Finally, the rest of the stuff I saw in August. GO!
ONE DAY -- A lot of people may consider this movie a sad but touching story of love and the trials and tribulations people must go through in order to discover who they truly are. But I’m not so sure. To me, it’s more like a devastating tale of squandered lives and missed opportunities. Emma (Anne Hathaway, sporting a questionable British accent) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) meet cute following their college graduation on July 15th, 1988. After a near-hookup that night, they keep in touch, and the film touches upon the state of their relationship on every July 15th for the next 20 years. At times they are friends... not friends... more than friends... but regardless of what else is going on, they are the one constant in each other’s lives. Gimmicky, sure... but Anne and Jim are both incredibly charming and make the material work. I can appreciate the commentary on the power of friendship -- but a surprising plot twist changes the entire tone of the movie. When all is said and done, there is not really anything happy or hopeful unless you are an unconditionally, perhaps foolishly, optimistic person. But either way, it’s a solid romance. (Though it DOES overlook another important event that occurred on July 15th in the year 1995: The serendipitous formation of my old band, The Gravity! Come on, that was huge!)
THE HELP -- Seems this movie has become a bit of a phenomenon, having topped the box office for three consecutive weeks as of this writing, and the popularity it has achieved has been matched only by the controversy it has stirred. It is the story of several women in 1960s Mississippi who undertake a secret project that allows African-American housemaids to tell their personal stories; tell the truth about their employers, their treatment and their living conditions; and basically blow the roof off of one of America’s most despicable racist societies. Say what you want about how the film handles its racial themes: Yes, it glosses over such issues as the physical abuse and extreme degradation that these women probably experienced on a daily basis. And perhaps the characters are mostly archetypes and everything is sugarcoated with candy-colored images and humor. But just because a rape, for example, isn’t shown on screen doesn’t mean that the message isn’t getting across to the viewer. (That’s like saying that a World War II movie can’t be effective unless it has an obligatory shot of concentration camp victims.) Certainly, a more visceral and perhaps more important movie could be made -- but this is not that movie and I don’t think that necessarily detracts from its effectiveness. Above all, there can be no denying the courage that these women had to display in order to tell their stories -- just as there can be no denying the power of the lead performances, starting with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, both of whom are just astonishingly good. Emma Stone, meanwhile, continues her run of extreme likeability, while Bruce Dallas Howard makes Hilly Holbrook one of the year’s most despicable villains, and Jessica Chastain continues her breakout year (also see: THE TREE OF LIFE and THE DEBT) with a great turn as an outcast socialite. These performances carry the film to great emotional heights and help it to overcome its occasional lack of focus and socio-political shortcomings. I’ve little doubt that we will we will see several Oscar nods come out of this group in a few months.
FINAL DESTINATION 5 -- At this point, there can be no denying this series’ place in the pantheon of modern horror. If SAW is this generation’s NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, then FINAL DESTINATION is definitely FRIDAY THE 13th. Granted, neither is as good as its ‘80s counterpart, but the cultural impact, and certainly the longevity, is most certainly there. In my opinion, the first FINAL DESTINATION can safely be considered a classic, and although the films have declined in quality with each passing installment, at least they’ve always provided an original gimmick and gruesome, creative kills. (I’ll take that over wretched, unnecessary remakes any day.) Everyone groaned when #5 was announced, since the fourth one was supposed to be the end... but really, we shouldn’t have been surprised about that. The surprising thing is that it’s actually pretty good! Easily the best since the original, as it tweaks the gimmick a bit to keep things fresh (turns out that you can transfer your place on Death’s list by taking another person’s life). Characters remain dumb archetypes, but kills are strong, and there is a jaw-dropping twist at the end that pretty much redeems the entire series. If they’re smart, they’ll REALLY end it here and go out on a high note.... hey, why is everybody laughing?
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK -- Guillermo del Toro has already asserted himself as the king of the “adult fairy tale,” as proven by his masterpiece, PAN’S LABYRINTH (my #1 movie of 2006 and one of my top 25 films of the ‘00s). He is also a master of setting the horror-fantasy mood -- which he does with great success in this haunted house story that he co-wrote (and probably unofficially did more than that). The story is simple: A family moves into a big, creaky mansion, where a little girl, out of loneliness and curiosity, uncovers an ancient evil. She is then terrorized by hungry, mischievous, deadly little beasties... but of course, no one believes her when she tries to explain. Visually, aurally and psychologically, the film is very strong and pretty damn creepy at times. Bailee Madison gives a believable performance, though Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes seem a bit out of their element. The fatal flaw is that the plot gets silly and the beasties even sillier, which detracts from the creepiness. Wouldn’t be a stretch to call it a mix of PAN’S LABYRINTH and GREMLINS... albeit nowhere near as good as those films, but an interesting mix nonetheless, and worth checking out if you’re a fan of del Toro’s work. (Note that I have not seen the original ‘70s TV movie, so I cannot comment on how this works as a remake.)
