Horror Film Review: One Hour Photo (dir by Mark Romanek)


I guess some people might argue that the 2002 film, One Hour Photo, isn’t really a horror film.

It’s an argument that I can understand.  The film does have its scary moments, like the scene where Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) dreams that his eyes are exploding.  But there aren’t any ghosts or vampires or hockey mask-wearing slashers to be found in One Hour Photo.  Even the film’s most disturbing moment — in which we see that Sy’s apartment is nearly empty except for a giant collage of pictures that cover his living room wall — is more depressing than scary.

It’s really a very sad movie.  In fact, it’s probably even more sad today than when it was originally released.  Now, when you see Robin Williams’s sad eyes and you hear him talking about how reality can never live up to a photograph, it’s impossible not to think about the actor’s 2014 suicide.  I remember that, when One Hour Photo and Insomnia came out in the same year, there was a lot of talk about how unexpected it was to see Robin Williams playing such dark characters.  Now, of course, that darkness is a key part of Robin Williams’s persona.

In hindsight, it’s also sad because one watches the film with the knowledge that, even if Sy hadn’t lost it at the end of One Hour Photo, he still probably be a lost soul in 2019.  When we first meet Sy, he’s working at the one-hour photo lab in SavMart.  He talks about how much he loves developing pictures.  When someone mentions that they’ve been thinking about getting a digital camera, Sy nervously chuckles and says, “Don’t do that, you’ll put us out of business.”  Of course, in 2019, people take pictures with their phones and even digital cameras are viewed as being something of a relic.  If Sy were around and free today, I doubt he’d have a job.  If he did have a job, it’s doubtful it would be one that would allow him to cover his wall with someone else’s photos.  Instead, in 2019, I imagine Sy would be one of those people following strangers on social media and printing out all their pictures and probably sending them unsolicited DMs and private messages.

Sy is obsessed with the Yorkin family, Will (Michael Vartan), Nina (Connie Nielsen), and their son, Jake (Dylan Smith).  Even though the family barely knows who Sy is, he knows them because Sy has spent years developing (and stealing) their photos.  Sy views them as being the perfect family.  They’re the family that he wants to be a part of.  “Sometimes I think of myself as being Uncle Sy,” he says at one point.  But then Maya Burson (Erin Daniels) brings in her photos to be developed and Sy learns that the reality of the Yorkins is not as perfect as the photographs.  And Sy loses it.

Actually, there’s quite a few reasons why Sy loses it and the film suggests that, if the Yorkins had never stepped into SavMart, Sy would have found another family on which to obsess.  Something is missing inside of Sy.  Incapable of dealing with reality, Sy instead deals with posed pictures of happy times.  Towards the end of the film, there’s a throw-away line that attempts to offer some sort of insight into why Sy is such a lost soul.  Personally, I think the film works better without an explanation.  Why is less important than the fact that Sy exists.

In the end, One Hour Photo qualifies as a horror film not because of any paranormal danger but because it’s a film about the horror of everyday life.  You never know who might be watching you.  That friendly clerk who waits on you at the grocery store might be following you home and imagining that he’s a part of your life.  You never know.  One Hour Photo is the film that suggests that, lurking behind every friendly smile, there’s a blank Sy Parrish.  It’s a scary thought.

Horror Film Review: Jacob’s Ladder (dir by Adrian Lyne)


The 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder asks the question, “Who is Jacob Singer?”

Is Jacob (played by Tim Robbins), a soldier serving in Vietnam who has just been severely wounded in an enemy attack and who is now barely clinging to life in a helicopter?

Is Jacob a withdrawn postal worker who lives in 1970s New York with his girlfriend, Jezzie (Elizabeth Pena), and who is haunted by horrifying visions of faceless, vibrating figures and viscous demons?  This Jacob is haunted by ill-defined past incidents.  Whenever he gets depressed, Jezzie is quick to demand that he snap out of it and that he stop thinking about anything other than the present day.  This Jacob can only watch as all of his old friends either sink into paranoia or die.  He hears rumors that they all may have been part of some sort of experiment involving LSD.  He’s sure that he served in the army but when he attempts to hire an attorney, he’s informed that the army has no record of him ever having served in combat and that they say he was discharged for psychological reasons.

