The House of Exorcism (1975): restrospective review

House of Exorcism Elke Sommer and Robert Alda
In cults circles (especially among fans of Italian horror cinema in general and director Mario Bava in particular), THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM is probably the most (in)famous alternate film version in existence – a complete do-over of Bava’s excellent and ethereal LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973) with added scenes of (you guessed it!), exorcism and all that entails: bile, vomit, and profanity. What may make HOUSE OF EXORCISM unique among alternate versions is that (as its producer Alfredo Leone is fond of pointing out) it actually has a separate copyright date, distinguishing HOUSE OF EXORCISM as a separate film unto itself. The irony here is that, if HOUSE OR EXORCISM holds any interest at all (a position seriously open to debate), that interest lies not on the merits of the film itself but on its relationship to LISA AND THE DEVIL.
The original is an atmospheric, ambitious work, filled with suggestion and ambiguity about a tourist named Lisa (Elke Sommer) who loses her way and ends up in a chateau with a strange family, who seem to recognize her as someone named Helena. Is she a reincarnation of a dead woman, or are these the ghosts of the past? Is Leandro (Telly Savalas) simply a butler, or is he an incarnation of the Devil, tormenting Lisa by making her relive events of her previous life over and over?  In the manner of many such movies, which combine artistic aspirations with genre obligations, it’s not a fully satisfying experience in a conventional sense, and it’s sometime hard to determine whether the questions lingering over the narrative are a part of an intricate puzzle box or simply a matter of sloppy screenwriting. Fortunately, the film bravura visual qualities pull you into its weird world, so that any puzzling plot developments become part of the dreamlike experience.
Apparently this was too much for U.S. distributors, who passed on LISA AND THE DEVIL after it was completed in 1973. Hoping to get some return on his investment, Leone went back and shot more footage (apparently directing the additions himself) featuring Sommer and Robert Alda as a priest. The result was THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM, which was released in Italy in 1975 and in the U.S. in 1976 – a film that mimics THE EXORCIST (1973) only close enough to remind viewers how inferior the ripoff is.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM begins with a much more bombastic opening music cue, beneath a completely revised opening credits sequence, with graphics emphasizing crosses against garish red backgrounds. After that, there is some attempt to simulate the visual style of the original, and the new footage blends relatively seamlessly at first (though sharp-eyed viewers will note that Leandro is shot only from behind to disguise the absence of Savalas). In the added scenes, instead of simply losing her way and hitching a ride that takes her to the chateau, Lisa suffers some kind of fit; taken to a hospital, she exhibits signs of possession, so Father Michael (Alda) performs an exorcism, which more or less lasts the rest of the film, with footage from LISA AND THE DEVIL intercut like flashbacks or dreams.
The possession scenes pilfer THE EXORCIST’s bag of tricks, adding little new and nothing worthwhile. There is some stunt work with a contortionist that’s halfway creepy and some belabored attempts to use adult nudity and innuendo show the evil spirit tormenting the priest with his guilty feelings over an affair from before he took to the cloth; a particularly risible moment occurs when Father Michael’s dead girl friend materializes to seduce him – in a room whose walls are covered in puke (it doesn’t help that the hospital set, where the exorcism takes place, looks more like a toolshed). Like almost every other film that followed in the wake of director William Friedkin’s version of William Peter Blatty’s best-seller, HOUSE OF EXORCISM eschews any attempt at grappling with its subject matter in a realistic way, instead simply serving up a bunch of recycled cliches like so many obligatory genre elements: Lisa contorts, pukes, and levitates on cue because that’s what happens in a film with “exorcism” in the title – but it’s all gratuitous mayhem, with no thematic underpinnings.
There are a few transitional bits to visually justify cross-cutting between the two narrative threads (i.e., as Lisa wanders lost in a scene from the original, the camera zooms in on a broken pocket watch, before cutting to a closeup of someone looking at his wrist watch in the hospital to which Lisa has been taken in the new footage). However, the logical connection between the two threads remains elusive. In one early addition, a repairman, working on a mannequin for Leandro, notes that Lisa looks exactly like Helena, suggesting that Leandro plans to “use” her tonight, instead of Helena – presumably in the drama about to unfold at the chateau. Later in the hospital, the possessed Lisa declares to no one in particular, “You won’t use me in your games tonight!” The implication seems to be that the scenes in the chateau represent events that the spirit of Helena is somehow avoiding by possessing the body of Lisa. Or something like that…
What is mildly interesting is that the film eventually feels some obligation to spell out, however incoherently, what is happening. In between hurling profanity and invective at Father Michael (“Don’t break my balls, priest!”), Helena, speaking through Lisa, offers a sort of running commentary on the events in the chateau, spelling out not only what is happening but also why. In a sense, she becomes the Greek Chorus, explaining the story to the audience.
The completely unexpected result of this is that HOUSE OR EXORCISM emerges feeling less like a ripoff of THE EXORCIST and more like DAUGHTER OF HORROR, the re-release version of DEMENTIA (1955), which added narration to clarify a nightmarish scenario that was originally intended to perplex audiences with its dreamlike surrealism. Is this enough to make HOUSE OF EXORCISM interesting, even if not worthwhile? Not really. The explanation proffered by HOUSE OF EXORCISM makes little sense. Unlike DAUGHTER OF HORROR, whose narration may actually have enhanced the movie, providing answers that did not feel tiresome or trite, HOUSE OF EXORCISM does not emerge as an intriguing alternate version; its exposition simply reminds us that we would have been better off watching LISA AND THE DEVIL and figuring things out for ourselves.
In HOUSE OF EXORCISM, Helena is speaking in the past tense about things she has experienced, but she also insists that these events at the chateau are taking place again tonight, though it is not completely clear how that could be possible without her participation. Are we to assume that Helena and Lisa’s spirit have traded places and that Lisa is now in Helena’s place, trapped in some kind of limbo where the events of the past repeat endlessly? If so, the explanation is unsatisfying – why should Lisa suffer for Helena’s sins? As elusive as the original film was, the implication ultimately was that Lisa and Helena were the same, and the events in the chateau represented her past – perhaps another lifetime – catching up with her.
With this element obliterated, the ending pushes Lisa aside to focus on Father Michael as he travels to the chateau to exorcise the house itself. Why? No particular reason, except perhaps that placing this new character in the setting from the old footage would forge a slightly stronger link between the film’s two narrative threads. This leads to a relatively uneventful climax in which the priest wanders around the building, assaulted by wind and threatened by snakes, while shouting to cast out the devil.An abruptly edited flash of lightening seems to show him going up in a puff of smoke, but by that time viewers are past caring.
HOUSE OF EXORCISM is, top put it bluntly, an abomination. Back in 1975, when there was no other way for  U.S. viewers to see LISA AND THE DEVIL in any form, there may have been some justification for the existence of HOUSE OF EXORCISM; now, however, the film is nothing more than a historical footnote, a curiosity for Bava fans who want to see the their idol’s masterpiece bastardized into one in a long line of EXORCIST ripoffs. As understandable as producer Leone’s intentions were (was it better to leave the film unseen in  a vault or get it on the screen in some form?), HOUSE OF EXORCISM takes Bava’s intriguing original and spoils it with crude vulgarity. If you really want to see a marriage of LISA AND THE DEVIL and THE EXORCIST, rent both of them and watch them back to back.
house_of_exorcism_poster_01THE HOUSE OF EXORCISM (1975). Produced by Alfredo Leone. Directed by Mario Bava and Alfredo Leone (as Mickey Lion). Written by Mario Bava, Alberto Cittini, Alfred Leone, Giorgio Maulini, Romano Migliorini, Roberto natale, Francesca Rusishka. Cast: Telly Savalas, Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina, Alessio Orano, Gabriele Tinit, Kathy Leone, Eduardo Fajardo, Carmen Silva, Franz Von Treuberg, Espartaco Santoni, Alida Valli, Robert Alda. Rated R. 92 minutes.

