Union Bridge


On his way to a “Reopen the Economy” protest.

(2019) Thriller (Breaking Glass) Scott Friend, Emma Duncan, Alex Breaux, Elisabeth Noone, Nancy Linden, Kevin Murray, Samantha Trionfo, Lateicia Ford, Jean Miller, Tim R. Worley, Bobby J. Brown, David Cohen, Andy Hopper, Bolton Marsh, David Cohen, Grant Garson, Graydon Hipple, Dan Verkman, Teresa Majorwicz. Directed by Brian Levin

 

There is an aphorism that goes “some things should stay buried.” In this film, that’s a literal truth. Unfortunately, it’s the only literal thing in the movie.

Will Shipe (Friend) returns to his small southern town following years of living and working in the City (doesn’t matter which one). His father has recently passed on and his shrewish mother (Noone) is essentially just as happy the old codger is gone. Now, maybe Will can get their family back into the prominence it has always deserved.

Of course, returning home means returning to those you grew up with, and for Will that includes his former best friend Nick Taylor (Breaux). However, Nick has become slightly unhinged; he sees visions of buried Confederate gold and spends his nights digging for it. He also has a hair-trigger and carries a gu around with him, never a good sign. Will’s Mom wants Will to stay as far away from Nick as he can, but not before he convinces Nick to stop digging. Mommy dearest, you see, is concerned that along with the gold Nick will dig up a secret that’s been buried since the Civil War – one that will destroy both the Taylor family and the Shipe family as well.

Things are kind of odd in Union Bridge beyond Nick; Nick’s cousin Mary (Duncan), whom Will used to date in high school, has taken up witchcraft. And while everyone seems pleased to see Will back, there’s an undercurrent that makes Will feel uneasy. And when he starts seeing the same visions that Nick has been seeing, well, you know what happens when the going gets weird – the weird go shopping. Or digging, as the case may be.

I tend to be the sort of critic who prefers efficient storytelling. Brevity is my watchword, and when a filmmaker can give me a story with a minimum of extraneous material, I tend to be more impressed. This is not that sort of movie. Now, some people revel in more detail. This is not that kind of movie either; there are a lot of images shown just for the sake of showing them; they have little or nothing to do with the story or the film and they can be jarring. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t something that I’m personally into, so take my objections with a grain of salt.

The discordant score adds to the off-putting and off-kilter feel. Levin is certainly not above thinking outside the box and that’s to be commended, but here he’s doing it to the detriment of the story, which becomes a slog to sit through. There are some moments that are Shirley Jackson-esque but not enough of them to really hold this film together.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments of Southern Gothic goodness.
REASONS TO AVOID: Incomprehensible in places and poorly paced. The characters don’t exactly invite me to spend a pleasant 90 minutes with them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the original creators of the Spider-Man comic, passed away during production of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mud
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Destroyer

Camp Cold Brook


Shooting a ghost hunt in an abandoned summer camp where a bunch of campers died? What could go wrong?

(2018) Horror (Shout!) Chad Michael Murray, Danielle Harris, Courtney Gains, Michael Eric Reid, Loren Ledesma, Jason Von Erman, Mary Kathryn Bryant, Candice De Visser, Cate Jones, Mary Fjelstad-Buss, Juliette Kida, Doug Van Liew, Dale Niehaus, Ketrick “Jazz” Copeland, Corbin Tyler, Chloe Blotter, Pamela Bell, Connor Scott Frank, Debbi Tucker, Katie Fairbanks.  Directed by Andy Palmer

 

The paranormal investigation TV show is a staple of entertainment over the last, I don’t know, ten years, let’s say. Setting one in a staple slasher film locale – the abandoned summer camp – would indicate a melding of the two sub-genres, a good idea whose time has come. Unfortunately, that’s not the idea the filmmakers went with.

Jack Wilson (Murray) is the ruggedly handsome host of a cable TV paranormal investigation show that is in the midst of filming its third season when Jack is summoned by a network executive to be told that there won’t be a fourth season. However, Jack convinces him that the group is about to film their biggest show yet, one that will conclusively prove the existence of life after death. Reluctantly, the exec gives them one more episode to air as a summer special. If the ratings warrant it, they can talk about renewing then.

All Jack needs is a killer show, but to date mostly the group has come up snake eyes when it comes to any sort of paranormal activity. They don’t want to film at places every other paranormal investigation show has done to death; they need someplace new and preferably with a gruesome past. Production assistant Emma (De Visser) suggests a summer camp in rural Oklahoma where 20 years earlier 28 young campers drowned. The church that owns the campsite has steadfastly refused to let anyone in since then.

