Sunday, November 13, 2011

October Movie Overload, Part 2

At last, the long-awaited conclusion to my October movie recap! LET’S GO!

martha-marcy-may-marleneMARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE -- A haunting psychological thriller about a girl named Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) who tries to regain some semblance of a normal life after escaping from a cult where she spent two years being brainwashed -- and worse -- by its charming leader (John Hawkes, so creepy). But her psyche has been so deeply damaged that even after she seeks refuge with her older sister & brother-in-law, she is unable to tell them what happened to her and constantly suffers from paranoid delusions. Writer/director Sean Durkin has crafted a remarkably effective story that jumps back and forth in time and blurs the line between fantasy and reality, not to mention sanity and madness. The film is shot in a way that makes it feel almost dreamlike. Details of Martha’s experiences are peeled away little by little as she tries desperately to cleanse herself of the cult’s far-reaching influence. There’s palpable, ominous tension throughout, culminating with an ending that left me absolutely breathless. It is a profoundly brilliant, deeply unsettling film... and it is the mesmerizing Elizabeth Olsen who binds it together. The younger sister of Mary-Kate & Ashley, she seemingly has more talent (not to mention beauty) in her little finger than her much-more-rich-and-famous siblings have have ever displayed. (She kind of reminds me of a GHOST WORLD-era Scarlett Johansson, which is not a bad thing.) It is one of the most potent, nuanced, vulnerable and remarkable performances I’ve seen this year; hopefully the Academy will agree when the time comes.

paranormal-activity-3PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 3 -- Earlier this year, I declared that if the SAW series was this generation’s NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, then the FINAL DESTINATION series was FRIDAY THE 13th... so I guess that makes PARANORMAL ACTIVITY this generation’s HALLOWEEN? CHILD’S PLAY? HELLRAISER? Take your pick. All I know is that this found-footage haunted house series is now a solid three-for-three. What makes it so effective is not the scares so much as the ANTICIPATION of the scares. Loud noises, moving furniture and dark shadows in the background are all well and good. But sitting there in the dark, your eyes darting around the screen in a frantic attempt to figure out where the next scare is going to come from... that is some spine-tingling shit and these films have perfected the art. The third installment is a prequel that takes us back to the ‘80s, where, it seems, the oft-haunted sisters, Katie and Kristi, had some all-too-familiar scary experiences even as little girls. But there are some new twists: Kristi has an imaginary friend named Toby (an homage, I believe, to POLTERGEIST director Tobe Hooper) who may not be very nice. The girls’ bonehead dad devices a new oscillating-camera contraption that adds a new dimension of suspense as it moves back and forth. But mostly, the tried-and-true formula remains intact. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have already proven that they have a knack for suspense with the film CATFISH and they put those talents to good use here. That said, I think this series has now gone as far as it can (or should). I’d hate to see the powers-that-be run it into the ground with more installments... but then again, there have been seven SAW’s, five FINAL DESTINATION’s, nine NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET’s, etc. So I guess the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY saga has some catching up to do.

the-swell-seasonTHE SWELL SEASON -- Few movies have ever had such a profound effect on me as the 2007 indie hit, ONCE. It was cinematic love at first sight. I was struck by the thunderbolt, just as Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova’s characters were as they played “Falling Slowly” together in that piano shop. From there, I became obsessed with all things Glen & Mar. I’ve watched the movie countless times, seen the Swell Season three times (and the Frames once, and I’m seeing Marketa solo later this month). And of course, I took solace in their real-life relationship, which was magical in the sense that it was like the happy ending we didn’t get in the bittersweet film. Eventually, though, their fairytale relationship came to an end... and this documentary tells that story. It follows Glen & Mar after they were thrust into the worldwide spotlight (especially after winning the Oscar for Best Original Song). Hansard, who had been paying his dues since quitting school to become a busker on the streets of Dublin, relished the fame and playing before huge crowds. But this new life took its toll on shy, soft-spoken Marketa, barely 20 years old at the time, which in turn took its toll on them as a couple. Unsurprisingly, Hansard gets most of the attention in this doc -- presumably because he is the more open of the two. We spend a lot of time with his parents, including his late, emotionally-detached father, which gives us some real insight into where his raw performance power comes from. The film doesn’t delve as much into Marketa’s life, which is unfortunate because her story is pretty intriguing in its own right. But her discomfort at the Swell Season’s stardom, and her desire to spread the wings of her life & career, so to speak, is painfully evident. If you love them as much as I do, this film -- shot in soft black-and-white which gives it an even more intimate feel -- will both fill you with joy and break your heart.

