Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Brothers Bloom, Paranormal Activity, Halloween II, The Girlfriend Experience

Got a little backed up with my movie watching of late so I figured the best solution was to post my thoughts on some films I've seen lately in capsule review form, rather than having to skip them entirely (especially considering I had a very strong opinion on a couple of them). I've dispensed with the star ratings for these and in its place offered a brief analysis. While I try not to make this a regular habit, don't be surprised if you see more of it lately since we're in a season packed with a lot of films warranting attention.

The Brothers Bloom

Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Adrien Brody, Mark Ruffalo, Rinko Kikuchi, Maximillian Schell, Robbie Coltrane

Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)
Boy, did I love this. Writer/director Rian Johnson's follow-up to his brilliant 2006 high school noir thriller Brick similarly challenges genre conventions, only now with the caper film. We've seen this scenario many times before: A first-time filmmaker comes out of the gate swinging and uses all their newly granted creative freedom to completely indulge themselves in their sophomore effort, drawing on every influence they can to make the kind of picture they'd want to see. In this case, that primary influence seems to be every film made by Wes Anderson. Intentional or not, it's hard to miss the quirky Andersonian touches as it relates to tone, visual style, musical choices, voice-over narration (provided by magician and David Mamet regular Ricky Jay), and even set and costume design. They even share an actor in Adrian Brody, who before this appeared in Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited. Whereas some may find this approach a debit, I saw a movie that ingeniously used the influence to craft a unique work that has something important to say about the role stories play in our lives.

Unable to tell he difference between his real life and a scripted one, Bloom (Brody) wants his con man days to end but is reluctantly lured into "one last job" by his charismatic brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo). They're joined by mute explosives expert, Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi). Things get very complicated when Bloom begins to fall in love with the mark, a socially isolated heiress named Penelope (Rachel Weisz). There's twists on top of twists on top of twists but what differentiates this from your typical caper movie is that the sleight of hand approach reveals the inner lives of its characters and just like Bloom we're never really sure where reality begins and the game ends, or if it does end.

I've heard some complain that the film goes on about twenty minutes too long with a series of false endings and red herrings but I couldn't disagree more mainly because it's just so much fun trying to figure out the characters' true feelings and motivations. Repeated viewings reveal that every detail was important, especially in the pivotal third act. It goes around and around until it finally lands at a blockbuster closing scene where I could only throw my hands up in the air and say, "Damn. he got me." Or did he? Nothing is what it seems.

As the sullen and introspective Bloom, Brody's never been better but it's the charismatic Ruffalo who steals the show in a role that's a total departure from anything he's done before. His performance is what keeps us guessing the whole time. And who knew Rachel Weisz was this skilled at comedy? A film that wears its quirky style on its sleeve like this is bound to be polarizing but for those who can appreciate a carefully constructed caper yarn with smart characters it's one to come back to for multiple visits. It's just a shame more people don't know about it. As a successor to Brick, it's a worthy one that didn't disappoint me in the slightest, further proving Johnson is a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Paranormal Activity

Director: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs
Running Time: 86 min.
Rating: R

★★ (out of ★★★★)

Hype can be a funny thing. Made on a budget of only $15,000, Oren Peli's independent horror film Paranormal Activity utilized "home video footage," a brilliant viral marketing campaign, a Halloween opening and extremely positive word of mouth to become one of the most profitable movies ever made. And now months removed from all that I can finally see the movie for what it is: A GIMMICK. It's a classic case of a very memorable "theater experience" that doesn't hold up on a home viewing because there just isn't much to it. Katie (Katie Featherston) and Micah (Micah Sloat) move into their new house in San Diego and are haunted by a ghost that's followed Katie since childhood. That the ghost (or demon or whatever it is) is exclusive to the person rather than the home is something new. It's too bad that's one of the few elements in this that's original.

