Creed (****): One step at a time, one round at a time…


Creed – 2015

Director Ryan Coogler
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashād, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish
Screenplay Coogler, Aaron Covington, Stallone

As a tribute to a classic series, Ryan Coogler could not have taken a better angle. The thought of Rocky’s kid taking the throne was mercifully left in the garbage bin of history with the last proper entry in the Rocky movie series. He’s a guy working in Vancouver now, he’s got a girlfriend, he’s not all that into being a Balboa in the city of brotherly love.

Adonis Johnson (Jordan) is not officially a Creed at the start of the story about his father’s legacy. We don’t see his real mother, and we don’t see any of his half siblings. Instead, we have Rashād taking over the role of Mary Anne Creed from  Sylvia Meals, who passed in 2011, may she rest in peace. The opening act of the story sees Mary Anne adopting the ever-fighting, always angry Adonis. She takes him into her home, gives him the life he deserves, regardless of his out of wedlock conception, and treats him like blood. It’s not enough for him.

Adonis gets a promotion at a financial corporation over a decade later, but he doesn’t even stay long enough to tell his mother what the office looks like. He’s been moonlighting as a boxer over the border in Mexico. Even though he can’t get a whiff at his father’s old gym with Duke’s son, who is also a trainer, he cuts his cords and moves to Philadelphia, to seek out his father’s greatest competitor.

It’s at this point the signals begin to be mixed. Referring to Balboa as “Unc,” Creed wears down the old man into training him. He proves his relationship by sharing old stories. Even if that which is driving him to become a prizefighter is not revealed, Rocky doesn’t need that much convincing to start trading platitudes while making his protege do the hard work.

The story has a similar romantic arc as the first Rocky film, but it has a sweetness that is completely original with a twist that allows the contemporary angle seem more appropriate than coincidental. Thompson’s Bianca is no wallflower, like Adrian. What she is gives both Bianca and Adonis more character within a love story since Rocky convinced Adrian to skate with him so many years ago.

Stallone is remarkable in the same vein as he was in the Rocky Balboa. His touch is remarkably and deftly simple. Either Coogler did a remarkable amount of homework for the script, or he just told Stallone to just do what we all know he can. This is the most vulnerable performance of Stallone’s career. After all the stupid action films (a few of them named Rocky) and so many plastic surgeries, his aging is as graceful as anything I have seen outside of Clint Eastwood. This film should net him a nomination for supporting actor. But then, who the hell knows after they snubbed Samuel L. Jackson for Django Unchained.

It’s not enough, though, to say he’s worthy of accolades. As he nears the age that Meredith reached when he trained Balboa, we see the old champ pick and choose things that worked for him as an amalgam of his own path. It would have been easier to say, well, “Mick did this and Creed  did that.” This is a man who has his own history, some of which we see, much of it we did not. His path has been that of a simple man that many of us can relate to as we age. Inside such a big heart, such a grasp on reality, and always moving one step forward.

Time is undefeated,” says Balboa early on. At least we get the pleasure of seeing Rock enjoy it’s passage. Even through the pain of each loss.

As Adonis “Creed” Johnson, Jordan gives a solid performance. He has many subtleties and layers, as we see him play off of the ghost of a cinematic legend and the shell of another one. The biggest challenge is playing off the anger with the lighter moments, and his performance hits every note it needs to squarely. If he can’t rise up to the challenge of one of the great characters of all storytelling history, it doesn’t affect the film. Creed is, to a great degree, more of a blank canvas than the fully developed Rocky was when we first met him. This gives him room to grow, and he will get there.

There are some awkward elements to the fighting in the story, but there are some moments that outshine many of the fights that precede the ones we see here. “No one ever learned anything while they were talking,” is a mantra that this film takes seriously. We see a wildly furious Adonis get roped in by the gentle approach of Balboa’s advice mid-match, and for once in a Rocky film, the younger man takes the advice and benefits.

There is a tactic discussed before the big fight that does not get employed. After considering the advantages of the opponent, Balboa tells Creed how they should approach it and, after a dramatic shift in the story, completely abandons any talk of the plan. We barely see it in the fight, either. It’s a ways away from the blunt force trauma technique used against Mason Dixon.