Tokyo Gore Police (2008) – review

If you are expecting an exciting, tongue-in-cheek thrill ride with gallons of ridiculous gore, you are one-fourth right.
TokyoGorePolice_poster_01If you sit down to watch a film called Tokyo Gore Police, you certainly have no one to blame but yourself, right? It’s not as if you had no idea what you were in for. Or maybe you didn’t. You could have been expecting an exciting, tongue-in-cheek thrill ride with gallons of ridiculous gore. In which case, you were one-fourth right. Although blood flows freely, excitement and thrills are in short supply; as for the tongue, it’s been ripped from the cheek and tossed out the window.
The story, such as it is, follows Ruka (Eihi Shiina), who is your standard-issue tough but troubled ass-kicking hot chick. She’s part of an elite police unit that handles a new kind of criminal, who sprout weaponry from wounds inflicted upon them. (And you thought Hercules had it bad with the Hydra!)
Before delving any deeper into Tokyo Gore Police, I should pause to acknowledge that, if you are interested in seeing it, you probably don’t care about any plot deficiencies I may be about to enumerate. Which is fine by me: nonsense cinema can be fun.
However, there is a more fundamental problem, which supersedes narrative coherence: there’s really nothing Ruka does which comes close to justifying the high regard in which she is held by the other characters (and, indeed, by the film itself). It’s not as if there is anything about her skill with a sword to convince us that she could succeed where an armed squad of other police would fail. Sure, she kills all the mutant criminals, but that happens pretty much because the script says so.
The story follows Ruka’s quest to find the “Key Man,” who created the virus that turns criminals into “engineers” capable of transforming. He turns out to be one of those villains with a righteous cause, regardless of his methods. And considering the brutality of Ruka’s comrades (who are ruthlessly cracking down on everyone suspected of being an engineer), you can hardly blame the Key Man for hating the police (though he has a more specific reason as well).
His motivation ties in with Ruka’s decision to join the police, which stems from a childhood memory of seeing her father (also a policeman) murdered. Since then, she has been raised by her father’s colleague, who is also now the police chief and, hence, Ruka’s boss. Anyone want to take early bets on whether the chief turns out to have been involved in dad’s murder? No? Good, I figured you were too smart to fall for sucker action like that.
Eventually, Ruka gets infected, which turns out to be a good thing, because she can mutate a cool new arm and eye and turn the tables on her former colleagues after finding out that her dad was murdered precisely because he resisted police force privatization – though, to be frank, it’s not as if the film generates any real rooting interest in this regard.
Too a large extent, none of this matters, because the appeal of Tokyo Gore Police is based upon the weird mutations it can visualize for Ruka to slice to pieces. Strangely, as excessive as it it, Tokyo Gore Police falls short in this area, at least by its own standards, with certain effects – or at least types of effects – repeated. Make no mistakes: there is an abattoir full of mutant, mangled flesh on view, but after awhile it seems as if the writers ran of out ways for Ruka to dispatch the engineers.
The one small saving grace is that the film mimics the satirical tone of the original Robocop. Set in a vaguely fascist future, Tokyo Gore Police is sprinkled with TV adverts and public service announcements that are often morbidly funny (topics range from suicide to trendy wrist-cutting self-inflicted by happy teenage schoolgirls). Unfortunately, these scenes add up to approximately three minutes of the overlong 110-minute running time; you’re better of watching them on YouTube.
Center stage in all this is the “Tokyo Gore Police” (actually identified as the “Tokyo Police Corporation” in the film), whose ads show them mercilessly gunning down miscreants while jovially announcing to the camera, “We will protect you!” This is followed by a voice over extolling the virtues of privatizing the police force. The satirical emulation of mindless propaganda is as cutting as anything in Starship Troopers.
Sadly, Tokyo Gore Police has neither the resources nor the inclination to infuse this satire into the main body of the film, which thus fails to live up to its own best idea. Apparently, privatization hasn’t been particularly profitable, because Ruka’s “elite” police unit operates out of what looks like a dingy warehouse, with so little equipment and staff that, when it finally falls under attack late in the proceedings, you wonder why no criminals realized sooner that they could just walk in and start shooting. (If one were very generous, I suppose one could theorize that the intent was to show the discrepancy between the propaganda and the reality, but on screen it just looks as if the producers could not afford a set and some extras.)
tokyo-gore-police-gimpInstead, all creativity goes into the engineers, who are truly a ghastly and disturbing menagerie, their mutated bodies, with suggestions of S&M and deviancy, like something out of a joint nightmare by David Lynch and Clive Barker. Seen as still photos, these images may intrigue the curious and the unwary, but ultimately the film has little idea what to do with these creatures besides set them up to be knocked down in a repetitious series of gore-infused fights scenes. Ultimately, Tokyo Gore Police would work better as a coffee table photo album, nestled somewhere below Giger’s Necronomicon, The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe, and The Art of Olivia, all of which manage to be not only bizarre but also fascinating – a feat that eludes Tokyo Gore Police.
TOKYO GORE POLICE (Tôkyô zankoku keisatsu, 2008) Directed by Hoshihiro Nishimura. Written by Kengo Kaji, Maki Mizui, Yoshihiro Nishimura (English translation by J.J. Vallejo). Cast: Eihi Shiina, Itsuji Itao, Yukihide Benny, Jiji Bu, Ikuko Sawada. Unrated. 110 mins.

Psycho Gothic Lolita (2010) – review

Blood, watery though it may be, is nonetheless much, much thicker than plot.

