Terror goes beyond child’s imagination in ‘The Sandman’ on SyFy

 

Remember those monsters you read about in scary stories or saw in movies? For all your fears, there was the rational voice that reminded you: they aren’t real.

Well, for young Madison in “The Sandman,” the monster that frightens her the most — coming from a story read to her when she was even younger —  can become very real and deadly.

“The Sandman,” making its debut on SyFy on Saturday, Oct. 14, is a first-rate thriller written and directed by Peter Sullivan, a veteran of many television movies. He’s done his share of Christmas-themed movies, so “The Sandman” is a departure for him. Reportedly he has a passion for horror movies, and this movie proves he is a keen observer of what makes scary movies truly unsettling.

The aforementioned Madison (Shae Smolik) is an 8-year-old girl who, as the movie begins, is traveling by car with her father, Colton (Jason-Shane Scott), and they appear to be on the lam. But soon it is revealed they are trying to stay a step ahead of something more horrifying and deadly.

Soon Madison is orphaned and in a psychiatric ward, victimized by horrendous nightmares and surrounded by facility staff members skeptical of her claims that The Sandman is real and very lethal, energized by Madison herself whenever she gets scared. So the mix of a child being locked up and mourning her father presents the real potential for slaughter.

Madison’s only relative is her aunt Claire (Haylie Duff), a struggling artist with zero experience in parenting. Nevertheless, Claire is willing to take care of Madison while she butts heads with Dr. Cushing (Richard Gleason), who believes the girl must remain institutionalized, and Abigail Farmer (Lyn Alicia Henderson), a social worker not convinced Claire is capable of providing Madison with a stable home, especially with Claire’s “sometimes” boyfriend Wyatt (Shaun Sipos) hanging around.

On top of this, Claire has been told by police that Colton was suspected of being a serial killer.

Like all the other adults, Claire and Wyatt try to convince Madison that The Sandman is not real, but soon enough they witness, sometimes graphically, that the girl is not just imagining things.

Meanwhile, lurking on the periphery is Valentine (Tobin Bell, old Jigsaw himself from “Saw”), attached to some shadowy organization that sees some possible sinister potential in harnessing whatever powers Madison possesses.

The relationship between Madison and The Sandman (Mick Ignis) is ambiguous. While The Sandman seems to be protecting Madison, he also seems intent on destroying her.

Seeking clues as to what was going on with Colton and Madison, Claire comes across a book in Colton’s car written by Dr. Amanda Elliott (Amanda Wyss, Tina from “A Nightmare on Elm Street”), a hypnotherapist. Claire deduces that Colton was intent on taking Madison to Dr. Elliott in hopes she could purge this monster from the girl.

It takes a while and a lot of peril before Claire can get Madison to Dr. Elliott. It is under the guidance of Dr. Elliott that Madison is hypnotized in an effort to exorcise The Sandman.

Bell and Wyss provide stellar support in “The Sandman” in what is a showcase for Smolik and Duff. Young Smolik excels in the role of Madison, mostly a sweet and innocent girl but one who can assume the deadly forces that have been seen before by Sissy Spacek in “Carrie” and Drew Barrymore in “Firestarter.” Duff adds depth to her portrayal of Claire, suddenly thrown into a situation that goes beyond just adjusting her lifestyle to assume custody of a young niece. Ultimately, this is a story of two people whose bond evolves from being strangers to one fortified by love and a determination to conquer evil.

“The Sandman” airs initially at 9 p.m. Saturday on Syfy, with rebroadcasts at 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15; 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 23; midnight Tuesday, Oct. 24 and 8:30 a.m. Monday, Oct. 30.

Amanda Wyss is grateful and feels blessed as she stays busy

Amanda Wyss was in her early 20s and had worked mostly in television productions when she landed the role of Tiny Gray in Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Her brutal and bloody death at the hands (claws) of Freddy Krueger has become an iconic moment in the history of horror movies, and Wyss has gone on to a busy career in both television and movies.

Although her role as Dr. Amanda Elliott in “The Sandman” entails only one scene, it is a pivotal one and Wyss was pleased to get the part. She admitted that portraying Dr. Elliott did present a challenge.

“It was a tricky role,” she said of the part and its brevity of screen time. “I did not want it to just be a cameo.”

Wyss said she enjoyed researching for the role, adding that a friend who is a hypnotherapist took her through a session. Indeed, Wyss conveys a doctor who knows what needs to be done. She has to be forceful with Madison when the girl is under hypnosis. With directives that prelude with “this is important,” Wyss’ Dr. Elliott is compassionate but adamant that the girl do what she is told.

The fact that Stan Lee, the Marvel comics stalwart, served as a producer for “The Sandman” was a big plus for Wyss. In addition, she was eager to work with writer-producer-director Peter Sullivan. Noting that Sullivan’s filmography includes several Christmas-oriented TV movies, Wyss confessed, “My guilty pleasure is Hallmark Christmas movies. I love them. I LOVE them. It is my dork element. It was like Christmas working with Peter.”

The actress, who recently turned in a bravura performance as a middle-aged woman living an isolated and repressed life with a verbally abusive father in “The ID,” also recently made a cameo appearance with David Naughton in “The Hatred” about four college women who spend a getaway weekend in a house that has a malevolent past and thus is a hotbed of paranormal activity.

Wyss says that horror movies are “intrinsically sad,” which she believes is a key element in why so many of them develop loyal followings. She says that another vital aspect of scary movies — an underlying theme of the strength of family — can trigger an emotional tie between the movies and their viewers. Ultimately, she adds, “The Sandman” should connect with viewers because it is about family as Claire and Madison grow to love each other amid the dire situations.