Or is Jacob the husband of Sarah (Patricia Kalember) and the father of Gabe (Macaulay Culkin — yes, that Culkin)?  This is the Jacob who occasionally wakes up in bed with his wife and tells her that he’s been having the weirdest dream, one where he was living with “that crazy woman” from the post office, Jezebel?

Which one of these three realities is the truth for Jacob?  At times, Jacob himself doesn’t even seem to be sure.  Perhaps the one thing that you can be sure about in this movie is that whenever Jacob closes his eyes, he’s going to reopen them and discover that he’s in a different time and place.  Jacob spends almost the entire film trying to work out what’s happening in the present, what’s happening in the past, and what’s just happening in his head.

And, to be honest, it all gets a bit pretentious at times.  The film’s script has a lot on its mind.  In fact, it might have a little bit too much going on.  No sooner have you soaked in what the film has to say about denial and acceptance than you’re suddenly getting a crash course in MK-ULTRA and other mind-control conspiracy theories.  Whenever Jacob isn’t seeing demons and faceless apparitions, he’s being kidnapped by government agents.  There’s so much going on that this film can get a bit exhausting.

Fortunately, the film itself is such a triumph of style that it doesn’t matter that the script is a bit of a mess.  Director Adrian Lyne does a great job bringing Jacob’s nightmarish world to life.  Jacob seems to live in a world where the skies are permanently overcast and the streets are always wet after a recent storm.  When Jacob makes the mistake of walking down a subway tunnel, Lyne frames it as if Jacob is literally following a tunnel into Hell.  When a subway train rushes by Jacob, we catch disturbing glimpses of featureless faces facing the windows.  When Jacob sees a demon at a party, Lynne films the moment so that, just like Jacob, it takes us a few minutes to realize what we’re seeing.  And when Jacob is kidnapped and taken to a Hellish hospital, the scene is nightmarish in its intensity.

Tim Robbins gives a great performance as the emotionally withdrawn and haunted Jacob.  (In fact, he’s so good that it makes it all the more sad that he really hasn’t had a decent role since he won an Oscar for 2003’s Mystic River.)  He’s matched by Elizabeth Pena, who constantly keeps you wondering if Jezzie truly cares about Jacob or if she’s just another part of the conspiracy that seems to have taken over his life.

Jacob’s Ladder is an intensely effective, if somewhat messy, horror film.  Apparently, like almost every other horror film released in the 20th century, it’s currently being remade, with the remake due to released on February 9th.  Just in time for Valentine’s Day!

Film Review: Logan (dir by James Mangold)


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Logan is the first great film of 2017.

It’s also one of the darkest.  The specter of death hangs over almost every scene and, when death does come, it doesn’t discriminate.  Good and likable people are just as likely to die as the film’s villains and, when they do die, it’s never a merciful passing.  There is some humor but it’s the type of humor that’s generated by being trapped in a hopeless situation.  This is one of those movies where, when you do laugh, it’s because the only other alternative is just to give up.

What’s the common complaint about comic book films?  That they only exist to sell more comic books and that they are often fatally compromised by the need to appeal to as many viewers as possible?  Well, that’s not a problem with Logan.  Logan is a film for grown ups.  During the film, when Logan (played, of course, by Hugh Jackman) comes across an X-Men comic book, he dismisses it as a fairy tale.  “In the real world,” he snaps, “people die!”

That’s not to say that Logan’s a hopeless film.  There is an optimistic streak to the film but it’s a cautious optimism.  Much like Mad Max: Fury Road, Logan suggests that the best thing that the world has left to offer is a chance for redemption.

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Now, I should point out that, while I enjoyed some of the previous films (particularly X-Men: First Class), I’m hardly an expert on the X-men franchise.  But, with Logan, that doesn’t matter.  Certainly, it helps to have seen some of the previous films.  There are a few references to X-Men: Apocalypse.  But, in the end, Logan works as a stand alone film.  Even if you’ve seen none of the previous X-men films, you’ll find yourselves getting swept up in the story of Logan, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Caliban (Stephen Merchant), and Laura (Dafne Keen).

The film opens in 2029.  There are only a few hints that we’re in the future: driverless truck rule the roads and, more disturbingly, it seems as if there’s fewer people around than before.  Watching the film, which is full of wide open spaces and desolate towns, one gets the feeling that something has happened that has wiped out a good deal of the population.  Almost all of the mutants are dead.  Logan (Hugh Jackman) lives across the border, in Mexico.  His only companion is the albino Caliban and Xavier.

