'Lazarus Effect' Shows Life At First, Soon Loses It In Daft Horror

Directed by: David Gelb; Runtime: 83 minutes
Grade: C

As scientific research furthers our understanding of the secrets behind the way things work, so too does it provide fodder for science-fiction to explore current impossibilities in more credible -- or, at least, more informed -- ways. That even trickles down to schlocky indie flicks like The Lazarus Effect, an update on the theme of botched human resurrection popularized by the likes of Mary Shelley and H.P. Lovecraft. In the case of this biological horror-thriller from David Gelb, the director of the wonderful documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi of all things, updated scientific gibberish leads into fairly interesting moral grounds as a group of med students "play God" by experimenting with reanimation of mammal bodies, creating an eerily morbid setting as the possibility of applying that research to humans creeps up. Alas, despite a promising start, the film ultimately uses the setting for feeble jolts and the outlandish exacerbation of scientific hokum, devolving into something that's as unscary as it is inane.

In the depths of a medical university, a group of students have been working on a series of funded experiments, appropriately titled Lazarus Project, that have taken them close to solving life's greatest dilemma: bringing something back from the dead. Led by engaged doctors Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) who have set their lives aside until completion, the demanding project has progressed to a degree that they feel comfortable inviting a photojournalist, Eva (Sarah Bolger), to the lab in order to document their next steps. Eventually, they reach success in their experiments, but it comes at a price: the reanimated subjects come back with a hostile temperament. Before they're given a chance to pursue these new developments, the dean of students at their school demands them to shut down the research, forcing them into a rushed situation where they need to duplicate their findings. In the scramble, an accident claims the life of one of the researchers, Zoe, putting the others in the desperate position of testing their work on a human subject to reverse the damage ... and see what state she's in afterwards.

While some might be quick to pick apart the science involved in this resurrection process laid out by writers Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater, the grounded mad-scientist concept in The Lazarus Effect generates a pulse of interest early on. Crafty scientific technobabble finds a way of transforming something similar to Herbert West's glowing green serum into a method that's ... uh, mildly conceivable, while the researchers discuss the breakthrough on philosophical terms befitting more sci-fi tendencies. There's nothing really new in their chats about science vs. religion and the morality behind bringing organisms back from the dead, save an interesting theory about DMT and its association with moving to the afterlife, but it establishes capable B-movie surroundings for an eerie climate. In fact, it would've been preferable to just see these sensibilities extend from start to finish, focused on lower-key, morbid scenarios and conflicts that would've sparked overzealous hubris in some and conservative resistance in others.

Alas, David Gelb and his writers seem to think that The Lazarus Effect required a blatant catalyst to keep things moving along. A contrived mixture of school intervention and corporate maneuverings promptly weakens the film's foundation, relying on a capable cast to elevate the sloppy move through frantic developments. Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde both commit to the scenario and display fine chemistry as the almost-married doctors with conflicting moral barometers -- especially Wilde's handling of the tormenting skeleton in her character's closet -- while Evan Peters and Donald Glover temper their idiosyncratic personalities into credible brainiacs with endearing personalities. Working against the holes that mount up around their availability to continue practicing their research, they all do a reasonable job of acting like intelligent individuals who are coerced into abandoning their intelligence for the sake of a morbid emotional cause. There's only so much that can be done with a comparatively mild situation that must produce a dead body, though, to which all involved are obligated to relinquish their ethical concerns.

Up to this point, most of everything about The Lazarus Effect could've been tolerated had they justified those problem areas with an intriguing climax to their research, but that potential quickly dies once the extent of Gelb and Co.'s real objectives are revealed. Rote jump-scares, nonsensical dream sequences, and profoundly screwy logic transform the film into a zany twist on Luc Besson's Lucy with the "subject" changing into a puzzlingly spiteful antagonist with both psychic and telekinetic powers, armed with just enough unlocked capability to be menacing but not enough to breach the PG-13 limitations on this horror film. As a result, the fury unleashed by Zoe and what she "brings back" from the grave reduces the clever setting from a cautionary tale about science gone wrong to yet another disposable victim countdown in an isolated environment, one where the scares it attempts to deliver never get more effective than a scene earlier on featuring a pig mask and someone yelling "Boo!". Things were far more intriguing when The Lazarus Effect manipulated scientific principles and dabbled in the messiah complex.

