Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Halloween H20

3/4

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Josh Hartnett, Michelle Williams, Adam Arkin, Jodi-Lynn O'Keefe, Adam Hann-Byrd, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Janet Leigh

Rated R for Terror Violence/Gore and Language

"Halloween H20" was the brainchild of star Jamie Lee Curtis.  She thought it would be a good idea to finish the franchise once and for all, bringing back not only her character, Laurie Strode but John Carpenter as well.  Carpenter ultimately declined to return, so in his place we have Steve Miner, a director-for-hire (he did direct the first two "Friday the 13th" sequels, though).  All things considered, this is a lot of fun.  For a horror movie.

Laurie Strode (Curtis) has spent the last 20 years living in fear that her brother, Michael Myers (Chris Durand), will come back to kill her.  She's not handling it very well.  She faked her death, changed her name, moved to Northern California to become the headmaster of a private prep school, and in the words of her son John (Hartnett), is a "functioning alcoholic."  But she's always jumpy on Halloween, and John isn't able to take it anymore.  The school's populace is going on a camping trip to Yosemite, save for John and three of his friends.  Laurie is hoping to use this time to cozy up with her boyfriend Will (Arkin), who's the school counselor.  Of course, Michael has different ideas...

Horror movie sequels are rarely any good, and although I haven't seen the "Halloween" sequels without Jamie Lee Curtis, according to James Berardinelli, I should be glad.  The filmmakers decided to leave out any reference to the sequels in which Curtis did not appear, which makes sense, since from what I gather, the plots got quite strange.

It is rare to find a horror movie with good performances.  We're not talking Oscar stuff, but they cast is appealing enough to the point where remembering that some, if not all, of their lives will be cut short by a homicidal maniac is a little disheartening.  Jamie Lee Curtis in particular is worth mentioning.  The actress always has tremendous appeal, and she gives depth and feeling to her role.  She's been running for half her life, and she begins to realize that the only way to make it stop is to face her brother.

But at just a hair under 90 minutes, the film is too short.  The film moves too quickly and many people who watch this will wonder, "Is that all there is?"  Five or ten minutes more could have beefed up the plot and given it a stronger impact.  And a few more characters to fill body bags would have helped too.

"Halloween: H20" is a worthy sequel to the franchise (it did not put the franchise in the ground...the film's success earned the film another sequel, "Halloween: Resurrection," which Curtis called "a joke").  Sure, characters do some amazingly stupid things, the plot is paper thin, and the gore is at times giggle-inducing.  But that's why we go to these movies in the first place.

Halloween II

2/4

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Lance Guest, Dick Warlock, Gloria Gifford

Rated R (probably for Strong Violence/Gore, Some Language, Sexuality/Nudity and Brief Drug Use)

The success of "Halloween" took everyone by surprise.  Initially written off as a generic horror flick, a short article in "The Village Voice" saved it from a future covered in dust and lint.  Soon, critics began to see that there was more to this movie than meets the eye.  Audiences did too, and the film ended up becoming the most successful independent film of all time for a long while.

So it was inevitable that a sequel would be made.  Directed by Rick Rosenthal, who was hand-picked by John Carpenter himself, "Halloween II" entered into theaters four years after the original.  Unfortunately, slasher movies had evolved (or should that be "de-volved"?) into cheap, schlocky gorefests at that time.  Rosenthal wanted to keep it bloodless like the original, but Carpenter vetoed the idea, believing that audiences would have found it to be too tame.  Carpenter should have listened to Rosenthal, since the carnage is the film's biggest problem.

The film takes place minutes after the first one (actually, it gives a short recap of the final minutes of the 1978 film).  Michael Myers (Warlock) is gone, Dr. Loomis (Pleasence) is hunting for him, and Laurie Strode (Curtis) is being taken to the hospital.  But as desperately as the good doctor wants to catch his quarry, Michael keeps slipping through his fingers.  His target is Laurie, and he has a special reason for doing so...

Let me tell you what I liked about this movie.  It has a creepy setting and Rosenthal has a good grasp of atmosphere.  Not to the extent of the original, but enough to keep things spooky for the majority of the running time.  I also liked how he paid attention to the atmosphere of the town; Haddonfield residents are angry and scared, and Rosenthal shows it.  The acting is better too, and Rosenthal keeps Michael as a silent, robotic killer.

However, the pacing isn't as on-target.  The shots are too quick and that releases the tension.  The longer the camera holds a shot, the more the terror will grow.  There are also some fairly obvious editing gaffes, too.

But what really hurts the film is the attempt to update it for the slasher film's new audience.  The body count is very high.  Not only does each killing interrupt the flow of tension, it forces Rosenthal to try and develop everyone.  "Halloween," in fact the best horror movies in general, worked because they had a narrow focus.  Whether it be Laurie Strode, a group of women in a cave ("The Descent") or a father coming across a supernatural killer ("Sinister"), a horror film must have a character that we strongly identify with.  With such a huge cast, that's impossible.

While the kills are enjoyably clever and grisly (being burned alive in a hot tub, getting an ax to the head, and so on), they give Michael Myers something that he did not have in the first one: a personality.  That's not to the film's benefit.  He was scary in the original because he was a remorseless killer; emotionless and relentless.  We believed he was an insane killer escaped from an asylum.  But here, he's just an ordinary slasher, and that robs him of what made him so terrifying.

