Reel Opinions


Friday, October 30, 2009

Amelia

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If Amelia does not completely work, it's not for lack of trying. This is a well-made film, with lots of beautiful shots and sequences. The sets and costumes are first rate, and the performances are memorable, especially the lead role from Hilary Swank. Her depiction of legendary female aviator, Amelia Earhart, instantly grabs our attention. She's spirited, lively, and manages to command every scene she's in. It certainly helps that she looks an awful lot like the real person, too. Her performance alone is enough to recommend the film.

picBut it's a reserved recommendation, due to the fact that the screenplay feels very pat and underdeveloped. In trying to tell the life story of Earhart (which was tragically and mysteriously cut short when she seemingly disappeared without a trace as she attempted to fly around the world), screenwriters Ron Bass (Snow Falling on Cedars) and Anna Hamilton Phelan (Girl, Interrupted) go for a very fragmented and "connect the dots" style of storytelling. We're kept at a constant distance from the characters, many of whom seem to fade in and out of the narrative with little rhyme or purpose. The movie works solely because of what's on the screen, not what's on the page. Were it not for Swank, Earhart would probably come across as being quite boring, as we learn so little about her. Aside from a brief flashback early on where we see Amelia as a child watching a plane fly overhead, and the fact that her father was an alcoholic, we learn nothing about her personally. The film kicks off with her already as an established pilot, and approaching publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere) to fly across the Atlantic, and write a book about it.

picAmelia is upset to learn that the flight is more or less a publicity stunt. She won't actually be flying the plane, she'll be a passenger, but will take all the credit, and will then write a book about her experiences. Not long after the successful and historic flight, George begins to act more interested in Amelia personally, and even asks her to marry him. The problem is these scenes seem to come out of nowhere. We have no lead in to the relationship between the two, so it feels forced and artificial when she eventually accepts, like the script is just trying to move things along. Once again, it is the performances that save the day. Gere and Swank manage to salvage the imperfect material they've been given, and create some real chemistry together. You can only wonder what they could have done if their characters and their relationship were actually fleshed out. Amelia gains fame, and becomes even more famous when she actually does fly across the Atlantic solo and without assistance. The movie plows through Amelia's newfound fame, and begins to suggest a rift forming between Amelia and George. She thinks he's only interested in her public image and making money for them. This should have more dramatic weight than it does, but the movie treats it with such a timid manner.

picPerhaps the relationship between Amelia and George would have had more weight if director Mira Nair (Vanity Fair) had not removed a crucial character, that of George's first wife, Dorothy Binney. It's been reported that actress Virginia Madsen played the character in earlier versions of the film, but she's been cut completely from the theatrical release, and no mention of her is ever made. What we do get is a potential affair between Amelia and the charming Gene Vidal (Ewen McGregor), a single father who catches Amelia's attention at a party, and their relationship grows, as she bonds with both him and his young son (William Cuddy). Once again, I was frustrated by how shallow the relationship comes across. There are hints that his boy brings out a maternal quality to Amelia that she can't have with George (why they can't have kids themselves, the movie never explains), but other than that, the attraction seems completely physical and hollow. Once again, we find ourselves at a distance, and not caring as much as we should. The love triangle that is supposed to provide the dramatic tension for most of the movie is so muted, it's impossible to truly feel anything.

picIt's an unfortunate problem that carries throughout Amelia, and makes what could have been an unforgettable epic into an enjoyable, but middle of the road bio-drama. As much as I was enjoying the performances of the lead stars, and the obvious effort that went into the sets, costumes, and special effects, I was never completely involved. It's hard to become involved when the characters are either thinly developed, or completely forgotten about. A good example is a young teenage pilot named Elinor Smith (Mia Wasikowska), who approaches Amelia early on, hoping to learn from her, and maybe surpass her. The scene sets her up to be an important part in the story, but she only appears in two or three other scenes after that, and she never manages to play any real part in the film itself. The movie forgets about her. Oddly enough, the one time we do care about the characters, the movie's almost over. It occurs during a scene late in the film, when Amelia and George are talking to each other over the radio the night before her fateful flight. Watch this scene, and you can definitely feel some emotion both in the performances of Swank and Gere, but also in their dialogue. If stuff like this had come earlier in the movie, I'd be giving it a more enthusiastic recommendation.
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Looking back over this review, I've probably made it sound a lot worse than it actually is. Besides the performances, there are some stunning stand-alone scenes, the main standout being a beautiful sequence where Amelia takes First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (Cherry Jones) on a night time flight over Washington D.C. It's scenes like this that make you wish Amelia was a better movie than it is. You can constantly see greatness within its grasp, but it oddly decides to shy away. Still, the way the movie handles the inevitable ending is done very well. It's mysterious and heartfelt. If the movie had spent even more time with the characters, the ending probably would have stood out even more.