Psycho Gothic LolitaPSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA is one of those films that must be seen to be believed – which is not the same as saying it “must” or even “should” be seen. Essentially, this is a vaguely futuristic, Japanese rip-off of KILL BILL, with a nod toward a Tokyo fashion trend that you can probably surmise from the title, filled with sound and fury but signifying very little. It’s not all bad, but the good parts can – and pretty much do – fit into the trailer.
After a briefly glimpsed exterior suggesting we’re in one of those gloomy movie worlds that might be the future or just an alternate reality, PSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA gets immediately down to business, with its title character graphically killing a bunch of people in a nightclub before facing off with the female owner in a vengeful duel to the death.
Just in case you’ve never seen a Quentin Tarantino movie, I will not pause to explain that this sequence is essentially a reprise of the Crazy 88 episode from KILL BILL, VOLUME 1. I will also pause to explain that, individually and/or collaboratively, director Go Ohara and writer Hisakatsu Kuroki are no Quentin Tarantino. Taking cues only from the over-the-top violence, they do not bother to replicate KILL BILL’S time structure; instead, after the initial carnage, they settle into the monotonous rhythm of a bad porno movie, in which every scene of spewing bodily fluids is alternated with a dull dialogue scene that “advances” the “plot.”
Which amounts to this: Yuki (Rina Akiyama” and her father Jiro (Yurei Yanagi) are seeking revenge for the murder of Yuki’s mother. They talk about this during the plot scenes, without every really saying anything important. There is no trail of clues they seem to be following, nor any particular long-term strategy; they’re just plugging away at this one killing at a time. One presumes they are working their way up the pecking order of villains until they get to numero uno, but it scarcely matters.
Consequently, after the first ten minutes, you’ve pretty much seen the movie; everything else is repetition, except insofar as the fight scenes can upgrade the insanity with ever more outrageous invention, some of which are, admittedly, worth a chuckle (such as an umbrella that shoots like a rifle).
The gore effects – the real star of the show – are, of course, way – way – way beyond belief, which is good, because the watery read geysers are too fake to induce nausea, allowing us to laugh as Yuki slices and dices her way through her various targets.
There is a tiny break in the monotony when one of Yuki’s victims is being attacked by some thugs for unexplained reasons: Yuki must first kill the attackers before killing her victim. I guess the irony of her “rescuing” someone only to kill him is supposed to be amusing, but the effect would have been more effective if this had been the opening scene, before we knew what to expect from her.
The movie picks up a bit when Yuki confronts another young, hot female warrior, whose weapon serves double-duty as a cell phone, allowing her to chat with her boyfriend during the no-holds-barred death duel. It’s not much, but when you’re in a desert, any drop of water feels like an oasis.
In the last reel we get a “development” that is no doubt intended to suggest that there really is a “plot” to be developed: we finally learn the motivation of the murderers who killed Yuki’s mother. It has something to do with mom being  a demon or something, whose energy of power the murders wanted (don’t quote me on this – the exposition was so perfunctory that I couldn’t bring myself to commit the details to memory).
This leads to the big finish, in which Jiro is kidnapped and put on a guillotine, forcing Yuki into a situation in which she figurative fights with one hand tied behind her back – or in this case, one hand holding a rope to prevent the blade from dropping on her father’s neck.
That this sounds suspenseful is a testament to my poor writing skills, which if they were up to par would clarify that the absurdity of the sequences utterly squelches any rooting interest. As Yuki battles back and forth, advancing and retreating, the blade goes up and down so many times that when it finally does fall, the inevitably has been forecast for what seems like hours, and the only emotional response is relief that an overextended sequence has finally come to an end. (And no, this does not count as a spoiler, because even without reading this, you would have seen what was coming long before it happened.)
Anyway, Yuki kills the bad guys, but in the way of Japanese films, we’re left feeling that maybe that’s not a good thing, because there was that demonic aspect to her mother, which – who knows? – might be hereditary or something. And anyway, Yuki’s an orphan now, and it’s not as if her mission in life has really helped her develop the skills to make friends, so she’s rather a lonely soul. But at least she still looks good in that Gothic Lolita garb, so what the hell, right?

Yup, it's the future all right.
Yup, it's the future all right.

The denoument provides another glimpse of a gloomy exterior, which reminds us that PSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA is supposed to be something other than mundane in its setting, even though much of it looks as if it was shot on locations available to any student filmmaker (gymnasiums, warehouses, empty roads), often with available sunlight. At least the interiors occasionally show some stylization, with Bavaesque colors proudly beamed across the screen quite regardless of realistic light sources.
PSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA is apparently part of a a Japanese splatter sub-genre that includes such titles as TOKYO GORE POLICE. The unabashed exploitation zeal of these films – in which blood, watery though it may be, is nonetheless much, much thicker than plot – has a certain charm – but not nearly enough to sustain a feature. We’d really all be much better off if the fight scenes from these films were repurposed as three-minute YouTube videos.
PSYCHO GOTHIC LOLITA (U.S home video title; a.k.a., GOSU RORI SHOKEININ [“Gothic & Lolita Psycho”], 2010). Directed by Go Ohara. Written by Hisakatsu Kuroki. Cast: Rina Akiyama, Ruito Aoyagi, Minami Tsuikui, Misaki Momose, Asami, Yukihide Benny, Jonny Caines. 88 mins.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – review

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation Cruise on motorcycle posterI don’t know whether you know this or not, but Tom Cruise is the most awesome guy on the planet. Not having met Cruise personally, I know this only because that’s what the plots of all his movies are about. This plot comes in two variations. The first one is straight-forward: Tom Cruise is totally awesome! The second variation is a little less direct: People don’t appreciate how awesome Tom Cruise is! (Think of Jerry Maguire, in which his girlfriend dumps him and he loses his job, just to prove that even though he’s totally awesome, we should still sympathize with him because the world treats him so unfairly.) The interesting thing about Cruise’s latest effort, insofar as there is anything interesting about Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, is that it conflates these two strains into a single if somewhat uncomfortable hybrid.
In Phase One of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Cruise plays the super-awesome Ethan Hunt once again, who hangs off airplanes when he’s not out-fighting, out-running, and out-maneuvering everyone else in the film. In Phase Two of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, the CIA (in the person of Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin) wants to kill Hunt because, in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black, Hunley doesn’t  like the Impossible Mission Force’s carte blanche to engage in unsupervised covert ops. Consequently, while Hunt is busy trying to save the world yet again, his own ungrateful country is trying to terminate him with extreme prejudice.
It’s really not fair for such an awesome dude to be treated this way, but the plot plays well for viewers who think that America should kick-ass on the rest of the world, and that any sort of restraint is the result of scheming forces that want to undermine the good guys.
Unfortunately, this amalgam, instead of being more than the sum of its parts, turns out to be somewhat less, because the two phases, like musical notes out of phase with each other, tend to cancel out rather than combine. The filmmakers can’t spend half the movie showing us how awesome Cruise is and then expect the audience to worry that the CIA might actually catch and execute him. Likewise, when the filmmakers spend the other half of the movie showing Cruise easily evading the entire CIA, they can’t expect us to have any doubts that he will have any trouble defeating the villain du jour.
Which is rather unfortunate, because Phase One of the film is supposedly built around the concept that Hunt may have finally met his match, which would have been interesting if we had believed it. Of course, we don’t – the two-phase approach makes it impossible to even pretend to believe it, and it certainly doesn’t help that the fiendish mastermind is too blind to notice (or at least do anything about) the rather obvious double-agent he is employing. But at the end of the day, none of this really matters, because the movie’s only message is: even when Hunt meets his match, he still wins, because no one can match Cruise’s awesomeness!
Before I forget, let me mention that the plot mechanics are constructed around a MacGuffin that Hunt must steal from a super-duper high-security facility. There is an explanation for what this MacGuffin is and how it got into the facility, which makes a kind of movie sense at least; however, the MacGuffin actually turns out to be something completely different from what we were told (you need twists in this kind of spy thriller),. This raises a question the film never bothers to address: if the explanation of the MacGuffin’s identify was false, does the explanation for how it got into the facility make sense anymore?
I suppose one could dismiss all of this as mere pretext, the necessary plot elements to justify exciting set-piece, of which there are several. Unfortunately, the best one comes up front, with Cruise hanging off the side of a plane taking off from the runway. It’s a bold, can-we-top-this? gambit that overshadows the rest of the film; the following fight scenes, suspense scenes, and chase scenes (including a pretty nifty one on a motorcycle) are all good – but not that good.
With Cruise’s awesomeness blazing throughout the film, there is not much room for anyone else to shine. It’s nice to see Ving Rhames again, but I’ve already forgotten what if anything he contributed. Jeremy Renner cements his position as Hollywood’s top also-ran, treading water while waiting for the producers to spin him off into a Bourne-like sequel. Rebecca Ferguson is supposed to be amazing, but she’s just okay – good enough to play second fiddle, but no threat to the star. Alec Baldwin somehow manages to make his CIA prick fun to watch even before his change of heart (he’s basically Ralph Fiennes from SKYFALL).
In spite of my qualms I did find Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation reasonably diverting, and the ending even managed to build up a fair share of tension (though why I should have doubted that Cruise’s awesomeness would prevail, I don’t know). Maybe my expectations were too high. Its predecessor,  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, supplied some actual thrills (for once, the danger seemed real rather than pretend), and I was expecting more of the same – an expectation seemingly confirmed by wildly enthusiastic reviews (93% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes).
Sadly, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation winds up seeming a bit like someone who tells you he’s funny instead of telling you a joke. The film insistently harps on Cruise’s awesomeness, without fully achieving awesomeness itself.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (July 31, 2015). Directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, from a story by McQuarrie and Drew Pearce, based on the television series by Bruce Geller. With: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Jingchu Zhang, Tom Hollander, Jens Hulten, Alec Bladwin.  In IMAX 3D. PG-13. 131 mins.

