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The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
Shirley Jackson must be rolling over in her grave
It's rare that I will write a review of a TV series before I've finished the season, but there's a first time for everything, and that would be Netflix's adaptation of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.
Seven episodes in and I've found myself not only struggling to finish it, but wondering why they opted to make this in the first place. The answer is obvious. Money, and the ability to cash in on a recognized work of literary horror. And seemingly because showrunner Mike Flanagan needs something to do after Netflix signed him to a developmental deal.
The first episode I forgave because with most television series it's generally the one spent introducing characters and setting up the narrative. However by episode three out of ten things should be hitting their stride, which was not the case here.
Gone is Jackson's tale of a disparate group of psychic researchers investigating the paranormal. Instead they've been replaced by a dysfunctional family who long ago hightailed it out of the haunted abode but now must wrestle with the legacy of turmoil left in its wake.
The characters are connected to the book in name only. The Hugh Crane of Jackson's novel was the long departed deranged patriarch of the aforementioned mansion who tormented his family in numerable ways, essentially distilling their trauma into the walls of Hill House. Here the Crane family are merely transient owners bent on renovating and flipping the property, with the children bearing the names of the book's researchers.
Incorporating a similar plot device to the television series Lost, the show relies heavily on flashbacks. Ironically, this is the only part that works. The child actors chosen are quite good and empathetic, whereas their present day adult counterparts are a group of neurotics whose sole mission seems alienating the viewer.
And as for the chills, yes, they do work, initially. However by episode three they've already resorted to recycling the scares, a sure sign of an uninspired effort.
Curiously, the series has garnered an outpouring of rave reviews on this site, which has caused me to think that most folk have either never read Jackson's vastly superior book, or never treated themselves to Robert Wise's excellent 1963 movie adaptation that is a classic skin crawler (we'll conveniently forget about the 1999 Liam Neeson fiasco).
From the get go I hoped that my initial negativity would be offset by a slow, marked improvement in the story, scares, and characters. Sadly, that's not the case here.
Hold the Dark (2018)
Something incomprehensible this way comes
I've never been overly fond of "art house" movies. I've watched more than my fair share and while I ardently admire certain such qualities in commercial films, particularly in areas such as cinematography and atmosphere, other attributes tend not to blend as well with mass market fare.
Such is the case with Netflix's Hold the Dark, the adaptation of William Giraldi's novel of the same title.
Atmosphere and beautiful cinematography are two of this film's strong points, however Director Jeremy Saulnier and screenwriter Macon Blair's approach to the murder mystery narrative leaves a lot to be desired. In this regard their artsy approach of "let's leave things open to audience interpretation" completely undermines what should have been a crackerjack entry in the mystery genre. Using the magnificent scenery of Alaska as a backdrop, it tells a completely disjointed story of a wildlife naturalist and author (Jeffrey Wright of Westworld and Casino Royale fame) who responds to a written request from a woman in a remote village whose son was the most recent of three children carried away by a pack of wolves to track down and kill the pack.
From there the film sidetracks to Iraq, and then back to Alaska. I won't give too much away, suffice to say up to this point things fairly make sense. It's only when the woman's husband returns home from his deployment that things go squirrely and fast.
Suffice to say that the wolf hunt is jettisoned in favor of a more intriguing premise, but that, in turn is sabotaged by a several WTF moments in the script. After viewing I had no problem inserting various interpretations for events, and the motivations of key characters, but it left me feeling the screenwriter and director were just being lazy and letting the viewer do their job, rather than tell a sound story. If I wanted mysticism I'd read a book by Carlos Castaneda, not turn to Netflix.
There's a lot to like here, but in the end you will probably feel like you've been cheated when it counted most. Watch for yourself and decide.
The Hat Goes Wild (2012)
Flawed, but original
While suffering from a few dramatic flaws that defy conventions of normal behavior, The Hat Goes Wild deserves credit for delivering a fairly original story about a group of English Montreal CEGEP (junior college) students who set out on a wilderness canoe trip only to find themselves the victims of a series of unfortunate events.
Without going into detail, suffice to say that the flaws are those centering around how one would reasonably expect people to react during and after the setbacks introduced by the the film's plot. They just don't ring true. Alas, had the film followed the conventions of normal behavior, the story would have ended well before it began, so I suppose some slack has to be allowed so that the film could unfold.
The biggest flaw, however, is the found-footage approach, with the entire film being the product of a video camera toted by one of the campers.
For one thing, it makes for poor visuals and the film would have been better served by filming it in a conventional manner. Not only that, but the found footage premise is rendered even more absurd as the movie's plot reaches it's conclusion.
The story premise, however, is sound once you get past the aforementioned flaws, and it will hold you to the end.
Super 8 (2011)
So ET and Cloverfield walk into a bar and.........
Anyone familiar with Director J.J. Abrams' re-visioning of Star Trek should, by now, be annoyingly familiar with his cloying love of lens flare. He's even admitted in interviews to going overboard with the gimmick. So it's all the more surprising that in Super 8 – his collaboration with Steven Spielberg who served as Producer – that the icon who gave us Jaws and Close Encounters didn't crack the whip and reign in flare boy.
How much does Abrams love lens flare? Well, If you want to get totally plastered before the first reel spins out, invite friends over for a Star Trek drinking game where everybody takes a shot whenever there's lens flare. Super 8 isn't much different except that unlike Star Trek, you might survive an alcohol overdose until the final act, but all that's saying is that Abrams has learnt to pace himself, from a drinking game perspective.
Seriously, there are entire sequences that break the "fourth wall" by having so much damn lens flare that I found myself wondering why the scenes weren't re-shot. After all, Spielberg was cracking the whip here.
As for the story, without giving away copious spoilers, suffice to say it's what anybody would achieve if they took both men's most iconic films, ET in the case of Spielberg, and Cloverfield for Abrams, and had a team of re-writers blend the two together.
You can read the plot synopsis online, but since you're here, the story involves a small group of kids who, in the late '70s, are devoted to making a zombie film using the then cheap and popular Super 8 film stock. While filming a key scene, they witness the derailment of an Air Force train carrying mysterious cargo. The result of the spectacular crash is that a critter of uncertain intelligence and power is released into the countryside, with the US Army rolling in to contain the townsfolk and generally act as the baddies. Viewers familiar with Spielberg and Abrams' sci-fi and monster flicks can fill in the blanks.