Perhaps the only problem with Coogler’s intimate filming style is the with the camera angles within the fights themselves. While handheld cameras provide an immediacy that helps with character within the story, inside of the ring the angles are often off kilter and a little disorienting. It’s a small but crucial element that has an effect in the overall tension.

The ending will not come as a surprise to those who have absorbed the best of this series. It doesn’t diminish the feeling coursing through the viewer when the hero connects, however. Everybody hopes against hope. Except my buddy Cool Poppin’ Taco, sitting next to me. As he facetiously said “Creed 2: The Revenge” towards the climax, I told him he could shove it up the old gazoo.

This film touches greatness, and that is enough. One step at a time. One round at a time. I am ready for round two. Again.

(**** out of *****)

American Ultra (***): Stoned Identity


American Ultra – 2015

Director Nima Nourizadeh
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale
Screenplay Max Landis

One of the least appealing aspects about Pulp Fiction is the way Tarantino cuts the legs off the ending about halfway through the film. Seeing that Vincent and Marsellus arrive in tact and uninjured from their time at the diner, there is no tension later when Ringo has the gun pointed in his face. It wastes a magnificent speech and, quite likely, Samuel L. Jackson’s best shot at getting an Oscar. American Ultra does the very same thing with its opening shot.

Before we get to that though, let’s talk about the “stars.” Let’s be frank, too. Eisenberg and Stewart are difficult to like. Stewart is easy to put in this category. Warranted or not, she’s lost more than she’s gained as the world discovered her. Eisenberg enjoyed a career of low expectations riding along in the ditch until The Social Network placed him on another level. Then this past summer at Comic Con, he compared adulation of people who dress up in costumes while cheering for their heroes who dress up in costumes in movies to “probably some kind of genocide.” This may have had an effect on the box office receipts. You have to get butts in the seats, no matter what your movie is about, before expectations can be raised. Or dashed by the end of the opening credits.

So what happens at the beginning of the film? Well, for one, we know that Eisenberg’s Mike Howell is a little beat up, but he is alive. Why is this? Don’t worry, they are just about to rewind much of the film before your eyes so none of the upcoming scenes are really all that surprising. Bummer. Why is this scene here? So we can hear some annoying inner monologue that gives impressions that won’t be followed up when the movie moves forward is my nearest guess. The viewer gains nothing from this “trick” and the movie loses its effectiveness.

Back at the beginning, where this film should have started, we have Mike and his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart) almost making it on a vacation to Hawaii. Mike is unable to actually board the plane, due to a phobia that makes him puke uncomfortably close to an airplane toilet. Like, right inside of the thing. It’s like he’s making out with it. This elicits more of a phobic response for me than walking aboard a plane ever could.

On their way back, they are accosted by local law enforcement, to remind the viewer in the most Footloose way possible that this is a small town and cops don’t like folks who do drugs all the time. Inexplicably, he is back at work at the local grocery mart the next day. The only person working there. Who would have been there if he had gone to Hawaii? This movie doesn’t bother to ask.

All of this success with the drugs and the low wage jobs (Phoebe works at a bail bonds office) brings Mike to a spot where he feels he should ask Phoebe to marry him. He’s even saved up for a cheap ring. Phoebe, acting as if she is compelled to love Mike, even if they amount to nothing in the town of Liman, West Virginia. Hawaii was going to be his big moment to ask her. Since that didn’t happen, we get to see him ponder the moment throughout the rest of the story.

Meanwhile back at Langley in the CIA headquarters, Agent Lasseter (Britton) gets an anonymous notification that the last agents of her failed “Ultra” program is about to be killed by some new agent program, called Tough Guy. I think the phrasing is intended to sound ironic. We know that this last agent is Mike, but he does not. This again is unfortunate, from a storytelling perspective. We end up waiting for Mike to show what we already expect. The viewer is waiting instead of surprised.

Quite obviously Mike has to survive numerous attempts on his life. These Tough Guys would more appropriately be called Psychotic agents of multiple genders. There are definitely men, I think there are women, and a couple of Caitlyn Jenners in there, too. The first and last one we see is Goggins. Walton Goggins has reached that stage where he no longer dies for being crazy. We can thank both Justified and Sons of Anarchy for this. Instead, he just gets beaten until he’s nearly dead because he is crazy, and kind of adorable.

