Friday, October 26, 2012

Dark Shadows

Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jackie Earle Haley, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloe Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Dark Shadows starts off promisingly enough, with a prologue that's actually somewhat intriguing and an initial 40 minutes that teases the possibility that Tim Burton may have finally made a great movie again. Then it's all downhill, as the tone, which was initially so sure and steady, goes all over the place. At points it's just not clear what Burton was going for. Sometimes it feels like a Gothic horror movie while at others the comedy is so broad it may as well be a remake of The Munsters. What's not in question is that as far as TV-to-film adaptations go, at least this one seemed like a reasonable idea and it's understandable why Burton wanted to tackle it. But it's also equally frustrating when you have a director with so much talent and all these great ideas who can't seem to translate it into a compelling narrative with characters we care about. It happens over and over again with him to the point that it's difficult to even pinpoint a solution anymore (though taking a break from working with Depp might be a start). This is a fascinating near-miss, filled with elements that could have made for a great film and a single performance that really deserves to be in one. And having not seen the original 1960's cult supernatural soap it's based on, I'm comfortable wagering a guess that it's probably excellent. You can see the shell of something special and different here, especially in the first half hour. It would all seem to be right in Burton's wheelhouse, but once again his propensity for favoring production design over storytelling sinks him.     

The story tells of Barnabus Collins (Johnny Depp), who arrives to America from Liverpool in the mid 1700's and has an affair with the family maid Angelique (Eva Green), before spurning her and falling in love with Josette du Pres (Bella Heathcote). But an angry, jealous Angelique reveals herself to be a witch, cursing Josette into jumping off a cliff to her death and sentencing Barnabus to a life as an immortal vampire. Buried alive and locked in a chain coffin by Angelique for 196 years, he finally awakens in 1972, discovering that his cursed descendants now reside in his Collinsport, Maine manor. There's his cousin and family matriarch, Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), her brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), her rebellious 15-year-old daughter Caroline (Chloe Grace Moretz), Roger's troubled 10-year-old son David (Gulliver McGrath), and his psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter). They're joined by the grounds' creepy caretaker, Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley) and their newest arrival, Victoria Winters (Heathcote again), a mysterious girl who's been hired as David's governess and bares more than a passing resemblance to Barnabus' dead lover Josette. Staying with the family under the guise of a distant relative, Barnabus begins to fall for her. But Angelique's still in town posing as a successful business woman, and if she can't have him, she'll destroy him, along with the rest of the Collins family.

The casting feels spot-on and as aggravating as it is seeing Depp collaborating with Burton for what feels like the hundredth time, he at least seems well suited for a role he's supposedly dreamed of playing for years. It's just unfortunate that his spooky, pale-faced appearance makes the role seem indistinguishable from his turns in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Alice in Wonderland. So, Barnabus is basically a composite of every Tim Burton character he's played. I'd like to say Depp does something totally different this time around, but it's really just more of the same, which isn't to say he's terrible. In fact, the most interesting portion of the film is the culture clash that takes place when 200 year-old Barnabus wakes up in the 1970's and must adjust to this new lifestyle around him. Just about the best decision Burton made was to set this in that decade since the setting becomes a time travel trip for the viewer as much as the story's protagonist. Watching Barnabus find his way around these surroundings, his observations of the music and fashions and seeing how his dysfunctional family responds to his resurrection, provide the satisfying moments.With a soundtrack featuring the likes of The Moody Blues, Donovan, Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper (who cameos) a good case can be made that the music is actually better than the movie, providing a steady stream of entertainment the story often lacks, especially in its last hour. Frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman also provides a creepy, catchy score that captures just the right tone for the material.

