We’re not doing the regular movie review show anymore, but I got invited to talk about ghost stories on Central Standard. Here’s the link: http://kcur.org/post/halloween-edition-ghost-story-time
Scary movies are like comedies in their complete subjectivity. You may think the Three Stooges are hilarious, while I find them unbearably annoying. A movie that terrifies me might put you to sleep. Here, in completely random order, are a lucky 13 that have kept me wide awake (albeit with my eyes closed).
The latest film version of the Tim LaHaye/Jerry Jenkins rapture novel, the first in a very long series. Basically, all the “real” Christians (and young kids) disappear and everyone else has to face the rise of the Antichrist. In this case, that includes an airline pilot played by Nicolas freaking Cage!
Why I Saw It
I grew up in a church that believed in this stuff, so I’ve had a lifelong morbid fascination with this – and all – apocalyptic scenarios. Plus, the earlier adaptation (starring Kirk Cameron) was hilariously awful, so I knew I was guaranteed a good time.
What I Learned
- If you’re trying to convert people to Christianity, you shouldn’t make two atheists and a Muslim your only likable characters
- Rayford Steele and Buck Williams would make great porn star names
- It’s totally practical to be a flight attendant in 6 inch spike heels
- Heaven has a No Pets policy
- When millions of people suddenly disappear, the only possible response is massive looting
- If you call your kid Raymie Steele, you should probably be grateful he’s getting raptured
- Baton Rouge and New York City are basically the same place
- No one involved in this movie has left the house since 1985
- A subdued Nicolas Cage is a boring Nicolas Cage
New stuff at the Star:
I got to review Blended, Chef, Godzilla, The Hornet’s Nest, & X-Men: Days of Future Past.
…..and I’m still not sure what I saw, exactly. A deeply weird attempt to turn a Bible story into a fantasy/action epic? A brilliant director’s fascinating struggle with issues of faith and justice? A psychodrama about a family under unthinkable duress?
Yes. Probably. Sort of.
It’s just too interesting not to write about. Lots of spoilers ahead.
Darren Aronofsky is one of my favorite directors, and his filmography has a constant theme of obsessive characters who destroy themselves. Russell Crowe’s Noah is part of the same lineage as the mad math genius in Pi, the drug addicts in Requiem for a Dream and the doomed ballerina in Black Swan. They’re all reaching for something greater than themselves, only to discover that their goals are elusive, if they exist at all.
In Noah, the Creator does seem to exist, and is determined to destroy most of humanity. Noah strives for righteousness, and he becomes as hard and unforgiving as the God who would wipe out His own creation. This character study, humanizing a figure who gets very little airtime in the Bible, is easily the best thing about Aronofsky’s approach. Crowe nails the portrayal of a man tortured by what he has been tasked with – or thinks he has.
The rest of the film is not as successful. The visuals are great, and the depraved world of villain Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) is impressively rendered, as is his attempt to overtake the ark when the deluge begins. It’s so cool-looking, you could almost forget about all the crazy.
I’m not just talking about the
Ents rock monsters Watchers, either. Their story is pulled from that short passage in Genesis about the Nephilim, along with extra-biblical writings like The Book of Enoch, which talks about fallen angels being covered with “rough and jagged rocks” and bound in “the valleys of the earth.” Aronofsky and his co-writer, Ari Handel, get very creative with this concept, even having the Watchers help build the ark. It’s not quite as silly as it sounds, but it’s close.
We also get to meet Methuselah, Noah’s extremely aged grandfather, played by Anthony Hopkins. He lives in a cave, craves berries for some reason, and has magic powers (or hallucinogenics,or both). It’s a bizarre cameo which adds little to the film, except another Oscar winner (Jennifer Connelly’s in it, too).
The real fun(?) comes when Noah determines that all of humanity is supposed to die – including him and his family. They’re just around to keep the animals alive. Noah’s daughter-in-law is pregnant, and God isn’t sending him useful visions of what to do, so he is on the verge of committing infanticide. Only an innate feeling of love for his offspring keeps him from going through with it.
