You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2009.

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Here we are, a decade later, (well, actually eight years if you factor the 2007 original release date), and the fervor caused by The Blair Witch Project in 1999 has begun again, this time in the world of ghosts/demons. Oren Peli’s low budget thriller Paranormal Activity didn’t enrapture viewers at Slamdance enough to find a distribution deal, but after a viewing by Steven Spielberg, it has become one of the feel-good stories of Hollywood. Loving the simplicity, as I’m sure the potential profit margin too, ($11,000 budget turning into a current $60 million large), the prolific auteur requested a change to the ending to make it more palatable to audiences, trimmed off ten minutes, and gave it its shot at greatness. After an ingenious release tactic through college cities and the internet “demand it for your town” system, Peli’s little engine that could has become a phenomenon in wide release. But with all the hype, and all the audience testimonials, does it live up? Unfortunately for this viewer, the answer is no, not at all.

Back in ’99, I remember still being a little unsure about this Blair Witch thing. Was it real? Was it fake? The excitement was still in its infancy when my sister, cousin, and I went to a night screening at the Amherst Dipson, when we still thought it was kind of a creepy, dingy theatre house. So, the mood was set, the unexpected assumed, and genuine scares delivered. Whatever one may say about its replay value—heck, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it a second time—it was everything it promised to be and more that initial sit down. The final image is still one vividly recalled to mind if thought about. I desperately wanted a repeat of this; the time had come for a ghost story to be chilling in its minimalism and realism. Thinking back, though, there was a lot going against Paranormal Activity successfully achieving it. You know going in that it’s a dramatization; you’ve heard the stories, you’ve seen multiple first-person films come out in the past ten years, but you still hold on to the hope of being terrified. For some reason, however, the so-called build-up of tension just fell flat into uninteresting boredom. Until the final ten/fifteen minutes, half of which was Spielberg’s doing, (and a far cry better than the original ending, watched after I came home from the theatre), I will admit to being restless, waiting for something good to finally occur.

The big problem, I feel, is that so much of the creep factor is shown without a human presence. Unlike a film coming out soon, The Fourth Kind, or Blair Witch itself, this film has its shadow play, its baby powder footprints, and Ouija Board antics occurring without anyone there to react to it. What those other two films had in spades was an experience involving people we as an audience could relate to. We were given the tears, screams, and looks of fear and helplessness, allowing our empathy as human beings to kick in and start feeling those emotions ourselves. Everything that happens in Paranormal Activity does so for us to see, eliciting a smile or a “how did they film that” reaction from myself, and only reacted to by the characters of Katie and Micah the following day from watching video. There is something palpable and resonating about seeing true terror onscreen and relating to it, putting yourself into the situation and fearing what might happen next. Just watching a series of parlor tricks or loud noises off-screen leaves you wanting so much more.

Rather than terror, the reaction we see most is that of excitement and laughter. The demon causing all the fuss has been following Katie around for her entire life and therefore has much more meaning to her. Micah, on-the-other-hand, is just loving the idea that he can catch these phenomena on camera, maybe sell it to a youtube site or something. The guy is a day trader, seemingly to have an infinite amount of spare time as his wealth is increased while he plays amateur documentarian. He is enjoying the experience, trying to provoke the entity living with them for something cool to capture. There are no real stakes for him as he thinks it’s all just a joke—neat things happening, but nothing that will actually hurt his girlfriend of himself. Going against the suggestions of a psychic who came to visit, he doesn’t want a demonologist to help, he instead wants to communicate with the demon himself, in all respects inviting it to come into their world and enjoy complete control over them. So, in a genre of cinema where the impact is greatly influenced by empathizing with the people onscreen, instead of fear we start to feel Micah’s sarcasm and invincibility, effectively taking us out of the terror to wonder when a good scare will finally come.

I do believe both Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat do an admirable job of being realistic without falling into the amateur actor trap. They are playing themselves, leaving all sense of artifice out. The thought of them being “bad actors” never crossed my mind; I felt that they portrayed what they would feel and do if that situation presented itself to them. I do think that they revved up the emotion at the end, however, losing that happy-go-lucky sheen by adding an edge to their performances as stress sets in and things get personal. When the being in the house finally takes a physical interest in the characters, when it finally makes contact with their bodies and proves itself to be there despite being unseen, this film becomes something so much more intriguing. Why did they wait so long before adding those stakes and giving us something to fear? Maybe it’s just me, but lights turning on and off or doors slamming don’t elicit feelings of dread. Two parallel planes of existence overlapping and seeing people moved by an invisible force … now that is something my adrenaline kicks in for. It is just too bad that an intense ten minutes of supernatural simplicity can’t even begin to make up for the hour of laughable seen it all before scare tactics leading up to it.

Paranormal Activity 5/10

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[1] Katie (Katie Featherstone, left) and Micha (Micha Sloat, right) are a young couple who move into what seems like a typical suburban “starter” tract house and become increasingly disturbed by a presence that may or may not be demonic but is most active in Paranormal Activity.
[2] 3:08:26 AM; a scene from Paranormal Activity.

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It’s hard to believe that Michael Jackson passed away just four months ago. I don’t say that because I miss the guy—honestly, he hadn’t been in my consciousness since all the child molestation hoopla made him more a joke that talent—but because the footage shot of rehearsals for what was to be his final curtain call tour has already been spliced together into a tribute documentary. Not to say that This Is It is a complete “cashing in” on his death, but one can’t look at it without a slight taint in that respect. For die-hard fans, however, I think the film will succeed 100%. All I had to do was turn to my right and see a middle-aged woman clapping and singing to every song in order to come to that conclusion. As for someone like me, someone who appreciates the music immensely, (especially the older catalog), and is interested in the process and amount of work that goes into a concert extravaganza like Jackson was going to give, it also doesn’t disappoint.

