‘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 * * * *

‘Bill & Ted Face The Music’ Hits Just The Right Notes

After watching the trailers for “Bill & Ted Face The Music,” one question kept popping into my head: How can these two guys from San Dimas go from playing in front of the largest audience in the world to performing for a crowd of 40 in Barstow, most of whom were there for $2 taco night? At the end of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” we saw news articles of them performing all over the place, and they even got to stage a concert on Mars of all places. Seriously, you cannot plummet from a height of fame like that, right?

Well, keep in mind that at the end of “Bogus Journey,” Bill and Ted did finally learn how to play their guitars, but they also performed a cover of “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” by KISS. We never did hear them play any original tunes. As “Face The Music” begins, we learn their debut song as writers opened big and then plummeted to the bottom of the charts in record time. Even worse, their follow up albums were ravaged by the critics, one who described their work as being “manure.” Taking this into account, it makes perfect sense they would end up performing in Barstow, a town in the middle of nowhere. Like Vanilla Ice, they shot up into the stratosphere and then saw their follow-up album being sold at a used record store for only 99 cents (and that’s on the day after it was released).

We first see Bill S. Preston (Alex Winter) and Ted Logan (Keanu Reeves) at the wedding of Missy (Amy Stoch). Yes, Missy is getting married, and just wait until you find out to who. The two use the occasion to present the world premiere of their latest work, and while they play instruments with more confidence than before, they are still unable to put together a cohesive song, and the response they get is much like the one Spinal Tap received when they told the audience they were going in a “new musical direction.”

Bill and Ted are still married to the princesses, Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (Erinn Hays), and they have two beautiful music-loving daughters in Theodora (Samara Weaving) and Wilhelmina (Brigette Lundy-Paine). Still, they have not yet written the song meant to unite the whole world, and it appears as if this destiny may have been misread. Furthermore, their daughters are in their 20’s and still living at home, and their wives are starting to tire of the lack of the direction in their husbands’ lives. Ted’s dad, Captain Jonathan Logan (Hal Landon Jr.), refuses to believe he and Bill could have traveled in time or gone to heaven and hell and begs them to get “real jobs.” Yes, middle age has hit Bill and Ted real hard to where they feel the need to reassess their goals.

Then into the picture comes Kelly (Kristen Schaal), daughter of the late Rufus, who takes Bill and Ted to the future to meet The Great Leader (played by Holland Taylor) who is not exactly happy with where they have ended up in life. From there, they are informed that the universe is unravelling and will be destroyed if they do not write the unifying song in the next 78 minutes. How about that? You are tasked with writing the song which will unite the world, and you have just over an hour to compose it. Talk about pressure! As we get older, 78 minutes doesn’t last as long as it used to.

Bill, however, comes up with a most excellent plan to travel with Ted into the future when they have already written the song and to take it from themselves. Ted considers this to be stealing, but Bill convinces him it isn’t as long as they are stealing from themselves. Hey, it worked for James Horner!

“Face the Music” comes to us more than 25 years after “Bogus Journey,” so it is hard to know what to expect. It reunites not only Reeves and Winter, but also screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon who penned the previous two films as well. I am thankful to say this sequel is no “Blues Brothers 2000” which relied on an overabundance of nostalgia to where I found myself wanting to watch the original. Instead, it does come with some good laughs and a lot of heart as everyone involved has worked their damndest to bring this last chapter of Bill and Ted to the silver screen and digital streaming for dozens of years. Regardless of what you may think, no one is out to simply repeat themselves here.

Both Reeves and Winter are clearly having a blast as Bill and Ted keep traveling to different parts of the future in an effort to talk to themselves and get the song. This allows the actors to portray them in various ways to where we see them as has beens, a duo ever so in love with English culture, and hard-core prisoners who have bulked far more than you would ever have expected (nice makeup work by the way). Regardless of the many years which have passed them by, both actors slip back into their roles as if they never left them, and they keep these characters from becoming mere caricatures throughout.

Also, believe it or not, there is some evolution to Bill and Ted. Granted, they are still pretty dense when it comes to things like couple’s therapy, but they also realize how their famous sayings of “be excellent to each other” and “party on dudes” do not have the same resonance as they once did. Before they go on their latest excellent adventure, they have to realize they are at a crossroads as things cannot keep going the way they have been as things have got to change. Still, it is worth it to see them playing air guitar here and there even as they approach middle age with inescapable apprehension.

Both Weaving and Lundy-Paine are fun to watch as the daughters, and this is even though the section where they search for famous musicians to create a band is the film’s weakest. It’s a bit of an anemic retread of when Bill and Ted, on their “Excellent Adventure,” went back in time to gather historical figures for their final history exam. Regardless, it is cool to see Jimi Hendrix jam with a bewildered Mozart who has no idea what he is hearing.

It is also great to see William Sadler return as the Grim Reaper as he stole every scene he had in “Bogus Journey.” He too slips back into this hilarious character as if he just played him yesterday, and not once does he have to struggle to get a laugh out of any of us. Seeing the Reaper attempt to make peace with Bill and Ted over the fallout they had with all those 40-minute bass solos is not just one of “Face the Music’s” funniest moments, but also one of its most heartfelt.

Each of the “Bill & Ted” films have had a different director: Stephen Herek directed “Excellent Adventure,” Pete Hewitt helmed “Bogus Journey,” and behind the camera for this installment is Dean Parisot. As a result, each one has a different feel to it despite having most of the same cast and the same screenwriters. Parisot is a perfect fit for this entry as he is terrific at mining material for both laughs and heart, and he proved this with “Galaxy Quest,” one of the greatest cult movies ever made. “Face the Music” doesn’t reach the same heights as “Galaxy Quest,” but Parisot does show a lot of respect for these characters and gives this sequel the heart it deserves. More importantly, he gives it a fulfilling conclusion which truly put a big smile on my face.