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Michael Jackson's This Is It

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Much like the man himself, This Is It will be a very polarizing experience for audiences. Those who were grief stricken with the sudden and unexpected death of the King of Pop on June 25th of this year will no doubt be overjoyed to get one last glimpse of the man in action. It's likely to be a joyous and sad experience all at once, and will most likely resonate with them. There's a reason why the words "For the Fans" appears before the movie even starts.

picI'll admit up front, this movie was not made for me. I acknowledge Jackson's place in music history, and am all too willing to admit his talent, and the fact that he was a master showman. There is no doubt of this while you're watching the film. All the reports of him being sick and frail during his final days pretty much fly out the window when you watch the rehearsal footage that has been collected of what was supposed to be both his grand comeback and his farewell tour. He's dedicated to his music, and to giving his fans a show they most likely wouldn't forget had they gotten a chance to see it. We get to see glimpses of what Jackson had planned, including elaborate film sequences, one of which inserts Jackson into clips from famous black and white gangster films, as a set up to his "Smooth Criminal" number. For "Thriller", his crew designed an elaborate 3D movie and interactive experience for the audience. From what we get to see of the original film, it looks like it would have been quite something to see. (Although, one can't help but feel a bit weirded out at the sight of Jackson dancing amongst the "undead dancers" up on stage.) The film allows us a chance to see some of Jackson's elaborate vision, his musical prowess, and...Well, not much else.

picThe film's director is Kenny Ortega (High School Musical 3: Senior Year), who was also directing and designing the actual concert itself. You would think this would lead to a rather intimate portrayal of Jackson himself, or just what goes into making such an elaborate show, but strangely, we're left at a complete distance the entire time. We never truly get the personal views of the man himself. Jackson comments on a couple things he doesn't like, or says a few words to his band or backup dancers, but other than this, we never truly get to hear from him. He's treated almost like an enigma, as if the people working around him are scared to get too close. They gush lavish praise about him every chance they get, but there's no real intimacy that one would expect working on a show such as this. There's never a sense that we are getting a true behind the scenes look at what could have been. Rather, we are watching spliced together footage of various rehearsal periods. It's one song after another, with no time for personal reflection or thoughts. The most we ever get to hear from Jackson is during his "Earth Song" number, where we hear him talking about the environment, and how we have to save the Earth before it's too late. Too bad it sounds like he's reading off of a script, so we still don't feel like we're actually listening to him.

picAll of this makes This Is It into an oddity of a film. It is not a documentary, nor is it really a deep or insightful look into Michael Jackson. It's also not a reflection on his career, as the movie is stuck at one moment in time. It is simply a concert film made up of unfinished footage. Fans are likely to be enthralled, but it dragged a little me. There is no behind the scenes info, nothing we couldn't learn about the concert that a five minute advertisement for it could not tell us, and curiously enough, no information on how Jackson's sudden death impacted the people involved. The ending is quite abrupt, as the movie just seems to stop, flash a brief "in memory" message, and then roll the credits. I understand that this movie is intended as a celebration of Jackson's music, but at the same time, a little bit of emotion would have been appreciated. No matter how impressive some of the musical numbers are staged, it never overcomes the overall hollow feeling that the movie carries with it.
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So, yes, I agree when the opening titles say that this movie is for the fans. They're the only ones that need apply, or are likely to get any emotional response out of it. This Is It shows us that Michael Jackson still had what made him famous, but doesn't bother to dig any deeper than that. That should be enough for certain people. It wasn't for me.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Astro Boy

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The opening half hour of Astro Boy did not fill me with confidence. It seemed to be trying to be a more kid friendly take on Steven Spielberg's 2001 sci-fi drama, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, only not as interesting. The story kicks off in Metro City, a floating metropolis that hovers in the sky over the Earth, which has mainly been rendered uninhabitable due to years of pollution. (There are a few human scavengers who refuse to live in Metro, and stay on the surface.) We learn in the film's opening scene that robots pretty much do everything in the City, and when they break down or are no longer needed, are sent to the ground below where a massive scrap heap awaits.

picOne of the leading robot designers is Dr. Tenma (voiced by a somewhat subdued Nicolas Cage), who along with fellow scientist Dr. Elefun (Bill Nighy) has discovered two powerful forms of energy that can power machines - One energy is positive (it glows blue), the other is negative (red). The energies have been created to power a massive battle robot that Metro City's crooked ruler, a war general named President Stone (Donald Sutherland), wants to use to initiate a war with the people on the surface world below in order to boost his sagging poll numbers. He perhaps unwisely places the negative energy into the war machine, and the thing goes on a rampage. In the ensuing carnage, Dr. Tenma's 10-year-old son Toby (Freddy Highmore) is killed. Grief stricken over his loss, Tenma sets about creating a robotic replica of his son, complete with programmed memories of Toby's past, so that it will be as close to the real thing as possible. The robo boy turns out to be a remarkable recreation of the real thing (except for the added weapons Tenma decided to add for defense purposes, such as jet boots that allow him to fly, and hidden guns that come out of his arms and even his rear end), but the doctor realizes too late that he can never truly replace his son, no matter how perfect the replica is. His creation brings him nothing but pain, and he eventually disowns it.

