Mom And Dad (2017)

JANUARY 15, 2018


After the abysmal Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the Neveldine/Taylor duo both went solo for their next films. Neveldine gave us The Vatican Tapes, which was a pretty bad movie, but Taylor (first name Brian, for the record) struck gold with Mom and Dad, which retains the hyper sensibilities of the pair's other films but with a novel twist: it pretty much all takes place in a suburban home. And it matches Crank for inspired concepts - the plot concerns an epidemic of some sort (details are thankfully left vague, think the original Night of the Living Dead, which offered some theories but never actually came down hard on one explanation) in which parents are compelled to murder their children (but only their own children; they'll just stroll by and act normal around everyone else). Our heroes are a snotty teenage girl and her much younger brother, and the crazed parents are played by Selma Blair and... NICOLAS FRIGGIN CAGE.

Now, anyone familiar with the site knows I'm a staunch defender of Cage, even if his later career choices leave me disappointed, particularly with his genre work (Pay the Ghost, anyone?). But even though it's getting the same kind of lame release as a lot of that junk (VOD with a few theaters) this is vintage Cage, with the sort of performance that reminds me why I love the guy in the first place. Thanks to a few flashbacks, we learn that his character Brent is a bit unhinged even before the virus sets him off, but it's a craziness that any parent can identify with - pent up frustration that his time to have fun and live his life is over. After Blair nags him a bit about a new pool table that he bought (one that's already annoying him due to being slightly unbalanced), he snaps, smashing the brand new table with a mallet while singing "Hokey Pokey", in the middle of a lengthy rant about how much he misses being young and carefree. I saw the film on the tail end of a three day weekend with no daycare, and believe me I totally got where he was coming from.

Don't get me wrong, I love my kid to death and wouldn't hesitate to murder the population of the planet to protect him, but I also wouldn't mind being able to watch a movie of my own liking at home instead of five episodes of Paw Patrol in a row, and I'd love to be able to play my Xbox without him asking to "help" which of course means any progress I make is nil (alas, he's old enough to know when I'm handing him a dead controller and telling him he's one of the NPCs, but not quite able to actually play yet). The only time I really get to have to myself is if I leave the house entirely, which isn't fair to my wife who has the same longing for a bit of her old life and finds it even harder to carve out time for herself due to her more demanding day job. Luckily screenings such as this more or less sync up with his bedtime, making it slightly easier for her while making me feel less guilty, but I'd be lying if I didn't occasionally daydream about moving back home so that we could drop him off at one of his grandmothers' houses on the regular.

While Cage gets the angry outburst version of this frustration, Blair gets the sadder, quieter one, in a monologue that's almost kind of heartbreaking in its warped way. Blair is terrific in the film, making the wise choice to let Cage handle the more showy insanity while she takes a more sardonic approach to the material. It's not that she doesn't feel the same murderous rage, she just contains herself a bit and opts for more manipulative tactics to get closer to her children, providing a great dynamic that goes a long way toward giving the film not only momentum that could easily run out quickly (it'd be tiresome if she was just matching his crazy), but also no clear-cut villain. Yes, they're the "bad guys" in the scenario, and we don't want them to succeed in murdering their offspring - but we're not rooting for their demise, either. And it's kind of cute to see them bonding over their attempts to kill the kids; we quickly get the idea that their marriage is not exactly a perfect one (the vast age difference between son and daughter suggests the younger one was perhaps the result of a last-ditch effort to save the relationship), and thus I can't help but love a movie that is f-ed up enough to showcase two adults rekindling their love during attempted filicide.

