By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on DVDs: House of Wax (1953); After Earth; The Purge
HOUSE OF WAX (3D/Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.S.: Andre de Toth, 1953 (Warner Bros.)
The hit 3D remake of Michael Curtiz’s flesh-crawling 1933 horror thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum, with Vincent Price as the mad, fire-scarred proprietor of a wax museum, who takes his subjects from life. Director de Toth, who had only one good eye, couldn’t see 3D, but he does a bang-up job, especially when there’s a paddleball around. In support are Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones (a real screamer) and, as an evil henchman, Charles Buchinsky (a.k.a. Bronson).
Price’s horror movie heyday really dates from this show, the most popular 3D release of its era. You should also catch the Curtiz original (it’s on an old Warners box set), a weird little gem that stars Lionell Atwill in Price’s role, along with Fay Wray and Glenda Farrell — and that offers a tangy ’30s mix of wise-cracking and the macabre.
No extras. Not even a paddleball.
AFTER EARTH (Two Stars)
U.S.: M. Night Shyamalan , 2013
You’ve got to feel, a little, for Will Smith and M. Night Shyamalan as you watch their beautiful but misbegotten science fiction movie After Earth. In making this big, slow, pretty but pretentious and often preposterous movie, producer-writer-star Will handed a multi-million dollar present to his son Jaden — giving him the prime slot in an epic science fiction show — only to get stomped on by a lot of the reviewers and ignored by a lot of the audience.
That’s a beating for a movie that’s actually somewhat ambitious and even heartfelt: a film about a father’s love for his son, and the son‘s desire to be worthy of it, to become a Space Ranger and maybe help spawn a sequel. Does After Earth deserve all that abuse? Mostly yes, partly no. After Earth, as the title suggests, is a science fiction movie about what happens after the end of Earth as we knew it: after humankind, a millennium ago, left the planet for a new home called Nova Prime. So Will Smith and Shyamalan and their company have imagined a universe where Earth, abandoned by people, has been taken over by monstrous creatures, foliage and plant life.
Visually, the movie’s concept is impressive, and the themes are big and ambitious and sympathetic. It’s what we might also expect from Shyamalan , who often tries to bend the genres of horror, mystery and science fiction in order to examine something serious, often involving families. Sometimes he succeeds, as in The Sixth Sense. Sometimes he doesn’t, as in this turgid, self-important movie.
First we get back-story: 1,000 years or so ago, Earth was evacuated and humanity resettled on Nova Prime, populated by our space cadet descendants as well as ravenous monsters , who want us to leave, but who are kept at bay by heroes like the legendary Cypher Raige (Will Smith). After we learn all this, the action starts, in a manner of speaking. Onto the vaguely Avatar-looking New Earth, comes and crashes a space ship commanded by Cypher , with a crew that includes his son Kitai (Jaden), who has just been denied advancement to the Space Rangers and is visibly upset. When the ship hits an asteroid storm, or vice versa, every human but the two Raiges gets killed or lost or forgotten . Cypher himself is pinned down in the wreckage and able to communicated only in pained, stoic tones that suggest a mortally wounded archbishop presiding at his own funeral.It’s all up to Kitai now, as his father, using a futuristic walkie-talkie and a variety of other compact wilderness techno-gizmos, tries to guide the lad through the monstrous foliage and the treacherous fluctuating heat, and a fierce flying mama pterodactyl-thing and bad dreams to a space beacon that will allow them to call for help. As we sit there watching this, and as Cypher sprawls in the crash, broadcasting directions and stoic wisdom (Example: “Danger is real, but Fear is a choice”), Kitai makes his way though what used to be Earth, but now might better be caller Creepy Monster Land or Rite of Passage Land or Slow Movie Land — or maybe Shyamaland. If you’re in the mood for life lessons, the movie has plenty of them.
There’s no denying it’s a failed show, so listless that it sometimes has a semi-narcotic effect. But the picture does have its good points (the lustrous visuals wrought by production designer Tom Sanders and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky) as well as its bad ones (the lugubrious pacing and the incessant fatherly wisdom slowly and stoically imparted by Cipher). A lot of After Earth’s problems also stem from the fact that Jaden looks too young for his part, or for the Rangers. He’s no movie tyro, but maybe his dad should have waited three or four years before ending Earth for him .
THE PURGE (One and a Half Stars) U.S.: James DeMonaco, 2013
Mass anarchy comes but once a year — or at least it does in the lower-budget, ultra-violent science fiction fable, The Purge. Set ten years or so in the future, The Purge has a potentially good premise, botched in the execution. It imagines an America where the government has decided to allow one night of unpunished crime a year: one time span, from seven in the evening to seven in the morning, when the police don’t make arrests and no crime incurs punishment. This strange amnesty is intended as a pressure-reliever to keep the populace pacified and law-abiding the rest of the time. And, apparently it’s effective — at least for some (such as the rich and comfortable who can afford protection). That one night bloodbath of untrammeled criminality — as portrayed in writer-director James DeMonaco’s otherwise formula-bound horror movie — is enough, it seems to keep the populace upright, or largely so, for the other 364 days. In this world, or this movie, this crazy idea works. In a way.