picUp to this point, Astro Boy wasn't really clicking with me. The story was moving along too quickly, and despite some obvious attempts at heartfelt drama, I wasn't feeling anything. When the robot child (who is eventually given the name Astro by his metallic peers) leaves Metro City and goes into exile on the surface world below, the movie starts to find a faster, funnier, and more action-heavy groove. Astro befriends a group of orphaned kids who live in the ruins of the old civilization. They search the scrap heaps for discarded robot parts that they can use in their own creations. Chief amongst the kids is Cora (Kristen Bell), a feisty girl who begins to develop a crush on Astro, thinking he's a human who's been forgotten by Metro City like they are. The kids work for a guy named Ham Egg, whose appearance seems to be modeled after the actor who voices him, Nathan Lane. Ham hosts a gladiator-like event where robots are forced to fight in duels to the death. When he discovers that Astro is not human, he forces the robo child to battle other deadly mechanical creations.

picThe gladiator battle is the first real indication of the movie's fast-paced and well-edited action sequences. Director David Bowers (Flushed Away) really uses full use of the freedom of animated movement, giving us spectacular action set pieces that would be way too expensive and/or impossible to pull off in a live action film. After he wins the tournament and escapes from Ham Egg, Astro and the kids head back to Metro City to do battle with President Stone, who has gone mad with power, been absorbed by his own robot, and is now threatening innocent people. I didn't really understand the whole robot absorbing the President thing. It happens so quickly, and then the robot suddenly starts taking on Stone's personality. I may not have gotten it, but once again, the action-based climactic fight between Astro and the giant robot impressed me enough. That's the kind of movie Astro Boy is. It'd be going about it's business, not really impressing me, and then it'd hit a moment of inspiration that would grab my attention.

picAt least the movie's nice to look at all the way through. It has a very clean, brightly colored, and rounded look to the characters and the futuristic settings. The character designs are pretty faithful to the original drawings of Osamu Tezuka, who originally created the Astro Boy character in a highly successful Japanese manga and anime back in the 60s. (There are even some hidden jokes and references for fans to look out for.) Mostly though, the movie will mainly appeal to kids, especially young boys, in the 8-10 age range. They might be able to identify with the little robot feeling like he doesn't fit in anywhere, and being shunned or misunderstood by adult figures around him. And they'll certainly like the scenes where Astro gets to use his fun hidden powers to combat robots that are 10 times bigger than him. As for the adults in the audience, they might laugh at some of the jokes. I liked the "robot revolution", which was made up of three robots (one of whom is a talking refrigerator), and want to overthrow and destroy humans. The only problem is they can't disobey the rule of robotics that say they can't harm people, so they choose to merely annoy them. Their master plan involves a feather for which they will tickle humans.
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One final note: It's too bad the movie is not getting a release in 3D, as a lot of the action sequences certainly seem to call out for it, as if the filmmakers were hoping to use the current technology. Nonetheless, Astro Boy is mildly entertaining for adults, and should be a blast for kids the right age. Don't go in expecting any more.

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Saw VI

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As someone who actually enjoyed the first three Saw films (and thought the series should have stopped there), the slapdash and convoluted plotting of the last two entries disheartened me. Saw VI has now arrived, and while it's not a complete return to form, it is definitely a step in the right direction of what made the original films work. The pacing is tighter and tenser here, and the traps and games set up by the diabolical Jigsaw seem much more imaginative than in the last two. If only returning writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton could get over their love of dragged out, soap opera-style flashbacks and dialogue.

picOne of the interesting things about this latest entry is how it grabs its plot from the headlines, dealing with unscrupulous mortgage lenders and unfeeling health insurance providers as the central targets of the madman this time around. It adds an interesting touch of social commentary that the last two films were missing. Picking up where Saw V left off, FBI Agent Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) continues to carry on the work of the now-deceased original Jigsaw killer, John Kramer (Tobin Bell). Hoffman has successfully killed and managed to frame fellow Agent Strahm for his crimes, only to learn that head investigators Erickson (Mark Rolston) and Perez (Athena Karkanis) have their doubts that Strahm was the new Jigsaw, and are getting close to the true identity. Meanwhile, Jigsaw's latest "game" has been set in motion, with the crooked head of Umbrella Health Care, William Easton (Peter Outerbridge) forced to participate in a series of deadly tests. He will have to decide the fate of his fellow employees, and possibly even his family, as he decides who will live and who will die.

