You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2007.

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David Lynch has made many “masterpieces” in his career. From the critically heralded Elephant Man, to the cult classic Blue Velvet, his debut surrealist nightmare Eraserhead, and the most recent headtrips, Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr, Lynch has always found a way to get into our psyches, grab a hold, and not let go until years after your viewing, if at all. With his latest film, Inland Empire, we are given his least accessible plot yet. As far as comprehending anything that is happening before your eyes, once you think you have a grip, he totally tosses your ideas out the window. Coherence, linear progression, or even characters staying the characters that they are at first will not be found here. Instead, Lynch has crafted his most viscerally rich tale of imagination and dream, once again exposing the underbelly of society and the human condition. People cannot be trusted and all will betray those they love. If we are to believe what transpires here, and your guilt and/or paranoia for finding how those around you have let you down won’t kill you, your manifestations of fully choreographed dance sequences involving your prostitute friends most certainly will.

If you are reading this hoping for some semblance of a plot summary, I think Lynch’s tagline description is all you need: this is a tale about “a woman in trouble.” Well, let us make that women in trouble, unless we can find a way to think all the different entities played by Karolina Gruszka and Laura Dern are in fact one and the same. The story starts out very well, much how the last couple films Lynch has created have. There is a strange visitor, played brilliantly by Grace Zabriske with a flawless Balkinish accent, who calls on our actress lead (Dern) to discuss her new role. Along with premonitions and cryptic talk about 9:45 and after midnight, and today and tomorrow, she relays a couple old stories, one about a man and another of a woman going to market and the alley behind. Not only do these stories end up occurring in some form later on, but the times themselves as well as the aspect of time alone play a strong role in all scenes. It is when the tomorrow our visitor speaks of starts to play out that we are thrust into the story as it struggles through scene changes, character swapping, and even to a soap opera starring people in rabbit suits, complete with canned applause and laughter.

What at first seems to be straightforward, a mirroring of adulterous lives between our actress Nikki and actor Devon with their fictional counterparts Sue and Billy, becomes so much more. It begins to unravel to the point where the audience can’t tell which reality is the true one, or if both are false while the truth lies in a third reality between a different Sue and Billy met by his wife Doris’ eventually finding out and wielding of a screwdriver for retribution. However, once it seems to be continuing nicely, complete with a fourth mirroring of the Polish actors involved in the original version of the movie they are shooting, everything changes as aspects become switched around. The screwdriver leaves Doris’ hands and enters those of one of Dern’s many incarnations. Her husband, as Nikki, becomes the husband of many different female roles and we have a strange voyeur played by Gruszka watching everything transpire on television. Finally, Dern ends up discovering everything is being played out on a movie theater screen, her life being shown for all, although it is she who is the lone viewer.

Eventually, I started to see the many references to Lynch’s past films. Whether they be literal, Zabriske’s acceptance of a drink with similar yet opposite reaction as that of Angelo Badalamenti in Mulholland Dr; to common metaphor prop usage, the colored lamps, curtains, and prevalence of phones as communication between parallel realities; or even playing on the notions of certain interpretations that have been made of past films, Lost Highway being a complete dream by a man guilt stricken from killing his wife and a scene here where Dern’s character is dying and those watching start mentioning things that have been happening, as if explaining how the film has been a manifestation of what she heard as she died; the correlations are endless. It is almost like Lynch wanted his first foray into digital film to be one of rebirth, (I will say that while I was a bit annoyed from the soft focus and inferior look to filmstock, what he does with the medium is astonishing). Lynch is known for not explaining his films and never maintaining that there is one explanation to solve the puzzle. Maybe Inland Empire is his way of showing that the experience and visceral reaction is what he looks to accomplish. He wants to make his viewers think and find their own meaning from their own lives in what happens on the screen. In this way, Lynch seems to edit the film in a way to accommodate these interpretations and then, once one can be believed, he turns it around and asks another question. For every false answer comes three questions, and the labyrinth’s center just gets farther and farther away.

If I were to wager any kind of guess to the true meaning of this film, having just seen it with little time to flesh out each thread shown, it would be as follows. Inland Empire, to me, is a commentary on the state of Hollywood and the inferior films churning out from it. The general public goes and sees drivel and by allowing it to succeed, helps make certain more will be made. Answers don’t need to be spoonfed to the viewers, and actually they shouldn’t. I believe Lynch is calling out actors for facilitating this degradation in quality by calling them whores to the business. As Dern’s character falls from aristocratic success to poor housewife, with child from a different man, turning tricks on the street with her friends that she “remembers from somewhere,” we see the credibility drain as she becomes a whore for money. Harry Dean Stanton even asks multiple people for money, reminiscing about the time when he could sustain himself, while those around him just smile and give in. Dern continuously watches herself slowly fall apart as she cheats on her artistic interest with vanity. Her friends even say how if you have great cleavage, you are set for life because talent plays no role in success. It is only Gruszka’s lost girl watching television that sees the destruction occurring around her, crying at the horror of it all. Desperate to do something about it, she finally gets up and sees her husband and son come home to her. Hers is the only happiness, while all the other characters find themselves trapped inside the house of vanity, surrounded by the other whores, living their selfish lives without regard for the society they are doing a disservice to.

