Freshman director Robbie Pickering has pulled of a delicate balancing act with Natural Selection. He’s made a movie that mercilessly pokes fun at religious pretentions but still looks on his characters with warmth. It probably helps that he’s a native of Texas (where the movie is set and was shot) and that he doesn’t put himself above others who hail from the Lone Star State.
The appeal of Natural Selection is not in obvious satire. Instead, the film focuses on how a devout 40-something named Linda (Rachel Harris) deals with what may be the greatest shock of her life. In a matter of hours, she learns that her older, emotionally distant husband Abe (John Diehl) has had a potentially fatal heart attack and may not live out the week. The two haven’t slept together for ages because Abe believes that Linda’s infertility may be a punishment from the Almighty.
If that weren’t enough of a humiliation, Linda discovers that her husband’s heart stopped during a routine sperm donation. Apparently, anonymous women were ideal recipients for Abe’s seed, but she wasn’t.
Linda also discovers that Abe apparently has a son produced through one of his donations named Raymond (Matt O’Leary). If Abe is guilty of being a sexual hypocrite, Raymond is a career criminal who makes his possible biological father look worthy of sainthood. Not only is the law after Raymond but fellow lowlifes are eager to settle scores with the gruff, unpleasant fellow.
Linda decides that she must introduce the two men before Abe’s condition worsens, but Raymond lives in Florida. Furthermore, she’s lived such a sheltered life that she had no idea how difficult dealing with Raymond will be or how those who don’t share her beliefs might do anything to swindle her or worse.
Pickering finds plenty of fodder for easy ridicule. Sex has a way of making the most righteous and certainly the most self-righteous look stupid. Jon Gries, who played the memorably vain Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite, is equally at home being Linda’s fatuous brother-in-law, who makes his living as a pastor. What makes Natural Selection more than a simple potshot is that Pickering wisely focuses the story on how Linda grows from a simple trusting soul to a tough survivor. As the trip to unite father and son becomes more difficult and absurd, Linda manages to adapt to some especially cruel twists of fate.
Harris, who ably played an obnoxious nag in The Hangover and a frighteningly oblivious mom in Dairy of Wimpy Kid, manages to make Linda seem real despite the cartoonish thick lenses in her glasses. By projecting likability, Harris makes Linda’s quest engaging, if ill-advised. Similarly, O’Leary gives Raymond just enough dignity so that one hopes he can change his ways, even if the odds aren’t likely.
If Pickering seems to enjoy poking fun at people whose religious beliefs and practices serve them poorly in the real world, he wisely hates the sin instead of the sinner. By asking viewers to laugh along with Linda and Raymond, Pickering is doing something infinitely harder than simple mockery and a good deal funnier. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 03/31/12)
It’s easier to
pick a movie if the folks
in it aren’t buffoons.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
Adapted from Paul Torday's novel by Oscar-winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and directed by Lasse Hallström (Dear John, Chocolat), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen mistakes a labored, extended metaphor for plot. The film stumbles through the perfunctory trappings of romantic comedy without demonstrating what its characters actually desire.
Buttoned-up fisheries civil servant Dr. Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) is enlisted by financial manager Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) to establish salmon fly-fishing in Yemen, the pipe dream of wealthy Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked).
Given an ultimatum by his bureaucrat boss, Dr. Jones is forced to take on the task but tries to obstruct it by requesting seemingly impossible demands from Chetwode-Talbot, who fulfills each one by using the sheikh's vast resources. In addition, the project is supported by the prime minister's brusque and opportunistic press secretary Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas) who provides the only signs of life and action in the film.
When Chetwode-Talbot's boyfriend of three weeks, Capt. Robert Mayers, goes missing in an undisclosed war action, Dr. Jones, in a loveless marriage, comforts her. The two also bond over their time spent at the sheikh's British estate and the project, which is nearing completion. In Yemen, as they wait to see if farmed salmon will swim upstream, the two decide they may get together sometime in the future. However, other elements, including sabotage and a photo opportunity for the foreign minister may get in the way.
For a romantic comedy, there is precious little comedy and passion in this movie. Sheikh Muhammed gives a lot of speeches about faith and helping his people, but his true motives seem self-indulgent and childish. Dr. Jones' transformation from cynical pencil pusher to true believer is the most dynamic, but his character still lacks any true desire to the end. When he reveals his feelings of affection to Chetwode-Talbot, he accepts a lukewarm theoretical answer.
For her part, Chetwode-Talbot is stuck in a traditional love triangle, which limits her choices to one male character or the other. But what we're shown is that she doesn't know her soldier all that well and that while she may be fond of Dr. Jones, she doesn't feel any grand passion for him. All that time is spent in close quarters and her first answer to him is “maybe.”
