[Movie Review] 13 Sins

13 Sins

Starring: Mark Webber, Rutina Wesley, Tom Bower, Devon Graye, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Ron Perlman, Richard Burgi

Director: Daniel Stamm

Genre: Horror

Cert: 15

Released: 2014

 

Opening with a scene where a respected elderly professor seems to lose his marbles by reciting crude limericks in front of a well-to-do audience before chopping a woman’s finger off when she tries to assist him, “13 Sins” is about seeing unlikely people do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.

Enter Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber – “Snow Day”, “Weapons”, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”). He is a nice guy. Real nice. And he’s got a lot going on.

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Elliot’s all like “What the hell?”

Creditors are filling up his voicemail, his bigoted old man (Tom Bower) is getting evicted and he’s just about to get married to his pregnant girlfriend, Shelby (Rutina Wesley – TV’s “True Blood”).

So it’s a bad time for him to lose his job – and the health insurance that ensures his mentally disabled brother Michael (Devon Graye – TV’s “Dexter”) is looked after – after his acerbic boss (Richard Burgi) runs him down as too pure and honest to be a good salesman.

Later that night he receives a call while at a stop light where a man tells him (in one of those over-egged 1980s gameshow voices) that he’s been selected to be part of a new game that can win him mucho wealth. He tells Elliot that swatting the fly buzzing around his car will net him $1000. Elliot complies and then complies with a second challenge of swallowing the fly which earns him even more. He checks his bank account and finds the money has been deposited.

So far, so good.

Even though Elliot is, presumably, uncomfortable with the fact that this person seems to have the ability to see him at all times, he still agrees to partake in the rest of the game. There are eleven more challenges with increasing rewards and all must be completed or he will lose everything he has won up to that point.

Of course the challenges become more difficult and nice guy Elliot soon finds himself the focus of Detective Chilcoat (Joy! Ron Perlman!! – TV’s “Beauty and the Beast”, “Hellboy”) as his actions become crimes and accumulate in number and severity.

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Great moments derived from seeing Ron Perlman and Pruitt Taylor Vince together

A remake of Thai horror “13 Beloved”, writer and director Daniel Stamm doesn’t hang around. The story is swift and hard-hitting with enough gore to keep genre fans happy. It’s not “Saw”-level, but that’s to its credit I have to say. The connection to “Saw” is appropriate as “13 Sins” is also a film where a person is ultimately cajoled in to doing unthinkable things just to survive.

Elliot’s conversion from gutless nobody to a guy who gets a thrill from outwitting the cops and driving through red lights is a little ham-fisted. But “13 Sins” avoids collapsing on itself with enough twists and turns to stay interesting and genuinely surprising.

Webber is the main character and does a good job in portraying an everyday man who becomes capable and paranoid enough to do what he sees as necessary.

A little uneven in parts but a strong final act makes “13 Sins” a genre hit.

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[Movie Review] The Amityville Haunting

Starring: Jason Williams, Amy Van Horne, Devin Clark, Nadine Crocker, Gracie Largent, Luke Barnett
Director: Geoff Meed
Genre: Horror
Cert: 18
Released: 2011

It was only a matter of time until the ‘found footage’ format reached The Amityville franchise.  In the latest direct-to-DVD installment – aside from 2005’s original remake, it’s the first since the mid-90s – a brand new family move in to the infamous, murderous spirit-filled New York suburban house, seemingly the only home they could afford.

But there’s a reason that the place is cheap – no one ever lives there for more than a month or two. Former serviceman Douglas Benson (Jason Williams) persuades his wife Virginia (Amy Van Horne) to fall in line and help build a home for them and their children. They are a contrary bunch: Tyler (Devin Clark) is about 12 years old with a penchant for filming everything (you can see where that is going), Lori (Nadine Crocker) is probably 16 with an attitude that’s at least an 11 and Melanie (Gracie Largent) is the youngest and, just like the original kid from the seventies, has the connection with the house that no one else does.

The film begins with what turns out to be virtually unrelated scenes featuring four adventurous kids who break in to the house and film themselves getting up to no good. The only reference to this during the rest of the movie is when Tyler finds an old iPod with the footage they filmed that night but it doesn’t even become a plot device so it’s kind of pointless.

