The Green Hornet trailer (1/14/11 release)

This latest trailer actually looks a bit more promising than what we’ve seen to-date.  Seth Rogen’s schtick is starting to get stale, and previous trailers made his take on the material look very predictable and exactly what audiences probably expect in a worst-case scenario.  I suppose the two wild cards here are director Michel Gondry and actor Christoph Waltz playing the villain.  If either one of them, or both, were allowed to run relatively free during production, The Green Hornet could possibly be worth a watch.

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Published in: on November 23, 2010 at 9:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Hatchet II, Adam Green (2010)

There was a bit of controversy when the unrated Hatchet II was unceremoniously yanked from theatres by AMC after its opening weekend, and director Adam Green wasn’t told about it and had to find out on his own.  A major theater chain agreeing to run an unrated film in wide release because it couldn’t be edited down to an “R” rating is, I believe, unprecedented to begin with.  Even NC-17s-rated films like Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution were condemned to very limited art house runs.  The major difference here is that Hatchet II‘s inability to secure an R had nothing to do with nudity or sexual content, which is what the puritanical ratings board usually objects to, but instead solely because of violence and gore.

I managed to catch Hatchet II during it’s theatrical run at a Mann’s theatre in Los Angeles, and I have to say that I don’t think the movie being pulled had anything to do with a major theatre getting cold feet about running an unrated movie.  I think it was simply because the owners of AMC got a look at the movie and concluded what anyone else would after seeing it; the film is total and utter shit.  My guess is that AMC decided to run the movie hoping for the most American of things: money.  I’m betting that AMC was banking on a little controversy to draw in some audiences and make them some green.  And that when audiences stayed away during that opening weekend based on negative reviews, AMC realized the audience sizes weren’t going to be increasing and they didn’t particularly want to keep their theatres empty running a film that no one was going to see.

The first Hatchet, also directed by Adam Green, is pretty standard slasher fare, a throwback to the 80s genre, filmed on an almost non-existent budget.  Still, it’s got a playful sense of fun about it as terrible as it is.  Lead Joel David Moore is the reason for most of this, but Green peopled his movie with some decent C-list character actors and a couple of fresh faces who were far better than the material, including female lead Tamara Feldman.  Earlier this year, Green released Frozen, which was a huge step up for the director.  Frozen follows a trio of college students who get stuck on a chair lift after hours and over a week when the ski slope is shut down.  The movie was shot on location in the elements, and the actors often doubled as crew helping to changes lenses while being suspended for hours on the chair lift.  Frozen saw Green working with a talented and game young ensemble.  It was well-acted, well-shot, and seemed to be a signal of a forward evolution for Green’s career.

I assumed that all of this meant Green would be heading back into Hatchet territory with a bigger budget and a more advanced set of filmmaking skills, hoping to improve his previous effort and do what he perhaps hadn’t been able to accomplish previously.  There’s certainly been more dollars thrown into the gore, but that’s about where any improvements end.  For all of it’s problems and mediocrity, the first Hatchet is, by far, the superior film.  If anything, Hatchet II seems to suggest that the quality behind Frozen was simply some kind of a fluke.

Hatchet II appears to have been shot with a few pages of outline instead of a finished script.  The plot is thin; after surviving the first movie, Marybeth returns to the swamp with with Reverend Zombie and an assorted collection of rednecks and bounty hunters to kill Victor Crowley.  The first misstep is that Tamara Feldman from the first Hatchet has been replaced with genre actress Danielle Harris, and let me tell you, finding a worse actress is a quest not many could ever hope to complete.  Her performance is not only embarrassingly awful, but downright painful to watch.  There are a bunch of genre actors and creators featured in Hatchet II, and it seems likely that Green’s real impetus for making this movie was simply to get some of his heroes and friends all in one place and on a set together.  Tony Todd returns as Reverend Zombie, Kane Hodder returns as Victor Crowley, and guys like Troma-head Lloyd Kaufman and Saw screenwriter Marcus Dunstan are among the hunters.

The few who escape relatively unscathed from this whole fiasco are Shawn Ashmore, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as a hunter, probably as a personal favor after being in Frozen and not aware of how awful this movie would be; micro-indie actor AJ Bowen from The Signal and The House of the Dead, in a small role as another hunter who gives such an honest, natural performance that by comparison, it makes the rest of the film look even worse; and Kane Hodder himself.  Hodder gets to play Victor Crowley’s father in an extended flashback, and shows off some genuine acting chops.  I have to imagine that for a guy who has spent his life behind a hockey mask, this was something he’s waited for his entire career.  If this movie has any reason for existing, maybe it’s to give Kane Hodder something to put on an acting real so that he can use it, along with his name, to try to get some supporting acting roles on things like television’s Supernatural.

Other than that, everything about Hatchet II is simply embarrassing.  Tony Todd may not be the greatest actor on the planet, but he’s competent enough, and I just felt bad for him having to be on-screen for so much of the running time and vamp through pages and pages of exposition and horrendous dialogue.  If I were Tony Todd, just knowing that this movie exists and is largely identified with me would keep me awake at night.  It’s that bad.