By an amazing coincidence, Jack grew up not far from there (non-spoiler alert: that isn’t the last amazing coincidence the plot will utilize). His mother Esther (Fjelstad-Buss) is less than pleased that her son is going to that place. Same with the least-sheriff-looking sheriff ever (Van Liew) as well as assorted townspeople. You almost expect the Scooby Do gang to show up.

But into the camp they go, Jack and Emma and jaded cameraman Kevin (Reid) and producer Angela (Harris). The cameras are placed, the lights are lit and the four of them hunker down. Soon, it starts – the unexplained noises, the half-glimpsed figures. Then, fires light and extinguish by themselves. Objects move without anyone being there. Then, things start to get real. As it turns out, a local woman whose child was killed by a church transport van, needs the lives of 30 other children to resurrect her own child through witchcraft. 28 kids died that night and the witch disappeared. Now, maybe she’s back to finish the job?

The movie has some things going for it and other things going against it. For one thing, it’s a little light on scares and the plot is on the formulaic side. Most veteran horror fans will see just about every plot point coming, quite possibly including the twist ending which, while nifty enough, wasn’t particularly shocking.

Genre legend Joe Dante was one of the producers on this, and his participation is slyly referred to in a couple of places (for example, one of the show’s tag lines is “We make the illogical logical” which was also a line used by the dad in Gremlins to promote his business. I found those little Easter eggs endearing.

This isn’t a bad horror movie but it could have been better. A little less reliance on formula and a few more legitimate scares would have gone a long way. There is some potential here though and I have high hopes that may of the performers here both on and off camera have better things ahead of them.

REASONS TO SEE: Murray has some real leading man appeal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat formulaic and a little light on scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There are images of terror, profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made the rounds on the horror film festival circuit before getting a simultaneous streaming and limited theatrical release this weekend.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grave Encounters
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Mid90s

Suspiria (2018)


Even the graceful may be made to look grotesque.

(2018) Horror (AmazonChloë Grace Moretz, Tilda Swinton, Doris Hick, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Alek Wek, Jessica Harper, Renée Soutendijk, Malgosia Bela, Angela Winkler, Vanda Capriolo, Jessica Batut, Elena Fokina, Clementine Houdart, Ingrid Caven, Sylvie Testud, Fabrizia Sacchi, Brigitte Cuvelier, Christine Leboutte, Vincenza Modica, Halla Thordardottir. Directed by Luca Guadagnino

 

Those expecting to see a remake of the legendary Dario Argento 1977 horror classic of the same name will be very disappointed. Sure, there are a lot of elements in common with that film here.  But, as Guadagnino himself has said, this is more of an homage than a remake.

Susie (Johnson) is an American dancer, come to Berlin in 1977 to try out for a prestigious modern dance academy. The air in Berlin at the time is vibrant and terrifying; it is the era of the terrorism of the Baader-Meinhof gang, of the still-fresh scars of the Nazi regime, of the still-in-place Wall dividing the city and where David Bowie prowls around getting ready to record some of the most compelling work of his career.

The academy is cut off from all of that. Presided over by the icy Madame Blanc (Swinton), an acclaimed choreographer of modern dance who is preparing to present one of her most important postwar works, Volk and with her lead dancer, Patricia (Moretz) having had apparently a mental breakdown and disappeared, apparently into one of the radical groups floating around Berlin, Susie falls into that role. However, Patricia’s psychiatrist Dr. Klemperer (also played by Swinton, nearly unrecognizable under layers of latex and make-up) suspects that her delusions of magic and witchcraft are hiding something else just as sinister and goes about investigating her disappearance like an aging Ellery Queen.

Occasionally horror films come along with many layers designed to make you think and this is one of those films. It has polarized audiences and critics alike; there were several perfect scores given to the film on Metacritic and at least one zero. There is a definitely feminine viewpoint here; there are almost no male roles and the main one is played by a woman (Dr. Klemperer). The academy is a microcosm of divided Berlin, with two distinct camps – one led by Madame Blanc, the other by the equally mysterious Madame Markos (Swinton, again) with divergent points of view of how things ought to be run. The movie may be perceived to be feminist by some, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but the feminism is less overt than you might think. Female bodies are not ogled over here and the movie is virtually sexless other than a few odd comments here and there. However, there is no mistaking the stance the film takes on the violence (both physical and otherwise) forced upon women by society, and the objectification of them in general.