She praised the work of Duff and Smolik and how they formulated performances that made their relationship so believable.

” ‘The Sandman’ is about family,” Wyss said, “and it delivers a one-two punch in the gut.”

Wyss says she is grateful for all the fans who embraced her as the doomed Tina and have “come along with me, rooting for me all these years.”

Those fans will remain content, as Wyss is in the midst of a busy schedule. She has roles in these films that have wrapped up shooting: “Assassin’s Fury,” “The Watcher of Park Avenue” (a short), “Drifting” (another short), “Catch A Falling Star,” “Big Legend” and “The Capture.”

“Big Legend” is about Big Foot, and Wyss, who plays a skeptic in the movie, in real life is a fan of the Big Foot mysteries.

Currently, Wyss is filming two movies. In “The Orchard” she plays Bernice Delaney, who is married to Thomas Delaney, played by Jay Mohr. Also in the cast are Tom Sizemore and Henry Rollins. Wyss says when you watch “The Orchard,” you “will lose your mind.”

Also in filming now is “Triggered,” which Wyss describes as a horror comedy. Later she will be on set for “Contention,” a horror western in which she plays a madame in a brothel.

In a career that has been going since the early 1980s, Wyss remains enthusiastic. This is evident too in her willingness to make appearances at conventions like Texas Frightmare Weekend and Southern California’s semi-annual Monsterpalooza, as well as doing signings as part of promotions for movies.

“I am so lucky,” Wyss concludes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Dwelling’ eschews jump-scares for a quiet creepiness

In the realm of hauntings, mirrors are bad news — and it’s especially daunting if a mirror that has been left behind in a haunted house has been painted over in black, as if to impede whatever uses it as a portal.

Such a mirror might provoke major anxiety and eventual fleeing of the house, but for Ellie in “Dwelling” — now available on DVD — this is something to confront and investigate. Ellie (Erin Marie Hogan, “House of Manson”) is a young woman determined to find out what transpired on a tragic night 17 years earlier in which her mother died. Having dealt with the horrifying and puzzling memories of that night nearly two decades earlier that not only claimed the life of her mother but also led her younger sister, River (Devanny Pinn, “House of Manson,” “Casey Anthony: An American Murder Mystery”), to become institutionalized, Ellie is ready to do what it takes to find a way to communicate with her mother and learn the truth about that tragic night.

Having assumed the custody of River’s adolescent daughter Izzy (Abigail Mary), Ellie, along with her supportive fiance, Gavin (Mu-Shaka Benson), decides to go right into the teeth of the storm, buying a haunted house called Amara and moving in there with Gavin and Izzy.

Izzy herself seems to have inherited her mother’s “gift” of hearing voices and communicating with the beyond, thus is a vital tool in Ellie’s quest.

It’s inside the house they discover the painted-over mirror, and before long Ellie is peeling away the paint, not sure what will happen but suspecting this mirror might be a key in breaking through to the other side.

Written and directed by Kyle Mecca, “Dwelling” is not a jump-scares paranormal movie. Instead, it is a foreboding mystery that requires the utmost attention of the viewer. Indeed, those watching “Dwelling” may need to see it a second or third time to catch all the hints. Mecca’s script is meticulous in presenting the various clues as to what is going on.

Hogan wonderfully conveys Ellie as a woman who will not be denied in her effort to learn what triggered a horrible night that had such a devastating impact on her and River. At times her obstinacy seems foolhardy, especially when she appears willing to put Izzy and Gavin at risk. But at the core of her determination is the drive to find closure and a way to liberate River from the inner demons that keep her locked away instead of being a mother to Izzy.

Benson is superb as Gavin, a man who adores Ellie and is a terrific and patient uncle to Izzy, but whose resolve to remain supportive of Ellie dissolves amid his own research that uncovers the possibility of something horribly sinister lurking in the house, in addition to his own nerve-wracking experiences as the unseen forces start to take hold.

Mary exudes a child’s innocence that is an effective shield in helping her maintain composure. Yes, the new doll she gets for her birthday and ominously names Amara communicates with her and seems to have control over what Izzy can and cannot say about what’s going on, but to the girl, that just part of having friends, even if they are not living things.

Pinn does not have much screen time, but makes an impact is the tragically cursed River, stalked by voices while she sketches creepy drawings from visions in her head. Her desperation to be free of all this leads to a shocking act.

“Dwelling” is not a movie for those who seek the thrills and chills and shrieks of a roller-coaster scary movie. It is instead a quiet and challenging experience, peeling away the layers as we stand side by side with Ellie, who despite some of the daunting occurrences she encounters, manages to contain any panic and analyze the situations in a rational manner. Yes, she is stubborn, but her resolve to find a path to a better life for her, Gavin, Izzy and River is an attribute worth admiring.

Soderbergh heads south for latest caper in ‘Logan Lucky’

Director Steven Soderbergh’s remake “Ocean’s Eleven” in 2001 was a lively crime caper with a stellar cast led by George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. After two sequels, Soderbergh took a break from such epics, and even “retired” after directing “Behind the Candelabra” in 2013.

Well, his idleness did not last long, as here he is, back with another elaborate detailing of a clever heist, this time with a Southern flavor in “Logan Lucky.” In fact, Soderbergh raised money on his own to finance “Logan Lucky” so he would not have to deal with studios, and gathered a cast willing to work for a scale against with-profit considerations.

