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Sunday
Aug262012

The Apparition (2012)

Mr. Gideon, You're Not Paying Attention!

The Apparition would be almost unworthy of comment, were it not for the cute story of how I came to watch it:

This month, thanks to long hours and project-related stress at my day job, sleep has become an even rarer commodity than usual. Commuting, family time, and household chores also make focusing on movie reviews even more difficult in the few moments that I'm able to get away. So, when this weekend came around, I really looked forward to seeing The Apparition--my enthusiasm doubled when I saw the film's 0% rating on the Tomatometer. After all, the only thing better than a great horror movie is an awful one.

The movie opens with a flashback to 1973, in which a group of scientists attempts to communicate with a recently deceased colleague named Charles Reamer. Out of the gate, I got three hearty giggles of disbelief:

1. Reamer, who is only seen as a sketch portrait, looks to be about eighty years old--as well as a turn-of-the-century undertaker. How he's supposed to be a colleague of this pseudo-hippie brain trust is neither explained nor explicable.

2. Though his last name is "Reamer", we're told that this botched séance would become known as "The Charles Experiment". Characters reference The Charles Experiment throughout the film, but my mind reflexively substituted "The Reamer Experiment".

3. "The Reamer Experiment" sounds like a band I might check out during Pride Week.

Next, we flash forward to a modern setting, in which three college kids attempt to re-create and improve upon The Charles Experiment. Things go wrong again, probably because the lead nerd, Patrick (Tom Felton), has built a device that amplifies the psychic energy of four people to the strength of five hundred. Evil is unleashed, the lights go out amidst screams, and we move into our third prologue in ten minutes.

When young-and-in-love couple Kelly (Ashley Greene) and Ben (Sebastian Stan) move into a new house,* they are plagued by strange occurrences. Furniture moves on its own; locked doors appear wide open in the morning; and otherworldly mold forms in odd places.

At the twenty minute mark, I found myself wondering, "Where the hell is Jeffrey Dean Morgan?" and "Isn't this movie about Jewish exorcists trying to close a haunted jewelry box?"

Yep, in my delirium, I'd confused The Apparition with The Possession, which doesn't open until next week. This realization was profoundly disappointing because it meant that A) my pop culture radar is on the fritz (I'd never even heard of The Apparition), and B) I was stuck with rejects from Twilight, Harry Potter, and Captain America for almost another hour--with no hope of pluck, personality, or scares in sight.

Maybe that's not fair. Greene, Stan, and Felton all do fine in the movie (a genuine shock considering the latter's laughable turn in Rise of the Planet of the Apes), and I doubt they all conspired with director Todd Lincoln to make a wildly conspicuous and not-at-all good non-franchise debut. But because there's nothing else going on in the movie, it's impossible not to think about the actors' other roles in the context of their new ones. From wondering why "Draco Malfoy" was having such a hard time fending off what should have been chump spirits (compared to Voldemort's armies) to fantasizing that Greene is actually Kristen Stewart's illegitimate, super-model sister, my mind went into overdrive trying to compensate for The Apparition's lack of things to get excited about, think about, or even remember from scene to scene.

This by-the-numbers retread has "Tax Shelter" splattered all over it. I guess first-time-feature-writer/director Lincoln's version of a personal stamp is to mash up Insidious with the Paranormal Activity movies. The over-reliance on video footage and endless scenes of characters setting up or sifting through electronic equipment; Patrick's warning to Ben and Kelly ("Your house isn't haunted. You are!"); and the fact that our only glimpse of a ghost hails directly from The Grudge makes me wonder if Lincoln began his career making Xeroxes for Hollywood development executives.

The Apparition's single worthwhile moment takes place in a hotel room. Ben wakes up stuck to the ceiling, forced to watch as the malevolent Reamer (tee-hee!) attacks Kelly in bed. She's sound asleep as the sheets tighten around her, forming what amounts to a human Space Bag. I knew that neither character was in danger--this isn't that kind of film**--but the scene offers a variance in intensity and visual invention that's noticeably absent in the other seventy-three minutes (it almost touches ninety, if you factor in the end credits).

Were I a crass man, I might throw in a nod to Greene's ass, which looks spectacular in panties and short-shorts. But I'm not, so I won't.

