William Zabka on Portraying a Non-Bully Character in ‘Where Hope Grows’

Where Hope Grows William Zabka

Ever since he played Johnny Lawrence in 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” actor William Zabka has forever burned himself into our collective memories as the quintessential school bully. From there he went on to play characters who were equally antagonistic in movies like “Back to School,” “Just One of the Guys” and “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” in which he does the unthinkable when he dumps Audrey Griswold as his girlfriend. All these movies serve to make you completely forget that Zabka started off his career acting in commercials which portrayed him as the all-American nice guy.

But the truth is there is more to Zabka than just playing the bully we all love to hate. Ever since “The Karate Kid,” he has gone on, unlike many of his co-stars, to earn a black belt in Tang Soo Do. On top of that, he speaks Czech fluently and is also an accomplished musician. Furthermore, he has gone on to become a noted filmmaker, and his short film “Most” earned numerous awards as well as an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.

All these years later, we catch up with Zabka in “Where Hope Grows,” a film written and directed by Chris Dowling, which has him playing Milton Malcolm. Milton looks like a successful businessman, but we come to see his life is falling apart very quickly. He descends into alcoholism with his best friend Calvin Campbell (Kristoffer Polaha), a former major league baseball player whose career was undone by panic attacks. But when Calvin finds a way to sobriety thanks to his newfound friendship with a simple-minded supermarket employee with Down syndrome who is known by his nickname of Produce (David DeSanctis), Milton ends up feeling more isolated than ever, and this sends his life into an even deeper downward spiral.

Looking at this, it becomes clear Zabka has a more complex role than any other actor in “Where Hope Grows,” and I told so during a roundtable interview held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. Unlike his most famous characters, Milton cannot be easily labeled as a good or bad guy in this movie. I asked him what the challenges were for him in playing such a complex character, and he liked that I found this to be the case with Milton.

Where Hope Grows movie poster

William Zabka: This character is very complex. He has it all or appears to have it all. He’s got a beautiful wife and kids but he’s in trouble at work, he’s in the bottle, neglecting his wife, there are all kinds of stuff going on. To live in the moment of that and to feel the pain of that… The one scene where I almost come off really brazen in the scene at the golf course, I was saying to Chris, “Give me another line.” We were banned from saying the “R” word on the set. It was like no “R” words and here I am delivering it. I said, “Can’t we just find something softer? Can we be ignorant but not so brazen?” Chris really wanted that contrast for the ending and payoff. That’s a vulnerable place to go as an actor because as an actor you want to be liked or at least relatable. I’m glad you said that you could see the complexities because he wasn’t a good guy and he wasn’t a bad guy. He was misinformed. Produce’s story is kind of a second story to him. He is struggling with his own stuff, and it’s later when they come face to face and this kid gives him a gift. So, hanging onto that was the key to allow me to go down to some of those darker places.

It was a real honor to be in the presence of Zabka whose performance in “The Karate Kid” remains forever burned into my memory. But while many remember him best for playing such a hateful bully, there’s certainly much more to him than we realize.

Where Hope Grows” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. And of course, you can see him on the YouTube Red series “Cobra Kai” as Johnny Lawrence.

 

Exclusive Video Interview with Scott Beck and Bryan Woods about ‘Nightlight’

Before they co-wrote the screenplay for “A Quiet Place” along with John Krasinski, filmmakers Bryan Woods and Scott Beck spent some time in the found footage genre with “Nightlight.”  This movie takes place in Covington forest, a place believed to be haunted as many troubled youths have gone there and committed suicide. This, however, doesn’t stop a group of five teenagers from venturing out there for an evening of flashlight games and blood curdling ghost stories. But of course, it doesn’t take long for the fun to come to a screeching halt as they end up awakening a demonic presence, an unseen evil wastes no time in preying upon their deepest fears. From there, the five friends struggle to help each other to escape the forest before they are forever plunged into the most terrifying of nightmares.

From the outset, “Nightlight” looks to be your typical found footage horror movie a la “The Blair Witch Project,” but there is one thing which helps set it apart. It is one of the recent films in this genre which deals seriously with issues teens go through. We come to discover how these kids lost a friend of theirs named Ethan to suicide, and he ended up taking his life in the same forest they are spending the night in. While trying to evade the demonic force hunting them down, they also try to make peace with Ethan’s death and of the part they feel they played in it. While a lot of horror movies are filled with dumb teenage characters, these ones in “Nightlight” feel relatable, and their problems may end up reminding you of what you felt like at their age.

