A short review of “Underworld: Blood Wars” (2016)

I’m not sure what to say about “Underworld: Blood Wars” (2016).  It really differs little from the previous “Underworld” movies.  If you’ve seen those, you’ve kinda seen this one.

The vampires look like underwear models, or maybe a goths-only high school drama club.  The werewolves look … not homeless, exactly, but like burly, long-haired, unemployed grunge rockers.  Both groups speak portentously and repeatedly about things like “LINEAGE” and “BLOOD LINES” and “THE WAR” and “AMELIA.”  (Who was Amelia again?)  There are the requisite betrayals and forbidden inter-species romances.  The entire thing felt like a feature-length music video.

Maybe I’m being too harsh.  I would actually give this film a 5 out of 10 for at least bringing some good things to the table.  Kate Beckinsale is a good actress, and she brings the same magnetism that she always does to Selene, the franchise’s protagonist.  Charles Dance is always superb, and is always fun to watch.  (There are at least two “Game of Thrones” alumni here — one is Dance as a vampire elder, and the other is Tobias Menzies as the leader of the “Lycans.”)  The nicest surprise, though, was seeing Lara Pulver as an ambitious vampire alpha female — fans of “Sherlock” (2010 – 2017) will recognize her as that series’ incarnation of Irene Adler.  She’s a great actress, and she seems to relish this kind of role.

All in all, though, I can’t say I actually recommend this.

 

 

underworldbwposter

A short review of “The Good Neighbor” (2016)

“The Good Neighbor” (2016) generally didn’t work for me.

My first problem was its premise.  Two teenage aspiring filmmakers play an elaborate high-tech prank on an elderly neighbor by installing hidden cameras in his home and then manipulating his environment: causing his lights and TV to malfunction, causing his windows to break, and even adjusting his thermostat to plunge the temperature so he’s forced to cope with the bitter cold.  They plan to mimic a haunting, and they rationalize it because he actually is a horrible person, well portrayed by James Caan in an understated performance.

Here’s what doesn’t make sense — what the teens are doing is against the law, and they know it.  (One explicitly states it at least once mid-way through the film.)  I count trespassing, criminal mischief and unlawful surveillance to start with, and I’m willing to bet they’d face charges for harassment too.  Yet they fully intend to makes themselves “famous” via the Internet with this cruel prank/documentary.  They shoot lengthy footage of themselves narrating the construction and implementation of their project; this is intended as part of the documentary.

But why would they upload detailed, inclusive evidence of their crimes to the Internet?  If they truly become “famous” with thousands of “hits” for their video, wouldn’t that mean countless people could bring them to the attention of the police?  (And, truthfully, even if they tried to remain anonymous, I’m sure any competent investigator viewing their video would at least count them as suspects.  One lives right across the street from Caan’s character.)

For much of its running length, “The Good Neighbor” actually succeeds at being a serviceable horror-thriller — if you can get past that hole in the premise.

But then we come to the second problem with this movie.  Towards its end, it takes an unexpected dramatic turn.  It stops being a thriller, and simply becomes a particularly sad drama.  I don’t want to say to much for fear of spoilers, suffice to say it’s a real downer.  But it isn’t frightening at all — or even terribly entertaining.

The only part near the end that pleased me was the movie’s final shot.  It was ambiguous, but it suggested a nice new level of character depth.  I thought it was neat.

Oh well.  Maybe others will enjoy this film more than I did.  I myself can’t recommend it, and I’d give it a 5 out of 10.

Postscript: you can have some fun here trying to figure out where you’ve seen these teenage actors before.  They’re both veterans of horror.  The mild-mannered one is Keir Gilchrist, who horror fans will recognize from “It Follows” (2014).  The meaner, more manipulative of the pair is Logan Miller, who played the goodhearted Benjamin in this past season of “The Walking Dead.”  It’s so weird seeing him play such different characters.

