Dream House

Months before its late-September release date, we received notification that “Dream House” would be screened in our area. And then, at the last minute, the screening was pulled. The screening for a movie that starred Daniel Craig, Rachael Weisz, and Naomi Watts…was pulled. That is not a good sign, to say the least. It speaks to a sudden lack of confidence in your product, and the studio has gone into damage control mode in order to preserve whatever box office potential it may still have.

Good call, as it turns out, though that’s not to say that “Dream House” didn’t have a wealth of promise. Will Atenton (Craig) quits his job to spend more time with his wife (Weisz) and kids while writing the Great American Novel, but almost as soon as he’s home, his family is threatened by a mysterious stalker. His neighbor Ann (Watts) is sympathetic, but she’s the only one. Once Will discovers that a mass murder took place in his house, he decides to find out more about the crime in question, only to discover that the trail leads directly back to him.

That’s a pretty damn good setup – the only question is where you go from there, and that is where “Dream House” loses its way. There are a myriad of paths the story could have taken, but damned if they didn’t take the simplest option available. Seriously, the explanation for why things went down the way they did is just head-slappingly dumb, and it kills us that we cannot explain why. Add just one more layer to the story, and this could be one of those “Jacob’s Ladder”-type movies where you never really know what is real and what is fantasy. Instead, they took the easy way out. Sometimes it’s better to keep it simple. This, however, is not one of those times, not when you begin the movie by pulling the wool over the audience’s eyes. If your movie is high-concept, then see it through to the very end.

Anyone who grew up watching M. Night Shyamalan movies – and are therefore always on the look for the hook or the twist – will not miss the clues in “Dream House,” which form a veritable trail of bread crumbs. Hopefully the three leads will make another movie down the road, because goodness knows that under better circumstances, they could create something special. (Universal 2012)

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Final Destination 5

After a terribly disappointing fourth installment in the popular teen death series, New Line does the unthinkable by not only making a fifth “Final Destination” but, horrors (see what we did there?), casting old people as the leads. You know, people who are, like, 30, and even some born in the ’70s, ewww. Who wants to see old people die?

As it turns out, it was a very savvy move. “The Final Destination” was in a tough position in that its predecessor ramped up the death scenes’ difficulty factor (Rube Goldberg would have been proud, then probably ashamed) while maintaining self-awareness. “FD4” tried to maintain the planned chaos, but it was undone by bad dialogue, poor acting, and too much foreshadowing. From the very beginning, “Final Destination 5” does two things to separate itself from the previous movie: it casts grown-ups in the lead roles (David Koechner and Courtney B. Vance, holler) and gets serious in a hurry after a premonition on a suspension bridge leads a group of white collar drones to hop off the bus, Gus. Also, there are no bad last lines like “I’ve got my eye on you” (poor, poor Krista Allen), and while a death may be triggered by a chain reaction, the cause of death itself is often something normal (fall, fire). Don’t think they didn’t get creative, though; one of the women suffers a particularly gruesome accident that is impossible not to react to.

This, as you might imagine, does not end well.

They’ve also changed the rules – which is ironic, but for reasons we cannot divulge – when coroner William Blodworth (Tony “Candyman” Todd, returning for a third tour of duty, fourth if you include his voice work in “FD3”) suggests that the survivors can cheat death by killing someone else, a la “The Ring.” It adds an interesting wrinkle, since you get a glimpse of what people are willing to do in order to stay alive. Do not under any circumstances watch the bonus features if you haven’t yet seen the movie, otherwise the big surprise, which is a good one, will be spoiled. Definitely check them out afterwards, though, as you’ll get a glimpse of Koechner adding some of his natural comic flair. A welcome return to form for what was presumed to be a, um, dead franchise.