Everyone wants to see the man that was Michael Jackson. The American public went crazy whenever he agreed to do an interview on television, either from the need to hear him talk or morbid curiosity. But all those appearances were in some regards staged or overly saturated by the media, showing more of the myth than the man himself. What makes Kenny Ortega’s film better than all that is the fact we are seeing Jackson as he didn’t want the public to see him, as the artist he was. Ortega was the director of the tour and had been working very closely with Jackson up until his death. It was, therefore, only fitting that he should be the one to piece this movie together, having been there firsthand and knowing what should be shown to get an idea of the professionalism exuded by the King of Pop. Just listening to Michael talk, or seeing his appearance behind stage shows that maybe the falsetto and extreme spaced-out feel were only an act for the public, to add to his mystique. Sure his voice is a bit higher than most and yes his demeanor is obscenely kind and generous, saying ‘God Bless You’ every time someone does as he asks, but this guy was coherent, sharp, and very knowledgeable of his own music and the craft itself.

Besides an extensive closet filled with gold/silver shiny pants and a woman’s jacket with pointy shoulders—very weird to look at—the Jackson shown at work is just like any other musical artist. He is sitting at the tryouts, he is choreographing his moves during sound checks, he is telling the instrumentalists when to let the note simmer, when to not rush the meter change, and when to exaggerate a note and go crazy. This is a family activity, working with people he has before and newcomers that grew up becoming dancers or musicians because of this man. The opening of the film shows those who made the show giving testimonials and crying about the opportunity to work with their idol. It is all quite surreal, especially for someone like me that never could buy into the whole celebrity freakshow of needing to touch/be near famous people. We all know that side of Jackson, we’ve seen the mass of humanity fainting, crying, and screaming as he announces his tour. What we’ve never seen, and what makes this film worth a glimpse, is Michael creating. He says at the end that no one should be nervous; they are doing something for the people. He wanted to bring his audience into a world they’ve never seen with escapism through sound and visuals. This show looked absolutely killer.

Not only was Jackson in shape and ready to take on the world, he was as sharp and as good as ever. No one can say that this guy was going to die before taking the stage; he was jumping and grooving, and kicking like never before. During a rehearsal for “Beat It” he does his whole routine, stomping on the floor, going to his back to kick up his legs, and to his stomach to stomp some more. When a cue goes wrong, he gets up, says what he wants done differently, and when the musician says ok, we don’t have to do it again, Michael tells Ortega to take it from the first jump and does it all once more. A perfectionist for sure, Jackson put his entire being in this reunion/goodbye tour. He wanted to leave nothing behind or hold anything back. Saving his voice for the real tour, his performances here oftentimes miss words or consist of very soft vocals, but when he sees the dancers off stage watching, clapping, and smiling, sometimes he goes all out and brings the house down. He says afterwards that he can’t do that anymore, that they shouldn’t egg him on like that, but you know he loved every minute of it.

But it isn’t all just Jackson singing and dancing onstage. There is a lot of that, don’t get me wrong, and probably thirty minutes of the two hour runtime could have been deleted as a result, however, what truly fascinated was the down time and the vignette filming. This extravaganza was going to be more than a concert; it was to be an experience. Jackson filmed mini-movies in gangster garb opposite Bogart and Robinson for “Smooth Criminal” and the make-up was brought back for a new “Thriller” intro full of creepy zombies. Here’s the kicker, though … it was shot in 3D. The concertgoers were to have glasses and the zombies were to come straight for you, as well as the bullets and glass during “Criminal”. Jackson spared no expense at all; the This Is It tour would have been an amazing swan song for a guy that did so much for music. This film may not be the true performance—it may overdub some rehearsals so the audience can hear the song—but we see Jackson as one of the hardest workers in the business. Here is the first true look at the man behind the myth; it’s a shame we only see it because of his death, but as a eulogy to his music, it does the job well.

This Is It 6/10

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Perhaps I was in an overly good mood before bed, or maybe I was just so tired that I’d laugh at anything, but Four Christmases ended up being a pretty good time despite my trepidation and warnings to steer clear by friends. It was cute, somewhat innocuous, and had its fair share of big laughs. By no means is it great cinema, nor intelligent storytelling—its sub 90-minute runtime shows us only the craziness spending time with the four parts of two divorced marriages and nothing else—it does its job well. The characters don’t evolve, no matter what you think at the end each person is really as selfish as they were at the start. A little dialogue and “talk” about the future does nothing to change that. However, that is what makes the movie fun. We don’t want them to be kind or gentle, we need them to be cruel and hurtful because that is what makes it funny. We laugh because no matter how bad our own families are, they, hopefully, don’t come close to the circus on screen.

Our leads, Vince Vaughn’s Brad and Reese Witherspoon’s Kate, are the biggest culprits involved. They like to tell themselves that they want to stay as far from their parents as possible, not get married, and not have children, because they’d only continue the cycle of dysfunction. Really, though, they are being as selfish as their elders, in the opposite way. Rather than grow to hate each other and separate to hopefully give the children a chance, they stay as close to each other as possible by not letting anything else in to ruin their equilibrium, even withholding facts about their childhoods, like being named Orlando or going to fat camp. One could even say that this duo is worse than the misfit parents/siblings, at least they want to see each other and celebrate Christmas amongst other life events, it is Brad and Kate that forsake all to share a boutique joy that is more of the moment than anything lasting.

The story basically is told in the trailer, our couple is grounded from their yearly tradition of lying to the family, (you can’t spell families without “lies”), and going on tropical holiday. While bickering with the airline attendant, a camera crew comes over to ask their opinion about the fog ruining holiday plans, and the next thing you know their phones are ringing and the jig is up. Now they must stay in town and visit two mothers and two fathers separately, along with the motley crew of blood relatives. They discover their love for each other may not be as strong as previously thought and that maybe family is more important to them after all, whether it be theirs together or with the extended lot. Blah, blah, blah, they find things out that make them see each other for who they really are. But, honestly, none of that matters, the plot is thin at best and serves only to loosely connect all the comedic skits together. It is in the supporting roles where this film shines.