However, this Xavier is far different from the one that we’ve seen in previous films.  Suffering from Alzheimer’s, Xavier is often confused as to where he is and, if he’s not properly medicated, he can’t control his psychic powers.  What’s left of Logan’s life is now dedicated to trying to keep the greatest mind in the world from destroying itself.

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Logan has also changed.  In the previous films, Logan was indestructible.  However, his powers are weakening.  He no longer heals as quickly as before.  He’s losing his eyesight.  Even his famous claws are no longer as reliable as they once were.  Logan now works as a limo driver in El Paso.  One night, a group of frat boys have him drive by the border crossing so that they can chant “USA!  USA!”  Another night, he drives around a drunken bachelorette party, trying to ignore one of the bridesmaids exposing her breasts to him.  And then, he picks up Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and Laura.

Gabriella is a nurse.  Laura is an apparently mute 11 year-old girl who has the same powers as Logan.  Gabriella asks Logan to help them get to North Dakota (or “Eden,” as Gabriella calls it).  Logan says no but he quickly discovers that he doesn’t have a choice.  A sadistic cyborg named Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook, giving a disturbingly charismatic performance) is searching for Gabriella, Laura, and Logan.  The only way for Logan to protect Xavier is to make that trip to North Dakota.

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Pierce, I should mention, isn’t alone.  Pierce has a black-clad army of mercenaries at his disposal but he, and his employer (Richard E. Grant, in the role of the bad guy with the British accent), have a secret weapon.  This weapon looks and acts like a young Logan and there’s a reason for that.  By the end of the film, Logan truly is at war with the savage beast that he once was.

Logan is a violent film, one that doesn’t flinch when it comes to earning its R-rated.  I don’t want to give too much away so excuse my vagueness when I say that, a little over an hour into Logan, there’s a fight scene of such brutality and uncompromising violence that it left me shaken in a way that no other “comic book” film ever has.  Logan earns that R-rating but it never feels exploitive or gratuitous.  When Logan curses (which he does quite a bit), it’s because that’s what people do when they’re in a hopeless situation.  And, for all the fighting and all the blood and all the death, Logan never celebrates violence.

Instead, it celebrates redemption.

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Early on, there’s a rather sweet scene where Xavier and Laura watch Shane on television.  It’s an important scene because, in many ways, Logan is a western.  Logan is the mysterious gunslinger who, after a lifetime of violence, finally has a chance to do something to preserve life rather than spread death.  Just in case we missed, director James Mangold includes a scene in which Logan and Xavier help a family of ranchers round up some horses.  Later, there’s a tense stand-off between Logan and a group of cowboy hat-wearing rednecks that feels as if it could have come straight from a spaghetti western.

Hugh Jackman is an acclaimed and accomplished actor but, to many people, he will always be the Wolverine.  This is his 9th time to play the character and Jackman gives not only his best performance in the role but perhaps the best performance of his career.  (It’s certainly the equal of his Oscar-nominated work in Les Miserables.)  One look at Jackman’s weathered face and his haunted eyes and you immediately know that there’s going to be more to Logan than just comic book action.  And then there’s Patrick Stewart, who has never been more heartbreaking and vulnerable than he is here.  Finally, Dafne Keen gives a fierce performance, one that will probably remind many people of Chloe Grace Moretz’s breakthrough role in Kick-Ass.

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Earlier, I mentioned Mad Max: Fury Road.  It’s an appropriate comparison, as the two films have much in common.  (That said, Logan definitely establishes its own identity.)  There’s been some talk that Logan could be the first comic book film to ever receive a nomination for best picture.  I don’t know if that’s going to happen or not.  (I fear that a lot of Academy members will mentally check out during a jokey pre-credits sequence, one that serves as a teaser for the sequel to Deadpool.  I understand why it was included it at the beginning of the film.  Logan ends on such a poignant note that a post-credits scene would have felt inappropriate.  But still, as much as I love Ryan Reynolds, it feels out-of-place.)  I will say this — Logan deserves consideration.  Logan occasionally had me fighting to catch my breath and it left me with tears in my eyes.  For Logan to get a nomination, it’s going to need the same support from the critics groups that Mad Max: Fury Road received.  The Academy is going to need the critics to reassure them that it’s okay to nominate a film about mutants being chased by a cyborg.  It’s still early in the year.  Anything could happen.

