The Cyclotron (Le Cyclotron)


Class dismissed.

(2016) Thriller (108 Media) Mark Antony Krupa, Lucille Fluet, Paul Ahmarani, Olivier Barrette, Manuel Sinor, Benoit Mauffette. Directed by Olivier Asselin

 

Although it may be hard to believe now, the Allies came within a hairs’ breadth of losing the Second World War. The Nazis were well on their way to developing their own atomic weapon; the Allies were able to defeat them before they could complete their work but what if we hadn’t?

A train hurtles into the night, headed for Switzerland from Germany. Emil Scherer (Krupa), a top German physicist is aboard it. He is AWOL from his work at the German version of the Manhattan Project and a fellow scientist named Helmut König (Ahmarani) has been dispatched to fetch him, find out whether he has taken any atomic secrets with him and whether he intends to defect.

Also on his trail is Simone Ziegler (Fluet), a French-German scientist who once worked alongside Scherer and was also romantically involved with him. She works now with the resistance and has been sent to find Scherer and if necessary, eliminate him. Since she finds him first, she talks to him and discovers that he has already discovered a way to make a bomb – one that fits in a wristwatch. Worse still, he has already constructed one and is wearing it. He hopes to hand it over to the Allies but with the German sniffing at their heels and the train still far from the Swiss border, getting out alive may not be an option. It will take an act of desperation which will lead to the war’s outcome balancing on the tip of the tail of a cat belonging to a fellow named Schrödinger.

Sometimes I have a problem with Hollywood films with bloated budgets that are too dazzling; this is the reverse. This is a movie that I wish could be remade with a much more ambitious budget. This is as well-written a script as you’re likely to see onscreen this year. Asselin, who co-wrote the script with Fluet, gives the main characters plenty of depth and keeps the tension high throughout. The game of cat and mouse between spies and Nazis is delicately played unlike the usual sledgehammers we get when less skillful hands try to do a movie in the film noir style.

There is plenty of atmosphere in the film and plenty of different styles to enrich it including some German Expressionism which I found delightful. It really helps establish the era as well as the mood. Fluet and Asselin don’t clutter up the film too much with technical jargon, although there are some explorations of quantum mechanics as well as Schrödinger’s Cat which is a theory which, to put in an extremely simplistic manner, posits that a cat is put in a box without air holes and left there for a certain period of time. There’s no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or dead until one opens the box; until that is done the cat is both alive and dead within the box. It’s fairly heady stuff but it makes more sense when you see it used within the film and I have to admit, I’ve never seen it used as well cinematically.

The black and white also helps the tone of the film, but that may not necessarily be why the filmmakers used it – there are several scenes that are shot in color in what seems like random bursts although that’s probably not the case. No, I suspect black and white was used to hide the fact that since the bulk of the action takes place aboard a train and they didn’t have access to one, they inserted shots of digital trains hurtling down a variety of train tracks. The CGI is absolutely shoddy and unacceptable; every time you see the train onscreen you’re taken out of the spell of the film that the director and cast has worked so hard to build. The score is also somewhat overbearing and sounds like it was cobbled together from a bunch of better noir films.

There is some real promise here. The actors do solid jobs and Fluet and Krupa even manage to generate some romantic heat between their characters. The movie fails more on the technical end rather than on the creative one. I would like to see this remade with actual trains rather than digital ones and a little bit more of an effects budget, particularly for the movie’s end. In any case while the execution was a victim of its ambition and lack of cash, this is nonetheless worth checking out if you’re willing to overlook the flaws here.

REASONS TO GO: Asselin does a marvelous job of keeping the tension high. Schrödinger’s Cat may be used to better advantage here than by any other movie in history.
REASONS TO STAY: The computer graphics are amateurish and distracting. The score is overwrought and distracting.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene with some gore early on, some sensuality and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at the 2016 Whistler Film Festival in British Columbia where it won Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/31/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Night Train
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Elian

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The Dressmaker (2015)


Here is a primer on sexual stereotypes.