I got to speak with Woods and Beck back in 2015 while they were in Los Angeles to promote “Nightlight,” and it turns out they have known each other since the sixth grade. Their early years of making movies with action figures has gotten them to where they can confidently helm their own feature films, and their careers would soon hit an even bigger peak with “A Quiet Place.” They were full of details on the making of “Nightlight” such as how they found the forest featured prominently in this movie, how they wanted to make this particular found footage stand out from so many others like it, and why they decided to cast unknown actors. In addition, they also had some interesting stories to tell about animal wranglers and the importance of sound design in a horror movie.

Please check out the interview above. “Nightlight” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Nightlight movie poster

‘Inside Out’ is One of Pixar’s Best Films

Inside Out

Inside Out” is far and away one of the very best movies Pixar has ever made. A story of a girl experiencing conflicting emotions and an ever-growing shyness after she moves with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco, it is bound to have you experiencing a wealth of emotions such as happiness and sadness. Honestly, these animated characters feel more human and real than others you find in the typical Hollywood blockbuster. If you say you came out of this movie unmoved, you are nothing but a flat-out liar. Yes, “Inside Out” is that good.

We are introduced to Riley right out of the womb as she is born to very loving parents. At the same time, we are also introduced to the emotions which occupy her mind: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). All of them take their turns at the controls of Riley’s mind, but Joy has the most influence as she is determined to keep Riley as happy no matter what. In the end, who wants to be unhappy, you know?

But then things change dramatically for Riley when her family moves from one side of America to the other and to a place which ruins pizza (watch the movie and you’ll see what I mean). While she tries to put on a brave face as the new girl in town, she finds her heart quickly breaking as she misses her old life and friends. This leads to her having an embarrassing moment in class and a hard time making friends and, as a result, Joy feels increasingly threatened as the more negative emotions begin to have increased influence over this pre-teen girl who has yet to discover the horrors of turning 13. Yes, this movie takes place before she hits puberty. Imagine what the sequel will be like!

“Inside Out” affected me deeply as I completed related to what Riley went through. When I was her age, my family moved me and from a town I felt very settled in to one which made me feel like an alien from another world. Being the new kid was no fun at all, and Riley’s emotional state should be completely understandable to those who have been through the exact same situation. In some ways she is lucky because she lives in the age of social media where she can talk with her friends via computer or Skype. I would have loved to have had this when I was her age.

This movie was directed by Pete Docter who helmed two of my favorite Pixar movies, “Monsters Inc.” and “Up,” and it was influenced by two things in his life; when his family moved to Denmark where he had trouble adapting to his new surroundings, and of the shyness his daughter began experiencing as she got older. For an animated movie, the characters like Riley and her parents feel wonderfully complex in a way you don’t necessarily expect. This isn’t the first Pixar movie to give us characters like these, but it is worth noting here.

I also liked how Riley is not portrayed as your stereotypical pre-teen girl. She is big into hockey in a way girls are more than we ever bother to realize, and she doesn’t obsess over the usual things we have been conditioned to believe girls obsess over like dresses and potential boyfriends. Docter has us see her as being like any other individual to where her gender is more or less beside the point. The feelings Riley experiences are universal, and they will quickly remind audience members of the ones they experienced when they were her tender age.

Now while I may be making “Inside Out” sound like an animated remake of “Pump up the Volume,” I assure you it is also very, very funny. This is in large part thanks to the cast which was perfectly chosen. Amy Poehler has always been one of my favorite “Saturday Night Live” stars, and it’s hard to think of another actress who could have voiced Joy better than she does. Her gleeful and spirited banter infects the character fully, and she also humanizes Joy to where she realizes why Riley can’t be happy all the time.

Phyllis Smith turns Sadness into a wonderfully funny character regardless of her infinitely depressed disposition. Bill Hader is absolutely priceless as Fear, Mindy Kaling makes Disgust more fun than she has any right to be, and who else could have done a better voicing Anger than the combustible comedian who is Lewis Black? Black steals every scene he has here as Anger, understandably, has difficulty keeping his cool. And let’s not forget Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane who voice Riley’s father and mother and make them into the most loving parents Riley could ever hope to have.

As “Inside Out” probes the memory banks and emotional centers of young Riley’s mind, it proves to be absolutely boundless in its imagination and visual effects. I keep waiting to see what surprises Docter had in store for us as we keep getting introduced to new characters like Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind is fabulous) and other memory centers which are presented to us as if they were giant theme parks.

