Camera Obscura (2017)


She has no idea just how bad her luck is going to get.

(2017) Thriller (Chiller) Christopher Denham, Nadja Bobyleva, Catherine Curtin, Chase Williamson, Noah Segan, Andrew Sensenig, Gretchen Lodge, Jeremy King, Dane Rhodes, David Jensen, Charlie Talbert, Carol Sutton, Lance E. Nichols, Hawn Tran, Cassandra Hierholzer, B.J. Grogan, Jared Bankens, Les Miles, Rebekah Downs, Emily LaGroue, Ashton Leigh, Tammi Arender. Directed by Aaron B. Koontz

We all have a morbid fascination with death. It’s somewhere we’re all going to eventually but we’re not particularly eager to get there. Still, if you knew the place and the manner of the death of a loved one, wouldn’t you do everything within your power to change it?

Jack Zeller (Denham) has seen his share of death. As a war correspondent in Afghanistan, he has been privy to some horrific deaths in his time, enough to make him put down his camera for good once he came home to stay. He’s seeing a therapist (Sutton) regularly and it seems to be helping, but he has become something of a shut-in, refusing to go to work. For his fiancée Claire (Bobyleva) this is unacceptable; she is a realtor but finances are tight and she needs he intended to start bringing some cash in rather than just sit around all day.

On a whim, she buys Jack an antique camera and helps him get a gig taking pictures of houses for her agency. Jack at first has some difficulty getting himself going but once he does he is delighted to have camera in hand again. He is beginning to feel like he’s rejoining society. However, when he takes the film to the local photo lab, something a little odd occurs; the shots are all in black and white despite the fact that Jack used color film. Also there are things in the images that weren’t there when Jack took the pictures; dead bodies.

It doesn’t take long for Jack to figure out that the camera, which he later learns has been cannibalized from various parts, is taking pictures of murders that haven’t happened yet. He also begins to suspect that the camera once belonged to a notorious serial killer. He also finds out quite by sheer accident that while he can’t prevent the deaths from happening, he can change who it’s happening to.

But the bad news is that all the bodies that are turning up in his photos are of his beloved fiancée and that will just not stand. Jack has always been a pretty mellow guy but to save Claire he will do anything – including murder. The issue is though whether there is some supernatural force at work here or if this is all a product of Jack’s deteriorating psyche.

There are some real interesting concepts at work here and Koontz does some of them justice but others not so much. We’ll get back to the latter in a bit but first the good stuff. There’s a real 80s horror film vibe here that I appreciated, from the high concept to the pulsing electronic soundtrack that recalls some of John Carpenter’s films. While Stranger Things is a little bit more accomplished at setting the 80s tone, Koontz does a pretty good job of emphasizing the things that made that era one of the best for horror films in history.

The lead performances are also pretty strong. Denham captures the feeling of a vet who has shut down essentially which make his later activities all the more shocking. Some critics have complained that his performance is too laid back but I disagree; I think he nails the part to near perfection. He also gets the best line of the film; “I’m living in an episode of Goosebumps” which is part of the comic relief the film needs. Koontz again manages to keep the horror element from becoming too overwhelming which is something of a lost art these days; most modern horror directors seem to prefer a constant barrage of frights and action without letup. A little comic relief actually helps emphasize the horrific elements.

On the negative side, I think Koontz does waste a few opportunities. The “demonic vs. psychotic” element is a staple in horror films and Koontz does a pretty good job of maintaining the balance here but in the long run I don’t think he explores the psychotic end as thoroughly as he might have. It’s always more or less something on the edge of our periphery, the question “is it real or is it all in Jack’s head?” but we don’t get enough of a look inside Jack to really get the kind of doubt we need for this to be truly successful. That may be more of a function of budget than creativity but a few background development scenes might have served the film well.

The movie also takes awhile to really get moving. I’m okay with slow builds to over-the-top conclusions but sometimes we just need to get into the meat of the matter a little more quickly. Yes, I know I was complaining that we needed more background scenes just one paragraph ago, but we might have substituted those for scenes of Jack and Claire having dinner with friends, or arguing over money. In any case, in this age of easily bored movie audiences, it behooves a director to ramp up quickly, particularly in genre films.

Although some have listed this as a horror film (and there are plenty of horrific elements in it), I think that calling it a thriller would be closer to the truth. There are definitely supernatural elements and some scenes of extreme violence and disturbing content, but to me this felt more like a thriller, with more emphasis on the non-supernatural elements. That’s just the way I saw it; your experience may vary.