picSeries editor Kevin Greutert makes his directorial debut here, and he does a much better job of keeping the story and the action moving than the past two attempts. It certainly helps that the tension has been stepped up with some truly clever traps here, the two main standouts being a maze set in a boiler room, and a deadly carousel where six of Easton's employees are about to die, and he must choose two of them who will live. These scenes come the closest to recapturing the original tension of the earlier films. The only thing holding it back is the familiarity. After six movies, it cannot have the same effect it once did, no matter how well done it is. Walking home from this movie, I thought of watching Paranormal Activity yesterday, and how it seemed like an exciting experience. Because the Saw movies have pretty much been employing the same formula for six years straight, Saw VI seems like old hat, while being an improvement at the same time. It leaves a curious feeling on the viewer.

picFor all of its improvements, the narrative is still overly complex and filled with one too many flashbacks. The dialogue is filled with so much exposition (whenever a character brings up a name, it is usually followed by an explanation, reminding the audience what role they played in a previous film) it borders on parody. There are also enough past secrets, backstabbings, and dramatic reveals to fill an entire season of a daytime soap opera. Chief amongst them is the subplot concerning the widow of John Kramer (Betsy Russell), whose role in the story is finally revealed when we learn the contents of the mysterious box that her husband left to her in his will. I started to wish that the screenwriters would just simplify things. (I haven't even mentioned how the reporter who's been sensationalizing the Jigsaw murders works into the plot, or the trapped family who have become part of Jigsaw's game.) Some better dialogue would be welcome, too.
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Still, I have to admit, Saw VI comes the closest to working since the original trilogy came to a close. There's a surprise in the end that genuinely caught me off guard (and in a good way, for once), and a couple scenes that are surprisingly honest, especially the ones dealing with the policies of the health care office. While I still think the franchise is long past its prime, this one manages to stand out just a little more.

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Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant

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I walked into Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant with interest. I was intrigued by the film's ad campaign, I liked the director and screenwriters, and the actors present in the film promised a lot of fun. The film started, and even then, I was still in good spirits in a while. The creature and effects work appealed to me, and I was interested in where the story was going. It was about the 40 minute mark or so of the film that the movie started to test my patience. What starts as something imaginative and fun, soon derails into what seems to be a cross between a special effects demo, and an elaborate and overlong set up for numerous sequels.

picComing home from the film, I looked up some information on the series of books that inspired it, and learned that writer-director Paul Weitz (American Dreamz) and co-writer Brian Helgeland (2009's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3) based their screenplay on the first three novels in the popular young adult gothic-comedy action series. This explains a lot, as the movie seems to have more ideas and characters then it knows what to do with. I felt lost at times. The story seems to speed along, throwing stuff at us like a war between Vampires (those who sip just enough blood from humans to live, but leave their victims alive) and Vampaneze (those who fully embrace their bloodlust, and murder humans mercilessly in order to feed), but never really slowing down long enough for us to get involved or to even care. And like I said, the whole movie ends up being a set up for future movies. Nothing gets resolved, and there's nothing on the screen that will make audiences long for more. I find it funny that the director's brother, Chris Weitz, tried the same thing when he made 2007's The Golden Compass, another movie based on a series of novels that failed because it was all one big set up for further sequels which never got made. Another funny thing; Chris Weitz is directing a competing vampire film - next month's Twilight sequel, New Moon.

picBut, like I said, things start out interesting enough. Our guide through this world of Vampires, Vampaneze, and freaks is Darren Shan (Chris Massoglia). He's popular, and a bit of an overachieving teen, which comes mostly from the fact that his strict and overly protective parents constantly force him to do his best with a chant of the three things he should strive for in life - "college, career, family". Darren's best friend is Steve (Josh Hutcherson), a rebel bad boy who convinces Darren to sneak away from home one night and visit a traveling freak show that has come to town. The boys are fascinated by the different creatures they see on display, which include a snake boy who's a wannabe indie rock star (Patrick Fugit), a man with two stomachs (Frankie Faison), and a bearded lady (Selma Hayek). What interests the two friends the most, though, is the show's deadly spider trainer, Larten Crepsley (John C. Reilly). Steve recognizes Larten from a painting in one of his books about vampires, and thinks he's the same guy from the book. Through a series of events too complicated to summarize, Darren and Steve sneak backstage, Steve suffers a possibly fatal bite from Larten's spider, and Darren is given the opportunity by Larten to be made a vampire and his personal assistant, in exchange for the antidote that will save Steve's life.