The filmmakers clearly did a lot of research on the human mind. This leads to many unforgettable moments like when certain parts of Riley’s mind such as Imagination Land crumbles and falls into the Memory Dump where memories are forever forgotten. On one hand it is an amazing piece of animation, but on the other it is a reminder of the things we lose in our lives as we get older. We may want to get some of these things back, but a lot of times we cannot.

But perhaps the most important thing we can get out of watching “Inside Out” is not the fact we can’t be happy all the time, but that Joy and Sadness need to coexist with one another. You can’t have pleasure without having pain, and this is made abundantly clear in one of the movie’s closing scenes which is beautiful and will have at least one tear trickling down your cheek.

Many have said Pixar has lost its footing in the past few years with an overreliance on sequels, but I have yet to see a movie of theirs which I have not liked. “Inside Out,” however, reminds you of how amazing they can be when they focus on giving you a great story more than anything else. It’s a movie for anybody and everybody, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Take Me to the River’ Dives Right Into the Deep End

Take Me to the River poster

I came into “Take Me to the River” with little knowledge as to what the movie was about, and perhaps this is the best way to approach it. At first it looks to be a tale of a gay teenager dealing with his conservative relatives who have yet to understand how human nature really works, but then it takes a sharp left turn to reveal it is really about deep dark family secrets which are revealed in a wordless way, and the psychological impact it ends up having on its audience is far more profound than we could have ever seen coming.

We are introduced to Ryder (Logan Miller), a gay California teenager who is going with his mom Cindy (Robin Weigert) and dad Don (Richard Schiff) to a family reunion in Nebraska. Ryder is intent on revealing his sexuality to everyone there, but his parents encourage him not to. Shortly after he arrives, he is treated with suspicion from others as his red shorts look like a pair of swimming trunks and his glasses resemble something which came out of the 1980’s. His cousins, however, are crushing on him as he makes them special drawings, and they find him wonderfully rebellious. But then things go awry during a moment between him and 9-year-old Molly when she comes out of a barn with a bloodstain on her dress. Ryder is immediately suspected of abuse by his uncle Keith (Josh Hamilton), but he makes clear he didn’t do anything to her.

Now revealing more about “Take Me to the River” from there is a bit tricky because it is better not to know too much about the movie beforehand. For a time, I thought I knew where the movie was going to go, but then it becomes more like a thriller. This is especially the case when Ryder is invited to a supper with Keith and his family where Keith looks to make amends with him, but his laser-like stare indicates he has something quite devious planned for his nephew, and we are just as in the dark as Ryder is.

This movie marks the feature film directorial debut of Matt Soebel who also wrote its screenplay, and he does an excellent job of putting us right in Ryder’s shoes. Like Ryder, we have little idea of what’s going on and it leaves us with an inescapable feeling of dread.  And like “The China Syndrome,” it doesn’t have, or even need, a music score to underscore the tension which continually builds up. We don’t really hear any music until the very end, and when that final song comes on, I felt like breathing a sigh of relief as the tension finally lifted.

This is also a motion picture which derives its power from what is not said more than what is. Soebel is not interested in spelling everything out to us as our imaginations are capable of generating things far more frightening, and when the story comes to hint at a deep dark family secret, we cannot help but be unsettled at what that secret could be.

But as much as “Take Me to the River” sounds like a thriller, it is also a coming of age story as Ryder comes to better understand the people around him and develops a stronger compassion than he ever had before. The fact he is gay eventually becomes a tiny issue as their bigger things to undercover which has left his family members with very nasty emotional scars. This is saying a lot because many coming of age movies don’t come constructed like this, and it makes this one all the more unique.

I was very impressed with Miller who left a strong impression on audiences in “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” We never catch him portraying a typical teenager, let alone a gay teenager, but instead a regular kid who is caught up in a situation he can’t stay one step ahead of. I also liked Hamilton’s performance as Keith because it shows him to be quite the poker player. But the most impressive performance in “Take Me to the River” comes from Robin Weigert as Cindy. At first, she makes Cindy an overprotective mother, but her actions come to reveal someone who has suffered a serious trauma she can never fully make peace with. Weigert, just with a look, shows us how deep her emotional scars go, and it’s always impressive to see any actor pull this off without having to spell it out for the audience.

There’s always something to be said for a movie which catches you by surprise, and “Take Me to the River” is certainly one. I went into it not knowing much about it, and it took me on a ride unlike few others I have been on in recent years. In a time where movies are bound by formulaic standards and studio executives who are hell bent on starting the next big franchise, it’s nice to know there are still filmmakers out there making movies which go against the grain. Not everything can be the same, and in the end, everyone needs some variety as they can get easily bored.

