SPLIT (2017)

January 28, 2017

split Greetings again from the darkness. As a filmmaker, the public’s expectations become a burden rather than a blessing once you write and director back-to-back movies like The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). M Night Shyamalan has never been able to replicate the box office or critical success that he enjoyed with those two films … but, oh how he has tried. It’s this latest that finally makes us believe he is at least having fun again.

James McAvoy plays Dennis and Patricia and Hedwig and … well … he plays a guy with 23 distinct personalities. As you might imagine, some of these personalities are nicer than others, while some are stronger in their fight for the spotlight. As Dennis, a button-upped neat freak, he captures 3 teenage girls and holds them captive. At first, the purpose is a bit murky, but the delay does allow the girls to meet some of the personalities.

The girls are Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy, who was so good in The Witch), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson from The Bronze), and Marcia (Jessica Sula). Claire and Marcia are the popular girls who react with typical teenage emotions, while Casey pushes for patience and observation. It’s Casey who may be the film’s most interesting character as childhood flashbacks occur that are first thought to explain her survival skills, but soon enough disclose a darker, more unfortunate past. The younger Casey is coolly played by newcomer Izzie Coffey, and holds her own with Sebastian Arcelus (her dad) and Brad William Henke (her Uncle John).

The always terrific Betty Buckley is outstanding as Dr Fletcher, the psychologist treating McAvoy’s character(s). Ms. Buckley adds class and a connection to the real world that gives us hope for the future of the girls being held. McAvoy really seems to be enjoying the acting challenge and shape-shifting that accompanies this mental disorder, and he will likely creep you out a few times. Cinematographer Mike Gioukakis was a key to the look and mood of It Follows, and his camera work here is superb in mostly confined areas. Sure, the whole thing is preposterous, but it’s fun and wicked … and with this director, you can expect a surprise or twist – even after all these years.

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THE WITCH (2016)

February 18, 2016

the witch Greetings again from the darkness. If your own nightmares have become less frequent, and you find yourself able to sleep peacefully through the night, writer/director Robert Eggers’ first feature film will likely fix that. Based in 1630 New England … a full 60 years prior to the Salem witch trials … much of the story and dialogue is based on actual historical documents corresponding to the fears of that era. It would be a mistake to head into this one thinking it’s going to having you covering your eyes or springing from your seat … it’s better described as unsettling and disquieting.

Religious fanaticism plays a key role here, and is actually behind a Puritan family being exiled from the community. They set up a home and farm on the edge of an ominous, heavily-wooded forest … and things start to go wrong. William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie) are stern and stoic parental units to coming-of-age teenager Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), her younger brother Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), two spoiled and annoying twins Mercy (Ellie Granger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson), and a new born named Samuel.

This is a slow-burn psychological horror film and it never relies on cheap jump-scares. Instead the eerie atmosphere, lurking Satanic evil, and unraveling of the family as they search for answers, all combine for a level of creep that’s not often seen on screen. Adding to our pre-conceived notion that things rarely end well for closed-mind religious zealots is the unsettling use of Old World English … it takes some time to adjust your ears.

Most of director Eggers’ background is in short films with an emphasis on Production Design and Costume Design. It’s interesting to note the gradual decline of lighting as the movie progresses … most notably on the opening and closing shots of daughter Thomasin, who faces the most backlash as a suspected (by her family) witch.

This was a time when people prayed for food and for God to have mercy … and to explain the unexplainable. No amount of praying can make sense of the titular witch (Bathsheba Garnett), or the family’s goat Black Phillip (voiced by Wahab Chaudhry), or an evil bunny that would make Monty Python proud. The dingo taking their baby might actually be a preferred explanation.

Eggers won the Sundance Award for a Director in Drama, and the film was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. Mark Korven’s score is unique and the perfect complement to the onscreen happenings of this poor family. The film stays true to the time period, which of itself, feels like a parallel universe unfamiliar to most of us these days. Young actors Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw are real finds, and director Eggers will have a built-in and well-deserved audience for his next outing.

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PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES (2016)

February 4, 2016

PPZ Greetings again from the darkness. For those high school Literature teachers struggling to get their students to embrace the classics from writers like Jane Austen, this movie won’t help much. However, chances are good that those same students will enjoy this blending of 19th century British class warfare with “The Walking Dead” – likely one of their favorite shows.  The zombie apocalypse has landed in the middle of Austen’s prim and proper story, including the repressed attraction between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.