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BLU-RAY REVIEW: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

One of my favorite things about world cinema is that the filmmakers seem more willing to take risks, which is exactly how a movie like “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” gets made. Though it’s only a Christmas film in the vaguest sense of the phrase, the holiday genre could do with more original ideas like this. Set in present day Finland where a team of archaeologists have just unearthed the evil Santa Claus of local lore who eats the children that have been naughty, the movie follows a young boy named Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his reindeer-herding father Rauno (Jorma Tommila) as they inadvertently capture Santa in a wolf trap and hold him for ransom. But when the rest of the village children go missing and Santa’s little helpers begin wreaking havoc in town, Pietari and Rauno discover that there’s more to their prisoner than meets the eye.

But before you start thinking that “Rare Exports” is just another Christmas-themed horror movie like “Silent Night” (even if it seems to be heading in that direction early on), the film is actually more like a strange collaboration between Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg – a dark but whimsical father-son story about one child’s fascination with the Santa Claus myth and his attempt to earn the respect of his dad. Although it takes a while to get going for a movie that’s only 82 minutes long, director Jalmari Helander does a good job of holding the audience’s interest by slowly revealing pieces of the mystery until the film eventually shifts into adventure mode in the final act. “Rare Exports” probably could have done a lot more on a bigger budget, but that would have only taken away from its unique charm.

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BLU-RAY REVIEW: Batman: Year One

DC Comics may be lagging behind its rivals at Marvel when it comes to their live-action movie ventures, but they’ve still utilized their stable of superheroes pretty well with Warner Bros.’ ongoing series of direct-to-DVD animated films. Lately, the studio has been digging into their back catalog to produce some of the label’s fan favorite storylines, and when it comes to the Caped Crusader, there’s no story more revered than Frank Miller’s 1987 miniseries, “Batman: Year One.” Though it actually focuses more James Gordon’s move to Gotham and his fight against police corruption, the tale also tracks Bruce Wayne’s early days as the masked vigilante Batman.

Those who aren’t familiar with Miller’s comic will notice several similarities between “Year One” and Christopher Nolan’s recent Batman films — particularly “Batman Begins,” which drew a lot of inspiration from the miniseries. Unfortunately, for as groundbreaking and influential as Miller’s story was during its initial release, it feels too fractured in animated form. The movie is also shockingly short at only 64 minutes, and though the animation is excellent, the voice acting leaves much to be desired. Ben McKenzie is horribly miscast as Wayne/Batman, and while Bryan Cranston was a great choice for Gordon, his line readings are also a little wooden. As a result, “Year One” isn’t as entertaining as it should be, but Batman fans will still enjoy the mostly faithful adaptation.

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BLU-RAY REVIEW: Red State

Kevin Smith’s first foray into the horror genre has been a long time in the making, but after finally watching “Red State” (which could have been titled “Why You Shouldn’t Troll for Sex on the Internet”), it’s easy to see why he had so much trouble securing financing in the first place. And no, it’s not because the film is especially violent or controversial – it’s just not very good. The whole thing is a half-baked idea at best, filled with characters so inconsequential that they don’t even deserve to be given names. Though the film starts out with a fairly promising setup – three teenagers are lured to the small town of Cooper’s Dell with the promise of sex, only to become the latest victims of a crazy religious cult – it quickly abandons the horror angle and devolves into a more generic action-thriller.

The fact that Smith promoted “Red State” as a horror movie may reek of false advertising to some, but it’s hardly the only sting of disappointment that you’ll experience from the film. The unpredictable detour that takes place at the end of the first act isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s very poorly executed, due in large part to the paper-thin story. There’s just not a whole lot to the movie apart from the initial setup, an unnecessarily long sermon delivered by Michael Parks’ zealous cult leader, and an even longer climactic shootout that might have seemed ridiculous if the film hadn’t already lost all credibility. The only saving grace is John Goodman as an ATF agent assigned to bring down the cult, but that’s mostly because he gets all the good lines. If there’s one thing to be grateful for, it’s that the movie clocks in at a brisk 88 minutes, because there aren’t many other reasons why you’d want to subject yourself to “Red State” beyond sheer curiosity.

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