“The Vatican Tapes,” or, “Haven’t We Done This Before?”

Yes, we know. When it comes to some of the sub-genres of horror movies — the slashers, the paranormal/supernatural, vampires, science gone awry — the stories are basically the same. The elements needed to make each film distinctive include motivations, characterizations, locales and any other plot twist that needs to be plausible.

The demonic possession / exorcism movie is at a disadvantage because it is weighted down by a simple structure. Some poor soul is invaded by a satanic force — and the motivation for this is obvious and not complex — and it needs to be purged.

Another problem is that 41 years ago, “The Exorcist” covered this with such brilliance and terror nothing that followed could even remotely approach this film’s standing as one of the scariest horror pictures of all time.

Filmmakers continue to delve into this subject, however.

Mark Neveldine, who directed the two Jason Statham “Crank” movies under the name Neveldine, has helmed “The Vatican Tapes,” a film whose title seems to imply this is the ultimate demonic possession exploration.

It isn’t.

Co-written by Chris Morgan and Christopher Borrelli, based on a story by Borrelli and Michael C. Martin, “The Vatican Tapes” is another pale “Exorcist” wannabe with some of “The Omen” mixed in.

Somewhere it must be written that in all demonic possession films, the victim must be a young girl or woman — this perhaps motivated by a notion that an innocent looking person can really be terrifying when under the influence of a malevolent entity.

In “The Vatican Tapes,” the target of the soul-consumption project is a woman named Angela Holmes (Olivia Taylor Dudley from “Chernobyl Diaries”). She is a patient at a Catholic mental hospital in the United States, and a video of one of her therapy sessions gains the concerned attention of Vicar Imani (Djimon Hounsou) in Vatican City. He shows the video to Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson), specifically focusing on one point on the stream in which there is the usual visual static and distortion that when freeze-framed shows some scary shadow image that looks pretty intimidating.

The movie flashes back five months to when Angela was a happy young woman, living with her boyfriend Pete (John Patrick Amedori) and dealing with her military father, Col. Roger Holmes (Dougray Scott, the villain Sean Ambrose in “Mission Impossible II), who naturally thinks Pete is not good enough for his daughter.

Angela’s 24th birthday party is marred when she badly slices her finger while cutting the cake. She reluctantly goes to a nearby Catholic  hospital with Pete and her father, where they have a brief encounter with the hospital chaplain, Father Lozano (Michael Peña). The wound is tended to and Angela is given some medication to take upon being sent home.

But she soon is drinking a lot of water, claiming a dry throat, and one day has a frightening encounter with a raven that bites her. Soon her behavior becomes erratic and leads to an accident that puts her into a coma. After several weeks in which Angela shows no brain activity, Roger agrees to take her off life support. She goes into full arrest but a moment later comes back to life.

However, now Angela is even more unpredictable, which leads to her being admitted to the mental hospital. By now Father Lozano has taken an interest in her case and begins to witness incidents that cannot be attributed to any mental disorder.

This brings us back where the movie opened, with Cardinal Bruun, sharing Vicar Imani’s concerns, deciding to go to the United States to perform the exorcism. By that time, Angela has caused so much commotion at the mental hospital that she is being released to the care of her father.

The effectiveness of “The Exorcist” was largely attributed to the young innocence of Regan, played by Linda Blair, and as she became horribly disfigured and growled and played mind games and spewed vile words and green vomit, it was horrifying to witness such a ghastly transition.

Weighing down “The Vatican Tapes” is the bland characterization of Angela. Little time is devoted to fleshing out Angela pre-possession, and as close as she is supposed to be to her father (she never knew her mother), that relationship is never believably realized.

Dudley as Angela does execute some creepy scenes well, using an ominous and menacing expression, and her whispered recitations, delivered in some unknown language that have a chaotic effect on others, do induce chills.

The exorcism scenes are superbly staged, with Cardinal Bruun’s confidence diminishing by the minute and Father Lozano realizing they are seriously outmatched.

“The Vatican Tapes” tries to be an overpowering possession movie, but there are no distinguishing moments. It all has been put on film before, with much more chilling punch.

The downfall of “Creep” is that it reveals too much

Recently added to the Netflix lineup, “Creep” is a two-man project, a small film that has dark humor along with cringe-inducing and unnerving moments.

Written by Mark Duplass (most recently seen in “The Lazarus Effect”) and Patrick Brice and directed by Brice, “Creep” also stars just these two men under a point-of-view format.

Brice plays Aaron, a videographer who answers an online ad for a one-day job at a cabin in Crestline, a mountain town northeast of Los Angeles.

Upon arriving, it seems like nobody is in the cabin, but then Josef (Duplass) suddenly appears. Once inside, Josef tells Aaron what his job will be. Josef says that he is married and his wife is expecting a baby boy in a few months. However, Josef says he has an inoperable and terminal brain tumor and likely will die either before or shortly after his son is born. So he wants Aaron to videotape him all day in an effort to present a record Josef can leave to his son to let the boy know who his father was.

It seems a simple enough, if sad, assignment, although Aaron stupidly expresses no curiosity as to why Josef’s wife is not around.

Soon things start to get a little uncomfortable. Immediately, Josef wants Aaron to videotape him while he takes a bath with an imaginary baby, playing a “rub-a-dub” game that Josef says his father did with him when he was young.

It gets worse. Josef is fond of disappearing and then leaping out to scare Aaron. Josef also has a wolf mask he has named Peach Fuzz. Josef’s behavior swings from being bizarre to genuinely reflective and sad. As the day progresses, Aaron becomes more leery of Josef, suspecting other motives — possibly even intimate overtones — that has the videographer eager to leave later in the evening. But his car keys have disappeared.

Some cat-and-mouse games ensue between the two men and eventually Aaron manages to get away. But soon he realizes that Josef is nowhere near being done with him.

A problem with “Creep” is that Aaron ends up being the typical easy prey, lacking any common sense, making him a ripe target for Josef’s manipulations.

On the plus side, Duplass is captivating as Josef, in a creepy way. His actions are unpredictable yet at times seem to be brilliantly calculated.

Unfortunately, “Creep” unravels in the final moments as it reveals too much. The Brice/Duplass team had a small gem here in keeping things murky. Had they followed that plan and maintained some element of mystery, “Creep” would have had a lasting effect of a psychological thriller wherein the lack of resolution leaves a residue of uneasiness.

More young people stumble into trouble in “The Gallows”

The found-footage/POV sub-genre of horror films, like the teen slasher movies of the 1970s-80s, will not fade away quietly. The “Paranormal Activity” franchise, which has sustained the strongest run in this structure of scary movies, has at least one more round to go. And while the found-footage/POV type of coverage has been used to explore spooky wooded areas (“The Blair Witch Project”), the crumbling of security in homes of middle-class families (“Paranormal Activity” series) and even witnessing the destruction of New York (“Cloverfield”), there seem to be other places it can crop up.

For its nerve-wracking story, “The Gallows” takes place in a venue that for some people was horrifying in real life — high school.

Co-written and co-directed by Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing, “The Gallows” also revisits a site that has been used before to spark jitters — an empty theater auditorium.

In 1993, a prop malfunction during a small-town high school’s stage production of a play titled “The Gallows” results in the tragic death of a student, Charlie, playing one of the lead roles. Now two decades later, as part of a tribute to the boy, the high school is about to stage that same play again.

