Movie Review ~ Rush (2013)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A biography of Formula 1 champion driver Niki Lauda and the 1976 crash that almost claimed his life. Mere weeks after the accident, he got behind the wheel to challenge his rival, James Hunt.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jamie de Courcey, Pierfrancesco Favino, Natalie Dormer

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: The most exciting thing about Rush is not the impeccably staged Formula 1 racing sequences, or seeing star Chris Hemsworth turn in a strong performance that doesn’t require a superhero costume, or finding a fresh new star on the rise. No, while Rush has all of the above mentioned they are mere bonus points when compared to how the film represents a return to fine form for director Ron Howard.

After a small misstep with middling The Dilemma and turning in too literal adaptations of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons the director has returned to the kind of filmmaking that put him on the map in the first place. Rush is very much in league with Howard’s work on Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, capturing a time and place that zoom off the screen – a period drama that doesn’t feel stuck in the past.

I didn’t have much knowledge of the world of Formula 1 racing before the movie and I don’t have a much more after – but the more swerves around being an introduction to the sport in favor of illustrating the rivalry of two very different men with the same competitive spirit.

Australian Hemsworth (The Cabin in the Woods, Snow White & The Huntsman, Marvel’s The Avengers) plays Brit racer James Hunt with a frat boys wink and a playboy’s good looks. When we first meet him he’s as reckless off the track as he is on…clearly not taking the sport as seriously as his colleagues would like. He talks a big game and usually delivers…until he meets his match in the form of Austrian Niki Lauda (Spanish star Daniel Brühl).

Lauda may not have Hunt’s good looks or affable charm but what he lacks in that department he more than makes up with an understanding of racing and what it takes to win. He’s not shy about speaking his mind no matter who he offends…his only focus is winning and he’ll drive over anyone that gets in his way. That doesn’t sit too well with Hunt and the men find themselves at odds at every turn.

The first half of the film is a well staged introduction to the two men as they come into their own in the racing world of the late 70’s. On an international stage with races all over the world we follow Hunt and Lauda as they go through the paces of their races and see how they are always looking in their mirrors to see what race position they’re in. Howard keeps the races moving ever forward, sometimes showing the full race and other times showing just the end stats.

The second half of the film focuses on the effects after a devastating accident and shows how the course of both Lauda and Hunt’s careers takes a turn that will test the resolve and willpower of the two men. Brühl and Hemsworth are both strong in their interpretations of these racers with Brühl acting as a semi-narrator of the piece. We get the chance to peel back some of the layers and gain some insight into what makes these men tick…what drives them to put their lives at risk race after race.

Howard has enlisted cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle, a frequent collaborator with Danny Boyle (he won an Oscar for his work on Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire). Also lensing Boyle’s recent Trance, Mantle brings a hyper kinetic energy to the film most notably in well filmed racing sequences that never lose the audience who can sometimes be forgotten by filmmakers just interested in showboating their technique. His shots are clever, clear, and spot on the right choice for this type of film.

Aside from Brühl and Hemsworth, the film is notable for introducing Romanian actress Alexandra Maria Lara to US audiences. Howard really made a find here because this actress is a fascinating addition to the already strong cast. Though her part is mostly relegated to the supportive wife of Niki, Lara finds some special moments in the script from Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan to make her own – it’s a performance that really stuck with me and here’s hoping we see more of her soon.

Into every movie a little rain must fall and in the performance category the two weak leaks are a badly miscast Olivia Wilde (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, People Like Us). One of the only Americans in the cast, she dons not only a blonde wig but a poor British accent to play Suzy Miller, wife of James Hunt. Though her first scene hints at a fiery performance to come, there’s not enough meat from the script or from Wilde to make much of an impression which is disappointing because Wilde is a good actress but her choices lately haven’t landed like they should. Same goes from Christian McKay as the owner of Hunt’s racing team. Sporting a pudgy fat suit (I hope it was a fat suit) and a foppish accent straight from a Benny Hill sketch, McKay seems to have walked in from the aforementioned Benny Hill skit and forgot he was in a drama.

Those two performances aside, Howard fills the other characters and extras with actors that look like they really are from the late 70’s thanks to costume designer Julian Day’s restrained 70’s attire. The music from Hans Zimmer is typically solid and the overall production design from Mark Digby allows the audience to become enveloped with the era with rolling their eyes at yet another pair of flowered bell-bottoms.

