Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saw VI

Director: Keven Gruetert
Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Shawnee Smith, Tanedra Howard, Mark Rolston, Betsy Russell, Peter Outerbridge

Running Time: 90 min.

Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

If there was ever a case of a "good news, bad news" situation, it's Saw VI. The good news is that this is easily the best installment of the series since the third film and and fixes many of nagging problems that were prevalent in the fourth and fifth entries. Nothing beats having Jigsaw alive and kicking but this is the first film since his untimely demise where his absence doesn't become a distracting, overriding issue. By tightening the plot and narrowing the focus to one man being faced with an intriguing moral decisions, we return to the basic formula and twisted ideology that initially set this horror franchise apart. The flashbacks (which were becoming excessive and overcomplicated) are used more sparingly than usual, chosen more for impact and importance than as a narrative crutch. Gone is the excessive, confusing police business, which at times made the movies feel like "ripped from the headlines" Law & Order episodes. It also features one of the best acting performances by a "test subject" possibly since the original film and two of the best traps in the history of the series.

Firing on all cylinders, longtime Saw editor Kevin Gruetert (taking over directorial duties from Saw V's David Hackl) was three quarters of the way home until arriving at an ending that has to be considered a big letdown given what preceded it and should cause concern for the inevitable future of the franchise (insert your groans at the thought of that prospect here). But most of that blame falls on writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan for being forced to tie up too many loose plot threads they left dangling from previous films in the final minutes of this picture. While the payoffs make perfect logical sense and provide a minimal degree of closure, they just aren't all that satisfying. But that was probably the intention. There's more to come I'm sure.

The strain of continuing a horror saga when your main villain died three films ago is bound to show and it's extremely difficult pleasing demanding fans who've followed the series from the beginning while still moving the story in a forward direction. Thus far, the filmmakers have been able to barely get away with it because the deceased villain is so closely tied to the series' central theme of immortality, which has never been more relevant than in this sixth installment. It's well worth the price of admission just to witness the first Saw film that attempts to tackle a serious social issue. Forget about Michael Moore. Haven't you always wanted to get Jigsaw's thoughts on this country's healthcare crisis?

When we last left off, Jigsaw/John Kramer's (Tobin Bell) apparent successor, Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) escaped through the infamous "glass box," taking the life of Agent Peter Strahm and framing him as an accomplice in Jigsaw's killings. But now, investigator Dan Erikson (Mark Rolston) and the previously presumed dead Agent Lindsey Perez (Athena Karkanis) are beginning to piece together the clues that link a now very worried and vulnerable Hoffman to the crimes. Meanwhile, Jigsaw's latest game is taking place and its subject is insurance executive William Easton (Peter Outerbridge), who determines health coverage based strictly on a formula taking into account a person's age and probability of illness. That formula is seriously tested in cruelest way possible when he's forced, through a series of Jigsaw's games, to apply it in ways he never imagined. Jigsaw's ex-wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell) is back again as the mysteries of the box left for her by John and just how much she knows (or doesn't) about the killings, begins to unravel. Shawnee Smith's Amanda also returns in a series of flashbacks focusing on previously undisclosed events from the previous entries. Trying to get the bottom of it all is sensationalistic reporter Pamela Jenkins (Samantha Lemole), whose distortion of Jigsaw's motivations and legacy could make her another one of his targets.

For the first time in many films, it appeared as if some real actual thought went into creating a compelling main test that was tied directly to John Kramer's sick moral philosophy, fit well with his back story without seeming forced, and created a series of compelling moral dilemmas for his victim. Justifiably, the storylines involving the cops closing in on Hoffman and Jill's motives are shoved to the sidelines in favor of this far more interesting story, bolstered by one of the more fascinating flashbacks we've had in the series. When we find out that John's vendetta against William stems from the executive rejecting his health insurance claim for an experimental cancer treatment that could have saved his life, it adds another new dimension to the story. Although, you wonder how such a treatment would be squeezed into Jigsaw's already packed schedule of making videos, setting traps and recruiting various apprentices. I can't pretend it's deep stuff or anything, but it is a smart (if somewhat hysterical) creative decision for a horror series that's almost become a parody of itself at this point attempting to get topical and deal with serious social problems. It also makes the game more personal and disturbing.

Proof of that comes at one point when William, captured and taken to an abandoned zoo, is greeted not by a video message from "Billy The Puppet" like so many of Jigsaw's other victims, but from John Kramer himself. William becomes one of the more interesting test subjects since his occupation and the choices he makes in it lend itself perfectly to the central conceit of the franchise and Outerbridge is so believable in the role. It puts the viewer in an even more uncomfortable position than usual because this guy is difficult to root for when you introduce the overly sensitive subject of health care reform into the equation (a sentence I never thought I'd type in a Saw review).