As for the violence and the gore, sure it’s intense and over-the-top.  I think the ratings problems came from the fact that Green really tried to up the gore level, but that he also wanted to be a little more naturalistic in the way it was presented.  It’s not quite as tongue-in-cheek as other horror movies, and that may have been part of the problem with the ratings board.  As ridiculous and over-the-top as the violence is, it’s probably one of the more naturalistic and subtle parts of Hatchet II when compared to say… the writing and the performances.  Still, it’s a bad horror movie full of outrageous gore that can’t really be taken seriously and in no way even approaches the level of personalized violence in something like 127 Hours, which is graphic and powerful and that much more affecting because it’s based on a true story and is portrayed as realistically as possibly.  It’s ironic, in a way, that the MPAA would object to the violence here, but perhaps they give allowances when violence is handled with certain intentions and a desire to tell an inspirational, human story, no matter how graphic and cringe-inducing it is, versus a lowbrow, slasher crapfest.

Hopefully with this out of his system, Adam Green can return to the promising career trajectory hinted at with Frozen.  But the very fact that he produced this afterwards, and that he stood behind it, casts severe doubts over his ability to ever again produce anything even remotely watchable.  And while I didn’t spend much time on it in this review, because I try not to think about it, like an eight-hour hangover spent puking into a toilet while passing in and out of consciousness, but I feel I must mention it again in closing to really warn people off.  That “performance” by Danielle Harris; I can’t even bring myself to call her an actress.  It’s more revolting than anything else in this unrated, gore-filled horror movie.  Let me put it this way: this is probably the single movie of the year that’s actually worse than Kevin Smith’s Cop Out.

0/10

Published in: on November 23, 2010 at 9:28 am  Leave a Comment  

Easy A, Will Gluck (2010)

If Easy A makes one thing abundantly clear, it’s that Emma Stone has what it takes to be a big fat star.  It remains to be seen how much range or depth she has, but because of her natural charisma, effortless confidence, and ego-less accessibility, she should have quite a few chances to explore and find out.

Easy A purports to be a high school set adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, but that’s really one of the film’s most embarrassing and egregious stumbles.  First of all, as a society we’re way past the point that someone is going to be ostracized for less than puritanical behavior.  Olive’s sexual escapades don’t make her reviled by the student body; in fact, she sees a large upward spike in her popularity.  Never mind the fact that the escapades are all fictional.  And, of course, there’s the simple fact that she’s an unmarried teenager, and as such, adultery has nothing to do with anything.  So the very fact that she brands herself with a scarlet A sewn on to her clothing Betty and Veronica-style (or Laverne, if you’re a television fan) seems to beg the fact that high school students today don’t know what adultery is, or actually read the books assigned to them in school.  Which is odd since Olive is supposed to be a good student, and one who has actually read the book.  All of this may be nitpicking, and most audiences may not have an issue with it, but I’d also bet that most audiences would be hard-pressed to explain The Scarlet Letter or to try to explain exactly how Easy A is attempting to riff on it and how and why it misses its target.  If there’s one fault I have with the film, it’s simply the way that it plays so fast and loose with this literary allusion in a nonsensical way that will likely encourage teenagers not to question or understand what they’re reading or watching.  It’s not simply The Scarlet Letter “because, y’know, she’s wearing an A on her chest.”

The other element Easy A constantly references, to its detriment, are 80s teen comedies, specifically John Hughes’ movies.  The constant comparison to those movies can really only work against Easy A.  First of all, it just reeks of glad-handing, attempting to reference something else to realize some kind of quality or achievement by association.  And even though those films are teen comedies, they’ve become classics of sorts.  With the case of something like Can’t Buy Me Love, that’s a movie probably remembered quite affectionatley simply because no one’s seen it in twenty years; so when you beg a comparison with it, you’re unfairly setting that comparison against a fondly remembered and now-idealized version of it in audiences’ heads that likely exceeds the actual thing.  In the end, all of this referencing and setting of comparisons can only work against Easy A, which is an entertaining enough movie that it would have been much better off simply standing on its own and sticking to its own story, in its own universe, without referencing all of these other things and pulling focus away from itself.

Easy A is at its best during the scenes between Olive and her parents, played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson.  Tucci and Clarkson are friends in real life, and there’s a natural, playful, infectious sense of fun between them.  Not only is it entertaining to watch, but you can see Emma Stone rising right up to their level and taking a lot of lessons from their approach to acting.  Also worthy of note is Dan Byrd, who plays the first of Olive’s pseudo-lays, a high school kid forever being bullied because the straight crowd knows there’s something up with him, even if they’re too dense to figure out that he’s definitively gay.  Byrd masterfully captures a kid at that age who approaches the effeminate yet not the stereotypical, and who obviously longs to be himself more than he’s allowed to be, yet who can also pretend to be straight enough to fit in when he truly wants to.  In addition to the character work, there’s genuine emotional truth to the performance, and Easy A is a smart enough film to include bits of it and not gloss right past it in an effort to keep the pace clipping along.  Byrd is certainly a young actor to watch, and it’s a joy to see him hit the sincere emotional truth of the character and then turn around and elicit genuine laughs with some of the goofier comedy.

The script is a mixed bag, but the real strength behind the material is director Gluck, who has a real ease with actors.  He’s able to get uniformly multi-faceted performances across the board; his actors have obviously been given the confidence to live in certain emotional moments, while also having the ease and freedom for the comedy to breathe and be organic.  It’s the combination of the two co-existing that really helps the movie to rise above the trappings of its genre.  Between the Hughes’ references and the Scarlet Letter mis-allusions, as well as some of the cutesy, audience-pandering bits and the stiffer parts of the story structure, it’s certainly not a great movie.  But it’s light, frothy, genuine fun, and its entertainment value exceeds expectations.  Part of that is Gluck, part of it is Tucci and Clarkson, but the movie sits squarely on Stone’s shoulders and she carries it effortlessly with an ease and natural ability that is surprisingly extraordinary.  It’s no doubt that Hollywood perked up and took notice as a result, and that she’s now poised to be the next big thing.

