Reel Opinions

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Saw IV

"It's smart that this movie tries to wrap everything up before the films wear out their welcome, and if Lionsgate is smart, they'll leave it at this instead of trying to find a way to milk more money out of it". - A quote from my review of Saw III

Oh, how young and foolish I was just one year ago. I forgot the most important rule of horror franchises. The villain is not dead until the box office returns start to dwindle. Saw III ended with the notorious serial killer, John Kramer (aka Jigsaw), meeting his end. The story that began back with 2004's Saw had concluded, and I was naive enough to figure studio heads would agree. But, the movie made money, so here I am reviewing Saw IV. Up to this point, I've mainly been able to support the franchise. But the latest sequel just smacks of desperation and money grubbing instead of having an actual story to tell. When the evil voice of Jigsaw states ominously in the opening scene that the games are not over, we feel like it's not the character himself giving us this dire warning, it's the greedy studio head at Lionsgate who greenlighted this project speaking.

The film opens with a lengthy and graphic autopsy scene where a small tape player is discovered within the stomach of the corpse of John Kramer (Tobin Bell). Just as Jigsaw's voice on the tape proclaims, the games are not over, and there's someone else out there all too willing to take his place. A police Detective named Riggs (Lyriq Bent) is deeply affected by this, as he has lost many friends to this madman over the years. But now, Jigsaw (or whoever is taking his place) is willing to give Riggs a chance to face his obsession with saving others. It seems that Riggs is the latest victim to go through the killer's twisted mind games, where he must face his fears and insecurities. If he succeeds, he has a chance to rescue forensics specialist Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) and one of Jigsaw's earlier victims, who is still alive, Eric Matthews (Donny Wahlberg). As Riggs races about the city, following the killer's cryptic clues, a pair of FBI Agents (Scott Patterson and Athena Karkanis) try to sweat some information out of John's ex-wife (Betsy Russell), since they feel she might know something that might lead to clues as to who is behind the most recent series of deadly "games".

In the past, I have admired the Saw franchise for keeping at least some level of consistency. Given the fact that each film has been released exactly one year from each other, that's no easy task. Saw IV is the point where the series has finally broken down into utter desperation. While not completely unwatchable, this is such a convoluted and messy attempt to keep the story going that it's almost laughable. The movie throws numerous flashbacks, flash forwards, flashbacks within flashbacks, and multiple plotlines that are never developed to any degree of satisfaction. The Saw films have always been uncomfortable to watch, but this time it wasn't the grisly images that unnerved me (though I certainly could have down without the opening autopsy sequence that seems to go on much longer than it needs to), it was the confusing and often muddied storytelling that made me squirm in my seat. So many characters, plots, and twists are introduced that it just stops being fun trying to figure it all out. Rather than feeling like pieces of a puzzle falling into place, it feels like returning director Darren Lynn Bousman is trying to make the awkward pieces of the plot fit together by bashing them in with a hammer. It doesn't help that the film's awkward and rapid-paced editing seems to have been pieced together with...well, a saw. A chainsaw to be more specific.

The movie retains the same dark and gritty look of the past films, and has a couple nice surprises and explanations for viewers who have been with the series since the beginning. But this all falls apart when you begin to realize that not much of interest is happening in the film's main narrative. Characters are sketchily developed, and seem to exist either to be tortured, or attempt to explain the overly crowded plot through a string of flashbacks. When the characters in the flashbacks started to have flashbacks themselves, I couldn't help but laugh. It was all I could do to stop myself from screaming out in frustration. The flashbacks that hold the most interest for fans of the series (the ones that are supposed to talk about the relationship between John Kramer and his ex-wife, and what led him down the path of madness) is disappointingly simplified and predictable. Never mind the fact that the ex-wife can frequently flashback to events that she didn't even witness, the entire story itself seems to be too undernourished to give it the tragic feel that the filmmakers are aiming for. We don't feel for the characters, just like we don't feel for anyone else in the movie.
Saw IV retains all the visual qualities of its predecessors, so it at least feels like a continuation of the other films at least on the surface. But there's something very weak and shaky at the central story level, and it just can't support the movie. When the identity of the new killer is revealed during the film's final moments, I didn't feel anything. I felt as indifferent and toyed with as I did throughout the rest of my viewing experience. The movie is bound to rake in the cash with the horror movie crowd this weekend, and I have no doubt I'll be watching Saw V a year from now. The filmmakers had a chance to leave with dignity. That ship has sailed, and the franchise has decided to pursue the all mighty dollar instead.


Friday, October 26, 2007

Dan in Real Life

Steve Carell is a rare kind of comic actor who, even though he makes us laugh, always has a certain sort of sadness behind his characters. Think about it. In his breakthrough role in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, he played a sheltered and lonely man who had a hard time with almost any kind of relationship. In Little Miss Sunshine, he played a brilliant yet depressed man who had recently attempted suicide, and seemed to spend most of the film contemplating why he couldn't go through with it. He had a rare misstep with his last film, Evan Almighty, that stuck him in a generic "sitcom dad" role. He seemed uncomfortable with such a shallow character, and it showed, giving us his worst performance to date. With Dan in Real Life, a heartfelt and crowd pleasing comedy-drama, Carell is once again playing a character that matches his unique blend of humor and pathos. His performance, and the film itself, is a lot more complex than what you'd expect to find in a Hollywood romantic comedy.

Dan Burns (Steve Carell) writes an advice column for a local newspaper, but seems like he could use some advice with his life most of all. Since his wife died four years ago, Dan has been struggling to raise his three daughters (Alison Pill, Brittany Robinson, and Marlene Lawston), and is having even more trouble now that two of them are well into their teens, and are starting to bring up issues Dan would rather ignore such as dating and driving. The entire family gets in the car to visit Dan's parents (Diane Wiest and John Mahoney) for the annual family reunion. Early on, Dan decides to go to a nearby bookstore, where he has a chance encounter with a lovely young woman named Marie (Juliette Binoche). There is instant chemistry, even though she states early on that she's already in a relationship. They share breakfast at a local diner, and before he knows it, she has walked out of his life, as she had to be somewhere suddenly. Dan is certain he'll never see her again, until he returns to his parents' house, and finds Marie there as the new girlfriend that his brother, Mitch (Dane Cook), has invited to introduce to the family. The two are now forced to spend the entire week together, hiding their emotions from each other and the rest of the family.