If you love movies which break the mold, then “Take Me to the River” is one you need to check out. When it comes to humanity, there’s always something more to a person than meets the eye. While you might think individuals can be easily divided into groups of people you feel you can easily identify, this movie comes around to remind you this it is not as easy as you think. Family secrets are never easy to unveil, and this movie serves as a reminder as to why. I look forward to what Sobel has in store for us next.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Sean Penn Shows How ‘The Gunman’ is Not Another ‘Taken’

The Gunman movie poster

Two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn moves into the action genre with “The Gunman,” a film from “Taken” director Pierre Morel. In the film, Penn plays Jim Terrier, a former Special Forces officer and military contractor who is intent on putting his violent past behind him after all the damage he has done. But in the process of helping an African village find clean water, three men attempt to kill him, and he suddenly finds himself on the run in an effort to clear his name. This ends up taking him from one country to another to where he is reunited with the love of his life as well as friends who have since gotten greedy with their business endeavors. In addition, Jim also has to deal with PTSD which may claim his life sooner than he thinks.

With Morel directing, it’s easy to assume “The Gunman” is another “Taken” but with Sean Penn instead of Liam Neeson. But the truth is “The Gunman” is much more of a character driven action movie, and Penn brings his usual intensity to it to where you have no reason to doubt he did his research. I got to hear Penn share his thoughts and feelings about this movie at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California. One question on everybody’s mind was on the research Penn did on military snipers and what he learned about them.

Sean Penn: I think that what’s interesting to me is that there’s a disconnect between that which is trained as a facilitator or an implementer, or in this case an operator. The training is done in a way that’s depersonalizing all of that. Of course in our story, things get personalized as it happens in the real world. The experience of working as a facilitator in an emotionally detached way using things one has learned is not an unfamiliar thing to me. Using it to take life of course is not my story.

For me, this was the most fascinating aspect of “The Gunman” as Jim Terrier has to go from a depersonalized state of mind to being in a situation which keeps him from being emotionally detached. This is where the movie gets much of its intensity as Jim’s feelings are brought to the surface to where he cannot hide from them, and this threatens his life more than ever before.

I asked Penn how he was able to balance out the Jim’s depersonalization with his more emotionally naked one when those closest to him are threatened with death. His answer gave us all an idea of what really drew him to the material, and it also allowed him to make clear how “The Gunman” is much different from “Taken.”

Sean Penn: It’s an interesting movie in that regard because it’s a movie about a very conflicted man killing very bad men largely in service of himself. This is why when we have conversations about the Liam Neeson movies. Here you have a 6 foot 4 melodically voiced, masculine figure who is a very good man, fighting strictly for his children. So, I don’t really see the comparison.”

The Gunman” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Exclusive Interview with Barry Crimmins and Bobcat Goldthwait about ‘Call Me Lucky’

It was very sad to learn Barry Crimmins passed away on February 28, 2018 at the age of 64. Crimmins was diagnosed with cancer only a month earlier, but the disease spread through his body very rapidly. He was an American stand-up comedian, a political activist and satirist, a writer and a comedy club owner, and his comedy predated that of the late Bill Hicks. He brought the comedy scene in Boston to a new level of prominence after forming the city’s two clubs, The Ding Ho and Stitches. He has long since earned the respect of fellow comics like Bobcat Goldthwait, Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone, Kevin Meaney and many, many others who continue to sing his praises, But the thing is, I was only just getting to know him just a few years ago.

Call Me Lucky poster

Despite Crimmins having done so much work, many people today, myself included, had never heard of him before. This changed in 2015 with Goldthwait’s acclaimed documentary “Call Me Lucky” which chronicled Crimmins’ beginnings as a comic in New York to his work in the present as a political activist. The documentary also reveals how Crimmins was a victim of sexual abuse as a child, and we even see him revisit the scene of his abuse in an effort to come to terms with what he went through. For years, he was an anti-pedophilia activist, and he went out of his way to expose pedophiles on the internet in the 1990’s before turning his evidence over to the FBI. In 1995, he testified before Congress about the need to enforce child pornography laws more than ever before.

In 2017, Crimmins married Helen Lysen, a photographer and font designer, and she was with him when he passed away peacefully. She shared the news of his death and wrote, “He would want everyone to know that he cared deeply about mankind and wants you to carry on the good fight. Peace.” Indeed, his death is a real loss as we need voices like his as the political climate we are currently dealing with in America continues to grow more volatile as days go by.

