Reel Opinions


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Saw 3D

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As the proposed "final chapter" of the seven consecutive year running horror franchise, Saw 3D ends things with not so much a bang, but with a weak little whimper. Diehard fans who have been following the increasingly confusing and convoluted storyline are rewarded with an average and middling final bow. But then, considering that this series' inspiration died when the original villain was killed four movies ago, maybe it's fitting to have such a half-hearted sendoff.

picIt's been sad for me personally to see the Saw franchise dragged out so far past its prime, as the films started out intriguing and diabolically clever. This was due to the series villain/antihero John Kramer (Tobin Bell), a moralizing mad genius who was chilling in his twisted logic. He was a monster who never preyed on the "innocent", or at least those he saw as being innocent. His victims were thieves, cheaters, drug addicts, and basically people who he felt did not appreciate everything they had. In his own sick way, he viewed his torture methods as a way to test these people, to see if they were really strong enough to change, or go on living life to the fullest without hurting others. Sure, his traps were often convoluted, but that was the fun. That, and the imaginative death scenes that the filmmakers would dream up when the victim would fail the "test" that was laid before them.

picWhen Kramer was killed off at the end of Saw III, that should have been the end. Instead, the series drudged on, introducing a new and less-interesting villain to carry on his work. That would be Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who doesn't hold a candle to the calm menace that Bell was able to generate in the first three films. The filmmakers tried to appease the fans by inserting a lot of flashbacks centered on John Kramer, displaying how he became the madman we know and love. But it just wasn't the same. The fact that Bell gets maybe five minutes tops worth of screen time in two forgettable scenes in Saw 3D doesn't help at all. But, I digress. The plot picks up exactly where last year's Saw VI left off. Hoffman has barely managed to escape an attempt on his life by Kramer's widow, Jill (Betsy Russell). Now he wants revenge, and Jill has gone into hiding with police protection provided by the ever persistent Detective Gibson (Chad Donella), who has a personal vendetta with Hoffman.

picIn another plot, a self-help guru named Bobby (Sean Patrick Flanery) is getting rich off of his lie of being a survivor of the "Jigsaw Killer". He's written a book, holds support groups for other survivors, and is going on every talk show in the nation, flaunting his success. Hoffman kidnaps both him and his wife Joyce (Gina Holden), and forces Bobby to endure a series of twisted and torturous games in order to save his captive wife before time runs out. The traps this time are very disappointing, as they're designed solely as 3D gimmicks. They're not so much clever or scary, as they are designed to let as much blood, body parts, sharp objects, and internal organs to fly toward the screen.

picI guess it's the gore that the audience is here for. Saw 3D is a fairly generic slasher with mediocre performances, wooden dialogue, and increasingly huge plot holes in its increasingly convoluted storytelling to tie everything together. In other words, it's a fairly standard recent entry in this once-interesting franchise. It doesn't give us much to think about, gives us a lot of faceless victims, a lot of over the top carnage, and then it winds down with a particularly silly final twist. In other words, it does the minimal amount of what's expected. That will be enough for some. It wasn't for me. To those who managed to get wrapped up in the whole "Hoffman" storyline of the past four films, go and enjoy. Just don't set yourself up for any huge finish.
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Despite the studio's promise that this is the last installment, I highly doubt it. Don't get me wrong, I don't think we'll see a sequel next year. I'm certain that Lionsgate is planning to wait a few years, then relaunch the franchise with a reboot of some kind. If horror films have taught me anything, it's that only dwindling box office returns can truly kill a monster. And nothing solves that problem like waiting a few years, then striking again.