It's hard to get worked up about choices that the characters themselves don't seem to want. In real life, Chetwode-Talbot would probably be gunning for the sheikh. He's handsome and rich and professes to also be philanthropic. He's the “Magic Arab” in this movie, providing lessons on life and faith. It's too bad he's just so boring. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 3/31/12)
Wrath of the Titans
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Wrath of the Titans is less of a sequel to the 2010 version of Clash of the Titans and more an apology for it.
It’s as if Warner Bros. and Legendary Films have said to consumers, “We’re sorry to all of you who shelled out your hard earned bucks to see a glum, tedious movie with crummy CGIs and 3D that made everything look like a dimly lit popup book. We know it cost you more to see it and wear the uncomfortable glasses, but we needed the cash to cover for bombs like Speed Racer. If you pay even more money and see this movie, we promise it will be better.”
Wrath of the Titans has a new director (Jonathan Liebesman, Battle Los Angeles) and apparently had none of the serious production problems that marred the previous film. Thanks to Liebesman and a better special effects crew, Wrath of the Titans is now a glum, tedious movie with convincing CGIs and good 3D.
Perhaps it would have been better if Warner Bros. had simply paid a refund for the previous film.
Sam Worthingon is back as Perseus, the brooding bastard son of Zeus (Liam Neeson). For some reason, the king of the Olympian gods needs his half-human son to stop a pending calamity. The mythology in Dan Mazeau and David Leslie Johnson's script is so garbled that it’s hard to tell why or even care.
Perseus would rather deny his divine half and simply catch fish with his son Helius (John Bell). One almost wishes the movie could have ended with Perseus’ refusal. What follows isn’t all that fun.
Apparently miffed at how humans have neglected them and bitter about their lowly stations, war god Ares (Édgar Ramírez) and underworld ruler Hades (Ralph Fiennes) have teamed up against the other Olympians and are draining Zeus’ power in order to revive Cronos, the demonic father and grandfather of all the deities. If Zeus was a benign but absentee parent to Perseus, he really bungled raising the single-minded Ares. The fully divine son is inexplicably jealous of the half-human one.
Perseus, Queen Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) and a squirrely illegitimate son of sea god Poseidon (Danny Huston) named Agenor, the Navigator (Toby Kebbell) are the only ones who can rescue the captive Zeus and prevent what looks like a 3D video Armageddon.
The whole film reeks of contractual obligation. With his deep voice and broad shoulders, Neeson can coast his way through. The other performers aren’t so lucky and just look bored.
Fiennes, who was terrifying as Lord Valdemort in the Harry Potter movies has decided to outsource all of his acting to his bulky wig. It has been gigs like this that probably made his wonderful version of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus possible. That said Fiennes is a terrific actor, when he actually cares about the material. He obviously doesn’t here.
Worthington is handsome and brawny, but the only emotion he tries to play is one of grim determination. There’s an early gag where an out of practice Perseus rips his cloak because he’s out of practice with combat. It the hands of a more agile actor, the sequence could have breathed some life in the film. Instead, it leads to more indifference.
The special effects have improved markedly, and the army of giant Cyclopses is more interesting than any of the main characters. Sadly, most of the visuals seem to be have been appropriated from other films and even video games. During one flying assault, it was tempting to yell, “They’ve blown up the Death Star!”
Liebesman has made a better looking film than his predecessor, but it’s still no good. His editing is so shoddy that it’s difficult to tell how a battle came out even after it’s been over for minutes. To be fair to him, the struggle to win over viewers to this misbegotten franchise ended long before he took the helm. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5
Haiku Wrath of the Titans
The 3D is much
better, but the movie is
still god forsaken.
The Hunger Games
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
Based on the popular young adult novel by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games petitions to keep the book's youthful audience without diminishing the story's complicated context. Adapted by Collins, Billy Ray, and Gary Ross, who also directed, the film exhibits profound themes, including a smart pastiche of allusions to literary and cinematic classics, as well as historical periods, and a compelling narrative drive, which, through its strong female protagonist, gazes wide-eyed yet steadily at the reach of tyranny.
When her 12-year-old sister Primrose (Willow Shields) is chosen as the female Tribute from their impoverished, outlying district for the Hunger Games — an annual televised winner-takes-all battle royal among mostly involuntary recruits aged 12 to 18 — Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a proven sharpshooter with bow and arrow, volunteers to take her place. On the opulent high-speed train to the Capitol, Katniss and the male District 12 Tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are happily told to eat cake by escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who, in the prevailing fashion of the destination city, looks (and acts) like the love child between Marie Antoinette and Willie Wonka. They're also given practical pointers for gaining sponsorship and surviving the games by bitter, reluctant, and mostly drunk mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the only winner to have come from District 12.
