Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Best Horror Movies of the 2000s: 30-21

Right in the thick of it, kids---I want feedback!

30. Dead Snow (2009, Tommy Wirkola)

For about 40 minutes, "Dead Snow" threatens to coast on the strength of its premise---the film could've easily taken a cue from "Snakes on a Plane" and just slapped it with the title "Nazi Zombies". And then, seemingly out of nowhere, this self-aware satire becomes... absolutely... AWESOME. The climactic zombie battle has to be seen to be believed, an epic battle of absurd carnage that spreads the gooseflesh all over.

29. 1408 (2007, Mikail Hafstrom)

The best Stephen King adaptation since "Misery" to see release until... well, you'll see until what. John Cusack digs into his showy role with gusto, and the ghoul-populated alternate reality of the titular hotel room takes a refreshing break from gore to present the viewer with a mind-bending vision of a man's personal hell, with no end in sight and tons of false starts to give Cusack a totally unearned sense of hope. When Cusack is deceptively reunited with his dead daughter for a scant moment, one of the most deeply-felt emotional moments in horror cinema results.

28. Triangle (2009, Christopher Smith)

The definitive M.C. Escher painting of a horror movie, "Triangle" is a heady mind-bender that benefits from a high-concept script with tons of tricks up its sleeve. The film, set largely on an abandoned barge in the middle of the ocean, introduces an intriguing literalization of the "my own worst enemy" school of thought, and when the entire hand is revealed, trying to figure out where certain plot threads connect is half of the fun. What actually happens when you're trapped in the Bermuda Triangle? "Triangle" bewitches and blows minds with its explanation.

27. Pontypool (2008, Bruce McDonald)

From one high-concept horror concept to another, "Pontypool" is an inventive Canadian zombie movie that makes several bold, bar-setting moves: much of the zombie action happens outside of the confines of the single-set location, a decaying church converted into a local radio station. Oh, and the zombie virus is spread through the English language. The Pandora's box opened here leads to a compelling conundrum: when you're the only person who has the power to save everybody, how do you tell them without spreading the virus? Stephen McHattie's lead performance is positively titanic, and the mere concept is pregnant with possibility. It may not hit you right away, but once it does, it'll stay with you for days.

26. Jeepers Creepers (2001, Victor Salva)

Though it perhaps takes a hit when it degenerates into a monster movie halfway through, the first half of convicted scumbag Victor Salva's "Jeepers Creepers" provides enough momentum to sustain the duration. A pair of bickering siblings (played to the hilt by Gina Phillips and a terrific Justin Long) are accosted on the road by an impossibly old, impossibly creepy truck. Salva takes the time to build up the momentum by, in a move clearly inspired by Spielberg's "Duel", staging a big car chase with an unseen villain. Things kick into high gear when Long discovers the mysterious antagonist's labyrinthine underground collection of bodies. File under "late-night tingler"---this one has a deliciously old-school sensibility, perfect for 2 a.m. viewings, and, once again, featuring a gloriously mean final shot.

25. Joy Ride (2001, John Dahl)

The same year as "Jeepers Creepers", great unsung genre director John Dahl scored a great unsung triumph with the similarly "Duel"/"Hitcher"-inspired "Joy Ride", another fantastic throwback to the cat-and-mouse road movie. Virtually devoid of gore and featuring Ted Levine (yep, Buffalo Bill) as the bone-chilling voice on the other end of the CB radio, "Joy Ride" ratchets up the suspense a notch with every scene. Mixing in a classic motel violence trope, the scene where two brothers (Paul Walker and Steve Zahn) shush each other and listen, wide-eyed, to a brutal murder occurring just on the other side of their wall is beautifully realized---the rest of the film is briskly suspenseful and perfectly pitched. An underrated gem.

24. Hatchet and Hatchet 2 (2006 and 2010, Adam Green)
Cheating? Perhaps. But it's my list. One of only two sets of films from the same series on this list, Adam Green's valiant resurrection of the classic 80's slasher ghoul inspires rabid fandom, and for good reason---Green is a consummate homage artist, aware of his inspirations, and terrific at realizing them. Victor Crowley, the Jason/Michael/Freddy of this series, is a hulking, brutal beast of a villain, and his kills are some of the best in modern horror. The first film introduces us to the setting and the villain---the second peppers in colorful characters, a brassy heroine, and even more inventive kills. For what Green was going for---a loving homage to the horrors of his youth with a modern spin---he succeeded valiantly.