In spite of the hype and the pedigrees behind it, Super 8 isn't a bad movie, but it isn't a stand out either. It's basically like drinking a cocktail composed of the essence of Abrams and Spielberg. It goes down easy but leaves a lingering taste of "meh" in your mouth afterwards. When it comes to cocktails, however, my only lament is that I didn't bring a flask of booze. It would have made the popcorn go down easier every time there was lens flare.
Old Dogs (2009)
Stinks worse than fresh dog poo
To label Old Dogs as the absolute bottom of the barrel would be unfair, at least to barrel bottoms. No, this movie is below the bottom of the barrel. It inhabits that place crawling with ants and earthworms – or at least it should. I've seen some stinkers in my day and this is clearly one of THE worst of the last decade.
Sporting what one would think would be a competent comedic cast consisting of Robin Williams, John Travolta and Seth Green, Old Dogs is simply the lamest of excuses to cobble together some poorly executed and unfunny sight gags that may have seemed like a good idea on paper, but fail miserably on screen.
There's so many things that are wrong with the movie, it's a wonder that it was approved for production, let alone released. Starting from a poor script, hackneyed acting, plot holes large enough to drive a truck through, and gratuitous mugging in just about every third scene, this is a movie that everyone involved should be ashamed to have been associated with.
As a viewer, the least you can do is give this stinker a wide berth. No matter how lousy your life may seem, you'll still be able to find something worthwhile to pass the time you'd otherwise spend watching this crud.
The elevator equivalent of Lifeboat and Ten Little Indians
M. Night Shyamalan is one of those love him or hate him directors for whom there's no middle ground, so it hasn't helped that he's given his detractors a lot to crow about with his recent downward spiral with successively poor to abysmal movies ranging from The Lady in the Water to 2010's biggest stinker, The Last Airbender. It's been a critical pile-on for the one time golden boy who wowed audiences and critics alike with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.
Things have gotten so bad that when the trailer for Devil hit theatres with the on-screen tag line "From the Mind of M. Night Shyamalan", guffaws were reported from audiences and on-line gadflies like Perez Hilton had a field day posting viral videos mocking the promos.
All of which is too bad because not only is Devil a compelling, riveting bit of movie making, but Shyamalan's involvement was limited to writing the story and co-producing, which, given his recent track record, was probably for the best.
Smartly directed by John Erick Dowdle, whose last effort was Quarantine, the equally tight and faithful remake of the Spanish horror REC, Devil marks the first instalment in a trilogy of films dubbed The Night Chronicles, which revolve around the supernatural in modern urban settings (the second film is tentatively titled Reincarnate, about the jurors of a murder trial who are haunted by a supernatural being, and Unbreakable 2 rumoured as the third instalment).
In Devil's case, the plot could easily function as a textbook case of film school 101, tasking a writer and director to fashion a small story, restricted in scope, set in the cramped environment of a stalled elevator. You can almost hear film school professors saying "if you can pull this off, you can do anything". Happily, Dowdle succeeds with flying colours.
Devil is as compelling as the story is confined. It's smart from beginning to end, almost like the hybrid elevator equivalent of Hitchcock's Lifeboat and Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. A disparate group boards a Philadelphia office tower elevator, only to become trapped between floors and mortally victimized by someone among them who clearly possesses supernatural ability every time the lights flicker and momentarily go out.
Don't look for spoilers here as I won't be providing any. Suffice to say that Devil is one of the most smartly written, acted, and directed films I've had the pleasure to enjoy this year.
Who knows, maybe this is the beginning of Shyamalan's road back to respectability. If nothing else, it shows that he still has the chops as a top notch story teller.
The Last Exorcism (2010)
Better title would have been The Last Cameraman, thank God
You've got to hand to demons. The one thing they hate as much as most cinema goers is "Shakes" the camera man. That's about as close to a spoiler as you're going to get when it comes to the Eli Roth-produced and Daniel Stamm-directed "reality" horror flick The Last Exorcism.
Eleven years after The Blair Witch Project and two after Cloverfield tried to breathe new life into the genre, this exercise in faux cinema vérité delivers a mixed bag of results as it tells the story of Reverend Cotton Marcus (Fabian), a Louisiana-based evangelical pastor groomed at an early age to be a preacher of the good word.
Problem is, because Marcus literally grew up in the milieu, at his core he isn't exactly what you'd call a believer. He's more of a businessman and crusader, vowing to save "younguns" from trauma and death at the hands of exorcists by staging fake demonic expulsions to satisfy their skewed state of reality.
His exploits are chronicled by a documentary crew seeking to expose religious fakery in the U.S. deep south, with which Marcus has agreed to assist.
First across his desk is a case of demonic possession involving 16 year-old Nell Sweetzer (Bell) at a small rural farm. It's there that his expectations and faith, or lack thereof, clash as he comes to grips with what may or may not be an actual case of demonic possession, or a psychotic incident.
The promos and posters are deceiving. There aren't any scenes of Nell walking on ceilings, however the contorted poses she strikes were, apparently, quite real and without special effects (think of Cirque du Soleil meets The Exorcist).
The Last Exorcism's basic story is sound, however its execution is undermined by its haphazard adherence to the "found footage" premise, beginning with the camera work. If you tend toward nausea when it comes to jerky, in and out of focus cinematography, stay away. If you believe that "reality" films should stick to a rigid code, maybe this isn't for you as there are enough technical inconsistencies here to drive a cinephile nuts (the use of tension building background music, the sudden on-camera appearance of the sound recording tech, sans recording gear – I could go on). The movie's theological mistakes equally abound, such as the notion that an evangelical pastor would carry a crucifix depicting the image of Jesus, or that like-minded non-Catholic believers would adorn their dwelling with statues of the Virgin Mary, however such nuances are considered "nitpicking" in Hollywood's terms.
While The Last Exorcism isn't a bad movie, it isn't the best horror flick to come down the pipe this year either. It's the sort of thing you might want to rent on DVD and curl up in front of with a big bowl of popcorn, and then, if you really want to be scared, follow it up with William Friedkin's masterpiece.