By film's end, I wasn't sure how powerful the ghost was or was not, what it wanted, or why I shouldn't think that building a new pschotrometer (or whatever it's called) that amplifies brain waves to four-hundred-thousand-times their average magnitude was a horribly misguided idea. I was left with a handful of increasingly sad and desperate characters looking for a quick end to their misery. Looking at the sullen faces around me as the lights went up, I realized that the only spooky thing about The Apparition is how closely the audience's experience mirrored that of the people they'd paid to watch.

*Yes, it's at the end of the street and the last one on the left.

**Meaning "a good one".

Saturday
Aug252012

Brutal (2012)

I'll Know It When I See It (Maybe)

Watching the first half of writer/co-director/star Michael Patrick Stevens' debut film, Brutal, I found that I shared a lot in common with its most important character: we were both bound to a chair, forced to endure unspeakable, repetitive, and seemingly endless amounts of torture.

The movie is named after Stevens' character, a large, masked psychopath who uses a cheaply made roulette wheel to determine which agonies his hostage, Carl (A. Michael Baldwin), will suffer next. After twenty minutes of extremely convincing fingernail-pulling, gasoline dousing, and sander-to-the-kneecaps action, I wondered if I could survive another hour-plus--and if I'd maybe gotten too old for torture porn.

Before watching Brutal, I'd considered "torture porn" to be an exaggeration, an easy phrase dreamt up by concerned-parents groups to write off the Saw and Hostel movies. Any honest person who takes the time to watch them should be able to distinguish between the Lady Bathory scene from Hostel 2 and, say, George Clooney's interrogation in Syriana: one is over-the-top horror that's not easily accomplished by average people; one is fetishistic in its intimacy, and simple enough to pull off with a rope, pliers, and an off-kilter brain.

Neither qualifies as torture porn, though, because they A) serve their respective films' stories and B) come and go quickly enough that no viewer could assume the overall intent is to showcase mutilation exclusively. Stevens pushes through that gray area, front-loading his movie nothing but graphic misery and sadness. It made me sick and depressed, and I wanted nothing more than to turn it the hell off.

Having said all that, I can't recommend this film enough.

Explaining why necessitates heading deep into spoiler country. The movie will have a limited DVD run in September, and may pop up at some festivals--so you're either going to have to trust me on this, or decide that you don't care either way and keep reading. If you have the stomach and the patience for it, I suggest watching Brutal and then checking back in for my thoughts on one of the most impressive debuts I've ever seen.

Besides a flashback montage and some police station cut-aways, the entire movie takes place in a basement. Carl wakes up handcuffed to a chair, with a sack over his head. Minutes later, he's joined by Richard "Brutal" Lachman, who tortures him almost wordlessly for forty minutes; as the roulette wheel spun by each avenue of pain, my stomach sank at the prospect of having to watch more household items do despicable things. I had the same reaction to one of Martyrs' closing scenes, in which a girl is beaten for days on end, which amounts to what must have been five or ten minutes of screen time; both films stretched the limits of my "No Walking Out" policy.

The first half's saving grace is the mood that Stevens sets through repetition. Brutal doesn't take joy in anything he does, as if he's a good man called to do God's dirty work; we know from some opening-scene surveillance footage that he's been following Carl for awhile, but it's unclear what he did to warrant this degree of punishment.

Things get very interesting very quickly when Brutal's mother (Marvella McPartland) shows up. She drops in just after her son leaves to (he claims) rape and murder Carl's family. Horrified by what she finds in the basement, she tries to free this bloody, practically immobile man. Unfortunately (or fortunately, as we'll soon discover), Brutal returns early and helps Mom get a good look at the guy she's just unchained. On a dime, she morphs from Samaritan to angel of vengeance, pounding away on Carl's chest and cursing him.

Clearly, Brutal's whole family has something personal against Carl. Having seen many of these kinds of movies, I figured Carl must have been a drunk driver who ran ran over Brutal's daughter or something, and was either released from prison early or got off completely. Still, taking a power saw to someone's face seems a bit extreme for a tragic moment of impaired judgment.

Soon, Brutal reveals the truth about Carl, a secret so shocking and weird that I'm still mulling it over. Seriously, if you plan to watch this movie, now's your last chance to look away.

