A new twist on the home invasion terror propels ‘Don’t Breathe’

What if you were viewing a horror movie and you found your allegiances challenged, and suddenly you did not know who to root for to survive?

Well, welcome to “Don’t Breathe.”

Writer-director Fede Alvarez offers an initial premise in which three young people, dead-ended in a dying Detroit who go around breaking into houses and stealing things, plot to burglarize the home of a blind older man (Stephen Lang) who reputedly has a stash of cash numbering in six figures. Of course, the blind man turns out to be anything but an easy victim and it will be a delight to see the three criminals getting what they deserve.

Ah, but there is more to the story than this.

Granted, the leader of the young thieves, Money (Daniel Zovatto), is pretty much a creep, focusing his energy on obtaining things he did  not earn. But his cohorts offer a different picture. Rocky (Jane Levy from “Evil Dead,” which also was directed by Alvarez), Money’s girlfriend,  at first seems like the rebellious, ungrateful young person, desiring to get away from her home. But rather than being spoiled and entitled we see that Rocky is trapped in a family situation that is pretty bad – a mother who has become a drunken mess since her husband left, soaking up the booze with some sleazy-looking boyfriend. Also in the picture is an innocent kid sister, Diddy (Emma Bercovici), Rocky wants to rescue from this unhealthy domestic arrangement.

The third member of the group, pretty much the technical brains behind the burglaries, is Alex (Dylan Minnette), drawn into this trio of lawbreakers because he pines for Rocky’s affections, a goal he constantly is reminded by Money, that never will be achieved.

Upon casing the blind man’s house, it appears to be an easy score; the man is the only resident  in an otherwise abandoned neighborhood. The only obstacle, other than disabling the home security system, is a vicious, drooling watch dog the blind man owns.

Alex is at first reluctant to pull off the burglary, fearing such a heavy heist could trigger more intense police response, but Rocky’s enticement that this big score could finance their ticket out of this grim situation motivates him to change his mind.

While they are able to neutralize the dog without violence, the three soon discover the blind man is not nearly as helpless as they figured he would be. As things grow from bad to worse, to potentially deadly, there is a bit of a conflict of emotions. Sure, Rocky and Alex are willing participants in a crime plotted by Money, but they certainly do not deserve whatever punishment the blind man may deliver. Meanwhile, the blind man certainly merits sympathy – he was a war vet blinded while serving in Iraq; and the stash of money he has was the result of a settlement after a devastating family tragedy.

Then Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues present a bombshell of a revelation that changes the dynamics of who really is the evil one here. Yet it is a gray area morally and emotionally.

Alvarez keeps the tension and terror at full acceleration throughout. The title says it well — breathing is a good way to find yourself in the line of fire of a person, who robbed of  his ability to see, has sharpened his other senses, like hearing, and even smell.

The casting of Lang as the blind man was a stroke of genius. Bulked up despite his age, with a weathered face, he is an intimidating figure who will not hesitate to do whatever is necessary to defend himself and his home.  No matter who the viewer is favoring in this deadly cat-and-mouse pursuit, “Don’t Breathe” is guided by a smart script that leads to exhilaration as well as despair. Levy’s Rocky turns out to be a tough one, driven by a need to find the means of giving herself and Diddy a better life.

“Don’t Breathe” proves that horror can be multilayered, going beyond the violence and terror and tapping into the emotional dilemmas of deadly confrontations.

Statham is back as Bishop

For those in the mood for some basic escapist adventure, the Jason Statham-starrer “Mechanic: Resurrection” delivers on all counts.

Statham reprises his role as Arthur Bishop, first played by Charles Bronson the the 1972 original “The Mechanic,” a professional killer who wants to retire but gets drawn back into the world of deadly hits. The 2011 remake of the Bronson movie featured Statham in a plot similar to the original in which Bishop takes on an apprentice bent on avenging his father’s death, murdered by Bishop.

In “Mechanic: Resurrection,” as the title suggests, Bishop, thought to be dead, is alive and well, living incognito on a boat in Rio de Janeiro. But one morning, while enjoying a brew at his favorite local watering hole, Bishop is visited by a woman who knows who he really is and says she represents a client who wants him to sanction three people. Since the woman is backed up by some serious muscle, Bishop concludes she will not take no for an answer. So a couple of minutes of vintage Statham chaos ensues, leading to broken bodies and a death-defying escape by Bishop.

He then relocates to a little resort island off of Thailand, run by a friend, Mei (the always wonderful Michelle Yeoh), where he has a hut on the beach. Unfortunately, he is reluctantly drawn into helping a woman named Gina (Jessica Alba), who appears to be a victim of domestic abuse. Bishop dispatches the creep abuser but discovers that Gina has his picture in her mobile device. It turns out Gina is being used as bait to get Bishop to accept the contract to eliminate those three targets. The contractor, Crain (Sam Hazeldine) and Bishop have a past that has not gone well and Bishop sees this a some sort of revenge Crain is perpetrating.

