The Monster (2016)


It was a dark and stormy night...

It was a dark and stormy night…

(2016) Horror (A24) Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Scott Speedman, Aaron Douglas, Chris Webb, Marc Hickox, Christine Ebadi. Directed by Bryan Bertino

 

The things that scare us are often those that hide in the shadows, that dwell in the dark but they aren’t always the most dangerous things. Sometimes what is most threatening is that which is right in front of us.

Lizzie (Ballentine) is entering her teen years with a bigger burden than most. Her mother Kathy (Kazan) is a raging alcoholic with appropriately awful taste in men. Lizzie yearns for a normal life but that is not likely to happen with Kathy who is far from a candidate for the Mother of the Year award. Lizzie just wants Kathy to drop her off at school so she can appear in the school play but the two get into a massive fight which ends up with Kathy essentially telling her daughter to go straight to Hell.

The two simply can’t co-exist any longer so Kathy decides to take Lizzie to live with her father (Speedman) who may or may not be much better, but whatever – Kathy is going to take her daughter in the middle of a rainy night through a lonely wooded road. When a wolf runs out into the road, Kathy spins out the car and wrecks it. However, thank goodness there is a cell signal and she calls for an ambulance and a tow truck.

When the two ladies investigate, they realize that the wolf was in the process of being eaten before they hit it. And when the tow truck driver (Douglas) arrives, it soon becomes crystal clear that they’re being stalked by something that is not anything anyone has ever seen before but there is one thing that is absolutely for certain about it – it’s hungry.

There is room here for a really nifty horror film but unfortunately we don’t get it. The constant bickering between Lizzie and Kathy gets irritating after awhile. Also the backstory is largely told through flashbacks which have a tendency to stop the movie dead in its tracks and interrupt the goings on. These also get irritating after awhile.

Kazan has a very youthful face which is perfect for this role; she barely looks old enough to have graduated from high school herself. She has a pretty thankless role; Kathy isn’t what you’d call admirable although when push comes to shove, she finally reacts like an actual mother but most of the movie tells us that she isn’t really much of a mother to begin with. Why she suddenly becomes one doesn’t feel very organic to me.

There are a lot of things that I call horror movie shortcuts; actions taken by the characters that defy logic. Even when panicked, most people aren’t going to continually venture past the streetlight that seems to be their only protection just to see what’s going on. However, the women’s actions serve to advance the plot but not necessarily the characters. That is some lazy writing right there.

The creature effects are nifty (and non-CGI, refreshing in this day and age) and the filmmakers wisely choose not to reveal too much about the monster. They are undoubtedly familiar with the adage that the imagination is far scarier than anything any filmmaker can come up with in general and the filmmakers use that to their advantage.

There are a few moments here and there that are generally scary and the dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamic might have made for an interesting background for the film, but in the end it’s just another monster hunt and not a particularly innovative one. Generally, I’d wait on this until it becomes available at a bargain streaming fee, or on a service you already subscribe to. It’s nothing to seek out intentionally though.

REASONS TO GO: The creature work is pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic and realism spoil the plot. The mother-daughter bickering eventually got on my nerves. The flashbacks are rather intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a surfeit of profanity as well as some violence and bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was previously titled There Are Monsters.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cujo
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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Pete’s Dragon (2016)


A boy and his dragon.

A boy and his dragon.

(2016) Family (Disney) Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, Francis Biggs, Jasper Putt, Esmée Myers, Gareth Reeves, Levi Alexander, Jim McLarty, Annabelle Malaika Suess. Directed by David Lowery

 

In old maps, when depicting areas that had yet to be explored it was often noted “Here there be dragons.” It was a means of keeping those who might venture into parts unknown and claiming it for themselves; in this way certain governments were able to explore at their leisure. Of course, there are those who are quite sure that there really were dragons in these unexplored places.

