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)