Sinister 2


Bughuul reminds us there's no talking in the theater or else he sends these kids after you.

Bughuul reminds us there’s no talking in the theater or else he sends these kids after you.

(2015) Horror (Gramercy) James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Tate Ellington, John Beasley, Lucas Jade Zumarin, Jaden Klein, Laila Haley, Caden M. Fritz, Olivia Rainey, Nicholas King, Michael B. Woods, Tory O. Davis, Howie Johnson, Grace Holuby, John Francis Mountain, Nicole Santini. Directed by Ciarán Foy

There are monsters in this world; people who beat their wives, their children. People who create an atmosphere of fear, all so they can feel like a big man. One can run away from monsters like that; but then there’s no running away from the demons that follow you.

Courtney Collins (Sossamon) has separated from her husband with the intention of divorcing him. He is an abusive, evil man who has turned her twin sons Dylan (R.D. Sloan) and Zach (D. Sloan) into a terrified, nightmare-ridden boy (the former) and a mean, spiteful kid (the latter). She has found an old farmhouse with a de-consecrated church in the yard.

What she doesn’t know is that the house was the scene of a horrible crime in which an entire family was slaughtered – chained to the church floor and eaten alive by rats – with the young son missing. Investigating the crime is a Detective (Ransone) who was once a Deputy investigating a similar crime in the first Sinister. It weighs heavily on his mind that he couldn’t save his friend Ellison Oswalt and his family from the same fate; in fact, he was accused and later acquitted of the heinous crime, although he lost his job over it.

Now he has made it his mission to stop the demon Bughuul who is responsible for these murders. Bughuul, through the lost children he abducts, influences a child in a family moving into the home where one of these murders occurs to become his minion; when the family moves out, the child films the gruesome murders he commits. Afterwards, Bughuul takes his soul to join his legion of lost children.

Now the kids are after Dylan, showing him the murder films which stop the nightmares. The Detective is unnerved to find people living in the house – he’d been told it was vacant and had plans to burn it to the ground, stopping the demon’s reign of terror. He grows attracted to Courtney and the feeling is mutual. But with her ex Clinton (Coco) hot on her trail and hell bent on taking the kids back home with him, with no judge or law enforcement official in rural Indiana willing to stand up to the wealthy Clinton, Courtney is caught between hell and a hard place – literally.

Although a sequel pretty much to the first Sinister, this has little in common with the first film. No Ethan Hawke, for one thing – Sossamon is the biggest name in the cast which helps keep the costs low and the profit margin high. Scott Derrickson, who directed the original, is still on board as co-writer and producer but it is Irish director Foy, who has a nifty thriller called The Citadel to his credit, in the chair here.

The first film was incredibly creepy; the atmosphere was much more intense than it is here. There is more a Children of the Corn vibe which is said to be on purpose; Foy had wanted the film to be a tribute to the Stephen King story which spawned a plethora of cinematic stinkers – and has a lot in common thematically with both of the Sinister films. While some might find the homespun Indiana cornfield look frightening, it doesn’t quite do it for me personally.

Ransone does, though. Moving from a background comedy relief character to genuine horror hero, we get the kind of hero we can all get behind; he’s not brawny or a particularly good fighter (he gets beaten up at least twice during the film) but he is smart and sympathetic. He’s a nice guy whom we fear is going to finish last.

The movie’s subtext having to do with abusive husbands/fathers is welcome. Often the physical abuse is given as a reason as why abused kids turn into psychotic serial killers but here it is shown as terrifying as anything the demon can conjure up; there’s a scene where the Collins family is having dinner and Clinton eats first while the others sit in frightened silence, awaiting the signal that they can eat. It’s as stark and scary a scene in any horror movie this year. Sadly, none of the Bughuul stuff can equal it.

