Category Archives: Film Reviews

Serena (2014): Jennifer Lawrence in Depressing Drama

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Serena

There may be a few films on offer that are more depressing than the 2014 drama Serena, but one feels it would be difficult to find them. The film, directed by Susanne Bier and starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper is set during the Great Depression and tells the story of a lumber baron and his lady love who  lose everything by the final reel. 

The drama was a long time coming to the US, after premiering in London and doing abysmally at the box office, it took another year for the film to make it across the big pond to be shown in a limited release and then heading straight to on-demand streaming. While the film does look sumptuous, with the Czech Republic doubling for the Smoky Mountains, the plot is off-putting and contains too many holes and illogical twists to make it entertaining.

Bradley Cooper is lumber magnate George Pemberton, who falls in love with Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence) at first sight. Apparently Shaw’s father, who died with the rest of her family in a horrific house fire, was a lumber baron in Colorado. The two marry after a whirlwind romance and Serena comes back to the Smoky Mountains to help George run his lumber business.

A number of things happen, George’s best friend and partner Mr. Buchanan (David Dencik) hates the new woman in his friend’s life. He makes no bones about his distaste for Serena who sets about winning over everyone else. 

Everyone, that is, bar Rachel ( Ana Ularu), the local girl who has had George’s baby “on the wrong side of the sheets.” She hovers around the lumber camp working her old job while Pemberton gives her money for his illegitimate son. Serena is soon pregnant and an accident on the mountainside results in her losing the baby. She will not be able to have another one and the woman becomes more than distraught. 

Therein lies one of the problems with the film. Lawrence, as Serena, certainly delivers in terms of performance literally chewing up great chunks of emotion and spewing them out. Then falling apart when things go wrong at the end. The loss of the baby is meant to be the main cause of her deadly turn but from the very first Serena Pemberton, Nee’ Shaw, has been proactive in terms of “taking out the opposition.”

She encourages her husband to murder his friend and  business partner and this before she miscarries. The backstory to her character could lead one to believe that there was more than one reason that she survived that house fire, but it is never addressed fully.

Serena’s change from strong positive role model, she trains an eagle to kill rattlesnakes to murderous b*tch from hell does not track, especially when considering her orders to George about killing Buchanan. The loss of the baby does not introduce her cold blooded side, that was present before, but that is what the film does seem to be saying.

Cooper does an adequate job as George but sadly his character is too cold, aloof and (Sorry Bradley) passionless to be likable. One feels it was his money that attracted Serena, just as it attracted the camp washer girl Rachel. There is never one thing that stands out about Pemberton apart from the clear lust he has for his new wife.

Perhaps the only thing that works well is the chemistry between the two, in the love scenes that is. It is, unfortunately, not enough to carry the whole thing along. The creepy Galloway (Rhys Ifans) “he has visions,” is odd enough that one wonders why he is kept on, especially after he becomes oddly devoted to Serena and begins to murder for her.

All the actors deliver. Toby Jones (Wayward Pines,  Berberian Sound Studio) is brilliantly annoying as the small town sheriff with big plans for a national park and a clear animosity towards Pemberton. Sean Harris, as Campbell, is excellent as the doomed chap with a conscience and Ana Ularu as the simpleminded single mom of George’s child is spot on.

*Sidenote* Ularu manages to be doubly annoying as she fluctuates between either moping around the camp or gloatingly playing with George’s love child in front of Serena. One can easily see the new wife getting fed up with having this local yokel hanging around.

For all the beauty of the cinematography and the powerhouse acting involved, the film is depressing  and lacking any real empathy for any of the characters. No one is likable enough  for the audience to care when these bad things happen to them.  Whether it is the fault of Susanne Bier or the script failing to make the characters more sympathetic does not really matter. The film just does not work.

At 109 minutes, the film feels longer and perhaps the pacing could have been picked up a tad although even that may not have saved this third outing of Cooper and Lawrence.   This is a 3 out of 5 stars, the movie does get a full star for the beauty of the locations, and is streaming on US Netflix at the moment. Overall a very disappointing offering from the duo who made Silver Linings Playbook sizzle and crackle.

Chef (2014) Falling in Love with Food and Jon Favreau

Jon Favreau and John Leguizamo

Written, directed, and starring, Jon Favreau, Chef is the 2014 film that could and did make the world fall in love with the food and the man who brought this small budget independent film to life. Proving that a film with no violence, sex or explosive action could be a hit, the Iron Man, and Cowboys and Aliens director showed that a film about a “cook” was profitable and enjoyable.