There is violence here and some of it is intense. There is a scene in which Susie is rehearsing a scene from the piece while in another room, her movements are visited upon a dancer who has fallen out of favor (Fokina) in nauseating extremes; bones crack, tendons rip, organs are perforated. The sequence goes on for awhile and may be found to be excessive or even unendurable for those who are sensitive to such things.

There are some real nice touches here. Thom Yorke’s score is absolutely superb, one of the best I’ve heard in quite a while. The production design is also quite impressive, diametrically opposed to the original film, eschewing the vibrant color palate of the 1977 film for a more muted, almost drab and cold look. It works nicely given the tone of the film. There is also a cameo by Jessica Harper, star of the 1977 film, as the psychiatrist’s wife near the end of the film that adds a touch of grace.

However, the 2018 version is almost exactly an hour longer than the original and I really can’t find a justification for it. It also begins to go off the rails a bit in the third act although I suspect that many who would be offended by the arthouse aspect of it might have switched off long before then. That would be a shame though; this is a movie that looks at the experience of being a woman in an unflinching and sometimes brutal manner; it’s the kind of movie I would expect that someone like Rose McGowan would make. And maybe, should.

REASONS TO SEE: Gorgeous set design. Thom Yorke’s autumnal score is incredible.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets a bit artsy-fartsy towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity and ritualistic violence including one death scene that is nauseatingly graphic, as well as some profanity including sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yorke becomes the third member of Radiohead to segue into film scoring, following Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Uninvited
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Toxic Beauty

The Witch


Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

Anya Taylor-Joy contemplates a role that might just kickstart her career.

(2015) Horror (A24) Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett, Julian Richings, Wahab Chaudhry (voice), Sarah Stephens, Jeff Smith, Ron G. Young, Derek Herd, Brooklyn Herd, Viv Moore, Madlen Sopadzhiyan. Directed by Robert Eggers

I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to make an exception; if you haven’t seen The Witch and are wondering if you should, the answer is yes you should. Don’t read another word – just go and see the movie and come back here and read this when you do. The less you know about what’s going to happen to you, the better.

There; I’m assuming most of you reading from here on out have already seen it, have no desire to see it or are choosing to ignore my warning. That’s on you then. The Witch is set on a farm on the edge of a dark sinister wood in New England in the year of our lord 1630 – and I’m not kidding when I say the year of our lord. For farmer William (Ineson) and his pious wife Katherine (Dickie), the Lord is ever present and watching over their every move, their every thought. Banished from the settlement because of some unspecified disagreement in terms of religious dogma – I got the sense that William and his family thought the Puritans were far too loose and relaxed about the worship of God and baby Jesus – they are forced to try and make it on their own with a few goats including an ornery ebony-hued one they call Black Philip – and crops of corn and whatever else they can grow.

But the crops are failing. The goat’s milk has turned to blood and worse yet the baby has disappeared literally right from under the nose of teen and eldest child Thomasin (Taylor-Joy).  Katherine is inconsolable and William stoically makes the best of things, taking son Caleb (Scrimshaw) hunting in the woods, or ordering the twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson) about. The twins speak to each other in a secret language only they understand and constantly annoy Thomasin, whom they won’t listen to. But then something else happens in the woods, something dark and sinister and the family begins to turn on itself, their faith tested to the breaking point. Here, on the edge of darkness, they will look into the abyss with trepidation.

I won’t say the horror film has been undergoing a renaissance in the last few years because clearly the overall quality of horror movies tends to be been there-done that to a large extreme, but there have been several movies that have come out that have really invigorated the genre. This is the latest, having won raves at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and only now getting released. It’s very much worth the wait, folks.

First-time feature director Eggers makes some impressive accomplishments, conjuring forth the world of the early colonial days and 17th century New England, from the English speech patterns down to the rude farming implements, the primitive living conditions and the homespun costumes. More importantly, he builds a creepy atmosphere that begins with unsettling events and moves into things far more sinister. The family dynamic changes as we watch with suspicion being dropped from one family member to another as accusations of witchcraft and deals with the devil begin to fly.

The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is top-notch. In fact, this may very well be the most beautifully shot horror film in history, which is saying a lot. The unsettling musical score by Mark Korven further enhances the mood particularly as the movie spirals deeper into its story. He utilizes a lot of unusual instrumentation, from Eastern European folk instruments to the hurdy-gurdy.