The first 30 minutes of the movie are devoted to introducing and developing the main characters. Naturally the key person needs to be the one who constantly has to visually record everything, and fulfilling that role is Reese (Reese Mishler), by far the most obnoxious videographer ever depicted in this type of movie. His school work seems to be secondary to his obsessive need to have a his camera recording everything. He disrespects the drama department’s efforts at putting on the play, and he bullies the nerdy Stage Boy (Price T. Morgan).

Reese particularly channels his disdain toward Ryan (Ryan Shoos), picked to play the lead role that the doomed Charlie took on in 1993. Ryan has quit the football team to devote his energies toward “The Gallows,” but in rehearsals he is atrocious. Reese suspects that Ryan is only participating in the play to win the affections of Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), the student playing the lead female role and the person who has been the driving force behind getting this play on stage.

Also on the periphery of all this is Reese’s gilrfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford), one of the cheerleaders.

When Reese discovers that one of the back doors to the theater building is broken and cannot be locked, he hatches a plan he sees as a way of preventing Ryan from humiliating himself in the play. Reese proposes that they break into the theater later that night and destroy the props on the stage, thus forcing the play to be cancelled. He manages to talk the reluctant Ryan into going through with this by suggesting that Ryan could then comfort a distressed Pfeifer when she learns the play has been grounded.

The Cluff/Lofing writing team deserves kudos for coming up with this premise. It provides a plausible reason for these young people to sneak into the theater other than nonsensical mischief.

When the students finally arrive at the school at night, the tension level ratchets up. What makes or breaks movies of this type is how effectively the scary moments are delivered, along with the revelation of what is behind all of this terror.

Unfortunately, “The Gallows” at this point could be any other found-footage movie with its almost nausea-inducing shaky camera work that adds nothing new when it comes to the frightening moments. The standards are there: doors slamming and now locked, mysterious sounds of footsteps, shadows lurking, items suddenly disappearing, and dark, creepy rooms filled with clutter that produce scream-inducing imagery.

Much like “The Blair Witch Project,” the filmmakers present an ending that leaves the audience guessing as to what is really going on. This is a plus for “The Gallows” after the usual tiresome exercise of young people running around finding there is no escape.

“The Gallows” employs the gimmick of using the actors’ real names as their character names. This was done initially in “The Blair Witch Project’ as the marketing strategy of pretending Heather (Donohue), Josh (Leonard) and Michael (Williams) were not actors but real people who actually disappeared. Now, 16 years later, this is a device that is laughable.

Aside from the irritating behavior of Reese, so grating you might actually root for his demise, the rest of the characters, especially the young ladies, are barely memorable. This movie desperately needs some quiet moments like the dialogue of the three characters in “Blair Witch Project” that made viewers, if not totally liking them, at least identifying with them in certain situations.


It’s a lot more than ‘hell in a cell’ with ‘Vendetta’

Paul "Big Show" Wight as Victor and Dean Cain as Danvers are mortal enemies in "Vendetta."

Paul “Big Show” Wight as Victor and Dean Cain as Danvers are mortal enemies in “Vendetta.”

For those who like their action movies bloody and uncompromisingly brutal, “Vendetta” is worth every minute of their time.

In limited theatrical release but readily available on video on demand, “Vendetta” plays out superbly as a good guy vs. bad guy story, with a hero steadfast in determination and willing to take a beating to achieve his goals, against an imposing villain, often who has allies and all kinds of advantages.

Dean Cain, an actor with a wide array of roles but mostly known for playing Clark Kent/Superman in the TV series “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” (1993-97), is Mason Danvers, a tough police detective, who as “Vendetta” opens, arrests — with a lot of help — two brothers, Griffin Abbott (Aleks Paunovic) and Victor Abbott (Paul “Big Show” Wight), two hoods with an extensive record of crimes. Battered from a nasty fight with Victor, Danvers goes home to be nursed by his wife, Jocelyn (Kyra Zagorsky).

Three months later, Danvers is given the stunning news that because a key witness has “disappeared” in the Abbott case, both brothers have been set free.Victor, taking his arrest at the hands of Danvers personally, pays a visit to Jocelyn, and the result is an absolutely gut-wrenching attack. But in the process Victor is arrested again and sent to prison.

In the wake of this tragedy, Danvers is driven to a point he no longer will play it by the book. He commits a deadly crime, setting it up so that he is arrested and convicted. He is sent to Stonewall prison, where, of course, Victor is incarcerated.

The screenplay by Justin Shady presents prison life with all the dynamics seen in earlier movies about life in such institutions, complete with a warden, Snyder (Michael Eklund) with questionable and possibly corrupt ties, along with decent and hard-working prison guards and the crooked, sadistic prison personnel, and the ever-present prisoner hierarchy of one inmate at the top of the food chain, surrounded by loyal, nasty lieutenants (or hard-ass toadies).

Once in prison, Danvers learns quickly the top dog is Victor, who sends of couple of his goons to give Danvers a body-busting orientation on what life will be like in Stonewall.

The performances in “Vendetta” are marvelous. Cain’s Danvers can be a frustratingly impulsive character, throwing himself carelessly into the line of fire without thinking of the consequences yet can summon enough resourcefulness to do the things necessary to stay alive.

Wight is perfectly cast as Victor. A superstar in World Wrestling Entertainment, his is an imposing presence at seven feet tall and more than 400 pounds. Over the years he has performed in the wrestling ring mostly as a heel (bad guy) and has a sneer that can wilt any foe. Besides his physical intimidation, Wight also displays an adept ability to show exasperation as his lieutenants become antsy when Danvers starts gaining some ground.

Eklund is deliciously slimy and manipulative as Warden Snyder, putting a nice spin on the corrupt prison official. Also of note in the cast are Adrian Holmes (Drexel), Juan Riedinger (Booker), Lee Rano (R.B.) and Garfield Wilson (Dee) as Victor’s increasingly shrinking corps of enforcers; as well as Matthew MacCaull (Ben) as the sympathetic prison guard and Jonathan Walker as Lester and Dee Jay Jackson as Will, the guards with questionable work ethics.

The violence in “Vendetta” definitely deserves an R rating, and the cast really earned combat pay with all the vicious physical encounters.

All this spectacularly choreographed mayhem was directed under the firm leadership of Jen and Sylvia Soska. In this, only their fourth full-length movie as directors, the Soskas, also know as The Twisted Twins, expand their territory from horror to flat-out action. The twins, who recently directed another WWE star, Kane (Glenn Jacobs), in “See No Evil 2,” have a growing base of fans that appreciates the creativity and talent they have presented as directors and screenwriters in “Dead Hooker in a Trunk” and notably “American Mary,” the latter of which has seen enormous growth in popularity and recognition as a groundbreaking horror movie and likely could become a classic of the genre.

Being billed as “hell in a cell,” “Vendetta” actually takes its action all over Stonewall, from the dining hall to the laundry room, and of course to the exercise yard, where all hell really breaks loose. In the end, it meets all the demands of the discriminating hard core action movie aficionado.


‘Insidious: Chapter 3’ takes a step back and focuses on Elise

When “Insidious: Chapter 2” (2013) wound down with the seeming resolution of the terrifying haunting problems of the Lambert family brought on by the ability of father Josh and son Dalton to astral-project in their sleep, there was an ominous epilogue that hinted of yet more trouble as a collateral effect of the Lambert case. Naturally, the assumption was that the next chapter in this series would address this.