ghostbustersGHOSTBUSTERS -- That’s right, I saw GHOSTBUSTERS on the big screen and it was awesome. I don’t think I need to tell you about the movie itself, but suffice to say that it is still awesome and absolutely holds up both as a sci-fi comedy masterpiece AND a slice of ‘80s New York nostalgia. (However, I am now even more convinced that GHOSTBUSTERS 3 would be a terrible idea.) What I want to talk about is where I saw it -- a magical, wonderful world called the Sony Wonder Technology Lab, located at 56th & Madison in NYC. The facility is kind of like a Hall of Science, where kids can go and play with all sorts of fun gadgets and gizmos and games and robotics and computer programs and interactive technology. It’s all free! And yes, they have a screening room where they show free movie screenings every Saturday afternoon. It’s a very nice little theatre: Stadium seating, plush seats and a decent-sized screen (equivalent to, say, a typical art house theatre; certainly a heck of a lot bigger than your TV at home) and a Blu-Ray projector that provides a clear picture and booming sound. Very nice indeed... and again, it’s free! All you have to do is RSVP at the beginning of the week and then show up. The theatre was barely half-full for GHOSTBUSTERS so clearly this is still a hidden NYC gem and I am revealing it here against my better judgment -- use this information wisely, my friends. For a list of upcoming screenings, CLICK HERE and bookmark the page. Looks like a bunch of family/holiday stuff through most of November and December, but I am intrigued by Woody Allen’s MIDNIGHT IN PARIS on December 30th! Perhaps I’ll see you there.

THE-WOMANTHE WOMAN -- I have a confession to make: Though I’ve claimed to be a horror fan, I was not familiar with the works of Jack Ketchum before seeing this movie. But I now see that all of my experiences with the horror genre over the years were merely a tune-up for Ketchum’s madness. THE WOMAN is a story of perhaps the most dysfunctional family you will ever see. On the surface, the Cleeks seem nice and normal, like something out of a ‘50s sitcom (which the matter-of-fact dialogue also invokes). But under the surface simmers unspeakable horror. The patriarch, Roger, treats his wife and kids as his slaves, forcing them to do ridiculous chores and basically serve his every whim. One day, while on a hunting trip, he comes across a feral woman living in the woods (no explanation where she came from, but it’s beside the point). He decides to capture her, ties her up in the basement and plans to “civilize” her. He gets the whole family involved with the project. Mom and sis are appalled, but junior, who is just as twisted as his father, is into the idea. From there... I cannot begin to describe the brutality and degradation that takes place... increasingly disturbing and culminating in an astonishing final act bloodbath. I am typically as desensitized to extreme horror as anyone, but even I sat there completely aghast with what I was seeing. This is one of the very few horror movies to ever elicit such a reaction from me -- and for that, I must tip my cap to Jack Ketchum for coming up with such a tale and Lucky McKee for skillfully putting it on screen. Fine performances across the board, too, from the whole family. But special kudos to Sean Bridgers as Roger, one of the most twisted antagonists I’ve ever seen (perhaps topped only by Blanche Baker as Aunt Ruth in Ketchum’s THE GIRL NEXT DOOR... but I digress), and also to Pollyanna McIntosh who gives a fearless performance as the Woman. This movie is not for the faint of heart... but a must-see for fans of the genre.

life-crazyLIKE CRAZY -- Based on the heartstring-tugging trailer, I had high hope that this movie would be this year’s great melancholy love story, following in the footsteps of such films as ONCE, (500) DAYS OF SUMMER and BLUE VALENTINE, all of which made my Top 10 in their respective years. Well, perhaps those expectations were a little too high. Indeed it is a melancholy love story, but it is in no way great. The story is simple enough: Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) meet in college and fall in love. But when Anna is deported back to the UK after screwing up her visa situation, they are forced to do the long-distance thing, which takes a toll on their relationship. There’s potential there because long distance relationships do indeed suck, but there’s one fundamental problem: I never once believed in their everlasting love. Seems like they could have pretty easily have made things work at any time; for example, why didn’t Jacob just move to England? Would have solved the problem right there. But he didn’t... perhaps because he wasn’t as invested in the relationship as he thought? Or perhaps because there wouldn’t have been a movie. Either way, it contradicts this supposed great love, because if it was really great, they would’ve done anything in their power to make it work. (Which also includes not being so stupid and letting the visa expire in the first place. I know all-too-well that the thunderbolt is powerful and can make you do dumb things... but that was pretty fucking dumb.) All that being said, the acting is very solid. Yelchin and Jones make a cute couple, and Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as a girl with whom Jacob tries to move on. Just wish they all had less-flawed material to work with.