An excellent musical montage set to The Carpenter's "Top of the World" that pretty much signifies the film's last great moment before it deteriorates before our eyes and Burton's worst impulses take over. The script seems to abandons the compelling "fish-out-of water" story and Baranbus' connection to Victoria (who may or may not be his reincarnated lover) in favor of his love/hate feud with Angelique. There's a silly, over-the-top sex scene and everything that follows is practically too much of a mess to describe. Eva Green does her best to make it work though, giving what's far and away the best performance in the film by managing to lend many dimensions to a fairly one-dimensional character. Seductive, creepy and funny, she successfully turns Angelique into kind of a live-action cartoon, proving to have a great knack for physical comedy as well as dark drama. A haunting Bella Heathcote excels too in her dual role, despite being introduced as a major character then promptly forgotten about by the film's second half. Chloe Moretz is as melodramatic as can be as angry teen Caroline, though there's a development late involving her that comes completely out of left field and seems to make little sense at all. And this is probably the closest Helena Bonham Carter will ever come to playing at least a partially normal character in one of her husband's films. Yet, her Dr. Hoffman stills seems like a wacked out weirdo, which is probably appropriate.

The ending heavily hints at a sequel that won't likely happen anytime soon due to this film's disappointing financial returns. The expectation was clearly to build a franchise but adapting a TV series (especially one with which most modern audiences are unfamiliar) is tough because you can get way with a lot more when you have weeks and months to build a story. Supposedly, the supernatural weren't introduced in the original until well into the show's run, which had to have been a fun shock for viewers. An updated feature film adaptation has no such luxury, highlighting one of many advantages TV has over film right now. This is definitely a case where there are a lot of interesting ideas and fanciful performances that just don't connect in a cohesive, engaging story like they should. The set-up is perfect but when it comes to delivering on it, Burton drops the ball. If there's good news it's that the first hour of the movie proves that he's still got it. He always seems to be at his creative peak when telling deeply personal original stories, but frequently falters when adapting previously existing material for a payday. Dark Shadows feels like something strangely in between. It's questionable placing the blame entirely on Burton when so many other hands are on deck and factors at play in determining this project's success, but he's an unusual case in that he's the kind of filmmaker whose visual influence and style permeates through every facet of the work. For better or worse, his imprint is unmistakable. It's just that lately, it's been for worse.        

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Director: Wes Anderson
Starring: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel
Running Time: 94 min.
Rating:  PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The word "genius" probably gets thrown around a little too much, but after viewing Moonrise Kingdom, it's even clearer Wes Anderson just might be one of the few filmmakers working today who's rightfully earned the tag. How else can you explain the world he creates in this? Literally a world all its own. And you know you're watching one of his movies before the credits even start to roll. From the costume and set design to the film stock, to the title font to the dialogue and even the actors chosen to deliver it, there's definitely nothing else out there that resembles a Wes Anderson movie. This effort stands as the biggest example of that yet, and also maybe his most personal. Of course, some will still call this "pretentious" "twee" or "hipsterish" but they weren't the audience for this anyway, and would still have trouble denying it's the work of a seriously talented artist. No one else can do exactly what he does and any perceived problems with the the film only exist because his idiosyncratic sensibilities can be so off-putting that it's sometimes hard to find an entry point. But once you find it and surrender to the eccentricity there's no turning back. The movie's set in the 1960's but looks and feels how an imaginary memory wishes the 60's looked and felt like, with a visual aesthetic and production design that's unforgettable, making it seem as if it could be made and released successfully during that era. And try remembering the last picture starring two children that was squarely aimed at adults. I'm still not sure if it's completely perfect, but its messiness and craziness is part of what make it so endearing, and a real keeper likely to continue reaping rewards on repeated viewings.

It's 1965 and 12-year-old Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) is spending the summer as a khaki scout at Camp Ivanhoe on the small New England island of New Penzance. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) lives on the "Summer's End" portion of this island with her eccentric attorney parents Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand) and her younger brothers. But Sam and Suzy's paths crossed a year earlier when, in one of the films best scenes, they meet during a church production of Noye's Fludde, becoming pen pals and vowing to run away together the following year. After making good on their promise, Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton) is horrified to wake up and discover, in a clever touch, an escape hole cut in the side of Sam's tent. Enlisting the help of the island's dour police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the Scout troop and Suzy's parents, a search is underway for the two young refugees who have set up camp in a secluded area on the beach, complete with Suzy's record player and books. With a violent hurricane approaching, their prepubescent romance blooms and they even make plans to marry, but the search team is closing in, as is a "Social Services" representative (Tilda Swinton) who plans to stick Sam in juvenile detention because his foster parents no longer want him. Now the troubled Sam and Suzy, experiencing the only true friendship each has known, are at risk of being torn apart by comically clueless adults who could probably learn more than a few things about life from them.        