 

 

good_neighbor

A short review of “Here Alone” (2016)

I think “Here Alone” (2016) would disappoint a lot of casual zombie movie fans.  It is admittedly quite slow, there is very little action, and the zombies mostly inhabit the story’s background.

I really liked it.  It is a thoughtful, sensitive post-apocalyptic drama that is beautifully filmed in the mountains of upstate New York.  The idyllic rural setting is a terrific contrast to the film’s brutal plot devices.  And its naturalistic dialogue feels authentic — it’s either a very well written movie or its three principal actors are unusually good at improv.  (The conversations flow so organically that the latter seems plausible.)

The movie focuses on three survivors of a horrifying epidemic.  (The “zombies” here are of the “28 Days Later” variety, and turn murderous upon infection.)  Although they remain off screen for much of the movie, we are reminded of their threat by some intermittent, hellish screams.  (The sounds were perfect; it’s a nice touch that lent tension and atmosphere.)

All three leads — Lucy Walters, Adam David Thompson and Gina Piersanti — were outstanding.  Walters’ performance was especially superb.  Her portrayal of a bereaved young wife and new mother was understated and subdued, but powerful.  She absolutely drew me in to the story.  We visit via flashback the fates of her husband and infant, and some of what we see is truly heart-rending.

The movie’s surprising final shot stayed with me for a while.   It’s ambiguous — maybe even confusing, at first.  But it makes sense if you reflect a little about the dialogue concerning the characters’ coping mechanisms.  It’s bittersweet, and seems to say something sad about survival and human attachments.

I’d give this an 8 out of 10, and I recommend it.

Website-Thumbnail1

A short review of “Split” (2016)

For much of its running length, I was considering writing a review for “Split” (2016) that rated it a perfect 10.  (I am an unabashed fan of M. Night Shyamalan, no matter how reviled he is by other Internet commentators.)  I love the way he frames his shots, I love his dialogue, I love his stories, and I love the strange way he can make a slowly paced film nevertheless absorbing.)

And “Split” looked nearly perfect.  James McAvoy handed in a tour-de-force performance as Kevin, a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID).  (Yes, I am aware of the clinical controversies connected with whether the disorder even exists — I was a psychology student many, many years ago.  I think we should suspend whatever disbelief we have for the purposes of enjoying the movie.)  McAvoy plays his role to perfection.  His “Dennis” persona is particularly frightening, and “Barry,” one of the “good personalities” he portrays, is surprisingly endearing and sympathetic.

Playing off McAvoy wonderfully are Betty Buckley as his gentle psychiatrist and Anya Taylor-Joy as one of three teenaged girls kidnapped by his nastier personalities.  The talented Taylor-Joy was also perfect in her role.  (I last saw her 2015’s “The Witch” and she was also in last year’s “Morgan;” I’m gaining the impression that this promising young specializes in cerebral horror-thrillers.)

I would rate “Split” an 8 out of 10.  It suffers a bit, I think, from two missteps toward the end.  One, this taut psychological thriller takes an ill-advised turn into dark fantasy.  I thought it was amazingly good as a thriller grounded only in the real world — it was far less so with the later jarring story elements.  (I do realize why Shyamalan made this creative decision, and you will too, after watching it and then reading up on it.)  But I still think that this would have been a perfect film if the majority of it focused on McAvoy’s personalities either aiding or misleading his psychiatrist, with Taylor-Joy’s fate hanging in the balance.

Two, this film seemed to suffer from the too-many-endings syndrome that people often associate with Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” movies.  We seem to have one denouement that works quite well, then a second that should have been re-shot and re-scripted.  And then there’s another plot strand finally addressed … but it is played so subtly that I’m not even sure I got it.  And this isn’t even counting the significance of the movie’s final line, which works as a fantastic framing device.

About that line … if you’re a Shyamalan fan, then you simply must watch the film until it’s very end, as the camera pans through the coffee shop.  You’ll love it.