Rush is a strong entry for Howard (The Paper, Backdraft, Parenthood, Splash, Gung Ho, Far and Away) and a welcome return of a director that I’ve missed in the last few years because Howard is a great storyteller and a strong filmmaker. Wisely being released after the big boom of summer blockbusters, Rush has the potential to be a sleeper hit for the fall and rightfully so. It’s a skillfully made biopic that should have audiences on the edge of their seats.

Movie Review ~ Prisoners

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Keller Dover’s daughter and her friend go missing, he takes matters into his own hands as the police pursue multiple leads and the pressure mounts. But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Terrance Howard, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, David Dastmalchian

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: R

Running Length: 146 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: When I reviewed the first trailer for Prisoners back in June I was mad.  I had reached my breaking point for trailers pushing the three minute mark that seemed to show the entire film, freely giving away plot twists and turns that I so enjoy discovering when I’m watching the entire film.  Seeing the trailer often before films these last few months I would always turn to my seat mate and say “They showed the ENTIRE movie!”…even when I was seeing a film solo.

Then I started reading more about the movie as it started to be screened at various film festivals and heard that there was more to this crime drama than the trailer was letting on.  As the film gathered steam (and award recognition) I began to hope that the buzz was true and Prisoners, with its impressive cast and dark plot details, was more than met the eye.  Could there be any secrets left unturned?

The answer was a resounding yes and Prisoners has now hurdled to the top of my Best of 2013 List (don’t worry, The Way Way Back…you are still going strong as my favorite film but you’re a different movie than Prisoners).  It’s not only one of the best, most satisfyingly intense films of the year but one of best crime dramas of the last decade…taking a place on the shelf next to L.A. Confidential and Zodiac.

The set-up of the film is exactly how the trailer opens, two young girls go missing on a drizzly Thanksgiving day in a modest suburban development.  While their families are lounging around suffering the effects of a filling turkey feast, someone has infiltrated this quiet neighborhood and now the girls have vanished.  These early scenes are played by the actors so casually and unassuming that we instantly know the relationship these neighbors have formed.  As the realization that the girls are missing grows, the film begins its vice grip on the audience, applying only light pressure as we watch Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables, The Wolverine), Maria Bello (Abduction), Viola Davis (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and Terrance Howard (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) begin their search as concerned parents before giving way to frantically tearing through the neighborhood to find their children.

The next character to be introduced is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch) as he’s brought in to investigate a Winnebago that was seen in the vicinity, now ominously parked at a rest stop.  Inside is Alex Jones (Paul Dano, Looper, Being Flynn), who looks like the perfect suspect with his slightly off personality and big “I’m a creep” glasses.  Trouble is, with no girls found and no evidence in the Winnebago Alex is soon released back into the custody of his aunt (Melissa Leo, Oblivion, Olympus Has Fallen) only to be taken himself by Jackman’s survivalist father that isn’t satisfied with what the police have done to find the girls.

Now that’s about as much as the trailer shows you and it’s as much of the plot that I’m going to give away…because all of this happens in the first 40 minutes of the 2 ½ hour film…I know because I checked my watch wondering what would take up the remainder of the film.  Well, the turns the film takes and the secrets that are slowly revealed are explored fully, making Prisoners one of the rare films that gets more interesting the more you know about what’s going on.

More than anything, the film raises some questions about justice and how far we’ll go to get the answers that we want…which could make us no better than the criminals that are out there.  It’s not the most revolutionary question to ask an audience but the delivery is so skilled, detailed, and profound that it’s a punch to the gut when you consider the very real situation on hand in Prisoners.

The vice that keeps applying more pressure to the audience is given greater strength by a full battery of actors that push off any pre-conceived notions we have of them and let true characters shine through.  Jackman is always a dependable presence but he goes deeper with his tormented father than he ever has before, showing the blood and pain that hides below his exterior.  Davis and Howard work well both in tandem and solo as their characters have a moral bridge to cross that they may regret going over.  Bello is probably the least successful in her draft of the character, not ever being fully convincing as Jackman’s suddenly fragile wife.  Her performance has guts, true, but it left me wanting more.

For my money, the film belongs to Gyllenhaal.  After End of Watch, I wasn’t sure I could me more impressed with his work but he raises the bar on his own career with a nuanced and deeply etched detective that hates to be wrong and beats himself up for missing obvious clues.  Gyllenhaal fills his character with quirks and ticks that aren’t ever really explained and never go into “performance” mode.  He’s an actor that builds his character from the ground up and he’s made the wise choice to put a back-story in that only he knows and lets the audience try to figure out what makes him tick.  It’s a brilliant, haunting performance.

