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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

I binge watched the 10-episode, 10-hour series The Haunting of Hill House in a day on Netflix—and I wanted more.

So, yeah, it’s good.

Based, very loosely, on the Shirley Jackson novel, it tells the story of a family living in a creepy house while the parents (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas) renovate it for the purpose of flipping it for profit. Things begin to go badly in a haunting kind of way, and events occur that have ramifications throughout the years.

The show covers two time periods, one in which Thomas (who is beyond excellent) plays the young dad, and Timothy Hutton (also excellent) plays him two decades later. The cast is stellar across the board, with the likes of Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen and Elizabeth Reaser playing the adult versions of the siblings, and Paxton Singleton, Lulu Wilson and Violet McGraw playing them as children.

There are lots of ghosts in the show, and some of them are truly terrifying, including a tall, levitating ghost that guides himself by tapping a cane on the floor. The show is as much a family drama as a horror show, pulling off both genres efficiently.

The Haunting of Hill House is now streaming on Netflix.

The Kindergarten Teacher stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as, well, a kindergarten teacher who discovers one of her students (Parker Sevak) is quite the poet. She covets the boy’s talent to a point that becomes … well, unhealthy.

The movie, a remake of a French film, gives the talented Gyllenhaal yet another terrific showcase; her teacher is a most complicated character who is guilty of numerous crimes … yet you can’t help but feel for her. Tired of her life, she becomes obsessed with the boy, utilizes his poetry in a bad way, and gets herself in a whole world of trouble. Gyllenhaal pulls off a marvel of a performance, making a despicable person undeniably sympathetic.

This is yet another great offering from Netflix; The Kindergarten Teacher is a theater-caliber movie getting released on the streaming platform with only a limited theatrical release. This is the sort of movie that used to only play art houses; now you can watch it at home the week it’s released.

The Kindergarten Teacher is now streaming on Netflix.

Space-exploration movies based upon real events, not surprisingly, have usually made “the mission” the thrust of the plot.

First Man goes a different route. It dares to focus on a man rather than a mission—Neil Armstrong, the man at the center of the Apollo 11 mission, and what made him tick. It shows the familial struggles the man dealt with leading up to the mission and, most strikingly, his viewpoint as a bunch of white-clad workers packed him into sardine-can-like compartments and blasted him off into space. It’s an amazingly intimate movie, considering the subject matter.

Director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) doesn’t ignore the details of NASA’s buildup to Armstrong’s arrival on the lunar surface. In fact, the film is one of the most scientifically intriguing films I’ve seen regarding what astronauts go through, and the mechanics of a space launch. However, it also manages to be a moving, often haunting study of the sacrifice and pain Armstrong went through to beat the Russians to the punch.

Before this film, I did not know that Armstrong (played here by Ryan Gosling, in top form) lost his young daughter to cancer in 1962, seven years before his legendary flight. Appropriately, that event is as central of an occurrence as the moon landing in this movie. This film is about Armstrong’s sacrifices and hardships, as well as the enormous psychological and physiological tortures he went through in that decade leading up to Apollo 11. In turn, it’s a testament to every man and woman who risked their lives in the name of the space race.

Claire Foy is the epitome of patience as Janet Armstrong, who must tend to her mischievous son as the sound from a NASA intercom drifts through her house—a sound letting her know her husband is surviving his latest mission.

Chazelle brilliantly stages the launches from Armstrong’s point of view. The camera violently shakes, with the view from a small window being the only thing we see—as if we are watching from inside Armstrong’s helmet.

The final moon landing has Armstrong immersed in total silence as he watches Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) hop away from the lunar module. The film cost about $60 million to make; that’s like an indie budget nowadays. It’s to Chazelle and his crew’s credit that it looks like it cost at least twice as much.

You might find yourself justifiably bummed out for much of First Man’s running time. Besides the death of his daughter, Armstrong lost some good friends at NASA, including Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Edward Higgins White (Jason Clarke) and Roger Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who all died horrific deaths during an Apollo 1 test. There was also Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), who died in a test-flight crash preparing for Gemini 9.

Armstrong was well-known for his quiet and stoic demeanor. Gosling, working with a script by Josh Singer, shows us a calm, quiet and focused man who kept looking forward, no matter what forces tried to drag him back. The film depicts a trio of near-death experiences, including the film’s opening sequence involving a test flight in space that almost took Armstrong out. No matter how many times he had to crash or eject, Armstrong endured with almost-impossible strength and reserve—which Gosling depicts perfectly.