The director was working with a script credited to Rebecca Blunt, an unknown writer of whom the name apparently is a pseudonym, believed to be residing in the United Kingdom. Well, whatever, the screenplay is masterful and whoever Rebecca Blunt is, this writer captured the nuances of Southern culture and put together a clever heist in the process.

Channing Tatum, who worked with Soderbergh in “Magic Mike,” is the central character in “Logan Lucky,” playing Jimmy Logan, a West Virginia coal miner. Jimmy, along with his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) believe they  are cursed. Jimmy was a promising football star until he blew out his knee. Clyde, a bartender at a place called Duck Tape, lost his left hand while serving a tour in Iraq — the kicker being that the explosion that cost him his hand took place while en route to the airbase to fly home.

The next hit on the Logan men is that Jimmy is let go from his job because his bad knee is seen as a pre-existing condition and a potential liability in the mines. Oh, and by the way, Jimmy is divorced and his wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) is remarried and has full custody of their daughter, Sadie (a remarkable Farrah Mackenzie).

The Logans’ sister Mellie (Riley Keough) does not share her brothers’ belief they are cursed and seems to do quite well for herself as a hairdresser who provides the proper substitute mother duties whenever Sadie is visiting her father.

Before losing his job, Jimmy’s company was working on fixing some sinkholes under the Charlotte Motor Speedway, a main venue for NASCAR. While laboring underground, Jimmy saw the system used by the track’s extensive concessions operations to dispatch cash to the facility’s vault.

This prompts Jimmy to come up with a plan to tap into that money-moving system and make a big score.

Clyde is at first reluctant to join in but eventually comes aboard. Mellie also is willing.

They need help, however, and know a safe-cracker/explosives expert. Trouble is, the guy — appropriately named Joe Bang — is in prison. But the Logan brothers believe they have a way to spring him temporarily from the pen, do the job and get him back in prison before anyone notices he is missing.

The casting of Joe Bang was an interesting twist. He is played by Daniel Craig. Yep, James Bond himself. But sporting a burr haircut (his hair is so blonde as to seem gray — and decorated with tattoos, Craig’s Joe Bang (you just HAVE to say his full name every time you mention it) is a masterful performance — you almost forget Craig is British.

Joe Bang insists that they enlist the services of his two brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), the latter who is supposedly a computer wiz although he would look seriously out of place in any high-tech facility.

With Mellie serving as a driver, this unlikely group of thieves is set.

Much like his “Oceans” movies, Soderbergh shows all the moves made in pulling off this heist, even the setbacks, then revisits key moments via flashbacks to show how the twists in the plan came to be.

Once the robbery is complete, Jimmy fakes out some of the team, a necessary move to make sure the heat, in the form of Special Agent Sarah Grayson (Hilary Swank), does not unravel the intricate theft.

“Logan Lucky” is a clever movie with a lot of heart. Tatum and Mackenzie share a lot of chemistry as Jimmy and daughter Sadie. An opening scene in which Sadie assists her father as he repairs a vehicle sets the tone.

Katherine Waterston has a few standout minutes as Sylvia Harrison, a doctor who has a small clinic on wheels and was a high school classmate of Jimmy’s. Their encounter has Jimmy mulling the possibilities of romance.

There are touches of humor throughout and the performances are all spot on. Tatum and Driver do not remotely resemble each other but their interaction has the viewer believe they are brothers, two guys who grew up together and know each other well.

Craig is a gem as Joe Bang, serving up some of the funniest and most memorable scenes in the movie, while Keough adds some depth as the sister who may look like she just stepped out of a “Dukes of Hazzard” episode but has a pretty stable grip on life.

“Logan Lucky” is from top to bottom a fun movie, one that can be enjoyed again and again. One of those movies that when you see it a second or third time you may catch something you didn’t see during the first viewing.

Guilty pleasure time

Speaking of movies with a Southern setting, Netflix is offering a little movie that sat on the shelf for a few years but really is a buried treasure. My friend and colleague Michelle Mills referred this movie to me. It is titled “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil.”

Yes, it is a horror movie and has its moments of gore. But it parodies all those teens-in-the-wilderness slasher movies as well as giving nods to “Deliverance.”

Co-written with Morgan Jurgenson and directed by Eli Craig, “Tucker and Dale” centers around two hillbilly buddies who could easily be Southern outback versions of Laurel and Hardy. Tucker (Alan Tudyk) could be the Oliver Hardy character, pretty much the one in charge of this duo but a person who clearly is a screw-up himself. He is not rotund like Hardy but he is quick to try and blame his buddy for their predicaments even if those charges are not merited.

Meanwhile, Dale (Tyler Labine) is the Stan Laurel character, a sweet guy basically but hindered by insecurity and self-esteem problems. While he absorbs a lot of criticism from Tucker he also gets a lot of support from his friend, who deep down sees Dale as a man very capable to living a fulfilling life if only he could gain confidence.

Tucker and Dale have purchased a “summer home” in the woods that is the epitome of a fixer-upper. You just know the minute they step into this dilapidated structure they will be in over their heads.

Meanwhile, a van full of teenagers arrives and these young people are planning on camping nearby. The leader of this group is Chad (Jess Moss), one of those creepy guys who takes delight in telling his fellow campers a chilling story of a mass murder years earlier of young people who came to this camping spot.