At the Capitol, Katniss and Peeta are styled by glitter-lidded stylist/pageant coach Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and, along with the other 22 Tributes, are introduced to the public by master of ceremonies Caesar (Stanley Tucci), wearing blue Regency wig, dental implants, and Oompa Loompa-orange spray tan. Here, the references cut fast but deep. The makeovers hint at the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz, with tightly wound and intricately bearded Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) as the man behind the curtain. A romantic back-story, which may or may not be invented solely for the television audience, references Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers. And the training and then the games themselves are almost straight out of the Coliseum.
The mix of references in costume and set design is inspired. Clashing periods and styles are used to delineate privilege from poverty. Yet technology is pervasive, and is most striking when it conflicts with its surroundings. District 12, one of the poorest, is straight out of a Dorothea Lange photo except for numerous large, flat-screen televisions. As such, the cutting-edge production room of the television show is less interesting for its plenitude of clean, white space and cutting-edge electronics. Plus, the CGI conjured in this room, although sophisticated in its self-aware meta-ness, proves underwhelming and, in its final iteration, suffers in comparison to the stages of its creation.
In addition, Katniss and Peeta, armed only with some natural ability, legacy knowledge, and a desire to retain their humanity, stand in stark contrast to the psychopathic trained killers groomed by the rich districts. The two are locked in a rigged battle not even proponents of the No Child Left Behind policy could advocate. That the filmmakers could bring this tale of bread and circuses to the big screen without turning its audience into voyeurs is the ultimate kindness. Should the series persist on the big screen, this introduction could become the touchstone for members of a generation who will only gain a greater understanding of the messages it offers by adding their own life experiences to subsequent viewings. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted 03/24/12)
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
We Need to Talk About Kevin only hints at what can cause disturbed teens to commit unspeakable acts. The title character (played with a confident, leering menace by Ezra Miller) is more of a loudly ticking time bomb than a young man. All the psychiatrists and clergy in the world would have difficulty straitening this lad out.
Instead, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) asks more intriguing questions: What’s it like to raise a “Rosemary’s Baby?” Or how much responsibility for a teen’s actions can be laid at a mother’s door?
Working from Lionel Shriver’s novel, Ramsay deftly illustrates that the line between a capable mother and an incapable one is narrow and fluid. Even loving, astute fathers and mothers can produce rotten kids, and anyone who thinks parenting comes easily might not want to go diving into the gene pool.
As with Ratcatcher, Ramsay and her husband Rory Kinnear begin with the tragedy that drives the film but keep the details and the mechanics of it hidden until later in the film. Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) loves her work as a travel writer and seems an odd match for her loving but conventional upper middle-class husband Franklin (John C. Reilly). Going to exotic places is a lot more fun than staying at home, and getting along with one’s own flesh and blood gradually proves frustrating and stifling.
Despite having a nice home and a stable income, Eva feels a constant sense of dread because she can never connect with the young Kevin (played by Rock Duer and Jasper Newell). The lad showers his father with affection and goes out of his way to torment his mother. Even if Eva is initially reluctant to become a mom, Kevin’s prickly nature doesn’t exactly win her over.
Kevin’s behavior predictably doesn’t get better with time, but Eva, however, makes a fascinating focal point. Swinton’s odd, angular features make her easily stick out in a crowd. While the Scottish actress can pull of a Yank accent easily, she projects an eerie sense of isolation during both the scenes where she interacts with her son and when she walks through town. When the catastrophe hits,
Swinton has an otherness that makes Eva’s loneliness and ostracization seem even more real. Swinton effortlessly captures Eva’s ambivalence over being a mom of a truly bad child. Eva would like to love or be loved by Kevin, but the effort may be impossible. At the same time, she can’t shake the feeling that she might be responsible for the sadistic way the lad acts around his little sister (Ashley Gerasimovich) of whatever heinous deeds he wants to commit.
When a couple of well-meaning missionaries knock on her door and ask about her soul, Eva almost blithely tells them she’s going to Hell anyway. The tone for We Need to Talk About Kevin is consistently grim, but moments like these add a sort of barbed levity that thankfully doesn’t detract from the rest of the film. Ramsay goes a little overboard in emphasizing red during scenes where the characters paint parts of a house or eat something. At the same time, by telling the story out of order,
Ramsay ramps up the climax and raised some fascinating questions about motherhood and parental responsibility. She also has a knack for dealing with the young thespians that play Kevin. Even as a toddler, the child looks as if he’s going to become some type of tyrant.