The whole film is a haunting experience, actually, and that’s thanks to not only the cast but director Denis Villeneuve excellent pace in handling Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) dense script.  Guzikowski has only written three scripts and is clearly someone to pay attention to.  Making maybe even more of an impact that the direction or script is the brilliant cinematography of Roger Deakins (Skyfall), giving the film even more complexity.  Though the film is largely shot in the grey gloom of winter, Deakins comes up with some incredibly vivid images that highlight the terror and the hidden darkness that plagues these two families, the detective that is desperate for clues, and an evil that’s not revealed in full until the final moments.

I know films of this nature can be hard for some people to take and if you’re one of those people I’m sure you’ll make the decision on your own if putting yourself through this intense experience is worth it.  I found the film to be practically flawless, achieving success on every level without making sacrifices.  There were genuine surprises that made me gasp and a denouement that felt justly earned…it’s not the punishing experience that so many of these films tend to drift toward but instead it emerges as a rewarding piece of filmmaking that will easily land the movie in prime awards consideration.

Movie Review ~ The Family

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The Manzoni family, a notorious mafia clan, is relocated to Normandy, France under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging as their old habits die hard.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Domenick Lombardozzi

Director: Luc Besson

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in to see The Family.  As a fan of Michelle Pfeiffer, I knew that my seeing this was an inevitable event but based on the trailer and seriously boring title I just didn’t know how the whole thing was going to turn out.  Would it be another in a long line of Robert De Niro films that seemed to get made only because he signed on the dotted line?  Or would it be the kind of daring European action film that director Luc Besson first rose to fame for?

Well, it turns out that the movie can’t ever really decide what genre it wants to fit into so it instead just lays down and rolls around several different themes all at the same time.  That may not work for most movie audiences and it’s not surprising that people are coming away from the film feeling a little empty, but I found the film to be an interesting potpourri of tones that worked more often than not – even if it’s more than a little odd.

Moving into a new European town after an incident necessitated their hasty retreat; a family in the witness protection program find themselves in the quaint/quiet town of Normandy in France.  Taking up residence in a money pit-esque dwelling, the Manzoni’s clearly are getting old hat at the process of moving from one town to another.  Dad (a more low-key than usual De Niro, Being Flynn, Silver Linings Playbook) just wants to settle in and write his memoirs, to the horror of the long-suffering FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln, Hope Springs) assigned to their case.  Michelle Pfeiffer (Dark Shadows, People Like Us) is De Niro’s wife with anger issues of her own, eventually turning to the church for help, spilling her secrets in confession that leads to a moderately nice payoff.  The kids (Diana Agron and John D’Leo) are fashioned as doppelgangers of their parents and both give off a playful vibe, even as they find themselves in hot water at school.

As the family is getting acclimated to their new town, we also follow a creepy crime henchman (Jon Freda) that continues his hunt for De Niro and his brood after De Niro became a turncoat to his Mafia family.  It’s in these scenes that wind up leading to an out of left field tension filled finale that the film may confuse some people.  The passages with the family are given a light touch that belies the darker tone brought on by Freda’s intense chase.

For me, it worked.  I enjoyed that the film feels different than what it would have been were it produced in your typical Hollywood fashion.  That it was made in Europe by a European crew and director has given the film a golden hue and the chance to take risks with its twists and turns.  By the time the film reached its finale I wasn’t sure how it was all going to work out for everyone involved.

Sure, the film has several extraneous storylines that could have been trimmed to keep the running length to 90 or so minutes but the actors play these moments so well that it’s forgivable.  It may be harder to forgive one of the most laughably contrived cases of coincidence since, well, ever, but by that point the movie had won me over enough to just brush it off.  There’s also a wonderfully weird bit where De Niro is feted by a local film society who has asked him to come and speak to the finer points of the classic film…no…no…I won’t spoil that moment for you.

Returning after several years of being absent from the director’s chair, Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element) brings his trademark cinematic flair to The Family and navigates it’s up and down and crisscrossed tones with ease.  I’ve always enjoyed Besson’s creative way of cutting from one scene to the next and he keeps the pace going, even when his screenplay based on the novel Malavita doesn’t fully support itself.

The Family isn’t a movie that you’ll need to see in the theaters but would make for an interesting watch when it finds its way into the home viewing market.

Movie Review ~ Riddick

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Left for dead on a sun-scorched planet, Riddick finds himself up against an alien race of predators. Activating an emergency beacon alerts two ships: one carrying a new breed of mercenary, the other captained by a man from Riddick’s past.

