★ / ★★★★
Four friends developed psychic powers when they were kids after they rescued a boy with Down Syndrome, Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg), from bullies. They decided to camp in the snowy mountains but noticed an oddity. Animals seemed like they were running away from something and the military had quarantined the area. While Henry (Thomas Jane) and Pete (Timothy Olyphant) left to pick up some beer at a local convenience store, Beaver (Jason Lee) and Jonesy (Damian Lewis) invited a man inside their cabin, unaware that the man’s body encased an alien creature. Based on Stephen King’s novel, “Dreamcatcher” suffered due to a lack of flow. There were essentially three stories and their connections weren’t fully fleshed out. There was the aforementioned four friends dealing with nasty aliens in the woods, the flashback sequences when they were children and how they got their powers, and Col. Abraham Curtis’ (Morgan Freeman) desperation to solve the alien mystery, which he had been involved in for twenty five years, before he retired. The screenplay jumped one from one strand to another which often broke the tension. For example, when Jonesy and Beaver saw a trail of blood that came from the bedroom where the man slept, it was interrupted by a scene with the colonel delivering yet another speech about how driven he was to finish what he started. If the bloody trail scene had been allowed to finish without interruption, the horror would have been more effective. Adding a scene with a completely different tone allowed us to breathe and maybe even take a bathroom break. The CGI let the picture down immensely. I didn’t mind seeing the worm-like creatures (I have a weakness for creepy crawlers) but showing a full-bodied alien didn’t leave anything to our imagination. The aliens could take in any form because they had the ability to project what we wanted to see. One of the characters claimed that he had seen an alien in its natural form and it was horrific. The filmmakers should have stayed away from showing the extraterrestrials’ true form and let us wonder because I didn’t think they looked scary at all. CGI becomes outdated but the images we form in our minds do not. “Dreamcatcher,” directed by Lawrence Kasdan, failed to answer a number of critical questions. For instance, why did the four friends eventually stopped seeing Duddits? Their gifts seemed more like a burden in their lives so did they feel some sort of bitterness toward their childhood friend? The film lasted over two hours so leaving out answers was no excuse. Perhaps if there had been fewer scenes of military men and more scenes of the four friends’ struggle, I would have cared more.
★★★ / ★★★★
Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a homeless man, was drugged by men in a shopping mall after he gave a woman seizures with his mind. He was taken to Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), a scientist who worked with a company called ConSec, to teach Cameron how to control his strange but powerful abilities. There, he learned that he was a scanner, someone who had the ability to become one with another entity that contained a nervous system, not simply a person who had the ability to read minds. Eventually, Cameron was given the assignment to hunt down a rogue scanner named Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) and stop his plan of world domination by eliminating human beings sans gifts unique to scanners. Written and directed by David Cronenberg, “Scanners” had a strong concept which used spy movies as an inspiration to tell a fascinating science fiction film. It wasn’t just about one chosen man trying to stop another driven by an insane crusade. It was also about voiceless underground groups easily used as a scapegoat by those in charge, the government’s experimental programs involving espionage and advanced weaponry, and the corporations that benefited from lives that had been unnecessarily sacrificed. The concept was as strong as the actors’ performances. Ironside stood out as the villainous Revok. He reminded me of a less deranged Jack Nicholson in movies like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” He had just the right dosage of insanity in the eyes and a creepy voice to match his dark ambitions. Meanwhile, Lack played a character that we couldn’t help but root for. Although he didn’t know who he was, he forged on in order to find the truth. He strived to protect those not unlike him, like Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill), scanners who were forced to live underground while trying to find their own versions of a peace of mind. Ironically, his lack of reason to keep moving forward was exactly the reason why we wanted to see him succeed. “Scanners” was without a doubt a B-movie which unfairly came to be known as a movie with exploding heads. Yes, some scenes were grotesque because Cronenberg wasn’t afraid to show purposefully fake-looking blood seeping from a human body and guts being thrown on walls. But there was only about two or three scenes that featured exploding heads. The film was actually philosophical, intelligent, and unpredictable. It had great focus in exploring the relationship between the human body and technology that came to influence Cronenberg’s later projects. Those searching for atypical work will most likely found “Scanners” enjoyable.
