The Ultimate Haunted House Story

A classic subgenre of horror is the haunted house, where people are caught in a building with an evil force of some kind that means them harm. A classic novel of this genre would be Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. It’s even more popular for horror movies, with a great example being Robert Wise’s adaptation of Jackson’s story, 1963’s The Haunting. (The remake in 1999 is an example of the worse of the genre.) Other good examples include two adaptations of Stephen King stories, The Shining and 1408, and 1973’s The Legend of Hell House, based on a Richard Matheson novel adapted by the author. In 1979, Ridley Scott blended the conventions of the haunted house with science fiction for the original Alien. Now there’s a new sci-fi/horror hybrid: Life.

In the near future, six astronauts on the International Space Station prepare to capture a probe returning from Mars with samples from the planet’s surface. The ISS astronauts are themselves an international group, with a Russian commanding officer, Ekaterina Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). British containment specialist Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) must ensure the station isn’t contaminated by the samples, while another Brit, botanist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), will examine what the soil contains. The weightlessness of space is especially good for Derry, who is a paraplegic. The crew is rounded out by Japanese systems specialist Sho Murikami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and two Yanks, pilot Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds) and senior medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Adams manages to trap the probe, and the samples are transferred to a lab on the station and placed in an isolation box. Derry introduces other factors to the samples including atmosphere and water, and is rewarded by the growth of a tiny organism. Children at a school in the United States are given the honor of naming the first example of life outside our world, and they call it “Calvin.” Derry’s fascinated by Calvin, whose individual cells are capable of multiple functions. At first Calvin looks like a delicate flower, but as it grows it shows it will do anything to survive.

Director Daniel Espinosa had worked with Ryan Reynolds before, on the hit thriller Safe House in 2012. Espinosa’s follow-up, Child 44 (based on Tom Rob Smith’s acclaimed novel), died at the box office in spite of the presence of Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, and several other distinguished actors. It only managed a 25% score on Rotten Tomatoes. He’s recovered his mojo with Life, certified fresh on RT. The action moves smoothly from twist to twist as the suspense is ratcheted up with each scene.

Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have often blended comedy with thrills, having done 2009’s Zombieland and then last year’s mega-hit Deadpool. With Life they play it straight, and they also play it realistic. In a way they’ve taken their cue from The Martian. The space station has limited resources for the astronauts that can’t simply be replaced by the writer playing God. It’s not like the westerns where a gunfighter might shoot off twenty rounds without reloading his six-shooter.

Another point of realism is with the interaction of the cast. While Gyllenhaal, Reynolds, and Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation) are established stars – and get their pictures on the poster – they blend into a unit with Dihovichnaya, Bakare, and Sanada.

Life definitely owes a debt to Alien, though the overall feel of the movies is different. One interesting connection is that Ridley Scott produced Espinosa’s Child 44. While they stand separate, Life does remind you of the power and effectiveness of Alien before it got diluted by Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, and Prometheus. Perhaps Alien: Covenant later this year will recapture some of the original’s Life.

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The Rule On Gold

I’d missed Woman in Gold when it was released in 2015. It disappeared from the theaters in my area so rapidly I missed my chance. The film did make $33 Million in the US. That’s a flop for a Hollywood picture, but the BBC Films production was made on a budget of only $11 Million so it was a financial success. It has now come to Netflix so I finally got the chance to see it.

The theft of art treasures by the Nazis during World War II has been covered before. In 1964 John Frankenheimer directed The Train, starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, about the French Resistance trying to stop a train headed to Germany loaded with art treasures. More recently there was George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, a fictionalized story based on the special Allied force set up to recover and return art treasures that had been looted. What separates Woman in Gold is that it’s a true story where what happened after the war is as injust as what happened during the Nazi period. It also focuses mainly on one family and one masterpiece, and the fight to return it to the rightful owner.