Dan in Real Life is a surprisingly emotional and honest struggle between two characters who know that they are perfect for each other, but at the same time, know they can never be together. This is, for once, not the case of the Idiot Plot at work. These characters are not kept apart by stupid decisions or contrived plotting, but because they respect one another and the people they are around. Dan is someone with the weight of the world of his shoulders. He must not only deal with his own problems, but his daughters and their growing need for independence, as well as the numerous problems that are mailed to him everyday for his column. When he meets Marie, we can plainly tell that it's the first time he's been truly happy in a long time. He smiles a lot and he has a sharp sense of humor around others, but underneath it all, we know that Dan is only pretending when he's around everyone else, but truly smiles and laughs for Marie. Since he gives advice to others and tries to make everyone happy but himself, maybe that is why he doesn't say anything when Mitch "introduces" him to his new girlfriend. Mitch has had a long string of girlfriends that never worked out, and he seems so happy with Marie that Dan finds he just can't say anything. This becomes harder the more time he's forced to spend around Marie. Everyone in the family loves her and is drawn to her, and Dan is forced to withdraw himself. Marie goes through a similar crisis, as she obviously has feelings for Dan that she cannot find in Mitch, and becomes torn between what she wants versus the safest route that would not lead to confrontation.

This emotional conflict at the center of the film is engaging, and dealt with in a mature fashion that never feels simplified and dumbed down. These are two complicated people, and the accompanying performances of Carell and Juliette Binoche are up to the challenge. Carell earns his laughs with his line delivery and quick wit, but just like his best film roles, we sympathize with him as well. He comes across as someone who uses humor as a weapon to battle his own depression, and he lets us clearly see that sometimes Dan is fighting a losing battle. Carell has a certain "everyman" quality that I've always enjoyed about him, and he gets to exploit it here. Juliette Binoche is also winning in her performance. She is sweet, yet intelligent, and often seems to have a calmer head about the situation than Dan does. The real surprise, though, comes from Dane Cook. He is an actor who I have not particularly admired, but now I'm wondering if maybe he was just paired with the wrong material in films like Employee of the Month and Good Luck Chuck. Here, he is very low key, subdued, honest, and I liked him a lot. He gives his character of Mitch a lot of personality, and does a good job of showing the wide range of emotions his character must go through. In fact, I would have liked to have seen him do more personal scenes with Carell, as the two actors have surprisingly good chemistry during their time together.

This, in a way, leads me to my main problem with Dan in Real Life. As enjoyable as it is, I was left wanting more. The inevitable family confrontation when Dan and Marie's relationship is finally brought to light is almost non-existent, and seems to be glossed over. We keep on waiting for certain moments that are sure to come, but they never do. The movie is roughly 100 minutes long, and this is one case where I think a longer running time would have been more beneficial in order to flesh out these complex characters even more, and give them the climax they deserve. The ending we do get for the characters is fine, but there seems to be some scenes missing. Slightly lower on the annoyance scale is the screenplay's occasional dip into sitcom territory. It doesn't happen so often that it ruins the mood the movie tries to provide, but a running gag involving a police officer gets old pretty quickly, and a scene where Dan must hide in a shower then escape outside a window without being seen seems to be lifted right out of a TV comedy, minus the laugh track. Fortunately, most of the laughs this movie does hold are genuine and smart, and there are some big ones, too.
I can easily forgive any faults, because for the most part, Dan in Real Life has a very low key and quiet appeal to it, kind of like the character of Dan himself. We find ourselves identifying with the characters, laughing with them, and it doesn't take long until we are attached to them. It's very subtle in the way that it grows on us. It starts out as a fairly standard romantic comedy, but we slowly start to realize that it has a lot more to say. It hits a few bumps along the road, but the destination it arrives at is one that doesn't seem overly calculated or forced. Much like most of the film, it is honest and leaves us in a good mood as we walk out of the theater.


Monday, October 22, 2007

Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour

If there's one thing kids like, it's to be scared. That's why I'm always so surprised there aren't more horror-themed films targeted at younger audiences. Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour is an attempt to make a PG-rated supernatural film targeted at preteens. It's not a very good attempt, but it's an attempt nonetheless. The movie has lofty ambitions of becoming a franchise, but stumbles right out of the gate with boring characters and a pace that frequently slows to a crawl, making its 80 minute running time seem to last two hours. I admire what the filmmakers were trying to do here, but the execution is just so completely off the mark.

Our title heroine is a 17-year-old girl (Rissa Walters) who decides she needs to get away after her lifelong best friend is killed in a car accident. Sarah takes a weekend holiday to a small town called Pine Valley, and reunites with an old family friend named Mrs. Shaw (Jane Harris). As soon as she arrives in Pine Valley, she learns that the town has a dark secret. Well, it's not much of a secret, as everybody in town seems to know about it and is willing to talk about it with Sarah, even complete strangers. Seems that years ago, a car crash claimed the life of the town's "Golden Boy", and the boy's father, Ben Woods (Rusty Hanes), swore vengeance on the family of the woman who caused the accident. He swore that he would kill the family's eldest son, David (Brian Comrie), on his 21st birthday - the same age his son died. Ben died of a heart attack on the day of his son's funeral, but that apparently hasn't stopped him, and he's been working on his evil plan from beyond the grave, sending spooky nightmare visions to David's mother to the point she was shipped away to an asylum. David is now a total recluse, completely obsessed with studying the paranormal and fearing for his own life as his 21st birthday rapidly approaches. David's brother, Matt (Dan Comrie), thinks his brother's as crazy as their mother, but Sarah has a feeling that their may be a lot more truth to this spooky legend than anyone might think.