Tucker and Dale take a break from their renovating to go fishing and encounter one of the girls in the group, Alison (Katrina Bowden), who panics when she sees them and nearly drowns. The good old boys rescue her and take her to their pathetic cabin so she can recover. Naturally, the other teens, with Chad leading the charge, assume that Tucker and Dale are the stereotypical crazed backwoods psychos who kidnapped Alison and may do God knows what to her, and everything they do from then on is seen as crazed and murderous.

Some hilariously gruesome mishaps occur, and people with a sick sense of humor, like me, can find this thoroughly and gut-bustingly funny.

“Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” is yet another small film that deserves more attention than it initially received. Of course, being of the horror/comedy genre, it will not be pleasant for those who find wood-chipper scenes unsettling.

 

 

 

 

The prequel “Annabelle: Creation” upstages original story of evil doll

In 2016, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” caused a bit of a stir because it was a much better movie than the original “Ouija.” History has repeated itself, with “Annabelle: Creation” being a much scarier and complete film than “Annabelle.”

The original “Annabelle” may have been victimized by high expectations, as it was an offshoot of the successful “Conjuring” series, and a story of an evil doll to boot. Although it was a decent movie, most horror aficionados shrugged it off.

Well, boys and girls, “Annabelle: Creation” is fused with much more creepy energy.

And interestingly, Lulu Wilson, who played the key role of the possessed little girl in “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” is also in “Annabelle: Creation.”

As the title implies, “Creation” goes back to the beginning, when, in the 1940s, doll-maker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) finishes the first of what he plans on being a limited (100 made) edition of a doll that eventually becomes Annabelle. Samuel, his wife Esther (Miranda Otto) and daughter Bee (Samara Lee) live happily in a remote house.

But then a tragic accident costs the life of little Bee.

Twelve years later, the Mullins offer their home as a residence for six young girls after the orphanage where they were living is shuttered. Over the years, the Mullins home has become aged and creaky, the perfect environment for scary things to happen.

By now Samuel is stoic and a bit creepy himself, seemingly just a shell of the man he used to be. Meanwhile, Esther is confined to a bed in a room off-limits to the girls.

The six girls, accompanied by Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman) settle in, with the two older teens, Carol (Grace Fulton) and Nancy (Phillippa Coulthard) and two pre-teen tag-alongs, Kate (Tayler Buck) and Tierney (Lou Lou Safran) hanging out together. Meanwhile, Linda (Lulu Wilson) and Janice (Tablitha Bateman) are sort of outcast and thus bond together, hoping that if they ever are adopted they will be so together and can continue to live as if sisters. Janice cannot keep up with the others anyway because polio has rendered her left leg useless.

Nevertheless it is Janice, mostly confined indoors, who senses something ominous is connected to the house, and despite a decree from Samuel to stay out of the locked room that had been Bee’s bedroom, finds her way into that forbidden space. Inside there is a terrific dollhouse but also a closet that naturally draws Janice’s curiosity. She finds a key and opens it, and well, you can guess what she finds in there.

Gary Dauberman, who wrote the original “Annabelle” screenplay, is back with this script, and has more to work with in providing the story of what happened that led to a seemingly innocent and harmless doll becoming a conduit to something so evil.

The director, David F. Sandberg, was responsible for both the “Lights Out” short film and feature-length version of that horror story, and again proves adept at turning the supposedly secure environment of a home into a battle ground between mortals and a formidable entity that can be devastating.

Unlike her role as the possessed Doris Zander in “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” Wilson is not the target of the soul-invading spirit. Instead she is the one who realizes something awful is happening to her friend Janice and naturally her warnings are waved off until all hell breaks loose.

So, “Annabelle” focuses primarily on Janice and Linda, and the two young actresses are remarkable — Janice a heart-tuggingly sweet girl bravely dealing with a handicap that she suspects will prevent her from  finding a forever home.

Wilson, meanwhile, continues to shine, this time as a child tugged by the desire to be part of the group of girls but is steadfastly loyal to Janice. Fans of horror my recall Wilson’s memorable scene in “Ouija” in which she offers to her sister’s boyfriend the brief dissertation of “what it feels like to be strangled to death.” Mike Flanagan, director of “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” made an appearance at Monsterpalooza earlier this year in Burbank, and during the Q&A segment of his panel I asked him about that scene, and he said Wilson nailed the scene in one take.

“Annabelle: Creation” presents a good half-hour of relentless jump-scares in the fast-moving climax that are not the fake-scare cheap shots a lot of horror films use. Then, Dauberman’s scripts nicely ties it in to subsequent events of “Annabelle.”

“Annabelle” Creation” is a nice recovery from the original, and with a $30 million opening weekend at the box office, it may well inspire more stories about this never-blinking doll whose smile induces chills.

 

 

 

 

Theron is up to the task during final days of Cold War in ‘Atomic Blonde’

Charlize Theron — Action Star — has a nice ring to it.

She’s shown to be capable of the challenges. When “Mad Max: Fury Road” is mentioned, Theron’s tough Furiosa comes to mind before Tom Hardy’s Max. Earlier this year, her Cipher proved to be a worthy adversary for Dom Toretto and his group in the latest “Fast and Furious” adventure. Granted, she did get crushed to death in “Prometheus,” but that is just a blip on Theron’s most recent kick-ass filmography.

Now, as British MI6 undercover agent Lorraine Broughton in “Atomic Blonde,” Theron has made a case that this secret agent / espionage gig is not just for guys like James Bond, et al.

“Atomic Blonde” is a blast from start to finish with plenty of action and intrigue along with a sensational soundtrack that resurrects some great sounds of the 1980s.

