The Silver Bullet ~ Oldboy (2013)

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Synopsis: Obsessed with vengeance, a man sets out to find out why he was kidnapped and locked up into solitary confinement for 20 years without reason.

Release Date:  November 27, 2013

Thoughts: The first trailer for Spike Lee’s remake of a gritty (and highly praised) 2003 Korean film shows some promise.  If his latest work follows in the steps of the original, expect a brutally twisted tale of revenge that takes no prisoners.  It looks to be a well cast outing for Lee who has become known lately more for the feuds he gets into with fellow filmmakers than for the quality of his movies.  I’ve always been on the fence with his films, finding that they range from the excellent to the excessive with not a lot of middle ground to be found.  I’m intrigued at the presence of Josh Brolin (Men in Black III, Labor Day), Elizabeth Olsen (Silent House) and Samuel L. Jackson (Marvel’s The Avengers), all risk taking actors that might just be the perfect fit for what Lee has planned.  We shall see.

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 ~ Insidious: Chapter 2

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

Release Date:  September 13, 2013

Thoughts:  All eyes are going to be on this September horror flick for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost: it’s a follow-up to 2010’s surprise hit that was heavy on atmosphere over gore and quite effectively made haunted house flicks scary again.  Speaking of haunted houses, this will be James Wan’s second film in 2013 that centers on a family terrorized by more than just the things that go bump in the night.  Wan was also responsible for July’s The Conjuring, one of the scariest films I’ve seen in years (you’ve seen it, right…I mean, right?) so we all know he has the goods to tap into what freaks us out the most.  Had this movie been released in 2011 as a quick cash-grab I may be more hesitant about it but knowing that Wan and company took their time with it gives me good vibes…and some ominous chills.

Thoughts:

Movie Review ~ Olympus Has Fallen

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Disgraced former Presidential guard Mike Banning finds himself trapped inside the White House in the wake of a terrorist attack; using his inside knowledge, Banning works with national security to rescue the President from his kidnappers.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Ashley Judd, Melissa Leo, Rick Yune

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s been said that timing is everything and if that’s true then the producing team behind Olympus Has Fallen should have listened to that wise old saying when it came time to release their film concerning a hostile takeover of the White House.  Released back in March at the height of tensions between North Korea and the US, the film did respectable business but was nowhere near the type of pre-summer hit that everyone involved must have hoped for.

Truth be told, I’m not sure that the final product would have ever really caught on regardless of when it was released because it’s a largely goofy affair that scores highly on the tension scale but exhausts itself and the audience with melodramatic acting and far too many extraneous plot happenings.  Opening in the shadow of July’s similarly themed White House Down, Olympus never really rises from the ashes of a been-there, done-that vibe that would have seemed more at home in a season of 24.  Oh wait…24 DID do nearly the exact same plot in its second to last season.

Poor Gerard Butler just can’t catch a break when it comes to films.  Though critics may make you think otherwise, he’s never been a true box office draw and a parade of stinkers in the last two years hasn’t helped his clout in Hollywood.  Olympus Has Fallen is probably his best film of the bunch, mostly because it allows Butler’s more macho/muscular streak to emerge rather than bear the weight of the romantic comedy nightmares he’s been stuck in recently.

Here Butler is a former guard to the President, a role he loses after an iffy opening sequence set on an icy bridge involving the First Family.  It’s never adequately explained how/why he gets bumped down a few notches on the Secret Service totem pole but it helps set up his redemption later in the film.  Now he’s a paper pusher with a nice view of his former office from his standard D.C. digs.

When a terrorist attack leaves the White House in shambles and the President and his staff held hostage in an underground bunker, it’s up to Butler to perform a one-man rescue mission by any means necessary.  The bulk of the first half of the film is taken up by the seemingly endless infiltration on 1600 Penn Ave by Korean militants that want the US to pull out of the DMZ between North and South Korea.  To do so would surely mean the fall of South Korea but with the fate of our nation’s leaders at hands what choice do we have.

These kinds of films where US governments are held hostage by a foreign entity always make me squirm because the movies always go the same.  It’s clearly stated that we do not negotiate with terrorists but when you flash a loved one in danger everyone always buckles.  The body count in this one is high which adds some extra suspense in who truly will survive by the time the credits roll.

