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)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Silent Hill (2006, Christophe Gans)

"Has there ever been a passable movie based on a video game?" I asked, grimly watching a Max Payne tv spot. "Only Silent Hill," the girlfriend replied. I perked up, eager to discover this anomaly in the film world.

As it turns out, to an extent, she's right. Silent Hill isn't a great movie, no-- but it's kinda nifty. It begins in a bit of a whirlwind, mind you-- within the first five minutes or so, Radha Mitchell realizes that her daughter lapses into psychotic episodes, murmuring about "Silent Hill" at night, and she's in the middle of carrying out her master plan to.... well, to barrel her SUV into the West Virginia town and see what happens. This was my first demerit point AND my first kudo, I decided while watching this. On one hand, don't horror movies that take for-EVVV-ver to get to any sort of payoff just cause you to grit your teeth? On the other, we're thrown so immediately into the meat of the story that there's ZERO chance of identifying with the characters. A bit of a conundrum, that.

But then Radha gets to Silent Hill and stumbles upon a series of eerie setpieces and cool grotesqueries, and all-- well, most-- is forgiven.

There's very little sense to be made of the human aspect of this movie, mind you. There's no connect with the characters, through faulty scripting AND faulty acting (should Radha Mitchell ever carry a movie? seriously?), and the plot, topping out at over two hours (long for this kind of flick), is as convoluted as they come. But still, the supernatural element... well, that's just great.

The film LOOKS fantastic. The picture is crisp, and the images are arresting. The (seemingly random) series of ghoulish obstacles that Radha (and leather-babe motorcycle cop Laurie Holden) encounters are delightful. There are creepily lurching, armless monstrosities. There are armies of burned-alive corpses. There's a monster that is inexplicably terrifying (to describe him to you is pointless, as your immediate response would be to point and laugh at my low standards). And, perhaps most creepy of all, there are legions of cultish Pilgrims, refuges from that alternate-dimension revisionist history where they all land at Burnt Offering Rock. These are all very, very cool. There's a keen visual sense at play here, and let's face it, it keeps the picture afloat. There's no emotional content (disappointingly little, really, for what is essentially a child in peril flick) and way, WAY too much plot-- but director Christophe Gans keeps the fantastic surreal imagery coming, and the two hours go by a lot quicker than one may assume.

And that's really all I have to say about Silent Hill, a film that I sort of recommend, just for looking so damned cool. Fans of grisly, eerie images will find themselves in a sort of spot-the-phantasm shangri-la, and, really, there's nothing wrong with that. So it's short on heft. So what? The artsier stuff here should more than satiate the discerning viewer.

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

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Play Misty For Me (1971, Clint Eastwood)

This is an interesting little movie. Pre-Fatal Attraction, Clint Eastwood's directorial debut Play Misty For Me is widely known as the golden standard of the "screechy female stalker" subgenre. Clint-- in a cool performance transported directly from his Western work with only a change in wardrobe to denote his shift to disc jockey-- plays a radio personality admired by a young lady who calls and requests jazz standard "Misty". When a "chance" meeting at his local watering hole ends in him drunkenly bedding this superfan, things take a turn for the worst-- his admirer is clingy, and screechy, and kill....y.

This isn't a bad movie. It's one that shows its age, mind you-- just look at the black people, all colorfully dressed, jive-talkin' their way through the proceedings-- but it's not bad. Jessica Walter plays Clint's stalker, and she's quite good. Modern audiences will forever know her as "Arrested Development" matriarch Lucille Bluth, and there is very little of Lucille in Evelyn, save for the potency of that scream. (Walter has a fantastic screen scream-- it's full-bodied, hoarse, and piercing.) Walter's probably the best thing about the film, in an admittedly showy role-- there's one scene near the end where she appears in a place that we least expect her to, and it's a moment so pregnant with dread and suspense it's unfortunate that the remainder of the film couldn't live up to its promise.

There's a decent undercurrent of dread to this picture. It's important for a film of this nature to maintain that uneasy feeling, and Misty manages to eke by. This is mostly Walter's doing-- her increasingly unhinged behavior heightens this sort of "anything could happen" feeling-- but Eastwood acquits himself adequately. He's quizzical and reactionary in front of the camera, and appropriately confident behind it. It's kind of unfortunate that the film weaves its way to such an anticlimactic close. I'm not gonna spoil it, but the final scene of this film is such an astonishingly "that's it?" moment that it's hard to stomach. The film starts with a bang, then weaves its way uneasily to a whimper.

But Play Misty For Me is decent. There's some decent performances, some decent plot points, some decent camera work. Only Walter elevates herself above "decent" by playing one of the screen's great feminine ghouls-- the rest of the movie would be done better the next decade by Fatal Attraction. Misty gives it a good go, though.

Rating: *** (out of five)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Dead of Winter (1987, Arthur Penn)

There should probably be more movies that utilize a snowy, wintry locale. I'm not sure there's any more effective weather mode in which to tell a spooky story-- The Shining is the grand example, of course, but there's also A Simple Plan, Fargo, and this one. Dead of Winter isn't quite in the minor pantheon of snowy masterpieces, but it's not downright bad. It's just, well, silly.

After a nonsensical prologue where a chain-smoking femme gets dispatched in a parking lot, we follow Mary Steenburgen, an amateur actress summoned to a remote country locale to audition for a role in an indie picture. Jan Rubes is the creepy, wheelchair-bound doctor, and Roddy McDowall his effeminate Igor, and naturally things aren't what they seem. What follows is, essentially, a series of plot twists. Steenburgen plays three roles before film's end, and she's mostly delightful-- Rubes and McDowall are quite good, too, until they turn into lurching zombies in the film's final act. That final act's really what unravels the film-- it's not particularly creepy, but the blizzard setting is quite atmospheric, and there are a few nice shock moments, but the climax just sees all that mood-setting work degenerate into base genre material of the most simplistic degree. Steenburgen, previously a resourceful and witty heroine, becomes a blubbering damsel, incapable of evading a cripple (I'll give you a hint: your advantage is HAVING LEGS), and these smart villains who play their cards close are suddenly wild-eyed, bloodthirsty movie madmen.