Anyone expecting the serious undertones of Ms. Austen’s1813 novel will be disappointed … but the title should have provided a pretty solid hint. While her characters and general story line act as a structure here, it’s really based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s YA hit novel … delivering zombie battles and often zany humor. Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down) directs his own adapted screenplay and seems to really be having a great time – right along with his talented cast. The sets, costumes, dialogue and fight scenes work together to create an unusual movie experience that will generate plenty of laughs while not dwelling on the zombies or violence (it is PG-13). Expect most critics to destroy this one because it’s made simply for fun, not for art.

Of course, any Pride and Prejudice spin-off (even one with zombies) must pay particular attention to Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. It turns out that Elizabeth and her four sisters are highly trained warriors raised to survive against the undead. It’s even clearer for Mr. Darcy as he is billed as a zombie hunter and protector of Mr. Bingley, the rich bachelor hooked on Jane Bennett. Things get muddled by the devious Mr. Wickham, a focused Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and especially the flamboyant fop Parson Collins. The interactions between these characters bounce between loyalty, romantic attraction, emotional turmoil and hand-to-hand combat … with enough comedic elements that most viewers will find plenty of opportunities to laugh.

The talented cast is all in. They play it mostly straight (with one major exception) to achieve the balance between somber and silly. Lily James (“Downton Abbey”) and Sam Riley (On the Road, 2012) are both fun to watch as Elizabeth and Darcy. They are the film’s best fighters … both with swords and words. Bella Heathcoate (Dark Shadows, 2012) is “the pretty one” Jane, who is wooed by Douglas Booth (Noah, 2014) as Mr. Bingley. Lena Headey (“Game of Thrones”) makes an impression in her limited screen time as an eye-patched Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and Jack Huston (“Boardwalk Empire”) is well cast as Wickham. Screen veterans Charles Dance and Sally Phillips take on the role of parents to the five Bennett daughters, but it’s Matt Smith (“Dr Who”), who turns the film on its ear with his unconventional twist on the oddball Parson Collins, who pretty much steals each of his scenes. He had those in the theatre laughing out loud more than a few times.

Pity is the word that comes to mind for any young man who takes these Bennett girls to the prom … or more likely to one of the societal balls. The weapons hidden under their formal gowns offer fair warning to zombies and handsy suitors alike. It’s this element of strong women (physically and emotionally) that might even allow Ms. Austen to appreciate what’s happened to her characters … were she alive to see it.

Even though the film offers plenty of fun with laughs and action and romance, let’s hope it doesn’t kick off a new zombie-adaptation trend. Here are a few titles that we hope never see the big screen: Sense and Sensibilities and Zombies, War and Peace and Zombies, Crime and Punishment and Zombies, The Old Zombie and the Sea, Wuthering Zombies, Romeo and Juliet and Zombies, and Alice’s Adventure in Zombieland.

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VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015)

November 24, 2015

victor frankenstein Greetings again from the darkness. If a filmmaker is going to mess with the classics, there are two paths of creativity from which to choose: stay true to the original, or put a new spin on it. In this case, the classics in question are the nearly 200 year old novel from Mary Shelley (1818) and the nearly 85 year old movie from James Whale (1931). The filmmakers doing the messing are director Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin) and screenwriter Max Landis (son of director John). The spin they chose was (in theory) to tell the story from the perspective of Igor, the loyal assistant to Dr. Frankenstein.

It’s an interesting approach, but one that immediately presents a problem … since the title they chose was not “Igor”, but rather Victor Frankenstein. The film does begin with Igor’s backstory in the circus as a hunchbacked clown/amateur doctor, and the character does provide some early and late narration. The conundrum stems from the fact that pretty much everything else in the movie is centered on the mad scientist, rather than the skilled apprentice/partner.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Igor and James McAvoy plays Victor Frankenstein (not Fron-kin-steen, in a nod to Mel Brooks), and both actors seem to be doing everything possible to bring energy and enthusiasm to a movie that can’t seem to decide if it’s a reboot or a reimagination or simply an origin story. Radcliffe effectively uses his physicality as the circus clown who is so mistreated and misunderstood, and McAvoy is such a hyper-active mad scientist that I’m sure his fellow actors many times were inclined to advise “say it, don’t spray it”.  McAvoy does seem to be having a grand old time playing the brilliant yet unhinged young doctor-to-be, and to his credit takes a much different approach than Colin Clive when he gets to the infamous line “It’s ALIVE!”

