Monthly Archives: June 2013

Who would have expected this creepy gem to have come from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, writers and producers of Glee?   Available on Netflix streaming, this 12 episode ghost story is frightening, well-paced, extremely well-acted and on occasion, darkly funny.

The set-up is familiar. Husband and psychiatrist Dylan McDermott and wife Connie Britton flee Boston for LA with their teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga) after McDermott’s long-term affair with a younger woman (Kate Mara) is revealed. They, of course, find the perfect home at the perfect price, save for an overbearing neighbor (Jessica Lange) who is more than a little tied to the house. It is soon revealed the home is the resting place of numerous decidedly restless ghosts.  It’s even a stop on an L.A. “Murder House” tour.

The writers overcome the central problem of any haunted house yarn by first emphasizing the financial duress of the inhabitants (they don’t have the resources to live elsewhere) and then, when anyone in their right mind would live in a cardboard box rather than stay, credibly demonstrating that each family member is possessed in different ways by the ghosts who haunt the place.  It sometimes feels like too much of a stretch, and all the balls in the air can be an obvious distraction, but these are nits.  

The series is also graced with a plethora of strong character actors, too many to name, but a few notables include Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family), Zachary Quinto (Star Trek), Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under), Dennis O’Hare (Michael Clayton, True Blood), Morris Chestnut (Boyz n the Hood) and Mara (House of Cards). These characters – tied to the house but with differing agendas – provide the backbone of the series. 

It’s also clever. For example, Frances Conroy plays the housekeeper, and to Britton, she appears as a stern but reliable partner in the bitter war she is having with her husband.

But to McDermott, the housekeeper presents as a much younger Alexandra Breckenridge, posing a larger problem for the straying husband


An example of the perverse humor – when Farmiga catches her father in a compromising position with the cleaning lady, she sees Conroy, not Breckenridge.

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The first third is sharp. Comic actor Jay Baruchel comes to LA to hang with his big star pal Seth Rogen and before long, they’re at a celebrity-studded party at James Franco’s house, where Michael Cera snorts coke and slaps Rhianna’s ass, Jason Segal tries to convey the pedestrian nature of his sitcom to Kevin Hart (Hart is genuinely cracked up by the scenario Segal bemoans), and Jonah Hill shows pictures of his new rescue dog, who is incontinent and doesn’t know how to bark.  There are scads of other notables revealed in their self-involved element, which is great fun when The Apocalypse begins and they are dispatched in hideous, hilarious fashion. Example: a gaping sinkhole takes stars galore to the fiery depths and as Aziz Ansari clings to the edge, Craig Robinson responds to his pleas with a cold calculation.

Unfortunately, the middle third, which features Baruchel, Rogen, Hill, Franco and Robinson holed up and survivalist, is ragged. Much of it feels like creaky improv, and the self-centeredness becomes tedious as the fellas bicker and crack under the strain.  There is a self-satisfied laziness, a “this is cracking us up, so that’s enough” vibe that bores. Andrew O’Hehir nailed it: “I’m all in favor of movie stars making jokes at their own expense, but an entire movie based on that premise starts to seem like a suspiciously large amount of upside-down vanity.”

You know you’re in the tall grass when an SNL bit about chewing food for someone else is shamelessly recycled. Worse, Danny McBride joins the group, his turn is singularly unfunny, and he compensates by cranking up the volume.

Luckily, McBride exits, Hill is possessed by a demon, and a laugh-out-loud exorcism gets the picture back on pace to its largely satisfying conclusion.  Good laughs, but wait for DVD and you’ll value it more.

An ingenious concept undone by a tedious pace, a dull heroine, an indecisive tone, and a cheezy feel.

First, the concept. The world is post-apocalyptic and zombies mill about, waiting to eat human brains. One twist – when they eat the brains, they get a rush of the memories of the prior owner. Our protagonist. Nicolas Hoult (About a Boy, X-Men: First Class) eats the brains of Dave Franco (brother to James), fiance’ to Teresa Palmer, and immediately falls in love with Palmer.  So, he saves Palmer’s life and an unlikely romance ensues. So far, so good.

Palmer, clearly an acolyte of the Kristen Stewart school of acting, makes no impression. She’s all smarm and attitude and lacks any depth necessary for material deeper than Glee. It may seem like niggling but it is not, because she has to convey that she has fallen for a zombie. She doesn’t come close.

With Palmer failing to communicate a romance, what is left is the scary.  It is not scary, at all, and the use of CGI skeletors – really evil zombies who have lost all their flesh – suggests the old stop motion visual effects of the Harry Hamlin Clash of the Titans – and not in a good way.

Since it is not scary, it should be funny. After all, talk about your clash of cultures. But it is only occasionally amusing. Hoult, whose speaking is necessarily rudimentary, mainly mumbles and moons at Palmer. While he is given a voiceover to explain what he feels and sees, the observances are pedestrian.

The picture looks just awful – again, not in a good way. The post-apocalyptic world looks more like a Meadowlands dump, the encampment where the humans are holding out looks like the porn set of a parody (Dawn of the Head? apologies)*, and in comparison to Zombieland or even The Walking Dead, the feel just seems chintzy.

It’s also deathly slow. At only 90 minutes, I started to feel like the zombies themselves, numb and mindlessly staring at the TV, waiting desperately for something to chew on.

*  I made that up, but I shouldn’t have had to.


