Monthly Archives: July 2016

Afraid of the Dark?

‘Lights Out’ will give you the fright-night heebie jeebies

LIGHTS OUT

Lights Out
Starring Maria Bello, Teresa Palmer & Gabriel Bateman
Directed by David F. Samberg
PG-13

Are you afraid of the dark?

If you are, then here’s something to really give you some real fright-night heebie jeebies. In Lights Out, a family is menaced in a big, old “haunted house” by a beastly figure that shuns light and can only be glimpsed in the shadows of darkness.

Lights on, it disappears. Lights off, it attacks.

It’s name is Diana.

Expanding on his well-received three-minute short film of the same title, first-time feature director-writer David F. Samberg makes an impressive debut, proving you don’t need mega bucks to get maxi scares. Cinematographer Marc Spicer, who worked on Moulin Rouge, The Wolverine and The Shallows, makes the most of every creepy angle, tracking shot and dark blob in the background that might be nothing, or might be something else—something far more menacing, vengeful and deadly.

LIGHTS OUT

Teresa Palmer

Maria Bello plays Sophie, a mom with serious mental-issue baggage she’s been dragging around since childhood. Teresa Palmer is her grown daughter, Rebecca, who’s moved out, playfully fending off the advances of her amorous boyfriend, Brit (Alexander DiPersia). Her little brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), is still at home, where he’s losing sleep because he’s afraid to turn out the lights—after he’s seen the frightening, violent figure in the inky corners of his mother’s bedroom.

Billy Burke (who plays Mitch Morgan on TV’s Zoo) appears—briefly!—as Rebecca and Morgan’s stepdad.

All the pieces of the Lights Out puzzle begin to come together about midway through, when we learn more about the mysterious Diana. I give the movie high marks for story development and making us feel invested in its characters, a rarity in a lot of horror flicks. There’s virtually no blood, almost zero gore, and a fright machine that runs on well-timed gotchas, real-world surprises and supernatural shocks.

LIGHTS OUTSome experts think that humans carry an ancient, primal genetic code to be afraid of the dark, a holdover from when we were much more helpless and defenseless after the sun went down—and predators were on the prowl.

This movie certainly plays off that idea, and others, too—including madness, family and the fear of going insane. But one of its most clever ideas is the way its protagonists fight to keep the “lights on” in every way possible, as Diana fights to turn them off. Boyfriend Brit’s resourcefulness, in particular, had the audience literally cheering in the screening I attended.

These days, you can watch movies many ways: on your TV, on your laptop, on your tablet, even on your phone. But for full effect, see this one in the big, open expanse of a dark theater, surrounded by people you don’t know and by things you can’t see…with the lights out!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Who You Gonna Call?

New gender-flipping ‘Ghostbusters’ confronts critics—then gets down to funny business

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Ghostbusters
Starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon & Leslie Jones
Directed by Paul Feig
PG-13

If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?

The Ghostbusters, of course! But which ones? The latest, if you haven’t heard, are an all-female crew headed by Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, with Saturday Night Live cast mates Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones.

Months before the new Ghostbusters movie was finished, some people didn’t like the idea of anybody futzing with the iconic 1984 original, starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Rick Moranis—and especially, apparently, changing the gender roles. The first trailer for the film ignited a firestorm of online trolling and ugly sexist criticism, mostly about bringing women into an all-boy’s club.

The new movie confronts its critics head-on, in a scene where the new Ghostbusters see the doubtful—and hateful—comments underneath online clips of the first spooks they’ve ever captured on video.

“You’re shouldn’t even be reading this,” Abby (McCartney) tells her colleague Erin (Wiig). “You’re not supposed to listen to what crazy people write in the middle of the night.”

Melissa McCarthy;Kristen Wiig;Kate McKinnon;Leslie JonesThen it’s back to funny business—and girls busting ghosts.