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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hereafter

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Clint Eastwood's Hereafter opens with a deceptive bang. Even though this is not an effects movie, or a big action movie event, the opening 10 minutes could lead you to believe otherwise. A French woman named Marie LeLay (Cecile De France) is vacationing on an island resort with her boyfriend. All is tranquil as she wakes up, orders breakfast, then makes her way down a street market, looking for gifts to bring back home with her. All of a sudden, a massive tsunami rises from the ocean nearby, crashing and flowing into the resort town.

picThis sequence, where Marie fights for her life amongst the crushing waters, and finds herself in a place between life and death is not only completely thrilling, but utterly convincing. It's the single most impressive special effect sequence I have seen in any movie this year. It's the kind of sequence you found yourself asking "how did they do that" over and over while you're watching it unfold. The way that Eastwood puts you in the middle of everything allows you not only to sympathize with the character up on the screen, but almost feel the sense of terror, and release when she finds herself in a near-death state. It's a real attention grabbing opening, and cements Eastwood not only as a masterful storyteller, but as a true visual artist.

picAnd yet, as I said, this is not an effects-driven movie. Other than a few brief returns to the place between life and death, there are no more big set pieces. Marie is revived back to life, reunited with her boyfriend, and returns to her home a changed woman. She tries to go about her life as normal. She's a successful and popular TV reporter, famous for uncovering political scandals. We know she must be famous for other reasons, as she has endorsement deal posters lining the streets of Paris. However, Marie's mind is not on her work anymore. She cannot forget the place she visited during that brief time she was legally considered dead. The man she loves (who is also her director) suggests she take a leave of absence from the show to work on a book she's been meaning to write for a long time. Marie is hesitant, but agrees, and begins research on a book about a French political figure with a shady past. But, that kind of stuff no longer interests her. She abandons her project, and begins work on a new book, exploring different theories on the afterlife.

picMeanwhile, we're brought into a completely different plot set in San Francisco, and concerning a man named George Lonegan (Matt Damon). It's at this point I begin to worry that Hereafter might be attempting to tell too many stories, or suffer from a fragmented tone, but the screenplay by Peter Morgan (Frost/Nixon) expertly juggles the multiple stories it attempts to tell. George is a genuine psychic, who developed the ability to communicate with the dead after a series of childhood illnesses and surgeries. He once made a successful living as a noted and respected psychic, but he doesn't want that life anymore. Despite the pleads of his brother (Jay Mohr) to get back in the business, George just wants a normal life. But his "gift" is hard to ignore. There are still people who know what he used to be, and approach him, begging that he help them contact deceased loved ones. It hurts him to turn them away, but it's all he can do. While taking a cooking class, he meets a woman named Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), and develops a genuine friendship and possible relationship with her. But his past still haunts him, and threatens his relationship with Melanie in a way we don't initially suspect.

picThere's still one more storyline, this one set in London, and focusing on twin brothers Marcus (Frankie McLaren) and Jason (George McLaren). They're each other's best friend as they try to help their drug addicted mother stay one step ahead of social services, which is trying to break up the family. While young Jason is picking up a prescription for their mom, he is targeted by some older bullies, and in his attempt to escape, is struck down by a car. Marcus is separated from his mother, forced to live with a temporary foster family, and becomes obsessed with attempts to communicate with his brother from beyond the grave. He seeks out various psychics, but they are obviously frauds and con artists. That's when he comes across the website that once belonged to George, and we begin to see how the three separate stories being told will ultimately connect.

picHereafter is a simple, quiet, almost meditative look at how people respond to personal tragedies, and what waits for us when our time on Earth is over. It does not get wrapped up in complex religious issues, however. It is a reflective drama, and an effective one at that. It simply wants to ask about the possibility of life continuing after we die. We do not get the religious views of the filmmakers shoved in our faces, and I for one am grateful. It allows the movie to flow without preaching to us its ideals. Besides, this movie is not about religion. It's about three broken lives, and how they ultimately come together through their own personal tragedies. Most of all, it's about how they handle it. George sees his abilities as a "curse", and is tormented by what he is, and what he used to be. Marie becomes a completely different person, willing to throw away the life she once knew for the questions she now finds herself asking about herself. Finally, young Marcus just wants to know that he is not alone in the world.

picThis is a fascinating film that is bound to create discussion by those who watch it. Eastwood and Morgan tackle some intriguing ideas here, and although the just over two hour running time does not allow all the questions to be explored thoroughly, I believe that this can only spur more discussion afterward. It's not just a great film to think about, it's also wonderful to watch. The casting is perfect, especially Damon, who brings a lot of complexity to his role. I also admired the adult mindset of the film itself. The scenes that are set in France actually have people speaking in French with subtitles, meaning that at least 45% of the film is subtitled. The movie has not been dumbed down in any way.