Here is a primer on sexual stereotypes.

(2016) Drama (Broad Green/Amazon) Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Hayley Magnus, James Mackay, Julia Blake, Shane Jacobson, Gyton Grantley, Alison Whyte, Barry Otto, Sacha Horler, Shane Bourne, Mark Leonard Winter, Olivia Sprague, Darcey Wilson, Rory Potter. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse

 

There is an old Chinese proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold. Personally, I like my revenge hot in a spicy oyster sauce, but that’s just me. In any case, the point is that vengeance is something best left to ferment awhile.

The tiny rural Australian town of Dungatar is the kind of place where not much ever goes on. It was doubly so in 1951. That is, until Tilly Dunnage (Winslet) stepped off the bus in the dusty streets of the town. She walked over to where the town’s team was playing in a rugby match. Wearing a stylish red dress, her lips slathered in cherry red lipstick, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses and a cigarette dangling from a holder at a rakish angle, she made for a sight that the town had only glimpsed in fashion magazines.

The more so because there were whispers that she had murdered a young boy named Stewart Pettyman (Potter) and while nothing was ever proven, had led to her being exiled from the town in disgrace. Her mother Molly (Davis) went quietly mad and became something of the town codger. Most of the town has turned its back on the both of them, particularly town counselor Evan Pettyman (Bourne), Stewart’s father. However, there’s no doubt that Tilly is a talented dressmaker and when Trudy Pratt (Snook) underwent a radical transformation from Plain Jane to va-va-va-voom thanks to a makeover and a Tilly original creation, soon the ladies of the town were flocking to Tilly to get their own haute couture from the former pariah.

Also lining up to see Tilly is rugby star and neighbor Teddy McSwiney (Hemsworth) who has his eyes on Tilly but must woo Molly first in order to get her blessing. However, Tilly believes she has a cursed cloud over her head and when a new tragedy befalls her, she threatens to fall apart but her mum, realizing there’s only one thing she can do for her daughter before her own time is up, comes up with a plan to get the most delicious revenge for her daughter – and perhaps redemption for herself.

Based on a book by Betty Ham, this Aussie flick was the second highest grosser of 2015 in its native land and the eleventh all-time as of this writing. It’s received little to no fanfare here in the States and in some ways that’s not so bad; it allows you to experience the twists and the turns of the plot without expectation. Unfortunately, it’s bad in that a lot of people haven’t really heard much about this movie and it’s a shame because it’s pretty dang good.

Winslet is one of those actresses who elevates bad movies into good movies and good movies into great movies. She is a force of nature here, dominating the screen almost effortlessly. Davis, one of the most underrated actresses of her generation, holds her own and even Hemsworth, who has always been something of a pretty boy, uses his easygoing charm to his advantage. Weaving, who I’ve always enjoyed as a terrific character actor, shines here as a cross-dressing cop.

The movie lampoons our obsession with fashion as well as small town insularity, both of which have been done elsewhere but here at least are done stylishly. The problem here is that there are too many styles going on; there’s a kind of American western tone (Moorhouse herself calls the film “Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven with a sewing machine”) as well as a kind of noir mystery (particularly near the end of the film as we find out what really happened to Stewart Pettyman) as well as an Edward Scissorhands­-esque ode to non-conformity, romantic comedy in the developing relationship between Tilly and Teddy and even a little family drama as per the relationship between Tilly and Molly.

I found myself liking the vibe here. I’ve never been what you’d call exactly fashion-conscious so I found that aspect of the film amusing. I also liked the relationships between Tilly and Molly as well as between Tilly and Teddy. The denouement of the film when Tilly takes her revenge is absolutely classic and worth all the extraneous material. You may favor the noir as I did, or the rom-com, or the offbeat stuff or some other aspect but I’m reasonably sure you’ll find something about this film to like. I know I found quite a bit.

