The Possession of Michael King – Film Review

If there’s one thing we learned from The Exorcist it’s never play with that Ouija board found hidden away in the basement.  No point in rousing the powers of something you don’t fully understand.  Just in case.

In the new independent, low-budget horror from writer/director David Jung, The Possession of Michael King, the Michael of the title does exactly that; he rouses something he doesn’t understand, mostly because he doesn’t believe anything bad will actually happen.  How could it?  The truth to Michael is so simple:  There’s nothing out there and he’s going to prove it once and for all.

Michael King (Shane Mikael Johnson) is a documentary filmmaker who believes in neither God nor the devil.  By all accounts, he seems like a nice guy with a nice wife and a nice daughter who vows on camera that her new year’s resolution will be to tell her mother on a daily basis that she loves her.  Then disaster strikes this nice family.  Mom (Cara Pifko) dies and Michael couldn’t be more bitter.   And he’s really bitter with the supernatural.

It’s not that he believes the supernatural had anything to do with his wife’s unfortunate death – he has no belief in the supernatural at all – it’s because the words of a clairvoyant (Dale Dickey) who once gave Michael’s wife a card reading caused the young woman to change some plans.  She acted on what the clairvoyant told her.  If those plans had never been changed, Michael’s wife would still be alive; at least, that’s how Michael sees it.

As a form of revenge to totally discredit the existence of anything supposedly supernatural, Michael begins his obsessive project; to make a documentary that records what happens when he invites evil spirits into his life.  “I’m the testing ground,” he states into the camera.  “Me.  Michael King.  So if you’re out there; God, the devil, come and get me.”

 

Having access to all the right equipment, Michael places cameras in every room of the house in order to record exactly what is about to happen.  He orders a demon-summoning kit – black candles, a small plastic altar – over the Internet, then places an on-line ad stating ‘Documentary filmmaker seeks proof of the supernatural.’   Within a short time he receives more than three hundred responses.

But then things go wrong – voices in the night; accidents; interference with the cameras, then the truly unimaginable.  What follows is the result of rousing the powers of something Michael never fully understood, and it’s devastating.

The Possession of Michael King is yet another film that uses the found-footage method of story telling.  Everything we see, even those early moments of a happy family life, is through the lens of a camera.  Like Paranormal Activity before it, the film it most closely resembles in style, there are cameras all over the place recording every moment of Michael’s life, documenting his downfall into madness and ultimately his horrific, demonic possession.  Fortunately for us, as most of his cameras are locked down, there’s little nauseous movement of the jerky-styled playback; everything is relatively grounded, which is a plus when it comes to the found-footage genre.  At least we can see what’s happening without feeling queasy, and the results are relatively realistic, though you may find yourself asking the following:  If what we’re watching is the finished documentary made from Michael’s carefully placed video cameras, who edited it down from the endless hours of recordings and put it together for us to see?

 

Had the film hit theatres some years ago, The Possession of Michael King might have seemed ground-breaking.  There are chills, several ‘Boo’ moments that make you jump, and some genuine scares, plus Shane Mikael Johnson convinces as a man playing around with something he really shouldn’t.  But we’ve become so used to this method, this visual style of video playback, it no longer has the same effect.  While there is much to impress the horror movie enthusiast, the fact that it looks so much like things seen before with a conclusion that harkens back to the mother of all possession themed movies, The Exorcist, the impact is reduced.  On the other hand, if you’re simply looking no further than wanting to see something that might give you a sleepless night, then Possession will work.

But if you do happen to find a Ouija board by accident tucked away in your basement, pitch it.  No point in rousing the powers of something you don’t fully understand.  Just in case.

 MPAA Rating:  R   Length:  83 Minutes    Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Expendables 3 – Film Review

There’s a major difference between the first Expendables outing and this third adventure, other than it being a PG-13 and virtually blood free, and it’s the overall look.

Stallone directed the R rated 2010 opener and used the gritty, jerky motions of the hand-held intending to give the film a rough-around-the edges look while editing the film in such a chaotic manner it became almost impossible to observe exactly what was happening.  For The Expendables 3, directorial duties have been given to Australian Patrick Hughes, and this time he remembered to take along a tripod.  Whatever failings you may consider number three to have, at least you’ll be able to see what’s going on, who’s fighting whom, and where all the characters are in relation to each other.

We’re not the future anymore,” states aged Expendable leader Barney Ross (Stallone) to his team of equally aged Expendables.  “We’re part of the past.”  Then he fires them, walks away and instead of retiring himself, starts a lengthy search for new and considerably younger Expendables to lead into battle.

