True story: I have seen a UFO. At least, I think I did. It was the late '70s and I was with my parents at Christmas visiting my Uncle Jimmy and his wife for some holiday cheer and high octane egg nog. Uncle Jimmy was an uncle in the "he's actually just my dad's buddy" sense and he had a nice house located some indeterminate distance from Long Island. I was maybe five years old and my principal memories were the odd front doors with the knobs set in the middle of the doors and the huge scale model battle ships Uncle Jimmy was apparently fond of building.
Not a Three Amigos Sequel. Although that might be more entertaining than Bill Murray in the Charlie Sheen-starring A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swann III.
As we stood in the in the snow, the chilly night surrounding us, just before going inside I looked up to see a circular pattern of multi-colored lights floating silently in the sky. Even then I knew there was something weird about them and I yanked on my parent's coats until I was sure they had seen them, too. Then, apparently, I disappeared. The next thing I remember was being at Jimmy's front porch (with those curious knobs placed in the center of the doors). To this day, I've never been sure if what I had seen really happened.
For the record, I don't think we are alone. But considering the deeply ingrained iconography of the idea of alien life on Earth -- particularly in films -- it has become easier for me to dismiss such notions as fantasy as I get older, which is what makes it somewhat surprising that Dark Skies winds up feeling like a fresh and unexpected thriller. One that even got a bit under my skin.
Lacey and Daniel Barrett (Keri Russell, Leaves of Grass and Josh Hamilton, Margaret) are the parents of two boys who live in suburbia. Lacey is a real estate agent while Daniel finds himself between design jobs -- and doing his best not to stress out as the bills begin to pile up.
Out of nowhere weird shit starts to happen. The two boys freak each other out, talking on walkie-talkies in the middle of the night as the older son, Jesse (Dakota Goyo, Real Steel) tells the younger, Sam (Kadan Rockett, The Fortune Theory) terrifying tales of The Sandman. Lacey discovers the back patio is open, and the contents of their refrigerator have been emptied out all over the floor. The next night, she finds a bunch of kitchen ephemera stacked in complicated, Poltergeist-like arrangements in the dining room. Pictures go missing from frames. Three different migrations of birds inexplicably kamikaze into the sides of their house. The flustered family calls the cops, who have no answers either.
When they start missing chunks of time and Sam reveals he's been talking to The Sandman, the possibility that otherworldly forces are responsible for their troubles inspire Lacey and David to track down a paranormal investigator (J.K. Simmons, Spiderman). Unsurprisingly, he's not the bearer of good news.
Dark Skies is an effective, if workman-like thriller. Written and directed by Scott Stewart (Legion), Dark Skies has the advantage of atmosphere going for it and Stewart deftly applies judicious, slowly building pressure within an unassuming story. There's really nothing here that hasn't been done before -- from Whitley Strieber to The X-Files -- be it implants, bizarre phenomena that haunt the family in a nearly ghostly way (the initial advertising obscures that alien angle, making it feel like a haunted house flick) and the idea of alien abduction. But I like the way he plays with the idea that these phenomena would make the family look crazy (or worse) to friends and neighbors, even in a world where fully 50 million people have claimed to have seen a UFO at least once.
I've told that story at the top of this article before. No one, despite how well they know me, ever seems to really believe it. Yet it's a memory I've never been able to shake off. That possibility, that enigmatic feeling, is part of what works about Dark Skies, too.
Subtle and understated, Dark Skies doesn't milk the jump scares, which makes the one or two it uses really effective. While the story isn't really breaking any new ground, Stewart admirably resists the urge to show too much or explain away the mystery. The solid performances from Russell and Hamilton go a long way to drawing us into their story, which does its best not to have them doing stupid things thus ensuring our sympathy. J.K. Simmons also turns in a fine performance. His sense of resigned compassion added an intangible layer of creepiness to the inevitability of Lacey and Daniel's plight.
It's not scoring points for originality so much as competence. But as a standalone genre flick, you could certainly do worse. Dark Skies sets out to be a suspenseful little thriller, scoring its creeps on pure atmosphere -- and mostly succeeds.
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III
I kept seeing the trailer for A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swann III popping up on of friends' Facebook feeds and wondering why. It almost seemed like a weird form of spam (you know which friends are apt to post film trailers, but this was popping up all over the place). It had a weirdly desperate feeling to it. Like it was already trying too hard to be quirky (and hey, look, Charlie Sheen!); like it wasn't even a real movie. From the cumbersome title presupposing an unearned interest in its existence to the suspicion that it would take itself way too seriously, it just had this bizarre feeling of artifice, which is hard to pull off without even seeing the film. It almost begged the question of who it was for.
Up Past Bedtime. You never know what you’ll find if you stay up too late in the thrilling and spooky Dark Skies.
And now I'm still wondering.
Charles Swann (Charlie Sheen, wearing every bit of self abuse) is a successful graphic designer whose beloved girlfriend, Ivana (Katheryn Winnick, Killers) has dumped him for being a Sheen-like cad. The break-up sends him into a spiral of spite and self-doubt, not knowing if he wants her back or if he can't live without her.
His best friend is a befro-ed musician, Kirby (Jason Schwartzman, Rushmore), who wants Swann to do his new album cover (but his malaise has robbed him of ideas). Swann's manager, Saul (Bill Murray, slumming here) is worried about his own marriage -- he wants to leave everything behind to go to Greece and bone younger women.
Swann begins falling into hallucinatory nightmares about Ivana and his other past relationship failures, bouncing from one weird situation to the next, as if he were on some sort of bad trip that culminates in a Beluga caviar binge -- after he vandalizes the offices of a publisher who refused to print his sister Izzy's (Patricia Arquette, True Romance) latest book.
And that's kind of it. It's as though writer/director Roman Coppola farted out a non-story into a non-movie, relying on the benefit of casting his famous friends and family (Schwartzman is a Coppola cousin, and he's clearly cribbed both Schwartzman and Murray in an attempt to lend a Wes Anderson appeal to the proceedings) to make the whole thing interesting.
But it's not interesting. It instead generates this weird vibe that can only be described as watching what should be a finely tuned engine begin to shudder and throw off a burning oil reek that begs for a kill switch.
Nothing really happens -- nothing funny at any rate -- which is death for this supposed comedy. Sheen, dressed in ill-fitting clothes and seeming just happy to be the center of something, doesn't even appear to be acting at all, instead going through the stream-of-unconscious motions in the threadbare script. It's got the feel of a home movie that is more of an excuse to get together and shoot something that to actually tell a story -- a pretentious exercise in self-awareness that makes its brief 84-minute runtime seem much longer, as it aimlessly plods to a final shot that seems like a self-congratulatory joke.
Why does A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swann III exist? Is it self-parody disguised as art? Is it a straight attempt at quirky comedy that loses its way with an unfounded fascination with itself? Is it just trying to be a long music video with the benefit of a lot of famous faces? Is that pervasive feeling of pointlessness a meta-commentary on drug-fueled narcissism? I don't know.
What I do know is that I haven't been this confounded by the existence of a movie since ... well, ever.
Turns out, there isn't much going on in this movie's mind at all. I'm glad it was just a glimpse.
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