REASONS TO GO: The acting here is extremely good, particularly from Winslet and Davis. As dramas go, this one has some pretty funny moments.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many undercurrents here.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some brief violence and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film Moorhouse has directed in eight years; she has two children with autism and spends most of her time off devoted to them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Micmacs
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Audrie & Daisy

Stray


Running with scissors? How about showering with scissors?

Running with scissors? How about showering with scissors?

(2015) Psychological Thriller (East Meade Street Gang) Gabrielle Stone, Andrew Sensenig, Sean Patrick Foster, Dan McGlaughlin, Alexandra Landau, Samantha Fairfield Walsh, Arita Trahan, Ben Lyle Lotka, Paul McNair, Scarlett Robison, Ana-Maria Arkan, Joe Koch. Directed by Nena Eskridge

 

It is said that no matter how far or how fast we run, the past always catches up with us. I think that’s pretty much true; after all, who can run from what we carry with us everywhere we go?

Jennifer (Stone) arrives in the idyllic small town of Chestnut Hill as a stranger, but she quickly finds a job at a local bar and a house thanks to the trust of lonely Marvin (Sensenig). When Jennifer announces that she’s pregnant, she wastes no time pointing the finger of fatherhood at bar owner Greg (McGlaughlin). As you can imagine, Greg’s fiancée Sarah (Walsh) doesn’t take this news all that well.

As it turns out, Jennifer has something of a checkered past and it’s about to roar into quiet Chestnut Hill like a tornado, with Jennifer at the center. Jennifer’s actions are violent and vicious but she’s had to be that way given what she’s been through. Can she leave that past behind or will she finally be able to create the family she’s yearned for all her life?

This is a micro-budgeted indie (i.e. under $100K budget) and the feature debut of Eskridge, who is an industry veteran in the Northeast. She’s very quick to point out that this isn’t a horror film although there are some horrific elements here so those who are sensitive to such things should be aware of it. No, it’s not a gorefest by any stretch of the imagination; she calls it a psycho-drama and that’s a fairly apt description, but we do have to look in some pretty dark places before the film is over.

With films of this nature, there is a need to keep in mind the circumstances behind it; you can’t hold it to the same criteria that, say, a Martin Scorsese film would be held to. There is a learning curve to filmmaking and it is rare that a first feature microbudget thriller is going to be mistake-free and this one isn’t but all the same this is a very good looking film. Kudos have to go to cinematographer David Landau who puts in some impressive images, using light and shadow effectively. His montage of pastoral scenes at the beginning of the film that is broken up by a scene of sudden violence is masterfully edited.

The film falls down a bit more in the more human elements. The writing is spotty; some of the dialogue doesn’t sound like things that people actually say to each other, and the plot is reasonably predictable and upon occasion, contrived. I don’t mind the occasional contrivance but the filmmaker shouldn’t make a habit of it. I felt that some of the plot points didn’t feel organic.

I don’t like to bash actors and this might well be Eskridge’s inexperience showing through but the acting is stiff. There are scenes when couples are supposed to display affection for one another or when characters are supposed to show attraction to another character, but the body language doesn’t convey it. One can forgive that in a high school drama production but it’s hard to ignore when you can see the stiffness in the way actors hold each other or cuddle. It takes you right out of the film as you realize that these are actors acting, rather than characters being captured on film. The difference is important.

One point is that Jennifer’s violent tendencies are given away too early in the film. I think it would have added to the suspense of the movie had her violent streak been revealed half way through and THEN the back story start to come into play. In a thriller, or psychodrama if you will, it is more effective to keep audiences off-balance when it comes to the lead character’s motivations.

That isn’t to say this is a horrible film; it isn’t. It’s certainly flawed but there are some moments where things click and you can see that Eskridge has some talent and some of the actors do as well, particularly Stone. It also should be said that it does improve as it goes on and the ending is pretty nifty. As I said, there is a bit of a learning curve and this is more of a film at the beginning end of it. The good news that this might be a movie you go back to watching after some of the cast and crew have gone on to bigger and better things and take a gander of what they were up to at the beginnings of their careers.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is stilted. There are a few plot contrivances that take any sort of organic feel the movie had generated.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, sexuality and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Gabrielle Stone is the daughter of famed actress Dee Wallace Stone.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rebound
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Living in the Age of Airplanes

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng)


Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

Commuters and zombies and trains, oh my!