Stars: Vin Diesel, Karl Urban, Jordi Molla, Matt Nable, Katee Sackhoff, Bokeem Woodbine, Dave Bautista, Conrad Pla, Raoul Trujillo, Nolan Funk, Keri Hilson

Director: David Twohy

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:

You just can’t keep a good (bad) guy down…and this third outing for Vin Diesel’s muddled anti-hero proves that  point over and over (and over and over).

I was a fan of the 2000 low budget sci-fi thriller Pitch Black which introduced the Riddick character, finding it to be a schlocky B-Film with more than the usual dose of character development, setting itself apart from its contemporaries.  Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on Diesel’s rising star, Universal threw a lot of money into the 2004 follow-up The Chronicles of Riddick, only to see the film not make good on its prospects with its misguided attempt to give its central character a ton of back-story.  By doing this, they took a character that was interesting because we knew little about him and made him toothless, virtually indistinguishable from any countless other sci-fi heroes.

Now, with Diesel riding high after returning to the Fast and the Furious series (the summer 2013 installment, Fast & Furious 6 did crazy good business…and was pretty fun too) Universal is taking another chance on Diesel/Riddick with this modestly budgeted film that has the good elements from Pitch Black and some of the bad elements of The Chronicles of Riddick.

Abandoned on a barren planet, Riddick spends its first thirty minutes or so with nearly no dialogue as our light-averse ex-con struggles to survive the climate, his own inner torment, and a handful of icky creatures rendered with decent success to be a few notches above something you’d see in the SyFy channel.  Comparisons to 2000’s Cast Away are inevitable and not too far off the mark as Riddick learns how to survive and makes nice with a feral dog-like creature (which looks like the offspring of a zebra that mated with a Doberman), eventually winding up at a deserted outpost which could be his way to freedom.

Riddick uses the outpost to initiate a beacon that will alert bounty hunters to his whereabouts, figuring he’ll be able to overthrow any crew that comes-a-callin’ and steal their ship to do a little planet hopping.  That’s when the movie has to switch things up and introduce a crew of new characters that only serve as distractions rather than make their own contributions to advance the plot.

Two crews find their way down, battling not only the one man wrecking crew of Riddick but each other as well. These characters are drawn so broadly that I wondered if they themselves were CGI animated …because only that could excuse the inexcusably awful performance of head bad guy Jordi Molla.  Every line he says, every breath he takes, every desperate mug he makes renders Molla almost unwatchable…made worse by the film being projected on IMAX screens.  Matt Nable is the captain of a rival crew of mercenaries and it seems like the role was meant for a bigger name…while Nable is just fine in the part it just seems like he was the 25th choice for the role.

As for any female presence in the film, I counted about four women in the movie and three of them take their clothes off at one point, including Katee Sackhoff’s hilariously out of place topless scene.  Though Sackhoff’s character is supposedly a tough lesbian, that doesn’t stop the film from making her as weak a presence as the other females…seen either as a sex object or at the mercy of their male counterparts.

Diesel, for his part, seems to be achieving what he wanted by providing his character some good moments of growth…but it’s really time to hang up the night vision goggles.  As it stretches to nearly two hours, the film isn’t ever boring but you begin to feel the time creeping by before the conclusion arrives.

Best left for a watch in the comfort of your own home, Riddick should be the end of the series given its middling box office returns and a general consensus that the character has gone as far as he needs to go.  Vin, take my advice, focus on your other franchise series that miraculously still has legs after six outings.

The Silver Bullet ~ We Are What We Are

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Synopsis: The Parkers, a reclusive family who follow ancient customs, find their secret existence threatened as a torrential downpour moves into their area, forcing daughters Iris and Rose to assume responsibilities beyond those of a typical family.

Release Date:  September 27, 2013

Thoughts: It’s always nice when a trailer for a film doesn’t give away every nook and cranny of its plot.  One could probably discern what the true secret at the heart of this gothic mystery will turn out to be but I’m intrigued to see the path it takes to this reveal.  Boasting no major stars and having been completed in 2010, the odds are against the film becoming a sleeper hit…but it’s something I’m going to keep my eye out for (and you should too) based solely on its carefully constructed trailer.

