|Films I Neglected To Review: Kids Conjure Up The Deadliest Apparitions!
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "The Djinn," "Oxygen," "Profile" "Timecrafters: The Treasure Of Pirate's Cove."
As the new horror film The Djinn begins, Dylan (Ezra Dewey), a 12-year-old mute boy who is still reeling from the recent death of his mother, is moving into a new home with his deejay father (Rob Brownstein). When his father is forced to leave him alone on their first night in order to take a graveyard shift at the station, Dylan begins rummaging around the belongings left behind by the previous owner. One of them is a book of occult spells that contains an incantation designed to give the summoner one wish. The spell itself is easy enough to cast--light a candle, spill a couple of drops of blood--and Dylan makes wishes to be granted "a voice." Unfortunately, there is a lot of fine print that Dylan neglected to read, specifically the portion that says that the only way the wish can be granted is if the person manages to survive an entire hour with the powerful titular demon--one that can assume many forms and is not playing around--and blow out the candle at the stroke of midnight. Unable to escape the house, Dylan is forced into an increasingly violent battle with the djinn, who will do anything, including exploiting Dylan's recent anguish involving his mother, to stop and claim him as he has so many others.
In setting up their movie, the filmmaking team of David Charbonier and Justin Powell have created a number of potential hurdles for themselves--a horror film centered on a mute child that is set entirely in one location, contains virtually no spoken dialogue once the father character leaves for work and is meant to be genuinely scary and not just kid-movie scary. Just one of those elements would be enough to stymie a number of filmmakers and they manage to handle them effortlessly. While the film is not particularly gory--not that it skimps on the violence when it does crop up from time to time--it is still a pretty intense ride from start to finish as they make effective use of the basic concept, Dylan's muteness and the limited location in order to turn up the tension to an almost astonishing degree while trimming away all the possible narrative fat. They also get a very strong performance from Dewey as Dylan, which is all the more impressive considering that pretty much the entire enterprise is hanging on his shoulders. Although it is being pitched as a midnight movie enterprise for hardcore horror buffs, this would be a perfect pick for younger viewers who are just getting interested in the genre and who are looking for a film that doesn't contain a lot of gore. Those viewers will no doubt get caught up in the thrills offered by The Djinn and may even find themselves jumping in their seats at some of the more effective shocks on display. That said, even genre fanatics may find themselves surprised by just how well-made and genuinely creepy it is.
As faithful readers may have noticed over the years, I am not a fan of French horror filmmaker Alexandre Aja, the director of such ugly, brutal and irredeemably stupid films as High Tension, the loathsome remake of The Hills Have Eyes and others (I did sort-of like his 3-D remake of Piranha when I saw it but that may have been due to it just not being quite as lousy as I expected it to be.) With his latest effort, Oxygen, he has moved away from straightforward horror and the result is a film that is arguably his most accomplished work to date without ever quite crossing over into actually being good. Essentially a cinematic version of one of those escape room deals, the film begins with a woman (Melanie Laurent) waking up in a mysterious chamber with no memory of who or where she is or how she got there and an oxygen supply that is at 33% and dwindling. There is an onboard computer, dubbed M.I.L.O (Mathieu Amalric), that serves as the artificial intelligence running the chamber but who cannot release the woman and can only answer questions that are both authorized and asked in a precisely worded manner. Eventually the woman is able to figure out that her name is Liz, she is/was a renowned scientist and she appears to be in a malfunctioning cryogenics chamber. With time and air running out, Liz tries to figure out ways to work around M.I.L.O.'s restrictions and contact the outside world before it is too late, only to make a number of startling discoveries along the way.
Well, the discoveries are clearly meant to be startling, I suppose, but Christie LeBlanc's screenplay turns out somewhat less than impressive in this regard--the red herrings thrown in along the way are not particularly effective and only serve to delay the increasingly obvious after a while. Aja lends a slick, if ultimately anonymous, style to the proceedings that is effective in the early going but finds himself at a loss as to what to do in the later scenes--his penchant for brutal mayhem comes out only in the moments in which a needle pops out of nowhere from time to time in an attempt to give Liz an unwanted sedative. As Liz, Laurent delivers a good and focused performance that, like her character, unfortunately has nowhere to go after a while. Oxygen is competent enough on some fundamental level and it didn't leave me sickened and/or annoyed in the manner of previous Aja excursions. However, I suspect that when it is all done, you will be thinking more about the many other films that have tackled the basic ideas presented here in a more satisfying manner than you will of this one.