COLOMBIANA -- The prevailing theory is that Luc Besson wrote this movie about a sexy ass-kicking female assassin with the intention that it would be the sequel to THE PROFESSIONAL, with grown-up Natalie Portman reprising her (best) role... but when that plan fell through, they tinkered with it and came up with this. If that is true, it is a great misfortune for Besson, Portman, and especially for us, because as it stands, this result is not very good. Which is a shame, because I am a fan of Zoe Saldana -- in fact, before Ron Howard’s DARK TOWER project fell through, I was championing for her to be cast as Susannah Dean. She definitely has great screen presence (and I’m not just saying that because she is ridiculously hot), but she is completely undermined by a dopey plot. It’s just a big, loud mess. If you’re in it for Zoe’s pulchritude and a couple of decent action sequences and explosions, then it is probably worth a rental -- otherwise, re-watch THE PROFESSIONAL instead, and ponder over the sequel that might have been.
OUR IDIOT BROTHER -- I’ve had a man-crush on Paul Rudd for a long, long time, and this loveable movie about a loveable guy has done nothing to abate that. Rudd plays Ned, a stoner with a heart of gold. It’s not that he’s an idiot, so much as he has a lack of common sense and is so innately good-hearted that he always expects kindness from everyone else, whether it’s a stranger on the subway or his own flesh and blood. After being released from jail for selling weed to a uniformed police officer (an infuriating case of entrapment, by the way), Ned finds himself homeless and alone when his girlfriend kicks him off their farm and keeps his dog. He goes back to live with his mother for a bit, but ends up crashing with each of his three sisters, all of whom have issues of their own. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is an overly-ambitious career woman; Liz (Emily Mortimer) is unhappily married to a philandering jackass (Steve Coogan); Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is a crappy stand-up comic and kind of a slut. Unfortunately for the sisters, Ned’s easy-breezy attitude ends up causing more than a few headaches for them, despite his best efforts to make everybody happy. Is the family headed for disaster? Or will Ned prove to everyone that believing in and trusting humanity isn’t such a bad thing? The movie is funny, heartfelt and surprisingly poignant. The story and characters are built so nicely that by the time (highlight invisible text for mild spoiler) Ned has an uncharacteristic outburst late in the film, it hits a much bigger emotional chord than expected. The cast is fantastic (clearly there are some damn good genes in this good-looking family), but obviously this movie belongs to Rudd, who carries the proceedings with irresistible, loveable charm. It’s not a flawless movie, but it will definitely put a smile on your face. It also features a good old fashioned “outtakes” sequence during the closing credits, which has one particularly awesome moment -- you’ll know it when you see it!
STRAW DOGS -- This remake of the ‘70s classic (which, to my discredit, I have not seen... but is at the very top of my Netflix queue) stars James Marsden and Kate Bosworth as David and Amy, an L.A. film writer and his actress wife who move back to her hometown in the deep South following her father’s death. There they encounter Charlie (Alexander Skarsgård), a local construction worker who also happens to be an ex-flame of Amy’s, and who still carries a torch for her. David, of course, is a fish out of water in this backwater town, and Charlie and his buddies don’t make it easy, antagonizing him and Amy at every turn. This puts a strain on their marriage: she wants him to stand up for himself and be a man, while he prefers a non-confrontational approach. Writer/director Rod Lurie gives us an intense, slow burn of a plot, constantly peeling back layers of character development that make things more and more complicated (this is particularly true during and after the film’s most disturbing and controversial scene). All of this tension culminates in an explosive final act in which David is finally pushed to his breaking point. It’s unsettling, well-acted (particularly Marsden and Skarsgård, though Bosworth holds her own), perhaps a bit over-plotted at times, and though I hear it doesn’t carry the same heft as Sam Peckinpah’s original, it is nonetheless thought-provoking. In fact, it sparked one of the more in-depth conversations I’ve had about any movie so far this year, in which my girlfriend and I discussed the nature of cowardice vs. civility -- specifically, is Amy right to call David a coward for not standing up to Charlie and his goons from the start? Or can we cut him some slack for being a regular guy from a civilized society who isn’t used to dealing with these redneck assholes? It’s a tough call. (STRAW DOGS opens nationwide 9/16.)
And with that, we can close the book on the summer movie season. Bring on Oscar season!