‘The Mist’ Deals With the Fear of the Unknown and of Reality

There was a time when Frank Darabont created the most effective cinematic adaptations of Stephen King’s novels. He gave us one of the all-time great adaptations of King’s works with “The Shawshank Redemption,” a classic which you can still catch it on TBS or TNT every other week. Darabont also directed “The Green Mile” which was very good and left its audience in tears at its humbling conclusion. These days, Mike Flanagan has become the King adaptation master of choice with his takes on “Gerald’s Game” and “Doctor Sleep,” both of which proved to be wonderfully unnerving. Before this, however, was Darabont’s adaptation of King’s “The Mist,” and it represented his first time dealing with one of King’s full out horror stories. Having said this, he still brings this particular King horror tale to life in way few other filmmakers ever could.

“The Mist” takes place, as many of King’s works do, in the state of Maine. We see our main character, David Drayton (Thomas Jane), doing his work as a graphic artist on something which appears to be right out of “The Dark Tower,” and it establishes what David does while simultaneously establishing the kind of movie we are about to see. It is a motion picture which deals with people whom we recognize from the real world we inhabit and the small towns we grew up in. This is not often the case as many horror films deal with stock characters we cannot wait to see done away with.

One day, there is a storm which hurls a tree into David’s work studio, and he ends up going into town with his son the next day to pick up supplies. In the process, he also ends up taking along his next-door neighbor Brent Norton (Andre Braugher) regardless of the fact Brent’s tree fell down on David’s boathouse and completely destroyed it. But while at the market, a mist starts to blanket the town to where there is zero visibility. A local townsman named Dan ends up rushing into the store crying out, “There’s something in the mist!”

From there, everyone is trapped in the supermarket as the thought of stepping outside its doors is far too fearful an action. This is largely the result of there being something in the mist which quickly proves to be anything but human, and this creates divisions between everyone trapped in the store. This division is primarily brought about by Mrs. Carmody (Marcia Gay Haden), a fervent believer in the word of the bible who believes judgment day is upon us and that the end is indeed very near.

Watching “The Mist,” you can recognize the familiar types of characters which occupy the average Stephen King story; the man who doesn’t want to be the hero but ends up being one even if it is not by his own doing, the religious fanatic who will not allow themself be torn away from they believe to be the truth, and townspeople who appear to be brave on the outside but terrified on the inside. What I really liked about this film is how Darabont never lets them become just mere stereotypical characters. While these characters may appear to be just that, it is a credit to the writing and acting that everyone involved in this film’s production rose above the genre’s conventions to give us something more human than we typically expect.

What interests Darabont here is not so much the monsters on the outside, but instead the monsters which lurk deep in our psyches. How we would possibly react when all the things we depend on in our life are suddenly taken away from us? No easy answer is given, but it is clear we are left with our instincts for survival at any cost. Darabont does excellent work in creating an inescapably claustrophobic environment where escape is easier said than done and trust can easily become a disposable commodity.

Leading the cast is Thomas Jane who first has made an unforgettable impression when he co-starred in “Boogie Nights.” He then went on to do “Deep Blue Sea” which more or less typecast him as the hardened hero who shows more courage than anyone around him. But here, he is simply an ordinary man caught up in an unimaginable situation, and he is struggling to maintain his sanity in an increasingly desperate situation.

“The Mist” is filled with many fine actors who fully humanize their roles and succeed in avoiding the mistake of making these characters seem stereotypical and easily disposable. It is great to see Andre Braugher here as the disbelieving neighbor/lawyer who makes the idiotic assumption he is being setup for a practical joke. In any other movie, we would simply just hate his character Brent for not believing the protagonists, but Braugher succeeds in making us believe why he might see how Brent could not see the inherent danger everyone is caught up in. As an audience, we of course know better of what is really going on, but it makes you think of how people would normally react in a horrifying situation like this. Could we easily believe in such things? Wouldn’t we be skeptical of what others tell us? Aren’t some us sick and tired of being the butt of everyone’s jokes?