7/10

Published in: on November 22, 2010 at 11:56 am  Comments (2)  

Your Highness trailer (4/8/11 release)

There’s a story that when this movie was being pitched to executives and Danny McBride referenced Krull in describing their intentions, he was stopped and told never to mention Krull again.  Let’s face it, Krull was sometimes inspired, but also a piece of 80s mediocrity that never even lived up to its own expectations.  Yet the influence of Krull here is quite clear.  I hope that David Gordon Green pulls this one off.  I’ve been aware of this film for some time now and have anxiously been awaiting its release date.  There’s some inspired casting here, including Natalie Portman as she’s never quite been seen before (no pun intended).  And I’m always up for something that lets James Franco loose, even though as the straight man, how loose he gets remains to be seen.  If I was still a college stoner, I’m sure I’d have a good time with this regardless of how rough its edges are.  But as someone who will be seeing it sober, I require a higher level of quality these days, even from my dumb fun– especially from my dumb fun.  Fingers crossed and expectations lowered.  Motherfucker.

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Published in: on November 19, 2010 at 9:49 am  Leave a Comment  

Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, Zach Snyder (2010)

It can really all be summed up with the title, which at one point was called Guardians of Ga’Hoole, like the book series.  That was a perfect name for the film.  It’s already out there in the public consciousness, or at least the part of the public aware of the books, it rolls off the tongue, and it’s specific as to what the movie is about.  But somewhere along the line it acquired a colon and effectively two titles for seemingly no purpose.  Sometimes sequels get that long when you’ve got the name of the franchise and the name of the latest installment, but what’s the purpose of saddling a first film with such a long moniker?  This means people then have to choose how to abbreviate it and what to call it.  The Owls of Ga’Hoole is certainly the more on-the-nose of the two (and yet Guardians of Ga’Hoole still sounds better), but considering the larger-fonted part of the title and the fact that it comes before the colon, Legends of the Guardians became the de facto nomenclature.  And I can’t think of a more generic title that could be about almost anything as Legends of the Guardians.  Is it a comic book about unknown super-heroes, a PBS documentary about Egyptian pyramids and crypts, a poster series of NFL defensive linebackers?  The very title is so generic it begins to put you to sleep the more you say it, look at it, or think about it.

The animation in Legends of the Guardians is absolutely gorgeous.  It may very well be the best computer animation ever put on film to-date, and the realistic detail of the owls and their feathering is amazing.  It’s possible to forget what’s actually happening onscreen and lose yourself while examining the detail of the rendering.  It also has an inspiring, uplifting score that works very well with the material and the emotional journey of the story.  And finally, the voice cast is well-suited with the style of the film, and they turn in uniformly great work.  Legends features a lot of lesser-known Australian actors who may not be as immediately identifiable to audiences as when animated films use huge Hollywood names.  That serves the story well and allows the audience to be more immersed in the narrative instead of continually being displaced into the guess-the-voice-actor game.  The story of Legends of the Guardians feels Shakespearean in structure and tone, and the largely Australian voice cast helps give it all a very classical feel.

The problem with the film is two-fold; and they are enormous problems that limit the lasting impression of Legends of the Guardians to something as generic as its title.  The first is the framing of the shots, and the fact that there are only so many ways to frame an owl in flight.  To fit it properly into the screen, the choices are ultimately a medium shot or a medium close-up, the beautifully rendered environmental background behind it and the owl with its wings spread, soaring across the sky, much like what you see in the movie posters.  Once the film reaches its half-way mark and some of the novelty of that gorgeous animation has begun to wear off, after flight scene after flight scene and aerial fight scene after aerial fight scene, you’re left watching the same, repetitive shot framing and sequencing over and over.  Despite some character work being done on the looks of the different owls, there’s also been a lot of effort to capture a high degree of photo-realism.  This results in many of the owls looking extremely similar to each other, particularly when flying and fighting at high speeds.  As gorgeous as the animation is, the overall look of the film, and the shots themselves, run together in a way that muddies the action and is finally generic, hard-to-follow, and forgettable.

That’s echoed by a story narrative that eschews the kind of deep character work often found in animated films for a very classical, almost Shakespearean narrative structure.  It starts out feeling fresh, and it’s a pairing with the photo-realistic animation that initially works very well.  But there’s not enough story development or story detail.  In classical plays, the complexity of the language, and the way it informs  the depths of character, provides a needed balance to what can be a sweeping yet often superficial plot structure.  Legends of the Guardians doesn’t even attempt a Shakespearean level of dialogue or language, and nothing else has been worked in to serve as a counterpoint to its skeletal plotting.  So while the beauty of the animation is being undercut by the limitations of its subject matter and the film’s stylistic choices, the content and story structure supporting it simultaneously creaks and falls apart under the weight of its own inadequacy.

What begins as a gorgeous-looking piece of animation full of promise is eventually swallowed whole by its own boring tedium and repetitiveness.

6/10

Published in: on November 19, 2010 at 9:36 am  Leave a Comment  

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Woody Allen (2010)

Color me surprised by the new Woody Allen film.  The trailer for it looked borderline abysmal, so I went into it with low expectations but simply because of the presence of Anthony Hopkins and Naomi Watts.  His latest falls into the category of one of his serio-comic tapestries of characters, and these seem to succeed or fail depending on where Allen’s level of inspiration was at the time of filming.  It’s not dark and plot-centric the way Match Point was; and it doesn’t hinge around a specific comic situation like Vicky Christina Barcelona.

