Movie Review: ‘Light’s Out’ finds fear in the dark

Flourishing in isolation and darkness; briefly dispelled by the light; waiting in the shadows while taking a silent but visible toll.  It’s easy to see the malevolent antagonist of David F. Sandberg’s new horror thriller Light’s Out as a potent metaphor for all kinds of human frailty; mental illness, depression, familial estrangement, even a manifestation of helpless bitterness. The strength and weakness of Sandberg’s first feature film is that it takes these ripe allusions and gives them a wicked, visceral literalness; you will be too busy cringing and squirming in your seat, fearing the next plunge into the dark, you won’t even consider the tale’s thematic minefield until after leaving the theater. It may have a few flaws, but one thing is for certain; this is a scary movie.


Movie Grade: 3.5 out of 5 stars (Recommended)

REVIEWED by: Nathan Bartlebaugh

Expanding his brief, gut-punching 2013 short of the same title, Sandberg spins a story of a struggling family fighting an all-too-real monster that can stalk you in the shadows but is instantly banished when the light switch is flipped. In an unnerving intro, Billy Burke’s Paul encounters a twisted, slouching thing in the murky void of his factory’s darkened warehouse,  just beyond the motion-sensor pools of light that keep him at a safe distance. In a stroke of nail-biting brilliance, Sandberg has the creature advance every time the light goes off and back on, placing its gnarled silhouette one pool closer to Paul every time it reappears. The scene takes no prisoners and instantly acquaints us with an enemy both frighteningly real and dreamily disorienting. Light’s Out turns then, and introduces us to Paul’s family back home, haunted in their own way.

Teresa Palmer (Warm Bodies, Knight of Cups) plays Rebecca, the estranged daughter of Paul’s wife Sophie (Maria Bello), who returns to her childhood home after years of self-imposed exile because her younger brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), has started experiencing the same strange behavior from mom that drove her away. Bello’s Sophie is an anxious, disconnected mass of neuroses that only seems superficially aware of the fact she’s got a young son in the house; to make matters worse, the way Sophie deals with her grief and loneliness is to retreat into her room and converse with the shadows, who to Martin’s dismay, often chitter back to her in conspiratorial tones. Becca has her own issues—mainly relationship anxieties culled from a childhood of living in distrust and fear of her mother—and when she and frustrated boyfriend Bret (Alexander DiPersia) intervene on Martin’s behalf, old wounds are reopened and a dark presence from the past starts to exert itself on Sophie.

At a scant 79 minutes, Sandberg’s film doesn’t have time to mess around, and mess it does not. The characters are surprisingly nuanced and believable, the supernatural force is provided with a compelling and effective back-story, and the scares are given the room to breathe even if the audience watching isn’t. In one of the film’s spookiest scenes, Palmer watches horrified as a wispy, jagged shadow hunches on the floor of her bedroom and scratches into the wood, occasionally dispelled from its task by the flickering red lights of the sign outside her apartment window. In the morning, she finds a name, ‘Diana,’ scrawled beneath the carpet. As the movie progresses, Sandberg vacillates between creative uses of the lights-on, lights-off concept—eventually Becca, Bret and Martin must arm themselves with various and surprising illuminating devices—and tired genre dabbling as he attempts to fully sketch the relationship between mother and monster in tragic terms. The tension generated is deliciously effective, and the script by Eric Heisserer often surprises in its willingness to play some of the stereotypes in a more realistic and logical manner. Specifically, DiPersia’s Bret goes from throwaway stock character to resourceful audience favorite in a few short scenes.

At the same time, Light’s Out brevity and simplicity do often muddy some of the more poignant material that rises up in between the spooky stuff. From a structural perspective, Sandberg’s movie bears a striking resemblance to the work of producer Val Lewton, whose stable of short and atmospheric black-and-white thrillers (Cat People, The Body Snatcher) often pushed boiling suspense and psychological dread to the forefront, even when an ending felt like we had been dropped mid-story. For Lewton, this abruptness often played to his favor because of a certain literary richness that existed after-the-fact; the troubled souls of characters like Irena Dubrovna and John Gray live above and outside the plot in a way that lingers in the mind. Visually, Sandberg likes to play many of the same cat-and-mouse games with the audience that Lewton fancied, here taking that childhood exercise of banishing monsters by closing your eyes, and turning it on the head. His actors are also up to the challenge, with Palmer and Bello creating convincing and complicated people whose own broken relationship takes center stage every bit as much as the creature.