Most of the movie revolves around Tyler filming the family around the home and capturing the aftermath of the demise of several characters (a real estate agent, a mover). He’s not a bad kid but he gets treated like a dog by the contemptible Douglas, a stern, unreasonable, impatient, needlessly-aggressive man whose disdain for his son is only superseded by his intolerance of his (admittedly) annoying older daughter. When the back door is left open at night he blames all the kids one after another showing parenting skills on a par with Harry Wormwood (when of course, having seen almost a dozen of these movies, we know who is really responsible).

Even though the script acknowledges the house’s infamy – a detective who turns up to investigate the disappearance of a neighbour references the movies and books written about the building – the fact that doors open and close by themselves and several people die in the first few days doesn’t initially suggest to Douglas that something might not be quite right. He decides to put up CCTV cameras (“Paranormal Activity 3”-style) to catch the ‘burglar’ that is opening the door at night, and this becomes another source of footage which I suppose adds a little bit of variety if nothing else.

We know that there’s an unseen presence as the camera occasionally goes black and an accompanying “static sound” interferes with the footage. The best scenes are when we see ghosts on camera that the family cannot see although that effect wears off pretty quick as it increasingly loses its subtlety.

The final ten minutes counters utterly laughable scenes involving Douglas with the movie’s best moments (albeit that’s not saying much). Performances are predictably poor although these are bit-part actors who are presumably doing their best in the leading roles. And, in a rather castrating move, not once in the film do we see the distinctive house front that was pretty damn effective in its initial outings.

The final word on “The Amityville Haunting” is that it’s from The Asylum. Presumably they came up with and filmed this entire thing bell-to-bell in about three weeks. And it shows.

[Movie Review] Stepfather III

Starring: Robert Wightman, Priscilla Barnes, Season Hubley, David Tom, John Ingle

Director: Guy Magar

Genre: Thriller/Horror

Cert: 18

Released: 1992

Terry O’Quinn received much acclaim for his performances in the first two “Stepfather” movies where he played a disturbed sociopath, dedicated to creating and being part of the perfect family unit.  While the first film was an outstanding cult chiller, the second one was more campy, notable only for O’Quinn’s turn.  The talented actor (who found international fame as John Locke in “Lost”) was – one would assume for either artistic or financial reasons – not involved in this direct-to-video second sequel in 1992.  So in steps Robert Wightman (briefly John-Boy Walton in The Waltons) as the maniacal titular character.

Changing the actor while not changing the character means that there needs to be some form of explanation as to why he looks different (unless it’s the Donna Reed/Barbara Bel Geddes switcheroo I suppose).  Director Guy Magar’s explanation, while being a reach, makes sense: The Stepfather (aka Henry Morrison, Jerry Blake, Bill Hodgkins, Gene Clifford) has escaped (again) from a maximum-security mental hospital.  Having been featured on every news broadcast around the country he decides to have plastic surgery so as to evade capture and continue his search for the perfect family.

The movie opens with a hooded man being operated on by a backstreet plastic surgeon who promises that’s he’s “the best there is” while he cuts and slices his patient without any anesthetic and with a bottle of whiskey nearby.  Some days later the bandages come off and The Stepfather is back … almost looking like a different person altogether.

We cut to a small Californian town where local gardener Keith Grant (Wightman) dresses as the Easter bunny and hands out eggs to the local community’s children at the urging of local priest Father Brennan (John Ingle – TV’s “General Hospital”, “Days of Our Lives”).  His unassuming charm interests single mother Christine Davis (Priscilla Barnes – TV’s “Three’s Company”, “Licence to Kill”, “Mallrats”, “The Devil’s Rejects”) and before long the two are involved in a whirlwind romance that leads to marriage in what seems about 4 days.

Her wheelchair-bound son Andy (David Tom – “Stay Tuned”, “Pleasantville”) is less impressed though, telling Father Brennan that there’s something not quite right about his new stepfather, who had no friends or family at the wedding and seems to change his back-story frequently.  No matter how hard Keith tries, he can’t make that connection with the crime-obsessed Andy who already suspects that Keith could be the escaped “step father” that he has seen on a TV news report.  The youngster uses his computer expertise (using the Internet and Photoshopping before they were common) to investigate Keith’s background.

Becoming disillusioned with his already-disintegrating relationship with his new family, Keith lines up Jennifer, a single mother who he has just rented his old cottage to.  But with Andy digging deeper and Father Brennan increasingly suspicious with Keith’s behaviour, time is running out for The Stepfather to make everything right.

