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)