picNow that Darren is a "half-vampire" (he can walk in daylight without harm), he's forced to give up the life he once knew, fake his own death, and spend eternity with Larten and his traveling circus of freaks. It's not so bad, though. The creatures are generally good people, at least they are immediately accepting of Darren. We never learn anything about them really, so they often come across as walking special effects played by likable actors. He even gets to strike up a shy relationship with a "monkey girl" (Jessica Carlson), probably because she's the most human looking of most of the freaks, despite the fact she has a tail which she mainly tries to keep hidden. As Darren tries to come to terms with his new life as a vampire, and the prospect of drinking blood, another plot line enters the picture. The evil Vampaneze, who are led by a guy named Mr. Tiny (Michael Cerveris), who bears a striking physical resemblance to the Marvel Comics villain, The Kingpin, and is trying to break the truce between the two vampiric races for reasons that are kind of murky and underdeveloped. Tiny sets his plan into motion by making Steve one of them, and turns him against his former best friend, Darren. As all this was building, and the freaks seemed to play little to no role at all, I started to wonder why the movie needed the freaks in the first place.

picThat's a big problem for a movie called Cirque du Freak. This is an ungainly, overstuffed film that doesn't explain enough for us to get involved. I really wanted to like this movie. It's attractive to look at, and the performances are there, but the characters are usually thinly drawn. This should come as no surprise, seeing as the story moves by at a rapid pace, tossing ideas and plot lines left and right, but not sticking around long enough for any of them to have an impact on us. And when we do get an explanation, it's usually equally quickly explained and handled in a very sloppy manner. This was a big surprise to me, considering that I have greatly enjoyed many of the past works of writers Weitz and Helgeland. I've obviously not read the books, so I cannot say how faithful the film is to them, or how much got cut out of the adaptation. Still, a movie such as this should work even if you have not read the books, such as the Harry Potter films. I felt lost a lot watching this. Lost, but not quite interested enough to look into the books to find out what I may have missed.
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That's not to say it's unwatchable. There's promise here, but not enough to make you want to see more. Unfortunately, that's the whole point of The Vampire's Assistant. As hopeful as the filmmakers seem that this will spring forth a number of profitable sequels, I have a feeling that this will be joining the previously mentioned The Golden Compass and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events as films that just didn't go far enough to launch into the desired franchise.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Paranormal Activity

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Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston) are a young couple who seem to have a bright future ahead of them. They've recently moved into their first house, and have plans for marriage. Before that, however, they want to take care of something that's been bothering them since they've moved in. Late at night, strange things seem to happen. Lights flicker on and off, a loud banging or scratching sound can be heard from within the walls, and certain small objects (such as keys) are in different places when they wake up then they were when they went to bed the night before. Micah buys a video camera and microphone set up, hoping to capture whatever goes on when they're asleep.

picThis is the simple set up to Paranormal Activity, an ingenious little horror film that plays upon our natural fears of the dark and the unknown. We witness what happens when Micah and Katie are asleep. We also witness the mounting tension between the couple as whoever or whatever is in their house begins to take its toll on them. The incidents that occur in the middle of the night start out small, but increase in intensity. So does the film itself. I don't remember the last time I was this involved or this on edge watching a horror film. The movie is masterful in how it plays upon our fears and our expectations. Even when things seem relatively calm, there is a constant mounting sense of dread. We feel it, and so do the characters. When the film starts out, Micah treats the whole thing more like an adventure. He's actually curious about the bizarre things going on in their home, and wants to capture them on film. Katie is more apprehensive, and she has good reason to, as she's had past experiences with this sort of thing. She's afraid Micah might anger whatever is in their house if he goes too far. It's the first signs of a feeling of helplessness that grows stronger as the nights pass.

picThe movie has already made a lot of press of how writer-director Oren Peli shot this film in his own home, during the course of a single week, for a budget that's less than some Hollywood studios probably spend on catering their projects. The movie was a big hit on the festival circuit, fell into the hands of Paramount Pictures and Steven Spielberg, who have released the film virtually untouched, except for a new ending that was created at the advice of Spielberg. One of the brilliant things about the film is the illusion of reality it creates. It's done in a documentary style, similar to 1999's The Blair Witch Project. But unlike that film (or other recent "docu-horror" films like Quarantine and Cloverfield), there are no credits at the beginning and ending here. Not only does this help with the illusion that we are watching live video, but it creates a sense of dread in the viewer after the last scene has cut to black. There's no music or credits to bring us back to reality.

picThis is not the only way that Peli shows his skill in manipulating the audience. Since we are watching the entire film through the eyes of the camera, we can only see what it sees. What we do see is enough to frighten us, but sometimes it's what's lurking just outside our field of vision that scares us the most. Paranormal Activity creates an aura of gripping tension, in a day and age when most Hollywood horror films are starting to resemble self-parodies. When we do get to see some of the strange events going on in the house during the night, it is effective both in frightening us, and on a technical level. At first, we almost find ourselves scared for the sleeping couple in the bed, who are usually not even aware of what is going on around them. But then, we try to think of how the effect is being accomplished, especially on such a low budget. Clever editing was obviously the key to most of the film's memorable scares, but it's still impressive. Once again, we are pulled into the illusion of reality. The only time we're pulled out is with the arrival of a psychic (Mark Fredrichs), who serves mainly as an exposition device, and also brings with him a plot hole that threatens to derail the whole venture.