It could be nominated for every Oscar or it could be nominated for none.  But, in the end, Logan is a great film.

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Hallmark Review: Notes from Dad (2013, dir. Eriq La Salle)


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This is a movie about a guy who plays the trumpet and gets a job teaching music appreciation at a high school. It would be just wrong of me to not share a couple of personal stories from when I took a class in The History of Jazz and Rock in college now.

My teacher was also a jazz musician. I don’t remember how it came up, but he shared one of the greatest regrets of his life with us. He lived in New York City with his girlfriend only a few blocks from CBGB in the mid to late 1970s. According to him, he was such a jazz snob that he refused to make the short walk down there to see groups like The Ramones as they were blowing up on the music scene. He said it was one of the dumbest things he ever did and regrets it to this day.

The other thing is that music appreciation classes can be amazing things. Music is so interconnected. I remember how his face lit up when he read a paper where I wrote I listened to Dick Dale, then Motörhead (RIP Lemmy) and could hear the similarities in their sound. See if you can hear it. I have embedded two songs below: The Wedge by Dick Dale and Iron Fist by Motörhead.

You also learn interesting things such as that country and rap are actually very similar types of music. In fact, some deliberately fuse the two types of music. Same goes for the blues. I can’t possibly be the only one who heard Nirvana’s cover of Leadbelly’s Ain’t It A Shame at the end of Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015) and thought it was a country song at first. Then again, Leadbelly was a blues and country artist too. The division between the two genres was created by record companies that told blues artists to only record blues and country artists to only record country. In reality, they both played country and blues. Nirvana just took out Leadbelly’s lines about not beating your wife and replaced it with Kurt’s angry sarcastic vocals to get the same point across.

You learn why it shouldn’t have been surprising to anyone why Billy Joe Armstrong could write a song like Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) and songs like Basket Case. Also, that rap and jazz are alike in that improvisation is a central element of both genres of music. I remember in 2002 when Johnny Cash seemed to surprise everyone by taking a Nine Inch Nails song (Hurt) and turning it into a sad and beautiful capstone on his long career. My local San Francisco based alt rock station even played it. They even put a sort of disclaimer saying oh yeah, we are going to play Johnny Cash. If you don’t like it, we don’t care. It’s amazing what he did with this otherwise lesser known Nine Inch Nails song so we are playing it. It’s only in the heads of the fans that artists live in a world where only the art they make exists.

Sadly, this movie isn’t really about music appreciation. That would require copy written music. It’s about a music teacher who is going to get his life back on track while also helping a young brilliant trumpet player realize his potential. And look who plays the teacher!

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It’s Eddie Cibrian who played Buddy in Healing Hands. This time he is playing a character named Clay. When he arrives in class he discovers quickly that he has some tough students to deal with and that promising student as well. And no, Coolio won’t be sitting him down in a dark room to sing about living in a Gangsta’s Paradise.

Also, since this is not one of those put a bonnet on it films like The Reckoning, he will also not be sat down by Weird “Al” Yankovic to be told about living in a Amish Paradise.

Instead, he goes outside to see himself from Healing Hands, but named Manny played by Michael Beach

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Michael Beach? That sounds familiar to me. Not from one of his other many many many acting credits. I know him from Quantum Leap of course!

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That’s from the episode called Justice where Sam leaps into a KKK member. During that scene he has to pretend he is a KKK member and prevent Michael Beach’s character from helping an older black man register to vote. Can’t think of why that episode is fresh in my memory at all. Interestingly, Eriq La Salle, who directed this movie, was in an episode of Quantum Leap during the same season of the show as Michael Beach’s episode.

Clay comes back to class the next day and decides to teach the kids the three B’s of classical music.

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He brought a record of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and even manipulates the record with his hand. Sounded very familiar to me. I really wondered where I had heard that before. After racking my brain I figured it out! The particular section he manipulates is from Robin Thicke’s early song When I Get You Alone.

Cause of course it is. Why?