Although Gina is alluring, Bishop at first is not falling for her. However, it is her plight that lures him back into his deadly profession. Gina is running an orphanage in Cambodia that Crain has threatened to destroy if she cannot get Bishop to accept the sanctions.

Of course, the kills will not be easy. The three targets are surrounded by heavy security both in manpower and formidable, technically complex fortifications. Bishop is under tight deadlines to carry out the killings, and they all must look like accidents.

From here, the script by Philip Selby and Tony Moser, based on a story by Selby, Rachel Long and Brian Pittman, offers a fascinating look at how Bishop cases the locations and plans his attack, using all kinds of gadgetry that would have had Bronson’s Bishop salivating.

Bishop is methodical and cold and he carries out the work while racking up an astounding body count. Pressed into having to work fast, it takes awhile before Bishop realizes the motivation behind Crain’s need to have these three men eliminated. This leads to an abrupt change in strategy in dealing with the final target, a weapons dealer named Max Adams (Tommy Lee Jones, collecting an easy paycheck and having a lot of fun in the process).

“Mechanic: Resurrection” is a high-energy romp as only a Statham movie can carry out. And in a nice turn, Alba’s Gina proves to be tough when she needs to be.

A smart cops and robbers spin in “Hell or High Water”

Jeff Bridges has fit comfortably into a niche of playing grizzled, often slovenly and somewhat flawed characters, well past their prime but with some wisdom still to offer.

He is at his best playing Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton in “Hell or High Water,” a well-written and extremely entertaining little film that deserves more than the limited release it has received.

Even better, Bridges is surrounded by an able cast, even down to the smallest of roles in this story about an aged lawman rolling quickly toward retirement but hoping to solve one final case of two robbers hitting various branches of a major bank in west Texas.

The robbers themselves are Toby Howard (Chris Pine in a nice departure from his Capt Kirk role in the “Star Trek” reboot), and his brother Tanner (Ben Foster) an ex-con and loose cannon. Toby, divorced and father of two sons, has just finished being caretaker for his gravely ill mother. Upon her death he has inherited a small ranch that is in danger of being foreclosed. To prevent this, he enlists Tanner in helping him commit robberies, taking only small, untraceable bills, in hopes of eventually amassing enough funds that they take to casinos and win nice pots — all this to save the ranch, which he wants to pass on to his sons.

In this collaboration, Toby only wants to take money, not hurt anyone, a decree Tanner cannot seem to abide by. Donning ski masks and in possession of a several stolen cars they can ditch after awhile, their robberies are slowly but surely netting more cash and vexing local law enforcement.

Enter Hamilton, who is wrapping up his Ranger career and is known for his keen intuition.

The superb script is the work of Taylor Sheridan, an actor whose credits include Deputy Chief David Hale in “Sons of Anarchy” and Danny Boyd in “Veronica Mars.” He also scripted the recent “Sicaro.” It is no surprise that Sheridan grew up in Texas. His screenplay appears to capture all the nuances of the life of Texas citizens. He also personally witnessed the heartbreak of people losing their properties and how lenders could exploit desperate people. These are themes he addresses in “Hell or High Water” that he insisted in an interview are social rather than political issues.

Hence, Toby garners sympathy as a man driven to crime to save the only thing that may help keep his fractured family from completely falling apart.

The modus operandi of the of the brothers earns the grudging respect of Hamilton, who can appreciate that at least the two bank robbers are not leaving a growing body count in their wake. But Hamilton is a sworn Ranger who cannot abide in allowing these men to continue to break the law, whatever their motivation.

Aside from the story line that is leading to an inevitable confrontation between the lawmen and the robbers, “Hell or High Water” is laced with gritty, realistic dialog and wit, although some of the humor is not politically correct.

Hamilton does not hold back in making cracks about the heritage of his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), mix of Native American and Mexican. Parker shows an immense patience with the continual taunting by Hamilton. But underneath it all, the sense is that Hamilton would take a bullet to save his partner’s life.

Parker does wonder if Hamilton has lost his touch in sniffing out what the robbers will do next, and of course Hamilton does not hold back in gloating when he is proven correct.

Sadly and inevitably, the situation evolves violently as the Rangers close in on the brothers. In the end, Bridges and Pine only share a few minutes of screen time together that initially seems disappointing. But Sheridan, along with director David Mackenzie, made the right call in keeping it low key and minimal. It almost seems like the passing of the baton. Bridges, whose career has spanned six decades and who himself played characters that broke the law (“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” which earned him the second of his six Academy Award nominations), steps aside with his dignity intact and allows Pine a shot at building a rich career.