Movies I Love: Spirited Away

Hayao Miyazaki's wonderfully wacky and poetic mind had thoroughly explored two spectrums of the imagination before taking on Spirited Away: broad realms of fantasy filled with castles in the sky and valleys of the wind, and pragmatic use of curses and magic in the lives of coming-of-age witches and veteran fighter pilots. The true power of the director's sole Oscar-winning feature, however, rests in how he's able to weave together those two sensibilities, telling a smaller-scale story of a brokenhearted girl who's transported to and lost in another realm beyond her existence. His tale of Chihiro evokes a tremendous amount of emotional complexity and visual splendor within its premise, discovering broad whimsical scope and significant expressions of individual growth within a confined setting that's just as breathtaking as Miyazaki's sprawling fantasies. Bathed in bravura imagery that marvelously balances wittiness and peculiarity, it's a radiant piece of artistry with a strong, meaningful undercurrent that speaks to all ages, easily earning its place among the director's finest creations.

Chihiro's story begins during a car ride, where the young preteen girl expresses sadness over moving away from her prior home and friends. Her parents get lost on the drive out to their new house, taking a wrong turn into the rural outskirts outside of an abandoned amusement park, to which the parents insist on exploring against Chihiro's nervous and emotional wishes. Further in, her parents discover a buffet of food at an vacant stall, proving too tempting of an invitation for them yet not enough for their addled daughter to indulge. Shortly after they start to eat, the abandoned town begins to shift in the gloominess of its atmosphere, transforming the parents into beasts as Chihiro flees from the town's fantastical transformation. Just as all hope seems lost, a kindly young stranger, Haku, offers his aid to the young girl, guiding her towards a majestic bathhouse where she might be able to hide out until they figure out what to do about her parents' transformation ... and how she'll escape the realm.

While oozing boar gods and eerie spore forests created some trepidation in Miyazaki's previous works through disquieting imagery, Chihiro's entrance into the spirit world generates a degree of surreal uneasiness that's far more haunting than anything he'd made before. Grotesque animal transformations, darkening alleyways, and tubular specters underscore that the young girl has ventured beyond a point of no return, a place where her options are limited and her friends are few and far between. That feeling continues as she forces her way into working at the bathhouse -- assumedly Chihiro's first real job -- as she scrubs floors and preps tubs for unfathomably powerful gods, all while staying away from the scornful gaze of the sorceress and establishment owner, Yubaba, in a realm where consuming and exploiting humans isn't off-limits. Miyazaki makes this situation seem hazardous in profound ways, where it's unclear what'll happen to the girl as she interacts with all manner of ethereal, visually warped beings.

Watching how Chihiro copes with her dilemma, both her triumphs and her emotional breakdowns, becomes an exceptionally rewarding and oftentimes tense experience in Spirited Away. In the halls of the immaculately-detailed bathhouse, which brings whimsical beings together with a mysterious but grounded atmosphere reminiscent of an establishment from Miyazaki's past, Chihiro is forced to grow up rather quickly from the dramatically despondent kid she was while riding in the backseat to her new home. In that, the fear embedded in the setting becomes a surreptitious metaphor for coming-of-age and the adolescent fear of transporting to a new place, enhanced by Chihiro's clumsiness and lingering sorrow. She's not a hero, nor does she ever really become one as she works to flee the realm and reverse her parents' transformation, but the way she steels her resolve and responds to the world around her reflects on a different kind of grounded courage that speaks to a wide range of people.

The events that transpire in the bathhouse are utterly hypnotic, a collage of fantastical encounters where it's entirely unknown who or what will slip into the establishment at any given time, or what Chihiro will be required to do to get beyond them. Through the presence of stink spirits, No-Face creatures, and metamorphic dragons, Spirited Away touches on themes built around greed and the deception of appearances, steering the audience through a relatively small-scale and strikingly-illustrated philosophical journey. A constant, satisfying fusion of humor and oddity guides Chihiro through this personal adventure, yet it's not made entirely clear how personal it is until the young girl arrives at its end, armed with everything she's learned in her time in the spirit realm. With the glimmer of a purple hair tie and a look of disbelieving uncertainty on her face, Miyazaki lets a bittersweet sensation hang in the air during those moments where the audience builds their outlooks, an experience which continues to leave me in awe after this capricious masterwork stops casting its spells.