The Silver Bullet ~ Nebraska

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Synopsis: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

Release Date:  November 15, 2013

Thoughts: As a fan of the majority of director Alexander Payne’s work (including my favorite film of 2011, The Descendants), I’m eagerly awaiting his latest piece which won lead actor Bruce Dern the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.  Filmed in glorious black and white, this road trip dramedy looks spiked with Payne’s observant style and wry wit.  It should be interesting to see how Will Forte fares as Dern’s exasperated son, especially considering that up until now he hasn’t had much of a chance to show off any dramatic chops.  This is high on my list of films to see. 

Oh…and I am always excited when I see a director use a retro film logo (David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh also like pulling these out before their films)

The Silver Bullet ~ Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle)

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Synopsis: Fifteen year old Adèle has no doubt: a girl must date boys. Her life is turned upside down when she meets Emma, a blue-haired young woman, who allows her to discover desire and to assert herself as a woman and an adult.

Release Date:  October 25, 2013

Thoughts: Winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Blue is the Warmest Color is a coming of age tale charting the relationship between two lesbian teens in France.  Based on a graphic novel, the film is garnering buzz not only for its powerhouse lead performances but also because of the decision to release the film with its NC-17 rating intact.   Many mainstream movie houses won’t show films with this rating…but it’s hard to imagine the film playing in these types of stadium seating cineplexes to begin with.  No matter the rating, the winners of the top award at Cannes are always worth a look…especially when you consider that Steven Spielberg was the head of the jury that awarded this film the prize.

Movie Review ~ Insidious: Chapter 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The haunted Lambert family seeks to uncover the mysterious childhood secret that has left them dangerously connected to the spirit world.

Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Danielle Bisutti, Michael James Grise, Lindsay Seim, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell

Director: James Wan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:

I always considered 2010’s Insidious a re-purposing of sorts of 1982’s Poltergeist.  Both films had parallel themes and characters and you didn’t have to dig very deep to see these similarities.  Unfortunately, this sequel also has a lot in common with Poltergeist II: The Other Side released in 1986…that is to say it’s not as scary, explains way more than it has to, and didn’t really need to be made in the first place.

I think what made Insidious so notable was how it approached its scares.  By letting the audience do most of the work and not throwing cats at the camera to supply jump scares, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell used the low-budget trappings to their advantage.  Getting the most bang for their buck they eschewed fancy special effects for practical and effective frights that kept the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end long after the credits were done.

It’s disappointing then, that the three years between the two films was not really worth the wait.  Though it’s unquestionably a cut above the majority of horror films released this year (You’re Next and The Purge had their moments but fell short for this reviewer) it falls below the bar set by July’s The Conjuring…which is interesting because it was also directed by Wan.  I had hopes that since Wan and Whannell took three years to deliver the next chapter in the story that there would be something of greater substance and similar restraint like its predecessor.

Sadly, where the first movie kept its cards close to its chest, Chapter 2 is an open book.  Too much time is taken to explain simply everything that’s happening and you feel like shouting at the screen “We didn’t really need to know that!” at the various characters that suddenly feel the need to unload their hidden secrets.  My biggest let-down in mysteries/thrillers tends to be the ending where loose ends are tied up and motives are clarified and this movie is just a series of reveals and explanations.

I’d be telling a fib if I said that Wan doesn’t cook up some fairly spooky sequences that gave me a brief case of the willies.  Though the presence of the Lipstick-Face Man from #1 is sadly missed, Wan has provided a handful of creepy characters that continue to haunt Josh (Patrick Wilson, Prometheus) and Renai (Rose Byrne, The Internship) Lambert and their family.

Picking up seconds after the first one ended the movie follows the Lambert’s as they take up residence with Grandma (Barbara Hershey) in her foreboding wood varnished house.  It’s not long before the baby alarms are once again signaling a malevolent presence and apparitions start to play games with the Lambert’s.  It’s hard to reveal anything more without spoiling not only the ending to the first movie and also ruining some mediocre twists this one has waiting for you.

What I liked about the movie was that it made an effort to continue this story and explore the mythology behind the haunting with a snappy prologue focusing on Josh as a child.  Whannell also gets nice marks for finding a way to bring elements of the first film back in a most clever fashion.  The trouble with that, though, is that ultimately this movie will always be tied to the first film and probably wouldn’t work if judged on its own merits as a stand-alone film.  By continuing the story the way they did, Wan and Whannell have painted themselves into a corner and even a last ditch effort to make future installments a possibility doesn’t exactly ring true…or seem very interesting.