Mixing fresh new gags with respectful retro riffs, director and co-writer Paul Feig lets his funny bone point the way, as he demonstrated in BridesmaidsThe Heat and Spy. And he’s working with a cast of comedic dynamos. Wiig’s delightfully dry, droll wit is a perfect complement to McCartney’s bigger, brasher, bawdy physical bravura. They haven’t teamed up for a project since Bridesmaids, and it’s great to see them collaborating again.

Chris Hemsworth

Chris Hemsworth

Leslie Jones gets plenty of laughs as Patty, a subway worker with a knack for Big Apple history who becomes the fourth Ghostbuster. Chris “Thor” Hemsworth seems to be having a ball as the gals’ office “himbo” receptionist, perhaps relishing the opportunity to parody his own macho movie image and the film’s flip of gender roles in general.

But it’s Kate McKinnon who practically steals the show. Her wacky, tech-crazy, live-wire lab-nut weapons wonk feels somewhat of a nod to Dan Aykryod’s character in the original, but she takes it to a totally new place in a unique role that may break her out beyond her hilarious SNL skits.

The plot: Yes, there is one, but it’s hardly worth mentioning. There are fleeting cameos by former Ghostbusters stars and other folks too, including Ozzy Osborne, who shows up at a heavy metal concert. So does a big, bad winged ghost demon. The audience loves it—rock and roll!

It all rises to a screaming crescendo, wobbles and then kind of falls apart, when all the ghosts come out to wreck havoc on the streets and there’s a big, swirling special-effects vortex, a bunch of goop and goo, a parade of giant ghost balloons and appearances by Ghostbusters Hall-of-Fame specters.

Definitely stay for the credits, though, and beyond, because this is one movie that’s not over until it’s over—completely over. And when it is, as the final version of the familiar theme music (this time by Fall Out Boy and Missy Elliot) plays out and makes your toes tap, the message is clear: For good, ghostly summertime fun with a strong dose of freewheeling 2016 girl power, who you gonna call? You know who!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Go! Sit! Stay!

Manhattan menagerie has wild adventure in fetching family flick

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The Secret Life of Pets
Starring the voices of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Lake Bell, Kevin Hart & Jenny Slate
Directed by Chris Renauld & Yarrow Cheney
PG

Like Toy Story did with playthings, this wildly imaginative animated family flick—from the makers of Despicable Me and Minions—starts with a very simple premise: What do our domesticated animals do when we’re away?

Quite a lot, it turns out!

In a Manhattan high-rise, we’re quickly introduced to Max, a well-groomed Jack Russell terrier (voiced by Louis C.K.); Chloe, the tubby tabby cat next door (Lake Bell); and Gidget (Jenny Slate), a prissy puffball of a Pomeranian down the street who has a crush on Max.

Max’s walking buddies include Buddy, a slinky dachshund (Hannibal Burress), and Mel, a squirrel-obsessed pug (Bobby Moynihan).

Things are sailing along fine for Max until his owner brings home a second pet, a big, slobbery, rescue-dog mongrel named Duke (Eric Stonestreet). Max and Duke don’t get along, and soon they’re in a real doggie dilemma, rounded up by Animal Rescue without their collars or tags—and about to begin an even bigger, wilder adventure.

2426_SMX_DS_S1230P0220_L_COMPO_RENDER_0127RThis involves even more colorful characters, including a Snowball, a gonzo white rabbit (Kevin Hart), leader of an underground activist group called the Flushed Pets—animals who’ve been “thrown away by our owners; now we’re out for revenge!” There’s Tiberius, a rooftop hawk (Albert Brooks) comically torn between his longing for companionship and hard-wired predatory instincts. Pops (Dana Carvey), an elderly basset hound, may be paralyzed in his back legs—but he sure knows how to get around town!

Director Chris Renauld, whose resume includes the Despicable Me franchise and The Lorax, and co-director Yarrow Cheney, a former production designer and animator, keep the jokes flying fast and funny and the plot moving at a brisk, lively trot as Max and Duke try to make their way home. Things get especially hairy when Snowball’s subterranean army—a motley crew of critters, from alligators, turtles and snakes to cats, a tattooed pig and “Sea Monkeys”—turns against them when they find out they’re really “domesticated” and not truly “liberated.”