The music is appropriate, as “Atomic Blonde,” based upon the Oni Press graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, takes place in 1989 during the tumultuous days in Germany when the Berlin Wall finally is torn down.

When an MI6 agent is murdered in Berlin, Broughton is sent to Germany to investigate as well as recover a vital list that contains names of double agents, a valuable commodity that the West obviously does not want to fall into enemy hands.

When Broughton is first seen, it appears she had a tough day on the job. Sporting a black right eye and with bruises all over her body, she looks like she should be on the disabled list and due for a long rehab. Instead she dresses and shows up at the office to attend a debriefing conducted by her superior, Eric Gray (Toby Jones) while Chief C (James Faulkner) and a CIA honcho, Emmitt Kurzfeld (John Goodman), listen in.

This is in the immediate aftermath of her mission to Berlin, and it appears it did not go well.

“Atomic Blonde” unfolds via flashbacks as Broughton recalls to Gray and the others what happened in Berlin.

Like every spy or espionage caper, there are twists and turns all over the place, laced with distrust and betrayal. Broughton had been advised beforehand to not trust anyone yet is told she has to hook up with an agent named David Percival (James McAvoy), someone she has never worked with before. McAvoy seems to have carried over one or two of his many personalities from “Split” as he has his hands in a lot of questionable stuff.

Meanwhile, Broughton is being followed by Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a surveillance that isn’t too discreet, as Lorraine is quite aware she is being shadowed. Eventually they hook up but Broughton stays on mission and remains wary of Delphine.

Almost from the moment she sets foot on the ground in Berlin, Broughton is chased, shot at and having to engage in some brutal hand-to-hand combat with members of the KGB.

A shout-out is worthy here to the entire stunt staff. John Valera, fight coordinator; Greg Rementer, fight choreography team leader; Lilla Nemeth, stunt department coordinator; Florian Hotz, stunt coordinator in Germany; Sam Hargrave, stunt coordinator; and Monique Ganderton, assistant stunt coordinator and stunt double for Theron, were responsible for leading an able crew in putting on film some of the best fight scenes witnessed in a while. While Ganderton no doubt did some of the more punishing stunts in place of Theron, there are moments when Theron clearly took some hard knocks for the team.

Director David Leitch, who is scheduled to direct “Deadpool 2,” is a veteran stuntman himself and proved he is capable of tackling the challenges of the next “Deadpool” adventure.

The screenplay by Kurt Johnstad (“300: Rise of an Empire” and “Act of Valor”) is well-crafted in providing just enough information to set up suspense and questions without revealing too much too fast. The result is a smart and fast-paced action thriller with Theron a solid foundation. As beat up as she is, she is poised to emerge from this chaos still on her feet, leaving a trail of vanquished.

This war becomes personal for Caesar in latest “Planet of the Apes”

Dark, touching, brutal with touches of humor and loads of simian compassion, “War for the Planet of the Apes” takes intelligent ape Caesar and his clan to their inevitable fate with tumult, sadness and triumph.

The second film of the latest “Planet” reboot series to be directed by Matt Reeves, “War” has plenty of action amid the quieter moments when Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his nemesis, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), deal with the intricacies of conflict while battling their own inner demons.

When “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” ended, Caesar had been warned by his human friend Malcolm (Jason Clarke) that soldiers were coming down from the north, summoned when Koba undermines Caesar and ignites a war with humans.

The apes find refuge in the woods but all too soon a unit of soldiers attacks the apes but is easily defeated. Caesar spares the lives of the captured soldiers so they can go back to The Colonel and  convey the ape’s proposal of peace: Just leave us alone in the forest and all will be fine.

The Colonel responds by appearing himself in the apes’ habitat and conducting a fatal assault that now makes this personal for Caesar.

While Caesar concedes the apes must flee the woods for a safer place, he opts to go out on his own vendetta mission. Naturally, two of his most loyal, Maurice (Karin Konoval) and Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) tag along.

It takes awhile before The Colonel gets some decent screen time. He is definitely a nod to Marlon Brando’s  Col. Kurtz  from “Apocalypse Now.” Except that when the layers are peeled away, Harrelson’s Colonel may be a rogue, but not quite the looney Kurtz turned out to be. His motivations certainly are understandable given the perilous issues he faces. He accuses Caesar of being too emotional, and indeed, despite his own personal tragedies, The Colonel can boast that he is focused not on a mission of revenge but of survival.

Aside from trying to keep his clan and family from being annihilated, while also dealing with traitors, Caesar also struggles within himself, realizing he is close to becoming as crazed with animosity toward humans as Koba had been.

Along the way, before the inevitable bloodshed, two new characters are introduced. One is a mute girl the apes name Nova — an obvious tie-in with the Nova character in the original “Planet of the Apes” movies — befriended by Maurice. The other is a comically memorable zoo ape who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn). Bad Ape has managed to survive on his own but soon embraces the possibility of new friends with Caesar, Maurice and Luca, even though he thinks these apes might be just a little too eager to fight humans to suit his tastes. Eventually, though, Bad Ape, for all his bumbling around and near cowardice, proves to be a valuable ally.

As always, there is an ominous tone throughout “War,” especially sensed by animal lovers who abhor violence against creatures that are not motivated by anything other than surviving. They are innocent of greed and hate and do not deserve to suffer or die.

Ultimately, the war Caesar must win is the one within himself — to find an inner peace that will always be hard to maintain in the world in which he and his fellow simians exist.

