CVIndependent

Wed01162019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Bob Grimm

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.

Maniac is yet another Netflix series that plays like a long—but really good—movie.

Jonah Hill and Emma Stone reteam (after Superbad) as two mentally exhausted individuals who volunteer for pharmaceutical experiments that involve a lot more than simply taking pills.

The premise—which allows for their characters to essentially share dreams—places them inside different fantasy scenarios involving different people. Lemurs, Long Island, shootouts, odd dancing, seances, hawks and more play into those scenarios, all directed engagingly by Cary Joji Fukunaga. The different dreams have different styles—but Fukunaga keeps it all under control.

Stone is the true shining star here, especially in a sequence that places her in a Lord of the Rings-type setting, one that her character’s true self can’t really stand. Hill plays his Owen as morose for much of the running time, which is necessary given Owen’s state, but he does get a decent amount of opportunities to go crazy when his character morphs into different people.

Justin Theroux is fantastic as a pathetic doctor, as is Sally Field as his famous mother. In fact, Field has some of the series’ best moments—no surprise, given that she is the legendary Sally Field.

If you are looking to binge, Maniac is a fine choice.

Maniac is currently streaming on Netflix.

Well, that does it: After decades of trying, it’s become evident that nobody knows how to make a decent Predator sequel.

It’s not like the first film was a masterpiece. It was a goofy adventure pic featuring a superstar on the rise—who has been mysteriously absent from the sequels. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in fact, turned down a cameo in the new The Predator, a movie that simply needed to be just OK to keep pace with the 1987 original. Well, it’s not.

The Predator—technically the fourth Predator film (not including those Alien vs. Predator movies, which should be washed away from our collective memories)—had elements that were worthy of excitement. Shane Black, who actually played the first character to get killed in this franchise 31 years ago, is its director. This is the man responsible for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Nice Guys and Iron Man 3. That Iron Man 3 credit is the main reason to think Black would be a good pick to lead a beloved genre favorite back to greatness.

Nope. In fact, The Predator actually represents a step backward from the extremely mediocre Predators (2010), the prior installment that squandered a decent idea with a cheap-looking film. The Predator is a lumbering stink bomb through and through.

Boyd Holbrook heads a low-rate ensemble cast as Quinn McKenna, a special-ops guy in the middle of an assassination attempt—interrupted when a spaceship crashes nearby and spoils his fun. After a confrontation with the dreadlocked, reptilian-faced alien pilot, McKenna scoops up some evidence (a Predator arm gun, a Predator helmet) and sends them to his P.O. box back home so he has proof when the upper-level folks label him a whacko.

Because he didn’t pay the bill on that P.O. box, the nasty package is forwarded to his home and into the hands of his young, autistic son Rory (Jacob Tremblay). Naturally, the boy thinks it’s some kind of video game from his pop (and a Halloween mask!). He dicks around with the intergalactic toys and gets himself involved in an interplanetary war. If ever there were a film that declared the dangerous perils of video-game addiction, it would be this one.

Here's something that really bothered me: In an establishing scene, Rory displays a major sensitivity to sound. He actually crumples to the ground at the mild sound of an alarm, which makes him the taunting target of elementary-school meanies. Yet when Rory is involved in alien battles later in the film, with bombs and guns going off next to his head, he seems perfectly fine. Did he put in some ear plugs? Is his sound sensitivity specific to classroom settings? Is the screenplay for this movie a colossal mess? I’m going with the latter.

McKenna winds up with other misfit soldiers on a bus, including one played by Thomas Jane, trying to provide comic relief as a silly soldier with Tourette syndrome. Others jockeying for screen time include Keegan-Michael Key, Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera. Olivia Munn, the best thing about the movie, is also on hand as a wily scientist, as is Sterling K. Brown, as the maybe-he’s-bad-but-maybe-he’s-not guy.

They all run around in a haphazard, cheap-looking CGI shitstorm that turns up the gore factor to go with the inane dialogue, numerous plot holes and stupid-looking alien dogs. More than once, characters disappeared, and I wasn’t sure of their fate—a sign of bad editing.

There was a lot of confusion during production (including reshoots for a woefully tacked-on ending), and the movie looks like it was being shot as a potential 3-D offering. There is no 3-D, which is good news, because this movie is not worth the extra few bucks for 3-D admission. In fact, it’s not worth any of your money. It’s predatory garbage.

The Predator is playing at theaters across the valley.

It’s been a good year for gonzo Nicolas Cage. He got to go all psycho in Mom and Dad, and now, courtesy of director Panos Cosmatos, he gets his best role in a half-decade in psychedelic ’80s horror-throwback Mandy.