Starring Scarlett Johansson,Oliver PlattDustin Hoffman, Sofia Vergara, Bobby Cannavale,John Leguizamo, new actor Emjay Anthony (with a cameo from Robert Downey Jr) the film follows Chef Carl Casper (Favreau)  who inadvertently gets into a Twitter fight with food critic Ramsey Michel (Platt). The feud escalates until Casper accosts Michel in Riva’s (Hoffman) restaurant and the event goes viral on YouTube. The chef leaves the restaurant and on his ex-wife Inez’s (Vergara) advice takes on running a food truck. 

The film follows Casper’s journey to rediscover his self respect, his relationship with his son and his ex-wife. The movie could be called a combination of travelogue and social media training film. Part of the film’s plot deals heavily with Twitter, and a little with Facebook, Vine and YouTube. The brilliant young actor Emjay Anthony’s character, Percy who is Casper’s son, is a wizard on the sites and uses his social media know-how to help his dad get business.

After a few hiccups, Percy and Casper clean up a junked out food truck, financed by Inez’s ex-husband Marvin (Downey Jr.) and Carl’s old Sous Chef Martin (Leguizamo) from Riva’s joins him. The three get the van up and running and they travel back to Los Angeles from Miami and stop at several landmark cities along the way.

It is virtually impossible to watch this film and not feel the compulsion to drool at the screen while Casper, Martin and Percy cook up Cubanos sandwiches.  Favreau hired food truck chef Roy Choi to provide technical guidance and consultant. At the end of the credits Choi is seen showing Favreau how to make the perfect grilled cheese sandwich.

The film works so well, in the food department, that it almost seems like a documentary instead of a movie. (There is one moment where Favreau’s character calls and talks to an agent who wants him to do reality TV, and appear on Hell’s Kitchen, “Like Honey Boo Boo?” says a horrified Casper.)

While watching the movie could well result in the viewer helplessly craving Cuban food, or beignets, not to mention stifling the urge to get up and dance to that addictive music, it is the acting that sells this film. From Favreau to the tiny cameos from Hoffman and Robert Downey Jr. (Kudos to the  Iron Man star for reminding us of those days when he played douche bags so brilliantly, in case fans have forgotten check out Weird Science, his high school character was such a jerk. Of course it could be argued that as Tony Stark, his character’s have changed very little…)

Chef may not be 2014’s answer to the 1981 film On Golden Pond, another non-violent, no sex film that entertained brilliantly but it hits the spot. Favreau pulls off the cooking in the film and his costars all perform admirably. Kudos to Hoffman as the snotty restauranteur and Oliver Platt as the food critic is just brilliant.

The biggest surprise is the youngster who plays Casper’s son Percy. Emjay Anthony sells it 100 percent and makes the boy believable. When Percy interacts with Carl it feels natural and true, they help to bind the ingredients of the film in a real and lovely way.

A quick word about the film’s score.

Magic.

That is all, just…magic, like the film.

With no car chases, no gratuitous violence and no nudity, there could be many who would give Chef a pass, but the box office returns proves that many were ready for a film about food and family. This is a real 6 out of 5 stars, the math may not add up, but honestly this is a brilliant feel-good film not to be missed. Streaming on US Netflix right now, put on your bib and feel free to drool at the food while enjoying the scenery and the performances.

Dark Places: Charlize Theron and Bleak Americana From Gillian Flynn

Charlize Theron as Libby Day

From the pen of Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn; Dark Places, starring Charlie Theron,  gives us a slice of Americana that is indeed dark and very bleak. Where the dream has soured and affected all who dared to believe in it. A brother and sister who lived through a horrendous childhood event meet up years later after each have paid a price for their past lies.

It appears that Flynn’s books are made to be adapted for the cinema. The 2014 adaptation of Gone Girl was an award winning film that impressed all who saw it, it also proved that Rosamund Pike is one hell of an actress and that even Ben Affleck can look like a murderer in the right light.

Directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, who also wrote the screenplay, Dark Places tells the story of Libby Day, the only other survivor from the 1985 Kansas City massacre of her family (her brother Ben – in prison for the murders for 28 years being the other).  12 year-old Libby climbed out a window on the fateful night of the slaughter and then follows suggestions from the local police that her brother committed the murders.

Years later an emotionally scarred Libby is out of money in a community out of good will. She gets a letter from a true crime club, called “Kill Club,” who want her to appear as a guest at their next convention. She meets entrepreneur and club owner Lyle Wirth. After she arrives, Libby learns that the club’s “solver” group want to prove her brother’s innocence.

This is an actor’s film. From Dan Hewitt Owens as retired cop Robert reading off the details of the crime at the Kill Club to Chloë Grace Moretz as the pregnant devil worshipping rich girl, this movie’s performers deliver, in spades. Nicolas Hoult (who worked on Mad Max: Fury Road with Theron) is perfect as the entrepreneurial laundromat owner who wants to solve a grave miscarriage of justice.