Part of the problem is that the kid actors in the movie who take up most of the screen time range from adequate to hard to watch. A movie like this by necessity requires a good number of child actors and that’s a double edged sword; if you can get good ones, it ratchets up the fear factor. If not, it can make your film look amateurish. It doesn’t quite sink to that level, but it certainly isn’t elevated by the performances of the children. And that’s not a knock on the kids, mind you – I don’t think it’s for lack of effort on their part, but they do have an awful lot of burden on their shoulders and that might be a little too much to ask of them.

Another issue I had with the movie is the various snuff films. The death scenes are so elaborate that to a large extent they aren’t believable. Sure, the kids are being helped by a demonic presence but it doesn’t feel like a kid could come up with these complex killing methods, ranging from putting a family on crucifixes and burning them alive to hanging them upside down above a swamp where alligators take their heads off. Gruesome fun to be sure, but not believable gruesome fun.

Even despite the deficiencies this ends up with a slightly higher rating than the first Sinister, largely because the ending of the first one was such a stinker. The ending here is a lot better; and while Bughuul is not the terrifying monster that maybe this franchise needs, the movie is scary enough in a white bread kind of way that it makes the movie worth checking out.

REASONS TO GO: Fairly creepy. Ransone steps up nicely. Like the inclusion of the abusive father.
REASONS TO STAY: Children of the Corn vibe doesn’t work. The filmed death scenes too elaborate. Overreliance on kid actors.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, much of it gruesome; bloody and disturbing images, and some fairly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only returning characters from the first film are Bughuul himself and the Detective, who in the first film was Deputy So & So (he never gets a name); here he is Detective So & So.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Insidious
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mistress America

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Get On Up


The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

(2014) Musical Biography (Universal) Chadwick Boseman, Nelsan Ellis, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Lennie James, Fred Melamed, Craig Robinson, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Josh Hopkins, Brandon Smith, Tika Sumpter, Aunjanue Ellis, Tariq Trotter, Aloe Blacc, Keith Robinson, Atkins Eastmond, Jamarion Scott, Jordan Scott, Stacey Scowley, Ahna O’Reilly. Directed by Tate Taylor

James Brown has never really gotten his due other than by his peers and true music buffs. He never achieved the sales that one would assume that someone who revolutionized pop music should have gotten, and yet when you look at the latter half of the 20th century, the most influential figures to come out of it are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and James Brown. He is the most-sampled artist in history, and virtually every song on your digital music storage device owes something to James Brown.

Before he was the legendary Godfather of Soul, James Brown (Boseman) was a young boy in rural Georgia. Abandoned by his mother Susie (Davis) at a young age and raised primarily by his alcoholic father Joe (James), he was dropped off with Aunt Honey (Spencer) who ran a brothel. There he grew up huckstering the house of ill repute for African-American soldiers coming into town on weekend passes, and going to the local church to listen to gospel music and watch the ecstasy of dance.

While in jail for stealing a suit, he met Bobby Byrd (Ellis) who led a group called the Gospel Starlighters. Byrd would end up bringing James home and bringing the talented young singer into their group which he would eventually rename the Famous Flames. A demo of the song “Please, Please, Please” ended up in the hands of promoter Ben Bart (Aykroyd) and label owner Syd Nathan (Melamed). Whereas Nathan never really got Brown’s music, Ben recognized that the sounds coming from the single were unique; it’s not about the song, he tries to explain to Nathan who never really gets it.

Brown was something of a control freak and he rebelled at playing along with the status quo. He dealt with venues directly rather than going through a promoter, bringing Bart aboard as an advisor and business manager, allowing him to retain a larger share of the gate at his shows. He is Mr. Entertainment, priding himself on putting on the best shows for his audience and giving everything he had night after night. People began to listen.

Success breeds excess however. Brown would become a drug addict although the movie glosses over this somewhat which would lead to legal troubles that plagued the latter half of his life. He could be mean and abusive which wreaked havoc not only in his personal life but also alienated many of those musicians whose talents helped elevate him to where he was. He demanded absolute control but as Byrd pointed out, he was a genius and it was on his coattails that his band would achieve legendary status but his demeaning treatment of them alienated them.