Don’t get me wrong; Vaughn can make even the most inane script entertaining with his seemingly improv-laden schtick. His sympathy pukes are hilarious and his rendition of Joseph at Witherspoon’s mother’s church a knockout performance, but it is what the families do to him that brings the biggest laughs. Between his UFC-trained brothers beating him up every opportunity or the henhouse consisting of her mother and female-centric clan hitting on Vaughn and touching him whenever they can, his resulting facial reactions ultimately shine. Jon Favreau, as usual, steals most scenes he is a part of. Built of testosterone and machismo, his tearing down of brother Brad is pretty hilarious. And the scene with the game Taboo, it being a staple with my friends and I, just rung true—the sequence is orchestrated to perfection with the nuances to playing and how frustrating it can get. The other brother, however, is great too, played by a very underrated singer turned actor in Tim McGraw. He is able to express this sense of vulnerability that surprises me every time once I remember who he is.

Everyone else is memorable too. It’s nice to see Kristen Chenoweth getting more roles and I always enjoy a good Dwight Yoakam bit part. Mary Steenburgen has seen a sort of renaissance in the past few years of comedy, not disappointing here as Witherspoon’s mother, and Robert Duvall plays his crotchety best as deadbeat Dad to Vaughn. Sissy Spacek was entertaining as Vaughn’s mother, a bit of a hippie and out of touch with the times, which adds humor to her use of the buzzer in Taboo, and even Jon Voight does an admirable job with the smallest role of the film from a name player. What’s Christmas without the true meaning of the holiday being relayed through that guy’s mouth? There are moments from them all throughout that got me laughing pretty hard; and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Nothing reaches the level of the opening scene, though, Vaughn showing Witherspoon’s Connecticut sexual being how they grow men in the mountains of North Dakota. It’s a great piece of role-playing that got me interested real early, making me forgive the weak story that I knew was to follow, by loosening me up for some laughter.

Four Christmases 5/10

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[1] (L-R) Denver (JON FAVREAU) inflicts a new martial arts move on his brother Brad (VINCE VAUGHN) in New Line Cinema’s romantic comedy, ‘Four Christmases,’ also starring REESE WITHERSPOON. The film is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo: John P. Johnson
[2] (L-R) Sisters Courtney (KRISTIN CHENOWETH) and Kate (REESE WITHERSPOON) discuss the finer points of having a family in New Line Cinema’s romantic comedy, ‘Four Christmases,’ also starring VINCE VAUGHN. The film is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. Photo: John P. Johnson

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Caution: Spoilers

There really isn’t a way to talk about John August’s The Nines without spoiling some aspect of the intricate plot and creation structures at play. But first, I need to give a round of applause to the filmmaker for having the audacity to craft something original, thought provoking, and intelligent. I’ve got to say that those things are few and far between these days. The film is not a masterpiece as it does take a while to find the tone that it wants and succeeds with at the end and there are some issues I have with it plothole-wise, yet you cannot deny the brilliance of storytelling that is at work. You believe that the movie concerns a man going crazy, maybe having a mid-life crisis/nervous breakdown, as his being fractures into three separate identities, living simultaneously. Well, that’s what I got from the trailer anyways, and it’s not that far off. One man is many characters, but the cause of this and its effect on the world as a whole is far bigger than a psychological disorder. We are dealing with Gods and higher beings, humanity’s puppet-masters. Maybe we were created in his image after all.

If I were to delve deeper into the meaning of everything, I’d say that this is a very personal film to August, almost a representation of his life and career, constantly creating new worlds and characters in his work, only to see some succeed and flourish while others get stuck in house-arrest, never to see the light of day. It is the storytellers that exist on a higher plane than mere humans, they are God-like in their duties, but still must answer to a higher power, 9’s to God’s 10. Oh, and let’s not forget those pesky koalas living at an 8, directly above humanity’s 7, because of their telepathic abilities—loved that little touch. It only takes a thought on behalf of Ryan Reynolds’s Gary/Gavin/Gabriel to bring something to life or to take it away. He is the creator of his world, loving his toys so much that he decides to manifest himself into the “game”, becoming addicted and infused completely with a litany of avatars running around. He is a man that has lost his way, engrossed in being a human, he has forgotten his true place on the hierarchy, needing another 9, Hope Davis’s Sarah/Susan/Sierra, to wake him up and bring him back to their plane to create new things and break free from the gravity of the old.

It is Melissa McCarthy’s role that intrigues the most however. She is Reynolds’s favorite, always a part of his lives, no matter which version he is. However, she is a human, a 7, with knowledge of everything. How has this occurred? Being his most cherished, did he tell her many iterations what was going on? But that’s impossible since he doesn’t even know what he is. I can understand Davis turning on the computer and playing a role to reach Reynolds and wake him from his daze because she is a 9, but McCarthy doesn’t have that power, yet her Margaret tells Gary what is happening and her Mary understands that Gabriel must leave her. And even then, when Gabriel leaves, she is left with the same husband she has as Melissa in Gavin’s story. Does that mean these three existences are parallel to each other but never touching? Gary and Gavin do have a close encounter, briefly seeing the other and hearing their movements as though ghosts. Maybe everything happening is doing so at the same time; multiple game versions being played with the same settings, but Reynolds’ programmer is inside a different pod on each. Maybe he is doing a Being John Malkovich, entering a character for a limited time, so that we the audience see him as Reynolds, but the “game” characters still see him as the person he is inhabiting. There truly is this much going on.

What is really enjoyable, though, is the cyclical nature of it all. The Gary character is under house arrest in the Gavin character’s house while he is pitching a television pilot of Gabriel’s story. In this aspect, perhaps the 9 version of Reynolds hated that Gavin’s vision was sabotaged, so he created a new world where that show was a reality. It is a nice thought, but kind of impossible since Davis was the one who destroyed the show in the first place, a ploy to wake Reynolds up by removing him from that story’s version of McCarthy. She needed to rid him of his attachment to her on every single plane, breaking that bond so he would leave each game he has entered, coming back to whatever reality he truly exists on. Playing so many roles—playing God in general—just may be as hard as it looks. With so many lives running around in his head, there is bound to be overlap. Gavin’s subconscious might have just been thinking about Gabriel’s life, therefore writing the story for his teleplay. The same person inhabits them both, so it is not that hard to believe.