Also in the cast is Toby Jones who is a wonderful presence here as Ollie, a supermarket employee who turns out to be very handy with a gun. Then we have other character actors like Jeffrey DeMunn who plays Dan Miller, and William Sadler who plays Jim Grondin. Frances Sternhagen is also on board as a friendly schoolteacher named Irene and has some of the best and most memorable of moments in this movie. You also have Lauren Holden as Amanda Dunprey, a new school teacher who befriends David and his son Billy (Nathan Gamble).

All of these actors do a great job of making the characters all the more real to us so that we don’t simply laugh them off the screen for doing stupid things that horror movie characters usually do. You get the sense that if this were written and directed by anyone other than Darabont, it would look like just about any other horror movie we have seem hundreds of times already. But there is going with the story of this movie that makes it more than your typical horror movie.

But the best performance comes from Marcia Gay Harden who plays the seemingly crazed Mrs. Carmody. A religious zealot if there ever was one, Carmody can be easily compared to Carrie Wright’s mother from “Carrie” as both are hopelessly devoted to God and the Bible even though their belief structure has long since been corrupted. Harden is a brilliant actress, and she makes Mrs. Carmody far scarier than the monsters which constantly threaten to infiltrate the overcrowded supermarket everyone is stuck in. She also makes you believe how people would end up following her when the fate of the world continues to descend down on them all. Her crazy beliefs end up making believers out of others, and a mob mentality quickly forms a sharp division between the characters stuck in the store which threatens to bring out the worst in everyone. Harden’s portrayal of such a frightening individual has long since stayed with me after watching this film when it came out in 2007.

Not everything about “The Mist” is perfect. The monsters, when they do appear, are effectively creepy and eerie, but they are also clearly CGI, and this takes away from what we are shown. Darabont ends up creating more of an intense effect when we don’t see the monsters up close, but instead from a distance. When they are shrouded by weather they inhabit, they seem infinitely more terrifying as a result. If you have a fear of creepy crawlers like spiders, you may want to think twice about checking this movie out.

The ending of “The Mist” is different from King’s book, and King himself was quick to point this out to everyone who bothered to listen. What I can tell you about the ending is that it is both uncompromising and devastating in its impact. It makes you look back at everything which happened to where you realize the line between good people and bad people, protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains can be ever so easily blurred. The people we end up fearing the most are ourselves and of what we are capable of. We can easily descend into craziness and insanity when all the things we need most in life are suddenly taken away from us. The moment we give up on life and accept its horrifying fate is the moment when we all become less than human, and considering the times we are currently living through, this seems more pertinent than ever before.

I walked out of “The Mist” completely shaken and unable to speak. It contains a shattering ending which is unlike any we usually from any film we typically watch. What makes it all the more unsettling is that we cannot help but think of what we would do in the same situation. There are many who cannot bear to think of the answer such a question, but there are those whose drive to survive is impossible to ignore.

“The Mist” may not as good as “The Shawshank Redemption,” but it is still an effectively made motion picture with excellent performances and an ever-growing intensity. It is also one of the better adaptations of a Stephen King novel in years, and it keeps itself from sinking into the clichés of the average horror movie.

Whether or not you believe in extra-terrestrials is beside the point. We end up fearing ourselves more than anything else, and this fear can easily cripple us from doing what we want to do in our lives.

The tagline of “The Mist” was right: Fear changes everything…

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Thomas Jane on Playing Todd Parker in ‘Boogie Nights’

Boogie Nights Thomas Jane photo

WRITER’S NOTE: This is from a Q&A which took place on October 5, 2012.

Actor Thomas Jane was excited to be a guest at New Beverly Cinema as the theater presented the first day of their Paul Thomas Anderson movie marathon. One of the movie’s being shown this evening was “Boogie Nights” which served as Jane’s big acting breakthrough, and in it he plays dancer Todd Parker who becomes a dangerous friend to the characters played by Mark Wahlberg and John C. Reilly. During a Q&A which was moderated by Brian McQuery, Jane talked about how he prepared to play Todd and of what it was like working with Anderson.