Oxygen is dumb, but at least it is dumb in a relatively inoffensive manner--it is simply too innocuous to get particularly worked up over. That is not the case with Profile, a deeply irritating mess in which filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov, the once-interesting director of such cheerfully over-the-top spectacles as Night Watch (2004), Day Watch (2006) and Wanted (2008), takes a serious subject--the rise in cases involving young Western women who are lured via online recruitment to abandon their lives and go to Syria in order to become the brides of ISIS members--and transforms it into a dunderheaded would-be thriller that is further undone by a particularly annoying stylistic gimmick. Amy Whittaker (Valerie Kane) is an ambitious British freelance journalist who hits upon the idea of creating a new online profile of a new and naive Muslim convert in the hopes of attracting the attentions of an ISIS recruiter. Approximately 70 seconds after posting her fake profile, she is contacted by Bilel (Shazad Latif), a hunky, British-born ISIS recruiter who immediately begins wooing her with a combination of promises of personal freedom in the paradise of Syria, cat gifs and the occasional decapitation video. Although it is evident that the extent of Amy's research prior to embarking on this was studying makeup tutorials to help her try to look younger than she is, her opportunistic editor (Christine Adams) gives her the okay to go ahead with the investigation. Thus begins a sort of cat-and-mouse game in which Amy tries to pull information out of Bilel without letting on who she really is and there is the additional danger that she may herself be succumbing to the very same recruitment tricks and gambits that she is supposed to be exposing.
While there are a lot of problems with Profile, I will focus only on the two key ones that essentially sink the entire enterprise. The first is that for all of her intrepid spirit and ambition, Amy never comes off as anything other than a nitwit whose combination of naivety and stupidity undermines the story at every turn. What makes this approach towards journalism as a whole--Amy's editor also veers between coming across as stupid and craven from scene to scene--especially bizarre is that the film is ostensibly inspired by In the Skin of a Jihadist, a book chronicling the experiences of real-life French journalist Anna Erelle who did something similar, though hopefully not too similar. The other problem is that, in the manner of such recent Bekmambetov productions as Unfriended (2014), Unfriended: Dark Web (2018) and Searching (2018), the entire film is presented from the perspective of Amy's laptop screen, which shows everything from her FaceTime calls with Bilel to text messages to her desperate attempts to google basic facts about ISIS and the even-more-important topic of "How to Make Someone Fall in Love with You." (If this all seems a little dated, bear in mind that this film has been siting around since 2018.) By taking a significant and scary topic like the one found here and then essentially reducing it to fodder for a gimmick film, Profile becomes the kind of rotten endeavor that is not only stupid but which leaves a bad taste in your mouth afterwards.
When sending me the review link for Timecrafters: The Treasure of Pirate's Cove, the film’s publicist recommended that I watch the film through "7-year-old eyes” and compared it in part to The Goonies. Considering both the kind of films that I was attempting to watch when I was 7 and the fact that I have loathed The Goonies ever since I saw it the weekend that it opened, I suppose those may not have been the wisest recommendations but I certainly wasn't going to say anything. After all, when someone asks if you would like to see a movie about time-traveling pirates co-starring the likes of Malcolm McDowell and Denise Richards, you say "Yes!" As it turns out, the film--in which a group of goofy pirates, led by Pistol (Eric Balfour), through events to complicated to recount here, rebelling against their vicious captain (McDowell), going off on their own in a mysterious vessel in search of treasure and enter a vortex that zaps them 300 years into the future into the modern-day down of Pirate's Cove. There, they are mistaken for a group of actors hired by the town for the annual pirate pageant and when they realize that the treasure map has been taken by a group of young kids, one of whom is the son of the show's widowed director (Richards), they decide to carry on with the ruse in the hopes of finally getting their hands on the treasure before the children do.
Even without the advanced warning, there is no way that I would mistake a film like Timecrafters for serious-minded adult fare (though the notion of an R-rated time-traveling pirate movie starring the likes of McDowell and Richards does have a certain appeal) but even after applying those dialed-back standards, this film is pretty weak sauce. Rather than The Goonies, the film feels more like a combination of A Talking Cat!?! and The Pirate Movie without the quiet dignity demonstrated by either of those classics. This is one of those dopey confections that parents convince themselves that kids want to see because it is fast and noisy and filled with slapstick silliness while forgetting just how bored they were by similar films when they were kids themselves. The story is dumb, the humor is deadly, the sentimental stuff about the one kid's long-vanished father is laughable, the special effects are on the level of a Windows 95-era screensaver and the whole thing moves so slow that it feels as if the 300 years are passing in real time. As for the name stars, it is always fun to watch McDowell snarl but he is barely in the thing, popping up only at the beginning and the ending. Richards has more of a presence but she has little to do other than smile warmly at her child, smile in confusion at the time travelers try to figure out our modern ways and smile forlornly when thinking of her missing husband. (If you are hoping against hope that the film, possibly in an effort to entertain fathers or older brothers who might get roped into seeing this, might offer the sight of her dressed as a pirate wench, you may as well begin saying an anguished "Aargh!" right now.) Little kids--very little--might be mildly amused by the ensuing nonsense, though I confess that if a child of mine watched it and claimed it to be great, I am certain that I would quietly be very disappointed with them.
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originally posted: 05/15/21 00:33:06
last updated: 05/15/21 00:48:23