23. The Hills Have Eyes (2006, Alexandre Aja)
Arguably more interesting than Wes Craven's original (see also: "The Last House on the Left", which was remade with far more satisfying results last year), burgeoning fright-master Aja ramps up the violence and the scares with his incarnation. Once the scares start in this horror tale of dusty, off-road America, Aja goes for the jugular with several devastating setpieces, and weaves in a satirical (some would say smug) overtone in the film's third act. Gruesome and damning, "Hills" hits home every time.

22. The Host (2006, Joon-ho Bong)
Perhaps the singular reason that monster movies continue to be at least a little bit viable (instead of entirely extinct), Joon-ho Bong, he of an increasingly interesting ouvre of Korean imports, brings his vision of the monster movie to life with a transfixing setpiece that looses its underwater ghoul on a city park. By the time this breathless sequence is over, you should already be convinced that this is a great monster movie---by the time the credits roll, and Joon-ho has managed to heap wrenching tragedy and side-splitting comedy onto this shaggy-dog delight of a movie, you should be convinced that this is a great movie, period.

21. Eden Lake (2008, James Watkins)
The best horror auteurs are powering their films' engines on a lot more than viscera these days, and while "Eden Lake" has that in spades, themes start to arise that make it linger long after the blood has dried up. Class warfare, tainted youth, parental responsibility, lynch-mob mentality, and the mental effects of violence are simply some of the ambitious themes this Dimension Extreme release explores, and that undercurrent makes it work as a cat-and-mouse thriller, a revenge shocker, AND a condemnation of a failed social system all at once. It doesn't hurt that this tale of yuppie sunbathers terrorized by a pack of evil teenagers defines the old cliche about the "edge of your seat", offering little respite from the action, and always providing something seamy and intimidating around the next corner.

Next post: we move on to the top twenty!

The Best Horror Movies of the 2000s: 40-31

Keep reading, faithful horror fans - they'll be coming fast and furious!

40. The Devil's Rejects (2005, Rob Zombie)

The second Rob Zombie film on this list, I found "The Devil's Rejects" singularly unpleasant upon first viewing. It was only upon my first rewatch that I found the film in any way rewarding. Zombie revisits the clan of murderous misfits that populated his sensory-overload "Texas Chainsaw" homage "House of 1000 Corpses"---but this time, the humor lands, the homages work, and Zombie's classic-rock soundtrack nails the marriage of music with image. That final, tragic ride set to "Free Bird" is the capper---Mr. Zombie knows how to make a movie, even if he's only two for four thus far.

39. The Ring (2002, Gore Verbinski)

The answer to "Asian horror remakes are always, always an awful idea", "The Ring" may be the only one that works, but man, does it ever work. Gore Verbinski's movie works in terror, building up dread with an impressively stifling atmosphere, rather than in shocks or starts. The original film, "Ringu" isn't nearly as effective, and that atmosphere is a large reason for that. That, and a terrifically hysterical Naomi Watts performance. Disturbing imagery and a sense of urgency are the name of the game here, and it still holds up almost a decade later. Judge it for what it is---NOT what it ushered in.

38. Dawn of the Dead (2004, Zack Snyder)

Romero's original "Dawn of the Dead" is untouchable. Wisely, first-time filmmaker Zack Snyder decided to use the setting as a loose framework, gutting Romero's zombie epic, and stocking a shopping mall with hungry zombies and delicious humans. Oh, and they're fast. The movie is a breathless survival tale, peppered with a few memorable setpieces and grisly kills. What more could one ask for?

37. Zombieland (2007, Ruben Fleischer)

Well, I suppose one could ask for a hilarious zombie movie. Edgar Wright and his crew delivered that with "Shaun of the Dead", sure, but this welcome entry into the "horror comedy" subgenre doesn't step on the Wright masterpiece's toes, preferring to show the aftermath of a zombie holocaust instead of its genesis. The results are terrific, imbued with verve and wit and terrific performances. Perhaps the only movie to date that I decided was great after seeing the trailer.