I like how the plot works, for the most part. I like a lot of the left-field surprises the script leaves strewn around for us. I like Steenburgen, a lot. I like the cranny-heavy architecture of the creepy country house. I like a film that, if not approximating Hitchcock, at least homages him (there's shades of Notorious, Frenzy, and, of course, Vertigo here). I just don't like how all of these elements wrap up. It's lazy. It's anticlimactic. And given the way it sets itself up, it's really, really disappointing.

Oh, I forgot about Affliction. That was a good snow movie.

Rating: *** (out of five)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Them (2006, David Moreau and Xavier Palud)

I've become convinced that foreign horror filmmakers have the art down a lot more effectively than American ones. It would certainly explain a lot-- why all the Asian horror movies run big creepy rings around their stateside peers, why the U.K. is capable of weaving these terrific terror tapestries like The Descent and the 28 Whatevers Later series while we're forced to deal with The Ruins, and, most of all, why France got Them and we merely got The Strangers. It's all so unfair. I want good movies too!

See, anyone who read a review of last year's The Strangers got a whole earful of Them, a movie critics liked to talk up as being serious inspiration for the Liv-Tyler-gets-stalked-by-grocery-sack-clad-killers horror flick. As Them got more and more into the (admittedly lean) meat of its story, I was able to see just where everyone was coming from. In fact, I'd be inclined to brand The Strangers an out-and-out ripoff-- that is, if I got the impression that the director of the strangers had ever seen a foreign movie.

But enough of all that. Them is a wonderful little curiosity. It exists in no larger sphere, serves no larger illustrative purpose-- it simply IS, this nasty little Romanian-countryside-home-invasion thriller. Olivia Bonamy and Michael Cohen play a couple, tucked away for a night in at their idyllic rural country house, when (naturally) things go kooky. One break-in, one leg injury, and several uber-creepy hooded figures later, they're fighting for their lives.

I'm particularly fond of horror movies that don't telegraph their scares-- much like a sitcom without a laugh track, a horror movie without a gauntlet of empty jump scares and nervy string swells allows you to process everything on your own. It's less cheap this way-- the scare feels genuine, earned. That's one thing I must credit The Strangers for-- that scene where a masked phantasm materializes without fanfare behind Liv Tyler is a minor scare-flick masterwork, beautiful in its simplicity, stunning in its creep-out factor. Them thrives on these little moments, and it ramps the sinister quotient up considerably. Shadows pass through the foreground and creep up the stairs. There's an incredibly subtle moment of tremendous menace where one of our protagonists lets the other into the bedroom, and we catch the briefest glimpse of a hooded figure stalking down the corridor. It's such a fleeting moment that it doesn't register until it passes, and it's worth its weight in screams.

It's simply terrific work. It's not particularly disturbing, and far from gruesome, but it's so suspenseful, so unrelentingly eerie that it goes off like an absolute firecracker. (I haven't even mentioned the opening scene-- what a magnificent sliver of horror cinema! The stuff nightmares are made of.) And from potent prologue to abrupt denoument, Them doesn't waste a scene of its lean (77 minutes) runtime. The men behind this movie went on to helm the American J-horror remake The Eye. Please, please don't hold it against them.

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

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Scary Movie 4 (2006, David Zucker)

Good God, I think I like this movie.

Not wholly, and not without qualifications. Scary Movie 4 suffers from what all of these movies suffer from -- gravitating towards the foul and unseemly, and top-loaded with recycled jokes that seem transported, wholesale, from the Epic Movie set. But I like Scary Movie 4 because, well, all of the other Scary Movies make it look good.

Make no mistake, it's a bad movie. But it's also a funny one from time to time -- Craig Bierko turns in a lovably oblivious performance, and essentially carries the movie -- a featherweight load to shoulder, yes, but still. I'm not sure that I care to get into this movie, but I'm just saying, when it shows up on Comedy Central, there are worse ways to spend your idle time than letting this one play out.

Rating: ** (out of five)

Lakeview Terrace (2008, Neil Labute)

I appreciate Neil Labute. Nurse Betty and, God save us, The Wicker Man besides, the man's been responsible for some of the most caustic, gloriously uncomfortable treatises on how people talk to and treat each other since, I dunno, Mike Nichols; his In the Company of Men introduced the world to Aaron Eckhart, and The Shape of Things might be the most underestimated, painful relationship dramas since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. (Or better, Carnal Knowledge.)

But this makes Lakeview Terrace Labute's second movie in a row to divert from his tried-and-true path (insert cruel mocking at Wicker Man's expense here). Fortunately, Labute is mostly successful here, albeit rather strange, soliciting shudders more often than he sparks debate, and thankfully moving away from importing his debatable misogyny into a genre flick (which he did, rather uncomfortably, with the unnerving gender politics of The Wicker Man; seriously, how stupid-- now Drew, that's the wrong review entirely. focus).

The idea is that Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington are new in town; the loud one himself, Samuel L. Jackson, is Abel, a judgemental neighbor, visibly derisive of the racial treason Wilson and Washington have committed by being married, and in his neighborhood to boot. But Abel's also a cop, and that presents the new homemakers with a brand new set of issues-- indeed, there's some interesting (if inadvertent) points to be made about endowing such shady characters with near-limitless power, something I've been awfully skeptical about for years.