Still, far be it for me to say it's unwatchable.  It's not.  There are some definitely spooky moments to be found here.  Just don't expect another classic.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Halloween (1978)

3.5/4

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Nancy Loomis, P.J. Soles, Charles Cyphers, Tony Moran

Rated R (probably for Strong Violence, Pervasive Terror, Sexuality/Nudity and Brief Drug Use)

"Halloween" might be just another low-budget horror flick gathering dust on the shelves of discount video stores (if it survived the next 40 years at all) had it not been for a complimentary review in "The Village Voice" by critic Tom Allen (for anyone who is curious, the review can be found here).  His writing caused critics and audiences to see this low-budget chiller for what it is: a terrifying horror film.

On Halloween night, Judith Myers (Sandy Johnson) is getting ready for bed after her date when she is brutally stabbed to death.  It is only when the killer is unmasked that we realize that the killer is her six-year old brother Michael (Will Sandin).

Fifteen years later, the Myers house has fallen into disrepair, and according to the local children, is reputed to be haunted.  Shy high school student Laurie Strode (Curtis) is getting ready to babysit, although her friends Annie (Loomis) and Lynda (Soles) have different ideas.  However, none of them have any idea of the terror that lies ahead.

You see, Michael has recently escaped from the mental hospital and is heading back home.  His psychiatrist, Dr. Sam Loomis (Pleaseance), is hot on his trail.  "I spent eight years trying to reach him, and then another seven trying to keep him locked up because I realized that what was living behind that boy's eyes was purely and simply...evil," he says.  But not even his vigilant guard can stop Michael from going on a killing spree.

The influence of Alfred Hitchcock in this film, specifically the movie "Psycho," is immediately apparent.  The spacious shots, the reliance on careful cinematography and meticulous editing are all in evidence.  More obviously, co-writer and director John Carpenter has replicated the feel of Hitchcock's work, but without seeming like a thief.  This film is all his own.  "Psycho" is considered the father of the modern slasher genre.  If that's true, and there's merit to that argument, then it's Carpenter who tweaked and refined it to the genre that we know of today.

As is often the case with new fads and trailblazers, scholars have offered their theories on why "Halloween" became so popular or more pretentiously, what it means (side note: I don't understand why people do this.  It's largely irrelevant and makes the person seem like a stuffy buffoon.  It can also cheapen the thing itself).  Because it gave birth to the "final girl" trope, some have called it "feminist" or a cautionary tale on teenage sexuality.  Carpenter and co-writer/producer Debra Hill have repeatedly denied this, saying it's just a horror movie.  That's the best way to view it.  Putting it into a context in which it doesn't belong not only robs it of some of its punch, but sets expectations in the viewer in which it can't, and shouldn't have to, reach.

There are those who would argue that this is a classic horror film.  I am not among them.  While it's true that it is undeniably frightening and gave birth to a number of slasher movie clichés, there are some definite flaws.  For one thing, the acting is stiff.  Of the cast, only Jamie Lee Curtis seems real.  And while the film is definitely impressive on a technical level (especially the opening murder, which remains one of the most innovative scenes in film history), there is something distancing about it.  And the film seems to be all build-up; the film doesn't really get rolling until the final half-hour.

Nevertheless, "Halloween" does what it sets out to do: scare the living hell out of a viewer.  For that reason, I give this film a very enthusiastic recommendation.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Crimson Peak

3/4

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver

Rated R for Bloody Violence, Some Sexual Content and Brief Strong Language

"Crimson Peak" is Gothic horror in overdrive.  No one does this sort of thing better than Guillermo del Toro, who does not understand the meaning of the word "subtlety," which in this case is a good thing.  This is a grand, spooky tale with dilapidated mansions, buried secrets, and of course, ghosts.

Edythe Cushing (Wasikowska) is would-be novelist living in New York at around the turn of the century.  She lives with her father, Carter (Beaver), a wealthy business mogul, and a handsome young man named Alan (Hunnam), who has long held a torch for Edythe, has returned to town a wealthy doctor.  Also in town are Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Chastain).  He's working on an invention that will bring up oil-rich clay and is hoping that Carter will put up money to invest.  However, Carter has a bad feeling about him, and declines.  He also refuses to let him marry Edythe.  But after he is mysteriously murdered, he marries her and the two of them (along with Lucille) return to his estate in England.  However, Edythe begins to realize that Thomas and Lucille are not who they seem, and the ghosts that haunt the house (Edythe can see them) have a special plan for her.

On a visual level, the film is a technical marvel.  del Toro has always been a master at creating the creepy, the crawly and the weird, and this is different only in the sense that it's the setting and the costumes that are the stars of the show.  Expect Oscar nominations, and probable wins, in the costume, cinematography and production design departments.  Despite how the film is marketed, the ghosts are details.  In fact, with a few rewrites they could have been left out entirely.  Still, that would have prevented us from seeing what inspired visions del Toro has created.  For my money, it's a more than acceptable trade-off.

Alas, the script underwhelms.  By its nature, it's not very original.  However, the characters are stick figures, and while del Toro had the good sense to hire a quartet of talented actors, they can't rescue such an clunky screenplay.