"The Paranormal Hour" of the title refers to midnight to 1 AM, which is supposed to be when paranormal activity is at its peak, and also supposedly when Ben's vengeful spirit is going to be coming after David when he turns 21. The movie at least seems to have done a little bit of homework, and wants to be a film that talks seriously about paranormal beliefs. All that flies out the window when we begin to realize that Sarah Landon is about as serious about the paranormal as an episode of Scooby-Doo. What the film basically amounts to is Sarah, David, and Matt listening to a bunch of colorful locals who explain the complicated background story little by little. Everybody knows the story about Ben, from the local mechanic to random people that our heroes just happen to meet. They're all too happy to share what they know to the point that the entire population of Pine Valley comes across as a Greek Chorus. There's some suspicious people in town too, namely a spooky little boy who may or may not be the reincarnation of Ben, because he hangs around the outside of David's house all day. At one point, we catch him singing "Camptown Ladies" to himself in an eerie tone of voice for no particular reason. At that point, I questioned if he was perhaps the reincarnation of Foghorn Leghorn.

What's frustrating about all this is we never learn anything that we didn't learn in the first 10 minutes or so. We know that Ben swore vengeance and has been haunting the house he used to live in ever since, and then we get a whole bunch of scenes that just repeat this fact, as if the movie thinks we didn't get it the first time. The paranormal actually has surprisingly little to do with this movie, as a vast majority of the scares are provided by spring-loaded cats (a cat suddenly leaping into the frame while its screeching meow booms on the soundtrack), or harmless people suddenly popping up seemingly out of nowhere. (The people in Pine Valley seem to be fond of sneaking up on poor Sarah.) There is supposedly a ghost in Sarah's bedroom that messes with the lights and even the toilet, but this is never developed, nor does it seem to have anything to do with the story. Is it the ghost of Sarah's dead best friend, who is constantly brought up, but also seems to have absolutely nothing to do with anything? I honestly have no idea. I would at least think Sarah would have the decency to bring up the fact that she has a ghost in her bedroom, flushing her toilets that are supposed to be broken, but she never says a word to anyone.

Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour is an independently made film that was directed by a first time filmmaker named Lisa Comrie. You may notice that she shares the same last name as the actors who play the two brothers, Matt and David. This was apparently a total family affair, as many more Comries are listed in the credits as writers, producers, actors, etc. I can understand that they made this film on the cheap, but they could have at least tried to get some actors that knew how to show emotion or do decent line readings. Everyone gives a performance that seems to suggest they'd rather be somewhere else. Rissa Walters makes for an attractive female lead, but she is completely devoid of anything resembling personality. That's because the movie strangely keeps her in the background, despite her character's name being in the title. Things keep on happening around her, but she seems to mostly come across as an observer. The preteen audience the movie is obviously hoping to attract won't be able to relate to her, because there is absolutely nothing to the character of Sarah. She's the hero of the story by default, simply because the title says she is.
Before I close this review, I really must talk about my favorite part of the film, which is the climax. It involves an ancient Druid ritual concerning turnips that are carved up to look like skulls, candles, an old Halloween mask, and a shotgun-toting granny. Somehow, the movie manages to take all this and make it boring. I don't want to say anymore, risk of spoiling it should you see it, but I do want to ask one question. How is Sarah and her friends able to pull off preparations for such an elaborate ceremony in less than two hours? You try finding a bag of turnips, then carving them into perfectly molded skulls in that short amount of time. The kids in this movie obviously cheated and got help from the prop department. I'd see if it could be done myself, but I'd hate to waste a perfectly good turnip.

No Amazon info - Sorry


Sunday, October 21, 2007


There are a slew of films about the current war situation and US politics being released in theaters this fall. We've already had The Kingdom, a mediocre and pat Hollywood-ization on a very difficult and timely topic. Now we have Rendition, which is also a bit too pat for its own good, but is the easily superior film. A lot of this has to do with the fact that this is the more realistic of the two films. The Kingdom was a popcorn action flick disguised as an important movie. Rendition takes a much more honest and human approach, and is much more effective because of it.

When Egyptian-born businessman Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) makes his way through an airport to return home to Chicago after a business trip, he expects to be greeted by the loving arms of his pregnant American wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon). Instead, he is greeted by airport security and government agents who lead him away and contain him. A recent terrorist bombing in Africa has been linked to him, due to the fact his cell phone records show that he has connections to a man who shares the same name as the one claiming responsibility to the attack. With Anwar in captivity, homeland security head Corrinne Whitman (Meryl Streep) gives the orders to put him under the guard of Arabic interrogator, Abasi Falwai (Igal Naor), who specializes in torture methods. A rookie CIA analyst named Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to observe the interrogation methods used on Anwar, and he finds himself horrified by the level of torture the captors inflect upon him. As Douglas tries to deal with the conflicted emotions he's feeling over how far the American government is willing to go to get information, Isabella is left in the dark, and left wondering what has become of her husband when he never arrived home. With roadblocks appearing every time she tries to get information from someone, she has to rely on the help of an old friend named Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) who has govefnment connections due to the fact he works for a Washington Senator (Alan Arkin).

Rendition is a story about a chain of events that slowly involves a large group of people. It not only involves them, but it consumes them completely. Believe it or not, the characters mentioned above are not the only ones affected. There is yet another subplot concerning Abasi's teenage daughter, Fatima (Zineb Oukach), who is involved with a young student whom her father does not approve of, and has run away from home to be with him. How they both fit into the plot, I will not reveal here, but it should be pretty obvious to most alert viewers early on as to why the movie keeps on cutting back to them. I always tense up a little when I realize the movie is going to be juggling multiple plots and characters. It's always kind of like watching a dangerous high wire act, and many movies have not been able to balance all the plotlines and characters, and fallen into the trap of mediocrity. For the most part, Rendition stays on solid footing. Aside from a confusing third act moment that is told out of sequence from the rest of the film, the movie is easy to follow and we find ourselves quickly involved with each of the unfolding storylines and the situations that the various characters find themselves in.