picLooking at the reviews over on Rotten Tomatoes, I see an extremely mixed response. In a way, I can understand why some people are unable to embrace the film. Eastwood unravels his story with a precise, but slow and deliberate rate that may irritate some viewers. This is a movie you have to surrender yourself to. You can't go looking for quick and easy answers delivered by soulless exposition. The characters, as well as the multiple storylines, are revealed, little by little. I never once found myself bored, though. Even though the storyline surrounding Damon's character grabbed my attention the most, and obviously got the most attention, I was never bored during the two other plots, nor did I find myself waiting for the film to jump to a more interesting story and character. Hereafter has been thought out extremely well, and I admire the way that the screenplay takes its time without dragging its feet.
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The ending that the movie arrives is the only sour note I found, as it's a little too contrived and tidy for it's own good. This is a small price to pay for everything that comes before it, however. Hereafter is a masterful movie, wonderfully told, and beautifully acted. It's a movie to be watched many times, and discussed just as often. More than that, it's heartfelt, loving, and a great film all the way around.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

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When I reviewed Paranormal Activity exactly one year ago, I called it "an ingenious little horror film that plays upon our fears of the dark and the unknown". When you think about it, there's no way that Paranormal Activity 2 could possibly live up to that. The sense of the unknown is gone. We've seen the first movie. We hold advance knowledge that the people up on the screen do not. All we can do is wait for the characters to catch on to what we already know, and for the inevitable outcome.

picThis is not very fun, as you can imagine. It also lessens the fear factor of the film itself. I walked into the original film knowing very little about it, so I was interested in learning just what was terrorizing young couple Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston) as they slept at night. We got some answers, but the movie was smart enough to leave enough unexplained to heighten the mystery. In Paranormal Activity 2, we get even more answers, which once again lessens the fear factor of the film. When you shed a light on the dark and the unknown, it's just not that scary anymore. More than that, this is just not that exciting of a movie. I was never engaged, and never found myself worrying about any of the characters. Everyone seems to be going through the motions this time around, almost as if they're waiting for the invisible entity stalking them to do terrible things to them.

picThe basic set up is that this is a prequel to the original, set two months earlier. Although Micah and Katie do appear in supporting roles, the focus this time is on Katie's sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden), her husband Daniel (Brian Boland), teenage daughter Ali (Molly Ephraim), and their new baby Hunter. They live in a sprawling suburban home that is vandalized one day, with every room trashed except for the baby's nursery. Fearing for his family's safety, Daniel installs a camera security system in the home. Since these cameras can see any room in the house at any time, and this movie is told from the point of view of these cameras, we lose the creepy impact of the original, where the camera was stationary for the most part, and things were usually happening just out of our sight. We get to see everything now as strange occurrences begin to happen around the home. Doors open and close by themselves, pots and pans fall from the racks, occasional loud banging can be heard, and poor little Hunter starts being visited by someone or something coming into his room at night.

picThe characters play the standard roles as expected. Daniel the husband is the skeptic, who refuses to believe the house is haunted until almost the last minute. Kristi and Ali slowly become terrified, but are afraid to talk about what they know. There's a Hispanic nanny who lives with the family, and fills the role of all ethnic characters in horror movies - She's the first to know something is wrong, holds mystical spiritual powers, and no one believes her when she tells them there is something evil in the house. Even the family dog plays the required role of barking and growling at seemingly nothing, only for the family to learn too late it was trying to warn them. All of this plays out at a sluggish pace. The original movie took it's time doling out the scares, but it at least held your attention, and let you know something was building. This time around, the movie doesn't so much build, but rather slogs through familiar material.

picThe movie counts down the passing days, just like before, but there's no real sense of growing dread like there was in the first film. Wouldn't Kristi and Ali be checking the cameras to see if it picked up anything the night before a lot more than they seem to? Wouldn't they be naturally concerned about little Hunter's safety, and watching the footage of his room like a hawk? Wouldn't they at least try to convince Daniel at least once that maybe they should get out of the house? Of course, Daniel wouldn't listen. He's written to be wrong about everything, to be a sarcastic jerk, and to ridicule and criticize his wife and teenage daughter at every opportunity. He exists so, I don't know, maybe we can cheer when he learns too late about the danger that's been right in front of him the entire time.