A five year old boy named Pete (Alexander) is riding in the back of the car with his favorite book and his mom (Myers) and Dad (Reeves) up front. They are on a road that goes deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest but while they’re in the middle of nowhere they get in an accident and suddenly Pete is alone, surrounded by danger. However, as it turns out, he’s not alone.

Some years later an older Pete (Fegley) is discovered in the woods by loggers and a pretty park Ranger named Grace (Howard). Her father (Redford) is a bit of the town eccentric, with his tales of finding dragons out in the woods. Most people look on him as a bit of a tale-teller but essentially harmless. She has a pretty decent life; her boyfriend Jack (Bentley) runs a logging company with his more aggressive brother Gavin (Urban) and she and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Laurence) have a very close relationship.

Now she adds Pete to the mix and soon as they discover the identity of the mystery child the question becomes “How did he survive on his own for so long?”  Pretty soon it becomes clear that he wasn’t exactly on his own and that his friend was in fact the same dragon that Grace’s dad has been telling tales about all these years – it’s just nobody ever believed that they were true. Now that they are, there are those who would exploit the dragon – whom Pete has named Elliott after the dog in his favorite book – and those who would separate Pete from those he has grown to love. Pete and Elliott must be stronger than ever if they are to get through this.

First things first; this isn’t a remake of the 1977 version of the film. This is a complete reimagining. The only real similarities is that there is a boy named Pete, he has a dragon named Elliott who can make himself invisible and that Pete is an orphan – Disney loves orphans if you haven’t noticed. In any case, the ’77 film is a musical set in a coastal town in Maine around the turn of the 20th century, this one has no music except for a collection of folk singers Lowery has gotten together to make up the soundtrack (as opposed to Helen Reddy who was the female lead of the first movie) and is set in modern times. The tone is also very different between both films.

The first film was also definitely a kid’s movie. This one is too ostensibly and your kids will enjoy it, particularly the shaggy green furry dragon Elliott who has a bit of the Great Dane about him. However, there is a lot more going on than just a kid outwitting simple-minded adults – which isn’t really happening here at all. Instead, this is a boy who has been visited by tragedy, who has made his way the best he can and forges the bonds of friendship that can’t be broken. The relationships are believable and the acting pretty natural. I’m thinking someone the stature of Robert Redford wouldn’t have gotten involved otherwise.

While Urban is the ostensible villain, he isn’t really a bad guy, just a weak one and he does come around near the end; Urban has become quite a good actor since his time in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bentley, a fine actor in his own right, is wasted a bit in a nondescript role that gets absolutely no development whatsoever. Howard comes off best as the maternal and compassionate ranger. Fegley and Laurence, around whom most of the film revolve, are at least not annoying even as they in the middle of the movie begin to act like Disney heroes – doing unbelievably dumb and dangerous things that should get them killed but instead makes them heroic. I’ve always thought that teaching a kid to do the right thing shouldn’t necessarily involve teaching a kid to do the dangerous thing. Fortunately, I’ve not heard of a ton of kids getting themselves hurt or killed while trying to save the day in real life.

Like most Disney movies, there’s a tendency to bring on the sentiment and it can be quite cloying from time to time. Despite Lowery’s best efforts, there are a few cliché moments expressed in the film particularly near the end. The price to pay for using a Disney property I imagine. I would also imagine that here at Disney World, you’ll be seeing Elliott making appearances at the Wilderness Lodge in some form.

Hollywood often treats kids like morons, dumbing down their films aimed at kids which are in reality more or less excuses for merchandising rather than being entertaining and even educational films for entire families. When the parents go with them to see those sorts of movies, it can be an excruciating experience for the parents in particular. That won’t happen here; this is the kind of movie that parents can enjoy as much if not more than their kids. It’s the kind of family movie that you’d want to bring your family to more than once. It’s quite possible that the parents may end up liking the movie more than their kids do.