“Stepfather III” came in for a bit of a battering at the time of release as one might expect.  Certainly when I first viewed it almost two decades ago I wasn’t that impressed.  But, on second viewing, the film – in the context of the franchise – has stood the test of time quite well.  I mean, come on, “The Stepfather”, quality film though it was, was a B-movie – shorn of gloss and rough around the edges.  And that’s what the third movie is – hampered slightly by a less-engaging lead man, admittedly.

In fairness to Robert Wightman he puts up a good fight in the role where O’Quinn set such a high watermark.  His syrupy, southern-accented, nice guy act is a little clunky but when required to go a bit mental, he pulls it off very well.  His facial mannerisms and general appearance is close enough to O’Quinn that you can almost buy in to the storyline that this is O’Quinn with a different face.

He’s in good company on set though.  David Tom does a convincing job as Andy and Priscilla Barnes was a good choice as The Stepfather’s lover (as were Shelley Hack and Meg Foster in the previous movies).

The violent scenes are not as hard-hitting as some of the ones we have seen previously and the entire film is undermined by the fact that we’ve seen it all before – and better.  But for a largely-disregarded, low budget thriller, “Stepfather III” is no embarrassment and worth a watch.

[Movie Review] Saw VII

Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Cary Elwes, Sean Patrick Flanery, Chad Donella, Gina Holden

Director: Kevin Greutert

Genre: Horror

Cert: 18

Released: 2010

Note: Some storylines from earlier films are spoiled in this review.

I don’t know why I do it to myself. For the seventh – and hopefully final time – I endured the blood fest that is the Saw franchise.

“Saw VII” – or “Saw 3D” – or “Saw: The Final Chapter” – or “I’m Sure I Saw This One Before” – brings the popular but increasingly-jaded horror series to a blood-splattered end.

The first movie introduced us to Jigsaw, a sociopathic killer who punishes people he considers morally bankrupt by putting them in elaborate death traps which he calls “games”.  Their only chance of survival is to make some form of sacrifice in order to escape, allowing them to have a second chance at a life that he considers they have taken for granted.  And the first movie is really, really good.

Of course when you produce what is largely the same film six more times, it’s going to run out of steam eventually.  Add to that – and unfortunately it’s necessary to spoil the story arc somewhat to properly review this seventh installment – the fact that Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) dies half way through the series, the most compelling reason to watch died with him.

This is Billy. Hello, Billy.

“Saw VII” opens with a flashback to the closing scenes of the first movie before cutting to a gathering crowd at a shop-front window.  In the window, two young men are strapped to opposite ends of a bench with buzz saws and a woman is suspended over a large saw in the middle.  Jigsaw’s messenger puppet Billy (pictured) cycles in to view and instructs the men that the woman is a harlot who has been playing them against each other.  Their choice is to try to kill each other in the next sixty seconds and save her – or let her slowly descend on to a saw.  And so sets the tone for another series of depraved and hard-to-watch death scenes that are admirable in some cases for their invention, but, equally, seem to feel just a little played-out at this point.

Outside of the slicing through and chopping off of body parts is a semblance of storyline.  Jigsaw’s work is carried on by Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) who survived his attempted murder by Jigsaw’s widow Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell) in the sixth movie.  Tuck goes to internal affairs detective Matt Gibson (Chad Donella) and promises to testify against Hoffman if she is granted immunity.  He pops her in a safe house and heads off to apprehend Hoffman, a man he has history with.

Meanwhile, Hoffman is kicking off Jigsaw’s next game.  He kidnaps Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery – “The Boondock Saints”), a man who has amassed wealth and fame by falsely claiming to have survived a Jigsaw game.  Bobby awakens in an abandoned building and is instructed by the helpful Billy that he must navigate a series of obstacles in sixty minutes to save his wife’s life.  Along the way he’ll encounter and have to save the lives of his best friend, his lawyer and his PR person – all complicit in his lies according to Jigsaw.

If you’ve seen the previous “Saw” movies then this one won’t do much for you.  In fact the main storyline of VII – where the protagonist has to pass a series of tests in sixty minutes – is far too similar to the storyline of VI.  And VI was marginally better.