Charlize Theron is beyond brilliant as the moody, aloof and aggressive grown up Libby. Corey Stoll (who plays the lead in FX networks’s The Strain) plays the grown up Ben, the brother charged with and imprisoned for the murders of his mother (Christina Hendricks) and two of his three sisters. Stoll has very little screen-time but manages to say volumes with the small amount of time he is on screen. 

The child actors, Sterling Jerins as 12 year-old Libby and Tye Sheridan as 16 year-old Ben both deliver, as do the other “child” actors. Perhaps the most disturbing performance, and therefore most impressive, comes from Moretz. After her romantic role in If I Stay and her role as the teen prostitute in The Equalizer in 2014, she channels her darker, more adult, side and is suitably creeper and disturbing as Diondra, the rebellious Daddy’s girl.

Dark Places uses well placed flashbacks to bring the viewer ever closer to the real story behind the murders and this works well as both exposition and backstory reveals. As the film moves to its conclusion,  it is learned that past and present are intertwined and a lot more lies were told than either Libby or Ben realized.

Director Paquet-Brenner does a brilliant job with the film and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips) manages the switch between present day and the past brilliantly, the lighting changes between each, and as usual the film looks crisp and clear and spot on for each set piece.

Like Gone Girl, this film is a mystery/thriller.  Both female protagonists, in this film and GG, are flawed, psychologically damaged individuals. Theron’s character provides an intermittent voice over, posed as inner musings, that adds much to the story and, unlike other narrative films, does not intrude but helps to lets the viewer see her thought process.

There should be some serious gongs handed out to the performers come award time. Theron kills it as the flawed and scarred survivor and Moretz plays completely against type as the devil worshipping girlfriend.  This tale of lies, blocked memories and murder shows just how addictive Gillian Flynn’s work is.

Amazingly this feature is rated ‘R,’ apparently for the violence, which is not gory or overplayed at all and the sexual content which is pretty tame. Moretz’ character does have some hurried grapplings with Tye Sheridan’s character but, similar to her love scene in If I Stay , Chloe shows nothing in the way of anatomy. The language is a bit “close to the bone,” at one point Sean Bridgers as Runner Day, Libby’s estranged father calls wife Patty (Hendricks) the “C” word, which may be the main reason for the rating.

Dark Places is a compelling look at family tragedy and how scarred survivors of crime can be.  This is a 5 out of 5 stars film. At 113 minutes, the film moves at a rapid pace. Even with the multiple flashbacks this mystery grabs the viewers attention and holds it in a  vise-like grip right up to the final credits.

The Girl in the Woods (2015): Short and Simple

Poster for The Girl in the WoodsWritten and directed by Tofiq Rzayev, based on Rzayev’s English screenplay, The Girl in the Woods is a short film based on a simple concept. A friend goes missing suddenly and then sends a text, “Find me.” As the characters discuss their feelings about the missing friend, one actively searches for him and finds more than he bargained for.

While the story is interesting it is slow and dialogue heavy. Despite this the viewer does want to learn what happened to the missing friend and fiancee. Elements of a mysterious woman in the woods, barefoot and immaculate in a white dress, along with the other characters irritation at the missing man create a certain disconnect.

The film, apart from lighting issues in the wood scenes and a lipstick problem, looks good. The cinematography for the interior scenes and the exterior night shoot are clear and crisp and framed well. There are some issues with sound where either the background, or the equipment, noise is too intrusive and spoils the mood.

Overall, an interesting little film that suffers from too much dialogue and too little action. The cast, however, do well with their roles. All the actors, with the exception of Gizem Aybike Sahin, are first timers and they perform adequately in the time allotted. Deniz Aslim as Mert is earnest and concerned as the friend searching for his pal. Cevahir Casgir as the title character makes the transition from interesting to creepy easily.

The Girl in the Woods is Rzayev’s 11th short and it currently being entered into the festival circuit. The film, despite being very heavy in terms of dialogue, does feel like a slice of “everyday” life with a dramatic slant.

The Complex (2013): Hideo Nakata Swedish Inspiration

Hiroki Narimiya, Atsuko Maeda in The Complex
Fans of J-Horror and Hideo Nakata will enjoy his 2013 film The Complex aka Kuroyuri danchi. While this offering is not on par with his 1998 film Ring, or the 2002 feature Dark Water, it was influenced, apparently, by the 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In. It also seems to have taken a bit from the 2005 thriller Hide and Seek although it has no imaginary friend there are elements of that film’s plot in this low-key J-Horror. The film is one of those plot changing films that the Japanese do so well in the genre of horror.

The Complex starts off as a low-key disturbing look at the new neighbors.