REASONS TO GO: A refreshing movie that doesn’t talk down to kids and is easily palatable for adults.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a tendency to over-sentimentalize.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some peril (of a child) as well as action sequences and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Redford rescued an abandoned horse on the second day of filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dragonheart
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The People Garden

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

Cub (Welp)


I am NOT Groot!

I am NOT Groot!

(2014) Horror (Artsploitation) Maurice Luijten, Evelien Bosmans, Titus de Voogdt, Stef Aerts, Jan Hammenecker, Gil Eeckelaert, Noa Tambwe Kabati, Ricko Otto, Louis Lemmens, Thomas de Smet, Pieter De Brabandere, Jessie Tweepenninckx, Isah de Zutter, Hauke Geimaert, Ebe Meynckens, Ymanol Perset, Nabil Missoumi, Jean-Michel Balthazar. Directed by Jonas Govaerts

What could be more natural than a bunch of young boys, scouts in fact, camping in the woods? It’s one of the rites of boyhood throughout the world. Of course, the boys are supervised by a pair of scout leaders and a den mother, but still, there’s something liberating about ghost stories of werewolves and monsters in the woods in the dead of night. But what if the monsters are real?

Kris (de Voogdt) and Peter (Aerts) – the later of which goes by the name of Baloo – are the said scout leaders. Jasmijn (Bosmans) is the den mother/camp cook/Peter’s girlfriend. Among the boys are David (Kabati), the troop leader and Dries (Lemmens), the timid bespectacled boy who is bullied by the bigger ones. And then there’s Sam (Luijten).

Sam, who has had a difficult childhood, has been bullied by all the others all his life. He has seized upon the camp leaders’ tale of Kai, the werewolf and is looking high and low for the feral boy, even though the tale is just a legend. Then Sam finds Kai (Eeckelaert). Of course, nobody believes him; Sam has been known to tell a tall tale or two throughout his life. This time, though, he’s not fibbing. He runs into a feral boy who wears a wooden mask, giving him a kind of primeval feel. He looks awfully scary at least.

It turns out that when the local school bus factory was shut down, there was a rash of deaths in the woods. Most of the local townsfolk like the go-kart riding delinquents Vincent (Perset) and Marc (Missoumi) are uncomfortable going into those woods. There are traps set all over the woods, some of them lethal. Someone is watching them…all of them and what they don’t know is that they’ve blundered into the territory of a madman who will see all of them dead – no matter how young.

This indie horror opus hails from Belgium and gives us a little bit of insight into  Belgian life. I was unaware that there was that much antipathy between the French and Flemish communities, but I suppose that ill feelings for those not belonging to the same group as you is pretty much universal.

It is also pretty much universal that the woods are a beautiful place and the cinematography here is nice and lush. It really is a pretty looking film, despite the fairly significant amount of gore. One doesn’t always find decent camera work in an indie horror film, so when there is a movie that has some you can’t help but be grateful for it.

I also liked the score, which is organ heavy and reminded me of the Goblin-scored giallo films of the 70s, which for a horror buff like myself brought back some pleasant memories; less experienced horror buffs may feel less nostalgic about it.

Most of the attention here centers on the three adults – or teens, which would probably be more accurate, and on Sam. The rest of the kids get little screen time, which is probably wise; good child actors are hard to find. However, Luijten is a find. He plays the timid, put-upon bullying victim, but he’s also stone cold at times. He shows some impressive acting range and I wouldn’t mind seeing him in more films someday.

In many ways, this is a bit of a throwback sort of horror piece; while there are a few too many camping-in-the-woods horror cliches here, for the most part this compares favorably with movies of the 70s and 80s that could be called the golden age of slasher films. There are some clever traps here, including one involving a beehive and a bow and arrow, that make the death scenes less rote than other, less imaginative films have given us.