Curiously, despite the somber tale, I felt like hugging my mother after seeing We Need to Talk About Kevin because the film vividly indicates that even good parents can be cross with their offspring and that bringing new lives in the world isn’t getting any easier. By not assigning clear blame for the terrible things that Kevin does, Ramsay, in her own strange way, makes us appreciate what happens when parents get it right. Rating: 4 (R) (Posted on 03/24/12)
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Bad parents sometimes
make better subjects for films
than the good ones do.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Sibling filmmakers Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass can’t seem to decide if they want to write and direct comedies or squirm-inducing dramas.
Here’s hoping they never make up their minds.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home, like the Duplass’ previous movies Cyrus and Baghead, deals with folks who’ve somehow managed to miss out on social skills, responsibility and other traits that adults are supposed to pick up as they age. Yes, the title character (Jason Segel) lives in his mother’s basement, but he’s not the only person in the film who has only aged physically.
His older brother Pat (Ed Helms) has a job, a wife named Linda (Judy Greer), a new car and a place of his own. Despite appearing as if he’s more stable than his unemployed, pot-smoking sibling, Pat, in his own way, is a chronic underachiever. While he might not believe that M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs has the answer to all the universe’s problems the way Jeff does, Pat is millimeters away from a serious meltdown.
For one thing, Pat’s brand new Porsche was acquired without Linda’s consent. That might explain why she tosses food at it from a second story window. He also seems to spend more time venting about his relationship at Hooters instead of dealing with the issues that might lead Linda into the arms of a friend (Steve Zissis, who starred in Baghead).
While Pat is dealing with his own marital issues, he’s trying to get Jeff to complete simple household chores for their beleaguered mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon). If Jeff isn’t communing with his bong, he’s out wandering through the streets of Baton Rouge wondering why he received a wrong number demanding a fellow named Kevin. Even though it’s a name as common as “Mary” or “Mark,” Jeff assumes there’s some sort of interconnecting principle that leads him to find Kevin, whoever he might be.
Whenever the name pops up, he feels as if he must investigate. Finding his own existence rather bleak (it’s not so fun to be jobless once the weed wears off), Jeff needs to believe there’s a reason for all that happens in his life.
In most films of this sort, Jeff would simply be a happy go lucky loafer, and Pat would be straight laced. With the Duplass in charge, Pat should probably be straight jacketed. If Jeff has marijuana as an excuse for his behavior, Pat’s impulsiveness leads to a series of amusing catastrophes.
Pat’s stalkerish tendencies fit in perfectly with the Duplass’ hints of incest in Cyrus. At the same time, there is warmth in Jeff, Who Lives at Home that was missing in the Duplass’ earlier films. Despite how outrageously Jeff and Pat behave, the Duplasses have sympathy for their twisted leads and don’t want them to stay tormented. They also have an intriguing subplot involving Sharon and a mystery advisor. It’s not much of a mystery, but it helps illustrate that her family’s longing for acceptance isn’t as crazy as what they do to receive it.
Helms demonstrates some genuine creepiness he hasn’t had a chance to play before, and Siegel shows he can pass for more than a likable everyman. In addition to making aging look like something that should be anticipated with delight, Sarandon throws herself into playing the frustrated Sharon, whose own life is getting lost in her sons’ shenanigans. There’s something downright poignant about her attempts to get past losing her husband, even if there aren’t many men her age around.
The Duplasses wrap things up a little too neatly but retain just enough of their previous quirks to keep Jeff, Who Lives at Home an off-center delight. Maybe it’s because sometimes you don’t need a bong to discover the connections that can keep life from getting miserable. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 03/15/12)
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
You don’t need a bong
to make sense of the world, but
it sure does not hurt.
21 Jump Street Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
As the title suggests, 21 Jump Street is a juvenile reworking of the old TV series with lots of vulgar wisecracks and a crudely constructed plot. It's also loaded with a series of sidesplitting moments that seem to work on simple brute force. In most situations keeping the momentum going would be a challenge, but directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (the minds behind How I Met Your Mother and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) seem to find an endless reservoir of guilt-inducing delights.
Lord and Miller take the setup for the old series (young-looking cops are sent back to high school to bust criminals) and wisely play it for laughs. Playing the setup for chuckles was probably a smart move because there's a lot of comic potential that the makers of the original show probably didn't think of. For example, imagine the horrors of a high-speed car chase of if one of the vehicles is a Driver's Ed vehicle with dual brakes. High school is painful enough without drug running or murder going on in the halls. For Schmidt (a skinnier Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum), it's especially painful. Schmidt is a bright lad whose underdeveloped social skills and klutziness make him a prime target for ridicule. The popular and athletic Jenko mocks him, but his own failing grades prevent him from attending Homecoming even though he's been elected king.