Taylor opts for an achronological telling of Brown’s story, starting out in 1988, jumping back to 1968 (good God!) and back again to 1939 and up forward 1955. Flashbacks within flashbacks, you might say. Writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth group events in his life thematically rather than chronologically, headlining them with nicknames he would acquire during his career – The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, Mr. Dynamite. and so on. For the most part this works although some of the transitions between time periods are less smooth than others and the linking devices occasionally take us out of the story and make us realize we’re watching someone directing a movie. That’s a big no-no.

Boseman is absolutely incredible here. Richard Corliss of Time magazine has all but handed the Oscar to Boseman and while that may be premature, I do hope that his performance still remains in the memory of Academy members come nomination time. He certainly deserves consideration. While the vocals here are Brown, Boseman not only gets his mannerisms correctly he also manages to recreate Brown’s unique stage movement and presence. It’s a performance that really carries the movie and necessarily so.

Ellis also does a fine job as Byrd, the closest thing to a friend Brown has. Although their relationship was rocky, there was also genuine affection between the two. Ellis and Boseman have a strong chemistry which doesn’t really get enough credit. While this is definitely Boseman’s film, it wouldn’t be as strong without Ellis.

While the movie doesn’t hesitate to portray Brown as a difficult man to get along with, there’s a sense that they’re trying too hard to make a mythology about the man and that sometimes comes off like a child whining too much for recognition. Rather than have him appear to be thinking back on his life before – and sometimes during – his performances, those flashbacks could have been framed differently and more organically rather than framing Brown in heroic poses. We get that he was a genius and don’t need to have his mythic qualities shoved down our throats.

A great biography of James Brown is long overdue and while this isn’t the great film I would have hoped it would be, it is nonetheless a strong movie made stronger by the performances of Boseman and Byrd, along with Aykroyd as a kind of Jewish father figure/rabbi to Brown. Brown was in the eyes of many the personification of Black Power during one of the most turbulent times in our history and while he himself was more concerned with making money entertaining his audiences, he did embrace the importance of black culture and black empowerment in his art and in his life. For most, this will be the closest thing to witnessing a performance by James Brown as they will ever come (although there are many clips of his performances available online and of course some of his concert films available for purchase or streaming) but even Boseman’s performance doesn’t duplicate the raw, sweaty power of a live James Brown performance. His legacy is not just in the records he made but in the millions who fell under his spell at his concerts. You wouldn’t be wrong if you argued that he was the greatest live performer in the history of pop music.

REASONS TO GO: Awesome music. Boseman makes a formidable James Brown.

REASONS TO STAY: Era jumping smacks of “Look Ma, I’m Directing.” Over-mythologizes.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of sexual content, drug use and foul language as well as a couple of instances of violence in the form of child and spousal abuse.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aykroyd appeared with the real James Brown in The Blues Brothers while Ellis appeared with Brown in Undercover Brother.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ray

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Guardians of the Galaxy

The Woman


This is the new Goth look.

This is the new Goth look.

(2011) Horror (Bloody Disgusting) Angela Bettis, Pollyanna McIntosh, Marcia Bennett, Sean Bridgers, Carlee Baker, Tommy Nelson, Lauren Ashley Carter, Shyla Molhusen, Vincent Gordon, Zach Rand, Shelby Mailloux, Laura Petre, Lauren Schroeder, Alexa Marcigliano. Directed by Lucky McKee

Take the animal out of the person and, so the way of thinking goes, you are left with a civilized human being. Often however that civilization is only a veneer and when you strip it away you find the inner animal.

Chris Cleek (Bridgers) is a lawyer and a family man, well-respected around town. He likes to go hunting now and again and on one such trip he spies a woman (McIntosh) with a fishing knife in the river spearing it and eating it raw on the end of her knife. He is fascinated by this obviously feral woman and decides to take her home and civilize her. He captures her with a net and knocks her out.