I was fortunate to talk with Crimmins and Goldthwait while they were doing press for “Call Me Lucky” a few years ago. To this interview, I wore one of my “They Live” t-shirts as I figured Crimmins was a fan of John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic which remains one of the most politically subversive movies ever made. It turns out he had not seen it, but Goldthwait certainly did, and I hope he got Crimmins to check it out before he passed away. I am certain he would have enjoyed it immensely.

They Live Obey t-shirt

Please check out my exclusive interview with Crimmins and Goldthwait above. “Call Me Lucky” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Rest in Peace Barry.

‘Ant-Man’ Proves to be More than the Average Origin Movie

Ant Man movie poster

Part of me will always wonder what “Ant-Man” would have looked like had Edgar Wright not left the project. Wright has long since proven to be a wonderful talent behind the camera with “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (my favorite movie of 2010) and “The World’s End,” all of which succeeded in giving audiences an awesomely entertaining time at the movies. He left this film after having been involved with its development for several years as Marvel had different plans for it than he did, and this usually spells trouble for any cinematic endeavor. But we can only wonder so much about what could have been until we realize we will never truly know since Wright’s version was never made. When all is said and done, “Ant-Man” proves to be a very entertaining time at the movies. It is yet another superhero origin story, but one which feels fresh and unlike others that just go through the motions.

We come to meet Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) just before he leaves prison after serving a sentence for robbery (but not armed robbery). Scott was once married and has a daughter who thinks the world of him, and he is desperate to make an honest living despite his law breaking past. After a job at Baskin Robbins goes bust for him, he is contacted by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant physicist who invites him to take his place as Ant-Man, a superhero who can take on the bad guys no matter how big or small he is.

When it comes to superhero movies, I have long since tired of the origin story as it feels like a setup for a franchise Hollywood studios are infinitely desperate for in this day and age. “Ant-Man,” however felt like a fresh and subversive take on the origin story to where I couldn’t remember the last of its kind I had seen. The only thing it did remind me of was the Monty Python sketch about ants which showed how strong they are when it comes to lifting things far greater than their weight. Watching it also had me excited at the possibilities of what one person could do if they are shrunk down to such a miniscule size, and this is even though we would like certain body parts to be larger than they already are.

Paul Rudd is a perfect choice to play Scott Lang as his effortless charisma makes you believe Scott is an ex-con who is ever so eager to turn his life around for the sake of his daughter. This is a role which could have been played either too seriously or broadly, but Rudd manages to find a balance to where this character is not the usual brooding super hero who has occupied many comic book movies to an annoying abandon.

Of course, every superhero movie needs a strong female character, and we get one here with Hope Van Dyne. The daughter of Hank Pym, she is played by Evangeline Lilly whom we all know from the “Lost” and for playing the elf Tauriel in Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy. Lilly’s character has to deal with many conflicting emotions when it comes to her father and Scott, and it’s endlessly fascinating to see how she handles those emotions from start to finish. What could have been an easily disposable role is made all the more unforgettable thanks to Lilly’s committed performance as someone who is still stuck in the past and trying to make a better future for herself and everyone else.

Many of us, including myself, grew up watching Michael Douglas in movies like “Romancing the Stone,” “The War of the Roses” and “Fatal Attraction,” and he has since graduated to playing the role of elder statesman in. His performance as Hank Pym is one of the best I have seen Douglas give in some time as he imbues this character with a lot knowledge and wisdom as well as a lot of heart. Hank is a deeply flawed man who does what he can to protect his family, but he ends up unintentionally wounding those closest to him in the process. Douglas is perfectly cast here as he is great at making us root for someone we almost don’t want to root for, but we end up doing so all the same.

Then there’s Michael Pena who gives a terrific performance in each and every film he is in, and he steals one scene after another as Scott Lang’s best friend, Luis. Pena infuses an infectious energy in his performance which makes you want to be a part of Ant-Man’s plan to get back at the bad guys, and his performance as Luis is another memorable role he can add to his wide variety of roles he has performed to a great extent thus far.

And let’s not forget Corey Stoll who makes for a wonderfully detestable villain as Darren Cross, an ever so bitter student of Hank Pym who looks to go into the Ant-Man business for himself. Stoll has left quite the impression on audiences ever since his role as Ernest (“who wants to fight”) Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” It’s nice to see he doesn’t give us the usual one-dimensional bad guy we typically expect in a summer movie, and this makes his character of Darren all the more threatening.

