Grief turns to terror in ‘The Babbadook’

People who have been tuned into the news from film festivals all over the world likely have heard the buzz about “The Babbadook,” the feature film debut of Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent. It has won 16 awards including four in the Horror Features category for best actor, best actress, best screenplay and best picture at the Austin Fantastic Fest.

A domestic horror story, “The Babbadook,” also is an emotionally unnerving exploration into grief and the debilitating effects it can have on a person when it is suppressed.

Kent based this movie on a short film she did earlier, “Monster,” and with funding from Kickstart was able to develop a full-length feature.

In interviews, Kent — a fan of horror movies since childhood — has said “The Babbadook” was influenced by the early silent horror films, along with the works of Roman Polanski, such as “Repulsion,” and David Lynch. In fact, she uses footage from creepy silents like clips from Georges Melies’ movies to enhance the spookiness of her film.

In “The Babbadook,” Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widowed mother trying to cope with raising her six-year-old son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), and it has not been easy. Sam has some obvious problems. He is socially isolated, prone to violence, and each night wakes his mother, claiming there are monsters under his bed and in his closet. One of the causes of Sam’s anxieties is a pop-up book titled “Mister Babbadook,” featuring a character that Sam is convinced has invaded their home.

Initially, Sam is presented as an absolute terror, screaming, devising weapons and wearing Amelia down with his constant need for attention. Seeing the Babbadook book as a bad influence, she discards it, but like the creepy doll Annabelle, it reappears in the house.

As the movie progresses, Kent’s script challenges the viewers into questioning who really is more unstable — Amelia or Sam. Given the circumstances that led to the death of Amelia’s husband, serious issues may be simmering in the mother-son relationship.

Thus, an ambiguity arises as to who is more vulnerable to the psychological impact of the Babbadook book — mother or son. The pages of the book, although on screen only a few seconds at a time, are darkly disturbing, with illustrations designed by stop-motion animator Alex Juhasz, who won an Emmy for his opening credit sequences on Showtime’s “United States of Tara.”

Before long, Amelia is unable to convince Sam that Babbadook is not real because her own sense of reality is slipping and she begins a descent into madness.

Kent  has said suppression of emotions was the underlying theme of “The Babbadook,” exploring Amelia’s attempt to keep her life together without a complete emotional breakdown. The result is a terrifying and gradually billowing inability to distinguish between what is real and what is not

Kent as the script writer and Davis as the actress have collaborated on making Amelia empathetic. She does things that are compassionate while also engaging in selfish and irresponsible behavior, yet given what she is enduring it is difficult to judge her harshly.

Meanwhile, Wiseman, the son of a child psychologist, is a marvel, as he evolves from what seems to be a candidate for serious therapy into a basically sweet and caring child, terrified of the Babbadook but motivated by love to do what he can to protect his mother. The death of his father is something he can only absorb in an abstract way. He brings up it casually and in a detached way, as if dismissing it as one of those things in life. Yet he too seems to be suppressing his true emotional feelings about being fatherless.

“The Babbadook,” now available on pay per view while its DVD/Blu-Ray release is yet to be announced, is a well-constructed and ably acted view of a personal tragedy that metamorphoses into a dark and frightening psychological episode. In the end, Kent leaves it up to the viewers to decide if indeed the nightmare was real, and if it was, will it ever be over.

‘Whiplash’ presents look at a hellacious road to perfection

J.K. Simmons is one of those people whose face everyone knows, but whose name may elude many. Even his most high-profile exposure, in a series of State Farm Insurance commercials, he plays a character we all have grown to recognize. But what is his name?

For the record, his name in the State Farm commercials is Prof. Nathaniel Burke.

Simmons has had a career dating back to 1994 in mostly supporting roles but has added his special touch in fleshing out some memorable characters such as Vern Schilliger in “Oz,” Dr. Emil Skoda in several “Law & Order” episodes, J. Jonah Jameson in the “Spider-Man” films as well as other upcoming Marvel adventures, and Assistant Chief Will Hope in “The Closer.”

Now Simmons is being mentioned as a possible Academy Award nominee for his work in “Whiplash.” As Terrence Fletcher, Simmons puts on a command performance, one in which every second he is on the screen he keeps the audience riveted with his unpredictable behavior.

“Whiplash” is the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a first-year student at one of the most prestigious musical academies in the nation, located in Manhattan. Andrew is a jazz drummer who aspires to achieve the status reserved for the likes of Buddy Rich.