The weakness here is that, as a first time director, Sandberg sidelines most of the stewing drama for a carnival-style horror atmosphere that more directly references the film’s producer, James Wan. This would be perfectly fine, if not for the waters that Light’s Out wades into regarding Sophie and her history of clinical depression. One of the things that makes Sandberg’s movie work is that it takes fairy-tale fear out of a fairy-tale setting and makes it real, but what are audiences to makes of Sophie’s behavior, which sometimes taps into the all-too-real fallout that people with depression face and mixes it with a Hollywood version of schizophrenia that includes hearing voices, talking to invisible people and menacing family members? It’s not so much that this doesn’t reflect reality, but the lines here become blurred and create a portrait that may be more harmful than helpful in how we perceive those who suffer as Sophie does. To Sandberg’s credit, most of Sophie’s most fearsome tics are directly traceable to the influence of the film’s supernatural forces. Still, the movie arrives at a somewhat inevitable conclusion that gives one character agency and triumph at the same time it sends a pretty frightening message to those struggling with real mental health issues.

Two years ago, The Babadook entered similarly dicey metaphorical waters and delivered both first-rate suspense and scares while finding a compelling and thoughtful conclusion for its monster that also enhanced the metaphors. Light’s Out isn’t quite as accomplished, but it is still very effective as a roller-coaster horror ride, which is really all it wants to be. Sandberg, displaying some first-rate directing chops, goes further and gives you a little more than you were expecting. If you want an iron-clad recommendation for Light’s Out, it’s probably this. It has made me legitimately curious about Sandberg’s next directing gig, Annabelle 2.

Movie Review: New ‘Ghostbusters’ are more lively than the ghosts

Reviewed by: Nathan Bartlebaugh

Movie Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (Mildly Recommended)

On the long and perilous road to another Ghostbusters movie, the new, all-female cast found themselves temporarily trapped in a loathsome other-world purgatory full of predatory, disembodied phantoms that nearly scuttled their arrival. Yes, I’m talking about the internet, which erupted into an unexpected and tiresome debate last winter over the validity of this most recent reboot, most of it focused on whether geeks of a certain age would accept females busting ghosts and engaging in the same shenanigans their male counterparts did thirty years earlier.

That entire fracas was greatly overblown and exploited by Sony, who was no doubt hoping to ride some of the controversies to a box-office victory. A shame then, that so much energy and heartache was put into a back-and-forth on whether Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones (as the new owners of those fancy-schmancy proton packs) were up to snuff, because now that the finished product is here, it’s clear that the girls are perfectly capable of stepping into those unflattering jumpsuits; it’s the rest of the movie that feels a bit like a ghost of its former self.

For the most part, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters is exactly what any reasonable person expected it to be; a light-hearted and often too-reverent rehash of all the touchstones and kitschy visual identifiers that studios thought made the first film great. In and of itself, this Ghostbusters a fun and frothy little movie that actually benefits from comparison to a soggier-than-usual summer line-up that hasn’t really provided much in the way of giddy joy sans clunky spectacle. What it isn’t is fresh or inventive, which are the two qualities that actually did set the 1984 movie (although, not it’s sequel) apart in the 80’s comedy sweepstakes.

It’s difficult to remember now, but 30 some years ago, on that first go-through, no one expected the Lovecraftian menace that was Gozer the Gozerian to show up as, respectively, a bubble-encrusted, stiletto-wearing diva and a blundering, Godzilla-sized Staypuft Marshallow Man. There’s never a bait and switch of that caliber in the new movie, whose biggest joke is that the crew’s new secretary, Kevin (a dependably hunky Chris Hemsworth), is dim-witted eye candy who often makes pithy, philosophical observations like ‘An aquarium is a submarine for fish’.

