Poltergeist (2015): inoffensive fun for everyone but the kids

This remake of the 1982 Tobe Hooper classic won’t make you forget its famed predecessor, but it probably also won’t elicit any outrage at the audacity of trying to improve on greatness. In other words, it’s a satisfying horror movie as long as one doesn’t hold it to the original’s high standards.

If you haven’t seen the original, here’s how it breaks down. Family moves into a new house in suburbia, a mom (Rosemarie DeWitt), a dad (Sam Rockwell), teenage daughter, younger daughter, young son. Strange things begin to happen, as they do in these movies. The young daughter disappears, but she seems to be trapped in the television by malevolent spirits. The family contacts a specialist (the great Zelda Rubenstein in the original, Jared Harris here) to help them out.

This is not a shot-for-shot remake, and for that we should all be thankful. The parents aren’t pot-smoking ne’er-do-wells; dad’s just been laid off, and mom’s a writer. (Which makes me wonder how they can afford the new house, but hey, I think maybe the fact that there are malevolent spirits has something to do with it.) Gone are scenes like the medium’s assistant tearing his face off in the bathroom or all of the kitchen chairs suddenly appearing on top of the kitchen table. There’s other, new stuff. It’s kind of fun.

The movie doesn’t break any new ground, though. 35 years have gone by here in the real world, and the effects – though frightening at times – aren’t going to bowl you over. The acting is actually pretty good here, particularly by DeWitt, Harris, and Jane Adams. Even the kids are good, and of course the little darlin’ who gets sucked into the other world is adorable as can be. Only Rockwell seems miscast. He’s best at quirky, offbeat roles, not man-of-the-house roles. This was more of a role for a Greg Kinnear.

So while this Poltergeist remake didn’t enthrall me, I found it tolerable for a rental. Kind of glad I did not see it in the theater, and the effects still looked good on my TV at home.

 

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Black Mass: perhaps Johnny Depp’s strongest performance

James “Whitey” Bulger ran South Boston’s crime scene with an iron fist in the 1970s and 1980s, but for a good part of his reign of terror he harbored quite a secret – he was actually an informant for the FBI. In particular, he was an informant for Agent John Connolly – although the usefulness of Bulger’s intel was often in dispute – all the while continuing his violent rampage over the city against anyone who would stand in his way.

The ruthless Bulger is played in Black Mass by Johnny Depp, an actor not really among the first who come to mind when the character of a crime lord is brought up. Depp has long been known for looking the part in each of his disparate roles and avoiding typecasting. But in Black Mass, even though he doesn’t look like an Irish mobster – he completely embodies one. It’s really his finest work, and that’s saying something.

The movie is told in flashback, as a member of Bulger’s inner circle recounts the whole sordid deal to another FBI agent, including the involvement of Connolly (Joel Edgerton) as well as Bulger’s brother, state senator Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). The brutality of Bulger’s day-to-day existence isn’t tempered; men and women are killed or maimed or harassed for seemingly benign reasons. There seemed to be no middle ground for Bulger. He liked you, you lived. He didn’t, you didn’t. The movie covers his feud against his Italian rivals in Boston, the Angiulo family, as well as his foray into the high-stakes world of betting on jai-alai in Miami. And how did Bulger get away with so much? Mostly through the protection of Connolly, who used Bulger’s (scant) information to further his own career. Crooks protecting crooks. The rabbit hole is deep indeed.

But man, is Depp ever great. I stopped thinking of him as Johnny Depp soon after the movie began. It’s funny – to look at Bulger in this movie, you probably wouldn’t take him for a mob guy. He’s wiry, he’s balding, he wears glasses. Nothing tough leaps out at you. But the ferocity of Depp’s exceptional performance puts that notion to rest. Cumberbatch, as his brother and fellow Boston native, is also very good and with a surprisingly believable accent. Kevin Bacon shows up as an FBI guy; I think this was his third go-around as a Boston-based law-enforcement officer.

 

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Butterfly Kisses: one to avoid, even on home video

On the final night of the Spooky Movie International Film Festival at the famed AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland, there was a surprise screening. It could be anything, the ad copy noted. It could be a sneak preview of an upcoming horror film, or maybe a restored version of a classic, or maybe even a little-seen, hard-to-find movie!

It turned out to be none of those. Butterfly Kisses is a new found-footage film. New in the sense that this exact movie has not been released, but not new in the sense that the whole found-footage subgenre is oversaturated as it is. This point is mentioned in the movie as well. So I was a little disappointed to learn that the only thing special about this surprise screening seemed to be that it was set in Maryland, so there were plenty of local references. That got the crowd on its side, at least.

The plot centers around some literally found – in a basement – footage of what appears to be an unfinished project by a couple of local college kids. There are dozens and dozens of tapes, although on the outside of the shoe box in which they’re found is a note warning the reader not to watch the tapes. The tapes are found by the mother of aspiring filmmaker Gavin York (played convincingly by himself). The tapes themselves are pretty creepy, and the last one has one of the students noting that she’s probably going to die and to show the tape to her parents, and so on. So does Gavin York show the tape to at least the police? No, no he does not. He edits it – you know, to trim out the nonrelevant stuff – and tries to pass it off as a real-life horror story.