Inland Empire 9/10

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photography:
[1] Laura Dern in Inland Empire
[2] Laura Dern and Justin Theroux in Inland Empire
[3] A scene from Inland Empire

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Ah, a thriller that looks as though it could deliver on the promises of its genre. I mean, come on, we have Luke Wilson, a decent actor taking a dramatic turn, the fantastic Frank Whaley, one of the most underused character actors around, director Nimrod Antal following up his critically acclaimed Kontroll, and the gorgeous Kate Beckinsale to light up the screen—I’ll admit, I would have seen Vacancy just based on her involvement alone. We have some real nice talent here and a premise, while not wholly original, that could be just what the film needs. Truthfully, I was there for pretty much the first hour, and then it all fell apart, fast and hard.

Wilson and Beckinsale really do a phenomenal job at creating their roles to be correct in emotion and action. The two have recently lost their young son to a domestic accident and are on their way home from an awkward family party to finally make their divorce official. With some nice witty and meaningful dialogue, we are shown a strained interchange on the highway as the two clash with patience wearing thin, only to escalate when their car breaks down just past a motel/gas station stop. They walk back and take a room to wait for the mechanic, played nicely also by Ethan Embry, to return in the morning. After some prank-like door knocking and strange behavior from the eccentric motel manager, the fun begins just in time. It is a flawless transition from the character building exposition to the point where Whaley’s manager is found to be in on the snuff film that appears to have found its two new stars.

What happens next is a series of cat and mouse chase sequences between inside the motel room and outside in the parking lot, along with the manager’s office and gas station via an underground tunnel system. There is suspense and tension throughout and I was fully caught up into the action right up until Wilson opens the door of their last motel room. The couple was brilliant onscreen as all the conflicts and petty differences from before slowly melt away into the love and compassion they have for each other’s safety. I couldn’t wait for the final thirty minutes to hopefully not screw up. Sometimes prayers aren’t answered though.

Vacancy’s conclusion soon turns into the same run of the mill finish all this Hollywood-fare gives. The competent writing becomes rushed, almost hoping that if it finishes quick we won’t realize the complete cop-out we are given for an otherwise marginally fresh telling of an often-used thriller storyline. My viewing was treated with some surprises along the way, but all that ends much too soon. Well, scratch that, it’s not without “surprises,” it’s just that those “surprises” are so predictable and canned that they have become commonplace. I would like to think that the derailing during the final third is due to producer interference because the rest was so enthralling, but who really knows? All that worked between good and evil, without many clichés or characters doing stupid things to benefit the plot, eventually turns into a thread of moments that occur only to proceed to the next point. Our entertainment turns to generic popcorn mediocrity with an ending that is so odd, I had to stay until the end of the credits because there must have been more to it. Alas, and maybe thankfully, there was not.

Vacancy 5/10

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[1] KATE BECKINSALE and LUKE WILSON star in Screen Gems’ VACANCY. Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner. Copyright© 2006 Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.. All rights reserved.

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There are many romantic comedies that I enjoy due in most part to the laughs and fun scripts they bring. As for the romance/love genre, I would say there are very few which I would want to experience again. Without the humor, these types of films generally seem too contrived and trite, just a way of killing two hours with a result that you know is coming before you even begin watching. I shouldn’t generalize all movies of this ilk because really, it is mostly American love stories that annoy me, whereas a film like In the Mood for Love is a masterpiece of story, tone, and emotion. With that said, I am not surprised that last year’s The Lake House is another Asian import reworked for the US. Why am I not surprised? Well, the answer is because I found myself enjoying pretty much the entire film. It is by no means a perfect movie—more on this later—but for a love story, I found myself completely caught up in it and waiting anxiously to see what would transpire. I can only imagine that the Korean original, Il Mare, only improves what is shown here, and I am very interested to see if that is true.

It is weird because most of these films that I don’t like are because the ways two people are finally put together are so out there, that it could never happen in real life. Coincidences don’t happen that perfectly ever. However, with the orchestration to get two kindred souls together in a real world takes me out of a film, it is surprising that one with a premise about two meeting each other through a mailbox, two years apart, actually works for me. Maybe it is the fact that they get to know each other while so far apart. Without being onscreen together for the entire movie, you don’t start picking apart their performances and lack of chemistry. These two lovesick characters, played effectively by both Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, create a huge amount of chemistry through their reactions, alone in a room, reading the words from the other. You start to anticipate the eventual meeting and the sexual tension increases to the point where you generally start to worry it may never happen. Even when they are together, one of them doesn’t yet know who the other is, so every encounter is like they are meeting for the first time. In effect then, they fall in love almost three times during the course of the film, each one as genuine as the last.