This isn’t a bad film despite the scores on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. It’s certainly not perfect but there are a lot of positive elements here that enable the viewer to overlook some of the flaws. All in all it’s a promising start for a young filmmaker who has some big things ahead of him I’m quite certain.

REASONS TO GO: The 80s horror film vibe is alive and well here and the soundtrack adds to the vibe nicely. The lead performances are strong.
REASONS TO STAY: The film takes a little bit of time to get going. There are some missed opportunities to explore a damaged psyche.
FAMILY VALUES: There is gore, violence, disturbing images, sexuality, nudity and a good deal of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although dialogue places the film as taking place in “the Midwest,” it was actually filmed in Louisiana.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Polaroid
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sandy Wexler

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Welcome to Me


Not every ugly duckling gets to be a swan.

Not every ugly duckling gets to be a swan.

(2014) Comedy (Alchemy) Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack, Loretta Devine, Jennifer Jason Leigh, James Marsden, Thomas Mann, Tim Robbins, Alan Tudyk, Kulap Vilaysack, Mitch Silpa, Anelia Dyoulgerova, Joe Roland, Joyce Hiller Piven, Jack Wallace, Rose Abdoo, Hannah Chodos, Sabra Williams, Charlotte Rabbe, Shanna Strong. Directed by Shira Piven

Florida Film Festival 2015

We all like to fantasize about what we’d do if we won the lottery. Buy a new house, a new car, a new boat; pay off all our debts, take a fabulous vacation, maybe give some back to the community or to charity. I’m fairly sure most of us would not have buying ourselves our own talk show on the radar.

Alice Klieg (Wiig) ha s just won the California lottery. Up until now she’s led a kind of a drab existence although that’s largely drug-induced. Not the fun kind even – the prescription kind. She has a borderline personality disorder and needs meds to stabilize her moods which have a tendency to get savage without warning. She mostly keeps to herself and watches VHS videotapes of Oprah shows, which she has largely memorized.

So she says goodbye to her pills, much to the objections of her therapist (Robbins), puts herself on a diet low on glucose, high on protein and low on carbohydrates which she pronounces “carbohydrants.” With not a lot to do in Palm Desert (her home), she moves into a hotel room at the local Native American casino and finds herself fascinated by a product that she sees on a local shopping network that seems to fit into her dietary needs. She and her best friend Gina (Cardellini) get tickets to a studio audience for an infomercial huckstering the product and feeling empowered by her recent success, manages to get some camera face time. Flush with the success of that, she informs the station owner Rich (Marsden) that she has an idea for a talk show that she’s willing to pay for, starring herself with the subject of…herself.

While the acerbic director Dawn (Cusack) thinks that this is a monumentally bad idea, Rich is desperate for money to save the station, much to his brother Gabe’s (Bentley) chagrin. He was the face of the product that attracted Alice’s attention and now is attracting Alice’s attention for a whole other reason.

Alice, who has never had any sort of filter and blurts out whatever comes into her head (and reads prepared statements when she wants to get something across) has begun sleeping around with whoever catches her fancy. On the show she makes her grand entrance in a swan boat-like vehicle (she has a thing for swans, which decorate her house) and mostly talks about her diet, and re-enacts incidents from her life that bother her to this day, like someone stealing from her make-up bag on a ski trip, or a former friend who told others in high school that Alice had some mental issues. When provoked, Alice throws things or goes into screaming rages.

As the show continues to run and gets a kind of viral success, Alice begins to spin out of control. She is able to afford to buy what she wants which continues to feed into her disease. Her self-absorption becomes almost maniacal and even the loyal Gina is horrified and can’t cope with the new Alice. She is re-inventing herself, but is it into a person she truly wants to be?

Wiig’s post-SNL career has been largely of characters like this, although Alice is a bit of an extreme. She excels at characters who are just a bit off-beat, who march to their own drummer and who aren’t just ordinary folks. She has also been choosing of late indie films that allow her to really display her best work, roles that are really in her wheelhouse. In many ways, this is her best performance on the big screen, even more so than her work in the blockbuster hit Bridesmaids which essentially set her up as a star leading actress. Even as Alice becomes more unlikable, she remains sympathetic for the most part as we know she doesn’t really control her own actions.

