Monday, September 24, 2018

We Are Still Here / *** (2015)

Families trapped in the throes of grief have been lured in by more haunted houses than you can fathom, and in nearly all cases their tragedies supply an emotional shield that supernatural horrors mistakenly see as an exploitable weakness. Perhaps that’s because ghosts and demons just don’t understand how human nature works – that for every terrible event or shocking impulse, a person’s sense of fear is tightened by an exterior that hardens with time, allowing its wearer to face an abyss that couldn’t possibly match the pain they’ve experienced. There are some, however, who wear their suffering like an open wound, and certainly the evils of an alternate plane are eager to feast off whatever they can. Meanwhile, the dangerous entities that lurk in the house of “We Are Still Here” have a more sinister agenda: every 30 years they awaken from a slumber and devour the souls of any family living within its halls, as vengeance for a terrible act that was committed on them a century prior. Apparently, time does little to diminish grudges, especially when you’re in a dimension that ought to be free of earthly attachments or emotions.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Unbroken: Path to Redemption / zero stars (2018)

“Unbroken: Path to Redemption” is a film that begins and ends with one fatal mistake: forgetting to tell its actors that they are accomplices in a cheap, patronizing melodrama. All the dramatic cues are there, and many of the faces convey an eagerness that is admirable, but every simpering scene of false sincerity moves to the rhythm of some shallow after-school special, where most of the conflict is resolved by broad strokes and nonsensical flash-forwards. For this, yet another aberration in a growing list of exercises by director Harold Cronk – and one that shamelessly follows a far better retelling of this story from only four years prior – the offense is greater: he takes a potentially meaningful discussion point about the traumatic aftermath of war veterans and reduces it to an arrogant demand for Christian unity. That some of it plays as convincing to these on-screen players indicates he has assembled a plausible ensemble to sell his message; that he doesn’t bother to supply them with a shred of intellectual context makes the film not only bad, but irresponsible and corrupt.

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Meg / ** (2018)

A band of rich investors, marine biologists and deep-sea divers gather aboard an underwater laboratory in the middle of the pacific to plunder the secrets of the deep, and while searching through a new hidden habitat hidden they inadvertently unleash one of the murkiest special effect creatures seen this side of the Anaconda. Among them, a wisecracking daredevil who once assisted in an ill-fated rescue emerges as the lone force of reckoning who can challenge it in the open waters, where it threatens to destroy an entire eco-system (not to mention feast on the swimmers of public beaches). His sarcastic demeanor, of course, comes as a lighthearted contrast against the more sobering faces of the others, who regard their predicament like slabs of bait waiting for a noon feeding. And why wouldn’t they? The story will rarely provide them, after all, with a chance to flee the danger or head for land, because that would negate the opportunity for them to become casualties in the hungry jaws of a monster. Assemble any number of these clich├ęs together and you create the cheerful delusions of a modern creature feature; supply them further with a studio budget and familiar names, and you get something resembling “The Meg.”

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Greatest Showman / **1/2 (2017)

Hugh Jackman is one of the great gifts of the modern movie experience, and “The Greatest Showman” may very well be the fullest expression thus far of his impeccable performance talents. Here is a film tailor-made for those theatrical sensibilities, full of color and song, engaging his deep need to entertain an audience in nearly every frame he possesses the screen. While some of that can be sourced to the power of the visuals – which certainly provide their own sense of wonder – it’s hard to imagine any other person standing in this role, with this much pep, and this sense of dedication. Legend speaks of the men and women who would sacrifice their own security just for the sake of inspiring the gleeful response of a viewer, and Jackman proves, well above his peers, that he is the pilot of a destiny to forever marvel those who come to share his company. Who could ask for more in these generic times, when entertainment is decided less by individual vision and more by collaborative illusions?

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Rock of Ages / * (2012)

Sometimes the great tradition of rock musicals comes down not to whether songs are staged with gusto, but whether they have been conducted with hands that understand the rebellious culture underlining them. Many of the key anthems of the 80s reflect a stranger possibility: they were written in that very narrow window of hair band trends, where the angry political motivations were temporarily subdued by sex, booze, and the harmless pomp of radio accessibility. No one complained all that much because a great spirit continued to move through the guitar riffs, and the bands were a testament to the versatile power of the genre. Those who were active listeners in those years, when the likes of Def Leppard and Bon Jovi were at the height of their popularity, often recall them with fondness. But what would they think of the attitude now, so many years later, when films like “Rock of Ages” paint a much more simplistic portrait of the times? Would they be comfortable with the fact that a handful of well-known songs have essentially been grinded through a karaoke jukebox? Or that the attitudes behind them have been reduced to one-note farce? Or that people who were alive (and even active) in those years have allowed themselves to be associated with the vulgar thinning of the standard?