What impressed me the most is that the movie is wise in its use of anger. This is an angry film about questionable interrogation practices that the US has employed to its own benefit in getting information, but it is not an Anti-American film. There are no black and whites here, only various shades of gray. Meryl Streep's character spends most of the movie dodging people and questions about Anwar El-Ibrahimi, but when she is backed into a corner and forced to give something that actually resembles an answer, her reasoning and her logic makes some form of sense. She uses the argument of keeping America safe by any means possible, while of course leaving out certain key details. She has an icy demeanor and her methods often come across as cold, but we also get the sense that she truly believes in what she is saying. Maybe she's convinced herself that what she's saying is the truth after years of spinning her own actions to people who come up to question her. Maybe she truly does believe what she's saying. The movie leaves it up to us to decide. Most of the characters in this movie are firm in their beliefs as the film begins, and either find those beliefs wavering, completely shifted to another way of thinking, or they go on believing what they always have. This is a fascinating character study, and much like Gone Baby Gone, is worthy of a lengthy discussion when it is over.

Rendition marks the English-language debut of South African director, Gavin Hood. This has certainly been a wonderful weekend for new directors, and Mr. Hood is certainly in good company. His method is straight forward, but not in such a way that the camera becomes stagnant or the action becomes dull. He doesn't rely on any fancy camera tricks or angles, but he always knows how to focus the action in such a way that what we need to focus on immediately grabs our attention. The story moves at a brisk pace, and the editing expertly blends the multiple storylines in a way that is natural and never confusing, except for that brief third act moment that is told out of sequence. The performances he gets are about as fine as you would expect in a cast that includes such names as Gyllenhaal, Streep, Arkin, and Sarsgaard. The only small disappointment comes from Reese Witherspoon, and it's certainly not for lack of trying. You can tell she's giving her performance her all, but her character is unfortunately given the short end of the stick when it comes to characterization and development. She's forced to mainly sit around and look worried as she waits for any information at all about her missing husband. Witherspoon does try to add some strength to her performance, and makes her Isabelle more than just a woman who cries over her situation, but she just can't overcome the way her character has been written.
Rendition is probably about as simplified and pat as The Kingdom was in a lot of ways with its subject matter, but it succeeds due in part to the fact that it takes itself a lot more seriously and doesn't seem to be trying to be a crowd pleaser. There's no comic relief, there are no fast-paced and expertly edited action sequences, and the movie is still able to pull a few hard punches. The depiction of torture is realistic, but never exploitive. It knows not to linger on it, and it knows how to shock us. When all is said and done, could the movie have gone even deeper into its own subject matter? Absolutely. But there is just enough here to engage while watching it and engage some interesting conversations when it is over.


Gone Baby Gone

Just like life, there are no easy answers to be found in Gone Baby Gone. Here is a thriller that actually manages to thrill and, most importantly, keep you guessing all the way to the end. It also has a lot to say about a lot of matters. Ben Affleck makes his directorial debut with this film (he co-wrote the screenplay also), and shows a sure hand right off the bat in juggling a complex storyline, multiple characters, and numerous twists that never seem cheap or out of the blue. Everything flows naturally, and it does not take the audience long before they are completely absorbed. This is masterful work all the way around, and is easily the best film of the year so far.

As the film opens, a media circus is just beginning in the city of Boston when a 4-year-old girl named Amanda McCready (Madeline O'Brien) is abducted from her home late one night. The little girl's concerned Aunt (Amy Madigan) and Uncle (Titus Welliver) decide to take matters into their own hands somewhat, and approach a private investigator who specializes in missing person cases named Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and his girlfriend/business partner Angie (Michelle Monaghan from The Heartbreak Kid). Right from the start, Patrick comes across some information that does not match up with the story being told by Amanda's mother, Helene (Amy Ryan), and the deeper he digs, he slowly learns the truth about Helene's shady past of drug dealing. Fearing that one of Helene's past associates may have taken Amanda, Patrick and Angie team up with some local law officers, including Police Captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and Detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris). What Patrick discovers during the course of the investigation will not only effect him emotionally, but also make him question everything around him.

Based on a novel by Dennis Lahane (Mystic River), Gone Baby Gone is a movie that knows how to keep us guessing, and in such a way that the movie never once feels like it is toying with us or waiting to pull the rug out from under us. The movie starts out simply enough, as Amanda is taken from her own bed late one night, and the police arrive to investigate. And yet, this is more than a mere mystery film. It doesn't seem like it at first, but we slowly begin to realize that the movie is much more interested in the mystery of the characters involved in the investigation, rather than the mystery of the missing child. There are a lot of questions about morality and, as mentioned earlier, the movie intentionally gives us no easy answers or sometimes no answers at all, leaving us to debate the characters' decisions at the end of the film. The screenplay by Ben Affleck and first time screenwriter Aaron Stockard is complex, but never overly so, allowing us to discover the pieces of the puzzle along with the characters. It never overly simplifies things, never over explains itself, and it never hits us over the head with its own revelations. Each new addition to the plot is carefully placed so that it's not glaring or out of place.

I always get a wonderful sensation inside of me when I know I'm watching a great movie, and I got that feeling early on here. The movie has a wonderful sense of the local Boston culture, and most importantly, it puts us right into the action by making us feel the same things that the lead characters do. Both Patrick and Angie are relatively amateurs when it comes to this game, and they quickly find themselves wrapped into something much bigger than they could have ever imagined. The movie does a great job of displaying a sense of hopelessness and being in over your head. When Patrick is forced to make some very difficult decisions throughout the film, and question everything he knows about himself and the case he's investigating, we find ourselves thinking and feeling the same things right along with him. This does not come across as a film made by an actor taking his first shot at directing. Ben Affleck has obviously learned his lessons well from some of the directors he's worked with in the past, and gives this movie the look and precision of a veteran filmmaker. More than that, he never loses sight of his characters. All of their decisions, even the ones that may seem questionable to us, seem natural. Nobody seems to be working for the sake of the plot, and everybody fits into the plot in their own way. This is difficult to achieve in a mystery thriller, but this movie pulls it off effortlessly.