Seven years later the two have graduated police academy because both helped each other get past weak points. When they make rookie mistakes stopping a drug ring, the two are reassigned to a precinct hidden in an abandoned Korean-American church. The captain (an appropriately irate Ice Cube) assigns his less than promising recruits to infiltrate a high school and find out who is supplying the students with a synthetic drug called HFS (take a minute, and you can figure out what that means). On paper, the assignment is simple, infiltrate the dealers and learn who the supplier is.
Even if Schmidt and Jenko were veterans or prodigies at police work, the situation is far more difficult. For one thing, the behavior that made Jenko seem cool to his own peers makes him look like a cruel, stupid thug to current teens. In seven years, all the slang and the other youthful culture traits have changed completely. So the two simply don't blend. Furthermore, Jenko's forgetfulness forces the two to take each other's false identities. This means that he has to take advanced placement chemistry ("That's the one with the shapes, right?" he asks), and the shy, clumsy Schmidt has to take drama class and track.
If more of the humor had been based on getting adults to pass as high schoolers, 21 Jump Street might have been even funnier. With the avalanche of profanity and bodily function humor, the gross out gags could easily have worn out their welcome. There are moments when the film starts to slip into an abyss. Usually before that happens, something imaginative arises and reminds viewers what was funny in the first place. There are a couple of meta-gags where filmmakers make fun of themselves for digging up older material. It is nice to be in on the joke.
Fortunately, Hill and Tatum prove to be a surprisingly able comic team. Hill could play nebbishes in his sleep, but thankfully doesn't. It's also a treat to see Tatum do more than coast on his well-chiseled bod. He has a knack for comedy that none of his action roles have hinted at, and it's intriguing that he can play a character that grows or matures.
The supporting cast is also inspired with Overland Park's Rob Riggle as a sleazy gym teacher and David Franco (James' brother) as a tree hugging, PC dope peddler. There aren't too many of those in the movies these days.
There's still some dead weight in 21 Jump Street, but the scenes that work are so funny they erase the dull passages from memory. Perhaps it's a good thing that Lord and Miller haven't let their inner teens leave them. At least they remember why they found this stuff funny when they were younger. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 03/17/12)
21 Jump Street
The old TV show
was corny, so it was best
to go for the laughs.
John Carter Reviewed by Brandon Whitehead
When news of a possible big-budget live action film based on Edger Rice Burroughs’ pulp sci-fi fantasy classic A Princess of Mars started floating around the Internet, the nerd joy was quickly dampened with cold reality. More than a few attempts to bring new movie-life into beloved franchises of late have been abysmal failures (Yeah, I'm lookin' at you Tron 2), and this looked ripe for such a debasing.
Two things here, to be clear: I have read the novels, or most of them, and they're ... okay. Fun high school nerd fantasy's where your best friend is a twelve-foot tall four-armed alien and you get to save a hot princess in a chain mall bikini. What's not to like? Secondly, because of that, I just didn't expect very much from director Andrew Stanton's version of that first novel, which was now called John Carter. Even the title is weak: I know A Princess of Mars sounds more like a Disney film, than anything, well, cool, but John Carter? What's wrong with “John Carter of Mars?” It's even a title used in the novels! Wanna know why they changed that apparent first title choice? Because Hollywood thinks anything with "Mars" in the title will be hurt at the box-office.
Seriously, I'm not kidding, go look it up.
Just to top off this big pile of what looks like absolute fail, it's in 3D, of course. So what do you actually get after sitting down to watch 2+ hours of John Carter? Well, believe it or not, you get something truly greater than the sum of its questionable parts.
The biggest complaints here will be that it's somewhat slow in parts, particularly when Carter is piecing together the parts of what has happened to him, and that the plot is confusing. Other will probably expect that there should have been more fight scenes, but that's really the trailer's fault, not the filmmakers.
As for the plot: The heir of the immense Carter fortune, a young nephew by the name of Edgar Rice Burroughs, is given the secret journal of his uncle. In it he discovers that after the violent loss of his family, Captain John Carter of Virginia (Taylor Kitsch) is searching for a lost treasure of gold, which when he finds then "telegraphs" him to "Barsoom" or Mars. First he finds the war-like Thraks, twelve-foot tall four-armed Martians who treat him like a newborn. Then he meets the Red People, humans who are currently involved in a civil war between two cities, which he reluctantly sets out to stop in order to save the princess (Lynn Collins) from having to marry the bad guy. There's also another group of alien shape-shifters that have the amulet Carter needs to return to earth. There's also this thing called the Ninth ray, or beam or something, that the princess, who is also a scientist, had almost discovered...
Okay, yeah, the plot is a bit dense, but at least it doesn't treat the audience as an idiot, either. Sure, the two human armies both dress in red, which can be confusing, as can having a shape-shifter as a bad guy, and it's got a lot of characters, but I think if a fourteen-tear old can follow the novels then adults can muddle through this just fine. All plots don't have to be made out of baby food, people.