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Yep, Alan Thicke is in the movie. He’s barely in the movie, but he is there as a music store owner. You can call it a cameo because he only has a few minutes of screen time. I refuse to believe that’s a coincidence.

Back in the classroom, the principal comes in and tells him he needs to stick to the approved curriculum. Doesn’t say what that is, but obviously connecting modern music with classical music to get the kids interested in the material is a no no.

Now we find out that he is on the outs with his ex-wife and kids because he really let his love of music get in the way of everything else. Oh, and here’s the promising trumpet player.

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I could take you blow by blow now (no trumpet pun intended), but there’s no point. As Clay gets closer to the kid who plays the trumpet he has to find ways to connect with him. The experience helps him to find ways of reconnecting with his own child. The school is in trouble and he decides to have the kids form a band to get the school some positive attention. Not really sure how that’s going to save the school, but let’s just tuck that away. He also gets close to the principal because he has to end up with someone.

It’s a nice small scale story like Chasing A Dream that is one of those few Hallmark movies that really breaks from their usual mold. And it does a pretty job of it. I liked Eddie Cibrian and the story is uplifting. It could have been better for sure. This one has a marginal recommendation from me. Just don’t expect a movie about music appreciation. It’s about two people getting their life back on track with music being an important part of that journey.

But how do I end this review? Well, I’ll go the easy way. I mentioned Motörhead and Lemmy passed away recently, so here is Motörhead performing Please Don’t Touch with their friends Girlschool as Motör Headgirl School.

Embracing the Melodrama #55: Inside Out (dir by David Ogden)


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Welcome to the suburbs!

It’s a world of secrets and lies, where friends spend their time exchanging gossip and no one’s marriage is that happy once you get behind closed doors.  It’s a place where any sign of nonconformity is viewed as being a threat and where everyone is desperate to be a neighborhood insider because being an outsider is Hell on Earth.

The suburbs have also been the setting of a countless number of Hollywood melodramas.  I’ve reviewed a few of them, like Sin In The Suburbs, over the past two weeks.  The 2005 film Inside Out continues the cinematic tradition of casting a skeptical eye on the suburbs and it actually works pretty well, up until about the final 10 minutes of the movie.  Yes, Inside Out is one of those movies that basically starts out strong and then ruins it all by building up to a thoroughly ludicrous final twist.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love twist endings when they work.  When they don’t work, they lead to something like Inside Out.

Inside Out starts out well enough.  Eriq La Salle plays a mysterious man who moves into an idyllic suburban neighborhood in the middle of the night.  When his neighbors attempt to greet him, he simply responds with a cold glare and then proceeds to alienate them even more by loudly mowing his lawn in the middle of another night.  When he decides to hold a sudden garage sale, everyone is surprised to discover that he’s not selling the usual second-hand stuff.  Instead, he’s selling expensive and new electronics and valuable antiques.  When one neighborhood woman asks why he’s selling all of it, La Salle simply replies that they once belonged to his son.

Finally, La Salle does start to socialize with one neighbor (played by Steven Weber) but the friendlier that La Salle is, the more suspicious Weber becomes.  Weber cannot bring himself to trust his new neighbor and instead, he starts his own investigation.  As Weber finds out more and more about La Salle, he starts to grow more and more paranoid….

And, up until the final 10 minutes, the entire movie is actually kind of working.  Director David Ogden is keeping things nicely off-center.  Weber is both sympathetic and somewhat frightening as he grows more and more paranoid.  Best of all, Eriq La Salle creates a character that seems to radiate a very genuine sort of menace.  You really want to know what La Salle is hiding in his basement and you worry what will happen to Weber once he inevitably breaks in La Salle’s house to investigate…

And then, out of nowhere, the film launches one of the biggest and stupidest twists in the history of the movies.  No, you won’t see it coming.  Yes, you will be shocked.  But not because the twist is effective or surpising.  No, the twist is shocking because it makes no sense, it comes out of nowhere, and it is just amazingly stupid.

And that’s a shame because there’s a lot of talent on display in this film.

Is the film worth seeing despite the twist?  Perhaps.  It shows up on Encore occasionally and  I would recommend it on the strength of Weber and La Salle’s performances.  As I said, there’s a lot to appreciate during the first 80 minutes of the film.  But, before it reaches that twist, you might want to stop the film and come up with a better ending of your own.