The Expendables (2010)
Blowed Up Real Good - "sploit" (spittoon goober)
Some movies lend themselves to a review, others don't. The Expendables falls into the latter category, even though I'm going ahead with one anyway. This isn't because it's a bad film, but rather because it's the epitome, the essential oil, the distilled essence (to pooch a host of hoary adjectives) of the action genre, and in that sense, it's a home-run.
It's akin to the 1948 classic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where the bumbling duo are pitted against the biggest bad-asses of the Universal monster stable, such as Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Invisible Man.
Don't let the marquee movie posters deceive, sure The Expendables delivers "almost" every name from the 80's action "classics", but some – specifically Willis and Schwarzenegger – both appear in a single scene, and together at that, with Stallone, of course, who is everywhere. It's clearly little more than a wink toward the 80s icons, as well as the trio that founded the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain.
Insofar as popcorn munchers go, like the action vein it mines, The Expendables is pure eye candy. The movie is tailor-made for the big bucket-o'-popcorn and large drink, leaning back and enjoying the mayhem. Plus the movie features Eric Roberts, who saw fit to also star in SyFy's soon-to–be-seen Sharktopus (hey, there's been stranger career moves).
Yes there are passages where the dialogue appears to have been written by someone (Stallone?) on the crapper trying to pinch a big one, but that's typical of the 80s action flick. Plus the movie manages to make Statham stand out from the crowd as the closest thing to a thespian – and I like Statham so all's good there.
All this aside, there's copious amounts of martial arts Kung-Fu, mixed WWE-style wrestling, MMA beat downs and just plain punch-outs, knife fights, major league shoot outs (the carnage that Terry Crews' warhead gun inflicts has to be seen to be believed), and things being blown up on a truly epic scale.
Honestly? The best, most accurate and true to the genre way to review this film is not to write paragraphs about it, but recline in front of a video camera, decked out in overalls and a trucker cap, chewing on a chaw of tobacco, and spitting into a bucket while saying "things blowed up real good".
Yes, my friends, it's that much fun.
A Pure Popcorn Frag Fest
In the past 30 years (yes, it's been that long) Hollywood has managed to spawn two iconic horror critters, both out of the Sci-Fi mold: the Xenomorph which debuted in Ridley Scott's 1979 movie Alien, and the Yautja, better known as the Predator from the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger film.
Never one to let go of a cash cow, film studios have spewed forth numerous sequels for both creatures, and even brought the two together for a couple of movie frag fests.
Predators, the latest entry, tries to bring a clever twist to the Yautja franchise, and largely succeeds due to some (surprisingly) above average screen writing and a generally decent cast.
Directed by Nimród Antal and produced by Robert Rodriguez, it tells the story of a disparate group of soldiers, mercenaries and criminals who awaken from a blackout to find themselves in free fall above a tropical jungle. Parachutes open to break their fall, but they have no recollection of how they got there, or where they are.
Led by the surprisingly buff Adrien Brody who put on weight and underwent weight training for the role of Royce, an American mercenary, the group quickly becomes the 10 Little Indians of children's rhyme lore, decreasing by one during each action packed scene, except this film doesn't quite follow the nursery rhyme script, with the Earthlings giving as good as they get.
Several cuts above (pardon the turn of phrase) the sequels that followed the '87 Arnie film, yet not breaking much in the way of new ground story wise beyond the big game preserve angle, Predators marks the high point (thus far) in an otherwise dismal summer movie season. Yes it's predictable in places, but it's surprisingly clever in others. Sit yourself down with a big bag 'o popcorn and a large drink, and you'll find yourself sucked into a nice entertaining 106 minutes of intelligent carnage, and everybody likes carnage.
Thought provoking horror at its best
In 1997 Canadian Director Vincenzo Natali's psychological thriller Cube became a minor hit for its innovative story about a group of prisoners who awaken in a cube shaped room with hatches on all sides. Depending on the choices, the hatches may lead to freedom, other cubes, or worse. If you haven't seen it, you should as it manages to be both enthralling and thought provoking. Jump ahead to 2010 and Natali's latest project, Splice, further establishes him as a supreme cinematic talent.
Splice tells the story of two Toronto geneticists Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley) who have built their careers upon creating new genetic hybrids for their pharmaceutical employer, which seeks to patent new medicinal compounds from the organisms. Up to this point their greatest achievement has been two slug-like creatures that seem to be a pair of genetic Fort Knox's in terms of drug producing potential.
Not satisfied with slugs, however, Elsa urges Clive join her in adding human DNA into the mix. The result is Dren (nerd spelled backwards), a curious creature that incorporates the features of human, animal, and fish. Call this an updating of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, for Dren is very much the Modern Prometheus. Played by French actress Delphine Chanéac, Dren is the star of this film. Every bit the monster, she manages to be all at once engaging, sympathetic, unpredictable, and terrifying. Unlike conventional horror flicks in which the creature lurks in the darkness, picking off victims, only to be shown during the final reveal, Dren takes center stage from the moment she's artificially born. Her articulated deer-like legs, scorpion-ish tale, and bird/flying fish wings, while otherworldly, never manage to detract from her human side, which speaks volumes for Chanéac's performance.
Thanks to Chanéac, Polley and Brody, Splice manages to establish a new standard for horror flicks. This heretofore independent Canadian flick (before Guillermo Del Toro signed on and lent his name as a Producer to help with the distribution) has managed to not only elevate the bar in terms of story telling for the horror genre, but shown that compelling and engaging stories can be told within the confines of a so-called "monster movie". Whereas I normally view sequels as mere attempts to cash in on the coat tails of the original, I, for one, look forward to the next installment, for Splice is very much an unfinished story in progress, and we only have Vincenzo Natali to thank for that.
The Collector (2009)
A good film at its core, if you can get past the gore
Trends in Hollywood tend to come and go. One year's fascination quickly gives way to another and so it is that I've found myself hoping that the horror sub-genre known as "torture porn" would hopefully give way to a return to more sophisticated story telling. Yet, while not as prevalent as it was a couple of years ago, I'm sad to say this envelope pushing trend doesn't appear to show any signs of abating.