As for the film itself, it exists for an entirely different reason - Because the first one made $100 million during it's box office run. Okay, to be fair, it does try to add onto the story that the first film created. The question that nobody at the studio seemed to ask is did it need to be added onto? It worked as a simple cinematic campfire ghost story. We don't need a whole backstory and an explanation. We don't need to know how the childhood photo from the first movie got burned. Or why this invisible entity has chosen this particular family. Just give me some satisfying jolts and a creepy atmosphere, and I'm happy. Instead, this movie gives us a lot of empty jump scares, none of which are effective, except for one scene involving exploding cupboards.
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I'm certain that this movie will have its defenders, and I'll probably be reviewing Paranormal Activity 3 this time next year. I'd be much happier if I wasn't, naturally. Paranormal Activity 2 is not the worst sequel to hit this year, but it sure is a lazy cash grab when you look back on it. It exists simply because somebody saw a franchise possibility. That somebody was wrong.

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Saturday, October 16, 2010

Jackass 3D

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Johnny Knoxville and the Jackass boys are growing up. And no, that's not a good thing for this franchise. While the previous two films were largely hit or miss with me (I'm not familiar with the TV show that inspired the films, and have no real desire to familiarize myself.), I had to grudgingly admire them in a small way for the sheer anarchy on display. Jackass 3D almost seems to be playing it safe, as the aging thrill-seekers perform stunts and pranks that seem rather tame compared to the stuff they did before.

picThese are guys who swam with sharks, rode atop rockets launched into the sky, smashed themselves up in runaway golf carts and shopping carts, stuck leeches on their eyes, and braved alligators with raw chicken stuffed in their shorts. There was always this sneaking dread that one or more of the cast members would end up dead by the time the end credits rolled around. Even if you weren't entertained by the obnoxious antics, you couldn't take your eyes off the screen, because you couldn't believe what you were seeing. This time, the shock and awe is lessened by the fact that the stunts just don't seem quite as dangerous as before. Oh, they get into a ring with an angry bull or a ram once in a while. And the climactic stunt involving one of the guys in a catapulting port-o-potty will have you cringing. But you won't be cringing out of fear for the safety of the guy up on the screen. You'll be cringing in disgust.

picThat's one thing the movie still does have. Projectile vomiting, people covered in human feces, and a guy being made to drink sweat that's been drained off an obese man on a treadmill are just some of the images you'll be attempting to wash from your mind after you see this movie. As the title suggests, it's all in 3D, which seems less like a gimmick, and more like a cruel prank on the audience. It seems like Knoxville and his regular band of idiots know they can't do a lot of the dangerous stunts they used to, so they resort to plain-old gross out humor, or timid pranks, such as having one of the guys dress up like a gorilla and have him run amok in an unsuspecting couple's hotel room. It's a promising set up for a funny prank, but there's no real pay off. The payoff we do get has nothing to do with the actual stunt itself, it's just more uninspired toilet humor.

picThe gags in this film suffer from a lot of payoff problems, actually. I didn't know how to even respond to some of them. One gag involving guys playing Tetherball with a hive of angry bees ends with them running away in fear after only a few seconds. Another, where a guy is unknowingly dropped into a pit of live and rubber snakes, ends with him seemingly near-tears and cursing out the cast and crew around him. Maybe these guys aren't enjoying this stuff as much as they used to? Honestly, the only time I actually did laugh at the antics up on the screen was the skits where they just perform random, bizarre acts in front of ordinary people who are not in on the joke. There's a memorable bar fight involving midgets, that only gets funnier as it escalates and grows more absurd. There's also a gag where a guy walks into a store, telling a random stranger to watch his dog that he leaves outside the store. It's a simple payoff, but effective.
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Jackass 3D will definitely make as much money as the earlier films, probably more so, thanks to the added 3D price. But, I sincerely hope that this is the last film in the series. It's not so much because I think the stunts are declining in quality (even if they are), but because there's going to be a point very soon where it's just going to be sad watching these guys do this stuff. Everyone has to grow up eventually. And unfortunately for Knoxville and his crew, they're just not the boys they used to be.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Red