Another big aspect that makes this film work is the colorful and intense cast who tell the story. Casey Affleck has for years been struggling to get out brother Ben's shadow and become his own leading man, and here he may finally get his chance. As Patrick, he comes across as someone who thinks he knows the ropes, and he probably does. But then he gets wrapped up into something where the rules change, and he's forced to either adapt right along with them, or else face being swallowed up whole by his own feelings and doubts. As his business partner and girlfriend, Michelle Monaghan brings the right amount of sentimentality to the role, even if she does seem a bit underwritten in comparison to Patrick. The supporting cast features some wonderful performances by the always reliable Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, and Amy Madigan, but there is one supporting performance that really grabs our attention, and that is Amy Ryan as the strung-out mother of the missing Amanda. Despite the fact she's appeared in a number of films and TV shows, this is the first time I've truly noticed her, and she really nails her complex character. Her Helene is a woman who is completely self-absorbed in her own desires, but there is also a sort of pathetic humanity to her performance that makes her more interesting than she initially comes across. She doesn't get as much screen time as the other actors, but she leaves perhaps the biggest impression.
Gone Baby Gone is the kind of movie that is best to walk in knowing as little as possible. This is one where you don't want your friends to talk to you about it before you see it, as even the slightest spoiler would ruin the effect that this movie has. I was completely drawn in, and long before it was over, I knew that I was watching something truly rare. Here is a movie that is exciting as hell, emotional, honest, and surprising. It keeps us guessing most of the way, and when it's over, we can't stop talking about what we've seen and the choices the characters have made. Maybe the choices made are not the right ones, and maybe they don't bring the best results. But the choices the characters make by the end are smart and have real thought put behind them. Just like life.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Things We Lost in the Fire

Since winning the Academy Award for Monster's Ball back in 2002, Halle Berry's career has taken a bizarre route with a string of superhero movies, both decent (X-Men) and rightfully mocked (Catwoman), along with some rather odd choices (Gothika), and some flat-out stinkers (Perfect Stranger). Her latest film, Things We Lost in the Fire, is perhaps her first real acting role since she walked away from the Oscar podium that night 5 years ago. It's a fine performance, and it's surrounded by many others to support her. The movie itself works as well, thanks to a screenplay by relative newcomer, Allan Loeb, that favors honesty over melodrama for the most part.

Grieving widow and mother, Audrey Burke (Halle Berry), is still trying to pick up the pieces of her life after her husband, Brian (David Duchovny), was murdered while trying to break up a domestic dispute that he witnessed in the street. She finds a strange sort of comfort in one of Brian's closest friends from childhood, Jerry Sunborne (Belnicio Del Toro). Many people have shunned Jerry in the past, including Audrey, who never understood why her husband remained loyal to him. Jerry is a drug addict struggling to start over, but he keeps on falling into relapses, and can never seem to turn his life around. After Brian's funeral, the two create a strange and perhaps guarded bond, both of them unsure if they should truly trust the other. Audrey eventually invites Jerry to live at her home, half out of concern for his life and health, and half out of the fact that she doesn't want to be alone. Jerry quickly begins to bond with Audrey's two young children, 10-year-old Harper (Alexis Llewellyn) and 6-year-old Dory (Micah Berry). Audrey is not sure how to deal with this, especially when Jerry starts being a part of important moments in her childrens' lives that should have belonged to her husband. Jerry, on the other hand, is faced with his own personal demons of addiction, and trying to make sense out of Audrey's actions and wether they are out of friendship or pity.

Things We Lost in the Fire has a premise that could have lent itself easily to some heavy-handed melodrama. Denmark director Susanne Bier (making her English language debut with this film) manages to cast a mostly realistic light on the situation, and the characters involved. The movie does not overly simplify the characters or the problems they're facing. In a lesser film, Jerry would clean up his act early on, and then become a model father figure who would slowly fall in love with Audrey. To my surprise, and relief, nothing of the sort ever happens. Jerry struggles with his drug addiction throughout, and the relationship between the two leads remains warm, yet somewhat guarded, as if the two are afraid to truly open up with each other. This is a movie that understands that the situation is not cut and dry, and that healing is a process that cannot be contained within a two hour movie. It doesn't offer any miracles to either of the two characters, and the open ended nature of the conclusion lets us know that they both have a long way to go in their individual lives. I also liked the way that the screenplay portrays Jerry and his addiction in a realistic light. It does not white wash over the fact that he has spent far too long slowly destroying himself, and if it weren't for the fact he had one loyal friend up to the point Brian died, he'd probably have already left this world a long time ago. It manages to make him likable and sympathetic without every shying away from the darkness at the center of the character.

The character of Audrey doesn't get off much easier. She's battling her own personal demons of guilt, anger, and having to deal with her complex feelings of watching her two children slowly bond with Jerry. She is grateful for his presence, but at the same time, we also can clearly see that she resents him. She discovers that he knows things about Brian that even she didn't know, and even though it is a minor thing, it seems monumental to Audrey. The feelings and the complex relationship between the two leads are brought to life in the performances of Halle Berry and Belnicio Del Toro. Their chemistry together is likable, but also intentionally strained and somewhat forced, as if they are both hiding their true feelings for each other. Berry's Audrey both respects and resents this man she has invited into her home, and there are a lot of ways her performance reflects this, such as the way she looks at Jerry when he is helping one of her children overcome their fear of going underwater in a pool. Jerry is accomplishing something her husband never could with their child, and instead of joy, we see a look that seems to say "how dare you". Berry's performance, and the screenplay, wisely does not play up her mixed feelings at witnessing this moment, and lets her face and her eyes say it all. It's the little moments such as this that made me admire the film.