(2016) Horror (Well Go USA) Yoo Gong, Soo-an Kim, Yu-mi Jeong, Dong-seok Ma, Woo-sik Choi, Ahn So-hee, Eui-sung Kim, Gwi-ha Choi, Jang Hyuk-Jin, Seok-yong Jeong, Chang Hwan Kim, Myong-sin Park, Eun-kyung Shim, Soo-jung Ye. Directed by Sang-ho Yeon

 

I have always loved trains. It’s a nice way to travel; just watch the countryside pass by or engage with your fellow passengers. I find the sound of the clackety-clack of the rails soothing. However, the trouble with trains is that you are locked on board with your fellow passengers.

Seok Woo (Gong) is a workaholic hedge fund manager whose wife has walked out. He has custody of their cute little daughter Soo-an (Kim) and she’s caught in the middle of their bickering. It is the little girl’s birthday and daddy remembers to buy her a gift…a Nintendo which she already has. Soo-an wants to visit her mommy who lives in Busan (Daddy works out of Seoul) and she figures she can take the train by herself. Seok refuses to allow that and insists on accompanying her. He’s incredibly busy at work with one of his prize biotech stocks beset by what appears to be a massive worker’s strike but when his daughter insists, he reluctantly agrees to go with her to Busan.

Meanwhile, the last person on the train is a young woman with a strange bite mark on her leg. She is clearly terrified and soon has a seizure and apparently dies as a conductor frantically calls for help. Then the dead passenger suddenly returns to life and attacks the conductor and the two begin spreading the disease through the cabin like wildfire.

It turns out that there is a disease that has spread from a leak at the bio-engineering company that Seok Woo has been championing in his hedge fund. That leak is turning people into zombies and not the slow-moving zombies of George Romero; these zombies turn from human to zombie in seconds and they are fast as blazes, faster than the humans in the train. Darkness confuses them (they only react to humans they can see) and they behave and move in herds. As the number of humans on the train dwindle and civilization crumbling outside the train, is there any hope for those left on board the train that haven’t been turned into zombies?

I would characterize this as a cross between The Walking Dead, World War Z and Snowpiercer. You get the swarming zombies who sometimes pile up on top of each other like ants, but you also get the individual zombies that are ravenous and milky-eyed. The zombies are fast and deadly and as the movie goes on, they get even more dangerous.

This is definitely an action-oriented horror movie. There is some gore but they don’t really linger on it. There’s far more running, chasing, fighting and hiding going on than actual zombie battles, although there is some of that. Mostly, there is some social commentary which puts a cowardly businessman as the bad guy, taking over from Seok Woo himself who initially is selfish and sociopathic, although his love for his daughter and his desire to protect her changes him over the course of the movie. I wouldn’t have minded keeping Seok as the bad guy throughout, having one of those rare instances of the same character being both hero and villain.

We’ve seen a lot of zombie movies and zombie TV shows and it’s no secret that Walking Dead is the most popular show on television right now, but that’s mainly because it’s not about the zombies; it’s about the relationships and it’s about surviving in a world that has been obliterated. This ranks right up there among the best of them. The storyline is plausible and even though there are some cliches that begin to cycle in towards the end, it still kicks ass. After all, what more do you really want out of a zombie flick?

REASONS TO GO: Quite a roller coaster ride, if you like that sort of thing. Irreverent without sinking into satire. A bit of social commentary is sprinkled in.
REASONS TO STAY: A few horror movie cliches can be found, particularly in the third act.
FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of zombie violence and gore, a bit of foul language and some sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first live action film for Sang-ho Yeon who had previously only made animated features.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Snowpiercer
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Dheepan

The Happening (2008)


Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and Ashlyn Sanchez find out that it's Taco Tuesday in the craft services truck.

Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel and Ashlyn Sanchez find out that it’s Taco Tuesday in the craft services truck.

(2008) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez, Betty Buckley, Spencer Breslin, Robert Bailey Jr., Alan Ruck, Frank Collison, Jeremy Strong, Victoria Clark, M. Night Shyamalan, Alison Folland, Kristen Connolly, Cornell Womack, Curtis McClarin, Robert Lenzi, Derege Harding, Kerry O’Malley. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

 

It’s just an ordinary day in Central Park. People are jogging, people are walking their dogs. Two friends are sitting on a bench and reading a book, talking to each other.. A cold wind blows. The chatter and noise of the park dies down to a whisper. It’s as if the whole world is holding its breath, waiting for something terrible to happen. Then, something terrible does.

In Philadelphia, the horrified teachers at Philadelphia High, including popular science teacher Elliott Moore (Wahlberg) and his friend and peer Julian (Leguizamo) are informed that there has been a new terrorist attack on New York. This time, it was an airborne gas that was fatal within seconds. To be on the safe side, the principal (Ruck) orders the kids sent home. Julian is nervous; big cities are targets and he thinks it’ll be safer to join his mother on her farm in Harrisburg. He invites Elliott and his wife Alma (Deschanel) to come with them. Disquieted, Elliott accepts.

However, all is not perfectly well between Elliott and Alma. A distance has grown between them, built wider by all the things said and unsaid. Alma has been getting calls from Joey (Shyamalan), a co-worker who she went out for a meal with once but who almost certainly wants to take things farther. Alma is confused and adrift, not sure what she wants. However, she knows one thing; she doesn’t want to stay in Philadelphia with terrorists shooting lethal gasses in major metropolitan centers.

Elliott and Alma meet Julian and his daughter Jess (Sanchez) in the train station. Julian’s wife will be late arriving and will take the next train. Julian can’t help but notice the tension between Alma and Elliott and stumbles into it somewhat. Still, the train leaves the station and for the moment, there are larger concerns. Then, as the train travels through the Pennsylvania countryside, those passengers with cell phones begin to get horrifying news. There have been more attacks, in Boston and in Philadelphia. Alarmed, Julian calls his wife, and is relieved to hear she’s caught a bus to Princeton, NJ and will try to meet them in Harrisburg as soon as she can arrange transportation.

Not too long afterwards, the train chugs to a halt and all the passengers are told to disembark. Why is the train stopping, Elliott asks a conductor. We’ve lost contact he replies. With who, says Elliott. Everyone says the conductor in a low voice. As the passengers gather in a small town diner, the true horror of the situation begins to unfold. Not only are big cities being targeted but small towns are starting to see outbreaks of the contagion as well. So many, in fact, that it looks increasingly that this is less the work of terrorists but some other force at work, something even more unsettling. Now, with the countryside becoming increasingly lethal, Elliott must find a way to get his group to safety before the toxins do their deadly work on them.

Wahlberg by this point in his career had settled into a niche, playing much the same character in movie after movie. However, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing since I happened to like the character he played. Heck, a lot of movie stars – Cary Grant, John Wayne, Gregory Peck – all could get busted for the same crime when it comes right down to it. Wahlberg is more than adequate as the lead. Deschanel, who was at the time becoming one of my favorite actresses which she remains to this day, is given a somewhat fragile character to work with. At times, she does a real good job with it, but at others I think some of the nuances are just missed a bit. It is Buckley, as a somewhat curmudgeonly hermit of teetering mental stability, who steals the show in the few scenes that she has. This is not the Betty Buckley of Cats or even less so, Eight is Enough in any way shape or form.

Some of the best scares in the movie come as a result of the sound crew. As bodies fall from a high rise and hit the ground, the sickening thuds make the scene all the more eerie. Composer James Newton Howard uses his music to ratchet up the tension nicely. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto beautifully photographs the Pennsylvania countryside, even as something sinister is at work.