Asuka (Atsuko Maeda) has moved into a new complex with her parents and little brother. She can hear noises from the flat next door and when she suggests complaining her mother tells her that they have only just moved in. The film starts with a happy families feel. Mom in the kitchen, Dad setting up the family TV and little brother Satoshi messing about. The opening sequence does not feel right, the light is too bright, the parents seem a bit off and the singing bird appears to be on a computerized loop.

As unpacking continues, Asuka’s mother asks her to take cakes around to the new neighbors. The girl takes the package next door and while she never sees the inhabitant, the cakes are taken. Later she will hear scratching noises from the apartment next door and an alarm that goes off at half five in the morning.

Asuka also meets a little boy named Minoru whom she plays with. At her nursing school, she learns that her apartment complex has a reputation for being haunted. As she settles in, Asuka finds the next door neighbor’s body and she believes the old man is now haunting her.

She is right, the old man’s spirit has attached itself to her but not for the reason she believes. The ghost is trying to warn her. A cleaning worker, Sasahara (played by Azumi actor Hiroki Narimiya) tries to help Asuka which results in horrific consequences for all concerned.

The movie takes a couple of twists and turns that may seem confusing at first. But like many good J-Horror films, repeated viewings, or just going over the events afterward make the whole thing much clearer. Asuka is desperately lonely and full of guilt from a childhood incident that resulted in the death of her family. The young woman has issues and her moving to the complex has set her up for a fall.

Nakata’s feature feels like a hodgepodge of several different films, the aforementioned movies most surely and it borrows somewhat from the 2001 J-Horror Shadow of the Wraith, aka Ikisudama, just without the teen element and hokey music. This film’s “villain” though is a small “cute kid” ghost that turns out to be quite nasty.

In reality this is pretty standard fare. Nothing like Hideo’s earlier work. (Admittedly it is hard to trump films like Ring, Ring 2, Dark Water and the thought provoking 2010 film Chatroom.) Shot digitally, the film looks good, although the CG in some instances does not hold up to close scrutiny. The shot of the apartment wall changing is clearly computer generated and takes away from the moment.

All the actors do a more than capable job with their various roles. Kudos to Atsuko Maeda who brings Asuka to life. At the end of the film we believe completely in her character and her ending. Hideo Nakata has lost none of his deft touch with horror. This film is enjoyable and there are some real hair raising moments (although not for too long and none that are overly memorable) and bits that will make the viewer think.

The Complex, apparently was made into a television show with Atsuko Maeda (who appears in episode 1.12) titled The Complex: Prologue, This Hideo Nakata offering is a solid 4 out of 5 stars. Those who hate subtitles will want to give this one a miss.

Tracers (2015): Taylor Lautner and Parkour Love

Taylor Lautner as Cam in Tracers
Directed by Daniel Benmayer and written by no less than five writers, Tracers is a Taylor Lautner vehicle that features the twenty something actor as a bike messenger in debt to the Chinese mafia. He falls in love with an older woman with a Parkour habit and sticky fingers. This 2015 film feels like a combination of Mirror’s Edge, sans the cool POV aspect, and District B13, sans the cool plot.

Lautner, who captured the hearts of young tween’s everywhere in the Twilight franchise, has had problems finding roles that bring out the best in him. In Tracers Taylor does a good job as the young man whose criminal past and large debt to the “Tongs” has him trapped in a dead end job and struggling to meet the payments he owes loanshark Chen.

At the start of the film, Cam (Lautner) is on a delivery when he is distracted by a group of black clad people who Parkour their way across his path. One, a young woman (Marie Avgeropoulos) collides with Cam and his bike. He is injured and his mode of transport is ruined. After signing over his paycheck to Chen’s collector, Cam learns that a woman dropped off a new bike for him at work. Spending a few days looking for his benefactor he finds her. The woman’s name is Nikki and she belong to a Parkour gang who steal for a Fagin type character named Miller (Adam Rayner).

The main problem with this Parkour “caper” film is the total lack of chemistry between Lautner and his then girlfriend Avgeropoulos. The two have since broken up and if their real life relationship was this lackluster it is surprising that they managed to stay together for 18 months. There are secondary problems, such as the “magic” pistol that Miller uses in the scene where he means to kill Cam.

Another is the “dirty cop” scenario where it is revealed that the guy orchestrating the whole Parkour crime wave (Miller) is a DEA agent who can get his employees a “get out of jail free card.” Sadly the whole thing fails to ignite. The most fascinating thing about Tracers is not in front of the camera but behind it. The amount of stunt performers used is staggering and a total of 45 names appear on the credits.

It must have seemed like a great idea to someone for the athletically inclined Lautner to star in this Parkour heavy feature. Certainly Taylor has no real problems convincing us that he can do the urban sport. That they use it to commit crimes is the biggest letdown the script had, apart from the aforementioned “flat” romance between the two characters of Cam and Nikki.