One day while practicing the drums on his own, Andrew is visited by Fletcher, the most renowned, and feared, teacher at the academy. Fletcher sets up the parameters of this teacher-student relationship by asking Andrew to do a specific piece of percussion work, then in the middle of the performance walks away, as if disinterested.

Later, however, Fletcher tells Andrew to report to the practice studio of the school’s highly regarded jazz band that under Fletcher’s guidance has a reputation for winning competitions. Andrew arrives and learns he is to be, initially, the back-up drummer for the group.

It is at these practice sessions that Fletcher is most volatile. Simmons’ portrayal of Fletcher has been likened to that of  R. Lee Ermey’s Gunner Sgt. Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket,” a man who is unrelenting and vicious in molding his charges into the toughest of the tough. Fletcher is a master at keeping the musicians on full alert. His facial expressions give nothing away. He may appear to be satisfied with the performances but in a flash can blow up and deliver vile, confidence-bashing tirades, or even resort to throwing things.

Fletcher has three words that all of his students dread to hear because when he says it, they know they are in for difficult time. Those three words are “not my tempo.” He is a stickler for the musicians to be in lock with his tempo and has such a gifted ear he can detect within seconds if the tempo is wrong.

He is cruel with his sharp criticisms and insults, and praise never comes from his lips. An approving nod is all the students will get if he is pleased.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle based “Whiplash” on his own experiences in a band led by a man who intimidated him. Initially, because he lacked finances, Chazelle filmed “Whiplash” as a short that he submitted in the short-film category at the Sundance Film Festival. It won the Jury Award and funding came through for Chazelle to make it a feature-length movie.

Teller, an accomplished drummer, turns in a credible performance as Andrew, a disciplined young man who wavers but never gives up despite the driving force of Fletcher with his mixed signals and unyielding demand for perfection.

“Whiplash” is a study of two people, one a master who honestly believes his methods are justified to mold musicians into true artists, the other an impassioned young person already driven to succeed who goes even further, willing to sacrifice a promising relationship with a young woman, Nicole (Melissa Benoist from “Glee”), to achieve his goals.

Under Chazelle’s direction, there are some intense scenes of Fletcher cracking a verbal whip, driving his students to exhaustion — and in the the case of the drummers, bloodied hands — never letting up until they reach their full potential. Even then, a simple mistake can result in any of the musicians being mercilessly ridiculed and degraded by Fletcher.

People who had their own experiences as musicians, dealing with stern teachers, will identify with “Whiplash,” although they may concede that Fletcher’s behavior is extreme.

The camera work during some of the performance scenes is impeccable, and fans of jazz will savor the moments of cool music, especially as a respite from the grueling exercises Fletcher puts his students through in the pursuit of perfection.


Keaton regains screen presence in ‘Birdman’

Back in 1982 Michael Keaton seemingly came out of nowhere and upstaged Henry Winkler with his performance in “Night Shift.” At the time, Keaton had worked mostly in television (his first credit was as a” volunteer” on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”
in 1975). His work as Bill Blazejowski in “Night Shift” was a breakout role, and a few years later he made a real name for himself as Betelgeuse in Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice.”

He did a stint as the caped crusader in “Batman” in 1989 and “Batman Returns” in 1992. For several years thereafter he took on supporting roles (“Out of Sight,” “The Other Guys”) without much distinction until he once again pulled off a scene-stealing performance as the rogue Internet streaming personality Monarch in “Need for Speed” earlier this year.

Now Keaton has returned to a lead role in “Birdman (also known as “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”), a uniquely structured character study by director and writer Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, whose earlier works have included “Amores Perros,” “Babel,” “21 Grams” and “Biutiful.”

The product of three writers in addition to Inarritu — Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo — “Birdman” is the behind-the-scenes look as Riggan (Keaton), a washed-up actor who years earlier had played an iconic superhero called Birdman, tries to resurrect his floundering career and redeem himself as a serious actor by directing and starring in a Broadway stage production of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

Aside from a crumbling career, a failed marriage and an alienated daughter, Riggan is occasionally visited by a voice in his head, the voice of his younger self, insisting he reprise his Birdman role and return to the top of his game.

Meanwhile, Riggan has to deal with the problems that inevitably arise as a stage production moves into the final rehearsals and premiere showings. Among the personalities weaving in and out of Riggan’s immediate existence are Jake (Zack Galifianakis), his high-strung attorney and financial handler; Lesley (Naomi Watts), one of his lead actresses about to make her Broadway debut in the play; Laura (Andrea Riseborough), the other lead actress and with whom he is romantically involved; Mike (Edward Norton), a late replacement in the other male lead role, a man who functions better on stage than in real life; and Sam (Emma Stone), his daughter, fresh out of rehab and still smoldering with resentment over her father’s absentee parenting while she was growing up.