Besides the acting being quite good, emotions running high as they each share the tragedies which have occurred in their lives, the actual realization of the situations are very well done also. For one, the cinematography is often times beautiful to look at, whether is be running from behind a layer of trees, the blurred split-screen two years apart of even the angles used to get close-ups of our leads, it is a sight to behold. As far as the effectiveness of the time travel aspect, even this is done in a mostly believable way. The moments where they change history through their letters, like the tree in front of Bullock’s apartment, they are integrated that second, like they have been there forever. As for encounters in the past, they are always in their memories, even if they don’t quite remember them clearly. Something that is done in the past doesn’t change the future because it has already happened, in just took two years for it to be meaningful enough to recall.

The ending is the only part of the film that may leave a bit of a plot-hole. An action by the one creates a major shift in what would be an entirely different two years as a result. The audience must take a leap that everything would have continued the same with that one moment changed, and because it is at the very end, you kind of don’t get enough time to question it, so it does work. Besides this, I do have one other problem with the ending and that is the happiness of what happens. I am interested to see how the original concluded, because maybe they did it how I would have wanted, ending tragically because of their correspondences. The final revelation, although obvious, could have carried out in sadness and I believe have been more effective as a result. Ending in tragedy would have made the bond between them during the rest of film more powerful, knowing that the short time they had together was true love and meaningful. Instead we get a happy conclusion with the future left open as one of infinite possibility, While it still works, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Hollywood changed the ending to make viewers feel good, rather than see the true meaning of love and how it transcends the physical world by letting fate decide what happens, turning their actions, unknowingly to them, into a journey ending it tears.

The Lake House 7/10

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[1] Kate (Sandra Bullock) and Alex (Keanu Reeves) in The Lake House directed by Alejandro Agresti

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Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright are back, with a vengeance. Their send up to all those action films—as they say containing names picked at random from two hats, one of verbs, the other of adjectives—is a fantastic melding of British humor, preposterous action sequences, gruesome horror, and a bit of romantic comedy thrown in for good measure. But then, what action flick doesn’t have a little bit of romantic chemistry between its two macho lead actors? As with Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz is not a spoof playing on the weaknesses of movies, deriding them as a result, but instead a send up to the films that they themselves love and adore. By playing on the clichés and lack of realism inherent in those types of movies, Pegg and Wright, in effect, create their own addition to the genre, knowing full well what they are doing because they know action films as fans and want to do them justice while also pointing out their absurdities.

Not quite sure how this comedy powerhouse would hold up to their first masterpiece, I knew all was well once I saw staples Julia Deakin and Bill Bailey involved in the mayhem. Anytime the old “Spaced” crew can come out to play, I’m ready to enjoy. The premise of the film is as ludicrous as most popcorn action movies, seeing London’s top policeman, I mean officer, being reassigned to the country for doing his job too well and making the station look bad. Upon going to the reigning safest city in England, he sees the bumbling team he is to work with and the small town values subverting him from doing his job. Underage drinking? It’s ok because we are keeping them off the streets, anything for the greater good of course. Only when our hero starts to see what the town calls accidents are really murders, does he begin to delve deeper into the motives of the town’s elders to see what is going on behind the scenes.

Credit Pegg and Wright for taking the time for some great exposition before we get to the all out gunfight of its conclusion. Viewers should be warned that this is a British comedy at heart, setting up the story intelligently and coherently so that the finale is that much more effective. Again, this is not a spoof of loosely tied together sequences just out for cheap laughs; it is a well-told, complete story that stands on its own without the need to catch every pop-culture reference included. That said though, the comedy is huge when it comes to the subtle hinting at appropriated images from past films. Pegg and Wright have shown with their show “Spaced” that they are the kings at pop-culture comedy, think “Family Guy” only less absurd in their integration to the story. Sure there are the blatant examples like Nick Frost pumping a clip of bullets into the air ( Point Break) and the helicopter flying in slow motion above their heads (Bad Boys 2), and all the one liners culled from decades of actioners, however, there are also lesser known in-jokes like the fence scene mimicking their own Shaun of the Dead, and references to the “Addams Family” and “He-Man” among others. Even the Godzilla like fight in a model village, while already done in “Arrested Development,” is orchestrated to perfection.