Well, leave it to the writing-directing team of Leigh Whannell and James Wan to stray from the norm.

Instead of a continuation of the story, “Insidious: Chapter 3” is a prequel, focusing on the personal issues that haunted the gifted psychic Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) in the years before she had to revisit the Lambert case.

The Whannell/Wan collaboration shifts gears here, with Whannell not only writing but directing as well — this being his directorial debut — while Wan serves as producer.

“Chapter 3” takes place a few years before the Lambert case, but it cannot be too far in the past, as laptop computers, Skype and mobile devices are very much a part of the culture in this story.

It begins when teenager Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott), on the verge of graduating from high school and setting sights on pursuing an acting career, goes to Elise’s house, seeking the woman’s help. Quinn’s mother has recently died of cancer and Quinn believes her mother is trying to communicate with her from the beyond.

Initially, Elise declines to help, saying she is no longer in the business of breaking through to the other side. But eventually she gives in, and to her horror she discovers it is not Quinn’s mother, but something more sinister at work, and strongly advises Quinn to just move on with her life.

Unfortunately, it is too late. Quinn, her father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) and younger brother Alex (Tate Berney), live in an apartment building that is the archetype structure where eerie spiritual shenanigans are cultivated. The floors creak, every door squeaks, the elevator is vintage slow.

Quinn is injured in an accident, making her predicament even worse, as she has no mobility. As creepy things begin to escalate, Quinn is at least lucky that Sean does not linger long with the skeptical parent stance often seen in these kinds of movies (“You were just having a dream,” “The noises are just the house settling,” etc.), and soon he is paying a visit to Elise. But once again Elise is reluctant to help. She is dealing with her own personal tragedy and a malevolent force that has hooked onto to her from a previous case. She does agree to visit Quinn and decides to conduct a seance that only solidifies her resolve to stop venturing into the spiritual world.

Desperate to find some help, Sean  heeds Alex’s suggestion they bring in Tucker and Specs (Angus Sampson and Whannell), two paranormal investigators who have become stars on the Internet.

But the technology they have at hand does not negate the fact they are not gifted like Elise.

Meanwhile, Elise meets with fellow spiritual expert Carl (Steve Coulter), who gives her a pep talk, and Elise realizes that if she is not willing to help people by using her gift, she really has nothing else to offer.

Just like all stories of the supernatural, the scary moments are designed to make the viewer jump, and there are teaser moments when a jolt is expected but does not occur. The only real hook is discovering what is behind the scary happenings. So once Elise resolves to help Quinn and break through to The Further, it is a matter of her finding out what is going on and how to combat it.

There really are no twists in the story, but watching Shaye as Elise is always a pleasure, especially when she shifts into overdrive and puts the smackdown on all these evil entities. Plus, we get to see the origination of the association between Elise and Tucker and Specs.

Whether or not the “Insidious” series will continue remains to be seen. Whannell has said in an interview for Rue Morgue magazine that nothing is in the works for a fourth chapter yet. For sure, however, Whannell and Wan have left the fans of this series with some teasers that will guarantee a captive audience should there be more “Insidious”creepiness.

An old house, a town with secrets and more supernatural chills in “We Are Still Here”

Another offering for horror fans that has recently been released and is available via video on demand is “We Are Still Here,” a movie with the familiar premise of people moving into a house that has a mysterious and deadly past.

Written and directed by Ted  Geoghegan, based on a concept by Richard Griffin, “We Are Still Here,” opens with a middle-aged couple, Anne (Barbara Crampton from “Re-Animator” and “You’re Next”) and Paul Sacchetti (Andrew Sensenig) moving into a secluded house in the New England area as they try to regroup upon the death of their college-age son in an auto accident.

Despite setting up a new household, Anne is convinced of the spiritual presence of their son — a notion Paul dismisses.

The house is old and problems exist, including a strangely overheated basement. A few weeks into their residency, the Sacchettis are paid a visit by neighbors Dave and Cat McCabe (Monte Markham and Connie Neer), and soon Dave is telling them about the origination of the home, that it was built to be a mortuary and when it was discovered that the family running the mortuary was violating the trust of the community, they were driven away.

This is not an uplifting story and Dave soon apologizes for revealing it. Meanwhile, Cat seems spooked and submissive, but does manage to slip a note to the Sacchettis, urging them to leave.

Anne, still sensing the presence of her son, invites her friend May Lewis (Lisa Marie) and her drug-dabbling husband Jacob (Larry Fassenden) out to stay a weekend. May has done some seances and Anne hopes she might be able to summon the spirit of their son.

When the Lewises arrive, the two couples decide to go into the small nearby town for dinner and encounter a bar-restaurant full of suspicious people along with an undertone of hostility.

Meanwhile, the Lewis’ son Harry (Michael Patrick Nicholson) and his girlfriend Daniella (Kelsea Dakota) arrive at the house and rather than go into town they decide to wait at the house and engage in some intimate activity, which always riles up mischievous spirits and serial slashers.

By the time the couples return to the house, wondering what is it with the enigmatic townspeople, some bad things have occurred and are about to escalate.

“We Are Still Here” starts slow as Geoghegan establishes an ominous mood with several long shots of the snow-drenched and eerily silent outdoors around the house, complete with creepy looking trees barren of leaves. After a while these scenes, while effective, interrupt the rhythm of the storytelling.

The final 30 minutes or so of the movie really pick up the pace and enable the characters, particularly Anne and Paul, to elevate themselves above the grief stalking their lives. It is a refreshing jump-start to what had been bland characters. Up to that point only Jacob is a standout with his lingering hippy persona.

“We Are Still Here” requires patience but once the action picks up there are some terrifying and surprising moments that push all the right buttons and help make this movie an effective thriller.



Mother Nature rips loose in ‘San Andreas’ and even The Rock cannot stop it

Forty years ago, “Earthquake” hit theaters with its new gimmick called Sensurround, which were just huge speakers placed strategically in the movie houses to boom out the rumbling of a massive temblor. This accompanied scenes of what obviously were models of buildings collapsing and roads buckling and crumbling. In addition, there were silly side stories about the characters who then had to set aside personal issues and get down to the business of basic survival as Los Angeles came tumbling down.

Thankfully, special effects have come a long way since then, and because of advancements in CGI, panoramic views of death and destruction on a massive scale can be choreographed in spectacular ways, as have been seen in recent end-of-the-world movies like “The Day After Tomorrow” in 2004 and “2012” in 2009.

With that kind of technology at hand, why not revisit the earthquake theme, but not have it confined just to the L.A. or San Francisco area? Let’s include the whole state. So we are presented with “San Andreas,” named for the long fault line that cuts through California and is one all the experts say is capable of, and likely to unleash a massive quake registering 8-plus on the Richter scale.

Since the earthquake itself is the backbone of “San Andreas,” there is no need to spend extensive time developing the main characters. The script by Carlton Cuse, who has penned some episodes of “Bates Motel,” does have some groan-inducing lame dialog, but otherwise it jumps right into the action, featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Ray, a member of an L.A. fire department helicopter rescue unit.