The Nines will make you think, it will make you question, and it will entertain in its originality. This is not your run-of-the-mill drama that will appeal to the general population; you need to have an analytic mind and desire to be challenged in order to comprehend what is going on. There are a few gimmicks thrown in to help you come to a conclusion on how it is all occurring—Sim City like numbers floating above people’s heads at the end of Gavin’s reality show being the most blatant—but I think August leaves enough to the imagination and to our intelligence to figure the rest out ourselves. The acting is great throughout and it is nice to see Reynolds be able to branch out and show some dramatic chops, while still retaining his usual sarcastic wit. Again, though, the tone is a bit mixed at the start, leaving a little to be desired by not taking itself seriously. As the story progresses, the reality becomes darker and more serious, definitely something that made it work much better for myself. And I have to single out Melissa McCarthy for a really magnificent performance. She is so endearing and funny as Margaret, so vulnerable and likable as Melissa, and loving and emotive as Mary. Consistently stealing each “game” she is a part of, it’s interesting that a human becomes the strongest part of each arc. But then, maybe that’s why Reynolds’s 9 loved his world so much, he needed to be with her at any cost.

The Nines 7/10

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[1] Ryan Reynolds as Gary and Hope Davis as Sarah in Newmarket Films’ ‘The Nines’.
[2] Melissa McCarthy as Margaret and Elle Fanning as Noelle in John August’s ‘The Nines’

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Author Bret Easton Ellis completely resonates with me. Actually, I’m not sure I can make that statement since I’ve never read a book by him, despite having most on my shelf. Where his characters have affected me is in the films adapted from his work. Every single person he infuses into his sprawling tales of excess and youth culture is devoid of morals, selfish beyond measure, and living life as though the next day will be his last. Between American Psycho and Rules of Attraction, two absolutely fantastic films in my eyes, you see the blank stares and coldness these people possess. They are mannequins in superb physical condition, living in a world of superficiality, their insides empty to emotion or compassion. When a semblance of being good, or feeling something real comes up, they don’t know how to deal with it after so long a time of not caring. From all the press and reviews I read about the latest Ellis adaptation, The Informers, I thought that I’d finally be let down. I should have known his words would not lie, however, because director Gregor Jordan has crafted them into another winner.

The film is the weakest of his works, but lesser Ellis is still more enthralling to me than most things out there. Going back to the 80s, recalling the heightened actions of playboys like Patrick Bateman and his crew in American Psycho, this multi-narrative tale shows a little bit more of the emptiness excess brings with it. Instead of watching as a rich yuppie goes on a killing spree because he can and no one cares enough to notice during their quests motivated by greed, we see the intricacies of wealth and its effect on the youth of Los Angeles. Hollywood’s seedy underbelly is on full display from all parts of the social spectrum. You have the film producer son beginning to grow a conscious as his girlfriend cheats on him, his parents show what a failed relationship is, and his so called friends prove to only be there for him when it suits their needs; the out of work actor manning the desk of a condominium as he tries to break into the industry being visited by his criminal uncle looking to make a quick buck by kidnapping and selling a young boy; a junkie rockstar so out of his mind that he needs to ask whether he’s lived in LA before, despite having an estranged wife and child in the area, when he’s coherent enough to remove the underage boys and girls he’s bedding; and the young product of a failed marriage taken to Hawaii by dear old Dad, more as an attempt to see if his son is gay then to try and reconnect with him. Boy the 80s sound like a great time, don’t they?

When sitting down to watch an Ellis film, I truly believe you need to open your mind and understand that it exists in an alternate reality. His view of America is skewed to show the entertaining and horrible aspects of humanity; how greed and sex can manipulate even the best of us into becoming the people we see throwing their lives away despite the silver spoon. Jon Foster’s Graham could be the first character I’ve seen that may actually want redemption. He tells his director friend, sometime lover, and rumored prostitute Martin, (played by Austin Nichols who is king at doing Hollywood bimbo with a mix of conniving intelligence despite his touched country boy in “John From Cincinnati”), that he wants more; he needs someone to tell him the difference between right and wrong. Growing up with money and private schools does nothing to help unburden the need of a role model, especially when his parents are all but absent and the worst examples of good you could find. The life of no consequences in a world falling apart can no longer sustain him. The idyllic image of youth has been destroyed; the Hollywood sign is graffiti-filled, the AIDS epidemic is spreading, and violence has seeped in where the fervor of life and joy used to be.

One could fault the acting due to this hyper-real existence, but it’s slightly off-kilter delivery is what actually makes it great. Everyone is playing their roles purposely over-the-top or with robotic lack of emotion. Lou Taylor Pucci is the epitome of an Ellis creation, doing his best riff of Christian Bale or James Van Der Beek from their entries. Watching his father, an effective portrayal from Chris Isaak, make a fool out of himself, pretending he is much younger and cooler than he is, disgusts him. The chance of love between them has been gone for a long time, so he stands prideful, smoking his cigarette, acting as though he is ruler of the world, a common thought for most Ellis men. I don’t know if it’s the fact that the author wrote the screenplay too—which he didn’t for previous films—but I think The Informers delves deeper into the psyche and darkness of these people. There is more time devoted to internal workings and motivations and evolutions here. It still keeps its dry, sarcastic edge of humor, but there is more, bringing a sense of purpose whereas the other films were more satire.

And the rest of the acting is pretty great on most counts. Billy Bob Thornton is so calm and cool you have to believe he is numb from some sort of drug, or maybe he’s just too selfish to care; Mickey Rourke does what he does best, badass criminals biting off more than they can chew; Amber Heard is given room to be an actual actress rather than the eye-candy ditz she is usually relegated to, interesting since this is the film she is naked for most of its duration, but what she goes through is shown with some truth; Mel Raido is fantastic as rocker Bryan Metro, so messed up that when real feelings come out, they are too foreign for him to know what he should do with them; and Brad Renfro—it’s a shame this is the last we’ll see of him because the ticks and insecurities of Jack the desk clerk are devastatingly authentic. Renfro was kind of a revelation here, showing some range, it’s unfortunate his real life ran a course similar to the glamorous demise befallen of the hard-livers portrayed. This is Ellis with consequences, all the glitz and “fun” of the high life but with the tragic results that occur when the bottom falls out. It suits his world nicely, showing that not all his youngsters are invincible, whether emotionally or physically. I really need to start reading.