But I just don't care. While not a GREAT movie, this is a GOOD movie. It's production values are stunning, the CGI is the best I've seen in a long time, and the characters are engaging, realistic and, frankly, pretty funny. Indeed, it was the light but often clever bits of humor throughout that made this so watchable. I am even recommending, nay, imploring you all to see this in 3D, which is about as close to Mars as we’ll ever get. (PG 13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 03/12/12)
Silent House Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Silent House is a horror movie that runs the gamut of emotions from tedium to unintentional mirth to irritation. Curiously, the only sensation this film misses is fear.
Remade from a 2010 Uruguayan film, Silent House’s primary virtue appears to be that it was not intended to be a found footage film. Married directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (the team behind the far scarier and better executed Open Water) have all the elements of a good horror story: a terrific lead actress (Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene), an unsettling locale (a nearly abandoned house) and a narrative gimmick (it takes place in something resembling real time).
The neglected country house, where the movie takes place, has some storytelling possibilities. Sarah (Olsen) is helping her father John (Adam Trese) and her uncle Peter (Eric Sheffer Stevens) move out leftover junk from the house. None of the three has spent much time there, so the three are basically trying to get the place ready to sell.
Because the house has had spotty maintenance, the landline and the electricity have been cut off. Even during the day, Sarah and her family have to use flashlights or oil lamps to see what they’re doing. They’re also a good distance from any cell phone towers, so contacting help isn’t an option.
The title for Silent House is a misnomer because the fixer-upper is constantly making creepy noises. Locating the source of the creaking sounds kills the movie instead of propelling it. Kentis and Lau (who wrote the script) load the film with a sketchy back-story that doesn’t move things along, it simply makes the narrative more convoluted.
Adding to the malaise is that unlike Open Water, Silent House never seems believable. The documentary-like style that worked so well in Open Water does nothing here because the plight of Sarah and her relatives immediately feels phony.
Having helped a few women clean house and move heavy possessions, it’s unlikely that any woman would wear a short skirts and a white baby doll shirt for this kind of work. With all the sweat, dirt and grime involved, her clothing would be reduced to messy rags in seconds. I say this not as a fashion consultant (I’m blissfully ignorant of the subject) but as someone who has actually gotten his hands dirty.
While the outfit certainly flatters Olsen’s appearance (for some reason the filmmakers have the camera constantly positioned so that it viewers constantly see how the shirt hugs Olsen’s physique from the sternum up), it immediately undermines the setup. Lau’s script is also constantly monochromatic. Olsen has a decent range, but 30 minutes of her screaming and panicking gets old quickly.
Kentis and Lau structure the film so that it slowly builds to what is was intended as a shocking revelation. No, Sarah doesn’t see dead people, but she might as well. The film’s big secret is neither surprising nor credible. From the stilted dialogue, an alert viewer can spot the plot points coming, and the conclusion leads viewers forcefully into indifference.
The characters are so sketchy that it’s hard to care if they get out of the house alive. Fortunately, unlike the characters in the film, we can lead happier lives by avoiding the box office altogether for this one. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 03/09/12)
The house makes no noise
because all the viewers are
having a good nap.
Pariah Reviewed by Beck Ireland
In a vain pursuit of authenticity, newcomer writer/director Dee Rees offers a self-conscious, claustrophobic artifice. Characters speak only to the drama at hand and scenes exist exclusively to push the storyline forward.
Notwithstanding fresh, likable performances by Adepero Oduye and Aasha Davis, Pariah is, for the most part, predictable and joyless.
Alike (Adepero Oduye), a 17-year-old high school student from Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood, tries to hide her true identity from her devout Christian mother, Audrey (Kim Wayans), and father, Arthur (Charles Parnell), a police detective. Out and known as "Lee" at school and in the neighborhood lesbian bar with friend Laura (Pernell Walker), who would like to be more than friends, Alike can't find the right time to tell her parents, embroiled in their own crisis, the truth about her sexuality. In denial that her daughter is merely a tomboy, Audrey, hoping to lure Alike away from Laura's influence, introduces her to the daughter of a co-worker who attends the same church. However, Bina (Aasha Davis) is keeping her own secret from both her family and herself.
The storytelling in Pariah relies heavily on signifiers and the symbolic. Alike spends the majority of her screen time putting on or taking off B-Boy clothes, and in one rare scene of levity, her younger sister (Sahra Mellesse) catches her trying out a more significant, although still temporary, gender bender. In rare glimpses, we catch Oduye's ability to perform well. She has the potential to charm as well as exhibit an endearing pathos, but she's rarely given the chance. Although Alike's experiments with accessories do seem important in her search for identity, but they're used to short cut actual character development. The same holds true for the relentless soundtrack, which bullies its way into most scenes.