Inarritu and his production staff have employed a single tracking shot effect, which can be riveting as the movie flows from one scene to the next without any cuts. The impression is similar to that of a live show being recorded with no pauses or additional takes.

Also unique is the drum score by Antonio Sanchez, heavy percussion interwoven with orchestral music. Some viewers might find the drum work jarring.

While visually appealing, “Birdman” is primarily about the performances, and Keaton does his best work in years as a man beset by regrets over his life, along with the anxieties that go with taking a major career risk. Some of the best scenes involve the interaction between Riggan and Mike, two giant egos posturing and trying to manipulate one another. Mike does not hide his disdain for Riggan as an actor and director while Riggan sees through the shallowness of this man who behind the curtain has many imperfections.

Among the women, Stone stands out as Sam, interjecting some insight that lifts the young woman from the usual portrayal of a person embittered by a dysfunctional family life. Watts and Riseborough also have some moments but their characters fade a bit, overshadowed by the performances of Keaton, Norton and Stone.

Some debate may arise over the metaphysical turn “Birdman” takes in the final moments, an abrupt change of tone from a grounded comedy-drama to what evolves into a fantasy sequence. Viewers who go with the flow of this change of course may find “Birdman” to be an interesting and layered study of the emotional ride performers must endure as they prepare to put it all out there for an audience that can either embrace or reject their work.

Gyllenhaal mesmerizes in ‘Nightcrawler’

A few years ago, Jake Gyllenhaal went through a critical wringer when he played Dastan in “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” a heavily financed movie that fizzled at the box office, not even grossing half of its cost. The consensus of many reviewers was that Gyllenhaal, while a proven actor (he was nominated for an Academy Award for “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005), he was not cut out to be an action hero.

Given the right role, however, Gyllenhaal can be a commanding presence, and his work as Lou Bloom in “Nightcrawler” may be his best opportunity so far to show off his talent.

A lot credit also goes to writer-director Dan Gilroy (“Two for the Money”) for providing a script that allows Gyllenhaal as Bloom to build a character that can leave the audience with mixed feelings about this man and what he does.

As “Nightcrawler” opens, Bloom is a man trying to make a living in dishonest ways but is driven to find legitimate work. Early in the movie Bloom shows talent for building himself up to a prospective employer, a sales pitch that might have worked if only his past did not include illegal activities.

One night, fate intercedes. While driving home in his clunky car, Bloom comes upon a serious auto accident where firemen are working to free an injured driver from the burning wreckage. As he pulls over and closes in to get a closer view of the action, a van pulls up and a “nightcrawler” emerges and takes videotape of the rescue operation. Entranced by this man’s actions, Bloom hovers nearby learns that this guy is what might be generously termed a “crime (or accident) journalist.” Not affiliated with any news organization, these nightcrawlers cruise the cities while plugged into police and fire department radio scanners, and go to the scenes and take news footage that is then sold to whatever television news organization is willing to buy it. They are freelancers, or as the news organizations call them, stringers.

This becomes a defining moment in Bloom’s life. He engineers a theft that helps him finance the purchase of the basic tools in his new line of work: a video camera and a scanner. His first foray into this gruesome world of first-responders to crime and accident scenes yields sloppy but graphic images. Wisely, Bloom takes his tape to a local Los Angeles television news outlet that is last in ratings, assuming the people there will be eager to obtain and air his footage. There he meets Nina Romina (Rene Russo), the station’s news director whose career is teetering after years of bouncing around.

In Bloom, Nina sees a man driven to succeed in this line of work, but one who needs to refine his skills.

“Nightcrawler” is a character study, and Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing as Bloom. He is very motivated, while also showing mastery in negotiations — he could thrive as a sports agent — and manipulation. The movie is heavy in dialogue but never boring. The camera zooms in on Bloom as he uses his powers of persuasion and exercises an ability to keep people off balance.

His interchanges with Nina are fascinating as he tries to build not only a business relationship with the woman, but an intimate one as well. In addition, he hires a desperate unemployed man, Rick (Riz Ahmed), to be his assistant. The way Bloom treats Rick is chilling — he plays the poor man, one minute praising him and building his confidence with predictions of a bright future, then a minute later cutting him down with brutal, yet useful, criticism.

“Nightcrawler” also is a study of exploitation and how Bloom, with emotional detachment, can turn people’s tragedies into money-making opportunities for himself, and how he can work a desperate employee to near exhaustion and then trick the man into making a payment deal that clearly benefits himself more.