Upon first watching “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” I have to admit my feelings on it were mixed as I hoped it would be funnier. But after watching it a second time, I found myself appreciating it more as speaks to the values of friendship and music, both of which we need in these crazy times. Whether or not this sequel is all you ever hoped for, it is clear everyone involved put everything they had into it, and I do hope the fans are satisfied with what they see.

Could a fourth “Bill & Ted” movie ever happen? I don’t know, and frankly this one serves as good conclusion. Seeing them rock out at the conclusion reminds me of what Neil Young once said:

“Rock and roll can never die.”

Damn right! Party on dudes!

* * * out of * * * *

‘Iron Man 3’ Fares Better Than the Average Threequel

Iron Man 3 poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2013.

Robert Downey, Jr. is back as Tony Stark/Iron Man in “Iron Man 3” which finally made its way to movie theatres after an endless advertising blitz. Then again, it hasn’t been long since we last saw him as he was in “The Avengers” which came out last summer. It makes you wonder if Downey, Jr. might be getting a little sick of playing Tony Stark and his alter ego as this role has monopolized his time over the past few years. But in “Iron Man 3,” the actor finds a fresh way to portray this iconic comic book character as he becomes afflicted by something I know more about than I would ever care to: panic attacks.

That’s right, ever since his near-death experience in “The Avengers,” Stark has been having serious anxiety problems and is constantly worried he won’t be able to protect the love of his life, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). But there’s an even bigger problem on the horizon for him and it comes in the form of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an unrepentant terrorist who leads an international terrorist organization known as The Ten Rings. The Mandarin is out to punish America and its President, Ellis (William Sadler), for their crimes against humanity, and also for trying to adopt Chinese culture in such a ridiculously fake way.

In addition, Stark has to deal with his ex-flame Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist he arrogantly rebuffed back in 1999. In the present, Killian has become a brilliant scientist who has developed the Extremis virus which cured him of his own physical disabilities, and we soon find it also gives those exposed to it superhuman strength and the power to generate extreme heat. Will it be used as a weapon for bad against good? Is this a superhero movie?

The big news about “Iron Man 3” is Jon Favreau who directed the last two installments has stepped out of the director’s chair, and in his place is Shane Black, the same man who wrote the screenplays for “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and who eventually directed one of his screenplays with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Black seems like an unusual choice to helm a summer blockbuster, but the change in directors proves to be a good thing as Black focuses on character as much as he does on the spectacle. It’s a darker entry than the last two films, but Black still injects a lot of humor into the proceedings.

Now where “The Dark Knight Rises” was more about Bruce Wayne than it was about Batman, “Iron Man 3” is more about Tony Stark than his alter ego. In fact, we don’t see Iron Man in action as much as we did previously or in “The Avengers” for that matter. Some might see this as a serious flaw, but I think it benefits the story greatly. Being Iron Man has become a serious addiction for Stark to where he can’t sleep and function normally unless he’s working on one of his darn suits, and he’s never been the easiest guy to be around. Clark Kent and Peter Parker struggled greatly with their alter egos, but Stark’s position proves to be far more precarious.

Downey, Jr. could almost walk his way through this iconic role of his, but he still captures the different sides of Tony Stark beautifully. Even when he is a bit too dismissive to 10-year old Harley (Ty Simpkins), we still love the actor to death. Come to think of it, is there another actor in Hollywood who can make arrogance look sexier than Downey, Jr.? I think not.

Kingsley is the kind of actor who can play any role, and this has been the case for a long time. As The Mandarin, he creates an ominous presence in “Iron Man 3” which makes you believe he can be a nasty threat anywhere and everywhere. My only frustration with him was, even before I saw this sequel, I knew he wouldn’t be able to top the most malevolent prick he has ever brought to life in the movies: Don Logan from “Sexy Beast.” Then again, when “Iron Man 3” reaches a certain point, it becomes very clear why this is the case.

Pearce can go from playing a good guy to a bad guy with relative ease, but his last few movies have had him portraying the slimiest of villains (check out his performance in “Lawless”). He succeeds in making Aldrich Killian both an unfortunate victim and a selfish bastard all in one, and you have to give Black and his co-screenwriter Drew Pearce credit for giving us more than your one-dimensional baddie. Pearce always knows how to create a nemesis we just love to despise.

Paltrow gets her biggest role yet in the “Iron Man” franchise this time around, and I could tell you why but this would be giving away far too much. The important thing is she looks to be having a blast playing Pepper Potts this time around, and her fun is contagious.

Hall is, as always, a very appealing presence, and she is terrific as Dr. Maya Hansen. James Dale Badge makes Eric Savin, one of The Mandarin’s henchman, a ruthless bastard you want to see taken down ASAP. William Sadler seems like an unlikely choice to play the President of the United States after seeing him play the bad guy in “Die Hard 2” and the Grim Reaper in “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” but he sells himself in the role with no problems. And while I still miss Terence Howard as Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Don Cheadle still gives an excellent performance as that character.

Everyone who reads my reviews knows I usually expect the third movie in a trilogy to be the one which destroys a franchise, but “Iron Man 3” doesn’t do that. I liked it more than “Iron Man 2” which had far too much going on in it, and the change in directors serves this franchise well. Black has made an entertaining and compelling film which brings closure to this particular Marvel Studios trilogy. But then again, it’s highly unlikely this will be the last time we’ll see Downey, Jr. as Iron Man.

As always, be sure to stay through the end credits for the return of another Marvel Comics character.

* * * ½ out of * * * *