From third through about sixth grade, I suffered night terrors. I was also an intrepid sleepwalker. The former malady evinced itself in my waking up, eyes wide open and fully cognizant of my surroundings, but in abject fear. That fear sent me running to the place I deemed safest. At home, it was my mother’s room, though my brothers made great sport in waylaying me as I sped down the hall screaming. If I spent the night at a friend’s house, their parents were also at risk. That I was invited back after one of these episodes is a testament to their patience and generosity. Crying and screaming, I’d burst through the door and launch myself onto their bed, hands covering my face. Something was after me, I couldn’t look at it, and I could only be coaxed out of the nightmare by soothing words and television. I watched a lot of Johnny Carson growing up.

During that same time, on other occasions but less frequently, I would sleepwalk. However, I didn’t confine my travels to the house. Instead, I would get out of bed and walk around the neighborhood. I recall the misty feel, the trance-like state, and the absolute inability to stop myself. I’ve often wondered what someone would have done had they seen me out at 2 am, on a cold December morning, ambling around like a zombie in my pajamas. But I was never spotted, always ending up in my own bed. The only proof of the occurrence was my vague recollections, dirty and/or bloody feet and the times I started the evening at a friend’s house down the block, only to be listed as AWOL by his mother in the morning. My mother would see the front door wide open, and find me in my own bed.

Insidious uses the realm of sleep to create (or, in my case, re-create) a terrifying world where, presumably, children like me go when afflicted. The son of Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) and Patrick Wilson (Little Children) sleepwalks to the attic, bumps his head, and falls into an inexplicable coma. Only, it is not a coma. Instead, he has drifted into what is later explained as “The Further,” a dream-state that is unfortunately populated by the restless dead, who hope to capture the boy simply because they thirst for his life, and more dangerous demons, who want his body to re-enter the world and wreak havoc. Modern medicine fails, the less-conventional expert steps in, and away we go. It is revealed that Wilson suffered night terrors as a boy, and the unwanted attentions of this particular demon as a child:

Wilson is sent in to get his son.

Director James Wan’s (Saw, The Conjuring) world is creepy (the two demons in particular); the scares are initially restrained, but plentiful, and meted out in increasing doses; and the acting first-rate. As the mother, Byrne is sympathetic and appropriately destabilized, and Wilson plays the father as truly scared and vulnerable – he is gripped by initial cowardice and denial; he does not want to go back to the world that so plagued him as a child. The medium (Lin Shaye) is compelling and her two researcher assistants provide necessary comic-relief without being obtrusive – this is the same set-up as Poltergeist minus the over-the-top “This house is cleeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaan” nonsense.

The film’s primary strength is its patience. As Wan explains:

Between ‘Saw’ and ‘Paranormal Activity’, along with the ‘Blair Witch Project’, it’s been proven time and time again that the scariest movies are ones that are made outside of the studio system, where you have the control to say, “You know what? I’m not going to open the movie with a big, scary action set piece. I’m just going to slowly build characters and get you sucked into the family, get you liking the characters before things start to happen.”

If there are weaknesses, they are slight: the set-up is very derivative, the middle third is rushed, the revelation of Wilson’s demon in childhood photos is too overt, and Barbara Hershey (as Wilson’s mother) is wasted. To amp up the intrigue, Wan should have used Hershey in flashback, a helpless single mother trying to cope with her spooky son.

True, the movie hit home, but even without my sleep disturbance past, I’d have been won over, because Wan and writer Leigh Whannel credit The Changeling, an as yet unreviewed filmvetter favorite.

Sofia Coppola’s fourth feature is a return to the lackadaisical moodiness of her breakout film Lost in Translation, but instead of a disconnected and lonely established actor (Bill Murray) in Tokyo, we get a young Hollywood star (Stephen Dorff) when he is not working, every bit as disconnected. He lives in the Chateau Marmont, beds beautiful women regularly, spends time with his daughter (Ellie Fanning), and fights ennui. Unlike Lost in Translation, however, Dorff and Coppola don’t have jet lag or the outsider in a foreign land to explain or sustain the languid pace and feel. Dorff is also no Bill Murray. The latter registered pathos and bemusement in an understated manner, while Dorff (Blood and Wine, City of Industry, Feardotcom), who normally plays the heavy, lacks the chops and just seems tired.  He is not aided by Fanning, who seems adrift, and the two fail to convey any familial connection.

The result?  Coppola has made a film about a bored person that is boring. While the director is intrigued by long repetitive scenes (identical twin strippers who perform for Dorff, Dorff’s daughter performing a routine on ice, lots of freeway driving), the feeling is not mutual, and the scenes play interminably. Most others just feel like your own day if you were a dull Hollywood actor.

This doesn’t even work as the anti-Entourage. Mood pieces can be nice, but you need some meat on that bone, and Coppola’s paltry output (4 features in 11 years) is perhaps explained by the fact she has little to say.