Bring on Oscar season!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

October Movie Overload, Part 1

This monthly recap title is particularly appropriate because I really DID go a bit buck wild with the movies in October: I saw 19 of them on the big screen, which, believe it or not, is a NEW PERSONAL RECORD for a single month, snapping the previous mark of 17 (set several times, most recently September 2010). This was due to an influx of advance screenings (9), some freebies, a pair of triple-features and the simple fact that I am a movie-watching machine! I've already reviewed a bunch of the October offerings here, here, here and here; now let's take a look at the rest:

dream-houseDREAM HOUSE -- This train wreck got off to a bad start when it revealed a major spoiler/plot twist in the very first trailer. But hey, I’m a sucker for a haunted house story, and the cast was strong and intriguing (Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and one of my favorites, Naomi Watts), and I’ve never been one to judge a book by its cover. I also couldn’t quite comprehend how a movie directed by Jim “IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER / MY LEFT FOOT / IN AMERICA” Sheridan could have a 7% rating on RottenTomatoes. Well, I should have taken the hint -- this is an epic failure on every level. It’s about a family that moves into a house where, they discover, a mass murder once took place. But things and people may not be as they seem. The plot moves slowly and awkwardly, utilizing pretty much every ghost story cliché in the book. There is some visual creepiness here and there that is constantly undermined by bad editing and sound effects. Finally there’s a second, much dumber twist that results in a laughably bad ending. Now, it seems that there were a series of production problems which caused the studio to re-cut the film, Sheridan to denounce it and the stars to not promote it. So who knows if Sheridan, left to his own devices, would have given us a deeper, scarier, more methodical character study and less of a schlocky rip-off of every thriller ever made. I'd like to think so, but I’m not so sure -- after all, you can’t polish a turd, and as it stands, this is one of the year’s biggest.

whats-your-numberWHAT’S YOUR NUMBER? -- If there was any justice in this world, Anna Faris would have put “funny lady comedy” on the map years before Kristen Wiig and BRIDESMAIDS came along. Anna has been hilarious for a long time but has either been choosing her material very poorly, or simply not getting any offers. But why would that be? She’s funny, hot AND has the whole raunchy stoner thing going for her. It makes no sense! Unfortunately she is no closer to superstardom with this forgettable, boilerplate comedy, in which Faris plays a thirty-something woman who realizes that she is dangerously close to surpassing a milestone number of sexual partners, which, according to a magazine article, severely decreases one’s chances of settling down. So, she decides to delve back into her past love life, thinking that if she reconnects & hits it off with one of those guys, it won’t count against her. Could have been an amusing premise, I suppose, especially with the R rating, and Anna does her damnedest to conjure some mild laughs from some crappy material. But all in all, it’s a bad scene. And just to add insult to injury, there’s a wedding/bridesmaid subplot that almost feels like they shoehorned it in (or at least shifted some of the focus in that direction) sometime after mid-May. Anna Faris deserves better and I remain hopeful that one day she’ll star in a movie worthy of her talents -- but this definitely isn’t it.

real-steelREAL STEEL -- By all powers of the universe, this movie should not have been good. For God’s sake, the previews made it look like ROCK’EM SOCK’EM ROBOTS: THE MOTION PICTURE, the first instance of what will soon be a plague of movies based on popular games. So imagine my surprise when it turned out to be more like ROCKY meets THE IRON GIANT, resulting in one of the most purely enjoyable feel-good movies of the year. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, human boxers have been replaced by giant, human-controlled robots. Hugh Jackman stars as Charlie Kenton, a washed-up boxer-turned-smalltime promoter who hits rock bottom and begrudgingly reunites with his estranged son, Max. Together, they fix up a clunker of a robot named Atom -- and that's when it turns into a two-pronged underdog story, chronicling the little robot that could AND Charlie's redemption as a father. Atom climbs the ranks, endears himself to the world and challenges an unbeatable champion; meanwhile, Charlie and Max re-forge their bond. It’s a cheesy story, no doubt. But it’s also intense, poignant, exhilarating and practically bursting at the seems with heart and a complete lack of pretension -- not to mention some pretty awesome robot fight scenes. An exultant crowd-pleaser and well worth checking out.