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Blockers / **1/2 (2018)

There is a scene in “Blockers” I hardly expected to see in a comedy – even a deranged one – and with any luck there will never be an attempt to replicate it. The lead-up is innocent enough: a trio of parents have infiltrated a party on prom night hoping to stop their teenage daughters from having sex, and along the way are cornered by a cluster of drunk boys who demand proof they are not actually undercover cops. They bargain by committing themselves to a drinking contest. The contender will be one of the fathers, an overprotective hulk played by John Cena. Unfortunately, the challenge is aptly referred to as “butt chugging,” in which a funnel and a hose are hooked into a contestant’s rectal cavity, where the beer will absorb into the body faster. Cena’s discomfort is but a mere momentary distraction from how the remainder of the scene plays out, which moves against the trajectory of the conventional toilet humor. Who came up with it? Did they sense, well before execution, that this was an outlet for edgier comedy? One imagines early story conferences consisting of a cluster of people passing around a joint, searching for the most random ways possible to instigate a shocked laugh in the audience.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

"The Black Cauldron" Revisited


“Legend has it, in the mystic land of Prydain, there was once a king so cruel and so evil, that even the gods feared him.” The opening narration inaugurates the curse shrouding the fabled black cauldron, an object of such immense danger that its very mention instills dread in the hearts of commoners. Although centuries came and went while it lay dormant, obscured by the spells of defensive witches, a new enthusiasm has gripped the totalitarian forces of the Horned King, who pursues it with persistent determination. In his possession, the cauldron would unleash the frightening power of necromancy, allowing its possessor to raise an unstoppable army of dead soldiers, essentially making him immortal. And all of creation would succumb to this destructive curse, including those whose personalities necessitate the enthusiasm of the audience: a teenage adventurer who dreams of heroism, a clumsy bard, a distraught princess, a furry and inquisitive beast, a snarky sprite and an oracular pig, who also provides the key to discovering the whereabouts of the coveted relic.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

It Started With a Cauldron...

The imprint of “Cinemaphile” didn’t come to realization until 2004, but its function – and with it my identity as a web-based film writer – were founded six years prior, during the hot summer months of 1998. It was the morning of August 4 when I awoke to the arrival of a new VHS copy of Disney’s “The Black Cauldron” lying on my doorstep – a defiant and strange little discovery, like a rough gem refusing to remain hidden. Its release announced not only the recognition of a problematic production, but also the gradually emerging power of Internet campaigns; while access to the world wide web was still slowly catching on, a small petition gained enough momentum to earn the notice of Joe Hale, the film’s producer, and Roy Disney, then a key decision-maker in the studio’s home video market. A year’s worth of signatures and aggressive write-ins (mine among them) had scored a long-awaited victory in a time when the Mouse House was barely interested in reflecting on troubled times of the past. After “The Little Mermaid” reignited a key fire in the enthusiasm of moviegoers, their preceding endeavors had been cast in a shadow, with this release apparently being the most notorious stain on their reputation.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Father Figures / 1/2* (2017)

“Father Figures” creates a dubious curiosity for two brothers who dislike each other, involves them in a long and illogical search for answers, forces their interaction with an ensemble of talented actors caught in a heap of unfunny comic situations, and then has the nerve to lead everyone towards an ending of ponderous feel-good phoniness. Gaze at any two minutes of the film, furthermore, and you begin to sense an underlying disinterest from the actors, who have shown up to, I guess, read a few lines of dialogue and exchange semi-cohesive barbs while the writers try to figure out where the story might be going.  One wonders if the paychecks were worth it – whether the likes of Glenn Close, Christopher Walken and J.K. Simmons were comfortable, even with minimal screen time, running through these improbable scenarios with a straight face, all for the sake of securing a few extra pennies. But what of the audience who has shown up to see them? What is in it for a person who values their presence? This is the kind of movie that exists incidentally, as if concocted to only fill in empty screening rooms on light weekends, just so others might have a place to go in case the big release down the hall is already sold out.

Monday, July 16, 2018

House on the Edge of the Park / 1/2* (1980)

While most defiant ideas for films are usually seized by the underachievers, few directors ever openly admit to being conductors of substandard rip-offs. Part of me would challenge that possibility if I ever came face-to-face with Ruggero Deodato, who in 1980 made one of many “Last House on the Left” clones and, by all traditional measures, used the screen as an open admission of his failure to equal its painful austerity. Craven’s notorious debut was hardly an original commodity – famously, its premise was based off a folk legend first used by Ingmar Bergman – but it so thoroughly embodied the nerve and conviction of its creator that few who saw it found it unworthy of notice. It was a film that lived and breathed its soul-shattering horrors. A great number of would-be understudies justifiably saw it as one of the main precursors to the genre’s sharp transition from supernatural absurdity to real-life misery, and some like Deodato were compelled to replicate the measure in more direct homage. But his “House on the Edge of the Park” is not simply a paint-by-numbers exercise. That might have been a lesser offense. No, this is a movie so listless and deceptive that we don’t dare call it bad, lest that imply anyone watching cares enough to show a faint hint of loathing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Initiation / * (1984)