For non parents, or for parents who are perfectly content with how everything worked out, the movie should still satisfy you as a pitch-black horror comedy. Taylor is smart not to linger on gory details - in fact, most of the child violence is off-screen entirely, allowing perfectly timed cuts (a train just about to hit a car that a mother parked on the tracks and walked away with the child in the backseat, for example) and sight gags to inform us of the horrible violence that occurred. For example, the family's housekeeper has a daughter, and in one scene we see the woman start eyeing the young girl, looking angrier every time she reappears in frame. We don't see anything happen, but later on she is aggressively mopping the floor and the daughter is nowhere to be seen, so we can pretty sure what happened and where - it's equal parts funny and horrifying, but when spared of the visual, we aren't bummed out by the whole thing, and it saves that kind of tension for our hero family unit. As the daughter is at school when the outbreak occurs (the son seemingly stays home, though he seems to be old enough for 3rd grade?), there's quite a bit of movie that occurs in between that moment and when Cage/Blair start chasing them around their own home, so if we kept seeing on-screen murders we'd be numb to it by the time we got to the characters we care about the most. Not to mention how heartbreaking it is for the little boy, who doesn't understand why his Daddy, who was playing cars and tickling him just a few hours before, is suddenly trying to murder him. The young actor is pretty great, and my heart broke for him every time one of the parents pretended to be OK again, because his face would light up with belief, only for them to shatter the trust again by lunging at him.

But Taylor never loses sight of the black comedy roots, and this is at its most obvious during an all-too-brief appearance by Lance Henriksen as Cage's dad. The otherwise fantastic opening titles (which are a mix of James Bond and giallo) spoil Lance's cameo and pretty much the context as well since they include images of their scenes alongside their name, but it's still pretty hilarious when, an hour into the movie, the doorbell rings and Blair reminds Cage that his parents are coming for dinner. There's no age limit on this virus, so we are then treated to a madcap sequence where Henriksen is trying to murder Cage who is trying to murder his son (with Henriksen having no animosity toward anyone else, of course), with Blair trying to protect Cage while also still trying to kill the kids. It's an inspired bit of casting and a hilarious detour; it's always a delight to see Henriksen showing off his underutilized comic chops (his reaction to seeing his grandson is gold) and seeing Cage divide his time between villain and victim in the same shot is cinematic nirvana, far as I'm concerned.

Obviously the subject matter will be a turnoff for some, and not everyone is as enamored with this kind of sick humor as I am (though it's not really overloaded with it, I should stress - there are maybe five or six bad taste laughs and the rest are fairly benign), so I can see why they aren't going wide release with this one. Maybe at the peak of Cage's star power (the late 90s) it would have done so, not only because audiences were more willing to go along for rides with the man, but society was also less "woke" and the film's sensibilities wouldn't need to be defended. There is an obvious throwback quality to the film, right down to putting the copyright in the main title like they used to back in the '70s, and thankfully the style is evident more in its scripting than direction (i.e. they aren't throwing fake film scratches on it or any of that bullshit). In short, from casting to concept to execution they are seemingly aiming directly at me across the board - basically just a Jim Steinman song short of a perfect movie for me. And it's only 80 minutes! Cherry on top!

What say you?

P.S. I moderated a Q&A with the cast after the film, you can find it here if you want. I was obviously a bit nervous as I've never met Cage and couldn't prepare a lot of questions beforehand as I hadn't seen the movie until just then, but whatever my flaws are were thankfully overshadowed thanks to the guy at the 15:55 mark who... well, just listen and find out for yourself. It's epic.


Before I Wake (2016)

JANUARY 12, 2018


If you were unaware of Before I Wake's long journey to release here in the US, you might be baffled by the "Introducing Jacob Tremblay" credit that appears at its end, since, you know, you've seen him in like five other movies. But it's (mostly) true; when the film was shot in 2013, Tremblay had yet to work on Room and become one of the most acclaimed child actors in ages (though he was already in Smurfs 2, which came out before Before I Wake was shot, so I dunno), and it's a shame that the film didn't get the benefit of the wide theatrical release it was once promised. I still recall seeing its trailer quite a few times in theaters, but the bankruptcy of its original distributor (Relativity*) left it in limbo until it was rescued by Netflix, which is rapidly becoming the exclusive place to find Mike Flanagan's films.