First Man forgoes much of the obvious patriotism and international competition that marked the space race in favor of simply showing what a dude had to endure to get lunar dust on his boots. Going to the moon was a messed-up, crazily dangerous endurance test—and this movie succeeds in making that abundantly clear.

First Man is playing at theaters across the valley.

Writer-director Drew Goddard, who hadn’t directed a film since The Cabin in the Woods in 2012, assembles an all-star cast for a nutty film—that’s sometimes a little too cute for its own good.

The star of this movie is the El Royale, a fictional hotel based on Lake Tahoe’s Cal Neva hotel, once owned by Frank Sinatra. Bad Times at the El Royale features fine art direction, from its aged lobby straddling two states, to its creepy tunnels behind the rooms set up for criminal voyeurs.

Jeff Bridges plays a mysterious priest who checks into the resort along with a singer (Cynthia Erivo), a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm) and a hippie (Dakota Johnson). After the messed-up manager (Lewis Pullman) checks them in, each visitor has his or her own story in his or her own room.

Goddard shows flourishes of brilliance, mixing thrills, mystery, humor and lots of blood into the intertwined plots, giving the film a Tarantino-like feel. (I know that’s a cliché these days, but it’s true.) The film is set in 1969 and pays homage to the time through its soundtrack, set design and subplot involving a Manson-like cult leader (Chris Hemsworth).

At nearly 2 1/2 hours, the film is a bit much; a half-hour could easily be excised. However, the stuff that works makes Bad Times at the El Royale a worthwhile movie.

Bad Times at the El Royale is playing at theaters across the valley.

It’s movie magic at its most beautiful when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga share the screen in A Star Is Born. It’s a rousing remake of the old rise-to-fame story, and it’s easily the best movie with that title ever made. It is the fourth—yet this film feels amazingly original.

Cooper makes his directorial debut and stars as Jackson Maine, a Southern rocker barely getting through his gigs thanks to too much alcohol, too many pills and a nasty case of tinnitus. The film opens with Cooper live on stage belting out “Black Eyes,” a song that shows this movie means business on the musical front: Yes, that’s him singing and playing a pretty mean guitar. He brings a legitimate musical soul to the role.

And he’d damned well better, because his counterpart is played by none other than Lady Gaga in her fierce feature-lead debut. As Ally, a waitress who sings occasionally at the local drag bar, Gaga exceeds expectations so much that it seems impossible. She’s so good that it hurts, especially in the film’s heavy dramatic moments, of which there are many.

After his opening concert performance (filmed at Coachella in 2017), Jackson heads to Ally’s drag bar and, through an alcohol haze, witnesses her stirring version of “La Vie En Rose.” He’s instantly convinced he’s witnessing a diamond in the rough and implores her to join him on the road. She makes an impromptu appearance onstage with him performing “Shallow,” a song they wrote in a grocery-store parking lot together. She’s an instant smash, and the journey to fame and fortune has begun for Ally.

As this oft-told story goes, when one star rises, the other falls, and Cooper (who co-wrote the screenplay) stays faithful to that theme. While past incarnations have been a bit shmaltzy (Barbra Streisand’s 1970s take was pretty goofy), this take is gritty, intelligent, heartfelt and at times emotionally overwhelming. Gaga cries a bit in this movie, and you probably will, too.

Speaking of the Streisand version, Cooper’s film makes many obvious nods to it, including Jackson’s Kris Kristofferson look, an examination of Gaga’s big beautiful nose (just like Streisand’s) and even a moment including fake eyebrows. (There are prominent eyebrow-centric scenes in all of the versions.) Cooper acknowledges the prior films without stealing from them; fans of each version will appreciate what they see here.

Gaga reportedly campaigned for the music to be performed live, and this is a huge blessing, because nobody sings live like Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. What she does with “Shallow” and the film’s closing number, “I’ll Never Love Again,” is the stuff of movie legend. While this sort of musical magic is more or less expected from Gaga, to have Cooper successfully trading musical punches with one of the best singers on the planet is some sort of musical miracle.

Ally’s rise-to-fame story becomes a little predictable when her pop career takes off, but not enough to hurt the movie or diminish the film’s instant-classic status. The songs, many of them crafted by Gaga and Cooper together, are the real deal.

It was a lot of fun following this film’s production and reading about what inspired Cooper to make the movie and cast Gaga. It’s rare that a film lives up to the hype like this one has. Gaga is now a front-runner for an acting Oscar; Cooper finds himself in the running for directing; and “Shallow” seems predestined for a win as Best Original Song.

