E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial


Drew Barrymore has worked with stranger co-stars than this.

Drew Barrymore has worked with stranger co-stars than this.

(1982) Science Fiction (Universal) Dee Wallace, Henry Thomas, Peter Coyote, Robert Macnaughton, Drew Barrymore, K.C. Martel, Sean Frye, C. Thomas Howell, Erika Eleniak, David O’Dell, Richard Swingler, Frank Toth, Robert Barton, Michael Darrell, David Berkson, David Carlberg, Milt Kogan, Alexander Lampone, Rhoda Makoff. Directed by Steven Spielberg

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Some movies become ingrained in us, a part of our childhoods – or a reminder of it. Few films fulfill that function as this one, which many consider to be Steven Spielberg’s magnum opus. While as a movie critic I would tend to say that this wasn’t the best film he ever made, it might well be the most perfect family film ever made. You be the judge.

An alien scientific expedition collecting botanical specimens in Northern California are interrupted by the appearance of government agents; they flee in their spaceship. In the chaos, one of their members is left behind. The extra-terrestrial – E.T. – finds a hiding place in a shed in a suburban yard.

One of the residents of the house, Elliott (Thomas) discovers the alien. He forms a bond with the creature that is both emotional and psychic – they feel what the other is feeling. Eventually he lets in his five-year-old sister Gertie (Barrymore) and older brother Michael (Macnaughton) in on his secret. His mother (Wallace), recently separated from their dad, is left blissfully ignorant.

Eventually it turns out that E.T. is getting seriously ill – and so is Elliott. E.T., knowing that he’ll die if he doesn’t get home, constructs a make-shift communications device that will allow him to “phone home” using a Speak N Spell, a foil-covered umbrella and other household items (the device, constructed by science educator Henry Feinberg, supposedly worked). When E.T. and Elliott become close to death, the government agents finally appear, led by a man with an impressive key ring (Coyote). However, when it appears that E.T. has expired, it turns out that love is a wonderful thing that can make miracles happen.

The film was a sensation when it was released in my senior year at Loyola Marymount, and would briefly become the all-time box office champion until Spielberg himself surpassed the mark with Jurassic Park nearly a decade later. It remains a favorite among families and is one of the all time home video best-sellers.

Part of what is marvelous about E.T. is how believable the kid actors are. In an era when cutesie kids were the norm rather than the exception, Thomas, Macnaughton and Barrymore were exceptional here. They acted like real kids and never seemed to be “forcing it,” never even seem to be acting. In a movie where no adult face other than the mom’s is seen until nearly an hour in, you need to have good juvenile actors for it to work for all audiences and fortunately for Spielberg, he got three good ones (both Thomas and Barrymore went on to exceptional careers, Barrymore in particular). Coyote has to convey both menace and elicit sympathy and he does so. Despite the scariness of the government agents, there really is no villain here – a nice message.

Of course, the real star here is E.T. himself, a creation of Italian sculptor Carlo Rambaldi. While primitive by today’s standards, E.T. lived and breathed for the children of the era and while today the technology is a bit dated and the look of E.T. less than scintillating, for its time though the movie looked amazing.

Like many Spielberg movies, there is a definite suburban feel to it. Spielberg was one of the first directors to make his films in a suburban setting (the original Poltergeist which was filmed concurrently with Spielberg acting only in a producer’s role was the flip side of E.T. – whereas E.T. was a suburban fairy tale, Poltergeist was a suburban nightmare) and remains one of the best for conjuring a suburban vibe. That works as a double-edged sword here; the movie has a kind of safe feel to it that kids from poorer environments might regard with a puzzled expression, and the cast is as lily-white as can be. The only (illegal) alien here is E.T. himself. I imagine Donald Trump would want him deported.

E.T. is a part of our cultural landscape – lines like ”E.T. phone home” and the image of kids on bicycles flying in front of the moon are familiar to nearly everybody in the Western world as is John Williams’ iconic score. There aren’t many movies that can be said to be beloved but this is certainly one of them. Likely everyone reading this has this movie wrapped up in childhood memories – if not their own then in the memories of their own children growing up. E.T. is one of a select few that can say that.