The Informers 8/10

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After a Halloween season of watching some pretty good horror films, mostly high concept, visually interesting ones, I decided I needed to take a break and check out one of the tween travesties released every year to huge box office numbers. So, in comes the 2008 remake of Prom Night—you don’t get much lower on the drivel scale than this one folks. Pretty much all the killing is done off-screen, the prom in question looks as though it cost a million dollars in order to appear like a Hollywood movie premiere, (were those parents behind the ropes taking photos and being waved to by their children doing their best movie star entrance?), and it takes place in a hotel where these 18-year olds are allowed to get rooms for the night. Talk about a liberal school, the prom favors were probably monogrammed condoms with the date and song on them. Everything that happens is beyond convenient and the premise is laughable at best. However, it did do the trick, putting a smile on my face at its absurdity and allowing me to leave my brain far, far away.

The senior in the middle of it all is Brittany Snow’s Donna Keppel, a girl who witnessed her mother getting murdered after coming home to find the rest of her family dead at the hands of an ex-teacher who took an unhealthy obsession to her. Trust me, if someone looking for me killed my entire family, I would not go live with my aunt and uncle down the street and go to the same school while the homicidal maniac sat in a mental institution. I’d get the hell out of Dodge and try and start a new life, maybe change my name and go witness protection even. But not this girl, she is too strong for that and decides to stay with her friends and get her life back to normal. It’s three years later, she has come “a long way”, and prom is upon her. However, her spidey-sense kicks in and the nightmares she had so long ago, (can less than three years be considered long?), crop back into her psyche just at the time her stalker escapes from maximum security—with the weirdest cut scene to show how, that really doesn’t make sense, but is too quick to care.

The night they’ll never forget begins as the limo picks up the three couples and takes them to the event. The dance seems unnecessary as everyone just wants to go to their rooms and play rabbits for the rest of the evening, but wait, we need to see who wins prom king and queen don’t we? For a crowning that is made to appear so important to the lives of these youngsters, you’d think they’d be a little more worried about being at the party to go on stage and accept the prize. But, hey, someone has to wander into harm’s way to be killed. It would be a pretty horrible slasher flick if there wasn’t at least one death every twenty minutes or so. That means characters will go against how they are written to service the plot and become pawns in the film’s game, filling up the space until the villain finally confronts the person he came to get in the first place, something he could have easily done about thirty minutes into the story. And, of course, while all that is happening we have Idris Elba’s Detective Winn on the case, coming so close to catching the guy he thought he put away with a death sentence, but always just missing. Not quite the bumbling cop, he is in fact capable, his failures again service the script. You have to love conveniences.

I did actually enjoy some of the performances. Both Dana Davis and Jessica Stroup play the high schooler well, especially after my having seen both play college-aged girls previously. With small arcs in “Heroes” and “Reaper” respectively, I’d hope to see more of these two in the future, they play it naturally and genuinely appear to be having fun. As for Snow, I feel she just plays it too young. Maybe that goes into the whole psychological thing and what she has gone through, but she becomes the child amongst adults when with her clique. She is the waif heroine, though, so there needs to be a little bit of helplessness. This isn’t Laurie Strode getting ready to hold her own against a maniac, no Donna Keppel is a cheerleading, accepted to Brown kind of delicate flower; she needs a savoir to get her through it all. It’s just too bad that the price has to be those she holds near and dear. Watching everyone she loves die around her in a short three years can’t be a fun experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if Prom Night 2 comes out and she is the badass killer. But then she did say the prom meant that it might be the last time any of them see each other again. Bet she didn’t know how true those sentiments were.

It’s not all bad though. Despite the clichéd horror film moments that make up this PG-13 sub-genre—I really don’t think a horror film should exist without being R-rated, you need the ability to go a bit further than teenage sterility—one shining moment comes in the killer himself. Crazed and sadistic, Mr. Fenton is the epitome of escaped patient, with his mute voice, deliberate actions, lack of compassion, and Charles Manson hair before his incarceration. I thought Johnathon Schaech looked like a homicidal psychopath in That Thing You Do!, so he was pitch perfect for me here. A total creep, his sneer will put a chill into anyone standing across the room. I think a career of villainy should suit him well. Hopefully he’ll choose his projects with a little more care, but as long as he’s having fun, (and receiving that paycheck), I can’t really blame him too much.

Prom Night 3/10

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[1] (L to R) Collins Pennie, Dana Davis, Scott Porter, Brittany Snow, Kelly Blatz and Jessica Stroup star in Screen Gems’ thriller PROM NIGHT. Photo by: Suzanne Tenner. ©2008 Screen Gems, Inc. and Miramax Film Corp. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Dana Davis stars in Screen Gems’ thriller PROM NIGHT. Photo by: Suzanne Tenner. ©2008 Screen Gems, Inc. and Miramax Film Corp. All Rights Reserved.

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So, the genre is called Cyberpunk. Can’t say I have heard the term before, but I can definitely see how it applies to the horror/science fiction film I just experienced called Eden Log. The first film from French director Franck Vestiel, it creates a world of heightened technology with a muted palette and cold, steely environments. One could say that we are watching our amnesiac “hero” Tolbiac maneuvering through a computer itself. The genre seems to be a French creation, not only because of this entry, but also because of films like Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element and Jeunet/Caro’s City of Lost Children, (funnily enough, that last one is the only one shot in the native language). I would almost put Proyas Dark City into the category as well with its underground council of authority and futuristic gadgets that still make it hard to quite grasp a specific time period.