While there are some hints of sexuality here, there really isn’t a lot that is overt; I think the movie would have benefited from less subtlety in that department. Also, we don’t really get a good deal of background about Sam and why he is the way he is and I think a little bit more explanation would have been helpful as well. Still, these are quibbles and this is quite impressive, not just for a first-time director on a micro-budget but for anybody. This has made some appearances on the festival circuit here on the states and is fixing to get released on DVD and Blu-Ray here on August 18. This isn’t a game-changer but it is a well-made horror movie in a sub-genre that is fairly crowded, but it acquits itself pretty well by comparison. Definitely recommended.

WHY RENT THIS: Nicely executed. Some clever traps.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many kids in the woods horror tropes. Some character background might have been nice.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of gore and images of terror, children in peril, foul language and a smidgen of sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scouts camp near a village called Casselroque, a sly reference to Castle Rock where Stephen King set many of his stories.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition includes a music video and a short film; both editions feature an SFX reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental only), Amazon, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Friday the 13th
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Brighton Rock

Psychosis


Charisma Carpenter having deep thoughts.

Charisma Carpenter having deep thoughts.

(2010) Horror (EntertainmentOne) Charisma Carpenter, Paul Sculfor, Ricci Harnett, Justin Hawkins, Ty Glaser, Bernard Kay, Richard Raynesford, Sean Chapman, Katrena Rochell, Tom Gaughan, Darren Bransford, Slaine Kelly, Josh Myers, Sarah Briggs, Alexander Ellis, Eileen Pollock, Sybille Gebhardt, Axelle Carolyn, Raven Isis Holt. Directed by Reg Traviss

6 Days of Darkness 2013

Let’s face it: the sooner we admit we don’t understand everything and that the world can’t always be easily explained, the better off we’ll be. There are things we don’t get, and perhaps we never will. The human mind, for example, might just be foremost among them.

Susan Golden (Carpenter) is an author who had a nervous breakdown not long ago but has left the care of her doctor and has been pronounced fit to rejoin society. She’s eager to resume her writing career but has hit a massive case of writer’s block. So what does she do? She and her husband David (Sculfor) find a spooky Victorian mansion in Middleofnowhereshire, England.

Soon she’s hearing noises and seeing a phantom soccer-playing kid on the lawn. The locals think she’s batty and to make things worse, David has become bored with her and is gallivanting around with pretty much any woman in town who’s willing – and there are apparently plenty that are.

She’s also seeing visions of horrific murders happening to people around her that come horrifyingly true. So what’s going on? Is there something sinister going on, maybe even supernatural? After all, there’s an entire prologue in which a group of tree-hugging hippies thousands of miles away get slaughtered by a serial killer in a seemingly random and unrelated incident. Or, has Susan lost it again, only this time with a homicidal edge to her madness? And of course there’s always option number three – Susan is being manipulated by someone with wicked intentions.

I remember Carpenter from the Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel TV shows and she had so much promise. Beautiful and an accomplished actress, the world appeared to be her oyster. Sadly, things haven’t turned out the way I expected. She mostly appears in essentially cameo roles that trade in on her Buffy name value, and occasionally turns up in things like this.

She appears to be just going through the motions here. I’m not sure whether she thinks that “former mental patient” means “emotionally shut off” but I have to tell you – she just doesn’t give the audience much to get behind as plucky heroines go. However, she doesn’t have a terrible amount of support from the rest of the cast either. You wonder if someone sprinkled Valium on all the food from craft services.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some moments with decent scares. The slasher film prologue is actually quite good – I kind of wished they’d followed that road but instead they chose to go the moody psychological horror route and while there is nothing wrong with the latter genre, they just don’t do it as well in this instance.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fairly decent scares.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Prologue looks like it came from an entirely different movie. Wooden acting and stale plot lines.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of sexuality and nudity, some gore and violence and a lot of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a remake of the horror short Dreamhouse which was released as a feature along with two other shorts and a linking story as Screamtime in 1986.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Innocents

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Day 2 of Six Days of Darkness 2013!