Hot Fuzz is really all about the actors delivering the gem of a screenplay. The real action flicks are known for their special effects and explosions, but this film does not have the budget for all that. Instead we are treated with many close-up shots during big fight scenes in order to give the look of high-octane action yet keeping within financial constraints. It’s the facial expressions of the cast that sell the scenes for realism purposes as well as for big laughs. Our lead is perfectly played by Simon Pegg himself. His dry sense of sarcasm and utter professionalism amongst the idiots of the nation make him the only person to save the town from destruction. As always, his sidekick is portrayed by, real-life best friend, Nick Frost. Frost’s ability to be a child is superb and goes well with the relationship of student/teacher evolving into one of equals. His asinine questions and giddy clapping and laughing are hilarious, but when the time comes to take care of business, he’s ready for the big show. The supporting cast are all fantastic as well with their broad characters allowed to run wild, while honed in enough to suit the story. Timothy Dalton has some big laugh moments as the villainous supermarket owner, Jim Broadbent is having a blast as the easy going chief inspector, and Paddy Considine and Rafe Spall give us some of the funniest lines and reactions as the Andys.

In the end, the story really proves to be a lot more intelligent than you might expect. Pegg and Wright not only had to come up with a setup to their big blast of gunfire, but in fact came up with two explanations in order for their reveal to be effective. When our villains laugh and say their motives were so much easier than thought, it’s great. The characters are all having fun with themselves and the one-liners are as much a joy to the audience as they are to the people they are spoken to. Not only is Hot Fuzz using the gimmicks for the viewers’ benefit, but also at many times doing it for the film itself. Each role seems as though they know they are in an action flick and play it up for their own amusement.

I’m sure many people will end up finding the film to be slow and unfunny, and that is all because of expectations we Americans have. We want our comedies to be broad and in your face, however, British humor is not as cut and dry as that. Hopefully the audiences here will give the film a chance for the great movie it is, or at least sit through it for the awesome payoff at the end. Elderly folk in an all out war with the police, having an unlimited amount of ammo? Only in England.

Hot Fuzz 9/10

Ya gotta love the many cameos, including Peter Jackson as the stabbing Santa and Cate Blanchett as Janine.

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[1] Danny (Nick Frost) and Angel (Simon Pegg) in Rogue Pictures’ Hot Fuzz – 2007
[2] A scene from Rogue Pictures’ Hot Fuzz – 2007

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Everyone has regrets during the course of their life. Mira Nair’s new film, The Namesake, seeks to expound on that idea by showing how a family can live through, overcome, and circumvent them. Based on a well-received novel—I may pick it up to check out in the future—the story revolves around a Bengali family whose mother and father have immigrated to America to give their children an opportunity for a life with limitless possibilities. One’s heritage and culture can sometimes seem daunting to uphold, especially when in the land of the free, where it is much easier to just leave it on the side of the road as you continue on your own course. If this movie does anything, it shows how even if you don’t feel like you are doing something wrong, tragedy can strike, bringing you back to the reality of knowing there are more people then yourself in life, and the way you lived it might have been completely opposite of how you should have.

The Namesake truly encompasses its viewers with the world that it is taking a glimpse into. We have the American traveler back home in India to find a bride, and his future love’s acceptance of leaving all she has worked for to go halfway around the world with him. Ashoke and Ashima are very traditional in their ways and assimilate into America, slowly moving up to a home of their own and two young children to share life with. The Ganguli family goes through many ordeals and each is shown in a realistic way allowing the audience to care for these people. Anyone watching will be able to see a mirror onscreen to his or her own reality and the trials and tribulations of growing old and independent while still trying to keep the love as close-knit as it was before. However, while a good portion of the film deals with Ashoke, and especially Ashima’s journey to America, this background is really setup to bring us to the point where the story begins to follow young Gogol through his maturity into a man. The movie is titled The Namesake, after all, lending itself to be a tale of the offspring. That aspect is shown right from the start when Ashoke is shown on a train that eventually derails. We are given no answers, but instead a fade to black and the start of our journey.

Life needs a bit of tragedy in order to allow our eyes to be opened to the fragility of it all. We can’t spend our lives living without fear, because it is that transient quality that keeps us going and striving for more. Ashoke was slowly becoming a robot in his life, visiting his grandfather like clockwork each month, heeding his words that books allow one to travel without moving an inch. That was a life he was beginning to enjoy until the fateful event on his train ride that changed his life forever. It was this instance, marked by a novel he was reading by the author Gogol, which begins it all. It is also this moment that commences his son’s descent into conformity himself. What liberates the father eventually becomes the thing that makes his son build walls around his life. It is manifested by the strange first name, in honor of a suicidal eccentric, but really is the clash between his family’s traditional ways and the independent life he sees in front of him that causes the struggle within. Rather than accepting who he is so that he can continue on any course of his choosing, he finds he is ashamed, denouncing his very essence, feeling that conforming is the only path he has for success. Life is very cyclical, though, and Gogol himself confronts a moment like no other, one that thaws his heart and soul, allowing him to finally see what life is about. Live with no regrets and you can deal with whatever comes your way.

