“Dark Skies” takes another look at the vulnerability of home security

A nice middle-class family finds itself severely distracted from the usual joys and stresses and ups and downs of life when it is visited by some scary unseen forces.

Sound familiar? Writer-director Scott Stewart (“Legion”) provides his take on the spooky genre that taps into the fears of discovering your home is not always a safe haven. It is just too bad that his “Dark Skies” had nothing new to offer.

Lacy and Daniel Barrett (Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton) are putting up a brave front in their neighborhood. With Daniel having been laid off, Lacy’s income as a Realtor becomes more critical. Meanwhile, their oldest son, Jesse (Dakota Goyo), is on the cusp of rebellious teenage-hood and hanging out with the typical bad influence friend, Kevin Ratner (L.J. Benet). Youngest son Sam (Kadan Rockett) is more fragile and suffering nightmares that feature something he calls The Sandman.

Strange things start occurring in the Barrett house, and as the screenwriter, Stewart elected to go the derivative path with these unnerving events. Food from the refrigerator is strewn on the floor (“Close Encounters”). Furniture and other objects are stacked up like pop art (“Poltergeist”).

Per usual, the succeeding events grow more intense and perilous despite the security upgrades, a la “Paranormal Activity,” that are installed.

In these scenarios, the woman is the first to grasp the ramifications of the events, the first to speculate the engineers behind these incidents may not be mortal or even human, while the male goes into massive denial or elects to humor the woman. That is, until the man himself gets an up close and personal experience that changes his mind, or worse.

This leads to the obligatory visit to a fringe “expert,” one who remains dedicated to his or her studies of these abnormal incidents despite the ridicule. The Barretts visit Edwin Pollard (J.K. Simmons), and although Simmons can command a confident persona on screen, here he offers no gallant charge to use his vast knowledge and rid the Barretts of these terrible visitations. Instead, he pretty much tells them there is not much they can do.

At this point “Dark Skies” might as well end. We know things are going to unravel for the Barretts. So the final battle is set up and it also is a rehash of “Close Encounters” with a little “X-Files” thrown in.

If Stewart wanted to delve into the realm of home invasions by malevolent spirits, aliens or psychopaths, he should have come up with some new twists. He did not.

Credit Stewart with developing some very real characters in the Barretts. Russell and Hamilton do blend well together as a couple well accustomed to each other’s good and bad traits. They handle the roles without hysterics, trying to rationalize the events while realizing things may be much worse than they can imagine.

A sweet touch in “Dark Skies” is the relationship between the brothers Jesse and Sam. Jesse, at an age when he might distance himself from his younger brother instead continues to be a devoted to Sam. They communicate on walkie-talkies at night from their respective bedrooms, with Jesse entertaining his little brother with spooky stories that unfortunately get upstaged by real terror in their house.

“A Good Day to Die Hard” mixes family therapy with neutralization of bad guys

If there was a contest of one-upmanship between Martin Brody and John McClane, two rugged cops who honed their skills on the streets of New York City, McClane clearly would surge ahead. Brody can boost that his family overcame astounding odds of dealing with great white sharks on three separate occasions in the “Jaws” franchise.

McClane could then respond by ticking off his encounters, loudly depicted in the “Die Hard” series of movies: German terrorists (“Die Hard”), rogue military officials (“Die Hard 2”), a mad bomber (“Die Hard with a Vengeance”) and Internet-driven terrorists (“Live Free or Die Hard”). Now, thanks to “A Good Day to Die Hard,” McClane can add Russians planning a nuclear heist to his expanding resume of vicious adversaries.

Bruce Willis, who has been busy these days, showing up in theaters in the past year via “Moonlight Kingdom,” “The Cold Light of Day,” “Expendables 2” and “Looper,” and has “G.I. Joe: Retribution” and “Red 2” soon to roll out, assumes his John McClane persona for the fifth time, and the anticipation is for a lot of destruction. “A Good Day to Die Hard” does not disappoint in those expectations.

Looking back, the character of New York Det. John McClane was created by Roderick Thorpe from his novel “Nothing Lasts Forever,” which was adapted in 1988 for the screen in “Die Hard.” It grossed $88 million, which by today’s standards would be a $100 million-plus blockbuster, and although Willis had been in a few movies before that, he was mostly known for the hit TV series “Moonlighting,” and this role as McClane launched his movie career, which is not slowing down.

The screenplay baton for this latest “Die Hard” adventure was handed off to Skip Woods (“Swordfish,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”), and the director was John Moore (“Behind Enemy Lines” and the remakes of “Flight of the Phoenix” and “The Omen”).

The plot is serviceable for justifying the ensuing chaos: McClane’s estranged son, Jack (Jai Courtney, last seen mixing it up with Tom Cruise in “Jack Reacher”), is involved in some nasty business in Russia and imprisoned. Back in the U.S. dad John gets word his son is in trouble and travels to Russia to find out what’s going on.

After an amusing encounter with a singing taxicab driver, McClane barely gets out of the car when explosions rip the place up, followed by gunfire as a nearby courthouse is attacked. Meanwhile, Jack and a political prisoner, Komarov (Sebastian Koch), on trial at the time of the assault,  manage to escape. It turns out Jack is a CIA operative on a mission to extract Komarov, who has intel that could bring down a rising political official who has very dirty hands with ties to terrorism and eyes on securing some nuclear goodies.