 

 

A review of the “Westworld” pilot (2016)

Blog Correspondent Pete Harrison suggested I give the Westworld” series (2016) a try, and I’m damn glad he did.  The first episode was superb, and it’s safe to say it’s reeled me in.  I’d give the pilot a 9 out of 10; this seems like it could be the best science fiction television show I’ve seen in a long time.

I still think the premise is just slightly cheesy — grown men and women spending a fortune to visit a western-themed amusement park with interactive android cowboys.  (I think maybe westerns were a more mainstream genre in 1973, when Michael Crichton’s original film was in theaters.)  And there are times when the show’s central western-themed motifs are a little annoying to me … even though I know the park is supposed to appear superficial and cliche.

But “Westworld” is a highly intelligent thriller — it looks like a hell of a lot of thought went into the script.  Just about every aspect of the show seems like it was well developed — everything from the actors’ performances to the set design.  And don’t let the gorgeous, idyllic, sunny landscapes fool you — there is no shortage of pathos here.  It’s brutally dark in its storytelling.  (By the way, if you happen to be a fan of this show, I must recommend 2014’s “Ex Machina” film — it is similarly cerebral and dark in its outlook.)

Anthony Hopkins is fantastic, as usual; Jeffrey Wright, James Marsden, Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton are all very good.  They’re all overshadowed here, though, by two stellar performances.

The first is Ed Harris as a black-clad psychopathic visitor to the park — I had no idea he could be so frightening.  Dear God.  Has he played bad guys before?  I’ve always associated him with nice-guy roles — even his antagonist in 1996’s “The Rock” was misguided and sympathetic.  I’d love to see him get a role in an upcoming “The Dark Tower” film, maybe as one of the Big Coffin Hunters, if they are ever featured.

The second is Louis Herthum, the ostensible “father” of Wood’s heroine.  (They are both androids within the park — I don’t think that’s much of a spoiler, as it’s all over the show’s advertising.)  Herthum may be a lesser known actor, but he stole the show in a tour-de-force performance, in my opinion.  And that’s no small feat in a cast including Hopkins and this surprisingly vicious Harris.  I haven’t seen a performance that good on television since NBC’s “Hannibal” went off the air.

Anyway, I noticed something funny here.  Steven Ogg plays a bandit who invades people’s homes and murders them … this is basically the same role he plays as Negan’s chief henchman on “The Walking Dead.”  It must be weird to be typecast like that.

Hey … it is only just now that I realized the logo below is a riff on Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.”

 

A review of “The Monster” (2016)

What a neat little horror movie.  “Monster” (2016) is unencumbered by any sort of belabored mystery or backstory — or even the need for familiarity with werewolf or vampire lore.  Its title baddie appears to simply be a horrible, nameless, forest-dwelling predator that waylays and assails a mother and her young daughter along a lonely highway at night.  The story’s simplicity alone makes it interesting.

And it’s a well crafted, thoughtful story.  It focuses heavily on its characters while its plot-driving antagonist is concealed in the rainswept woods, and the movie’s extensive use of flashbacks isn’t too jarring and is generally very good.  We see two interwoven stories — the first is a bare-bones scary campfire tale, while the second is about a mother-daughter relationship effectively destroyed by alcoholism.  The flashbacks do not feel like filler, nor are they maudlin.  They pack a decent enough emotional punch and, despite being sparsely scripted, they seem to reflect a sophisticated understanding of alcoholism on the part of screenwriter and director Bryan Bertino.

Bertino also shot this movie beautifully, making the most of its primary location on a rainy rural road.  It looks just great, and the isolated, pretty and nearly surreal environment here lends itself well to the movie’s horror elements.

The many positive reviews for “The Monster” point to a great performance by Zoe Kazan; I definitely agree with them.  Equal credit, I think, should go to 15-year-old Ella Ballentine (who is playing a much younger character here).  She brings a mixture of vulnerability and intensity to her role …  I actually think Bertino could have improved his story somewhat by allowing her to have a bit more pathos, and having her fight a bit more — both against her mother and against the monster.  In the latter half of the movie, she does feel underused when depicted only as an imperiled child.