They give it a game try, though.  Mia Wasikowska, an actress whose future Oscar is inevitable, is good as Edythe.  This isn't a part that stretches her considerable talents, since it's really a slasher movie heroine in 18th century garb.  Jessica Chastain, who also has Oscar written all over her (she's been nominated twice, and it's only a matter of time before she wins one.  Or more.), has a lot of fun playing the Ice Queen Lucille.  She is one cold lady, and she gets to do some scenery chewing too.  Sadly, Tom Hiddleston is merely adequate.  A hugely talented actor, Hiddleston fades into the background next to his leading ladies.  Maybe that's because he doesn't have an ounce of chemistry with Wasikowska (there's a reason for that, but I won't say anything else).

This is one of those movies that gets better as it goes along.  The beginning is slow going, since it details the romance between Edythe and Thomas, which in addition to being DOA, is rushed.  But like the rest of the film, the sumptuous visuals more than make up for it.  There are also some genuine scares to be found here, and a generous helping of blood and gore.

So for those of you who are looking for some chills and cool visuals, this is a solid pick.  It's also worth the extra money for IMAX, if only for the better lighting and the ability to appreciate the details.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Bridge of Spies

3/4

Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepard, Austin Stowell, Mikhail Gorevoy, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Will Rogers

Rated PG-13 for Some Violence and Brief Strong Language

Even to people who aren't encyclopedias of movie knowledge, Steven Spielberg is a known name.  That's because he's been the man behind some of cinemas finest (and most bankable) achievements.  The list of beloved films he has directed is incredible: "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan," "Jurassic Park," "Minority Report," "Munich," "E.T.," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Jaws" (not one of his better films, in my opinion).  But he hasn't made anything truly memorable for the better part of a decade (while there are those who believe that "Lincoln" was a return to form, I'm not one of them).  So the question is whether or not his newest film, the Cold War dramatic thriller "Bridge of Spies," reverses his slump.

The answer is...sort of.  "Bridge of Spies" is a good film, and is well worth seeing, but no one is going to compare it to any of his greatest works.  It's too long, a little confusing, and not especially cinematic.  Spielberg has always been a master manipulator, but aside from a few moments here and there, there is little of the magic that has made him such a success.

"Bridge of Spies" takes place in 1957 New York City.  A quiet little man named Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is going about his business when he is arrested and charged with being a Russian spy.  To prove they can walk the walk and not just talk the talk, he is given a trial.  Abel is assigned a lawyer named James Donovan (Hanks) to defend him.  Donovan is an insurance lawyer, although since he has argued criminal cases in the past, he agrees to take the case.  However, everyone knows its just for show; even the judge (Dakin Matthews in a very effective performance) assumes he's guilty.  Despite Donovan's best attempts, Abel is found guilty.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has a new spy plane they want to use to take pictures of Soviet targets from 70,000 feet in the air.  They select Francis Gary Powers (Stowell) to be the first man up with specific instructions that he is not to be caught (they give him two ways to kill himself should the need arise).  However, his plane is shot down and he doesn't commit suicide.  Now he's in Russian hands, and the U.S. Government wants him back before he can divulge any secrets.  The Russians are thinking the same thing about Abel, so they suggest a trade.  The U.S. government asks Donovan to negotiate the trade, without any public acknowledgement by his own government.  Then he finds out that there's a new wrinkle that complicates matters even further: a Yale grad student named Frederic Pryor (Rogers) has been caught on the wrong side just as the Berlin Wall is completed, and is accused of being a spy.  The U.S. tells Donovan to concentrate on getting Powers, and that they will get Pryor later (right).  But Donovan takes it upon himself to make a three way trade, since the Russians have Powers and East Germany has Pryor.

It sounds really complicated, and it is, but Spielberg takes his time showing each piece of the puzzle and making sure we know who is who and how they fit.  The long speeches where the details are laid out can be confusing, but it's nothing major.  However, he takes too much time.  Once we know that Abel is being given a show trial, we don't need to see Donovan's appeal to the Supreme Court.  It's meant to be a break between the scenes with Powers, but they should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Spielberg is as much an actor's director as anyone, and he gets good performances from his cast.  This is his fourth film with Tom Hanks, and it's clear that the two work well with each other.  Hanks is quite good as the guy who would rather do the right thing even if it's harder and riskier.  It works because few actors are more likable than Tom Hanks (could he even play a bad guy?).  Mark Rylance is also good as the diminuitive Abel, although he doesn't have enough chemistry with Hanks for their relationship to have the payoff that Spielberg wants it to.  Austin Stowell, who was stiff in "Dolphin Tale," is effective because the part doesn't require much range.  Special mention has to go to Mikhail Gorevoy, who plays Donovan's counterpart.  He's very good.  I don't know if this was intentional, but he sounds a lot like Peter Lorre when he talks.

The biggest problem with the film is that it's not very cinematic.  It's all talking, save for the plane being shot down and a surprisingly disturbing shooting (which doesn't really belong in the film).  True, films based off of plays can be quite effective ("Frost/Nixon" is one of many examples), but Spielberg has transformed this into an epic of sorts, a genre in which it really doesn't fit.  The script (co-written by the Coen Brothers, if you can believe that) doesn't fit the approach.