“Wish Upon” a mildly scary cautionary tale

Well, this has been explored before: the down side of a person getting what he or she wishes for. The result may not always be gratifying, or worse, it may extract a hefty price.

“Wish Upon,” directed by John R. Leonetti (“Annabelle,” “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation”) and written by Barbara Marshall, is a nice little film that probably would better be suited for a horror anthology on television. It’s not very scary but it does make a person feel leery about anything that might open an avenue to dreams simply by saying, “I wish.”

Joey King is Claire Shannon, a teen girl who a decade earlier witnessed the suicide by hanging of her mother. Now she lives in a dilapidated house with her father, Jonathan (Ryan Phillippe — where has HE been lately?), who  barely makes a living scrounging around in trash dumpsters. Claire is a talented artist like her mother had been, but definitely among the lower echelon in popularity in high school. She pretty much hangs around her BFFs Meredith (Sydney Park) and June (Shannon Purser), while on the periphery is Ryan (Ki Hong Lee), who seems to have a crush on Claire.

One day Jonathan brings home from his trash hunts a wooden box with Chinese etchings on it. Since Claire is studying Chinese in school, Jonathan figures the box might be of interest to his daughter.

Claire can only decipher some of the etchings, but learns the box is capable of granting seven wishes. Naturally, after a nasty encounter with the typical popular girl/bully Darcie (Josephine Langford) in the school lunch room, Claire wishes that Darcie “would just rot.”

When news gets around the school that Darcie has been afflicted with a skin ailment and might lose a couple of her toes, Claire initially dismisses it as a coincidence. But, by the way, Claire’s faithful old dog suddenly dies.

After awhile, Claire begins to realize that the box indeed seems capable of granting her wishes. And she gives the box some wishes to grant.

Ominously, once a wish is made, the box lid opens for a few minutes and somebody subsequently dies. The deaths take on a “Final Destination” flavor as scenes show the doomed person just engaging in normal life tasks that on this particular day will have fatal consequences.

Meanwhile, Claire enlists the help of Ryan, whose cousin Gina (Alice Lee) might be able to translate the rest of the etchings on the box. When Gina refers to a language expert, this person comes back with some troubling details about the sinister background of the box.

Claire is enjoying some of the fruits of her yearnings even though she is also mourning the loss of some people. She also learns that if you wish for someone to fall in love with you, the byproduct of that might be that person becoming dangerously obsessive.

The fine print on the box includes a couple of rules. If you get rid of the box, all your wishes are rescinded. And if you make that seventh wish, the final price can be horrifying. Claire thinks she has the solution to beat the box. She should know better.

King at the core of “Wish Upon” presents Claire as a likable person, grappling with the usual issues of teen life while also fending off the emotional residue of seeing her mother kill herself.  Once she gets a taste of the good life, she finds it intoxicating, which is the real, and scary, trap.

Be sure to stick around after the credits roll. There is a little addendum that proves how entrapping a box with this kind of power can be.

 

 

 

Wanna see sharks up close? ’47 Meters Down’ is more than enough depth

Let’s see. In 2016, “The Shallows” was a movie about a young woman surfer (Blake Lively) who hits the waves at a secluded Mexico beach and soon finds herself marooned on a rock offshore, along  with an injured seagull, while a hungry Great White shark circles, waiting for her to become its hot meal.

Now in 2017, “47 Meters Down” is about two sisters who find themselves trapped in a shark cage deep in the waters off Mexico while these menacing eating-machine fish zip around.

Do I detect a trend here?

It’s as if an addendum has been added to the Handbook of Horror, right there in Article One that states: Young people who have sex will be pursued and/or killed by some determined, indestructible and armed maniac. Now there’s a new reality: Go into the water off Mexico and a shark or two or three will assume you are on the menu.

“47 Meters Down,” which did an OK $11 million at the box office during its opening weekend, is a tale of survival that keeps the tension level at high amps. With most of the action taking place under water, it is quite an achievement.

Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) are two sisters vacationing in Mexico. Lisa is having boyfriend problems and decries her boring life, especially in comparison to Kate’s adventurous existence. Little sis Kate has a remedy: We’re in Mexico; let’s hit the night life. They meet Louis (Yani Gellman) and Benjamin (Santiago Segura) and party down with these two guys. The men then entice the women to try an activity not mentioned in the brochures. They know a guy who offers people a chance to get into a shark cage, submerge and have up close and personal (and supposedly safe) encounters with sharks.

Kate’s all for it, but Lisa has reservations. Kate is persuasive, and the next morning the ladies meet up with Louis and Benjamin at a dock. There they are greeted by Captain Taylor (Matthew Modine doing a toned down Quint, a la “Jaws”), and they are boated to a larger vessel several miles offshore on which the shark cage sits, awaiting its next plunge.

An already hyperventilating Lisa is even more apprehensive when she sees the dilapidated condition of the cage and the lifeline winch used to lower it into the sea. Despite this, she lies to Taylor, assuring him she has scuba experience, so that he signs off allowing the ladies to go into the cage.

Louis and Benjamin go down in the cage first and come up exuberant, their enthusiasm infectious. Lisa, still shaky, sets aside her anxieties and climbs into the cage with Kate and down they go.

The movie up to this point is pretty bland, but once Lisa and Kate are under water, “47 Meters Down” revs up. The expected malfunction occurs and soon the cage plummets to the bottom of the sea, 47 meters beneath the surface.