The fact that the two students cannot be located in real life isn’t the problem. Trouble is, there’s almost no evidence that they even existed. Kind of suspicious. So what was the project about? Well, they were investigating a legend that says if one stands at the end of a particular tunnel at midnight and keeps their eyes open, without blinking, for a full hour, they’ll see some creature suddenly appear at the other end of the tunnel. And then each time the person blinks, the creature will loom closer and closer. It automatically sounds like a stupid urban legend.

So the story is about York trying to sell his found-footage film/documentary while having his own documentary film crew follow him around. It’s very, very meta. Throw in the usual bit about spending all the money he can to make his dopey dream come true (i.e., the profiting off someone else’s work), and you have yourself a bad movie.

Did the students exist? Yeah, probably. Someone saw them. So where are they now? Who knows, and who cares? York is shown right from the start to be mostly a huckster, and sort of an obnoxious one at that. Kind of a jerk, wen you get right down to it. So I wasn’t in his corner, and since (to me) the footage that the kids shot seemed eminently fake – a sentiment shared by numerous characters in the film – I wasn’t terribly concerned with their well being, either.

I found the movie to be a waste of time. Another dopey found-footage movie that brings virtually nothing new to the genre, about an uninteresting, ridiculous urban legend that was probably itself fabricated for this film. Butterfly Kisses is junk.

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The Endless: a must-see for fans of the warping of time and space

Two grown brothers, who escaped a cult when they were kids, receive a video from same cult, enticing them to return. The older Justin (Justin Benson) has vivid and terrible memories of their time with the group, but younger Aaron (Aaron Moorhead)has just hazy memories of pleasant times. So, despite Justin’s wishes, the two do in fact return to the compound they left a decade earlier. But why are they being summoned back? Are their lives (again) in danger? Or has the cult changed into just being another Northern California commune?

When the brothers arrive in the middle of nowhere, they find the de facto leader Hal (Tate Ellington), who explains that the group has prospered in the years since Aaron and Justin left. Their primary source of income? Homemade beer. Very hipster. The members of the  small commune/cult each have their own special skill, whether it’s painting, knitting, magic tricks. The list is pretty finite, actually.

But it isn’t too long before things get a little unsettling. No spoilers here; the cult believes there is an all-powerful deity who exists only for them – i.e., not a God from any other religion. This entity sends the group messages via cassette tapes and Polaroid photos. The group members pass this all off as normal; to be truthful, I found their happiness to be a bit unsettling. But Aaron, the younger/more impressionable of the brothers, wants to believe and is definitely looking for some structure in his life after a decade of menial jobs and no real direction. His wiser brother Justin, is strongly skeptical, but certain events do make him question his own sense of righteousness.

So this seems like a pretty straightforward story, doesn’t it? Maybe there’s something to the cult’s thinking, maybe they’re really just harmlessly living off the grid. But then a few somethings happen, and the movie switches from being about a crazed cult into being about, well, the neverending loop of reality. And that’s when the movie really takes off. I’m talking about mindbending twists and some terrific special effects. Just like that, the plot zooms from just sort of floating about, intriguing but not enticing, and then it blasts into overdrive. And suddenly nothing makes sense, and everything makes sense. It’s a huge trip.

For that reason, I really enjoyed this movie, the third I saw at this year’s Spooky Movie International Film Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. The Endless was written by Benson and directed by Benson and Moorhead, and they score with all aspects of their work here. If you’re looking for a distorted-reality movie, check out The Endless.

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Replace: Skin should not be repealed, because we need it. Post needs new title.

Replace is about a young woman (Rebecca Forsythe) who suddenly develops a fast-spreading skin condition (it looks like she’s peeling) and desperately looks for a cure. At least that one aspect of the story. The young woman also has short-term memory loss and slight moments of distorted reality. She meets strangers who say they’ve already met, including a skin specialist. Is she going nuts? Or is she already there?

Let me back up. When we first meet Kira, she’s heading to the apartment of a man she met at a bar. They laugh, they flirt, she spends the night. When she wakes up, he’s gone, and the skin condition appears. She tries scratching it and picking at it, as one is wont to do, which only makes matters worse. She visits a dermatologist (Barbara Crampton) who prescribes some medication “for the pain.”

But Kira discovers something really wacked, and completely by accident. She learns that if she peels off some affected skin and then applies someone else’s skin to that spot, the new skin will adhere immediately to her body. This contradicts known medicine, as skin grafts can be a very lengthy and painful process. Has she found a cure for her malady?

Lest one think this is just about a woman and her need for some good lotion, there’s a mindbending twist, a psychological smack in the head for the viewer. It’s too wonderful to explicate here, but in the great tradition of these thrillers, not all is what it seems. In fact, little is.

The final twist is perfect. Enough pieces fall into place that Kira’s situation makes some sense, although not every question is answered neatly. The script is well written (by Norbert Keil and Richard Stanley), and Forsythe, Crampton, and Lucie Aron (as Kira’s neighbor) turn in strong performances. Well made all around.

 

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