Still, a lot of people are going to see this because of the names on the marquee, and I wouldn't dare try to stop them.  It may have its problems, but I don't regret seeing it.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

2/4

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum, Leonard Nimoy

Rated PG (for Some Violence/Gore and Nudity)

Why is it so hard to make a truly good doppleganger movie?  I mean, the concept almost writes itself!  Is there anything creepier than to live in a place where everyone has been secretly replaced with an alien intelligence?  Apparently so, since the list of failures is long (John Carpenter's "They Live," "Abel Ferrara's own take on the story, "Body Snatchers," and let's not forget the fourth iteration of the story, "The Invasion" with Nicole Kidman and Stephanie Meyer's "The Host").  The only good worth seeing is "The Thing," which while effective in its own right, leaves room for improvement.

To be fair, paranoia is hard to make cinematic.  It takes a truly innovative director, like Alfred Hitchcock, to do it.  Sadly, Philip Kaufman isn't it.  While he has made some good films, such as "The Right Stuff" (which, while critically acclaimed, bombed at the box office), he also made that shitty Ashley Judd "thriller" "Twisted."  No guesses as to which film his take on the body snatching movie this is closer to in terms of quality.

Elizabeth Driscoll (Adams) works for the San Francisco Health Department.  She senses that her husband, Geoffrey (Art Hindle), is, literally, not himself.  Her friend and co-worker, Matthew Bennell (Sutherland), doesn't believe her.  But they soon realize that aliens have been attacking people and growing duplicates to replace them.  Now they have to find away to stay themselves long enough to save the world.

There are two big problems with the film, and they are the usual ones: bad script and bad direction.  Putting it bluntly, the script is a mess.  Not only is the dialogue bland and the story fails to capitalize on the innate terror of the situation, it substitutes suspense with action (the film's final third is really a series of chase sequences).  It also has more holes than Swiss cheese.  But Kaufman isn't blameless.  For one thing, he should have insisted on substantial rewrites to punch up the story.  There are plenty of avenues for this story to explore, not to mention innovative ways to do it, but Kaufman elects to play it safe at every turn.  A movie like this demands risk-taking and bold vision; Kaufman's work is pedestrian.

At least the acting is strong.  Donald Sutherland, despite looking goofy, is in fine form.  Ditto for character actress Brooke Adams.  They play their parts seriously, which helps us form a bond with them.  Solid support is provided by Jeff Goldblum and a pre-"Alien" Veronica Cartwright.

The film isn't a total loss.  There are some moments of tension here and there, and there is one montage of telephone calls that, while a cliché, is effectively executed.  Still, for those who are looking for the heebie-jeebies in the days counting down to Halloween, there are better films to spend your time and money on.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Pan

3/4

Starring: Levi Miller, Hugh Jackman, Garrett Hedlund, Rooney Mara, Adeel Akhtar, Nonzo Alonzie, Kathy Burke, Amanda Seyfried

Rated PG for Fantasy Action Violence, Language, and Some Thematic Material

"Pan" is closer to a misfire than an outright success.  The prequel to "Peter Pan" is already notorious for being a box office bomb, and while it has some serious problems, overall I came out of the theater with a smile on my face and a skip in my step.  Not many movies can make that claim.

Peter (Miller) is a young orphan living in London during World War II.  At night, some of his fellow orphans disappear.  It isn't long before he figures out what happened to them.  Sky pirates have kidnapped them and taken them to Neverland.  There, they're forced to work in a mine for a nasty villain named Blackbeard (Jackman).  Blackbeard takes a special interest in Peter because he believes that this young boy is the prophecy that can destroy him.  But with the help of another slave, a rough guy named James Hook (Hedlund), he escapes and finds a tribe of Indians, the sworn enemy of Blackbeard.  Now Peter must learn to believe in himself if he is to save Neverland.

There are two big problems with "Pan."  The first is the screenplay.  It's a bit of a mess.  The particulars of the prophecy, despite being told with some cool animation, makes no sense whatsoever.  Also curious is the use of some pop songs as war chants.  I'll give the film credit for using them effectively, but it's like, what?

The second problem is all too common these days: visual overload.  The film looks nice in the daytime (at night or in the dark is a different story...I shudder to think what the experience would be like in 3D), but the visuals drown out the story.  A good film uses impressive visuals to enhance the story, not the other way around.

There are other problems too, like a sluggish and overlong opening act, pacing that's at times erratic, and an unsure footing between action and kid-friendly.  However, these are relatively small quibbles.  The first two, are not.

Hugh Jackman is the biggest name in the film, and he's clearly having a ball playing such an over-the-top villain (ironic since he's widely known as one of the nicest guys working in Hollywood).  As fatuous as the character is, he's still a formidable threat and manages to chill on occasion.  Newcomer Levi Miller, while not the best child actor in film history, is more than capable of holding his own against Jackman's scenery chewing.  Garrett Hedlund also chews the scenery a lot as the Han Solo-like Hook, but he comes across as hammy.  Still, there's no denying his charisma and appeal.  Rooney Mara is quite good as Tiger Lily, Peter's confidant and Hook's love interest (she and Hedlund have a nice, playful chemistry).

I won't deny that I expected more from Joe Wright.  Eight years ago, he directed "Atonement," one of the most complex and deeply affecting love stories I've seen.  Only someone with tremendous talent could have pulled that movie off.  One of the things that film did right was take its time and clearly display each piece of the puzzle.  That doesn't happen here; the film seems to hurtle forward with tremendous energy, but giving the viewer no time to soak in the story and the characters.