WHY RENT THIS: An iconic film that recalls childhood. Charming and heartfelt.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little bit dated and a little bit suburban.
FAMILY VALUES: Some peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The doctors and nurses who work on E.T. are actual emergency room personnel. They were told to work on the puppet as if it were an actual patient so that their dialogue would seem authentic.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some on-set video diaries, a featurette about the 2002 cast reunion, two featurettes on the iconic John Williams score, a Special Olympics TV PSA, and several photo galleries – all on the Blu-Ray edition. The Blu-Ray has the original theatrical version; the 2002 Anniversary edition has a digitally enhanced version of the film which got jeers from audiences and critics alike for the additional CGI which frankly was distracting.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $792.9M on a $10.5M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Close Encounters of the Third Kind
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Kensho at the Bedfellow

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The Lazarus Effect


Olivia gets a little Wilde.

Olivia gets a little Wilde.

(2015) Horror (Relativity) Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, Donald Glover, Ray Wise, Scott Sheldon, Emily Kelavos, James Earl, Amy Aquino, Sean T. Krishnan, Ator Tamras, Liisa Cohen, Jennifer Floyd, Bruno Gunn, Scott L. Treiger. Directed by David Gelb

There was a horror movie back in the 60s that was somewhat ironically titled Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things. In the decades since, we have learned that adults pretty much shouldn’t either.

Zoe (Wilde) and Frank (Duplass) are young doctors in love. Well, actually they’re more like medical researchers than actual MDs but you get my drift. Along with young researchers Clay (Peters) and Niko (Glover) they have created a formula that, with judiciously applied electricity (shades of Frankenstein) can extend the life of the dying, allowing doctors more time to repair what is killing the patient and saving lives. They bring in a comely videographer named Eva (Bolger) to document their impending breakthrough.

Except it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. Instead, it revives a dead dog. Brings it right back to life, and even cures the cataracts which were the cause that the dog’s owner had their pet put down for in the first place. Cause to celebrate, no?

Well, not quite yet. For one thing, the dog is moody, refuses to eat or drink and is mostly lethargic except for bouts of absolute mother humping menace that have the researchers freaked out, particularly the e-Cig puffing Clay who is normally the prankster of the bunch. He’s a little freaked out by the pooch who certainly looks to have a bit of the devil in him.

Well, their research also has the effect on the marketplace as well. The small pharmaceutical company which underwrote their research at the university has been gobbled up by a bigger one who really want their Lazarus formula. The smarmy CEO (Wise) shows up to collect it, which because Frank, the author of the grant proposal, didn’t read the fine print on the contract, is entitled to lock, stock and barrel, although the comely videographer manages to spirit Fido away before the vivisectionists get hold of him.

Frank is quite properly cheesed off about the whole situation and in a fit of pique, decides to recreate the experiment while their equipment is still in the lab. So late one dark and stormy night – well, it’s a night anyway – they sneak into the lab and attempt to revive one last frozen but dead dog.

But something goes horribly wrong and if you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly what it is and without going into too much detail, they are forced to conduct human experiments a little sooner than they had intended to. However, what they don’t realize is that the Lazarus formula plucks the soul right out of the afterlife and if that afterlife happened to be Hell, then the thing that comes back isn’t quite human and isn’t quite happy about it. A childhood trauma becomes the basis of a hell all of the team is going to go through, alive or not and before the night is over there will be a lot more bodies available to use the Lazarus serum on.

This is a short but sweet little thriller clocking in at well less than 90 minutes which is a good thing because I don’t think the story could have sustained a whole lot of extraneous business. Most of the action takes place at the lab (although a few scenes take place in the lobby of the building, in the office of the dean and in the apartment that Zoe and Frank share) which may be the most underlit medical lab in the history of college research facilities. You half expect the Boogie Man to reside here on a permanent basis.