Jurassic World – review

jurassic-world-posterI am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man.
Why? Because miracles do happen.
After two miserable sequels, the world had no reason to expect anything good from another Jurassic Park movie; in fact, we had every reason to expect we would be better off without one – and it’s not as if the trailers did much to assuage our feelings of apprehension that Jurassic World would be a heaping pile of dino-dung. Why the hell would anybody build a park on the site of the previous disaster, and who would be stupid enough to put up the insurance? What kind of morons would buy tickets to visit a place with that kind of horrible and undoubtedly very high-profile history? Are we really supposed to get excited over the sight of Chris Pratt using Raptors like a pack of hunting dogs to track some new mutant dinosaur? Doesn’t the whole thing feel desperate and ridiculous?
And yet, in spite of every ill omen, Jurassic World turns out to be the most enjoyable blockbuster in recent memory, easily eclipsing the moribund Marvel superhero franchise. How this miracle was achieved, I am not quite sure – perhaps through some bureaucratic oversight, Universal Pictures hired some people who actually wanted to make a good movie? Maybe someone realized that, in a marketplace saturated with special effects, just doing another formulaic dino-munch-athon was not going to cut it?
I suspect that both may be the case: some talented people realized the challenges they faced and devised clever ways to meet those challenges. In particular, Jurassic World works because it is almost as much about Jurassic World the film as it is about Jurassic World the tourist attraction. The premise is that audiences grow jaded with familiar wonders; this attention-deficit-disorder requires an ever increasing escalation of scale in order to continue selling tickets; unfortunately, escalation can lead to disastrous results for audiences, who end up being assaulted instead of entertained.
In essence, this is the situation in which the makers of Jurassic World found themselves: back in 1993, showing regular dinosaurs – with the added novelty of computer-generated imagery – was enough to wow viewers; twenty-two years later, the familiar beasts are old-hat, so upping the ante is necessary. Thus, is born the new Indominus Rex; fortunately, the ensuing disaster is visited upon the on-screen audience in the park, not the real live audience in the theatre, because the filmmakers seem completely aware of how far wrong this strategy could go.
After all, they had only to look at Jurassic Park III, which gave us the Spinosaurus. Remember him? No? I’m not surprised. Spinosaurus is the equivalent of a “new and improved” product that provides exactly what you got before but in new packaging. It’s just a T-Rex with a sail on its back, and though having it kill a T-Rex early in the film is supposed to strike terror in our hearts, we all realize that – regardless of whether it looks a little different and kills the monster from the previous films – a Spinosaurus can’t kill you any deader than a T-Rex, so in practical terms there is absolutely no difference.
At first, Indominous Rex seems to be Jurassic World’s Spinosaurus – just another bigger, badder T-Rex, no doubt intended to sell new tie-in merchandise. Fortunately, it turns out to be something much better than that. Indominous becomes a self-referential plot point, in which the filmmakers acknowledge what circumstances are forcing them to do (create a new dinosaur as a marketing gimmick) and then ruthlessly satirize the result while ultimately inviting us to root for the old-school dinosaurs we lovingly remember from the first film.
And if my prose makes this sound like a dry, intellectual exercise, I apologize, because the result is a kick-ass, high-octane adventure that perfectly manipulates its pop entertainment elements – which is to say that, whether or not Jurassic World features sophisticated drama and in-depth characters, it makes you feel involved with the on-screen events,so that, even if the scenario plays out in a way that might seem predictable of even trite when viewed with cynical, retroactive disdain, you will fall under the spell while the film unspools before your eyes – fearing the threat and rooting for the heroes to defeat it. Or to put it another way: the film can get away with roasting a lot of chestnuts, because it cooks them to perfection and makes the audience hungry for more.
Indominous Rex (the dialogue acknowledges the absurdity of the name, manufactured – like the creature itself – to sell tickets) is a freak of science, a gene-spliced hybrid that emerges as the modern equivalent of Frankenstein’s Monster – an abomination that has no right to exist in our world of naturally evolved organisms. Intelligent and ruthless, the creature kills for sport – a hint that pays off late in the film, revealing that Indominous is something more sinister than just a redesigned Tyrannosaur.
In short, Indominous is almost a dictionary definition of a monster, which beyond any doubt needs to be exterminated, and much of the triumph of Jurassic World is that the battle that ensues is not a Transformers-like exercise in empty visual flash; it’s a textbook example of the value of rooting interest: I cannot remember the last time I anxiously cheering for a character to be put down for good (unless it was the moment in Evil Dead II when Ash jabs his finger at the severed head of his undead girl friend and angrily intones, “You’re doing down!”).
Of course, this is no easy task; it requires some satisfying inter-species cooperation. Not only does Owen (Pratt) ride out with his Raptor-pack; Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) unleashes a useful ally at the climax. The sly joke is that these two dinosaurs were mortal enemies at the conclusion of the first Jurassic Park, but now they set aside their differences to help humanity defeat the monster.
In a weird kind of way, Jurassic World is the franchise’s equivalent of Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster, in which Godzilla teams with former foes Mothra and Rodan to fend off the new threat. The difference is that, avoiding camp, Jurassic World sells the idea with a straight face conviction that precludes us from even questioning the convenience that a worthy opponent for Indominus just happened to be conveniently waiting in a pen to be unleashed for the climax. I certainly wasn’t going to question it, because it was sure as hell what I wanted to see happen.
To spread some credit around to the humans, Pratt and Howard and effortlessly appealing in their roles; yeah, they’re fairly typical movie characters, but they’re watchable and even believable. The two brothers at the center of the story are likable instead of annoying (and neither one defeats a Raptor with a kick from the parallel bars). It’s also nice that even some nominal bad guys – execs and scientists responsible for Indominous Rex – seem sort of like people, and sometimes even make a halfway decent attempt to do the right thing, as when new park owner Masrani (Irrfan Khan) pilots a helicopter attempting to shoot down Indominous – even though he is not fully qualified for the task. It’s always nice to see B.D. Wong (here as the dino-designer), and Vincent D’Onofrio does good work as the film’s one officially unredeemed asshole, who wants to use the Raptors as dog soldiers. Guess what happens to him?
But while you’re guessing, remember this: the joys of Jurassic World do not being and end with seeing an unlikable character get what he deserves (a la the lawyer in Jurassic Park). This movie wants to bring you back to a state of mind where a rampaging dinosaur would have you scared shirtless. (Did I just write that? Must have been a typo!) When Indominous escapes his pen, you are not chanting, “Go, go – Godzilla!” You are moaning, “Oh no! Oh hell! Everybody – run!” It’s a sign of truly impressive film-making when even the disposable “red shirt” character inspires more sympathy than blood-lust in an audience that has paid to see a creature with an appetite for destruction go on a wild rampage.
That rampage is rendered with excellent CGI that is not merely pretty; it also suggests a believable physicality – a sense of inertia and momentum seen in real object but lacking in most digital work, which tends to betray its virtual origins. The 3D aspect is reasonably well-used: true to form for recent 3D films, the effects tend to be less in-your-face than the old school “comin’ at ya” shots of the 1950s and 1970s, but the extra dimension helps convey the sense of gargantuan size, and there is one great shot of a pterodactyl trying to fly out of the screen to escape a predator.
Despite its wonders, not everything is perfect in Jurassic World. Some early scenes do not strike the intended note (an early aerial shot, backed by swelling music, implies a sense of grandeur that simply is not visually evident in what looks to us like a standard theme park layout). The over-reliance on digital dinosaurs robs the film of the satisfying blend of computer and mechanical effects that worked so well in Jurassic Park, providing a live-action texture and immediacy that yielded a greater sense of human-saurian interaction. And finally, near the end, Jurassic World goes a little bit “Ray Harryhausen” on us, in a bad way.
To my surprise, I had bought into the Raptor scenario up till then, which had Owen interacting with the predators like a tamer dealing with lions: yes, he could get them to obey commands, but that didn’t mean he would turn his back on them. Still, there was some sense of a bond, insofar as Owen was the “alpha” member of the group, the pack leader upon whom the others had imprinted when they were born. This bond is tested, strained, broken, and possibly repaired in the film’s third act, which sees shifting alliances that lead to some shuddery plot twists. At the end of the day, certain characters make a decision to stand not with their biological kin but with their adoptive relative – even at risk to their own lives. And for too long during this sequence, Owen stands there like one of those slack-jawed heroes in an old Ray Harryhausen stop-motion monsterfest, watching while a friendly creature does his fighting for him. As much as I was rooting for Indominous Rex to take his well deserved fall, I was practically yelling at the screen for Owen to get off the sidelines and get some skin in the game – you don’t just stand and watch while your brothers-in-arms become dino-chow.
It’s ironic that, in a film which tries to add a glint of humanity to the usual blockbuster formula, the heroes turn out to be not so much the humans as the cold-blooded reptiles. In a weird kind of way, despite my misgivings, I’m okay with that. Because it’s nice to see old enemies united against a common foe; T-Rex is still the Lizard King, and like the end of Jurassic Park, the climax of Jurassic World takes you back – mentally, at least – to a time When Dinosaurs Rules the Earth.
Jurassic World (June 12, 2015). Directed by Colin Trevorrow. Screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly, from a story by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, based on characters created by Michael Crichton. Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Jake Johnson, Omar Sy, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Jimmy Fallon. PG-13. In IMAX 3D.