This is one of two films I’ve seen at this year’s Florida Film Festival that has at their center a person with emotional/mental issues that make the conscious decision to stop taking their medication. It is played to much more comedic effect here and less to the chilling effect it is in Gabriel which might make those who are advocates for those who have issues to take pause; however, it should be said I didn’t get a sense that either Wiig or the filmmakers were making fun of Alice but showing the side of her that might provoke an audience to laugh. Certainly I went in thinking that I was going to be cringing more than laughing and ended up doing more of the latter than the former.

The movie starts out strong and kinda peters out near the end. A strong supporting cast, particularly Cusack who has become for my money one of the strongest character actresses working today, helps keep the movie interesting throughout, although some of the characters are a bit cliche. At times it feels like the writers had stretched out the movie to make it feature length.

Still in all, this is solidly entertaining. There’s some subtle – okay, not so subtle – commentary on our obsession with fame and of our consumerist, self-involved society which is quite welcome but for the most part shooting fish in a barrel. What it isn’t is an issue movie on mental health. Wiig remains an acquired taste for some, mainly because the roles she tends to go for are pretty quirky (and none more than this one) but when she’s on as she is here, she’s as good as any comic actress out there. For those who want to avoid the crowds at the big summer movies, this makes for a nice alternative.

REASONS TO GO: Wiig gives a stellar performance. Much funnier than I expected. Great supporting performances, particularly from Cusack.
REASONS TO STAY: Falls apart near the end. A couple of cliche characters in the mix. Some of the material feels a bit forced.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexuality, some graphic nudity, a fair amount of foul language and a brief scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shira Piven is actor Jeremy Piven’s older sister; the actress who plays Alice’s mother in the film is actually Shira and Jeremy Piven’s mom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gabriel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Kill Me Three Times

This is Where I Leave You


A rooftop tete-a-tete.

A rooftop tete-a-tete.

(2014) Dramedy (Warner Brothers) Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, Debra Monk, Abigail Spencer, Ben Schwartz, Aaron Lazar, Cade Lappin, Will Swenson, Carol Schultz, Kevin McCormick, Olivia Oguma, Beth Leavel, Carly Brooke Pearlstein. Directed by Shawn Levy

It is well known that you can choose your friends but not your family. Families can be a tricky thing. We may grow up in the same house, have pretty much the same experiences and yet still turn out to be different people. My sister and I were born eleven months apart but I’m sure there are times that she wondered what planet I’d been born on.

The Altmans are gathering for a sad occasion; the patriarch of the family has passed on and their mother Hilary (Fonda) is insisting that the four siblings and their families stay at her house to sit shiva – a Jewish tradition in which the family of the deceased sit in low chairs, host mourners at their home and say prayers for the dead – for seven days. It was their father’s dying wish, she tells them. When it comes to this particular ritual, they may as well have called it seven days in hell.

Judd (Bateman) is a wreck. He caught his wife (Spencer) cheating on him with his boss (Shepard) and apparently the affair had been going on for a year. His sister Wendy (Fey) is married to a prick (Lazar) and is saddled with two small children including a baby. She would have married the love of her life, Horry Callen (Olyphant) but a car accident left him brain damaged and he essentially pushed her away. She still pines for him though.

Oldest brother Paul (Stoll) runs dad’s hardware store now and is trying to get his wife Alice (Hahn) – who used to date Judd before he got married – pregnant. Finally the baby of the family Philip (Driver) is kind of the black sheep/family screw-up who is dating his much older therapist (Britton) but still manages to screw that up too.

They all come for the week, grudgingly. It doesn’t help that Hilary wrote a best-seller based on her kids and overshares on a regular basis. Also in the mix is Penny (Byrne), a high school sweetheart of Judd’s who is still in town. Everyone in the family, Judd wryly observes, is sad, angry or cheating.

I was surprised to discover that this is based on a novel. The reason for my surprise is that the film has kind of a sitcom feel to it, a dysfunctional family trapped in the same house together. Like a sitcom, the whole supposition here is that a week together as a family can cure all the troubles that plague the individual members of the family and make everyone whole again. We all know that when families are forced to stay together usually the opposite tends to be true.

Director Shawn Levy, who has a hit franchise in Night at the Museum, is not the most deft of comedic directors but he does have some touch and having a cast like this certainly doesn’t hurt. Fey and Bateman are two of the most accomplished comedic actors in the movies these days and Driver is heading in that same general direction. When you have Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne and Kathryn Hahn in support you must be doing something right as well.

Strangely though the ensemble doesn’t quite gel; it feels like a bunch of actors reciting lines more than an actual family. You don’t get a sense of closeness from anybody except for Fey and Bateman and even they seem a little bit distant from each other. Still, they capture the squabbling and occasional affectionate ball-busting that goes on in a large family quite nicely.