Unlike Flanagan's other films this one is only really a horror film in a tangential sense. The plot concerns Cody (Tremblay), a foster child who is bounced around and has seemingly finally found a good home with Tom Jane and Kate Bosworth, who lost their son in an accident (he drowned in their bathtub). However Cody has a strange gift - when he dreams, his visions come to life in the real world around him, sort of like an inverse Freddy Krueger. At first the things he conjures up are pleasant enough - starting with butterflies and eventually their dead son, who gives the grieving parents fleeting moments of reunion until Cody wakes up in his sleep and pops another soda open. See, the kid knows of his gift and seems afraid of it, and it's not long until we know why - his nightmares also appear in the real world, and they're dangerous. So every now and then we get a perfectly good scare scene (in fact I got jolted twice, which is more than I do for most traditional horror), but there's no traditional enemy to overcome or anything like that - it's just a race to help this kid.

So it's more of a fairy tale, possibly slightly closer to horror than Shape of Water (which I loved, by the way) but in that same ball park of "this will be of interest to horror fans, but isn't exactly a horror movie". And I want to stress that, because I'm seeing lots of negative reviews on the film and I can't help but wonder if it's partially due to the fact that the trailers suggest something more in the vein of Boogeyman or even Flanagan's own Oculus. Ever take a sip of a glass of lemonade that you thought was plain water and end up spitting it out? It's not that you hate lemonade - but when you're expecting something else the brain doesn't register it in time. That can happen with movies too, and it's a disservice to the film to sell it as another supernatural creepfest when it's something more dramatic and touching. I couldn't help but remember the film Dragonfly with Kevin Costner, which was also sold somewhat as a horror movie but ultimately, like this film, wanted to dig deeper and maybe make you tear up instead of shriek.

On that note, I'm happy to report I was not as much of a wreck as I have been in the past couple years when it comes to dead kid stuff. I choked up at a particular moment I can't spoil here, but I had no problems with the earlier stuff, where Jane and Bosworth are dealing with their grief in ways both overt (she goes to therapy) and subtle (before we even learn how their son died, Jane installing railings in the bathtub to prepare for Cody's arrival and looking weary at their presence pretty much tells the story, i.e. "Why didn't we put these in for our first son?"). Hopefully this means I'm just adjusting more to being a father and not worrying AS much of the time as I was in the first two or three years, though it's also perhaps due to the fact that this was not a surprising plot point - the trailers tell us that their son died and that Cody's dreams bring him back, and he's also gone when the film begins, sparing us the trauma of getting to know him a bit before he is taken away. Kind of like John Wick; I knew it was about a guy getting revenge for his dog, so I didn't tear up when the poor pooch died like I might for, well, Wonder, which also has Tremblay.

(I haven't seen it yet, but I frequently check to prepare myself for such things. I don't even have a dog!)

The other thing that made this subplot work for me was the smart idea of Flanagan to not assign blame to either parent. At first it seemed it might have been Bosworth's fault, because she seems to to be the one having more trouble dealing with it and also is more concerned when Cody takes a bath for the first time, but later on she pins some blame on Jane, who replies "Not fair", suggesting it was actually under his watch that it happened. We never know the full details (and they don't matter), but this allows us to never start to see either parent as "lesser" the way some (including me) probably would for a movie where a child finds his dad's handgun and the inevitable happens - dad's fault, bad dad! The different ways they deal with their grief is what's really important, and it's heartbreaking to see unfold. Jane wants to move on and "replace" his son with Cody by trying to do fun things with him (if you've ever wanted to see Tom Jane tout the capabilities of the Xbox Kinect, this is your movie), while Bosworth knowingly uses Cody's ability by exposing him to multiple photos and home videos of their son so that his dreamed up version will be more accurate. I don't know how I'd deal with this myself, as I suspect most viewers would (and will hopefully never have to find out), so by keeping the blame neutral, we can sympathize in equal measures.