One audience member asked Jane if he prepared a certain voice or walk for when he played Todd, and he replied he usually took the script for “Boogie Nights” to this theater he was working out of in Los Angeles where he could get his fellow actors to play all the other parts. It was there where Jane did a lot of experimentation which led him giving the role his own interpretation.

“I’d bring in funny glasses, do my hair crazy and try all this different stuff like bringing in a flowered shirt to wear,” Jane said. “I didn’t have any clue about who this guy was. I just knew that I was trying to find him, and then it just clicked in one day. I think it was the voice and just doing the scenes in my little theater off of Hyperion and Melrose. The first thing I found as an actor was the way Todd talked, and once I found that then everything else happened with the role.”

Jane first heard about “Boogie Nights” from casting director Christine Sheaks who had sent him the script which she said was “pretty amazing.” Upon reading the scene where Todd, along with Dirk Diggler and Reed Rothchild, go to rob a drug dealer, Jane said he was especially interested in playing Todd. Then, after doing an improvisation with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in front of Anderson which lasted about fifteen minutes, he was cast in the role.

Looking back at shoot, Jane recollected much of what went on was improvised on set, and he attributed it to Anderson’s jazz-like direction.

“One thing that’s notable about the way Paul Thomas Anderson works is the freedom he gives to his actors,” Jane said. “We did have lines to say and stuff, but if you had an idea at the moment or a line to throw in or if something happens by mistake, he always encouraged that spontaneity and that freedom. That was what was so fun about working on ‘Boogie Nights.'”

When asked if he had any stories about the actors he worked with, Jane came up with a great one about Burt Reynolds. He talked about the scene where Wahlberg gets into a fight with Reynolds over wanting to shoot his sex scene now instead of later, and Anderson told Jane to fuck with Reynolds and “get in his face” once Wahlberg ran away. So, Jane started messing with Reynolds like Anderson asked him to and even pushed him, and Reynolds ended up kicking Jane right in the nuts.

“He thought the take was over and I was some punk actor getting in his face,” Jane said of Reynolds. “Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t tell Burt Reynolds that we were doing a little improvisation after the scene was over! To his (Reynold’s) credit, he gave me a bottle of champagne in my trailer the next day and he actually turned out to be really cool.”

There was also a lot of talk about the scene at the drug dealer’s house when Cosmo kept throwing fire crackers all over the place. It turns out the actor playing Cosmo was actually a friend of Anderson’s, and the fire crackers were not originally in the script. However, it got Anderson the reactions he wanted so he just put it into the movie. But since the scene was shot over several days, Anderson had to find other ways to keep the actors on their feet.

“The first day was all fire crackers, but then we had to recreate that over the next three days,” Jane said. “After the first twenty or thirty fire crackers go off you’re kind of over it, but then you can’t hear anymore. So, Paul brought a starting pistol in and he used a starting pistol for a while and then that got old. I remember he brought in a big couple of boards and was whacking those together. That was a brilliant scene because all that stuff made the tension so high.”

Thomas Jane has come a long way from his hungry days as an actor, and seeing him strut his way onto the screen in “Boogie Nights” showed us a star had arrived. For him, talking about this movie at New Beverly Cinema was very special as he said he got his film education there. He also remembered when Sherman Torgan was running the theater back then and of how he let Jane in for free, and that popcorn and candy bars served as his nightly dinner for a time.

Jane has since moved on from “Boogie Nights” to make a successful acting career for himself, and he still has many great performances left to give.

‘The Predator’ is This Franchise’s Best Installment Since the Original

The Predator movie poster version 3

Having Shane Black co-write and direct “The Predator” brings this franchise around full circle. Black appeared in John McTiernan’s “Predator” as Rich Hawkins, a member of the elite military rescue team led by Butch (Arnold Schwarzenegger), and he was the first of the group to get mercilessly slaughtered by the “ugly motherfucker.” Since then, Black has become a master screenwriter with “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight” as well as a gifted director with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “The Nice Guys” and “Iron Man 3” on his resume. At the same time, the “Predator” franchise quickly became an unwieldy one as “Predator 2,” while it had its moments, suffered from too many clichés and stereotypical characters who were just asking to be killed. “Predators” was fun, but it didn’t quite jumpstart this series in the way its filmmakers intended it to. The less said about the “Alien vs. Predator” movies, the better.