See this one knowing that the goosebumps will rise; the smiles will stretch your face muscles; and the tears will flow. A Star is Born is one of the year’s best movies, and Cooper and Gaga are one of the all-time-great screen pairings.

A Star Is Born is playing at theaters across the valley.

Venom is a sometimes-entertaining mess—but it’s still a mess.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: You shouldn’t have a Venom movie without Spider-Man somehow playing into the villain’s backstory. Venom looks like Spider-Man in the comic, because the symbiote fused with Peter Parker first, resulting in the “Spider-Man on steroids” look. However, this film has no Spidey, and no Spidey means the monster needs a different origin. Now Venom comes about because of a space alien that passes through an evil scientist’s lab—a space alien that looks a little like Spider-Man.

Tom Hardy labors hard at playing Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter who is infected by the symbiote and starts biting off people’s heads, PG-13-style. Brock winds up with Venom’s voice in his head and an ability to make Venom sort of a good/bad guy. It’s all kind of stupid; the film plays things mostly for laughs and squanders a chance for a real horror show.

Some of the action and effects are pretty good, and Hardy gives it his all, but the film feels like a botch job from the start. Michelle Williams gets what might be the worst role of her career as Brock’s girlfriend, and Riz Ahmed plays the stereotypical villain.

There are hints of something cool here, but they are buried under a pile of muck.

Venom is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Whitney is a bummer of a documentary to watch, as well it should be. Thanks to the participation of Whitney Houston’s family members, including her former husband Bobby Brown, this stands as the definitive look at her career and her downfall. It’s a devastating film.

The movie starts with the vibrant Houston singing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” and gives a special nod to her first national TV appearance on the The Merv Griffin Show. Her mother, Cissy Houston, and brothers (among other family and friends) sit down for interviews, and the subject seems happy for a good chunk of the film. Then Bobby Brown—it’s shocking that he sat down for an interview—entered her life, bringing turmoil, including increased drug usage and his infidelity. It was all downhill from there.

It all works up to the ending we know is coming, but it’s still shocking to see this joyful person fall apart under the spotlight. Houston didn’t even make it to 50, paying the ultimate price for stardom, as Michael Jackson did just three years before—at a similar age.

The film is put together well; it’s just one of those films you wish didn’t need to exist.

Whitney is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com; it will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on Oct. 16.

Halloween is fast approaching … so cue the crap horror films.

At least Hell Fest isn’t another Saw film. With the arrival of last year’s Jigsaw, I thought we were going to get blasted with annual Saw films again. Thankfully, Jigsaw did not start a trend. Instead, Hell Fest is in the spirit of I Know What You Did Last Summer in that it rips off countless horror films that came before it … and it also sucks hard.

Natalie (Amy Forsyth) joins some friends for an evening of terror as they attend an amusement park full of haunted houses, death mazes and masked employees running around the park with a mandate to scare the shit out of them. However, among the paid crew is an anonymous person—wearing a mask and hoodie like many others in the park—who isn’t going for make believe. He actually wants to kill people with ice picks, mallets, guillotines, syringes and standard-issue knives.

Much of the action takes place in the dark, with flashing strobe lights and shades of red, all backed by stock horror sound effects. There’s a pretty good reason why none of this is scary: Director Gregory Plotkin films in a way that renders the settings flat and cheap-looking, just like your average amusement-park haunted house. This stuff may be a little scary in real life, but it’s not while sitting in a movie theater.

Hell Fest has almost zero mystery, because early on, we see the killer—with his back to the camera—put on a mask and pick up a weapon. Everybody in the group of friends going through the park with Natalie is present and accounted for, so the killer is just a creep à la Jason or Michael Myers, minus the true sense of dread when it came to Myers in the first Halloween. If you go to this movie thinking you might have some fun trying to guess who the killer is, no luck: There’s absolutely no mystery.

Forsyth actually has the makings of an interesting performer, so it’s sort of sad watching her slog through this. Of course, the friend group has the chipper punk-rock girl, Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus); she’s “the funny one” who isn’t really funny, just annoying. She and many of the other players are just cannon fodder for the killer, with none of them standing out beyond stereotypes.

The “kills” earn an R-rating, but barely. One guy gets his head crushed; another gets a syringe in an eye, while most get disemboweled. One of the scary prospects of the premise is the killer could put the dead folks out on display in the park. This happens once, briefly, near the beginning, but we only hear on newscasts about the killer doing this to other victims. There are no actual moments of park-goers seeing real dead bodies and thinking they are just part of the attractions. That might’ve been scary—so, naturally, it does not happen.