Once Lisa and Kate regain their wits, they begin to realize their dire predicament: first, the cage hatch has been wedged closed by winch debris; they have less than an hour of oxygen left in their tanks; the water at that depth is pretty murky; they are out of radio range of the boat; a rapid  ascent from that depth could lead to the “bends,” i.e. nitrogen bubbles getting into the brain (See: “Jaws 2”). And, oh yeah, at least two sharks are in the vicinity and are even more lethal in an environment of very limited visibility.

What follows is a roller-coaster ride of emotions: fear, hope, despair and downright panic. The clock is ticking, in the form of their oxygen level gauges, and in order to maintain communications with the boat, the ladies have to vacate the relative safety of the cage — once the hatch has been liberated from being blocked — and ascend to a depth within range of the radio.

Director and co-writer Johannes Roberts (who collaborated on the script with Ernest Riera), manages to maintain the tension with a lurking sentiment of “what else can go wrong.” Then, just when it looks like things have been resolved, there is a twist.

So, “47 Meters Down” delivers as a horror/thriller venture. An amusing aspect of this movie is that during the opening credits, there was a seemingly endless listing of executive producers. In all, 21 EPs were listed, with the head honchos being Bob and Harvey Weinstein, proven film chiefs. In addition there were several other just plain “producers.” With all these chefs hovering over the pot, it’s a wonder the movie got made at all.

‘It Comes at Night’ is not what you think it is

The poster for the movie “It Comes at Night” might be dark and foreboding, perhaps with a pair of sinister, glowering eyes of a murderous beast staring at you — an effective illustration for a monster/ghost-type of horror film.

But it doesn’t because it isn’t.

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults apparently attached this title to his film as a means of poking fun at the seemingly endless stream of jump-scare movies that, like it or not, have a solid base of fans, hence continue to be produced over the years with no end in sight.

Shults also challenges the audience to decide for itself what the “it” is in his movie, which by the way would be more accurately categorized as a psychological thriller.

The less said about the plot to “It Comes at Night,” the better it can be for the viewer. This is an example of a movie that is best digested by going in without having any idea what it is about, because this would intensify the mysteries involved and keep one guessing as to where it is going.

What can be said is this: “It Comes at Night” centers around six people —  Paul (Joel Edgerton, who also served as executive producer), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr), Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and toddler son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Also a dog, Stanley.

These people are in a situation wherein death lurks everywhere and the keys to survival include being prepared, being very careful and if necessary, very ruthless and unemotional.

Ah, but what about trust? That is the underlying and haunting fear that prevails in this movie. Every interaction between Paul and his family and Will and his family is magnified by each word, movement and even body language that can be tragically misinterpreted.

While Paul, firmly logical and focused on what is necessary to keep everyone safe, is solidly in charge, the emotional core here is Travis. At a time in his life when he could be immersed in social media, budding love and athletics, he instead is stuck in an existence bereft of friends and fun. Yet he is not a brooding teen. He is a good kid, respectful of his parents and devoted to the care of his dog Stanley. But the poor kid suffers some terrifying nightmares that make him an insomniac and particularly keen at sensing potential danger.

Shults’ script succeeds at keeping the viewer on edge. Even as things seem to settle into a mundane and safe routine, there is a sense of foreboding, a tenuous relationship that is threatened not only by outside circumstances that led these six individuals to their risk-laden existence, but also the constant reminder that other people of whom they are sharing space are essentially strangers and may be harboring a secret and possibly deadly agenda.

Running at a brisk 91 minutes, the movie, as directed by Shults in what is only his second full-length feature, maintains an aura of uneasiness. Whatever dangers these six people face from the outside, they are constantly stalked by the unnerving reality that even within a small fortress they have built, the fragile set-up they have established could go horribly wrong at the slightest provocation. Shults then leaves the ending up in the air, and the viewers must ponder what happens next.

Totaling a modest $6 million during its opening week in release, “It Comes at Night” is not likely to be booked in theaters for long. But this is a movie well worth checking out when it moves to other platforms.

Wyss presents a tragic existence in “The ID”

In the beginning of “The ID,” a movie available on Blu-ray, a voice-over states that if a person purely loves someone, they certainly also can destroy that person.

This segues into a scene in which a woman in her 40s stands before a mirror, humming as she applies lipstick. It is a view of contentment and optimism. Wherever this woman is going, she appears poised to light up the room.

And then, from another room comes the bellowing summons: “Meridith!” The expression on the woman’s melts turns to despair. The caller is Meridith’s elderly and sickly father for whom she is a fulltime caretaker. And he is quite the patient from Hell.

Welcome to Meridith Lane’s life. The sanctuary offered by the vanity table in her room is no match for the grim reality of what she faces every day.

In “The ID,” Amanda Wyss (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”) delivers a wrenching performance as Meridith in an emotionally harrowing story of a woman trapped by circumstances in which she is doing well by simply coping and fending off a demanding and foul-mouthed father who vents the frustrations of his own depressing existence by putting her down and keeping her on the defensive.

Directed by Thommy Hutson and based on a script by Sean  H. Stewart, “The ID” is a horror story in that it depicts a terrifying situation in which two people are trapped in a 24/7 nightmare in from which they both seemingly would love to escape, yet each day do whatever is necessary to maintain this dreary status quo because they believe there is no alternative.

The relationship between Meridith and her father is both dysfunctional and needy. These are two people whose lives have taken a tragically wrong turn. There is no room for optimism. It is a day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute existence. And the truly unsettling aspect is the realization that this dismal arrangement likely has been going on for years.