Of course, most of the family are fairly well-off financially (except for maybe Philip and his girlfriend is apparently quite wealthy) and the problems are definitely of the white people variety so that may put some people off right there. One thing that works about the family dynamic is that nobody really talks to anybody else. Not about the important stuff, anyway. When Judd arrives, for example, only Wendy is aware his marriage has ended. It isn’t until several days in when everybody wonders where his wife is that he finally blurts it out angrily. It illustrates the inherent dysfunction but then again in a family in which your mother has essentially paraded all your secrets out for everyone to see I can understand why some of them might be tight-lipped.

There are enough laughs to carry the movie along more or less and enough pathos to make you feel good at end credits roll, so I can give this a reasonably solid thumbs up. However, the movie is pretty flawed considering the talent working on it so be forewarned in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: Captures the dysfunctional family dynamic. Really great cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat manipulative.  Unrealistic “sitcom syndrome” ending. Ensemble doesn’t quite gel.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of swearing, some sexuality and a fair amount of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the source novel, Judd recalls a childhood incident in which he observes his mother exercising to a Jane Fonda workout video. In the movie, his mother is played by Jane Fonda.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 42% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Family Stone
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: A Walk Among the Tombstones

Matchstick Men


Matchstick Men

Allison Lohman has always been a swinger.

(2003) Crime (Warner Brothers) Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce McGill, Jenny O’Hara, Steve Eastin, Bruce Altman, Beth Grant, Sheila Kelley, Fran Kranz, Tim Kelleher, Nigel Gibbs, Bill Salto, Tim Maculan, Kim Cassidy. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

A good con movie is one of the finest cinematic experiences a filmgoer can have. Trying to keep up with the twists and turns, the backstabbing and the betrayals can leave one wondering from what direction the next twist is coming. Sometimes they’re easy to spot; it’s when you get blindsided that you leave the theater feeling invigorated. But does Matchstick Men bring The Sting to mind?

Roy Waller (Cage) is a veteran con artist (emphasis on the artist) who has a number of neuroses, chief among them agoraphobia. He has difficulty leaving the safe environs of his comfortable home, but rarely needs to – he has pulled off enough cons to be able to live comfortably the rest of his life. However, he has a partner (Rockwell) with whom he conspires to take a lowlife criminal named Frechette (McGill) for a big score that will allow Roy to retire and partner Frank to establish himself.

Into this mix comes the daughter Roy never knew he had; Angela (Lohman), who lives with Roy’s estranged wife, is a troubled teen who needs direction. She latches onto Roy, who can barely function. She finds out what his profession is and talks him into teaching her how to con. She turns out to be quite good at it. However, as Roy and Frank’s con begins to go south, the issue becomes not only protecting himself, but perhaps protecting the family he now can’t do without.

Director Ridley Scott went for a change of pace after his previous two movies (Gladiator and Hannibal) to make a quirky comedy. I’m not sure that was a great move; his comedies haven’t been his strongest films throughout his career although he has shown a few moments. Frankly, this one is a bit uneven as well, although after re-watching it recently I found it better than I remembered it to be.

Cage can be one of my favorite actors when he’s not overacting; this isn’t one of those occasions so he doesn’t disappoint here. Nobody does quirky quite like Nicolas Cage and Scott is a strong enough director to reign in Cage’s more over-the-top tendencies. Of late Cage has been something of a joke because of his really out-of-control scene chewing, but this is one of the movies that reminds you that he’s a very talented actor as well.

Rockwell has put his name on my list of actors whom I will go and see no matter what kind of turkey they are starring in – although to be honest he hasn’t done many of those. He’s evolved into an “A” list guy, although he hasn’t gotten that career-defining role yet that I think is in him. It’s only a matter of time though.

Lohman is absolutely sensational as Angela. She nearly takes this movie away from Cage, which can be a difficult task in and of itself. She hasn’t had the career I thought she would, although she was outstanding in Drag Me to Hell and unforgettable in Big Fish. Still, in all her films she’s always solid at the very least. This is one of her brighter moments.

The problem with con-game films is that they often have to take the same road; good-hearted con artist cons bad villain. The reality of the business is that these people prey on the vulnerable and generally have enough sense to stay away from guys who might go after them. Real con artists are generally despicable individuals.