Most of the old cast do appear in cameos not related to their previous roles (there is an even a heartwarming early shout-out to dearly departed Harold Ramis) and the most iconic of the ghosts do get some face-time here or there (including Staypuft), but this new installment feels far more content to coast on the energy that it’s four main leads churn up onscreen than it is to create a suitably creative new mythology for its universe.

If anything, most of Ghostbusters feels thematically designed after its controversy–the main antagonist is a living, (mouth)breathing basement dwelling loner who wants to eradicate all of humanity for not realizing his true brilliance. If that’s not the perceived definition of an internet troll, I don’t know what is.  The rest of the plot is firmly focused on Wigg’s Erin and McCarthy’s Abby trying to find repudiation and acceptance for their paranormal proclivity. An initial reaction to their first ghost capture on YouTube contemptuously stating “Aint no b**ches be busting ghosts’ feels like it might have been literally copied and pasted from a comments sections below the movie’s first trailer.

Again,all of this distracts from the best part of the movie; the ghostbusters themselves. McCarthy and Wiig are doing their usual comedy schtick–both of which have grown slightly staler than Murray and Akroyd’s were at the time the first film was made–but their chemistry together in the face of the supernatural menace works. Leslie Jones is likable and charming as the subway booth attendant who has a stunning historical understanding of New York City. The stand-out is McKinnon’s Holtzmann who feels like she leapt straight out of ‘The Real Ghostbusters’, the animated tv series inspired by the original movies.

In fact, the constantly mugging McKinnon actually boasts the animated Egon’s quirky blond swish while evoking a more manic, eccentric version of Ramis sardonic live-action take. Look at any given shot of this movie and you’ll find McKinnon going into comedy over-drive; she lip-synchs to DeBarge’s ‘Rhythm of the Night’, hilariously quotes Glenda the Good Witch during a climactic moment, and has a spectacular supernatural showdown that is the closest this movie comes to Ghostbusters’ super-fan wish-fulfillment. It’s a tight-rope comedy performance but it works wonderfully; McKinnon is constantly moving lips, eyebrows, or nose in such a playfully suggestive way that she dares you to come along, even when everything has gotten completely silly.

And silly Ghostbusters definitely is. The template for the film harkens more to the cartoon series in style and structure than it does the movies. It has a few fine chuckles, but the ghosts themselves are not original enough and, with one early exception, completely non-threatening. There’s a flying gargoyle at a rock show, another creepy female apparition, and a towering evil menace, but none of them–or the story they are in–register enough. At the end of the day, for all of the bellyaching, it’s the ladies that make this one even worth stepping foot in the theater for.

Ghostbuster is now playing in wide release.

Robots? Or Not Robots? – The World’s End Review

Nearly ten years after Shaun of the Dead and six years after Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost return with the final installment of their “Cornetto” trilogy. As might be expected, The World’s End is packed with splattery, beer-drenched fight scenes, some laugh out loud lines and clever visual gags.

However, this final film in the trilogy is also a more grown-up film than its predecessors, its humor tinged with sadness, and its thinly veiled social satire sharper and more poignant than anything Wright has shown us before.

Pegg’s character, middle-aged eternal-teenager Gary King, cherishes memories of an unfinished pub crawl he and his friends embarked upon when they were young. For him, it was the high point of his life: back when anything and everything was still possible. He decides to reunite the old gang, return to his hometown, Newton Have, and finally complete the crawl. The friends in question (played by Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine, and Eddie Marsan) reluctantly tag along, more out of pity for Gary than from any real desire to relive their youth. But as the group begins their night, they start to notice that things in Newton Haven have changed. The locals are eerily bland and robotic, and the town itself is hiding more than just a few secrets.

Pegg’s performance is one of the highlights of the film. Dressed in a black trench coat with his badly died hair clashing with his beard, Pegg’s character Gary drives the exact same car he did in his teens, listens to the same music, and kids himself that he’s still the popular heartthrob/bad boy he once was. He veers between a David Brent-like lack of self-awareness and a genuinely touching vulnerability.  The moment he chooses to repeatedly run his head into a wall rather than reveal his troubled past is a near perfect mix of humor and pathos.