It's all too bad, really, because many of the movies that fall into the TP category have, at their essence, really compelling stories that find themselves buried under mountains of blood, gore and entrails. The moment the maxim "what's been seen cannot be unseen" starts to compete with the plot, you know the viewer is in trouble.
The latest case in point is The Collector. Originally envisioned as a prequel to Saw, but created as a vehicle in its own right when that franchise's producers balked, this is a movie that has much more going for it than standard horror fare.
It all starts with the premise, telling the story of Arkin (Josh Stewart), a member of a contracting crew renovating a large estate owned by a jeweller. As it turns out, Arkin moonlights as a burglar and sets his sights on the family safe, where he hopes to score some gemstones and help his ex wife pay off her loan-sharks. Expecting the family to be out of town, he returns and breaks in, but while there he discovers there's another intruder skulking about whose agenda doesn't involve mere diamonds, but rather the selection and torture of humans for his "collection" and the family, which didn't leave town after all, is being held at the psycho's mercy. The result being that Arkin must bring all his skill as a burglar to bear to not only hide from The Collector, but in a novel turnabout, becomes the saviour of the captives as he attempts to rescue the very people he set out to rob.
There's a lot going on here to like, from the cat and mouse game played out between the two criminals, to Arkin's navigating the Saw-like traps that The Collector has laid in wait for the family's kids to come home, and his desperate attempts to figure out a way to thwart The Collector at his own game.
Unfortunately the film succumbs to the temptations of the genre, and Director Marcus Dunstan feels obliged to deliver the requisite scenes of gore and dismemberment, much of which is purely gratuitous and not needed given the compelling nature of the plot. While it may be too much to ask that horror films be gore free, when the camera lingers almost gleefully on hooks piercing human flesh, severed tongues and eyes being stitched shut, this is when lines start to be crossed, treading into that queasy territory of quasi-pornographic fetishism.
So this is the dilemma posed by The Collector – an above average premise that sees itself weighed down by excessive on screen baggage. Though what has been seen cannot be unseen, the film makers would have been better off remembering that the terrors the mind's imagination can conjure up from what is left unseen might well have served this film to a far better end.
Date Night (2010)
They should have just remade After Hours
In 1985 Martin Scorsese crafted the superb After Hours, the story of a pencil-pushing dweeb from cubicle land who stumbles into one raucous evening of epic, Rube Goldberg proportions. This is the film to which Date Night aspires, but falls so far short it's a wonder they even bothered trying.
Steve Carell and Tina Fey play Phil and Claire Foster, a nondescript professional couple from New Jersey whose lives have casually slipped into the mundane over the years. They're very much in love, but have had to compartmentalize their affection into a busy schedule that involves work, getting the kids to school, homework, and weekly book clubs.
Life has been quietly passing them by and they've hardly noticed. But notice they do and in an effort to spice things up, the couple pay a visit to a trendy Manhattan eatery where they pooch the reservation of another couple, who, as fate would have it, have connections in all the wrong places. It's from here that Phil and Claire's night begins to spiral out of control in a case of mistaken identity run amok.
Carell and Fey nail their parts as innocent rubes but that's about the best thing that can be said about this tepid affair. The movie plays out as little more than a vehicle for a series of cameos and skits built around such notables as Mark Wahlberg as a perpetually shirtless black ops expert, J. B. Smoove (Larry David's roommate Leon on Curb Your Enthusiasm) as a hapless cabbie the couple literally hook up with, and James Franco (Spiderman, The Pineapple Express) as the low life who got them into their mess in the first place. With so many bit parts relegated to talented players, the story quickly takes on the aura of a script that was cobbled together on the fly, possibly even as the cameras were rolling. The end result is a lack of sincerity and no feeling whatsoever that the story was part of a vision that was created in advance. It's sort of like everyone's winging it, and that's what sets it apart from the Scorsese film it so desperately wants to emulate.
If you really want to see this movie done right, pay a visit to your local DVD palace and rent a copy of After Hours. The time spent with that gem will be far more entertaining than this dreary adventure.
Surpasses the superb original in every way
In 2007 the Spanish film REC vaulted to the top of the horror heap with its unique blend of claustrophobic tension and reality TV format. Telling the story of a ghoulish infection run amok among the tenants of a Barcelona apartment building and the efforts of a first responder unit, accompanied by a television documentary crew, and their quest to deal with the outbreak and keep from being killed, the movie was not only a pure "white knuckler" but the buzz it generated among genre fans made Hollywood sit up and take notice, creating an English-language shot-for-shot remake set in Los Angeles named Quarantine.
I thoroughly enjoyed REC, but strangely preferred the American remake because it stuck to the original's script with one exception – the cause of the infection. The Spanish put a religious spin on the virus that, at the time, seemed like a feeble turn in what was otherwise top-notch story telling. Quarantine eschewed this in favour a firmly scientific explanation which seemed far more plausible. That is, until the inevitable time rolled around for the sequel.
It's here that REC 2 transforms itself into a spectacular piece of scriptwriting, and in a way that could never be emulated should the makers of Quarantine opt for another shot-for-shot remake.
Writer/Directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza (the creators of the first film) seize their supernatural explanation with gusto and transform it into an integral component that lends a far greater depth of terror than could otherwise be obtained had they opted to make the source of the infection grounded in the corporeal world. The end result is a sequel that is surprisingly better than the movie that spawned it, similar to the way James Cameron's Aliens bested Ridley Scott's Alien.
Set mere minutes after the conclusion of REC, the sequel tells the story of a SWAT team that is sent into the sealed-off building to try and find the original first response crew and the source of the outbreak. But all is not what it seems and, as things unfold, this is where the pure genius of the director/screenwriters come into play.
Like the first, REC 2 follows the same formula relying on hand held and helmet mounted cameras which, this time, make large passages play out like a first-person shooter. The movie also includes a number of twists as it weaves the story lines of three groups of protagonists into one. And just as the original managed to put a new spin on the zombie/infected genre, they've thrown huge elements of author William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist into the mix for what must surely be the world's first possessed, infected, zombie, cannibal holocaust (yes, you read that right).