There are some good moments in the next hour, mostly brought on by the acting of Eisenberg, Stewart and Britton. The rest of the cast fit right within the confines of caricatures we’ve become comfortable with seeing them. Topher Grace, fire your agent. Everything you do is the bad guy from Spider-Man 3. It’s not surprising to see you hide behind people after talking tough.

American Ultra is the kind of film where some elements work so well, one cannot help but spend a majority of the time viewing the film as they would have re-written it in their head. It has some things going for it. Essentially a comedic version of The Bourne Identity. That it ultimately fails to deliver could be the fault of Landis, but when one considers Nourizadeh’s last film was Project-X, that the movie is even this good seems like a kind of victory.

(*** out of *****)

The Hallow (****1/2) takes you in

The Hallow Poster

The Hallow – 2015

Director Corin Hardy
Starring Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton, Michael Smiley
Screenplay Hardy and Felipe Marino

This is the kind of film that is made by a person of real talent. Hardy has been working on this film for about a decade, and before it was previewed at Sundance in January, he had landed the deal to do The Crow reboot. Until watching what he did with this film, The Crow has never piqued my interest.

The story begins with a father (Mawle) and his infant child on a stroll through the woods. The father, Adam Hitchens, is studying the area, prepping it for the eventual deforestation to make room for development. Meanwhile, wife and mother Claire (Novakovic) is back at the house, taking the metal bars off from in front of the windows. It’s been a month and the couple decided they were not necessary. They should have been left on.

Neighbor Colm Donnelly (McElhatton) comes over to grouch at Claire, demanding to speak with her husband as soon as possible. She’s heard this demand several times and passed the information on to Adam. Her husband avoids the conversation, stating that no matter what is said, it’s still his job to prepare the area for the future.

Problem is though, Donnelly knows that these woods have a past that will cause nothing but grief, should the family choose to ignore his advice. Of course if the advice were followed, it would be a short movie.

Signs immediately point to the wisdom of Donnelly’s advice, and before they can change their minds, the house and family has become a target. What comes after them and how they operate can be left to your imagination for now. Aside from the fact that there is an obvious inconsistency in the potency of the most obvious weapon of the homesteaders tormentors, the progression is helped along by great acting, pacing and effects design by John Nolan.

The entire last act is astounding. It is impossible to look away, even when you know what might happen. There hasn’t been a movie with this many tactile creatures since at least Pan’s Labyrinth, but maybe even John Carpenter’s The Thing. This is only proper as he cites both films as inspiration to the story, along with The Evil Dead. It’s Mawle and Novakovic that bring us in, though. They have a chemistry and a fluctuating level of trust that brings the classic Take Shelter to mind. For a horror flick, that is like reaching the peak of Mt. Everest.

See this film if you are any sort of fan of moving horror. The creatures are fine, but they alone do not amount to much without the choice that befalls the parents when faced with the prospect of a changeling. Hardy’s has as complete a grasp on the art of telling a disturbing story as I have seen since Jeff Nichols. It is a fair thing to expect that the next decade finds more of each of their films taking precedence in the American film lexicon.


The Gift (****) that cannot be returned


The Gift – 2015

Written, Directed and Starring Joel Edgerton
Starring Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall

Joel Edgerton is one of the more talented actors I have seen in recent years. His work in Animal Kingdom, Warrior and more recently The Great Gatsby are a good start for the uninitiated. At first glance of the trailer, this movie seemed right out of the mold of the Single White Girl / Pacific Heights your neighbor is a creep variety. The last thing I need to spend my time on is another rote antagonism movie. And although Bateman is given a free pass by most, he’s about the level of Rebecca Hall for me. Not bad, but not a done deal. There are more than a few of each of their films I didn’t even bother reviewing.

Once I discovered that the entire crew of the Dan Le Batard Show enjoyed it, I decided to give it a shot. I was overjoyed to discover that not only was Edgerton in the film, he was writing and directing for the first time. This will be different, at least. So long as the producers don’t get in the way too much.

The story begins with Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) buying a house back in Southern California after a rough last couple of years in Chicago. Hints are given about the loss of a child in utero, as well as a dependency on pills. Things are moving forward for the couple though, slowly.