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It takes a large suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy Red. Fortunately, the film is a comedy that doesn't allow itself to be taken seriously for a single second. It makes it much easier for the audience to just go down the bizarre path the movie wants to take us. If the screenplay had even tried to ask us to believe what we were seeing, the end result would have been disastrous.

picIt's a good thing that director Robert Schwentke (The Time Traveler's Wife) knows this, and simply focused on making a fun, energetic action comedy that is filled with a lot of very funny one-liners, and a game cast that understands the material. The film's cast is impressive. Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, and Helen Mirren play the heroes - Retired CIA agents who are called back into action. (The title, Red, stands for Retired: Extremely Dangerous). Mary-Louise Parker is the much younger female lead. Even Ernest Borgnine and Richard Dreyfus show up in minor roles. With all this talent in one movie, it's sometimes too easy for the film to get overloaded, or neglect their talents. Surprisingly, this never happens here. Everyone seems to be having the time of their lives, and that fun carries through to the audience. Best of all, despite the goofy material, none of the big name stars come across as if they are slumming it or cashing a paycheck. They sell this stuff, and it works.

picI suppose there will be some inevitable comparisons to The Expendables, since both films deal with "over the hill" action heroes. The obvious difference is that Stallone's film rode solely on its cast, while this film has genuine wit and charm. It kicks off with ex-CIA operative Frank Morse (Willis) trying to adjust to retirement, and getting whatever satisfaction he can by phone flirting with Sarah (Parker), who is the claims officer that handles his pension checks. Just when Frank thinks he's going to die of boredom, some hit men break into his house late one night and perform a botched attempt on his life. Frank escapes, realizes that he's no longer safe and someone wants him dead, and forces Sarah to go along for the ride, since she got dragged into it all when their phone conversations became tapped. With the ruthless young CIA agent William Cooper (Keith Urban) on their trail, Frank is forced to drag his former teammates out of retirement if he or Sarah want any chance to survive or find out the truth.

picGiven that Red is based on a graphic novel, it's not surprising that Frank's team is comprised of characters that are written in broad, exaggerated strokes. Joe (Freeman) is the soft-spoken one who still has what it takes, even if he has Stage 4 liver cancer. Marvin (Malkovich) is a paranoid conspiracy nut with survival skills. Victoria (Mirren) is a classy British matriarch who is handy with a sniper rifle or assault weapon. Finally, Ivan (Cox) is a KGB agent who fills the usual Russian cliches. (He drinks a lot of vodka, and his name is Ivan.) The plot they uncover is a tangled mess of blackmail, backstabbings, and betrayals that reach to the highest form of the government. But seriously, the plot begs not to be followed. It's convoluted, and not as much fun as the actors working their way through it. Willis brings a dry comic edge that was missing in his last comedy, Cop Out, Freeman is as smooth and likable as always, Malkovich is put to much better use here than he was in last week's Secretariat, and gets some of the biggest laughs in the film, and Mirren looks surprisingly badass blowing villains away with an automatic gun.

picSpeaking of guns, this is another movie where the villains can't seem to make a clear shot unless the screenplay requires it, and the heroes never miss. Usually this bugs me, but in a movie as goofy as this, I found it easier to accept. (Just like I was able to accept the fact that no one in the neighborhood heard anything when Frank's suburban home becomes a literal war zone early on.) I was able to go along with it, because the film's energy is just so high and fun. I knew it made no sense, and I didn't care. The movie succeeds at not just being disposable entertainment, but at also being a comedy that is genuinely funny. There's a lot of lines of dialogue to look out for. The plot and the action may be on autopilot, but at least the humor is strong throughout.
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Those who enjoy picking movies apart are not going to get a lot out of Red. This wasn't made for those people anyway. The movie worked for me, at least, and I can see it being a crowd pleaser. It's fun, it's silly, it's energetic, and it succeeds at what it wants to be. That may not sound like much, but you have to remember, there are a lot of movies out there that don't even know what they want to be, or who they want to be for. Red is a movie that gets it right early on, and stays on the path to the end.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Life as We Know It