Simply because this movie was made outside of Hollywood shouldn't allow people to think that the Spanish are immune to the temptations of turning this into a multi-film franchise. I felt almost certain that because of the way it was written, it would be neigh impossible to create a follow-up to REC, and I'm happy to say I was wrong. However I once again find myself hoping Balagueró and Plaza will call it a day and go out on a high note. Strangely though, after seeing the genius that is REC 2, I have a feeling I'm going to be wrong yet again.
The Ghost Writer (2010)
Impressive on every level
In 1839, English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the now famous phrase "the pen is mightier than the sword", and such is the essence of Roman Polanski's densely layered political masterpiece, The Ghost Writer.
Based on Robert Harris' novel The Ghost, the story focuses on an un-named hack for hire (McGregor) who is recruited to re-write the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister (Brosnan), who is little more than a thinly disguised caricature of Tony Blair (so close, in fact, that when Harris' novel was released he told The Guardian that he half expected a defamation writ to be delivered to his door).
The memoirs were written by another ghost writer who turned up dead under mysterious circumstances shortly after the manuscript was completed. Through the course of interviews, research, and just plain happenstance, McGregor's Ghost begins to unravel a tangled web of deception and political intrigue that is wonderfully woven and totally engrossing. What unfolds, without giving away too much, is the discovery that the highest political office in the UK may have been compromised, but by whom, how, and to what end is part of the Ghost's richly textured journey of discovery and fear.
Due to Polanski's legal issues relating to his going on the lam to avoid prosecution for the 1977 sexual molestation of an underage girl in Los Angeles, Germany and the Baltic Sea region were used as stand-ins for London and Martha's Vineyard in the U.S., the two locations where much of the film takes place.
With a smart, snappy, dialogue-driven script co-authored by Harris and Polanski, the film is a stroke of genius on every level. From the magnificent acting subtleties by the entire cast, to the framing of shots and the haunting final scene, the film is a testament to Polanski's talent and a fine addition to his canon. It would be too bad if the director's real-life saga were to make this his last.
Shutter Island (2010)
Welcome to the Mean Streets of the Mind
There are two "light bulb" moments in Shutter Island, director Martin Scorsese's psychological thriller. The first goes off early in the film where the viewer concludes the film they are watching is a complete bomb. The second illuminates in the final reel where the realization sets in that one's just witnessed a minor masterpiece in the Scorsese canon, and a movie far superior to the best efforts of the majority of directors working today.
Though it may be hard to believe, Shutter Island careens dramatically from abysmal to genius in a couple of film reels, in what has to be the most astonishingly pleasant about face for a movie since light started being exposed to acetate.
Based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone), Shutter Island tells the story of two US marshals, Teddy Daniels (DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Ruffalo), who are sent to investigate the disappearance of a patient at the Shutter Island facility for the criminally insane, a fictional isolated island akin to Alcatraz, off Massachusetts.
Daniels investigation slowly unveils that the facility is being used as a prototype "black ops" base whereby psychiatrists, building on Nazi experiments, are seeking to transform select patients into "Manchurian candidate" like killing machines.
Yet all is not what it seems and that serves as both the Achilles heel and beautiful lynchpin underlying Shutter Island. No sooner does the story's continual messing with the audience's head begin to grow tiresome, than it suddenly transforms into a splendid revelation, integral to the overall composition of the film.
Peppered with acting firepower, even in its brief supporting roles with unsettling appearances by the likes of Watchmen's Jackie Earle Haley, and Silence of the Lambs' Ted Levine, Shutter Island fails to encroach upon the turf of such Scorsese masterworks as Raging Bull or Taxi Driver, but rather is more on par with The King of Comedy or his remake of Cape Fear for its directorial savvy and acting prowess. Superior to 2006's The Departed, but short of Goodfellas, this is a slightly above middle-of-the-pack Scorsese film. Such is the body of Scorsese's work that even his middling efforts come across as gems compared to much of what comes out of Hollywood these days.
Law Abiding Citizen (2009)
A silly yet enjoyable popcorn muncher
There's no two ways about it, Law Abiding Citizen is a stupid movie. That's not to say it isn't entertaining, which it is.
This is the classic case of a film constructed on an implausible premise, making use of ridiculous leaps of faith, to tell a story that is jam packed with popcorn munching entertainment.
I know it sounds conflicted, but if you can buy into premises that the dead can walk or an alien from the planet Krypton can fly and be Earth's saviour, then turning off the brain's logic switch won't be a titanic effort to enjoy a movie that delivers such a fun ride. This isn't to say that Kurt Wimmer's screenplay doesn't try to provide a plausible explanation for what transpires, but that it's a stretch by any leap of the imagination.
The movie tells the story of Clyde Shelton (Butler), a mysterious Philadelphia electronics hobbyist whose life is suddenly torn asunder when his home is invaded by two thieves who murder his wife and young daughter.
Enter Nick Rice (Foxx), a career-minded prosecuting attorney more concerned with blemishes to his conviction rate than actual justice. Fearing acquittal, Rice works out a plea bargaining deal which sees one of the two robbers do minimal prison time, and the other sentenced to death row. Only problem is it's the thief who did the killing who gets off lightly. Thus is laid the foundation for Shelton's epic quest for revenge, not merely targeting the killers, but the entire justice system which he sees as corrupt.
Director F. Gary Gray (2003's The Italian Job) does a yeoman job ensuring there's a good mix of action and story, and the performance of all involved is capable and adequate. My only reservation rests on the decision to make Gerard Butler speak with an American accent, which makes the Scottish actor at times appear as though he's got a mouth full of marbles.
If you like things "blowed up real good" and have no trouble with plot devices that stretch credibility, you'll find Law Abiding Citizen a fun ride. I did.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
Domestic Hell beats Real Hell
By now you've probably been exposed to the hype surrounding Paranormal Activity, a low budget but critically lauded "mockumentary" horror film that chronicles the hunting's that plague a young American couple, and their attempts to capture the manifestations on video.
Instead of showing you key elements of the film, trailers have provided generous footage of audiences squirming in the seats and freaking out at the scares, all of which is true, yet deceiving.
Shot on the shoestring budget of $15,000 over the span of seven days by novice Director Oren Peli, the movie manages to alternate between predictable, boring, and creepy, with the latter being its only redeeming quality.