Still, it is part of human nature to want to pull one over on someone who deserves it, and that’s what makes The Sting so dang satisfying and why it’s the gold standard when it comes to con movies. The twist here is not too obvious, but it’s not terribly original either and to be honest, that’s what most caper films are judged by at the end of the day. Still, it is sufficient to make the movie a winner in my book and hopefully one that will keep you entertained should you choose to seek this movie out.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Lohman, Cage and Rockwell. Fun caper flick throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Twist is merely adequate. Film is fairly uneven. Comedy not Ridley Scott’s forte.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the subject matter is on the adult side. There are some bad words, a bit of violence and a bit less sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although Lohman played a 14-year-old girl (and went to the audition dressed to look as one), she was 22 at the time she made this movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $65.6M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking the movie broke even or was marginally profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Moon

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: ParaNorman

Premonition (2007)


Premonition

"That's strange, Jim NEVER has a second cup of coffee..."

(2007) Romantic Fantasy (Tri-Star) Sandra Bullock, Julian McMahon, Nia Long, Kate Nelligan, Amber Valleta, Peter Stormare, Shyann McClure, Courtney Taylor Burness, Marc Macaulay, .Jude Ciccolella, Mark Famiglietti, Matt Moore, Jason Douglas, E.J. Stapleton.  Directed by Mennan Yapo

Some movies sound like a great idea on paper, then lose something in the execution. Premonition is one of these. See, Linda Hanson (Bullock) has become unstuck in time. Much like Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, she bounces back between past and future but without much rhyme or reason. She starts on Thursday, the worst day of her life; the day she receives word that her husband has been killed in a particularly gruesome car accident the day before on the way to a sales meeting which is actually a job interview, at least I think so — it’s kind of muddled, but you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The next morning she wakes up and – presto chango! – Jim (McMahon) is alive and it’s Monday. She chalks it up to a particularly vivid dream but when she wakes up the next morning, Jim is dead again, it’s Saturday and all her friends and family are gathered for his funeral, which makes it a bit embarrassing when she comes downstairs in her skivvies. Linda is naturally suspicious that something is amiss, but maybe she can influence the future and save her husband from his doom. That’s when she finds out that he may have been having an affair with an attractive new assistant manager (Valleta) at the office where he works. Now she’s not so sure she wants him to live.

I’m normally a sucker for movies of this type – just ask Da Queen. Hey, I even gave The Lake House a positive review, and not many critics did that. I don’t have a problem suspending disbelief. I do ask, however, that the movie stay true to its own internal logic. During the course of the movie, Bullock is able to change some outcomes but not others and there doesn’t seem to be any sort of consistency as to what she can change and what is unavoidable. She also bounces around her week like a ping-pong ball for no apparent reason other than to justify the plot points.

Not that I have a problem with Sandra Bullock’s performance. Far from it; I thought she does a very solid job as Linda, portraying a woman forced to relive her husband’s death on a daily basis but also on top of it must do it in a non-linear manner, so she is unable to even grieve properly. That she comes a bit unhinged is certainly understandable, to say the least. Bullock is nearly matched by Stormare, who plays a psychologist who is as confused by events surrounding Linda as we are. McMahon does a nice turn as the husband who is at a crossroads in his relationship, but is at heart a loving father and husband. Quite a change from Dr. Doom.

Screenwriter Bill Kelly, who previously did the much better Blast From the Past, totally drops the ball. German director Yapo, making his English-language debut, fares no better; he has a tendency to move the camera in such a way as to be annoying, rather than creating any sense of urgency or excitement. I don’t mind kinetic camera work, but not to the point where I’m unable to see what’s going on. There are many ways to portray a character’s sense of disconnection and disorientation without making the audience dizzy.

Time travel has long been a staple of romantic fantasies, but they are not as easy to write as it may appear. In order for us to accept the circumstances, the circumstances need to make sense and quite frankly, they don’t in Premonition. That’s a shame, because I really wanted to like this movie. I like Sandra Bullock, I admire the performances and I thought it had a terrific premise; they just needed to iron out the details a little more. Quite frankly, if you are in a mood to see something like this, go rent yourself Somewhere in Time until the urge passes.

WHY RENT THIS: Solid performances by Bullock, Stormare and McMahon. Nifty concept.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Story fails to stick to its own internal logic. Overly kinetic camera movements.

FAMILY MATTERS: There are a few images that are on the disturbing side, as well as a bit of violence, foul language and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was originally to be set in New Orleans, but had to be filmed elsewhere due to Hurricane Katrina.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a 45 minute feature on people who claim to have had premonitions of their own.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $84.2M on a $20M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Mamma Mia