What happens on Purge night? The people, including everybody but some select national leaders (of course) are unrestrained but also unprotected. They can do anything, break any law — because for those 12 hours, no police will patrol the streets or make arrests or even gather and keep evidence, no doctors will tend the injured in the hospitals, and every violation of the law, no matter how heinous, will be forgiven automatically, in advance — including armed robbery, murder, rape and green-lighting violent movies with potentially terrific ideas that wind up making no sense and indulging the violent fantasies they seem to be criticizing. Like this one.
The first half hour, which suggests an old Twilight Zone episode is pretty good. Then the movie, with the exception of one clever late-inning twist, descends into chaos and clichés. It becomes just another violent siege movie, as, for those 12 hours of The Purge, we follow the travails of a supposedly ordinary (but pretty comfortable-looking) family, the Sandins. The Sandins live in a gated upper-middle class community, where the father, James (Ethan Hawke) has sold and supplied most of the security devices that protect his family and his neighbors, including barred doors, sealed windows, and multiple surveillance cameras. There are also, of course, lots of guns and sharp or blunt instruments, and they will be used.
Hawke’s Sandin is an energetic white-collar guy who’s just been named his security company’s star salesman, and Hawke plays him with that offhand cheeriness and attractively crooked smile he uses when he’s playing someone who might get a comeuppance. The other Sandins, a familiar-looking bunch, include his well-styled, pretty, competent wife Mary (Lena Headey), their pretty but rebellious, 16-year-old daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane), and their long-haired, sullen-looking, not so pretty but good-hearted 14 year old son Charlie (Max Burkholder). This family has generation-gap problems, such as Zoey’s over-eager boyfriend, Henry (Tony Diller). At dinner time, they seem touchy, but oddly self-preoccupied for a group about to face near-total social breakdown.
So we watch as the Sandins — supposedly safe in their gated community, locked behind their scads of security devices, surrounded by equally well-off and protected upper-middle class neighbors, and led by a Father who seems to Know Best — try to keep out of harm’s way. (Non-Spoiler Alert: It ain’t gonna happen.) Later, they must try to cope with a sudden violent incident, with an intruder seeking help (Edwin Hodge as the Stranger), and with an invasion of what seem to be masked rich kids, led by the guy with the most Scream-ish mask and voice (Rhys Wakefield). This sinister-looking, privileged-seeming young bunch are hot to terminate what they call homeless pigs, have chased the Stranger to the Sandins’ house, where he was seen on a monitor and let in by soft-hearted Charlie. Partly because he is African-American and the upper-middle-class lynch mob pursuing him is white, he nags at the Sandins’ conscience, and probably most of the audience’s, throughout. There’s also a surprise twist of sorts coming, one also reminiscent of the Rod Serling heyday of The Twilight Zone, and it supplies the movie’s only decent dramatic scene.
Director-writer DeMonaco is a specialist in siege movies; he wrote both The Negotiator and the 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13 (which also starred Ethan Hawke). But this movie, a surprise hit, was for me just another shoot-’em-up, with some obvious anti-anti-government messages. I’d like to have known why the doctors weren’t working, or why the visible menaces in the movie (which doesn’t stray much outside the gates) mostly include that relative handful of kids in masks, or, indeed, why they bother to wear masks, unless it’s just to scare hell out of the Sandins, or why they seem so unafraid of the Sandins’ firepower, or why the Sandins don’t use it better .
One can envision, on this night of chaos and tumult, hundreds and thousands of people in various locations, perhaps banding together (in another homegrown social-political movement), trying to storm houses and stores and banks and kill their enemies, everywhere. But this movie, probably because of the thriftier budget, just gives us the usual family-in-terror stuff.
Would The Purge have played better for me if it gave more vent to ideas and emotions, and less to ultra-violence? I’d like to think so. But part of the audience I saw it with, screamed and applauded and laughed at that violence, which I thought became boring and alienating. And, though I’d like to think that these moviegoers were responding to, or at least thinking about, some of the show’s ideas too, a lot of them probably didn’t care what happened between the red meat scenes.
The Purge may be well-named. The movie‘s eventually almost non-stop brutality and terror have a kind of emetic effect — which is what happens in most of these pictures. The moviemakers, and they’re obviously intelligent people, might argue that it doesn’t matter as long as the picture works — which is the same argument they give to the fictional government leaders who thought up the Purge and then hid in their own safety zones. Do we swallow it?