“Ant-Man” was directed by Peyton Reed whose previous credits include “Yes Man,” “The Break-Up” and “Bring it On,” movies I should have seen already, but anyway. Reed does fine work in balancing out the characters here with the terrific special effects on display to where “Ant-Man” never comes across as the usual comic book movie fare. It makes me excited for what will come next.

We can be sure this will not be the last time we will see Ant-Man on the big screen. After all, what’s a Marvel movie without a franchise? You can expect the usual batch of post-credit sequences that will require you to sit through the end credits and appreciate the fact hundreds of people worked hard to make this movie a reality. But for a change, I don’t find myself looking to a Marvel sequel with sarcasm. I look forward to it as a promising continuation of a story which features one of the more unusual Avengers to inhabit this ever-growing cinematic universe.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension’ Ends This Series with a Whimper Instead of a Bang

Paranormal Activity The Ghost Dimension poster

With “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension,” we have finally reached the end of this long running horror franchise. At least, this is what Paramount Pictures is saying. They said the same thing after “Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter” and looked what happened there. When asked to explain the end of his movie “Halloween,” John Carpenter said it shows how evil never dies. This is a perfect explanation, and it helps explain why Michael Meyers keeps coming back to Haddonfield, why Freddy Krueger continues to haunt the dreams of teenagers, why Jason Voorhees continues to hack up camp counselors, and why Pinhead continues to lure the infinitely curious to that crazy box of his. Could the ever-malevolent demon known as Toby finally be stopped once and for all?

Well, let’s hope so because “The Ghost Dimension” confirms the “Paranormal Activity” franchise has finally run out of gas to where I wished the filmmakers ended it after “The Marked Ones.” This sequel returns the series to another tale of a white suburban family terrorized by Toby, and the family keeps looking into the things which go bump in the night even as the story get progressively worse. On the upside, this sequel does attempt to answer all the questions we have about this series and doesn’t just tease us endlessly the way “Paranormal Activity 4” did, but nothing is as scary as it once was.

This movie opens with a quick throwback to the literally back-breaking finale of “Paranormal Activity 3” where young Katie and Kristi are gathered up by their grandma Lois and taken to a room where a man tells them they are a critical part of Toby’s plan. We then move forward to 2013 where we meet the Fleeges, a family comprised of Ryan (Chris J. Murray), his wife Emily (Brit Shaw), and their young daughter Leila (Ivy George). They are later joined by Ryan’s brother Mike (Dan Gill) who just broke up with his girlfriend, and also Skylar (Olivia Taylor Dudley) who is a nanny or a yoga instructor or something along those lines.

Each “Paranormal Activity” movie has a twist on the technology used to exploit the presence of the demonic Toby, and this one is no exception. Ryan and Mike end up coming across this giant video camera (and yes, they used to be that big) which actually allows them to see the spiritual forces hovering around the home which take the form of an oil slick that moves around ominously. Pretty soon, young Leila is talking to Toby because impressionable kids are easily for demons to influence, and the family comes to discover they are living in the same house that grandma Lois lived in years ago. Yes, there are no such things as coincidences in a “Paranormal Activity” movie.

Let me start with “The Ghost Dimension’s” biggest problem, it feels like a movie. The previous installments, even “Paranormal Activity 4,” never made me feel like I was watching a movie. Instead, they felt like documents of real people being haunted by forces they can’t control and which encroach mercilessly on their safety. They felt real, but here everything feels highly scripted as the actors are forced to utter a lot of exposition in an effort to explain to the audience what Toby’s big plan is. As a result, everything feels contrived, and the movie comes across as just another exercise in found footage terror.

Furthermore, the characters are frustratingly one-dimensional and incredibly idiotic to put it mildly. A lot of opportunities to make them relatable or the least but likable are blown by the screenwriters as I never came to care much about them. After a while, I became more eager to see them become devilish entertainment for Toby. I do have to say, however, that Ivy George does very good work here as Leila, and she provides “The Ghost Dimension” with some of its most haunting moments as her face becomes a mask of possession which makes her intensely unpredictable.

The real big news about “The Ghost Dimension” is it’s the first “Paranormal Activity” movie to be shown in 3D. Now I’ve seen 3D used to great effect in Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” and Gaspar Noe’s “Love,” but watching it here only reminded me of how “The Ghost Dimension” feels more like a movie and less like an experience. In the end, the extra dimension feels like a stunt which adds nothing to the proceedings.