Mind you, he makes this decision without any help from the deity whose (albeit vague) directives led to all this in the first place. Does Noah’s act of mercy fulfill God’s will, or go against it? There were plenty of children killed in the flood. What makes these kids so special?
That is, of course, one of the big questions raised by both the movie and the Bible story. Is it really possible that every single person on Earth is evil, except this one guy and his family? We don’t see much of Noah’s world in either case, and what Aronofsky shows is a sparsely inhabited wasteland that couldn’t begin to sustain even its tiny population.
If the flood only ravages one area, then that explains the absurd notion that the entire planet could be repopulated by 8 people, most of whom are genetically related. Either there were others spared from the flood somewhere, or there’s going to be some serious inbreeding. That can’t be what the Creator (or the director) had in mind.
In virtually every way, Noah is an interesting failure, an attempt to make narrative and moral sense out of a story that doesn’t lend itself to the task. If he had made a straight-up fantasy or sci-fi version, Aronofsky might have pulled this off. By tying the film to a religious text whose tales are ostensibly set in the real world, he backs himself into a corner only divine intervention could get him out of.
Originally published in The Kansas City Star
April 11th, 2014
- 2 1/2 out of 4 stars
Oculus won’t haunt anyone’s nightmares, unless they haven’t seen a horror movie in a very long time. Glowy eyed ghouls and self-mutilation lost their shock value at least a decade ago.
What it has going for it is a slow, steady build-up of tension, leading to a final act that makes up in pure intensity what it lacks in originality. In a genre that so often relies on gore and lazy jump scares, that goes a long way.
Oculus is based on director Mike Flanagan’s 2006 short “Oculus: Chapter 3 — The Man With the Plan,” and it cleverly extends the premise. The plot centers on an antique mirror whose owners have a habit of dying mysteriously (and gruesomely). Siblings Kaylie and Tim (Karen Gillan and Brenton Thwaites) know this all too well, as they witnessed their
parents (Rory Cochrane and Katee Sackhoff) succumb to the thing’s murderous power 11
years ago. Tim spent his adolescence in a mental institution, while Kaylie was in foster care, increasingly obsessed with proving that her family’s tragic dissolution was supernatural.
Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard never fully explain what’s going on with the mirror, or what Kaylie ultimately hopes to accomplish when she purchases it and installs it in her childhood home. Convincing a reluctant, skeptical Tim to join her, Kaylie has an elaborate plan to monitor the mirror and its effects, and Gillan has some amusing early moments as she shows off her high-tech Ghost Hunters setup. Gillan and Thwaites make completely convincing siblings, as do Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, who play their younger selves in flashbacks.
Actually, they’re not so much flashbacks as visions, and this is another way in which Oculus stands out. The mirror controls its victims’ perception of reality, and Flanagan deftly does the same to viewers. It’s almost impossible to tell what’s really happening, which contributes greatly to the nerve-wracking nature of the last half-hour. With an assist
from the Newton brothers’ ominous musical score, Oculus gradually, inexorably tightens its grip.
While you’re trying to catch your breath, you may not notice how many horror clichés are being paraded across the screen. Flanagan borrows liberally from family- horror movies like The Shining and any number of stories about possessed objects. Thanks to its lack of backstory, the mirror is pretty innocuous, and the undead intruders it produces could have wandered out of any modern ghost or zombie flick. Even the “twist” ending isn’t as bold as it’s apparently supposed to be.
Flanagan does show promise as a director, and his skill makes Oculus effective enough to be worthwhile. If he keeps this up, he might make something really scary someday. Rated R – Loey Lockerby.
Originally published in The Kansas City Star
April 4th, 2014
- 2 out of 4 stars
People will do almost anything for money. From Ponzi schemes to humiliating game shows, if enough cash is on offer, the greedy and the desperate will get whatever they can.
After countless fictional portrayals of this, E.L. Katz’s Cheap Thrills brings the concept into the era of Saw and Jackass. How you feel about it will depend on how much creative debasement you can stand to watch.