My boy read that The Expendables 2 had gotten decent reviews, we both appreciate a good shoot ’em up, and The Expendables was available streaming on Netflix.  We made it about 30 minutes in to this star-studded, macho story of a group of mercenaries bound together by brawn, honor, anabolic steroids, and in some cases (leader Sylvester Stallone, rival Arnold Schwarzennegger, and tattoo artist/operation facilitator Mickey Rourke), plastic surgery. 

We couldn’t understand Stallone, Rourke or Schwarzenegger half the time, the action was unimaginative, and the banter was either painful (Randy Coutre of the UFC is given lines instead of grunts, and the results are not pretty) or uncomfortably homoerotic.  This not-safe-for-work clip begs the question – are these guys gonna’ fight or kiss?

But what do we know?  Domestic and foreign, it grossed a quarter of a billion dollars.

A high school boy (Aaron Johnson, who played a young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy) decides he will simply purchase an outfit and proclaim himself a super hero.  One modest success leads to a knife-in-the-belly and being run over by a car, but he does not lose heart, and returns to the streets with steel-reinforced bones.  Soon, he’s a web-hero, attracting not only the attention of cruel mob boss Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong) and his wannabe son (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) but of the more accomplished super-duo, Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage, doing an Adam West impression), and Hit Girl (Chloë Grace Moretz), Big Daddy’s foul-mouthed, lethal 10 year old daughter.

Funny, clever, and hyper-violent, this is a comic-book movie that engages rather than slams you into a stupor.    Yes, we get some nice, brutal, inspired fight scenes.

But we also get the softer, gentler side of super hero bonding

This is a fun, smart documentary that chronicles the fall of George Lucas in the eyes of his fans and mines their conflicted attitudes towards a man they belove yet revile.  At root, it’s a story about how gods disappoint.

The social impact of Star Wars can be overstated (one fan references Shakespeare), but there is no denying that Lucas’s 1977 film was revolutionary not only in how it changed movie entertainment, but in its creation of a legion of fans dedicated to its ethos.  They just don’t just love Star Wars; they revere it and deem it participatory in their lives.  They wear the outfits, make their own film homages (the clips of these movies are the highlight of the documentary), buy the toys and products and countless DVD releases, and endlessly debate the impact of the film.  And the nature of its creator, who once gave them sun and now provides only darkness.  This goes beyond Spock ears.

The first third of the documentary shows Lucas’s rise from geeky auteur, hostile to the Hollywood machine, to corporate titan, overseeing not just Star Wars but the technical transformation of Hollywood films in general.  And then the fun begins. First, Lucas re-envisions his Star Wars trilogy.  He brightens things up, adds some more incredible effects, and best (or worst, if you’re an acolyte), changes a few scenes.  The ensuing furor is atomic.  Fans are particularly incensed that Lucas changed the character of Han Solo, who in the original picture shot a bounty hunter point blank, but in the “re-envisioning” returned fire only after the bounty hunter shot first (the bounty hunter missed from 2 feet, a failure that makes fans apoplectic).  As one disgruntled fan notes, “It’s as if Martin Scorsese cut out some killing from The Departed because he realized he had an 8 year old son.”

As fun as the collective kvetching is over that change, the roil becomes greater when the fans attack Lucas’s decision to erase the first cut of the trilogy.  I did not know this, but you can’t get a DVD of the original movies.  Lucasfilms even intimates that the original prints are destroyed.  And boy does this make the Star Wars fans nutty.  They point to the hypocrisy of Lucas’s opposition to Ted Turner’s colorization of black-and-white films and say, collectively, “Aha!”  You can almost see Lucas in a dark room, on a throne, wickedly chuckling at their discomfort.

While the outrage over Lucas’s authoritarian control over his original work is pitched, the response to the release of his execrable second set of films is a hilariously bitter pill.  Oh, did these folks want to love those films, having waited sixteen years for them. And their recollections of how they felt when they realized the pictures sucked are almost heartbreaking.  One fan explains that he saw The Phantom Menace over a dozen times hoping he would just get it.

The documentary is really made by the fans who gave the interviews. Their love is pure, their hostility to a Jar Jar Binks poetic, and yet, they all seem to have a good sense as to how ridiculous they look as grown ups incensed, and even enslaved, by George Lucas.

A precocious Welsh teen narrates his way through what director Richard Ayoade clearly hoped would be his Rushmore.  Submarine is no Rushmorefirst and foremost because, unlike Wes Anderson’s Max Fischer, Ayoade’s protagonist, Oliver Tate, is a charmless, boring, dolt whose observations about the world around him are unconvincing, banal, and strain so hard to be wise that they come off as too cute by half.  I should have seen it coming, as the film opens with an obnoxious written note to American audiences from the character of Tate introducing us to Wales and thanking us for not invading his country.  Thereafter, Tate’s dull voiceover intones that he does not like scenery, he believes his neighbors are ninjas, he can only see himself in a “disconnected reality” and other like observations meant to be charming and insightful.  He’s also monitoring the sexual activities of his parents by checking their bedroom dimmer switch. Full disclosure: my son and I turned it off after 11 minutes.

With Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and As Good as it Gets on his resume’, James L. Brooks commands the respect of viewing one of his movies, even if it was not well-reviewed.  So, I watched How Do You Know, the story of a 31 year old Olympic softballer (Reese Witherspoon) who is cut from the team and thereafter, alternates between two romantic futures – a freewheeling, rich, fun and unserious Major League baseball pitcher (Owen Wilson) and a nervous, polite, endearing corporate-type under federal investigation (Paul Rudd).  Rudd’s predicament stems from the wrongdoing of his father (Jack Nicholson) and ultimately, he must choose jail for himself or Dad.

The film is fine in parts, and it has its funny moments, almost all of which come from Wilson and Nicholson, but it doesn’t catch hold or intrigue.

The chemistry between Wilson and Witherspoon and more acutely, Witherspoon and Rudd, is just not there.  Wilson is his daffy, charming self (though as much a baseball pitcher as I am an astronaut), so he’s trying, but Witherspoon is horribly miscast as a jock who doesn’t buy into a future of love.  She is not at all jock material, and she seems to know it.  Her response is confusion.  This is a younger Sandra Bullock role.   And Rudd so overplays his mooning infatuation that you soon hope he does not get the girl and, in fact, is jailed.  Most times, Rudd’s sweet mug works, but too often in this movie, you just want to smack him in the mouth.

There’s also too many cutesy scenes and quirky characters, where everybody has the witty line.  The scene in a delivery room (Rudd’s secretary has a baby and gets a marriage proposal from a cookie cutter galoot) is so precious you may retch.  Even the relationship between Nicholson and Rudd, which has some pretty good laughs, is too broad and thus unconvincing.

There are, however, funny moments and some very good lines even beyond the ones in the trailer. And I’ve certainly seen worse romantic comedies.

Gore porn (Hostel, Saw, etc . . . ) has taken over the scary movie market, and in that genre, the more grisly, authentic and perverse a killing, the better. There is never any question of escape for the protagonists. Almost all (if not all ) will be sacrificed, mutilated, or both so that a potential franchise is not suffocated in the crib.

Films that truly create a creepy sense of dread are dinosaurs. In The Exorcist, for example, none of William Friedken’s visual frights happen for nearly an hour. The head spinning, pea-soup vomiting and levitating all follow a rigorous exposition on the characters, the time, Catholic theology, medical inquiry and the growing mystery that surrounds a little girl who keeps getting sicker.  There is no chance such a film in its current form would be greenlit today. The best Friedken could hope for would be an early shot of pea-soup vomiting followed by flashback.

Sue me, but I’m a fan of horror film foreplay, which explains my enthusiasm for this years’ The Woman in Black and the Paranormal Activity films (I’ve seen 1 and 2, but not the third installment). The premise is simple. Modern day characters live in homes haunted by demons. The story is recorded ala’ The Blair Witch Project (in the first Paranormal film, one of the residents starts with a handheld camera and when things get spooky, sets up a few security cameras to validate his claims of the supernatural at work; in the second film, after the house is ransacked, the owners also install internal security cameras, supplemented by a teenage daughter’s video journal).

 The effect is chilling though very little happens for awhile. A hanging pot falls. Doors swing open. Shadows appear. And curious noises emit. In both films, however, the demon is aggravated even as we learn the source of its existence, and from there, things move with alarming speed.  Adding to the fear is the use of unknown actors.  Because they look like you in a wedding video or security cam, you feel more vulnerable.

Sure, some of their decisions are questionable.  But when demons infest your house, you’re allowed a few bad decisions.

Winter's Bone (DVD) -

A rough, gritty picture about a girl (Jennifer Lawrence) living a bleak life in the hills of Missouri.  Her father is a crank processor who put up the family land for bond and has gone missing.  Accordingly, it is up to his daughter to navigate the familial bonds and brutal reality of her surroundings to find him and convince him to appear for trial.  Her journey takes us to the core of a back hills and backwards society that in many ways echoes the distrustful, independent and dangerous world of Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, although the setting is modern day.  The film also echoes James Foley’s At Close Range, giving an insight into a foreign criminal world in our rural midst.  Gripping and authentic, and Lawrence gives one of those assured performances that portends stardom.

Ben Affleck’s follow-up to Gone Baby Gone finds him sticking with his roots, again setting the film in a desolate part of Boston.  But there is no larger aim in this film; it’s a straightforward crime caper, part Heat and part The Departed, with a few nice twists, solid performances and Don Draper as the dogged FBI agent on the trail of a Boston robbery squad.  No great shakes, but it’s efficient, smooth and entertaining, and Affleck smartly plays the lead as monochromatic, keeping his lifting to a minimum.  Bonus:  Blake Lively plays trashy and she carries it off!