The movie makes no qualms about the fact that Sam and Suzy two kind of messed up kids with dysfunctional upbringings and exhibit anti-social behavior that makes it difficult for either to make friends. Sam's entire Scout troop detests him while Suzy is shown in flashbacks fighting at school and discovering a book her parents bought on how to deal with a "troubled" child. In actuality, they're just super smart, sensitive kids who seem to have been done a disservice by the adult authority figures in their lives who are epitomized by, though not limited to, Suzy's endearingly wacko parents expertly played by Murray and McDormand. What's so special about the story is the juxtaposition between the excitement and happiness felt by these tweens experiencing their first blush of puppy love and these depressed, cynical adults have even less direction in their lives and prove to be comically incompetent when it comes to any kind of decision making. It's no wonder Tilda Swinton's "social services" (yes, the character's actual name) gets involved, yet we root against her anyway knowing it's Sam she wants to punish. This conflict between these clever kids and the dumb adults is where must of the script's intelligent humor comes from, and it's a subtle, sophisticated type that slides under the radar at times and demands the viewers' full attention.

In their big screen debuts, child actors Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward simply become Sam and Suzy. There's no other way to put it, as neither exhibit signs they're ever "acting" like precocious kids. Both are brilliantly understated, with Hayward making Suzy the more worldly of the two as Gilman perfects the outsider geek. The adult cast is the best rounded up in some time, with Bruce Willis playing a melancholy type of part we're not often used to seeing him in. It's easy to forget just how great a dramatic actor he can be when pushed by the right director, and he's definitely pushed by Anderson here, giving a really quiet performance that's just filled with depth and complexity. It's a comedy and this shouldn't work, yet Captain Sharp's sadness and the bond he forms with Sam is somehow one of the most touching aspects of the picture. His scenes with the him are gold, with Willis subtly suggesting there's perhaps a whole other movie that could have been made exploring how his character got to the point where he is. Similarly, Edward Norton Scout Master Ward as a kindly leader who not only feels responsible for Sam's disappearance and dreads the prospect of facing the stern Commander Pierce (Harvey Keitel), but wants to use this an instructional lesson for the kids. It's the best role Norton's had in ages and he's strangely perfect for it. Jason Schwartzman memorably cameos has a character named Cousin Ben, a relative of one of the scouts who volunteers to perform an unusual ceremony. And it wouldn't be a Wes Anderson movie without a narrator (Bob Balaban), who takes us on what could kind of be considered a tour of all the various locations on the fictitious island.      

The experience of watching this does in a way mirror the experience of watching Rushmore, The Life Aquatic, The Royal Tenenbaums, but times ten. It's a movie very much in love with its own characters, it's imagined setting and the time period and wants the viewer to be to. It's something you either respond to it or you don't and how you feel about Anderson's unique style will completely determine it. It's not his absolute best, but it seems like his most mature, merging style with substance in a seamlessly to tell his story. Creating a world from scratch isn't easy and in many ways Anderson could be considered the J.D. Salinger of modern movies, his efforts always featuring complex, novelistic characters seen through the warm glow of nostalgia. At only just over 90 minutes, we get more than we could have possibly asked for and there were even points where I simply didn't want it to end. But even as comical as Moonrise Kingdom is, it's underlying themes suggest almost an unbearably sad, bittersweet coming-of-age story. Sam and Suzy will grow up, probably never see each other again and possibly mature into the misguided adults who were searching for them. The film's biggest feat is somehow making that potential outcome seem weirdly satisfying.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Rock of Ages

Director: Adam Shankman
Starring: Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Russell Brand, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Malin Akerman, Mary J. Blige, Alec Baldwin, Bryan Cranston
Running Time: 123 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ (out of ★★★★)

In the opening scene of Rock of Ages, "small town girl" Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) is traveling on a bus to L.A. with a suitcase full of records with big dreams of becoming a famous singer. It's 1987. And you'll never guess which classic 80's power ballad's piano riff start to play. Yes, it's Night Ranger's "Sister Christian." The song, rescued from relative obscurity by director Paul Thomas Anderson in 1997's Boogie Nights, resulting in one of cinema's most memorable musical moments, and making a previously cheesy song all of the sudden seem exceptionally cool. The exact opposite happens in this painful sequence where an entire busload of passengers and their driver awkwardly join Sherrie in a sing-a-long of it that plays like a poor man's version of the Almost Famous "Tiny Dancer" bus scene. And for a few brief minutes we're reminded again why we all thought "Sister Christian" was so corny to begin with and why it should be illegal for it to accompany any scene not involving a coked-out, gun-toting Alfred Molina and firecrackers. I'll probably need about a dozen viewings of that sequence just to cleanse myself of the song's silly cameo in this.  