In the opening minutes, Ray and his team conduct an adrenaline-rush rescue of a young woman from her car after an accident that puts her in a potentially fatal situation.

Then the movie segues over to the scientific part of the story. Paul Giamatti plays Lawrence, a professor at Cal Tech, who with colleague Kim Park (Will Yun Lee) believe they have discovered a way to accurately predict quakes. They go to Hoover Dam in Nevada, where some activity might indicate a pending temblor. The quake does occur but with drastically more intensity than they expected.

There is a pause in the action for obligatory exploration of Ray, the flawed hero, and here, Cuse employs familiar character backgrounds. The hero is forced into part-time parenthood via a broken marriage or too much dedication to work (such as Tommy Lee Jones’ Mike Roarke in “Volcano,” Dennis Quaid’s Jack Hall in “The Day After Tomorrow,” and more notably Liam Neeson’s Bryan Mills in the “Taken” series). Ray is estranged from his wife Emma (Carla Gugino), and like Jo Harding (Helen Hunt) in “Twister,”  Mills in “Taken” and David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) in “Independence Day,” he has not yet emotionally processed the idea that his ex has moved on to another relationship.

The call of duty forces Ray to cancel plans to drive his daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) up to San Francisco, where she is about to start college. She instead hitches a ride with her mother’s new boyfriend Daniel Riddick (Iaon Gruffud), the kind of guy who looks like he’ll wither when to going gets tough.

Meanwhile, a shaken Lawrence returns to Cal Tech and learns that the same data that were a precursor to the Hoover Dam shaker are now popping up on sensors all the way along the San Andreas fault line. He soon deduces that an event of never before experienced magnitude is about to occur in California.

In a nice piece of timing one can only see in movies, Ray is talking on his cell to Emma when the first big jolt hits in L.A., and she is on the top floor of a high rise in the downtown area. Ray dispenses with his professional duty and zips over in his chopper to rescue Emma.

Soon, the shaking has made its way up to San Francisco. Blake, who meets a young man from England, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his kid brother Ollie (Art Parkinson) while Daniel is conducting some business, finds herself with these two people in the aftermath of the quake in the northern part of the state. She manages to call Ray and let him know what happened and they set up a rendezvous point in the Bay area.

The story now bounces between the efforts of Ray and Emma to get up north, to Blake and her two friends as they encounter more hazards in Frisco, and to Lawrence and his colleagues at Cal Tech, who are now getting more readings to indicate the worst is yet to come and need to devise ways to get the word out even as the power grid collapses.

The script is excellent in presenting numerous ways people can face life-threatening situations and seemingly overwhelming odds even after the temblors end.

Director Brad Peyton (“Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”) keeps the action lively, with a few pauses here and there, mostly as Ray and Emma engage in some marriage counseling in between cheating death.

While Johnson is, well, The Rock, stoic and almost indestructible, both Gugino and Daddario portray Emma and Blake as tough, resourceful ladies, determined to survive.

“San Andreas” is what one would expect for a summer popcorn movie. The visuals are stunning and scary. And for those of us living in California, “San Andreas” carries special foreboding, because, unlike Godzilla, earthquakes are real.

‘Poltergeist’ might have been a winner had it not already been done 30 years ago

Do you really really want to do a remake of a movie that has become a classic of its genre and has the stamp of Steven Spielberg on it?

Well, producer Sam Raimi — who has his hand on classic horror via his directing efforts of “The Evil Dead,” “Evil Dead II” and “Army of Darkness” — and director Gil Kenan (“Monster House”) believed they could pull it off. Thus, the latest “Poltergeist.”

One of the challenges of remakes these days is that it is easy to access the original movie, view it and do an almost scene-by-scene comparison between the two films. Even those who were not yet born when the first “Poltergeist” came out in 1982 likely have seen it, probably more than once.

At the time, Spielberg, who wrote the screenplay for the original that in turn was directed by Tobe Hooper of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” fame, was at his peak, with a run that included his directorial efforts in “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.” Aside from blueprinting the action in these phenomenally successful movies, Spielberg was a master at creating interaction among the characters that made us care about them. Sadly, this enhancement is missing in the “Poltergeist” remake.

The story in both “Poltergeists” is virtually the same. A family — husband, wife, a teen daughter and a pre-adolescent son and daughter — go through terror when their home, built upon an old cemetery, is besieged by restless spirits of people who had been buried there, and the youngest daughter is taken captive be these entities.

The remake screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his “Rabbit Hole,” does not glide into the story like Spielberg’s script. In the original story, the Freelings — Steven and Diane and children Dana, Robbie and Carol Ann — have been living in their home for several years before things start getting strange. There is a gradual increase in incidents that start after Carol Ann is seen talking to “TV people” apparently communicating via channels that have stopped broadcasting for the night (that does not happen any more). These spirits at first seem to have a sense of humor — stacking chairs on the dining table, getting the dog to fetch its toys, bending utensils.

But then the closet in the kids’ bedroom opens up and becomes a portal to another spiritual plane, snatching Carol Ann, and the spooky, threatening old tree outside turns into a malevolent version of Groot, grabbing Robbie.

In the 2015 version, the Bowens — Eric and Amy (Sam Rockwell and Rosemarie DeWitt), teen daughter Kendra (Saxon Sharbino), son Griffin (Kyle Catlett) and youngest daughter Madison (Kennedi Clements) — have just moved into a house in a downsizing because Eric has been laid off and Amy is a writer with an unfinished book. There is a creepy weeping willow next to the house, and the top floor of the residence is essentially an attic bedroom, where the psychologically fragile Griffin must sleep.

Strange things start happening almost immediately, depriving us of the little pre-haunting gems that made the original so memorable — the bedroom conversations between the Steven and Diane while sharing a joint, dealing with Carol Ann’s dead pet bird (there are no pets in the remake), and the TV remote war between Steven and his neighbor Ben.

The remake certainly has all the latest technology. Kendra chats with friends on her computer while Dana in the original had to use a land line telephone. There is no sign of any “Star Wars” products in the Bowen house, but Griffin has a toy drone. And the TV from which little Madison talks with the spirits is a wide, flat-screen, not the bulky analog models of yesteryear. And now there are all sorts of mobile devices the spirits can mess with beyond just the TVs and lights.

And there is the closet in Madison’s room that while it does not suck the little girl into the next plane, does lure her in. And the tree, yep, it acts up too. Then there are the clown dolls — don’t ask.

Another disadvantage plaguing the remake is that the spiritual expert brought in to help rescue Madison is not the memorable Tangina, played with ethereal delight by the late Zelda Rubinstein. In her place is an updated version, a reality TC superstar ghost expert named Carrigan Burke (Jared Harris, most recently featured in “The Quiet Ones”). Burke does use the declaration “This house is clean,” as his triumphant claim in his TV show as he once again sends the spirits on their way. But face it, Harris, looking very much like a scholarly individual, cannot compete with the diminutive yet striking presence of Tangina as she tours the house and says, “You all want to hang back? You’re jamming my frequencies.”

The actors do what they can with a script focused more on the action than characterization. Rockwell seems almost detached in trying to play a father, and DeWitt hardly gets a chance to shine like JoBeth Williams did both physically and emotionally as Diane Freeling — what viewer does not feel a lump in their throat when Diane proclaims that Carol Ann “went through my soul”? In addition, Williams and Craig T. Nelson as Steven had great chemistry together.