Besides this being a beautiful story, it brings along with it some wonderful performances. Our main character of Gogol is played to great effect by Kal Penn. Having a filmography consisting of mostly comedic and stereotypical roles, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his casting. However, besides some moments of strain trying to express the rebelliousness and awe of a high school graduate, Penn really takes the role from college years and beyond making it his own. His performance is full of emotion and needs him to be able to turn on the two halves of his life in favor of the other. His confusion and inability to choose which way to go holds everything together. The real stars, though, are Tabu and Irfan Khan, playing Ashima and Ashoke respectively. Tabu is wonderful playing both the scared and cautious newcomer to the US and the resilient, loving mother who holds her family as the most valuable possession she has. As for Khan, he embodies his character like no other. Here is a man with so much intelligence and compassion, all trapped inside his calm demeanor and businesslike façade. These two partook in an arranged marriage, yet the love between them is overwhelming. Never do they need to speak of it aloud, nor show it with more than a smile.

How the tale progresses will leave you with a mingled feeling of both heartbreak and hope. The Ganguli family goes through a lot as it evolves through its generations, passing on wisdom learned. Every moment is real and no second is wasted. Even when I thought it shouldn’t have continued on past a point I saw as a fitting conclusion, Nair proved me wrong by bringing us a new journey, necessary for the story to be whole. If you don’t leave this film feeling the necessity to see your family, not to verbally express your feelings, but just to acknowledge that they do and always will exist, your heart is already too far gone.

The Namesake 9/10

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photography:
[1] From left: Tabu and Irrfan Khan in THE NAMESAKE. Photo Credit: Abbot Genser
[2] Jacinda Barrett and Kal Penn in THE NAMESAKE. Photo Credit: Abbot Genser

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The greatest compliment I can give the new Disney film Meet the Robinsons is that I never left the story wondering whose voice was lent to each character. Usually the big names come through and you start trying to figure out who is who, leaving the words and the story behind. With this film, besides the fact that I could only recognize the great self-parody from Adam West, we are given a cast of no-names, (not to disrespect Angela Bassett or Laurie Metcalf, but they had five minute roles). I really think more animated films should go this route because it leaves all preconceptions at the door and allows the viewer to just experience the movie. I also know that the story itself is a big part in getting an audience absorbed into a film, and surprisingly, for a Disney film of late, this one delivers. I don’t even remember the last time I had this much fun at one of their films, Pixar productions excluded.

What was wonderful about the story was that it is a straightforward narrative about the importance of family and that love exists in places you may not see at first. Once our hero builds a machine to see into his past and find the identity of the mother that left him on the steps of an orphanage, he starts into motion a series of events that bring the world of the future into his own. Credit the writers, and I’m sure the author whose book this is based on, for visually showing little clues at the beginning that help us to decipher what goes on later in the Todayland of the future, (a nice little commentary on Disneyworld’s own Tomorrowland theme park section in the present). What could have been used as a reveal-type device that the whole film hinges on, the aspect of what the Robinsons’ connection to Lewis is, becomes an afterthought and simple plot point that enhances the story rather than define it. I found it easy to pick up on due to the clues hinted—think frogs—and when the truth is finally spoken aloud by the Bowler Hat Guy, he plays it up with a “Don’t you see yet?” that is as much to the audience as it is to Lewis. The filmmakers never pander to the audience and always stay one-step ahead as they continue the story of how one lonely boy can have the best family in the world if he can just let go of a past that he never had. If we always look to the future, we can make our own destiny.

In what is probably the craziest comedy I’ve seen in a while, the laughs deliver at all times. There are so many moments where you have to think to yourself, “what the heck just happened,” and, “where did that come from?” The absurdity of it all, though, brings fantastic humor along with it and never takes away from the overall story progression. I don’t know how much of the kookiness was Disney and how much was the source material, but either way it worked. As for the visuals that went along with it, I must say I was impressed. The reflections on all metallic and glass surfaces are amazing and the depth of field well done. How much of this is due to me seeing it in 3D, I don’t know, but I will say that if you go to check it out, definitely see the full experience. Besides experiencing the surface work and looking through rainy glass, I admit that I totally flinched during the meatball fight.

The fact that really interests me, because of the intelligence and embrace of the surreal, is how much John Lasseter and Pixar changed once Disney bought them. This film was supposed to be released last year, but Lasseter decided to push it back in order to solve some problems he saw with it. It is weird because this film is very much an amalgum of Disney looks and story with the character and sensibility of Pixar. If Lasseter did change a lot, I just have to say that I am even more anxious to see what’s next, knowing that he has decided to reopen the 2D animation department and bring the glory days back. Disney seems to be in good hands for the future, and hopefully will continue to keep moving forward themselves.