What's interesting is that Labute borders on exploitation flick with this one-- the social context appears to inform the story, as opposed to the other way around. That could be the way it was written, as the script appears to be pretty basic in its servicing of Abel's unmitigated social prejudices. There's interesting stuff to be found in some heated state-of-the-union conversations between Wilson and Washington, and a discarded throwaway line in which Abel's own daughter admits to having a crush on a white guy. But for the most part, Abel's racism seems to exist to propel the story forward-- he could, really, have any vendetta towards the couple, and the movie wouldn't be much different. (It would also be Cape Fear.) This is only disappointing on a cursory level, though-- where Labute fails in making the film weighty, he succeeds in making it very, very entertaining.

Much of this has to do with the cast. My eye's on Patrick Wilson-- I'm already a tentative fan, after a great leading-man turn in another dysfunctional-suburbia drama, Little Children, and his guns-blazing, vein-popping performance as a tortured pedophile in Hard Candy. (I am, of course, forgiving his roles in Evening and Phantom of the Opera. Even my beloved De Niro was in 15 Minutes.) And he's very good here, displaying a lot of reluctant masculinity, looking as though a simple script change could unhinge him irreperably. Characters pushed to the breaking point are always interesting, and Wilson displays a lot of humanity here, and if the movie denies him the chance to truly go balls-out, then that's the script's fault. Washington is great with what she's given to work with, which is a pretty traditional woman-in-peril role; but she's got this terrific, naturalistic way about her, something that she's been able to parlay into scene-stealing small turns in very big movies. This is a rare headlining role and she's very good.

Of course, it's Sam's show, and he's in full-on Pulp Fiction mode as a terrifying prophet, spitting his opinions as though they're the gospel truth. The film wouldn't work if Abel weren't as forceful, and so an actor with a persona as strong as Jackson's was necessary; Sam Jackson gets derided as often as he gets lauded, and it's important to note that every once in a while, he swings for the fences and becomes indespensible. Such is the case with Lakeview Terrace-- no Sam, no Lakeview Terrace. Simple as that. He displays moments of startling vulnerability-- a bar confessional scene with Wilson's character doesn't exonerate him, but brings a lot of necessary depth to the character, and Jackson plays it beautifully-- as well as moments that bring Jackson to the fore as ghoulist cypher. In particular, there's a phenomenal shot of Jackson silhoutted against an ash-orange sky that recalls similar shots of De Niro in Scorcese's Cape Fear-- these moments illustrate just how effective a thriller Lakeview Terrace is, and how it works in spite of it's ambivalent treatment of the societal issues at hand. But Samuel is note-perfect here, a career-defining performance, effectively warding off all those anything-for-a-paycheck criticisms by being so genuinely fantastic (he did this with Black Snake Moan, too).

So ably performed and shot is Lakeview Terrace that, if you can ignore the fact that it's relevancy is mostly pretty slapdash, it's an incredibly entertaining little scorcher. The moments of suspense are tantalizing; the moments of confrontation explosive. It's very, very good. Welcome back, Labute.

Rating: **** (out of five)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Rocker (2008, Peter Cattaneo)

When The Rocker came (and, just as swiftly, went), there appeared to be no end for critics that would bemoan Rainn Wilson's would-be status as a Jack Black also-ran, starring, as he does, as a never-was drummer for a hair band on the cusp of superstardom. It plays as the direct-to-video sequel to School of Rock, consequently, and Rainn-- so incredibly funny on "The Office"-- constantly invites comparisons to more successful film comedians. He combines Jack Black's chubbly rock-cliche energy with Will Ferrell's overgrown man-child tendencies to create a wholly derivative comic character; unfortunate, considering that a.) he's responsible for "Office"'s Dwight Schrute, a singular and iconic comic creation, and b.) he actually services the role pretty well for what it is.

The movie that he's in, sadly, is pretty uneven. The movie kicks off with a pretty inspired opening sequence, starring a delightful comedic who's-who as Vesuvius, the cookie-cutter Poison-esque band Fish (Wilson) gets booted from on the eve of uber-fame. Will Arnett, Fred Armisen, and Bradley Cooper hilariously mug for the camera in this extended prologue, and it's a wistful nod in the direction The Rocker should have gone. Unfortunately, by the time Wilson joins his nephew's Disney-pop band, the movie only sprints some of the time, preferring to limp, ball-less, toward its inevitable conclusion. (Seriously, if you've ever seen a movie before, do you really think the aging rocker isn't gonna get kicked out of the band? and then subsequently reunite? these are not spoilers if you've ever seen a movie EVER)

Part of the problem is the band's style. I could've seen Wilson joining a punk band or a junior metal band and then, Superbad-style, tramping off into the night. Howling. But this is tween pop. It's the Jonas Brothers. It'd be one thing for the movie to send-up the squeaky-clean band this raunchy rocker has wandered into, mining the contrast for optimum comic capabilities, but it doesn't. The Rocker is a very, very SAFE movie. A little more danger would serve it well.

But, lest you think all is wrong with The Rocker, it offers a few more great nuggets of comic potential. SNL's Jason Sudeikis has a lot of fun with the stock role of douchey agent -- he's super-smug, and his timing is perfect. And Christina Applegate really works with what she's offered; unfortunately, what she's offered is a half-baked would-be romance with Wilson that goes nowhere, but that doesn't make her any less endearing. Meanwhile, the teens in the band are a mixed bag. There's Josh Gad doing his Jonah Hill thing -- seriously, side-by-side their mannerisms -- but he's pretty fantastic at it, doing an uncanny approximation while bringing some real heart to the proceedings; meanwhile, Superbad scene-grabber Emma Stone is just as wonderful here as she was in that film, all sardonic and adorable, and looking a little bit like a non-filthy, talented version of Lindsay Lohan. Unfortunately, this band is fronted by the astoundingly mediocre musician Teddy Geiger, the cute little teen who writes cute little teen songs, here playing a tortured musician with daddy issues, and proving that while his music may be mediocre, his acting is quite awful. (Still, it provides Stone with a great meta-quip about inter-band stereotypes.)