Duplass, who has become something of an indie film darling for the movies he’s co-directed with his brother Jay (Baghead, The Puffy Chair) as well as his television work on The League and more recently the HBO series Togetherness. He’s actually pretty charismatic as an actor and he works really well with Wilde, who has been on the verge of breakout stardom for awhile now. In a lot of ways it’s frustrating to watch Wilde who is so very good in most everything she does and she’s just so close to making the next level but the right role to put her over that hump eludes her. This isn’t the movie that will do it, although she is very, very good in it.

The movie was made for next to nothing and relies more on practical effects than on CGI for the cool factor. Horror fans are going to find this a bit light on scares, although there are a couple of good ones. What is to be commended is that there is a great deal more character development than is typical for low-budget horror movies. What is to be condemned is that the film’s plot relies overly much on smart people – these folks are educated after all – doing dumb things. Even the scientifically challenged like myself could have told Frank and Zoe that their bright idea of recreating the experiment so that they could prove that the research was theirs would end badly.

There’s stuff here to like, but there is also a lot of stuff here to not. My big problem is that the atmosphere of fear that is vital to any horror film just isn’t pervasive enough. I can forgive a movie that starts slowly and builds to a roller coaster of a climax, but The Lazarus Effect is more of a kiddy coaster that could have used a few inversions and taller lift hills to give its audience a better ride.

REASONS TO GO: Duplass and Wilde make an attractive pair. Does a whole lot with a little.
REASONS TO STAY: Smart people doing stupid things. Not as scary as I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: Gruesome subject matter, intense horror violence, some sexual references and a surprisingly small amount of merely mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was actually filmed in 2013 and was scheduled to be released by Lionsgate. However, internal management changes at the studio led to the movie being shelved for a year and a half with Lionsgate selling the U.S. distribution rights to Relativity although they did retain the overseas rights.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Flatliners
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Home of the Brave

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!

The Legend of Hell House


What a lovely evening for a haunting.

What a lovely evening for a haunting.

(1973) Supernatural Horror (20th Century Fox) Roddy McDowell, Pamela Franklin, Clive Revill, Gayle Hunnicutt, Roland Culver, Peter Bowles, Michael Gough. Directed by John Hough

Six Days of Darkness 2014

There are things we can explain and things we can’t. Some of it is simply our knowledge hasn’t expanded enough to come up with a rational explanation; it’s just a matter of our knowledge catching up with the phenomenon. In other cases, it is simply so far out of the realm of our understanding that we may never be able to figure it out.

What happens after we die, for example. There are those who believe that our consciousness simply ends, evaporates as our body shuts down. We enter an endless sleep, oblivion. Others say there is a heaven and a hell and that what we do in this life determines where we go in the next. There are still others who believe that we die and are reborn in an endless cycle of attempting to achieve enlightenment. And there are those who say that most of us just hang around here as spiritual beings.

There are skeptics though. The Belasco House in England is considered the “Mt. Everest” of haunted houses; in fact, the last team to seriously study the goings on in the house died terribly with only one survivor left to tell the tale.

The Belasco House was once the residence of one Emrick Belasco (Gough), a physically imposing sort who threw lavish parties in the 1920s. For the last of them, he shuttered all the windows and barred all the doors; in the morning, every guest was dead and Emrick Belasco was nowhere to be found. Soon afterwards, the house got its evil reputation.

Now, yet another mysterious millionaire (Culver) has enlisted noted physicist Dr. Barrett (Revill) to do a scientific study on the phenomena going on in the house. He’s bringing with him a spiritual medium named Florence Tanner (Franklin), reportedly one of the best there is. He’s also bringing with him his own wife Ann (Hunnicutt) and the only survivor of the previous expedition, Ben Fischer (McDowell), a powerful psychic in his own right. Now he’s a broken man, terrified of this place but motivated by the reward if he should be successful at surviving another attempt. He has erected psychic walls to protect himself but those are under constant assault once they arrive at the foreboding mansion.