Hell Fest doesn’t seem like it was made to actually be scary. It just wants to get from beginning to end while killing off the cast in routine ways, never really going for anything imaginative or genuinely frightening. This is conveyer-belt horror cinema at its worst, as evidenced by the lame cliffhanger ending that suggests there will be a sequel.

If you are looking for true haunted-house terror this Halloween, you are better off just going to the makeshift horror house in your neighbor’s garage. Let’s hope the revamped Halloween, coming later in October, packs more of a scary wallop.

Hell Fest is playing at theaters across the valley.

Damsel stars Robert Pattinson as Samuel, a man in the Old West searching for the girl (Mia Wasikowska) he loves. His intent: Find her and ask for her hand in marriage; he even has a preacher (David Zellner) and a pony in tow.

This film is unorthodox from the get-go, with Robert Forster playing a preacher who paints a dire picture of the Old West in the film’s opening minutes—a scene that might contain the best screen moments of Forster’s career. His depiction of the West as a crazed place of misery sets the stage for what’s to come: a strange, dark and morbidly funny look at a time that cinematic Westerns tend to romanticize.

Pattinson continues to be one of the more adventurous actors out there, while Wasikowska delivers the film’s most dominant performance.

An event around the film’s midway point completely changes the direction of the movie. David and Nathan Zellner, who wrote and directed the film, succeed in giving us something original.

Damsel is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls feels like a mishmash of family-friendly Halloween tales—and it’s a messy mishmash at that. It wants to be Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket and Goosebumps all rolled up into one wacky movie. It’s all a little too much, and it falls apart in its final act.

Granted, it’s based upon a novel published in 1973, so perhaps the aforementioned tales were actually inspired by author John Bellairs. As for the cinematic punch, however, this movie adaptation definitely pulls a lot of style choices from films that came before it.

If your kids go to this one and then request permission to watch other films by the director, beware—for it is directed by Eli Roth, frequent purveyor of gross-out torture porn like Cabin Fever, Hostel and The Green Inferno. While Roth shows he can conjure enjoyable elements within the realm of a PG rating, he can’t quite wrangle the story together to deliver something that makes sense. While the film does contain some genuinely creepy stuff, many of its attempts at frights with living dolls and scary pumpkins feel recycled.

Jack Black and Cate Blanchett deliver fun performances as a warlock and semi-retired witch, but much of the film rests upon the young shoulders of Owen Vaccaro as Lewis, an orphan sent to live with his Uncle Jonathan (Black) in a creepy house. Jonathan and neighbor Mrs. Zimmermann (Blanchett) eventually start coaching the misfit Lewis in the powers of witchcraft—an offense that would get child services on their asses, even back in the ’50s, when this film is set.

Vaccaro looks like he’s a capable actor; for much of the film, he’s good and quirky. However, there are moments when he’s called upon to really emote, and some of them go way over the top. Keep in mind that Roth hasn’t worked much with kids in his career (although one must give him props for the action he got from the cool karate-kicking kid in Cabin Fever). Perhaps a director who has worked more with kids might’ve found a way to pull Vaccaro back a bit.

Black delivers a quintessential Black performance, featuring manic glee spiced with warm smiles and occasional glimpses of rage. It’s like Black performances before it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I especially liked the whistling ode to Tenacious D. Blanchett does admirable work, too, although her character is a bit underdeveloped.

Kyle MacLachlan co-stars as a magician responsible for putting a powerful clock in the walls of Jonathan’s house—a clock that could contribute to the apocalypse. MacLachlan doesn’t get a lot of screen time, and he is usually under heavy makeup, but he does well in his shots. There’s an evil underbelly involving his character (including an encounter in the woods that pushes the PG rating, because it is legitimately freaky), and it had me wishing more of the movie was about him. There’s a terrifyingly dark and intriguing movie to be made based on his character’s backstory, which is mostly glossed over.

Much of the film looks dark and under-lit. While some of the visual effects are good-looking, including animated stained glass, some of the practical effects are a little too goofy to gain true scares.

Black and company occasionally make the movie watchable, and even enjoyable. Unfortunately, things go flat in the second half, and you’ll find yourself checking the clock on your wrist more than worrying about any clock in the wall.

The House With a Clock in Its Walls is playing at theaters across the valley.

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