So, yeah. The Rocker is utterly toothless and predictable -- and that's sad, because there's some moments of glorious comic potential creeping around here. Not a horrible film, no -- but it's a mediocre one.

Also, any movie that wastes Jane Lynch loses major brownie points. Seriously, this is one of the funniest women in the world. How do you have her doing rote soccer-mom shtick?

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

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Clerks II (2006, Kevin Smith)

When it comes to my slavish reverence for comedy-- my Achille's Heel genre for a number of years at this point-- my softest spot is for Kevin Smith, he of fanboys so devoted that it's almost funny to see characters voice his anti-fanboy rants. He's comparable to my other soft spot, Judd Apatow (hi, I'm Drew, the only blogger who actually enjoyed Drillbit Taylor), in that both limit themselves to very specific casts, crews, and demographics, and have an affinity for blending sentiment with weiner jokes. More to the point, Smith and Apatow aren't particularly accomplished directors, in the visual sense, and that's not necessarily a knock: they both write potent dialogue delivered by (mostly) funny people, and movie magic for them is pointing the camera and watching it happen. So, given my avowed Apatow devotion, I suppose you kinda could've predicted that I'd be a K-Smith fan (or apologist, given how you feel about the man)-- not of the rabid variety, but yeah, I own 'em all (well, okay, not Jersey Girl, or that animated "Clerks" set), and don't find it too trying to go back to the well with mild frequency.

That being said, I've been mulling it over, and I think there's a chance Clerks II is Smith's best. Revisiting his 1994 little-picture-that-could, Smith avoids total redux by at least changing locales (the Quick Stop has burned down, and Dante and Randal have taken to being snarky and having their pop-culture-laced back-and-forths behind the counter at their local Mooby's) and sprucing up the cast a bit (welcome new additions include Trevor Fehrman's priceless evangelical Transformers fan Elias and a glowing Rosario Dawson as manager Becky). Early on, the movie proves itself to be quite funny. Jeff Anderson's Randal's screwup snark, presumably honed by 12 years of being snarky and screwing up, remains as glib and bawdy as ever, his penchant for ratatat vulgarity and sacred-cow screeds the high point of most of this movie's guffaws. Elias, too, is a singular comic creation, a soft-spoken, chaste, lovable nerd who, as performed by Fehrman, hits every note perfectly. (One could wish for more screen time, though.) Meanwhile, as the belly laughs continue out front, Dante (Brian O'Halloran, still a charmingly clunky actor) and Becky gab wistfully over a toenail-painting session. You see, it's Dante's last day before he leaves for Florida and a complacent existence with his dream-girl fiancee, but there's more than meets the eye with Becky and blah blah blah.

I know it all sounds pretty standard-issue, and it is, really. When it came out, Clerks II left a lot of people talking about it's startling emotional heft, which makes me wonder: have people really forgotten about Chasing Amy already? But Smith blends pretty seamlessly here. There's an endless parade of vulgarity, lots of Jay and Silent Bob doing their Jay and Silent Bob thing, obligatory screeds on pop culture (delivered by characters that are obvious mouthpieces for Smith's personal views), and a few cameos. But there's also an impeccably directed musical number smack in the middle, and near the end, the film's foulest, vilest scene (it involves a donkey) arrives sandwiched between two that go directly for the gut. It's an interesting mix, and that Smith managed to pull it off while making a really valid point about the horrors of aging is nothing if not impressive.

The humor kills-- during the first half of the movie, jokes arrive at metronome-precise intervals, and always hit like a perfect cymbal crash. The rhythm of Smith's comedic dialogue really hasn't been this good since the first Clerks, and part deux lands punchlines like waves on the Jersey shore (my personal favorite is the oblivious Randal's "porch monkey" faux pax, as much for the dumbfounded looks of everyone involved as for the actual verbal content).

But the drama works too. O'Halloran rarely sells it, but he lands a knockout punch right before the aforementioned musical number (set to the Jackson's "ABC", of course), in a perfect shot that manages to show him falling in love without, amazingly, telling us through expository dialogue. Rosario, of course, can sell anything; ostensibly, she's above the material, but she's got a natural screen presence and she positively glows throughout the film. Surprisingly, some of the film's heft comes from Anderson as the sarcastic, guarded Randal-- there's a scene near the end that, improbably, comes out pitch-perfect, because Anderson plays it so well. He's actually kind of wonderful in this, so attuned with the film's flippancy _and_ sentiment that he kinda carries it at times.

The film missteps, of course. Again, O'Halloran is hardly a master thespian, but I understand that there's a film-school-buddy chemistry there that's needed for the picture to succeed (well, that and you can't really replace the main character without looking at least a little bit retarded). But Jennifer Schwalbach? Smith again casts his wife (she had a role in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), but this time in a far more crucial role: Dante's meal-ticket fiancee Emma. I understand the necessity for Smith to make his films with people he likes, but really, there had to be someone else in his repertory that he could've snagged for this role. What, was Joey Lauren Adams at a Jennifer Tilly soundalike convention?

But small potatoes. Clerks II is Smith's most accomplished movie-- the gravity of 30s angst hits hard, all the jokes make their mark, and at the end of the day it's a tremendous little feel-good comedy. There's a real heart inside this coarse little picture, and Smith and Company coax it out with relative ease.

Rating: **** (out of five)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Drillbit Taylor (2008, Steven Brill)

Aaaand the Apatow comedy brand barrels full-steam ahead. This time around, three put-upon kids hire Owen Wilson-- a vagrant conman masquerading as a troubled veteran with a master's in ass-kicking-- to ward off their high-school intimidator, a wild-eyed, legally emancipated ("he's above the law!") neo-bully named Filkins. It's a PG-13 high school comedy-- you'd be right to be skeptical.