Also, in its attempts to answer many of the questions we have about Toby, it makes this horrifically violent demon look no different from so many others in cinematic history. Just as it was with the first two “Alien” movies, the thought of the monster is far scarier than the sight of it, and seeing Toby in his demonic form just takes away from what’s frightening about him. And the explanation of Toby’s “plan” feels like something out of a dozen other horror movies.

The original “Paranormal Activity” was supposed to be a stand-alone movie. It was supposed to end with Katie dying, but Paramount Pictures decided to change this ending and made Katie look like she was invaded by some evil force. The movie’s amazing success ensured sequels would be made whether we liked it or not, but the first two actually added to the original’s ending and built up a mythology which left audiences endlessly intrigued. But watching “The Ghost Dimension” makes me realize there was no way anyone could have concluded this mythology in a satisfactory manner. The revelation of Toby’s big plan sounds like something out of a dozen other horror movies, and it made me wish I knew a lot less about him.

“Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension” does leave the door open for another sequel as the demonic force takes on a new form, but this really should be the last one for a while at the very least. It’s sad to see this franchise end on a banal note as things began feeling fresh again after “The Marked Ones,” but many horror franchises tend to overstay their welcome, and “Paranormal Activity” is just the latest example. We need to face the facts; the thrill is gone.

* ½ out of * * * *

Please check out the following reviews:

Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity 2

Paranormal Activity 3

Paranormal Activity 4

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones

 

Chris Marquette Talks About Working with Vincent D’Onofrio in ‘Broken Horses’

Broken Horses Chris Marquette

Broken Horses” stars Anton Yelchin and Chris Marquette as brothers who are as close as siblings can be, and it’s very poetic how this movie arrived in theaters on National Siblings Day. Yelchin plays Jacob Heckum, a very talented violinist who reunites with his brother Buddy (Chris Marquette) in their hometown after being separated for a number of years. Their paths have gone in different directions, and Buddy has long since fallen under the spell of Julius Hench (Vincent D’Onofrio), a gangster who has since gained complete control over Buddy to where he has denied him any chance of a scholastic education. But while Julius may have succeeded in turning Buddy into one of his most efficient mercenaries, Buddy is now looking for a way out of this mess he innocently fell into.

I got to talk with Marquette during at the Sofitel Hotel in Beverly Hills, California where he was doing promotion for “Broken Horses.” Marquette began his career as a model at the age of 4, and he later made his acting debut as the son of Mira Sorvino’s character in “Sweet Nothing.” I was very interested in hearing from him what it was like working with D’Onofrio who is one of cinema’s most accomplished actors. D’Onofrio left a memorable impression on us all in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” and he has given us unforgettable performances in “Mystic Pizza,” “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Strange Days.” In addition, many will never forget his work as Detective Robert Goren on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” or on the “Subway” episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street.”

Broken Horses movie poster

Marquette described what it was like acting opposite D’Onofrio, and his answer provided information about him which many of us didn’t know before.

Chris Marquette: He’s got a foot and a half on both of us which really helps. But D’Onofrio is a charmer and a great storyteller, and he’s really charismatic and that always carries weight and power. He’s got a million stories about the filmmakers and the sets he’s been on, so it was easy for me to start sliding into being whisked away by Vincent and Hench, his character. We were messing around one day and Vincent was just telling me stuff. I was asking him about his life and before he got into acting, and he was an amateur magician. With magicians you’ve got a way of doing tricks, and if you modify it slightly then you’ve technically invented a new technique. And so he invented some new technique on something really simple, and he’s telling me this and he starts doing the magic and it was… He’s telling me this whole story and I was so enthralled by it, and he was showing me this magic trick and I remember the next day Vinod and Abhijat (Joshi, the movie’s co-writer) called me and they said we think we’re writing in this… There’s a part where we are playing pool in the movie and he said, ‘You guys aren’t playing pool, I think he’s going to be showing you a magic trick.’ He was entertaining me like he would a kid, showing me this thing and I was like, ‘It’s amazing! Do it again!’

Not many actors get the opportunity of working with an actor like D’Onofrio, and Marquette is one of the lucky few who did. His thoughts on the “Full Metal Jacket” actor were truly fascinating, and I thank him for his time.

“Broken Horses” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Sicario’ is a Seriously Intense Motion Picture

Sicario

I think we have all long since come to the conclusion that the war on drugs is, to put it mildly, an utter failure. Instead of ridding the world of illegal substances, this war has allowed the drug trade to exist in a way it never intended to. Furthermore, many fighting this war have become just as bad as the drug czars they are pursuing, and this should not be seen as anything new. And when you cross a drug cartel, they punish you in the most painful way possible and let the rest of the world know it in a horrifyingly unforgettable manner. In short, we will never get rid of illegal drugs if we keep going on the route we have been on for far too long.