By Jigsaw's sadistic reasoning, making choices everyday about who lives and dies should be a lot more difficult when you're actually presented with it face-to-face. William's "formula" doesn't take into account someone's "will to live," something we know by now has always been Jigsaw's creed, even from beyond the grave. William's tests become more about moral and philosophical choices than blood and guts, which isn't to say there isn't still plenty of blood and guts. The two best are the "carousel" and the "maze," which are both huge steps up from previous traps in the last few installments. In the case of the spinning "carousel," in which William must decide which of his co-workers survives, the torture is almost completely psychological and it was a surprise just how much is accomplished through dialogue as opposed to bloodshed. Rather than aiming to just come up with technically complicated or "cool" traps this time the writers made an effort have simple, basic ones that instead reflect the predicament of the protagonist. It was a welcome change.

The actual payoff to William's game is also satisfying, which is why it's such a shame that the sub-plot involving Hoffman and Jill Tuck is such a letdown. To the franchise's detriment, an inordinate of time has been spent establishing them as important players in Jigsaw's master plan. Jill, especially, has been hogging a lot of spotlight time in the previous two films with little to show for it. Here, we get our answers but they don't amount to much and offer nothing new in the way of surprises or shocking revelations, which was absolutely necessary given how long they've drawn her story out. The actual contents of the box is a disappointment, which is almost an inevitability when you choose to set up a big mystery like that.

Hoffman (brought to "life" by a droller than ever Mandylor) doesn't exactly cover his tracks too well and must be the guiltiest looking police detective who ever lived. He seems so nervous in the presence of his colleagues throughout the film it's a wonder he doesn't go into full cardiac arrest before they catch on. And the cops are very, very slow to catch on. There are about four twists at the end of this film and while all hold up well from a logical standpoint, they aren't surprising in the least. They exist only to keep this franchise chugging along. Loose ends are tied up but anyone looking for actual closure won't get it, which is fine by me since I wouldn't want to see the series to end like this anyway. The answers given at the end of the film don't seem big enough or justify closing it out, yet I don't think it's a good idea for them to continue going in the same direction either.

Recently, I had a marathon of sorts and watched the entire series in succession and was surprised just how well everything held together (even IV played a little more straightforward than I expected the second time around). Regardless of what you think of this franchise, those involved in the making of it deserve a standing ovation for keeping the films at such a relatively high quality for this long. Despite this being the lowest box office earner yet in the series, I don't know a sixth film in a horror franchise that was ever even able to make a dime, much less open to "mixed reviews" and actually show any kind of creative improvement over its predecessors. That a fifth sequel (!) of a horror movie is getting anything close to a favorable recommendation is nothing short of a miracle if you think about it.

Now that the second trilogy in the series has closed, they've been saying the seventh film will be the last. Yeah...sure. After this film I was left with a stronger impression that this series just may never end. I understand the reluctance to go in a new direction and tinker with a proven formula, but hope the low box office take of this one will make the creative forces sit down and reevaluate their approach going forward. I wouldn't object to a few years off and a re-boot. Of course, I say that every year and still keep coming back for more. But whatever they do, Tobin Bell has to stick around in some form or another despite how ridiculous it's gotten because the supporting players have proven they're just not capable of filling his shoes. As one of the few horror franchises to feature a villain who's given actual backstory and motivation, it's opened itself up to a lot criticism. It's too bad many haters of the series have confused the motives of the villain with that of the filmmakers. They're a big reason why I don't want this to ever end. It's getting to be too much fun listening to them whine and complain every October when the latest Saw film opens.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Proposal

Director: Anne Fletcher
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds, Malin Akerman, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Betty White, Oscar Nunez, Aasif Mandvi
Running Time: 108 min.
Rating: PG-13

1/2 (out of ★)

The Proposal
is harmless fluff you wouldn't lose any sleep over skipping, but if you happened to catch it, you wouldn't be completely wasting your time. You'd only be partially wasting your time. But life is short and there are tons of great movies out there, so the latter option seems less inviting the more you consider it. There were only two tasks this film needs to carry out well to succeed and it really nailed one of them. Unfortunately, it was the least important of the two. The important one it fumbles badly. In creating a reasonably believable workplace situation and even selling a really absurd scenario it excels, but in depicting an actual romance and getting us to care what happens to the characters supposedly involved in it, the movie is a failure. That failure is most glaring in its crazy final act, where they try to cram all the emotional legwork that should have been laid out earlier into the last 15 minutes.

While the two leads are sufficient and at least one of them is likable, they lack romantic chemistry, which isn't a problem easily corrected by crazy screenwriting hijinx. I've accepted the golden rule in romantic comedies that two characters who hate each other are supposed to fall in love and realize there's no use even complaining about it anymore. I only ask that it occurs believably (at least by dumb rom-com standards) and they eventually seem right for one another. That never happens here so considering the entire story rests it, the film falls short. On the bright side, it does still have its moments, even if nearly all of them are supplied not by the two stars, but 87-year-old Golden Girls actress Betty White.