36. Frozen (2010, Adam Green)

Like "Open Water", "Frozen" benefits from putting a small cast in a confined space with no discernable way out. Three skiing collegiates get screwed by an ill-advised last-minute run on the slopes, which leaves them stranded on the lift. Oh, rescue won't come for the better part of the week. OH, and hungry wolves have started to circle below. Gimmicky, to be sure, but director Adam Green gets the best performances possible out of three young upstarts, and benefits from an intensely visceral atmosphere. Dread starts to take hold, and desperation starts to seep from the film's pores as poorly-conceived ideas creep into our heroes' heads. Positively gripping.

35. The Midnight Meat Train (2008, Ryuhei Kitamura)

A truly gruesome late-night tingler, tinted in unsettling hues of septic blue. Bradley Cooper turns in a nervy, idiosyncratic performance as the photographer who discovers a pretty unnerving murder ring. Echoes of De Palma's "Blow Out" and Coppolla's "The Conversation" fused with good old-fashioned splatter abound, and this sadly swept-under-the-rug chiller emerged destined for a cult audience. Old-fashioned, spellbinding, and bleak.

34. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007, Tim Burton)

Love or hate Tim Burton's sensibility, there's no denying this blood-splattered adaptation of Sondheim's stage play, which dials down Burton's colorful aesthetic to a single standout hue: red. The elements of Greek tragedy are here---this is certainly the bleakest musical to make the jump from stage to screen, and Burton and company not only leave the despair intact, but dial it up several notches. The humor is pitch-black; the story of a barber who loses his mind and starts taking his revenge on humanity at large both frightening and tragic; and the buckets of spraying blood utterly savage. See, kids, opera can qualify as horror too.

33. Piranha (2010, Alexandre Aja)

The creature feature is a notoriously hard archetype to perfect, but Alexandre Aja, having perfected the 3 a.m. slasher ("High Tension"), the dusty country-road nightmare ("The Hills Have Eyes"), and the Asian-style horror ("Mirrors"), turns his loving lens on Joe Dante's "Piranha" and decides to go for broke. The result is one of the most gleefully evil films of recent years, a masterpiece of destruction that scores most of its points for utter, unhinged mayhem. The all-out assault on a mass of collegiate spring-breakers amidst a debauched beach party alone is a sequence for the ages, an epic, hectic tidal wave of blood and guts that puts most other movies to shame. Added bonus: if you've been reading carefully, you know I'm a sucker for a well-played, dastardly final shot, and "Piranha" gives us a superb one, even if you do see it coming a mile away. Throw in Christopher Lloyd playing Doc Brown one more time, and "Piranha" is a brutal delight.

32. Paranormal Activity (2007, Oren Peli)

I suppose the "found footage" gimmick is bound to get old---but, if "Paranormal Activity" is any indication, that time is far from nigh. The plot is perfectly simple: young couple experiences haunting, puts cameras up to document said haunting, terror ensues. The devil's in the details with this one---small, barely perceptible flourishes provide tidal waves of fright until the tension becomes unbearable. A small-scale triumph.

31. Drag Me To Hell (2009, Sam Raimi)

Touted as Sam Raimi's return to form after his foray into big-budget superhero flicks, if "Drag Me To Hell" doesn't reach the dizzying heights of Raimi's "Evil Dead" heyday, don't blame Sam---he's been out of practice. What "Drag Me" does accomplish is presenting the mainstream with it's very own benchmark for b-movies, an old-school-style ickfest replete with supernatural entities, eroding corpses, talking goats, freaky seances, and pretty much stuffed to the gills with everything that makes grassroots occult pictures awesome. Destined to be a modern classic, "Drag Me" is a drive-in picture on a big-screen budget. And once again, a humdinger of a parting shot.

The Best Horror Movies of the 2000s: 50-41

There are those that would say that horror is dead; I would say that those individuals haven't been paying much attention these last ten years.