In a vehicle chase that seems to last forever, with hundreds of cars being destroyed, the elder McClane impedes and also assists in Jack’s and Kamarov’s getaway. Things settle down briefly to fortify the drama of a father-son alienation subplot — the usual: bitter son never having gotten over his workaholic father’s neglect; the father now seeing his parental miscues and wanting to make amends. John is incredulous and even mocking in his discovery that his son is in the CIA.

Meanwhile the Russians have their own mini-dramas and twists and betrayals, and the McClanes could have just stepped aside and watched the plot zip along. But hey, Russians or not, these are bad people and national, and possibly worldwide security is at stake.

So the McClanes quibble in between gunfights and chases, John makes recurring cracks about getting shot at and kicked around when he’s supposedly on vacation, and the father-son team manages to dodge deadly situations while engaging in a little family therapy.

This all leads to the inevitable final-reel showdown that goes down in the ghostly town of Chernobyl (one almost wishes the mutant creatures of “Chernobyl Diaries” would appear and add spice to this showdown). Since the McClanes are overwhelmingly outgunned, including facing a helicopter loaded with rapid-fire artillery, it is a no-brainer they are going to somehow outwit their overconfident foes and emerge bloodied but triumphant.

“A Good Day to Die Hard” is a typical ludicrous but entertaining action movie. Willis is in his element here and seems to have fared much better in this outing than his action-adventure brethren Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in their recent efforts. Some critics have suggested Willis retire his McClane. Well, that might work. Courtney, who has honed his physical chops with a role in “Spartacus,” could take the McClanes to the next generation.

“Side Effects” goes beyond showing the unexpected consequences of a bad pill

A shout out here goes to the people who put together the trailer for “Side Effects,” because in this case the whole movie was not given away in five minutes or less.

The previews indicated “Side Effects,” which may be Steven Soderbergh’s last big-screen effort as a director, is an indictment against the pharmaceutical industry, a “Jaws” of the medication world wherein the unsuspecting public is inundated by promises of miracle results from pills only to learn those pain- and symptom-easing products may also trigger some nasty problems.

Be advised “Side Effects” does not take that route. Instead it is a mind-bending little exercise of twists and turns, executed so well it is unlikely anyone will predict what is coming.

The story centers around Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, who minus the piercings and tattoos of her Lisbeth Salander character in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” looks gentle and fragile), a young woman whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is about to be released from prison after serving five years for insider trading. The emotional and financial stresses have plummeted Emily into depression.

Shortly after Martin’s release, Emily attempts suicide. Although not seriously hurt, she is now under the scrutiny of the hospital’s on-call psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who talks Emily into having some therapy sessions with him. Emily already has been under treatment with Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and seems eager to conquer this debilitating depression.

As part of the treatment, and upon consultation with Dr. Siebert, Dr. Banks prescribes a new anti-depressant called Ablixa, which appears to be working for Emily — until a tragedy ensues possibly as the result of a side effect of the medication.

Soon Emily is in a mental institution and Dr. Banks’ professional and private life are reeling, including the possible crumbling of his marriage to Dierdre (Vinessa Shaw). Dr. Banks, in his effort to help Emily, begins to suspect something else is going on, and in his obsession to unravel the mystery he continues to immerse himself deeper into a morass that may destroy his life.

“Side Effects” was written by Scott Z. Burns, whose “Contagion” in 2011 was a terrifying look at a virus gone wild. In this movie, he collaborates with Soderbergh in taking the audience in one direction, then veering everyone’s expectations off course.

Mara is so effective as the vulnerable Emily that later in the movie it is hard to believe this is the same character. Law weaves a performance wherein a man in control of his life and work faces the terrifying prospect of losing it all, at first baffled as to how it all fell out of control, then later is forced to put it all on the line or face destruction.

Soderbergh has put together an impressive list of directorial credits, including “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” “Out of Sight,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Full Frontal,” “Oceans 11” and “Oceans 12.” This is his third collaboration with Burns, as they previously worked together on “Contagion” and “The Informant!”

Stallone joins recent macho parade with “Bullet to the Head”

Bang. Bang. Bang. In a January onslaught of bullets and brawn, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Statham and Sylvester Stallone have hit the theaters with good old fashioned shoot-’em-ups, doing what they do best — putting the hurt on their adversaries.

The audience response has been ho-hum, however. Arnold’s “The Last Stand” already is being phased out of the theaters after a paltry $10 million box-office take. Statham as the title character in “Parker” has fared a little better with a $12.4 million  haul in two weeks. But Stallone and “Bullet to the Head” found itself buried at 6th place in its debut weekend at $4.5 million, not drawing as well as Oscar contenders that have been out a while, “Silver Linings Playbook” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”

This does not bode well for another aging action star, Bruce Willis, who has a new “Die Hard” adventure coming out. This guilty pleasure franchise has had some staying power, but we’ll see.