Meet the Robinsons 8/10

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photography:
[1] Lewis and Wilbur Robinson in MEET THE ROBINSONS
[2] Bowler Hat Guy in MEET THE ROBINSONS

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I think I might enjoy the comedy/horror genre more than the actual horror films they parody. James Gunn, (yes, the man who brought us what I can only imagine are fantastic scripts for Scooby Doo 1 & 2—not sure since I would never watch them), has broken into the mix with his film Slither. It appears he understands the appeal these films have and jam-packs it with gore, camp, and humor. The audience can never wonder if what transpires is unintentionally funny because they are too busy thinking about the parts that are unintentionally scary. A comedy, through and through, Gunn gathers a nice group of actors to play up the cheese yet still make us believe they are smack in the middle of the otherworldly situation they are in.

The basic premise here is that an alien life form—not Martians as they are from Mars of course—has come to Earth to make it its next world for consumption. Our villain inhabits a local and makes him go out to either infect, impregnate, or devour all other forms of meat, human or otherwise, along his journey. This host just happens to be involved in a somewhat loveless marriage with the resident good-looking teacher, who or course is the object of our hero’s affection, the chief of police. Once the creature’s first mate unleashes his spawn of collective-consciousness worms, the town comes under attack and only the chief, the host’s wife, and the obnoxious mayor can save the day.

Amidst all the zombie-turning and the blood, acid spit, and limb jellying, we are treated with some great laughs and one-liners from people who truly know how to deliver the script deadpan for added effectiveness. The great Michael Rooker plays the host body to campy perfection. What role of his hasn’t oozed tongue-in-cheek outbursts and over-the-top facial expressions? Gregg Henry takes the unpolished politician to new heights and everything he says gets a laugh as result. Even his introduction in the film, swearing in the midst of his constituents and their children, is a tired gimmick, but still effectively funny. As for our real heroes, we are treated to some good forbidden chemistry between Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks. Fillion is king of sarcasm and always stays in a realistic mode unfazed by the horrors happening around him. Someone else could have allowed the film to become unhinged if they didn’t take this role seriously; the comedy relies on this character not seeing the humor around him. With Banks, a favorite of mine who is underused in movies, I was not a big fan of the fake accent, but I guess it does fit the aesthetic of what is going on. And as the mayor says, she is hardcore—when she kills her first infected assailant, it’s priceless.

Definitely more entertaining than expected, I can still understand the lack of love at the box office. The trailers showed that there would be some subversion to the horror with humor, but didn’t quite go all the way with it. I’m sure people were confused in what to expect and those who wanted scares were disappointed as were those that wanted pure laughs. To me, Gunn masterfully mixes the two just right for an enjoyable ride in Hicksville, USA during an interstellar battle for supremacy. He gets all the little moments right, the grenade folly, the corny love scene music, and even the extras looking like they are from a backwoods/incestuous town. The look was right and the delivery just as effective as I laughed pretty much straight through.

Slither 6/10

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[1] Elizabeth Banks (Starla Grant), Nathan Fillion (Bill Pardy), and Don Thompson (Wally Whale) in Universal Pictures’ Slithers

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I understand that the new movie Disturbia is about a person who is unable to leave his room and must look out the window for entertainment. During his peeping sessions, he finds that his neighbor might be a killer and by doing so, tries to get everyone around him to help find out the truth. That premise, and that premise alone, is the ONLY thing that likens this movie to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece of tension and technical genius, Rear Window. Director D.J. Caruso has taken this script, no credit listed to the writers of that classic, and created a contemporary world around which he can create a cat and mouse chase from the small radius that our protagonist is allowed to travel within having a house arrest anklet affixed to his leg. If the critics are to be believed that this is a ripoff/remake, then every romantic comedy coming down the pipeline is one as well. Boy meets girl, boy must win girl, conflict causes relationship to stay strained, boy ultimately wins girl. Actually since every rom-com follows that exact plot sketch, they are more derivative than Disturbia to Rear Window because Caruso takes a premise, updates it, and makes it his own.

Worried that this might end up as another lame duck attempt from the director, I didn’t have too lofty of expectations. I am a fan of Shia LaBeouf, ever since his “Even Stevens” days, and knew he could give it credibility. Fortunately, after the highly disappointing Taking Lives and the ho-hum Two for the Money, it seems Caruso has come back to the form he had with his brilliant debut The Salton Sea. Maybe it was the recent work on “The Shield,” but we have some nice grit, close-up composition, and stylish camerawork. The realism from Sea is back and Disturbia brings it all to make one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen this year. We have fantastic humor—LaBeouf’s delivery and everyman rapport lends to this well—as well as effective scares and edge of your seat suspense. This is a PG-13 movie that knows what it is and rather than titillate with coming as close to the line as possible, stays in check and deals out a healthy dose of mood and emotion rather than blood and sex. I’d even go as far as saying Sarah Roemer’s girl-next-door is the most sensual role this year. It is all about her confidence and eyes, her body language makes it work, and you fall for her just as LaBeouf does, whereas the usual R-rated nudity and over the top craziness has been going so far as to numb audiences by doing what every film now does. Credit Caruso for showing restraint for everything and leading us along by uncovering pieces of the story only when we need to know them.