San Andreas – review

San_Andreas_posterOne certainly cannot deny that San Andreas delivers on the promise inherent in its title: it really is  a feature-length road trip up the San Andreas fault, which just happens to be periodically shaking California to pieces along the way. That may not sound like much of a plot, but the film vastly improves upon the approach of its obvious disaster-era progenitor, Earthquake (1974),  which never adequately answered the question: after two minutes of tremors, what can we do for the rest of the movie except dig people out of the rubble? Propelled by a continuing series of quakes spread out over the entire state, San Andreas is all forward momentum and non-stop action, but with enough narrative focus to avoid letting the calamity totally engulf the picture.

Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a rescue-copter pilot going through a divorce from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino), whose new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd) does not look like an ex-wrestler, meaning he cannot possibly be man enough to replace Ray. Fortunately for Ray, two science guys, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) and Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) have figured out that a humongous quake is about to destroy California, which will give Ray a chance to prove that Emma should stay with him. This is actually achieved rather quickly, when he whisks her off a collapsing rooftop in downtown Los Angeles; the plot complication, such as it is, arises from the fact that Ray and Emma’s daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario, introduced to us in a flattering poolside bikini shot, because obviously we can’t care what happens to her unless she’s hot) is in San Francisco with Daniel. So away go Ray and Emma on their rescue mission, first in Ray’s copter, then a stolen vehicle, then a stolen boat.

The notion that Ray, a professional rescue worker, is abandoning his post in an emergency is never acknowledged let alone questioned, because movies are all about family these days – at least, that’s an easy way to generate a little rooting interest. It also goes without saying that using the company copter for your personal needs and stealing someone else’s car is okay as long as you’re the protagonist, because – hey, it’s only a movie!

Strangely, despite these questionable narrative leaps, San Andreas never completely matriculates into the “Dumb Movie” school of filmmaking; the scenario manages to maintain at least a small illusion of credibility, asking us to engage with the characters as if they are people in genuine peril, not merely pawns in an empty spectacle. It’s a sign of what’s right in the film that when one of the scientists dies on a collapsing bridge, the sequence is played as a tragedy, not an aint-it-cool moment of awesome special effects.

Likewise, San Andreas mimics the reserved (a relative term, I know) approach to vast destruction seen in Godzilla (2014): much of the action is shown from the point of view of the distraught characters instead of lovingly photographed like epic disaster porn. Although San Andreas is filled with collapsing buildings, tidal waves, fires, and explosions, not all of these scenes are show-stopping set-pieces; often they are glimpsed on the fly as Ray and Emma race by – relegated to sideshow status while the film maintains focus on the their quest to save Blake. It’s almost as if the filmmakers thought they were making a real movie in which we cared more about the characters than the quake.