At first there isn’t a lot going on, just some disquieting feelings which are mainly exacerbated by Ben’s resigned paranoia. Dr. Barrett, a pragmatic man, doesn’t believe in religion or supernatural phenomena although he is soon presented with events even he can’t explain away – furniture moving of its own accord, the manifestation of ectoplasm during a séance, and the erotic possession of his wife. Dr. Barrett scoffs at Tanner’s religious faith and the two get into heated arguments. His explanation is that there is unfocused electromagnetic energy in the house which he has built a machine to eradicate.

Tanner for her part believes that the house isn’t haunted by multiple spirits as has long been supposed but in fact by just one – Belasco’s tormented son Daniel. She sets out to prove it, opening her to unprecedented danger and putting the entire team at risk. Not everyone will walk out of Belasco House intact.

This is based on a Richard Matheson novel, and Matheson himself wrote the screenplay. Matheson is best known for his work on The Twilight Zone and for writing the books that such films as I Am Legend are based on. That book was set in New England but the action was moved to England so that the production could happen there. Therefore we get a happy fusion of New England gothic horror and old England supernatural horror. The two make an excellent mix.

There isn’t much graphic nudity despite the era in which nudity was far more common than it is now; the sexuality here is of a much more subtle, erotic nature. The subtext of fear of female sexuality comes out strongly as the two men in the movie seemingly reject the erotic advances of the women. It is the women who display the aggressive sexuality here. Something to think about as women’s liberation was making itself known at the time.

Strong performances abound here from all four of the four leads, all four veteran performers by that time. McDowell was strong here as the twitchy, nervous and clearly terrified Ben Fischer but it is he who has the final confrontation with the presence infesting the house and it is he who stands up to it. I’ve always been a fan of the actor ever since I was a kid and saw him in such movies as Planet of the Apes, Class of 84, The Last of Sheila and Fright Night. It was in this one that I found him to be at his best, albeit in a sanitized suitable for television viewing. And for those who have read the book by the way, they’ll know that the sex and violence is far more extreme on the printed page. Hough and Matheson were going for a far more atmospheric production and they certainly succeeded.

This is as atmospheric a horror film as you’re likely to ever see. From the muted electronic score to the fog-shrouded exterior shots, the movie chills you to the bone from the get go as indistinct figures walk from the car to the front door of the mansion. I think few films have used silence to their advantage as effectively as this one, as loud noises interrupt the quiet and put the viewer’s nerves on edge. This is gloom personified and for those who like their horror movies creepy and unsettling, they’ll be in heaven here.

This is a movie from a different era. Those who effects-laden need roller coaster rides with a digital signature, undoubtedly you’ll find this boring and tedious. The action doesn’t really gather steam until the final ten minutes and even then it is tame by modern standards. The attitudes towards women are also a bit on the Mad Men side, although none of the women here are victims really. Still, this is the kind of movie that will make you jump right out of your skin. It is one of my all-time favorite horror movies and you will either love it or hate it depending on how patient a movie viewer you are. You already know which side of that separation I stand on.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendously atmospheric and sexy. Fine performances by main leads.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated.
FAMILY VALUES:  Some scenes of terror and supernatural violence, plenty of sexuality and some rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The tales of Belasco’s debauchery and evil were loosely based on the notorious exploits of occultist Aleister Crowley.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes a 30-minute interview with the director.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/stream), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Haunting (1999)
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness Day Three!

The Quiet Ones (2014)


Sam Claflin perfects his "What's that noise?" look.

Sam Claflin perfects his “What’s that noise?” look.

(2014) Supernatural Horror (Lionsgate) Sam Claflin, Jared Harris, Olivia Cooke, Erin Richards, Rory Fleck-Byrne, Laurie Calvert, Aldo Maland, Max Pirkis, Tracy Ray, Richard Cunningham, Eileen Nicholas, Rebecca Scott, Ben Holden (voice), Aretha Ayeh, Max Mackintosh, Harman Singh, Dean Mitchell, Nick Owenford. Directed by John Pogue

There are things that we can’t explain yet. Phenomena that occur that seem without rational, scientific explanation. Many of these eventually will be explained once you dig deep enough. Sometimes though, our ignorance can be dangerous.