The middle third drags a bit and the last third completely loses cohesion, including an ending which is simply facepalm-worthy that has such a flat tone that the viewer leaves feeling curiously unfulfilled, like he needs to watch another movie to get their movie fix. The nature of the Happening is revealed far too early on. Some of the characters do incomprehensible things, which jar the viewer out of the world the filmmakers have created.

The first third of this movie is as excellent as anything Shyamalan has done, which may not be saying much for some, given how at this point in the game his reputation was rapidly eroding. At the time, I found that given the state of world events, the concept of The Happening was extremely timely. There are some genuine scares here, and some scenes that are genuinely disturbing. Think of this as An Inconvenient Truth done in Shyamalan style. Better still best not think of Shyamalan at all. This is very much a formulaic movie for Shyamalan, with lead characters struggling with personal issues while confronting a menace very much bigger than they are able to imagine. I had to this point been a fan of his work, but like many others left the theater disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: The tech crew helps create some impressive scares. The first third of the movie is some of Shyamalan’s best work ever.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The middle third loses momentum and drags along. The final third is an absolute train wreck.
FAMILY MATTERS: There are some very graphic scenes of violence, and most youngsters are going to be on a one-way trip to Nightmare City after seeing this.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was the first R-rated film by Shyamalan and was shot completely in sequence.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: An interview with Betty Buckley, a featurette on the porch sequence and a gag reel highlight the DVD edition. The Blu-Ray edition allows you to view the film in BonusView mode which flashes trivia factoids onscreen and incorporates the deleted footage into the finished film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $163.4M on a $48M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outbreak
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Shallows

The Visit


There's something a little bit off about Nana.

There’s something a little bit off about Nana.

(2015) Suspense (Universal) Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deana Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Samuel Stricklen, Patch Darragh, Jorge Cordova, Steve Annan, Benjamin Kanes, Ocean James, Seamus Moroney, Brian Gildea, Richard Barlow, Dave Jia, Gabrielle Pentalow, Michelle Rose Domb, Shelby Lackman, Erica Lynne Arden. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

For any kid, a visit to the grandparents is something magical. Grandparents, after all, tend to be the ones who spoil the kids, treat them like royalty, allow them to do things their parents would never let them do (and ironically, that the grandparents never let their parents do when they were kids). What kid wouldn’t want to spend a week with their grandparents?

Becca (DeJonge) and her younger brother Tyler (Oxenbould) are about to head to rural Pennsylvania to visit their Nana (Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (McRobbie). The older couple is estranged from their mother (Hahn) who was dating someone they didn’t approve of; they had a big fight and mom did something so awful that she can’t bring herself to tell her daughter what it was. Becca hopes that she can make a documentary  (because, every kid in a horror film wants to be an auteur) about the visit so she can capture her mom’s parents forgiving their child on tape and healing the rift between them.

At first, it seems an ideal visit; it’s winter and snow covers the farm that they live on, but Nana is making all sorts of cookies and baked goods it seems hourly and Pop-Pop is full of bonhomie and charm. The kids are a little taken aback by a few rules – not to leave their room after 9:30pm or to ever go into the basement because of a mold problem but these seem harmless enough.

Then the two older people start acting…a little off. Pop-Pop seems disturbingly paranoid and Nana seems to absolutely go bonkers after dark. Becca and Tyler capture it all on tape. Mom, who has gone on a cruise with her boyfriend (Cordoba) is skeptical. It soon becomes apparent to the kids that there is something very wrong going on in Pennsylvania and that there may be no going home for them – ever.

Director M. Night Shyamalan has had a very public career, becoming a wunderkind right out of the box with a pair of really well-made movies. The next two weren’t quite as good and since then he’s been on a terrible streak of movies that are, to be generous, mediocre at best and downright awful at worst. The good news is that this is his best effort in nearly a decade. The bad news is that isn’t saying very much.

Shyamalan uses the found footage conceit which has gotten pretty old and stale at this point. To his credit, he does as good a job as anyone has lately, but he also violates a lot of the tropes of the sub-genre, adding in graphics and dissolves which kind of spoil the illusion of watching raw footage from essentially home movies. I have to say that I think it was a tactical error to do this in found footage format; the movie might have been stronger had he simply told the story using conventional means.