When her sister dies, octogenarian Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) discovers paperwork that reveals her sibling tried to recover a painting taken during the war. Since then the canvas was on display in Austria’s national gallery, housed in the Belvedere Palace. The Gustav Klimt painting is correctly titled “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” though it is nicknamed “The Woman In Gold” because of Klimt’s extensive use of gold leaf for the portrait. (The “I” at the end of the title is because Klimt did two portraits of Bloch-Bauer, the only time he ever painted the same model twice.) To Maria, though, the portrait was her Aunt Adele, who was like a second mother to Maria and her sister until Adele’s untimely death from meningitis in 1925. Maria has lived in Southern California ever since she and her husband escaped from Austria shortly before the war. Through another ex-pat, she’s put in contact with attorney Randy Schoenburg (Ryan Reynolds). Randy has his own connection to Austria, as his grandfather was composer Arnold Schoenburg who developed the 12-tone form of composition. Schoenburg had left Europe in 1934 following Hilter’s ascension to power, eventually settling in California and teaching at UCLA. Randy learns Austria has recently formed a reparations panel to deal with looted pieces of art, but the state is loath to let go of the painting, a certified masterpiece that’s viewed as an Austrian treasure.

The movie moves through three periods. There are a few scenes of Maria as a child interacting with Adele, but the main contrast to the modern day story is Maria as a young woman and new bride at the time of Austria’s annexation into the German Reich in 1938. Maria is played at that time by Tatiana Maslany, the star of “Orphan Black.” Adele’s husband, Maria’s uncle, is more clear-eyed about the threat of Hitler than the rest of the Viennese Jewish community and escapes to Zurich. After the Anschluss travel is forbidden for Jews and the laws that would eventually lead to the Holocaust are put in place. The contrast is set with the older Maria having to return to Austria to pursue her claim while the younger Maria must find a way to escape her homeland.

Besides the main characters, the movie has a plethora of fine performers in supporting roles. A key ally for Maria and Randy is Hubertus Czernin, played by Daniel Bruhl. Czernin was an investigative reporter in Vienna who helped expose the Nazi past of Austrian President and former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. Randy’s wife Pam is played by Katie Holmes, and the film also features Charles Dance, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, and Elizabeth McGovern.

As always, Mirren is a delight to watch on the screen with her deft touch in characterization. She’s like a wine that grows in subtle flavor as it ages. Reynolds holds his own with Mirren. He’s known in particular for comedy, especially after the success of Deadpool, but he can handle the less showy, more complex roles just as well. It took me a while to realize I was watching Maslany, even though I’ve been a fan of Orphan Black since the beginning. She disappears into roles, but you can see the Maria that Mirren portrays clearly in Maslany’s performance.

The film was directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) from a script by first-time screenwriter Alei Kaye Campbell, who’d mostly worked as an actor before this. Credit’s also given to the real life Maria Altmann and E. Randol (Randy) Schoenburg for their lives as basis for the screenplay, which is unusual but makes perfect sense once you see the movie.

Woman in Gold may not have been more successful since people thought of it as a Holocaust story. Last year’s Denial with Rachel Weisz, which dealt with Holocaust denial, made $4 Million on about the same budget as Gold. But Gold is equal parts legal thriller and escape story, and it is well worth a viewing on Netflix or in any other way available.

The Best Revenge

Comics have not been kind to Ryan Reynolds. His first foray in a movie based on a comic book was 2004’s Blade: Trinity, where he was hard to see behind Wesley Snipes’ ego. In 2011 he starred as the DC Comics Green Lantern, which was a major misfire. The only good thing to say about it was it was the entrance to the DC Comic world of screenwriter and producer Greg Berlanti, who has since adapted Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow for the small screen. The less said about 2013’s R.I.P.D. the better – the title is almost too much by itself. Saddest, though, was 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, because he got to play a role he’d wanted to do for years, mercenary Wade Wilson (a.k.a. the Merc with a mouth and, more importantly, Deadpool). The movie messed with the character, grafting on other X-Men powers to Deadpool and, worse, sewing his mouth shut. For a character whose dialogue is a large part of his appeal, silencing him was a blunder – nothing unusual for that movie. But Reynolds continued to hope to redo the role, even doing a 3-minute test film in 2012. 20th Century Fox, the studio with the rights to the X-Men system of the Marvel Universe, showed the test to fans two years later and it garnered great excitement. Based on that response the studio finally greenlit Deadpool, with Reynolds as both star and producer.