There are many movies which have chronicled the pointlessness and shocking brutality of the war on drugs and the unscrupulous politics behind it like Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” “Kill the Messenger” and David Ayer’s “Sabotage” which I liked more than most people did. “Sicario” is the latest film you can add to the list, and it proves to be one of the most riveting and nerve wracking of its kind as we follow an idealistic FBI agent as she descends into the hellish center of this war and learns a number of harsh truths never taught at Quantico.

“Sicario” hits the ground running with a very intense scene which sets up the chief perspective you will see things from. We meet FBI special agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she rides along with her fellow agents to a drug bust in which they raid a house where a kidnap victim may be at. Things get even more heightened when the agents discover dozens of dead and decaying bodies hidden in the walls, and this is only the beginning of what’s in store for the audience.

This bust leads Kate to be enlisted, voluntarily of course, by an undefined government task force led by Matt (Josh Brolin) which is put together to aid in the drug war escalating at the U.S./Mexican border. But once there, Kate will find her idealistic nature put to the test as she discovers this war has become more personal to some than she was led to believe.

It should be no surprise “Sicario” is a seriously intense piece of filmmaking considering it was directed by Denis Villeneuve who gave us the equally intense “Prisoners” a few years back. He succeeds in putting us right into Kate’s shoes as we follow her every step of the way as she enters a town as foreign to her as it is to us. We discover things at the same time she does like a couple of naked dead bodies hung from a nearby bridge, a chilling warning of what happens to those who interfere with the drug trade. We also share her sense of panic and terror when a character next to her says, “Keep an eye out for the state police. They’re not always the good guys.”

The movie also makes us share in Kate’s utter frustration as Matt and his troops keep the nature of their overall mission a secret to her and her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya). But once she is sucked into this increasingly insane mission, she finds it impossible to tear herself away from it even as she questions its legality.

Villeneuve is a master at creating a slow burn intensity which keeps escalating for what seems like an eternity before the situation finally explodes. The picture he paints of the drug war is an a very bleak one, and I imagine this movie won’t do much for the Mexican tourist trade. He is also aided tremendously by master cinematographer Roger Deakins who captures the bleakness of a town long since ravaged by the drug war in a way both horrifying and strangely beautiful, and by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson whose film score lights the fuse to “Sicario’s” intense flame and keeps it burning to where, once you think it has hit its peak, it burns even brighter.

Emily Blunt proved to the world just how badass she can be in “Edge of Tomorrow,” and she is clearly in her element here as an FBI agent who has yet to learn how the drug war is really fought. Seriously, this was one of the best performances by an actress in a 2015 movie. Blunt fully inhabits her character to where you can never spot a faked emotion on her face. It’s a fearless performance which must have emotionally draining for her to pull off, and I love how she never strives for an Oscar moment. Blunt just is Kate Mercer, and you want to follow her into the depths of hell even if you know you won’t like what’s about to be unveiled.

Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as Matt Graver, a government agent who clearly knows more than he lets on. We can see this is a character who has seen a lot of bad stuff go down and has long since become numbed to the effects of an endless drug war which shows no signs of stopping. Brolin doesn’t necessarily have one of those clean-scrubbed faces as his is rough around the edges, and Hollywood doesn’t seem to value this kind of face enough. Some actors benefit from having history written all over them, and Brolin is one of those actors as he makes you believe he has long since been to hell and back.

But make no mistake; the best performance in “Sicario” belongs to Benicio Del Toro who portrays Alejandro, a mysterious figure whose motives and intentions are eventually revealed towards the movie’s conclusion. Del Toro is great at hinting at the horrors his character has faced as Alejandro looks to be suffering a serious case of PTSD, and he makes this character into a dangerously unpredictable one whose next move is always hard to guess. His role in this movie reminds us of what a brilliant actor he can be, not that we ever forgot, and he succeeds in increasing the already high-tension level this movie already has.

“Sicario” is a hard-edged and remarkably intense thriller which grabs you right from the start and holds you in its grasp all the way to the end. Like any great movie, it will shake you up and stay with you long after you have left the theater. Some movies are made to be watched, but “Sicario” was made to be experienced. It’s not the kind of experience audiences are always pinning for, but those willing to travel down its dark path will find much to admire.

* * * * out of * * * *