In addition, there are moments, meant to be critical and dramatic, which are included in the movie only to make the movie. Audrey, overplayed by Wayans, empties plate after plate she prepared for her husband into the trash. But already Arthur has thrown one — plate and all — into the trash. These redundancies, purely symbolic, threaten the film's authenticity and the
Mentored by Spike Lee, Rees has created a film that draws inevitable comparisons to Lee's early work. In fact, it's almost as if Rees set out to replicate She's Gotta Have It, but in this context and time, Pariah has none of the bright notes that made Lee's early work so successful. Instead, she has captured only the negatives: the stilted dialog that make characters seem as if they're talking to themselves and never answering questions, the overwrought reactions, and the contrived loneliness that, ultimately, refuses to engage the audience. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 03/09/12)
A Separation Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
While there is a lot of debate about
Iran’s nuclear program and how far it has developed, there’s little doubt that
the country is home to several people who know how to make engrossing,
Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is Iran’s first film to win an Oscar for Best Foreign
Language Film. More importantly, it’s a clever, insightful and heartfelt
examination of human frailty that makes watching subtitles seem like a breeze. Even
if the film were in English, A Separation still requires a great deal of concentration because Farhadi’s tale is densely
layered and full of unexpected developments.
The film follows a couple as they leap
through hoops trying to finalize a divorce. As the film points out, this is a
tricky prospect in Tehran. If you happen to be fluent in Farsi and have seen
any of Farhadi’s earlier films (regrettably, I haven’t achieved either feat),
you’ll notice the ID badges that are being processed for characters in those
movies. This implies the paperwork is still ongoing after all this time.
Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila
Hatami) are trying to end their marriage because they simply can’t agree on how
to raise their daughter (Sarina Farhadi, the writer-director’s daughter). Simin
is adamant on leaving the country because she thinks her child will be better
off elsewhere. Nader, however, has a father with advanced Alzheimer’s and
simply can’t leave the older man alone.
While Simin lives with her family,
waiting for the permission that might never come, Nader hires a pregnant housewife
named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to watch his dad. This is a far more difficult task
than either realizes. The old man is practically incontinent, and it a lot of
western countries would be placed in an institution. Leave him alone for a
minute, and he’ll be wandering into Tehran’s hectic traffic, not remembering to
watch out for cars.
The only reason Razieh has taken the
job is because her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) has been out of work for
years. This makes Hodjat understandably easy to upset because his whole sense
of self-worth is pretty much gone.
If Razieh’s job potentially impossible,
her work habits don’t help. At one point Nader and Razieh get into a heated
argument that gets physical. Shortly afterward, she miscarries.
From here, A Separation turns into a courtroom drama but one that skillfully
avoids obvious twists. New details emerge that make the situation harder to
interpret, and Farhadi’s plot twists genuinely surprise without sacrificing the
story’s credibility. If the judges in the case seem indifferent and overly
eager to settle the matter, it’s because they’ve got a backlog of cases no
jurist would want to deal with.
In examining the bizarre turns and
quirks of the Iranian justice system, Farhadi also manages to make A Separation strangely universal by
making even his most obnoxious characters sympathetic. Hodjat, for example, may
be a shallow hothead, but being jobless does little to improve anyone’s
A Separation is not a
cheery film, but it continues to resonate long after it’s done playing. Farhadi
avoids pat solutions the way Grover Norquist would like to avoid extra taxes.
Simply by acknowledging that easy answers are elusive, Farhadi manages to make
dealing with the quest more bearable. (PG-13) Rating: 5 (Posted on 03/02/12)
The Women on the 6th Floor
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
The Women on the 6th Floor displays abundant
charm and covetable style while taking up the serious issues of class
differences. Director Philippe Le Guay, who co-wrote the script with Jérôme Tonnerre, shows a genuine affection for
the inhabitants of both upstairs and downstairs, and guides transformations of
character that are not just upwardly mobile but also outwardly heartfelt.
In 1962 Paris, buttoned-up stockbroker Jean-Louis Joubert
(Fabrice Luchini) wants only a quiet home life and a perfectly timed
soft-boiled egg. But when his neurotically bourgeoisie wife Suzanne (Sandrine
Kiberlain) quarrels with the family's long-time maid over the use of Jean-Louis'
recently deceased mother's bedroom, the maid quits. Soon, the couple's normally
well-appointed apartment becomes a shambles, forcing Suzanne to hire
replacement maid Maria (Natalia Verbeke), recently arrived in Paris and living
on the 6th floor — just one floor above the Joubert apartment — with her aunt
and several other maids (Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Berta Ojea, Nuria Solé,
Concha Galán), all refugees from Franco's Spain.