Magaret Tate (Sandra Bullock) is the demanding and driven editor-in-chief of the Boston-based publishing company, Colden Books. Her loyal assistant, aspiring editor Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds) hates her guts, as does everyone else who works in the office. Realizing she's his only meal ticket to the top of the publishing world, Andrew puts up with her often bitchy behavior, which to the script and Bullock's credit, never really crosses an unreasonable line. That's a smart decision that ends up saving the movie from being much more dreadful than it would have otherwise been. The big problem arises when Margaret fails to file the necessary paperwork to obtain her green card and she's threatened with deportation to Canada unless she can come up with a scheme fast. That scheme involves blackmailing Andrew to become engaged to her and trying to dupe the very suspicious government representative (Denis O' Hare) ready to interrogate them on their relationship. With only one weekend to learn everything about each other before the big interview, they fly to Andrew's parents' (Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson) house in Sitka, Alaska for his grandmother's (Betty White) 80th birthday celebration.

This small town in Alaska would be better referred to as "MOVIELAND U.S.A." It's one of those quirky places found only in romantic comedies, but rarely in real life where kooky townsfolk reside and involve themselves in bizarre traditions that add to the local flavor. When Margaret begrudgingly arrives we watch her struggle with her luggage for a half hour before coming to terms with the family dog, participating in quirky family rituals and going to the local strip club. Through it all, we discover (not too surprisingly) that Margaret is a lonely woman who's thrown herself into her career because she has no family or man in her life, as if those are the only acceptable reasons a woman would have for doing such a hideous thing. Her blackmailing plan may be taking an unexpected detour when she starts to feel something not only for this family, but Andrew. If you've seen the posters or DVD cover, you know where this is going, but what's surprising is how clumsily it gets there.

It would be opportune to talk about the chemistry between Bullock and Reynolds...if there was any. Well, at least there's chemistry of a professional kind because the two are believable as employer and employee which is refreshing given how often workplace scenes are botched in movies like this. I appreciated that Peter Chiarelli's screenplay didn't cave in to idiocy and present Margaret as a cartoonish caricature along the lines of Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada. Someone could watch this and probably recall bosses they had who were far worse than Margaret and Bullock wisely plays her as a demanding, successful woman who behaves like this because she feels she has something to prove. You could see how she could possibly have the respect of the office and not just merely their fear and disdain. The character isn't doing this for evil thrills, which would have cheapened the entire story. Bullock is really great in these early scenes and so is Reynolds, playing the only assistant I've seen in a comedy who's actually excellent at his job.

It's unfortunate that the qualities that make Margaret a believable boss of a major company are exactly the same ones that make her blossoming relationship with Andrew ring false. Margaret does still come across as a total bitch and Bullock isn't the kind of actress capable of selling the miraculous transformation this script calls for. And while I commend the movie for going against the grain in casting an older woman opposite a younger man, and am impressed Bullock hasn't gone under the surgeon's scalpel to get roles, she just looks too old for him. That wouldn't be distracting if the character of Margaret had a youthful energy about her but she doesn't at all. She's a depressed grouch. So the film unintentionally distorts the story into one of a likable guy in the prime of a his life being blackmailed by his older, boring boss. Even in rare moments when the chemistry is there they never seem to be more than buddies and Reynolds (who I normally like) almost seems impossibly likable, to the point of blandness. The leads aren't necessarily the problem, although both have delivered far better performances in the past. A couple of the supporting players fair worse.

As Andrew's father, Craig T. Nelson accidentally stumbled in from the set of a dark family tragedy, misinterpreting the disapproving dad as a verbally abusive alcoholic that would be better received in a sequel to Affliction than a romantic comedy. It's completely inappropriate for the lighter tone of the material, hitting a dark, sour note. A sub-plot is introduced involving Andrew's ex-girlfriend, "Gertie" (a totally wasted Malin Akerman) that doesn't go anywhere even though all signs indicate that it should. During the long wait for the story to reach its predestined conclusion I did laugh a few times. Betty White really seems to be the only performer who realizes exactly what kind of movie she's in and her reactions to the absurdity around her, as well as her comic timing, are right on the mark. What's funniest is that as an airhead she seems smarter than just about every other character. A running gag involving a local resident (Oscar Nunez) who seems to hold all the jobs in town, is admittedly ridiculous, but funny for what it is.

The ending of this film is such a mess I'm not sure I could explain it if I tried and the execution is so sloppy that I actually had problems figuring out what was even happening in the last 15 minutes. Due to the lack of chemistry and poor writing it's unclear whether Andrew has any feelings for Margaret, and an even bigger question whether they're reciprocal, which makes an already contrived ending seem like it's completely out of left field. There isn't so much as a tiny spark between them the entire picture so both actors have to work extra hard in the final act to sell a bunch of nonsense. That's never clearer than in the predictably cringe worthy final scene. I actually found myself rooting against the couple getting together at points because they seem so mismatched. That's not exactly the reaction you hope to have watching a romantic comedy.