It’s a plot point that doesn’t really make sense, especially when you consider that Stallone’s character is just as aged, haggard and weather-beaten as the others – in fact, more so – and if anyone should be hanging up his grenades, rocket-launchers and machine-guns, it’s Stallone’s Barney Ross, but then there’d be no movie.

 

Of course, the real reason why Ross fires his team is not because they’re getting old or that they’re past their prime – I’m not sure either Jason Statham or Wesley Snipes even qualify for either of those two criticisms – it’s just that it adds a little extra conflict to the script and gives audiences a reason to cheer when the old guys turn up later in time to help rescue the new Expendable recruits.

Two characters who used to be Expendables long before we knew anything about these guys are here introduced for the first time with their own back-stories.  One is Doc (Wesley Snipes) who spent the last eight years in a Samalian hell hole.  “I hear you killed more people than the plague” says fellow Expendable, Toll Road (Randy Couture) after rescuing Doc from a speeding, armored train.  There’s also humor.  Taking in to account Snipe’s real-life run-ins with the law, when one of his fellow rescuers asks why Doc was in a Somali prison, he deadpans with, “Tax evasion.”

The other new character is Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), an ex member of the gang long thought to be dead and now re-emerged as a dangerous arms dealer.  Among the many new faces in this third outing, including Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas and Kelsey Grammer, it’s Gibson who single-handedly centers the film and saves it.  Time and recent career circumstances have taken their noticeable toll on Gibson’s matinee idol good-looks.  From an acting point of view, the lines of age and considerable stress have worked in his favor.  As Edge of Darkness illustrated so well, he’s now a better actor than he ever was.  He carries the weight of conflict and fatigue with a greater authority and he does psychotic nut-cases extremely well.

 

Other than the opening, pre-credit sequence where the gang rescues Doc from that speeding train, the first half deals mostly with Stallone finding new recruits, including a scene in Apache Junction that should have local Arizona audiences cheering when the location title appears.

One of the more interesting newbies – other than Banderas as an over-enthused mercenary with a motor-mouth that never quits – is 2008 Olympic medalist in judo and current UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion. Ronda Rousey as Luna.  When female actors with slight builds and skinny arms are cast as action heroes simply because they’re A-listers with bankable marquee value, the believability factor of their strength and abilities flies out of the window along with the bodies they’re supposed to be throwing.  Other than Gina Carano (Haywire, In the Blood) Rousey draws your attention not only because of her movie-star good looks, but with her obvious athleticism and overall broad-shouldered appearance; she actually looks as though she can cause the kind of damage that would send enemy bodies flying through the air.  Plus, she can deliver a line.

Is there an audience that gets excited at the prospect of a third Expendable movie?  The answer must be yes if box-office returns on the previous two are any indication, but it appears that it’s an overseas audience dictating the terms.  Number two dipped domestically but grew internationally.  With just about every name that has made the action film a Hollywood essential for the last few decades – excusing Bruce Willis who, evidently, is not a team player when it comes to negotiating a paycheck – overseas audience should have a ball.  For the rest of us?  When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cigar chomping character tells Stallone’s Ross, “I’m getting out of this business and so should you,” maybe it’s time for Ross to listen.

 MPAA Rating:  PG-13    Length:  126 Minutes     Overall Rating:  5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Giver – Film Review

As with several futuristic settings previously used in a series of popular Young Adult novels, the utopian world presented in The Giver turns out to be quite the opposite.

After the ruin, we built a new society,” young Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) tells us.  Developed under the guidance of the Elders, that new society has eliminated everything that causes conflict.  Sickness is gone, which is no bad thing, but so too has anything that might encourage an emotional depth.

Everyone in this classless society converts to Sameness, which is just as it sounds – they’re all the same; attitudes, behavior, appearance to a certain degree, and a willing adherence to the rules.  There’s even a mandated clarity of speech so that at no time is it possible to misunderstand what you’re being told.  Everyone obeys the rules and appears to readily accept that there will always be little or no privacy.  It’s the way things are.  It’s the way things work.

Even color – something that might stir emotions from within – is gone.  Society literally sees everything in black and white, except maybe one young guy, and he’s keeping things to himself.  Jonas is a naturally curious sixteen year old – he’s eleven in the book – who sees the world through different eyes and interprets what he sees through a different mind.  Occasionally, while riding his bike through the community, he spies the rays of the sun shining through the surrounding trees.  There’ll be a touch of yellow about the moment, as if color was trying to pierce its way through the black and white canvass.  Plus, for a fleeting few seconds, when glancing at a young woman, Jonas notices she has brown hair.  He doesn’t know what it’s called – there are no words to describe the color – but he can sometimes see it, all the same.