footlooseFOOTLOOSE -- I have no real love for the original FOOTLOOSE, but I can sympathize with the furor that arose when this remake was announced. After all, just last year, the powers-that-be messed with one of my favorite ‘80s movies, THE KARATE KID. But while that remake was indeed completely unnecessary, I also found it to be neither terribly offensive nor as awful as expected (read my review HERE). The new FOOTLOOSE likewise follows the same exact plot as the original: Small town bans public dancing following tragic deaths; along comes orphaned bad boy, Ren McCormack (newcomer Kenny Wormald) to woo the preacher’s daughter (Julianne Hough) and get everyone to cut loose again. But what really struck me is how much more vibrant the remake seems compared to the drab, dated original -- full of energy, likeable actors who exude chemistry (particularly a supporting cast that breathes life into the dusty Southern setting) and a soundtrack that attempts to bridge the generation gap. Lots more dancing, too. Granted, kids today are too damn cynical for this version to strike a chord, as it did in the ‘80s. In that sense, yes, it’s probably just as unnecessary as THE KARATE KID remake. But it’s also fun in the moment, and if I were to choose one version over the other (not that I foresee a re-watch happening anytime soon), with all due respect to Kevin Bacon & co., I’d pick this one.

texas-killing-fieldsTEXAS KILLING FIELDS -- The most interesting thing about this otherwise-conventional detective story is that it is directed by Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of Michael Mann, and damned if she isn't a chip off the old block in terms of visuals and composition. This movie looks like the kind of gritty mystery her dad might have made in the '80s. Unfortunately, there's not much more to it than that. It follows two detectives -- one local boy (Sam Worthington) and one NYC transplant (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) -- as they try to track down a serial murderer who targets women and hides their bodies in a swamp called (wait for it) the Killing Fields. But the killer soon sets his sights on the detectives and those close to them -- particularly a young local girl (Hit Girl herself, Chloe Grace-Moretz). The plot is slow and convoluted and laden with red herrings, which I suppose are meant to intrigue, but are mostly aggravating because the mystery is pretty obvious. Hard to say if Mann was striving for a sort of police procedural, or mystery/thriller, or character study, but it never commits to any of those concepts and thus the whole thing falls flat. Performances are decent, though, particularly Morgan and Moretz. Would like to have seen more of Jessica Chastain (yes, even after already seeing her in however-many movies this year... she’s pretty good... and pretty). But couldn't get past Worthington's ridiculous combination Tex-Australian accent, which comes on the heels of his Israeli-Australian accent in THE DEBT and whatever accent that was in AVATAR. For God's sake, let him speak naturally from now on because this is just getting embarrassing for everyone.

the_skin_i_live_inTHE SKIN I LIVE IN -- After I saw this movie, in my head I thought about writing a review entitled, “Pedro Almodóvar's Human Centipede”... but then Bret Easton Ellis, of all people, beat me to it with this tweet. Damn him! But it's true: Both Tom Six's cult classic and Almodóvar's latest vision are about diabolical scientists who perform transformative surgical experiments on unwilling victims with horrific and/or tragic results. The difference, of course, is that CENTIPEDE is a straight-up midnight horror flick whereas SKIN is more of a twisted-horror-mystery-love story with underlying themes of sexual identity, wrapped up with Almodóvar's signature stylistic flourishes. As the film opens in present-day Toledo, Spain, we are introduced to Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), a brilliant cosmetic surgeon who lives in a huge estate/research facility with his maid and an attractive woman who appears to be held captive. As layers of plot are peeled away, we learn, among other things, that Robert has just created a synthetic, fire-resistant skin -- the culmination of an obsession he has had since his wife was horribly burned and committed suicide. We then jump six years into the past and... well, I’ve already said too much. This movie is best seen with as little spoilage as possible, because the twists are epic and truly mind-boggling. Banderas gives perhaps the performance of his life as the deranged doctor -- it’s been a while since they last worked together, but Almodóvar clearly brings out the best in him (as he does with Penélope Cruz). It’s a gleefully macabre, somewhat campy, perversely sexy melodramatic trip of a film, and further proof of Almodóvar’s mastery of his craft.