In fact, San Andreas lingers on the verge of being something a little bit better than a by-the-numbers blockbuster. In old school disaster movies, characters tended to be clearly divided into heroes, victims, and villains. Ray is clearly the archetypal disaster movie hero; however, it’s a nice touch that Blake, though serving the function of victim in need of rescue, does not sit around waiting for her brave daddy to arrive; she takes action, seeking higher ground, instead of blindly following the panicked crowds. Sadly, this element gets a bit jumbled; with all the chaos of plans gone awry, it’s not entirely clear whether Blake’s actions will improve or diminish Ray’s chances of getting to her in time.

This is not the film’s only squandered opportunity to better itself. San Andreas initially avoids offering a typical disaster-movie villain.  These take one of two forms: either they are responsible for the disaster, or they irresponsible in the way they save themselves at the expense of everyone else. The obvious candidate here is Daniel, who is – somewhat surprisingly – presented as a halfway decent guy. Yes, he abandons Blake in a crisis, but not out of self-interest; he really seems to be in a complete state of shock.  Unfortunately, as the shock wears off, so does the film’s sympathy for him, morphing the character into a traditional prick who pushes others out of the way to save himself, until his own efforts ironically put him in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Which I guess means that the film is happy to revert to clichés. Ray, Emma, Blake, and a couple of British immigrant Blake found along the way are okay, which means it’s a happy ending all around on the big screen, in spite of presumably millions of corpses buried beneath debris from one end of the coast to the next. Presumably, Ray and Emma will live happily ever after, now that she sees how useful Ray is during a crisis – though how that’s going to sustain a relationship during those long periods of time when California isn’t quaking itself into a pile of rubble, remains unclear. Hopefully, Giamatti’s science guy can spot another earthquake on the near horizon.

San Andreas ( May 29, 2015). Directed by Brad Peyton. Written by Carlton Cuse, from a story by Andre Fabrizio & Jeremy Passmore. Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Ioan Gruffudd, Archie Panjabi, Paul Giamatti, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson, Will Yun Lee, Kylie Minogue. PG-13. In IMAX 3D.

Inside Out – review

Inside Out Poster Vertical

Looks good only in comparison to its disappinting predecessors

Inside Out is stunning. Unfortunately, what is stunning is not the film itself but the perceptual phenomenon surrounding it: Pixar Animation’s previous troika of Cars 2Brave, and Monsters University was so abysmally disappointing that, by comparison, the simple mediocrity of Inside Out has fooled critics and audiences into believing that they were seeing a brilliant return to form. I think James Walcott dubbed this the “Bob Dylan Phenomenon”: after years of disappointing work, any halfway decent album is hailed as “his best since Blood on the Tracks.” In the case of Inside Out, we might call the film Pixar’s best since Toy Story 3, but even that comparison would be praise too high; this is definitely second-tier Pixar, more on par with A Bug’s Life – another film that had an amusing premise but an unimaginative execution, gilded with gorgeous computer graphics.

In case, you haven’t heard, most of Inside Out takes place inside the head of Riley, a young girl undergoing a traumatic move to a new home. Well, not really traumatic – more like stressful – but that’s not going to stop the emotions living inside her head – Joy, Anger, Sadness, Disgust, and Fear – from turning Riley’s relatively prosaic predicament into the premise for a blockbuster movie, including an epic journey replete with insane action sequences.

In order to do this, the scenario contrives a set of rules for the way things work inside Riley’s head; then of course something goes wrong, and in order to set it right, Joy and Sadness set off to fix the problem. Along the way, lots of stuff happens because the script says so and because we need to fill 90 minutes somehow or other, and eventually we – or at least, Joy – learns a big lesson, which is that Sadness is also important to Riley’s mental well-being.

Strangely, Joy learns this less through a series of flashbacks to events that should have taught her the lesson years ago; the only reason any of this is a “surprise” to us is that, being flashbacks, the material was previously unseen by the audience. Why what the audience knows should matter to Joy’s understanding of Riley’s psyche is a mystery the film does not explore.

Nor does Inside Out explore why the emotions inside Riley’s head have emotions of their own (perhaps in some sort of infinite regression they themselves have emotions living inside their heads?). In any case, their personalities are not as vivid as one would expect from characters so clearly defined by a single trait. The lone exception here is Anger, thanks in large part to the vocal performance of Lewis Black (whose outrage in response to an oddball San Francisco variant on pizza provides the film’s biggest laugh).

All of this would be neither here nor there if the film had used its conceit to string together some amusing set pieces and comedy, but there is little actual joy in the film. The arbitrary nature of the difficulties faced ruins any genuine suspense (we’re in a mental landscape, yet for some reason physical constraints such as Gravity and Momentum must be observed). No doubt the filmmakers were afraid of turning Inside Out into a surreal head trip that might alienate parents taking their children to see it.

There are a few moments when the film briefly comes to life, including a very poignant one when Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend shuffles off into the existential void for good. Other than that, Inside Out is a sadly tedious effort, buoyed only by the craftsmanship employed by the computer-animators, working in 3D to create some beautiful imaginary landscapes that really deserve to have something more interesting happening in them.

How Inside Out managed to overcome its rather obvious shortcoming to become both a box office blockbuster and a critical darling is certainly a mystery. My guess is that we’re seeing a combination of willful wish fulfillment and cognitive dissonance. In the wake of its disappointing predecessors, to acknowledge the actual quality of Inside Out would be to acknowledge a recent track record indicating that Pixar’s Golden Era may be a thing of the past. Well, at least we have The Incredibles 2 looming on the horizon, so there’s still hope.

Lava Pixar short subjectIn theatres, Inside Out is preceded by the Pixar short subject Lava, which is about a lonely boy volcano hoping to meet a girl volcano. Essentially a music video, Lava‘s idea of wit is to substitute the word “lava” for “love” in the lyrics. The result is hokey and cornball, but the attempt to make the girl volcano attractive – even though she has no nose and only slits for eyes and mouth – is bizarre enough to be memorable if not truly pleasant.

Inside Out and Lava are currently in release nationwide.

Inside Out (June 19, 2015). Directed by Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen. Written by Meg LeFauve & Josh Cooley and Peter Docter, with additional dialogue by Amy Poehler & Bill Hader. Voices: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn DIas, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, Paula Poundstone, Frank Oz. Rated PG.