Of all the problems with this limp effort, that opening scene symbolizes its biggest. The movie isn't just unfunny, poorly paced and performed, but seems to have genuine disdain for its audience and the musical era it's supposedly celebrating. We'd be kidding ourselves by not admitting that the 80's had some awful music ripe for parody, but it's certainly not THIS bad. Maybe it was unintentional, but because the comedy doesn't work and the tone is off, I came away believing those involved in the making of this musical have very little affection for the music. There's even less respect for the plot and characters, both of which exist only as an excuse to cram in as many tunes as possible into a two hour film. There's medley after medley, as "Sister Christian" leads into "Just Like Paradise" and "Nothin' But a Good Time" as Sherrie meets Bourbon Room barkeep Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), also an aspiring singer, who convinces the club's owner Dennis Dupree (a mulleted Alec Baldwin) to hire her as a waitress. With the club deep in debt and its future uncertain, Dupree along with his assistant and eventual lover Lonny (Russell Brand) find a potential solution to their financial woes by enticing aging, hedonistic Arsenal frontman Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) to play at the Bourbon. It's a gig his manager Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti) hopes will ignite his client's fledgling solo career. He also sees potential in Drew, whose rise up the rock ranks causes a major rift between he and Sherrie.

None of these stories work because director Adam Shankman doesn't seem to care if they do, using them only as vehicles for abominable cover songs that bare little resemblance to what's actually happening on screen. But the most inexplicable sub-plot comes in the form of the Mayor's wife leading a religious crusade against the evils of rock, despite the entire music scene and time period being presented as nothing but squeeky clean and G-rated. And you've never seen anything quite like an angry Catherine Zeta-Jones dancing atrociously in a church singing "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" while Bryan Cranston's Mayor Whitmore is tied up and spanked by his mistress, confirming that the wait for those final Breaking Bad episodes just might be more excruciating than we thought. Even the one thing everyone seemed to agree works, Cruise's performance as Stacee Jaxx, strangely didn't connect for me all the way because it's just too obviously inauthentic and calculated. He often comes off as Tom Cruise playing Tom Cruise playing a washed-up rock legend in a storyline that seems more designed as career rejuvenation for the actor rather than the fabricated musician. It's essentially a extended celebrity cameo. When he's interviewed by Malin Akerman's mousy Rolling Stone reporter for what's supposed to be 8 minutes, it feels more like 8 hours because the entire sequence goes nowhere with roundabout questions, awkward silences and mumbling.

Sandwiched in between the never ending interview is Cruise covering Bon Jovi and Foreigner and doing surprisingly okay. His voice doesn't have much character and isn't particularly strong, but he gets the job done just fine. The same could be said for everyone else in the cast, with the obvious exception of Mary J. Blige who clearly the pipes to sing the hell out of these songs and does. It's mostly true that Cruise is the best thing in this, but but there isn't a moment where you're unaware he's giving a performance. Julianne Hough, previously so delightful in last year's Footloose remake, has all the air sucked out of her in this, doing what she can to rescue a thankless character whose voice seems too chirpy to be signing 80's hair metal. As the lead, it's to her credit that she somehow comes out of this unscathed, and maybe also to Diego Boneto, who's so bland and lifeless opposite her that I sometimes forgot he was even in the movie at all. But it was great to see a Tower Records store again, even if they never actually sold guitars. I liked that the filmmakers thought they did.