All that said, it's not a home run, and ultimately ranks low in Flanagan's filmography. Not that it's a bad movie, but something's gotta come in last and this might be it (or neck and neck with Ouija 2, another movie that overall I liked). The main issue is the third act, which is where the film's "on the fence" status with the horror genre gets to be a concern. Some of Cody's nightmares cause harm in the real world, and it's a plot point that is never wrapped up satisfyingly, which is quite odd when you consider that one of the nightmare vision's victims is one of Cody's classmates. After the kid is taken, we are treated to not one but two scenes with the police showing up to ask questions, and both times it's completely skipped over how it's handled. One time it cuts from the cops showing up at their house to a little while later when Jane and Tremblay are building a bed together as if nothing happened. What did the cops ask? Why are they suspicious of Cody? Where are the kids' parents in all of this? It's a major development (it's the first time we really see how damaging his nightmares can be) but it's treated with as much fanfare as Jason offing some random in a Friday the 13th sequel.

It also feels a bit like Flanagan (and his frequent collaborator, Jeff Howard) came up with a fantastic premise for a movie and didn't quite know where to take it. When it's contained to just Cody and the parents, it's all good, but as the world opens up more (and, in its most horror-y element, Bosworth goes to talk to one of the former foster parents in a mental institute to get some exposition, which is more cliche than any of the jump scare setups) it just adds questions the movie doesn't feel like answering in a satisfying way. Cody is also put into deep sleep which manifests enough shit to swarm the clinic he's in, so Bosworth running through this place and seeing all sorts of creepy things threatens to not only fully cement it as a horror movie, but a lame one at that. For its first hour we're not quite sure how it will end up, so seeing it end up in a generic CGI-addled landscape is kind of disappointing. As I've said a bunch, a movie can suck for a good chunk of the time but still be salvaged by a great final reel - but a movie that works for a while and then sputters out won't always have enough goodwill to keep it in the "win" column.

But again, it's worth seeing, and didn't deserve the fate it got, though I guess Hush and Gerald's Game being Netflix releases hasn't really hurt their chances at success; that's just my traditionalist mentality at play. Still, as a longtime fan of Tom Jane's I was hoping this film's success could provide a little comeback for the actor, who hasn't toplined a wide release in nearly a decade (The Mist, where his kid's death was DEFINITELY his fault) - he's too interesting a presence to be relegated to all this VOD stuff, dammit! But however it came along, I'm just happy to see him in a normal role again, and now that this has been cleared off my plate I can finally check out 1922, his third Stephen King adaptation (he's a good fit for King's characters - he's easily the most comfortable one in Dreamcatcher, which is no easy task). As for Flanagan, he's already cemented lifetime curiosity status, so a minor entry isn't really the end of the world. In six movies he's made three great ones, one really solid one (Oculus), and two that are pretty good and worth seeing (this and Ouija) - an enviable track record no matter what order they were released.

What say you?

*They had a choice between this and The Disappointments Room, and they went with the latter. I suspect this film might have grossed more than $2.4m.


Insidious: The Last Key (2018)

JANUARY 4, 2018


After the confusingly titled Insidious: Chapter 3 - which was a prequel to the other two films - it would be hilarious if there's another entry after Insidious: The Last Key, as the title suggests a certain finality which has traditionally meant nothing in the genre. But unlike the previous prequel, this one leads up directly to the original's opening (in fact, they overlap a teeny bit), so any future Insidious films would have to be prequels to these two entries as well, or abandon the Elise Rainier character played by Lin Shaye, who died at the end of the first film. I guess they could let her help people as a ghost (in fact, such a thing was set up at the still unresolved ending of Chapter 2), but they'd need a living person to pick up the slack, and I'm not sure if the series could retain its appeal of Elise/Lin being a grandmotherly asskicker helping people with their ghost problems if she was one herself.