The story begins midstream, with couple Katie (Featherston) and Micah (Sloat) having been beset by periodic bouts of things that go bump in the night. It opens with Micah turning on a video camera he's just purchased to try and capture the going's-on on video. Think of Blair Witch meets suburbia and you'll get the idea.
They mount the camera on a tripod in the bedroom and set it to night vision mode and let it record each night's events for examination the next day.
It's during these evening recordings that the spirit becomes most frisky. Unfortunately, this is also one of the film's problems. In the interest of imparting a reality feel to the story, Peli devotes far too much screen time to the innocuous, boring and even irritating daytime banter between Katie and Micah, which is largely filler. We're told early on by a psychic that the entity feeds off "negative energy", which is inevitably followed by numerous scenes of the couple fighting as if Peli felt the scare factor would be upped by devoting 60 of the film's 86 minute running time to domestic hell.
The redeeming factor is in the film's night footage, which is far too short. Peli ably managed to give me goosebumps during the late night video segments, and a few when the couple were awakened as the hunting's were in full swing. While I'm compelled to admire his work in this area, its nothing that hasn't been done before, often to greater effect, in such movies as 1973's "The Legend of Hell House", or 2000's "The St. Francisville Experiment", both of which contain more story and similar frights, without the lousy camera work and constant bickering, which in this case may leave you feeling more sympathetic towards Beelzebub than Katie and Micah.
Trick 'r Treat (2007)
Like giving poisoned candy to a baby - only the baby wants more!
Just when it looked like the anthology movie was dead, along comes Director/Writer Michael Dougherty's Trick 'r Treat to not only breathe new life into this overlooked format, but also firmly establish itself as one of the best films to keep on the shelf and revisit each Halloween – if the folks at Warner Bros. ever decide to release it, either in theaters or to DVD.
Selected to close out Montreal's 2009 Fantasia film fest, Trick 'r Treat spins five intertwined tales featuring an assortment of classic critters and creeps, with each interlocking story carrying its own "Twilight Zone"-type twist. The single constant throughout is Sam (Quinn Lord), a mysterious diminutive munchkin dressed in a pajama jumper and sporting a burlap sack for a head with buttons for eyes, who appears briefly in each segment and takes center stage in the final story.
Borrowing a visual style from the classic EC horror comics, Dougherty deploys vintage on-screen graphic call-outs like "Later" or "Meanwhile" to let the audience know which scenes are running in order, concurrently, or previously in the film's timeline, which comes full circle at its conclusion, ending where it began.
With exquisite art direction by Tony Wohlgemuth and lush visuals by cinematographer Glenn MacPherson (2008's Rambo, Final Destination) the segments tell the tales of a young wife who can't wait to ditch the trappings of Halloween, even though the film's mythology says it's taboo to blow out a pumpkin before midnight; a sinister school principal and single dad with a nefarious agenda planned for trick-or-treaters; a young virgin nervously seeking her first time with her pack of girlfriends; a group of kids in quest of the truth behind a local urban legend; and an aging recluse with a tortured soul who finds his quiet Halloween night rudely interrupted by Sam.
Dougherty, whose last major credit was as co-screenwriter of Superman Returns, invokes a spirit of childhood fun borne from hours spent burrowing through editions of EC Comics, Warren Publishing's Eerie and Creepy, and DC's House of Mystery to create a fun, rollicking ride that is rare in movies today.
The sad aspect of this is that while Trick 'r Treat has been enjoying a positive response from the festival circuit, it's still a guess as to when this gem will be released. While the month of October would be a no-brainer, the movie was originally targeted for a 2007 release, only to see that get pushed back again and again. It's a shame for such a fine film to languish on the shelf, only to be seen by a select few at sympathetic festivals, for Trick 'r Treat is virtually an instant classic of the genre, even if its only audience exposure ends up being via direct-to-DVD.
One word - Impressive
Every once in a while a film seems destined to slip under the radar either by poor promotion or a trailer that makes the viewer go "meh". Orphan is one of those flicks that, while benefiting from a decent studio push, simply didn't impart any compelling reason to check it out based on the trailer, which is too bad because this is actually one tight little thriller.
Directed by Spain's Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax), it tells the story of Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a 9-year old Russian orphan who is adopted by Kate and John Coleman (Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard) , a decision motivated in part by the stillborn birth of their third child.
An oddball from the start, Esther at first charms the Colemans with her personality, artistic flair, and independence, however it's apparent that there's more going on with Esther than meets the eye. She quickly forms a bond with Max (Aryana Engineer), the couple's deaf daughter, by learning sign language, but is resented by their son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) who views her with contempt. All of which forms a basis for familial tension, further compounded by the skeletons of Kate's history of alcoholism and John's past infidelity.
Telling a surprisingly layered story that strays into uncomfortable territory given how it deals with children in peril, the shiniest gem in this entertaining nugget is that of Isabelle Fuhrman, upon whose performance the movie succeeds or fails. While acting is uniformly top notch throughout, Fuhrman spectacularly establishes herself as one of the most remarkable young talents currently working in cinema, and that's a statement not to be taken lightly. This 12-year-old, who had only one prior film credit on her resume, simply blazes her way across the screen in a performance that ranges from sweet to seductive to psychotic. This is her movie and she makes the most of it, and if she doesn't mature into one of Hollywood's premier stars, I'll be most surprised.
Orphan won't win any awards (despite Fuhrman's impressive performance) and might well get passed over by many based on the trailer, all of which is too bad because this is one stray that movie audiences would do well to adopt.
Smash Cut (2009)
Succeeds or fails, depending on your view of schlock
For a porn actress seeking to cross over to the mainstream, taking a role in a B-(or less)-movie might seem like a heaven-sent opportunity, but if your name's Sasha Grey (real name Marina Ann Hantzis), you might want to think twice about appearing in a Lee Demarbre flick.
For the uninitiated, Demarbre is a Canadian film maker whose credits include the cult film Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter, which was shot on a budget of $45,000.
His latest offering, Smash Cut, which made its world debut at Montreal's 2009 edition of the Fantasia Film Festival, is an equally low budget nod to schlock impresario Herschell Gordon Lewis (Two Thousand Maniacs, The Wizard of Gore). While such a film would seem like a natural opportunity for someone from the adult film realm to use as a segue into the mainstream, a later production – Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience" also starring Grey - was released well before Smash Cut, making this look like her second mass market role, when, in fact, the reverse is true. All of which is too bad for Grey, who is the only member of the cast who displays anything remotely approaching acting talent.
