VOICE FROM THE STONE (2017)

April 29, 2017

USA FILM FESTIVAL 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. A painful death bed scene and a teary-eyed child saying goodbye to their beloved caregiver kick off this film that immediately downshifts to a deliberate pace after those two emotional peaks. The first feature from director Eric Howell is adapted by Andrew Shaw from Silvio Raffo’s novel, and it excels in delivering atmosphere and visual unease created by the stunning setting of a fogged-cloaked Tuscan castle that is itself a key character in the film.

Emilia Clarke (“Game of Thrones”), and those expressive eyebrows of hers, stars as Verena, a rehabilitation nurse who specializes in helping traumatized children. Verena is spunky and confident as she arrives at the Gothic-esque home of artist/sculptor Klaus (Marton Csokas) and his son Jakob (Edward Dring). It’s been more than 7 months since the death of his mother (Caterina Murino, Solange in Casino Royale), and also since young Jakob last spoke even a single word. Verena expects to succeed where other nurses have failed.

1950’s Tuscany is beautiful despite, or maybe because of, the dreary and minimal natural lighting and the mysterious elements of the ancient castle and surrounding forest and stone quarry. It’s also a bit creepy and that allows the measured pace of the story to work – it comes across as we are going through the slow process with Jakob and Verena. Well, it works until it doesn’t. The character shifts for Verena and Klaus occur too abruptly – almost as if pages in the script were skipped. Both transformations seem out of place with the film and are jarring to watch … and not jarring in the way that we expect from a suspense thriller.

Most won’t be surprised at where the story goes, but just in case, no spoilers will be discussed here. It should be enough to state that the look and feel of this one should appeal to those who enjoyed such films as The Others, Rebecca, The Sixth Sense, Crimson Peak, and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. The execution of the story might not be at that level, but the atmosphere and mood certainly are. Oversized sculptures, life-sized portraits, an untouched death bed, and even a grand piano allow for more texture than any cheap jump-scares.

Gothic, romantic, supernatural suspense thrillers are pretty tough to pull off, but even getting close allows for some cinematic viewing pleasure. As an added bonus, the lovely score from Michael Wandmacher never screams at us, and Amy Lee (Evanescence) delivers a beautiful and fitting song “Speak to Me” as the film ends.

watch the trailer:

 


THE EQUALIZER (2014)

September 28, 2014

equalizer Greetings again from the darkness. While you are likely familiar with slapstick comedy, this latest from director Antoine Fuqua could be described as slapstick action. This fits because the implements of destruction include barbed wire, a power drill, a book (hardcover, of course), a nail gun, and even a corkscrew. Such an unusual assortment takes a bit of edge off the the extremely graphic violence. If the kills weren’t so gruesome, we might be tempted to chuckle. The titular character is the MacGuyver of Special Ops.

Writer Richard Wenk adapts the story from the terrific TV series which ran from 1985-89. It starred the late, great Edward Woodward as a classy, sophisticated guy who believed in justice for those who needed help against the odds. For the movie, Denzel Washington (re-teaming with his Training Day director) takes over for Mr. Woodward as Robert “Bob” McCall … the seemingly normal guy with extraordinary skills used to balance the scales.

McCall lives a quiet life with OCD tendencies. He is a friendly guy liked by his co-workers at the home improvement box store (imagine Clark Kent working at Home Depot), and even mentors an overweight hispanic young man in his quest to pass the security guard test. McCall is also an insomniac who hangs out after hours reading Hemingway at a local diner, passing along words of hope and wisdom to an underage prostitute (Chloe Grace Moretz). None of these people have any idea of McCall’s previous career with “the company”. Our only glimpse of this is a quick visit to the home of characters from his past, played by Melissa Leo and Bill Pullman.

Our villains here are the Russian mob, and it’s tough to beat that accent for a juicy villain. David Meunier (Johnny Crowder of “Justified” fame) is our first goon, followed up by the slick and menacing Marton Csokas (The Debt) who has an impressive resume of his own. It would have been interesting to have more screen time together for Csokas and Denzel, but we understand why that’s not practical.

