the salt of life?

REASONS TO GO: Gentle and charming.  Has a sweet sexiness that American films rarely capture.

REASONS TO STAY: Gianni lacks inertia. Hard to root for a guy trying to cheat on his wife.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual innuendo and a few bad words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actress playing Gianni’s daughter is in fact his real life daughter.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100. The reviews are solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mid-August Lunch

ROME LOVERS: This movie is set in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood and is the Rome not of tourists but the city where Romans actually live. One gets a real sense of the lifestyle of those who live there.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Raid: Redemption

Mother of Tears (La terza madre)


Mother of Tears

Not a position you want to find yourself in when making a movie for Dario Argento.

(2007) Supernatural Horror (Mitropoulos) Asia Argento, Daria Nicolodi, Udo Kier, Moran Atias, Adam James, Cristian Solimeno, Valeria Cavalli, Philippe Leroy, Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, Robert Madison, Jun Ichikawa, Tomasso Banfi., Paolo Stella Directed by Dario Argento

 

Dario Argento is as highly regarded in the horror community as Judd Apatow is in the comedy community; only he doesn’t have the worldwide hits that Apatow does. Still, his works – including Suspiria, Inferno and The Bird With the Crystal Plumage are some of the most influential horror films ever made. The first two are also the first two segments of a fairly informal trilogy known as the Three Mothers trilogy, concerning powerful witches. This new one comes nearly 20 years after the last.

Sarah Mandy (Argento) is an American art expert working in an Italian museum when an ancient Etruscan vase is unearthed in an Italian cemetery. The urn is unremarkable but it has a tunic in it and attached is a tablet warning of an ancient evil – a warning which in movies like this always go unheeded. An innocent art historian meets a particularly gruesome death because of it.

That’s not the last particularly gruesome death that is to come. Soon, it becomes clear that a thousand year old witch – Mater Lachrimarum – has risen to fill the tunic with a lithe, sexy body that doesn’t look a day over 25. She begins to accrue acolytes, sexy witches who look like they stepped out of a circa 1984 Whitesnake video and all sorts of mayhem begins to occur. Women toss their babies off of bridges, men commit suicide, women are raped and murdered. All in a day’s work.

Sarah discovers that her mom (Nicolodi) was a witch of uncommon power and that she has inherited her mother’s gifts. She manages to resurrect the spirit of her mom who guides her into battle, along with a disbelieving Italian detective (Solimeno) and a world-weary priest (Kier) who must stop the witch before Rome falls a second time – and with it the Western World.

This is more closely related to Suspiria and Inferno than Inferno was to Suspiria – in all likelihood Inferno wasn’t originally intended as a direct sequel to Suspiria, it just played in the same sandbox. Here, there is a definite connection to both films and in some ways that makes it more enjoyable.

Asia Argento, the director’s daughter, has become quite a leading lady in her own right, having done such movies as xXx and  Marie Antoinette. She is solid here in a role that isn’t perhaps as well-defined as some of her better performances but she gives a good try, turning Sarah into a rip-snorting ass-kicking horror heroine, not so much a scream queen (although she does some of that) as she is a kick you in the spleen queen.

The murders and mayhem are pretty much over-the-top although not as lovingly dwelled on as the traps in the Saw movies or the torture in the Hostel movies. The gore here is graphic and gruesome but you don’t get the sense that there is an almost pornographic lust for it – the gore serves its purpose only and nothing else.

The plot is pretty scattershot and there are times when the ludicrous alarms are well-sounded, such as when a Japanese follows Sarah and must be stopped by the doors of a train – not once but several times. Nothing exceeds like excess.

Still, Argento is masterful at framing shots, setting a mood and using color and texture in his films to help create an atmosphere that is second to none and all of that is in use here, even though today’s digital filmmaking is a bit more clinical looking than the film stocks and sets of yesteryear, Argento still manages to create the right mood of eeriness and suspense.

This isn’t his best work by any stretch of the imagination but this isn’t his worst either. It’s a welcome return to a series that has needed some closure – and needed some connective tissue as well. Mother of Tears provides both.

WHY RENT THIS: Hey, it’s Argento man – one of the best horror filmmakers of all time. Even his weaker attempts are better than most of  his peer’s best efforts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: This isn’t one of Argento’s best. The plot stretches logic from time to time.

FAMILY VALUES:  Graphic, gruesome violence, plenty of bad words and a lot of sexuality and nudity. Perfect grindhouse/drive-in fun..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daria Nicolodi is Asia Argento’s mother in real life as well.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An interview with the legendary giallo director hints at a prequel to the Three Mothers trilogy somewhere down the line.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Act of Valor

The Devil Inside


The Devil Inside

Static electricity can be murder!