Musicals aren't supposed to be boring. Worse yet, the 80's music scene was gritty and over-the-top but the film goes out of its way to be anything but, playing it safe and never straying outside the lines. Shankman's right that this material can only be treated as goofy comedy but at many points I was confused as to what we were supposed to find funny, or whether it was unintentional or not. At other even less successful points, it plays like a depressing drama. This had all the ingredients to be successful, but this seems like another case of the stage production being transposed to the screen without the adjustments to make it seem cinematic in any way other than adding movie stars. It doesn't look or feel like the 80's and the streets don't even look like streets, but sets. In this way it resembles the almost equally unsuccessful adaptation of Rent, which was at least somewhat saved by an engaging (if dated) story to fall back on.

In the best musicals, the music informs and mirrors the script, almost as if it's organically sprung from it. This is just song after song after song with no breathing room for the story or characters. If there's a silver lining it's that it's easy envisioning Rock of Ages evolving into some kind of cult guilty pleasure like Xanadu or Grease 2 with moviegoers at midnight showings dressed in 80's clothes and throwing things at the screen. It has that same fascinatingly awful quality and evokes a "What Did I Just Watch?" reaction that kind of makes you want to experience it again just to confirm the ridiculousness. If only it were more fun. That I could still easily re-watch it may reveal more about my affinity for the era and its music than anything else. But at least that's something. Audiences probably wanted to love this too, but the movie just seems too embarrassed with itself and the music to truly let them in.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Avengers

Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson
Running Time: 143 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

So, how is it that nearly every Marvel superhero movie leading up to this has been either a mixed bag or flat-out failure, yet when the characters assemble in The Avengers, it somehow clicks? It's good, not great, but that it works at all is kind of a miracle considering how uneven the build-up was in getting here. The only explanation is that they found the right guy for the job in Joss Whedon, who clearly understands how this material should be treated and avoids many of the pitfalls made in the movies leading up to it. While it's kind of unfathomable to me that this ranks as the third highest grossing film of all time, at least it's a lot of fun and delivers for the fans what's asked of it, if not more. Yes, it's an overblown, CGI spectacle with a ridiculously mindless finale, but for once in the Marvel universe at least the filmmaker seems aware of it and in on the joke. Most interestingly, all these characters function much better together in one tightly scripted story than apart in their own separate franchises, making the thought of a sequel (especially under Whedon) actually seem somewhat enticing. Though forgive me for just being glad it's over, since I've about had enough of entire Marvel features functioning as trailers and cheap plugs for this effort, which thankfully turns out to be a lot of fun.

The six superheroes known collectively as The Avengers are brought together when Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) evil, adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) breaks into SHIELD headquarters, gaining possession of a powerful glowing energy cube known as the Tesseract and brainwashing Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Professor Selvig (Stellan Skargard). Given no other options, SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and agent Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)  recruit Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor to try to put a stop to Loki's plan to rule Earth by opening a wormhole that would allow the Chitauri alien race to descend upon this planet and attack. All of these superheroes being able to co-exist and work effectively together is one challenge, but stopping Loki's army from completely decimating New York City and its inhabitants is an even bigger one.

The plot is ridiculous and there isn't a surprise to be found other than how quickly the two and a half hours fly by, but that's fine. The real draw is seeing these familiar characters interact with one other in a fresh, humorous story that plays to the strengths of everyone involved. That all the backstories involving these characters have (for better or worse) been taken care of in the previous Marvel installments allows this one to get down to business right away, and Whedon takes full advantage in the exciting opening prologue that effectively gets the ball rolling with little time wasted. At first I cringed at the prospect of Hiddleston's Loki being the film's chief antagonist, if only because the feud involving him and his brother in Thor was such a slog to get through that the thought of revisiting it on a larger scale would seem to be asking for trouble. Luckily, Loki's depicted as much more of a conniving, menacingly slimy presence this time around than the wimpy whiner we saw in that film and Hiddleston's performance really benfits from it, likely making an impact for even those unfamiliar with the character. The same could be said for all the featured players who are about ten times more intriguing here than they were in their own films. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark/Iron Man was the best developed superhero leading into this, but even his act, which was starting to show fatigue, is given a shot in the arm when he's surrounded by all these characters he can bounce his sarcasm and cockiness off of. Also along for the ride again is Gwyneth Paltrow, who makes a barefooted cameo as Pepper Potts, and Clark Gregg, who successfully builds on his previously undefined role as Agent Coulson. Even Samuel L. Jackson feels like he has agency and purpose as Nick Fury, leading an actual mission instead of just popping up during or after the credits of every summer superhero blockbuster.