Part of the problem is that both the performers seemed hard pressed to show any real emotion or feeling for one another. Avgeropoulos spends most of the film with a snarl on her face and acting pretty snotty. Lautner looks either shifty or secretive, it was hard to tell, and while he acquitted himself very well in the fight sequences and the Parkour runs he was not given a whole lot to do in the area of character development.

The other issue with Tracers is that the Parkour ship set sail some time ago. It was used as a major portion of the French film District B13 and in Mirror’s Edge, an Electronic Arts game, it was the players privilege to Parkour though the whole game which is played from the main character’s point of view. Since then it has been used to the maximum extent possible and most effectively as the beginning sequence in the 2006 Bond film Casino Royale with the new Bond Daniel Craig.

At the start of the film, there is one or two places where the camera gives us the Parkour POV, a’la Mirror’s Edge. Sadly these two instances are not repeated which could have made the movie that bit more exciting and possibly covered up a multitude of sins, such as plot holes and a storyline that never really convinces, like the romance between Nikki and Cam.

While Tracers is not boring, it does not flow. Ironic when one considers that Parkouring is all about flow. Whether the fault lies with the fledgling director Benmayor, this is his third feature length film, or of the plethora of writers; proving that too many cooks do spoil the broth, is hard to tell. Either way, the lack of chemistry and the poor plot does not bode well for Taylor Lautner or anyone else in this film.

Available on US Netflix at the moment, this is a 3 out of 5 star film, it gets an extra star just because Parkour is pretty excellent to watch.

Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (2012): Entertaining Hokum

Still from Werewolf:The Beast Among Us
The 2012 film Werewolf: The Beast Among Us directed by Louis Morneau (Bats, Retroactive) is entertaining hokum with a European setting that features a slight nod to the werewolf legend of old, aka Universal’s Larry Talbot (as played by Lon Chaney Jr.). The film even features a character quoting a line from the 1941 classic film The Wolf Man which declares:

Even a man who is pure in heart
and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.

Gwen The Wolf Man (1941)

Rather interestingly, this film is also from Universal. Only in this case it is Universal 1440 Entertainment, what used to be Universal Home Entertainment, and this straight to video production joins others on the Universal assembly line of cheaply made films with one or two “names” to promote the movie.

In this instance it is Irish actor Stephen Rea (with the most impressive pedigree), who has the least amount of screen time but is crucial, sort of, to the plot, and Nia Peebles. Both have been cast to give the feature a little gravitas. Nia, who has a solid fan base from the soap The Young and the Restless as well as playing Emily Fields’ mother in Pretty Little Liars and roles from a lot of other popular TV shows, has little more to do than Rea in the film, but her character does get to play the sacrifice card.

The story of Werewolf: The Beast Among Us has surviving villagers buying the services of a Great Hunter Charles (Ed Quinn), whose profession has been passed on from his father. A werewolf has exterminated an entire village and is moving through the area killing freely. A young man Daniel (Guy Wilson) who is studying with the local doctor (Rea) wants to help. Daniel’s mother Vadoma (Peebles) has a secret and she meets with the Doc to get medication for a condition.

Charles and his band of hunters take on the challenge of killing the creature. Suspicion shifts between various characters until finally the guilty party is found and dealt with. All in all this is an entertaining little movie that does not disappoint although it does feel a little old fashioned.

The film feels like one of the old Drive-In second, or even third, features that ran before one was allowed to see the main picture. Classically referred to as ‘B’ films “Werewolf” sits easily in this category.

For all intents and purposes, the story, its action and the storyline could be termed middle of the road. There is enough action to keep things moving, enough blood and gore to hint at horror and no sex at all. (Although there is a local brothel, Daniel’s mother works there.) The kills by the beast are gory, but the camera never lingers over entrails or pools of blood. Wounds are not focussed on either.

Rather oddly, for all this lack of attention to the bloodletting, corpses are never given a close up the film got a rating of ‘R’ which really is confusing. There is no nudity and despite the MPAA saying that there is “bloody violence and grisly images throughout,” the film is pretty tame.

The film has a cast that has come predominately from television, some better known than others based on what is popular at the moment, for example Steven Bauer who plays Avi on Ray Donovan is quickly recognizable despite his character’s eyepatch. This does not harm the film at all as each performer acquitted themselves very well.

In terms of interest and pacing the movie does not bore or drag and the reveal at the end, while not surprising, is different.

