Thursday, October 25, 2018


“SKumm’s Thoughts”

I have never been a huge fan of Eli Roth; it seemed that most of his films were light on story, heavy on gore and torture, and the need to push the limits of the rating’s board.

So, when I heard he was directing a kid’s movie, I was a bit skeptical.  Who wouldn’t be?  This is the same guy that did HOSTEL, CABIN FEVER, and The Bloodiest Bruce Willis Movie Ever Made.  How in the wide world of sports was this guy going to pull off a PG-rated movie?  Turns out, spectacularly.

Working from the script by veteran television writer Eric Kripke (“Supernatural”, and the forthcoming “The Boys”), and based on the classic children’s series written by John Bellairs, Mr. Roth pulls off the seemingly impossible.  While the finished product is not wholly perfect, it is perfect in enough places to make it a thoroughly entertaining experience.

HOUSE stars young Owen Vaccaro (DADDY’S HOME) as Lewis Barnavelt, a recently orphaned boy who moves into his uncle’s house.  Uncle Jonathon (Jack Black, who tones down his Jack Blackness enough for you to enjoy his performance) lives in what, at first glance, appears to be a haunted house.  Stained glass windows rearrange themselves, chairs follow you around, and the griffin topiary likes to poo in the bird bath.  Yet things are not what they would seem: Uncle Jonathon is a warlock, and his feisty neighbor Florence (Cate Blanchett, giving me several more reasons to adore her) is a witch.  The house once belonged to an evil warlock who built a nefarious clock within its walls (duh—the title…), one which has remained hidden since his death the previous year.  Jonathon spends much of the nighttime hours searching for it, as he is certain it is up to absolutely nothing good.

There are several elements on display which work surprisingly well, not the least of which is Lewis’s plight.  He finds himself in a new home, in a new school where he struggles to make new friends, and trying to grieve for his dead parents.  Young Mr. Vaccaro plays his role quite well; he is sorrowful, yet still displays the curiosity inherent in any child.  He plays off his adult co-stars well, but it is the back-and-forth insults between his uncle and Florence that are some of the biggest highlights.  Black and Blanchett seem made for each other, so far as trading quips goes.  It is their chemistry as his bickering surrogate family that gives the story its hidden heart, that which guides Lewis through this tumultuous time.  And makes for some pretty good laughs.  Also on hand is Kyle MacLachlan as the evil warlock Isaac Izard, who doesn’t grind his teeth on the scenery so much as he gleefully gnaws on it.

This may seem like a movie just for kids, but the humor here is smart, sometimes biting, and the typical trappings of a tale about an orphaned kid are not present enough to bog down the story.  We see that Lewis is sad, but that isn’t and shouldn’t be the entire focus here; he’s a kid, and even when dealing with loss, there is still a certain feeling of wonder and beauty in childhood.  The script captures it, but, more importantly, Owen interprets it beautifully through his portrayal.  There are also some moments that could be a bit scary for kids, but not so much that they’ll be having nightmares over it.

There is a certain magic to this story, and to Mr. Roth’s way of telling it.  From the opening credits (he uses the old Universal Pictures logo to start things off) to the way he never once condescends to his target audience, here he seems a master storyteller.  He isn’t setting you up for the next gore-drenched scene, but rather guiding you along with a friendly nod and the gentlest of nudges.  With any luck, Mr. Roth has at last found his niche, and based on the latest box office returns, he should be given the opportunity to direct a sequel.

Grade: A

-- T. S. Kummelman

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

You have to love Scream Factory.  They put together some rather incredible re-releases, and their attention to detail is right up there with the same applied standards as the masterful Criterion Collection.

Case in point: 1999’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.  This reimagining of the 1959 classic starring Vincent Price has always been a personal favorite of mine.  It isn’t a guilty pleasure, as I feel very little guilt in smiling at the giddy and bloody mayhem which occurs throughout William Malone’s film about a billionaire offering six strangers a million dollars each to whomever survives one night in his haunted building, which used to house a lunatic asylum run by a mad scientist.  Basic premise with an easy set-up, but the horrifying shenanigans which ensue made this one of the most enjoyable horror films of the last few decades.

At the time of its release, no other genre movie had the blatant audacity that this one did.  In the few years following, several excellent films followed in the horror comedy footsteps laid most deliberately by HOUSE.  The year 2000 had GINGER SNAPS (another re-release handled deftly by parent company Shout! Factory), but that was a more a feminist envisioning of the classic werewolf tale via puberty, albeit a hilarious one with some great effects.  In fact, the only other film that came out within a recent time frame of HOUSE’s release which had the same frenetic energy would have been 2002’s GHOST SHIP—another very enjoyable ride, with some unique effects to it.  And it followed the same formula set up by Malone & Co.: a haunted location the protagonists cannot escape from, violent ghosts, and starred Hollywood up-and-comers and one excellent actor.

HOUSE’s playboy tycoon Stephen Price was played by none other than the Oscar winning actor Geoffrey Rush (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, THE KING’S SPEECH).  And his conspiring wife Evelyn by genre favorite Famke Janssen, who would go on to star in the first X-MEN films and the TAKEN series.  Their pairing is one of the genius casting moves on the part of the filmmakers; watching them bicker and banter and wish death upon each other is a chemistry which enhances the underlying devilish nature of the “house” they are all stuck in for the night.  You get the sense that their history is just as vile as that of the building itself, and their dark humor permeates the atmosphere created by all the dark corners and ill-lit hallways within.