picBut we stay intrigued, because the movie so successfully keeps us on edge. Even when it falters, we never lose our interest. The small cast of actors seem honest here, and seem to genuinely believe that their lives are in danger. This is important in a movie such as this, as if we ever seem to think that they are "acting", the spell of the film would be broken. Paranormal Activity goes for broke, and doesn't let up. Some have accused the movie of being too slow paced for mainstream horror audiences, but it does such a good job of bringing us inside its world and into the lives of its characters, I never felt the movie dragged. I cared more about Micah and Katie than I did the campers in Blair Witch. This, combined with the effective scare moments, are what got me so involved. I don't know if it would work as well on repeat viewings, but sitting in that theater, I was completely sold.
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Don't get me wrong, I'm not recommending this movie just on the experience alone. I genuinely believe that it's an effective thriller, one of the more effective ones to come along in years. It certainly unnerved me more than psychotic orphan girls and the umpteenth return of Jigsaw. Paranormal Activity is the kind of movie that leaves you feeling tense, even when you know things are okay. It doesn't need to rely on cheap jump tactics. Once the movie gets under your skin, it stays there long after it's over.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Law Abiding Citizen


It's movies like this that make me glad I don't rate movies on a traditional grading scale. I wouldn't even know how to rate something like this. I don't know if I'll be able to review it. Law Abiding Citizen is absurd, ludicrous, exploitive, ridiculous, and increasingly over the top. The entire cast deserves awards for making it through some of these scenes with a straight face. And yet, I can't deny that I was entertained on some level. It certainly held my interest, and I was never bored watching it.

The story kicks off with a family man named Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) sharing a tender family moment with his adorable daughter, while his loving wife cooks dinner in the next room. Less than a minute later, two thugs burst in through the front door, beat and tie up Clyde, and then murder his wife, as well as the little girl. All this happens (I think, I could be wrong) before the film's title pops up on the screen. Flash forward to an unknown amount of time later. A rising young high powered lawyer named Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) cuts a deal where one of the thugs testifies against the other. The thug who testifies gets five years in prison on a minor charge, while the other gets the death sentence. This does not sit well with Clyde, as the thug getting the five years is Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte), the man who actually murdered his wife and daughter. (The one going to death row mainly stood and watched.) We get a sense that Nick is not comfortable making the deal, but he needs to protect his record of successful cases won, as he doesn't feel Clyde would make a good witness at the trial, seeing that he passed out after Clarence tied and beat him. The deal is made, and Clyde walks away fuming that justice has not been served.

We flash forward again 10 years later, and Clyde comes out of personal seclusion to begin seeking his own brand of justice. First he rigs it so that the execution of the thug who got the death sentence goes wrong, and the criminal suffers during the lethal injection process. Next, he kidnaps Clarence Darby, takes him to an abandoned factory, and proceeds to torture him by cutting off his limbs one-by-one while the helpless sleaze lies paralyzed. When Clyde is torturing the killer, it takes a superhuman effort not to think of the maniacal Jigsaw from the Saw movies, especially when Clyde uses a voice synthesizer to distort his voice at one point. Clyde makes no effort to hide his responsibility. He even sends a video of Clarence's murder to the home of Nick Rice. Nick is now a family man himself, with a wife (Regina Hall) and young daughter (Emerald-Angel Young) of his own. Clyde is quickly arrested, but this is all part of his plan. As Nick tries to probe Clyde's mind during prison interviews, he begins to realize that the man is not only out for revenge on a system he feels wronged him, but that he also has everything under his control.

If you've seen the ad campaign, you know that Clyde is somehow targeting and killing different people, even though he's locked away in a prison cell. All of the victims have close ties either to Nick, or to the original deal that gave Clarence Darby a minor sentence ten years ago. Law Abiding Citizen could have tackled some thorny issues involving morality and vigilantism, but it goes for a far more simpler and exploitive approach. My favorite moment occurs when Nick is having a meeting with the judge who originally ruled over the Darby sentence. The judge's cell phone rings while they are talking, she answers it, and she is suddenly killed when a tiny but powerful gun hidden within the cell phone literally splatters her against the wall. Nick reacts to this with what I can only call serious aplomb. More people connected to Nick start turning up dead, mainly during a sequence where a number of his legal partners and assistants are killed in a massive string of car bomb explosions. Soon, the entire city of Philadelphia is feeling threatened by Clyde, since no one can figure out how he is pulling this off from solitary confinement. I will not spoil the answer, because it's just too good. It's so implausible, it will have everyone in the audience trying to figure out how he pulled it off even after they learn how he pulled it off.