If the movie had consistently been this sure footed, we'd probably be looking at a great film here. But, because the movie does at times slip into some artificial-sounding dialogue and a few moments of out of place melodrama that it will just have to settle for being very good. Nothing wrong with that, of course. There are just a couple moments that ring false, such as when one of the children asks Jerry if he ever feels like his life is like a sad movie. The line itself sounds like nothing a 10-year-old would say, and it doesn't even sound right coming out of the mouth of the child, as it's just too scripted and forced. I also felt a missed opportunity in the character of Kelly (Alison Lohman), a fellow recovering drug addict whom Jerry meets at a group help meeting. She is supposed to play an important role in his road to recovery, but she never seems to come across as being as major of a character as she should, sort of coming and going as the movie sees fit. The movie centralizes itself so much on the internal problems of Audrey and Jerry that sometimes the outside characters seem to be pushed to the side.
It's really not a huge deal, as I found myself enjoying Things We Lost in the Fire quite a lot. The movie hits a few false notes, but it also holds a surprising amount of honesty and subtlety with material that could have easily become manipulative or bombastic. If anything, it proves a potential turning point for Berry, who will hopefully get over the superhero kick she's been under for the past four years, and get back to some more serious roles such as this. This is a movie with a heart and a brain worthy of the characters who inhabit the story, and seems to care about them as much as we eventually do. By the time the movie's over, we've been through a lot with the characters, and although their struggles will continue after the end credits have finished, we have hope for them.


The Comebacks

I lay the blame for The Comebacks on anyone who enjoyed Date Movie and Epic Movie. You people encouraged the Fox studio to keep on churning out desperate parody films, and now we're faced with what just may be the laziest and most desperate one of them all. The Comebacks barely qualifies as a parody. Heck, it barely qualifies as a movie. This is a comedy in theory, but not in execution. No one, not even the people involved with this mess, could have possibly fooled themselves into thinking they were making a funny movie. Director Tom Brady (The Hot Chick) has made something truly wretched here.

The plot, if you can even call it that, centers on a man named Lambeau Fields (David Koechner). Right when I heard his name within the first couple seconds of the film, I knew I was in for a long movie. Funny names are seldom funny, and become even less funny the more you hear them. Lambeau is one of the worst coaches in the world, but he's been given another chance by his best friend, Freddie Wiseman (Carl Weathers), to coach a ragtag college football team called The Comebacks. Lambeau must not only lead the team to victory, but also teach them the ways of inspirational sports movie cliches. He expects his kids to have poor grades and problems with alcohol, and ridicules them when they don't. When it looks like the team has a chance to play at the big championship Toilet Bowl game (Did 10-year-olds write this script?), Lambeau is shocked to discover that Freddie is the coach of the big rival team that his team will be playing against. Turns out Freddie only encouraged Lambeau to take the coaching job, because he wanted The Comebacks to lose.

The Comebacks is a movie so forced and pathetic, I almost had a hard time believing what I was watching. Spoof movies have recently turned into a game of "spot the movie reference", and this continues the tradition. It tries to squeeze in as many references to other sports movies as it can, but it either does absolutely nothing with them, expecting us to just point at the screen and laugh out of familiarity, or it attempts to be funny and falls flat on its face. Some of the films referenced include Field of Dreams, Bend it Like Beckham, Rocky Balboa, Friday Night Lights, Stick It, Radio, Miracle, Remember the Titans, Gridiron Gang, Invincible, and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. But wait, wasn't Dodgeball already a parody of inspirational sports movies? So, in other words, we're watching a parody of a parody of inspirational sports movies. If that makes any sense to you, you're just the audience this movie is looking for. Some of these films are referenced in the plot, and some (like the Rocky one) are just thrown in for no reason, because the filmmakers wanted to try to reference as many films as possible. There are some that the movie even feels the need to explain to us in its dialogue, just in case we've missed the obvious reference. You know a movie is in trouble when it has to spell out its own jokes to us.

The worst thing is that the screenplay by TV veterans and first time screen writers, Ed Yeager and Joey Gutierrez, doesn't even know the first and most important rule of parody - You have to play it straight. The actors have to pretend they're not in on the joke. The reason why the classic Zucker Brothers movies like Airplane, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun are remembered so fondly is because they cast serious actors like Leslie Nielsen (yes, he was a serious actor before he turned to comedy) and Robert Stack, and then threw them into ridiculous situations. What made it funny is that they acted like they weren't in a comedy, and kept a stone face to the weirdness around them. Those films wouldn't have worked if they played their roles broadly. The Comebacks proves this, as all the actors are forced to play their roles so goofy, it's like they're screaming at us to laugh. David Koechner keeps on flailing his arms, bulging his eyes, and screaming at the top of his lungs to the point he looks like someone who knows he's trapped in a dead-end comedy, and just tries too hard to pretend he's having a good time. The movie also doesn't understand the art of celebrity cameos (also an important factor when it comes to parody films). What kind of cameos do we get in The Comebacks? Andy Dick and Dennis Rodman.
By the time the movie throws in an out of nowhere and extremely pointless cast musical number to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" for absolutely no reason whatsoever, I was just about ready to walk out the theater door. I was the only person at my screening, and the thought of this movie going on its pathetic way to a completely empty house kind of appealed to me. I did sit through the rest of The Comebacks, and I was not rewarded for my efforts. The sad thing is, Fox is not yet done killing the spoof genre. They have a parody of 300 coming out next year called Meet the Spartans. I'd say it can't be much worse than this, but I've seen the trailer, and I wouldn't want to get your hopes up.