Werewolf: The Beast Among Us does feel a little too tame for true horror but the film is good enough that one never feels the urge to turn it off part way through. It is solid fare with good performances and perhaps the only real complaint is that there was not enough of Nia Peebles or Stephen Rea. 3.5 out of 5 stars and the film is streaming on US Netflix at the moment. While it is not “Larry Talbot” the film is still very watchable.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014) Closes the Loop…Not

Jesse in Paranormal Activity 5
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is the next in this long running franchise that started back in 2007 with a low/no budget production that starred largely unknown actors in a variation of the “found footage” genre. The first film, written and directed by Oren Peli was made for the staggering low price of $15k and, to-date, has grossed over $102 million. Peli bowed out after the first one, although he still gets credit in the writing area and as producer.

Out of the sequels, only Paranormal Activity 3 matched the first in the series, making over $102 million gross but the film’s production costs had skyrocketed to $5 million. While the franchise is still wildly successful, in terms of gross versus production costs, it has never reached the heights that the Peli original reached in terms of profit margin.

The film started with a young couple and then in Paranormal Activity 2 drifted to the young woman in the first film and her sister. Each film moves forward along the time line, until “4” where they go back to the girls childhood.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, besides moving into the barrio “Holmes,” jumps forward to blend in with the time of Paranormal Activity, the first one. Confusing yes, but overall, the plot device is unobtrusive and only really becomes apparent in the final frames of the film.

This version of the Paranormal verse has Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) who are best friends, getting involved with the verse and even though they find videos “Old School, Holmes” one says, they do not watch them. The tapes are found in the apartment of the woman that the two friends have a fixation on. Their downstairs neighbor Ana (Gloria Sandoval) who is the local Bruja (witch) and the target of Jesse’s pranks and imagination.

After videoing the woman painting a symbol on a naked pregnant woman’s stomach, things begin to go weird for Jesse. He develops powers and disturbing symptoms. Another lad, Oscar (played by Carlos Pratts), murders Ana, and then dies himself. Jesse and Hector enlist the help of Marisal (Gabrielle Walsh) and they discover a world where babies are marked for possession in the womb.

The trio ask Oscar’s brother, Arturo (Richard Cabral) to help them to stop what is happening to Jesse. The group turn up at the same house featured in “4” and Hector ends up in the house from the first in the series where Katie is killing Micah. This all seems to bring the film back to its beginning.

However, there is now another film, due out October 15, 2015 titled, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension and it looks like the verse is not done with sisters Katie and Kirsti. This franchise has turned into a veritable cash cow for anyone who wishes to continue the story.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (rather interesting for a title, presumably the producers thought that Paranormal Activity 5 was too obvious) could have closed the series off, even with its somewhat “open” ending. The sad truth is, the films do deliver well enough in the terms of scares and entertainment. Grossing enough profit for the filmmakers to justify their churning out more money making sequels till the public tire of them.

In this iteration of the verse, there are not many jump scare moments and the FX used in at least two of the scenes have been done elsewhere, V/H/S and Chronicle both used various versions of the flinging people about stunts seen here. While the film does boast a few original thoughts, the way it tells the story suffers from a sincere lack of creativity.

At one point, Jesse finds something in his eye, pulling the offending article out, it is revealed to be a long piece of black stuff. He then goes to pull the same item out of his other eye. As creepy and stomach churning as this scene is, it has been done before in countless J-Horror and Asian horror films.

Still, they must be doing something right as evidenced by the gross profits. Admittedly, the film does deliver, despite the lack of originality issues, and it is creepy and unnerving. Whether it is the combination of white noise and muffled roaring that precedes each event or just the camera angles and the storyline itself. The film works on one level or another.

For one thing, there are moments of humor, admittedly not many, but the scenes where Jesse discovers his “powers” prove to be quite funny. There are also moments that can best be described as uncomfortable, as when Jesse takes Hector and Marisa and gate crash a party. Although this too has at least one amusing moment.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is streaming on US Netflix at the moment and this is, perhaps, the best medium for watching this latest in the franchise. It is definitely not one to have seen in the cinema but it does work exceedingly well at home…in the dark…alone.

3.5 out of 5 stars despite its lack of originality.

The Lazarus Effect (2015): Olivia Wilde Goes to Hell

Olivia Wilde as Zoe
Directed by David Gelb, his first feature length film that is not a documentary, from a screenplay written by Luke Dawson (Shutter, New York Studies) and Jeremy Slater (Fantastic Four, Pet) The Lazarus Effect stars Olivia Wilde, as a character who goes to hell but does not stay there. Before anyone starts pointing fingers and screaming about spoilers, calm down. This short descriptive does not spell out the entire movie.

It also features Evan Peters (AHS, Adult World), Sarah Bolger (The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Tudors), Mark Duplass , Donald Glover and horror icon Ray Wise has a tiny cameo. The film follows a group of researchers who are working on a serum and a procedure that could make it possible to resuscitate dead people who have been gone “too long.” Their process would allow the dead to be brought back to life with no cell damage.