The story, such as it is, is thin, and one can suppose that Demarbre was merely looking for a vehicle for tongue-in-cheek humor and gore. A down on his luck director by the name of Able Whitman (played by veteran shock horror actor David Hess of original Last House on the Left fame), dismayed by the critical reception to his cheap films special effects, decides to use real human body parts to impart realism. His first victim turns out to be a relative of April Carson (Grey), a reporter for a local television station. With the backing of her station manager (H.G. Lewis) she sets out to infiltrate Whitman's production by responding to a casting call.
None of this really matters, though, as the film's true mission is to emulate the low budget schlock of Lewis' films, which it does admirably and is about the only critical compliment I can give this film.
Overall the story is poorly executed trash. In keeping with the Lewis factor, everyone involved with the exception of Grey seems to be trying to outdo each other on the bad acting scale. Lines appear to be not merely improved, but takes are used that show actors struggling on the fly to think them up.
Grey, whose acting is wildly uneven, is the only cast member who shows any potential of being able to believably take on a role, whether or not this was by choice or accident, given the atrocious performances turned in by the rest of the cast, is a matter for further debate.
What's unfortunate, however, is that this movie will be released after Grey's performance in Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience", and look like a step down from a promising debut.
What's not in question here is Grey's acting ability, but the projects she chooses to appear in from here on in. Some of this may not be within her control, given her ongoing career in the adult realm, but choosing to appearing a mainstream film that has all the look, feel, and production values of a porn film (minus the sex) can hardly be taken as a wise career move.
An Impressive Debut at Montreal's 2009 Fantasia Festival
Based on the Clive Barker short story, Dread, which made its world premiere at the 2009 edition of Montreal's Fantasia film festival, is remarkable on two fronts: Barker's striking departure from his traditional macabre story lines, and Anthony DiBlasi's impressive directorial debut.
The story unfolds with two college students, Steve (Twilight's Jackson Rathbone) and Quaid (Shaun Evans), agreeing to work together to create a documentary of people's innermost fears. The two put out a call for candidates and document their interviews on video.
An expert manipulator, Quaid is able to coax these troubled souls into revealing their innermost demons; deeply personal revelations they would otherwise never dream of discussing in public, much less on camera. Meanwhile Quaid harbors deep seated psychological scars of his own, having been a childhood survivor of the brutal home invasion axe slaying of his parents at the hands of a mysterious psycho.
Espousing the belief that by confronting one's ultimate fear an individual will either overcome their phobia or be consumed by it, Quaid convinces the more demure Steve, and friends Cheryl and Abby to participate in the study. Unknown to everyone involved, however, is Quaid's desire to take things to the next level, progressing beyond mere interviews to the actual physical and psychological nightmare of tackling their fears head on.
DiBlasi displays a remarkably talented hand at spinning a yarn that incorporates introspective, character-driven drama and some spectacularly jolting and emotionally moving sequences. While deviating out of necessity from the plot structure of Barker's original story, which didn't provide much "meat" for a feature length film, Barker equally deserves kudos for providing DiBlasi with a twisted tale that is firmly rooted in the real world, where human cruelty is infinitely more tangible and terrifying than anything the supernatural can invoke.
Led by Rathbone and Evans, the young cast turns in uniformly strong, nuanced and intensely emotional performances not typically found in this genre. Among the standouts is Hanne Steen, who plays Cheryl, a friend infatuated with Steve who bears the curse of a disfiguring skin pigmentation that covers a third of her face and body. Steen deftly manages to convey her character's sensitivity and long held pain in a manner that the viewer can readily attune to, earmarking her as a future talent to watch.
As debuts go DiBlasi's Dread is as solid, slick, engaging and thought provoking as it is terrifying, making this a must see, not merely for fans of the genre, but anyone with untold skeletons in their closet.
Fantasia Fest 2009's potentially brightest promise, or biggest dud
Screened at the 2009 edition of Montreal's Fantasia Film Festival and based on his critically lauded horror short of the same title, Grace sees Director/Screenwriter Paul Solet expand his nightmarish ode to motherhood to feature length with unfortunate results.
Evil babies aren't new to the horror genre, but those quick to assume Grace is yet another knock off of 1974/2008's "It's Alive" would largely be wrong. Eli Roth protégé Solet valiantly tries to steer the story into nuanced territory that combines pathos with dark humor as he spins his yarn about a young couple desperate for a child only to find themselves beset by tragedy and circumstance. Jordan Ladd (the daughter of former Charlie's Angel Cheryl Ladd) and Stephen Park play Madeline and Michael Matheson, a prototypical yuppie pair of granola crunchers who are nominal vegans, drink soy milk, scrupulously compost and generally pay lip service to being environmentally friendly.
They're also desperate to start a family but have only been rewarded with broken hearts as two previous attempts ended in miscarriages. Like the old cliché goes, however, three's a charm as Madeline's third pregnancy sails smoothly through the most dangerous gestational periods and things look like their dreams will finally come true. That is until fate throws them another curve-ball forcing Madeline to make the emotionally crippling choice of aborting or bringing to term a stillborn infant.
There's some interesting themes being explored here; more than you'd expect from the horror genre, and to his credit, Solet delivers several unexpected non-gratuitous hair-raising jolts along the way – sure signs of an up and coming talent. Unfortunately, he drops the ball by the third act, resorting far too often to the use of gratuitous quantities of blood (although the movie is surprisingly gore free) to the point where Madeline is perpetually doused with the stuff.
He also lets things slip by the way he scripted the character of Madeline's intrusive, manipulating and obsessive mother-in-law (Gabrielle Rose), which never seems to work. As a foil, she's needed to push the plot along, but instead brings to the story a disconcerting element akin to stumbling upon twisted Internet porn. While the mother-in-law character is the vehicle for the movie's darkest humor, the squeamish ooh's and ahh's mixed in with the laughter during its Fantasia Festival screening confirmed my suspicions that, like myself, much of the audience found this an unnecessary and inappropriate portrayal of a motivationally needed character.