And yet, I liked the film.  The action scenes are a lot of fun and the film occasionally looks fantastic.  It's doubtful that it will recoup its $150 million budget, but it probably deserves to.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Creep

3/4

Starring: Patrick Brice, Mark Duplass

Rated R for Brief Violence and Language

There's no better marketing tool than positive word of mouth.  Big budget movies used to use it a lot, but now they've turned to brand names and franchises.  Little films like "Creep" depend on it.  So I'm doing everything that I can to say that this is a good movie.

Aaron (Brice) is a videographer answering an ad he found on Craigslist.  A wealthy man named Josef (Duplass) is dying of cancer and wants Aaron to film a memento to his unborn child.  Josef is a bit of an odd duck, such as having an affinity for disappearing then jumping out at Aaron to scare him.  But he's amiable enough.  However, Aaron soon realizes that Josef is not who he seems, and he is totally unaware of what he has walked into.

I love movies that only slowly reveal themselves.  "Creep" continuously evolves into something other than it starts out as, with no obvious foreshadowing or storytelling tricks.  We know that something is off about Josef, but his personality is revealed bit by bit.

This is the second movie I've seen Jay Duplass in.  The other one was "The Lazarus Effect," which is best ignored since it's going to come on my Bottom 10 list this year.  He was dull beyond words there, but with this earlier flick he's found a role that fits him like a glove.  Josef is pleasant, but strange.  He believes his relationship with Aaron is stronger than it actually is, and he talks about things that are too personal for someone you've just met.  He's unsettling because you never know what he's going to say or do next.  By the nature of the film, his co-star Patrick Brice remains behind the camera, but we get a sense of who he is.  Josef creeps him out, but he's too much of a doormat to get up and leave when he probably should.  Brice is good in the role, and he and Duplass work well together.

Perhaps the film's greatest success is its melding of scares and laughs.  It's not like "Scream," where it's a self-aware movie that pokes fun at itself.  It's funny in the sense that there are jokes and instances of humor, but they're tweaked in a way that makes them sinister.  That kind of balance is hard to achieve, and gives the film a distinct identity.

Unfortunately the film is dealt a series of blows by making Aaron do amazingly stupid things for the sake of the plot.  This is almost a tradition in horror movies, but the first half of "Creep" is so smart and well-balanced that resorting to this feels lazy and sticks out like a sore thumb.  That said, there are a couple of neat twists that I wasn't expecting, and one shock that made me gasp in horror.

"Creep" doesn't boast big stars, big budgets or lots of blood and gore (in fact, it's not violent save for one scene).  But it is creepy and effective, which is just what you want as we near October 31.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

99 Homes

3/4

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon, Laura Dern, Noah Lomax, Tim Guinee

Rated R for Language Throughout including Some Sexual References, and for a Brief Violent Image

Andrew Garfield first came to my attention when I watched "Boy A" years ago.  There, he played a reformed criminal struggling to start a new life.  Apparently, I wasn't the only one taken with him, since that started opening doors in Hollywood.  He got nominated for a Golden Globe for "The Social Network," although he was a little flat there, in my opinion.  After playing Spidey twice, he's appeared in this dramatic thriller, "99 Homes."  It contains his best performance.

Dennis Nash (Garfield) lives in a modest home with his mother Lynn (Dern) and son Connor (Lomax).  He was born there and so was his son.  So when he can't make ends meet and the threat of foreclosure looms over his head, he's very stressed out.  Eventually, the police come to tell him to move out, and accompanying him is realtor Rick Carver (Shannon), who will sell back the house.  After he realizes that a member of Rick's moving crew stole $500 dollars worth of tools (Dennis is a laborer), he goes to get them back and ends up working for none other than Rick himself.  Because he is desperate and willing, Dennis quickly becomes Rick's right hand man.  But the realtor is as sleazy as they come and Dennis finds himself participating in a number of horrible scams.  He sees the resulting carnage first hand, but the money is too good and he needs his house back.

The plot sounds pure formula, and it is, but director Ramin Bahrani has camouflaged it effectively with well-rounded, believable characters and underplaying the melodrama.  Where the film gets into trouble is the explanations of the scams.  They don't make any sense, and for such a huge part of the plot, that's a big problem.

"99 Homes" is saved by the two lead performances.  Andrew Garfield looks too preppy to be believable as a blue-collar joe, but his performance is so strong that it hardly matters.  Watching the evolution of Dennis made me think of that classic Nietzche quote: "He that fights with monsters should look to himself that he does not become one."  The difference here is that he isn't fighting against a monster, but alongside him.  The axiom remains true nonetheless.  His co-star, Michael Shannon, has built a career on playing twisted characters ("Premium Rush," "Man of Steel," and so on), is just as riveting.  The economic reality has forced him to change from selling homes to evicting people, but the protective wall he puts between himself and other people has caused him to stop caring about the people he is hurting.  Personal greed has become his mantra, and his cynical, "winner takes all" mentality has given him the personality of the corporate big shots who wrecked, and are continuing to wreck, our economy.  It's a long shot, but both actors are deserving of Oscar nominations.  Laura Dern and Noah Lomax provide excellent support, but Tim Guinee is uneven in the crucial role of Dennis's neighbor.  When he's low-key, he's heartbreaking, but during his big scene he can't reach the emotions necessary and comes across as wooden.

I haven't seen Ramin Behrani's previous films, but they all received four-star reviews from the late great Roger Ebert.  This isn't a perfect film, but it shows that Behrani is a gifted filmmaker.  I'll definitely check out his earlier films, and am excited to see what he does next.