At the center of Tall Dark Stranger is a couple played by Naomi Watts and Josh Brolin.  Brolin’s character Roy is an aspiring novelist who is in the middle of a severe writer’s block after writing only one successful novel.  He’s taken a variety of jobs to pay the bills, but his inability to do anything else well, in addition to constant pressures from his wife and her increasing desire to have a baby before it’s too late for the couple, only increases his performance anxiety.  Emasculated Roy tries to stoke the fires of his libido by spying on neighbor Frieda Pinto Rear Window style, and he eventually works up the nerve to talk to her and try to court her.  His efforts are sometimes fumbling, often totally inappropriate, and occasionally creepy in their determinedness.  There’s also a subplot for Roy featuring some poker buddies, one of whom played by Ewen Bremner, is a brilliant but insecure Scottish writer working on a first novel.  He gets into an accident with a friend and the information is miscommunicated to Roy, so that he mistakenly believes it’s Henry Strangler who has died and the friend who’s in a coma.  What’s a blocked writer to do when he’s holding the only draft copy of a brilliant novel and he presumes his friend dead?  Suffice it to say that this conceit could have easily been the plot of a much darker film on the level of Match Point if Allen had decided to go that way with it.  For his part, Brolin plays the entire range of his character very well, and it’s a joy to see him doing something so different from a lot of his recent roles, moping about the apartment as a paunchy, beleaguered artist and brow-beaten husband in socks and rumpled hair.

Watts’ Sally entertains notions of an affair of her own with her boss, art gallery owner Greg, played by Antonio Banderas.  Banderas is breezy and funny, and he and Watts have excellent chemistry together.  Watts is the film’s lynchpin, providing the central characterization that bridges the ensemble together.  Her various relationships show different and varied sides to her character, and it may be hard to characterize her work as outright compelling, but what’s more important in a piece like this is how fluid and understated it all is.  She certainly displays more colors, and is more accessible and sympathetic, than Mia Farrow was as she brooded through these roles twenty-five years ago.  Watts’ parents are played by Anthony Hopkins and Gemma Jones.  Hopkins is having a late-life crisis and has decided his wife’s acceptance of aging has robbed their relationship of any spark, so he jettisons her and develops a fascination with vapid prostitute Charmaine, played by Lucy Punch.  Tall Dark Stranger has received a few criticisms for its inclusion of yet another Hollywood May-December romance, but any detractors clearly haven’t seen the film.  Hopkins and Punch are an incredibly unlikely match, but it’s a loony, genius pairing and they play brilliantly off each other.  This is a relationship that lampoons Hopkins’ Alfie and his obsessions with remaining youthful by trading up with a younger model, even in the very naming of the character, which calls to mind the famous Michael Caine playboy role.  And while Alfie is certainly a comic victim, the wisdom he gains and his subsequent change of heart and sense of loss are sadly affecting.  For her part, Jones’ Helena is so distraught by this late-in-life rejection that she turns to a local psychic for purpose and some semblance of hope.  Borderline suicidal as her story begins, it’s hard not to have genuine empathy for her.  But the way Allen twists her into one of his more inspired, nattering, incessant mother characters and a creature of her addictions, she becomes an entertaining comic counterpoint to Alfie and his journey, and a constant thorn in Roy’s side.  Down on his luck as Roy is, Helena helps pay Roy and Sally’s bills, and as a result is always stopping by their place after her visits to the psychic to drink their booze and inform the atheistic Roy that God doesn’t intend for him to be a successful novelist in this life.

It’s a somewhat odd ensemble, but it’s one of Allen’s more successful recent ones, and the cast gels together easily and effortlessly.  If I have one criticism of Allen, it’s simply the fact that his constant film production is his admitted distraction as a means to keep him from facing his own fear of dying.  His characters struggle with love, purpose, commitment, and mortality, sometimes to comic ends, but there’s also a deep sense of hopelessness that has begun to pervade Allen’s work.  Romances never last; couples never stay paired; and any philosophy and religion is ultimately just a convenient tonic to make life bearable.  Here Allen resists his own most depressing conclusions in favor of the breezy and entertaining, but it’s still present in the background.  And even though Allen can fool himself that this merry-go-round of never-ending pairing is part of the inevitable cycle of life, the result is inevitable purposeless and a disturbing lack of meaning.  As a result, Allen is most successful and inspired when he follow his more absurd comic threads, as with Alfie’s struggles and the subplot between Roy and Henry Strangler.  When the film focuses on characters searching for legitimate meaning, Allen’s lack of spirituality finds him painted into a corner as he ultimately has no answers to provide and no advice to give.  It’s something that makes me feel a bit sad for Woody Allen as a person, and it’s interesting how as he gets older, the parallels with Bergman are becoming deeper and deeper.  Yet with Bergman, even the darkest existential soul-searching found a purpose; Allen is simply lost and confused and still looking.  Luckily for Tall Dark Stranger, he doesn’t dwell on it enough for it to undo the film as it seems to be doing to his own psyche.

8/10

Published in: on November 18, 2010 at 9:01 am  Leave a Comment  

Cowboys & Aliens teaser trailer (7/9/11 release)

This shit looks tight.  You know, maybe it’s a really good thing that MGM went bankrupt and James Bond went into limbo.  Now we get Daniel Craig in this and Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the interim.  Not to mention Olivia Wilde, who I think will be at the top of the A-list after Tron: Legacy and this.  She’s got beauty, genuine intelligence, and real talent.  It’s about time she hit it big.  And Harrison Ford, maybe in his first good action role since… I don’t know what.  Definitely not that last Indiana Jones crapfest.  Favreau looks to redeem himself from the mediocrity of Iron Man 2, and really, it’s all in the writing.  This script comes from Orci, Kurtzman, and Lindelof, the same team behind the Star Trek reboot; that’s a whole different league from Justin Theroux.