If I had a major criticism of “The Monster,” I’d suggest that it is maybe 20 or 30 minutes too long.  Yes, the simplicity of the story is what makes it interesting.  But … it also feels like too little to sustain the full length of a feature film.  There … actually isn’t a hell of a lot of story here.

I would also better conceal the monster itself to the shadows.  We do indeed get a good look at it — and its artistic design is actually great.  But Bertino obviously didn’t have a tremendous special effects budget, and it shows a little — particularly when the monster should be shown moving.  For a movie that succeeds so well in being character-driven,  I think a less-is-more approach would have worked just fine here.

I’d rate this movie an 8 out of 10 and I’d recommend it.

Weird trivia — that violent, abusive prick of a boyfriend that we see in flashbacks?  That’s none other than Scott Speedman, who plays nice-guy Michael Corvin in the “Underworld” movies.  I thought that was funny.

 

 

MV5BOTI2MjY3MDkzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODQ4NTQ0MDI@._V1_UY1200_CR107,0,630,1200_AL_

A short review of Season 1 of the “Wolf Creek” TV series (2016)

“Wolf Creek” (2005) and “Wolf Creek 2” (2013) are among the most chilling and effective horror films out there.  (They can be difficult for even seasoned fans of the genre to watch.)  And last year’s follow-up television series faithfully channeled so much of their mood, tone and atmosphere that it should have been just as effective.  What a shame that its first season falls short due to tremendous problems with pacing and story structure.  I’d rate it a 6 out of 10.

The six-episode arc has the feel of the films.  It was written, directed and produced by Greg McLean, as they were.  Once again, the forbidding Australian outback is itself a central character, gorgeously captured and lovingly presented by the show’s cinematography.   I think it’s been a long time since I saw a horror film or series so successfully project a mood.  Also returning, of course, is John Jarrett in his perfect and perfectly frightening portrayal of the serial killer Mick Taylor.

Lucy Fry’s young American antihero, Eve, is the latest to face off against him, but there’s a twist — after surviving the slaughter of her family, she resolves to find and kill him.  Fry is just great in the role; Dustin Clare is well cast as the nice-guy cop who alternately pursues and tries to rescue her from danger.  The rest of the cast is also roundly terrific.  The soundtrack and scoring are beautifully atmospheric.

Unfortunately, though, all of these elements appear within a plot that moves at a snail’s pace.  We actually don’t see much of Mick for many episodes — the story focuses on Eve’s haphazard, calamitous odyssey through rural Australia, encountering criminals, good Samaritans and just plain lunatics.  McLean scripts a protagonist that is compelling and cool, and Fry is a good actress.  But many of the events of her journey are only tangentially related to the story’s central conflict, which is her duel with Mick.  I get the sense that fans might tune in to see a horror film, but might be disappointed by a moody, loosely plotted travelogue through McLean’s brutal fictional interpretation of the Australian outback.

I wondered how the screenwriter here could make such a major miscalculation.  Then I remembered that the “Wolf Creek” films, despite their brilliance, were also quite slow.  They contained what seem like lots of supporting or ancillary material connected with Mick’s victims, which were ultimately interspersed with the intense violence that made them terrifying movies (not to mention Jarratt’s flawless portrayal of a violent sociopath).

But those movies both had an hour-and-forty-minutes running time.  These six episodes add up to four full hours.  The slow pace of films was a forgivable flaw — it even came across as deliberate pacing.  It’s frustrating, though, for any onscreen story lasting more time than that.  I honestly think I would have enjoyed Season 1  much more if it had been edited down to half its length — into maybe three episodes or one feature film.

Oh, well.  This series is still remarkably well made, and I do think it will please many fans of the films.  If you enjoyed those, I would recommend giving this series a shot.