Dog Soldiers


Dog Soldiers

Never wolf down your food.

(2002) Horror (Artisan) Sean Pertwee, Kevin McKidd, Emma Cleasby, Liam Cunningham, Thomas Lockyer, Darren Morfitt, Chris Robson, Leslie Simpson, Tina Landini, Craig Conway, Bryn Walters, Brian Claxton Payne, Ben Wright. Directed by Neil Marshall

 

If you were in the woods far away from civilization, where would the safest place to be? You would think among a troop of soldiers on training exercises. There are some things though an entire army wouldn’t even be able to protect you from.

Private Cooper (McKidd) looks to join the elite SAS unit and looks to have the skills to do it. However when he is ordered to kill a dog, he refuses. The commanding officer, Captain Ryan (Cunningham) shoots the dog himself and sends Cooper back to his unit.

A month later, Cooper’s squad, commanded by Sgt. Wells (Pertwee), is dropped into the Scottish highlands for training exercises. They’re supposed to attack a squad of SAS commandos but when they reach their encampment, the place has been torn to shreds. There are no bodies but plenty of bodies and bits of flesh and organ strew about. It looks like the scene of a massacre. There is just one survivor – Captain Ryan, who is grievously wounded and keeps muttering “there was only supposed to be one.”

Right about then the soldiers are attacked by unknown assailants. Corporal Bruce Campbell (Lockyer) is impaled on a tree branch and the rest of the squad make their way to an abandoned farmhouse with the help of a zoologist they encounter on the road, Maggie (Cleasby). They hole up there, thinking if they can hold out until morning the werewolves will revert to human form and they’d be safe.

Soon it appears that won’t be happening. One of the soldiers, Private Terry Milburn (Simpson) is abducted and their ammo is running low. It becomes obvious that they will need to find a way to escape before dawn or they just won’t survive.

Marshall has crafted an old-school kind of werewolf movie that eschews CGI for practical effects and with a script clever in its references to all sorts of movies, from Zulu to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to Night of the Living Dead. That sounds like a bit of a mishmash (and it is in a way) but it actually works really well. The movie has a clever sense of humor that is going to appeal to not just the fanboy but the casual horror fan as well.

Marshall apparently has a pretty good sense of how military units operate – he’s gotten praise for getting that aspect right. He also has a good sense of how soldiers talk – not like cliché machines but with a wide swagger, a hefty dose of macho but also a sense of precision. Military units thrive on precise communications; they would be pretty unsuccessful if they weren’t efficient that way.

The movie was produced on the cheap; in that sense from time to time the lack of a budget shows through although for the most part the movie looks more expensive than it was. The cast is solid and talented (although Jason Statham was offered a part in the movie he had to decline to commitments to other films) and gets the military jargon down, not to mention the swagger. There are a few twists and turns (although you should be able to guess what the “mission” of the SAS really was, what the significance of the farmhouse is and what the secret of the werewolf clan is) and even better, plenty of visceral thrills to deliver the discerning horror film fan to hog heaven.

The movie failed to get theatrical distribution in the United States as distributors labeled it as “too British” which just goes to show you how stupid distributors can be (just check the box office receipts for Shaun of the Dead if you don’t believe me). It was initially shown on the SyFy Channel (and it still turns up on cable regularly) before getting a home video release, including a bare-bones Blu-Ray release a couple of years ago. That’s a shame; I think someday this will be recognized as a classic in the genre and given the respect and treatment it deserves. Until then, it can be our little hidden gem.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best werewolf films of recent years. Practical-effect werewolves rock. Reminiscent of Evil Dead and An American Werewolf in London in tone. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Cheap production values sometimes show through.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, lots of gore and lots of bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is set in Scotland it was actually filmed in Luxembourg.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on an unreported production budget; my guess is that the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: The Ledge

The Secret of Kells


The Secret of Kells

When you look into the woods, you never know what might be looking back at you.