Besides LaBeouf, Roemer, and a funny turn from Aaron Yoo, the main driving force here is David Morse. This gem of a character actor is at the top of his game as the villainous, did he or didn’t he, neighborhood serial killer. He is good as the conflicted heavy who does wrong only when the world around him has forced him to, (like in Dancer in the Dark and Down in the Valley), but he is perfect as the all out creepy, sly-smiling force being accused of kidnapping and killing numerous women. Morse was allowed to run free and he took the opportunity and went even further with it. Where many suspense films like this would become laughable eventually, the realism brought out through LaBeouf and Morse keep the audience enthralled and interested in how everything will play out. I was never bored and at times actually wondering what would happen next because I was so caught up. When the climax comes, I actually was surprised thinking it was crazy that they would get us there so early, but I was just so into it that I didn’t realize how much time had past.

Disturbia is a genre film and won’t be winning any awards any time soon. What it may lack in total originality it more than makes up for in mood and effective thrills. It had everything you could want from a movie without making you have to think too much. Sit down, go for the ride and walk out of the theatre with the knowledge that your time was well spent. D.J. Caruso, thank you for redeeming yourself.

Disturbia 8/10

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photography:
[1] Sarah Roemer as Ashley and Shia LaBeouf as Kale in DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures thriller Disturbia – 2007. Photo Credit by Suzanne Tenner. TM & Copyright �2006 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

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It’s a real shame that Hollywood churns out some utter crap passed off as entertainment. The new low-brow comedy Blades of Glory has a great premise: two old skating rivals team together, after being banned for life in competition, as the first all male pair to fight for gold at the World Championships. This was ripe for some social commentary, a little out of their element shtick, and a touch of big laugh action sequences. What we get instead are two lead actors doing what they do in every movie they are in and a whole lot of name actors being as effeminate as they possibly can because I guess gay men in the skating community equals a huge laugh riot. I will admit that this film had some funny moments and also some decent acting, but overall the production was shoddy and relied way too much on its stars to bring the fun amidst many redundant routines.

Anyone who reads my reviews knows that I am not a big Will Ferrell fan. Sure I loved him in Stranger Than Fiction, and he can make me laugh hard at times ( Old School), but in the end, his boorish, blowhard persona ends up coming into every comedic character he has. I guess if it cashes the checks why add nuance? He does much of the same here and if you like that, than you’ll probably be entertained throughout. As far as Jon Heder, I won’t go as far as some reviews I’ve heard, saying the kid can’t act or cause laughs if his life depended on it, however, he doesn’t really succeed in his role. I think he worked really well with his adopted father, played with a one-note performance by William Fichtner, but that only lasts about five minutes. When he is alone and with Ferrell he goes into a geeky tantrum trying to prove his manhood, and it just doesn’t work.

On the other hand, the husband and wife team of Will Arnett and Amy Poehler is humorous as the competition. Their schemes are enjoyable and Arnett’s dimwittedness is a nice foil to Poehler’s take-charge emotional blackmailing of their sister into doing their dirty work. That sister, played by Jenna Fischer, is the best part of this film. She plays the cute yet shy girl well and her naïveté mixed with her ability to look the part of a sex-fiend or wholesome woman works perfectly in the role. I also enjoyed Romany Malco. No matter how much I don’t want to applaud one of the many “acting gay” performances, I thought his reactions were spot on. Maybe it was because he is the total opposite on the brilliant show “Weeds,” but when he just stares, shaking his head at what is set before him, I always chuckled.

The thing I can’t forgive is the horrible use of special effects on the skating sequences. All the cuts to extreme close-ups after long shots were annoying by themselves, (I know these actors can’t do the moves themselves—at least don’t go back and forth so much making it obvious), but when they tried digitally grafting Ferrell’s and Heder’s faces onto the faces of the real skaters I was literally cringing. The faces were stretched on and totally fake. Also, when the actors were participating in a difficult move, the movement became stilted and stop-motion-like from the amateurish wirework. When one was lifted into the air, the fast paced camerawork zoomed out and the actors slowly moved around until they touched back down to the ice. And then what do we get? Oh, yeah, a close-up of the actors to make sure we don’t forget they are the ones doing the skating. One more thing, too, is the overuse of the tv background footage of how they got there. This movie is the king of using clichés and gimmicks til the very end instead of spicing things up with an original idea.