Similar to the Bourne movies, the good guy always seems to be a step ahead of the bad, but that has little impact on our ability to find fun in the action. Director Fuqua provides four or five really stylistic shots (including super slo-mo), but also relies on Michael Bay-splosions for one laughable scene at the loading docks. A missed opportunity is the film’s score. We are slammed with a thumping bass line through much of the movie, rather than utilizing the Stuart Copeland theme from the TV series. Expect McCall to arrange the flatware just so, and continue to dish out justice in at least one sequel.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of action movies and enjoy very creative methods of hand-to-hand combat OR you were a fan of the TV series OR you always wondered if shot glasses or corkscrews had other uses.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: graphic gore and violence, even when provided by the always suave and cool Denzel Washington, is not to your taste

watch the trailer:

 


NOAH (2014)

March 30, 2014

noah Greetings again from the darkness. Since I am no biblical scholar, my comments are those of a movie lover. Tackling any part of a story from the bible is a journey filled with land mines and aggressive criticism – and that’s before your movie is released! Surely director Darren Aronofsky was prepared for backlash from those who forbid any interpretation of the Good Book. The story of Noah lasts but a few pages in the bible, meaning Aronofsky had to creatively fill some space to produce a 2-plus hour film.

Russell Crowe makes a fine Noah. He is relentless in his quest to fulfill The Creator’s request … and he flashes his “Gladiator” glare on a few occasions. Rather than an uplifting childhood bedtime story, this Noah carries the burden of God, his own family and the survival of all beings … his days are filled with moral dilemmas much larger than what you and I go through.

With all the miscommunication afforded by email and text these days, imagine if God conversed with you through images in your dreams. Maybe that process creates some areas of gray? Not if you are Noah. I guess he only dreams when God wants to show him something, so his decision making and mission is pretty focused. He is to build a giant floating warehouse to save two of every creature. Yes, that means a lot of death for those not invited. See, God is using Noah and his family to help cleanse the earth of mankind … God is ready for a re-boot. He is really not happy with how mean and nasty man has become ever since that whole apple debacle and the murder of Abel by Cain.

Some of the visual effects are spectacular. I especially enjoyed the high-speed montage showing the creation of life … you know, that first week. Also, the beginning of the flood is quite a spectacle, but the ark itself is actually quite stunning … constructed per the size noted in the Bible. The animals are all digitally created and we actually see little of them, though the on-boarding process goes remarkably smooth – considering this happens before the herbal sleep concoction is disbursed.

Most of the discussion will probably be on The Watchers … the fallen angels who once tried to help mankind, and for their efforts, God turned them into giant stone creatures. I will add that The Watchers need a new nickname since they did the bulk of the manual labor in constructing the ark and then protecting it … not much watching going on for these poor guys (voiced by Nick Nolte and Frank Langella, among others).

Noah’s wife is played by Jennifer Connelly and their sons are played by Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth and Leo McHugh Carroll. They welcome Emma Watson into their family in what turns into a very odd plot twist, and the villain, Tubal-Cain is payed by Ray Winstone. Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather, is played to the hilt by Anthony Hopkins. All of these characters are pretty one dimensional, but it matters little since this is Noah’s story. The burden he carries is quite heavy and his decisions aren’t always popular.

If you are looking for the well documented story of Noah, it’s no mystery what book you should be reading. If you are after a pretty impressive visual interpretation, you could certainly do worse than Aronofsky’s take. And the best news … no Morgan Freeman voice-over!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see one of the most impressive set pieces ever built (the ark), plus some pretty cool fallen angels made of stones, a ferocious flood and a few trademark “Gladiator” glares courtesy of Russell Crowe.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: if you are extremely particular about bible movies … you know it will annoy you.

watch the trailer:

 

 


DREAM HOUSE

October 7, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The horror/thriller idealist in me just refuses to surrender. With three legit movie stars and a director who is responsible for one of my favorite movies, I thought this might just be the genre’s rare gem. Instead, it’s watchable, kinda fun, yet mostly predictable and irritating.