★★★ / ★★★★
Evolution is a slow process but every once in a while, and for unknown reasons, it jumps forward. The next step in evolution for humans was for select few to develop unique abilities, which typically began in puberty, that ranged from varying psychic powers to consciously deconstructing one’s molecular structure. This created fear and hatred between normal humans and Mutants. There was a legislation, if passed, would allow the government to legally keep a record of those with abilities. Eric Lensherr (Ian McKellen), also called Magneto for his ability to control metals and create magnetic fields, found the idea outrageous and was willing to kill, along with his henchmen (Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn), those without tolerance. It reminded him of his time in the concentration camps, the way the Jewish was marked like cattle. On the other hand, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), also known as Professor X, created a school for Mutants so they would learn to control their abilities. He believed that over time, Mutants and humans would be able to co-exist. Directed by Bryan Singer, what I loved most about “X-Men” was it had a modest feel to it. I imagine that might have been difficult to accomplish because there were so many interesting characters worth putting under the spotlight. By giving us a relatively simple story and a modicum of, though never obvious, character development, we could easily navigate ourselves into their world and the conflicts that impacted their existence. It didn’t take the easy route of putting the Mutants’ abilities ahead of what they stood for and their place in the brewing war between humans and Mutants or, quite possibly, Professor X’s group versus Magneto’s. It started out small with Rogue (Anna Paquin) not understanding her powers. It was a smart decision because most Mutants’ abilities came to a surprise to them. From there, everything fell naturally into place as she met amnesiac Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Professor X’s instructors like Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Cyclops (James Marsden), and Storm (Halle Berry). She even found potential romance in Bobby (Shawn Ashmore), a boy who could generate ice at whim. In spite of being a modern and sleek science fiction film on the outside, it had elements of classic coming-of-age elements which paved the way for us to become emotionally invested in the characters. By highlighting who they were and what they stood for, it underlined the prejudice from both the humans and the Mutants. “X-Men,” a fast-paced action-adventure with enough humor on the side especially the friendly banters between Wolverine and Cyclops, understood the importance of having a solid foundation before dealing with more ambitious storylines.
Children of the Damned (1964)
★ / ★★★★
A psychologist (Alan Badel) took notice of six kids (in which the leader was played by Clive Powell) with great intelligence who came from vastly different cultures. The psychologist wanted to gather them for further study because he believed they could serve to the betterment of mankind. Anton Leader’s “Children of the Damned,” inspired by John Wyndham’s book, was a huge miscalculation. Unlike the first film, its goal was to explain every ounce of detail regarding the background of the children in question and their purpose for existing. The lessons were painfully heavy-handed. I failed to feel the tension that the film wanted to portray because I kept wondering why it felt the need to preach. For instance, there was no good reason for the military to be called in other than the fact that the movie wanted to comment on various nations’ proclivity for war. It was obvious that the political backdrop was the Cold War and the events reflected a nation’s paranoia that it is no longer the most technologically advanced. I didn’t mind the political angle but in the end, the message was we should all co-exist peacefully because we occupied the same planet. While I do believe that the lesson was nice, even five-year-olds know that war is bad and unity is good. It did not know the difference between simplicity and naïvity so it failed to keep my attention for very long. I thought the performances were especially weak. In the first film, the kids were able to speak. It was easy to have a gist of their personalities even though they were cold as ice. In here, the children kept a strict communication through their minds and it made them boring. When they finally were given the chance to talk, they said nothing interesting. While the adults discussed issues such as evolution and survival of the fittest, I thought it was ironic that the movie’s concepts failed to evolve. When the children and a foolish aunt took refuge at a church, it seemed as though the filmmakers ran out of creative ideas; everything else felt like a contrivance for the explosive finale. “Children of the Damned” is a frustrating and almost laughable sequel because it sucked all of the magic and curiosity from Wolf Rilla’s “Village of the Damned.” A splash of droll scenes could have elevated the project because its seriousness made it one-note. What it critically needed were major rewrites in terms of its script in order to get rid of mixed messages and direction with vision, focus, and confidence.
Village of the Damned (1960)
★★★ / ★★★★
It was an ordinary day in an English village which suddenly turned extraordinary when the townsfolk fell asleep at the same time. Calls from people who wished to contact the villagers could not go through so they began to worry. Whenever someone from the outside crossed an invisible line, they, too, fell asleep. Officials concluded there must have been a force field or a biological agent involved that explained the strange phenomenon. When the villagers woke up, a few months later, the women made the discovery that they were pregnant. I found this movie fascinating because of its strong concept and consistency to keep me guessing. I admired it for not simply relying on the creepy blonde-haired children to generate chills. It actually took its time trying to explain the weird situation the village was thrusted into by monitoring women at various points in their pregnancies. We learned a handful of weird details even when the children were still in the womb such as their rate of development being faster than a normal human being which suggested, as my first hypothesis, that the kids may have been extraterrestrial by nature. But the picture did not give us defined answers. It asked questions like the children’s purpose, but the writers made an astute decision to simply offer the audiences several explanations and it was up to us which, if any, we wished to accept. The film constantly changed gears. When the kids were about three of four years old, led by David (Martin Stephens), son of a couple (George Sanders, Barbara Shelley) suggested to have been trying to conceive but to no avail, we learned that the kids had various psychic abilities. Paranoia covered the town like a permanent fog and the regular folks’ discrimination almost made me feel sorry for the kids. Wolf Rilla, the director, successfully tried to make us sympathize for the children so the material felt dynamic. Since they were so different, the people in the village did not quite know how to deal with the blonde-haired children. It was easy to relate the situation to the real world where educators struggle to find a way for gifted children to meet their true potential. The ostracization by their peers is another factor. “Village of the Damned,” based on John Wyndham’s novel “The Midwich Cuckoos,” had imagination but it did not result to gore or violence. The small details were the factors that sent chills down our spines. The story may have taken place in a small village but the ideas surpassed borders on the map–or in this case, force fields.