Cage plays Red Miller, a lumberjack living a good life in the Northwest with his wife, Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough). Their world is overturned by a Manson-like religious sect led by a crazed prophet, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). Jeremiah wants to recruit Mandy for his cult, but when she has an unfavorable reaction to the folk album he recorded, things get really bad.

Enter Cage, in loony/pissed-off mode, as the second half of the movie gets super-crazy and super-gory. This movie contains what will go down as one of the all-time-great Cage moments—a bathroom tantrum that involves a Leaving Las Vegas-like vodka chug and crazed weeping on the toilet. It’s one of those movies where Cage is allowed to do or say whatever pops into his head, and we get some great, weird lines out of him.

We also get one of Cage’s most fiercely honest performances. His craziness and oddness are fueled by pure emotional destruction, and as “out there” as the movie gets, Cage somehow remains grounded in a consistent, flawless performance. He’s not going to win any Oscars for this, but his cult-film cred just took a major uptick. Kudos go to Roache, who does evil cowardice well, and Riseborough, who makes quite the impression in her abbreviated screen time.

This contains the final score from the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, and it’s a doozy. It’s safe to say you have never really seen anything like Mandy, and you won’t again.

Mandy is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

The Wife is one of those movies that strikes me as something that would’ve worked better as a play.

I enjoyed it on some levels, and some of the performances are quite good, especially Glenn Close as the title character. However, other performances feel like they are being played for an audience on a stage rather than on camera. I’ve read that members of the cast rehearsed for weeks before cameras rolled, and The Wife displays evidence that sometimes you can be a little too polished—and come off as too melodramatic for a movie. That melodrama could play well in an Off Broadway play, but for a movie like this? It’s a little too forced.

Close plays Joan Castleman, wife of the newly christened Nobel Prize for Literature winner Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce or, as I like to call him, Sam Lowry). The first hint of the golden work Close will do in this movie comes during an early moment when she picks up a phone to listen in as her husband is informed of his prize. Close does an expression that’s straight out of a master class in how to act with your face for a camera. It’s breathtaking.

As the movie starts to play out, one character in particular sticks out like a sore thumb: David, their son, played by Max Irons (son of Jeremy). This is not to say Irons delivers a bad performance; it’s just the wrong performance. There are moments when he comes off as too petulant and overacting. There are moments when he comes off as quite brilliant. I was able to accept his performance by pretending he was doing it somewhere in Manhattan for a live audience; it just worked better for me that way. Unfortunately, we are not supposed to play those sorts of mental games when watching a movie. The movie needs to flow as a cohesive piece, and Irons sometimes takes you right out of the film.

Close’s daughter, Annie Starke, plays a younger version of Close’s character; they both kill it in every scene, so much so that you have to dismiss the bad stuff and enjoy the greatness you are seeing. The two actresses help sell a story that is more symbolic than anything, an age-old tale about repression and insincerity. It’s been told before—this movie shares some DNA with Barton Fink—and it’s been told in better overall before, but Close and Starke make it quite electric at times.

Pryce is equally good as the alternately polite and selfish author with major personality flaws that make him a lousy husband and father. Credit goes to this gifted actor for making Joe a total ass, yet somebody you can’t help but feel a little sorry for.

As an investigative author hounding the Castlemans, the one and only Christian Slater makes his best cinematic impression in many years. His role is as clichéd as a role can get, but he makes Nathaniel Bone compellingly persuasive and nasty.

There are some great cinematic moments constructed by director Björn Runge that put The Wife over the top. One of the final shots of Close, with the Stockholm snow outside the window behind her, is a stunner. Her final shot … well, it’s a keeper for sure.

Moments like those help to sort of cancel out the moments that are stagey or a bit too farfetched. The Wife is very much worth seeing for Close, Pryce and Starke. They make you wish they’d take this story to the stage, where it probably belongs.

The Wife is now playing at Mary Pickford Is D’Place (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100) and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

I know Mister Rogers was a beloved children’s TV figure and a good man … but his show gave my young self the willies.

I was always offset by his sanguine tones, and those puppets freaked me out. The Lady Elaine Fairchilde puppet looked like a red-nosed alcoholic demon, the sort that would perhaps hide under my bed and steal the underwear off my butt while I was sleeping.

Don’t get me started on Captain Kangaroo.

As an adult, I’ve grown to have a much deeper appreciation for the man. He was a groundbreaker in children’s television, civil rights and the saving of PBS’ ass in general. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does an undeniably sweet job of showing what Rogers did to keep his show on the air all of those years. He didn’t always make the right moves, but he always seemed to course-correct.