I must have been ten years old when I first discovered the visceral thrill of having your pants scared off. When my parents, after much prodding, allowed me to watch a late-night showing of Hitchcock's "Psycho", I went to bed peering at every shadowy corner of my room, vowing to swear off showers for life---but I felt strangely alive. This was my awakening---and seeing "Halloween" on October 31st a couple of years later with my middle-school girlfriend cemented that I simply loved to sink my teeth into a good horror film.

The last decade of horror, of course, has proven that horror films, like most forms of fiction, have largely run out of original ideas. We've cycled through watered-down remakes of Asian horrors, jump scare bonanzas, reimaginings of late-night creepshow classics. The best of these are tongue-in-cheek homages or innovative spins on the originals---the worst are the retreads that didn't need to exist in the first place. Still, as the genre that captivated me as an adolescent soldiers bravely onward, bolstered by the efforts of a handful of visionaries who respect and love the form, true fans of terror know that the horror movie is far from dead. In fact, the inventiveness and craftsmanship of the best horrors of the new millenium is refreshing when stacked up next to the near-barren decade that was the '90s, all slick and self-aware teenage slashers (remember the WB era?) or 80s horror last gasps.

And so, faithful readers, I bring you the cream of this millenial crop. At their worst, they bring heaps of entertainment as they derive shamelessly from the classics; at their best, they are classics in their own right, destined to fill shelves next to the very films of your that inspired them. They are the best horror movies of the 2000s.

50. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010, Samuel Bayer)

It isn't easy to recreate iconic horror: horror's Big Three (Michael, Jason, and Freddy, natch) have all been retooled in the last five years, sufficiently pissing off their legions of devotees. The worst of these was "Friday the 13th", a remake that neglected every one of classic horror's assets in favor of, well, boobies. "A Nightmare on Elm Street" may not stand shoulder to shoulder with its original incarnation, but its ace in the hole is the remarkable Jackie Earle Haley, an actor of such ferocity that he couldn't help but to make Freddy the monster he was always meant to be. It's a performance that wisely steers away from camp and imitation in order to inspire fear---Englund as horror's clown prince was always a delight, but rarely truly scary. Haley is more monstrous than flippant. Combined with keen visuals and a deceptively smart screenplay, this new "Nightmare" hits more than it misses.

49. Shutter Island (2010, Martin Scorcese)

Horror in the Hitchcock mode, this genre exercise by movie master Martin Scorcese may rank as lesser Scorcese stacked up to some of his gems. Still, even with that pat ending, "Shutter Island" emerges as a terrific mystery, and a chilling carnival of grotesques. Still not convinced that it qualifies as horror? The big reveal, the flashback that unveils the true nature of Leonardo DiCaprio's pain, is the sucker-punch to the gut that solidifies it. The Master of Suspense would be proud---it may only be a genre exercise, but Scorcese makes it one of the finest of its kind.

48. Open Water (2003, Chris Kentis)

Despite the fact that I literally can't find another human being that approves of this movie, I continue to sing the virtues of the refreshingly simple "Open Water". As a vacationing couple floats in the ocean while hungry sharks circle, the film emerges as a basic exercise in noose-tightening. The suspense creeps from a heightening sense of hopelessness, and a clever inversion of the stages of grief. When reluctant acceptance comes into play, it's one of the best, most bone-chilling moments of any film here.

47. Hard Candy (2005, David Slade)

A torture movie that quickly reverses the expected outcome, "Hard Candy" exists in that exciting space of the moral conundrum; is the true villain the guy trolling for underage tail on the internet, or the precocious young pixie (a terrific Ellen Page) who takes him hostage and makes him confront his moral choices---torturing and possibly maiming him in the process? A clever, nasty little thinker, "Hard Candy" is an edgy take on the Little Red Riding Hood mythos---albeit with a Big Bad Wolf who chooses to devour his prey in a much more unsettling manner, and with a Riding Hood who wants to lop off the Wolf's balls.

46. Identity (2003, James Mangold)

A clever inversion of the "victims in isolated setting get picked off by one of their own" trope, "Identity" effectively uses its setting---a rain-soaked motel---to excellent effect, and turns over each one of its cards slowly. Each reveal is a delight, and while we wait for those reveals, we have considerable suspense and terrific performances to tide us over. In the post-Shyamalan resurgence of the big twist ending, "Identity" provides us with one that's not totally lame, and a wonderfully nasty final shot to boot.