The film starts with the team bringing a pig back to life and then a dog. While the first does not last long, just long enough to scare the audience and the researchers, the second lasts for almost the rest of the film. Like Pet Sematary however, the things that are brought back have something wrong with them. The success of the team at resuscitating animals that have been dead too long for normal recovery, leads in their research being shut down.

*Sidenote* In keeping with the Stephen King flavor of the plot, at one point Clay asks his fellow team members if they really want to keep the resuscitated dog in their house. “This thing could go Cujo here in a hurry.”

A pharmaceutical company buys out the corporation who funded their research and all the teams findings are confiscated. They decide to run another test, they have one last dead dog to resuscitate and when Zoe (Wilde) flips the switch on the electrical input she is electrocuted and dies. A desperate Frank tries everything to bring his fiancee back and finally resorts to using the serum they used for the pig and dog.

The rest of the team reluctantly agree to bring Zoe back and it looks like they have failed. After they give up and leave the room, Zoe sits up still covered by the sheet that Frank draped over her dead body. She is alive and in shock.

The film may follow Pet Sematary enough that the things, including people, that come back are changed, but the plot goes no further in that direction. It does, however, borrow from American Horror Story: Coven. (Rather interesting since Evan Peters is a regular on AHS) There is a scene on Coven where, as part of a test, the witches have to enter Hell and get back out. While in the netherworld, their time feels like days, months, years, in essence an eternity. When Zoe dies she lands in Hell and when she returns Zoe tell Frank that her time there lasted “years.”

After Zoe gets back, it seems that she can send others to Hell as well, although at least one time is involuntary. As the rest of the team fight for their lives, Zoe continues to change.

The Lazarus Effect is entertaining horror in the guise of science and the old “there are some things that man was never meant to know” theme works well. The film does not scare so much as disturb and it is satisfyingly creepy. There is one effective “jump” scare, and that is a prank, but it does insure that bums will leave seats.

The film does a good job of mixing humor with its thriller aspect (the movie really is more a thriller dressed as horror) at one point, Evan Peters’ character Clay is talking to the documentary filmmaker Ava (Bolger). Ava was sucked into Zoe’s Hell, where an apartment building fire she saw as a child burns around her. The camera operator escapes but she is burned in the process and pretty shaken up.

Clay: (Checking the bandage on Ava’s arm) “All right, rest 24 hours, take an Advil and call me. You good?”

Ava: “It was like I was there. How is that even possible?”

Clay: “I’m telling you it’s the serum. It’s like unlocking the part of the human brain that lets you do crazy psychic sh*t.”

Ava: (Disbelievingly) “That’s your big theory? ‘Crazy psychic shit?’

They then go on to talk about evolution, but the phrasing of the character provides a smile and a pause before heading into creepy territory again. Clay has a couple of “amusing” moments and one can only wonder how many wound up on the cutting room floor.

Ray Wise, who has more horror film credits to his name than Carter has little pills, gets all of about 93 seconds on screen and three lines. Despite the “blink and you’ll miss him” size of his cameo, kudos go to the filmmakers for including the legend that is Ray Wise.

The film goes through the motions of trying to find a solution to the problem of Zoe coming back very different from how she “checked out.” While the movie is not scary, per se, it has its moments of making the viewer a bit uneasy and, for lack of a better word, wince-y.

In terms of performance, Evan Peters does his usual brilliant job of convincing the audience that he is that character on the screen. Olivia Wilde does an adequate job as the “possessed” woman brought back from Hell. The actress can looks seriously scary and unnerving and she plays this part totally straight. Bolger, a very talented Irish actress, works extremely well as the university student documentary maker.

Duplass and Glover both deliver in terms of believability. Sadly, despite the questions raised of whether man should presume to “play God” or mess with issues that affect the human soul, the film as horror does not quite work. As a thriller it delivers very well. For the film to really frighten, there should have been a bit more hugger-mugger, or hokum if you prefer, to make the viewer watch through fingers, head turned and ready to jump out of their seat.

Despite the deaths in the film, there are not many moments where the viewers popcorn is in danger of becoming airborne.

The Lazarus Effect is a good enough film to rate 3.5 out of 5 stars. It is available on iTunes at the moment to rent or buy. Pop a bowl of popcorn and sit back to watch David Gelb put his actors through their not-so-scary paces. Adequate but certainly not terrifying.

Unfriended (2015): Paranormal Activity on Skype

Terror by Skype Unfriended
Unfriended, the 2015 cyber-bulling horror film written by Nelson Greaves and directed by Levan Gabriadze could be called a version of Paranormal Activity on a laptop. Indeed the film works best when viewed, via stream, download or DVD on a laptop, since almost all of the action takes place on a computer screen/monitor via the auspices of Skype.

