Archive for the Thrillers Category

Pickin’ the Carcass: THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET (2012)

Posted in 2013, Bad Situations, Madness, Michael Arruda Reviews, Pickin' the Carcass, Thrillers with tags , , , on July 12, 2013 by knifefighter

PICKIN’ THE CARCASS:  THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET (2012)
By Michael Arruda

House-At-The-End-Of-The-Street-Poster-Jennifer-Lawrence

Because word-of-mouth on THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET (2012) was so bad, I kept away from this one upon its initial release.  But like all true horror movie fans, I want to see everything, good or bad, and so I caught up with THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET on streaming video the other night.

While I didn’t love it, there were a few things about it that I found pleasantly surprising. 

Teenager Elissa (Jennifer Lawrence) and her single mom Sarah (Elisabeth Shue) move into a new home to start a fresh chapter in their lives.  No, no!  This is a horror movie!  Don’t move in!  Go somewhere else!  Actually, their house isn’t the titled house at the end of the street, nor is this really a horror movie, but still, they’re in for some trouble in their new home, as if we couldn’t figure this out. 

They learn that the entire neighborhood shuns the house at the end of their street because years before a young girl had murdered her parents there.  After the murder, the girl disappeared, and legend has it she still lives in the woods.  Ooohh!!   Creepy!  Strangely, the brother, Ryan (Max Thieriot), now in college, remains in the house. 

Elissa is a rather rebellious teenager, and she and her mom don’t really get along.  Against her mom’s wishes, Elissa strikes up a friendship with Ryan, which isn’t hard for her to do, since Ryan comes off as a really nice guy, a bit quiet and introspective, but nice all the same, and the rest of the people her own age she meets are pretty much complete jerks.

Sarah relays her fears about Ryan to the town sheriff, Weaver (Gil Bellows), the one sensible person living in the community.  Weaver tells Sarah that Ryan is all right, that the folks in town have given him a hard time, and that he hasn’t given the police any trouble since he’s lived in the house.

But this is a thriller after all, and so it turns out that Ryan isn’t what he seems. Just what has weird-boy Ryan been up to, you ask?  It seems he’s keeping his sister Carrie Anne prisoner in the basement of his house, or at the very least he’s giving her food and shelter and keeping her hidden from the authorities.  Nah, that sounds too good.  It’s actually much more sinister than that.  You see, his sister suffered a brain injury as a child, and so she’s mentally challenged, which means in order for Ryan to keep her there, he really does have to treat her like a prisoner.  She’s locked in a basement. She’s not exactly hiding out in a plush bedroom with all the amenities.

And yes, everyone once in a while, Carrie Anne escapes, and Ryan has to pursue her into the woods to bring her back.

Now, this revelation comes early in the movie, and so this isn’t exactly a plot spoiler, especially when there are more twists to come.  As Elissa grows closer to Ryan, against her mother’s wishes, things get complicated because THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET isn’t finished with its twists and plot revelations yet.   Elissa, you might want rethink those dating plans with Ryan.  He’s got some issues.

THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET is a well-acted thriller that tells a solid story until the very end when it loses its way with some revelations that aren’t as shocking as they’re intended to be.  But for the most part, I enjoyed this movie, especially since I expected little from it.

Jennifer Lawrence is very good as Elissa.  While her portrayal a of moody teen isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, I like Lawrence a lot, and at this point pretty much enjoy anything she’s in. 

Elisabeth Shue is just as good as Sarah, and she delivers a very sincere performance as a single mom trying to make things work with her rebellious teenage daughter.  Her frustrations over the challenging process of connecting with her teen daughter come off as genuine.

One problem I did have however with Shue and Lawrence was I had trouble seeing these two as mother and daughter. They don’t resemble each other at all, nor did they share similar personalities.  I didn’t really buy them as mother and daughter.

Max Thieriot turns in a decent performance as Ryan.  He’s sufficiently odd and quirky, yet he also comes off as sincere and likable.  I believed that Elissa would be attracted to him.  Likewise, Gil Bellows is agreeable as Weaver, the sheriff, who represents the voice of reason inside a community where reasonable people don’t seem to live. 

As a drama, THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET works, and for 2/3 of this movie, I was really into it.  Where it stumbles is as a thriller.  Director Mark Tonderai forgot to give this one an edge.  The expected thrills and chills don’t come until late in the game, and they’re not very effective as they’re rather shallow and superficial.

THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET is not much of a scary movie.  It’s certainly not a horror movie.

The screenplay by David Loucka is mediocre.  It does a nice job creating affable characters, it presents a somewhat intriguing story, but it all becomes rather routine towards the end.  Had the story been darker and more sinister throughout, then perhaps the twists at the end would have worked better.  As it stands, they don’t seem to fit with the rest of the movie.

Loucka also wrote the screenplay to another “haunted house” thriller DREAM HOUSE (2011) starring Daniel Craig, which was pretty bad.  Like THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET, DREAM HOUSE also had a dark revelation midway through the movie, and then added more twists later.  THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET is a step up in terms of drama, but the horror elements in both movies are very weak.

As a result, THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET is a mixed bag.  On the one hand, actors Jennifer Lawrence and Elisabeth Shue deliver compelling likeable performances, leading a decent cast that does the same, and they’re taking part in a story that isn’t half bad.  But on the other hand, the expected thrills don’t really come until the end of the movie, and for the most part, they run hollow and superficial, because really, I never really felt that the Jennifer Lawrence character was in true danger.  Why not?  Because the threat in this one is never clearly defined.  Just what exactly should these characters be afraid of?  You don’t really find out until the very end.  That’s way too late in my book.

THE HOUSE AT THE END OF THE STREET plays like a dark drama, and as such, is somewhat likeable.  But it’s not a horror movie, and even to call it a thriller is a reach. 

I give it two and a half knives.

—END—

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda

WORLD WAR Z (2013)

Posted in 2013, Apocalyptic Films, Based on a bestselling book, Cinema Knife Fights, Disease!, Horror, Medical Experiments!, The Future, Thrillers, Zombie Movies, Zombies with tags , , , , , , on June 24, 2013 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: WORLD WAR Z (2013)
By L.L. Soares and Michael Arruda

WorldWarZ-Poster

(THE SCENE: An airplane on a transatlantic flight. L.L. SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA are in their seats. A FLIGHT ATTENDANT approaches them)

FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Would you gentlemen like something to drink?

LS: A flagon of ale would do nicely.

MA: A “flagon of ale?” What is this, the Middle Ages? You’ve been watching too much GAME OF THRONES.

LS: Don’t worry about it. Just tell her what you want.

MA: Hmm.  I’ve never had a “flagon” of anything.  Make that two, please.

(FLIGHT ATTENDANT walks away)

LS: Welcome, everyone, to a new installment of Cinema Knife Fight. This time, we’re reviewing the new Brad Pitt movie, WORLD WAR Z. It’s based on the bestselling novel by Max Brooks and is yet another movie about a zombie apocalypse.

MA:  I detect an edge in your voice.  Tired of zombie apocalypses?

LS: Hell, yeah. Aren’t you?

MA:  Not really.  I’ve been enjoying the recent explosion of zombiemania.

LS:  Well, I haven’t, and when I first heard about this one, I immediately thought, not more end-of-the-world-with-zombies nonsense. There was a time when I used to say that George Romero’s first three “Dead” films were my favorite movie trilogy, but there have been so many zombie movies in the last decade—and most of them have been pretty bad—that I’m just tired . I’m really getting sick of this subgenre.

MA: I’m not as sick of it as you are.

LS: Good for you.

In WORLD WAR Z, Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations envoy, who spent time in several war-torn regions before retiring to spend more time with his family, which includes his wife Karin (Mereille Enos, best known as Sarah Linden on the AMC series THE KILLING) and their daughters Constance (Sterling Jerins) and Rachel (Abigail Hargrove). As the movie begins, they wake up to begin a typical day, but something goes wrong when they’re in the family car later that morning, caught in traffic outside of Philadelphia. Something strange is happening.

There is a sudden rash of attacks as seemingly normal people become violently aggressive and begin to bite other people. This is first suspected to be a rabies epidemic, but it’s clearly something even worse. When someone is bit, it takes only 12 seconds for them to start flopping around on the ground, having convulsions, and then turning into an undead zombie. And the disease, whatever it is, is spreading fast.

MA:  I enjoyed this plot point.  I liked the idea of the dead people turning into zombies so quickly.  That being said, I don’t think the movie used this to any great effect. 

LS:  The Lane family finds themselves in the middle of it all, and try to stay alive, eventually getting helicoptered off of the roof of an apartment complex and taken to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic. There, Gerry’s former boss, Theirry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) tries to convince him to help them find out what is happening and why. Gerry is reluctant and doesn’t want to leave his family, but then it’s made clear to him that if he doesn’t help them, he and his family will not be given shelter on the ship.

Gerry goes with a group of Navy Seals and a gifted young doctor to South Korea to follow a lead pointing to a possible “patient zero.” Meanwhile, the zombie population continues to multiply at an alarming rate, threatening to overtake the earth.

Gerry’s travels will take him to Korea, Jerusalem and Cardiff, Wales before he can get any answers and even begin to confront the vile disease that is running rampant.

I have to admit, I wasn’t looking forward to this one. As I said, I’m really sick of zombie movies, and the last one we saw this year, WARM BODIES, wasn’t much of a treat.

MA:  No, that one wasn’t.

(The seat in front of them shakes violently).

MA:  Hey, take it easy up there, will you? 

LS:  What’s his problem?

MA:  No idea.  (Strange grunting is heard)  Maybe he didn’t like his peanuts.  Anyway, you were saying?

LS:  WORLD WAR Z also was getting the reputation of being troubled project, from hiring several writers to polish the script, to going over budget. But I know from experience that this kind of “trouble” does not mean a movie is going to be bad. Both APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and JOHN CARTER (2012) had bad publicity before they were released, with people complaining about “troubles” during their makings, and both are great flicks.

MA:  Well, APOCALYPSE NOW is, anyway.

LS:  But still, watching this one, it was much better than I was expecting.

MA:  Yeah, I had a lot of fun watching this one.  It actually sold out right after I bought my ticket.  I hadn’t been in a packed sold out theater in a long time.  Of course, the reason it sold out was because unlike the recent blockbuster releases like IRON MAN 3 and MAN OF STEEL, it wasn’t playing on a zillion screens in the multiplex!  It was only one two screens, one in 2D and one in 3D.  I saw it in 2D.  I bet the 3D version didn’t sell out.

Still, a sold-out show is impressive, and the audience was buzzing with lots of energy.

LS:  I actually saw it the first night it came out, which was Thursday for some odd reason. Summer movies have been coming out at odd times this year—THIS IS THE END had a similar early release—and I had just come out of seeing MAN OF STEEL when I realized WORLD WAR Z was playing that night as well, so I bought a ticket. It wasn’t sold-out, mostly because I don’t think a lot of people knew it was opening early, but there were plenty of people there. And I didn’t even know there was a 3D version of this one!

Anyway, back to the review. First off, Brad Pitt is pretty good here. It’s not one of his best roles, like Jackie Cogan in KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012) or Tyler Durden in FIGHT CLUB (1999)—Gerry Lane is more passive than either of those characters—but he can definitely carry a movie.

MA:  I agree.  Pitt is very good here. 

And he’d better carry this movie because he’s the only character in the film with ample screen time.  But the bottom line is he does carry the movie quite nicely, as he’s enjoyable to watch.  That being said, there are a number of other characters in this film who I also liked and wish that they had been developed more.

LS:  Yeah, you’re right, there are several underdeveloped characters here. But overall, the whole cast is pretty good. I’m starting to like Mareille Enos a lot, for example. She’s excellent in the series THE KILLING, and while the role of Karin Lane was more of your standard “significant other in peril” type of thing, I’m just happy to see her getting more opportunities to be in bigger films. I thought she was an interesting choice for Pitt’s wife, since she seems more “real” than the usual supermodel type.

MA:  Yes, I liked Enos, too.  I liked Daniella Kertesz even better.  She plays the Israeli soldier Segen who accompanies Pitt’s Gerry Lane for most of his adventure, and loses her hand in the process. 

LS: Kertesz is a standout here. Once her character gets in the thick of things with Pitt, she really shines. She might have been my favorite character in the movie. I want to see more of her.

MA: David Morse enjoys a brief bit as an ex-CIA agent who gives Lane some valuable information, and Fana Mokoena does a nice job as Pitt’s former boss Thierry Umutoni. 

I also enjoyed the entire group of scientists at the World Health Organization.  As I said, there were a number of characters that I would have enjoyed seeing developed more, but that’s not where this one goes.  It’s all about Brad Pitt and the zombies.

LS:  And director Marc Forster —whose resume includes everything from MONSTER’S BALL (2001), THE KITE RUNNER (2007) and the James Bond movie QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008)—does a good job of focusing on key scenes that build a strong sense of suspense.

MA:  I really enjoyed Forster’s work on the James Bond movie QUANTUM OF SOLACE.  It was one of the most efficient and fast-paced Bond movies ever, in a series famous for overlong over the top action scenes.  I thought he did just as good a job here with WORLD WAR Z.

There are some key scenes of suspense, especially early on in the movie.  I especially liked the sequence at the beginning on the crowded streets of Philadelphia when Pitt and his family first encounter the zombie threat.  The scenes near the end of the film at the World Health Organization were also very suspenseful.

LS: There’s also that great scene with Pitt and Kertesz trapped on a plane full of zombies! Don’t forget that one.

MA: But better than the suspense, I thought Forster made this one very cinematic.  Pitt’s character travels all over the world, and there’s great use of these locations, or at least it looks that way. I’m sure there’s a lot of CGI involved, as I don’t think they filmed in South Korea or Israel.  But the point is, the film looks good, and there’s a grand sweeping cinematic feel to it.  Most of the time, heavy CGI use looks fake, but I got the sense in this one that I was actually at these places all across the world.

LS:  But the most important question is, no doubt, what about the zombies?

MA:  I don’t think that’s the most important question.  I mean, I love THE WALKING DEAD, but it’s not just because of the zombies.  It’s because of characters.

LS: I agree. But at the same time, it’s the zombies that first grab people and pull them into the theaters. They want to see the zombies in action.

wwz_banner

(FLIGHT ATTENDANT comes over and hands them two flagons of ale, then goes to the next passenger in front of them)

FLIGHT ATTENDANT: And what would you like to drink, sir.

(PASSENGER STARTS GRUNTING LOUDLY)

FLIGHT ATTENDANT: Oh my God, he bit me! (RUNS down the length of the aisle)

MA: Uh oh, that’s not good.

LS: Excuse me a moment (drinks some ale). What were you saying?

MA: I was saying that it’s bad news when the passengers start biting.

LS: Yes, that certainly is bad.

(Seat in front of them starts shaking violently)

MA (bangs on the back of the seat in front of him):  Hey!  Want to keep it down?  We’re trying to review a movie here!

LS: Rude bastard.

(HIDEOUS ZOMBIE leaps up from seat in front of them and growls at them menacingly.  LS pulls a gun from underneath his seat and shoots the zombie in the head.)

MA:  Nice going, although you really don’t want to be shooting off a gun on a plane.

LS:  Why not?  They explode a grenade on a plane in the movie.

MA: Yeah, that wasn’t one of the more realistic moments in the film.  So what did you think of the zombies in this movie?

LS: Well, it’s a PG-13 movie, so I wasn’t expecting much, but I was pleasantly surprised.

MA:  Really?   I wasn’t.  But continue.

LS:  Some of the zombies are actually kind of cool. The effects, which I am assuming are a mix of makeup and CGI, looking convincing and visually keep your interest. And these zombies are really fast and love to tackle and bite people, which is how they reproduce. At first, I thought they were just contaminated people, but it eventually is made clear that yes, these people are the reanimated dead, and they are incredibly dangerous. It seems though that only people bitten by the zombies are transformed in death. People who die in other ways don’t come back.

They also move in very fast-moving packs. In a scene in Jerusalem, for example, hundreds of angry zombies climb up on top of each other rapidly, like crazed ants, to reach the top of a high stone wall and get over it, to the people inside. These creatures move like a swarm of giant insects, which was just different enough from what we’re used to to make them interesting.

MA:  Yes, I agree about the swarming.  That was different.  But I wasn’t impressed with the zombies here at all, and I actually thought they were the weakest part of the movie.  I like the zombies in THE WALKING DEAD much better, and the zombie kills in that show are much more graphic and squirm-inducing than anything seen in WORLD WAR Z.  To me, if you’re a fan of zombies, you might be disappointed with this one.

LS: I don’t know, when the zombies slow down a bit and are more individuals, they’re kinda scary. I thought the zombies in the World Health Organization complex were pretty cool. The way they look, and their weird movements and sounds. I didn’t think they were bad at all.

Look, it’s PG-13, so they don’t show any gore. For the most part, the zombie killings are pretty bloodless. While I understand the rating is meant to attract a bigger audience (i.e., more money!), I think it was a dumb move. More explicit zombie attacks mean more scares, and more effective zombies. I’m not saying the zombies in WORLD WAR Z are perfect, but they’re better than I expected for wimpified, PG-13 zombies. Hell, if THE WALKING DEAD was a movie instead of a TV show, I bet it would get an R rating for violence. So right off the bat, WORLD WAR Z has a disadvantage. We knew it wasn’t going to be gory or scary enough. That said, the zombies are pretty good here.

WORLD WAR Z is not a home run, but it’s much better than it has any right to be. I give it three knives. And I’m sure, if I was still a zombie fan, I would rate it even higher.

MA:  I disagree.  I think zombie fans might like this one less, because the bar has been set so high recently with THE WALKING DEAD

LS: Look, anyone coming into this movie expecting something as good as THE WALKING DEAD is going to be disappointed. THE WALKING DEAD is like the gold standard for zombie stories right now.

MA: That being said, I liked WORLD WAR Z a lot, and I had a lot of fun watching it, but that’s because it told a convincing story, was helmed by a talented director, and had an enjoyable cast led by Brad Pitt.  But in terms of actual zombies, I just didn’t think they were all that memorable.  They didn’t come close to the zombies in THE WALKING DEAD or any of the Romero movies. They simply weren’t scary enough.  I don’t think I was scared once by a zombie in this movie, and that’s not a good thing.

But there was plenty about this movie I liked, starting with Brad Pitt.  He really is a terrific actor, and it’s rare for me not to enjoy him in a movie.  Here, as United Nations agent Gerry Lane, he comes off as a man devoted to his family, driven by the desire to keep them safe, yet he also easily makes the switch to effective envoy, as he puts his considerable talents to use to do his job and get to the bottom of the zombie pandemic.  Lane’s investigation into finding the origins of the zombie problem, which makes up the bulk of the movie, held my interest throughout.

As we already said, the supporting cast is terrific, as is the direction by Marc Forster, and the screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, and Damon Lindelof tells a compelling story from start to finish.  While I wasn’t a fan of the actual zombies in this one, I enjoyed the story a lot.

The guy behind me didn’t share my sentiments, however.   As soon as it ended, he shouted out, “That was stupid!”  I didn’t find it stupid.  I found it an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours. 

Sure, I would have preferred it to have been scarier, because it’s not scary at all, which is weird when you think about it.  It’s a zombie movie, for crying out loud!  Why isn’t it scary?  But it is suspenseful and engaging. 

LS: Yes, it’s much more suspenseful than scary. But for what it is, it works.

MA: I also give it three knives.

(Things get suddenly very quiet. LS and MA stop talking and look up, to see they are surrounded by hungry zombies clacking their teeth)

LS: Uh oh.

MA: Looks like we’re suddenly on the menu.  (to zombies)  Could I interest any of you in flagon of ale? (holds out flagon)

(Zombies grunt and shake their heads).

MA: Now, what?

(LS lifts a baseball bat and hands MA a hammer)

MA:  What are these for?

LS:  To bash in some zombie brains, of course!

MA:  Things are going to get mighty messy. 

(LS & MA attack zombies, as BATMAN-like signs are superimposed on the screen with the words, SPLAT!, THWRPP!, GURGLE! CRUNCH! and RIP!)

—END—

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares and Michael Arruda

Michael Arruda gives WORLD WAR Z ~ three knives!

LL Soares gives WORLD WAR Z ~three knives, as well!

 

 World-War-Z-poster

THE PURGE (2013)

Posted in 2013, Bad Situations, Cinema Knife Fights, Controverisal Films, Dystopian Futures, Killers, LL Soares Reviews, Masks, Suspense, The Future, Thrillers with tags , , , , , on June 10, 2013 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE PURGE (2013)
By L.L. Soares (with a brief appearance by Michael Arruda)

The-Purge-2013-Movie-Poster(THE SCENE: Interior of a house at twilight. The annual Purge ritual is about to begin)

L.L. SOARES: Ah, it’s almost time for the Purge, Michael! I can hardly wait. (starts strapping on axes and handguns and chainsaws and hunting knives and chainsaws and shotguns and ice picks and rocket launchers).

MICHAEL ARRUDA; That sure is a lot of stuff.

LS: You bet. I take this holiday seriously. It’s the one time of the year I can get away with murder, literally, without it being a crime.

(LOUD NOISE is heard. The sound of metal crunching)

LS: What the hell is that? (contines to strap on things like battleaxes and longswords and maces and a gattling gun and poison darts and venomous snakes and the shiny ball from PHANTASM)

MA: Oops.

LS: What do you mean…Oops?

MA: I think I accidentally pressed the “Lock Down” button. Nobody can get in now.

LS: That’s okay. I can still go outside, right?

(MA does not respond)

LS: Right?

(MA twiddles thumbs)

LS: RIGHT??

MA: Well, you see, I’ve got my system on a timer. No one can disarm it until the Purge is over. So you can’t leave.

LS: You’re telling me I waiting all year long for Purge night so that I can commit whatever crimes I want and not be arrested, and on this momentous night, you have rigged it so I can’t leave your house?

MA: Bingo.

(LS straps on one last item, a little tiny Derringer, and goes to take a step forward, and collapses under the weight of everything he has strapped to himself.)

MA: Looks like you wouldn’t be able to make it ouside with all that stuff anyway.

LS: I could always downgrade!

MA: Look, you can’t join in on the Purge this year. Deal with it. In the meantime, we can make popcorn and review this week’s movie. Which just happens to be THE PURGE. Do you want to start?

LS (starts crying and stamping his feet): But I wanted to do some killing and pillaging!

MA: I said I was sorry.

LS: Okay, I’ll start the review. But you owe me one.

MA: You start. I’ll go put some popcorn in the microwave. (Leaves the room)

THE PURGE takes place is a dystopian future. Or is utopian? I guess it depends on your point of view. There’s low unemployment, a low crime rate, no war, and lots of prosperity. How did society achieve all this, you ask? Well, there’s some talk of “New Founding Fathers,” so I’m guessing a new kind of government has taken over. And part of this new regime is an annual ritual, the Purge, which states that one night a year—from 7pm until 7am the next morning—all crime is legal, including murder (of course, there’s a clause in there where certain government people with a clearance of 10 or higher are exempt and cannot be killed. Those guys always have to cover their asses). There’s also a restriction on the kinds of weapons you can use, I noticed, too. Well, enough about that….the idea is that if society can cut loose and go bonkers one night a year, it will purge everyone’s violent tendencies so they can go back to being model citizens again the rest of the year.

I actually found this premise really interesting. Finally, a horror movie about IDEAS. Most Hollywood horror movies are more concerned with body counts. Could a future like this ever really happen? Who knows. But it’s an interesting theory. I for one have always really dug the theme of civilization vs. savagery; it’s a theme that has even popped up in some of my fiction.

(Pulls out a copy of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and thumbs through it)

Anyway, our protagonists are your typical American family, the Sandins. There’s the father, James Sandin (Ethan Hawke, most recently in last year’s above-average thriller, SINISTER) , mother Mary (Lena Headey, probably best known these days as the villainous Cersei Lannister in the megahit HBO series GAME OF THRONES), daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and son Charlie (Max Burkholder). Daddy made big money selling security systems to rich families just like theirs in anticipation of the Purge. The family sits around the TV to celebrate the beginning of the news coverage—like it’s New Year’s Eve or something—and the big lockdown of their home. All seems well in SandinLand.

That is until Charlie sees a wounded man (Edwin Hodge) desperately seeking shelter from a gang of psychos. The kid can’t just sit by and let the guy be murdered, so he opens the doors to let him in. James immediately locks things up again, but there’s suddenly a stranger loose in their house. Meanwhile, up in Zoey’s room, her boyfriend Henry (Tony Oller) snuck into the house before lockup, so he can reason with her dad about their relationship (James thinks he’s too old for Zoey). His logic being “He can’t throw me out, he has to listen to me.”

Oh yeah, and there’s a gang of psychos outside, banging on the door to be let in. Seems that they were hunting the wounded man for sport, this being Purge Night and all, and since they’re completely within their rights to do it, they are rather ticked off that someone has spoiled their fun. So they offer the Sandin family a choice. Send the wounded guy out to them so they can finish having fun. Or they’ll force their way in and kill everyone.

The psychos look like preppy Ivy League college kids wearing creepy masks and carrying various weapons. They’re led by  led by a “Polite Stranger” (that’s what they call him in the credits) played by Rhys Wakefield. He’s so psycho, he kills one of his own friends for speaking out of turn during the negotiations. Polite Stranger is also the only one of the gang who removes his mask, so we can see his leering, preppy-boy face.

So what’s going to happen? Is the family going to track down that homeless guy and send him out to be butchered or will they stand and fight? Can the bad guys really get inside when the house has state-of-the-art security that James had installed himself? And what about Henry, will he finally earn James’s respect and the right to date his daughter?

All this and more will be revealed when you see THE PURGE.

(Sound of microwave beeping in another room)

LS: Sounds like Michael is almost ready with that popcorn. I’d really like to hear his opinion of this movie. Hey Michael, get in here.

Anyway, like I said before, I thought the concept of “The Purge” was kind of cool. This is not the first time we have seen something like this, of course. This film has elements of “siege on a house” movies like STRAW DOGS (1971) and ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (1976) — both of which have been remade in recent years—the teenage thugs are reminiscent of the Droogies in Stanley Kubrick’s classic, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971); the creepy masks and sense of mystery and menace are right out of THE STRANGERS (2008), and even the concept of the Purge itself is similar to the sacrifices made by the kids in THE HUNGER GAMES, (2012) by just as merciless a government (which in turn brings to mind Shirley Jackson’s classic story, “The Lottery,” and the Japanese movie BATTLE ROYALE, 2000). As I said, it’s not a completely new idea, but it’s a clever spin on it, and it works well here.

(Looks around)

LS: Where the hell is Michael with that popcorn? And he better have stocked up on beer, too.

(LS wanders down the hall and downstairs, heading toward the kitchen. When he gets there, there’s no sign of Michael. And the microwave is still beeping)

LS: Michael, where are yooooou?

That’s funny. (Pops open the microwave and starts eating the popcorn)

Anyway, back to the review. Director James DeMonaco previously gave us the drama LITTLE NEW YORK (2009), which also starred Hawke, and was previously a screenwriter, one of his scripts in fact being the 2005 remake of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (coincidence?). DeMonaco does a good job building suspense here, and maintaining it throughout. I thought this movie was a solid piece of filmmaking.

The score, by Nathan Whitehead, is also quite good, helping to set the tone and build suspense throughout. (Barry Lee Dejasu interviews Whitehead for his Scoring Horror column tomorrow).

The cast is very good, beginning with Hawke and Headey. I was on the fence about Hawke for a long time, but he’s been in a string of interesting films lately. And it’s ironic that the same day THE PURGE comes out, his other new film BEFORE MIDNIGHT, a smart romantic drama by Richard Linklater, which could not be more different, also opens in several cities. The man is on a roll.

Even the kids are good in this one, although I was cursing when Charlie unlocked the house so the wounded guy could get in. I know he thought he was doing the right thing, but to put his whole family at risk, I wanted to strangle the brat. His is the first of several moral decisions these characters have to make, though.

Rhys Wakefield is also really good as the “Polite Stranger.” He has an almost Joker-like quality to him that reminded me of the late Heath Ledger. Wakefield is suitably creepy here, and I wanted more of his character, and I wanted to know more about him. But there isn’t a lot of room for character development when everything hits the fan.

I also like how THE PURGE deals with issues of class and race. In this future of lower crime, there’s also more poverty, and the evening news debates whether the Purge was thought up to legally wipe out people that society didn’t want. And by society, they obviously mean “rich society.” The wounded man who is given sanctuary in the Sandins’ house is black, homeless and, judging by the dog tags around his neck, a veteran of one of those wars we no longer have in this alternate future, and yet he’s hunted like an animal by privileged preppies in Halloween masks.

I really enjoyed this one. It was well-acted, suspenseful, thoughtful and shined a light on the ugly side of human nature. That’s what good horror is supposed to do! Show us the sides of humanity we would rather not see.

I give this one three and a half knives.

Now would normally be the time when Michael pipes in with his lame-brained review of the movie, but he’s clearly not around. I bet he’s playing some kind of prank on me.

(A MAN enters the kitchen, wearing a creepy mask and holding a machete)

MASKED MAN: It’s Purge night. Time for you to meet your maker.

LS: Who the hell are you, and how did you get in here. And what did you do with Michael?

MASKED MAN: Who’s Michael? I snuck in through a cellar window that wasn’t covered up. And now, say good-bye (raises machete)

LS: And me without all my weapons. Seems like I left them all upstairs…Uh oh.

MASKED MAN: Here I come. Ready or not.

(LS grins and pulls out an AK-47)

LS: Except for this one. (Blows the guy away)

LS: Hey, that was fun. I hope more people sneak in!

(MA enters the room)

MA: What’s going on in here? What’s all the racket? I leave you alone for a couple of minutes and you’re already getting into mischief.

(Looks at the dead guy in the mask)

MA: How did he get in here?

LS: He said something about an uncovered cellar window?

MA: Uh, oh, I better go check that out.

LS: Hey, wait a minute. I just finished my review of THE PURGE. Do you have anything to add?

MA: I was so busy preparing for Purge Night, I didn’t have time to see it.

LS: You’re kidding me.

MA (shrugs): Oops.

LS (looks at the clock): Well, my review is over and there’s still 10 hours to go of the Purge. I just thought of something. I can’t go outside to cause mayhem, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun. I’m in here, after all, with you.

MA: Umm…what are you getting at?

LS: You’re it. I’m going to count to 100 and then come looking for you with a chainsaw. Won’t that be fun? So after you check the cellar, make sure to hide real good!

(MA presses the “UNLOCK” button)

MA: I suddenly remembered how to let you go outside.

LS: Hurray!

(LS then proceeds to strap on guns and knives and chainsaws and swords and rocket launchers and battleaxes, and then topples over when he tries to go outside)

-END-

© Copyright 2013 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives THE PURGE~three and a half knives.

THE CALL (2013)

Posted in "So Bad They're Good" Movies, 2013, Cinema Knife Fights, Melodrama, Serial Killers, Thrillers, Women in Jeopardy with tags , , , , on March 18, 2013 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE CALL (2013)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

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(THE SCENE: The trunk of a moving car. MICHAEL ARRUDA is trapped and talking on his cell phone to a 911 operator, who just happens to be L.L. SOARES)

LS: So what seems to be your problem?

MA: For starters, I dialed 911 and you answered the phone.

LS:  Tell me your problem or I’ll friggin hang up on you.  I don’t have all day. Happy Hour starts soon.

MA:  I’ve been abducted and I’m in the trunk of a car.

LS: Sure you are. Why don’t you just admit that you didn’t want to review the movie this week.

MA: No, I’m serious. You’ve got to help me.

LS: Hold on a minute, I’ve got another call.

(LS puts MA on hold for a few minutes, listening to the Muzak)

LS: You still there?

MA: Of course I’m still here. Where am I going to go?

LS: Well, since you’re such a captive audience, I might as well start this week’s Cinema Knife Fight review of the new Halle Berry movie THE CALL.

MA: I guess I don’t have a choice.

LS: No you don’t.

THE CALL is the new thriller starring Halle Berry. She plays Jordan Turner, a 911 operator who, early on in the movie, gets a call from a teenage girl who is home alone and a prowler is trying to break into her house. Jordan tries to talk the girl through it until the police can get there, but she makes a bad mistake. When the call gets disconnected, she calls the girl back. The prowler, who appeared to be leaving, stopped in his tracks when the phone rang and was able to track his victim down because of it.

MA: Not a smart move on Jordan’s part.

LS:  When the girl, Leah Templeton (Evie Louise Thompson), is found dead days later, Jordan is horrified and feels like it’s her fault that she wasn’t able to save the girl.

MA:  Well, it kinda was.  I’m surprised she didn’t lose her job.  She should have at least been suspended for a while.

LS:  When another girl calls her six months later, a victim of the same serial killer, Jordan is determined not to let this one end the same way.

MA:  Hmm, six months later, and Jordan is there to take the call again. Gee, that’s believable!

LS:  Well, a newbie operator gets the call first, and Jordon takes it over. If Jordan had been the one to originally answer it, then I would have found it unbelievable. As it is, the fact that she happens to be nearby when the new girl gets the call strains credibility enough. There’s a whole “hive” here of operators, and calls can be answered by anyone. But enough of that.

MA:  So, you find the fact that she just “happens” to be standing nearby when the new girl gets the call more believable?  I still don’t buy it.

LS:  How are you holding up in there? Must be pretty scary trapped in the trunk of a moving car, with a violent serial killer driving you to your certain death. I’m sorry I’m not doing more to help the police find you.

MA: Sure you are.

LS: You’re not scared at all?

MA: It is a little cramped in here. But I’ll live.

LS: You sure are taking this well. I’m proud of you.

MA: Can we get back to the review?

LS: Sure.

This second victim is Casey Welson, played by Abigail Breslin (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE herself, from the 2006 indie favorite). When Casey first calls 911 after being abducted and locked in the trunk by a psycho, she’s pretty much hysterical. But Jordan is able to calm her down and tell her various ways to draw attention to herself (like kicking out a tail light to make a hole in the trunk she can see out of), so the cops have a better shot at finding her. One big obstacle is that the phone Casey is calling on is a disposable one and doesn’t have the chip in it that can be tracked by GPS.

At one point, an innocent fellow driver, Alan Denado (Michael Imperioli), notices something odd about the trunk and tells the driver. This turns out to be a very bad time to be a Good Samaritan (and it’s interesting to see Imperioli, who was so great as tough guy Christopher on the classic HBO series THE SOPRANOS, playing a victim this time around).

The thing is, Jordan isn’t kidding around when she tells Casey she is going to save her. This time, Jordan refuses to let it go. Like she tells Casey “We’re both Capricorns and Capricorns fight.”

MA:  And again that’s just not believable.  I simply don’t see a 911 operator becoming personally involved with a victim, and to think that Jordan would actually become more involved than the police later on in the movie is ludicrous.  Then again, based upon the incompetent police officers in this one, I’m not surprised she takes matters into her own hands.

LS: It’s a movie, Michael. And a dumb “thriller,” at that. Of course Jordan is more effective than the complete police force. It’s called suspension of disbelief. Then again, for SOD to work, you have to be firmly rooted in the story, and obviously you weren’t.

One interesting aspect of this movie is how we get a behind-the-scenes look at “the Hive,” the headquarters where a bunch of 911 operators work. We see firsthand how stressful the job is (they even have a “Quiet Room” to go to when they’ve had an especially stressful call). Also, even though they do what they can during 911 calls, most of the time they will never know the outcome of what they do. They won’t know whether a person will be saved by the police or not. Which ratchets up the stress factor even further, especially when Jordan feels that she fails Leah in the first call.

MA:  I liked this aspect of the movie. I definitely enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at the 911 headquarters, mostly because it was a refreshing locale and interesting profession that we simply don’t see very often in the movies.

However, the screenplay by Richard D’Ovidio doesn’t finish the job.  It gives us a compelling setting, the “Hive,” a place ripe for a serious thriller, but then throws us into one contrived situation after another, resulting in a story that is anything but riveting.

For example, before the second phone call, Berry’s Jordan is leading a tour for some newbie 911 operators, and they just happen to be standing near the young operator who takes Casey’s call, and then this young operator has a panic attack, sitting there crying, “What do I do?  What do I do?”  What the hell kind of training does this place have?

LS: She’s new, and it’s not a normal call. And Casey is in panic mode. It’s believable that a new operator would panic as well. Even if there are clear rules, you’re bound to get flustered when you’re in an extremely emotional situation and you’re new at it. So that didn’t bother me.

MA:  She’s a 911 operator!  She can’t handle an emotional call?  That’s nuts!

LS: Your level of empathy is astounding.

The-Call-Movie-Poster

MA: So, anyway, Jordan takes over the call, which is simply a contrivance to have her deal with the same serial killer again.  I didn’t buy this at all. Had this story been about one phone call, or had the two calls not been related, then those things I could believe.  This set-up is right out of a good old-fashioned soap opera.

LS:  Berry is actually pretty good here. Most times I like her as an actress, but she has had a lot of ups and downs in her career. THE CALL is not A-level material, but she does a good job with it.

MA:  Yes, I enjoyed Berry’s performance as well.  It’s just too bad the story didn’t give her character a realistic way to deal with her pain.

LS:  Breslin is also good as Casey, who alternates between being in a complete panic and being strong.

MA:  Agreed.  And my favorite scene in the movie is where Breslin’s Casey asks if the 911 call is recorded, and then, thinking she’s going to die, leaves an emotional message for her mother.  It’s the one scene in the movie that grabbed me on an emotional level, that worked on all cylinders, and it’s superbly acted by Breslin and Berry.

LS:  The highlight of the movie for me, though, was Michael Eklund as the uber-creepy killer, Michael Foster. Eklund does a terrific job as a volatile guy who’s behavior is often unpredictable. And I liked his strange facial expressions throughout, too. Whether he’s stabbing someone with a screwdriver, setting a gas station attendant on fire, or putting fresh scalps on mannequin heads, Eklund is very unsettling, and exudes menace.

MA:  I completely disagree here.  I couldn’t get into Eklund’s performance at all, and I thought his killer Michael Foster was one of the worst parts of the movie.  He wears this crazed expression on his face that is supposed to be scary, but to me he looked more like a deer in the headlights.

LS: I think the “deer in the highlights” comparison is apt. But it worked for me. I thought he seemed like a guy constantly in turmoil because of his inner demons.

MA: I thought he seemed like a guy who needed to use the bathroom real bad.

LS:  He wasn’t calm and collected and sure of himself. He was completely a slave to his compulsions, and it got him into one bad situation after another. It’s amazing he was ever successful at this abducting-and-killing-people stuff.

MA: I’ll say!  He kills everyone in his path, leaving a trail of carnage right up to his doorstep.  I thought serial killers were supposed to be clever and elusive.  He might as well be wearing a sign on his back that reads “I’m a serial killer.”

LS: Well, there are reasons why he does those things….but, yeah. He’s not a smart guy. Not by any stretch. But who says you have to belong to Mensa to be a serial killer? If this was his first time abducting someone, it would have been more believable, but he’s done this before, and somehow gotten away with it. Even without Halle Berry on his trail, this guy was not destined for a long career as a serial killer. Yet, despite that, I found his performance very entertaining.

MA: And getting back to the screenplay, Eklund’s character is poorly developed.  We eventually see some silly background story involving his sister which is supposed to explain why he does what he does, but it’s touched upon so briefly it doesn’t resonate.

I thought the killer Michael Foster in this one was a huge disappointment.

LS:  Whoever created the movie trailer for THE CALL didn’t do the movie much of a favor.

MA:  That’s an understatement!

LS:  In the trailer, pretty much the entire story is revealed, and you almost feel, after watching it, that you’ve already seen the movie. I hate these kinds of trailers. After seeing the trailer for THE CALL several times over the last couple of months, I was dreading seeing the actual movie, because I figured I knew what was going to happen, and I thought I’d be pretty bored. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case at all.

MA:  What?  Are you serious?  I have to hear this.

LS:  THE CALL starts with that first phone call with Leah right off the bat, and moves at a brisk pace throughout. Even though the trailer did give away some spoilers, I was so engrossed in the actual movie that I just sat back and enjoyed it.

MA:  Again, I have to completely disagree here.  The trailer shows both phone calls, both confrontations that killer Michael Foster has with people who try to save Casey, and not only that, but it shows how Foster dispenses with these people. The trailer also showed the tricks Casey used to draw attention to herself in the trunk, and showed Berry’s Jordon telling her to do these things. It also showed us that Jordon will at some point confront the serial killer face-to-face.

What the hell is left?  The outcome—and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who’s going to live or who’s going to die in this one.

It was a horrible trailer that completely ruined the movie for me.  Honestly, sitting in the theater, I felt as if I were watching the movie for the second time.  On the other hand, even if I hadn’t seen the trailer, I still would not have liked this movie because I found it so unbelievable and contrived.

LS: I am not arguing at all about the trailer. The trailer was horrible. It gave everything away. It was three minutes of nothing but spoilers! But, that’s not the movie’s fault. The movie is a separate entity, and I liked it. Whoever did the trailer was an idiot; it left nothing to the imagination. How about making a trailer that keeps the audience in suspense about what is going to happen next, so we actually want to go see it?

For me, THE CALL was a guilty pleasure. I’m not saying its a brilliant movie. But for the time I was in the movie theater, I enjoyed myself.

MA:  It’s actually kind of a dumb movie.

LS: Agreed. The screenplay, by Richard D’Ovidio, can be ludicrous at times, but somehow that doesn’t keep it from being entertaining. This is probably in large part to director Brad Anderson, who previously gave us movies like SESSION 9 (2001), a haunted mental asylum movie that I thought was underrated when it came out, and THE MACHINIST (2004). He also worked on some great television shows like HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET, THE WIRE, and THE SHIELD.

MA:  I will agree with you here about director Brad Anderson.  I thought he employed some nifty camerawork in this one.  I enjoyed the tight camerawork on Casey in the trunk of the car, although honestly, even these scenes could have been better.  While I certainly got the feel for the terror Casey felt being abducted by a serial killer, I never quite got any real sense of claustrophobia.  In fact, being stuck in a trunk doesn’t seem to bother Casey at all.  It should have.

LS:  Speaking of which, how are you doing?  You must be feeling pretty claustrophobic by now.

MA: No, I’m fine.

LS:  You mean you don’t feel as if you can’t breathe, as if the walls are closing in around you, as if you can’t stand the pressure any longer and just need to blow your brains out?  You know, if you look hard enough, you might find a weapon in there to use on yourself.

MA:  What the hell kind of a 911 operator are you, anyway?

LS:  The Cinema Knife Fight kind!  (laughs).

MA:  I think I’ll hang up and call for a pizza instead.

LS:  You stay on the line!  We have a movie to review!

MA:  Sure, although a pizza sounds mighty appetizing right now.

LS:  You can eat when we’re finished.  Where was I?  Oh yeah.

Even when THE CALL is predictable, Anderson keeps it riveting throughout, which pretty much won me over. After that awful trailer, I dreaded seeing the movie. But once I actually sat down and got into it, I enjoyed THE CALL much more than I thought I would. It’s goofy, but it’s fun.

Also, concerning the very last scene in this movie. I didn’t find  it believable at all, and yet I have to admit, I liked it.

I give it two and a half knives.

MA:  I’d give it a re-write.  I disagree with you on this one, and I’m surprised you liked it as much as you did.  For me, the biggest weakness here is the writing.  So many things throughout this film just didn’t ring true.

Let’s start with the police.  I kept thinking of those scenes from old police TV shows where the police would instruct the grieving parent to keep the kidnapper on the line so they could trace the call, and no matter how long the poor person kept the bad guy on the phone, the scene would invariably end the same way, with the now cliché line “He wasn’t on the line long enough for us to trace the call.”

In THE CALL, Halley Berry’s Jordan instructs Abigail Breslin’s Casey to kick out the tail light and pour paint onto the freeway so someone can see it.  We cut to scenes of police helicopters flying up above, and police cars racing on the freeway, but the only result is the guy in the police helicopter saying “We don’t see any white paint,” which prompted me to ask, “Are you looking at the road?”  I mean, there are police everywhere, and yet not a single officer ever gets close to Foster’s car.  They even have the license plate number of the car, and they still don’t see him!

The police are always two steps behind serial killer Michael Foster, which has less to do with the ingenuity of Foster and much more to do with shoddy police work.  When the police learn where Foster lives, they send a gazillion cars racing to his home, as if he’s going to be there.  And then, while Casey is still trapped in the trunk of the car, they slowly and methodically take their time going through the house looking for clues.  Now, sure, on one level this makes sense.  I mean, they have to find as much information about Foster as they possibly can.  I get that.  But I certainly would have preferred scenes of the police frantically working to find Casey out there on the freeway.

Later, when the police discover the location of a second property owned by Foster, this one in a desolate location, they race there and ultimately deduce that it’s a false lead, that it’s abandoned and Foster and Casey are not there.  Yet, Jordan later goes there herself, and finds major clues the police overlooked.  I’m supposed to believe that the police couldn’t find these things, but 911 operator Jordan could?  I just don’t buy that.

And serial killer Michael Foster is nothing short of an idiot.  Like I already said, he kills everyone in his way as opposed to quietly eluding them.  Nice way not to attract attention to yourself, buddy!

Then, he’s got Casey in the trunk of his car, and she tries to escape, multiple times.  For some reason, it never occurs to him that he might want to tie her up.  Even worse, at one point, he discovers the cell phone on her, and—get this—he doesn’t take it!  He puts her back in the trunk with the phone.  What kind of a dolt does that?  A poorly written one!

That’s not to say I hated THE CALL, because I didn’t.  I definitely enjoyed the performances by Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin, and I liked the setting, the 911 headquarters and enjoyed getting an inside look into the way they operate.  But that’s about it.

Had this story had the right gimmick, it could have used the 911 setting as a springboard to an innovative compelling thriller, but unfortunately, all the drama here stems from situations that are so contrived and forced they seem like plots lifted from some very dated and very poorly written 70s TV shows.  I half expected Charlie’s Angels to show up and give Halle Berry a hand.

I give it two knives.

LS: So we both agree it was dumb. It was contrived. But it was well-acted, and I found it suspenseful. We’re not arguing over whether the script was dopey or not; we’re arguing over whether or not it works as entertainment. And I found it very entertaining.

MA:  Hey, wait a minute.  I think the car just stopped.  I think I hear the guy getting out of the car.

LS:  At least he had the courtesy to wait until we finished the review.

MA:  He’s opening the trunk.

(Trunk opens, and MA looks up and sees LS standing outside trunk with a cell phone to his ear.)

MA:  Huh?  You were driving the car?

LS:  I have to admit, the idea of doing a review with you stuck in a trunk was just too good to pass up. And you didn’t see me coming at all when I chloroformed you.

MA:  Very funny.  Now, that we’re done, I’m looking forward to—.

(LS slams trunk shut.)

LS: Why spoil a good thing?

MA:  Hey!  Are you going to let me out of here?  I can’t breathe you know!

LS: You didn’t seem too concerned before.

(To camera) Don’t worry.  He can breathe.  And if he looks hard enough he’ll find the button which will pop open the trunk.  Anyway, we’ll see you all again next week.  (Walks away).

MA:  Gee, I wonder what this button does.  (Presses button, and the car starts to roll. Camera pans to show the car is on a cliff. The car goes over the edge.)

LS:  Woopsie! Wrong button.

MA (unseen):  Hey, the trunk popped open!

—END—

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda & L.L Soares

Rate the Rating: This one is rated R for language (just a few instances) and a little bit of gore. No major bloodletting. No nudity. In other words, it might as well have been rated PG-13.

Michael Arruda gives THE CALL ~ two knives!

LL Soares gives THE CALL ~two and a half knives.

SIDE EFFECTS (2013)

Posted in 2013, Cinema Knife Fights, Compelling Cinema, Medical Experiments!, Plot Twists, Psychological Thrillers, Steven Soderbergh, Thrillers with tags , , , , , , , on February 19, 2013 by knifefighter

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SIDE EFFECTS (2013)
By Michael Arruda & L.L. Soares

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(THE SCENE: A hospital room.  MICHAEL ARRUDA , wearing a white lab coat and holding a chart, addresses a young woman.)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  My chart says you’re feeling depressed.  Is that true?

WOMAN:  You’re the one holding the chart.  Shouldn’t you know what the chart says?

MA:  No, I meant, is it true that you’re depressed?

WOMAN:  Yes.  I’m depressed something awful.  It’s so bad that I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

MA:  Are you married?

WOMAN:  Yes.  Here’s a picture of my husband.  (Hands MA a picture of a shirtless hunk of a man.)

MA (looking at picture of hunky husband):  No wonder you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning.

WOMAN:  Can you help me?  Can you give me some pills or something?

MA:  Well, I’m supposed to, but we’re such a pill dependent society, I really wish we could try some natural remedies first.

WOMAN:  Do these natural remedies work?

MA: Well, no.  But these pills, they just have so many— side effects. (CUE dramatic music.)

WOMAN:  The last pills I took made me drowsy and I couldn’t stay awake.

MA:  Oh, that won’t happen.  My partner and associate can take care of that for you.

(Door bursts open, and L.L. SOARES enters the examination room, also wearing a lab coat.)

L.L. SOARES (looks at woman):  Is this the patient?

MA:  Yes, she’s afraid the pills will make her sleepy.

LS (leans closely into her face):  Look at me.  Take a good look at my face! (contorts his face into a horrifying scowl, causing the woman to recoil in terror.)  If you find yourself feeling sleepy, you’re gonna see my face!  Do you want to see my face?

WOMAN:  N-no.

LS: The second you start nodding off, I’ll be in your room, and you’re gonna have to deal with the likes of me!  Are you sleepy now?

WOMAN:  No!

LS:  Are the pills gonna make you sleepy later?

WOMAN:  Nooo!!!

LS: Good.  You’re cured.  You can go home now.  We’ll bill your insurance.

WOMAN:  Gee, thanks.  (Exits)

LS:  I should’ve been a doctor!

MA (shaking his head):  No, you shouldn’t.  Anyway, that was our last patient of the day.  Shall we review today’s movie?

LS:  Why, of course!  You start.  I need to wash up for this afternoon’s operation.  (starts washing blood off his hands.)

MA:  Operation?  Anyway, no matter.  Welcome folks, to another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT.  Today we’re reviewing SIDE EFFECTS (2013), the latest thriller from director Steven Soderbergh, and rumor has it this will be Soderbergh’s last movie, as it’s been said that he plans to retire after this.

Not sure why.  Soderbergh’s not an old guy. He just turned 50.

LS: I think he has other interests and wants to pursue things other than movies. Which is too bad, because he’s so good at it.

MA:  I don’t know.  I’m hot and cold with Soderbergh’s body of work, mostly cold.

LS:  Not everything he does it great. But he does so many different kinds of movies—he’s just really interesting. You know you’re not going to always get the same old thing with Soderbergh.

Oh, and some people may notice that SIDE EFFECTS came out in theaters a week ago in most places. We would have reviewed it earlier, but we were buried under several feet of snow last weekend in New England, and some of us even lost power.

MA:   But you can’t keep a good Cinema Knife Fighter down!  So, here we are a week later with our SIDE EFFECTS review.

LS: Anything, so long as I don’t have to review BEAUTIFUL CREATURES.

MA: SIDE EFFECTS (2013) opens with a young woman Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) getting ready to re-start her life with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum, MAGIC MIKE himself), who has just been released from prison after serving a sentence for insider trading.  She should be ecstatic, right?  But she’s not.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as she finds herself dealing with serious depression, so serious that she attempts to kill herself by driving her car into a cement wall.

LS: Ouch!

MA: In the emergency room, where oddly, she has only received minor scratches and bruises, she meets psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).  When she tells him about her depression, he agrees to treat her.  He prescribes an antidepressant medication for her, and when that doesn’t work, he decides to learn more about her history by contacting her former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  Banks also happens to be a paid consultant for a new anti-depressant medication on the market, and he eventually puts Emily on this new medication.

One of the drawbacks of the medication is it makes Emily sleepy, and she sleepwalks.  No big deal, until the day when in a sleepwalking stupor she stabs and kills her husband.

LS: Oops, sorry honey!

MA: From this point, the movie switches gears dramatically.  First it deals with how responsible Emily may or not be for the crime, given her mental and drug induced state, and then, when the story breaks that Dr. Banks was the doctor who prescribed the medication for her, it moves towards the pressure Banks feels when suddenly everyone and their grandmother is painting him as an irresponsible psychiatrist.  Banks loses his job, his consulting gig, and eventually his wife and stepson leave him.

Finally, the film swerves yet again when Banks begins to investigate all that has happened, and begins to discover that things aren’t as they seem where his former patient is concerned.

LS: Yeah, this one definitely took some turns I wasn’t expecting. The first half or so of the movie seemed almost like a Public Service Announcement about the way this country over-prescribes medications for illnesses like depression, and how doctors are enticed by offers of big money to push specific brands. Also, you know those commercials for medications where they list side effects that go on for half an hour? That seemed like the inspiration for this movie. With all the side effects everything seems to have—it’s a wonder we trust any drugs at all.

sideeffects2

MA: SIDE EFFECTS is a thriller that had me early on but lost me midway through as it became more and more convoluted with an intricate plot that just didn’t work for me.  I liked the initial workings of the story, when it seemed this would be a tale about medicine gone wrong, and just who bears the responsibility for such a thing: the patient, the doctor who should have known better, who should have known exactly what it was he was prescribing, or the drug companies who produced the drug in the first place.  These thoughts are firmly rooted in reality.  We really are a drug dependent society, and this plot, had it remained firm to its roots, would have been a compelling drama.

But screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who also penned the screenplay for CONTAGION (2011), another Soderbergh thriller I didn’t like all that much, takes it in a different direction.  People suddenly have sinister ulterior motives, and these motivations and actions become more and more farfetched, to the point where near the end of the movie, I really didn’t believe everything that was going on.  The story definitely loses credibility towards the end, and as a result, its edge.

LS: Yeah, we’re in total disagreement on this one. The first half – for me – was kind of a drag. I mean, Emily’s story was kind of interesting, but overall, I felt like I’d seen this kind of thing before, and I was worried it might become a preachy diatribe against the pharmaceutical industry. That didn’t seem all that compelling to me.

Then, when things start to change and we realize there is so much more to the story—all of this deception and the twists—and it’s really a completely different kind of movie than we thought – that’s when I started to perk and the movie hooked me. I wanted to see what was going to happen next, and how Jude Law’s Dr. Banks was going to recover his life and reputation after such a devastating event.

MA:  I didn’t find it preachy at all.  I found it interesting.  I guess I was enjoying the drama and wish it had played out that way, rather than turning into a thriller, which I found less realistic.

LS: I didn’t say it was preachy. I said, it seemed to be going in that direction. Then it didn’t.

MA: Well, another problem I had with SIDE EFFECTS is I didn’t like the characters.  Dr. Banks is probably the most likeable character in the film, but he grows less likeable as the movie goes on, as the methods he uses when he tries to clear his name are just as bad as those used by the people he’s trying to expose.

LS: I found him believable, because he based his decisions on logical reasons. His motivations made sense. This kind of thing could ruin his career completely, and yet, instead of just accepting his downfall, he is determined to do something about it, and I found that intriguing. I liked that he wasn’t completely likable. It made him seem more human to me.

MA: Emily isn’t likeable at all, and it’s hard to feel sympathy for her husband Martin who was convicted of insider trading and looks for all intents and purposes as if he’s about to follow the same path yet again.

LS: I think she’s likable early on, and kind of sad. She doesn’t stay as sympathetic, but I liked Rooney Mara’s performance.

MA: I agree with you there.  I liked Rooney Mara’s performance too.

And Jude Law is fine as Dr. Banks, but I enjoyed him more early on when I liked his character better.  Once he starts investigating Emily and her motives, he fluctuates between being obsessed and crazed. It’s hard to get excited about his efforts when he teeters on being psychologically imbalanced himself.

LS: But by seeming unbalanced it added to the dilemma. Is he a trustworthy protagonist? Should we be rooting for this guy? I liked that question mark, and I think Jude Law is, for the most part, a rather underrated actor. He’s good here.

MA: I enjoyed Rooney Mara best, and thought her performance as Emily was the strongest one in the movie.  It’s really difficult to read her.  Early on, she’s sympathetic, but later, like Law’s Dr. Banks, we’re uncertain what to make of her, and she’s less likeable because of it.  Still, it’s a strong performance, and while it’s not as compelling as her work in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) she succeeds in creating in Emily a woman who at first seems unstable but later is revealed to be very calculating.

LS: Yeah, let’s not say too much about that, but Mara is an actress to watch. I loved her in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and this role was very different, and I liked seeing her play someone so removed from Lisbeth Salander.

MA: On the other hand, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance as Dr. Victoria Siebert did nothing for me.  I didn’t buy into her character or her motivations.

LS: I disagree. I think Zeta-Jones is really a master when it comes to playing stone-cold ice queens who obviously want to control everything around them. I didn’t think her character was sympathetic, but then, she wasn’t meant to be. She was meant to be formidable, and in the scenes where Dr. Banks butts heads with her, Dr. Siebert is a believably formidable foe.

MA: She’s a corpse.  That’s how much life she gave her character.  I saw and heard her motivations, but I didn’t believe them.

Channing Tatum barely makes an impression as Emily’s husband Martin.  If anything, he succeeds in creating a character I didn’t like very much.

LS: I think Tatum is very likable as an actor, and I think that comes through here as well. But you’re right, he’s not given much to do, and it’s a mostly underwritten role.

MA: This movie did remind me somewhat of Soderbergh’s earlier effort CONTAGION.  Like that movie, there’s a disconnect here that prevents it from really resonating.  There’s also something sterile about the whole production, like a hospital room, that extinguishes any sort of passion one might feel towards its story and its characters.

LS: I didn’t see CONTAGION, but I think Soderbergh is a very capable filmmaker, whether he’s making multi-character blockbusters like TRAFFIC or smaller, tightly-wound thrillers like SIDE EFFECTS. I think he’s a really gifted director, and I hope he reconsiders his “early retirement” from the medium. I think the sometimes “sterile” feel of the movie actually added a tone and feel to the proceedings that worked for me. These are medical professionals who want to keep things “sterile” and safe for themselves, so that didn’t bother me.

MA: I enjoyed the first third of SIDE EFFECTS, but after that, the film started to lose me, as its plot became more convoluted and less believable.

LS: Yep, I think the opposite. I found the first half of the movie to be functional, but not very exciting. When things start to slowly reveal themselves, I found myself drawn into this smart, well-plotted thriller. I think a lot of our readers would really like this movie.

MA: I still say that SIDE EFFECTS starts out promising but doesn’t last, and like a medicine that doesn’t work, you won’t want to stay with it very long.

LS: I would prefer to describe it as a strong, effective medication that takes a little bit to get into your system and work. But once it’s activated, it keeps you glued to the screen.

MA: I give it two knives.

LS: I give it three knives.

MA: So that’s done. What should we do now?

LS: I don’t know about you, but I’m getting the hell out of here. Last time I checked, impersonating doctors is frowned upon.

MA (looks around):  Yeah, let’s get out of here.

(They run toward the elevator)

—END—

© Copyright 2013 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares

Michael Arruda gives SIDE EFFECTS  ~ two knives!

LL Soares gives SIDE EFFECTS ~three knives.

ARGO (2012)

Posted in 2012, Based on a True Story, Michael Arruda Reviews, Thrillers with tags , , , , on October 21, 2012 by knifefighter

ARGO (2012)
Movie Review by Michael Arruda

BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) helped free American hostages from Iran back in 1980.  Who knew!

That’s just one revelation found in Ben Affleck’s fascinating new thriller, ARGO (2012), a riveting film that tells the improbable tale— based on a true story— of how the U.S. government funded a fake movie in order to rescue six American government workers from Iran in 1980.

ARGO gets off to a strong start.  The film opens as an angry Iranian mob storms the American embassy in Iran, an event which led to American hostages being held for an incredible 444 days.  During these tense moments, six American government workers simply walk out the back door onto the streets of Iran and make their way to the Canadian embassy, where they’re taken in by the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber).

When U.S. authorities fail to devise an effective escape plan for getting these six Americans safely out of Iran, enter Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) a CIA operative whose expertise is getting people out of harm’s way.  Stuck for ideas, Mendez happens to catch the science fiction movie BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES on television, and as he watches Caesar and his friends walk along the futuristic desert landscape, a light bulb goes off in his head.

Mendez presents the idea to his superior Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) that he’ll go into Iran pretending to be a Hollywood film producer making a science fiction film, under the pretense that he wants to use Iran for scenes of an alien world.  He’ll disguise the six hostages as a film crew, and together they’ll simply walk out of Iran.

It’s a far-fetched idea to be sure, but there just aren’t any others that would work, which prompts O’Donnell to tell his superiors “It’s the best bad idea we have.”  To make it work, Mendez visits his friend in Hollywood, John Chambers (John Goodman), the Academy Award winning make-up artist for the PLANET OF THE APES franchise.  Chambers agrees to help Mendez, their goal being to make their fake movie as realistic as possible, because they know the Iranians will be checking their facts.  Chambers hooks Mendez up with producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin, in yet another scene-stealing performance) who goes all out because, as he says, “If I’m going to make a fake movie, then it’s going to be a fake hit!”

They  settle upon a bad science fiction script for a movie called ARGO, and they even go so far as to hold a press conference where they read through the script, all in attempt to get their film in the Hollywood trade papers to make their fake film as credible as possible.

Mendez travels to Iran to prep the hostages and give them their fake film crew identities.  Things grow more complicated when the Iranians figure out that six hostages are missing, and soon they’re closing in on their location, giving Mendez very little time to make his plan work.