Foolish Playboys, Outlandish Twists Locked Up In Abysmal 'Loft'

Directed by: Erik Van Looy; Runtime: 108 minutes
Grade: D

Five reasonably wealthy, married men decide to pool their resources together and invest in a single swanky apartment for all their extramarital trysts. What could possibly go wrong with that scenario? Any number of practical things, naturally, but a bloody dead woman randomly showing up in their bed one morning probably isn't at the top of that list. Remaking his own quasi-erotic thriller, Belgian director Erik Van Looy brings The Loft to American audiences with a handsome arrangement of new faces for the promiscuous husbands, including Dr. "Bones" McCoy from the recent Star Trek reboot and Cyclops from the X-Menfranchise. None of the talent involved nor director Van Looy's stylish cinematic perspective can prevent this whodunit from getting bled dry of any semblance of legitimacy, though, driven by unnatural suspiciousness towards the guilt of all the detestable guys involved and weighed down by continuously awkward scripting, exacerbating further as the curtain's pulled back on what really happened.

Following a shot of a man plummeting to his death from the upper floors of a high-rise building, something that'll eventually come into focus later on, The Loft jumps back in time to a point where one of the bespectacled owners of an apartment there, Luke (Wentworth Miller), discovers the bloody body of a young blonde woman cuffed to the space's bed. He quickly notifies the other owners, who one by one arrive at the location and account for where they were the evening before, since they never bring one of their extramarital flings to their carnal haven without notification. Distrust and suspicion brews between them as the film retraces their steps back to the point where they all hesitantly agreed to chip in for the loft, an idea brewed up by Karl Urban's shifty glances and silver tongue as Vincent, the architect who designed the building itself. Telling the story of romances with prostitutes, violent altercations with guests, and general rowdiness while intoxicated, they all attempt to figure out which of them bears some responsibility for her death.

Strangely, every single one of the five guys acts distrustfully while talking the situation out in the apartment, and in trying to create red herrings and divert the audience's attention with their universal dubiousness, The Loft renders an artificial and repellent network of mystery between them. Strained delivery of exposition to get their stories straight doesn't really help, flatly emphasizing minor details about times, locations, and items in their conversation as if trying to check off as many covered-up script holes as possible. To compensate for the mechanical delivery of info, this huddle of actors telegraph broad, overdramatic performances that exaggerate their personality types: Rust and Bone's Matthias Schoenaerts dials up his intensity for a coked-up, abusive brute; Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet crassly fumbles his way through an alcoholic skirt-chasing buffoon; and the introverted, voyeuristic tendencies of Prison Break's Wentworth Miller try too hard to make Luke look like a closeted deviant.

It's a stunning loft, I'll give it that, a well-chosen setting for Van Looy to orchestrate something akin to a trashy Hitchcockian thriller, where most of the film's tension builds through showy neo-noirish dialogue within the space and through flashbacks during the guys' recollections. The Drop cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis explores vertigo-inducing angles and claustrophobic close-ups as the characters cover their tracks, which visually reflects how this contemporary "oasis" atmosphere has begun to spin out of their control. So, too, does logic spin out of Van Looy's control, though, marred by supremely obtuse decisions made by the loft's owners and the ways that the break their own codes of conduct, flawed as they already were. The ways in which their keys escape into the wild, crime-scene artifacts get messily handled, even select events being recorded (and not) create an unintentionally amusing series of really doubtful revelations, concealing just enough info to hide the truths of the blonde woman's identity and murder.

Even with doses of limp eroticism, mounting motives, and James Marsden doing his damndest to look the part of a hangdog protagonist embroiled in a sympathetic affair, following the many convoluted details of The Loft becomes a real drag due to its strained credibility and the general disdain it builds towards the five guys. Eventually, whatever curiosity Van Looy builds around the "how" and the "why" of the murder caves into its deliberate obscuring of details, transforming instead into frustrated anticipation of discovering who's responsible and getting it over with. Unexpected as they may be, the answers arrives in the form of a long series of convoluted twists that become more and more problematic with each one, a vigorous but absurd falling of dominoes that leans on the film's nonlinear and secretive tricks like a crutch. If The Loft succeeds in anything, intentional or not, it's in shifting the attitude towards the person whose body slams into a car at the beginning: instead of mere curiosity about their identity, the film makes one actively hope that it's any number of these halfwits.