★★ / ★★★★
Written by Peter Morgan and directed by Clint Eastwood, “Hereafter” followed three strangers from different areas of the world and how they’ve been touched by the afterlife in some way. Marie (Cécile De France), a successful French television reporter, survived a tsunami while on vacation with a co-worker who happened to be married man (Thierry Neuvic). Since she got back, Marie became obsessed over meeting with scientists who studied life after death for some explanation about what she saw when she lost consciousness. San Franciscan George (Matt Damon) had the ability to communicate with the dead. He used to do it for money. He wanted to stop altogether and lead a normal life but his brother (Jay Mohr) kept sending him clients. When George met a girl (Bryce Dallas Howard) in his cooking class, it seemed as though the life he wanted was within reach. Lastly, in London, Marcus and Jason (Frankie McLaren and George McLaren), were inseparable twins. But when Jason passed away and his mother checked into a rehabilitation center to attempt to recover from heroin addiction, Marcus was placed in foster care. The film was promising because of the way it set up the characters’ unique circumstances. The tsunami scene was heart-pounding, the reluctant psychic’s situation had a whiff of comedy to it, and the twins’ relationship was genuinely moving. However, as it went on, I couldn’t help but feel like it was afraid to tackle the difficult questions. It was plagued with scenes that led nowhere, especially the middle portion, and it became repetitive. I wanted several of my questions answered but the picture never got around to it. In regards to Marie, was she able to step outside of herself and notice a change from being a fact-driven woman to a woman so willing to embrace what’s outside the realm of possibility? She seemed to be a very smart person and for her completely believe everything she saw right away didn’t seem like the material showed loyalty to her character. As for George, he claimed he wanted to stop using his gift but was there a part of him that enjoyed giving other people closure? In some circumstances, if he didn’t hear anything from the spirit or if the connection wasn’t strong enough, was he forced to lie in order to give someone a chance to move on? His craving for a so-called normal life felt superficial. What I found most moving was Marcus’ harrowing quest in dealing with his older brother’s untimely death and the abandonment he felt when his mother had to leave. The character was the “quiet twin” and it worked especially the heartbreaking scenes when Marcus met with people who knowingly and falsely claimed to have a connection with spirits. He didn’t need to speak or scream or yell in order for us to understand what he might be going through. His actions (or inaction) were enough to reflect his sadness and possible state of depression. “Hereafter” need not offer me any definite answers because I have my own view of the afterlife. But what it needed was to fearlessly confront the characters’ own beliefs about the unknown, challenge them, and show us how they’ve changed, or if there even was a change.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The Lamberts, led by schoolteacher Josh and musician Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), recently moved into a new house with their three kids (Ty Simpkins, Andrew Astor). In the beginning, there were small incidents around the house like books being put out of place but no one ever touching them. Then the changes started to become more noticeable like Renai hearing malevolent voices from a baby monitor when no one was supposed to be upstairs other than the sleeping infant. One night, one of the children, Dalton, went to explore in the creepy attic and fell from a ladder. He was hurt but there was no serious injury. The problem was, the next morning, Dalton wouldn’t wake up. Doctors claimed he was in a coma but they couldn’t explain why. Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, “Insidious” was a creative, thrilling, old-fashioned haunted house film. When you’ve seen a lot of horror movies, you start to feel as though you’ve seen everything in the genre, that nothing can surprise you anymore. But there are times when movies like this would come and take you completely by surprise. From its title card in gargantuan red text designed to summon 70s and 80s cheesy horror nostalgia down to its chilling soundtrack, it immediately showcased its knowledge of horror conventions. I got the feeling that maybe it was going to poke fun of the standards. In some ways it did, but I was happier with the fact that it took the known conventions and made them better by altering them just a little bit. In a wasteland of bad remakes and cringe-inducing adaptations, a spice of modernity feels like a new breed. The first half worked as a horror picture because of the way it patiently built the suspense. The ghosts were scary but they didn’t go around following the family (depending on how one sees it). They were just hanging about, taking up the same space as the living. The director was careful in revealing too much. Sometimes the ghosts were on the background and the characters didn’t see them. But the audiences certainly did. Sometimes the apparitions were on the foreground and we had no choice but to scream at the images thrown at us. Because the director varied his camera angles and the types of scares, the film held an usually high level of tension. Each situation was a potential cause of alarm. In a dark room, we knew that something was going to happen but it was a matter of when. “Insidious” also worked as a horror-comedy. Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), a geek tech duo who seemed to have been plucked from Ivan Reitman’s “Ghost Busters,” provided required tension-relievers as they attempted to get bigger weapons to detect the ghosts. Meanwhile, the addition of Lin Shaye as the concerned psychic was an excellent counter-balance to the more comedic moments. Her character reminded us that “Insidious” was a horror movie first and foremost by allowing us to see what she saw in a dark room via Spec’s drawings. For an old-fashioned horror flick, “Insidious” felt progressive, even fresh. Sitting in a packed theater, I felt like the film continually threw snakes of increasing size onto my lap. I screamed louder each time.