What's most perplexing is how few scenes involve the actual ghost and the terror its causing. Ignoring the cryptic warnings of a psychic (Mark Fredrichs), Micah plays games with the spirit and sets the camera up in the bedroom. Quite a few of those scenes while they're sleeping are scary, even if it seems to be the same exact scenes repeated on an endless loop. If I were in a packed, darkened theater during Halloween I could see where I'd gasp or jump at these. It does get tense, especially toward the finale. The real problem are the scenes during daylight, which largely consist of the couple bickering incessantly, to the point where I thought I was watching an episode of Dr. Phil. This is most of the movie mind you, with the night terror scenes thrown in between for some scares. They really need a couples counselor rather than a psychic. If their arguing doesn't chase away this ghost then nothing will.

Even the scarier scenes start to lose their luster when you realize nothing's REALLY ever going to happen despite the fact that we're watching "found footage." Somehow the ending manages to be even sillier than I thought it would be, with an alternate ending on the disc just as equally silly. We go through an awful lot of nothing just to get someplace we knew we were going the whole time. Since Micah's supposed to be behind the camera, Katie gets most of the face time and is far and away the best part of the movie. Most literally "the girl next door," there's never so much as a hint she's acting in any way.

While I found the film manipulative and even boring at times, what I really dislike is the fact that it's been hailed as some kind of groundbreaking achievement. Didn't we fall for this once before?
I'm as sick of supposed "torture porn" as the next person but it's somewhat ironic that this beat Saw VI at the box office considering that the latter is superior on just about every level other than providing some carefully manipulated scares. This takes the genre too far in the other direction. I'd rather be excited and entertained than a "witness" to fake home video footage. I enjoyed it more the first time...when it was called The Blair Witch Project.

Halloween II

Director: Rob Zombie
Starring: Malcolm McDowell, Tyler Mane, Sheri Moon Zombie, Brad Dourif, Danielle Harris, Scout Taylor-Compton
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating: R

★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

It's come to this: Sequels to remakes of originals that already have sequels. We now have two Halloween IIs. But at least give Rob Zombie an 'A' for effort and also give him credit for getting involved with this project when he realized the studio would make a sequel with or without his involvement. Given the circumstances no one would have blamed him if he phoned this in for a pay day but he didn't, which says a lot. Surprisingly, it's easy to imagine this turning out far worse than it did and I can even understand how it's garnered some small scattered praise among hardcore horror fans.

Even with all its problems (and believe me there are many) at least real risks are taken and it's a legitimate horror film that made me feel SOMETHING. Freed from the creative confines of John Carpenter's original, Zombie takes the sequel to his 2007 remake in his own direction by attempting to explore the psychological connection between escaped killer Michael Myers (Tyler Mane) and his sister Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton). Also returning from the first film are Malcolm McDowell as Dr. Sam Loomis, Brad Dourif as Sheriff Brackett, Danielle Harris as his daughter Annie. Sheri Moon Zombie appears again as Deborah Myers in a brief flashback and in dream sequences.

For the first twenty minutes it picks up exactly where the previous installment left off (and stays true to the original Halloween II) with a recovering Laurie struggling to fight off a murderous attack from the newly escaped Michael Myers in the hospital. Then Zombie cheats and pulls the rug out from under us, taking a different path entirely. What doesn't change is his commitment to giving audiences as miserable and morally depraved an experience as is possible. This isn't just an homage to a 70's grindhouse slasher. It is one. And there's barely a single likable character, including the heroine, and the film doesn't shy away from depicting the now grungy metalhead Laurie as deeply disturbed and bi-polar as a result of her traumatic experience.

Taylor-Compton is given much more to do than just run and scream, giving a complex performance that far surpasses in quality the actual movie it's in. While only hinted at previously, McDowell's Dr. Loomis is now a full-fledged asshole, pimping out Myers' victims to promote his bestselling latest book and bolster his own celebrity. Just about anything involving Loomis and his book tour is (un)intentionally hilarious, specifically a scene where he completely loses it ("D-E-A-D. DEAD!") at a lecture. It's almost as funny as Margot Kidder's cameo as an obese psychotherapist. Say what you want, but Zombie's decision to take this character so far to the extreme took guts and McDowell looks to be having the time of his life hamming it up in the part.