The young actors also get shortchanged. Kendra will fall into the abyss of the typical social media savvy teenager, unlike her counterpart Dana (Dominique Dunne, who was tragically murdered by an ex-boyfriend the year “Poltergeist” came out), who always was eating something and had a moment to flip obscene gestures at the pool diggers flirting with her. Interestingly, the Griffin character actually gets to do more than his counterpart Robbie, who was so traumatized he had to be shipped off to his grandparents house. And Madison, no matter how cute, will never upstage little Carol Ann, played by Heather O’Rourke, who died at the age of 12 of intestinal stenosis.

So, is this new “Poltergeist” scary? It could have been, had the story not been told so effectively 30 years ago. One element that is necessary in haunting stories is the shattering of security people feel in their homes. In the original, the Freelings had been settled in for years. This was their home, now being rendered a dangerous place. In the remake, a sense of alienation exists between the Bowens and this new home. This is not their home and the feeling of security already is tenuous.

The usual scare tactics are employed for the quick, cheap thrills, but that is about it. As one disenchanted viewer noted, when the scariest moments in “Poltergeist” circa 2015 involve a squirrel, the movie has come up way short.


Guilty pleasure on Netflix

Browsing on Netflix the other day and came upon a 2014 movie titled “Zombeavers.” No doubt about it, this little film was going to be ridiculous.

Directed by Jordan Rubin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Al Kaplan and Jon Kaplan, this is a throwback to the 1970-80 era of the teen horror flick, and it appears these three fellows decided to laugh at themselves throughout.

Three college sorority sister women — Mary (Rachel Melvin), Zoe (Cortney Palm) and Jenn (Lexi Atkins) go on a girls-only weekend trip to a cabin in the woods owned by Mary’s relatives. Mary, who seems to be in charge of the trip, deems that there will be no men, and definitely no mobile devices.

Prior to their arrival, a canister containing some toxic waster bounces off a truck and rolls into the nearby lake, getting snagged at a beaver damn and punctured, spewing the chemical.

Mary’s plan to have a men-free weekend disintegrates when the three boyfriends, spoiling for sex romps, crash the party. There is a side story about Mary having a fling with Zoe’s boyfriend, but that soon gets pushed aside when mutant beavers first attack the young people in the lake and soon invade the cabin.

The male stars, Hutch Dano (grandson of Royal Dano), Jake Weary and Peter Gilroy, wear their desires on their sleeves and get to make all kinds of sexual remarks, a lot of it gross and graphic.

“Zombeavers” is a comical nod to those horror flicks of yesteryear featuring attractive young actors, silly dialogue, gore and gratuitous nudity.

The zombified beavers look mechanical, but the FX of the gore is pretty good.

In all, “Zombeavers” is good for a few laughs.



Legendary makeup artist Dick Smith honored at Monsterpalooza

dick smithDick Smith may be a common name in most circles, but in the film industry, this name has a very special meaning. Dick Smith was a pioneer in the world of makeup and special effects for television and movies, a craft that made people look aged when in fact they were not, that transformed actors into monsters, most notably a darling 12-year-old girl into a hideous being that now harbored a demonic spirit.

Smith passed away on July 30, 2014, at the age of 92 but left the world with an astounding resumé of artistry that helped make movies look very real. But in addition to his rich body of work he left a legacy of giving, of passing on his knowledge to subsequent generations of makeup artists.

During Monsterapalooza on March 27-29 at the Marriott in Burbank, a tribute to Smith was presented in two forms. One was a museum presentation that featured photographs of his most famous efforts that included Dustin Hoffman’s 100-plus-year-old Jack Crabb in “Little Big Man” (1970), Marlon Brando’s Don Vito Corleone in “The Godfather” (1972), the demon-possessed Regan played by Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” (1974) and F. Murray Abraham’s older version of Antonio Salieri in “Amadeus” (1984). Also on display were the face casts Smith applied to these stars as the basis for the application of the makeup.

The other part of the tribute was a panel of professionals who were affected by the genius and generosity of Smith. The panel took place on Saturday, day two of Monsterpalooza, and was a roster of stars in the makeup and special effects business, along with two actors who had the unforgettable experience of being made up by Smith.

Among Smith’s proteges is Craig Reardon, whose early work included being on the makeup staff of “Altered States” and “Poltergeist” and later did jobs on “The X-Files.” As a young man, Reardon contacted Smith via a letter.

“It was like throwing a bottle in the ocean,” Reardon said of the letter. But he received a response in the form of a 3-inch thick manilla envelope. It contained a response letter but also photographs of Smith’s work — such as sequential photos of Smith making up Hal Holbrook for Holbrook’s wonderful portrayal of Mark Twain.

The letter by Smith informed Reardon that he was willing to answer any questions. “I quote from him: I don’t keep secrets and I would be happy to correspond with you,” Reardon recalled. “He never copped an attitude about anything with anybody.”

Unfortunately, Rick Baker, another of Smith’s proteges who made a name for himself with the groundbreaking on-screen conversion of David Naughton’s character David Kessler into a werewolf in “An American Werewolf in London,” was unable to attend this panel.

Greg Cannom, a winner of three makeup Academy Awards for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” said he was first inspired by Smith when he saw a Life magazine cover photo of Dustin Hoffman’s “Little Big Man” character. Then, seeing “The Exorcist” sealed Cannom’s desire to work in movie makeup.

Smith invited Cannom to the set of “North and South,” where he had the opportunity to watch Smith apply the Abraham Lincoln makeup on Hal Holbrook.

In between the tributes, clips from movies featuring Smith’s work were shown — “Little Big Man,” “The Godfather” (including the Italian restaurant scene with Michael Corleone [Al Pacino] graphically shooting two men at close range, “The Exrocist,” “Altered States,” “The Hunger,” in which David Bowie was aged, and “Amadeus.”

Andy Clement, responsible for the work on Jackie Earle Haley’s transformation into Freddie Krueger in the remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” commented on “The Exorcist.”

“I don’t think ‘The Exorcist’ can be overstated in terms of how important it is to what we do (in makeup), just from the iconic design, how many iterations (Smith) went through, making it the best it could be.” He noted this was one of the first uses of a radio-controlled device, the full-body duplication of Regan on which the head did its full rotation.

Moderator Scott Essman reminded us that Smith did not win Oscars for his “Godfather” and “Exorcist” mastery because there was no makeup category back then. Essman also pointed out that in addition to the horrifying Regan transformation, Max Von Sydow, as Father Merrin, was made up to appear much older than he was at the time.

Linda Blair offered an actor’s perspective on working with Smith.

She recalled going to Smith’s home for a makeup test even before she was signed on to play Regan. She said Smith referred to the face-cast application as “pancake batter,” and that once it was applied, “you can’t breathe, but that’s OK. We’re here, just hold our hands.”

Blair said that initially, a face mask was going to be used, but director William Friedkin rejected that idea. Friedkin said, “I can’t see her face. I have to know it’s Linda, or everybody will think this is a joke.” Thus followed many makeup tests. Blair said the biggest challenge for Smith was taking such an innocent, healthy face of Regan and making it a monster. It required little-by-little adjusting of the facial features to get the desired effect.