The best parts of the movie are the intricate and amazing sets, the monster himself (albeit too brief), and the expert use of classical music and film score. The circus sets are colorful and active, while Frankenstein’s soap factory home/laboratory is fascinating and creative, and the final Scotland castle on a cliff is breath-taking. Pulleys, chains and cranks are everywhere … as is an incredible amount of body parts, organs and fluids.

After a very well done circus opening, we are jarred with a seemingly out of place action sequence involving a slo-motion chase and fight scene that seems to be attempting to mimic some of the recent Sherlock Holmes movie stunts. Here they are unwelcome and ruin the flow. Another aspect that seems forced and unnecessary is a romantic interlude between Igor and a trapeze artist (played by Jessica Brown Findlay). It feels like an add-on to remind us that it’s supposed to be Igor’s story. Additionally, Andrew Scott plays an intriguing Scotland Yard Inspector who is every bit as obsessed with his faith-based beliefs as Victor is with his science-has-no-bounds stance. A story told from the Inspector’s perspective might have worked, but instead it comes across as another add-on. Another add-on is the filthy rich and very devious fellow med student (played by Freddie Fox) who agrees to fund the experiments, but mostly the character is an after-thought necessary to move the plot along. Wasted is the always menacing Charles Dance, who has but one scene as Victor’s strongly disapproving daddy.

A combination of the romance, minimal role of Igor in the grand finale, the medical school bumbling, the clunky Inspector involvement, and the all too brief monster appearance makes the film all but impossible for viewers to connect. They tell us twice “You know the story … a crack of lightning, a mad genius, and an unholy creation”, but the reality is, the fact that we know the story, makes this one all the more disappointing. It’s fun to look at, but is lacking the depth and soul that has allowed Shelley’s book to stand up over two centuries.

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BONE TOMAHAWK (2015)

October 25, 2015

bone tamahawk Greetings again from the darkness. In an effort to be helpful to potential viewers, it’s customary to provide a synopsis that allows for a quick determination on whether this “type” of movie will hold appeal. The problem is that this debut from writer/director (and novelist) S. Craig Zahler can be encapsulated with a simple: four local men from a small, dusty old West town head out on a rescue mission to face a tribe of cannibal cave-dwellers. Unfortunately, that analysis doesn’t cover the originality and genre-twisting of this Western-Horror film featuring crisp and funny dialogue, plus some of the most extreme brutality ever witnessed on screen.

A very deep and talented cast milks the script for every possible chuckle, moan, shock of pain, and queasy squirm. Kurt Russell stars as Franklin Hunt, the sheriff of the ironically named town Bright Hope. Though a long-time fan of Mr. Russell, I’ve often been critical of his career-limiting role choices, and here he proves yet again that he has always been capable of taking on a challenging lead and delivering a nuanced performance. He is joined in the rescue posse by his “back-up deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins), the abducted woman’s injured husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson), and a nattily attired gunman (Matthew Fox).

The opening sequence featuring outlaws Purvis (David Arquette) and Buddy (horror vet Sid Haig doing his best Slim Pickins imitation) sets the stage for the brutal violence to come in the third act, as well as the film’s crackling dialogue that’s clearly influenced by The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and Elmore Leonard. There are also brief but memorable supporting roles from Kathryn Morris (as the Sheriff’s wife), Michael Pare’ (as a self-centered stable owner), James Tolkan (as an uninspired piano player), and Fred Melamed (as the barkeeper). Lili Simmons (“Banshee”) has a key role as the abducted Samantha O’Dwyer.

An odd blending of John Ford’s The Searchers and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, a substantial portion of the (long) run-time is dedicated to the slow trail ride/walk of the four men as they track the “troglodyte” tribe in hopes of rescuing the captured folks. The focus on these four men: the duty-bound Sheriff, the overly loyal deputy, the emotionally-driven husband, and the vengeful gunslinger, is an old West character study dressed up with some fancy oration. In fact, the excessively-perfect English sits in stark contrast to the other-worldly tribal wailings of the cave-dwellers who seem to have no real language at all.