As I've said a zillion times on this site, the scares in these type of movies don't really do much for me. I can appreciate a well-crafted one (there is indeed a pretty great one here involving a shadow that is supposed to be Lin's, but careful viewers will note that it isn't hers before they make it obvious), but the occasions that I actually jump or even feel my pulse raise when they set off the scare (i.e. have the ghost jump out, usually behind someone) are so rare that I wish I was famous enough for filmmakers to see it as a challenge. "Let's try to scare Collins!" they'd say, and I'd be like "Just rip off The Eclipse!" and they'd say "The third Twilight movie?" and I'd go "No, THE Eclipse, with Ciarin Hinds!" And yes, the first Insidious was one of those exceptions (I still get a few goosebumps thinking about the angry pacing ghost who charges into their room), but even Wan himself couldn't get me again with the second film, let alone his successors (Leigh Whannell on 3, Adam Robitel here), as they all follow a similar playbook when it comes to the spooky stuff and now I can always see them coming. The crowd was jumping and shrieking in all the right spots, of course, but I'm not there to be scared (just hoping they could get me off guard), so as always I just use their reactions to know if the film is "scary" (apparently it is!).

Unfortunately one of the things I AM there for is the ongoing "mythology" of the series, but after part 2's polarizing reaction (even though it's the highest grossing entry, it's the lowest rated one at Metacritic - go figure) they've shied away from the goofier/plot-heavy stuff in favor of letting Shaye and her co-stars walk around dimly lit rooms saying things like "I can FEEL something is in here...". The ties to the other films (more of them here than in Chapter 3) could be removed without it affecting the main part of the film in any way, so if you've never seen the other films and opt to make this your first, you should be fine. Sure, you might find the sudden appearance of Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne (in old footage, they didn't bring them in to shoot anything new) to be a bit baffling, but that stuff is confined to this film's closing moments, after its own story has been resolved, so you should be able to use your common sense (i.e. "I am watching a sequel to a film I haven't seen, which must be what this scene is referencing.") to figure out that it's just bridging this film with one of the others. I kept hoping for a bigger twist, like that the demon/ghost/whatever going after them in this film would be the original's Lipstick-Face Demon or something, but accessibility seemed to be the order of the day.

That said, I can't fault any decision-making that leads to "we get to keep Lin Shaye as the star of our successful horror series". Shaye has been an ace scene stealer for over 30 years and rarely got lead roles even in DTV stuff, so to see them avoid the obvious route and follow the Dalton family around in sequels after her character died, they made prequels so that she could not only be kept around, but turned into the lead of this big screen, high-grossing franchise. The gamble has paid off; in fact, if you watched the movies in chronological order (which would be 3, 4, 1, 2) you might even get a bit more suspense out of them, because then you wouldn't know that Elise (as well as Specs and Tucker, her assistants played by Whannell and Angus Sampson) made it out of these two entries unscathed. There's a scene here where Tucker sticks his hand between two blades of a non-functioning fan, and thankfully Robitel doesn't play it up as a potential catastrophe because we know damn well Tucker has his arm in the "next" movie - but a non-privy viewer might cringe all the same (indeed, a couple of audience members did vocalize their concern).

In fact she's even more front and center here than she was in the third film, which still split its time between her and the people being haunted in that film. Things kick off with a slightly overlong prologue featuring Elise as a little girl, with Collector star Josh Stewart as her abusive father. He's not too keen on her ability to see/talk to ghosts, and tries to beat the affliction out of her; a trauma that carries over to the present day (well, 2010) and makes her hesitant to help out a man who lives in that same house and is having a ghost problem. The man is played by familiar character actor Kirk Acevedo, so you might expect him to take on a bigger role once he's introduced, but we stick with Elise and her crew as they investigate his/her house, with Elise finding her old things and drudging up painful memories. He may have made the call, but it's really her personal demon(s) to suss out and banish, and so even before they make it a plot point (minor spoiler: Acevedo's character isn't someone that needs "saving") you'll probably forget about him and not really care if he gets to go back to his normal life once Elise is done her job.