But Drillbit Taylor isn't nearly as bad as the general public would have you believe. While certain scenes may remind you of an edited-for-tv Superbad-- that's right, the gangly awkward kid and the chubby motormouth even have their own McLovin-- there's startling enjoyment to be found here. Sure, the best gags aren't up to even the throwaways in Pineapple Express or older sib Superbad, but of the recent litany of flicks with Judd Apatow's inimitable fingerprints on it, it's right up there with Walk Hard in the category of "not a classic, but better than Zohan."

This movie hinges on the kids. Owen tries-- he's always fun to watch, isn't he? well, except for I Spy-- but he's not really the star of this particular show. The kids are the surprising element here-- engaging, full of heart, and funny. Very funny, in fact. Jonah Hill-in-training Troy Gentile is the show-stealer here-- one part foul (PG-13 foul, at least) know-it-all, one part gangsta posturing-- but Nate Hartley has a few fantastic moments as Gentile's gawky partner-in-crime. He's the movie's soul when it's all over with-- his performance is the most heartfelt, the most real. Also, the Junior McLovin here is the creepy son from The Ring. Even Alex Frost is great as the bully. He gets this scary look in his eyes like someone told him he was the villain in the new X-Men movie, but the contrast kinda works here. His bad guy is one who earns his inevitable comeuppance. He has this great standoff with Hartley, mid-movie, that actually warrants some excitement, and it's cool.

It's ashame, kind of, that the adults are so forgettable. The greener thespians here run rings around their seasoned counterparts. Wilson fares the best, but he's hardly at the top of his game, and elsewhere, lots of exciting names show up in pretty flat minor roles. Stephen Root gets a few chuckles as an oblivious principal, but Leslie Mann, so memorable in Knocked Up and 40-Year-Old Virgin, here disappoints as Wilson's drooling galpal, disappointingly expendable. Even Danny McBride, a scene-stealer in high-profile comedies like Pineapple Express and Tropic Thunder, fails to land a good laugh. Actually, it's Frank Whaley, of all people, in a fleeting cameo as an auditioning bodyguard, who makes the biggest impression, but after his twitchy turn as a creepster motel owner in Vacancy, I'm lobbying for more roles for that dude anyway.

The script begs some inevitable questions. Drillbit's substitute teacher charade becomes even more preposterous when some of his homeless buddies show up for work, and even the film's central conceit is suspect: what's more emasculating, taking your knocks from a bully, or having to call in the adult cavalry to stave him off? Still, the movie's a lot more charming than I would've anticipated, and as lesser Apatow (weird how we still call them Apatow movies when he's only directed two features, huh? dude's got the comedic world under his thumb right now), it works in that dialed-down, reduced-raunch Superbad sorta way.

Plus, flick gets major props for: 1.) avoiding the obvious, mawkish, "violence solves nothing" sentiment that similar movies would've taken, and 2.) featuring a rap battle as a central turning point. If more movies had rap battles, cinema would flourish a little bit more, I think. Might've even liked The Happening if it'd had a rap battle.

Rating: *** (out of five)

Friday, January 23, 2009

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996, Robert Rodriguez)

It's hard to believe I ever actually gave From Dusk Till Dawn any sort of short shrift as a film-- watching it again, it's a fantastic piece of work, one of the most astoundingly entertaining films in any genre of the past 20 years or so. Everything fits together perfectly, the Quentin Tarantino script bristles with the rat-a-tat dialogue of the best Tarantino pictures, and the film looks and feels cool enough to have been made by QT himself. Of course, it was made by Robert Rodriguez, and that's good too, if not better-- it's like Tarantino's brand of retro-cool cross-pollinated with Rodriguez's knack for sweltering south-of-the-border locales and hot-shit action, and that's just about as awesome as it sounds.

Really, what more can you ask for in a movie like this? Anyone who's heard of it knows what it's about-- fugitive Gecko Brothers (portrayed, stupendously, by Tarantino and the film's easy MVP, George Clooney) kidnap a family and skate across the border, stowed-away in their RV. The first half of the movie is a pitch-perfect on-the-lam picture; halfway through, it shifts, wholesale, into something else entirely. It is at this point that the movie explodes and splatters the walls with awesome.

Believe me when I tell you this: this movie is AWESOME. If you're unfamiliar with the direction the script takes at the halfway point, do yourself a favor and keep yourself in the dark-- you're due for an Exorcist-style head-spin when the narrative goes from zero to WHAT??? in a matter of seconds. There's a lot of action, and it's great, but where Rodriguez and Tarantino really excel is their characters. They're incredibly memorable-- most notably Clooney's Seth Gecko (he's a certified badass here-- seriously, you'll give yourself an aneurysm trying to figure out how Clooney went from this to Batman & Robin in less than a year-- and Tarantino's given him all the best lines), but Tarantino himself is nice and creepy as Seth's pervy bro, and a startingly subdued Harvey Keitel plays the imperiled family's put-upon ex-clergy patriarch pitch-perfectly. Even the minor characters all get a chance to shine-- the beauty of ensemble acting-- giving Tom Savini and Fred Williamson their moments in the sun.

I dunno, there's just a lot of awesome, iconic stuff going on here. I'm kind of keeping tight-lipped about the places it goes-- it's just so much more fun if you don't know-- but trust me when I say that this is a flick just chock-full of wonderful. The script is bursting with delicious one-liners, and more importantly, it goes everywhere you (or at least, I) could possibly hope it will. There's iconic quotes and even more iconic shots. Really, it just exudes cool, and anyone with even a fleeting interest in things that are cool-- like, REALLY cool, not force-fed community-at-large cool-- needs to recognize.

There's no way I could ever recommend this movie enough.

Rating: ***** (out of five)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Mirrors (2008, Alexandre Aja)

I suppose it'd be easy to watch Mirrors without spending a dime. All you'd have to do is tune in to an episode of "24", and when Jack Bauer bodyslams, shoots, elbow-drops, or otherwise mauls a terrorist, mentally replace said terrorist with any sort of reflective surface.