The follow-up replicates many of the good things about Star Trek.  The characters are fresh and in keeping with the personas of their forebears; the action is brisk and the banter clever; the special effects are impressive; and the balance of fun and serious is just right.  It even has a better villain (Benedict Cumberbatch).

There are, however, weaknesses.  First, it suffers from Avengers-itis.  There are just too many set piece action sequences, including a tedious one where the Enterprise is plummeting in a death spiral that Kirk and company manage to get around easily enough.

The politics are also pinko.  The joy of Peter Weller as a Starfleet admiral is lessened given he is a predictable warmonger bent on starting a war with the Klingons, and modern Starfleet feels almost pacifistic (basing Starfleet in San Francisco took its ideological toll).

It is also a little sloppy.  Two of the security “red shirts” sent on a shore party are forgotten in a shoot ’em up melee with the Klingons; JJ Abrams decided their fate was not even worth memorializing.

And why “kill” Kirk when only a monkey would accept his demise as permanent?  The picture is already an overlong 2 hours and 12 minutes.

The crew has also taken on a new science/weapons officer (Alice Eve), one so slight and dull that Abrams cheats to keep us interested.

While there are a few scary moments, and the young actor who plays the “disfigured baby” grown up is, in fact, truly terrifying, there are just too many problems to recommend the picture, including–

*  thematic confusion – is this a comedy?  Because if it is, casting such a frightening actor as the demon is a mistake.  Why is the screenwriter wearing sunglasses inside in the middle of winter?  Why is the neighbor wearing a Virginia Tech hoodie?  And why does he smile so much and then screech intermittently?

*  mumble mouth dialogue from the young actor playing the neighbor (he tells us the story of the house but we can’t understand him) and over-acting (“Who could that be?”) from the protagonist, who distrusts the script and opts for a play-by-play narrative.

*  sloppy editing – why use tracking shots if your actors are going to be looking back as if being chased by the camera?

*  poor scene locations – the haunted house is dank and scary, but it seems that a young screenplay writer who just moved into it would not have a Batman pillow case and  a life size figurine of Batman.

*  Will Larroca’s insistence on playing the lead was too much of a distraction.  He seems to be giving non-verbal direction to the camerman.

Again, this is a shame, because the actor playing “The Monster” is bone-chillingly good.

Word on the street is that the writer/director/star is in pre-production for another horror film, and he has some money behind it.  It may be make or break.

UPDATE:  My review has been reviewed, and rather unkindly

This Guillermo del Toro produced ghost story is scary, judiciously using the shock techniques of The Woman in Black, and intriguing, developing an actual mystery behind the horror.  First time director Andres Muschietti is confident, evoking the creepy feel of The Ring, and Jessica Chastain and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones) are convincing as the caretakers of two girls found abandoned in a Virginia cabin 5 years after their father (Coster-Waldau’s brother) absconded with them and disappeared. Upon discovery, it turns out the girls have been adopted by a new, more sinister force. A little more patience and exposition prior to the gripping finale, and less of a CGI bonanza during that finale, could have made this a horror classic. As it is, it’s pretty damn good.

Was John Wayne being an old Green Beret stick-in-the-mud when, after seeing High Plains Drifter, he wrote to its director and star Clint Eastwood, “This isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country”?

Wayne was never a lover of nuance, and he had little patience for depicting the darker side of the American psyche, as is evident from his evaluation of another film: “High Noon was the most un-American thing I have ever seen in my whole life. The last thing in the picture is ol’ Coop [Gary Cooper] putting the United States marshal’s badge under his foot and stepping on it. I’ll never regret having run [screenwriter Carl Foreman] out of this country.”

Eastwood second directorial effort was released in 1973, and he wasn’t interested in Wayne’s myth.  It was a time of callous selfishness and a vicious appraisal of the institutions so revered by Wayne, hardly the environment for an uplifting Western about the strong stock of the frontier.

Eastwood’s story of a drifter returning incognito to the town that ran him out via a brutal whipping is assured (he was clearly taking mental notes when directed by Sergio Leone and Don Siegel with this bizarre, even trippy revenge flick).  It is also supremely cynical.  Nearly everyone in the town is guilty of either directing the whipping or standing by when it happened, frauds and cowards all, and these villains unwittingly give Eastwood a run of the place so he’ll protect them from the very same thugs (newly released from prison) the town set on Eastwood. Eastwood enjoys the power, as well as sticking it to townsfolk for their hypocrisy, per this exchange with a preacher upbraiding Eastwood for evicting people from the town hotel:

You can’t turn all these people out into the night. It is inhuman, brother. Inhuman!

I’m not your brother.

We are all brothers in the eyes of God.

All these people, are they your sisters and brothers?

They most certainly are!

Then you won’t mind if they stay at your place, will ya?

All right, folks, let’s go. Put your bags here. Friends, don’t worry. We shall find haven for you in our own homes… and it won’t cost you one cent more than regular hotel rates.

But let’s not dismiss that old fuddy duddy Wayne out of hand.  High Plains Drifter is also groundbreaking in a different, uglier way. Eastwood’s character rapes a woman in the first 15 minutes of the film, yet his status as the anti-hero is none the worse for wear. While she was a complicit bystander in his whipping, even cheering, when she tries to shoot Eastwood (and misses), he asks, “I wonder why it took her so long to get mad?” to which a character replies, “Because maybe you didn’t go back for more.”

Compare and contrast Wayne: “I want to play a real man in all my films, and I define manhood simply: men should be tough, fair, and courageous, never petty, never looking for a fight, but never backing down from one either” and you can better understand his distaste.