Much of the predictability comes from the trailer, which inexplicably spoils the key twist in the film. Because of the trailer, I actually expected an additional twist to contradict the give-away. Instead, it plays out pretty much as expected, saved only by the efforts of Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz (now married in real life). Word is that the producer of the film, wrestled control away from director Jim Sheridan (In America, My Left Foot) and edited the film into it’s mostly banal finished state. Such a shame.

 Basic story is that a NYC white collar professional quits his job and moves his wife and two girls to their dream house in a quaint little community. Problem is, no one told them that a few years back a mom and her two daughters were murdered in the house, supposedly by the husband who then spent years in a mental institution. With the help of a neighbor (Naomi Watts), Craig starts assembling the pieces of the murder mystery and his new home. On top of that, Elias Koteas is tracking his every move and watching the house.

 The frustration with this one lies in untapped potential. So much more could have been done with Koteas, Watts and Marton Csokas who plays Watts’ overly intense ex-husband. For two days after watching this movie, I kept coming up with new twists and turns that could have made the movie more suspenseful and entertaining. It’s clear that Craig and Weisz are unhappy with the final product as they have been noticeably absent on the talk show circuit, and supposedly Mr. Sheridan requested his name be removed as director.  The behind the scenes mess clearly impacted what we see on screen.

It’s not the worst suspense thriller you’ll ever see, but there are better haunted house films on the market.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a big fan of the suspense thriller genre – even when the final product is far from perfect.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: like me, you get annoyed with obvious deficiencies in movie making.

watch the trailer (only if you don’t mind a MAJOR SPOILER):


THE DEBT

September 5, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Espionage thrillers can be so much fun in both book and movie form. Movies actually have a little advantage for the action scenes. Books clearly have the advantage in details, backstory and character development. What is frustrating as a viewer is when a movie starts strong and then crumbles under the weight of expectation … sometimes trying to make a bigger splash than necessary. Such is the case with director John Madden‘s remake of the rarely-seen 2007 Israeli film Ha-Hov.

 

 The story is centered around a 1965 mission of a trio of Mossad agents. Mossad is Israel’s CIA. These three agents, Rachel (Jessica Chastain), Stephan (Marton Csokas) and David (Sam Worthington) are to capture the notorious Nazi war criminal, the Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen), and bring him back for a proper trial of war time atrocities.

 

 Flash forward to 1997 and Rachel’s daughter has written a book about the daring mission and the three heroes. The older version of the characters are played by Helen Mirren (Rachel), Tom Wilkinson (Stephan) and Ciaran Hinds (David). We are treated to flashbacks of the mission and how things took a wrong turn, but ended just fine. Or did they? There seems to be some inconsistencies with the story told and the actual events that have created much strain between Rachel and Stephan, and life-altering changes for the more sensitive David.

 This is an odd film because the best story parts occur when the younger cast members are carrying out the 1965 mission. It is full of suspense and intrigue. The intensity and believability drops off significantly in the 1997 version, but oddly, the older actors are much more fun to watch on screen … especially the great Helen Mirren. I am not sure what all of that really means, but for me, it meant the third act of the film was a bit hokey and hard to buy.

Director John Madden is known for his fabulous Shakespeare in Love, but not much else. His films since then have all come up just a bit short of that very high bar he set 13 years ago. Jessica Chastain continues her fantastic 2011 season adding this performance to her more spectacular turns in Tree of Life and The Help. Sam Worthington is known for his role in Avatar, but his character here is so thinly written, I doubt any actor could have pulled it off. Jesper Christensen seems to usually play the bad guy and he is in full glory here as a Nazi war criminal with no regrets.

The first half will keep you on the edge of your seat, but by the end you will have a somewhat empty feeling. What a shame as this one teased us with much hope.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: espionage thrillers are your cup of tea and you can overlook a few exaggerated details OR you want to see Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain if full-fighting mode

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you need the attention to meticulous detail of Tom Clancy in your espionage thrillers

watch the trailer: