year: 2014 rating: **
PG-13 horror can be lackluster for two reasons: Adult audiences yearning to be scared silly have to put up with an intentionally watered-down theatrical experience, and younger folk anticipating a truly frightening world are stuck with a limited vehicle tailormade for their own protection...

Which doesn’t mean youngsters don't deserve a genuinely spooky flick… But not being legally allowed to see something in theaters usually makes it more mysterious, and ultimately worthwhile.

OUIJA involves the iconic and infamous board game. Gently moving a wooden or plastic device (called a planchette) around a board with letters, numbers, a YES, NO, HELLO and GOODBYE, you spell out words after asking questions to... the deceased, usually. Then something otherworldly helps guide the device, held on by fingers of each member of the group. Well that’s the idea. 

THE EXORCIST has a memorable Ouija cameo: Linda Blair’s subtle manipulation is the first indication she’s not your typical child. And here we begin with two girls around her age taking the game seriously… too seriously.

After the death of one of the players, now a teen, a collection of high school friends, led by Olivia Cooke’s vulnerable ingenue Laine Morris, returns to the house... where curiosity gets the best of them. In fact the investigative nature turns OUIJA into a paranormal version of an Afterschool Special combined with FINAL DESTINATION: Once the game gets started, certain players are disqualified – permanently!

While there are a few decent jolts and nightmarish imagery, a plodding search to jigsaw past events ruins the potential. Then again, the acting is so dull amidst a barrage of distracting computer effects, there’s nowhere else to go but backwards. Perhaps LIGHT AS A FEATHER would have been a better choice. Maybe next time.



year: 2014 rating: ***
THE DROP aside, most crime flicks where an adorable puppy's introduced usually means it won’t live to be a dog… Or even a slightly older puppy… Which is extremely important since John Wick, played by a slowburn yet ultra violent Keanu Reeves, seeks revenge once his best friend gets whacked...

Well there's a little more to it than that...

Pup was a posthumous gift from his deceased wife, and as Wick hunts down the spoiled son of a Russian mobster, who also stole his supped-up 1969 Mustang, we learn about our title character by the nervous reactions of those who want him dead: the sleeping giant has been awakened, and ignited.  

With a thumping soundtrack and word bubbles for important dialogue, it's hard to believe there's not a comic book/graphic novel origin. The action is literally non-stop and the fight scenes are recklessly heart pounding. The only problem is we don’t know JOHN WICK enough to make all the bloodshed really matter.

It’s as if we missed a fifteen-minute setup, or started reading at Issue #2. And like the many bullets flying, JW blasts in one ear and out the other. But if you're into that kinda thing...



year: 2014 rating: *
THE BEST OF ME: In a chick flick, it's no surprise when the good rich girl falls for the bad boy... only this boy isn’t bad but he's poor – and dull as a box of hammers…

That’s the backstory, which jumps to and from what seems to be the mainline: of two melancholy grownups, with different lives, both inheriting the same house.

As teenagers, Dawson and Amanda are in a relationship that’s much too easy. For her, it's the epitome of love at first site, and she won’t give in until he gives in, and then they’re a couple. That’s pretty much that.

The problems are ignited by Dawson’s father, a white trash hillbilly who looks more like a scruffy English professor with a hangover. He beats his kid, making Dawson not only scarred but homeless... eventually living with a gentle WWII vet (Gerald McRaney) who recently lost his wife.

The grownup Amanda and Dawson are played by Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden, both otherwise talented actors. The biggest problem (in a movie loaded with problems) is that the teenage version of Dawson looks absolutely nothing like Marsden – the flashbacks seem like completely different stories, and it’s tough to decipher which is worse than the other. Let’s call it a tie.

Based on a book written by the film’s producer, Nicolas Sparks, THE BEST OF ME is the very worst of romantic kitsch. The chemistry is awkward and forced in the past... boring and pointless in the present... while the future provides a “twist” ending that should even make THE NOTEBOOK fanatics cringe.

year: 2014 rating: ***
THE BOOK OF LIFE: In most stories, when you die and go to that place below, it’s not so good. But in BOOK OF LIFE, death rules… It’s a colorful underworld carnival where happiness is everywhere. People are dancing and having one… um… hell of a time.

We eventually journey to this place with our hero Manolo, a bull fighter nice enough to spare the bull. He’s in love with childhood friend Maria, who has returned from abroad – and he’s not the only one smitten. Their mutual friend Joaquin, voiced by Channing Tatum, is a decorated soldier who desperately wants… well that’s for the viewer to find out.

The spoiler isn’t that Manolo dies since the main plot involves the journey to find his true love, whom he thinks is also deceased. Much of the adventure, after the first twenty minutes loaded with an overkill of confusing exposition and distracting pop tunes, involves the vivid land reminiscent of WHAT DREAMS MAY COME only with an aeasetic combination of CGI, stop motion and surreal paper cutouts. 

Guillermo Del Toro, in the Tim Burton fashion, produced this quirky kid's flick with heart and soul and enough eye-candy for a lifetime… and then some.



2014 rating: *1/2
The most intriguing and humorous aspect of any cinematic “unlikely friendship" is the amount of time taken for two polar opposites to warm up to each other. The longer things are cold, the funnier. But in ST. VINCENT, there are very few problems in that regard.

That's not to say the boozing and gambling war vet, Vincent, doesn't have his share of obstacles. In dept with the bank, a bookie and a prostitute, he's given the task of “babysitting” a young kid who lives next door.

Enter Jaeden Lieberher’s Oliver, a brainy newcomer at a politically-correct Catholic school. Laidback and confident, the fact he’s bullied by classmates and abandoned by his father is quickly cured by time spent with Vincent, learning self defense and visiting a bar and a racetrack. 

With a dash of forced 11th hour melodrama and a feel-good soundtrack that should have its own doctor's prescription, the movie tries for heart but lacks a funnybone. And the two main characters get along so splendidly, Bill Murray's otherwise edgy persona is completely wasted. In a nutshell, ST. VINCENT is an off-road vehicle cruising in the carpool lane.



year: 2014 rating: ***
“He was one of those guys that had that weird light around him... You just knew he wasn't going to get so much as a scratch here.”

That was from APOCALYPSE NOW about Robert Duvall’s gung-ho Colonel, and not a quote and/or spoiler for FURY starring Brad Pitt as the gritty, hard-nosed tank commander Don 'Wardaddy' Collier during World War II… Yet there is a similar light around Collier and his grungy crew: They’ve been through the ringer, from Africa all the way into the final stretches of Germany during the Big One's rowdy 11th hour, and it doesn't seem anything can scratch 'em. 

Collier’s soldiers are an eclectic lot that, although bordering on clichés, have their own distinct flavor...

Shia LaBeouf is Boyd 'Bible' Swan. With a verse for just about every situation, he's equally hardened and battle-weary as grittier "heathens" Michael Peña as the tank driving Trini 'Gordo' Garcia, providing comic relief without being obvious, and Jon Bernthal’s extra-grouchy redneck, Grady 'Coon-Ass' Travis (imagine his WALKING DEAD Shane combined with Merle Dixon). If there’s an antagonist other than Germans, he’s the man. 

Since the story begins with the troop already having experienced hell on earth, there’s not much development beyond their edgy banter and sporadic reflections. So it takes a fresh new guy to make the seasoned characters more interesting, and relevant…

During the first half, bright-eyed Logan Lerman, as the extremely boyish replacement Norman Ellison, seems too naïve and mismatched to be involved at all. One overlong scene, where Pitt’s Collier takes the kid to a room with two German ladies, hinders the necessary build-up. Leading to an all-out open field battle where the action is limited to the tank’s trudging pace...

But what makes FURY ultimately worthwhile is the last act: a gloriously gut-wrenching standoff these guys deserved all along, and a chance for the movie to truly live up to its title. Better late than never! 



year: 1983 rating: **1/2
"I do hope we have some gratuitous sex and violence," says the new Q to the old Bond in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, Sean Connery's return to the franchise during the peak of the successful Roger Moore era. But let's center on why this strange vehicle even happened, and how it could have been even stranger, and better...

Already an established cog of the James Bond legacy and covered on the Internet, books and 007 documentaries, to thoroughly rehash the battle between Kevin McClory and the producers who brought Bond out of the pages onto the big screen would be a license to overkill…

So let’s cover it quickly: McClory, fellow scriptwriter Jack Whittingham and Bond novelist/creator Ian Fleming worked on the screenplay for THUNDERBALL in 1959. This was planned to be the first Bond film. The deal fell through and Fleming wrote the book, not crediting either co-writer and was sued: thus Fleming lost the THUNDERBALL rights to McClory who would, for years, use that sword against heavyweights Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the Ion Production team responsible for classics ranging from DR. NO to THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (while Broccoli continued until bowing out with GOLDENEYE).

After the groundbreaking DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and GOLDFINGER dominated the box office, a deal was worked out when, in 1965, THUNDERBALL was finally realized, crediting McClory as head writer and producer along with a cameo… Plus the stipulation that it couldn't be remade for ten years!

During that decade, Bond morphed from Sean Connery to George Lazenby (back to Connery) to mainstay Roger Moore... but there wasn't a peep from Kevin McClory.

Riding his one trick pony, he was waiting to pounce… And in 1975, the infamous “Bond Film That Almost Was,” titled WARHEAD, would have had atom bomb strapped robotic hammerhead sharks swimming in the sewers of New York City while The Statue Of Liberty served as a possible (?) location for the cat-petting Blofeld, the most famous Bond villain co-created by McClory himself. 

As the years rolled on, McClory attempted to get Pierce Brosnon in another THUNDERBALL remake after Timothy Dalton took over the coveted role… And then shot for Dalton after Pierce reemerged victorious… But here we’ll center on the film that actually did  happen...

Mr. THUNDERBALL finally got his wish when Sean Connery, who dropped out of WARHEAD in the beginning stages of pre-production, came back on board as an older, wiser, still fit and dapper 007 in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN, directed by EMPIRE STRIKES BACK hired-hand Irvin Kershner, which competed with the Roger Moore venture, OCTOPUSSY, in 1983…

Ironically, one of the most exciting sequences in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN never really happens: A practice trial-run where Connery’s Bond leaps and darts over rocks and bushes, makes his way into a castle and is ultimately "killed" by a princess held hostage… We cut to M (Edward Fox) lecturing Bond how unfit he is for duty.

The following scenes inside an exercise club where Bond gets back in shape pales to the original: although a wall-breaking fistfight with a giant henchman is fun to watch, and proves Connery is ready, physically, to roll.

Meanwhile, as the familiar plot about a highjacked jet plane transporting a nuclear warhead unfolds, Blofeld is present. Max Von Sydow’s blackmailing heavy isn’t bald or crippled but he does have his pussycat... and is more of a backseat threat here.

The most intriguing character is the bad Bond girl. As Fatima, Barbara Carrera has the sublime amount of wicked sensuality. Her spoiled man-hating girl-child glides with venomous rancor, providing Bond a fantastic chase as he tails her hotrod on a motorcycle along a mountainous terrain…

Yet the true villain is Maximillian Largo, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer. Performance-wise, both Largo and Fatima seem more in tune with a campy 70's exploitation flick than a mainstream '80s blockbuster, which isn't so bad if they only had more to do. 

On the flip-side, good Bond girl Kim Basinger is the trophy wishbone caught in Largo’s sinister clutches… His eccentric power reigns from England to The Bahamas, where most of the film takes place.

With such a bland template, those robotic hammerheads, or something equally creative and outlandish, was desperately needed. The original THUNDERBALL, as sharks stalked Bond in a swimming pool, was unique and suspenseful. Herein the killer fish, who don't seem very threatening to the mellow skin-diving spy, cruise around the ocean while a JAWS-like variation plays...

Eventually leading to what is, arguably, the worst scene in 007 history as Bond battles Largo in a casino backroom by... playing a video game! The world map laser screen, appearing between the two joystick-wielding opponents, is seemingly voiced by a BATTLESTAR GALACTICA Cylon using British dialect – and this is considered excitement?

During the Cold War, right on the brink of a Presidential election wherein anti-nuke commercials and TV movies were rampant, NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN takes THUNDERBALL to the “modern” nuclear era: while having a few nice moments, it seems more an uneven jigsaw puzzle than anything else.

And so, during a box office grudge match twenty years in the making, Kevin McClory's long-labored NEVER, while by no means a financial disappointment, lost to the Roger Moore vehicle OCTOPUSSY, a RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK style pulpy fanfare, better on every level: And that includes acting!

Sure, Sean Connery was the original. And even Moore considered him the best Bond… But for the most part, he’s just plain sleepwalking here.
"Obviously, you frequently visit arcades, Mr. Bond... Or perhaps you have an Atari? ColecoVision?"



year: 2014 rating: **
It couldn’t have happened quickly enough that ALEXANDER traded off his TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY in the magical fashion of FREAKY FRIDAY and LIAR LIAR, by wishing his family would have an equally awful 24 hours.

The film’s mopey namesake, played by Ed Oxenbould, isn’t a terrible child actor, but his bumbling reactions to numerous misfortunes aren't very funny, or entertaining.

So it's a blessing that performers like Steve Carell as dad, Jennifer Garner as mom, and his older brother and sister are left to weather a series of catastrophes, ranging from a zit, the common cold, a job interview and a book signing gone bad with Disney icon Dick Van Dyke.

Herein Alexander takes a backseat like he's watching someone else play a video game. And while there are brief moments of Disney frolic, the movie is awkward and badly timed, wasting even Steve Carell’s scene-stealing potential.



2014 rating: **
Jeremy Renner is the kind of actor who takes his job seriously, playing each character with gusto. And in the role of real life reporter Gary Webb, he’s downright shot out of a cannon. In fact you’d think he was a bulletproof paratrooper who just happened to write for a living…

What movie's about is loaded up front, and this particular “Deep Throat” gives Webb the lead of a lifetime about five minutes in. A possible scoop that, during the 1980’s, the Reagan-Era CIA funded weapons in Nicaragua by having drug dealers sell crack cocaine in downtown Los Angeles.

Unlike ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, we don’t learn things slowly and meticulously. Instead, after everything’s been served up on a silver hot plate, there’s a collection of scenes where Webb gets loads of useful information from drug dealers, ex CIA agents and politicians, collaborating what we’ve already learned – deleting any worthy suspense or intrigue along the way.

There is an attempt for mainstream movie thrills when shadowy forms begin stalking Webb at his home and work. Not surprisingly, that’s when Renner seems the most comfortable: gun in hand and with bulging eyes, flexed muscles, a speedy motorcycle and the countenance of a feisty badger, he's not gonna take it anymore!

The first half, although somewhat well-crafted, is too slanted and, for a story about a reporter, downright easy. It would have made Webb’s journey more engrossing had he come up against people not itching to "confess" so quickly, and clearly. His brand of journalism is hardly investigative. Thus the last act falls apart at the seams…

When his bosses scold him for not having his informants go “on the record” instead of private conversations, it's as if they were suggesting he wait around for a better end to his story. Ironically, the movie needed one too.



2014 rating: **1/2
The title character in THE JUDGE is accused of murder – he’s also dying of cancer, just lost his wife, has memory lapses, killed a man, and may go to prison… And this is considered a “comedy/drama” for one reason…

Robert Downey Jr., who can make any situation funny, plays small town Judge Palmer’s estranged big city lawyer son, Hank, who has a way of rolling his eyes even when they’re closed tight, causing audiences to, from the very start, delve into his wily and sarcastic persona, which can be good and bad...

The good is that Downey's likable enough to root for, as usual. The bad is, with such contagiously built-in charm, there lacks the necessary development to make him someone we know from the inside/out: crucial in a character-driven film exceeding two hours. 

The accusation is simple enough: the Judge, driving in a rainstorm, killed a man on a bike. It turns out the victim, years earlier, had practically ruined his reputation... Making it a first-degree murder charge. Eventually, Downey’s Hank defends his father in an involving case within a dark courtroom – the problem is we hardly spend time there at all.

After a while, even Downey’s blunt humor can’t save THE JUDGE from wallowing in contrived sentimentality. Bland family members and a weak love interest seem tacked-on and cliché, more befitting a cable melodrama than a motion picture with two potential heavyweights.

Thankfully, any scenes between father and son are worth the price of a ticket… Downey stretching beyond IRON MAN, and the legendary Duvall stepping back up to the plate, is a double-whammy for cinema buffs – and they’re pretty good together, for the most part… If only the Bobs didn't have so many mundane distractions.



2014 rating: **
If Darth Vader turned into the most sinister thug in the galaxy after his wife died in a dream, having Dracula, whose real name is (and really was) Vlad the Impalor, morphing into a vampire to save his wife and child, makes enough sense… And it’s a more fleshed-out story, pun intended.