(2012) Supernatural Horror (InSurge/Paramount) Fernanda Andrade, Evan Helmuth, Simon Quarterman, Ionut Grama, Suzan Crowley, Bonnie Morgan, Brian Johnson, Preston James Hiller, D.T. Carney, Maude Boranni, Marvin Duerkholz. Directed by William Brent Bell

 

Ah, Blair Witch Project, what hath thou wrought? Here is yet another in the long line of recent found footage films (i.e. Cloverdale, Apollo18) which to be honest are becoming rather gimmicky. While the Paranormal Activity series has been well-received both by critics and audiences alike, it is quickly becoming an excuse for sloppy camera work and poorly constructed plots.

Studios like these kinds of movies because they are extremely inexpensive to produce and when they hit it big, they can really upgrade the studio’s tax bracket. Even when they don’t hit it big, it doesn’t take much for them to make a profit and when they don’t, it’s not much of a write-off so it’s a win-win situation for the studio.

For audiences, however, it can be another matter. Maria Rossi (Crowley) was a Connecticut housewife who in 1989 killed two priests and a nun during an exorcism ceremony. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and later moved from an asylum in Connecticut to one in Rome. Her daughter Isabella (Andrade) who was a little girl when her momma went all medieval is ready to visit her mom for the first time since then and in the fine tradition of reunions everywhere wants to film it, taking with her Michael, a somewhat slimy cameraman (Grama).

In Rome she is given permission by the Holy See to film an exorcism class where she meets Fr. Ben Rawlings (Quarterman) and Fr. David Keane (Helmuth), a couple of young exorcists-in-training who chafe under the Church bureaucracy and are eager to go off and perform exorcisms on  those who as they put it “have fallen through the cracks of the Church.” Naturally they become interested in Isabella’s case but they want to show her a real exorcism first, so they take her to visit Rosa (Morgan), a cruelly possessed teenager. After that, the two renegade priests visit Maria in the asylum and, as you can imagine, all Hell breaks loose.

I will grant you that the movie as much as I’m ripping on it does do a good job basically from the time Isabella gets to Rome and through the exorcism attempt of Maria in setting up the right mood. There are a few startle-scares (big dogs parking, loud crashes) but for the most part this is more atmosphere than gorefest. Those looking for demons and beasties best look elsewhere.

The acting, as it is in many of these sorts of films is just competent at best. Maintaining the illusion of reality means hiring unknowns and that is always a bit of a crap shoot. But then again, who goes to these sorts of movies for the acting?

A movie like this has to keep the viewer interested in what’s going to happen next and elicit a sense of dread from the audience (after all, the footage had to be “lost” before it was found and there’s usually a reason for that) but part of the problem is that you kind of know before the movie even starts that bad things are going to happen to the people in the film and it’s not going to end well for them. In a sense, their own genre works against them. For that reason, we need to care about the characters and quite frankly, the writers of the movie didn’t even care enough to make them anything more than cookie cutter characters.

Much of the audience anger (it has gotten very poor word of mouth) at the movie stems from the ending. I won’t spoil it other than to say it’s abrupt enough to give you whiplash, then refers you to a website for further information – which I did and while it gives you additional background information on the main characters and some of the other elements within the movie. I think the attention was to be innovative and turn the movie into a film/internet hybrid. While I think that’s a peachy concept, quite frankly it didn’t work well here and served only the make people really angry. The ending basically ruins the movie.

While some publications thought that Paramount was hoping for a Paranormal Activity-type franchise out of this film, I’m not so sure. I can’t see how this lends itself to a sequel, although I suppose it’s possible to have some other investigators investigate the happenings in the movie. I don’t think the found footage-style would work for that so much though.

The middle part of the movie was pretty good which is what makes this so sad. There is obviously potential here for a good movie, but then the horrible ending blows that to smithereens. It made pretty decent box office its first weekend (which I’m sure is what the studio was hoping for) but with the bad word-of-mouth and negative reviews I don’t foresee much staying power and I don’t think people are going to want to see a The Devil Inside 2. You can’t trample the goodwill of an audience and expect them to come back for more.

REASONS TO GO: Very creepy in places.

REASONS TO STAY: An ending that just about kills the movie. Makes you wonder if found footage movies have outstayed their welcome.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some fairly disturbing scenes and a couple of grisly images. The language is rough and as with most possession movies a lot of it is sexually based.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first release of Paramount’s low-budget InSurge brand.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 6% positive reviews. Metacritic: 18/100. The reviews are scathing.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism

DEMONIC PSYCHOBABBLE LOVERS: While the exorcisms are conducted in English rather than Latin, there are references to demons and demonic lore.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: GalaxyQuest

The Rite


The Rite

Even dilapidated boarding houses are mainly CGI these days.