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Published in: on November 17, 2010 at 10:39 am  Leave a Comment  

Case 39, Christian Alvart (2010)

It seems Christian Alvart’s legacy with Hollywood may very well be the best unintentionally funny bee scene since The Wicker Man remake, and he even accomplished it Cage-free!  This is a guy who made a pretty good horror/thriller called Antikorper (or Antibodies, for it’s American titling) in his native Germany before venturing State-side.  Once here, he directed the purely awful yet not unambitious Pandorum, then took another step down with Case 39, which has languished on the studio’s shelf for the last year or two.

By far the worst part of the film is the performance of Jodelle Ferland, possibly known to audiences for giving another terrible little girl performance in Silent Hill, and who has also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s Tideland and (I’m told) as Bree in those pesky Twilight movies.  In fact, she’s worked a lot for a child actor.  Her imdb resume is longer than a lot of actors decades older.  I’m not sure if she’s ever given a good performance, but certainly not in anything I’ve seen her in.  And interestingly enough, it seems to be because she’s very intelligent.  Notice, I didn’t write “a very intelligent actor.”  Sometimes you get a child actor who’s both, someone like Jodie Foster or Haley Joel Osment or Dakota Fanning, a child who is both extremely smart, and also a naturally intuitive actor.  Other times, child actors are very smart people, and have been successful in the business because they are naturally intelligent.  Yet they can’t act.  And so when they do act, they bring an intelligence years beyond their age to every part, and play all of their roles as though they are 30somethings in a 10 year-old body.  That’s because this is their natural personality, and why they’ve been able to excel in show business and be more resilient to its pitfalls than other children their age.  For all intents and purposes, they are not really children.  The problem is, neither can they act like other normal 10-year-old kids when they’re required too, because they have no idea what that means.  And this is precisely what’s wrong with Jodelle Ferland and her role in Case 39.

Let’s backtrack a bit to go over the potential of Case 39.  It’s got a great central concept: overworked social worker with a full docket of 38 cases (hence, this latest dumped into her lap being Case 39), so beaten down and inured to the rampant abuse everywhere that she can no longer even see the possibility of non-abusive, innocent parents, responds to a call about a beaten child, and immediately, and seemingly appropriately, villainizes the bizarre and socially-withdrawn mother and father.  So far, so good, and the film does a great job of capturing the gritty side of neglect and the average, overworked American employee.  It’s hard not to be sympathetic to Zellweger’s character and her environmentally-forced point-of-view.  And the hook comes once the girl is taken away and Zellweger returns to the house to find the parents had installed deadbolts on the inside of their bedroom door.  I mean, that’s the kind of hook that will send chills down your spine and ignite your left brain with possibilities.  Other great things: a supporting cast filled with the likes of pre-Hangover-superstardom Bradley Cooper, Deadwood emeritus cocksuckin’ Ian McShane, and as the little girl’s creepy father, X-Files/Battlestar Galactica/Californication/Harper’s Island/24 vet Callum Keith Rennie.  Rennie is one of the best working actors we have today, who can seemingly play anything believably, and who you once begin to notice, will begin to notice everywhere.  If Rennie is in it, it’s good tv.  Unfortunately, the same can not be yet said of his film roles.  But God bless Cooper, McShane, Rennie, and Kerry O’Malley, who plays the little girl’s mother in a performance every bit an equal to Rennie’s father, for going all in and doing legitimate work in this giant shitball sandwich.

Ok, so great thriller/horror concept, check.  Great supporting cast, check.  Now let’s see where it all went wrong.  Stop 1: Renee Zellweger.  And to her credit, when the movie really gets bad, her refusal to give up and go down with the sinking ship actually proves a certain level of professionalism and earns her some points.  It’s like watching The Ring 2 if Naomi Watts had been able to resist retreating into an acting coma.  But the unending plastic surgery that has made her face look like someone’s ass, so that every expression she now wears on it looks like an Eskimo smiling in cynical disbelief, well, it hasn’t helped her competency in any way.  Nor does the fact that at some point she decided she wanted to be a really “serious” actress and started only courting and accepting movie parts for the likes of Cold Mountain, and then made Harvey Weinstein go to bat to get her an Academy Award.  Sorry, Renee, but the full breadth of your range has never extended much beyond the likes of Jerry Maguire.  You are not Meryl Streep.  Nor are you Nicole Kidman.  If she’d just accepted that, and a lifetime of sweet girlfriend/wife roles, and foregone the surgical knife, she’d have been much better off.  Stop 2:  Jodelle Ferland.  As I’ve said before, the kid is too intelligent for her own good.  When you’re acting the part of an innocent child who may or may not be a demon from hell, it’s so much better to just believably play the innocent child side of the part.  The creepy demon part is already there on the page; the audience is already going to be led to those questions.  If the kid plays an intelligence 20 years beyond the character in almost every scene, it just destroys any possibility that the innocent kid could actually be an innocent kid.  Instead, we’re left with a smarmy, all-too-knowing, in-your-face interpretation that ambushes any kind of mood or suspense for over-the-top cheese.  Stop 3: the writing and the direction of the last half of the film.