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Martian

3.5/4

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aksel Hennie, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan

Rated PG-13 for Some Strong Language, Injury Images, and Brief Nudity

"The Martian," like "Interstellar" last year, is science-based science fiction.  There are no aliens, space battles or interstellar travel (no pun intended).  This is about how one man could survive on Mars, and how a rescue could be attempted.  Of course, neither story is without its setbacks.

The Ares 3 mission to the Red Planet has gone off without a hitch.  It consists of a crew of six: Captain Melissa Lewis (Chastain), pilot Rick Martinez (Pena), chemist Aksel Vogel (Hennie), specialists Chris Beck (Stan) and Beth Johannsen (Mara, and botanist Mark Watney (Damon).  While outside, a severe storm hit earlier than anticipated, and the crew is forced to abandon the mission.  On the way to the ship, Mark is hit by a dish and presumed dead.  Unable to look for him before the shuttle tips over, Melissa gives the order to leave him behind.  What they don't know is that Mark is not dead.  However, his relief is short lived, as he is unable to contact his crew or NASA, and supplies will only last him 30 days.

"The Martian" is a dense and intelligent film; anyone intent on turning off their brain or who isn't paying attention will find themselves lost or confused.  Normally, I appreciate films that engage me on an intellectual level, but there are times when this works against the film.  It's not that it's too smart (no one paying attention will get lost, at least not for more than a few moments).  It's that it's at times heavy on the math and science, and those who aren't good at techy stuff will be a bit confused. Still, the film never forgets to explain what it means to the characters, and that's what's important.

For a movie that was initially posted for free on a blog, which led it to being sold on the Kindle, the film boasts an impressive budget ($109 million), director (Ridley Scott) and cast.  Scott has a filmography that can only be described as uneven; in addition to "Alien," "Black Hawk Down," and "Body of Lies," he also helmed "Hannibal," "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Thelma and Louise."  He also directed "Gladiator," which everyone seemed to love but me, Roger Ebert, and a local film critic.  Fortunately, this is one of his stronger efforts.  It's well paced, looks incredible (avoid the 3-D though), and tremendously exciting.

There isn't a flat performance in the cast, but considering who is in it, that's not surprising.  It's hard not to like Matt Damon.  He can play a villain ("The Departed," for example), but he's like Tom Hanks or Steve Carrell: there's something inherently sympathetic about him.  That's crucial for the film to work, since half the movie rests on his shoulders.  Damon accomplishes this with ease; with his steadfast determination and wry sense of humor, it's impossible not to root for him.  Jessica Chastain continues to effortlessly impress with every role that she takes on (incidentally, both had roles in the aforementioned "Interstellar").  Jeff Daniels plays Teddy Sanders, the director of NASA.  The likable character actor is more dark and intense than he is known for, but that's because Teddy is more of a pragmatist.  He wants to bring Watney home, but the risks and the price are huge.  The rest of the cast, which includes veterans such as Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig (as a NASA worker) and up-and-comers like Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan, is top notch.

Clearly, Fox has Oscar in its headlights, but it's too early to say whether or not it will hold up, or be remembered (the Academy has a notoriously short memory span...witness "Birdman" taking home most of the honors from the much better received "Boyhood" last year) when it comes time to dole out the nominations.  But that's just the side story.  Whatever the Academy decides, "The Martian" remains a very good film, and well worth seeking out in the theater.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Torment

3/4

Starring: Kathryn Isabelle, Robin Dunne, Peter DaCunha

Rated R for Horror Violence, Terror and Brief Sexuality

"Torment" is what it is.  It's a low-budget chiller about a group of psychos who terrorize an innocent family in the middle of nowhere.  In fact, it's almost a note by note example of the kind of film Michael Haneke argued against in his controversial "Funny Games."

Newlyweds Cory (Dunne) and Sarah (Isabelle) Morgan are taking an excursion to their cabin with Cory's son, Liam (DaCunha).  Sarah does her best to fill the shoes left by Liam's mother, but he regards her with disdain.  When they get there, they find it has been broken into and trashed.  Sarah is worried, but after Cory returns with the business card of the local cop, she's put more at ease.  Later that night, Sarah wakes up and finds that Liam is missing, and a quartet of masked psychopaths have something sinister in mind.

It would be an injustice to the film to compare it to something of theatrical quality (not that that means much).  This is obviously a low-budget effort, and director Jordan Barker does the best that he can.  That's surprisingly a lot; the film is never boring and contains a high level of suspense throughout.  The camerawork is unsophisticated and the acting is at times stiff, but on the whole, the movie works.

All three of the leads have their off moments, but they're all more than adequate to gain our sympathy.  That's key to any movie, especially one that's intended to scare you.  If you don't care about them, how can you be scared for them?  Robin Dunne fares the best as the loving father who is trying to make his new marriage work.  Peter DaCunha is neither too cute nor too precocious; in fact, when he says something truly horrible to Sarah, it hurts like a ton of bricks.  Kathryn Isabelle is the weakest, but that's definitely a relative descriptor.

Jordan Barker knows what he's doing.  He has a firm grasp of atmosphere, and more importantly, pacing.  Things move along at a decent clip, the shocks are well-constructed, and aside from an editing hiccup or two, it runs smoothly.  He's also a good director of actors (probably because he is one himself).