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There's not really a whole lot bad I can say about Life as We Know It, while at the same time not a whole lot I can praise. It's a sunny, pleasant, middle of the road romantic comedy that does its job. We like the characters, there's some notable chemistry between the lead stars, we smile at the cute baby, and then we forget about the movie until it goes into regular rotation on network TV in three or four years. That's when we won't be able to get away from the film, I imagine.

picIf I had to pick at least one thing that bugged me about the movie, it wouldn't be the predictable plot, or the baby poo and spit up gags that have been recycled right out of Three Men and a Baby. Those kind of things are expected in a movie such as this. No, what bothered me was the fact that director Greg Berlanti decided to shoot so much of the film with a soft light focus. It sometimes looks like we're watching the movie through a camera lens that's been smeared with butter before shooting began. It gives the backgrounds and settings a kind of soft, blurry look that really got on my nerves. Granted, he doesn't use it for every shot, but when he does, it grabbed my attention, and not in a good way.

picOnto the plot: The film kicks off three years ago when Holly (Katerine Heigl) and Messer (Josh Duhamal) are set up on a disastrous blind date by their mutual best friends, a married couple named Alison (Christina Hendricks) and Peter (Hayes MacArthur). Holly and Messer have absolutely nothing in common, which you think Alison and Peter would have realized before they set them up. I guess they're familiar with the standard romantic comedy conventions that a couple must hate each other before they love each other. Time passes, and a tragic little bit of plot contrivance occurs. Alison and Peter are killed in a car crash, and state in their will that Holly and Messer must raise their orphaned 1-year-old daughter, Sophie, together. Once again, the couple thought ahead, and are wise in the ways of Hollywood conventions. They just seemed to know that this experience would bring Holly and Messer together.

picSo, Holly and Messer are forced to move into their friends' sprawling suburban home (which they get to live in for free as part of the will), hang out with some goofy and colorful neighbors, and grow closer together as they struggle to raise Sophie. Naturally, the pressures of raising a kid prove some difficulties. Holly's a perfectionist who runs a gourmet bakery, and is trying to start a relationship with a nice doctor who comes to her store (Josh Lucas). Messer is a slob, a womanizer, and a technical director for televised basketball games. How will they ever get to live their own lives, while fulfilling their duties as parents? I'm sure those of you who have never seen a situation comedy on TV will be on the edge of their seats. The whole thing unfolds predictably, but there are some charms to be found.

picHeigl and Duhamal work well together up on the screen. I'm not quite sure I buy Heigl as a leading lady yet, as she seems to play the same character in every film, but she at least works here. Duhamal is charismatic, and I would like to see him with a stronger part. The movie itself also has some cute moments. I liked how Duhamal became addicted to toddler TV as the film went on. I also liked that no matter how predictable things got, the movie never resorts to having the characters act like total idiots, as in the recent female-centric comedy, You Again. There is one scene that comes dangerously close (when Duhamal leaves little Sophie in the back seat of a taxi cab), but at least the movie doesn't dwell on this type of behavior.
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If I seem to be fishing for complements, that's only because there's not a lot to say about Life as We Know It. It's pleasant in-one-ear, out-the-other entertainment that doesn't stick around when it's done. It will make a passable date movie, but that's about it.

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Saturday, October 09, 2010

My Soul to Take

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How can you tell when a filmmaker has completely lost his way? Well, when he makes a movie like My Soul to Take is usually a pretty good sign. For his first shot behind the camera since 2005, Wes Craven has brought us an incoherent mess made up of half-baked ideas, stupid symbolism, and a string of uninspired death scenes. Even in a year that has not exactly been a high point for the horror genre, this is the goofiest thriller I've seen since The Box.