The actors are largely unknown, but there are some solid performances here. Anya Taylor-Joy is remarkable here, with an innocence about her that cracks from time to time; her expression in the very final scene simply takes the movie up another notch. Ineson is gruff and gritty as a farmer who knows he is incompetent at just about everything but chopping wood and his family is suffering from his inability. Dickie has the shrill look of a religious fanatic, neck veins bulging and eyes bugging out. She looks like someone who is wound far too tight and Katherine is definitely that. Finally, young Harvey Scrimshaw shows some incredible depth as young Caleb; hopefully he’ll appear in some big budget event films because he so has game for that kind of thing.

This is the first movie of the year that I think has a good chance to end up on my end of the year top ten list. It’s scary as all get out and has subtexts of religious intolerance, suspicion and family ties strained by adversity. It’s smart, well thought out and doesn’t waste an instant of it’s 90 minute running time. So yes, go out and see it if you already haven’t. Every horror film fan should be flocking to this one for sure.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderfully atmospheric. Really captures the feel of the era. A beautifully layered script. Some lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Takes awhile to build which may frustrate the impatient sorts.
FAMILY VALUES: Creepy atmosphere, some graphic nudity and violence as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were plans to use more of Black Philip (the goat) but because the animal proved to be not as well-trained as the filmmakers would have liked, those plans had to be scrapped.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blood on Satan’s Claw
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Last Rites of Joe May

Sleepy Hollow


Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

(1999) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Steven Waddington, Claire Skinner, Christopher Lee, Alun Armstrong, Mark Spalding, Jessica Oyelowo. Directed by Tim Burton

Whenever Tim Burton concocts a new movie, critics everywhere go into a lather coming up with new hosannas in praise of his stuff. Generally, they’re right. By the time his interpretation of the Washington Irving classic came out the paroxysms of praise had become almost scary in their effusiveness. Which was – and is – fine by me.

Sleepy Hollow, after all, is supposed to be scary. However, those bookish moviegoers who have actually read the Washington Irving story and still remember it may find the liberties taken here with the source material a bit off-putting.

Ichabod Crane (Crane) is a foppish New York City constable who has been a bit of a gadfly in the NYPD of 1799. While the judges of the period are content with brute force and intimidation to solve their crimes, Crane is all for using scientific method and deductive reasoning to come to the truth. For his troubles, he is exiled to a small Dutch community in the Hudson Valley called Sleepy Hollow to solve a trio of ghoulish murders.

It seems that several prominent citizens of the Hollow have lost their heads. The trouble is their quite dead torsos are rather upsetting to those townspeople who stumble upon them. When Crane arrives, he encounters the plucky young daughter (Ricci) of a local farmer (Gambon), who imparts the story of the Headless Horseman: A somewhat rabid, bloodthirsty Hessian mercenary (Walken in essentially a cameo but still perfectly cast role) meets a bitter end in the woods near Sleepy Hollow, betrayed by a pair of wood-gathering little girls. The townspeople, who include a self-righteous priest (Jones), a timid notary (Gough), a lusty doctor (McDiarmid), a brave and burly farmer (Van Dien) and a corpulent burgomaster (Griffith) are all of the belief that the Horseman is responsible for the unspeakable crimes. Crane, of course, believes that the murderer is flesh and blood.

The game changes when Crane personally witnesses a murder, sending his faith in science and reason spinning into doubt. Unfortunately for the movie, he resolves this rather quickly; I thought it would have made for an interesting subplot to see Crane struggling between the evidence of his senses and his own rationality. Instead,  Crane and the plucky young farmer’s daughter go on a ghoul hunt, with all the violence, gore and spookiness that goes with it.

There are a lot of fairly impressive names behind the camera including Francis Ford Coppola, Larry Franco, Scott Rudin and Kevin Yagher, with Danny Elfman producing a suitably spooky score. While many of Burton’s key personnel are also in place, this seems less of a typical Tim Burton movie and more of a mainstream action/horror flick. There are a lot of missed opportunities here to bring some credible subplots into play that wouldn’t burden the plot as much as the ones that writers Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker decided to leave in.

Burton is wise enough to leave enough atmosphere in to make for some genuinely creepy moments, but his leitmotif of announcing the Horseman’s presence with lightning and thunder effects is a bit over-the-top. Depp makes an interesting Crane, retaining much of the bumbling fright of Irving’s Crane while giving him a heroic bent for the modern moviegoing audience to identify with. Ricci is lustrous in her ingénue role.

There’s some great work in Sleepy Hollow, enough that you’ll be talking about it well after the final credits have concluded. However, with a bit more of Burton and a bit less of Hollywood, this would have been a much more hellacious ride.