When family man Craig (Pat Healy) loses his job and gets an eviction notice on the same day, he drowns his sorrows at a bar with old high school buddy Vince (Ethan Embry). Vince isn’t in great financial shape, either, so they’re easy targets for Colin (David Koechner) and Violet (Sara Paxton), a filthy-rich couple who get their kicks by buying the guys drinks, then daring them to commit increasingly dangerous acts.
The prospect of making hundreds of dollars by downing shots and punching bouncers is too much to resist. But when the party moves to Colin and Violet’s house, the stakes — and risks — get much, much higher.
Katz and screenwriters David Chirchirillo and Trent Haaga have backgrounds in low-budget horror (sample credits include Hell Asylum and A Horrible Way to Die), and it shows. They nail the dark humor and grungy atmosphere that can make such films entertaining, but they also include plenty of material that’s gross for its own sake.
Cheap Thrills gradually becomes one of those splatter movies whose existence depends entirely on the strength of its viewers’ stomachs. Even that would be OK, if there was more insight into the characters. A couple of good arguments between Craig and Vince reveal years of jealousy and resentment, and that deepens them a little. Neither man is outright stupid, yet they allow this “game” to go on well past the point where it could possibly be worth it, and their complicated history doesn’t explain that away. Colin and Violet are one-note one-per-centers, so disconnected from humanity they’d make Jordan Belfort cringe.
None of this would work at all without good performances, and Cheap Thrills has four stellar ones, with Koechner a particular stand-out. Colin may be a standard bored psycho on the page, but Koechner’s party-down sleaziness gives him a strange charm. For a while, you almost think Colin isn’t as bad as you thought, despite knowing deep down that he’s probably worse.
That could apply to the movie as a whole, which may be all the reason aficionados of the disgusting need to see it. If that’s you, then bon appetit! Unrated – Loey Lockerby.
Our original plan was to trek south to Naples so we could see Pompeii, but time and money did not allow for such a journey. One of my co-workers, Helen Park, suggested that if we couldn’t make that trip, we should visit Ostia Antica instead. It’s only about 30 miles from central Rome and easily accessible via the suburban rail lines. So, we took her advice.
Smart move. The place is actually hard to describe – you’re walking on streets that don’t seem to have changed much in 2000 years. I won’t bore you with a long history (you can find that here), but the gist is this: Ostia was the main harbor city for Rome during the late Republic and Imperial eras. The fall of the Empire, coupled with environmental issues, led the city to be abandoned gradually and covered with layers of silt. Looting and invasions occurred, but they were minimal compared to what went on elsewhere, especially in Rome itself.
Now, it’s a massive archeological site, where you can climb on most of the structures, unassailed by a crush of tourists. Ostia should be much better known than it is, but it’s also nice to wander around without being rendered immobile by the crowds (hello, Vatican Museum!).
You enter through the necropolis, which is where Romans wisely buried their dead (or stored the ashes), outside the city proper. As you pass through the gates, you see remnants of a busy, working-class community’s daily life.
There are insulae, the apartment buildings average people lived in, stacked up along the stone streets. Shops, warehouses, and taverns are everywhere, including one where you can still sit at the bar.
Since public baths were popular places for business transactions, there are dozens of them, complete with elaborate mosaics. The amphitheater is still in good shape. Even the temples can be made out pretty well, although they’re generally less intact than other structures.
We spent four hours there, and I was ready to move in. We ate lunch at the visitors’ center and checked out the gift shop, then ventured to another beautiful spot, looking down over what we thought might be the western boundary of the city.
We were quite mistaken.
By this time, it was nearing sunset, and we were both tired. I could have gone on until we got kicked out, but Mom’s feet were not responding well to the pavements (or lack thereof). Plus, she wanted to go to the beach, which we had assumed we’d be doing by this time.
So, the other half of Ostia is on the bucket list for my next trip to Rome, and we will be spending more time at the beach. It was a little chilly for a full day there, but after Mom kindly indulged my historic (heh) nerdiness, the least I could do was make sure we walked along the shore for a while.