picThe opening scenes set up the back story of the Riverton Ripper, a serial killer who prayed upon a sleepy little town, until it was discovered that the Ripper was a family man suffering from multiple personalities, one of which was very psychotic. One fateful night, he murders his pregnant wife in her sleep, and tires to kill his three-year-old daughter, but the police bust in and stop him. We get a string of "is he or is he not dead" moments, where the killer keeps on coming back to life when you think he's finally dead. He even comes back to life as the ambulance is taking him to the hospital, and causes an accident. The body of the Ripper was never found at the scene of the accident, and ever since then, he's become an urban legend. The same night this happened, seven babies were born, one of whom was saved and taken out of the womb of the Ripper's wife.

picSixteen years later, the seven kids born that night hold a ceremony that's supposed to keep the spirit of the Ripper at bay on their birthday, the anniversary of the tragic night. On this night, it falls on the shoulders of a kid named Bug (Max Thieriot) to perform the ceremony, but he gets frightened, and doesn't go through with it. Sure enough, that same night, the Riverton Ripper returns, and begins killing the seven children tied to his legend. The Ripper himself sort of resembles the lovechild of Rob Zombie and John Travolta's character from Battlefield Earth. Oh, and he talks in a raspy voice that sort of resembles the evil Dr. Claw from the Inspector Gadget cartoons. As Bug and the other kids try to find out what's happening, a lot of questions are raised. Is the Ripper truly alive, or back from the dead? Could it be that one of his many personalities were transferred into the seven children who were born that night, and one of them is carrying on with his work?

picUnfortunately, the questions the audience ask, such as "what is the point", or "why should we care" are never answered. This is a lethargic little supernatural tale that takes its sweet time getting to where it's going, and never really does anything when it gets there. My Soul to Take plays like the tired swan song of a man who's lost touch with his work. The scares are pedestrian and lifted almost directly from other films (some his own), the characters are written as if they did not have the slightest bit of thought put to them (many exist solely to be killed), and the whole movie ends up sinking under a shaky narrative and incoherent plotting. Plot twists begin to feel like afterthoughts, as Craven does little to flesh them out. Potentially interesting ideas, like Bug being able to see visions of his dead friends in mirrors who communicate with him and try to help him, are pretty much tossed in haphazardly, with little to no thought toward consistency.

picThe movie's bad enough, but just to make anyone foolish enough to pay to see this even angrier, the film is being presented in 3D, even though there are absolutely no 3D shots whatsoever in the film itself. I'm serious. Not a single one. I took my glasses off for long periods of time, and could not tell the difference, aside from the fact the glasses made everything look dark and muddy. This is the kind of film that argues why we even have 3D in the first place, if greedy studio heads are just going to use it simply as a means to bilk more money. In an interview, Wes Craven pretty much stated he is not very fond of the current 3D trend, meaning the decision was most likely forced upon him. Sure, Craven deserves some blame (he went along with it and, well, he made the movie to start with), but whoever did this "3D conversion" should be ashamed of themselves.

picEven if My Soul to Take had the most impressive 3D visuals known to man, it wouldn't hide the fact that there's not a single character worth caring about, or plot thread that we can follow from beginning to end. The movie plays like it's been edited numerous times in a vain effort to squeeze some entertainment value from the jumbled scenes. And yet, all this editing has made the characters either completely underdeveloped, or go through severe and unexplained shifts in personality. The worst example is a girl at school named Fang (Emily Meade), who goes through so many shifts, I had no idea what I was supposed to think of her. She starts out as a sort of school crime boss, who runs a money extortion scheme out of the girl's bathroom. Then, it's revealed that she's Bug's brother. (Information we did not know earlier.) Then she lashes out at him violently as she explains his terrifying past. Then she helps him fight back when the killer has them cornered. The movie can't seem to get a handle on her.
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As often happens when I'm stuck watching a movie I have little to no interest in, my mind starts to wander, and sometimes I come up with my own movie. I dreamed up a story about the "Riverdale Ripper", who terrorizes the kids from the Archie comics. Yes, a slasher film concerning Archie and Jughead proved to be favorable to what I was watching. Should you see this movie, you'll probably be desperate for mental escapism as well. Not that I recommend you do see it.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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Friday, October 08, 2010