As I'm sure you've figured out by now, this movie is about as subtle as a major car accident on the highway. So, why was it so hard for me to get a direct response? Well, just like the extraordinary car accident it resembles, you want to look away but you can't. The movie is manipulative, but controlled. It knows just how far to push so that we react. It's also surprisingly well made. Butler is menacing, without ever having to really create an actual character. Aside from the opening scene, and a sequence halfway through the film where Nick gets some information on Clyde's past that hints at how he knows how to kill so well, we don't learn much about him. Jamie Foxx may be slumming it a little here, but at least he doesn't show it that much. The whole cast handles this material about as good as could be expected, and the movie itself moves at a good pace. And honestly, I was kind of enjoying the absurdity of it all until the last 20 minutes or so. Not only do we get an unsatisfactory reveal, but we get a climax that unsuccessfully tries to cram in massive, bloody violence with a final scene that would be right at home in a Disney family comedy, and comes right out of the blue.

So yeah, Law Abiding Citizen isn't a great, or even a good movie. It's cinematic junk food, and on that level, it's enjoyable for most of its running time. It didn't quite grab me in that guilty pleasure sort of way that G.I. Joe did this past summer, though. So, I guess I'm kind of torn down the middle on this one. Let's leave it at that.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Stepfather

The last time director Nelson McCormick and screenwriter J.S. Cardone teamed up to do a thriller, we got 2008's remake of Prom Night, one of the worst horror films of that year. They're back with another remake, this time of The Stepfather - a cult classic from the mid 80s that's mainly remembered for launching the career of actor Terry O'Quinn from TV's Lost. The key difference between the original and the 2009 version? The original is remembered for launching a career, while everyone involved with this take on the story will probably be removing it from their resumes as quickly as possible.

To be fair, this is a much better movie than Prom Night. That movie depressed the hell out of me, while I found this one to be merely bland and mediocre all around. Just like the original, this movie is about a man on a psychotic and insane quest to find the perfect family. He passes himself off as a guy who is trying to move on after his wife and daughter died in a car accident the previous year. He uses this story to pick up lonely single mothers who are visibly getting tired of raising the kids on their own, and want a man to bring stability into their lives. The psycho moves in, passing himself off as a perfect father who stresses the importance of family above all else. Naturally, cracks begin to eventually show in the family. Either the kids start acting up, or his new wife disappoints him in some way. When this happens, he slaughters the entire family, changes his appearance, and then moves on to another family. The film opens with a home decorated for Christmas, and the man shaving and showering, while his previous family all lay dead in the living room. Because the movie is PG-13, it's probably the neatest and tidiest massacre ever captured on film. There's not a single trace of blood on the victims or the room itself. Despite this, we get a scene immediately afterward with cops discussing the crime scene, and saying it was one of the bloodiest sights they've ever seen. I guess they got to see the Unrated Director's Cut of the crime scene.

O'Quinn played the psycho in the original film, and gave a very complex performance, that was simultaneously unnerving and creepy, but also eerily sympathetic in some way. For the remake, we get Dylan Walsh from TV's Nip/Tuck. Walsh plays his character, David Harris, as your typical bland slasher villain. He has the ability to pop up anywhere at a moments notice (accompanied by a jolting sound on the soundtrack), and no matter how hard he tries to stare menacingly at people, he never comes across as being intimidating. David's latest victim is single mother, Susan Harding (Sela Ward). Susan's having a hard time keeping her kids in line, especially eldest son Michael (Penn Badgley, who I hear is popular on the show Gossip Girl, but here displays all the character and charisma of a hunk of wood). Michael's just returned home from a stint at a military school, and wants to try to rebuild his life. When he comes home and sees his mom has a new boyfriend, he's not happy. David seems to be trying too hard to be nice, and there seems to be something off about him. Michael tries to talk about his concerns with his girlfriend, Kelly (Amber Heard), but she doesn't want him causing any trouble, since she's afraid he'll be shipped off to military school again.

Let's talk about Kelly for a moment. She never comes across as a real character, but instead for something for the guys in the audience to look at. Nearly every scene has Ms Heard running about in a revealing swimsuit, undergarments, or some form of outfit that covers up just enough for the MPAA to give the film a teen-friendly rating, but draws plenty of attention to her half-naked figure. Michael also gets plenty of chances to show off his body, since he has a passion for swimming in the backyard pool. At least Heard seems capable of displaying human emotion. As Michael, Penn Badgley seems to struggle when he has to show any emotion other than stone-faced indifference. There's an unintentionally funny scene where Badgley has to produce a single tear to run from his eye, and the amount of time it takes him to produce said tear seems to take much longer than it should. Even when Michael starts snooping around for information on mom's new boyfriend, he never seems all that concerned. Because of this, The Stepfather never creates any real tension.