It's too bad attempts to bring any kind of psychological depth to the story with white horse dream imagery and the apparition of Michael's mother feel thrown in (Zombie all but admits to such in the director's commentary). Nor is the film scary or suspenseful, just disgusting, with one brutally graphic murder after another, resulting in a gratuitous mess that proudly wears the "torture porn" badge. Also lacking is the exciting curiosity factor that helped carry the 2007 remake where anticipation built around how the film would re-imagine or possibly butcher Carpenter's classic.

Zombie has enough great ideas and a distinct enough vision to make me believe he'll make a great film someday, but I'd categorize this as a fascinating misfire still more interesting than many better movies out there. It's growing on me. It should be noted this is a review of the theatrical version, not the unrated directors cut, which I'd be curious to see since this seems like a rare instance where that could be a positive difference maker. As is, it's still superior to every original Halloween sequel.

The Girlfriend Experience

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos, Glenn Kenny, Peter Zizzo
Running Time: 77 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The latest Steven Soderbergh latest "experiment," The Girlfriend Experience, works as just that: An experiment. But it wouldn't surprise me if sometime down the line it's thought of as more than that because it is effective as kind of a time capsule for what's going on right now. Not to mention the fact that it has a way of staying with you and lingering in the mind despite not much occuring in the picture. If someone described it as boring I'd have a tough time offering up a solid defense, yet the movie is beyond defensible because it feels so real and of the moment. It could almost share double billing with likely Oscar nominee Up in the Air in that both deal with how people so well off and connected can be completely disconnected from life.

Shot in just two weeks with non-actors and mostly improvised dialogue, it featured an intriguing marketing campaign that offered up many more questions than answers. But the biggest attention getter was the controversial casting of real life adult film actress Sasha Grey as Chelsea, a New York City call girl who offers the full "girlfriend experience" to her high-end clients. She's less a hooker than an ear for these rich guys to unload all their problems on, most of which are related to the current economic crisis. The movie makes no bones about when it's taking place (the days leading up to the '08 Presidential election) and scenes are shuffled out of order and presented in a faux-documentary style to give us glimpses of her meeting with clients and discussing her business ambitions with a journalist (played by New York magazine staff writer Mark Jacobson). Chelsea's no dummy and is very serious about what she wants for herself. That much is clear from the very beginning and the casting of Grey slowly reveals itself as more than just a gimmick.

A big name actress, or even just a trained one, couldn't have played the role as effectively. The temptation would be there to give a "performance" when complete emotional detachment is called for instead. Grey has an unaffected, withdrawn demeanor to her that makes this a perfect casting choice. And in a movie with so much talking it really helps listening to someone who at least has an intelligent, interesting sounding voice.

The closest the movie comes to actual conflict involves Chelsea's crumbling relationship with her personal trainer boyfriend (a bland Chris Santos) due to her feelings for a client and a very creepy encounter with "The Erotic Connoisseur," an online assayer of escorts whose blog reviews can supposedly make or break their careers. In an equally bizarre casting choice, he's played by former Premiere and current online film critic Glenn Kenny, memorable in the brief role. In fact, he thinks he's so memorable that he hilariously VOTED FOR HIMSELF for Best Supporting Actor in year-end polls. And I can't say I blame him one bit. His character's cutting voiceover assessment of Chelsea at the end stings in surprisingly hurtful ways.

This is a sad, slow moving film to watch and anything longer than its brief 77 minutes would have probably been pushing it and the men Chelsea encounters and keeps company with aren't nearly as interesting as she is, though that's likely the entire point. We have a protagonist who doesn't know herself or feelings at all and men so incapable of forming emotional bonds that they have to hire someone to pretend that they can. We can only hope the movie's wrong--that people aren't this lonely. But that's probably wishful thinking. For better or worse, it's an experience that stays with you.

1 comment:

The Film Connoisseur said...

Hey Jeremy, about Brothers Bloom, I turned it off about half way through because I just couldnt understand it. Now, I think Im a pretty intelligent fellow, but I just couldnt seem to follow the storyline, it was a bit of a convoluted mess if you ask me.

But maybe I gave up too soon and there was something I was missing? Dont know, but I didnt dig it. I didnt like Brick very much either.