Friday, October 19, 2007

30 Days of Night

When the graphic novel that inspired 30 Days of Night came out a few years ago, I was not one of its fans. So, why did I walk out of the film adaptation with a mostly positive impression? A lot of it I think has to do with the strong visual sense of director David Slade. Slade burst onto the scene last year with the psychological thriller, Hard Candy. It was one of my favorite films of last year, and when I heard he was attached to this project, I was faced with a bit of dread. After all, I have seen many filmmakers make wonderful debuts, only to be stuck behind junk by the Hollywood machine. 30 Days of Night is nowhere near the film of his earlier work, but it's effective for the most part, and is able to create a surprising amount of tension from a simple yet effective premise.

The small town of Barrow is located at the most northern point in the US in Alaska. Every year, the town is hit by a weather phenomenon where the sun completely disappears for one month, and the surrounding area is thrown into endless night for 30 days. As the people of Barrow start to prepare for this year's occurrence, ominous signs start to pop up throughout the town during the sun's final hours. The local dogs are the first to pick up on it (somehow, animals are always the first to detect evil presences in horror films), but are quickly massacred by someone or something. The brutal killings are brought to the attention to the town's Sheriff, Eben Oleson (Josh Hartnett), a tortured man who is still coming to terms with the fact his beloved wife Stella (Melissa George) has recently left him. More signs continue to arise, including the arrival of a Stranger (Ben Foster), who offers cryptic warnings of death from his cell at the local jail. As night descends, mysterious people who move at inhuman speed are sighted, and more murders are reported. As Eben and a small group of survivors (including ex-wife Stella) try to figure out what's going on, they begin to realize that Barrow is under siege by a clan of vampires who have decided to take advantage of the whole "sun not rising for 30 days" deal, and turn the entire town into their personal all you can eat buffet. Eben and the others must now find a way to survive and avoid detection for the next month.

The film version of 30 Days of Night fixes one of my major problems I had with the original source graphic novel, in that I was not fond of the artstyle. Depicted in what I can best describe as highly stylized graffiti art, with loose lines and color scheme, it made the panels look sometimes rough and unfinished. This was obviously intentional, as the creators were probably going for a "gritty" look, but it just did not appeal to me. For the film adaptation, director Slade and cinematographer Jo Willems (Rocket Science) have created an appropriately icy and isolated look that really heightens the tension. There is something almost deceptively calm about the gentle falling snow in a lot of the scenes, and the silence and isolation at first seems peaceful. The look of the film is highly reminiscent of John Carpenter's The Thing, and I mean that in a good way. Of course, soon, we start to see shadowy figures watching the townspeople in the background. Sometimes we get brief glimpses of them right before they lunge and attack, and sometimes they just seem to be lying in wait, and the characters in the foreground don't even notice them. The opening half hour, which is a mixture of everyday life combined with sharp, bloody, ominous signs that something is about to happen is when the film is at its most effective. The movie does a great job of drawing out the suspense, and manages to keep the vampires out of our sight just long enough to intrigue us. Even though they are lurking about almost from the opening scene, we don't get to actually get a good look at them until the film is good and ready. Slade certainly shows his knowledge that sometimes with horror, less is more.

When the vampires finally do make their appearance, the payoff does not exactly match the build up, but it still manages to be effective in some way. I liked that the vampires are depicted mainly as soulless, unfeeling killers that almost seem to be hunting for sport. They treat each kill with a casualness that is certainly chilling. Rather than making them bombastic villains, they merely seem to be taking advantage of a golden opportunity. They even get to display a bit of cunning, such as an effective sequence where they force a teenage girl to walk down the street, crying out for help, hoping that her cries will lure survivors and good samaritans out of hiding. Despite all this, the vampires still come across as disappointing in some way. Aside from that trap they try to pull to lure out people, their plan seems disappointingly simple, and consists mainly of standing around and waiting for people to come out of hiding, them come charging at them. They can certainly move at great speeds, but only seem to utilize it at the last minute when they're right next to the victim. The vampires talk to each other in a bizarre language that sounds like a cross between backwards English and the T-Rex shriek from the Jurassic Park films, which is subtitled in English, but mainly they use as little words as possible and prefer to lurk in the dark shadows. This is, after all, where they are the most effective in the film, and where I liked them the best.

It's the human cast that winds up suffering the most, and that brings me to my big problem with 30 Days of Night. Unlike the look the film, the emotionally thin characters that are almost impossible to care about have been carried over from the original graphic novel to the screenplay. The comic's original writer, Steve Niles, co-wrote the script along with Stuart Beattie (Derailed) and Brian Nelson (Hard Candy), and it's a shame he didn't see this as an opportunity to improve upon his original sketchy characterizations. Aside from Eben and Stella having some marital woes, not much about the characters is revealed. The actors do a fine enough of a job filling the roles, but they are given no strong foundations with which to build genuine characters, other than a bare personality trait or two. A twist in the third act concerning one of the main characters comes across a bit weaker than it should, because we don't feel as attached as we should to the person. Besides this, the movie also has a tough time depicting the passing of time. Aside from some subtitles that pop up from time to time to inform the audience how many days have passed, the audience could easily be fooled into thinking only a day or two has passed. The characters don't go through the usual physical changes we'd expect of them hiding themselves away for a month, aside from a small (and oddly trimmed) beard forming on Josh Hartnett's face. It's kind of hard to get involved when the characters barely seem to be affected by the sudden isolation.
30 Days of Night is a movie that works better visually than on the written page. When we are distracted by the beautiful winter scenery, the stunning visuals (there's a lengthy overhead show of the town as it falls into ruin and chaos during the initial vampire attack that is effectively chilling), and the passable, if slight, performances, everything's fine. It's only when we're forced to focus on the underdeveloped characters and the sometimes clunky dialogue that the cracks begin to show. The movie manages to entertain and thrill just enough that I'm recommending it. David Slade obviously shows here he can make a great looking horror film, and knows how to stage a suspenseful sequence. If he can get the characters and the heart to go along with it, nothing could stop him.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Final Season

If you're the type of person who doesn't care what movie they're watching, just as long as you're out of the house, then The Final Season is a movie for you. Likewise, if you're the type of person who enjoys hearing the same story told numerous times, with absolutely no alterations or surprises whatsoever, this is also a movie for you. The Final Season is a film that plays so rigidly by the "inspirational spots movie" playbook that I doubt it was so much made, rather it was cobbled together. This coming weekend, there's going to be a parody of these sorts of films called The Comebacks opening in theaters. Watching this movie, I had to ask myself why filmmakers are bothering to parody these movies when, as is proven here, they have become parodies of themselves.