When she awakens, she is chained in his garage on his rural, isolated property. Cleek turns out to be a monster, abusing his wife Belle (Bettis) and oldest daughter Peggy (Carter) who is becoming withdrawn at school, her grades plummeting. His son Brian (Rand) is developing a sadistic streak of his own. The youngest, Darlin (Molhusen) is just a toddler.

Chris begins enlisting his family in “civilizing” the woman, using a pressure hose to wash her, and subjecting her to all sorts of torment. Brian participates enthusiastically while Belle and Peggy are much more reluctant. In the meantime Mrs. Raton (Baker) has become suspicious of Peggy’s change in behavior and decides to pay the home a visit.

There she’ll find a house of horrors that she (and we) didn’t expect. Survival of the fittest is what nature teaches us and the woman will have to be very fit indeed to make it out of the garage alive.

This movie debuted at Sundance  in 2011 to a great deal of controversy. A significant portion of the audience walked out on the film and those that stayed accused it of being misogynistic trash. This is where you can tell the difference between a critic who understands film and those who don’t – there is a difference between a misogynistic film and one in which misogynistic acts are displayed. On the one hand, the agenda is to describe women as inferior who deserve the treatment that they’re receiving; clearly in this movie the men are the monsters, perpetrating all manner of horrors on women. However, it is these men who are woman-haters – these characters. We are able to identify them as such by their behavior. Calling this movie misogynistic is like calling the makers of the Bond films megalomaniacs because their villains behave in that manner.

A superior performance is demanded of McIntosh and, fortunately, received. She doesn’t utter a word of dialogue other than grunts, snorts, screams and screeches. Much of her acting is done through body language and through her eyes. An Oscar-winning performance this ain’t but it does show a great deal of physical talent. I’m not sure she’ll get a lot of opportunities out of this but she should – there’s a real deal actress under all the grime.

There is a good deal of gore and violence, including the (inevitable) sexual assault of the woman by Chris. This is definitely not for the squeamish or those who find violence and sex distasteful. Then, this isn’t the sort of movie that was really made for that sort of person. It is a movie about the savage inside us, one that often has a civilized veneer. Which one was truly the monster – the Woman or Chris? I think you’ll find that question easy enough to answer.

WHY RENT THIS: Brutal but not meant to be taken seriously. McIntosh lets it all hang out in her portrayal of a feral woman.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some might find it misogynistic.

FAMILY VALUES: Warning, this is a pretty shocking film by any standards. Let’s see, there’s some pretty graphic violence and gore, misogynistic  behavior, a fairly brutal rape, graphic nudity, foul language and torture. Louise May Alcott this ain’t.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word anophthalmia which is used repeatedly during the film by Chris refers to the congenital absence of an eye or both eyes and teases one of the aspects of the film’s climax.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an animated short and a music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Shuttered Room

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Promised Land

Jolene


Jolene

Jessica Chastain looks pretty in too much make-up said no-one ever.

(2008) Drama (EntertainmentOne) Jessica Chastain, Frances Farmer, Dermot Mulroney, Zeb Newman, Chazz Palminteri, Denise Richards, Theresa Russell, Michael Vartan, Shannon Whirry, Drea Pruseau, Rupert Friend, Sherry Leigh, Amy Landers. Directed by Dan Ireland

 

Most people are fully aware of the Biblical story of Job. You remember, the guy who had all sorts of things thrown at him on a bet between God and the Devil. They wanted to see how long he’d remain faithful to the Lord and Good Old Job stayed faithful despite losing everything. Good Job, Job.

The truth is that when real people are beset by numerous catastrophes of Biblical proportions, they tend to grow cynical and bitter. They lose faith in everything and everyone. They become hardened and often their outlook makes them difficult to be around. Of course there are exceptions.

Jolene (Chastain) is an orphan who gets married far too young to Mickey (Newman) who means well but is weak. The young couple move in with Mickey’s Uncle Phil (Mulroney) who takes a liking to Jolene and she to him. The two take to fornicatin’ and are sadly discovered by Aunt Kay (Russell) who as a conservative Christian woman doesn’t cotton much to infidelity and throws the young girl out on her ear, which eventually leads to tragedy. The vengeful Kay sees to it that Jolene ends up in juvenile detention where a counselor named Cindy (Farmer) who happens to be a lesbian, also succumbs to Jolene’s charms and helps her escape.