This particular Dracula begins as a dashing hero straight out of a sword-and-sorcery epic. And there’s a backstory within the backstory: kidnapped, raised and trained to be a tortuous slayer, he’s now a domesticated leader of his own guarded city…

In order to save a thousand kids (including his son) from being used as an expendable army for the Turks, Vlad returns to a cavern we experienced in the rushed prologue. Seeking true darkness for power, he comes face to face with a formidable wizard of vampires: the scariest element of a movie that’s not scary at all. 

Much of action has a legion of CGI bats flying in and out of our newly transformed superhero vamp, able to take down hordes of men like it's nothing. Herein the fight scenes are decent but too reminiscent of other bloody battle flicks ala 300, while the actors try hard to make up for a scant storyline.



1981 rating: ****1/2
According to the bonus feature documentary from the Shout Factory Blu-Ray/DVD combo, the creators and actors of SOUTHERN COMFORT have different ideas on the movie’s significance and origin…

"Take no prisoners!"
While the actors are convinced it’s a take on Vietnam, the filmmaker, Walter Hill, and his co-writer David Giler believe the film’s about… well… a squad of National Guardsman who are hunted by evil Cajuns in the swamps of Louisiana… And in this 1981 cult classic, what you see is pretty much what you get.

But SOUTHERN COMFORT is much more of a military style horror than anything else... Liken to an outdoor body count slasher flick, each character has a particular fate they either deserve or are simply begging for: That includes Fred Ward as the nefarious Reece, whose cold, piercing eyes can chew through granite. Or Lewis Smith as his young white trash sidekick, Stuckey, igniting trouble by firing blanks at a group of Cajuns after the Guardsman “borrow” their boats for a swampy shortcut.

We're gonna need bigger boats
Then there’s Peter Coyote playing the group’s Sergeant, a hardnosed decision-maker just as lost as everyone else. To provide a spoiler wouldn’t be kind, but Sgt. Poole is the Janet Leigh of the movie. His exit forces the group to reluctantly rely on an inept second-in-command, Casper, played by character actor Les Lannom, exuding a perfect combination of desperately intrepid and pathetically oblivious, ultimately allowing our two main heroes, played by Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe, to slowly but surely step up to the plate.

And here, in a selection from a full interview on SOUTHERN COMFORT, Les Lannom discusses one scene where the men scramble for their lives after being tipped over in canoes. 

LES LANNOM (CASPER): The camera and sound were on boats and were there in the water with us. There was no marked difference in the number of takes required to cover the stuff. You always have cover shot from the distance and that is followed by a number of closer shots from various angles and covering varying numbers of cast members. 

Walter just took these shots until he felt he had the scene and action sufficiently covered. He just shot until it was right, and Walter seemed to be very good at knowing when to stop and move on to the next shot.

The one significant problem we encountered was losing a very expensive M-60 machine gun in forty feet or so of damned cold water. They looked for it but never found it. We were all wearing wet suits, so none of us were in danger of drowning (you couldn't sink!); and the most difficult part about it was making it look like it was a desperate situation. Fun stuff, though!

And when we finally waded ashore and filmed the rest of the scene, we couldn't wear the wet-suit booties. Had to wear the combat boots, as our feet would be seen. 

Everybody's feet were aching from soaking in the water. The water was cold (this was fairly early in the shoot) and the air temp was about 36 degrees. The socks were not much insulation when they got wet. All of us parked our feet up next to some kerosene heaters to try to thaw them out.

A little later, because this was an ongoing problem, Keith Carradine found out that he could peel off the sole from the booties and stuff them into a slightly over-sized combat boot and make the situation bearable. All of us followed suit, and the rest of the shoot was a lot more comfortable... 

If you discount the fact that every morning we arrived at the set and had to put on still-freezing damp wet-suits that had hung all night in our un-heated dressing rooms in the honey-wagons!

As the nightmare continues, making this canoe dunking catastrophe seem tame, Keith Carradine’s smart-alleck Spencer and Powers Boothe’s slowburn Hardin are what Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds were to DELIVERANCE: being out of their element yet trying to keep cool along the way.