This did reasonably well at the box office and I can actually see why. It's a fun time if you're willing to shut your brain off and enjoy it for what it is. Not much work is usually required for me to shut my brain off, but the absurdities in this screenplay, exacerbated by two leads who don't click romantically, prevented this from being something even I could rally behind. In many ways it's very emblematic of the troubled territory Bullock finds herself in as an actress. She's past the point in her career where she can continue to take the kinds of parts she did in the '90's but it isn't enjoyable seeing her playing bitchy characters either. She's too likable for that. Her residual name value and the likability quotient of Reynolds was enough to get audiences to see it, but The Proposal turns a dumb premise that could have been fun into something far dumber than it needs to be.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Informers

Director: Gregor Jordan
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Kim Basinger, Winona Ryder, Mickey Rourke, Jon Foster, Amber Heard, Brad Renfro, Lou Taylor Pucci, Chris Isaak, Austin Nichols

Running Time: 98 min.

Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

"You can't make it in this town unless you're willing to do some awful things. And I'm willing."

There are good reasons why the literary works of Bret Easton Ellis are so infrequently adapted to the screen. Most of them can be found in The Informers, the latest attempt to make cinematic sense of the depraved worldview of an author whose self-absorbed, narcissistic characters reside in the shallow end of the moral cesspool. Just mentioning the writer's name is bound to evoke a wide variety of passionate responses, none of them all too favorable. It's a testament to his controversial material that producers only had the guts to adapt him three other times (Less Than Zero, American Psycho and The Rules of Attraction) and to exactly the kind of angry, polarizing reactions you'd expect.

Of the aforementioned titles, only American Psycho came closest to achieving what could barely be considered widespread acclaim, but even that has  many vocal detractors. If I ever decide to go through with a list of the decade's best films, Roger Avary's misunderstood and unfairly maligned adaptation of The Rules of Attraction would have to be considered a serious contender for it. A lot of that depth can be found in the similarly insane The Informers, which somehow manages to be a worthy successor and fascinating companion piece that didn't disappoint me in the slightest despite its almost intentionally blatant awfulness.

That Ellis is supposedly unhappy with director Gregor Jordan's treatment of his material (from a script the author co-wrote himself no less) is hilarious, considering that, for better or worse, this adaptation couldn't have more faithfully captured his world. It's almost as hilarious is the actual film, which is a trashy guilty pleasure that requires numerous showers to cleanse yourself of when it's over. Full of cheap thrills, it feels strange even referring to it as that since it's basically pointless to apologize for recommending any movie that features a pre-Wrestler Mickey Rourke kidnapping and selling children. And that's the least bizarre story thread in the picture.

If there were any justice Informers viewing parties and drinking games would be going on right now across the country. It's just that kind of movie. But there's no way you'll get me to admit that it's "so bad it's good" because a large part of me doesn't think it's bad at all, mostly because it isn't. There were scenes so funny I couldn't forget them even if I tried, yet also some really powerful performances, the best of which comes from an actor who's sadly no longer with us. Whether you view it as a comedy or a drama makes little difference because by not taking itself too seriously, but still knowing to take itself just seriously enough, it becomes both. You'll hate it. Hence, it's the quintessential Ellis adaptation.

The action opens in Los Angeles, 1983 and boy is it ever 1983. That's clear from the get-go with a decadent party that's part Miami Vice, part stylish music video. At it, Graham Sloane (Jon Foster) watches in horror as his friend Bruce is struck by a car and killed. His friends grieve at a hilariously inappropriate hotel funeral complete with a sushi bar and a Pat Benetar musical dedication. By "grieve" I mean that no one gives a shit except for Raymond (Aaron Himmelstein) who can't stop crying even though he hadn't a clue Bruce hated him.

Graham quickly returns to his regular routine of doing drugs and sleeping around with his hot, seemingly vacuous girlfriend Christie (Amber Heard) and best friend Martin (One Tree Hill's Austin Nichols, sporting maybe the most ridiculous hairstyle in cinematic history). Martin's secretly having an affair with Graham's pill-popping mother, Laura (Kim Basinger), who recently let her philandering movie producer husband William (Billy Bob Thornton) move back into the house after he was caught cheating on her with television news anchor Cheryl Laine (a wide-eyed Winona Ryder--- dressed like Nancy Reagan!).

The fourth friend, Tim (Lou Taylor Pucci) is off to Hawaii with his sleazeball of a father, Les (singer Chris Isaak) who besides suspecting his son is gay, is trying to put the moves on Tim's "date," Rachel (90210's Jessica Stroup). Then there's strung-out junkie Bryan Metro (Mel Raido), the lead singer of a new wave band called "The Informers," who can't remember whether or not he's ever lived in L.A. and is addicted to sex with minors. In a highlight scene, he punches a groupie in the face because...SHE'S FROM NEBRASKA. Sadly, that's as good a reason as any in a film this weird. Jackson (Brad Renfro in his final performance), a doorman in Graham's building, is a failed actor now on the outside looking in. He's faced with a huge moral dilemma when his creepy uncle, Peter (Mickey Rourke) re-enters his life and selfishly drags him into his criminal dealings. Of the deplorable characters, only Jackson and Tim have anything that resembles a conscience and Graham is just starting to realize he may be getting one. But it may be too late. Unfamiliar feelings of jealousy now overcome him every time he sees Christie with Martin as a deadly new disease called AIDS is waiting in the wings.