Jolene makes her way to Arizona where she takes up with a tattoo artist with the unlikely name of Coco Leger (Friend) who is also a drug dealer. To nobody’s surprise that ends up badly so Jolene makes her way to Las Vegas and finds work as an exotic dancer. She catches the eye of Sal (Palminteri), a Vegas businessman who falls head over heels for Jolene and looks to be the one to treat her nicely and with respect. Sadly, Sal’s got problems with the mob. So long, Sal.

Next stop, Tulsa where Jolene hooks up with Brad (Vartan) who is a millionaire. He’s also a religious nutcase and an abuser of women. Can Jolene break out of this pattern of bad choices or is it just a matter of bad luck?

This tale of woe is based on a short story by noted author E.L. Doctorow (who also penned Ragtime and The Book of Daniel among other) which was in turn inspired by Dolly Parton’s song “Jolene.” In all fairness the story is basically a means of explaining how the red-haired seductress of Parton’s song got to be that way but the movie really isn’t into making excuses for Jolene. She is where she is because she makes some hideously bad choices and doesn’t learn from them. Which, also to be honest, is true of most of us.

The movie is notable as being Jessica Chastain’s debut and she is quite frankly the reason to see it at all. Her performance here is electric and mesmerizing; yes you can see that Jolene is a train wreck but Chastain makes her a sympathetic train wreck. She makes Jolene a memorable woman, feisty and artistically talented but simply lacking in sense.

While there are some pretty strong performers here for the most part the performances are surprisingly vapid outside of Chastain. Mulroney and Farmer are usually pretty reliable as is the handsome Michael Vartan; they don’t disgrace themselves but they don’t really distinguish themselves either.

Part of the problem is that the script reads as melodrama. You half expect Snidely Whiplash to come leaping out with a “Nyah ah ah,” fingering his moustache as he prepares to tie poor Jolene to the train tracks. I get that Jolene had a really hard life. I get that as a woman, she suffered terrible exploitation. I also get that she made choices that screwed her over. But does it have to be hammered into the viewer repeatedly? It isn’t a plot point so much as an assault.

This is a movie that sat two years on the shelf before making the festival circuit and another two years before hitting its theatrical release. That usually bodes ill for a movie, even at the independent level. Other than Chastain who is almost in another, better movie (and very clearly carries this one) there isn’t a lot to recommend this film for but certainly if you’re into mesmerizing performances from young actresses, this one fits that bill.

WHY RENT THIS: Chastain’s first movie and she’s amazing in it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly melodramatic. Perhaps a little too much is thrown Jolene’s way.

FAMILY VALUES: The sexuality here is very rampant with lots of frank discussion, graphic nudity and of course sex scenes. There’s also some bad language and a bit of drug use, not to mention a little violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jolene debuted at the Seattle International Film Festival which director Dan Ireland is co-founder of.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A gag reel is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monster

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Lincoln

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Man som hatar kvinnor)


The Girl with the Dragoon Tattoo

This is not the girl you want to mess with.

(2009) Thriller (Music Box) Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace, Lena Endre, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Peter Andersson, Marika Lagercrantz, Ingvar Hirdwall, Bjorn Granath, Ewa Froling, Annika Hallin, Georgi Staykov, Tomas Kohler.  Directed by Niels Arden Oplev

My wife was often heard to say to my son (and she heard this herself often as a child) that the truth will find you out. It usually does, too – although sometimes it can take many years before it finally shows up at your door.

Mikael Blomkvist (Nyqvist) is the publisher of Millennium, a left wing magazine in Sweden that goes after corporate and government officials mostly of the right wing variety. Blomkvist has just lost a libel trial against a wealthy Swedish industrialist and in six months time, will be sent to jail for it. He has temporarily stepped down from his position because of the scandal.