45. Halloween (2007, Rob Zombie)

Say what you will about Rob Zombie, but when watching each one of his movies, you understand that he a.) loves horror, b.) has seen every horror movie ever made, and c.) understands what makes good horror work, even if he can't always replicate it himself. His take on "Halloween" is miles away from the original, which of course is the Greatest Horror Movie Ever Made. By comparison, "Halloween" is small potatoes. As its own film, though, Zombie's "Halloween" is a compelling peek into the psyche of a movie monster, a sort of "Michael Myers: Behind the Music". That it truncates the events of the original into the final 40 minutes or so is immaterial: a bland retread like the "Friday the 13th" would do the original a much larger disservice. No, Zombie delves into the why and the what in equal doses, and comes up with something reverent, glum, and on occasion, legitimately frightening. The less said about his "H2" the better---still, be glad that in the decade of "Halloween: Resurrection", Rob Zombie made everyone's favorite ghoul a little bit human.

44. Vacancy (2007, Nimrod Antal)

What is it about travel lodging that makes it an ideal breeding ground for terror? Is it the disorienting feel of an unfamiliar setting? Or is it the pervy night manager who has every room wired with video and audio so, when you're murdered by unnamed intruders in the middle of the night, he has new horror movies to watch every night? "Vacancy" hypothesizes that it's the latter---and, barring a climax that relies too heavily on action to resolve itself, its position is pretty convincing. Quick, nasty horror of the highest caliber.

43. Cabin Fever (2002, Eli Roth)

Forget Eli Roth's forays into torture porn---his entry into the "cabin in the woods" subgenre of horror is what really works. This gleefully nihilistic tale of a flesh-eating virus always infuses its uglier sensibilities with a hearty dose of humor, vintage Raimi-style. Long before he was plucking out eyeballs and feeding genitalia to dogs in the "Hostel" films, Roth, like Rob Zombie, was an expert homage-ist, paying tribute while forging his own path. This funny, flippant, gruesome little shocker is a testament to that. The credit montage is a hilarious example of mean-spirited black comedy done right.

42. The Children (2008, Tom Shankland)

Possibly the only truly good horror movie to come out of the well-intentioned but ultimately bargain-basement Ghost House Underground series, "The Children" presents an intriguing moral dilemma: when your children are slowly taken over by some sort of virus that possesses them with the instinct to kill you, can you lethally retaliate? "The Children" goes places that most horror movies wouldn't dream of---these adorable moppets quickly turn brutal, and must be taken down. "The Children" wisely doesn't play this for camp: every frame is somber, every decision agonizing, every death deeply felt and not glazed over, every kill legitimately horrifying. This is what makes it work as a singularly grim work of horror art.

41. Orphan (2009, Jaume Collet-Serra)

Impressively subversive, people who took the time to give this run-of-the-mill-seeming "evil child" chiller were smacked with one of the most over-the-top, audacious twists of the Twist Era. But, unlike so many Twist Ending Movies before it, "Orphan" doesn't rely solely on its reversal. No, its simply the cherry topper on a grisly, edgy sundae---treading much of the same ground as "The Children" in presenting the audience with the conundrum of a child who must be stopped, "Orphan" quickly ups the ante, having its titular mini-monster dispatch antagonists in a series of increasingly horrible ways. Expertly realized, and refreshingly ballsy.

Monday, August 31, 2009

While She Was Out (2008, Susan Montford)

It all starts with that title.

While She Was Out masquerades as potent potboiler, or perhaps as homage to '80s b-horror or any number of low-grade rape-revenge flicks, and it all starts with the title, an evocative, mysterious mouthful akin to wonderfully wordy titles like When a Stranger Calls-- it's here that the first seeds of dread are sown. That title-- along with a few gushing recommendations from unreputable sources-- led me to this movie, a corking disappointment in which a harangued housewife FIGHTS FOR HER LIFE OMG against a diverse foursome of ambiguously gay wayward teenagers.