2426_TP4_00079ARThere’s a chaotic traffic-jam cliffhanger on a New York City bridge, with a bus driven by a Max and Snowball (“You drive like an animal!”). In one dream sequence, hot dogs dance to “We Go Together,” the “rama lama lama ding dong” song from Grease. A poodle rocks out to heavy metal the second his owner is out the door. One tiny pooch, with a camera atop his head, films funny cat videos and uploads then to a Times Square jumbotron.

It’s all great, clever, whimsical fun, with a heartwarming, cuddly overlay of friendship and “family.” You may not (or may!) have a dog or cat as adventurous as Max, Duke, Gidget, Chloe, Buddy and Mel, but just about anyone can relate to the montage at the end of the movie—when all the pets exuberantly welcome their owners home to the tune of Al Green’s “Lovely Day.”

Any pet owner knows, and it’s no secret: That display of loyalty, love and affection from a pet—no matter where they’ve been or what they’ve done—makes it a positively lovely day, indeed.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Land of the Giant

Spielberg’s touching ‘BFG’ has big, friendly message

THE BFG

The BFG

Starring Mark Rylance & Ruby Barnhill

Directed by Steven Spielberg

PG

OMG, it’s a BFG!

Director Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of author Roald Dahl’s 1982 children’s book about a big, friendly giant—and the young orphan girl he befriends—comes to the big screen with humor, heart and a big, friendly message about the magical, mystical power of dreams.

Set in 1980s London, the movie wastes no time in establishing its tone or introducing its characters. We meet Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) just moments before she spies a giant in in the darkness outside her upstairs window. Seconds later, his massive hand reaches into her bedroom, sweeps her up and takes her away to Giant Country, far away from the city—and beyond the edges of any map.

Sophie, understandably, is concerned that she’s about to be eaten—but that’s not the case at all. This giant isn’t like the other giants. They eat people, but he doesn’t, subsisting wholly on a diet of foul-smelling vegetables called snozzcumbers.

The other, much bigger, much nastier giants bully the BFG.

The other, much bigger, much nastier giants bully the BFG.

At first, she tries to run away from the “big, friendly giant,” whom she calls BFG. But gradually, Sophie is charmed, especially as the kindly, introspective BFG hides and protects her from the much bigger, nastier giants—a gang of behemoth beasts with names like Bloodbottler, Butcherboy, Gizzardgumper and Meatdripper, who storm into his home, bully him and toss him about like a plaything.

nullShe learns BFG mispronounces and mangles words because he’s had no formal education, that he goes out at night to catch firefly-like “dreams” and then blows them into the sleeping heads of Londoners at night—and that he has a deep, sad secret. She finds out he had to take her away from the city because, he says, if anyone had found out she’d seen him, there would have been widespread panic about giants spread all over the “teletelebunkum box and the radiosqueaker.”

Spielberg, of course, is one of Hollywood’s leading storytellers, and Dahl (who died in 1990) was the marvelous British novelist who also wrote Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryJames and the Giant PeachMatilda and Fantastic Mr. Fox. In The BFG, Spielberg’s signature touches—spunky kid; misunderstood outsider; adults who slowly come around to understanding—fit perfectly into Dahl’s narrative, which combines lightness and whimsy with whirls of darkness and spikes of danger.

THE BFGMark Rylance, who won an Oscar earlier this year for his role in Bridge of Spies, is the long, lanky BFG, augmented by digital effects and motion-capture wizardry. His BFG face is a marvel—aged beyond years, alive with expression, ever guided by his gargantuan, oversize ears. He tells Sophie that he hears everything, from the spinning of spiders in the grass to the “singing” of the stars in the sky, and “all the wondrous and the terrible, secret whisperings of the world.”