The tense relationship between Gary and Frost’s character, Andy, is particularly well conveyed, and it’s interesting to see Frost play the straight guy this time around. He’s the teetotal, uptight lawyer to Pegg’s unreliable wastrel. Pegg’s scenes with Rosamond Pike, who plays Gary’s old flame Same, also provide some stand out moments. Unfortunately, Pike is rather under-deployed, remaining absent while most of the main action ensues. While it is clear that Wright wanted to maintain a bro-ish, male-focused humor, it’s a real pity that they didn’t make more use of Pike’s considerable comic talent.

Location wise, the depressingly humdrum Newton Haven “Home of the UK’s First roundabout” provides the perfect backdrop for the film’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style events. As in Hot Fuzz, a lot of the humor here comes from the film’s juxtaposition of the danger with the completely banal. The unique ennui of a dull English commuter-belt town is perfectly evoked. And The Doors Alabama (Whiskey Bar) is used to glorious ironic effect as the characters futilely decide to continue with their pub crawl despite being in mortal danger.

The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers is often interpreted as an allegory about the dangers of political indoctrination, but it’s clear that Wright’s ttargetin World’s End is more pervasive: globalization, and the smiling, homogeneous blandness of corporate culture. Identical, soulless chain-pubs, Wright implies, lead to identical soulless people. The beauty here is that even as the film reveals the dangers of Gary’s immaturity, it also manages to celebrate individualism and freedom of spirit. The film’s final scenes are both deliciously tongue in cheek and subversively optimistic.

All of the key ingredients that linked Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are very much in evidence in World’s End. The Frost-Pegg partnership, the blend of genre action, comedy and human drama, and the inevitable reference to a certain frozen dessert. Comparisons with Shaun, the film that started a new sub genre – the “rom-zom-com”, are difficult to avoid. This causes The World’s End to not feel as ground breaking, fresh or original. However, thanks to complex characterization, Wright’s pertinent social commentary and the film’s irresistible absurdist humor, both “Cornetto” fans and newcomers to the trilogy should find plenty to enjoy here.

A More Sensitive Logan: The Wolverine Review

The Wolverine is unlike any other superhero film ever made. It is, for the first three-quarters of its run time, just a “regular movie” that happens to star a guy with retractable metal blades that come out of his fists. There have been films that tried to realistically portray what reality would be like if ordinary people put on a cape and mask (Super and Kick-Ass namely) but this reverses it. The Wolverine doesn’t who our world with a comic book injection, it shows a comic book world with an injection from our world. And by our world I mean conventional Hollywood thriller/noir/drams.

It’s a neat trick. But don’t get too excited. There are two big issues here. One, the “regular movie” at the heart of The Wolverine is not that captivating – it’s a fairly by-the-book tale of corporate corruption, family drama and the mob. Two, there’s that final quarter of the film where, The Wolverine craps the bed and slouches toward every comic book movie cliché, most of them done poorly.

*Spoilers to follow

You don’t need to know much about Hugh Jackman’s mutant Logan going into this film, which is set after 2006′s X-Men: The Last Stand. His powers and central drive are shown, not told, in a remarkable first scene set at the Nagasaki detonation during World War II. Logan’s a good guy, and saves the life of a Japanese soldier. Which he does in such a way that his skin peels off but grows back because of his healing abilities and it is just gross enough for 13 year olds (or myself) to go “AWESOME!” but not too gross that it is going to freak them out for the rest of their lives.

That soldier then grows up to become the head of a powerful tech giant and now that he’s on his death-bed he requests an audience with the man who was able to provide him with the time to lead a long, natural life. Logan, however, is hiding out in the woods, growing his hair and beard, and being miserable because he is immortal and he killed the love of his life, Jean Grey. If you have forgotten how he actually did that, it isn’t important. You just need to know that he is guilty and sad.

A feisty Japanese girl named Yukio tracks Logan down, impresses her with her martial arts skills, and convinces him to go to Japan. Here is where The Wolverine beings to resemble one of Sean Connery’s 007 films. Our hero – a handsome movie star in the classic mold – starts poking around a big, complex conspiracy involving money, power, weapons, beautiful women and tempting murderesses.