What those three films had, however, that Eden Log unfortunately does not, is a coherent and easy to follow storyline. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but despite impressive art direction and a tenuous grasp at relaying the moral ambiguity of technological advancement, I never could find my way into the movie itself. Instead I was always an outside viewer, basking in the grimy beauty of it all, constantly wondering if that was enough to keep me invested. My mind kept wandering, working overtime to comprehend one shred of plot besides the tidbits discovered by our lead man, who was just as confused as me. Why is he there? Where is he? What is going on? It is so ambiguous and thought-provoking that the first thing I did upon its completion was go to Wikipedia to see if anyone had posted some semblance of a summary. There is one to read, and it is pretty much what I had been thinking, however, it also does a good job of connecting the dots and showing the bigger picture, something I’m grateful to the author for doing.

We are thrust into an underground world—just as Clovis Cornillac’s Tolbiac is when he wakes up in the mud without knowing who he is or how he arrived there. Kudos to Cornillac, by the way, for giving pretty much the only good performance in the film. I liked Vimala Pons’ botanist as well, but, besides those two, the line deliveries are quite atrocious and sadly take the audience away from this fully realized world, and that’s a real shame. Tolbiac begins to wander around as though a newborn, trying different things, feeling his way through the tunnels and machinery along his way. He discovers a dead body beside him and a contingent of security soldiers, on the lookout for someone, with what appears to be chained, mutated humans as attack dogs. We follow his journey as he stumbles upon more dead scientists with embedded memories that project onto the walls; facts about the facility they are in, Eden Log, a power plant of sorts that utilizes a giant tree for the energy powering their cities; and the multitude of this structure’s levels, what each contain, as well as strange cube compartments that appear to be trapping people inside. It is all quite the head scratcher, but then it is for him as well.

Only when Pons arrives to save Cornillac from the mutants does the story start to make some sense. She is one of the workers that have been promised a place above ground for her service once her work is done. They are slaves to the system, doing what they are told for the greater good, caring for the tree of life so that it may sustain their own when the cycle advances to a new set of workers while they bask in the glory of civilization. She suspects Tolbiac is a worker as well, on his way to being changed into one of the beasts roaming the cavernous expanse. Surprising to her, however, is that instead of the tree’s energy-filled sap taking over his body like a steroid on steroids, it is his body that appears to make the plant flourish. Quite the reversal and one more mystery to this man who seems to be stronger than anyone else involved, yet completely oblivious to the role he has been or must continue to play. It is towards the end when the answers are made clear, the true source of the energy is revealed, the true fate of the workers discovered, and the cycle itself brought out into the open with an animated diagram shown on the wall of the plant’s surface level. There are lies and deceptions at work, moral quandaries of what is going on manifest as Tolbiac slowly discovers who he really is.

All of that is almost inconsequential, though. The characters themselves are sterile like their environment, never appearing to be real or people an audience can relate to. They are all animals chained to the system like the beasts chained up, the creatures they will become once infected by the saps’ toxin. Each role becomes a part of the scenery, pushing you away from entering the action, creating a chasm between audience and subject, not something a film should be trying to do. But that detachment isn’t all bad, because you will be able to focus on the backgrounds and the props and the metallic detail that goes into each frame. By focusing so little on comprehending the motivations of the characters, it is the silent moments that are remembered, the world itself rather than what is keeping it sustained. I love the boldness of Vestiel for having a vision and sticking to it, I love the science fiction aspects that recall videogame environments seeming to be a world of the past just as easily as the future. Without any actual objects to give a sense of time, the piece becomes timeless, a future never reached. Unfortunately, the aesthetic isn’t enough to achieve success here. It makes the experience memorable, if only for its startling visuals that mask its completely indecipherable plot. The makings for greatness are there; hopefully Vestiel hones his skill and continues to evolve.

Eden Log 5/10

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Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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I don’t care if The Fourth Kind utilizes real footage or not, it’s a very powerful film. All the marketing materials allude to the fact that filmmaker Olatunde Osunsanmi interviewed psychologist Abigail Tyler and, by using actual footage of her hypnotizing patients and herself, recreated scenes to give the audience the full story of what is happening in Nome, Alaska. The technique is very effective—excising names, showing the actors’ names and who they are playing, (mostly changed to withhold identities anyways), showing the “real” Tyler in split-screen with Milla Jovovich’s representation of her, etc, etc. I will admit to doing as little heavy digging as possible, going into my screening with the absolute belief that it was true. Do yourself a favor and do exactly that if you want to take a gander. It may play like an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries” but boy does it pack a punch. You will be doing yourself a disservice by debunking it all first, if in fact it is debunkable, (which I think unfortunately now that it is). Go in blind and be riveted, frightened, and made into a believer.

You have to give Osunsanmi credit on orchestrating all of this. The detail put in is quite astonishing. His subject is a woman that witnessed the death of her husband Will Tyler, one that when in a trance appears to be a murder, stabbed to death while she watched. Hoping to finish his work in what is causing multiple disappearances in Nome, Abigail goes back to her job and discovers many residents of their sleepy little town have been experiencing the same late night traumas. Waking up around 3:00 am, they appear to confront a snow owl. But this is not an owl they see through their window every night, it is looking them in the eye from above their bed; it’s in the room staring at them, making them feel uneasy. Only when they are put under hypnosis to recall the suppressed thoughts do they realize the owl was never there, it was just a manifestation to hide what truly occurred. Whether you believe in extraterrestrials or alien abductions is superfluous, the events shown will resonate and knock the wind out of you. The tears are real, the fear incalculable; these people have seen their worst nightmare and once you see that, what choice do you have but trying your best to never see it again?

But it isn’t just a document of the events; it is also reenactments of footage we are seeing as well as moments not caught on camera to fill in the spaces. Again, it can be looked upon as a bigger budgeted television special made to excite and question. You can’t question the talent involved, though, with a cornucopia of journeyman talent. I think Jovovich acquits herself quite nicely and really delves into the psyche of a broken woman with Abigail, one who’s world is dissolving around her as her mental state gets called into question. However, it is in the casting of Elias Koteas as her colleague and friend; Will Patton as Sheriff August, a man in need of hard evidence and truth; and Hakeem Kae-Kazim as a Sumerian translator who believes the doctor when no one else will, that excels. This trio breathes life into their roles, bolstering this woman as opponents and allies, creating a sense of stakes and realism to her story. The emotive quality of each is high and they all portray the fear we know they’d have in the situation … because we sure would.