In one of the movie’s best sequences, Sophie and BFG end up in Buckingham Palace, where they dine with the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton, who played Isobel Crawley on Downton Abbey) and her staff (which includes Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall). There BFG toasts everyone with a concoction he calls frobscottle, a fizzy homemade drink with some immediate, hilariously explosive gastro-after-effects—BFG gleefully dubs them “whizpoppers”—that even send her majesty’s Corgis into uncontrollable comedic spinouts.

“He’s magnificent, your giant,” one of the queen’s men confides to Sophie.

As they treat the BFG like a BMOC and a VIP, you’ll have to agree: Yes he is!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Jungle Swinger

New ‘Tarzan’ a rollicking tale of adventure, romance and eye candy

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The Legend of Tarzan

Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Christoph Waltz & Samuel L. Jackson

Directed by David Yates

PG-13

You probably know Tarzan, one way or another. Edgar Rice Burroughs launched the “ape man” into popular culture in magazines and novels in the early 1900s. Several other actors had already portrayed him before former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller put on a loincloth and grunted his way though the 1930s and ’40s for a dozen films, which ran endlessly on TV in the following decades.

Ron Ely and others played him on television. Walt Disney turned him into a cartoon. And there were other Tarzans, too, in some 200 movies and TV shows between 1918 and today.

Now the original “Lord of the Apes” returns to the big screen in a sumptuous, sprawling epic that blends his backstory with a rollicking new tale of adventure, romance and enough eye candy to attract audiences of all sorts.

Christoph Waltz again makes a dandy villain.

Christoph Waltz again makes a dandy villain.

Swedish-born actor Alexander Skarsgård (from TV’s True Blood series) stars as British nobleman John Clayton, raised as a feral child by mighty apes of the African Congo after the deaths of his parents. Now an adult for years resettled in his ancestral home with his beautiful wife Jane (Margot Robbie), he’s lured back to the Dark Continent by a plot of deception involving slavery, revenge, railroads, diamond mines and a corrupt Belgian megalomaniac (Christoph Waltz).

Director David Yates, who made his bones with all four movies of the Harry Potter franchise, works with all the tools in his impressive kit—and what must have been every nickel of his mega-budget. The visuals are grand: mist-shrouded mountain passes, jungles with impenetrable foliage; armies of Congolese warriors; fearsome gorillas; a stampeding herd of hundreds of wildebeest. Even though most of the film was reportedly shot on soundstages and sets in England, you’d never know it: When the action shifts to Africa, you’re transported there, too.

Margo Robbie

Margo Robbie

Margot Robbie is terrific as Jane, who was raised in the jungle, as well, the daughter of a missionary teacher. A real spitfire of spunk and spirit, she’s so much more than a “damsel in distress.” Samuel L. Jackson plays George Washington Williams, an American envoy to Britain who accompanies Tarzan and Jane on their return trip to Africa. He’s got a backstory of his own, and though he may not be in prime shape to keep up with Tarzan step for step, he comes in pretty handy with a gun.

Waltz, as usual, makes a dandy villain, and Djimon Hounson (from Gladiator and Guardians of the Galaxy) has a necessary, if somewhat nasty, role as a tribal leader looking to stage a major grudge match.

LEGEND OF TARZAN

Ladies will swoon—as Jane does—when Skarsgård initially reveals his sexy, sculpted torso, in a flashback scene that recalls their first steamy jungle encounter. And moviegoers in general will thrill when Tarzan finally gets around to doing what he does best: working those jungle vines, baby!

Late in the movie, we get to hear the iconic Tarzan yell, rolling across the miles—he’s coming. “Tarzan,” says Waltz’s character, relishing the moment, knowing the man he’s been trying to catch is close. “It sounded different than I thought…better.”

Different, and better, like this movie. After years of musty, rusty so-so and too-many Tarzans, now there’s a new, sexy big-screen Lord of the Apes—and he’s swinging again.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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