Understandably, Downey could very well be considered the lead in terms of screen time, but what's most impressive about the tight script is how it literally gives everyone something to do without the film feeling overstuffed. The biggest benefactor just might be Scarlett Johansson who after being poorly introduced and developed as Black Widow in Iron Man 2 is redeemed completely as kick ass heroine who basically has a co-leading role alongside Downey, really delivering this time around. It feels like she's in every scene of the movie even when she isn't, which is a sure sign Scarlett gets it right. The only character that genuinely seems underutilized is How I Met Your Mother star Cobie Smulders' Agent Maria Hill. The actress's first semi-substantial big screen role has her unfortunately relegated to merely giving info to Nick Fury and taking orders. I guess it's a start, but here's hoping it's built on and her character is fleshed out more in the sequel since she's given nearly nothing to work with here.

Chris Evans' Captain America benefits from having the most interesting built-in backstory and that's exploited to full effect and his arguments with Downey are a hoot. But the true standout is Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, stepping in for Edward Norton who actually did a fine job in 2008's The Incredible Hulk. On paper, Ruffalo wouldn't seem to be the ideal choice to follow him but his take on the conflict within Banner ends up being the most intriguing performance in the role since Bill Bixby set the gold standard in the late 70's-early 80's TV series. All the movie's best scenes involve the character's complicated relationship with his giant green alter ego and what it takes to keep him in check. When The Hulk does come out it's the most efficient CGI rendering of the character thus far. This entire concoction is enjoyable as a live action cartoon but when Ruffalo's the focus, it feels like more because of his concerted effort to make Banner actually seem like a complex person. While "Complex" and "Avengers" probably shouldn't be used in the same sentence the amusing back-and-forth dialogue between the characters comes the closest it ever has in a Marvel film to approaching genuine cleverness. The third act's is a silly mess for sure, but at least it's an entertaining one with impressive looking effects and crisp editing that still managed to hold my interest on the small screen and in 2D.

This getting a pass because it didn't do enough wrong probably isn't the most glowing recommendation, but I've slowly coming to the realization that these Marvel movies just might not be my "thing." So that I really enjoyed it despite feeling let down by just about every other superhero movie they released prior, might be more of a compliment than it seems. They're a lot of people's thing though and those fans couldn't reasonably be disappointed with any decision Whedon made. There's no getting around the fact that this would be compared and pitted against The Dark Knight Rises over the summer and it might be the ultimate compliment to both filmmakers (okay, mainly Nolan) that I don't even count the two wildly different films as belonging to the same genre. But if we are comparing, they're not even in the same league since the impeccably crafted TDKR actually feels like it's about something, whereas this is just plain fun for the sake of it. It's good to have options and The Avengers most definitely falls in the wheelhouse of a more traditional, ripped-from-the-pages comic book movie. It doesn't change the game in any way, but it's enormously successful in what it's trying to do and makes for legitimately great time. Considering the the mixed bag of Marvel movies preceding it, that's just about as big an accomplishment as it gets for a franchise that doesn't seem to be running out of gas anytime soon.      

Sunday, October 7, 2012


Director: David Brooks
Starring: Brian Geraghty, Josh Peck, Alice Eve
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Occasionally, a point comes when you're watching a somewhat implausible or ridiculous film and you just have to give in and surrender to the pure craftsmanship on display and admit you're having a blast. In the low budget horror thriller ATM, that moment comes for me when a parka wearing killer pulls out one of those canvas folding chairs and sits in the parking lot, enjoying the view of three young financiers fighting for their lives inside the glass enclosed ATM kiosk he's just transformed into a watery tomb. The best thing about single location thrillers isn't just how they lock the characters into an enclosed predicament with little hope for escape, but how they trap writers and directors into making difficult decisions to get them out.  There's literally no where to run or hide as the filmmakers are forced to move from point A to point B to point C with their backs against the wall.