In the first film the Lambert’s struggle was focused almost solely in their house.  This film opens up the playing field and so we have too many scenes away from the action…or in places that don’t make sense if you are following closely.  Hershey for instance has a long-ish escapade with returning comedic relief Whannell and Angus Sampson as they do some recon work in several locations that they seem to have no trouble gaining access to.  I had to laugh when not only were they able to break into the abandoned hospital where Hershey used to work but that all of the hospital records were miraculously still there.

Wan has been quoted recently as saying that this film would be his swan song to the horror genre and maybe that’s a good thing.  Clearly talented, perhaps it was too much to hope that Wan would be able to deliver two superior horror films in the span of one year.  While this isn’t a total write-off and is worth seeing if you are a fan of the first film, it winds up being a let-down in part because for all the new ground this one tries to break it doesn’t get under the skin like the original did.

Down from the Shelf ~ Insidious

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.

Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Joseph Bishara, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson

Director: James Wan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: One of my all time favorite horror films is 1982’s Poltergeist.  Following a family experiencing strange goings on in their house, the film came from the mind of Steven Spielberg and was directed by Tobe Hooper who shocked audiences with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It remains a shining example in the horror genre as a perfect balance of supernatural horror and family drama.

So it’s no big shocker that I have a fondness for 2010’s Insidious which, if you really think about it, is practically a modern day retelling of Poltergeist.  It follows the Poltergeist formula quite faithfully, i.e. suburban family of five is terrorized by ghostly happenings, eventually calling on a medium to figure out what (or who) the heck is reaching out from the other side.  Frights and freak-outs abound until the final showdown when the living and the dead collide.

I’m still aghast that 2014 will see the release of a Poltergeist remake so why am I letting Insidious off the hook so easily?  Well, it’s because Insidious is still very much its own movie with its own twist on the well-worn ghost story.  Director James Wan (The Conjuring) and screenwriter/supporting star Leigh Whannell (Saw) cleverly work in more than a few spine-tingling turns and several honest-to-goodness terrifying moments.  There are certain sequences in the film that to this day I find hard to watch without feeling my heart start to race.

It helps that Wan has gathered a unique cast together that you may not normally associate with horror films.  Patrick Wilson (Prometheus) has come a long way from the guy I saw in the The Full Monty on Broadway and he is an interesting enough actor to not let himself get pigeon-holed in one character.  While Bridesmaids was still a year away for Rose Byrne (The Internship), she’d already made a minor splash on television with her twisty, layered role on Damages.  The first time I saw the movie I remember not caring much for Byrne’s performance but revisiting it recently I found her to be the true solid center of the troupe.

Colorful supporting performances abound including Barbara Hershey’s minor role as Wilson’s mother who has some key information about the origin of the strange events besieging her son and his family.  Though Hershey memorably starred in the otherwise unmemorable The Entity from 1982 (in which her nude body was famously molested by a ghost) she wasn’t known for her work in this genre.  Lin Shaye, Whannell, and burly Angus Sampson are part of a trio of paranormal researchers that help the family get to the root of the evil that gives way to a spooky as all get out finale.

Wan’s freaky final act of Insidious has the same effect as going through a haunted house – working with cinematographers David M. Brewer and John R. Leonetti he puts the audience right there with the actors never letting the viewer see something that the others don’t.  It’s a nerve-wracking sequence heighted by Joseph Bishara’s nightmare-inducing score, not to mention Bishara’s performance as “Lipstick-Face Demon”.

Though a low-budget film, the movie has a nice shine to it and holds up on repeat viewings…which is saying something for a horror film dependent on the element of surprise.  It’s a tad too long and some viewers may find a few passages a little silly but it’s all part of the fun and (scary) games Wan and company have waiting for you.

The Silver Bullet ~ Homefront

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Synopsis: A former DEA agent moves his family to a quiet town, where he soon tangles with a local meth druglord.

Release Date:  November 27, 2013

Thoughts:  Just looking at the poster for this thriller you’d get the impression that this was merely another Jason Statham (Parker, The Expendables 2) beat-down movie.  While the latter half of the preview indicates that butts will be kicked by Mr. Statham, I was impressed that the set-up seems deeper than similar movies that have come out of Statham’s wheelhouse.  Boasting an impressive stew of actors (and James Franco, Oz the Great and Powerful), Homefront is mysteriously arriving during Thanksgiving where I’m wondering if it will have any target audience available to buy a ticket when other higher profile films are releasing around that time.  Time will tell if Turkey Day will find crowds lining up for this or Frozen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Oh, did I forget to mention this was adapted from Chuck Logan’s novel by Sylvester Stallone for his old pal Jason Statham?  It actually makes me more interested…