By this point, there’s a good chance you might already be thinking of many things seen before.  Lois Lowry’s 1993 novel was hugely popular with its young adult audience, but critics were quick to point out how the themes of this dystopian future were really just more re-workings of previous ideas mixed together and freshly packaged with teenage protagonists presented for teenage readers.

 

Movie-goers may get that same, re-worked feeling; bland societies built from the ruins of something terrible that happened years ago; a George Orwell classless society where everyone is equal, though some are more equal than others; an Aldous Huxley 1984 society where those in charge know what you’re doing and saying, not to mention the more recent Young Adult novels like Divergent where the youth join certain factions in a ceremony that will be their life’s work, which in turn is reminiscent of the Harry Potter crowd who during a ceremony are picked to be members of a certain club designed to correspond with their character traits.  In one way or another they’re all the same.  Even the bland community in which all these characters in The Giver live suggests the same kind of TV planetary setting where the Enterprise might have landed for an episode where Kirk mixed with the brainwashed locals and taught them to eventually see the value of color, love and emotion before flying off on another adventure.

In the world of The Giver, every member of the community has an assigned role to perform in life.  At a special ceremony – yes, another one – where everyone continually applauds not by clapping their hands but by slapping their thighs, Jonas is assigned his special role.  He’s to be the Receiver of Memory, the one person in the community who will learn and store all the knowledge of the world before the world became the same. The one who’ll teach him is the current Receiver, a grizzled Jeff Bridges, the one person in this black and white society of conformity who doesn’t appear particular happy or enthused to be there.  “If I’m the Receiver, what does that make you?” asks Jonas of his mentor.  “The Giver,” smiles Bridges.

 

Director Phillip Noyce has delivered some great action sequences of the past – Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, plus the nail-biting suspense of Dead Calm – but here he’s forced to up the ante from the novel by making the action and the chases in the final act grander than originally intended.  On the surface, that’s not such a bad thing considering how dull the first two acts tend to be, but when that action leads to a conclusion that leaves you feeling stranded, it doesn’t amount to much.

It may be the same ending as the book, but like many themes and ideas expressed in the novel, what might have seemed interesting when explored on the page looks glaringly derivative on the screen with all kinds of questionable plot holes.  When Jonas suddenly sees all things in color and declares that an apple looks so red, how does he know what the color is called when he’s never seen it before and doesn’t know the word?  You leave with questions you fear may never be answered.

 MPAA Rating:  PG-13      Length:  100 Minutes    Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

 

Posted in Film

West Side Story – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix

When it comes to West Side Story, think back on any previous production you may have seen, including the landmark 1961 film, and try to recall how the teenage gang members were portrayed.  It may not have occurred to you at the time, but you were probably seeing actors and dancers in their mid-twenties to early thirties playing characters supposed to be high-school dropouts, immigrants and lovers in their late teens.

In this new and quite remarkable production at the Herberger Center downtown, running now until August 24, director Bobb Cooper has worked a miracle.  As the opener to Valley Youth Theatre’s equally remarkable twenty-sixth season, choosing such a difficult musical to begin the program has proven to be an inspired choice.  Three out of the four adult roles are here played by adults while all other characters – the two gang members and their girlfriends, plus the two lovers – are all played by VYT performers.  In other words, for most audience members, this may be the first time when the full cast of West Side Story is seen with all characters played by age-appropriate performers.

 

Though there have been script updates since the 1957 musical was first performed, to its credit, the production that VYT presents harkens back to that original Broadway presentation, including original song lyrics, crass behavior of some of the gang members and the fantasy dance sequence of Somewhere where NYC‘s modern-day Romeo and Juliet imagine themselves in a perfect world where everyone they know gets along.  All of these moments are often toned down or cut altogether – even the film cut the fantasy sequence and changed much of the language to a PG level – but VYT has left all intact.  The potential rape of Anita by the Jets at Doc’s store is quite startling when seen performed by young teens, but by casting these young and extremely talented actors in roles suited to their real age only makes the impact of the moment more upsetting.  It may make some audience members uncomfortable and have them shifting in their seats, but it works.