Fox didn’t make it easy, which is something they have historically done (as fans of “Firefly” or “Dollhouse” can attest). They gave the film a miniscule budget in comparison to other superhero movies, and then cut additional millions from it so the final amount was around $58 million. In comparison, X-Men Origins: Wolverine had a budget of $150 million. Reynolds cut his own salary to make the movie, and they had to rewrite the script to take out other X-men characters as well as scenes that they could no longer afford. First-time director Tim Miller had only made two short films in the early 2000s, though one of them was nominated for a short subject Oscar. Following that he went into visual effects for games, developing “Mass Effect 2” and “Star Wars – The Old Republic”. The movie is rated R rather than PG-13 like almost every other superhero movie. The last superhero movie to get an R was Punisher: War Zone, which bombed in 2008.

But the best revenge is to prove the doubters wrong, and that’s what Ryan Reynolds has done. Deadpool grossed almost triple its budget in the first weekend, and it received a 8.7 out of 10 rating from IMDb and a Rotten Tomatoes audience rating of 95%, a better score than Marvel’s The Avengers. Miller now has the record for the highest grossing debut feature film ever, beating out the co-director of Shrek the Third. And as a final payoff, a sequel has been announced, likely for next year.

The basic plot is the Deadpool origin story. Former Special Forces soldier Wade Wilson is a mercenary who survives by taking enforcer gigs in New York City. If you need someone to stop a stalker who’s been threatening you, Wilson’s the guy. He frequents a bar run by his friend Weasel (TJ Miller) where he meets Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). He falls hard for her, and she for him. They’re deliriously happy until Wilson is felled again, this time by cancer that has spread through his organs. At the bar he meets the Recruiter (Jed Rees) who offers to heal the cancer and give him super powers. Wilson agrees, but then discovers the head of the project, Ajax (Ed Skrien), and his assistant Angel Dust (Gina Carano) intend to turn him into a super slave. A forced mutation turns him physically ugly while giving him the power to heal and even regenerate limbs. Wilson manages to escape and takes the name Deadpool while he seeks out Ajax for revenge.

The great fun with both the comic book and the movie, though, is that Deadpool knows he’s a fictional character. He constantly breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly with his snarky comments as well as referring to items outside the comic book world. For instance, when the X-man Colossus says he’s taking Deadpool to Professor Xavier, Deadpool shoots back, “Which one: Stewart or McAvoy?” The audience knows right from the start this is not your typical movie, since the opening credits are from Deadpool’s perspective with generic descriptions (such as “Producers: A Couple of Asshats”) while the camera pans through violent close-ups in the middle of a car crash, all set to the song “Angel of the Morning” by Juice Newton. There are so many items referenced in the movie, the DVD commentary will likely run three times the length of the movie.

The crazy thing is, it works as an adventure story, a superhero original tale, and as wicked comedy – you could even throw in romance story and Hollywood insider commentary as well. Director Miller has pulled off a high-wire balancing act the equivalent of the Flying Wallendas. It helped that the comic was adapted for the screen by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who pulled off a similar trick with Zombieland. (The opening credits call the screenwriters “the real heroes here.”) Reynolds also did some uncredited work on the script, and the actors were allowed to improvise in some scenes, but it all blends together into a movie that’s fresh, irreverent, exceptionally violent but also heartfelt.

The bottom line is it’s fun. It won’t be everyone’s shot of wry whiskey (pun intended), but if you like Marvel movies, or comedies such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, you’ll likely get to the end of Deadpool with your mouth hurting from smiling and laughing so much. And do make sure you watch all the way to the end of the real credits – it’s worth it.

Is It Safe?