Shyamalan has had a history of finding talented juvenile actors and extracting terrific performances from them; DeJonge is the latest in that string. Yes, she can be too chipper and too annoying, but then again when you consider the age of her character that’s not out of step with how young teen and preteen girls behave. She’s just so, Oh my God!

Oxenbould isn’t half bad either, although his character who is gregarious, outgoing and a little bit too smug for his own good can be grating from time to time, particularly when he starts to rap. Misogyny isn’t cute even when it’s coming out of the mouth of a 12-year-old and some of the lyrics are borderline in that regard. It may be authentic, but ending each rap with a reference to a fairly unflattering portrayal of women is something I could have done without.

Tyler is something of comic relief here and he does it pretty well. I liked the business of him deciding to clean up his language by using female pop singers names in place of expletives, like shouting “Sara McLaughlin!” when he stubs a toe, or “Shakira!” instead of a word for excrement. It’s a cute idea and I have to admit I chuckled at it but again, seems to reflect a fairly low opinion of women.

Shyamalan excels at making the audience feel a little off-balance and while the twist ending here (you know there had to be one) isn’t on par with some of his others, it is at least a decent one. There are a few plot holes – early on Shyamalan makes it clear that there’s no cell phone service at the farmhouse and yet the kids are able to get on a laptop and use Skype. Where’s the Wi-Fi coming from? Perhaps the aliens from Signs are providing it.

Nonetheless, this is a pretty taut suspense movie that has elements of horror in it and makes for solid entertainment. Fans of Shyamalan will welcome this return to form while those who take great delight in trolling the man may be disappointed that he didn’t serve up another helping of turkey. Think of this as kind of a pre-Halloween thriller and don’t pay too much attention to the man behind the curtain; hopefully this will signal that Shyamalan is back on track and ready to fulfill the promise that he exhibited nearly 20 years ago.

REASONS TO GO: Decently tense.
REASONS TO STAY: Quasi-found footage getting old hat.
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing thematic material and child peril, some nudity, plenty of violence and terror and brief foul language, not to mention gratuitous rapping.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original title of the movie was Sundowning.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Demon Seed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Mission to Lars

Walt Before Mickey


“Well, that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

(2015) Biographical Drama (Voltage) Thomas Ian Nicholas, Jon Heder, Jodie Sweetin, Armando Gutierrez, David Henrie, Taylor Gray, Ayla Kell, Owen Teague, Hunter Gomez, Sheena Colette, Jeremy Palko, Kate Katzman, Tamela D’Amico, Arthur L. Bernstein, Amber Sym, Beatrice Taveras, Conor Dubin, Timothy Neil Williams, Donn Lamkin, George Licari, Briana Colman, Maralee Thompson. Directed by Khoa Le

The name of Walt Disney is one of the most beloved and best-known names in the history of mankind. Nearly everywhere you go on God’s green Earth, everyone knows his wonderful animated features, his theme parks, his movie company and of course the mouse that started it all. Few people know, however, that before that great success that grew into a multi-billion dollar company that it is  today, Walt went through some lean times.

Disney (Nicholas) grew up on a farm in Marceline, Missouri where he felt a certain amount of affinity for animals – and also an affinity for drawing pictures on the side of the barn, something that irritated his father Elias (Lamkin) no end. When his father grew ill, the family had to sell the farm and move to Kansas City.

When the First World War broke out, Walt was too young to enlist like his brother Roy (Heder) did but he did manage to drive for an ambulance corps and was sent overseas anyway, continuing to draw whenever he could. When he came back home, his brother had contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a Veteran’s Hospital in Los Angeles to recover. Walt, having been laid off from an advertising company, decided that animated films were the wave of the future. He started his own company, Laff-o-Gram Pictures along with artist Ub Iwerks (Gutierrez) whom he met at the ad agency.