It's an interesting approach, and a big part of why the film is an improvement over Chapter 3. The novelty of "The Further" has worn off, and with the prequel element reducing most of the danger level for our heroes, it was smart to give the film a more character-driven slant than its predecessors. The abuse subplot is not something I was expecting, and not only is it surprisingly harsh (for a PG-13 franchise entry, at least), but it gives the series its first true flesh and blood villain in Elise's father, whose secrets are uncovered throughout the film. Unlike Patrick Wilson's possessed dad in Insidious 2 (i.e. someone we like and who will likely be healed), it seems this guy was just an asshole to start with, and the film's best little twist occurs as a result of his actions (for those who have seen the movie - it involves the woman Elise sees in the bathroom). The new creepy ghost (played by Javier Botet) does his thing effectively, but it's the human villains that stand out and give the film its most true sense of danger. It also boosts the comedy a bit, courtesy of Specs and Tucker, who each get their funniest moments in the series yet (for Tucker it's a would-be hero moment that he abandons; for Specs it's a shockingly good ET impression). Their running gag of hitting on Elise's nieces is a bit odd (especially since she treats them as surrogate sons - doesn't she find it icky?), but the two are so likable it's easy to forgive. The chemistry between the three of them is so endearing it's almost a shame that they spend relatively little time together on their ghost "hunt" scenes - can we get a movie of them just hanging out? It also made the movie kind of melancholy in a way; we see her confront her past and find the strength to move on from it - and we know she's gonna be dead in a week or so when the film ends on her getting the call from the Dalton family.

As for the ghost, his name is Key Face, though Key Hands would make more sense. His signature trick (besides popping up and making BOO! faces alongside the expected musical sting) is to turn his fingers into keys that "lock" his victims' voices, and damned if it's not an effective trick. The sound design in the film is quite impressive, both in these scenes where our characters are muted, and in another sequence where Tucker uses some gizmo to make his and Elise's voices sound like they're on the other end of a shitty phone (so they can communicate with the ghosts on the "other side", I guess). It's also much quieter than most horror films you'll see (well, maybe not A Quiet Place); Robitel and his sound team are happy to take a minimalist approach to even some of the scare moments, and Joe Bishara's score is also less pounding than I recall it being in the other films (take with a grain of salt though, as my memory is poor and I haven't seen the other sequels since theaters). I kind of love that a part 4 of a series that has made over $400m worldwide is notable for being quiet, in a world dominated by franchises that often try to deafen the audience with STUFF! to try to hide the fact that they're not very good.

If this is the end of the series, at least it goes out on a relative high note. None of the sequels may have lived up to the original, but let's not forget that it was an unassuming low budget haunted house kind of movie from a time where Wan was still known only as "the director of Saw" (now he gets his name on the posters for movies he only produces), and it was also before Blumhouse dominated the horror landscape as it does now, seven years later. Now that we get these things every couple of months or so it's harder to get that sense of fresh air that we got with the original, and I can't fault them for shying away from the weirder stuff that was offered in the first sequel when so much of the audience was opposed to it. No one's forcing me to go back for more when I know it's going to be more of the sort of thing I've never exactly shined to, but the fact that I'm still entertained (I even stayed awake, for a 10pm screening! Very rare) and would happily see another suggests that it will be an even bigger winner for the audiences who do jump at the scares and won't give a shit about mythology (the annoying kid next to me certainly didn't seem to understand that the film was taking place before the original). The real world scares and further development for Elise's characters more than make up for the been-there, done-that supernatural business (that said, why is The Further so sparsely populated in these? I liked the Haunted Mansion approach of the original), and I'm glad they closed the timeline loop to challenge themselves if there is an Insidious 5.

Long story short - it doesn't deserve to be in the traditionally red flag "first weekend of January" slot! This ain't no Forest!

What say you?


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