Confined to their home, Meridith and Father (Patrick Peduto) have no contact with the outside world except for Tricia (Jamye Meri Grant), a bubbly young woman who delivers food to the household. Tricia is a vibrant and caring person who would like to invest more in reaching out to Meridith and Father than just dropping off food every day. But her efforts are impeded by Meridith, who in her skewed perceptions sees Tricia as an intruder and someone who threatens the one thing Meridith can control: making sure that she and she alone takes care of her father.

How did Meridith fall into this depressing life? Well, Father likes to insert the needle here, accusing of her taking the easy way out in everything she ever did. He insinuates that it was disappointment over Meridith that drove away his wife, whereas Meridith in the few times she pushes back, suggests it was his behavior that drove away her mother.

This relationship simmers with the potential of an explosion that both people likely fear and do what they can to veer away from such a fate. It only takes one little nudge to upset this sad, fragile balance.

It comes in the form of a phone call Meridith receives from Ted, her high school sweetheart. After 20-plus years of no contact, Ted calls to say he will be town and would love to see Meridith again. At first, Meridith sees this as impossible, but the abuse heaped upon her by Father begins to embolden her. Naturally, when she agrees to see Ted and informs her father of this, a standoff occurs. They remind each other that neither one is capable of change at this point, so Ted could well be inconsequential.

However, Meridith indulges in recalling fond memories of a time in her life that was energized by youthful love and ambition. This leads to the breaking point that sends Meridith spiraling into the inevitable madness that has stalked her for years, maybe even decades.

Wyss and Peduto give courageous performances that are both emotionally and physically raw. Except for rare instances, Wyss looks haggard as Meridith, barren of makeup, a face of endless exhaustion. Peduto presents an unappealing picture of a man well past his prime. His hairline has receded and what is left there is long and unkempt. Despite being bathed by Meridith he exudes an aura of neglected hygiene. Physically he seems as foul as his language and demeanor.

“The ID” is scary because it explicitly depicts a frightening relationship that can and does exist in reality. Shot within the confines of the home in which Meridith and Father reside, it also is claustrophobic. In any other situation, the home would be pristine and a fertile environment for a content household. But with the residents being Meridith and her father, the walls seem impenetrable, fortified by the hopelessness of two people smothered by an endless love-hate relationship.

 

In ‘Prevenge,’ voices within can be deadly

A delightfully wicked dark comedy, “Prevenge,” now available on shudder.com, proves, among other things, that appearances can be deceiving.

Written and directed by Alice Lowe, she also stars as Ruth, a young woman late in a pregnancy who looks sweet and vulnerable, as functioning that near to child birth certainly is much more difficult.

But by the way, she kills people. This is not a spoiler. The title, “Prevenge” pretty much reveals that something dreadful is about to happen.

“Prevenge” is yet another movie that proves a low budget and tight shooting schedule can be overcome and a nice-looking, well-crafted film can be created. Shot in only 11 days, “Prevenge” also had an astoundingly short pre-production life. The concept behind the movie was thought up by Lowe shortly after she learned she was pregnant in real life. Within two months the script was ready for shooting, and despite being seven and a half months along in her  pregnancy, Lowe took on the lead role.

“Prevenge” begins sublimely with Ruth in a pet store, saying to the store’s owner she is seeking a reptilian pet for her son. The store owner seems borderline sleazy and good at injecting sexual innuendo, but the subsequent sudden and jarring violence seems a bit overkill of the victim. What is the motivation for this brutal murder?

Well, whatever is driving Ruth to her shocking actions is revealed as the film progresses. The father of her baby was killed in a climbing accident, and Ruth seeks out others in the climbing party, particularly the leader, Tom (Kayvan Novak), on who she pins most of the blame for the death.

But there is something else. Ruth is hearing the voice of her yet-unborn baby, who urges her to do the killing. Also, in some funny examination scenes, Ruth’s midwife (Jo Hartley) tells Ruth that the baby in her womb is conducting a “hostile takeover.”

“Just so you know, you have absolutely no control over your mind or your body any more,” the midwife informs Ruth, only adding to her psychosis.

Lowe’s performance is both chilling and comical, as she appears to be befuddled, clearly in over her head — at one point she tries surveillance on Tom that is so inept he easily knows she is tracking him. Yet there is a calculated manipulation to Ruth’s madness.

Not that everything comes off flawlessly. One of Ruth’s potential victims, Len (Gemma Whalen), manages to break away and disappear momentarily, only to reappear wearing boxing gloves. Ruth is like, are you serious?

“Prevenge” is the kind of weird movie that will have its loyal fans. Lowe’s study of Ruth is both intelligent and quirky. She is worthy of sympathy via her mourning and misfiring mind functions, yet she is offing people who are guilty of nothing more than being held accountable for a death that probably was an unfortunate incident of which nothing is to blame but bad luck.

LIFE

The opening scene of “Life,” under the direction of Daniel Espinosa (“Safe House”), is breathtaking, a single-tracking shot within the confines of a space station, as a crew of six people work to capture an incoming space craft that contains some soil samples from Mars.

After that, “Life” becomes “Alien-lite,” a rehash of that classic horror movie’s story of a hostile alien being with no conscience and only driven to survive bringing terror to a crew that cannot exactly abandon ship easily.

The cast is stellar: Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare and Olga Dihovichnaya. But when the most colorful character is the first to die, the film flatlines as far as human interest is concerned. Of course by then it is a matter of the humans trying to outsmart an increasingly resourceful and menacing being.

Viewing that opening scene on a big screen is almost worth the price of admission, but only if you go to the cheapest matinee.