Rather than re-invent new steps, choreographers Katie Casey and Lucas Coatney have taken the original work by Jerome Robbins and adapted it perfectly for the Herberger stage.  Within moments of the Jets proudly surveying their piece of the Manhattan turf from the wired surroundings of their neighborhood playground, any concerns that VYT was going to take the easy way out with its dance steps is dispelled.  With a cocksure attitude of ownership and a precision of movement, the dancers take immediate command of that stage, and of our attention.  Even before the opposing members of the Sharks make their appearance and taunt the reigning kings of the west side you can already tell that nothing about this production is going to be done at half measure.

 

This a huge cast.  Counting all names in the program, West Side Story has forty players.  It’s a true ensemble piece where even the smallest of roles are here presented with as much energy and accomplishment as a leading role.  When the performers take their final bow at the show’s conclusion there are no individual players stepping forward, separating themselves from the others; everyone bows together as one, acknowledging that in a production like West Side Story, the show can only be as strong as the weakest player.

Having said that, there are five leading roles that need to be mentioned.  Megan Farinella’s Anita, Jonathan Ramirez’s Bernardo and Michael Schulz’s Riff all add fresh, colorful and unexpected dimensions to their famous characters due to their age, looks and talent that many theatre-goers already familiar with the piece may have never seen before.  Megan’s performance in the terrifically staged America is a musical standout, while Jonathan and Michael’s stand-off at the rumble as they face each other with knives evokes an all too-real image of an immigrant and a local, white teenager fighting each other for reasons maybe even they don’t fully understand.

But the show would be nothing without two highly proficient and gifted performers for the parts of Tony and Maria, and here Bobb Cooper’s knack for finding and casting the right teenagers for the demanding roles is on full display.  Both Mike Spenger as the slightly more mature Tony and Sedona Urias-Ramonett as the wiser than her years Maria embody their characters to such a believable degree and sing with such clarity – Tonight will give you goose bumps – you’re left with no doubt that this is how Tony and Maria should both look and sound.

 

From time to time the orchestra drowns some of the dialog before the lead-in to a song, plus the transitions during the last three scenes in the first half appear to take longer than they should.   You get the feeling that the after the conclusion of a big number – in this case, One Hand-One Heart then the difficult Quintet – the house lights are about to go on for the intermission, only to be followed by another scene, then another.  Moving set pieces in the dark can be difficult, but the show needs to move with more speed during these all-important scene transitions.  The rhythm is lessened and the dramatic impact diminished.

But for the most part, West Side Story rarely falters.  In fact, the company may have painted itself into a corner; future productions at the Herberger will have a lot to live up to.  With an outstanding cast, electrifying choreography well executed and voices that soar, Valley Youth Theatre should be proud of themselves while the rest of us should feel proud of having such an accomplished youth theatre here in the valley.

 For more information regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE for the VYT website.

Posted in Theatre

What if – Film Review

Originally titled The F Word in its native Canada – and, no, it doesn’t stand for what you think – the new, smartly written Daniel Radcliffe rom-com, What if, asks the same question posed in When Harry Met Sally:  Can a straight guy and a girl ever really be just friends?

The perpetually pale-faced one from Harry Potter plays Wallace, a Brit living with his sister in Toronto who spends a great chunk of his time sitting on the roof of his house listening to year-old cell messages from his previous fiancée.

 

Wallace has trouble with relationships.  Having survived divorced parents who fooled around on each other, only to discover his fiancée fooling around with another guy, Wallace is now continually on-guard.  It’s not that he doesn’t want to be with someone – he yearns to be with someone – it’s just that he’s pretty much convinced himself that no one will ever be faithful and it’s no longer worth putting himself through another emotional ringer.  Then he meets Chantry (Zoe Kazan) at a party.

Even before these two characters meet, you already get the feel by the tone of the film’s opening credits and the few following scenes that something irresistibly cute is about to develop.  Chantry, an animator by profession, looks adorable.  With her large, oval shaped eyes, nerdy glasses and a pleasant face nicely framed by her shoulder length hair, there’s no way someone like Wallace would not be drawn to her.  Chantry has a fiancée (Rafe Spall) so a budding romance between this total charmer and Wallace will never be.  “I’m just happy being friends with her,” he explains.  But, of course, we know different.

The fact that no one in the theatre will at any moment have any doubt whether these two friends will ever get together on a more permanent level doesn’t really matter.  Was that a plot spoiler?  Not really.  What if is hardly going to send you out of the theatre feeling down.  It’s not that kind of film.  But what makes this Canadian import so engaging is how snappy and smart both the dialog and characters are.  When Wallace and Chantry end the evening with a handshake, Wallace states, “Is that how you make friends?  As a business deal?”  When Chantry has trouble getting out of tight dress in a dressing room and needs help, she calls out to Wallace, “Are you alone?”  Wallace responds with, “What?  Like, in the universe?”