The screenplay and Gyllenhaal’s performance also create a conflict in how the Bloom character is perceived. He can be ruthless in going after his goals, yet is admirable in that he is willing to do his research and put himself on the front lines. When he tells people that he would not force them to do anything he would not do, it is the truth.

“Nightcrawler” is an uncompromising look at a world where tragedies and crimes can be immediately recorded and dispatched via various media, and what can happen when people driven by personal motivations are able to set aside any sensitivity to achieve their goals, be it great ratings on television, or big payoffs for muscling in on horrible events without ever considering the dignity or privacy of the victims.

It seemed fitting that “Nightcrawler” would be released on Halloween weekend, as it is a modern urban horror story, with Lou Bloom and Nina Romina as monsters preying on the unfortunate.

‘Ouija’ conjures up little in suspense, horror

The makers of “Ouija” deserve an A for effort on this, the first major feature for writer-director Stiles White and co-writer Juliet Snowden. They tried to take on a subject that can be creepy and chill-inducing but were unable to add any new elements to the story. The result is another ghost yarn that is just a variation of the “Paranormal Activity” series, but minus the found-footage, jerky motion format.

The Ouija board, a conduit between the physical and spiritual world, has been featured in dozens of movies over the years, most notably in “The Exorcist” and more recently had a guest-starring stint in “Paranormal Activity.” The consistent thread in these appearances is that using the Ouija board, like playing with matches, can usually lead to trouble. It seems every  time a call is made to the great beyond via the board, it is not Casper the friendly ghost who answers. It is more often than not a spirit that is upset or riled about something.

“Ouija” begins with two young girls, Laine Morris and Debbie Galardi, playing with an Ouija board and Laine gets spooked when her sister Sarah comes into the room uninvited.

The movie advances several years and now teen-age Debbie (Shelley Hennig), alone in her house, seems to be unnerved about something. She tosses an Ouija board into the fireplace,  wanting to destroy it. Then, when Laine (Olivia Cooke from “Bates Motel”) comes by so they can go to a high school basketball game, Debbie begs off for vague reasons, making Laine suspicious something is up. But Laine goes on to the game.

Back alone in the house, Debbie experiences some strange things and soon is dead, having hung herself.

In the days following the tragedy, Laine, grappling with the guilt that she was unable to prevent Debbie’s suicide, begins to sense something else is going on. Conveniently, Debbie’s parents decide to leave town for a while to recover from their sorrow, asking  Laine to watch the house during their absence. Also, Laine, whose mother is no longer around (either split from the marriage or dead — it is never revealed), is left with her rebellious  sister Sarah (Ana Coto) while her father is on a business trip. This gets the parents out of the way.

Laine discovers the Ouija board at the Galardi house, not aware it supposedly was burned. Giving in to her intuitions that Debbie might be trying to contact her, Laine drafts four other people to join her in a seance at the Galardi house: Sarah, Laine’s boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), Debbie’s boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith) and Isabelle (Bianca Santos).

The Galardi house is the epitome of a place with a bad history — two-story, old and creaky, and despite having numerous lights throughout always seems to be dark. Some unusual events occur during the seance held by the young people, but nothing substantive results from the attempt to contact the dead.

However, over the next few days, four of the young people encounter the same message in various ways — written on a wall with chalk, etched on a desk, appearing on a laptop screen and scrawled on window condensation — leading them to believe it is indeed an attempt by Debbie to contact them.

So the Ouija board is hauled out again, but soon the young people discover there is something more sinister going on. Here is where the screenplay by White and Snowden gets bogged down in yet another haunted house story. Fans of such spooky stories will enjoy the appearance of Lin Shaye from the “Insidious” films, playing a different character but in a similar role as someone who may have an explanation for the creepy incidents. Also, Vivis Columbetti, who played the nanny Martine, a person who sensed evil things brewing before everyone else in “Paranormal Activity 2,” plays the Galardi housekeeper Nona, who counsels Laine on how to battle these nasty spirits.

“Ouija” does build some suspense, but the payoff scares just fall flat. Flickering lights, mysterious shadows, doors opening on their own and the creaks and pounding have become mundane after so many uses in movies of this type.

Cooke, who starred as Jane Harper, the young woman supposedly possessed by a doll in “The Quiet Ones” earlier this year, anchors “Ouija” as Laine, a strong-willed young woman whose attempts to make sense out of a friend’s death unwittingly launches more peril around her. Unfortunately, other than Coto as Sarah, the sister who likes to sneak out at night with an older guy, none of the other characters has much personality. They are props whose role is to be terrified.