In the midst of this, he gets an intriguing offer from an aging Swedish industrialist. Henrik Vanger (Taube) is in his 80s, the patriarch of a wealthy Swedish family living in isolation on an island near Stockholm. 40 years previously, his niece Harriet (Froling) disappeared and is presumed dead. Nobody knows what happened to her although everyone assumes she was murdered. Who done it? Well there’s a whole family of suspects.

As it turns out, Mikael isn’t the only one investigating. Lisbeth Salander (Rapace) was hired to investigate Blomkvist and as she checks up on him, gets drawn in to his own investigation. She is one of Sweden’s best hackers and she has no trouble finding information Mikael can’t access. As time goes by, they discover that the Vangers have a couple of not-so-closet Nazis in the family tree. Salander turns out to have some dangerous secrets of her own and as Mikael closes in on the truth, nothing is what it seems – and it seems there may be something rotten in Sweden.

This is from the first book of the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy which is wildly popular in Scandinavia and more recently worldwide. The motion pictures based on the trilogy are among the most popular ever in Sweden and are due to be remade by Hollywood, the first due out at Christmas directed by Oscar winner David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.

So should you see these before seeing the remakes? I say yes. This is a world class movie, right up there with the best of Hitchcock and De Palma. The bleak Swedish winter landscapes create the perfect mood, with just the right number of twists – not too many, not too few.

The leads couldn’t be more different. Nyqvist is understated as Blomkvist. He is capable and intellectual but not what you’d call the typical heroic sort. He is more heroic in his convictions and ideals rather than as a physical purveyor of derring-do. He is a decent man caught in a situation that is way over his head, one he’s not nearly mean enough to handle.

Rapace however delivers a star turn as Salander. Lisbeth is a bundle of contradictory characteristics. Quiet and withdrawn in many ways, she also dresses in outlandish punk hairstyle and leather which inevitably calls attention to herself. There is a rage in her that’s just below the surface, a rage that comes out brutally when she’s raped graphically early in the movie. It’s a brutal scene that’s not for the sensitive and is anything but sexual. There are those who are disturbed by it, but considering the importance of the event in the series, it is a necessary scene.

I like the mood the movie weaves; it is a mood that contains the comfort of Scandinavian homes, the overwhelming fog of uneasy dread, the air of mysteries buried deep in the Swedish soil. While there is an Agatha Christie-like vibe to the first act, this is definitely the work of a mind whose roots are deep in the land of the Northern climes, where winters are deep, bone-chilling and soul-sucking. One can almost hear “Finlandia” playing on the soundtrack.

Even more to the point, these are characters that are real and compelling. Even the evil neo-Nazi bastards aren’t caricatures; there is flesh on all of these bones.  Lisbeth Salander may be one of the most interesting heroines to come along since Ellen Ripley in Alien. She has demons deep within her, most of them barely hinted at. She’s not always an easy character to like, but she’s always an easy character to be fascinated by.

There are people who won’t see this because it’s subtitled. That’s a shame; those who love thrillers will love this one. It’s not the most original plot; it’s just done in an original style. There’s a realism to it that works, as well as an air of melancholy that makes it Swedish. It’s not Hitchcock, but as this style of movie goes, it’s as good as anything that’s come along in the last decade.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-acted, well-filmed and well-structured – nearly an ideal mystery-thriller.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story is not really ground-breaking and the ending is not too hard to figure out.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of violence and some grisly images. There’s also a graphic rape, nudity, some sexual material and a bit of bad language (in Swedish but nonetheless).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Noomi Rapace got her eyebrow and nose pierced for the film. She also learned kickboxing and lost weight. Incidentally, the actress playing her mother in the movie is also her mom in real life.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Vanger family tree that may prove helpful in keeping up with the plot. There’s also an interesting interview with Rapace in which she discusses how she came aboard.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $104.4M on a $13M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Girl Who Played With Fire

Spiral


Spiral

Joel David Moore is getting tired of all the wedgies.