As it turns out, Carl murdered Brutals' sixteen-year-old daughter, Lisa (Annie Molnar). He didn't just kill her, though, he tied her up in his basement and tortured her relentlessly. He went to prison for awhile, but got out, I believe, on good behavior. Back home with his wife and two young kids, Carl resumed a life of normalcy while Brutal's fell apart. Grief-stricken beyond return, his wife, Maggie, (Jennifer Wilde) killed herself, leaving poor Richard to pick up the pieces of a once picturesque, suburban life.

This profound twist casts the whole film in a different light. It's a Rorschach test for the audience's sense of justice: some might say that Brutal didn't go far enough in his treatment of the monster who robbed him of happiness; others might say that it's God's job to mete out justice to the wicked; still others might suggest that Brutal is the hand of God (or fate, or randomness) in this situation.

I prefer the last explanation. I'm not remotely religious (anymore), but it's fun to think of Brutal as an exorcism picture. We learn that Carl is an almost supernaturally terrific actor, playing the dumb, innocent victim roll to a "T". Once all the cards are on the table, his true colors bleed through in an admirable, darkly comic display of villainy. Much as horror movie priests spend hours coaxing demons from the bodies of young girls, Brutal endeavors to bring Carl's true self to the surface in order to defeat him. As often happens, the process of raising the Devil breaks Brutal's already fractured spirit, rendering him too weak to deal with what he's unleashed.

I don't know if Stevens or co-director Darla Rae had any of this in mind when putting their movie together. Like many great works of art, though, Brutal inspires interpretation while also standing tall on its own closed-loop narrative.

It's also very well made. That may sound like a no-brainer, considering the limited cast and locations, but there are so many little details that can derail independent films. The movie's first triumph is its practical makeup effects. Christina Kortumn, Mace Bracken, and Emie Otis make every scratch and gaping hole on Carl's body feel real--which is part of the reason the first forty minutes are such an endurance test. If Stevens and company keep making horror movies, I hope they stick with this talented crew and resist the allure of computer-generated splatter effects.

As for atmosphere, Stevens' DP, Gary Otte, and cameraman Ken Hendricks make Brutal's basement into a minimalist performance space. They focus on just the right things, making the whole production feel appropriately claustrophobic--until a key scene where the characters must appear small before an exaggerated wall showing home movies of Brutal's former life. Legendary composer Alan Howarth's score got under my skin, too, even as Carl's was torn off. Intense but rarely overdone, and interesting enough to carry scenes whose best quality is the music, Howarth contributes a number of great little mood pieces that are as surprising as the screenplay.

Yes, I had a few first-time-filmmaker issues with Brutal, but they are by no means deal-breakers. When we leave the basement, the quality of the performances becomes really spotty. Stevens and Baldwin excel at their game of psychic Russian roulette, and I think the film really should have remained a two-actor, single-location story. The "police station" looks like an insurance office at lunch-hour (which it may have been), and the actors inside play cops like...well, insurance salesmen playing cops on their lunch hour. The film's strong performances shine such a damning light on the lesser ones that I wanted to fast-forward to the next wretched-basement scene.

But asking for perfection in this case is just greedy. As it stands, Michael Patrick Stevens has delivered an uncompromising and uncomfortable morality play that speaks more to the resilience of the heart than the entire Saw franchise--which ostensibly shares many of the same themes. Its first half comes the closest I've seen to torture porn, but at the zero hour it rises above exploitation to become a series of hard-to-shake questions about identity, character, and spirituality. You may lose your soul watching Brutal, but will likely get it back by the end--maybe even in one piece.

Tuesday
Aug212012

The Expendables 2 (2012)

Never Say "Never"

Here's how I ended my review of The Expendables back in 2010:

"Despite all of the recent attempts to parody or pay homage to the beloved over-the-top action genre, the only person who could authoritatively close the book is someone who starred in enough hits and misses in his heyday to truly understand how the form works. Sylvester Stallone has directed the last great action/adventure throwback. His peers need to respect the hell out of that and let the genre die."

What an idiot.

One of the strangest lessons I've learned as a moviegoer is to never underestimate Stallone. My enthusiasm going into The Expendables 2 was so low as to be immeasurable; I figured the Italian Stallion had said everything he'd needed to say about his 80s superstar compatriots' relevance and viability in the Millennial marketplace, and figured the sequel was yet another grotesque cash-in on a summer sleeper.* The truth is, in handing over the directing reins to Simon West, he's helped shepherd one of of the coolest, most unironically entertaining action movies I've ever seen--perhaps the best one.