“Ouija” falls short of creating any substantial apprehension. When the secrets are finally revealed, they are not particularly startling. In the end, White and Snowden simply revisited the familiar themes of the ghost story movie.

Jacob Goodnight on the killer path again in ‘See No Evil 2’

These are exciting times for horror fans. There is so much talent out there, and with conventions and film festivals, these people are getting opportunities to show their projects while social media help us horror aficionados to connect with kindred spirits and learn about these great new feature-length movies and shorts. Ah, the joys of discovering there are a lot of us who like our movies scary, gory, mind-boggling and disturbing.

Thanks to Screamfest Horror Film Festival held at the TLC Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, “See No Evil 2,” the latest directorial effort from Jen and Sylvia Soska, was given a big-screen presentation in the days before its release on VOD, iTunes and DVD/Blu Ray.

That “See No Evil 2” was not given a theatrical release was distressing to those of us who viewed the Soska twins’ “American Mary” and were eager to see their next venture. So, it was a treat having a screening in a nice big theater in front of viewers who love their horror good and bloody.

“See No Evil 2,” as the title reveals, is a sequel, and as such is bound by the restrictions of such follow-up films. It does not bring anything new to the table. With Glenn “Kane” Jacobs reprising his role as the vicious psychopath Jacob Goodnight, we know what is going to happen. Jacob is going to slaughter some people — just who and how are the mysteries.

The Soskas, whose jaw-dropping “American Mary” in 2012 served notice that these two ladies have enormous talent, received some financial muscle via WWE Studios when given the assignment of “See No Evil 2.” This movie should be considered as something of a warm-up, like a baseball player in the cage for batting practice — honing the skills. The Soskas were able to make “American Mary” look like a movie with major financial backing while working with a small budget. Now given expanded resources, they have put together a film in “See No Evil 2” that takes a predictable story line and molds it into a beautifully choreographed and photographed piece of horror mastery.

The script by Nathan Brookes and Bobby Lee Darby picks the story up where the original “See No Evil” left off, in the aftermath of Jacob’s killing spree and his own supposed death. Jacob’s body, along with those of his victims, are deposited in the morgue while only three staffers are present — the minimal graveyard shift. The staffers include Amy (Danielle Harris), Seth (Kaj-Erik Eriksen) and the wheel-chair bound Holden (Michael Eklund). It’s Amy’s birthday and although her shift is about to end, she volunteers to stay and help Seth deal with the incoming bodies, canceling post-work celebration plans.

Thus, some of Amy’s friends, and her brother, pay a surprise visit to the morgue for a late-night impromptu party. The arrivals are Tamara (Katharine Isabelle from “American Mary”), her boyfriend Carter (Lee Majdoub), Amy’s brother Will (Greyston Holt) and Kayla (Chelan Simmons), who has designs on Will.

The character development is effective in that while these people may be flawed, they also have good traits, and none deserve to die. Isabelle’s Tamara is the weirdest of the bunch, and her portrayal is a real departure from her turn as Mary Mason in “American Mary.” She is creepy but funny and her party-time proclivities lead to what is likely to be the most talked about scenes in “See No Evil 2,” some antics that are darkly humorous and have the viewer on edge in anticipation.

Jacob, with his right eye poked out, is first seen laying on a slab, seemingly cold meat. When he suddenly disappears from the slab, it’s party over. Time for terror.

The Soskas love horror movies, and this is evident in the atmosphere, tone and style of they set in “See No Evil 2.” They have taken the morgue, the venue for this kill-fest, and turned it into an unwitting accomplice to Jacob, with its deadly maze of corridors, locked doors, stairwells, elevators that are never available at the right time and windows too small to let in the bright, living world. And the Soskas, bless their hearts, opted for steadier camera work instead of the jerky motions of handhelds that can mar otherwise splendidly heart-pounding action sequences.

The Soskas dialed back a bit on the graphic gore, but that does not diminish Jacob’s ferocity. The horrifying killer almost seems at home in the morgue. He also knows his way around the facility better than the employees.

The cast, led by Harris as Amy, the most level-headed of the group amid the bloodbath, does a credible job of infusing life into the characters before they segue into the next stage of the movie, trying to avoid being killed. Jacobs is a formidable physical presence, a man whose massive silhouette against a lighted backdrop can induce chills in even the most hard core horror fan.