Blair also talked about the sensitive and delicate procedure of doing a full-body cast for the radio-controlled Regan on which the head would spin. “He never made me uncomfortable, even though it was uncomfortable. He did everything he could to always make me feel like it was a safe place.”

“He was an extraordinary man who would tell me stories,” Blair remembered, “about the different movies and the characters, working with Dustin Hoffman on ‘Little Big Man,’ and he would smile as he would work.” She then mimicked him as he would insist to her, “You have to sit still, you gotta sit still.”

During the filming, the daily makeup process took two hours and Linda naturally would get restless, so Smith had a TV put behind Linda and used a mirror so the girl could watch TV while the makeup was applied.

The vomiting scene also required a lot of testing, as well as safety precautions, and Blair had to keep her mouth open during the tests and filming. She also noted that the “vomit” concoction tasted terrible.

Blair said that all over the world she has encountered  people who have told her of Smith’s generosity in talking to people and advising them on makeup procedures.

“Without Dick Smith we would not be where we are today,” Blair said, “with makeup for sure, but also with special effects.I didn’t know who he was at 13 years old. By 15 I was getting an idea and in my 20s I really learned. And later on in life I had the honor of giving him his Academy Award.”

“It was my honor to have worked with him,” she concluded. “Go back and learn who Dick Smith was because you will be truly touched and awed at this great master’s work.”

Kevin Haney, who worked with Smith and Baker on “Altered States,” mentioned a “trickle-down” effect, with young people learning from Smith and passing their knowledge on to the next generations. “It’s not just in the thousands,” Haney said of the number of people influenced by Smith, “it numbers in the millions now.”

Stephen Lack, who starred in “Scanners,” talked about his experience when Smith was called in after principal shooting on this 1981 David Cronenberg film was wrapped to help redo the final scene of the mind-duel between Lack’s Cameron Vale and Daryl Revok, played by Michael Ironside. The scene required plastic bladders to serve as bulging, about-to-burst blood veins on the faces of Vale and Revok. The bladders, however, were leaking and Smith was beginning to panic when Lack said that if you have a leak in a tire, you run air through it to locate the leak. Smith saw that as a brilliant idea, and afterward, Smith presented Lack with a sculpted prop of Lack’s Vale character.

Alec Gillis, director of the upcoming “Harbinger Down,” wanted to stress the importance of Smith’s animatronic work.

“When you combine the genius of design and execution that he had with the daring of animatronic design and pushing the envelope there, it started the tradition for us.”

Tom Woodruff Jr. worked with Smith on “Starman,” specifically the life-cast of Jeff Bridges’ alien who uses DNA from a hair of a deceased man to essentially become a clone of that man. Woodruff said  he marveled at the meticulous ways of Smith, even down to the specific temperature of the molding material.

The special effects in that movie were a collaboration of Smith, Baker and Stan Winston, and Woodruff recalled seeing these three icons of makeup and special effects standing together and chatting on the Warner Brothers set.

“It was a magic moment,” Woodruff said. “It was backlit and I think I heard choirs singing and unicorns crying.”

Todd Masters, who has done work on “True Blood,” said that Smith was like a father figure to all those who worked in makeup and special effects. “He was almost a model citizen of monster making. He was a bit of a super hero. He was for the good and the right.”

“It’s kinda weird talking about him in the past tense,” Masters noted. “It always feels like he’s here.We’re all still holding the torch. It’s all about taking what he started and still making it relevant today.”

Jill Rockow, who was inspired by Smith’s to become a makeup artist and was his best friend, especially later in his life, summed up his life, by saying she carries on his legacy by encouraging makeup and special effects to stay together and be a family.

“I am really mad he is not immortal,” she said.

“SEE NO EVIL 2” cashing in

“See No Evil 2,” the second movie about the bloody escapades of Jacob Goodnight, and directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska, did not have a theatrical release, but was screened at Screamfest in Los Angeles last fall (See review of screening in the October 2014 archives of this blog). It then was released on DVD and Blu-Ray and has enjoyed some success.

The Soskas attended Horrorhound Weekend March 20-22 in Cincinnati, along with Katharine Isabelle, who played Mary Mason in the Soskas’ “American Mary.”  The Soskas and Isabelle also appeared for a Q&A at the convention, and afterward I asked Jen and Sylvia about the sales of “See No Evil 2.” They reported sales had exceeded $1 million.

According to thenumbers.com, “See No Evil 2” sales of DVD and Blu-Ray stands at $1.4 million.

For a detailed recap of Jen and Sylvia Soskas’ panel at Texas Frightmare Weekend in 2014, check the May 2014 archives on this blog site.





‘The Lazarus Effect’ and the consequences of cheating death

One of the recurring themes of the horror movie genre is the exploration of attempts to cheat death. Zombies seem to have stumbled upon their own solution to this enduring issue,  although the side-effects are yucky. The “Final Destination” series of movies proved that when people try to alter their sealed fate, death just comes up with another creative way of carrying out its master plan.

Using the research lab to find ways of postponing a visit by the Grim Reaper is always a ripe theme for the “science gone bad” element of horror and science fiction films.

The latest movie to deal with laboratory experiments designed to reverse death is “The Lazarus Effect,” which starts out promising but eventually derails.

“Lazarus” has a similar set up as “Deep Blue Sea” in that a driven group of scientists and lab assistants are pushing the envelope on experimentation in hopes of discovering cures or ways to stall the devastating effects of diseases. Their efforts soon yield terrible results they are not expecting.

In “The Lazarus Effect,” Frank (Mark Duplass) and his co-researcher and fiancee Zoe (Olivia Wilde), financed by a grant and based at a university campus, have come up with a serum they hope can revive recently deceased people and provide a second chance at life.

Assisted by Clay (Evan Peters) and Niko (Donald Glover), with college student Eva (Sarah Bolger) serving as a videographer, Frank and Zoe take the next step — an unsanctioned test of injecting the serum into a dead dog.

Initially the experiment appears to be a failure, but suddenly the dog, named Rocky, jumps to life. Immediately, however, unforeseen things crop up. Poor Rocky seems to have developed a personality disorder, one minute docilely lying around, the next growling and in pre-attack mode, leading Zoe to make the most astute observation in the movie: Maybe Rocky was snatched from doggie heaven and is not happy about it.

A nonsensical side plot is that the university officials go after Frank upon learning about his experimenting on the dog, stating that was not approved when the grant was issued. Say what? How did these people think this serum would be effective if not tested on actual biological organisms? Because of this violation of the grant contract, all of the project data is seized.

This plot device is used as supposed  motivation for Frank and Zoe to continue the tests, as if seeing poor Rocky engaged in schizophrenic behavior, going from Benji to Cujo and back, is not enough to prompt more experiments.

Thus another dog is brought out for another test. But this time something goes wrong and Zoe is electrocuted. Well, shades of “Re-Animator,” as Frank, rendered crazed by Zoe’s death, decides to inject the serum onto her.

Zoe is revived, but like Rocky, her brain’s neural activity is in overdrive.

At this point, “The Lazarus Effect” takes a weird turn. The screenplay, by Luke Dawson (“Shutter”) and Jeremy Slater, goes with a premise that Zoe’s now super-powered brain can turn her into a person that is a mix of Carrie White (telekinesis), Freddie Krueger (dream invasions), mind readers and demonic possession.