Don't be surprised at the hyperbole. Everything about The Expendables 2 is severely overcooked. But like bacon in the hands of a master chef, the film finds the perfect balance of mind-blowing flavor and oddly appealing bitterness that makes for an unforgettable meal. From the opening raid on a Nepalese prison--in which Stallone's Barney Ross and his team of mercenaries rescue another mercenary who'd botched rescuing a kidnapped Chinese billionaire--to a climax set at an Albanian airport where even the food court clerks appear to be packing heat, the movie prides itself on providing ridiculous situations that our heroes must fight their way out of. It's essentially the same premise as Part One, but with much of the "fluff" (i.e. story) cut out in favor of colorful, quip-heavy dialogue and beautiful gore mosaics.

You may think me hypocritical for praising the sequel for being everything that the original was not, but I have to admit, I was wildly entertained with the second movie in a way that I just wasn't the first time around. I thought I dug The Expendables, but Part Two is so much grander, so much more sure of itself and unafraid to be loud, obnoxious, and artfully graphic that it makes every other film of its kind seem flat--even one in its own franchise.

The three keys to making big, dumb action movies great are kooky villains, colorful heroes, and action set pieces that flow and engage--even if they're in the service of a weak story. Let's begin with the "Expendables" themselves. In case you're just joining pop culture, already in progress, the series' gimmick is that the titular pack of macho killing machines is populated mostly with 80s action icons and their modern counterparts--plus some pro-athletes thrown in for good measure.

In addition to Stallone, you have former NFL star Terry Crews as the weapons expert; Mixed Martial Arts Randy Couture as a Zen sniper; Dolph Lundgren as the brain-fried loose cannon who spent most of the first movie working for the enemy; and Jason Statham as the cocky, British second-in-command--who's also a whiz with knives. Replacing Jet Li this time out is Nan Yu, playing a Chinese operative working for Bruce Willis' shady CIA agent; she's signed on to help the guys retrieve a digital map that leads to tons of hidden Cold War-era plutonium--more than enough to kick off World War Three.

Our re-introduction to the characters lets us know that they've not mellowed in their old age. Storming into Nepal like an armored legion of cackling jackals, they pulverize faceless soldiers with their custom-made death machines--which have, of course, been decorated with stencilled slogans like "Knock Knock". I'm pretty sure the second word out of Lundgren's mouth is a completely-out-of-context invocation of 9/11, followed by hellish torrents of gunfire.

In fact, Lundgren embodies all of The Expendables 2's improvements. In the first film, he was barely intelligible, as if struggling to find personality and purpose. Here, he plays the "Howling Mad" Murdock role, revealing with each bit of nutty dialogue how smart he really is--even though his delivery is as mush-mouthed as everyone else on the team (seriously, you could experience this thing in a brand-new, state-of-the-art theatre and still swear the sound system is jacked up). Like his cohorts, he's looser this time around: more vocal, more vulgar, and much more like The Simpsons' Arnold Schwarzenegger parody, McBain. Somehow these stupid-sounding sides of beef are really talented, really committed to each other, and really, strangely endearing.

While the dangerous band of clowns are a laugh riot, they must square off against a foe who is as hilarious as he is menacing: the devil-worshipping, arms-running middleman Vilain, played by Jean-Claude Van Damme. Yes, the villain's name is "Vilain". Apparently he lost the second "l" along with his marbles. As played by the Muscles from Brussels, our nemesis is like a glitchy cyborg who's thinks it's Heath Ledger's Joker. Ruthless, twisted, and given to grand, butchered-English speeches that don't make a lot of sense, Vilain is truly one of the most unique cinematic creations I've ever seen. West and writers Stallone and Richard Wenk wisely use him sparringly, letting him pop up every once in awhile to throw wrenches ahead of the brutal climax--much like Khan in Star Trek II.

Much of The Expendables 2 takes place in the Albanian countryside, and follows the team as they track Vilain to the plutonium mine. Their mission is a true journey that takes weird detours, features a surprise cameo or two,** and offers many occasions for the ass-kicking equivalent of musical numbers. As staged, West's fight scenes are a fascinating, Peckinpah paradox: at once horribly violent and beautiful to watch. The cutting between multiple stand-offs is really well handled, and the combat itself--particularly when Statham takes on a group of thugs in a church--is like a blood-and-bones ballet. The movie's kinetic through-line is coherent, even if its actors are not.