TheMightyMacsTHE MIGHTY MACS -- Something just doesn’t seem right about seeing ultra-sexy and oft-nekkid Carla Gugino in a G-rated family film... but, well, here we are. She stars as Cathy Rush, coach of the Immaculata College women’s basketball team that overcame tremendous odds in the early ‘70s to win the sport’s first-ever national championship. It’s your basic underdog story: Rush, a former college player, starts coaching at a tiny all-girls school run by nuns, with no practice courts and one half-inflated ball. Her players are a ragtag bunch of underachievers. There are challenges involving school financial woes, lack of moral support from family & schoolmates, and run-ins with a crusty old Mother Superior (Ellen Burstyn). But Coach Rush, determined to turn things around, instills her players with a winning attitude and unorthodox training tactics that help them overcome the odds. She is helped by a band of friendly nuns, including rebellious Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), who turns out to have had some basketball experience before donning the habit. There are absolutely no surprises in this movie -- it utilizes every sports movie cliché ever devised and things turn out exactly as you might predict. And yet... it’s so damn heartwarming that it manages to suck you in. Personally, though, I’d like to see a Sebastian Gutierrez remake, with the ridiculously hot Gugino and super-cute Shelton reprising their roles from WOMEN IN TROUBLE and ELEKTRA LUXX. That would REALLY warm my heart... among other things.

More movie words to come -- stay tuned!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

TOWER HEIST Has Its Moments

tower-heistTOWER HEIST is high-stakes action comedy from Brett Ratner that plays like OCEAN’S 11 meets RUSH HOUR, with the all-star cast plotting a big score against an evil bigwig and the fast-paced, interracial buddy humor. The result is a perfectly serviceable, harmless lark -- entertaining in the moment, but ultimately forgettable, which pretty much sums up Ratner’s filmography (which also includes such good-but-not-great films as RED DRAGON and X-MEN: THE LAST STAND) in a nutshell.

Ben Stiller stars as Josh Kovacs, general manager of the Trump Tower in NYC (though the “Trump” name is ever shown or uttered), who, along with his crew of concierges, maids, doormen and elevator operators, lives to serve the ultra-rich residents of the luxury condo. The richest of the rich is Arthur Shaw, played with convincing craftiness by Alan Alda -- a Madoff-esque billionaire who gets busted for swindling untold sums of money, including the hard-earned pensions of everyone working at the Tower. Needless to say, the workers are pissed... so Kovacs decides to take matters into his own hands, along with cohorts played by Casey Affleck, Matthew Broderick, Michael Peña and Gabourey Sidibe and with assistance from wise-cracking ex-con named Slide (Eddie Murphy). The plan: (1) Sneak into the most heavily guarded residential building in the world. (2) Break into the penthouse apartment where Shaw is being detained under FBI supervision. (3) Steal $20 million in cash that may or may not be hidden there. Should be no problem for the people who know the inner workings of the building better than anyone else... right?

unisphereI particularly like how the movie is something of a love letter to the bustling Columbus Circle section of Manhattan -- an area that I pass through often (it’s situated halfway between two of my favorite movie theatres, Lincoln Square and the Zeigfeld) and don’t recall ever having seen so well-represented on the big screen. The Tower is depicted as the height of New York luxury, and the sweeping shots of the vicinity do for its signature silver unisphere what OCEAN’S 11 did for the Bellagio fountains. The comedy only inspires mild, sporadic chuckles but dialogue is rapid-fire and the heist action is solid. The plan is, of course, preposterous, but it’s fun to see it unfurl, with a couple of twists sprinkled here and there to keep us engaged.

Performances are fine, too, though it remains to be seen whether or not this will finally be the comeback vehicle that Eddie Murphy has been seeking. For that to happen, I think he really needs to be in an old-school comedy, a la TRADING PLACES or COMING TO AMERICA. Frankly, anything less than an R rating does him no favors -- and here, he seems to be invoking Donkey more than, say, Axel Foley, which is most unfortunate. (Also interesting to note that ever since I first saw the trailer, up until the closing credits, I seriously thought it was Lauren Graham playing the FBI agent / Stiller’s love interest... but turns out it’s Téa Leoni! Silly me. But tell me they don’t look alike these days.)

TOWER HEIST opens this Friday and I don’t mind recommending it if you have two hours to kill, $13 burning a hole in your pocket and you’ve already seen DRIVE, THE SKIN I LIVE IN, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE and any number of far more worthwhile films. It’s certainly no OCEAN’S 11 (or even FAST FIVE) as far as recent, star-studded, over-the-top heist flicks are concerned... but at least you won’t walk out feeling like you were the one who got fleeced.