First-time director David Brooks (working from a script from Buried writer Chris Sparling) turns in a noble, underrated effort sure to be needlessly picked apart for logical inconsistencies. Everyone likes to play monday morning quarterback with movies like this, speculating that characters should have done this or that and in theory they're probably right. But until you're trapped by a sniper in a phone booth, buried alive or stuck on a ski lift in the dead of winter with hungry wolves waiting below, it's tough to say. Of all these unlikely scenarios, this one seems the most plausible on paper, yet is strangely the most embarrassing to analyze. Fun, suspenseful and great deal more entertaining than it's gotten credit for, Brooks makes the most of his hour and a half.

When David (Brian Geraghty) is urged by his friend and co-worker Corey (Josh Peck) to ask out office crush Emily (Alice Eve), he finally summons up the courage at the company's Christmas party, on her last day of work before departing to another firm. Thrilled at the prospect of driving Emily home, a drunk Corey intrudes to bum a ride off David as well, convincing him to stop and get Pizza after midnight. But he he has no money so they make an impromptu stop at a free-standing ATM in the middle of a seemingly deserted parking lot.

How the script gets all three from in the car to inside the booth when only one needs to make a withdrawal is pretty believable. The explanation of how they're without cell phone usage and parked the car quite a distance from the machine in an empty lot is also inspired. Then the parka clad  maniac shows up, looking like a cross between the killer from Urban Legend and I Know What You Did Last Summer, if you just replace a hook with a crowbar as his weapon of choice. Quickly dispensing of a passerby and a security guard to send a message, the three need to make a run for it and get to David's car. But this guy has a plan, continuously toying with them as they're forced to call the kiosk home for the night in sub-zero temperatures as they plot an escape.

There's no false advertising in the title as nearly all the action takes place at or around the enclosed machine, aside from the first twenty minutes which does an excellent job introducing the characters. The same can't be said for other single space thrillers that cheat a bit by incorporating flashbacks or giving elaborate explanations for how the characters winded up in the situation. The "how" here simply doesn't matter and aside from a brief, seemingly unrelated revelation about David losing a client's 401K, we're see that these three were just at the wrong place at the wrong time.The randomness of it works, since if they were targeted for their occupations or some other personal vendetta, the situation just wouldn't have seemed as as terrifying.

Helping some is that all three characters are extremely likable and the opening workplace scenes involving David's crush on Emily, as well as the dynamics of his friendship with Corey (a loudmouth who David lets walk over him like a doormat), effectively sets the stage. Yes, once they're trapped they do make some dumb decisions and the killer gets very lucky, but people are capable of doing dumb things and killers sometimes get lucky. Most of these holes have an explanation (like why the killer doesn't just break in), but it's of little consequence since Brooks doesn't let the action lag for a second, it's well shot and the performances are top notch.

Geraghty's a great actor, having already proved himself in 2009's Best Picture winning The Hurt Locker, and he's strong again here as the lead, as David learns to man up over the course of the night. Formerly the Josh of Nickelodeon's Drake and Josh, a highly emotional Peck delivers the film's best performance, making you actually care about what's too frequently a stereotypical role and becomes instrumental in selling the film's more difficult logical leaps. Alice Eve is probably the weakest link, but that's through no fault of her own as the part just isn't as well developed as the other two. But it's still worth noting Emily isn't at all portrayed as a damsel in distress, but an active leader and problem solver in trying to escape the situation.