The first half of the film spends enough time with interesting and credible supporting performances from an engaging cast, who give the movie far more than it deserves, and who keep it chugging along on the track of possibility.  But about the time Bradley Cooper endures his bathroom bee scene and shatters the glass shower door, that train is track free and rumbling along the desert floor to uncharted vistas.  From there the movie finds itself in places that are so ludicruously awful, I almost have to recommend the film as one of those so-bad-it’s-good movies.  The number of times that Zellweger’s character definitively decides Ferland is pure evil and needs to kill her, then minutes later flips and decides maybe she can make the adoption thing work after all, are so head-bangingly numerous she might as well be in a supernatural Groundhog Day, yet it’s no part of the film’s narrative, but just incredibly bi-polar writing.  The final act of the film, the illogical behavior and character motivation, the bad special effects, and seemingly constantly-eroding budget for set design, will make you stop chewing that mouthful of popcorn in slack-jawed awe and wondrous dismazement.  Yes, I just created a word for the description of this movie: dismazement.  And now I’m going to create a drinking game for this movie.  You can start playing it at the opening credits, you can start playing it when the parents try to cook the little girl in the oven, and you can even wait until the third act and probably still really get your drink on.  When you get a weird feeling that a character is going to do something batshit insane or something’s going to happen that’s pretty much the dumbest thing the writers could have possibly written, pick one of the two and then drink if it happens.  Usually you will be drinking no matter what you pick.

On some level, I’m sorry that with the release of this film, it’s unlikely Christian Alvart will ever work in Hollywood again.  As bad as Pandorum was, it had this wacky potential to it.  Even with Case 39, he’s made something truly entertaining, if for all the wrong reasons.  And I feel as though he does have some not-unsignificant talent.  I’m not sure if it’s just an inability to work within the American studio system, but no one survives unscathed the type of beat-down and nervous dissociation from reality he must have had while completing filming on this movie.  If terrible didn’t exist in the English language before now, something so bad it’s beyond bad would now be called Case 39.

1-2 points out of the 3 I’m giving it are a result of that so-bad-it’s-good entertainment value; the rest for its game supporting cast.  Hear that sound?  That’s the door banging shut as Meg Wood races to the Starplex Cinemas.  Go, Meg; this movie was made for you and I anxiously await your review.

3/10

Published in: on November 15, 2010 at 3:31 am  Comments (2)  

Heartbreaker (L’arnacoeur), Pascal Chaumeil (2010)

In which Johnny Depp’s wife, Vanessa Paradis, who once had a very promising acting career when she starred in Patrice Leconte’s The Girl on the Bridge, more or less returns to acting.  It features a smart high concept for a romantic comedy: a good-looking, young bachelor seduces women into falling in love with him to break up their current relationships for paid clients.  Think Hitch in reverse, but with a little more European honesty regarding gender politics and a little less American showmanship and phony spit-polish.  At least that’s what I had been assuming going in.

Unfortunately, what we have here isn’t something that benefits from the honesty of the frank sexual politics of European cinema, but the exact opposite.  This is a film that wants to be an American romantic comedy so badly that it references both George Michael and Dirty Dancing multiple times, and uses such staples of bad 80s cinema as “inept undercover con men in disguise” and “periodic run-in with Mafia who want money returned, where likable lead must escape in lame-and-unfunny attempt at minor comedic set piece.”  Even the comedic high concept, which should provide plenty of story opportunities, quickly devolves into the lead posing as Paradis’ bodyguard and attempting to covertly woo her and win her heart over the period of a few days.  Will he fall in love with her, this “bad boy” whose main rule is to never develop genuine affection for his subjects?  Could this potentially ruin his career and rock his world?  Will any cliche be left unmined?

What it does have going for it are the two leads.  Vanessa Paradis is likable enough, but she’s saddled with a bland, stale, rather two-dimensional character that doesn’t provide her with enough opportunities to build the role into something more.  Romain Duris has much more to work with from the page, and he has a natural charm and charisma that surpasses the stereotypical handsome face and GQ lantern-jawline of many an L.A. douchebag, which is the kind of character Alex Lippi at first appears to be, and no doubt would be in an American remake.  Paradis’ fiancee is played by Andrew Lincoln, now-familiar to audiences as Rick Grimes in AMC’s The Walking Dead, who here employs his natural British accent.  Part of the problem is that Lincoln’s character Jonathan Alcott is a likable enough guy, and ultimately Paradis’ Juliette Van Der Becq decides she shouldn’t be with him because he’s too boring.  For all of his dedication and commitment to her, and that fact that she has been engaged to him for some time before the film begins, that doesn’t really seem like enough of a fatal flaw to be the turning point of the film– not when the movie’s about a con man who breaks up couples for a living.  Alex works the whole movie to find Alcott’s fatal flaw, can’t find one, and then Juliette leaves him anyway because she decides he’s too boring?  If anything, this makes her character come off as shallow, and sabotages the genuineness of any final pairing between the two leads.  And even though Duris the actor may do a pretty decent job of lending the character of Alex as much credibility and emotional honesty as he can, the character is still a bit of a phony as he’s written on the page, and that’s ultimately inescapable.

The final product is a bundle of bad romantic comedy cliches all tied together, from the kinds of movies you’d have seen getting high replay across the premium cable channels during the mid-late 1980s.  The subplots featuring Alex’s sister and her husband are exactly the kind of bad bumbling slapstick you’d also have seen in those very same bad 80s films.  Perhaps the writers and director of this film are simply aficionados of bad American movies, and if so, then they were successful in making the kind of film they love.  But for anyone else, it’s simply an hour and forty-five minutes spent watching trite mediocrity, even when it is high energy and upbeat.  The desire to entertain is certainly present, and that’s the workhorse that generates as much good will for this movie as it’s able to manufacture.  But anything resembling sharp intelligence or a creative reinterpretation of genre cliches, not so much.  I’m generously giving it the most modest of recommendations (a 6/10), for an opening sequence that sets up Alex’s profession and professional attitude, and for Romain Duris in general.