Professor Joseph Coupland (Harris) specializes in abnormal psychology. He has a theory that people who have been labeled “possessed” – people around whom paranormal events seem to occur – have traditionally been institutionalized, or harm themselves or others before that happens actually manufacture these occurrences through the powers of their own minds. Coupland believes that these occurrences are due to strong negative feelings inside and that if you can get the patients to transfer these feelings into a doll or some other inanimate object that they can be cured. “Cure one and you cure the world,” he tells his class at Oxford.

To that end he has a patient – one Jane Harper (Cooke) who has been in and out of foster homes and institutions all her life. She is said to be clairvoyant and haunted by poltergeists. Coupland believes that she can be cured of these issues by manifesting her negative feelings and pushing them into a doll. He is assisted by students Harry Abrams (Fleck-Byrne) and Krissi Dalton (Richards). Documenting it is a graduate, Brian McNeil (Claflin).

This being 1974, the dons at Oxford are none too pleased about the noise (the students keep Jane awake by playing loud rock music at all hours in order to get her into a state where she can manifest) and less pleased still about the subject of Professor Coupland’s thesis. Predictably, they pull their funding.

Enraged but still determined, Prof. Coupland rents a spooky looking house in the English countryside some distance from Oxford. There, isolated and essentially free to do as he wants, he starts working on Jane, keeping her exhausted and locked up to keep her from running away – or harming anyone.

At first, the manifestations are more startling than terrifying – things moving, doors opening, distinct rapping noises. In the meantime, Harry and the oversexed Krissi have become a kind of thing (although Krissi has also shown some affection for the chain-smoking Professor) and the shy Brian and the fragile Jane have also shown signs of attraction.

But things don’t remain this way for long. Tension is beginning to build among all five people, isolated in the middle of nowhere – Krissi likens it to being in a prison. Prof. Coupland has become more obsessive, refusing to admit that he may be wrong about his hypothesis. The manifestations have begun to get more sinister as Jane’s spirit guide Evie, a little girl who apparently died in a fire, has grown more agitated and almost cruel. Brian begins to suspect that there may be something going on beyond what Prof. Coupland can explain. Can he get Jane out of this environment before the experiment goes tragically wrong?

This is the most recent movie by Hammer, the venerable British horror production company that back in the day made the Christopher Lee Dracula movies and more recently, the excellent The Woman in Black. This one was actually completed back in 2012 but hasn’t been released until now. Considering the tepid reviews it’s gotten, that’s not surprising although it must be said that the studio has released movies far worse than this one in the interim.

Claflin has been slowly building up a leading man resume and while he hasn’t broken through with a star-making role just yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if he does sooner rather than later. He has the looks and the charisma although in this particular part he doesn’t really have a whole lot to work with. Cooke and Harris come off as the best of a nondescript bunch. Harris, the son of the late Richard Harris, has settled into a character actor’s lot in life and this is the kind of role that he excels at – officious, smart but corrupt in ways that aren’t always apparent. He is the glue that holds this movie together. Cooke gives us a classic possessed girl performance but adds a touch of melancholy to the role which is the perfect grace note. She’s an English rose, even as unkempt and unglamorous as she is much of this film.

The era of the 70s is captured very nicely, not just with the period audio-visual and scientific equipment but also with the cars, hair styles, clothes and more importantly, attitude. Modern audiences might be horrified at the amount of smoking that goes on in this film, but that was pretty much standard for its time (I lived through it, remember?) and especially place.

A horror film’s job is to scare its audience and the movie is successful at that more often than not, although there is a tendency to rely on cliches of the genre a bit too much. That makes the movie a little bit more pedestrian than it needs to be. I think partly too the filmmakers were waffling between making an atmospheric ghost story with gothic overtones, and making a slam-bang scarefest and wound up with neither. There’s even a “found footage” kind of sequence during the movie that reminded me how overused that particular genre has become. However, the climax while not breaking any new ground delivers one of the best scares of the film which goes a long way to redeeming some of the films more glaring faults.