Vague comparisons have been made to Short Cuts, Magnolia, and even Boogie Nights in terms of narrative approach but the stories here don't interlock and most offer no easy resolution, which will frustrate many. The 1994 novel was a collection of short stories and that's just what this is. But as strange as it sounds considering this is being adapted from one of American fiction's most popular novelists, the actual story is almost beside the point. Ellis' work has always been more dependent on capturing a specific mood or feeling. This is a far different '80's than the warm, nostalgia-filled one presented in Adventureland earlier in the year, or the alternate version of the decade we saw in Watchmen. It's much more lived in.

The fashions (Ray-Bans), and the music (Flock of Seagulls, Wang Chung, Simple Minds) are all there but they exist only as part of this cold, desolate landscape of greed and excess. As frighteningly accurate as it's portrayed, it's even scarier that you rarely stop to notice. It just is. More than simply watching a movie, you've committed to taking a disturbing, time travel trip from which it seems there's no recovery. You're not just watching a re-creation of the decade, but you're there. For everyone who hates the film on an initial viewing I'd like to offer up a suggestion: Watch it again, but the second time as a comedy MADE DURING THE 80's. It shouldn't be difficult considering that's pretty much what it is. I'm convinced even the bad green screen effects and inserted stock footage of '80's L.A. was done intentionally to capture that retro feeling.

Ellis' writing always skirted the line between satire and tragedy and this one may be giving us our largest helping of both. What lifts (or maybe lowers) his stories to the tragic level is not the fact the characters are detestable human beings who hurt one another, but that they truly can't comprehend that they are. They just don't get it. That quote you see above was probably spoken by every member of this all-star cast to their agents when they received the script, but it was eventually delivered onscreen by Brad Renfro, who passed away from a drug overdose a week after filming wrapped.

Pudgy, sweaty, and overweight, the unrecognizable Renfro pours everything he has into the failed child actor turned doorman, as many lines he's given (and even the very essence of the character itself) eerily foreshadow his own death. One in particular that he delivers in the hotel lobby sent chills down my spine. You'd swear he had to know what was coming, which makes it impossible to separate the performance from the tragic circumstances surrounding it.

The parallels between his path and Jackson's is flat-out scary and unbearably disturbing. Just witness his jittery, nerve-ridden panic in the scene when his uncle's "business associate" comes to collect. Digging as deep as he did it's almost no wonder he died right after shooting wrapped. He literally gives  all there is of himself in a touching, heartbreaking final turn that he fittingly shares with Rourke, who brings a cocky, laid-back sleaze to this small-time crook and provides the perfect counterpoint to Renfro's wild bundle of nerves. Anyone looking for clues that Rourke would go on to deliver the performance he did in The Wrestler will find them even in this small role.

If there's a lead it's Jon Foster, whose Graham would be classified in the same category as other morally corrupt Ellis protagonists like Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman in American Psycho or his womanizing younger brother Sean in The Rules of Attraction if not for the fact that he's actually starting to develop real feelings for another person. That's a first in Ellis land. But the heart and soul of the movie belongs to Amber Heard as Christie in a performance as memorable for what she bravely doesn't show as what she does. Despite going topless in nearly every one of her scenes, Heard transcends what should be a superficial gimmick to cut to the core of the film's meaning.

Is Christie even aware that she's hurting Graham? Does she care? Does she know she's killing herself with her reckless behavior? There are moments where we think she does and others where we think she doesn't have the slightest clue. But Heard never lets us judge her, and in a film full of self-centered characters to hate, it's difficult to despise this one. With very little dialogue she chooses play her as lost, not a slut. Through her eyes we see the story and its message is clear: The party's about to end.
Amongst a cast comprised of various Oscar winning and nominated actors, the young blood of Renfro, Heard and Foster are the backbone of the picture, but that's not to say the veteran performers are phoning it in at all. Billy Bob Thornton intriguingly turns a philandering husband into a creepy psychopath while Kim Basinger is effectively cold as ice as his unloved and emotionally abused wife. Even in spite of all her fame Winona Ryder's news anchor is just as lonely, and a disturbing restaurant scene with some heckling "fans" is so uncomfortable because Jordan drags it on, refusing to give us the big, easy payoff. But my favorite sub-plot was the Hawaiian vacation as Chris Isaak and his priceless facial expressions perfectly capture the pathetic desperation of a man so obsessed with clinging to his youth that he's wrecked his relationship with his own son.

Supposedly there's 40 extra minutes of cut footage floating around somewhere and I'm not sure whether it would help the film or not because at just over an hour and a half it feels just right the way it is. A sub-plot involving Brandon Routh as a vampire was excised, and despite part of me thinking this movie is so insane it could have possibly fit, that was a wise decision. Supernatural elements may have worked on the page, but given the tone of this film, there's simply no place for it (as if we didn't have enough vampires in pop culture already). But much more troubling is the fact that Ashley Olsen was originally considered to be cast in Amber Heard's role. Talk about dodging a bullet.