The cast of the “Saw” movies are never going to win any awards (the best performer was always Tobin Bell and he shines when he’s briefly on screen here (despite his death he makes appearances in all the movies)).  But in the context of a gore-filled horror movie nobody is expecting Academy Award-level turns anyway.  The whole production is slick, fast-moving and well-directed.  The dialogue is polished and coherent.  But yet “Saw” is less than the sum of its parts.

However it’s an artistically-limping franchise that has pulled in just south of a billion dollars worldwide gross.  So that’s probably the only sum that matters at this point.

[Movie Review] The Final Destination

Starring: Bobby Campo, Krista Allen, Andrew Fiscella, Shantel VanSanten, Mykelti Williamson, Haley Webb, Nick Zano
Director: David R Ellis
Genre: Horror
Cert: 15
Released: 2009

Will someone make it stop?

Seemingly not.  2006’s “Final Destination 3” was to be the last in the horror series only for the advent of 3D to prompt director David R Ellis to bring it back.  The definite article in the title indicates that part four was again planned as the final outing but news has emerged that number five is on its way.

So what do we get for our money?  Much the same as we’ve seen on three previous occasions is the answer.  A group of young, attractive people are taking in some action at the local speedway arena when Nick (Campo) has a premonition of a fatal accident that will take the lives of him, his friends and many fellow spectators. Panicking, he convinces his friends that they need to get out and in the commotion a number of other people follow them.  The accident occurs and they survive while dozens die.  But – as is the central theme of the entire series – Death’s design is written in stone and the Grim Reaper (as such) will continue to pursue those who cheated death.

I had little praise for the first movie almost a decade ago but it’s fair to say that the second and third instalments were better without being memorable in any way (outside of a brilliant elevator-related death scene in number two).

And I have to say I’m undecided over “The Final Destination”.  I’m undecided as to whether the series has run out of steam and jaded me or if it’s just a dreadful film.

Perhaps the scriptwriters and director lost their focus because of the 3D angle (a gimmick that leads to some oddly-shot scenes) or perhaps they are just lazy.  There’s no attempt to introduce new plot devices or add any depth to the narrative that they explored insufficiently in the first movie.  And this might be slightly subjective but it does seem that the gore quotient has been upped significantly in this episode; usually an indicator that fresh ideas are thin on the ground.

I have no idea whether the cast have any talent or not as they ham it up within the limited boundaries of their stereotypical characters.  It’s a very predictable non-event and, above all, extremely boring.

[Movie Review] Mirrors

Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Paula Patton, Amy Smart

Director: Alexandre Aja

Genre: Horror

Cert: 15

Released: 2008

I don’t know the reason for Kiefer Sutherland’s fairly low-profile cinema career in the last decade.  Since “24” launched in 2001 only “Phone Booth” and “The Sentinel” have showed up on my radar and much of his earnings outside of his smash TV series seem to come from voice acting in the likes of “The Land Before Time X” (Ten? Really??), “The Wild” and “Dragonlance”.  Perhaps he is too busy to throw himself in to a major movie role but with “24” possibly finishing up this year we may see more frequent big screen appearances from Sutherland again.

This is my roundabout way of saying that it’s good to see him back on screen in “Mirrors”, a high-concept, psychological horror movie that’s loosely based on Korean horror, “Into the Mirror“.  “The Hills Have Eyes” director Alexandre Aja – who is behind the camera – largely re-wrote the original script for the Hollywood adaptation.

Ben Carson (Sutherland) is an NYPD cop, suspended for an unspecified incident in which he shot someone dead.  He’s hit hard times; estranged from his wife Amy (Patton) and kids, living with his sister Angela (Smart) and trying to stay sober.

To help him try to get his life back together he gets a new job as a security guard at a former department store, the Mayflower, that was burnt down years previous.  During his first few nights he experiences strange occurrences – hand prints on the mirrors, a cracking mirror that seems to repair itself after causing a laceration on his hand, visions of screaming, burning bodies, and a vivid hallucination where Ben himself has caught fire.

When he receives a package from the Mayflower’s former security guard – a man we’ve seen killed in the movie’s opening scenes and whose wallet Ben found – he begins to believe that there is more to the events than hallucination. Although his wife thinks that his prescribed drugs are causing the visions, Ben realises that the presence in the mirrors is following him and might even endanger his family’s lives.