This isn’t a bad movie; it’s well-acted for the most part, delivers some nice scares, shows off some young female breasts and is spooky and atmospheric at times. It just isn’t particularly innovative nor is it going to kick you in the seat of your pants with its scares nor is it going to creep you out with its atmosphere. At the end of the day the movie ends up being blander than most horror audiences – including me – tend to like.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent scares. Captures time and place adequately.

REASONS TO STAY: Relies on horror film cliches overly much.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of terrifying moments, some violence, bad language throughout, some sexuality and brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Loosely based on the Philip Experiment which took place in Toronto with eight participants.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Legend of Hell House

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Jodorowsky’s Dune

Looper


Looper

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt engage in a staring contest to determine who picks up the check.

(2012) Science Fiction (Tri-Star) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan, Piper Perabo, Pierce Gagnon, Summer Qing, Tracie Thoms, Frank Brennan, Garret Dillahunt, Nick Gomez, Marcus Hester. Directed by Rian Johnson

 

They say time travel is impossible, that because of the nature of paradoxes travelling into the past would so change the future that you might cease to exist (at least in the way you did before you left the future) and because there are so many variables travelling into the future is likewise impossible. But if there were a way around it, human nature is such that we’d find a way to make it sordid and awful.

And that’s just what we do. In 2044, time travel hasn’t been invented yet but in 2074 it has – and has been outlawed. When something is outlawed, only outlaws then do it and that’s exactly the way it works. Because it is nearly impossible to get rid of bodies due to advances in tracking technology, crime syndicates who want to make someone disappear send them back to 2044 where there is an assassin waiting. These men are called Loopers; they put a shotgun blast into the chest of their assignments, then collect their payment in silver which has been draped over the back of the body. The corpse is incinerated and the Loopers have themselves a nice little party.

Considering that by 2044 the U.S. economy has pretty much tanked being a Looper is a pretty lucrative profession. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is one and he’s a lot smarter than most. He hoards most of his silver, hiding it in a hidden compartment in his apartment. He spends time with Suzie (Perabo), a stripper who has a kid and a fairly practical attitude, while Joe wishes for something else.

What he gets is his best friend and fellow Looper Seth (Dano), terrified because he had botched his last hit. His target had turned out to be his future self from 30 years hence. All Loopers know that inevitably their last target will be themselves. It’s called “closing the loop” and is part of their contract. However, a lot of loops have been getting closed of late. It seems there’s a new boss in town in the future; he’s known only as the Rainmaker and his identity is a closely guarded secret. This much future Seth (Brennan) communicates to his younger self.

Joe reluctantly agrees to hide Seth and the big boss, Abe (Daniels) summons him to his office – at the point of a Gat (a powerful handgun that is useless in close range but a fearsome weapon farther away), wielded by Kid Blue (Segan), a young and unstable wanna-be gangsta. Abe himself is from the future and has used the Gats, as his Gat-wielding thugs are called, to take over the crime in the city. Abe convinces Joe to give up Seth, which he reluctantly does leaving both Seths to a gruesome fate.

This is all well and good until Joe gets a client to kill who turns out to be his own future self (Willis). Old Joe is wily and manages to use young Joe’s payment to protect himself from the shotgun blast and overpowers his younger self to get away.

Old Joe isn’t just motivated by self-preservation; the woman he married (Qing) in the future was accidentally murdered by the Rainmaker’s flunkies when they came to collect Old Joe. The wily old ex-Looper has discovered some information about when the Rainmaker was born and has figured out that he was born not far from the city in Kansas where Young Joe was based; and he has an idea of how to find him but he must go pretty far off the reservation beyond where his moral compass will send him.

In the meantime Young Joe is being stalked by Abe’s crew who are none too pleased that he failed to carry out his contract. Young Joe, having been injured in a gunfight takes refuge at the farm of Sara (Blunt), a comely young woman who is raising up the precocious young lad Cid (Gagnon) by herself. Still, the forces that are after Young Joe are implacable and there really isn’t a safe haven. He knows that he must find Old Joe before Old Joe finds him – and in the process stay out of the way of trigger-happy Kid Blue and all of Abe’s gang.