Despite it all, though, I can’t give Blades of Glory a totally dismal mark because of one priceless scene. When Will Arnett and Will Ferrell are in a chase to get to the stadium on skates, I couldn’t stop laughing. Sure it was all normal and stupid when they put their skates on and race to the skating complex in the distance, but when they set foot onto pavement and the chase slows to a crawl as they try not to fall, I loved it. Granted, I would have liked them to do more with the escalator, (why show us their skates lodging in the grooves of the steps if they don’t get stuck at the top?), however, once the crossbow comes into play all is redeemed. The scene reminded me a lot of the backstreet brawl in Anchorman, another film I abhorred, and wouldn’t mind if I had the opportunity to see just that one scene again.

Blades of Glory 4/10

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photography:
[1] Will Ferrell as Chazz and Jon Heder as Jimmy in DreamWorks SKG and Paramount Pictures’ Blades of Glory – 2007
[2] Amy Poehler as Fairchild in Paramount Pictures’ Blades of Glory – 2007

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Director Antoine Fuqua has a style and filmography that I have enjoyed in the past. With Training Day and King Arthur, he delivered some action packed movies that had both story and popcorn pyrotechnics. I will say that after seeing the trailer for his new film Shooter, I was a bit underwhelmed, but until I went to one of his works and was not entertained, I would at least give it a shot. I’m glad I did as Shooter ended up being a well told, nicely paced actioner that knew what it wanted to do at all times and lived up to its goals. We are never led into a situation that may twist in a way that will bring us out of the reality of what is happening; our hero has been framed and he will do anything necessary to find justice. Fuqua tells us who the good guys and who the bad guys are at all times. There is never an opportunity for the audience to second guess someone’s motives because the filmmaker is willing to appreciate our intelligence and spin a linear tale of revenge, trying to set things right against a corrupt government.

A big part of the film’s success lies in the performance by Mark Wahlberg. I have never been a real fan of his acting prowess, but I must give him credit for getting better each time he is in front of the camera. In my opinion, he was horrible early on in his career in movies like Fear. Sure he had a great turn in Boogie Nights, but I hold that true because he was basically playing himself—a young man new to the entertainment industry, trying to understand his role in it all. Only when he came out with possibly the best role in the phenomenal movie I Heart Huckabees did I finally say to myself, “this guy may be able to do the job after all.” Wahlberg is wonderful as Bob Lee Swagger on his journey to find out who is behind the conspiracy that led to his being framed in a Presidential assassination plot. The role may not be very demanding as far as range goes, but that is ok, because he does all he is asked and is believable as the ex-army sniper. All the weaponry jargon that spews from his mouth may sound like gibberish, but he sells it that he knows what he’s talking about.

The supporting cast help prop up the film as well, allowing for some nice sequences. Michael Peña is great as the FBI agent who sees that something isn’t right and becomes willing to help uncover what truly happened the night of the shooting. Ned Beatty has a nice turn as a corrupt Senator, and although I kept waiting for him to mumble “yes sir, Mr. Luthor,” he did a nice job. Also, mention must be made for the fantastic Elias Koteas. When he is given a role that he can really run with he takes it over and is electric. He plays the villain perfectly and between the slimeball moves and the hilarious scene at the end, (I love that he takes his belt off in the background while on the ground trying to make a tourniquet—most actors would probably just squirm there after what happens, but even when not the focal point he tries to bring the role out), you got to love the guy.

Besides the competent acting and some nice camerawork, (when Wahlberg enters what he knows is a trap, the camera composes each view of him in a way to show a vast space behind, making you think that someone will be turning up to take him out; the framing makes the suspense rise even higher), there are some problems. Sure the story is a convenient one, smart enough to get where it wants to go, taking the usual liberties action-flicks of this kind take, but it is effective and straight-forward. I don’t mind this shortcoming because it is better than trying to be more than you are, ruining any credibility you might have had. What I do mind is bad acting. Upon viewing the trailer I thought I would be pulling my hair out listening to Kate Mara’s fake hick accent, however, she wasn’t that bad. The atrocity actually came from Danny Glover. Whether it was his decision or the director’s, I don’t know, but his mouthpiece-causing lisp was terrible. At first I was wondering if he got that old he was wearing dentures and they were falling out, but when looking closer you can see a clear mouthpiece on his bottom row of teeth causing a bad speech pattern. I cringed each time he opened his mouth.

At the end of the day though, Fuqua delivers the action and his actors do the job at pulling it all off. Shooter is by no means a masterpiece, but who actually goes to these types of movies expecting one? If you have two hours to spare and want to be entertained with a minimal amount of brainwork to pull you through, I can think of many worse things to do instead of checking out Wahlberg’s one-man fight against the tyranny of influential people in high places.

Shooter 6/10

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photography:
[1] Michael Peña as Nick Memphis and Mark Wahlberg as Bob Lee Swagger in Shooter – 2007
[2] Kate Mara star as Sarah Fenn in Shooter – 2007

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