“See No Evil 2” is a solid effort, 90 minutes of what one expects from the crazed killer theme. It has a few surprises in it despite the standard blueprint. It’s a safe bet that upon future viewings, things will be spotted in the movie that were not noticed before.

‘Dracula Untold’ revisits the most famous vampire of them all

Vampire stories have become so prevalent in the horror movie genre, right up there with zombies, that it was inevitable the top blood-sucker of them all, Dracula, would be revisited.

Gary Shore, who has directed commercials for popular brands of products, along with the writing team of Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, have put together as their first major major feature the movie “Dracula Untold.” Unlike previous Dracula films wherein the vampire has been around and fed off the blood of humans for centuries, “Untold” focuses on how this person became a vampire in the first place.

The notion that author Bram Stoker based Dracula on Vlad III of Transylvania — also know as Vlad the Impaler — has been speculative. There is a passage in chapter three of the “Dracula” novel that makes references to the dark times in which Vlad lived, and later Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing is quoted as believing Dracula came from that era.

Shore, Sazama and Sharpless build upon that speculation and portray Vlad / Dracula as a more sympathetic character than history has.

In the 1400s, the Turks were the conquerors of territories and exploited Transylvania by claiming 1,000 of the country’s boys, enslaving them and training them to become killers for their army. Among those taken by the Turks was Vlad, who would grow up and become the feared and legendary Vlad the Impaler.

As an adult, Vlad (Luke Evans) has returned to the Castle Dracula and is a beloved prince in his homeland Transylvania. There has been a fragile peace with the Turks and it is a time of prosperity.

While out patrolling in the wilderness near the castle, Vlad and some of his soldiers come across a Turkish helmet. Fearing the Turks are sending out spies, they investigate and end up inside a cave on Broken Tooth Mountain. There they tragically encounter some sort of savage being. The shaken Vlad returns home and soon learns from Brother Lucian (Paul Kaye), that what they found in that cave was a man who had made a pact with a demon that of course betrayed him, leaving this man cursed to living in the dank cave for eternity as a vampire.

Shortly thereafter, Transylvania’s Easter festivities are interrupted by messengers for the latest Turk Sultan, Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), who announce that the ruler is renewing the decree that Translyvania give up 1,000 of its boys to be trained for the Turkish army. This order also includes Vlad’s son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). Since Vlad and Mehmed grew up together, the prince believes he can talk his old childhood buddy out of this ruling.

But Mehmed (Cooper at his strutting, villainy best) brushes off any alternative proposal by Vlad, even insisting that Vlad can always have another son, replacing the one he will be giving up.

Vlad barely gets home when a half-dozen Turks arrive to claim Ingeras. In addition, they foolishly taunt Vlad, a fatal mistake.

Knowing that Mehmed will be sending a vast army he and his people will not be able to repel, the desperate Vlad returns to Broken Tooth Mountain in hopes of harnessing some of that power from the cursed vampire residing in the cave.

The  vampire is played by Charles Dance, and he sees this as an opportunity. If he can pass on his vampire curse to Vlad, he will be free to escape the cave and carry out revenge on his betrayer. Vlad must drink some of the vampire’s blood, which will give him enormous power, but only for three days. However, if Vlad succumbs to the what will be a ravenous appetite for blood in those three days, he will become a vampire for eternity.

“Dracula Untold” now presents the challenge of whether Vlad can defeat the Turks in three days and whether he can resist the temptation of drinking blood. Also, Vlad needs to stay out of the sun.

Evans, who was the lethally calculating Driver in the 2012 blood-fest “No One Lives,” presents Vlad as a man who has managed to maintain a perspective on his ultra violent past and now savors the peaceful life with his wife Merina (Sarah Gadon) and son. He is a strong and wise leader of his people. Backed into a corner, he must risk it all to save his people from an unyielding force. Evans has a commanding screen presence and adequately conveys a man tormented by the forces that lead him to making such perilous decisions.

“Dracula Untold” is beautifully shot among a dark and foreboding backdrop. Unfortunately,  the battle scenes are choppy and hard to follow. It is earnest in its presentation, and aside from Vlad, Merina, Ingeras and the Vampre, the supporting characters are basically scenery with little to make them memorable.

The movie’s ending also points to this being a reboot of the Dracula franchise.


‘Annabelle’ triggers a few chills but little else

What you get with “Annabelle” is a potpourri of scary movie elements, including the creepy toy or doll, lights flickering, interruptions in TV or radio transmissions, furniture moving on its own, strange noises, uninvited spiritual visitations, doors closing by themselves, spooky hallways and basements and children or babies in peril.

What you do not get is a lot of originality or truly terrifying moments.