With Black’s gift of turning various movie genres inside out through terrific dialogue and unforgettable characters, it feels like only he could helm this “Predator” installment. If this creature is going to continue to have a cinematic life, it needs a filmmaker willing to liven things up and twist things around in an effort to make this franchise vital again. Thanks to Black and co-writer Fred Dekker, “The Predator” is easily the best and most consistently entertaining installment since the 1987 original. While it may not have the same lethal menace of McTiernan’s sci-fi action classic, it certainly feels like a Shane Black movie, and that is more than enough.

“The Predator” begins as most “Predator” movies do, with something or someone falling from the sky onto a planet at alarming speed. As a spaceship makes its way to an inevitable crash landing on Earth, Army Ranger Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is aiming to take out drug dealers who have hostages. The spaceship crashing foils this mission, but Quinn comes into contact with the alien’s hardware and a device which makes him nearly invisible. Knowing certain members of the military, particularly agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), will do anything to keep this alien encounter under wraps, Quinn mails the hardware to his home where it is discovered by his son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) who, thanks to the form of autism he has, is able to activate it to where several predators are alerted, and from there it is only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

What struck me most about “The Predator” is how well-conceived its human characters are. While they may come across as your typical military movie characters, Black and Dekker invest them with pathos and a great deal of black humor. This is especially evident in the scene where Quinn is being interrogated by a military psychiatrist as it shows how he is quick to tell others they need to cut through the bullshit. Characters like Quinn know they are in over their heads to where they do not want others to lie outright to them. It has become far too easy to cast doubt on an individual than it is to believe one, and the military shows no mercy in doing the same to Quinn as they are quicker to put a bullet in his head instead of telling him, “Thank you for your service.”

Quinn gets thrown on a boss with a bunch of former soldiers who are on their way to the nearest loony bin as they are, at first glance, certifiably crazy. These fellow soldiers are played by Trevante Rhodes, Keegan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen and Augusto Aguilera. I really enjoyed how each actor made their character wonderfully unique in politically incorrect ways. Black and Dekker are not about to give us watered-down characters which would be easier for certain audience members to digest, and each actor clearly relishes the material they have been given. Their performances make these characters stand out in a way they would not in other sci-fi action movies, and that’s saying a lot.

Also starring in “The Predator” is the gorgeous Olivia Munn as Casey Brackett, a disgruntled scientist who is enlisted by the military to study the alien and its technology up close. Of course, once Casey learns more than the military would like, she becomes a target for assassination because, once again, people in power are eager for those they consider beneath them to remain silent, at times permanently so. But Munn makes Casey into anything other than an easy victim as she effectively intimidates these former military officers into making her a part of their team to take down this particular illegal alien. She is a blast to watch throughout, and I hope to see her again in a future sequel.

Holbrook left a strong impression on audiences in “Logan” as he made that movie’s antagonist more than the average bad guy, and he is perfectly cast here as an antihero who is not too different from Snake Plissken. In the real world, Quinn is not a guy you would be quick to hang out with on a regular basis, but Holbrook wastes no time in making you see he is the dude we need to save the day.

Tremblay, so good in “Room,” makes Rory into a unique movie child which I found very refreshing. Moreover, I admired how Tremblay was able to communicate so much while saying so little much of the time. But when he does get to speak, he is gifted with the uber clever dialogue of Shane Black. I also love how Rory is one of my favorite kind of kids in movies as he can see right through their parents’ bullshit to where he is very eager for them to cut the crap and tell him the truth. Furthermore, kudos to the filmmakers for making Rory’s form of autism something other than a disability. Certain things are only disabilities if you treat them as such.

I also got a big kick watching Sterling K. Brown as a military agent who is eager to exploit the predator’s technology before anyone else can. Unlike the character he plays on “This is Us,” here he portrays a man who is never quick to shed a tear, and this makes his performance all the more invigorating to take in.