This is one of the smartest movies I’ve seen in quite awhile. Johnson wrote the film with Gordon-Levitt in mind and that’s a smart move in and of itself. Gordon-Levitt is the real deal; he’s a star in the making and he holds his own with Willis, who looks nothing like him in reality; Gordon-Levitt studied films of the young Bruce Willis and adopted his mannerisms and vocal patterns, not to mention wearing make-up prosthetics to make him appear a lot more like his co-star (there is one montage where we see the progression of Joe’s aging in which Gordon-Levitt and Willis have the same haircut and the resemblance is a little spooky).

Willis has always been a solid movie star, He’s always good in terms of being kind of a rumpled action hero. He doesn’t always play smart but he does play clever and that’s what he does here. Joe is more cunning than brilliant, more pragmatic than ruthless. He’s a character who is basically within the understanding of most of us – bad enough to do what he wants, good enough not to be a total jerk.

Blunt affects a fine Midwestern accent and is less the English rose that she usually is. Sara’s seen some hard times and has become hardened herself, but again, not so much that she’s a block of ice. She has some compassion and Joe helps her discover that – and, of course being a mom has a lot to do with it too.

The visuals are a mix of dilapidated 2012 and futuristic 2044 (some of the film was shot in Shanghai which looks like it’s been 2044 there for ten years) which makes it again relatable to the viewing audience. Yeah, there are cell phones in the movie that make it look like the iPhone 27.0 is worth camping out for but most of the vehicles and weapons are strictly early 21st century. There is an economic meltdown collapse going on, after all. Still, they do have hover-cycles so it’s not all bad. There is some gee-whiz stuff here.

Time travel flicks are generally among the hardest to make work simply because by their own nature they have complicated strictures. Rian Johnson, whose first film was the much-praised Brick has written a movie that succeeds both as a taut thriller and a sci-fi action film and does both while retaining a level of intelligence that is rare in American films.

REASONS TO GO: Intelligently written. Taut, well-made thriller and visually stunning.

REASONS TO STAY: Cid is a little too creepy in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence, a bit of sexuality and some drug use. Of course, there is a fair amount of foul language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A set for the diner, built outside of Thibodaux, Louisiana was so realistic that locals were enquiring when the diner would be opening. The set withstood Hurricane Isaac which went through the area after production wrapped and is reportedly still there.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100. I think it’s safe to say the movie has been a ratings hit with the critics.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timecop

SHANGHAI LOVERS: Some of the movie’s financing came from China so scenes that were initially written for Paris were moved to Shanghai not just because of cost-effectiveness but because Shanghai’s Pudong district already looks futuristic and relatively little CGI was required to add additional buildings and vehicles to make it look like 2074.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Butter

Chronicle


Chronicle

Dane DeHaan wants a Ferrari and he wants it NOW!!!!

(2012) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Bo Petersen, Anna Wood, Rudi Malcolm, Luke Tyler, Crystal-Donna Roberts, Adrian Collins, Grant Powell, Armand Aucamp, Nicole Bailey. Directed by Joshua Trank

 

The saying goes absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that is true even of people in the best of positions. When it comes to teenagers, they are still developing their value system and their moral compass is still under construction. That’s not a knock, that’s just how people grow – some may develop sooner than others but for the most part most teens are just kind of making their own way through the best they can. Making mistakes is part of growing up; but when you have super powers, those mistakes become amplified exponentially.

Andrew (DeHaan) is a bit of a loner. His mom Karen (Petersen) is slowly dying, her lungs eaten up by cancer. His father Richard (Kelly) is a former firefighter who is out on permanent disability and copes with the family’s financial ruin and impending death of his wife by drinking and beating up his son who is a disappointment to him.

Andrew copes by documenting everything on an ancient video camera he’s found – why I’m not really sure except a desire to relive every moment of his teenage years’ misery when he gets older. He has few friends at school, let alone a girlfriend. He’s not a bad kid but he’s clearly troubled.