6/10

Published in: on November 15, 2010 at 1:54 am  Leave a Comment  

Let Me In, Matt Reeves (2010)

I know fans of the original were extremely skeptical of the American adaptation of Let the Right One In.  American versions are almost always inferior, dumbed-down versions for dumbed-down Amurricans too lazy or stupid to be want to “read” their movies.  I was one of the people who saw the Swedish film in its original release in theatres, and discovered a real horror gem.  Unfortunately, to this day, if you’ve seen the foreign version anywhere but in its original theatrical release, what you’ve witnessed is an awful, bastardized version with subtitles that make absolutely no sense.  For some reason, for the DVD release, the subtitles were redone by a different company than the one who provided the subtitles for the theatrical print, and there still hasn’t been a copy issued to correct this.  So if you’ve watched Let the Right One In on DVD or streaming on-line, because of these horridly botched subtitles alone, Let Me In is a far superior experience.  Google around a bit to see the comparison between the different subtitle versions and just how badly the DVD/streaming version was mismanaged, and how the meaning behind much of the dialogue, not to mention most of the subtext, was changed or even eliminated due to poor translation and often even an absence of subtitles for sentences at a time.

Subtitle issues aside, I’m here to report that other than for about 2 minutes of Let Me In, this is that rare American remake that stands shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the European original.  Those few seconds where it falters?  That would be the substandard special effects employed when Abby attacks several victims, climbing up their bodies and hopping around on their shoulders like a bad rendering out of I Am Legend.  Sometimes less is more, people.  If you can’t realistically capture the animal-like movement you’re going for, just put it in shadows and let the audience’s imagination fill in the parts that would otherwise look choppy and unnatural.

I’m just going to put it out there and say I believe that Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield was nothing short of brilliant.  Some people cast the film aside as a movie wrapped around a cheap gimmick, but in typical Bad Robot fashion, everything about the movie was so well thought-out and produced, that there was really no doubt in my mind Reeves had the goods.   Watching Cloverfield was watching the arrival of a major American filmmaking talent, a guy who has matured a hell of a long way since the days of Felicity.  Which made his next project something I was eagerly anticipating.  When he was first announced as the director behind the American remake of Let the Right One In, I knew we were in for something special.  Production notes and interviews throughout the filmmaking process made it very clear that this wasn’t simply Reeves taking a shot at confirming himself as big blockbuster talent, but that his interest in the story was intensely personal.  In fact, he’s set the story in the same time and location as his early teenage years, and there are many details, such as the Now and Laters, that are taken directly from his own childhood.  There’s a parallel between the way the young protagonists in both versions of the film have been abandoned by adult society and are left to find their own way, and what became very widespread in the United States beginning in the 1980’s when families stopped fearing divorce in quite the same way that they had previously, and detonated nuclear families began to be almost more commonplace than not.  Lost between two ineffective part-time parents who were often too busy trying to sort through their own personal heartbreaks and mid-life crises, so many children of the 80’s became latchkey kids left to raise themselves.  The world of Let Me In feels so authentic and in-keeping with the tone of the Swedish film that it’s easy to assume much of it is a shot-for-shot remake, but it’s not.  It’s just that the isolation, loneliness, and confusion has been so ably transplanted to its new time and setting that none of the power of those emotions has been lost in that translation.

In fact, there are a couple of details the American version vastly improves upon.  First off is the relationship between Abby and her guardian.  In the original Swedish version, we begin the film thinking that he is her father, and it’s not until late in the film that it begins to become vaguely apparent that he’s only caring for her, likely in love with her, probably a now-grown version of a boy who used to be in Oskar’s shoes, and weary at having lived the prospect-less life of a murderer in the service of a friend who is now no longer much of a friend, but only duty.  All of this is kept very close to the vest, only vaguely hinted at, and even requires some degrees of assumption and leaps of logic.  The American remake changes this from foggy subtext to a more immediate emotional reality.  Yet, it’s not the case of a simple American dumbing-down or spelling something out that people might not pick up on their own.  In my opinion, all of this was genuinely too vague in the original.  There’s just so much emotional resource there, and there’s also a rich parallel between this older character and the man that Oskar (or Owen, in Let Me In) will become.  Having a clearer definition and deeper portrayal of the relationship with her current guardian also illustrates  more vividly where that Oskar-Eli relationship (or Owen-Abby in the remake) is headed.  In the Swedish film, it’s possible to believe that Oskar has somehow scored a victory in escaping his loveless home for a life on the road with his new undead friend.  The relationship between the two is so strong, and the affection of it so focused on, with much of the adult world and its working held at arm’s length, that we’re seeing things almost exclusively through the childrens’ eyes in a way that is ultimately restrictive.  It’s possible to get a bit lost in their point of view and to even believe what Oskar believes.  The victory over the bullies at the end of the film becomes something almost heroic, and despite the foreboding of his situation, it feels like an improvement for Oskar in some ways.  He’s learned to defend himself, stick up for himself, to not be a victim.  But in the remake, having some of these relationships and details more visible allows us a much clearer picture of the tragedy that Owen’s life will become.  And even though Abby may choose to play self-denial and not acknowledge this as a result of her own need for friendship and love, the fact that she is temporarily using Owen and is aware of this becomes more obvious.  In the Swedish version, we’re left with two children, even though one is part-monster, on the run together.  In the American version, the darker implications and Owen’s existence as a now-permanent victim are much more clear, opening a whole other world of associated grey areas that doesn’t exist so much in the Swedish version.  Owen is not stronger in any way at all; he remains a victim, Abby’s victim.  And he hasn’t really learned to stick up for himself, he’s simply learned to commit violence, and to kill– skills that Abby has seduced out of him that will aid Owen in his employ to Abby.  Both films portray a child mistaking a monster for a friend, and the titles of both films are all about that moment where a vampire needs permission to enter one’s home.  The journey of these films are about taking that one step further, and allowing the monster into your heart.  But Let Me In is more front-and-center about the full significance of this decision and the dozens of tributaries of darkness that bleed out from it.