Exhausted as we were, we hopped on the train and went to Castel Fusano, the next-to-last stop on the rail line. The station was three blocks from the water, and since it was off-season, we had free run of the place. We admired the dark sands and tiny, shiny black seashells that cover the beach there. We wrinkled our noses at the jellyfish carcasses that had washed ashore.
And we saw the sunset. It may not have been the seaside excursion Mom was hoping for, but it was a lovely, peaceful way to end our last full day in this extraordinary place.
That night, we finally ate at the little restaurant a block away from our apartment, where the staff had invited us in every day since we arrived. We turned in early, and headed to the airport at waytoodamnearly o’clock. on Wednesday. We changed planes in Munich, which meant getting German stamps on our passports (although l don’t think it really counts if you never leave the airport). We arrived back in D.C. that night, physically destroyed, but absolutely thrilled.
The next day was a cold, rainy Halloween, so we stayed in our hotel room, watching horror movies on cable and ordering in our meals. Mom was still in pain from all the walking, and I had inexplicably gotten sick on the flight from Munich, so it took a full day to recover. We flew home Friday, ready to share our experience – and plan our next trip. Because we are definitely not done.
Final round of pictures below….
Monday was the day we finally stopped walking past the Colosseum and walked into it. We had reservations for a tour, one of the few times we didn’t just go the self-guided route, mostly because we were hoping to visit the underground areas (the hypogeum). Alas, they had suffered some recent water damage and weren’t safe, so we had to admire them from above.
Our guide, Patricia, was very nice and informative (and kind of short – we lost her for a bit as we moved from the Colosseum to the Forum). We climbed up to the top accessible level, which had incredible views, and marveled at what utter geniuses the ancient Romans were. Ever been to a sports stadium with numbered entrances, sections, and rows? Thank the guys who designed places like this. The tiered seating, the breezy walkways, the fancy sections for rich people – you can see the genesis of that right there at Il Colosseo.
They’ve built a half-floor out over the hypogeum, so you can get a sense of what it looked like before gladiators, animals, etc. popped up through trapdoors for their dramatic entrances. The hypogeum itself is quite elaborate, especially when you discover that it contained at least one tunnel that emerged at a nearby gladiator training facility. We passed the ruins of this place daily, so there must be some significant artifacts buried under the neighborhood’s busy streets and buildings.
The Colosseum is in remarkably good shape when you consider how many times it was attacked, looted, and hit by earthquakes over the years. The Forum Romanum, which is right next to it, is mostly rubble, although you can still see traces of its former grandeur.
My favorite structure in the Forum is probably the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, dedicated to a deified emperor and his wife, which was later turned into a Christian church. The columns and some other decorative elements are still there, which makes it look like the church has been pushed up into the middle of the temple. Ironically, this appropriation of pagan sites is the only way many of them survived – being turned into a church meant not being obliterated when Christianity came to dominate the region (see Pantheon, The). The Christians were determined to either wipe out or overwhelm every pagan site they could find, which meant not only turning temples into churches, but making sure the new churches were bigger and more elaborate than their competition. Then they started building other churches that were bigger than the previous ones.
The same phenomenon is at work in the triumphal arches, built by various emperors to commemorate their military victories. The Arch of Titus, from the 1st century, is 50 feet tall. Septimius Severus built one in the 3rd century that was 68 feet tall. When Constantine built his in the 4th century, guess how tall it was?
Basically, the architectural history of Rome is one epic dick-measuring contest. This continued into the modern era, with the Victor Emmanuel monument (1925) and Mussolini’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (1943) both towering over the city. The locals criticize their gaudiness, but they’re just continuing the time-honored tradition of “my giant structure is bigger than your giant structure”.
Anyway, the Forum is catnip for history aficionados. You’re walking the same streets as Julius Caesar, looking at statues of actual Vestal Virgins, sitting on the steps of the Temple of Saturn. Even in ruins, it’s thrilling.
We did all this before lunch. Click to read about the Pantheon and why I want to be reincarnated as a stray Roman cat. Also, more pictures!