It’s an unusual film that defies a simple synopsis, and certainly won’t appeal to all movie goers. A viewer must enjoy the prolonged journey and the interaction between the distinctive personality types (Jenkins is a particular standout in a Walter Brennan-type role), and also have an affinity (or at least a constitution) for gruesome brutality. The film is only receiving a very limited theatrical release, but should find an audience via VOD.

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CRIMSON PEAK (2015)

October 19, 2015

crimson peak Greetings again from the darkness. “It’s not a ghost story. It’s a story with ghosts.” Leave it to writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) to make this distinction. The line is spoken by our lead character Edith, who is striving to write like her literary idol, Mary Shelley. She is explaining her most recent writing effort to a publisher, but the line also represents the movie we are watching … ghosts appear (some grisly ones at that), but they certainly aren’t the focus.

The story begins around the turn of the 20th century as young Edith has just experienced her first family tragedy, the passing of her mother. She grows into an independent young woman (played by Mia Wasikowska) being raised by her successful self-made-man father Curtis Cushing (played by Jim Beaver, “Justified”).  Tip of the cap to del Toro for his tip of the cap to the horror film great Peter Cushing.  Edith has remained steadfast in her independence despite the advances of her lifelong friend, the handsome Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”).  Things change when a mysterious stranger sweeps into town. Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) seeks investors for his “clay harvester”, a machine he designed to automate what now takes many men and much hard labor.  The elder Cushing senses something is “off” about Sharpe and his sister and travelling companion, Lady Lucille (Jessica Chastain), but the strong-minded Edith soon finds herself waltzing and blushing with Sir Thomas.

It would be pretty easy to recap the balance of the story, but that is actually the film’s weakness. It plays like a re-imagined script from one of those old 1940’s or 50’s movies that I watched on Friday nights as a kid. In other words, it’s not very frightening and the viewer’s enjoyment is totally based on the atmosphere. Fortunately, that’s where del Toro and his team excel. The set design (Tom Sanders) and costumes (Kate Hawley) are truly spectacular and among the best ever seen, especially for a horror movie. Dilapidated Allendale Manor features a hole in its roof allowing the elements to freely enter the colossal entry foyer. The furnishings and fixtures, as well as the layout of the house are perfection as a setting. The costumes for all characters are superb, but pay special attention to the fabrics and frills of Edith and Lucille. Camera work from Cinematographer Dan Lausten ties it all together for the eerie feel.

The film is so stunning and interesting to look at that it’s actually quite easy to forgive a story that has little to offer, and often … and I do mean often … relies on horror film clichés in what should be moments of difference-making. Having five such talented lead actors, who each go “all in” for their characters, help us overlook the script weakness, and it’s really the look and atmosphere of the film that make it worth watching … not words I have written many times over the years. For del Toro fans, you should know that Doug Jones does play the creepy ghost that inspires Edith’s first words (as narrator) … “Ghosts are real, that much I know”.

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BOUND TO VENGEANCE (2015)

June 27, 2015

bound to vengeance Greetings again from the darkness. In the 1980’s this could have been the second film of a drive-in theatre double feature. In the 1990’s, Richard Tyson could have been cast as the bad guy. Well, it’s 2015 and one of those things has happened anyway (not the one where you sit in your car). It’s a low-budget direct-to-video thriller that would easily fit in with the numerous ‘hot girl kidnapped’ movies over the years – except for one very welcome change: this girl rampages like Charles Bronson.

Tina Ivlev plays Eve, a girl chained in the basement of a house and held hostage by Richard Tyson’s Phil. One evening, Eve greets Phil with a brick upside the head, and just like that, the tables are turned … Eve takes off on a combined mission of revenge and rescue. See, Phil has been the leader of a group of kidnappers and sex traffickers, and Eve wants to track down the others and set them free.

The movie starts with some joyous smart phone video footage of Eve, her apparent boyfriend and another girl whose identity is not discovered until late in the story. This footage is interspersed throughout the film as Eve makes her way between the various locations. It’s an interesting touch by director JM Cravioto and adds a little complexity to what could have been a straightforward movie featuring Eve’s journey.

We have seen Beatrix Kiddo and her mission of revenge in the Kill Bill movies, but of course, it’s more common to see the victimized girl being rescued by a strong and do-goody man. That man doesn’t exist in this world. It’s all up to Eve, whose sword play may be non-existent, but her desire to kick ass is as strong as any other on screen character, including The Bride.

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