I genuinely love almost everything about this movie.*** It's an hour-and-forty-seven-minute cartoon packed with inexcusable behavior, questionable messages about global politics, and characters whose names you'll forget before the end credits roll (aside from Vilain, of course, you'll likely just call everyone "Schwarzenegger", "Couture", "Lundgren", etc.). But one has to admire West and company for pulling off the ultimate cheesy action movie; the best example of great, bad art--which, I guess, raises the question: If it's great art, what's so bad about it?

I had no interest in seeing The Expendables 2. Now I can't wait to see what comes next.

Note: Thanks to the folks at Ain't It Cool News, I had a minor geek-out moment during one of the movie's early scenes. A couple weeks ago, the site announced a contest whose prize is a $5800 Expendables-themed pen. Yep, you read that right. When Stallone's character pulls that pen out at a bar to scribble something on a napkin, I thought, "This is the gaudiest, most beautiful case of product placement I've ever seen."

*Jesus, two bits of alliteration in one paragraph? Who am I, The Riddler?

**The guest stars' identities aren't surprising, as they're featured in the film's advertising, but the way they're used is lots of fun.

***Liam Hemsworth pops up as the sacrificial lamb who contributes nothing besides the impetus for a superfluous revenge plot and a bizarre story about leaving the army over a dead dog.

Sunday
Aug192012

Hope Springs (2012)

Love the One You're With

One never gets too old to learn valuable life lessons. Today, I discovered that when it comes to curing the common cold, DayQuil, OJ, and bed rest have nothing on a solid, cathartic cry. When my wife and I went to see Hope Springs last night, I was exhausted, congested, and only half in the mood for a date night. By the time we left, though, I found that much of the week's oppressive, excess goo had been flushed out--and not just the stuff that belongs in a Kleenex.

The film's premise is sitcom simple: middle-aged Nebraska tax man Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) and his homemaker wife Kay (Meryl Streep) attend a week-long couples therapy session in Maine, conducted by professional counselor and best-selling author Dr. Feld (Steve Carell). Arnold, a grumpy, buttoned-up Golf Channel enthusiast, sees Feld's operation as a New Age scam designed to pit married people against each other and then fix problems that didn't previously exist. Kay views the retreat as a last-ditch effort to regain the happiness she hasn't felt in decades.

If the trailers convinced you that this is another sappy comedy about old people, crossed with Steve Carell's nine-thousandth lovable-sad-sack performance, I urge you to give Hope Springs a chance. I don't have a problem with either of those types of films (in fact, Carell has starred in two of my favorite movies of the last couple years), but I deeply appreciate the sharp left turn that screenwriter Vanessa Taylor takes with the audience's expectations.

For starters, Carell is barely in the movie. His Dr. Feld is a great character, offering what seems like an incalculable number of the actor's patented wistful, supportive smiles and asking pointed questions of Kay and Arnold. I fully expected us to detour into Feld's life, perhaps finding out that the all-knowing therapy guru has relationship troubles of his own. But this isn't Carell's show, and he makes the most out of a supporting role that could have very well been anonymous in lesser hands. He plays the therapist straight but not straight-laced, letting the looseness of his improv comedy roots inform Feld's demeanor without swinging too Cartoon Shrink territory.

The film's second great surprise is its strong indie film vibe. I honestly don't know how or why Columbia Pictures and MGM spent $30,000,000 on an hour-and-a-half drama about two people fighting through a lifetime of repression--but the fact that they did is very encouraging. I found Hope Springs often extremely uncomfortable to watch, as if Jones, Streep, and director David Frankel were holding a mirror-plated time machine up to me at the cineplex. I like to think that I have a great marriage, but in the questions that these rich characters ask each other and themselves, I had to wonder, "Am I as good a spouse as my wife deserves?" I'm not proud of the answer, and am shocked at the degree of introspection that a mainstream, end-of-summer movie inspired in me.