I can't understand how how anyone could say the actors in this film are "misused" or "underutilized" which seems to be the general consensus even though some are handed the craziest parts of their careers. Nor do I understand the complaints that the film is too bleak or lacks humor. If anything, critics and audiences, not the movie, are taking themselves too seriously. Much of the dark humor takes multiple viewings to fully absorb (three and counting for me, one with the commentary). Plus, how many movies out there actually hold up equally well as both comedy and drama? What I can understand is that Ellis is unhappy with how his work was translated to the screen. Not because I agree, but because every author is.

If The Informers has any problem it's that it should have been released 26 years earlier. Today, no one wants to see rich people with problems because it doesn't make us feel better. And we're definitely not used to a movie so willing to fully surrender itself to the era in which it's set. With The Informers, Gregor Jordan proves that great trash can be lifted to an art form. I'd have a tough time convincing anyone it's one of the best films of 2009, which is fine since it's actually the best film of 1983.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Trick 'r Treat

Director: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Anna Paquin, Dylan Baker, Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb, Lauren Lee Smith, Rochelle Aytes, Tahmoh Penikett, Quinn Lord
Running Time: 82 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

At the risk of overstating matters, Michael Doughtery's 80's style horror anthology film Trick 'r Treat is the best Halloween-themed picture since John Carpenter's Halloween. To even call this the best horror movie of the year would be selling it short. This is one of the best movies of the year. Period. Horror or otherwise. And in resurrecting a feeling I didn't think I'd have again while watching a movie in this genre, Dougherty has done the unthinkable in making a film that could be considered a great deal more interesting and technically superior to the classics he intended to pay homage to.

A couple of years ago when I sat in a darkened theater waiting for Saw IV to begin, I saw a trailer for this movie and could tell just by those two minutes it was something very different than what we're used to. From the visuals to the story it appeared that the person who made it may have actually had a brain. "Torture porn" this was not. That brief preview stuck with me more than anything I saw in the feature presentation following it. Then two years passed. Trick 'r Treat was never released theatrically. I eventually forgot about it....though not completely. What happened during that time is something of a legend with the story being that the studio was intentionally trying to bury a movie they had no idea how to market in an era of pointless slasher remakes and sequels.

I was always secretly afraid that if a truly great work of horror were made no one would even acknowledge it because the genre has been beat up on and spit at so often by critics and moviegoers, sometimes justifiably. That fear has officially been realized as now the best horror film in years has been shuttled straight to DVD, where we can only hope it finds the audience it deserves. But regardless of its popularity, Dougherty's achievement still stands and he can now go home, look in the mirror and no longer see the man who co-wrote the messy Superman Returns, but instead the filmmaker who gave us a holiday classic that deserves be enjoyed as a annual viewing ritual for many Octobers to come.

After a prologue in which bitchy wife Emma (Leslie Bibb) finds out the hard way what happens if you blow out a jack-o'-lantern before midnight, we're presented an animated comic book- style opening title sequence introducing us to "4 Tales of Terror," all occurring in the small Midwestern town of Warren, Ohio during All Hallows Eve.

1. School principal Steven Wilkins (Dylan Baker) moonlights as a serial killer while hilariously struggling through some major parenting issues with his annoying son Billy (Connor Christopher Levins).

2. Shy, virginal "Little Red Riding Hood" Laurie (Anna Paquin) is dragged by her older sister (Lauren Lee Smith) and friends to a party where she just might get lucky.

3. Four kids return to the scene of a legendary school bus massacre that took place over thirty years ago to play a prank on their nerdy classmate.

4. The old, cranky Mr. Kreeg (Brian Cox), who wants nothing to do with Halloween, is paid a visit by an unlikely intruder.

Unlike most anthologies, the stories aren't presented one after another but are instead interwoven like Pulp Fiction, which is much more difficult to pull off and puts an added strain on the writing. Dougherty proves he's more than up to that challenge and the stories come together in surprising ways. The tie that binds them all is Sam (Quinn Lord), a bulbous-headed trick-or-treater with a burlap sack over his head who sporadically appears throughout the tales to punish those who break Halloween's sacred traditions. In appearance and presentation, the pint-sized Sam is an unforgettably iconic character on par with the Freddys and the Jasons of the horror world and every bit as fun. It's so difficult to create a villain that's instantly recognizable but what's most impressive about Sam is that he isn't given much screen time until the end, yet Dougherty makes sure his presence is seen and felt at just the right moments throughout.

From a storytelling perspective, none of the four tales are break new ground but the style and impact with which they're delivered do. If I had to pick a favorite I'd go with the school bus massacre which features witty, realistic dialogue, strong child performances (especially from Samm Todd as idiot savant Rhonda) and gives us a flashback sequence as terrifying as it is visually stunning. Thanks to cinematographer Glen MacPherson and production designer Mark Freeborn every scene is literally dripping with Halloween and autumn atmosphere.