Working in what must have been left over set pieces from The West Wing, director Antoine Fuqua moves the action around with ease even though most of it takes place in shadowy darkness.  It becomes hard to tell who is who…but when it’s just one man against the bad guys…you just need to focus on Butler and his bone-crushing methods of extracting information about the head villain in charge.

The big bad wolf is Rick Yune (Die Another Day) as one of the least intimidating villains in recent memory.  Though he doesn’t hesitate to put a bullet into more than a few people, Yune’s calm delivery seems more sleepy that sociopathic.  On the opposite side of the hero coin, Aaron Eckhart’s (The Dark Knight, Erin Brockovich) President Asher is underused and not called on to do much but play on his All-American looks to cut a believable presence as the Commander in Chief.

Filling out the cast are several overly earnest performances that never seem to gel with each other.  Morgan Freeman (Oblivion, Now You See Me) is the Speaker of the House that’s thrust in charge when both the President and Vice President become indisposed.  Freeman’s played the President before (in 1998’s Deep Impact) and he’s largely recreating that role here.  Dylan McDermott and Ashley Judd pop up in pivotal roles and poor Radha Mitchell is the victim of overstuffing the turkey as Butler’s wife.  This whole storyline between Butler and Mitchell has nothing to do with the plot and bogs the film down.

Two respected actresses are also on hand and both are fairly disappointing.  Angela Bassett (This Means War) has little to do but give off of looks of both horrified terror and ballsy determination as the Secret Service Director.  With each passing role Bassett seems more determined to simply toe the line and not step out of her comfort zone.  Even worse is Oscar winner Melissa Leo (Oblivion) in an atrocious wig offering line deliverers that seem to be coming via satellite based on the way she pauses before each one.  Leo growls and howls through most of the film…culminating in her unintentionally hilarious recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in pained agony.  For my money, the actresses should have swapped roles…I’m slightly convinced they mistakenly were given the wrong roles and no one noticed until it was too late.

Even with its silly plot contrivances and less than stellar special effects the film does truck along with reckless abandon that entertains more often than not.  You absolutely have to check your brain at the door and be prepared for some slightly tacky moments near the end when people start cracking jokes while standing in the middle of a sea of dead bodies.    A rental at best, Olympus Has Fallen may eventually get the job done but you’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s really worth it at the end of the day.

Movie Review ~ Dead Man Down

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In New York City, a crime lord’s right-hand man is seduced by a woman seeking retribution.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Dominic Cooper, Terrence Howard, Isabelle Huppert

Director: Niels Arden Oplev

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Have you ever been sitting in a movie theater and find yourself rooting for a bad movie to be good?  Maybe it’s the inherent “Minnesota Nice” in me or the understanding of all the work that goes into crafting a picture for mass consumption but I try to always hope for the best in even the worst situations.  Dead Man Down isn’t a total failure of epic proportions but its lack of any momentum or true surprise stings more than it should.

First off, you have a solid cast assembled.  Rapace made a name for herself in the US as the original Lisbeth Salander  in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo long before it was remade as a slick thriller by David Fincher.  In that film she worked with Dead Man Down director Oplev and produced a mini-miracle a performance.  It still bums me out she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for her work. 

In Dead Man Down Rapace and Oplev are both a bit at sea, never finding the right tone or rhythm that this type of crime drama sorely needs.  One moment it’s a gritty examination of revenge and the next it’s a dark romantic comedy.  With neither theme getting the prime focus; it winds up just feeling disjointed and messy. 

That’s too bad because Farrell (Total Recall) knows exactly what kind of film he’s in and works hard to give his character some added nuance and depth.  Working for a villainous NYC crime boss (played too gently by Howard), his character is a brooding dude with a few secrets he’s working to keep hidden.  So it’s natural that he’s intrigued by Rapace’s scarred (emotionally and physically) neighbor who lives with her mother (woefully underused but quite kooky Huppert, Amour)– their exchanges have some nice pop to them but no real chemistry is ever created. 

Unfortunately, the blame falls on Rapace for that – her character often comes off as too child-like and twee.  Even though I liked Rapace in Promethus more than most, US films haven’t quite found the right place for her – something that’s probably as frustrating for her as it is for her fans. 

I kept waiting for the film to divert from its standard plot set-up and surprise me but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.  You could tell there was a little nugget of a fine film waiting to be hatched but it didn’t have enough time to develop.  This may be worth a rental down the line but as a film you need to see in theaters…I’d pass on it.