By the time awards season rolls around, there's a good chance Streep and Jones' performances will be overshadowed by those from bigger pictures. That would be a shame. Both are fantastic here, playing not what a Hollywood actor's idea of middle-America married people are like, but rather honest portrayals of people who've let routinized comfort extinguish the passions that once made each other light up. The defeated body language and tamped-down verbal communication are authentic and nerve-wracking, and are sharply contrasted later in the film when Arnold and Kay show signs of improvement. I was frequently distracted by the actors' notoriety, but in a good way: after years of showy roles, Jones and Streep do some of their finest work in this picture by dialing things way, way back.

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised by how terrific Hope Springs is. Years ago, Taylor wrote on the CW TV series, Everwood. That was also a story about people transplanted to a small town, virtually against their will, and forced to work through tough family issues. It was an honest, modest show marked by great performances and only the occasional burst of melodrama. Hope Springs isn't about angst-y teen love, but in a way it presses Fast Forward on a hot-and-heavy young relationship, checking in to see what happens when a couple doesn't do the frequent, hard work of maintaining their love for one another.

In the end, the movie winds up pretty much exactly where you might expect it to. But that doesn't mean it's dishonest about how it reaches the requisite happy ending--or that the journey isn't surprisingly bleak in parts. The climax is so dire, in fact, that I had flashbacks to the junk yard scene in Toy Story 3: even though I knew Woody, Buzz, and the gang weren't in danger of being melted down and recycled into video game console parts, the scene where all the characters accept their fate and hold hands had me wondering if that would be the last Toy Story film, definitively. Towards the end of Hope Springs, I wondered if Arnold truly was an irredeemable jackass, and if Kay had finally mustered the courage to leave behind a decent but unsatisfying marriage.

This would have been a real downer, but when the script switches gears at the zero hour, I didn't feel at all manipulated. It's clear that Kay and Arnold have a lot of work to do, but they're committed to wrestling with themselves in order to fight for each other. Hope Springs ends on a sweet note that's earned wholeheartedly. This movie made my heart sing with a genuine appreciation of my lovely, lovely wife and the grand life we're still so young in building together. Like Arnold and Kay's thirty-two-year-old vows, I, too, emerged from the darkness renewed.

Wednesday
Aug152012

The Hole (2009)

Dimension Film

A black void swirls at the heart of the movie business. Roiling inside it are countless bad ideas for blockbuster films. I imagine most of these begin as earnest pitches that are quickly eroded by the crushing influence of 3D gimmickry, brand recognition, and franchisability. The middle tarnishing ingredient (also known as "nostalgia") is relativley new, but has overloaded the void's capacity--causing a hard, smelly crust of cheap cash-ins to form along the rim.

I'd love to fill that hole with The Hole. Last Friday, director Joe Dante brought his unreleased family horror film to Chicago's Music Box Theatre for a rare screening, and it was one of the most thrilling experiences I've had at the movies all year. Within the first ten minutes, it became clear that all the recent attempts to bottle the magic of 1980s filmmaking have been cheap imitations of the real thing.

Ti West came the closest with The House of the Devil, but movies like Super 8 and Hatchet are fan films compared to the work of an era-defining master. Sure, Dante, Spielberg, Lucas, and others spent a great deal of their careers paying homage to the sci-fi and horror of their youth, but they worked hard to make these quirky passions relevant to contemporary audiences. In Gremlins, for example, Dante's reference to Invasion of the Body Snatchers acts as both loving pop cultural touchstone and foreshadowing--not as cheap padding for a weak script.

Mark L. Smith's script for The Hole is deceptively complicated as well as familiar: A put-upon single mom (Teri Polo) moves to a new, lame town with her grumpy teenage son, Dane (Chris Massoglia), and younger boy, Lucas (Nathan Gamble). She works all the time, leaving the kids at home to get into trouble. Very quickly, they discover a padlocked door in their basement floor. Underneath is a black, bottomless pit, which they explore virtually, by lowering a camcorder on some rope as far as it will go.

They can't see anything in the abyss, but the abyss sees them; soon, strange things happen in their neighborhood. Lucas battles a demented jester puppet scurrying around the house; Dane is haunted by feelings of being followed; and the cute girl next door, Julie (Haley Bennett) has visions of a bleeding little girl with a missing shoe. The novelty here is not in the horror set-ups, but in the relationship between the three young leads. Their quest to solve the mystery of the hole distracts them from deeper, secret problems, and brings them together in unexpected ways.