While Grace can be lauded for aiming high, it ultimately misses its mark quite low, slipping by film's end to "It's Alive" territory which is all too unfortunate, given the promise it initially held.
Small in scope, Grandiose in concept
While book racks are brimming with thought provoking, high concept science fiction, the movie genre tends to be populated by invading aliens, intergalactic wars, and adventure, which makes Director and co-writer Duncan Jones' Moon that much more of an oddity.
Not since Steven Soderbergh's much overlooked 2002 rendition of Stanislaw Lem's Solaris has a movie firmly rooted in the sci-fi realm delivered reflections on the human condition, which Moon does deftly.
It tells the story of Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the only inhabitant of an automated lunar mining base extracting Helium-3 from lunar rocks to be shipped back to Earth to fuel the energy starved planet.
Sam's isolated three year posting is about to come to an end and he longs to return to Earth to see his wife. His only company throughout this sojourn has been that of Gerty, the base's HAL-like robot voiced by Kevin Spacey. Unfortunately, the final weeks and days are proving to be the most difficult, and Sam finds himself going a bit squirrelly, leaving both he and the audience to wonder if what's unfolding is actually happening, or merely a drama taking place in his addled mind.
That's about as much plot detail as I'm going to deliver, for to delve any deeper into the story would give too much away. Be prepared, however, for a thought provoking narrative that touches on issues such as scientific ethics, corporate greed, human identity, and compassion.
There are no aliens, lasers/phasers, wormholes, warp engines or jump drives here, just a lonely space age concierge, an unflappable monotone robot, and a whole lot of fodder for your brain to chow down on.
This is what science fiction was meant to be.
Whatever Works (2009)
If ever a movie could be described as an allegorical rendition of a director's life, Whatever Works just might top the list.
Marking Woody Allen's return to his native New York City after a four picture hiatus in Europe, the movie tells the story of Boris Yellnikoff, played by Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm), the only actor working in Hollywood today who most closely approximates Allen himself in look, mannerisms, and philosophical outlook. Afflicted by numerous neuroses, Boris has become the ultimate pessimist, seeing life as one long water slide ride into an eventual cesspool. So bleak is his outlook that he becomes convinced that suicide is the only option, but even that cheap out fails him.
Fed up with the world, Boris turns his back on much that society has to offer, instead spending his days teaching chess to kids while publicly humiliating them at every opportunity. Yes, Boris isn't a happy camper, and takes pride in it. The fact that he's managed to maintain a core of four friends is a miracle in and of itself.
Then one day fate causes him to cross paths with Melodie St. Ann Celestine (played by the delightful Evan Rachel Wood), a country bumpkin runaway from the backwoods of Louisiana. She is Jethro Bodine to Yellnikoff's Einstein. A complete intellectual and generational opposite. Love at first sight it isn't, but given the axiom that opposites attract, Boris soon finds himself falling for the much younger siren (cue the Allen parallels).
While some critics have complained that much of the dialog comes across as stilted and unnatural (which it does), Whatever Works unravels more like a stage play than real life, which, I think, is how Allen meant it. As writer and director, he has lots to say here and refuses to allow such trivialities as natural delivery stand in the way. This isn't to say that the performances are wooden, but rather that nobody talks like Yelnikoff in real life, and I'm good with that. What's important here are the ideas, constructs and situations that Allen infuses in his characters.
Interestingly, while much of the movie's theme focuses on the serendipity of life, and thumbs its nose at the divine, the film can easily be viewed from both the atheistic and spiritual viewpoint, particularly given how events unfold in a seemingly manipulated manner.
While not Allen's finest work, Whatever Works will appeal to those who enjoy a light romantic comedy, particularly one that provokes a few sparks from our grey matter, while delivering its laughs.
Public Enemies (2009)
Orchestral gun play by Michael Mann
Public Enemies reaffirms Michael Mann as one of the true auteur directors of this generation. Easily duking it out with 2004's Collateral for second place in the Mann canon, it falls short of his 1992 masterpiece Last of the Mohicans, which I hold in regard as one of the five best movies ever made.
While Mohicans has left Mann with very large shoes to fill, Public Enemies sees Mann return to elements which worked to perfection in the earlier film, seemingly using it as a template to re-attain past glory.
Based on Bryan Burrough's non-fiction book "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34", it tells the depression-era tale of the virtual blood feud between FBI special agent Melvin Purvis (Bale) and John Dillinger (Depp), and to a lesser extent other gangsters like Baby Face Nelson (Graham), Pretty Boy Floyd (Tatum) and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (Ribisi).
With the exception of Nelson, Mann relegates the others to little more than filler material to illustrate the world in which Dillinger moved. Capone henchman Frank Nitti (Camp) even makes a few appearances for good measure. None of this amounts to much as it's the manhunt involving Purvis and Dillinger which takes center stage.
Facing mounting pressure by nascent FBI director and architect J. Edgar Hoover (Cudrup), Purvis, whose entire career is on the line, revolutionizes detective practices by calling upon the latest technological advancements (archaic by today's standards) such as wiretaps, vinyl recordings of telephone conversations, early forensics and the like to track the nation's criminal prey.
Depp's Dillinger is portrayed as a principled gangster who eschews robbing the common man in favor of large banks, and restrains from excess violence, unlike fellow gangster Nelson who is portrayed as an unhinged psychopath.
Dillinger's Achilles Heel in this story is former coat check girl Billie Frechette (Cotillard), his love who is exploited by the FBI in their quest to track the charismatic hood.
Under Mann's guidance, Depp is allowed to bring his full range of talents to bear in his portrayal of Dillinger, alternately showing the character's ruthlessness, gentlemanly, egalitarian, brazen and egotistical nature. It's a tour-de-force by Depp that doesn't for one second come across as an actor pulling out all the stops.
In keeping with the gold-standard artistic template Mann first established with Last of the Mohicans, he makes copious use of a hypnotic orchestral score by Elliot Goldenthal, which evokes strong similarities to the Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones opus that drove Mohicans. And, like many of Mann's films, the film is populated by several extended sequences with little dialog, copious violence, and entrancing orchestral music – all Mann trademarks, and all signs that you're watching a movie created by a truly talented director who knows how to deliver the perfect cinematic blend between artistry and commercialism.