The movie is "based on a true story" of a small farming town in Iowa called Norway, and their love of everything baseball. The movie makes the place looks like it stepped right out of a rerun of The Andy Griffith Show, and includes all the usual small town stock characters we've come to expect, right down to the Barney Fife-like highway patrol officer who just sounds so gosh-darn incredibly friendly when he pulls someone over, I wondered if he was reading the guy his rights, or asking him over to his house for a glass of lemonade. As the story picks up in 1990, the town's high school baseball team, The Tigers, have just won their 19th straight championship game under the wise coaching of Industrial Arts teacher, Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe). Jim and his team are the pride of everyone in Norway, but just as the celebration starts to kick off, some nasty ol' city folk in their fancy cars and black business suits ride into town. They want to close down the high school, and merge it with a big city school nearby. This means that the Tigers will be disbanded. To the folks of Norway, this is unspeakable. After all, as Jim Van Scoyoc says himself early in the film, this is a town that "grows baseball players the same way we grow corn". Those heartless big city people refuse to listen to their pleas in many town meetings, and even go so far as force Jim to step down as the coach of the team during its final season before the school will close down.

But this isn't the end of the treachery put forth by those blasted city folk. And yes, this is a movie where any city with a population over 1,000 is practically considered allied with the Devil. A subplot concerns a troubled teen from Chicago named Mitch (Michael Angarano) moving into town, and he gets ridiculed, beat up, and harassed by everyone until his grandma tells him he should get a hobby, so he goes out for the baseball team, and earns immediate respect. As I was saying, the shifty villains don't want to just fire the coach who has led the Tigers to 19 straight wins, they want the team to lose their final season before they're forced to close down for good. In order to make sure the team is humiliated, they hire who they think is the worst coach they can possibly find. That guy is Kent Stock (Sean Astin). Kent doesn't have a lot of experience coaching baseball, even though he was Jim's assistant coach the previous season. The villains figure that none of the players will accept Kent as the coach, and they won't want to play under him. For a while, the scheme works, and a majority of the regular players don't even show up when practice starts. Kent has some surprises in store for those heartless, city-inhabiting demons, and a majority of the film deals with that burning question of whether or not he can lead the Tigers to their 20th straight victory. I'm sure those of you who have never seen a sports movie before will be surprised by the final outcome.

I seem to be complaining about the total lack of anything resembling originality in films these past couple weeks. The Game Plan and We Own the Night were both textbook examples of their respective genres, and now here's The Final Season to further ram the point home that filmmakers just aren't even trying to hide the fact that they're stealing from other films anymore. From the soundtrack, which sounds like a strange hodgepodge of the music scores to two much better movies about baseball - The Natural and Field of Dreams, right down to the direction by David Mickey Evans (who also worked on a much better movie about baseball - 1993's The Sandlot), the movie has not one single second, sequence, character, or performance that we have not seen before. Will the previously mentioned Mitch be able to give up his wicked big city habit of smoking cigarettes? Will Mitch's estranged father (Tom Arnold in a rare dramatic performance, which after seeing it, all but reassures me that he should not attempt drama again) be able to accept his son, give up on that new-fangled cell phone technology, and embrace small town farm life? Will Kent be able to convince the one woman who represents the people who want to close down the school (Rachael Leigh Cook) that her actions are wrong? The movie seems to know that we've seen all of this before, so it wastes very little of our time with them. This leads to numerous half-baked subplots that often have no resolution whatsoever, and are so barely touched upon that we wonder why they're in the screenplay in the first place. Bad boy Mitch starts the movie dressing like he takes fashion tips from Judd Nelson's character in The Breakfast Club, but then he joins the baseball team, falls for the cute blonde that works at the gas station (Danielle Savre), and becomes just as clean cut and likable as everyone else. This miraculous change takes up all of four minutes of screen time.

Not even the fate of the Tigers seems to hold much water in this film. As soon as Kent is made the coach of the team, the villains pretty much disappear until the very end, except for the girl who initially supports big city values, until Kent convinces her that small town life is better. She pops up randomly for a date or a game of catch or two, but that's about as deep as their relationship goes. The Tigers' final game season is also similarly glossed over. We get a couple montages, a couple inspirational speeches from Kent, some archival news footage about the actual team that was dug up, and then we get the big championship game scene to wrap it all up. The movie may be by the book, but the book seems to be missing a few pages. We never feel any attachment to anyone who walks into the movie, because the filmmakers seem to care about as much as we do, which is very little. The characters have faces and names, but no distinguishing personalty. They think the same, talk the same, believe in the same thing, and they resent anyone who comes into town whose ideals differ from theirs. Perhaps this movie is intended to glorify small town life, but all it seems to be glorifying is conformity.
Lead star Sean Astin is certainly no stranger to inspirational sports films, having starred in one of the better ones in recent memory. (1993's Rudy) In The Last Season, which he also executive produced, Astin gives what I like to call a "Boy Wonder performance". He bulges his eyes with child-like innocence, and keeps on saying "gosh" and "wow" over and over. He never creates anything resembling a relationship with his teammates, so his victories during the season seem hollow. Hollow is a good word to describe this entire movie. This is a movie that doesn't know how to make us care, so it just goes through the same tired motions.

No info found on Amazon - Sorry


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