Things take a turn when, at a store near the new house, they come across Gordon (Edgerton). He is a former schoolmate of Simon from way back. At first glance, it appears as though Simon can’t recall. Soon, though, he is amazed to realize that Gordon does not seem anything like the “Weirdo” that Simon knew. Just the same, there is no intention on following up once Gordon gives Simon his number.

Not that it matters. The next day, Gordon appears at their new house while Simon is working. He is bearing gifts. Robyn is thankful for his thoughtfulness and somewhat impressed by his manners and calm demeanor. She pushes her husband into inviting him over for a thank you dinner. The budding friendship is anything but awkward. It is rather forced. The interplay between the three characters is enough to keep each step somewhat believable enough to call for a willing suspension of disbelief.

That there is more to Gordon is a given. It is quite obvious that he has an agenda. Where this movie wins, though, is in giving layers to the husband and wife. Nothing is as it seems, and good is a matter of degrees and appearances. The movie gives all the appearance of a by the numbers thriller as it slowly turns up the tension. There are odd, unexpounded moments, and it’s tough to tell what the state of mind of each character is in, as they are mostly in flux. Even if one can call some of the shots, they likely won’t get most.

Hall plays the pivotal role. Her vantage point is the crux for the viewer, as she is the closest thing to a constant. The way she views things has an effect on our perspective. Edgerton plays Gordon with a serene quality that swings between being potentially insane or completely rational. Bateman plays a familiar role almost like he was made for it. If I say anymore, I could ruin it.

The Gift is not a perfect film by any means. It has a generic sheen over everything and there are a few times where people outside of the situation say things that are only meant to further the plot. This can be forgiven, however, for the cleverness of the twists and the acting. As for Edgerton, it’s a great start in the deepening exposure to a very interesting talent.

(**** out of *****)

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (***) – There’s always someone saying don’t worry about it


Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Director Wes Ball
Starring Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Giancarlo Esposito, Alexander Flores, Aidan Gillen, Ki Hong Lee, Jacob Lofland, Barry Pepper, Rosa Salazar, Lili Taylor, Alan Tudyk, Patricia Clarkson
Screenplay T.S. Nowlin based on the book by James Dashner

The very first thought I have when thinking about the title of the 2nd in The Maze Runner series is the enduring image of Wanda from Corner Gas boringly celebrating pulling a fast one on any of the various unsuspecting clods of the town of Dog River. Enter with opening, insert great (or mediocre) one liner and then the erstwhile genius clerk punctuates it, half assedly: “Scorch.”


It’s a nice contrast to the image the movie puts forth, as we start the next phase of one of the better dystopian dramas to be released in this decade of dystopian dramas. The first film is focused and intense, for the most part well acted and it is a compact story. That it leads to a sequel could be forgiven, even if the second film had never been made. Here we are, though, for better or worse, outside of the maze that the kids all had to run.

Life outside the maze is more mysterious than inside very early on. The kids are essentially kept in a prison-like atmosphere, waiting for Godot while the warden Jansen, as played by Game of Thrones’ Gillen plucks out a lucky few to cross the threshold each day. Gillen is given the same type of role as Baelish. Is he good or bad? Our hero Thomas (O’Brien), ponders this as he watches an ambiguous conversation between Jansen and Dr. Ava (Clarkson) once he gets beyond his confines with the help of another guest named Aris (Lofland). Thomas and Aris see that their lucky compatriots moved into a holding room meant to evoke images of The Matrix, as things probe them and seem to be milking their beings of essential nutrients of some kind.

All of this is enough to spur Thomas into action as he breaks himself, Aris and several of his fellow Gladers out of the facility and into the land of the Scorch Trials. Here the film breaks out of the mold of the earlier film and into new territory. It is sometimes intriguing, more often predictable and overall a little disappointing when it comes to creating the overall atmosphere of the world outside of the maze. The kids find themselves running from zombies in one scene and into a drug fueled party in the next with a bunch of bedraggled homeless in between. That none of the three cultures seem to be aware of one another is surprising and more than a little off-putting. There are even more factions. There is WCKD, the not so cleverly named corporation run by the Dr. and Jansen. There are some mercenary folks caught up trying to cash in on the Gladers, and then the people in the mountains who exist just to have some group that knows what’s going on while not being part of WCKD.