Really, though, for what it is, Mirrors isn't bad, or at least not as bad as it could've been. Kiefer Sutherland plays a burnt-out ex-cop with a tortured past-- that's original, right?-- his new job as a security guard for the abandoned husk of a burnt-up department store leads him to a host of angry, vengeful, super-pissed mirrors, and his estranged wife and kids are the dastardly reflectors' would-be victims. Right, so let's get the cons out of the way first: Mirrors lacks an original bone in its mangled body ("I killed a man. You don't just bounce back from that" is one line of dialogue, as is the single most standard line in every supernatural horror flick: "You think I'm crazy."), requires a level of belief suspension that many discerning moviegoers don't have the tolerance for, and features the exact same mood and "boo!"-style scares that have plagued the endless sea of post-Ring PG-13 horrors. I'll grant you all that.

But there's at least something about Mirrors that puts it above its peers. Granted, saying Mirrors is better than Boogeyman or The Eye or Shutter is the faintest of praise, but it's got moments. That department store set, for one, is a thing of wonder, one of the creepiest setpieces in recent mainstream horror; also, the movie shows a little bit of flair for splatter, gunning for the hard R instead of the sterilized stock images of tween-safe terrors (somewhere in the first act there's the most gruesome act I've seen in a horror movie of this ilk, and I've seen 'em all ladies and gentlemen). Of course, the whole thing would be moot if it wasn't for Keifer Sutherland, entertaining the masses as he brings Jack Bauer to the supernatural world. Really, though, it's nice to see a character in this type of role instead of a cypher-- the teen-friendly horror flicks these days seem content to let all the creepy stuff happen to the best-looking guy in school, regardless of how empty-headed and soulless he may be as a protagonist-- and his (borderline-shtick, but still) intensity makes for a few wonderful freakouts. Point is, you couldn't have this movie without Kiefer, at least not in theaters; anyone else would send this directly to the dvd racks. He brings some much-needed acting firepower to the film, acting as he does against Amy Smart (okay, but very scarcely used) and Paula Patton (gorgeous, but with the acting craft of, I dunno, a Hilton).

Director Alexandre Aja is a strange ranger-- he's got a flair for going over-the-top, sometimes with glorious results (The Hills Have Eyes) and sometimes with ugly ones (High Tension). Mirrors seems tame compared to those two-- one can probably assume it's his bid for more mainstream work-- and contains little of the subtext he seems to like to inject his films with. I suppose with Aja at the helm I would've expected some sort of between-the-lines ruminations on the poison of vanity, and if he wants to be a true great he shouldn't squander that sort of opportunity. I mean, Romero used his horror template to attack consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, and we can all see how that turned out.

Right, but Mirrors DOES have one of the most deliciously mean endings I've seen in quite some time (right up there with the great The Descent and the horrid Hide and Seek). And Keifer's quite good, and if you really want a reason to see it, he kidnaps a nun.

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

Pineapple Express (2008, David Gordon Green)

Since seeing this over the summer, I'd almost forgotten how much I enjoyed Pineapple Express. Not quite-- there were some very funny moments I remember from opening weekend, and besides I just kinda de facto like anything the Apatow factory churns out-- but almost. Man, though, watching this thing again, there's a solid chance this is the best thing the Apatow/Rogen dynasty has put out yet.

It's certainly the most exciting. In David Gordon Green, this ribald troupe has gotten their hands on their most accomplished director-- he of gorgeous indie dramas George Washington and Undertow-- and he doesn't disappoint, directing with startling flair an cross-pollination of comedy and action, two genres you wouldn't imagine him keeping in his back pocket.

Seth Rogen, not content to rest on his laurels ever since Apatow launched him, Steve Carrell-style, into the leading-man stratosphere, gives one of the funniest performances of his career thus far; of course, James Franco and Danny McBride vie for title of "most scenes stolen", and they're both tremendous. Franco's shockingly adept at comedy, and his friendly drug dealer is one of those performances that makes you wish the Oscars respected comedy a little more. McBride's the revelation, of course-- his is such a fully-formed character, full of awesome little tics and seemingly throwaway lines and twisting allegiances and motivations, that one can only imagine his star trajectory has to be next.

The ensemble does well too-- the Apatow-produced movies tend to surround themselves with formidable supporting casts, and Pineapple Express proves no exception, pitting the Rogen/Franco duo against bickering thugs played by "Office" scene-stealer Craig Robinson and the inimitable Kevin Corrigan, and a pair of corrupt weed-conglomerate figureheads in Gary Cole and Rosie Perez. Perez and Cole bring professionalism to the forefront, locating that delicate balance between nefarious and hilarious.

I dunno, I suppose a big draw to this film for me-- other than it being hilarious-- is the way it handles that balance. It's funny, at times really REALLY funny, but there's good filmmaking in here: there's an exciting, expertly-filmed car chase (which is also hilarious), a series of surprisingly violent deaths near the end (occasionally hilarious), and, best of all, an epic fight between Rogen and Cole, which seems to gun for how exactly a fight between these two would go down in real life, in all its awkward, bumbling glory. Of course, there's that gratuitous John Woo shot of Seth leaping from the heavens, limbs askew, but that's part of what's so gratifying in a film like this-- it needles in little loving odes to action films while providing some mild satire, and it takes that sort of loving touch to effectively spoof. (Ask those Shaun of the Dead guys-- you can tell they really appreciate all the horror tropes, y'know? Same principle.)

It's really just a good job done all around, and it all adds up to what may be the principles' finest collabo. The mean streak is there, but all the congenial buddy comedy is too. In fact, Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg wrote Superbad, too, and you can tell-- the dynamic, the buddies embarking on wild misadventures, the sledgehammer-subtle comparison of sexual and best-bud relationships, it's all there. One can only hope they'll let that remain an enduring theme in future collaborations, as there's so few comedies out there that really, truly explore the bonds of friendship-- I mean, you can make a billion "bros before hos" comedies, but Rogen and company show before they tell. These relationships feel real, and that's worth its weight in comedy gold.