The screenplay by Gary Dauberman details a simple story, one that has been told before. Some object is brought into a household, in this case a doll that is about three feet tall. Shortly after this doll is in place, bad things happen, and even a change in residence does not relieve the victims of terror.

“Annabelle” takes place in the months after the Tate-La Bianca murders committed by members of the Charles Manson “family” in 1969. A young couple, John and Mia (Ward Horton and Annabelle Wallis), live in a nice neighborhood in Santa Monica. John is about to begin his medical internship and Mia is late in a pregnancy with their first child.

Mia is an expert at sewing and collects dolls, and one day John presents her with the one doll she has been coveting, the one that will be the biggest in her collection. A couple of horrible events soon follow that lead to discarding of the doll and convincing John and Mia to move. Also, their daughter Lea is born.

With John working at the Huntington hospital in Pasadena, the couple relocate to an apartment building in that city, and even though the doll had been thrown away at the Santa Monica residence, it somehow manages to appear in the Pasadena apartment. Despite that strange occurrence, Mia elects to keep it.

With John putting in long hours at the hospital, Mia is home alone with the baby and per usual in these chillers, strange things begin to happen, escalating from annoyances to terror. Mia, meanwhile, is befriended by Evelyn (Alfre Woodward), the owner of a local bookstore and a woman who has endured tragedy in her life.

As spooky events continue, John and Mia turn to their church and seek help from Father Perez (Tony Amendola). Eventually Evelyn also gets involved with helping Mia.

At this point, the expectations are that John and Mia may be betrayed by people they trust, people with diabolical motivations. This adds an element to the movie, which suffers from lack of effective creepiness. There are a couple of good, jolting scenes, but the overall effect is a mildly chilling movie.

Horton and Wallis are an attractive young couple, and the interplay between Wallis and the always watchable Woodard adds some touching moments to the proceedings.

“Annabelle” may hook some viewers who are drawn into the creepy-doll genre of horror films. Those who like their scares to be more intense will find “Annabelle” to be ho-hum.

Washington’s character summons past skills in ‘The Equalizer’

It was pretty cool having movies starring Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington released on successive weekends. These two men have a commanding screen presence, and in Neeson’s case, his work carried an otherwise slow-paced and murky “A Walk Among the Tombstones.”

Washington, on the other hand, while being the major force in “The Equalizer,” had some solid backing, starting with the director, Antoine Fuqua, who teamed up with Washington on the superb “Training Day,” along with a coolly lethal foe in Teddy (Marton Csokas).

The title character is Washington’s Robert McCall. a former government operative now living a quiet life working in one of those giant hardware/home maintenance super stores. An insomniac, he spends his off hours in an all-night diner, drinking hot tea and, in a tribute to his late wife, reading classic novels.

He also is the kind of person who is giving. He is helping one of his co-workers, Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) drop weight and train so he can apply for a security guard position.

Another regular customer at the diner is a young lady, Teri — whose real name is Alina — (Chloe Grace Moretz), who is employed at an escort service run by ruthless Russian gangsters. McCall and Teri strike up a friendly acquaintance, with McCall giving the young woman encouragement to pursue her dream of a singing career. He is very aware of her current status, and it is a tribute to Washington’s acting skills that you can detect in his eyes the conflict he feels in whether or not to help Teri break away from this horrible work. He knows that if he does, it will require him to summon again the deadly skills he had used in his earlier life.

But when Teri is so badly beaten by her handler that she is hospitalized, McCall no longer can stand by. McCall pays a visit to this man, Slavi (David Meunier) and his crew and tries to give them a peaceful way out. But his gesture is rudely dismissed, so he extracts a bloody revenge that leaves five men dead.

This action has implications reaching all the way to Moscow, where the head of the Russian syndicate sends his best “cleaner,” Teddy, to the U.S. to find out what happened.

It takes a little while for all of this to set up, but it is worth it. Once Teddy zeroes in on McCall, the movie becomes an intriguing game of cat and mouse between two men who are at the top of their game. Csokas is mesmerizing as Teddy, so terrifyingly soft-spoken but brilliant and calculating, and when he explodes in violence, is it truly jarring.

McCall also is quiet, and always gives his adversaries a chance at redemption, the result usually being a verbal spit in the face. That is when McCall issues his form of justice — swiftly and efficiently.

The interplay between Csokas and Washington is brilliantly executed. McCall detests Teddy but clearly respects the man’s intelligence and dedication. And Csokas, an excellent character actor, aptly conveys that Teddy, under his veneer of cool confidence, is harboring an uneasiness about going up against McCall, and maybe even grudgingly respects him.