Directed by Ben Affleck, ARGO isn’t quite as intense as his previous directorial efforts THE TOWN (2012) and GONE BABY GONE (2007), but it is more balanced.  It has a suspenseful beginning and end, and sandwiched in the middle is the highly entertaining tale of the making of the fake movie.  As a result, in addition to being a competent thriller, ARGO is also quirky and funny.

The screenplay by Chris Terrio, based on an article by Joshuah Bearman, is a winner.  It’s full of hilarious film business jokes and one-liners, most of them by John Goodman and Alan Arkin.  But it’s also incredibly tense, especially its ending, where Mendez and the hostages have the improbable task of making their way to the Iranian airport, getting past the soldiers, with only their outlandish story to get them through.

The script also does a nice job reminding us how we got into the hostage crisis in the first place, as it gives us some history, how the United States backed the Shah of Iran, how the Shah committed many brutal crimes against the Iranian people, and the event which caused the crisis, when the ill Shah received political asylum from the United States.  The script does this without being preachy.

The acting is terrific.  Ben Affleck is solid as Tony Mendez, in an understated performance.  Sure, at times it looks as if Affleck is a wink away from falling asleep, as he always seems to be squinting, but that’s because Mendez is one cool customer.  Some of the confrontations would make most people wet themselves or worse, but Affleck’s Mendez is rock solid, providing a firm, steady hand as he guides the hostages through the tumultuous streets of America-hating Iran.

Both John Goodman and Alan Arkin steal the show in their supporting roles as John Chambers and Lester Siegel.  It’s nothing we haven’t seen these guys do before, but they’re so good at it.  In a movie as tense as this, their sharp-tongued comedic turns are a welcome relief.  And Bryan Cranston is excellent once again, this time playing Mendez’s CIA boss Jack O’Donnell.  Once more, Cranston looks completely different.  He seems to change his look in every movie he’s in.

The performances of the six hostages are also top-notch, and Victor Garber is also very good as Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador.

The film also successfully captures the feel of 1979-80, as the clothes, hairstyles, and soundtrack all heavily reflect the era.

I’m hot and cold with Ben Affleck, and in recent years I’ve enjoyed him more, as I liked both THE TOWN and GONE BABY GONE.  I also really enjoyed his performance as George Reeves in HOLLYWOODLAND (2006).  These recent successes have helped me forget films like DAREDEVIL (2003) and THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (2002).

With ARGO, Affleck hits a homerun from the director’s chair.  The film is taut and exciting, and in its final act, extremely suspenseful.  Affleck also does a nice job in the lead role, although his directorial effort is certainly more potent than his performance as cool headed Tony Mendez.

For those of us who lived through the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979-1980, ARGO serves as a reminder of a difficult and painful year in our history.

ARGO is a nerve-racking drama that will thrill you as well as make you laugh with its quirky Hollywood subplot.

I give it three and a half knives.

—END–

© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda

Michael Arruda gives ARGO ~three and a half knives.

V/H/S (2012)

Posted in 2012, Anthology Films, Demons, Evil Kids!, Exorcism Movies, Ghosts!, Haunted Houses, Horror, Indie Horror, Killers, LL Soares Reviews, Paranormal, Secrets, Thrillers, Twist Endings, VIOLENCE! with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2012 by knifefighter

V/H/S (2012)
Movie Review by L.L. Soares

V/H/S is a new anthology horror movie made up of five shorts and a wraparound story. There seem to be a lot of these kinds of movies around lately. The other ones that come to mind are CHILLERAMA (2011) and THE THEATRE BIZARRE (also 2011). Both were mixed bags. But the good thing about anthology movies is that if you don’t like one of the stories, there are more to come, if you just wait. Overall, I tend to enjoy these kinds of movies a lot.

V/H/S is above-average in this regard. For the most part, all of the stories are pretty good. Sure, some are better than others, but I didn’t feel there were any clunkers this time around.

The film starts off with the wraparound story, called “Tape 56.” This ongoing segment is directed by Adam Wingard, who also made POP SKULL (2007), A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE (2010) and YOU’RE NEXT (2011). Just a word of warning, if you start watching the movie, you might not care a lot for this one. But give it a chance. It just sets up the premise. But the characters involved are kind of despicable.

We are introduced to a bunch of guys led by Gary (Calvin Reeder) who are going around doing awful things and filming it for money. One of the things they do is follow couples and then attack them. The boyfriend is pulled aside and restrained, while the girlfriend is grabbed and her breasts are exposed for the camera. Gary says he gets $50 for each one of these he tapes, and he says he’s done about 25 of them so far. Needless to say, the characters who are supposed to be our point of view for this story start out being unlikable, which may put you off from the get-go.

The set-up is this: these guys are hired to go a house in the middle of the night and get a videotape. It has something to do with blackmail, and the guys say they plan to make copies of the tape, so they can make more money. What exactly is on the tape, we’ll never know. They don’t say (although one character does elude that it might be “a senator having sex on film”), but the job does pay big money—much more than they’re used to. So of course they jump at the chance.

They go to the designated house at the middle of the night, and we’re told there may be someone there, but it’s an old man and he won’t be any trouble. The guys get in, and search the place. They find two things. First of all, they find the old man, and he appears to be dead in a chair, in front of a wall full of television screens. There’s a VCR and a tape in it.

The second thing is that there are lots of videotapes in the house, and the guys aren’t really sure which one they’re supposed to retrieve. So they start looking through them, playing them one after another. And that is the theme of the movie.

The first short film we see is called “Amateur Night.” It is directed by David Bruckner, who also made THE SIGNAL (2007). And right off the bat, it might be my favorite of the bunch. It features more creeps. This time it’s three guys who plan to go to a bar, pick up some girls, and film themselves having sex with them. They’re Shane (Mike Donlan) Patrick (Joe Sykes) and Clint (Drew Sawyer). Clearly there’s a market for this kind of thing. Clint, a nerdy looking guy, wears a pair of glasses that have a camera and microphone built-in. They go to a bar and get sloshed, and find one girl who is willing to go back with them, named Lisa (Jas Sams). At the same time, a spooky girl with big eyes named Lily (Hannah Fierman) is sitting by herself, and Clint starts filming her. She gravitates toward him and keeps saying “I like you.” When they all go back to the hotel room (Lisa and Lily go back with the guys), things get decidedly weird. I have to admit, I wasn’t really surprised by what happened—I kind of saw it coming—but it was so well done, that I didn’t care. I really enjoyed this one. Featuring a great performance by Fierman.

A scary moment from V/H/S.

The second movie is “Second Honeymoon” by Ti West, who gave us HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009) and THE INNKEEPERS (2011). It’s about a couple on a road trip—Stephanie (Sophia Takal) and Sam (Joe Swanberg), who are filming it as they go—who stop at a motel. Sometime during the night, someone is in the room with them, watching them sleep, and it goes from there. Not the best of the stories, but a solid little piece from West, who I have to admit, I’m not a big fan of. I actually think he’s feature films are overrated. This one was kind of predictable, but decent, and I liked it better than his feature films that I’ve seen.

Tuesday the 17th “ by Glenn McQuaid (who also directed 2008’s I SELL THE DEAD) is another one that seems by-the-numbers… at first. Four kids go out to the woods to spend some time in a secluded cabin. But once they get there, things go a little differently than expected. Once again, not something that will blow you away, but a solid little film.

The third one, “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She was Younger,” (great title, by the way!), was directed by “mumblecore” indie director Joe Swanberg (who also acted in Ti West’s installment), and it’s another of my favorites. It features two people talking on Skype. One is a girl named Emily (Helen Rogers) who lives in a haunted apartment. The other is her boyfriend, calling from medical school, where he’s studying. Whenever something weird happens, she calls him so he can be a witness, and at one point we see some ghosts. This is another one, however, where things go much differently than we expect. I liked the weird twist ending a lot.

Finally, we have “10/31/98”, by four guys who go by the name Radio Silence (they are directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and Chad Villella), three of the guys previously made a series of “interactive adventures” under the name Chad, Matt and Rob. This one is a really good one, too. Four guys jump in a car and go to a house for a Halloween party. They have a friend who always rents a house each Halloween and throws a lavish haunted house party. One guy is dressed as a nanny cam (a teddy bear with a camera), so he’s filming this one. They get there, to find the house empty. When they go exploring, they go up to the attic where they find a weird ceremony going on. They think it’s part of the fun, but it’s not. It’s a real exorcism. And things get scary from there.

The wraparound story pops in between the movies and at the end, as the guys in the house search for more tapes, the dead guy in the chair leaves at various points (we see this, but the guys don’t notice) and there’s a big, scary ending.

Another scary moment from V/H/S.

All in all, a great flick, and while there were three that really blew me away, the other two are pretty good, too. So no bad ones. I actually think V/H/S is pretty satisfying and the best of the new anthology horror films I’ve seen lately. It is currently on cable OnDemand in some areas and will get a limited theatrical release in early October.

This one is definitely worth checking out. I give it four knives.

© Copyright 2012 by L.L. Soares

LL Soares gives V/H/S ~ four knives.