The story is ambitious, but extremely clunky. It comes across about as cleverly as any Dan Brown novel. The characters motives are all telegraphed miles ahead, but the acting, especially O’Brien and Lofland is decent for the material. The biggest problem with the film is the portrayals of the zombies. They look so cartoonish, it’s tough to feel anything but pity for the actors. The atmosphere is right for something good, but the execution is lacking. It’s a bummer, too. Because we have the same director and one of the writers from the original, but it feels like many ideas hurled into the mix haphazardly. All the while, we wait for a conclusion to arrive that we determined within the first 15 minutes of the story.

They have another shot to make this a better film. It’s a great sign that they are not splitting the last book up in two parts. Let’s hope the last film has more focus and less obvious storytelling. As it was, I had trouble keeping bored Wanda out of my mind.

(*** out of *****)

Bone Tomahawk (****): I believe those fleas were alive and talented

bone tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk

Written and Directed by S. Craig Zahler
Starring Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, Sid Haig, Sean Young, Evan Jonigkeit

Two murdering thieves (Haig and Arquette) hear a sound as they rob the corpses of their victims. Going off to investigate, they end up crossing into the sacred ground of a tribe of cannibalistic Troglodytes…the kind that the civilized tribes won’t even go near. One of the two survive long enough to get to the town of Sheriff Hunt (Russell), only to be shot and taken in for questioning. When the town’s doctor is too drunk for surgical repairs, Mrs. Samantha O’Dwyer (Simmons) is called in to take his place. The tribe comes into town, takes the thief, the deputy (Jonigkeit) and Samantha back with them.

Sam leaves behind a husband (Wilson) who is recovering from a broken leg. This does not keep him from being the first on a horse to go with Sheriff Hunt in the quest to rescue the abducted. Town dunce and assistant deputy (Jenkins) and local gunfighter John Brooder (Fox) also join into the doomed crusade.

It goes downhill from the start. The running horses eventually walk and then are absconded. Soon enough, the party is on foot. Mr. Dwyer’s condition is deteriorating and eventually he is left after having his leg set once more. The troglodytes are just waiting for them, but Sheriff Hunt is obliged and he trudges on.

Bone Tomahawk is a deceptively intelligent story with one foot set in grim reality and another set in blind faith. Russell is an actor that does not work nearly enough, for my tastes. This performance falls somewhere between his career best as MacReady in The Thing and Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. His Hunt is in complete control within his own environment, but as he moves further from his base, he becomes less assured, if no less determined. The tweaks that Russell applies to his character ride the line between confidence and fear.

Russell’s interplay with his assistant deputy played against type by Jenkins shows this line as clearly as anything. Jenkins is dim, but sturdy. He takes everything he’s told by the Sheriff as Gospel, but his memory and feedback reflects the changes in his boss like a mirror on Hunt’s soul. If it’s hard to necessarily believe Jenkins could ever be as dim as he appears, but his performance is so steady, the rest of the story benefits.

As the assured, bigoted and strangely honorable Brooder, Fox gives a performance that is more than it would appear. There is a subtle power that is not present in your usual white hat / black heart role that we see in a western. His strength is implied as pomposity at first, but soon enough, we discover that he has the strength to follow through on his word. This is a good role for Fox, who I have barely seen since LOST. He deserves more substantial work, and hopefully this will allow more to come his way. I think I will give Extinction a look for now.

Good as these performances all are, the film does not belong to any of these actors. This is the story of Arthur and Samantha O’Dwyer. Their struggle to maintain their marriage in the harsh western landscape would be hard enough, but the differences between men and women when it comes to wounded pride gives it a different spin.

This is why frontier life is so difficult. Not because of the Indians or the elements, but because of the idiots.

Samantha loves her husband and is completely grounded. She has no pretense and just wants to connect with the part of him that reaches out her in rare moments of honesty. Arthur has wounded pride and a feeling of helplessness. This feeling compounds once his wife is taken from him. But he does not let it deter him from moving towards the chance of rescuing her from a seemingly doomed fate.