You’ve seen it before, but you’ve never seen it with a guy with adamantium bonded to his skeleton or with the ability to survive a katana direct through the stomach. A superpowered fight atop a bullet train makes for an unusual addition to watching a couple flee Yakuza baddies to hide in a “love hotel.” This agreeable uniqueness is, however, undercut by a rather choppy story. There’s a hundred different bad guys in ‘The Wolverine’ and none of them are interesting. There’s a corrupt politician, a meanie son/father, some dude who always shows up out of nowhere with a bow and arrow, and then there’s Viper.

Viper, played by Svetlana Khodchenkova, is dropped-in from a different movie. With luscious hair, voluptuous curves and the tendency to always find time for a costume change, she’s basically a Schumacher-era Batman villain. And I do mean that in the worst way. She didn’t fit. She didn’t belong.

The big battle at the end, alas, decides to go all-in on Viper and what that type of movie represents. It’s not original, or even dazzling and – frankly – there’s a third act reveal that was laughable. Nice try.

Do I think ‘The Wolverine’ is good? I must confess, I do not. But, I’m really impressed with what Mangold and company tried to do here, and I like that this is very much a “self-contained” movie. The superhero genre needs its cage rattled, and this tried to do that. Unfortunately, the mere act of rattling without an engaging story and then running to the tried-and-true for the conclusion isn’t enough.

I’m Not Quite Sure What To say: 2 Guns Review

The common defense with a film like 2 Guns, a buddy-buddy blow ‘em up, is that you have to let your brain go slack and enjoy the show. I have no problem with that, unless the plot is constructed with the same kind of effort reserved for grocery lists. Built on the sweat of a dozen better films, director Baltasar Kormakur turns the knob to 14 and dares us to hate his latest effort.

Not…a…problem.

Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg star, respectively, as Bobby Trench and Michael Stigman. Trench is a DEA agent and Stigman is a naval intelligence officer. The two men rob a small town bank thinking that this is bringing them one step closer to busting a drug lord played by Edward James Olmos. Instead, they enter into a world of trouble.

Trench and Stigman think the other is the bad guy, a ruse that is lifted when the two face off post getaway. Once the misunderstandings are ironed out and proper introductions are made, the reluctant pair discover they’ve actually stolen and then lost $41 million that belongs to the CIA. They need to get the money back, and figure out who set them up before they’re killed by one of several angry, well-armed parties.

2 Guns is a cartoon. Tranch and Stigman survive bullets, car wrecks, and repeated blows to the gut with a metal rod. It’s a joyless and derivative one however. Hollywood has excelled at high-octane chatty movies like 2 Guns for a long time. Kormakur proceeds as if no one has ever seen two bickering partners grow to trust each other or discover the deceit goes all the way to the top. Has Shane Black taught us nothing?

The plot in 2 Guns exists to get us to the next bro-worthy explosion, so, its twists and turns are merely empty gestures – a way to distract us from en endlessly stupid movie that consists of gunfights, classic cars getting destroyed, and Paula Patton in her underwear. There are so many unanswered questions that this review threatens to become a philosophical treatise. How did Stigman and Trench first meet? How could the CIA just dump millions in cash into a bank? How could Trench trust somebody who ignored his tip regarding the hold-up? The list goes on.

You hope that star power will save the day. It does not. Wahlberg is about 10 years too old to play the young hotshot, and Washington has portrayed this kind of bitter badass so many times that here it’s like watching a clock tick: efficient, predictable, and boring. The most memorable aspect of the characters is their clothing, whether it’s Patton’s lack thereof, Washington’s snazzy fedoras from the Spike Lee Collection, or Olmos’ suits, which make him look like the owner of a particularly prosperous New Orleans bordello.

“2 Guns” is so concerned with size and flash and noise – the Mexican standoff involves a helicopter, for crying out loud – that I’m not sure if Kormákur views the audience with contempt or is so consumed with appearance that nothing else matters. Either mindset leads to the same intolerable big budget fare with the same unfortunate message: style, no matter how grating, triumphs over substance.

*Disclaimer: There were moments I found myself entertained by this film.