Adding other local artists like Friz Freleng (Gray), Rudy Ising (Henrie) and Fred Harman (Williams), Walt proved to be a better animator than he was a businessman and after realizing that the amount he was charging had only covered cost, his company eventually went bankrupt. Selling a camera Iwerks gave him to use, he bought a train ticket out west and convinced his brother Roy to stake him and start a new company, Disney Brothers Animation which was eventually changed to Walt Disney Pictures. Walt would bring over many of his cronies from Kansas City to work for him; he also agreed to hire women to do the inking and painting because they worked for less. One of those ink and paint girls was named Lillian Bounds (Katzman) who would eventually become Mrs. Walt Disney.

At first Disney tasted success as his live action/animated hybrids, the Alice cartoons, sold well. However the underhanded distributor (Dubin) sent over his brother-in-law George (Licari) to sow seeds of discontent among the troops and drive Disney’s business into the ground, putting Disney in a position where all the characters that Disney had come up with – including the popular Oswald the Rabbit – would become the property of the distributor. Walt was up against the wall, but he had one last shot – a plucky mouse who would become the world’s most famous cartoon character.

This is a production shot in the Orlando area for the most part and with Central Floridian talent in front of and behind the camera. Clearly this is a labor of love and if sometimes the filmmakers seem to be a little star-struck by Walt, I suppose that it’s understandable especially considering what Walt meant (and continues to mean) to the economy of the region.

Based on a book written by Timothy S. Susanin and vetted by the Disney family (Walt’s daughter Diane wrote the book’s forward), the film looks hard at Disney’s struggles with bankruptcy and poverty. Despite his best intentions, his first business failed, leading to eviction from his home and seizure of his possessions. A homeless Walt resorts to eating garbage. Nicholas captures Disney’s despair and his guilt feelings for having failed his employees.

And, to his credit, Nicholas also shows one of Disney’s less savory side; he was something of a tyrant to work for, firing one employee for sleeping on the job despite forcing him to work brutal hours. We don’t get a sense of Disney’s love for children or how that was developed – certainly by the time the first silent Mickey Mouse cartoons came out he was writing for the younger set – and the movie would have benefitted from giving the viewer more of a sense of that affection he had for kids. It certainly would be a driving force in the rest of his career.

Although Heder, Sweetin and Nicholas do well in their roles, much of the rest of the cast is less successful. Some of the acting is stiff and the line readings more suitable for community theater. Not knocking community theater, mind you, but those expecting more should be forewarned as to what to expect. I have to admit that some of the dialogue sounded like it was being read rather than being said.

It should also be noted that this is a first feature for much of the cast and crew; a little leeway is recommended when viewing this. While much of the technical end is professional, some of the creative side is a bit rockier. One gets a sense of a cast and crew doing their best but flailing a little bit. I don’t doubt that they’ll get better with more experience.

The filmmakers do a wonderful job of setting the period correctly for both the Kansas City and Los Angeles settings. They also do something that is unusual in the film business when creating period movies; they get the rhythms of language, culture and everyday life right. You may well feel like you’re getting a glimpse of American life in the 1920s. Main Street USA indeed.

I can only give this a mild recommendation because, at the end of the day, movies should live up to certain standards and even as you recognize the effort, you can only judge the results. I will say that you learn a great deal about Walt Disney that you may not have known before. If you are interested in learning more about the man behind the legend, this is a good place to start. I would also highly recommend a visit to the Disney Family Museum in the Presidio in San Francisco as well. Nonetheless, the movie truly captures Walt Disney’s determination to make his own dreams come true. In doing so, he would make many new dreams for millions upon millions of children from then to now.

REASONS TO GO: Informative about Disney’s early business failures. Nicely creates early 20th century setting.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and often amateurish. Sometimes treats Walt as more icon than human being.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few mildly bad words scattered here and there, some adult themes and period smoking (and a lot of it).
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: American Idol finalist Julie Zorrilla sings the song “Just a Wish” over the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Saving Mr. Banks
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The End of the Tour