“Hell or High Water,” despite some decent per-screen box office tallies, likely will not be in theaters long. But it is well worth checking out once it hits the rental market along with online platforms.



Indie horror filmmakers offer insights at Scare L.A.

Summertime, and it’s still a few months to Halloween. Do not be horrified, because there are plenty of activities during the torrid vacation segment of the year for Halloween and horror enthusiasts to immerse themselves into the total scary environs.

Recently there was Midsummer Scream held at the Long Beach Convention Center, and then in early August was the annual Scare L.A. festivities at the Pasadena Convention Center. These events offer fans of everything horror just about everything they need to satisfy their hunger for thrills and chills and blood and gore.

At Scare L.A. there are classes such as Haunt Pneumatics 101, or Tips and Tricks for Your Haunted Graveyard Props. Also on tap are numerous films screenings. And vendors galore offering masks, accessories, books, movies in various formats and much more. There also are mini haunts if you’re in the mood to get scared. A full schedule of panels also give visitors a chance to hear experts provide insights.

One such panel was titled Indie Horror: Want to Make a Scary Movie? Presented by We Are Indie Horror , which can be found on various social media platforms, the panel featured five directors who have earned their chops in putting together independent films, which means they did it without the financial muscle of major movie production companies.

Panel members included:

Gene Blalock of Seraph Films whose credits include episodes of television series “Horror Haiku” and “My Activist Wife.” He also is a producer and editor.

Mary C. Russell, whose short film “Carved” has been garnering praise as it makes its way around the film festival circuit.

Andrew Kasch, who has extensive credits as a film editor and who directed the “This Means War” segment of the “Tales of Halloween” anthology.

Jessica Cameron, an actress who also has helmed  award-winning horror films “Truth Or Dare” and “Mania” and who is working on “An Ending.”

Darren Lynn Bousman, known for directing “Saw II,” “Saw III” and “Saw IV” as well as “Mother’s Day” and the “The Night Billy Raised Hell” segment of “Tales of Halloween.” He also has dabbled in indie efforts with his “Repo! The Genetic Opera,” “Abattoir” and “The Devil’s Carnival.”

Brian Sapir, from We Are Indie Horror, served as moderator for the panel and opened by asking the five directors what was the one movie that made them want to work in the film industry.

Bousman’s response was “La Bamba,” which drew surprise, as the expectation was it would have been a horror film. After facetiously warning of a spoiler alert, Bousman said, “When the plane crashes (which killed singer Richie Valens, the subject of the movie), I felt really sad and really angry. I realized that movies could make me mad or upset.”

Blalock said his inspiration was “E.T.” “It rips your heart out at the end of the film, made you feel something.”

Russell replied that the grindhouse throwbacks “Death Proof” and “Planet Terror” made an impression on her. “A lot of people have hate against ‘Death Proof’,” she said. “But some of the dialogue, I was just blown away by it, along with certain scenes. I love the lap dance scene.”

Kasch’s selection was a bona fide horror classic: “Alien.” “It was the first film that really traumatized me,” he said. “When you have that really horrific experience, you want to break it down. I wanted to know basically who everyone was who made the movie. I wanted to study that movie, really deconstruct it.”

Cameron cited “Sometimes They Come Back,” based on a Stephen King short story.

As to what factors come into play that makes them want to become involved in a film project, Bousman said he is drawn to a film “that can ruin your career.”

“I think if anyone else can make a movie that I am making at the time, then I shouldn’t make it,” he said. “There’s got to be stakes to it. If it’s safe, I don’t care. I want to know this could be the last movie I ever make.”

Bousman referred to his movie “Repo!” “I knew that it was dangerous. I was putting Paris Hilton and Sarah Brightman in the same movie. That was exciting. So for me I am always looking for something that could possibly destroy me.”

For Cameron, “Mania” presented her with the challenge of making a low-budget road movie. “It’s like being in Hell for three weeks and you can’t leave,” she pointed out. “And then you realize you have created this hell, and it’s your own fault.”

“Mania” was a 22-day shoot on locations across America. “I did it because I was trying to figure a way to do these movies that were road-trip films made on the road, which is so financially difficult for an independent filmmaker.”

Staffing the crew and casting the film is a vital element for a director, and Sapir asked the panel what they look for when hiring people to help make the movie.

“Well, talent, of course,” Blalock said, “but I much prefer to go with personality. If you can get along and talk and have fun together, then that is much more important than when someone was comes on set with ego and attitude and thinks they know everything and just doesn’t want to listen to anything. (I want) people that really work well together.”

Cameron said, “What I have learned is to get people who are more talented than the pay you are giving them but are very happy with where they are in their career; people who are in it to win it regardless of budget.”

“My crew is kind of my family,” added Bousman. “I started with no crew and I’ve been lucky to pick up people, almost like a snowball rolling downhill. And every time I go into a project, everyone is on board. And I don’t understand why that happens to this day because I feel like I’m exploiting everybody. I think the key is making a really fun set and forming nice relationships with everybody.”