Carradine, who had worked with director Hill in THE LONG RIDERS, gets first billing and is the peripheral leader, yet the buck really stops with Boothe’s steely gaze: a newcomer to the group, having previously resided in the Texas Guard, it's like nothing can phase Hardin. Hell, even his cigarettes can survive a trip through swamp water. 

Shout Factory Cover
Several important scenes have Carradine and Boothe’s characters sporadically discussing the situation at hand. Either commenting on the inability of the lesser men around them, or trying to make sense of the inevitable doomsday, they're a barometer for the audience and the unnerved, rattled Weekend Warriors who, through bad decisions, invite more punishment to be hurled upon them. 

They include Franklyn Seales as the group’s shuddering fear-meter, Sims. The late actor best known for playing an uptight account on SILVER SPOONS made his ground as the nicer of two cold-blooded killers in THE ONION FIELD. Also on board is T.K. Carter, familiar to horror fans as the skating cook in John Carpenter’s THE THING, serving up unforced and alleviating comic relief. And our token outcast/oddball  is the towering Bowden, played by Carlos Brown aka Alan Autry, a Cowardly Lion type with an unpredictable personality: that spooky red cross on the Blu Ray cover is his doing. 

"You betta haul ass"
After getting to know the men, each scene, where the ominous swamp is like a character in itself, provides another perilous situation for the men to survive, or not. This includes an attack of ferocious Rottweiler’s, falling trees and eventually an all-out hunting spree with the kind of slow motion deaths that Walter Hill, who scripted the original GETAWAY, might have learned from mentor Sam Peckinpah.

One of the most important elements is heard, not seen. Ry Cooder grooves a moody slide guitar soundtrack that feels part of the location – a misleadingly laidback sound that fits the film's ironic title, not the dire situation...

And the survivors have their biggest challenge once the formidable hunt is over... It’s here we get to know Hardin (Powers Boothe) the most: As he remains suspicious during an outdoor Cajun cookout, we realize he’s not only the guy to root for, but he knows what’s up better than anyone…

Well not entirely. Towering BLADE RUNNER badass Brion James plays a one-armed Cajon who, through the entire midsection, is captured, questioned, interrogated and flung around like a meaty ragdoll. But when watching and rewatching SOUTHERN COMFORT, it’s his expressions to really center on: because while Hardin and Spencer may know the score, Brion’s Trapper is keeping it.



year: 2014 rating: **1/2
In a weekend dominated by a missing girl and a demonic doll, here's a three-pack including THE GOOD LIE, LEFT BEHIND and beginning with...

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN: Seeing the Internet in a movie is like hearing a toilet flushing, in a movie… It’s so familiar we’d much prefer to escape life’s, um, personal necessities...

Nothing doing with Jason Reitman’s MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, a film centering on an ensemble of characters, parents and teenagers, all using the almighty Net for various reasons: From dating sites to video games to modeling to texting: the latter appearing on the screen to showcase our distracted society.

The cast is loaded with potential talent, but Dean BREAKING BAD Norris should have had a lot more to do than passively navigate his son’s game-playing while Adam Sandler has a chance of reliving PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE… By turning in a serious role, perhaps he could prove something once again. But the males, including an existential high school ex football hero and a porn addicted jock, seem merely along for the ride...

It’s the women who have the most interesting, risqué storylines. One wife cheats… A young girl persists on staying skinny and loses her virginity to a jerk… An uptight mother, played by the film’s main antagonist, Jennifer Garner, strictly monitors her mopey, lovestruck kid… Meanwhile, Judy Greer’s progressive single mom takes unconventional pictures for her sexy daughter’s modeling website.

Everyone eventually connects, romantically or otherwise. And like MAGNOLIA and many ensemble films, there’s a stream of conscious narrative bringing things  together…

In this particular case it's the Voyager Satellite hovering just beyond our solar system with Carl Sagan as the token philosopher, providing depth through the wise voice of Emma Thompson, the female Morgan Freeman here…

But going beneath the surface level, whether an inch or a mile, can be considered deep. Ironically, the most intriguing elements occur during the mundane, everyday observations, and not when the writers try for meaning: That’s when things get preachy and pretentious, and downright predictable.   

year: 2014 rating: ***
THE GOOD LIE: You would think, judging by the trailers and the poster, THE GOOD LIE centered mostly on Reese Witherspoon’s bitch with a heart of gold, Carrie, and her friendship with three African refugees… But Carrie has little to do with the film but “babysit”… Yet she hardly even does that…

The real story centers on a young "family", beginning with their on-foot journey from war-torn Sudan to Kenya. This prologue lasts twenty minutes but packs about every trial and tribulation you can imagine –  drinking their own urine, dodging bullets and battling fierce wild animals, the preliminary trek is rushed in order to segue into the feel-good movie it becomes once the children, grown into college age young adults, move to Kansas City where a moody Witherspoon sets them up with various jobs.