While this ramps up the terror aspect of the movie, it does so at the expense of what could have been a chilling psychological thriller and a provocative look at the consequences of mankind trying to alter nature’s laws. Instead it turns into a puzzling potpourri of mayhem with an ending that is ominous but ultimately silly.

Character development is minimal. Only Zoe has a back story, haunted by nightmares that stemmed from a tragedy she endured as a child. Frank is seen as a man so driven in his research it isn’t until he almost loses Zoe that his passion for her surfaces. The other three characters are just typical potential victims once the violence starts.

While “The Lazarous Effect” uses all the tools to provide some scary moments, it soon spins out of control. The filmmakers might have had a better movie if they had just focused on the poor dog Rocky.

“McFarland, USA” a feel-good story about achieving great heights

Movies about athletes who are victorious despite overwhelming odds are always infectious and teeter precariously on the edge of being cliched. And even if they do become a little corny, there is no harm in them and the overall effect is that they are pleasing.

“McFarland, USA,” based upon a true story, is one such movie. In fact it could be described as the cross-country-running version of “Hoosiers.”

In this case it’s Kevin Costner playing the pivotal role of the high school teacher/coach on the brink of a career implosion who gets one last chance and is lucky enough to have the right mix of circumstances and people to pull off a life-changing event.

Much like Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale in “Hoosiers,” a college basketball coach who after a violent encounter with one of his players can only get a job coaching at a small high school in Indiana, Costner’s Jim White finds himself in a similar situation after an unfortunate locker room incident with a disrespectful player during the half-time of a football game in which the team is getting blown out. This set-to is another breakdown of control by White, and as a result the only job offer he gets is as a science teacher and assistant football coach at the high school in McFarland, an impoverished Central California town.

McFarland’s population is primarily Latino, people who labor long hours picking crops. The family is the backbone of the community and generation after generation assumes the mantel of working long hours to provide for their families.

White, his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and daughters Julie (Morgan Saylor), 15, and Jamie (Elsie Fisher), 10, arrive in McFarland in the fall of 1987 full of apprehension. But despite their preconceived notions they are not met with hostility.

At the high school, things go bad for White immediately with an on-field disagreement between the coaches during a 63-0 blowout suffered by their team. White is soon demoted to science teacher/PE coach.

It is during the PE classes, and before and after school, that White notices that a handful of boys seem to run great distances effortlessly, so he proposes starting a cross-country team.

He manages to get seven boys to join the team, scoring a superb runner, Thomas (Carlos Pratts), and although the team finishes last in its first competitive effort, a four-school invitational, the McFarland runners on their next outing just barely lose to a top caliber team.

“McFarland” follows the blueprint of such sports stories, showing White, who is basically learning on his own while he coaches, as he gets the boys to sharpen their running skills. He knows he has a strong foundation — these boys are tough. They have to be.

There are the usual setbacks. Top-runner Thomas has family issues with a workaholic father and a younger sister who has become pregnant. Three of the team members are the Diaz brothers, Damasio (Michael Aguero), David (Rafael Martinez) and Danny (Ramiro Rodriguez), the latter being the least gifted but with a lot of desire, who have to balance their cross-country efforts while also working for their father in the fields.

As the team’s surprising successes mount, it proves a boost to the community, and led by Senora Diaz (a scene-stealing Diana Maria Diva), money is raised for uniforms and running shoes.

“McFarland” is a story about fortitude that leads to achievement, but also a study of growing respect and how a family can assimilate in an unfamiliar setting and learn lessons about life — like friendship and security — that cannot be bought.

Directed by Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), “McFarland” was the product of three screenwriters — Chris Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson — a collaboration that might raise red flags about massive rewrites. But the story moves smoothly. Costner is at ease here with his work as White, a man who is blessed with instincts but who also threatens to derail things with his impetuous behavior. Bello has a few moments as the firm foundation in the household, the person with the best family perspective.

The young actors playing the runners — also included were Johnny Ortiz as Jose Cardenas and Sergio Avelar as Victor Puentes — do a credible job of portraying teens who are not accustomed to being told they can accomplish something special.

“McFarland, USA” is the type of feel-good movie that can be refreshing alternative amid the action movies and intense dramas.




Oscars 2015: Funny guys get serious and Streep closes in on 20

Truth be told, the Academy Awards is an extravagant exercise in self-congratulations, totally subjective with no hard data to back up why one choice is made above others. It’s all a matter of personal preference. But it is difficult to resist getting caught up in the speculation and glitz of the proceedings.

This year there seems to be more intense controversy over the nominations, particularly surrounding “American Sniper” — dismissed by detractors as a glorification of what they see as a sneaky and dishonorable way of waging war — and “Selma” — a film nominated for Best Picture while its director, Ava DuVernay, and lead actor, David Oyelowo, were not among the nominees in those categories. But let’s take a look at those who were nominated:


Three of the actors in this category found their initial fame as comedic performers who have proven they can handle drama as well. Bradley Cooper is a finalist for the third straight year, showing that his nominated work in “Silver Linings Playbook” two years ago was no fluke. Cooper’s turn as Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal sharpshooter credited with the most kills in the Iraq conflict, has been knocked for being an inaccurate portrayal of the late Kyle, showing him as a patriot and loving husband and father with no flaws. That aside, one cannot deny Cooper’s incredible depiction of a man ultimately affected by what he experiences in Iraq and how he manages to recover before it destroys himself and his family.

Another actor known for his funny work is Steve Carell, earning his first nomination as the tragic John du Pont in “Foxcatcher.” Carell is almost unrecognizable as du Pont, using a prosthetic nose to match du Pont’s, as well as the physical mannerisms of this wealthy man who believed that founding a wrestling school that would turn out Olympic-caliber competitors might exorcise the emotional demons of his financially well-to-do but otherwise empty existence.

And the third nominee who made an impression for laugh-inducing roles, Michael Keaton, is a favorite to win the Oscar for his role in “Birdman” as Riggan, a former action hero star who tries to resurrect his sagging career and recapture meaning in his life via a stage play he has put his money and soul into. This one-track shot movie comes off as a live play and focuses on this flawed, self-indulgent man who despite his shortcomings develops a self-awareness that has the audience rooting for him.

Another favorite in this category is Eddie Redmayne, playing the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Redmayne had to really get into the physical aspects of the role, showing the increasingly debilitating decay of his body as a result of ALS — Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Confined to a wheelchair for most of the movie, Redmayne delivers a performance that Oscar voters generally love — emotionally complex and honest in showing the courage and the less than honorable parts of the man.

The most tragic performance is presented by first-time nominee Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Imitation Game” as master decoder Alan Turing. Socially inept but brilliant and not afraid to point out his brilliance, Turing was an unsung hero of World War II, breaking the Nazi radio communications code that enabled the Allies to counteract planned attacks. Turing was the right man at the right time, one who could overstep emotional reactions and apply logic and common sense that sometimes led to heart-wrenching decisions. Then, for all his work, Turing became an outcast for his homosexuality and was only appreciated for his contributions to the war effort long after he died.

Who will win: A real toss-up between Keaton and Redmayne. Keaton’s film was one all performers could identify with, but Redmayne’s total immersion into the character of Hawking likely will get him the Oscar.

Vernor’s Ticket choice: Redmayne.