WHY RENT THIS: Tim Burton loveliness. Deep and Ricci make a fine couple. Genuinely spooky.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit more mainstream than we’re used to with Burton. Over-the-top in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: The horror, gore and violence is fairly graphic. There’s some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was one of the last two films released on Laser Disc (the other was Bringing Out the Dead).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $206.1M on a $100M production budget; the movie broke even during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: World War Z

Beautiful Creatures


Now THAT'S a bad case of dandruff!

Now THAT’S a bad case of dandruff!

(2012) Romance (Warner Brothers) Alden Ehrenreich, Alice Englert, Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, Viola Davis, Emmy Rossum, Thomas Mann, Eileen Atkins, Margo Martindale, Zoey Deutch, Tiffany Boone, Rachel Brosnahan, Kyle Gallner, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Cindy Hogan. Directed by Richard LaGravenese

There is a special magic in the South. The mist that gathers on warm summer nights, the cicadas whispering their lovely song, the kudzu climbing up the crumbling antebellum facades of mansions of faded glory, the ghosts that live there dancing in musty ballrooms to forgotten tunes.

Gatlin, South Carolina, dwells in that magic. Located conveniently close to a Civil War battlefield whose glories get re-enacted every 21st of December, Gatlin is in many ways a town that time forgot. Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich) would very much like to forget Gatlin and put it in his rearview mirror. His mother died in a car accident not that long ago and his father never leaves his bedroom. Town librarian Amma (Davis) who was also his mom’s best friend looks after him mostly.

As the school year begins, Ethan – a popular athlete who also has a pretty good mind, preferring to read books by Henry Miller and Kurt Vonnegut rather than play videogames and surf the Internet as most boys his age are prone to doing, finds that his girlfriend Emily (Deutch) – who gave him the summer to grieve for his mom – is no longer as interesting and attractive to him, despite her obvious physical charms. Like Gatlin itself, her mind is small and narrow.

The new girl, however, is a different story. Lena Duchannes (Englert) is the niece of town recluse Macon Ravenwood (Irons) whose family founded Gatlin. Macon has little to do with the good people of Gatlin and the good people of Gatlin kind of prefer it that way since as the whispers go, the Ravenwood family are a bunch of Satan worshippers and being smack dab in the Bible belt, the citizens of Gatlin are God-fearin’ Christian sorts.

Despite the scorn heaped Lena’s way, Ethan finds her irresistible; she reads the poetry of Charles Bukowski, has a quick wit and a keen intellect and seems uninterested in being popular. Despite her initial resistance, Ethan’s charms and earnest affections begin to break down her misgivings.

But those misgivings are well-placed. Lena really is different. You see she’s a witch – pardon me, they prefer the term casters, as in spell-casters. As her 16th birthday approaches, her soul will be claimed by the dark side or the light. Unlike male casters who choose which team they’re going to play on, female casters have no choice. They’re either a good witch or a bad witch…..er, caster. Glinda the Good in other words couldn’t have been bad if she wanted to.

Macon is anxious for Lena to join Team Goodness. Coaching the other side is Macon’s sister Sarafine (Thompson) who like many dark casters no longer has a corporeal body of her own; she inhabits the body of a Bible thumping church lady who happens to be the mother of Ethan’s best friend Link (Mann). Sarafine also calls upon Lena’s cousin and former best friend Ridley (Rossum) to help sway her to the dark side of the Force….er, casting.

But Sarafine has a secret weapon which she doesn’t even have to threaten with. There’s a curse on the loose invoked 150 years previously during a civil war battle that will tip the scales on the side of the dark no matter what. Lena, with the assistance of Ethan and Amma, must find a way to break the curse or on December 21st – Lena’s birthday coincidentally enough – the world as we know it may very well come to an end. But when they do find a way, it may be more than Lena can bear.

This is based on a young adult series by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl and there’s no doubt Warners  is hoping to establish a franchise to fill the void left by the departure of the Twilight series to whose army of pre-teen and teenage girls this seems to be aimed squarely at. While the roles are reversed (the male is the human and the female is the one with the powers), the star-crossed quality of the romance will reverberate with those young girls.

Ehrenreich seems a likable enough sort but he’s no Robert Pattinson nor is he a Taylor Lautner. While he’s a handsome young dude, he doesn’t have that brooding wounded quality that young girls flock to and he has a natural advantage – the grief over his mom’s passing would be like catnip to most women who’d be moved to mother him but for some odd reason they really push that aspect of his personality into the background.