It would be impossible to delve into the immense pain these kids felt unless ample time and effort was provided for us to, as the old saying goes, walk in their shoes. There are sporadic flashbacks and conversations to shed light on their past, but THE GOOD LIE is really a fish out of water tale not about surviving, but adapting in the comparably soft American culture.

During the last twenty minutes, when the family "chief" returns to Africa in search of a very special person, not only does the title become perfectly clear, the movie fills in the gaps from a somewhat cushy interpretation of hardship and struggle, providing a satisfying conclusion – for the characters and the audience. 

year: 2014 rating: **
LEFT BEHIND: Nicolas Cage, the once A-list superstar and Oscar winning actor, could be viewed as taking a serious downgrade by headlining the low budget Biblical-based thriller, LEFT BEHIND… Although, since he’s been demoted to Straight-to-DVD hell the last few years, perhaps this return to theaters is his way of serving in heaven, literally.

After a ponderous twenty-minute conversation within an airport terminal, the plot clunks underway… Based on a novel foretelling the predictions in Revelations – where God’s Rapture will take only Christians to heaven – much of the suspense takes place on a commercial airplane where Cage’s Rayford Steele is the sole pilot…

The children, a flight attendant and most important, the co-pilot, have all been whisked away – all that’s LEFT are a pile of clothing… Same thing’s happened globally; but we center on Captain Steele’s hardened Atheist daughter Hattie, played by Nicky Whelan… It’s her character we followed through the overlong prologue, and she’s the focal point on the ground. In fact the Rapture begin on her “watch” when her little brother vanishes in the middle of a heartfelt hug.

Skipping from the airplane to the city, the best scenes occur eight miles high. Take away the Rapture aspect and we have a selected group of paranoid passengers not trusting each other, resulting in our heroic pilot having to land the airplane back in New York, just like the melodramatic AIRPORT films of yesteryear. Meanwhile, the attempt to wedge the Christian agenda is awkward and clumsy...

But since it's a tale about people who weren’t lucky enough to make the ethereal cut, if this particular vehicle works, a franchise about desperate heroes surviving a godless world might crossover to the mainstream… After all, who's around to preach Christianity?

With a distractingly low budget and a cheap acoustic soundtrack, LEFT BEHIND might be just that in the box office: not faithful enough for the faith-based and not exciting enough for a suspenseful thriller. Yet there are times when Nic Cage makes you forget he's stuck in a bad movie. After all, he's had plenty of practice lately.



year: 2014 rating: **
Two particular things don’t make sense: Calling a girl you think is ugly a dog, when dogs are usually cute… And referring to a precious child as a little doll, when dolls can be horrendously frightening…

Especially in the case of ANNABELLE, a gift given to the lovely Mia by her husband John for… God knows what reason. The doll itself resembles a mad clown donning partial makeup while staring fiercely into the pits of hell… And where else would you put such an antique horror but facing a newborn child’s crib within an otherwise innocent bedroom…

That’s skipping ahead. By the time the couple, via 1969 during the Manson Family cult-killing period, bring new life into the world, Annabelle has already summoned likewise hippie freaks and eventually, The Devil himself rears his formidably horned face, an image way too familiar at this point – a ghost with white sheets would probably be scarier, or at least more mysterious.

A hybrid of ROSEMARY’S BABY, POLTERGEIST, and THE EXORCIST… especially the rip-off conclusion… ANNABELLE has a few worthy jolts: But you can sneak up behind someone in a Disney film and cause the same reaction.

The problem are the characters, so uninteresting and paper-thin that the time between spooks is more boring than necessary… And worst yet, the doll doesn’t have enough to do: A conduit into the Netherworld is okay if the vessel is normal to begin with, but with a namesake antagonist so creepy, why invite anyone else to the party? 


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