When, at the behest of his wife, Jean-Louis helps Maria, who
times the eggs she makes for his breakfast to his satisfaction, move his
mother's possessions to the 6th floor, he notices the shabby conditions in
which she and the other maids live. He hires a plumber for the stopped-up
bathroom and becomes increasingly involved in their lives, even securing an
apartment for one of the women after her husband beats her. His motives,
however; aren't entirely altruistic; Jean-Louis is falling in love with Maria.
So when his wife accuses him of having an affair with one of his clients, rich
widow Bettina de Brossolette (Audrey Fleurot), Jean-Louis doesn't deny it and
takes refuge in the storage room on the 6th floor, nearer to Maria.
Ostensibly, The Women
on the Floor is a romance, but the relationship
between the uptight banker and the maid is merely the catalyst for his
metamorphosis. Unfortunately, it is also reason for the film's disappointing
ending. Without that, the film would be close to perfect.
Fabrice Luchini's performance as Jean-Louis
animates the film. He radiates joy in the presence of the women, without
overplaying it. In fact, Jean-Louis' shy smile seems as if it has rarely been
displayed, so it's even more special when it finally arrives. In addition,
Sandrine Kiberlain flawlessly portrays privileged entitlement, while also
exhibiting a believable insecurity. She wears her incredible wardrobe as
naturally as she does her fears of appearing to still be a simple country girl.
The political themes in the movie are handled in the best way
possible — simply and directly. There are no speeches or exposition, despite
one of the maids being a self-proclaimed Communist. Coexistence is important in
the movie, and it is directed toward the ideas behind the story as well as its
characters. Yet, solitude is also revered. In such close quarters, a room of
one's own is also necessary. (Unrated) Rating: 4 (Posted on 03/02/12)
X Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
probably the most persuasive argument for retiring the “found footage” genre.
While the makers of the film bill it as a sort of cutting edge story and
approach, even those too young to remember The
Blair Witch Project, This Is Spinal
Tap or even Cloverfield will
probably feel they’ve seen this done before, and with more skill and heart.
Showy techniques and raunchy gags are
crutches that only partially compensate for a weak, rehashed story and
unappealing characters. Project X captures what is supposed to be two hours of footage from a memorably out of
control party. A mostly unseen fellow named Dax follows two teenagers named
Oliver Costa (Oliver Cooper) and J.B. (Jonathan Daniel Brown) as they plan for
an evening of hedonism in honor of their shy buddy Thomas’ birthday.
Thomas (Thomas Mann) is so quiet and
obedient that even is father calls him a loser. That’s about to change as
Thomas’ folks leave him home alone for the weekend. The parents want Peter to
celebrate with only a few friends. Costa, however, wants not only to experience
wine, women and song in ways that his young mind has never previously imagined.
He wants Thomas to be thought of as the coolest host an orgy could every have.
Costa uses every form of existing
social media and even seems to invent some new ones in the hope of making the
gathering as large as possible. When thousands answer the call of free booze
and drugs, the orgy turns into a riot.
Any gathering that involves teens,
controlled substances and missing parents is bound to involve something that
might shock or amuse. Curiously, Project
X loses its energy and jolts early, sort of like a teen that collapses
after the Red Bull has worn off. The setup for Project X is remarkably like that of Risky Business, except the stakes in that film seemed smaller but
Despite property destruction that would
rival the bombing of Hiroshima, Project X simply doesn’t seem real. The almost completely unseen Dax just happens to be
where all the action is and seems to be along simply to justify the
storytelling device. Little in the film feels spontaneous enough to make the
phony found footage seem genuine.
There’s only so much footage of young
women stripping in front of the camera that can pass for something other than a Girls Gone Wild DVD. On any weekend,
in just about any American town, no matter how small, there is probably some
way that enterprising teens will get their drink on. It’s hard to imagine that
there wouldn’t be other bacchanals in a town the size of Pasadena.
Director Nima Nourizadeh at least has
the wisdom to cast unfamiliar performers. The movie would have really been a
disaster if any name actors had been in it. That sad, it would have helped if
these youngsters were charming or even interesting.
It doesn’t take long for viewers to
tire of the self-aggrandizing Costa and his cynical, manipulative behavior.
When a dope dealer comes chasing after him, I rooted for the criminal. Warner
Bros. has been hyping how Todd Phillips, the mind behind The Hangover, produced Project
X. At least that film was as creative as it was vulgar. Furthermore, Ed
Helms’ character was sympathetic, and Zach Galifianakis’ role was mesmerizing
the way a 24-coal car burning train wreck is. There are some pyrotechnics here,
but none of them come from the story. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 03/02/12)
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