My problem is that they choose to make Ethan kind of a stereotype, a cross between Rhett Butler and Larry the Cable Guy. Ethan is far too aww shucks and not enough oh wow. He’s polite and courtly but with a big hunk of redneck served in. The down home country aphorisms don’t really jive with the intellectual posturing; he reads a lot of books but doesn’t seem to be changed by them. Ehrenreich seems a likable actor but this is a part that I’m not sure any actor could salvage.

And that’s a shame because Lena is a lovely role and Englert does a nice job with her. All the brooding that Ethan lacks Lena has in droves. Like most teens, she is aware of changes in her body and she knows those changes are inevitable and irrevocable. What she doesn’t know is how those changes will change her and the thought terrifies her. Englert does a nice job of capturing all those conflicting emotions – her love for Ethan, her fear of hurting him, her terror that she may not be the person she thinks herself to be or the person she wants to be. With a more worthy male role, this would have been a superb film.

Supporting them, Irons and Thompson particularly chew scenery with great gusto. Thompson channels Agnes Moorhead from the old Bewitched television show and is gleeful in her wickedness, although she considers herself honest about who she is. Irons lends gravitas and a bit of jolly good bonhomie in bringing the reclusive but effusive Macon to life.

Viola Davis is a brilliant actress who in the last five years has been as good as any actress in Hollywood, but this is a role that she could do in her sleep. While she gives Amma a maternal quality that blends nicely with her spirited willingness to stand up to Macon and to other casters in the community, Davis adds a dignity that makes the part a bit more memorable than it might have been in lesser hands. Even so, one gets the sense that Davis was hoping for a steady paycheck out of this more than a career enhancer.

LaGravenese chose to go with practical effects more than CGI (although there is some of that here) and while some of the spellcasting resembles films like Dark Shadows and Beetle Juice in tone, there are some pretty nifty moments in terms of the effects.

I can respect a film that wants to appeal to a specific audience and I have no problem with films being aimed at preteen and teenage girls (as well as their moms). I personally have no problem with the Twilight franchise other than I thought that the movies could have been better. In fact this movie is better but will probably not get embraced by that same audience in quite the same way. The rainy splendor of the Pacific Northwest is a lot hipper than the Tennessee Williams-esque gothic forests of the South.

One thing that the Twilight series is more adept at than this film is capturing the high school experience. At least there you get a sense of real kids in school; not so much here. However, I also must admit I like the caster mythology a bit better than that of vampires and werewolves established by Stephenie Meyer.

The box office for this film is unlikely to set studio execs rubberstamping a green light for the sequel, but there may yet be a future for the franchise. The numbers are pretty anemic right now however and unlikely to get any better unless it strikes a chord on the global market. That’s a shame because with the lovely cinematography, some fine performances and a genuinely fine Southern Gothic feel, this has a lot going for it.

REASONS TO GO: Nice Southern Gothic feel. Irons, Thompson and Davis are tremendous.

REASONS TO STAY: A very strange chemistry between the leads doesn’t always work. Turns Gatlin into a Southern-fried Pleasantville.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few frightening images for the younger kids, a bit of supernatural violence and some sensuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Ethan fumbles while reciting Charles Bukowski’s poetry to Lena was actually actor Alden Ehrenreich flubbing his lines to Alice Englert’s amusement. Director LaGravenese found the scene to be charming and natural and liked the idea of a Romeo getting the lines of poetry wrong for his Juliet so the goofed up scene was left in although in every other take Ehrenreich got his lines right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100. The reviews are truly mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twilight

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: A Good Day to Die Hard

Season of the Witch


Season of the Witch

Oh, those kinky Catholics!

(2011) Supernatural Action (Relativity) Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Robert Sheehan, Ulrich Thomsen, Christopher Lee, Stephen Graham, Rory McCann. Directed by Dominic Sena

In a land ruled by fear, decimated by plague and depleted by war, innocence and guilt can be more of a matter of political expedience. Fingers, looking for blame to point at, may choose the most convenient target.

Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Perlman) are medieval knights, pledged to the service of the Church in the Crusades of the 13th century. For a dozen years, they labor in the Lord’s army, smiting down the infidels and butchering the soldiers of God’s enemies. When they are ordered to put an entire city to the sword, butchering innocent women and children, Behmen balks.  He rejects his oath and deserts from the army, his faithful pal Felson walking off with him.

They return to Europe to find it in the grip of the Black Plague, victims rotting in their beds. They ride into a town to purchase horses and supplies but they are recognized – apparently word travels fast in Medieval Europe – and arrested. In order to avoid execution, they agree to transport an accused witch (Foy) to a remote abbey where the last copy of the Key of Solomon, a document containing all the spells meant to exorcise demons and destroy witches, resides.