(Gkids.com) Starring the voices of Brendan Gleeson, Evan Maguire, Chisten Mooney, Paul Young, Liam Hourican, Mick Lally, Michael McGrath, Paul Tyack. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey

Sometimes we get wrapped up in the mundane so much so that we lose track of things that are less tangible but more important. That can happen more easily in times of stress.

At the Abbey of Kells in Ireland, times are certainly troubled. The Emerald Isle is under frequent attack from the vicious and cruel Vikings of the North, who come seeking gold and leave destruction and misery in their wake. The Abbott (Gleeson), a stern man, is constructing titanic walls around the Abbey to protect it and the village surrounding it. At the center is a tall tower, the top of which is the residence of the Abbott. From his window he can see anything – and anyone – coming to attack.

His nephew Brendan (Maguire) is a bit of a dreamer, longing to be one of the illuminators who draw the beautiful manuscripts the order is known for. However, the Abbott is more concerned with getting the wall built and often uses the illuminators – particularly Brendan, who has a tendency towards daydreaming – to help with the heavy labor.

That all changes when Brother Aidan (Lally) arrives, his cat in tow. Aidan is the greatest illuminator of the age and he brings with him the legendary Book of Iona, a tome that he has been illuminating most of his life, one which was started by a Saint no less. Brendan is struck by hero-worship, particularly when he sees the first few pages of the Book.

Aidan sends him into the woods surrounding the fortress for a particular berry that makes a delightfully green ink (and tends to explode in a noxious cloud of smoke for some reason) and meets Aisling (Mooney), a wild girl of the forest with flowing white hair who may not be exactly what she appears to be. Although at first suspicious of one another, she agrees to help Brendan on the condition that he never return to “her” forest. Brendan agrees and they strike up a fast friendship.

The rest of the plot is concerned about the conflict between Brendan’s idealism and the Abbot’s pragmatism, between Brendan’s independence and the Abbot’s authority. Yes, the inevitable invasion of the Vikings occurs and there are ramifications of it. There is also a heaping dosage of Irish mysticism. And then there is the Book, which will eventually become better known as the Book of Kells.

One of the things that disturb me about animated features is the need to talk down to juvenile audiences. If there’s something that Up teaches us is that you can respect the intelligence and wisdom of kids when it comes to an animated movies just as much as you can the adults. There’s simply no need to dumb it down, and yet this feature, made by some of the animators who worked on The Triplets of Belleville (a very adult animated feature) utilizes a gaggle of international monks (one Italian, one Caribbean, one Russian I think and so on) who serve no other purpose than for kids to laugh at ‘em.

Personally I could have done without the comic relief. What works here is the beautiful hand-drawn animation. The filmmakers wisely decided to create the look of an illuminated manuscript, so the scenes are awash in intricate detail. This is certainly two dimensional and a bit of a throwback, but it’s obvious a great deal of love and care went into the animation. It makes for a very stylized look, but it is so detailed that it bears multiple viewings nicely. You will be transported, as I was, by the intricately drawn geometric shapes with the delicate scrollwork and bright colors.

The Secret of Kells received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature this past February, which was a bit of a surprise to many moviegoers who hadn’t heard of this movie. It beat out better-known releases such as Monsters vs. Aliens for the nomination. Those who are fortunate enough to find this playing in their town and give it a shot will see precisely why it was so honored; this is one of the most unique and beautiful-looking animated features I’ve ever seen.

REASONS TO GO: The beautifully drawn backgrounds resemble an illuminated manuscript come to life. The animation is inventive.

REASONS TO STAY: Like too many animated features, it dumbs itself down for younger audiences needlessly. Voice actors for Brendan and Aisling fall in and out of Irish accent.

FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A co-production of Belgium, France and Ireland.

HOME OR THEATER: Definitely, this deserves to be seen in a theater.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW:  Mid August Lunch