The other major difference is the way the Oskar/Owen home life is depicted.  In the Swedish version, Oskar’s mother is miserable after her divorce, but she’s struggling to hold it together a little better.  And Oskar’s father is actually in the film; Oskar goes and visits him for a weekend and has a pretty good time sledding and hanging out with his dad.  So even though the home life is fractured, it’s still somewhat human and relatable, and has pockets of positivity within the tragedy.  We get the sense that these people are having a tough time, but that ultimately Oskar is still loved.  In the American remake, Owen’s mother has retreated into a haze of alcoholism and is never without a wine glass.  She moves through the apartment like a zombie, not able to cook Owen anything other than mac and cheese.  Not exactly proper nutrition for a growing kid.  She can’t relate to him in any way, doesn’t even try to keep it together, and I don’t believe we ever even see her face.  Other than a hand with a wine glass setting down plates of mac and cheese, she’s essentially a faceless, formless adult taken from one of the Peanuts’ animated specials.  As for Owen’s father, there’s no trip to the country to have a few good-natured laughs in Let Me In.  The most we get is a phone call that lasts a few seconds where his father is more concerned about how drunk and incompetent Owen’s mother is, and doesn’t even seem to notice how emotionally distraught and divorced from reality Owen has become.  Again, all of this contributes to a darker tone portraying Owen as a hopeless victim with no chance at a functional future and no escape from a barren emotional wasteland slowly eroding his soul.  There’s even a scene early on in the American version with Owen wielding a knife while wearing a disturbing Halloween mask and posing shirtless in front of a mirror.  This image is much darker and more portentous than anything in the Swedish film, and it happens before Owen has even met Abby.  It’s proof that with or without Abby in his life, Owen is already walking down a dark road and may, in fact, already be beyond return; a result of his having been completely emotionally abandoned by both parents, and beginning to live a life with no moral compass or guidance when he most needs direction.

For my money, both of these aspects enrich the American version and add more layers and texture to the story.  They cultivate a darker, heavier tone both to the film and to Owen’s future, or lack of it.  And ultimately they add much more food for thought for the audience.  Both films feature a pair of fantastic child actors, and it’s a real testament to Matt Reeves and both his understanding of the material and his vision as a filmmaker that he kept his casting choices left-of-center.  I think the primary concern when the American remake was announced was that a pair of chipper little Hollywood chipmunks would be cast and it would just destroy any emotional reality of the remake.  Chloe Moretz may be a Hollywood sensation now after Kick-Ass, but this movie was filmed before Kick-Ass premiered.  And whether she’s becoming well-known now or not, she’s genuinely talented and able to deliver performances that are wise beyond her years, yet not Hollywood-snarky, but grounded in a mature and honest emotional reality.  And Kodi Smit-McPhee, who was a revelation in The Road alongside Viggo Mortensen, is anything other than your typical Hollywood kid.  He’s awkward and odd-looking, almost like an alien child with big eyes and spindly arms and legs.  This isn’t the sort of kid actor Christopher Columbus would cast in Mrs. Doubtfire XIX after watching reels from grape juice commercials.  And really, with Elias Koteas and Richard Jenkins rounding out the primary cast as the two central adult roles, you can’t ask for a better group of actors.

But Reeves not only cast Let Me In to perfection, it’s obvious his communication with actors is top-notch from the performances he’s elicited.  And he’s the rare director who’s able to pair communication and a skill with working with actors with a genuinely inspired visual flair.  Let Me In looks spectacular, but always in a way that serves the emotional needs of the story.  I don’t think that anyone could have asked for anything more from this movie, or from an American adaptation in general (well, except for those few underwhelming effects shots).  Let Me In appears to have been overlooked in theatres for a variety of reasons, ranging from its dark tone and hard R rating, to Cloverfield backlash, to Let the Right One In purists scaring away some of the potential audience.  And it’s a shame, because I think this is bound to become a classic and deeply appreciated over time.  It’s one of the best major studio releases of the last year, easily in the top 10 of 2010, and deserves to be included in the same lists as Shutter Island, Inception, and The Social Network.  And in a year where Nolan’s Inception has become the bar to which all else is measured, it’s worth noting that Let Me In is a far better American adaptation than was Nolan’s above average Insomnia.

Footnote: with his ability to deftly handle everything from actors, mood, and theme, to visuals, it’s a shame Reeves lost out on directing the Nolan-produced Superman reboot to ADD, jumpcut-crazed, fanboy-wankmaster Zach Snyder.  Do we really need to see a 4th version of 300/Watchmen/Sucker Punch just because it includes a Superman logo on one of the character’s chests?

9/10

Published in: on November 14, 2010 at 3:19 am  Leave a Comment  
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