They will be accompanied by Debalzaq (Moore), a zealous priest and Eckhart (Thomsen), a grieving knight whose entire family (including his beloved daughter Mila) had been taken by the plague. They also recruit Hagamar (Graham), a swindler who is the only one who knows the way to the abbey. Behmen, weary of killing the innocent, agrees to go on the condition the girl gets a fair trial at the abbey and is not just summarily executed.

Along the way they’ll deal with escape attempts, a precarious bridge, a wolf-infested forest and things that go bump in the night. The journey is so perilous and things go wrong so coincidentally that it’s not a coincidence even Behmen wonders if the girl may not actually be a witch. 

This movie was a victim of MGM’s financial difficulties passing from studio to studio, release date to release date. It’s actually been in the can for two years but only just saw the light of day as the first wide release of 2011, which may sound like an honor but is generally bad news for a movie; usually the first weekend of the year is absolute death for a new release, competing against the big releases over the Christmas week.

I think that some of the critics who saw this were predisposed to disliking the film given its checkered past. It’s gotten really horrible reviews and I found some of the criticism unfair. Quite frankly, this is an action movie with horror overtones that’s not meant to be a serious study of life during the Black Plague; it’s supposed to be fun and mindless, and boy does it succeed in that regard.

Nicolas Cage has taken his lumps as an actor of late, and he has taken his lumps for this performance. He underplays the role big time, leaving his over-the-top twitchiness which he often employs at home. Behmen is terse and all business; it’s perfect for what the role requires.

I’ve always liked Ron Perlman. He’s great not only in the Hellboy movies but in virtually every role he assays, going back to his “Beauty and the Beast” days. He has enormous presence and he can take over a movie without thinking about it. Here, he acts as a great foil to Cage and they play nicely off of one another. It’s a bit of a buddy movie in that regard. 

Graham, who was recently seen as Capone in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” is fine in a small role. Foy mostly gets to cower although she has a few moments where she displays her considerable sexuality. However, of all the backing players Moore is the most memorable, walking a fine line of the character’s dogmatic devotion to the Church and his desire to be a caring prelate. Christopher Lee is unrecognizable in a brief cameo as a cardinal stricken by the plague – that’s him on the bed in the photo above.

The action sequences are fairly well-done, although the battle sequences from the Crusades at the movie’s beginning are almost all filmed with hand-held cameras which is annoying as all get-out. There are a number of battles placed back-to-back with minimal differences, which drag on far too long. The point could easily have been made with a single sequence and a few lines of dialogue.

Most of the special effects are practical make-up effects until near the end. The climactic battle is well done, and the shots of plague victims are stomach-churning but in a good way. While the vistas are meant to portray a dying land, the Austrian Alps are far too beautiful to have their majesty hidden by mud for too long. It isn’t what I’d call grand sweeping cinematography but it suffices.

This really isn’t a bad movie at all. There are far worse movies out there wrestling for your entertainment dollar but the horror aspects might be putting off a certain segment of the audience while the medieval fantasy elements put off another. It’s a tough sell, but at the end of the day, it succeeds in entertaining and you can’t really ask for more from a movie than that.

REASONS TO GO: Decent special effects and solid performances by Cage, Perlman and Moore made this a better movie than I expected.

REASONS TO STAY: Too many battle sequences in shaky-cam style and a few action film clichés submarine what could have been a really strong movie.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of violence and some disturbing horror imagery. In addition, there’s some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Key of Solomon is an actual work, a grimoire attributed to the biblical king but more likely first produced during the Italian Renaissance. Several editions exist today.  

HOME OR THEATER: While a few of the scenes are definitely better on a big screen, the movie works just as effectively on the small.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Quarantine

Rosemary’s Baby


Rosemary's Baby
And baby makes three.

(Paramount) Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Bellamy, Maurice Evans, Angela Dorian, Elisha Cook Jr., Patsy Kelly, Charles Grodin. Directed by Roman Polanski

The trouble with evil is that it is unpredictable. There are rarely situations in which you can point to something and say “that’s evil” and avoid it; sometimes evil emerges from subtle and unassuming sources – even things that we would normally consider good.

Guy Woodhouse (Cassavetes) is a struggling actor living in New York. He and his wife Rosemary (Farrow) are looking for an apartment that is bigger than the one they live in because they are planning to have a family soon. They find the Bramford on Central Park, a tony address and find the perfect apartment with a gorgeous view that had just become available.