"Torment" is not a classic horror movie.  But for a movie streaming on Netflix, it's worth a watch.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Prince of Darkness

1/4

Starring: Donald Pleasance, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount

Rated R (Probably for Violence/Gore and Language)

John Carpenter's career will be defined by two films: "Halloween," which initiated the slasher movie genre as we know of it today, and "The Thing," a horror movie set in Antarctica.  Everything else he has made has either become a cult film, or deservedly forgotten.  "Prince of Darkness" is one of the latter.

The only pleasure I get out of watching a movie as bad as "Prince of Darkness" is that by eviscerating it in a review, I get some measure of revenge for wasting my time and energy that was stolen from me by a lousy movie.  The 102 minutes I spent watching this piece of crap is something that I will never get back, and could have been spent doing something better.  Like unclogging toilets at a rest stop by hand.  As gross as it sounds, it's the preferable option to watching this movie.

Normally I like to give a plot synopsis in every review, but the narrative here is so choppy and badly developed that beyond the premise, I didn't know what the hell was going on.  Something weird is happening at a local church that unnerves a priest (Pleasance), and he asks his friend, Prof. Birack (Wong) for help.  Birack brings a number of his graduate students to spend the weekend there doing work, but doesn't tell them what it is.  Apparently, there's a device there that's going haywire, and unless they do something about it, Lucifer himself will enter our world.  Or his father.  The movie has trouble deciding which, it seems.

Like I said, this isn't the pinnacle of narrative complexity (not that horror movies are known for that...).  I believe that it is possible to turn any idea into a good movie, even if it demands a very warped approach, but it's hard to imagine anyone believing that this story, as is, could actually work.  It rarely makes any sense, and on the rare occasion it does, you'll wish it didn't once you realize how absurd it all is.

The acting comes in two forms: lazy and horrid.  The two veteran actors, Donald Pleasance and Victor Wong (best known as Grandpa in the "3 Ninjas" franchise), are in full "take the money and run" mode.  It's obvious that they only appeared for the paycheck.  Or as a result of Carpenter having some nasty information about them.  Regardless, they both look like they'd rather be anywhere else.  They are, to the extent that its possible, the saving grace of the film.  The other actors...not so much.  The rest of the cast is made up of people who appear to have been picked up from small town acting classes.  No one is able to utter a single line of dialogue convincingly.  Worse than that, they're boring and stupid.  It's the old bad horror movie cliché: if this is the best we have to offer, we deserve what we get.

The film isn't a total loss.  There are a few spooky moments here and there.  But they don't last long, and don't even come close to compensating for the sheer badness of the rest of the film.

Better follow my lead and watch "The Descent" instead.

The Thing (1982)

3/4

Starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat

Rated R (probably for Strong Violence/Gore and for Language)

No one does atmosphere like John Carpenter.  Be it his masterpiece, "Halloween," or one of his shittier movies like "They Live," the one constant is the sense of creepiness flooding throughout.  His ability to get the audience on edge through sound and images is what makes "The Thing" such an unsettling experience.

What sets "The Thing," a remake of the 1951 film "The Thing from Another World," apart is the sense of isolation.  These characters are totally cut off in the most unhospitable continent on the planet.  Carpenter uses lots of wide shots with careful lighting in order to convey this.

A group of scientists are at a remote research base in Antarctica.  The person who keeps things running smoothly is a guy named MacReady (Russell).  One day they hear gunshots, and after running outside, they see a helicopter shooting at a fleeing dog.  The helicopter is eventually destroyed and the dog is taken in.  But the dog isn't a dog; it's a parasitic alien who can mimic its prey, and if it gets back to civilization, spells doom for our entire planet.

"The Thing" is an ensemble horror film, which seems less usual than it actually is (after all, most are just on hand to fill body bags).  The cast is composed of mainly middle-aged men, not hunky guys or bodacious babes.  All give solid performances, but the one who stands out is, obviously, Kurt Russell.  There's nothing special about the role or the performance, but MacReady is an effective anchor for the film.

Upon its release, the film was notable for its considerable gore.  Even by today's standards, there's a lot of blood and guts.  But Carpenter's goal has never been to gross-out his audience ("Halloween," if you recall, was virtually bloodless).  The gore is never excessive, especially when considering the creature designs.  The special effects by Rob Bottin are exceptional, and even when compared to the CGI in movies like "Avatar," they retain all of their power.

If there's a flaw in the film, it's that Carpenter isn't able to attain a consistent level of suspense.  It comes in bursts, but it flags between the set pieces.  Nevertheless, it's easy to see why this has become a horror staple over the years.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Perkins' 14

1/4

Starring: Patrick O'Kane, Shayla Beesley, Mihaela Mihut, Richard Brake

Rated R for Graphic Bloody Violence, Terror, Language and Some Sexuality

A movie like "Perkins' 14" will make you appreciate the craftsmanship and the success of something like "The Descent" or even "Dawn of the Dead."  Horror movies that are made with skill are thoroughly involving and will send your nerves through the shredder.  Movies like "Perkins' 14," which can't even get on autopilot, are the pits.