Not that it could create much tension to start with. The movie is gutless all around. When David starts killing people who get too close to figuring out his secret, such as the old lady across the street who recognizes him on America's Most Wanted, or Susan's lesbian sister (Paige Turco), the movie really starts to show its complete lack of knowledge when it comes to suspense. The stalking scenes are clumsily paced and edited. Even when the scenes fall back on tired old thriller cliches (the screeching cat flying at the victim from off camera right before the killer shows up), it falls flat. The figure jumping out of the shadows may be overused, but it can still get an effective jump out of an audience if done right. Not here. Nothing is done right. The performances are wooden, the pacing is tepid and off, and even the cinematography and camera work is bland.

Could a Stepfather remake have worked? Possibly, if the filmmakers were willing to put a fresh spin on the material. I felt like we were getting a downgrade here. Everything that was memorable before is muted. This begs the question, why even remake a movie if you're going to make it more forgettable? Something tells me that was the last question on anyone's mind when they were making this. Maybe if someone had stopped and asked, we'd have a better movie.

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Capitalism: A Love Story

It's not surprising to learn during the course of Michael Moore's latest film that he wanted to be a priest at one point when he was a child. The guy is so passionate about what he talks about, it's easy to picture him as a preacher whipping his followers up into a frenzy. His films are angry rants that reflect his view. There's little if any chance for an outside opinion. I've come to accept this, and know what to expect. His latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story, takes aim at the greed that Moore sees on Wall Street and within the government, and how he feels it is slowly destroying America.

He lets you know what he thinks right off the bat, by playing the narration from an old educational film about the fall of the Roman Empire over clips of recent government and financial figures that he feels are leading or has led America to the downward depths. From there, he shows us various families who have had their homes foreclosed over the past year, and are now left to wonder just what went wrong. Whatever you may think of Moore's opinions, you cannot deny that the guy truly believes in what he puts up on the screen, and that a lot of his stuff comes from his heart. He's not going after one man, as in Fahrenheit 9/11, or a certain group, as in Sicko. This time, he seems to be rallying behind the people, and trying to inspire anger within them. Sure, he does this in just about every film he's made, but here, he seems a lot angrier than usual. It harkens back to his debut film, Roger and Me, where he showed the exploits of blue collar workers who were the victims of white collar crooks. This time, he's rallying everyone to question the very nature of Capitalism itself, which he truly feels is evil, and is decaying moral values.

There is no doubt that this is a movie that will inspire conversation by anyone who sees it. Whether you agree or not with what you saw, it will fuel personal fires within its audience. This is a great movie to see with a group of people, and discuss afterward. One of the interesting things about Moore's Capitalism is that no political figure is safe. In his opinion, from the Reagan years on, the American government has been fleecing the public and robbing them blind. This includes key Democrats like Clinton, as well as House and Senate Democratic figures like Pelosi and Reid. One of his personal favorite targets, George W. Bush, gets some heat as well, especially for his part in the bank bailouts last year. Mostly, though, you get the sense that Moore is angry at the system in general, and everyone involved. There is less grandstanding from Moore this time around, as well. He lets the political figures and regular people speak for themselves. But he's still not afraid to add his own spin on things, such as when he comically ridicules Bush's use of fear tactics.

He's also not afraid to show his usual bias and favoritism. He neglects to mention that Barak Obama was for the bailout, although he did call it "distasteful but necessary". Instead, he views the current President as a reform figure, whom the people at Wall Street tried to silence by throwing money around. The fact that Moore does not really try to back up these claims makes us feel that we are listening to opinion, rather than fact. The sequences covering Obama are actually the weakest in the film, as they seem to be handled with the most restraint. Moore had been so acidic and direct in attacking both sides up to this point, and had more or less taken the gloves off, so to speak. Here, the gloves go back on, until it's time to turn attention away from the President. It's an all-too obvious tactic, and one that takes away from some of the power the film generates.

Fortunately, it does not dilute the effectiveness of Capitalism that much. The film is one of Moore's better recent efforts, and he mostly seems to be on his game here. Once again, he expertly mixes humor and anger just about better than anyone out there. He also mainly stays behind the camera, and lets the story tell itself. Aside from a stunt he pulls late in the film, where he visits various corporate headquarters for banks, and tries to make a "citizen's arrest" and tries to get the taxpayer's money back, the focus is not on him. The focus remains on families that have suffered the past year, people who discovered too late that the companies they worked for took life insurance policies out on them and their loved ones, and an overall damning argument of how political and corporate greed has taken over moral decency. Moore is clearly mad as hell, and with this movie, he wants us to be mad as well.

Whatever you may think of Moore's views, or of Moore himself, this is an effective film, and one that should be seen. It's hard to deny the questions that it asks. He doesn't give us all the answers, and he doesn't always ask the right questions, but he is certain to inspire a lot of people to ask questions they may not have thought of before seeing the film. That, in its own way, is something special.

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