While many of the residents of the Bramford are elderly, Rosemary still has friends from her previous life, none closer than Hutch (Evans), a writer of children’s books. While Rosemary paints and decorates her new apartment, she does meet one young lady, Terry (Dorian), an ex-drug addict who has been taken in as a ward by a couple that lives next door – Roman (Blackmer) and Minnie Castevet (Gordon).

Shortly after that, Terry commits suicide and the Castevets and Woodhouses meet for the first time. The Castevets invite their new neighbors over for dinner afterwards when Rosemary speaks kindly to Minnie about their recently deceased ward. Guy is reluctant at first – he’s just lost out on a plum role to another actor – but he relents and he actually winds up enjoying the company of the much-travelled Roman and his busybody wife.

Despite Guy’s career shortcomings, he and Rosemary decide it’s the right time to get pregnant. Minnie brings over a chocolate mousse that seems tasty but winds up knocking Rosemary out. She has a strange dream afterward of being raped by a beast-like demon. Soon after that, she discovers that she’s pregnant. Her obstetrician, Dr. Hill (Grodin) puts her on vitamins but Minnie won’t hear of it. She’s close with Dr. Abe Saperstein (Bellamy), one of the best-known obstetricians in New York if not the world. She arranges for Rosemary to be one of his patients.

Although Rosemary is suffering from a weird, constant pain, Dr. Saperstein tells her that it’s normal and refuses to prescribe anything for it. In the meantime, the actor that had gotten the part Guy wanted had mysteriously gone blind and the part was now Guy’s. It turns out to be precisely the break Guy was looking for.

Rosemary and Guy are deliriously happy, but all isn’t as it seems, particularly those who seem the friendliest towards them. A monstrous conspiracy is afoot and Rosemary becomes paranoid, particularly when people she knows begin to die off mysteriously. Soon she realizes that she’s alone against a powerful evil, one that wants her unborn baby – but for what purpose?

This is a classic of the horror genre, and in many ways it’s not even a horror movie. Director Polanski, for whom this was his first American film, creates an atmosphere of growing menace that becomes so palpable even the viewer at home gets caught up in it. There isn’t much gore (mostly seen in the death of Terry) and all the violence happens off-screen for the most part (even the rape is more suggested than seen) but still you’re given a firm grasp of the evil surrounding Rosemary and find yourself immersed in her struggle to escape it.

The movie was based on a noted bestseller by Ira Levin which I’ve actually read – the movie follows it nearly word for word (legend has it that because Polanski had never adapted another work for the screen before, he didn’t realize that he could make changes of his own). As the movie progresses, the outcome seems inevitable but still there’s a twist at the end that back in 1968 when the movie was released took audiences completely by surprise – most modern audiences however are aware of the twist simply because it has been so widely associated with the movie since then. That’s a shame because the movie works much better if you aren’t aware how it ends.

Even so, the movie’s main weapon is Farrow. Her performance as Rosemary is so ordinary, so naïve but so completely believable that she nails Polanski and Levin’s vision of Rosemary as the Girl Next Door caught up in a horror greater than she can imagine. By the time she realizes what’s going on, it’s far too late.

Gordon and Blackmer also give fine supporting performances as the Castevets; they have the right attitude to be the consummate New York elderly busybody couple, Gordon’s accent almost Yiddish in places. While the characters are certainly products of their time, they still manage to give off no menace other than in underlying ways that when you look back at the movie, you realize they were creepy all along and you just didn’t realize it. It’s amazing work by any standard.

While this movie is well over forty years old, it has held up well. I watched it again the other night while Da Queen lay sleeping (she finds horror movies too disturbing) and realized that if it had been released last Friday, it would still be just as effective today as it was back then. Horror movies rarely get any better than this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Polanski creates a mood so creepy and troubling that the viewer feels the whole time that something is completely wrong.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There is little gore and only a few scenes of outright horror which may not meet the standards of modern horror fans.

FAMILY VALUES: While relatively tame by our standards, it does depict a rape and there is a good deal of talk about female pregnancy as well as a good deal of smoking and drinking. There is also some female nudity. While it received an R rating at the time of its release, I would think that it would be adequate viewing for most mature teenagers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice on the phone of the actor who had gone blind, clearing the way for Guy to get the part was an uncredited Tony Curtis. Farrow was unaware who she was talking to, although she recognized the voice she couldn’t place the name. Also, the movie was filmed at the Dakota, the apartment complex on Central Park later made infamous by being the location where John Lennon was murdered.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The pickings are rather slim. There’s an interesting retro interview with Polanski, producer Robert Evans and production designer Richard Sylbert. There is also an original making-of feature that is fascinating as a historical artifact.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Secretariat