“The Predator” does have its flaws as the narrative gets increasingly messy towards the movie’s furious conclusion, and certain action scenes are filmed frenetically in a Michael Bay-ish way to where it’s hard to make out all that is going on. Apparently, the last half of the movie had to be reshot as test audiences found it to be too dark. At least the filmmakers had the support of a major studio to do these reshoots. The same couldn’t be said for those working on the failed Stephen King adaptation “Cell” as that movie’s last half was far too dark for anyone to get a clear idea of what was ensuing.

It is important to note “The Predator” takes place after the events of “Predator” and “Predator 2,” but before those of “Predators.” Taking this into account, it is clear 20th Century Fox wants this installment to be the beginning of a trilogy as Hollywood is infinitely interested in franchises than they are in films not designed to have a follow up. Only time will tell if “The Predator” will get a sequel, but what I can tell you is I had a lot of fun watching it, and for my money it is the best “Predator” movie since the original. Even as I kept hoping Schwarzenegger’s character of Dutch would make an appearance (he does not), few things could keep me from enjoying this sequel to excellent effect. I had a blast watching it, and I hope you do too.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Gregg Araki Grows as a Filmmaker with ‘White Bird in a Blizzard’

White Bird in a Blizzard movie poster

With “White Bird in a Blizzard,” Gregg Araki deals with the life of an adolescent once again. Based on the book of the same name by Laura Kasischke, it takes place in the 1980’s and stars Shailene Woodley as Kat Connor, a young woman whose mother ends up disappearing from her life. This happens at the same time she is discovering her sexuality with the next-door neighbor, Phil (Shiloh Fernandez), and she doesn’t seem too phased by her mother’s sudden absence. Her father, Brock (Christopher Meloni), has long since become a complete wimp, and his emotional repression prevents him from dealing with this situation in a rational manner. We follow Kat as she goes from high school to college, and eventually, she comes to see just how deeply affected she was by her mother’s disappearance and becomes determined to find out what happened to her.

Many of Araki’s films deal with the lives of teenagers, and he deals with them in a way which feels both honest and emotionally raw. “White Bird in a Blizzard” is the latest example of this, but while it deals with similar themes, it also feels somewhat unique to what Araki has given us before. He appeared at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the movie’s press conference, and I asked him if his view of adolescence has evolved much from one movie to the next. Araki replied it definitely has.

Gregg Araki: Back in the 90’s I did a series of three films (“Totally Fucked Up,” “The Doom Generation” and “Nowhere”) that I have become sort of famous or infamous for that were kind of a trilogy about being a teenager. It was called the “Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy” and they were very unhinged in a way and a little bit chaotic. I made those films 20 years ago and I definitely feel like in that time I’ve become older for sure and I think more mature and I’m more developed. I don’t really think I had a film like “White Bird” in me then. The analogy I make is that in this film I did called “The Doom Generation” which is also about young people, those kids have no parents. They have no house and they have no family; it’s just these kids doing crazy stuff. And in this movie Shailene does play somebody who is 18 and Shiloh (Fernandez’s) character is 18, and so they have their teenage moments and they meet in a Goth club and dance and they have that sort of carefree youth about them. But at the same time, this film is so much more about the family. Kat’s relationship with her mother or father, her parents’ marriage and just that whole world that, to me, like “American Beauty” or “The Ice Storm,” is about the world of the American dream and what is underneath the surface of it all. To me, that’s much more this film than my earlier movies about young people.

It’s always great to see a movie which takes adolescence seriously, and “White Bird in a Blizzard” does qualify as one. It also allows Woodley the opportunity to give another great and honest portrayal of a teenager just like she did in “The Descendants” and “The Spectacular Now,” and it shows how Araki, even at the age of 54, still truly understands what teenagers go through. But moreover, it shows how far Araki has come as a filmmaker, and it will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.

“White Bird in a Blizzard” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

Here is a video interview I did with Araki, Woodley and Chris Meloni which I did for the website We Got This Covered.