Dark Was the Night – review

A Mystery for the Ages: Why is DARK WAS THE NIGHT not getting the amount of praise heaped on indie horror darlings such as THE BABADOOK and IT FOLLOWS?

dark_was_the_nightInto the Woods we go…though not on some revisionist, musical journey. These woods are far from the fairy tale forests of Stephen Sondheim; they are even farther from the simplistic monster movie territory promised by the posters (“Evil’s roots run deep”). Presented in images crisp and clear, these woods are not exactly dark when we first see them, but rather faded. This look initially seems like a simple visual conceit for a “revenge of nature” horror flick – we see a logging company knocking down trees and think, “Aha, they’re destroying the greenery, and there’s no green in the photography” – however, it turns out to be an indicator of something more subtle and profound.
After the loggers get what they deserve (at the hands or claws of an unseen something), we meet Paul Shields (Kevin Durand), and the pain in his eyes instantly tells us – before we know anything else about him – that there is some damage deep inside. The sheriff in a small logging town, Paul simply wants to go about his routine and do his job, but in an amusing turn-about on Columbo’s “just one more thing, sir,” the officer of the law is the one repeatedly forced to continue conversations he would rather terminate, as the locals (his soon-to-be ex-wife, his pastor, his deputy) strive to get him to open up about the tragedy haunting him. The exact nature of that tragedy is revealed incrementally, but long before the details come out, the impact on Shields is clear, etched in every expression, which strives but never achieves an affectless quality meant to insulate him from the pain that his friends want him to confront. Which soon brings us to the realization that the cold, colorless photography does not symbolize the destruction of nature; instead, it represents that state of Paul’s soul, alive but drained of vitality, unable to see or even seek the vibrant hues that should be all around him. Yes, this is a horror movie – and a good one – but its tension does not derive primarily from the mechanics of suspense; far more than the more highly lauded The Babadook, Dark Was The Night wants to make you feel its character’s pain.
With its attention on the drama, Dark Was The Night is in no hurry to throw monster stuff at the audience; the pacing is deliberate but never slow, carefully working the old-fashioned approach of an extended build-up so that the crescendo, when it comes, is not just empty noise but a genuinely involving climax. In a way, the film is a mini-miracle, holding attention with a protagonist who is trying to remain passive and avoid confrontation: in a scene that could serve as a synecdoche for the whole film, a potential barroom fight (the local yokel berates the sheriff not only for not doing his job but also for failing to protect his family – cutting a little too close to Shield’s personal tragedy) is nipped in the bud before it can serve as an excuse for a gratuitous brawl. Although one can easily imagine Michael Bay lamenting, “They missed a real opportunity there,” the scene is not anti-climactic; instead, its unresolved nature adds more powder to the keg we all know is eventually going to explode.
Along the way, Dark Was The Night is peppered with gradually escalating incidents that ratchet the tension on an almost subliminal level: you are so focused on the characters, that you almost do not realize the way the film is sucking you in. After the logging incident, with its brief flashes of severed limbs, the film mostly eschews graphic horror in favor suggestions: shadows in the night, silhouettes in the woods, missing pets, mysterious tracks through town, unseasonal animal migrations, savaged carcasses left on a road, bodies of murdered hunters hung in trees, and eventually a pair of hideous feet that leave us guessing as to the creature’s whole appearance, which – in a welcome bit of restraint – will not be revealed until the end.
The effect is very similar to what M.Night Shyamalan achieved back when he knew what he was doing, circa Signs (2002). In fact, Dark Was The Night is a virtual remake. Again we have the isolated setting; the protagonist emotionally devastated by family tragedy; the younger male co-lead (in this case a deputy instead of a brother) trying to keep up the faith; and the confrontation with uncanny horror that forces our hero to snap out of his depression to protect kith and kin.
The difference is that, though set in a small town where church attendance – or, in this case, non-attendance – is clearly a big deal, Dark Was The Night is not particularly interested in showcasing a a “road to Damascus” moment for Paul; his character arc is instead based on his surname: having failed to protect a family member in the back story, he will (with a little help) become the shield that saves the town, or dies trying.
Yet one cannot help feeling that a kind of redemption is taking place. When Paul’s new deputy (Lukas Hass), a recent transplant from New York, speculates that his presence is perhaps part of a grand plan (“maybe I was sent here to protect you… or you’r here to protect me”), we see the derisive disbelief in Paul’s eyes, but (unlike Mel Gibson’s character in Signs), he is too reserved to express open contempt. The film then goes on to vindicate the deputy’s sentiment, if not his belief in divine intervention, when the two face the threat side-by-side at the climax, which takes place inside the town church, ostensibly because Paul considers it the safest place to defend, but which adds a symbolic overlay whether Paul likes it or not.
The exact nature of the threat is unclear, which makes it more believable. There is no Johnny Expaliner character to tell us exactly what the monster is and how to kill it, with the sort of firm conviction based on unconfirmed legends that exists only in the horror genre. Yes, the local bartender (Nick Damici) tells Shawnee tales of a mythical creature that’s haunted the forest for generations, but in a nice touch, even he does not fully believe the stories, though he does lock his door at night, just to be safe. In a similar way, Deputy Saunders is poised on the cusp of belief – not convinced yet not dismissive – making the gradual transition easier for the audience to believe, especially when mounting evidence eventually provokes Paul to theorize that the logging project has displaced the creatures, forcing them closer to town and hence leading to numerous close encounters with something that previously kept its distance. This adds a touch of credibility, almost of sympathy, to the creature, who human victims tend to be invading its territory (first loggers, then hunters).
After teasing the audience for 90 minutes, eventually the filmmakers have to deliver. Only here does the film fall short of its aspirations – or, rather, resets its aspirations considerably lower. The final revelation of the creature is a major disappointment, not only because of the cartoony CGI but also because of the ill-conceived design: the reptilian appearance might be appropriate in a Florida swamp but not in a snow-bound forest. Worse yet, instead of ending when it should, Dark Was The Night adds a cornball twist, which may have intended to set up a sequel but instead merely screams, “This is just a dumb monster movie after all!”
Fortunately, these final faltering moments cannot destroy the film’s overall effectiveness, which is guaranteed to hold you spellbound with a level of sincerity too seldom seen in the genre. The entire cast, from the leads all the way down to the bit parts, are as committed – and probably more convincing – than any Oscar-bait ensemble. It’s a sign of what’s right with the film that Bianca Kajlich, as Paul’s wife, is appealing and attractive but not too glamorous to be believable in this setting; and even though the story relegates her to the sidelines (like a typical female in a monster movie), her pain and her concern for Paul still register. Durand sells his character to us with complete conviction from start to finish – ironically revealing the soul of a character who is trying desperately to remain hidden in his protective cocoon.. Even the presence of Lukas Haas – which seems like a desperate low-budget attempt to get some kind of name into the cast – turns out to be a master stroke: instead of thinking, “Oh look, the kid from Witness, all grown up:’ the audience realizes, “He’s really good.”
It certainly helps that characters are not the usual gang of stereotypes, or if they come close, at least they don’t have signs plastered on their foreheads reading, “Kill me – I’m The Film’s Official Asshole.” Instead, the script works satisfying twists on expectations, with personal animosity dissolving in the face of common danger, creating a sense of humanity that yields near-unbearable suspense despite a relatively low body-count. This is not a film you watch to enjoy seeing the dumb-asses dispatched in gruesome ways; you watch it desperately hoping that everyone will survive.
dark_was_the_nightDark Was The Night delivers on genre expectations with craftsmanship and artistry worthy of a wide theatrical release and an embrace by horror fans; it enhances those virtues with an eye for character and and careful storytelling, which should appeal to a broader audience. The only thing the film “lacks” (outside of a worthy ending) is the sort of artistic pretension or overt thematic conceit that critics can identify as elevating a horror effort above its genre. If viewers are left with one enduring mystery, it is not the exact phylum, genus, and species of its monster; it is this: Why is Dark Was The Night not as highly lauded as indie horror darlings The Babadook and It Follows?
Dark Was The Night is currently playing an exclusive engagement at the Universal Citywalk AMC 19. The film is also available through iTunes, Amazon Instant View, and Vudu.
Dark Was the Night (copyright 2015; released July 21, 2015 – simultaneous theatrical and streaming). Directed by Jack Heller. Written by Tyler Hisel. Cast: Kevin Durand, Lukas Haas, Bianca Kajlich, Steve Agee, Nick Damici.