Secretariat

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Call me a cynic. Call me a grouch. But the story of Secretariat (at least the story that made it up on the screen) did not really move me in the slightest. Yes, many of the horse racing scenes are exciting, especially the climactic one. But the movie is filled with trite dialogue, shallow characters, and a whole lot of scenes that seem like they came out of the "inspirational sports movie" textbook. The movie also tries way too hard to be uplifting. Yes, I'm sure Secretariat's sensational run that sent him into the record books was a wonder to behold. But having gospel music blasting on the soundtrack while this is happening is taking things a bit too far.

picThis being a Disney picture, any rough edges or conflict have pretty much been sanded over to the point that we can't worry what will happen to the characters, since the movie seems to be constantly holding our hand, reassuring us that everything will be okay. Every time a problem arises, there's a character ready to spout such feel-good lines as "Win if you can, and live with it if you can't", or "I will not live the rest of my life in regret". Most of these lines are spoken by Diane Lane, who plays Penny Chenery, the woman who raised Secretariat to be a horse racing champion. The movie makes a mistake making her the main focus of the film, as she's just not very interesting. She delivers a lot of speeches that seem like they were filmed to be an Oscar clip should she get a nomination (she's not bad in the role, but definitely wishful thinking on the part of the filmmakers), and basically ignores her entire family as she spends all her time trying to raise this horse and save her father's farm. Don't worry. The family seems to be okay that she's neglecting them, and never once raise a fuss over it.

picWe're supposed to like Penny, because she never gives up, no matter how hard things get. Her mom dies as the film opens, leaving her to care for her ailing father, who's practically a human vegetable by this time. Some shady people try to swindle her out of the full amount of money she could get by selling some of her father's horses, but she's too smart and full of inspirational spunk to fall for that. She knows that she can breed a champion horse that can raise enough money to save her father's home, and hires unconventional trainer Lucien Lauren (John Malkovich). Lucien acts as the comic relief in the film, his main running gag being he wears a lot of goofy looking hats. With the help of a strong-minded jockey named Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwath), they raise the horse Secretariat to be a champion who goes on to win the Triple Crown in 1973. Director Randall Wallace does a great job building up tension during the race scenes, even if we know the outcome. When the horses are lining up, we can feel the excitement. And when they're off and running, the shots and thundering pace of the action is exhilarating.

picToo bad these scenes make up maybe 20 minutes or so of Secretariat. The rest of the time, we get a cliched and fragmented narrative that never comes together. A lot of the subplots either never build, or don't go anywhere. The distance that is supposed to grow between Penny and her family as she devotes all her time to the farm never resonates, because the movie forgets to give her husband (Dylan Walsh) any scenes to express how he really feels. There's one or two scenes that seem to hint at his feelings that he's losing his wife, but they're quickly forgotten, and next time we see him, he's cheering the horse on with the rest of the world. There's also a plot where Penny's oldest daughter paves her own way in life by protesting the Vietnam War, and how this makes Penny proud that her daughter is finding her own voice, but the two characters spend so little time together in the movie, we never quite understand the full extent of their relationship.

picRather than develop these people into memorable characters, the screenplay by Mike Rich goes for a completely conventional and by the numbers approach. It hits all the expected notes of an underdog story, without hitting any real emotional buttons. I felt like an outsider during scenes that I knew were supposed to be tugging at my heart. Take the scene where Lucien burns the articles he's been carrying all these years about his past losses. This is a key moment for the character, as it's supposed to symbolize him forgetting about his troubled past, and looking to the future for the first time in a long time. Yet, the movie treats it in such a cursory manor, it doesn't resonate. It also doesn't help that I felt like I barely knew Lucien to begin with. Malkovich is fine in the role (as is the rest of the cast in their respective parts), but he can't breathe life into the character when there's so little there to begin with.
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Secretariat is a movie that desperately wants to be liked, to be uplifting, and to leave us walking out of the theater with a spring in our steps and a song in our hearts. I wanted the movie to tone it down a little, and just tell us the real story. The one that doesn't seem sanitized and smoothed over. When Secretariat was running his triumphant championship race, I started to feel myself get excited. Then that over the top gospel music kicked in, and I laughed. I don't think that was the reaction the filmmakers were going for.

See the movie times in your area or buy the DVD at Amazon.com!

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