That this feels as much a tension-filled thriller as it does a conventional horror movie is a surprise considering it features a hooded lunatic stalking his prey, but there's more suspense than gore, as the most excitement possible gets wrung out of a tiny, enclosed space. My biggest worry was that the ball would be dropped in the final act, which frequently happens in single location thrillers that try to open things up as the plot winds down. The "real world" with cops and consequences tend to intrude, turning the aftermath into a procedural. Surprisingly, that's not an issue here as the closing minutes are handled really well, putting the focus exactly where it belongs while wisely leaving enough big questions on the table to get you thinking. If this were a more mainstream horror outing, there's no doubt the killer's face would be shown and his exact motivations spelled out for us, undermining everything that came before. Could any of this happen? Probably not, and most definitely not like this. But since when did that become a prerequisite for appreciating any thriller? The highest praise that can be given to ATM is that you're so transfixed by what's happening there's practically no time to care.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Director: Drew Goddard
Starring: Kristen Connelly, Chris Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, Brian White, Amy Acker
Running Time: 95 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Somehow, someway, I was able to avoid all spoilers before seeing the supposedly genre bending horror curiosity The Cabin in the Woods, which was released to some surprising critical acclaim a few months ago. Now after actually viewing it, I'm forced to ask: "Spoil what?" Granted the plot does take a major meta plot u-turn in the last half hour, but it's mostly a conventional horror movie wrapped around a gimmick that at times seems forced and self-congratulatory. Produced and co-written by Joss Whedon and directed by his former Buffy collaborator Drew Goddard, this isn't a game-changer. It doesn't subvert the genre. If anything, it's too ambitious for its own good, going to great lengths to deliver a supposedly high-concept horror entry that thinks it has a lot to say when it's just really kind of a mess. No worries about spoilers here since I couldn't explain the direction this goes in if I tried, and like the film, it would feel like a lot of work for little pay off. It's hard to actually blame audiences for staying away as its one thing to release a fun, dumb slasher but quite another to pretend it's a deep, existential commentary on how we watch horror movies. But at least commend the filmmakers for attempting something different and ambitious, even if the final result is the same as usual, with just a little sci-fi thrown in for flavor.

When college students Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Holden (Jesse Williams) and Marty (Fran Kranz) decide to take a weekend vacation at Curt's cousin's remote cabin somewhere in the woods, the trip starts going terribly wrong. All four characters can be given one word horror descriptors such as Virgin, Jock, Slut, Brain and Stoner, although the film's biggest accomplishment is in making those stereotypes serve a purpose and actually mean something to the narrative. Well, kind of. It isn't long after they arrive that they see and hear strange things, a family of redneck zombies are summoned from the grave and we have at least what appears to be at first your run-of-the-mill slasher. And for the most part, it is. But there's a twist. We find out early that these five have actually been placed in some kind of controlled  situation run by Gary Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Steve Hadley (Bradley Whitford), trained technicians who are not only manipulating this horror environment from the control room, but influencing the kids' actions to achieve a desired outcome for their unseen boss. While Gary and Steve bet on the results and celebrate gory deaths, the film cuts back and forth between the control room and cabin as the five fight to survive and the purpose of the operation begins to reveal itself.

It's an interesting decision to reveal early on that all these would be victims are actually subjects being filmed in some kind of twisted horror Truman Show, leaving the big revelation in the how and the why. What's most disappointing about this approach isn't the actual idea but how these technicians overseeing the action aren't depicted as even the slightest bit creative, trotting out the same horror tropes we've been watching on screen for the past twenty years. Sure, they're laughing along with us, but how does that make the actual execution of it any less tired?  Luckily, Jenkins and Whitford are a riot in their roles and their jokes help carry a crazy, convoluted premise that turns out to be more trouble than its worth. The last 40 minutes you're either on board with or you're not, as the only thing that is predictable is that these kids won't go down without a fight and the masterminds behind the project will have to dramatically change course to get the job done. I not only found the big revelation at the end (featuring a cameo by a big name actress) silly, but a dealbreaker considering Whedon and Goddard painted themselves into a corner by having the whole story rest on it. None of the performances are anything to write home about, though that hardly matters given how little is asked of them. Besides Jenkins and Whitford, only Fran Kranz makes a significant impression as stoner Marty, gobbling up the film's best one-liners. A pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth shows few signs he would be that strong screen presence down the road, while Kristen Connolly is bland enough as the protagonist that I actually had problems rooting for her.

Whenever you see Joss Whedon's name attached to a project it's only natural for fans to expect greatness. Not being overly familiar with his other work, I wasn't. And yet this still feels like a big let down. It's exciting whenever the horror genre goes in a new direction, but this only feels like a slight deviation. At the end of the day, it doesn't differ much from the usual slashers we're bombarded with and at points, it's even a little worse. Just because a movie is self-referential doesn't make it groundbreaking. A similar premise involving a mysterious project was well presented a few years ago in The Box and everyone inexplicably seemed to think it was the worst thing they've ever seen. But that was hard sci-fi with ideas. The Cabin in the Woods feels more like an inside joke for horror fans. Despite being nonsensical, there's no denying it has its moments and is skillfully directed, but the generic script fails its audience by promising a fresh spin that never comes.