To be fair, it starts strong, albeit cheesy-- you can practically smell the cheddar as a quivery Kim Basinger cowers in the shadow of her caricature of an abusive husband-- but takes it's time applying an ominous atmosphere to the tensest of activities: last-minute Christmas shopping. These scenes are imbued with an inexplicable tension, perhaps brought about by the viewer's knowledge from the dvd box that she'll soon be antagonized by high-school dropouts, or by the ghostly, ominous Christmas carols floating through the soundtrack. Whatever the case, these early scenes ramp up the tension rather effectively.

And then, it derails. Pissed that Ms. Basinger left an indignant note under his windshield on the way in, Lukas Haas, clearly angry at women for a lifetime of rejected prom invitations, waves around a gun with his ethnically-diverse posse of retards. We know he's bad news, because he has a gun and yells the word "bitch" a whole bunch. Whatever the case, one dead security guard and one hasty getaway later, our heroine, armed with a toolbox (seriously), finds herself in a DEADLY GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE, scurrying her way through a heavily wooded building site.

I dunno. While She Was Out seems like such a hodgepodge to me. There's the familiar wayward youth storyline, where a band of screwy adolescents are failed by society and commence the killin'; unfortunately, this lacks the societal implications of, say, Eden Lake-- a similar storyline that seems stunning after watching this one-- or the cold-sweat thrills of Them. (Hell, Lucky McKee's Red has a wellspring of depth on this disarmingly superficial thriller.) And then, of course, there's the tried-and-true "woman gains strength in anger, wages war on attackers" angle most prevalent in grindhouse shocker I Spit On Your Grave, perfected in Neil Jordan's surprisingly lyrical Jodie Foster vehicle The Brave One. But, of course, to aspire to the rape-revenge subgenre would require a lot more ingenuity-- it requries a certain pulpy violence to truly attain uplift in this depressing field, and it must be inventive. Something like Grave climaxes in a male-nightmare of a bloodbath, and it's not that I want to excuse a film like I Spit on Your Grave-- it's just that it has the foresight to make its bloodthirsty audience approve of its revenge. At a breezy 80 minutes, a solid 30 of which are spent on prologue and epilogue, there's no real room to develop the necessary hatred for our bad guys to pull this off, and the deaths are all quick and ho-hum, save for one reasonably gory bludgeoning. When we dwell on our villains, though, the film reveals its emptiness, choosing to have the guys debate the finer points of female colognes (they track their prey, in one guffaw-worthy sequence, by sniffing out her Chanel No. 5), and holding a ridiculous death ceremony for their fallen comrade. Haas spends more time saying "I'm gonna get this bitch" than actually trying to do so. I don't know, it's just... it's sloppy, all around.

The performances are all right, if better served by a superior script. Kim Basinger dials down the shrill a little bit from the shrieking rednecks she played in 8 Mile and Cellular (although the screaming comes back near the end), and she's reasonably effective; Haas seems deserving of better material, but he's really kind of bad in his most crucial sequences, translating his explosive outbursts into dog-whistle hysterics. The less said of the other performances, the better-- this thing looks like a play put on by the Dangerous Minds students-- but Haas and Basinger are the only ones that matter anyway. And they are completely and wholly okay.

What While She Was Out lacks in.... well, everything, it makes up for with a rousing finale. The end of Basinger's ordeal is rather anticlimactic-- there's some misdirection, some sexual diversion, and it's all over pretty swiftly-- but that last five minutes or so of movie are pure gold. This thing ends with a beast of a final shot, a great 11th-hour twist that's as amoral, over-the-top, and pulpy as any number of grindy b-flicks it should've been emulating the whole time. (I dunno, I'm starting to feel like we'd all be more kind to this movie if it were made in 1982.)

So the bookends are terrific. We've established this. But the film's simply... pedestrian. It's blase. Nothing happens, except a horrifying affront to the English language courtesy of director-scribe Susan Montford. But if we're talking about the opening and closing scenes as bookends, well... it's kind of like seeing gorgeous, ornate bookends-- and finding nothing but Dan Brown books and Sean Hannity books and the shooting script for Battlefield Earth between them. Ashame, that. One day, someone will expose Christmas-eve shopping for the creepy curio it is; unfortunately, that's not today.