And make no mistake, Pineapple Express is comedy gold. The great film caper comedy is back with a vengeance, and I, for one, am in.

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

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Righteous Kill (2008, Jon Avnet)

Right away, there's a novelty factor to Righteous Kill; namely, Pacino and De Niro join forces for the first time since Heat, and this time ALL their scenes are together! Unfortunately, Jon Avnet is no Michael Mann, and Righteous Kill, against all odds, is an excruciatingly bad movie. It's a cop movie, essentially-- it's stipulated in their contracts, I believe, that Pacino and De Niro can't share celluloid together without playing cops or gangsters, or one of each-- but a severely deficient one, boasting more in common tonally with an Ashley Judd-in-peril thriller than Heat director Mann's crime-drama ouvre.

To scroll filmographies and go movie-for-movie, De Niro has a better success rate than Pacino, and he's typically a better actor-- Pacino's built his empire on simply being Pacino, prone to exuberant scene-chewing and distinct Pacinoisms, while young De Niro delivers some emotional firepower unseen on screen before (except maybe Brando) or after. But De Niro's been phoning it in lately (did anyone SEE 15 Minutes? I mean, REALLY), and Pacino runs rings around him in this one, having loads more fun, relaxing a lot more, and (oddly) not resorting to Pacinoisms. Bobby D is the one guilty of shtick here-- he makes that face he makes a lot, you know, the one people make when they're doing De Niro impressions, and vacillates between Grumpy and Pissed. He's textbook latter-day De Niro grizzled cop. Pacino tends to light up the screen in his role, and he's easily the best thing about this movie. John Leguizamo and Donny Wahlberg acquit themselves nicely, too, as a pair of skeptical officers probing the same murders Al and Bobby are working-- Donny brings some of the sardonic detective edge he brought to his surprisingly entertaining Dead Silence role, and Leguizamo (often a highlight of whatever he's in) has some great moments as a hot-headed wrench in the works. Brian Dennehy and Carla Gugino sleepwalk their way through roles that appear to have been written with qualifications like "a Brian Dennehy type" and so forth.

No, with all the principals mostly showing up and doing their thing just fine, the only real problem is with the script. It seems unsure of what it wants to be-- the action isn't really action, the suspense never actually suspenseful. The twist isn't even a real twist-- I mean, on paper, I suppose it is, but if a movie twists and we saw it coming the entire time, does it really twist? Righteous Kill is ostensibly a drama, a character study, but then that doesn't work either, since all the characters are rather one-note. I suppose you could make the argument that it's a think-piece, what with its preoccupation with the moral questions related to vigilante justice, but really, the only thing it makes you think about is Pacino's gravity-defying Phil Spector 'do. Well, that, and "has it *really* been that long since Godfather Part II?"

Basically, this is the most by-the-number cop picture in years. Maybe ever, really-- it's that standard-issue. It's almost as though halfway through writing it, someone got the call that Pacino and De Niro were in, and realized that they could have the two profess their love for each other, traipse off to Massachusetts to get married, and retire peacefully on a ranch somewhere, raising ducklings, and there was no need to polish any further. Of course, that actually sounds like an entertaining movie to me, so what do I know?

Well, I know that with, I dunno, Robert Patrick and Michael Beihn starring, this thing would've limped straight to DVD, bypassing theaters entirely on the Blockbuster Expressway. I can only hope that De Niro and Pacino will collaborate again, and I hope they show a little more choosiness next time out. I'd even watch 'em be partners again-- um, COP partners-- if the script was any good. Just do us a favor, guys, and be choosy. It's cool. Seriously, you guys were responsible for Taxi Driver and Dog Day Afternoon. You've got some leeway here.

Oh, I almost forgot 50 Cent, credited here as Curtis Jackson. He's horrific. He couldn't even play himself competently in Get Rich or Die Tryin', and here he marble-mouths his way through the most basic of lines. Seriously, you hired 50 Cent? Was Ludacris above this material?

Rating: *1/2 (out of five)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Baghead (2008, Jay and Mark Duplass)

Somehow looking as though it was on a tighter budget than Blair Witch, the Duplass Brothers' Baghead offers a few charms along the way, but feels pretty incomplete as a horror movie. Which, I know, I know, it's not strictly a Horror Movie-- it's just, I have a big problem with the movie's scares being so effective, only to be completely negated by an 11th-hour plot twist. Same reason Shyamalan pissed me off so much with the Village, really: it ratcheted up superb tension with those groundhogs or whatever, only to find out that the filmmakers pretty much peed in my cereal.

Not to do Baghead the disservice of comparing it to bad Shyamalan (a sadly redundant phrase these days). The cabin-in-the-woods setting allows for some sort of sense of dread to build up, although that's mostly because we're aware that we're watching four friends go to a cabin in the woods, which the likes of Evil Dead and Cabin Fever have taught us not to do.

Sexual tensions abound, and there's lots of friendly blather-- character-rounding, I suppose, but there comes a point when it gets boring (exception: Steve Zissis as Chad-- what a good role, deserving of a more proficient film that can better capture his nuances). But when the masked boogeyman shows up, for those tantalizingly short moments that he does-- it's genuinely creepy, and the reactions captured on camera seem real, devoid of Hollywood's histrionics. Unfortunately, the shadowy lurker only shows up for about 20 of the film's final 30 minutes-- a sad waste, that.

The film's inaudible and filmed on the super-cheap. As a result, a lot of dialogue and reaction shots are lost, and the movie becomes a bit confusing when someone's not screaming. A shame, that-- there are some fantastic moments here. But they're too few and far between, and when an 80-minute film drags, it's typically not a good sign.