The contestants themselves are just as impressive in their own rights: Ali Larter would go on to star in “Heroes” and the RESIDENT EVIL films; Taye Diggs has been on more hit TV shows (including “Empire” and “Grey’s Anatomy”) than I care to list here; SNL vet Chris Kattan, whose wise-ass Pritchett nearly steals the show; and Peter Gallagher, a character actor whose resume makes him one of the most easily recognized actors here.  And that’s not including Jeffrey Combs of RE-ANIMATOR fame as the evil scientist!

If you’ve never seen the film, you must—but you have to get Scream Factory’s release of it.  Between the deleted scenes (Debi Mazar: genius) and the immersive docs in the special features, there is enough here to keep you busy for a while.  You get an in-depth sit-down with director Malone, an interview with the film’s composer Don THE MATRIX Davis, and the original docs included with the previous release on DVD.  And the 2K scan of the original film looks amazing; from Malone’s unique color schemes to Rick Bota’s tight cinematography, this edition looks brilliant.

While Scream Factory has a number of releases scheduled for the next several months (CREEPSHOW, THE JERK, and STARMAN, to name a few), pick up HOUSE now.  If you aren’t sold on their products yet, you soon will be.  Besides; the movie is awesome.

Grade: A      
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Abso-freakin’-lutely

--  T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


‘Blu-ray or Bust’

Ah, what a bleak, monotone world in which we live.  At least, that seems to be the message the makers of the latest entry in the SICARIO saga want you to believe.

Unlike its Oscar nominated predecessor, DAY OF THE SOLDADO, while effective, does not have any of those “holy ass-monkeys!” moments.  Nothing that really makes you sit up straight and pay closer attention than you already were.  There are times when the film works, but it does so mostly due to its cast, and not from the Taylor Sheridan (SICARIO, WIND RIVER) written script.  Which is kind of surprising, as he wrote the first in a lean, concise manner.  This time around, the film nearly gets lost in its own world.

Returning to their “they might be the good guys but you aren’t supposed to like them” roles are Josh Brolin, as shady contractor Matt Graver, and Benicio Del Toro as the soft spoken and eerily precise assassin Alejandro.  The story focuses on them trying to “extract” (see: straight-up kidnap) the daughter of a Mexican cartel leader in order to start a war amongst the different factions.  Only after they bring her to U.S. soil, they then take her back to Mexico, and then try to get her back across the border.  The reasoning behind this human ping-pong match isn’t even rightly sorted.  No, I don’t need things spelled out for me.  But…okay, maybe this time I kinda did.  (Bear with me, I’m trying to sort this all out without divulging any spoilers)

Part of the problem is that this film wants to be as smart as the first one was, but it isn’t.  There is no Emily Blunt, whose naïve eyes we were so lucky to have witnessed the first film through, to help sort everything out and to be the film’s conscience.  Despite a change in directors, the tone remains the same, but you get an overwhelming feeling of linear storytelling.  A reason for this is that cinematographer Roger Deakins has been replaced by Dariusz Wolski, who has done some marvelous work for Ridley Scott in the past.  He does a fine job here, but it doesn’t add the same thrill that Deakins’ roving eyes did the first time around.  There are some sweeping views of the desert, and some nice shots of the Rio Grande at night.  But it all just feels so…flat.

And the story is written in such a way that, ultimately, the entire film feels like a setup for a third.  Maybe even a series.  Hell, as long as our own government is telling us how bad our neighbors to the south really are, this could become the new trend!  Forget ISIS, forget the evil Taliban—let’s all hate the Mexican cartels!  That should be fun for a while—at least until we can find a reason to run black ops missions into Canada.

Seriously—this is not a terrible film.  It just doesn’t hit on the levels it wants so badly to, partly due to the predictable outcomes, partly due to what feels like a lazy story.  The cast is the only reason this one is getting north of a “D” rating from me.  Speaking of which, the girl being shipped back and forth like my daughter’s broken iPhone is played by Isabela Moner, a staple for Nickelodeon Studios for the last few years.  She has the pleasure of being the only character in SOLDADO that you eventually wind up liking.  Almost every character in the film has a moment of redemption, but it is her tenacity, fear, and grief which drives the plot, and keeps the film from sinking under the heavy handed storytelling.

There are three featurettes included in the special features, the best of which shows how director Stefano Sollima pulled off the most thrilling moment of the film (and it happens roughly halfway through).  That moment involves an ambush on a dirt road, shown from the point of view of the actors—and just like that scene is the highlight of the film, it is also the highlight of the special features.

If you are going to purchase this, it may as well be on Blu-ray.  Explosions aren’t as pretty in the standard format, and the resolution here is especially effective; sometimes, the most color you are going to see in this picture are things blowing up or people losing blood.  The terribly serious score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (ARRIVAL, THE REVENANT) will also give your subwoofer a workout.

While a third SICARIO film has yet to be announced, this one will have made enough after-video sales to justify the studio considering it.  But it isn’t necessary.  Hell, even this sequel wasn’t necessary.  It is a passable two hours, but just barely.  And when you are following up a film as powerful and as thrilling as the first one was, that, in my opinion, isn’t enough to get excited about.
Film Grade: C
Special Features: B-
Blu-ray Necessary: Recommended

-- T.S. Kummelman