Rating: ** (out of five)

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Collector (2009, Marcus Dunstan)

A sucker for home invasion thrillers (Bryan Bertino's The Strangers had me rapt last summer), I frolicked off to the movies for The Collector quite willingly; turns out, it was created by a couple of alumni from the Saw series (a series that I can't stop watching, even as I objectively acknowledge its awfulness), and I was sad to discover that this particular "random-Saw-scribe-side-project", a tiny subgenre that's given us agreeable flicks like Dead Silence and Death Sentence, appeared to be a Saw film deleted from the more popular series' story arc.

Stylish, loud, and scored quite frequently by the dulling hum of bad techno, The Collector isn't all bad. There's a sublimely creepy prologue, and even a few genuine edge-of-the-seat moments. Problem is the creators' reliance on tired torture-porn gags to sell the material - when blue-collar Arkin (Josh Stewart, terrifically acting circles around the material) breaks into a client's house to rob them (don't worry, the proceeds keep his wife and daughter from gettin' dead at the hands of some nasty loan sharks), he encounters.... a mysterious stranger who's violently booby-trapped everything, and has the heads of household strapped to mysterious torture contraptions. Way to think outside the box, gentlemen.

Pretty soon the film collapses into a parade of garish, outlandish violence - ironically, its target audience is desensitized to this sort of thing, having seen the last few Saw movies - strung together by a pretty threadbare plot. Very little is explained, which I suppose is for the better, because a "putting the puzzle together" epilogue would have simply dragged out the proceedings further. The Collector is quick and nasty, which sounds perfect for a horror flick, but turns tiresome pretty quickly. Once the blood starts squirting, all semblance of atmosphere is dashed (upon a bed of rusty bear traps), and the flick fails to deliver on the promise of its opening moments. (I can't tell if a scene that involves a quick end to a premarital-sex encounter of over-the-top eroticism is meant to be hilariously self-aware or not, but if it is, thanks for the laughs.)

I dunno. This movie hooked me from the start, and lost me somewhere in the rising action. I suppose I should applaud what it does right - but all I can think about is the pitch session.

"And the villain turns out to be.... THE GIMP FROM PULP FICTION. Priceless, right?"
"That's TERRIFIC! What's his motivation?"
"Hell if I know. LET'S CHOP A KITTY IN HALF."

Meh. Not totally for me.

Rating: **1/2 (out of five)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Funny People (2009, Judd Apatow)

It's unfortunate that the critical reaction to Judd Apatow's Funny People has been mixed at best thus far -- I'd hoped that the Oscar buzz that surrounded the movie prior to release would translate into actual awards gold for Apatow, striking a blow for real comedy in the stuffy world of statuette-baiting event pictures. Unfortunately, Funny People -- somewhat of a work of flawed brilliance in the ever-so-indifferent genre of disease dramas -- has eluded the critical praise that Apatow's previous efforts (Knocked Up and the 40-Year-Old Virgin, both uproarious comedic tours-de-force tempered with winning geniality and sweetness) have earned him.

Understandable, to be sure. Funny People is a difficult movie at times -- Apatow's tale of a leukemia-stricken comedy star taking on a protege is absolutely all over the place, in both narrative and tone. Still, there's a lot of good to be found here. Lead Adam Sandler, whose George Simmons is a faintly-veiled version of himself (horrible gimmick flicks and all), lays bare his comedic persona in what may be his most fully-realized performance to date; Sandler proves, like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams before him, that he's much more potent as a real person than as an overgrown, arrested-development retard onscreen, and here, he bravely makes his character intensely unlikable. Seth Rogen, meanwhile, continues his can't-lose streak, not quite topping his brilliant turn in Jody Hill's Observe and Report, but inspiring winning notices as the film's comedic center. Naive up-and-comer Ira Wright may be Rogen's most complicated role to date - he succeeds where richer George fails, morally speaking, takes a lot of crap from his would-be mentor, and even manages to give the not-so-funny moments a swig of wincing, true-to-life comedy to chase its potent pathos (watch Ira bomb on-stage -- being unfunny has rarely been so hilarious -- or watch Ira blubber uncontrollably about George's sickness. It's all uncomfortable, touching, and rewardingly funny, all at once).