Not having seen “The Hills Have Eyes” I can’t comment on director Alexandre Aja’s previous work but online forums and blogs hold him in high esteem.  I can see why on the basis of “Mirrors”, a visually impressive film which makes the most of its inventive concept.  The idea of the menace lurking in a reflection lends itself to some striking scenes none more so than the opening salvo and latter scenes involving Ben’s family.

Smart and Patton don’t have too much to get their teeth in to but that’s okay as the movie is really all about Sutherland.  He brings a vulnerable intensity to the role, portraying a man battling his own demons as well as encountering ones that he really has no business with.  Tension is built through a combination of Sutherland’s driven but demented character and Aja’s stylish techniques.

The movie is hampered by a lumbering plot line that seems to outstay its welcome during an over-long second act, a hangover that is then felt in the final part.  Ben’s investigation to uncover the source of the evil that inhabits the mirrors irks a little and so it’s with a feeling of near-exhaustion that you face the final act of the film.

In spite of this Aja has banked enough credit up till this point and has sufficient tricks up his sleeve to rescue the story.  This could become an interesting little franchise if the second movie does some business.

[Movie Review] I Am Legend

I Am LegendStarring: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith

Director: Francis Lawrence

Genre: Sci-Fi

Cert: 15

Released: 2007 

 

 

I try not to feel intimidated by films with big casts, budgets and reputations.  “I Am Legend” is one such film – a $150m budget with a $585m box-office gross and starring Hollywood’s most bankable star, Will Smith.  I shook the underwhelming ghost of “I, Robot” from my head and settled down to watch an apocalyptic nightmare unfold… apparently. 

It’s 2009 and Dr Krippen (Emma Thompson) announces on TV that she has cured cancer.  Three years later and things aren’t quite so rosy.  The cure for cancer (basically a re-engineered measles virus) mutated and became an airborne virus that killed 5.4 billion people.  Of those who lived a small percentage were found to be immune but a far larger percentage were not – they transformed in to an animalistic, primal race that prowl the streets at night as they are sensitive to sunlight.  

The assumption is that the immune were slaughtered by the infected and the last remaining human on earth appears to be army scientist, Robert Neville (Will Smith), who remained in New York City to try and reverse the effects of the virus.  Through flashbacks we note that he had his wife and daughter (Salli Richardson and Willow Smith) transported out of New York three years earlier and now has only his German Shepherd, Samantha, for company.

During the day he leaves his safehouse to try and capture infected humans (Darkseekers) so that he can perform tests on them in his underground laboratory and try to find a cure.  At night he sleeps in a bath tub with the lights off and all his windows and doors boarded up as the infected remainder of the human race prowl the streets looking for prey. 

Neville knows he must find an answer soon and, if he does, what is his motivation?  Everyone else is dead.  What is left for him?  

“I Am Legend” (based on a 1954 science fiction novel by Richard Matheson) certainly requires a bit more engagement than your standard zombie film.  In other words, this isn’t “Resident Evil”.  While the movie has been criticised for deviating from the book’s plot, it does recreate a bleak apocalyptic vision and has a narrative that expands beyond the typical big-budget blueprint.

Director Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) has by no means a simple task on his hands given the storied project he inherited (numerous actors, directors and scripts have been lined up and abandoned since the mid 90s).  What he has presented is a watchable but uneventful action movie with heart.  

Smith, as always, plays his role well (he’s not your typical scientist but I guess casting Phillip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti didn’t appeal to the producers).  He engages during the numerous silent scenes and his relationship with Samantha, the only “living” creature he gets to interact with, is affecting.  I was reminded of Tom Hanks’ “Castaway” film in the sense that his character must try to overcome a long-term lack of human interaction by interacting with inanimate objects (Smith’s character does so with mannequins).  

But there are issues with the way the story is told.  If you haven’t read the preview blurb then you might be confused.  Neville watches old news clips that relate the initial breakout of the virus but I’m sure it took some people time to twig that these were historical reports.  The flashbacks tell some of the story but leave an awful lot of information out.  For example, there is no focus on the actual spread of the virus, how it manifested itself, the devastation it caused (a prequel covering these issues is provisionally slated for a 2011 release).  

The film takes an unlikely turn and then showers us with an unsubtle Christian subtext which is an instant turn off for me.

“I Am Legend” works for a while but just at the time you expect something to happen, it just kind of ends.  Shame.

2star