There’s also good support from Allan (Adam Driver).  He’s the best friend character who listens to Wallace’s issues and offers skewed advice of his own. The fact that Allan hits on another guy’s fiancée then steals her away and marries her doesn’t exactly help Wallace’s jaded view of how relationships should work.

 

With such a setup there’s always a chance that many will find What if perhaps a little too cute.  Everyone involved – the sister, the best friends, the woman Allan marries – they’re all attractive and they all speak with that sharply styled wit that sounds as if it’s all coming from the one voice, plus Toronto has never looked better.  At the fade out with the late night twinkling stars shining down on the neon lit, city landscape, you can’t help but feel you’ve just experienced a modern-day fairy tale.

And as far as the answer to that friendship question posed in When Harry Met Sally and repeated in What if, the answer is evidently the same: No, not really.

 MPAARating:  PG-13      Length:  102 Minutes      Overall rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Into the Storm – Film Review

This is bigger than any storm has ever been,” declares meteorologist Allison Stone (Sarah Wayne Callies) in the new, ear-shattering disaster movie, Into the Storm, and she’s right; it’s massive.

Running at only a brisk eighty-nine minutes, Into the Storm wastes little time getting you to where you want to be.  There’s a twenty minute setup where we get to know all of the principle characters – and there’s a lot to remember – but just at the moment when a small group of out-of-town professional storm chasers are about to leave in search of a bigger storm, down pour the damaging hailstones the size of golf balls and there goes those dark, swirling clouds above.  Within minutes we’re witnessing our first tornado, and those chasers couldn’t be happier.   “I’ve waited all my life for a storm like this,” declares professional chaser, Pete (Matt Walsh).

 

The setting is the fictional, mid-western town, of Silverton.  There’s the church, the high-school, the new building estate, and the slightly dated looking main street that might benefit from a makeover.  By all accounts, the all-American Silverton is a nice, peaceful place to be, unless you just happen to be there on the day the cyclones came to town, one after another, and then the place turns into a living hell.

Using the found-footage method of story-telling – everything is seen through the lens of someone’s cell phone or jerky video camera – Silverton is about to celebrate high-school graduation day.  Before the principle can finish his speech, the rain begins, and then the winds blow.  The teenage graduates, determined to enjoy the moment, throw their caps in the air, but instead of falling back down, the caps fly all over the place.  Within seconds, the kids are screaming and running for safety in the hallways of the school building, but it won’t protect them.  “It’s heading for the school,” cries the meteorologist.

 

Despite the irritating device of showing everything through the eye of someone’s digital hand-held, there are some undeniably sensational moments that are stunning.  The aerial shot of several twirlers hitting the town at the same time, tearing apart homes and businesses and reducing them to matchsticks, is an eye-opener, plus the sight of an unfortunate cameraman sucked up into a swirling twister that is also on fire is simply startling, but the best is left for the climatic big one; the mile-wide looking tornado that forms before our eyes and quite literally devours most of Silverton like a ravenous, over-sized, spinning cloud monster.  “How can there be another system?” asks the startled driver as if what he’s already experienced wasn’t enough.

There are no star names.  Into the Storm is cast with mostly unknown faces, though the name Richard Armitage as high-school vice-principle, Gary Morris might sound familiar.  He was Thorin in The Hobbit trilogy.  But it’s not the cast that’s the problem, even if all the scenes with the two idiotic, beer-guzzling rednecks should have been cut.  It’s the film’s overall visual style.  Because the device the film is using – all those video cameras and cell phones – the screen ratio is standard when the epic looking effects beg to be shown on a wide screen.

 

Depending on what theatre you see the film, you may experience a presentation in a new sound system called Dolby Atmos, billed as a system that propels the audience into the movie with a powerful, all-around sound.  There are speakers everywhere.  And while in a disaster film like Into the Storm, such a system works, the cinema is more importantly a visual experience; the standard size, not to mention the jerky visuals, actually diminish the impact.

Those looking to enjoy an end-of-summer thrill ride at the movies where you strap yourself in until the film concludes should feel suitably sated, but perhaps now is a good time to retire the found-footage approach.  It’s getting really creaky and it’s not that clever.

 MPAA Rating:   PG-13      Length:  89 Minutes      Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film