But what Apatow has always needed is an objective editor -- althought his first features sustained momentum, despite epic-level runtimes for funny pictures -- and Funny People kind of stumbles around in its final act, dispensing with its other stories to concentrate on Sandler's romance with old flame Leslie Mann. (Mann is terrific, by the way -- a scene-stealer in those first two movies, she's actually a valuable member of Apatow's troupe, regardless of her real-life marriage to the director. Her appreciation for both comedic AND dramatic detail can be awe-inspiring.) A wonderfully hammy Eric Bana shows up to liven things, but it stagnates a bit -- and, theatrically, this thing is an unwieldy 2 hours 40, so eyelids may droop near the end there.

Still, there's a lot to like here: the performances are uniformly terrific, and when the comedy trots out, it's usually very funny. And I haven't even mentioned Jason Schwartzmann, who's chintzy sitcom needs to be seen to be believed. Despite a lot of pacing issues, this is a bit of a fractured masterpiece. Squeezing sentimentality out of hilarity is Apatow's bread and butter as a director, so I'm not really sure what people would have expected from this flick -- still, all told, this really shouldn't derail the Apatow train. And I wouldn't want it to -- these sort of far-from-perfect tours de force are a necessity in today's stagnant comic world.

Rating: **** (out of five)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Eden Lake (2008, James Watkins)

Eden Lake is one of those disconcerting films that transports you to a very dark mental state; as our heroes, an innocuous, in-love couple on a weekend romantic getaway, are antagonized, the viewer's mind inevitably wanders to what increasingly brutal acts of vengeance they'd wreak in a similar situation.

Steve (Michael Fassbender) and Jenny (Kelly Riley, gorgeous) are off for a weekend of frolicking at a B&B on Eden Lake. The getaway promises at least one surprise - in an early scene, Steve surveys the shiny rock he's purchased for Jenny - but, unfortunately, a lot more are in store. When Steve confronts a group of disruptive teens at the beach, it sets into motion a chain of escalating events that have deadly consequences.

While comparisons abound - John Boorman's classic Deliverance seems to be a bit of a touchstone here, as well as France's Them and Texas Chainsaw Massacre (albeit redone here as the English Countryside Switchblade Fiasco) - Eden Lake is remarkably singular, a film that belies its peaceful, sun-kissed locale to deliver, with stunning veracity, a cautionary tale about conflict, about youth gone wild, about parenting, about society. Simply put, these children - all, as we see near the end, remarkably failed by their parents - are monsters. Ringleader Brett (Jack O'Connell), in particular, is a serial-killer-in-training, a child so monstrous and screwy that, at what must be a ripe old fifteen, his character remains one of the more brutal and intense screen villains in a while, especially in the increasingly emasculated horror genre. His reign of terror is what causes us, the audience, to transport to a particularly dark mental state - with each successive act of brutality, we're left to fantasize, disturbingly, all the devious punishments this child deserves. O'Connell deserves praise for his role - he makes sure that we the audience despise him thoroughly.

This isn't to discredit the efforts of the rest of the cast. Fassbender and Riley, in particular, are great protagonists. They tread a lot more cautiously than many of us like to believe we would - a particular "how would you behave in this situation?" thread on Eden Lake's IMDB message board unearthed a lot of would-be Sly Stallones claiming they'd "go Rambo on their (sic) asses" - but they're remarkably full performances for horror-movie leads. Riley, in particular, impresses as she nears the end - we're meant to question ourselves as we react to certain decisions she makes, and her mixed emotions are nakedly palpable. (Speaking of ends, this one's a doozy - those looking for a traditional Hollywood ending or a disposable final-frame "boo!" to send you squealing into the night are better off seeking out some PG-13 J-horror remake.)

There's a lot of societal unrest at play here, and it unspools slowly, along with the tension. Watkins doesn't necessarily dole out his scares as much as he takes a calculated approach to suspense, stopping to puncture it only periodically. This is a taxing, savage film, but those that would compare it to the "torture porn" of Hostel or the endless Saw sequels clearly missed the point altogether. Complex, unbearably tense, and, occasionally, torturously violent, Eden Lake is a modern gem.

RATING: **** (out of five)