“I hire people who are better than me in every position,” Blalock said. “You’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with.”

“I like people who love working in horror films, and are inspired by my scripts,” Russell said. “Crews work better when they are a family. It shouldn’t feel like work. It should feel like you’re having the funnest time of your life.”

Blalock noted that indie film people are like family, helping each other out with their respective projects.

On being part of an anthology project, Kasch said, “Indie film sets are generally chaos and the more people you have the more ambitious you get with it . . . . . We’re able to divide and conquer. The faster you can answer questions and solve the problems, the smoother things will run, and that’s kind of the benefit of a partnership.”

Financing of course is the lifeblood of filmmaking and it can be a difficult task One key aspect is the pitch package. Russell offered what the pitch package requires: a synopsis, example photographs and the script. Also key are biographies of all the people on the crew, especially if it includes big talent.

Such money-raising platforms as Indie Go Go, Kickstarter and Go Fund Me can be good sources of finance.

Sapir noted that Cameron has been able to recoup the costs of her films and he asked her how she achieved this.

“I make a really ambitious business plan,” she replied. “I try to have a very realistic approach to everything I am going to do. This is the dollar figure on the table with the movie I will get, here’s what I’m going to reach for and here’s how you’re going to get your money back. And I try to do that as quickly as possible. But it all has to stem from actual, real dollars”

Bousman noted that despite past successes in directing, finding financial support does not get easier.

“I was lucky to come off a very successful franchise and I thought the floodgates were going to open, and I (now) spend 90 percent of my day drunk in the bathtub crying, trying to find money.”

“Most people are really lazy when it come to trying to recoup the money,” Bousman added.  He mentioned “Repo!”, which initially was a box office disaster — “abysmal,” he admitted.  So: “I got in a van and traveled across the United States numerous times, showing ‘Repo!’ . . . By the direct course of my own action, I was able to get people in theater. That mentality stayed with me with ‘The Devil’s Carnival.’ We went out and did street teams, used street tactics to recoup the money.” Bousman said he also employed performers to be clowns and other characters to help promote the movie. “You have to think outside the box.”

“Time management is important,” Blalock said regarding keeping costs in line. “Trusting people to keep you on deadlines. If they say you are messing up, you need to listen to them and take their advice.”

The directors agreed that having a good film editor can be one of the best assets when making a movie. Bousman, for one, said he does not edit his films himself.

“I get too close to the material,” he confessed. “(I am always saying) this is the best shot, this is the best shot. That’s why a cut of ‘Mother’s Day’ was was 7 1/2 hours — because I love everything. Then someone comes it and cuts it and makes it good. The editor comes in and streamlines my ideas

“For me, an editor is a critical asset because I don’t see past what I shoot,” Bousman said.

On marketing the film, Bousman made a simple, but profound observation: “No one is a better salesman of you than you. You have to kick in doors, not knock on them.” He admitted to being a nuisance to people but said that is the best way to get a chance to sell the product.

Blalock said an effective way he employs to market a movie is “bragging about the people I work with.”

Cameron said, “I look at the ends, and it justify the means. With ‘Truth or Dare,’ we played 50 festivals worldwide and won 34 awards, and let me tell you, that was just marketing.”

Dealing with the constant frustrations can wear a person down. Sapir asked how the directors manage to stay on track with their efforts when it gets tough.

“I have no fallback plan,” Bousman said. “So this is it. It is survivalist. I have a wife and son and iI have animals, and realizing that they’re looking up to me and counting on me, it drives me. It also inspires me. For me there’s no other options.”

“If there’s anything else you can picture yourself doing other than making movies, perhaps you should do that,” Blalock advised. “It’s a long, hard commitment.”

For Russell, her desire to press on is based on this: “I’m in love horror.”

“If people look at me and say, oh this guy just makes horror movies, we only want to give him money for horror movies, I’m in hog heaven,” Kasch said. “There’s nothing I’d rather do with my life than what I am doing. I just want to find that one wave and ride it hard enough until I’m dead.”

Cameron said its her fan base that continues to give her inspiration and support to continue. “I look to that when I’m having a horrible day.”

The directors were asked if they prefer practical special effects over CGI.

“You do as much as you can do practical and use digital to enhance,” Blalock said. “A lot depends on the budget. Either side gets super expensive.”

Bousman had the audience laughing when he recalled a movie he tried to make titled “Jersey Devil,” and how he wanted the monster to be practical special effects with no CGI enhancement. It turned out the creature could not move. So CGI would have been a better option.

“I think CGI is overutilized,” Cameron said. “I think it should be used to enhance practical or to do the things which you’re just not physically possible to do.” Then she added a pet peeve of hers: “I wish the CGI blood effect would STOP.”