Julianne Moore may finally claim an Oscar for this, her fifth nomination, for her wrenching work in “Still Alice.” Playing Alice Rowland, a linguist professor who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at an age when one would not expect to get such a horrible disease, Moore has earned praise from just about every faction of the entertainment industry.

Of the other four nominees, Rosamund Pike is a standout as Amy Elliott Dunne in “Gone Girl.” A first-time nominee, Pike is mesmerizing as Amy, whose disappearance and possible murder, with her husband being a prime suspect, ignites a media frenzy. Then there is the startling revelation that totally changes the perception of Amy as a supposed victim. The brilliance of what she pulls off is stunning and frightening.

Marion Cotillard, an Oscar winner for “La Vie en Rose” in 2007, is a surprise nominee for “Two Days, One Night,” playing Sandra, a young Belgian mother who discovers that her workmates have opted for a significant pay bonus in exchange for her dismissal. She has only one weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. As a surprise nominee, it is unlikely she garnered enough votes to overtake Moore.

Felicity Jones is fine as Jane Hawking, the steadfast wife of Stephen Hawking, staying with her husband through all the tribulations of the man’s disease, but her performance lacks any memorable moments that would put her over the top.

The same applies to Reese Witherspoon — also a previous Oscar winner —  in her role as Cheryl Strayed in “Wild.” It’s a physically challenging performance, portraying this woman who went on a 1,000-mile hike in an effort to discover herself after being lost for a few years following the death of her mother and crumbling of her marriage. Witherspoon is strapped with a character that comes off as irresponsible and self-indulgent, who may have gotten back on track but offers little else to share.

Who will win: Moore.

Vernor’s Ticket choice: Pike. She is absolutely chilling as a supposedly sweet but unappreciated wife who launches a fiendish plan of revenge. It’s scary and haunting.


This one appears to be a slam dunk. There are tragic figures, like Robert Duvall’s Joseph Palmer, a longtime magistrate accused of murder in “The Judge” and whose alienated son Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) must defend him in court. Also there is Mark Ruffalo as David Schultz, the Olympic wrestler in “Foxcatcher” whose work relationship with John du Pont goes horribly awry for no apparent reason. Ethan Hawke has earned his second nomination portraying Dad in “Boyhood,” and Edward Norton has some great moments as the arrogant stage actor Mike in “Birdman,” a person who can function only while in a role while stumbling in his real-life encounters.

But the standout here is longtime character actor J.K. Simmons in “Whiplash.” As the intimidating perfectionist instructor Fletcher at a prestigious music conservatory, Simmons is positively riveting, completely unpredictable. Every moment he is on screen, his presence commands your attention. He has succeeded in having the three words, “not my tempo,” a trigger for panic attacks among musicians.

Who will win: Simmons

Vernor’s Ticket choice: Simmons


It looks like Patricia Arquette, as the mother in “Boyhood,” is the favorite to win in this category, although Emma Stone, as Riggan’s embittered daughter Sam, takes what could have been a cliched role of the alienated offspring and adds some surprising depth and perceptiveness. She could be a dark horse here.

Laura Dern also cannot be counted out, playing Cheryl Strayed’s mother Bobbi in “Wild.” As Dern portrays Bobbi, it shows why Cheryl became so lost when her mother passed away. Dealt a bad hand in life, Bobbi refuses to wallow in self-pity, saying that for all the problems, it is her life and she is not backing away. She proves to be a pillar of emotional strength for Cheryl and a great loss when she dies.

Keira Knightley is exceptional as Joan Clarke in “The Imitation Game,” a brilliant woman who not only breaks through in a man’s world as one of the vital code breakers in World War II but also serves as a bridge between the socially clumsy Alan Turing and his colleagues. She also develops a close bond with Turing, emotionally strong but, because of his homosexuality, not physical.

And then there’s Meryl Streep, picking up an unprecedented 19th nomination for her work as the witch in the musical “Into the Woods.” A winner in three of her previous 18 nominations, Streep, who never seems to give a bad performance, nevertheless may be overshadowed in this category this time out.

Who will win: Arquette

Vernor’s Ticket choice(s) : A tie between Stone and Dern (Hey, it has happened before, when Katharine Hepburn for “The Lion in Winter” and Barbra Streisand for “Funny Girl” both took home Best Actress Oscars for 1968).


Although a maximum of 10 movies can be nominated, only eight got the nod this year. Unfortunately, two nominees have sparked controversy because of their political aspects. “American Sniper” and “Selma” both have been criticized for inaccuracies, and sadly, the snubs of DuVernay as director as Oyelowo have some people claiming racism.

Among the other nominees, “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash,” “Birdman” seems to be the favorite, a movie about acting that actors can identity with. “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash” are great character studies and likely will cancel each other out. “Boyhood,” which was filmed over the course of several years, presents an interesting concept in film making, but some critics have said that other than that it really has nothing more to offer.

The most fun movie among these is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a quirky movie by Wes Anderson, whose films are an acquired taste. Those who love his movies really love them. Others find them just too strange. But only Anderson could make a movie about a hotel concierge actually engaging.

What will win: “Birdman”

Vernor’s Ticket choice: “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” I know of at least one Academy voter who expressed to me her enthusiasm for this movie as Best Picture.

Some tidbits:

For Bradley Cooper, this is his second nomination in a movie with “American” in the title (“American Sniper”),  having been nominated last year for “American Hustle.”

The age range in the Best Actor group of nominees is 32 (Redmayne) and 63 (Keaton).

Julianne Moore has been nominated in three different decades: twice in the 1990s, twice in the 2000-aughts and once in this decade.

Although Laura Dern plays the mother of Reese Witherspoon’s character in “Wild,” the two actresses are only nine years apart in age. Dern is 48 and Witherspoon will be 39 in March.

Robert Duvall’s seven nominations have been spread out over 42 years, with his first nod, as Best Supporting Actor, taking place in 1972 for “The Godfather.” The longest time span between nominations for him was 16 years, between his 1998 supporting role nomination for “A Civil Action” and 2014 for “The Judge.” And by the way, Duvall’s first significant movie role was as Boo Radley in the highly acclaimed (and Best Picture nominated) “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962. His one Oscar was in 1983 for “Tender Mercies.”

At age 83, Duvall is the oldest among the acting nominees. Emma Stone at 26 is the youngest.

In looking at Meryl Streep’s unprecedented 19 nominations, 7 more than the two second-most nominated stars, Katharine Hepburn and Jack Nicholson with 12 apiece, her Oscar nods have taken place in five consecutive decades: two in the 1970s, six in the 1980s, four in the 1990s, four in the 2000-aughts and three in this decade.

She has had nominations in consecutive years six times: 1978-79, 1981-83, 1987-88, 1998-99, 2008-09 and 2013-14. While she won her first two Oscars within three years of each other — the Best Supporting Actress for “Kramer vs. Kramer” in 1979 and Best Actress for “Sophie’s Choice” in 1982, her third Academy Award did not come until 29 years later in 2011, Best Actress for “The Iron Lady.” In that 29-year period, she was a nominee 12 times.

Nine actors are experiencing their first nominations: Steve Carell, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Keaton, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Rosamund Pike, J.K. Simmons, Patricia Arquette and Emma Stone. The “late bloomers” in this group are Simmons at age 60 and Keaton at age 63.

Patricia Arquette is the only Arquette with a nomination, as brother David and sister Rosanna never have been nominated.