A group of fresh-faced 20-somethings assemble in the halls of a sorority house to pledge their loyalties during hell week. One of them, seen in the early scenes waking from a violent nightmare, is to be the primary target of a series of impending pranks; being beautiful and wealthy are traits easily exploited by the more vain and narcissistic, especially while she seems oblivious to them. Dialogue is formal but laced with underlying resentment, as if more than mere looks and prestige divide the cliques. But these are not motions to imply more secrets between them – only gestures used by novice actors who have yet to formulate a plausible manner in front of the camera. In a way they acquire that behavior both from inexperience and from the misguided endeavors of their director, who was on his first (and last) film assignment here in the months preceding “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which was credited with adding a potent psychology to the tired dead teenager formula. His “The Initiation,” which survives in the periphery of an inexplicable cult status, is one of the last genre excursions preceding that transition, and certainly one of the dumbest: every single scene exists not to stimulate the excitement of the audience, but to suggest a sense of laughable frustration on part of individuals who have no clue as to what they are doing.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Maniac / zero stars (1980)

Quiet and eccentric Frank Zito has serious issues. Rarely occupied by conventional social interactions and often lost in the labyrinth of a self-imposed solitude, he has taken up precarious hobbies as a way of passing the hours – among them, decorating female mannequins throughout his apartment while carrying on one-sided conversations, as if they were verbal punching backs for his paralyzing insecurity. Unfortunately, one key attribute between them bypasses the notion of a foreboding gesture: they all carry the scalps of deceased women he has killed over the recent weeks, with their head of hair acting as a leftover trinket of the crimes. Who these victims are is not as thorough a detail for the audience as much as the anatomy of their demises, and in an early scene on a beach the camera spies one such victim (nameless, no less) having her throat cut so that she can bleed out on the sand. Most films would use this kind of display as a precursor to the psychological study, particularly if it involves an engaging pattern. But the obscene and detestable “Maniac” has only one focus: to fill scene after scene with relentless bloodshed while robbing us of a genuine dramatic context.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom / ** (2018)

Maybe it’s apropos that a fifth blockbuster about genetically engineered dinosaurs begins and ends with words from Ian Malcolm, the man whose theories have underlined the obligatory fallout of this exhausting excursion. Seen in a senate hearing about whether the U.S. government should intervene in the protection of gigantic creatures at the sight of a now-defunct theme park, he signals an ominous warning that most recognize as authentic: if you save beings that exist in violation of the natural order, you may be risking your own. All signs point to a wrap-up of that possibility as the site of Isla Nublar faces a new threat: the island’s long-dormant volcano has come back to life and will likely render the surviving species extinct, effectively undoing the experiment of scientists playing god. Alas, a movement of fierce protectors has risen in the political fringes, seeking a way to rescue the dinosaurs before such a fate is a reality. That prospect inspires the agenda of a billionaire closely linked to the park’s resources, who calls upon characters from the previous film to go in and relocate a dozen species to a nearby sanctuary island… without knowing that they intend to sell them to foreign harvesters on the black market.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Hereditary / **** (2018)

The most unsettling element in “Hereditary” is rooted not in specifics or reveals, but in a deliberate evasion of answers. This is a film so audaciously assured that the audience is rarely given the chance to clutch the source of the horror, as if to assume details can be distorted by a deceitful vantage point. In a way that makes the primary observation just as maddening as it is unsettling – and after a monumental promotional engine pointed to grandiose comparisons with “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” most viewers targeted it with a frustrated dismissal rather than shared accolades. But for Ari Aster, who makes his directorial debut with a script he also penned, it represents a bold and striking departure from the populist convention of horror films, where great inspirations are usually filtered down by derivative ideals. Containing almost no jump scares or slick camera edits, the movie throbs with a relentless underlying terror that is frequently mystifying, sometimes aggravating, and almost always poised to keep the mind engaged in disquieting wonder. If the most elusive quality of a genre picture is how fears manifest in the uncertain, Aster finds them lodged the membrane of a greater psychological riddle.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Scream 2 / ***1/2 (1997)

The opening scene of “Scream 2” contains a dialogue on horror films as a device of exploitation on minorities – particularly for African Americans, who are routinely the first to die at the end of a knife-wielding madman. That the comment is delivered by a character played by Jada Pinkett is not ironic; because the movie knows it must play by similar rules, however self-aware, her observation will serve as prophecy as she and her boyfriend are murdered by a masked maniac at a local screening on the night of her proclamation. No, the true irony is found above them: the film they have shown up to see is a Hollywood retelling of the Woodsboro murders from the year prior, which have been sensationalized into a cheap slasher knock-off at the expense of the survivors. This reality is expressed with a striking clarity during the close of the opening scenes, in which Pinkett’s character is stabbed with incessant conviction by a hooded figure just as the audience behind her engages in uproarious cheers at the murder going on in the light of the projector. Only when she walks up towards the screen and lets out one last horrific scream do they realize a fatal tragedy has transpired among the crowded seats of the screening room: their embrace of the violence has inherently created a perfect storm for their ambivalence to a literal manifestation of it.