We see that even if he has a certain bluster, he still is a practicing Catholic who by faith, by rote or both, continues to hold hope that God will allow him to intervene in some way. This angle is an unusual and very satisfying aspect to Zahler’s story. It takes a strong storyteller to throw belief in the midst of any story these days as anything other than a gimmick or a sign of weakness. Wilson’s character starts off in weakness, but we realize as he is left as an afterthought, he shouldn’t be forgotten. He has a resilience and faith, somewhat like Samwise Gamgee, to keep pushing, unnoticed and underestimated. Wilson is one of the few actors that can at once seem at once intelligent and daft, wounded and dangerous.

The best performance is easily that of Lili Simmons. She loves her husband, even if she knows that he is as foolish as the other men that surround her. She experiences the terror, but keeps a clear mind. Seeing her work with her other captors is a thing of beauty. Never letting the fear getting in the way of her love for her husband, she is a steady presence in the film’s last act. It’s due to her performance and complete grasp of the character as written by Zahler that we do not at any point see her as a victim, but as someone who is formidable for what she knows and how she can control her fear. I know we will see more of her in the future.

Zahler has a knack for developing characters and a delightful command of the English language. There are so many wonderful lines in the film, it feels like watching a book. The story takes forever to give the viewer any sense of hope, which is a brave choice for someone with such relatively meagre experience in the business. He should be given more resources to see what he can do.

The only real blemish in the film is the performance of Sean Young as the mayor’s wife. Her lines, as few as she has, are so poorly delivered it completely takes one out of the experience. I never rooted for her career to tank like it did in the early 90’s, but whatever she’s been doing since then, it doesn’t seem to have been acting.

If you like horror, westerns or both, don’t let this film go unnoticed.

(**** out of *****)

Everest (***) : In the battle of you against the world…


Everest – 2015

Director Baltasar Kormákur
Starring Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Robin Wright, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Kelley
Screenplay William Nicholson, Simon Beaufoy

Noted realist Franz Kafka once said: “In man’s struggle against the world, bet on the world.” Everest is the big screen chronicle of the story of a bunch of adventurers who refuse the logic of this statement. Their motivation, because it is there, defies any real logic. Instead it is tantamount to man believing that somehow their will, along with some careful planning, is enough to get them up to the peak of the tallest mountain in the world. Being the first to admit this kind of challenge means nothing for me, I am more the proponent of “slow and easy wins the race.” And it really doesn’t matter if I win the race. It only matters that I am there to help my children grow up.

When covering the real events of the 1996 Mt. Everest climbing disaster in which 8 people lost their lives, it is tough to view the film or the depiction as anything other than as a serial killer film, where the mountain is the cold, faceless killer. Everyone has a chance to survive if they make the right decisions, including not going back for stragglers. The accounts of what happened are numerous, and no one is going to accuse the studio of making the comprehensive version of the film here. In fact, one of the earliest chroniclers Jon Krakauer objected to parts of the story as being fabricated, director Kormákur stated that the reasons they chose to not use the author’s first-person account in the film because it conflicted with the plot that they created. In other words Hollywood has only one path up Mt. Everest. It is well-worn and has many points that everyone has seen before. The real reason they are making the film is for shots like this one:


There is no deep thinking here. No one explains anything more than armchair philosophy as to why someone would leave their family behind (often more than once) to face impossible odds and go shirtless at base camp. Even more distracting for me is the sheer number of stars in the film. I should be contemplating the second attempt of Hawkes’ Doug to get to the top of the mountain, or why Hall (Clarke) could leave his pregnant wife to work as a mountain guide. I am instead wondering why the erstwhile Sol Star has not gotten more significant roles since Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene and is Knightley ever going to be believable as Emily Watson in any film? Don’t even get me started on the Robin Wright / Michael Kelley / House of Cards connection. If one of the characters begins to sing There’s Got to be A Morning After, the disaster would be complete.

The scenery is breathtaking, and looks fantastic on widescreen. Do I believe these actors are on Everest in any capacity other than base camp? No. There are lots of places with snow in the world. Even James Bond sets. When one discovers that 16 Sherpas were killed bringing up equipment for climbers in the 2014 summer season, but that everyone in the Everest film crew, the absurdity of it all takes root. There will never be a movie made about those Sherpas shown on big screens of Western Civilization. The deaths of the locals don’t count.