It's of little surprise that the art director for this film (Tony Wohlgemuth) was also responsible for 2006's Black Christmas remake, which, no matter what you may think of its story, did a far better job than the original in visually capturing the yuletide spirit. He outdoes his work on that here and in a shocking development I couldn't be happier to report, we're not bombarded with the fake-looking CGI and music video slickness that's ruined so many films in this genre over the past few years. It's a welcome throwback to a time when horror filmmakers were smart enough to know that more meant less and you trust enough for the story and characters to be the main attraction. If there's one complaint it's that it only runs a very quick 82 minutes because I wanted even more.

The acting is top notch across the board with Dylan Baker the most memorable (and getting the most screen time) as Principal Wilkins. That this film is a "horror comedy" is nearly all his doing since he provides most of the dark humor. A pro at playing unassuming average joes concealing a dark secret, it's easy to believe this character was written with him in mind. Anna Paquin is sensational in her smaller role while a practically unrecognizable Brian Cox seems to be having the time of his life playing a part no one would have ever expected to see him in. These are all accomplished actors elevating already strong material, not the usual D-level talent we're accustomed to seeing in Direct to DVD labeled horror features or even the latest Saw outing. What's most interesting about the the characters are their ages, which range from pre-teens caught up in the thrill of trick-or-treating to a bitter old man who no longer wants anything to do with it. In that way the stories all capture what Halloween means to each of us at different stages and childhood memories of the holiday will likely come flooding back for many who watch this. I know they did for me.

I have a love-hate relationship with horror. When it's good, I love it. When it's bad, I hate it. That's exactly how it should be. This is an example of how great this genre can be when its firing on all cylinders. After John Carpenter wrote Halloween 2 he came up with the idea of dumping the character of Michael Myers to instead release a sequel each October focusing on an aspect of Halloween tradition with the hope that the series would become an anthology. On paper, it was a brilliant idea. Unfortunately, it resulted in the disastrous Halloween III: Season of the Witch and the whole plan was aborted. This very much feels like the realization of that vision and what would have happened if Carpenter's original idea was executed to its fullest potential. Once you set aside that film's godawful story, you could argue that it did have a profound effect on this at least in terms of set and costume design (specifically the masks). Other influences, such as Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt, Evil Dead and It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown are more obvious, if not directly referenced at times.

The biggest horror is really how the studio shelved a film that could have had costume clad moviegoers crowding the streets in front of their local multiplexes this Halloween. Despite what they may have thought, this was an easy sell. I love the Saw movies and look forward to them every year but wouldn't dare attempt to convince anyone that they should be classified as "horror." I always thought of them as suspense thrillers meant to disgust rather than scare. There would have been room for both since this is so wildly different in its approach and philosophy. Even worse, while this was collecting dust, Paquin's career gained enough traction that she could have easily opened this movie...and the studio still pulled it. Rumors of the film's inflated reputation while sitting on the shelf for two years should go ignored and you should instead believe the hype. That it's been doing so well on DVD should bode well for potential sequels and marks the rare arrival of a horror franchise I'd actually like to see continue. Trick 'r Treat does more than just capture the true spirit and essence of Halloween. It is Halloween.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, David Morse
Running Time: 131 min.

Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

From the moment The Hurt Locker was released to universal critical acclaim it was practically a foregone conclusion that the war drama would be included among the newly expanded field of ten Best Picture nominees. I rolled my eyes at the mere suggestion, thinking they'd be rewarding a topic rather than a film. Now after seeing it I'm forced to begrudgingly concede this is one of the best war films in years (as faint as that praise may seem). My trepidation and bias would be understandable to anyone who had the misfortune to view any of the embarrassing political war propaganda studios have inflicted on us in the past couple of years. This includes but isn't limited to preachy one-sided liberal sermons like Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Rendition and Stop-Loss. For a while there was a genuine fear that no intelligent movie could made about the Iraq War.

Director Kathryn Bigelow has taken a different approach by just showing us. It's that simple, yet no other filmmaker was smart enough to do it. She succeeds where everyone else failed by resisting the temptation to get up on a soapbox, instead just letting us draw our own conclusions based on what we see. And by doing doing that she may have ironically crafted the ultimate anti-war (or maybe anti-addiction) film, even though any agenda of the sort of refreshingly absent. What appears in its opening minutes to be merely a workmanlike procedural evolves into something far more affecting as we connect with the three lead characters in such a way that they almost feel like family by the end of the picture. I feared for their safety and worried during every scene if each would make it home in one piece.

You wouldn't figure something as visceral and exciting as this would be considered an "actor's movie" but in many ways it is with an electrifying lead performance belonging to an unknown who probably won't be unknown for much longer. This isn't my kind of film and couldn't imagine watching it again but I'm forced to eat crow and admit Bigelow has directed a nearly perfect picture. The praise it's gotten is exaggerated, but not by much.

It's 2004 during the early stages of the Iraq War when the leader of the Bravo Company's EOD unit, Staff Sergeant Thompson (Guy Pearce) is killed by a remote IED (improvised explosive device) in Bagdad, leaving Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) without a first in command. Enter Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), an egotistical hotshot who makes reckless, split-second decisions that frequently put the lives of himself and his team members in danger. A title card appears on screen letting us know how many days remain in the company's rotation as we follow the soldiers on their missions. Sanborn and Eldridge attempt to communicate via radio with James in his protective bomb suit which proves to be difficult when he constantly ignores every word they say.