(Anchor Bay) Joel David Moore, Amber Tamblyn, Zachary Levi, Tricia Helfer, David Muller, Annie Neal, Amber Dahl, Kristin Luman, Ryan Chase. Directed by Adam Green and Joel David Moore

We are, all of us, victims of our past. The demons that are a result of past traumas often drive our present behavior. Some of us have demons that are more insistent and more deadly than others.

Mason (Moore) is a socially awkward cubicle dweller living in Portland, Oregon. Most of his fellow co-workers ignore him; Mason’s neuroses are many and notorious at work. That suits Mason just fine; he tends to be on the reclusive side in any case and prefers to spend most of his time listening to jazz records (we’re talking LPs here; Mason prefers the warmth of vinyl to the cold soullessness of CDs) and painting, and Mason is surprisingly talented at both.

At work his only friend (and we use the term loosely here) is Berkeley (Levi), who also happens to be his boss. Berkeley is not particularly a nice guy, but he seems to have a soft spot for Mason and kind of adopts him, which Mason seems to accept albeit not with great enthusiasm. Mason exists in the curious shadowland that is Portland in the fall, when the nights get darker and the rain falls incessantly in a cold curtain of camouflage.

His life turns around when he meets Amber (Tamblyn), a new co-worker who is as gregarious as Mason is shy. She is drawn to the shy young man, her curiosity piqued and for his part Mason is moved by her kindness and starts to come out of his shell. When Amber discovers Mason’s talent as an artist, she insists that he paint a portrait of her.

What Amber doesn’t know is that Mason is not at all well; he has been scarred by the murder of his mother by his father and is tormented by awful nightmares, nightmares that Mason thinks might possibly be real and if they are, Mason could very well be a mass murderer. Only Berkeley knows about the dreams and has dismissed them as just that, dreams. If he’s wrong, however, Amber is in mortal danger.

Moore’s name shows up all over this film as a co-writer, co-director and co-producer, as well as the lead actor so much of the blame or credit, depending on your opinion of the movie, will be directed his way. He certainly surrounded himself with able support; co-director Green went on to direct the much-acclaimed thriller Frozen, while Levi is best known for his work in “Chuck” (and he’s quite good here in a very different role). Tamblyn is one of the more underrated actresses working these days and she turns in a terrific performance as the lonely and insecure Amber who masks her insecurities with a kind of false sense of bonhomie.

Moore himself is best-known as being the gangly geek in Dodgeball and the scientific nebbish in Avatar. His own performance is not too shabby; he seems to be on the verge of tears often but there is a rage and tension just below the surface that makes you wonder if instead of tears we might not see homicidal mayhem instead. That’s the centerpiece of Spiral and the movie doesn’t work if you don’t believe it. Fortunately, I did.

I liked the sense of place and time in the movie; the environment of Portland becomes a big part of the mood and it is shot exceedingly well. There is almost the feel of an indie romantic drama here, and that also serves the movie well, making the jolts more effective when they come.

Like most movies, there is a twist to it and it’s not a bad one. One of the problems with psychological thrillers in general is that you’re expecting a twist so you spend most of the movie looking for one, and most veteran observers of the genre can usually spot them early on, but I didn’t so kudos on that account.

On the negative side, this feels a bit long and some of the scenes felt more like padding. It could have used a little more judicious editing to cut out some of the material that seemed to me to be extraneous, with certain scenes merely confirming what has already been established elsewhere in the movie. Still, this is a satisfying movie for its genre, a sandwich that could have used a bit more meat and a little less bread, but delicious even so.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie works because of its indie romantic drama feel that helps make the jolts more effective. Fine performances, particularly from Tamblyn and Levi, as well as Moore, characterize the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes were unnecessary in terms of plot development and action and could easily have been snipped out.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly disturbing imagery here as well as partial nudity and a bit of violence. The language is a bit blue in places. Probably okay for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amber Tamblyn’s dad Russ, he of West Side Story fame, shows up here as an extra.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: TiMER