I won't go any further in my synopsis because you should really go into this movie cold. The film's surprises won't bend many adults' minds, but The Hole isn't exclusively for them. It's truly a family horror picture: one that's safe enough in language and graphic content to bring the kids to, but which will likely give everyone nightmares--or at least make them run for the door when coming up from the laundry room.

Unlike many contemporary horror movies, this one is full of solid laughs. Sure, many of them are cat-in-the-closet jump scares that lead to "I can't believe that got me" chuckles. But these are cool short-hand reassurances on the part of the filmmakers that we've signed up for a cinematic carnival ride: as scary as a demonic, teleporting puppet may be, it's still just a puppet.

Half the film's strength lies in Massoglia, Gamble, and Bennett's performances. Their chemistry is perfect, and I was reminded of how the child actors from The Goonies always seemed like a gang of genuine lifelong friends. Though the characters in The Hole are thrown together, Dante and Smith capture teenage timidity and the warmth of making fast friends. You may recognize more than one emotion from your own childhood--not in anything that's written down, but in a look between actors; in an awkward pause; or in a springy step that devolves into a shuffling walk.

The second strength is the way the movie was put together. It's a hard alchemy to describe, but aside from Dane's Killers t-shirt and the characters' modern wardrobe, The Hole feels like it could have been filmed in 1984. Cinematographer Theo van de Sande and production designer Brentan Harron make Dante's world of basements, diners, and the dimensions below expansive, creepy, and tangible. Watching this film is like reading one of Stephen King's novels about childhood, where the scenery is informed by the golden hues and ink-black shadows of nostalgia.

Towards the end of the movie, we're treated to a fantasy sequence that recalls Dante's segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie, in that most of it was filmed on real sets with honest to goodness props. It's so odd to see a team of artisans figure out how to film bendy floors and disproportionate set pieces in ways that will best evoke a sense of Alice in Wonderland delirium; as an audience member, I'm so used to having these things handed to me through unrelatable digital effects that my brain had to work overtime while watching The Hole: first to take in the action of the scenes, and second to marvel at how the filmmakers achieved their vision without leaning on a "do it in post" crutch.

On a related note, you should know that The Hole was filmed as a 3D movie. I only saw it in two dimensions because the Music Box isn't set up to run the movie as intended. However, the artistry and care that went into creating full audience immersion renders the artificial enhancements practically moot. A couple of the "made for 3D" scenes are unreasonably conspicuous, but for the most part, this thing has an amazing, consistent depth of field that comes across really well in a traditional presentation--largely thanks to the old-school filmmaking techniques I mentioned earlier.

Now that I've gotten all the drooling hyperbole out of the way, let me take a moment to discuss the downside of The Hole: chances are, you won't be able to see it in the way it was meant to be seen. In September, Big Air will release the movie in Atlanta and possibly on Video on Demand. Dante's masterpiece has been in the can for three years, and has failed to get the major studio/distributor push it needs to reach as many theatres as possible.

If there's such a thing as grand cinematic injustice, this is surely it. With all the sequelized, productized, generic, flashy garbage clogging up the multiplex, you'd think there'd be an executive or two willing and able to recognize a genuine hit in the making. Just throw together six of the film's dozen trailer-ready shots and slap "From Joe Dante, director of Gremlins" above the title, and watch the midnight ticket sales go through the roof.

Audiences hunger for new entertainment. Even though The Hole feels like it could have been made thirty years ago, its quality, themes, and imagination are timeless. I laughed, I jumped, I got goose bumps (both warm and icy)--none of which happened while watching Battleship, The Avengers, or The Dark Knight Rises.* True, The Hole is a different kind of film, which is precisely why supporting it is the only way to plug that terrible, black void. If someday you have the chance to see it in a theatre, do yourself--and the movies--a huge favor and check it out.

Note: In a post-screening Q&A, Joe Dante lamented the fact that his entire movie has been posted to YouTube. I mention this by way of a plea: do not watch this movie on-line. The Hole deserves the big-screen treatment; in lieu of that, it should be seen on the largest available TV, in the highest available resolution. I watched a few seconds of the YouTube version; it's small, fuzzy, and completely magic-free. Have some respect for the filmmakers, and for yourself as a film lover, and avoid the temptation. You may have to wait awhile, but your patience will pay off in spades.

*Okay, Battleship was pretty hilarious.