The film unfolds as almost a series of episodic vignettes as we watch James disarming bombs in a variety of suspenseful situations, including one where the team is pinned down by snipers and the most memorable involving a civilian with explosives strapped to his chest. Through all of it tensions continue to mount between the three men as a result of James' controversial, self-serving leadership style. He frequently seems more interested in playing hero than saving lives. Or so it seems.

Bigelow and screenwriter/freelance journalist Mark Boal made a wise decision in narrowing the focus to just a bomb tech team and letting the rest of the details of the war exist on the periphery. This isn't so much about war as it is about their jobs and how they handle them. Through that we get to know each of these men and what makes them tick under the most dangerous of circumstances. We care about this war not because the filmmakers told us we should but because we're absorbed in the psyches of these characters fighting it. It becomes a personal story instead of a political one, and as a result, we're left to draw our own conclusions as to the effects this ordeal.

With no standard plot to speak of, the events are filmed in a documentary style not unlike United 93, but more action-oriented. This gives the picture an even greater sense of objectivity in just showing what's happening and that's it (although that's admittedly a lot under Bigelow's direction). This could be disappointing to those who hoped the movie would take some grand stand one way or another either against or in support of the war, though I can't see why anyone would want that given how clumsily the topic has been explored in other films. As suspenseful as they are, it is draining watching these missions for 130 minutes straight and it isn't an experience I'd feel like repeating anytime soon. Of course, it's not supposed to be.

The film belongs entirely to the three actors who infuse life into soldiers who could have easily been played as stereotypes. Resembling a cross between Russell Crowe and Benjamin Mackenzie, Jeremy Renner doesn't make a huge impression initially as Sgt. James and it's far from obvious he's going to be the main character. "Who's this nobody?" could describe my initial reaction. But Renner puts all those doubts to rest quickly and as each scene wears on it becomes increasingly apparent that this is no poor man's Russell Crowe. He has the charisma to hold the screen like nobody's business, revealing James to be a whole lot more than the arrogant hotshot with a hero complex we had him pegged as. What's so brilliant about the Oscar-worthy performance is how while the character's actions suggest he doesn't care and is operating out of pure selfishness, Renner suggests the exact opposite in the film's quieter moments. James' real problem actually isn't that he doesn't care, but that he cares TOO MUCH.

"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."

That's the quote from New York Times journalist Chris Hedges that opens the movie and can very well sum up not only the character of James but the story itself. His most memorable scene comes not in Iraq but at home, when a trip to the supermarket with his family is more foreign to him than anything in Iraq. He doesn't just want to go back there. He NEEDS to because he forgot how to survive in the "real world."

Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty are slightly more recognizable as actors but casting relative unknowns in the three main roles was a masterstroke in that you're given the sinking feeling any one of them can go at any minute. Mackie (almost equally as impressive as Renner) plays Sanborn as the hothead who won't stand for what he perceives to be James' grandstanding while Geraghty's green, naive and petrified Eldridge represents the audience's entry way into the movie, questioning why they're even there.

Bigger name actors appear in much smaller roles. In addition to the aforementioned Pearce, David Morse has a bizarre scene that's wide open for interpretation while Ralph Fiennes and Evangeline Lilly (as James' wife) both enter and exit the film fairly quickly. Of those, I thought only Lilly's needlessly called attention to itself and caused a distraction, which could be chalked up to me just being so familiar with her from Lost. The second she appeared I was taken right out the movie, wondering how Kate got off the island again. Granted not everyone watches that show, but if the role is just a cameo wouldn't it make more sense to cast an unknown?

This isn't the small, art house drama it's been toted as. It's exciting, suspenseful and obviously represents a big comeback for the director best known for more fun, but no less accomplished efforts like the Patrick Swayze/Keanu Reeves not-so-guilty pleasure Point Break and 1995's underrated cyberpunk thriller Strange Days. Still, I don't concur with those who feel it's everyone's moral obligation to see this film because of the subject matter and can understand why audiences have stayed far away. I mean, can you really blame them? This topic has been embarrassingly (dare I even say offensively) mishandled so many times that I'm sure no one felt like getting burned again by the type of movie that wouldn't have them giddily skipping to theaters even under the best of circumstances. I'd also much rather have a risky out of left field choice that really needs the attention occupying one of the expanded Best Picture slots rather than something that would have been an easy contender anyway if there were five nominees.

That I'm not as over-the-moon about the movie as everyone else is more a reflection of my long-standing bias against the genre than its actual merit. It'll be interesting to see if I can temporarily put that bias aside long enough to include it on my list of the year's best, as it's definitely worthy of consideration. This film is playing in challenging territory where it's close to impossible to bring anything innovative to the table or say something that hasn't already been said. Ironically, The Hurt Locker ends up working so well because it bravely chooses to say nothing at all.