It’s a fun watch, and a reminder that he was a very good neighbor, indeed. The puppets still freak me out, though.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

The hunt for Holocaust architect Adolph Eichmann is chronicled rather blandly in Operation Finale, director Chris Weitz’s lost movie starring Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley and Mélanie Laurent.

When Eichmann (Kingsley) is discovered in Buenos Aires living a modest life and working at an automobile plant, secret agents led by Peter Malkin (Isaac) and Hanna Elian (Laurent) set up shop where he resides. They hatch a plot to grab Eichmann and return him to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes.

Up until the moment where they grab Eichmann, the movie is pretty good—but when the movie becomes about Malkin and Eichmann chatting in a dark bedroom, it loses its sting. A better movie would’ve had Eichmann standing trial for his crimes, thus educating those of us who haven’t seen his trial.

Too much of this film is spent showing Eichmann trying to persuade Malkin that he was just a normal guy taking orders. Hey, maybe that happened, but cover it in five minutes, and stay focused on what a monster this guy was. We already know he’s despicable, and I’m pretty sure the folks who risked their lives to grab him weren’t conflicted about whether he was really a nice guy forced to do a bad job. Yes, the movie shows a little bit of his trial, but this is one time where I found myself wishing that more of a movie took place in a courtroom.

Operation Finale is showing at theaters across the valley.

Regular readers know that I can’t stand most found-footage films. I also bitch a lot about movies where the whole damn thing happens on a computer screen, with the director finding cute ways to never cut away from Skype, FaceTime, Words With Friends, etc., while the plot unfolds.

Well, Searching is strange, because I actually almost like the way director Aneesh Chaganty utilizes computer screens, apps and news reports to tell his story. I also really like the central performance by John Cho as David Kim, a slightly annoying parent who discovers through a break in technological communication that his daughter, Margot (Michelle La), has gone missing.

What I can’t forgive is the terrible detour the mystery takes into ridiculous, convenient and unimaginative territory. The screenplay really blows it in the end, and is further hindered by a stiff and strange performance from Debra Messing as a cop assigned to Margot’s case.

The film’s start is cute enough, with David and Margot having a harmless argument about Margot’s failure to take the trash out. The argument establishes Margot as a generally normal kid, while her father is a bit of a tight-assed paranoiac and kind of a daughter-stalker.

David’s overprotective nature has something to do with the loss of Pamela (Sara Sohn), his wife and Margot’s mom. Some of the movie’s more-touching moments involve David looking at old computer videos of Margot and Pamela playing piano. A video of David and Pam running together, with Pam stopping because she is too ill, reminds of the melancholy opening of Up.

Back to the main portion of the film: When Margot still fails to take the trash out, and then doesn’t respond to his various texts and calls, David starts to get very twitchy. He eventually calls in a missing-person report, and Detective Vick (Messing) comes on board. This is where the film begins to come apart.

Messing, unlike Cho and La, doesn’t come off as a real person using all of these gadgets and technologies; she comes off more like a big star making a one-dimensional cameo on C.S.I.: Bummed Out Cops. She has moments in the movie that are so tonally off that they become funny rather than serious. Messing has been great in past roles, but she is woefully miscast here.

That’s not entirely her fault; the story developments Searching employs in its closing act are some major bullshit. The film takes itself seriously; it’s not any kind of spoof or sly take on social networking and telecommunications, despite the aforementioned B.S. When the story goes off the rails, the movie becomes a lame joke.

Cho and La come through as champs. I actually think I could’ve enjoyed a simple film with these two communicating on their gadgets for one day about normal things, and dealing with the loss of Pam, without the missing-person element. The performers (and the director) pull off the feat of making FaceTime and iMessage communications semi-watchable without being too gimmicky … at least for a while. That’s not an easy thing to do.

Searching, in the end, is a movie that could’ve been so much greater—perhaps an indictment of our over-reliance on gadgets to communicate—if it had stayed away from the ridiculous. Turns out it’s just a third-rate thriller wrapped up in a snazzy modern bow. If this story, and its ending, were presented as a straightforward, linear movie without Facebook and FaceTime, it would be lambasted.

It’s not as bad as Unfriended, or your average found-footage movie, but Searching is pretty bad all the same. I’m seriously hoping that the existence (and moderate success) of films like this doesn’t lead to Hollywood scribes dusting off old, rejected TV scripts thinking they can repackage them as computer screen thrillers. Let’s stop with the computer-screen movies, OK? They’re just a tad hokey.

Searching is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).