His only friend is his cousin Matt (Russell) who is smart and outgoing although a bit socially awkward himself. He reads books of philosophy, quotes Plato and Schopenhauer and ferries his cousin around to school. Living in the Seattle area, cars are a must unless you’re fond of getting soaking wet in the frequent rainstorms.

Matt drags Andrew to a rave and Andrew decides to go, camera in tow. Predictably he gets bullied and goes outside to sit, despondent. Matt’s friend Steve (Jordan), a popular athlete running for student body president finds Andrew and brings him to a mysterious hole in the ground that he and Matt found. Matt wants Andrew to take pictures of it; the three go down into the hole and find…something.

Three weeks later that something has started developing telekinesis – the ability to move objects with the power of the mind – and their powers are growing stronger and stronger. At first it’s a big goof for the three of them, moving a leaf blower to send an updraft up the skirts of cheerleaders, or bringing a stuffed animal to life to terrify a young girl in a toy store (boys will be boys and sometimes they’re jerks, to paraphrase something Martin Zellar once sang).

Soon though Andrew’s inner rage (as the bullying intensifies as does his mother’s illness and his father’s abuse) begins to burn through and he is rapidly becoming the most powerful of the three of them. An incident causes Matt to establish some rules – no using the powers in anger, on humans or in public, all of which Andrew will soon violate.

This is Trank’s first feature film and he’s already being considered for the high profile Fox reboot of Fantastic Four. He is very successful with taking a movie in the found footage genre and augmenting it with some pretty nifty special effects (although some of the flying sequences look patently green screened with harnesses). The script by Max Landis (son of veteran filmmaker John Landis, the man behind An American Werewolf in London and National Lampoon’s Animal House as well as Michael Jackson’s Thriller video) is smart and authentic. Not only are these high school boys who talk like high school boys (perhaps only Diablo Cody is as good with young people dialogue) but they act like them too. Full of mischief, a little bit of cruelty and plenty of insecurity yet absolutely sure they are the top of the human food chain – yup, just like every teenager I’ve ever met – or the one I used to be.

The movie could easily have taken the easy route and just had three kids becoming Gods with all sorts of wisdom and benevolence and become Superman or even Spider-Man but instead their powers play into their issues and their inexperience leads to tragic circumstances.

DeHaan is the lead here and he does the best job artistically – he has much more to work with in a lot of ways as the troubled boy who slowly comes to realize that he doesn’t have to take anybody’s crap anymore. Still, I think the handsome Russell may wind up with the most success later on down the line – he has that movie star charisma and looks that studios find irresistible. Don’t be surprised if he gets a franchise role somewhere down the line and not too far, either. Ditto for Jordan who has an easy charm and might do real well in some Tyler Perry-like comedies for a younger audience.

Hinshaw as a v-blogger who captures Matt’s attention and Wood as a classmate of Andrew’s who decides to take his virginity after a successful talent show appearance (augmented by his powers) are both nice eye candy but not really called upon to stretch their talents very much. Hopefully we’ll see them do just that in some juicier roles eventually.

This was a bit of a surprise I have to admit – judging on the trailer I expected another teen-centric found footage piece that would grab the high school audience but not much more; quite frankly I thought this was a solid movie with broad appeal and certainly a nice showcase for both Trank and Landis, who I believe have awfully promising careers ahead. There’s actually some stuff to think about here along with the strictly visceral appeal – and that’s a win for a broader audience anyday.

REASONS TO GO: The teens act like teens. Some impressive effects work despite the budget.

REASONS TO STAY: More than its share of angst.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, a few cuss words, some sexuality, teen drinking and some of the themes here are pretty sophisticated for the Nickelodeon set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anna Wood, whose character makes out with Andrew in the film, is Dane DeHaan’s girlfriend in real life.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are raves.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cloverfield

RAIN LOVERS: It rains all the time in Seattle, dude. It rains here a lot too.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Man On a Ledge