The trilogy of Jason Bourne films – especially the second, Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Supremacy – changed the visual language films used to tell an action/adventure story.  Tight close-ups and quick cuts within a lean and focused story are now the standard.  You also have heroes who are anything but supermen.  They bleed, they feel pain, but they also used their abilities to the upmost in pursuit of a goal.  When there are car chases, vehicles get wrecked, including the hero’s.  It’s a far cry from the over-the-top action in some of the James Bond films, such as when the car he’s driving is sliced in half but still he continues driving it, like you had in A View To A Kill.  You can see the Bourne influence in the exceptional Bond-reboot, Casino Royale.

Now Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds have entered this revitalized genre with Safe House, a riveting chase set in South Africa’s Cape Province.

Matt Weston (Reynolds) is a low-level CIA operative assigned to running a safe house located in Cape Town, South Africa.  It’s a mind-numbing assignment, and Weston desperately wants out.  He’d like a posting in Paris so he can follow his girlfriend Ana (Nora Arnezeder) who is moving there to pursue her medical career.  Weston contacts his mentor in the Agency, David Barlow (Brendan Gleeson), but Barlow’s response isn’t promising.

Meanwhile, Tobin Frost (Washington) surfaces in Cape Town.  He’s a former agent who went rogue a decade earlier and is wanted by several countries for espionage.  In his CIA days, he was the agency’s premier interrogator and a master manipulator.  Frost is in Cape Town to meet a former MI-6 operative, Alec Wade (Liam Cunningham), and purchase a microchip from him.  The meeting is blown and Wade is killed.  Frost tries to escape his pursuers, but in the end the only way to survive is to walk into the US Consulate, where he’s immediately detained.

Frost’s surfacing sends major shock waves through CIA headquarters.  Deputy Director Harlan Whitford (Sam Shepard) orders Catherine Linklater (Vera Farmiga) to get her interrogation team there since they can arrive faster that the team Barlow has in Europe.  The team, under the command of David Kiefer (Robert Patrick) brings Frost to Weston’s safe house and waterboards him to loosen him up for the questioning.  But almost immediately the safe house is attacked by the mercenaries who tried to get Frost earlier that day.  With the interrogation team taken out, Weston escapes, dragging Frost with him.

One aspect of David Guggenheim’s excellent script is that the story doesn’t slip into an Us vs. Them simplicity.  Each character has their own agenda that they pursue.  Even though Weston has saved Frost from the squad that’s after him, it doesn’t mean that Frost and he are suddenly allies.  In that sense, Safe House is a story of Weston earning both the respect of others, as well as self-respect.  While this is Guggenheim’s first produced movie script, he writes with assurance and depth.

Director Daniel Espinosa has done a few movies in his native Sweden, but this is his first major Hollywood movie.  He utilizes the Cape Town area wonderfully, from the cosmopolitan city to the slum townships on the outskirts to the beautiful Cape countryside.  He knows how to pace the action, giving the audience a moment to catch its breath and process what has happened before a new twist puts the characters in peril.

Denzil  Washington brings a wonderful menace to the role of Frost.  Even when he’s in handcuffs, you know he’s still dangerous.  While he’s not the completely amoral detective in Training Day, he’s on the edge, and it’s wonderful watching him walk the tightrope.  Ryan Reynolds recovers from the major misstep of last year’s The Green Lantern and delivers a nuanced and assured performance.  Weston starts the movie with a pretty high opinion of himself but as the movie progresses he actually grows to become that person.

The rest of the actors match the intensity of the stars.  Two beautifully done shorter roles are Ruben Blades as Carlos, a dealer in identities that Frost knows, and Joel Kinnaman (AMC’s The Killing) as Keller, the minder of another safe house.

Or is it safe?  This is a movie that lives up to its tag line – No One Is Safe.  If you like your action mixed with intelligence, you’ll find it worthwhile checking into this Safe House.

Popcorn at Midnight

The Thursday midnight opening for a movie was once the domain of the most anticipated films.  I fondly remember sitting among a capacity audience filled with wizards and overgrown hobbits for the first screening of Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  It can also be effective to generate word of mouth for unusual films, harkening back to the weekend midnight revivals of movies such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I first experienced Paranormal Activity the night before its actual release.  Being in a theater full of screaming, scared people who were completely surprised by the movie increased the ambiance of the whole experience.