Dwayne Hopper (O'Kane) is a local cop in the small town of Stone Cove, Maine.  His marriage to Janine (Mihut) is on the rocks, and his daughter Daisy (Beesley) has gone goth.  That's probably due to the fact that 10 years ago today, their son was kidnapped.  He was the last of 14 children to disappear from Stone Cove, and that has him on edge.  Tonight, however, brings in something strange.  A pharmacist named Ronald Perkins (Brake) has been arrested and is intent on playing mind games with Dwayne.  Dwayne becomes convinced that it was Perkins who kidnapped his son.  But that's only part of the story.

The first hour of this movie sucks.  The acting is like amateur hour at the local community theater, and director Craig Singer doesn't miss a cheesy, overused gimmick.  But as the film goes into its climax, it hits its stride.  It's not great art, but it's better than the crap that came before it.

Patrick O'Kane's performance is lacking; his best moments are when he doesn't speak, or when he's thinking about his son.  Shayla Beesley is obnoxious as his annoying daughter.  And not in a good way; I kept waiting for someone to kill her.  The one thing notable about Mihaela Mihut is that she suddenly grows an accent at the one-hour mark.  And Richard Brake tries to ape Anthony Hopkins' legendary performance as Hannibal Lecter, and fails miserably.

After Dark horror films are not known to be classics, but for what they are, they're dependable for 90 minutes of entertainment (titles include "The Abandoned," "Penny Dreadful" and "The Hamiltons").  But when compared to "Perkins' 14," they're bonafide masterpieces.

Trust me.  Don't bother.

Sicario

2/4

Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Daniel Kaluuya

Rated R for Strong Violence, Grisly Images, and Language

In terms of tone and visual appeal, "Sicario" is a success.  When it comes to weaving a coherent tale with three-dimensional characters, it comes up short.  This is a grim, violent tale about the drug trade, but the narrative is messy and characters are sketchily developed.

This is probably to be expected.  The film was directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, whose previous films ("Incendies," "Prisoners") displayed little more than a consistently brooding tone.  Villeneuve demands intellectual involvement, but not in the usual way.  Rather, he leaves holes in the story and demands that the audience fill them.  That would be all well and good if he had any skill with it.  But in "Incendies" and "Prisoners," the questions had only one answer, which made them seem pretentious (the super-serious yet understated tone only enhances that effect).  But with "Sicario," he got his own recipe wrong.  The story rarely makes any sense.

FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) is working in Arizona when she comes across a grisly scene at a drug bust.  Over forty corpses have been hidden in the walls of a house.  Shortly after that, she's handpicked by a mysterious man named Matt Graver (Brolin) to take down a major drug lord.  She agrees, but then she finds out that both Matt and his right-hand man Alejandro (Del Toro) have a habit of walking on the shady side of the law.

The acting is surprisingly strong, considering the fact that they are kept low-key by Villeneuve.  Emily Blunt, best known for playing the bitchy assistant in "The Devil Wears Prada," gives a strong performance as the vulnerable FBI agent (and sports a flawless American accent).  Josh Brolin is perfectly sleazy as the tough-talking, tell it like it is lawman; he hasn't been this good since "Milk."  One word is all that's needed to describe Benicio Del Toro's performance: intense.

There are some good things about this movie.  It looks great (it is, after all, shot by Roger Deakins), and the action scenes crackle with suspense.  But it lacks a clear narrative and is at times far too serious for its own good.  Pity.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

True Story

2.5/4

Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Robert John Burke

Rated R for Language and Some Disturbing Material

"True Story" hints at a far more unsettling story than it ultimately reveals.  Whether it was due to unfortunate choices in the editing room or a script that failed to fully explore the psychological game that forms the meat of this story, what could have been the second coming of "The Silence of the Lambs" ends up being just another disappointing thriller.

Mike Finkel (Hill) is a treasured writer at the New York Times.  At least he is until he was caught fudging the facts in one of his stories and fired.  His reputation in ruins, he's all out of options until another reporter asks him about an accused murderer named Christian Longo (Franco).  Longo is accused of murdering his family then fleeing to Cancun and living under Mike's identity.  Curious, Mike contacts Christian in the hopes of finding some sort of redemption.  But things are definitely not what they seem.

The psychological connection between Mike and Christian is the heart of the story, but sadly it's half-developed.  I never fully understood what drove either of them, nor their goals.  Sure, Mike wants to atone for his mistake and Christian is clearly hiding something, but more than that remains a mystery.  I didn't know what to make of their relationship and what it meant to either of them.

Although they are most famous for their Frat Pack comedies, both Jonah Hill and (to a lesser extent) James Franco can actually act.  Their performances are low-key but tightly controlled.  They fully inhabit the skins of the people they are portraying.  Hill plays Mike as a guy who is so obsessed with redemption that he is unaware that he could be being betrayed.  Franco, rarely a particularly convincing actor (to be honest, the only good performance he's had is in "127 Hours"), manages to be both intelligent and occasionally creepy.  However, he's kept too low key and as a result comes across as less charismatic than would have served the character better.  Felicity Jones is good as Mike's girlfriend, Jill, but for the most part her character is essentially superfluous.

Comparing "True Story" to "The Silence of the Lambs" is admittedly a big stretch, but the twisted relationship between Mike and Christian bears similarity to that of Clarice and Hannibal on some level.  It's not as intelligent or sophisticated, and the writing here is certainly nowhere near that of Ted Tally's Oscar-winning script, but it's impossible not to watch this movie and not think of the 1991 thriller.

Problems aside, "True Story" still manages to compel and occasionally chill.  Even if we don't figure it all out by the end.