(2011) Supernatural Horror (New Line) Anthony Hopkins, Colin O’Donoghue, Alice Braga, Ciaran Hinds, Rutger Hauer, Toby Jones, Marta Gastini, Maria Grazia Cucinotta, Arianna Veronesi, Andrea Calligari, Chris Marquette, Torrey DeVito, Ben Cheetham, Marija Karan. Directed by Mikael Hafstrom

Ever since The Exorcist Hollywood has periodically unleashed movies in which Roman Catholic priests do battle with demonic possessors, generally of innocent young girls. Some of these movies have been essentially visceral knock-offs meant to test the limits of our squeamishness. Not all of them are like that though.

Michael Kovak (O’Donoghue) is a young man with some heavy baggage in his past. His mother died when he was young and his father (Hauer), the undertaker in a small Midwestern town, is as cold to him as the snow that blankets the town each winter. As he has grown from childhood, he’s become increasingly convinced that there is no God, much to the dismay of his dad. He is also quite convinced that the mortuary business is not for him, to the greater dismay of his dad.

Michael enters the seminary, mainly for the free education but also to test his atheism. While he questions his faith, the Father Superior (Jones) senses something inside Michael, something good and decent and suggests that he attend the Vatican’s exorcism school. Michael is skeptical; he is planning (as he has all along) to opt out of his vows until the Father Superior tells him that the cost of his education will then be placed into a student loan of over $100K which Michael will owe. Reluctantly, Michael flies to Rome.

At the Vatican, Michael continues to question, drawing the attention of Father Xavier (Hinds) who advises Michael to spend some time with a veteran exorcist. Michael is then paired with Father Lucas Trevant (Hopkins), an acerbic and quirky priest who lives with a whole lot of cats he despises in a dilapidated old rooming house in Rome.

He’s working on the exorcism of a pregnant teenage girl (Gastini) but the results seem to be less spectacular than in the movies. “What’d you expect,” barks Father Lucas, “Spinning heads? Pea soup? ” That should give you all you need to know about the movie you’re watching.

As the exorcism progresses over a period of weeks, things get a little more strange and chilling. A lovely journalist (Braga) trying to get to the bottom of the Vatican’s involvement with exorcisms befriends Michael and he’s quite inclined to help her get her story. To be honest, Michael believes that this girl – and indeed, most “possessed” by demons – need psychiatric help more than exorcists. But the farther things go along and as unexplainable events occur, it is not Michael’s faith that will be tested but lack thereof.

That really is the difference between this movie and other demonic possession movies with maybe the exception of The Last Exorcism and even in that Cotton Marcus does have religious belief – he’s just not a believer in exorcisms. Here, Michael flat-out doubts the existence of God and the Devil which makes it more interested when confronted with evidence of the latter.

Hafstrom, who helmed the excellent 1408 (one of the better Stephen King adaptations) makes this almost clinical in places but takes the basic conceit of exorcism movies and turns it on its ear. I don’t know how much this was taken from the book this is based on (which I understand only provides a framework for the movie) but it is a bold move nonetheless.

The usually reliable Hopkins is a little over-the-top here. This isn’t a very subtle performance at all, and there are a few Hannibal Lecter mannerisms that are a bit startling. Most of the rest of the performances in the movie are more understated and nuanced; Hopkins stands out and not in a good way. In all honesty however I have to admit I’m not sure if he could have played it any other way.

This was advertised (and continues to be on DVD) as a horror film and in a lot of ways it isn’t, although there are some genuine creep-outs and some good startle scares too. However, most of the time it tends to be more of an examination of faith and the testing of it in a world which has moved more into a Missouri frame of mind – as in show me. We have become more used to a “just the facts” mindset and that’s not always a bad thing.

Faith implies a willingness to set aside fact and proof to take it on faith that something is so. Even science asks us to take some things on faith – for example, that faster than light travel isn’t possible. And, of course, it isn’t – until someone finds a way to make it happen. Science is a world limited to what we know and can prove. Faith is a world that tells us that there are things that not only we don’t understand, that we can’t understand. Art is a bridge between the two, allowing us to imagine things that are possible but also might not be and making them real. M.C. Escher to me comes closer to touching God than anybody.

But faith vs. science ranting aside, the movie may not necessarily be what you’re looking for when you want a good scare. It is a little smarter and a bit more practical but addresses some issues that most horror movies aren’t willing to tackle. It’s a well-made movie and for those interested in bigger questions than “how did they make that girl’s head do that,” it might be a good fit on a stormy night.

WHY RENT THIS: More of a psychological thriller than horror still packs some nice scares.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Hopkins chews the scenery and a little bit of him goes a long way here. Otherwise much more clinical than terrifying.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of shocking and disturbing images, not to mention the adult thematic matter, some of it sexual. There’s also a bit of supernatural violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The translation of the Hungarian phrase Hauer utters several times in the film regarding his wife is “My love, my flower, my bliss.”

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the actual Vatican school of exorcism which includes interviews with the authors of the book that inspired the movie.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $96.1M on a $36M production budget; the movie made decent money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Melancholia