(*** out of *****)

Crimson Peak (**1/2): Feeding on Butterflies


Crimson Peak – 2015

Director Guillermo Del Toro
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver
Screenplay Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins, Lucinda Coxson

Full disclosure: I am a fan of Del Toro. I will give him the kinds of breaks that I would not grant others. For this reason, my reviews of his films should be viewed as words of someone who aspires to pay tribute to real cinematic art, who enjoys Del Toro’s variation of this art. It’s not that I think Del Toro is a completely comprehensive filmmaker. He errs on the side of visual art and lets the words fall where they may. The resulting visuals are often so overpowering as to render the weaknesses less noticeable. This time, the weaknesses are harder to overcome.

Del Toro’s primary weakness is in his scripting. It is often so telegraphed, one has to shut down part of the brain to avoid knowing what is coming down every thread of the story. Here we have the tale of a newlywed couple who come together despite the protestations of the bride’s father. When the patriarch ends up dead, the couple moves back to the groom’s native Cumberland, England, to a place Allerdale Hall. The place goes by another name in the winter. Two bits to the first one to guess the name.

The groom, Sir Thomas Sharpe (Hiddleston, giving a strangely earnest performance) has a sister Lucille (Chastain) who shows a peculiar interest that things are just so with his brother and his bride Edith Cushing (Wasikowska). As Cushing, Wasikowska is playing naïvely against type. Chastain’s Lucille is so transparent, it almost amazes that this is the same actress who moved to the forefront of her field with her work in The Help and Take Shelter.

Still, we fight through all of these red flags just because we want to see the house, in all of its expectedly grotesque glory. The house, with a few exceptions, doesn’t disappoint. There are many allegories represented with each hole, crack and all of that seeping red clay. As if this isn’t enough, we discover that the home is literally sinking into the sanguine substance. Thomas has a dream to make something of the resource, and one can feel a battle of the wills that he pull it all out before it pulls him and all he loves within its depths.

Then there are the ghosts. In all, they are lovely creatures. Each one of them with a distinct purpose, and if, like the rest of the script, they are obvious about it, Del Toro definitely gets every dime out of the budget. The pace and build are excellent for the first act. There is not as much attention paid to consistent buildup for the rest of the film. It is almost as though he has so much to show, he wants to get it in before he runs out of film. It feels wrong that The Hobbit is three bloated films and this one can’t afford to give each sequence just a little hush to pull in the audience.

In this less sweeping form, without giving the viewer’s eyes a chance to wonder, we are instead given more time to wonder how much longer until the next obvious card is turned. This portrayal makes Del Toro’s skill seem sadly inadequate for his incredible vision. He deserves better.

What could help get him there? Ultimately, better writing. Coxson is uncredited, and one wonders if it was by her choice. Robbins and Del Toro did much better work in rewriting others material for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. That, plus the remarkable Hellboy films makes one wonder if Del Toro should stick to adding his own flourishes to other people’s work. It’s not that he can’t do great, original work, as The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth show. Even if written just after the release of the latter, there are not enough layers or surprises in this story to pull in anyone.

Still, I follow Del Toro because it is obvious he loves movies as much as anyone on the planet. He has a visual palate like no other and a macabre innocence that Burton has tried but never convincingly displayed in his own, more successful career. Once he finds the right collaborator, there is no doubt Del Toro will create a slew of memorable images that would leave a beautiful mark on cinematic history.

(**1/2 out of *****)

Paranormal Activity The Ghost Dimension (*1/2): Is that all there is?


Director Gregory Plotkin
Starring Chris J. Murray, Brit Shaw, Dan Gill, Ivy George, Olivia Taylor Dudley
Screenplay Jason Harry Pagan, Andrew Deutschman, Adam Robitel, Gavin Heffernan

When viewing the Paranormal Activity series, one gets the indelible feeling of disintegration and waning interest by the film makers themselves. For the first two films especially, this was not the case. The viewer is brought in through a long, patient lens and a back story that explains adequately the reasons why any man might become obsessed with filming events instead of actually living them. Sometimes we see new technologies that allow more freedom to move while events still occur. While not as involved, there is still enough there to push the viewer through the story.