Rating: ** (out of five)

Grindhouse: Planet Terror (2007, Robert Rodriguez) and Death Proof (2007, Quentin Tarantino)

If there's one thing I won't forgive the American people for in the first decade of the 2000s-- well, next to electing Bush twice-- it's that people didn't turn up in droves to watch perhaps the coolest movie experiment in all of modern cinema, Rodriguez and Tarantino's resurrection of the trash cinema double feature, Grindhouse. Because it's not like other movies, where, if no one goes, who gives a damn? They'll be your little secret, and you can make one-by-one converts of all of your friends.

But no-- poor box-office for Grindhouse means that, for the conceivable future, the Grindhouse experience will be lost. Planet Terror and Death Proof exist just fine-- but not Grindhouse. Having seen the film a few times during it's theatrical run in 2007, I can say that it was a singular cinematic experience, a trashy tunnel of thrills, a neato genre exercise. The "Restricted" title cards, the missing reels, the scratchy prints, and best of all, the trailers-- oh, those glorious fake teasers for woefully nonexistent b-horrors, all gaudy cameos and wink-nudge sadism. (Rodriguez's trailer for Machete, an imaginary star vehicle for Danny Trejo, remains on the Planet Terror DVD looking an awful lot like an overblown Desperado, come to think of it.)

But what of the movies? Fortunately, both directors pass with flying colours, albeit with different approaches to the material. And fortunately, you can put together a makeshift Grindhouse double feature if you so desire-- it'll just take a little more time, as both platters are "extended and unrated", thus stretching the running time to damn-near four hours.

Rodriguez is up first with Planet Terror, and it's clear that his grasp on the concept is immaculate. From the outset, there's a tough-talking go-go dancer, a mysterious stranger in a truck, bubbling flesh, and a testicle thief. As the story gets rolling-- something about gas that turns people into zombies, but who cares, really?-- Rodriguez propels his vision into Evil Dead-and-beyond levels of cartoonish splatter. Boils rupture, limbs fly, intestines ooze, bodies pop like water balloons. And he remains true to the trash-cinema tropes of the idea, all campy cleavage-cams, delicious one-liners, and, in the film's single most hilarious scene, missing reels. Rodriguez has done what I bet lots of prestige directors wish they had the balls to do-- he's understood the joy, the campy glee in sitting around and watching an ostensibly-awful-but-incredibly-fun movie with friends, and made his own ostensibly-awful-but-incredibly-fun homage. Freddy Rodriguez is the mvp here, playing it earnest all the way, but points to Bruce Willis for sending-up an intensely Bruce Willis-y role.

Yep, RR wins for slavishly recreating an old, sub-Living Dead shocker-- but for sheer craft, Tarantino swoops in once again. His Death Proof is, essentially, a Tarantino film. Sure, he scratches the surface of the terror-on-the-open-road thriller, but when you get right down to it, he packs it with a few things: lots of women, women who like to talk about obscure pop culture, moments that are obscenely, gloriously retro, an ostensibly career-saving performance by an aging actor (Kurt Russell, here), and lots and lots of music that, outside of the decade in which it was produced, hasn't been heard outside of Quentin Tarantino's house until now. But I, for one, refuse to look a gift film in the mouth, and if QT couldn't avoid making another QT film, who are we to pass it up? And it's a good one, too-- the Grindhouse version moved at a fantastic clip, packing into 90 minutes two vastly different exploits of Russell's Stuntman Mike. The DVD version does this, too, but all it adds is more dialogue, making Tarantino's already-talky film talkier. It's the first time the dialogue in a Tarantino film adds excessive padding, instead of enhancing-- the double-feature version features a lot of verbiage, but every word is carefully placed, every conversation necessary to flesh out characters that we need to invest in to get the full effect of what inevitably happens to them.

It's also an extremely well-acted film, for the most part-- Sydney Poitier as Jungle Julia leaves a lot to be desired-- she sleepwalks a bit, i think-- and Rose McGowan overshadows herself by being better in Planet Terror, but a sultry Vanessa Ferlito and an adorably perky Jordan Ladd make the initial batch of girls worth watching. Of course, it's Russell's show from the beginning-- his dialogue is so well-placed and -worded that you'll begin to fall for Stuntman Mike yourself, freaky scar and all, and he's so frightening and charismatic that he immediately invades the upper echelon of movie villains. When there's a turning of the tables in the film's latter half (that introduces a new batch of girls, the most memorable of which is Tracie Thoms as Quentin's female Sam Jackson stand-in), Death Proof goes into giddy overdrive, and makes its mark in Tarantino's ouvre as certified classic.

I'd love to see Grindhouse immortalized one day the way the creators intended it-- but, failing that, the padded-out full-length versions of Planet Terror and Death Proof will have to do.

Grindhouse: ***** (out of five)
Planet Terror: ****
Death Proof: ***** (original); ****1/2 (extended)


Welcome, guys, to the inaugural post of the most originally-titled blog since---well, since all time, right? I mean, look at that title, "Drew Watches Movies". Such elegant simplicity hasn't been seen since "Snakes on a Plane".

In these pages herein, I shall dispense valuable nuggets of wisdom regarding the craft and quality of film, a subject of which I am an irrefutable expert and scholar. My credentials include having seen a bunch of movies. Well, that and.... well, yeah, I've really seen a LOT of movies.

The movies will come as I see them---best to review when fresh, right? I mean, I haven't seen, I dunno, "A Civil Action" or "In the Line of Fire" or "Marci X" or "Return of the Jedi" in years and years, so I shouldn't consider myself qualified to speak on them, right? However, I saw "From Dusk Till Dawn" just last week. And I'm dying to tell you about it.

That's all for now. Posts and ratings are final, and are pretty much the official word on the subject, and should be treated as such. Posting will commence shortly. In the meantime, occupy yourself by familiarizing yourself with the rest of this site, which at those point contains absolutely nothing.

Good luck.