Fuqua, as shown in “Training Day,” does not hold back on the violence. It is brutal and the film is very worthy of its R-rating. He presents a graphic movie that pits one man with a steadfast conscience against a powerful machine driven only by profit, at whatever means. It’s a match-up that can keep the audience riveted.

Neeson again a flawed hero in slow-moving ‘Tombstones’

Back in the day when John Wayne was a box-office giant, the knock on him was that, in his Westerns at least, he played variations of the same character, usually a gunfighter who followed his own moral compass, a man who could be counted on in a crisis but one who seemed more comfortable wielding a gun than engaging in working or intimate relationships.

Liam Neeson of late has stepped into a role that he does well, that of a flawed man whose skills put him in a dangerous world. There he thrives, while his personal life is a shambles. The characters in his most recent high-profile movies — Bryan Mills in “Taken” and “Taken 2,” Ottway in “The Grey” and Bill Marks in “Non-Stop” — fit snugly into this mold.

Neeson is not only good in this role, he draws us into his characters, and that has paid off in these movies. His work is a major asset in “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” classified as a crime thriller mystery that is not all that thrilling and does not even try to be a whodunit mind bender.

Based upon the novel by Lawrence Block, “Tombstones” is written and directed by Scott Frank, who did a superb job of adapting two of Elmore Leonard’s novels — “Out of Sight” and “Get Shorty” — to the screen. In those movies, it was not the crimes, but the characters, that carried the story. Frank makes that same effort with “Tombstones,” and the results are mixed.

Neeson’s character is Matt Scudder, who when the movie begins, is a plainclothes New York City cop in 1991. While he is indulging in some free drinks in a bar, three ill-fated robbers hit the place, and moments later, Scudder has taken them down with gunfire, two of them fatally.

The movie jumps ahead to 1999 and now Scudder is an unlicensed private investigator and a an alcoholic who has been dry for a while. Unfortunately, the trailers for “Tombstones” reveal why he left the police force, which diminishes the emotional impact when it is detailed in the movie.

One evening in 1999, Scudder encounters Howie (Eric Nelson), a fellow Alcoholics Anonymous member, who says that his brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) could use Scudder’s services.

Scudder meets with Kenny, who tells him his wife Carrie was kidnapped and even though a ransom was paid, Carrie was murdered, dismembered and left in the trunk of an abandoned car. Kenny wants Scudder to find the men who did this and bring them to him.

Kenny seems well off financially and finally admits to Scudder he is a drug trafficker but plans on getting out once he builds a nice nest egg. Scudder refuses to take the case initially but soon is drawn back in. He then learns through his investigation that these kidnappers have done this before and Scudder believes they will do it again.

While in a public library checking out microfilm for old newspaper articles on these crimes, Scudder meets TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless boy who latches onto Scudder because he wants to become a private investigator some day. Scudder tries to discourage him but soon the two develop a unique kinship.

The identities of the two kidnapper-killers are revealed about midway through the movie as Ray (David Harbour, seen most recently as Reed Ackley in “Manhattan”) and Albert (Adam David Thompson), but beyond that little else is exposed about these two characters. They live together, but whether they are intimately involved or just partners in crime who share a home is never addressed.

The only real mysteries in “Tombstones” are why these two became serial kidnapper-killers, and what are their motivations for singling out certain people for their crimes. This assures some lively post-movie discussions and prevents “Tombstones” from stumbling into what can seriously erode a crime thriller — the obligatory monologue by the bad guys as to why they commit these atrocities.

Amid Scudder’s investigation, Ray and Albert strike again, this time abducting the teen daughter of another drug trafficker. These two guys, however demented their intentions, are very good at covering their tracks. Meanwhile, Scudder, without the resources of a law enforcement agency, must rely on a motley crew of associates that include the revenge-minded Kenny, the drug-addled Howie and the street kid TJ. It seems like a major mismatch.

A lot of the footage shows Scudder walking among the broken down areas of New York City, interviewing people and finding little evidence to go on until he questions a groundskeeper, James Loogan (Olafur Darri Olafsson), who works at a cemetery where the remains of an earlier victim had been disposed.

Frank’s screenplay ties in redemption with Scudder’s efforts to bring down the two killers, and the movie plods along at a slow pace. “Tombstone” tries to be a thinking person’s crime mystery, but too much information is left out to make it memorable in the end. Nevertheless, Neeson once again brings out a character haunted by inner demons who can only find meaning when he has to immerse himself in the muck of the worst of humanity.