The challenge facing the creators of the final Paranormal Activity film is in binding together the seeming dead-end presented by the series low point in its 3rd film to the more meandering 4th and 5th installments and somehow making it all seem both unique and conclusive. In this effort, we get a prologue that is actually a coda to the 3rd film. Soon after all non-consenting adults are dispatched, Grandma Lois introduces Katie and Kristie to a new character, whose purpose seems to be bound to exposition. He explains that Katie is going to be the guardian of Kristie’s boy child, Hunter. His voice shows up a little later for a relevant moment. Essentially, he is there to tell you points we saw in the earlier films: points hammered repeatedly later. The kids, Hunter and the new family’s little girl Leila, are the Key Master and Gatekeeper. For those three of you who did not see Ghostbusters, they are harbingers of doom when their blood combines.

Why is it demons are so hell-bent on returning to corporeal form? Most plots involving demons always investing that the key to eternal life is in being brought back to a form that died in the first place. Why not stay looking like the album cover for Lisa Gerrard’s Mirror Pool? They always seem to be kicking ass and hanging around in that form. Alas, we are treated to this well trodden path after so many parts teasing something bigger and better.

There is innovation. An ancient camera appearing out of nowhere that took a box of videos seen earlier. Why is the family fascinated with filming now? The writers don’t really care. They just stick a camera on the head of the man of the house so he can tell his wife to get the kid out of the grips of the monster while he keeps rolling. Because footage of the fairer half and your helpless child will really help when trying to explain why you didn’t help them out to anyone curious as to why they disappeared through the hole in the wall.

Gone from this film is any real sense the characters are genuinely fascinated by the events. They see something shiny, show it to a couple of people and then – squirrel – they are on to the next flashy thing. Sure, books are splayed about so others can recite things discovered off camera, but none of the events build off the previous like they do in the first two films. It’s a hodge podge with the hopes that the audience can make the leaps other characters made before. The whole thing really just left me hoping that the recently dumped brother-in-law (Murray) would hook up with his sister in law’s friend (Dudley) just so something would happen.

Does this all make sense to the viewer? Yes, but in the dumbest way possible. The effect is serving the bones of the last 6 Thanksgiving Turkeys and telling the guests to chow down. Don’t worry, though, there will always be plenty of stuffing to go around.

(*1/2 out of *****)

The Green Inferno (***1/2) – That’s my next tattoo


The Green Inferno – 2013

Director Eli Roth
Starring Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Daryl Sabara, Kirby Bliss Blanton, Sky Ferreira, Magda Apanowicz, Nicolás Martinez, Aaron Burns, Ignacia Allamand, Ramón Llao, Richard Burgi
Screenplay Eli Roth, Guillermo Amoedo

A group of college kids looking to do good land in a remote area of the Amazon. They think they will be greeted as liberators of a small tribe that is in danger of losing its territory to developers. Instead, they are greeted as breakfast, lunch and dinner for a tribe who turn out to be cannibals.

There is more to it than this. One of the kids (Izzo) is the daughter of a united nations lawyer, which makes her a hot commodity for the organizers. This turns out to be a boon for the effort, even if she loses her innocence in the process. Were that all she would lose, it might be considered a great trip, compared to what happens.

Roth does a great job showing us images of plenty and ignorance in an urban setting. True believers or not, these kids don’t know spit about the world where man meets beast. There are the typical college discussions about what is right and what is wrong. This doesn’t hold water when it’s time to eat.

After building to a false climax in the middle of the film, the characters and viewers are shocked into a new reality. This is more effective when we get to see the characters as fully realized yet hopelessly naïve people. It’s pushed to new heights when you see the same persons ready for a routine meal and then slowly feasted upon while their friends have to smell the process. Then add a bad case of dysentery to the mix.

Roth is one of the few directors that can push the grotesque into something approaching art. He does a fantastic job of showing civilized society where its bounds truly are. Hostel is one of the most effective films I have ever seen. Because of it, I doubt I will ever travel to any Eastern bloc country intentionally. I hadn’t planned on going to the Amazon anyway.

Will this movie make us think less favorably about ethnic groups as savages that lurk in the shadows of the world? Will it make us think that turning everything into a Disneyfied resort is some sort of answer? Are college kids ever going to be smart about anything? It’s good to ask these questions no matter the answer.

It’s absurd at many points, and there are few scenes that don’t feel like an intentional homage to B movie excess. There is nuance, however. There are moments of humanity. This is a worthy effort, even if one never would want to watch it again.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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