Now, the Thursday opening has become de rigueur for films.  Almost every major film, and some with only pretensions of importance, get a midnight opening  That was how I found myself this past Thursday night sitting in one of the smaller theaters at my local twenty-screen cineplex, awaiting the start of Green Lantern.  It was a respectable turnout for that theater, but even so there were open seats.  I wasn’t dying to be the first to see the movie; with my schedule this week, it was either that showing or wait until the next Thursday to see it at a matinee.

In the world of movies – especially comic book movies – it’s not that easy doing green.  The first Hulk movie with Eric Bana was a major disappointment, and the second version with Edward Norton was only marginally better.  Earlier this year you had the embarrassing Green Hornet with Seth Rogen as one of the slimiest heroes ever.  The sooner that movie is confined to basic cable purgatory, the better.  A general rule of thumb: If your name isn’t Kermit or Shrek, lay off the green when it comes to movies.

While it has its fan base, the Green Lantern comics have always been on a lower tier than its cousins in the DC universe, Superman and Batman.  Until digital effects came along, there was no way to do a live-action version that wouldn’t look pathetic.  A superhero who can create and use anything he can imagine in his mind to battle villains?  Without digital effects, it would have been green cheese.

The story is straightforward.  The Green Lanterns are a cadre of space police, watching over and protecting the inhabited planets in the universe by using the power of will.  That power is focused through a ring each Lantern wears, though it’s like a battery that needs regular recharging from a power source that looks like a (ta-da) green lantern.  (That’s the story – go with it.)  An evil being called Parallax (voiced by Clancy Brown) escapes from a planet where it’s been imprisoned and mortally wounds Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), the Lantern in charge of that section.  Knowing his time is short, Abin Sur heads for the nearest developed planet – Earth – and has the ring search for his replacement.  The ring selects Hal Jordan, a test pilot who doesn’t just push the envelope but wads it up in his hand and tosses it over his shoulder.  He’s transported to the home world of the Lanterns where he meets Sinestro (Mark Strong), the leader of the force who happens to be red skinned with Spock ears.  The assembled Lanterns make the cantina scene in Star Wars seem restrained.  Sinestro is not impressed with this new recruit, for a Lantern is supposed to be without fear.  In spite of his career, Hal is constantly battling fear, much of it based in the death of his father while testing a new plane.  Meanwhile, back on earth, a scientist (Peter Sarsgaard) is asked to examine Abin Sur’s body.  During the examination, he is infected with a shard from Parallax and becomes his servant as Parallax prepares to annihilate Earth.

The movie is directed by Martin Campbell, who knows how to do action.  He helmed movies that twice reinvigorated the James Bond franchise (Goldeneye and Casino Royale).  He also did The Mask of Zorro and last year’s Edge of Darkness with Mel Gibson.  (Campbell had started his career doing British TV series, including the original miniseries version of Darkness.)  On the negative side, seven writers are credited with the story and screenplay.  That usually is a recipe for disaster – instead of a vision of the story, you have a consensus.  Think what it would be like if Congress were trying to make a movie.   That said, the result is much better than expected.  Several of the set pieces, including the Hot Wheels-inspired saving of an out-of-control helicopter, are fun and exciting.

The acting is effective within the movie, but no one will be waiting anxiously by the phone on the morning the Academy nominees are announced.  Ryan Reynolds is developing into a dependable leading man.  Hal Jordan could come across as a horrible egotist, but Ryan makes him sympathetic and likeable.  Blake Lively showed she could act in The Town last year.  Here she plays a fellow test pilot who happens to be the daughter of the owner of the aircraft company and a former flame of Jordan’s (isn’t it always that way?) and she doesn’t embarrass herself.  The other actors likewise give journeyman performances.

This is a popcorn movie; you eat it up and it tastes good at the time, but it is empty calories.  It’s fun and has its thrilling moments, and it that’s what you are looking for, Green Lantern will fit the bill.  There is a tag, though they put it halfway through the credits this time.

Coming up this week, I’ll have a couple of posts about movies that are full-course meals.