Like the tv shows, though, the acting pales in comparison with actual archival footage depicting the real events. Whether or not it is fact or fiction, you cannot discount the effectiveness of these clips. If they are real, my God are they harrowing to view … I’m still thinking about them even now, my eyes tearing in the pent-up anxiety they cause. If they are faked, these uncredited actors are pretty fantastic. The mix of amateurism and true feeling is too real to ignore. If they aren’t real people on film they need to get some more parts in Hollywood because they blow their “professional” counterparts out of the water. Abigail Tyler is a force to reckon with in expression and sorrow and hope that answers will soon come. Her life is an exercise in futility as her actions are inconsequential motions against an immense, yet invisible force. When the creature/demon/whatever inhabits the body of a patient and tells her that prayer isn’t necessary, he is already here and Abigail Tyler should end her study, I felt the confused fear in the pit of my stomach just as she must have been feeling it.

And how about “Scott” and “Tom” in their discoveries of their abductions. Between the murder/suicide and the demonic possession/levitation, the distorted footage is jarring. When Jovovich, as herself, explains at the start that some imagery may be disturbing, she was not kidding. Enter this film at your own risk. I don’t know if going in under the assumption it is fake will cause the illusion to dissolve completely, making the “real” footage appear staged and horribly shot or not; what I do know is that if you go in believing, you will be punched in the gut a few times. Even though the camera goes on the fritz when an otherworldly manifestation appears—whether in Sumerian tongue or UFO spacecraft—what is deciphered through the skipping and fuzz is horrifying. Mouths opened wider than humanly possibly; deep, raspy voices of “God”; audible door creaks and the screams that follow, this stuff stays with you my friends. It may recall films like Blair Witch Project or the new sensation Paranormal Activity, but it’s handled differently and as a result affected me more. By acknowledging that half the film is “fake” and only showing the “real” stuff when necessary or relevant, the truth factor becomes more believable. Call me gullible, call me stubborn, call me whatever you want; I say believe it all and let the story speak for itself. Whether it all comes out as a hoax or not, I cannot deny the physical reaction I had to it and that in itself makes it a success.

The Fourth Kind 8/10

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[1] Milla Jovovich as Abbey and Elias Koteas as Abel
[2] Enzo Cilenti as Scott Stracinsky
(screencaps taken from The Fourth Kind trailer)

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I’m not quite sure why I hold director David Twohy in such high esteem. I see his name attached to a picture and think that it could be pretty good when in fact I haven’t seen very much of his work. Below is a very underrated thriller he worked on with Darren Aronofsky and The Chronicles of Riddick is a fun adventure flick, (and I say that not seeing the director’s cut yet). But seriously, that is it. I know Pitch Black is supposed to be great, I just haven’t had the chance to see for myself. It is like clockwork, though—I see a trailer for what looks like a sub-par Hollywood thriller with little anticipation until, yep, there it is, written and directed by David Twohy. All of a sudden I think, “huh, maybe it will surprise me”. I still don’t know why, but, surprisingly, it did. By no means is A Perfect Getaway any stellar piece of cinema, in fact there is a lot to dislike, however, I had a good time and would actually say I enjoyed myself throughout despite the clichés and contrivances that abound.

Right from the start you can guess how it is all going to end. And you can thank the trailers for that one. Once you bill something as having a “twist” ending or any kind of “you won’t believe it” moment, the mind starts working in overdrive to find the craziest idea and see if it sticks. Even with my anticipation being correct, I was stifled from believing it fully because of certain sequences and dialogue being spoken. I truly believe there is a moment that screams plot-hole since characters wouldn’t talk about certain things if they were the mystery pair who recently murdered a newlywed couple on an adjacent Hawaiian island. But this is a genre film, missteps are not only par for the course, but oftentimes they are acceptable and allowed. Is that a bad thing? I’d say it is; I mean it does kind of dumb down the audience into letting shoddy writing and lazy means of covering secrets up normal. As Nick in the film says, “it all starts with the story though … right Cliff?” If only it did.

Let’s not dissect what’s wrong with the plot. One, it would be futile and two, it would ruin the story for those who haven’t seen it yet. So, why don’t we talk about what works? I have to give it to Twohy for creating a pretty palpable tone right from the beginning. It all starts with some handheld footage of the wedding and segues into our lead couple, Steve Zahn’s screenwriter Cliff and Milla Jovovich’s romantic Cydney, on their honeymoon, filming every second of their adventure on the Jeep ride and helicopter ride to the best dead-end in the world. The handheld footage gives a sense of realism and candidness, allowing us to understand the couple and make them our entry point into the story. With the not-so-subtle placement of a newspaper headline about a murder in Hawaii resting underneath their Jeep’s tire, we begin to put the mystery into the back of our heads in order to discover who the killer might be as we meet new characters. With a duo of couples soon to arrive on screen, Chris Hemsworth and Marley Shelton’s badass Kale and Cleo as well as Timothy Olyphant and Kiele Sanchez’s slightly crazy Nick and Gina, the hypotheses start early.

The tension stays high for the duration as the three couples cross paths and do things to make us wonder and suspect them all. There are people spying on each other, certain skill sets lying hidden that come out to play, and a lot of laughs and smiles to deflect moments that may incriminate. No one is left alone to be the innocent, it could be anyone; heck, it could be a pair of characters that haven’t even been introduced yet. Wouldn’t that be a kick in the pants, to be going an hour pegging people as killers only to find out none of them are? Surprisingly, and I think effectively, the answer to our guessing is solved with a third of the runtime still to progress forward. Instead of falling into the monotony of whodunit scenarios, we are treated to an extended period of time where the good guys and the bad guys are at war with their lives on the line. There is nothing like suspense and tension being amped up as high as it can to finish off a film. It’s just too bad that it gets subverted by gimmicks like an extended chase scene filmed in goofy triptych and black framed borders, giving a strange comic book feel that is as out-of-place with the rest of the film as can possibly be. Like I said though, it isn’t a masterpiece, no matter how much I might have enjoyed the journey. That blue-tinted expository sequence showing us “what really happened” and exposing who everyone is was a treat, though; especially the acting reversals, not to give too much away.