To be fair, the film really is nothing like the 2007 lo/no budget horror that spawned a multimillion dollar franchise, except for similarity in formula. Take a film that has relative unknowns, a small budget and aim it at a certain market. Then hype the film via the Internet using the film’s plot line as an advertising tool to increase viewership. The end result is a $1 million production that makes, to date, well over $31 million.

In terms of Hollywood’s definition of success, this film is, hands-down a runaway success. At least two of the cast are alumni from the world of TV soaps and the rest of the cast, who have varying amounts of credits, are primarily actors from television. Not that this is a bad thing, but if one is making a variation of a found footage horror, fresh faces do feel “fresher” on the big screen if they are from TV.

Ostensibly the film is about bullying, in specific cyber-bullying. This is not a new topic, back in 2010, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Imogen Poots were in the Hideo Nakata (The Ring, Dark Water) film about cyber-bullying in chatrooms, aptly titled, Chatroom. Unlike Unfriended, however, Nakata’s film was too abstract for many to understand and it got panned by critics.

Unfriended, the film that had its name changed three times, Offline, then Cybernatural and finally Unfriended, is all about bullying through a variety of means, YouTube, Instagram, Skype and Facebook. The film’s “good girl” Blaire (Shelley Hennig) is seen at the start of the movie Skyping her boyfriend Mitch, aka Mitchie (Moses Storm) and it is clear that they have not entered that all important sexual phase of their relationship.

Although just before chatting with her boyfriend, Blaire watches the footage of Laura Barnes shooting herself in the local school playground. Barnes (Heather Sossaman) was driven to kill herself because of a video uploaded to YouTube where she gets drunk and sh*ts herself.

As Blaire talks to Mitch, their friends get online and they all have a conference call. There is an uninvited Skype caller and after several attempts to rid themselves of this unknown caller, they decide it is a glitch and continue. The film then turns deadly as one of the girls, Val kills herself, apparently while still on Skype, and things escalate.

The premise of Unfriended is pretty original (Chatroom aside), the ghost of a bullied girl systematically punishing her antagonists. However, Barnes herself was a bully who was picking on Val when the video of her covered in feces was made. As the film progresses we discover that none of these teenagers is “without sin.” Each of these kids is vain, self absorbed, shallow and lack any real empathy.

Watching the events from the viewpoint of Blaire’s screen we get a glimpse of a girl who cannot decide how to answer any accusations. She will change her responses several times vacillating between bravado, trying to be politically correct or typing something that she thinks her accuser wants to hear. Ultimately, however, she does opt for the truth which could make her the “good girl” when compared to the others.

Not having seen this film at the cinema it is hard to guess how this went over. Judging by the box office figures (its opening weekend pulled in over $16 million) it did quite well. Watching this on a laptop made the film pretty impressive. Granted, the action is fairly claustrophobic as it never leaves Blaire’s bedroom except via videos taken in other places or the other’s Skype windows.. Each of these incriminating films or windows are seen from Blaire’s POV.

There is an issue of believability, in that common sense would have dictated that the failure to get rid of the unknown caller should have resulted in an end to the conference call. Having said that, if the kids had taken that option there would have been no film. The fact that they did attempt to lose their “troll” helped the suspension of disbelief required to keep the film moving along.

The only question is why they did not include Skype in the title as this was such a huge presence in the plot. Presumably the company would not welcome such a direct reference without some sort of recompense while using the application in the film amounts to so much free publicity.

Sadly, as the characters go through their 10 Little Indian type exits we don’t care. All have “little” sins; Barnes’ ghost or vengeful spirit says via the IM screen that they all have hidden sins and they do. So much so that it is amazing that these teenagers have any friends to bully at all, as each of the victims have one thing in common, they are not good people.

Each character, even “good girl” Blaire, lies, cheats and steals from the others. Blaire turns out to be anything but a good girl, but then none of her social circle are either. In the end, we simply do not care that these vacuous teenagers die; with no empathy comes no sympathy. We cannot understand these self centered young people whose lack of care for one another makes it hard to like any of them. Sure they go through the motions of trying to save one another, but we do not believe their sincerity.

Still for all this lack of caring the film works to a huge degree. The plot of a bully victim bullying their bullies from the grave, using cyberspace, is unsettling and kind of cool. Sure we do not care about any of these shallow intensive people but…

“Dude, they were killed through Skype!”

However you slice it, this “slasher” type film (that really is not) entertains, all the more so if viewed on a laptop or computer screen. The amount of times that I found myself reaching for the mousepad to click on the screen proved that the film carried pretty well the way it was presented.

A solid 3.5 out of 5 stars. 1.5 were lost just because none of the characters were likable and the “victim” was a bully herself. Unfriended is available on iTunes to rent or to buy.