The Brave New World of INSURGENT

Theo James as Tobias or "Four" and Shailene Woodley as Tris.
Insurgent, the second chapter in Summit Entertainment’s Divergent series, arrives over a year after the first film, but takes place only three days after the climatic battle that ended Divergent, where the heroine, Tris seemed to be heading with her boyfriend Tobias Eaton or “Four” towards the walled “outlands” of a futuristic Chicago, that has been divided into five factions. However, as Insurgent opens, we find that Tris and Tobias are now living in hiding among the Amity faction, led by the kindly Octavia Spencer.
Since I had forgotten much of what took place in Divergent, here is some background on the basic premise of the series, which no doubt will also be helpful for first time viewers:
In a Chicago of the future, survivors have been divided into five factions based on their abilities, temperaments and personal preferences. As the books author Veronica Roth explains, members of “Abnegation believe in selflessness, Candor believe in honesty, Dauntless are into bravery, Erudite value intelligence, and Amity value kindness, peacefulness and friendship. A person in the faction system believes that to be Faction less means to be without community, to be disenfranchised and on your own, and a failure in the most essential way. But, to someone who is Faction less, it means freedom.”
Insurgent gets off to a bang when Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the power crazed head of the Erudite faction has her soldiers ruthlessly search for Tris, and quickly discovers her in the commune like Amity faction. Jeanine also discovers a pentagonal shaped box that Tris’s parents had hidden away, with each side bearing the seal of one of the five factions. Apparently it contains an important message that may well determine the future direction of this dystopian society, but it can only be unlocked by a divergent person, who possesses qualities of each of the factions.
The good news, is that, unlike the second film in The Hunger Games series, Insurgent is not merely a thinly veiled remake of the first movie, but branches off in quite a different direction, as we explore the distinct world of the other factions in depth, as well as those who are “Faction less,” who turn out to be led by Tobias’ own mother, Evelyn (Naomi Watts). But can Evelyn be trusted, or is she just as power crazed as Jeanine is?
We also delve into a surrealistic dream world, more on the order of Inception, as Tris has to endure five separate dream-style tests in order to successfully unlock the secret of the box. Indeed, with her close cropped hair, and also facing a series of seemingly desperate battles, Tris becomes a sort of Joan of Arc figure, who like Joan, willingly surrenders herself to Jeanine, where she will have to undergo a trial by dream ordeal. Shailene Woodley also tends to recall the young Jean Seberg, who of course, was first brought to stardom in Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.
Interestingly enough, with it’s future society ruled mostly by very strong women characters, Insurgent also recalls the future utopia portrayed in John Boorman’s Zardoz, where the society is also made up of very separate and distinct factions, in a world sealed off from the outside. In fact, in one of Tris’s dream ordeals, she must overcome a surrealistic building on fire, where her mother is entrapped, that is flying through the skies over Chicago, much like Sean Connery had to endure, to enter the sealed off vortex in Zardoz.
Robert Schwentke takes over the directorial reigns from Neil Burger on Insurgent and gives the film a suitable fast pacing, with two brisk opening action sequences, which unfortunately are just a bit too overloaded to be believable, but then he settles things down, allowing the story to focus a bit more on the characters, as well as the action, which makes for a more pleasing blend, as Mr. Schwentke did so nicely with The Time Traveler’s Wife. The film also benefit’s greatly from it’s top-notch cast, with most of it’s young actors having gone on to important starring roles in other films after appearing in Divergent, and now being more familiar, bring a certain gravitas to their roles, as well as a few twists, especially in the characters played by Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort.

Bringing back the dead in THE LAZARUS EFFECT

Olivia Wilde, Evan Peters and Mark Duplass star in Relativity Media's "The Lazarus Effect".

THE LAZARUS EFFECT is quite an effective little horror chiller, that benefits greatly by treating it’s subject–a group of scientists exploring the possibility of bringing the dead back to life–with deadly seriousness. The movie follows two romantically involved researchers, Frank (Mark Duplass) and his fiancée Zoe (Olivia Wilde), who are operating with a grant from a Berkeley University, where they experiment with bringing recently deceased animals back to life. Just as they succeed in bringing a dog back to life–like the hapless Dr. Frankenstein–their project is halted in it’s tracks. Not by angry villagers, but by a biotech company, who seize all their research materials for there own corporate use.
What makes the film especially fascinating, is that it delves into metaphysical discussions about what actually may happen after death, with Frank taking a more scientific and atheistic point of view, vs. Zoe who brings a more traditional theological bent to their conjectures.
It’s also what attracted director David Gelb to the project, who said, “I loved the idea of really exploring the concept of being brought back to life. What would you experience while you were gone? How would you be different when you came back? And what might you potentially bring back with you? The young scientists in our film set out to give patients and loved ones hope, but they discover that there can be horrible consequences to playing with the power of life. As events begin to unfold, the story takes a sharp turn into becoming an absolutely terrifying thrill ride where you don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know who the next character to disappear is going to be, and the scares are pretty intense.”
Indeed, it takes nearly half way into the film before we get any inkling about who might suddenly die, so they can conveniently be brought back to life. Of course, it won’t be a shock if you’ve seen the poster or the trailer (and I had not), so for me, it did add a bit more suspense to the first 30 minutes of the picture, while the basic premise is being developed.
Like any good FRANKENSTEIN movie, the subject of life after death is one of endless fascination, which is also the basis for movies like BRAINSTORM and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME. In fact, rather strangely, the same weekend THE LAZARUS EFFECT opens, director John Boorman also talked about the subject when he was in San Francisco for the opening of his own delightful new picture, QUEEN AND COUNTRY.
When asked if QUEEN AND CONTRY might be his last film Mr. Boorman replied, “Yes, you saw the little signal in the last shot of the film. The camera stops. That was my little signal. I’m 82, so it’s high time I stopped. It’s high time I died, actually. I don’t want to be still working at 104!”
However, when pressed, Mr. Boorman admitted he does have a script he still would like to make, also about life after death. “It’s called HALFWAY HOUSE,” explained Boorman, “and there are some people who are encouraging me to do it. It’s about a man whose wife commits suicide and he has a recurring dream in which he visits a kind of clearing house where people go after they die. They are given a video of their entire life, and before they can move on, they must edit it down to three hours of highlights! If I live long enough and I’m strong enough, maybe I will make it.”