Meanwhile, Stallone has collaborated with director Walter Hill on “Bullet.” Hill, back in the 1970-80s, was renowned for his testosterone-driven thrillers such as “The Warriors,” “The Long Riders” — with its unprecedented casting of real-life brothers the Carradines, the Quaids, the Keaches and the Guests — “Hard Times,” “Southern Comfort” and one of the great cop-buddy films that propelled Ed Murphy from Saturday Night Live to movie stardom, “48 Hrs.”

As with his appearance in “The Expendables” movies, Stallone is still looking fit for a person eligible for Social Security benefits. In “Bullet” he is like his action-star peer Statham in “Parker.” He is not a role model. His James Bonomo is a professional killer. OK, he had a tough life on the streets and in prison, and in a voice-over he justifies his chosen line of work by saying he is hired by bad guys to kill other bad guys. Those of us who abide by the rules should not worry.

“Bullet” begins with James saving a police detective, Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) from an execution. Since James hates cops and just saved the life of this one, the hook is set up. Why would he do this?

Flashback time. James and his partner Louis (Jon Seda) carry out a contract, ending the life of a corrupt ex-cop. A bit later, while unwinding in a bar, James and Louis are attacked by a huge hit man, Keegan (Jason Momoa, real-life husband of Lisa Bonet). Louis is killed and James roughed up but irked that Keegan has escaped.

These killings draw the attention of Det. Kwon, who gets injured in an entanglement after which James takes him to his daughter Lisa (Sarah Shahi), a tattoo artist and medical school dropout, for treatment. James and Kwon form an uneasy and testy alliance in an effort to track down who is pulling the strings that are leading to all these killings.

The screenplay by Allesandro Camon clues us in on who the bad guys are and their motives. What a surprise. The villains are rich and connected people (Chrstian Slater and Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje) who want to get richer and more connected and tough luck to anyone getting in their way, as they have the intimidating and focused Keegan under contract, and he clearly enjoys his work. All this leads to the inevitable one-on-one final confrontation between James and Keegan, featuring axes.

The James-Kwon interactions are the highlights of the movie in between the shooting and fighting, even though the best line seen in the trailers never made it to the final cut. Not surprisingly, each man stands firm on his own set of principles. Kwon does give a little bit but makes it clear he will not cut James much slack from here on.

“Bullet” is a paint-by-the-numbers action movie, and Hill shows some of his unique visual style although sadly he too has fallen into the habit of quick editing of the intense scenes, making them murky. Unfortunately, Stallone appears to have drifted off the plain in his ability to carry such movies on his massive shoulders. He should take a look at his work on “The Expendables” and appreciate the advantages of being a team player.


Other news:

VICE has announced VICE Shorts, a new series dedicated to featuring new directors and their short films on VICE’s YouTube channel. The series will debut with the premiere of Nash Edgerton’s twisted love story, “Bear,” previously featured in competition at Cannes and is a follow-up to the award-winning director’s popular film, Spider.

VICE operates the world’s premier original online video destination, vice.com, an international network of digital channels, a television production studio, a magazine, a record label, an in-house creative services agency and a book-publishing division.

Edgerton’s  “Bear” can be seen on the VICE YouTube Channel at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKeooK0zfeU

Fornaciari to be honored

Italian music icon Zucchero “Sugar” Fornaciari will be presented the “L.A. Italia Excellence Award” at the upcoming 2013 Los Angeles, Italia – Film, Fashion and Art Fest — http://www.losangelesitalia.com — which will take place Feb. 17-23 during the week preceding the Academy Awards. Previous recipients of this award have included Ennio Morricone, Andrea Bocelli and Vasco Rossi.

Fornaciari, a popular singer from the Emilia region of Italy and a 2007 Grammy-nominee in the Traditional R & B Vocal category, will be honored at two festival events – the first on Feb. 21, 7 p.m., at the Grammy Museum’s Clive Davis Theater with the award presentation and screening of Vincenzo Mollica’s Rai 1 news special. The second event takes place on Feb. 22 at the Chinese Theatre, with the screening of a live tour performance in Havana for Zucchero’s new album “La Sesion Cubana,” produced by Don Was, which put him at the top of the iTunes charts at the beginning of the year.

L.A. Italia also will honor Academy Award-winning Italian music composer Dario Marianelli, who is an Oscar contender this year for his original score for Anna Karenina.” Marianelli won his Oscar in 2008 for his original score for “Atonement,” and also was nominated in that category in 2006 for his Pride and Prejudice score.

Lee Marvin bio book signings, screenings

Dwayne Epstein, author of “Lee Marvin: Point Blank,” will be signing his book before film screenings of Lee Marvin, who won an Academy Award for “Cat Ballou.”

The first event will take place Feb. 8 at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave. in Santa Monica at 6:30 p.m.. followed by screenings of “Point Blank” and “The Killers” at 7:30 p.m. Info: http://www.americancinemathequecalendar.com/content/point-blank-the-killers

On Feb. 16, also at 6:30 p.m., Epstein will be signing books at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, followed by screenings of “Cat Ballou” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Info: http://www.americancinemathequecalendar.com/content/cat-ballou-the-man-who-shot-liberty-valance