Acting is what really excels, that of the two lead men anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I think Sanchez showed she can be a capable actress—something not quite seen in her limited time on “Lost”—Jovovich, however, kind of annoyed me with her high pitched, girly voice. No, it is Zahn and Olyphant that steal the show. Zahn has really gotten himself out of the goofy funny guy roles he was held captive by over a lengthy stretch of his career. A bit of that comes through here, but a sense of dramatic skill does as well. Olyphant, on the other hand, has excelled from the get-go, ever since Go. I could listen to him say the word “Outstanding” for an hour and a half and still be entertained. And that’s a good thing since he pretty much does that here. His line delivery and stories of near-death experiences as a Jedi soldier in special ops are vintage. The guy shines above all else and really shows he is having fun, hamming it up for full effect. It is that slightly over-the-top feel that works for A Perfect Getaway. Never taking itself too seriously, it does have the weight and gravitas to stay steeped in realism and keep interest. It could have slipped into camp or too serious for its own good, but, thankfully, it towed the line and ended up being a fun little joyride.

A Perfect Getaway 6/10

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[1] Milla Jovovich stars as Cydney in Rogue Pictures horror thriller ‘A Perfect Getaway.’
[2] L to R: Cydney (Milla Jovovich), Kiele Sanchez, Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Cliff (Steve Zahn) in Rogue Pictures’ A Perfect Getaway.

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It’s the little film that could, Joel Hopkins’ Last Chance Harvey. I remember it getting a limited run locally and then being surprised by Golden Globe nods for both leads, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. If the feel-good praise didn’t get me to want to check it out, the award accolades did; however, it’s not necessarily the type of film that I’d seek too ambitiously. But, when I had an hour to kill and Starz On Demand with a widescreen copy, I figured I could do a lot worse. The start was a bit off, very heavy-handed and kind of obvious, yet once the bottom falls out completely for Harvey and the inevitable meeting of he and Thompson’s Kate occurs, the film finds its voice and really excels as a result. It may be sleight, it may be overtly romantic, but it also resonates emotionally and shows how it’s never too late for redemption, love, or acceptance in oneself.

With a start that resembled another “father in turmoil” theme with Mrs. Doubtfire, we are introduced to Harvey Shine at work, seeing the technological advances in computerized tones taking over his craft at composing jingles. The job is a tenuous one at best with younger, cheaper, and inventive kids coming up behind him, and his daughter’s wedding in London doesn’t help matters, actually seeing his boss tell him to stay longer—basically confirming that the writing on the wall is true. His work has always come first, leading to a dissolved marriage and estrangement from his child, constantly on the phone as soon as he lands, attempting to solidify one last deal for the morning after the wedding back in the states. We see the awkwardness as he wanders through the rehearsal dinner seeing people he has never met—including the groom—and a family that has seen his wife’s new husband completely take over his role as father.

Intertwined with all of this, as Harvey is the true star of the film, is some background for the love interest still to enter his life. Kate Walker is middle-aged and single, watching over her bored mother during her free time or attending a writing class with mostly people much older than her. It’s not necessarily the life of someone actively seeking to find a man. She has gotten used to disappointment and almost expects and accepts it as the norm. Only when happiness seems to creep in does she start to feel nervous or anxious. We see it firsthand during a blind date setup from her airline coworker with a younger man, getting her hopes up that maybe he is interested in her only to watch as he meets some friends, invites them over to the table, and all but ignores poor Kate. She could cry and feel sorry for herself, but instead decides to move on and go back to her life of work, literature, and constant calls from her mother—who, by the way, is really a treat, played by Eileen Atkins, spying on her Polish neighbor whom she thinks is a serial killer.

And then comes the chance meeting—after two failed ones—in a coffee shop after both have been driven to the lowest points of their lives. After comparing sob stories and cracking a smile from the other, they continue to walk and spend the day together, brightening spirits and pushing the sorrows away. When Kate tells Harvey he has to go to his daughter’s reception, after not planning on going to make a flight he missed earlier, the story truly picks up to become a very sweet and soulful tale. They get ready and rush over to the banquet hall, once a fun dress hunt montage completes, adding some trepidation about whether Harvey will be the embarrassment he has been known for or the father he has always wanted to be. It is a heartfelt sequence that makes the somewhat boring events of the night before relevant. I remember thinking how much more enjoyable Thompson and Hoffman together was compared to them apart in mundane situations that went nowhere, but attending the reception shows how exposition sometimes is necessary for success. Even James Brolin as the stepfather shows some nice emotional range, adding humanity to the “villain” Harvey has always seen him as. It really is a very memorable, in a genuine way, wedding night of family and fun.

Thankfully, though, it doesn’t all end there; we do have to see the relationship of our older, star-struck couple through. Contrivances mount and it appears as though perhaps their love is not meant to be. It is not for lack of trying on Hoffman’s part, surprisingly since he has always been known to put himself first, ruining any relationship he has ever had. But something about the British frankness of Thompson has refreshed his fervor for life and love, making him not only be his best, but also do his best to find her again. I guess one could say that the fact of this itself is selfish, trying to make him happy, but the script isn’t looking to be studied that hard, it’s only attempting to put a smile on the audience’s faces, warming their hearts and instilling hope for all that good things do happen in this world, whether planned or by chance. And it really does the job, starting and ending with these two leads at the center, deserving of all the praise showered upon them. It may not be the best film ever made, or exceptional throughout its rather short runtime, but it is a solid tale that affected me emotionally and succeeded in what it set out to do.

Last Chance Harvey 7/10

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[1] (Left to right.) Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson star in Overture Films’ LAST CHANCE HARVEY. © 2008 Overture Films, LLC All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham
[2] (Left to right.) Dustin Hoffman and Liane Balaban star in Overture Films’ LAST CHANCE HARVEY. © 2008 Overture Films, LLC All Rights Reserved. Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham


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